The decision to medicate dogs with behavioral issues is something many dog owners are torn about. I know, I used to be one of them! I understand that this is a volatile issue, especially since arguments about medicating dogs often involve comparisons to medicating children. I think we get so heated up about this because both dogs and children require us as adults to make these types of decisions for them… and what if we decide wrong?
I am not an expert in medications for dogs or children, but I do think that they have their place. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think medication is a cure-all, nor do I believe every dog should be on medication. I think that for a serious behavior problem (such as severe anxiety, intense aggression, or relentless fear) medication is a necessary tool to have in your training kit. I came to this conclusion slowly-and painfully-because of my Siberian Husky, Tamlin.
I adopted Tamlin when he was 14 weeks old from a family who could no longer keep him. I had grown up with dogs, but Tam would be the first dog of my adult life. Tamlin came to his new home with some anxiety issues already in place, and I made several common mistakes resulting in Separation Distress. Tamlin also had food allergies that turned his paws red and made them itchy, he dealt with this by licking them almost constantly. While I searched for a food he could eat, licking turned into an obsessive displacement behavior he used whenever he felt anxious. If I left him alone he cried and licked his paws and crate nonstop, sometimes until his entire chest and front legs were dripping wet. Tamlin now had full blown Separation Anxiety.
In every other respect Tamlin was a wonderful, normal, happy puppy; he was incredibly smart and learned obedience commands and tricks easily. At 5 months he knew sit, down, stay, off, come, drop it, paw, high-five, spin, “wiggle your tail”, bow, big speak, and little speak. Despite his anxiety issues, I knew Tamlin was a very special dog.
I chose to begin medication with Tamlin almost a year ago, after attending a seminar featuring Drs Ian Dunbar and Nicholas Dodman. During a morning spent learning about Separation Anxiety Dr Dunbar described how he once had a panic attack. He thought he was going to die, and he said he would never wish that feeling on anyone. The he told the room of hushed and thoughtful trainers that THAT is what a dog with Separation Anxiety goes through when they are left alone.
I have experienced panic attacks, and luckily for me the longest one only lasted 20 minutes. I was shocked to think that I-who claimed to love my dog-had been forcing Tamlin to live through that day after day! After the session was done I ran up to Dr Dodman, hoping for some advice. As quickly as I could I explained what Tamlin was doing, and I listed what I had done to try to help him. The lovely Dr Dodman looked at me and said words that I’ll never forget: “Ma’m, I have no idea what is wrong with your dog. All I can tell you is that you’ve tried everything but medication, and nothing has helped. Maybe you should consider medicating.”
It seems so simple to me now. I had been so dead-set against medication, because I had to be the one to cure my dog. Tamlin would get over his anxiety because of my blood, sweat, and tears; medication seemed the easy way out. But now, knowing the hell Tam experienced each day it would be cruel if I didn’t give it a try. When I asked my vet to suggest something for Tam, she looked so happy, and said “Finally!” I thought that’s what Tamlin would say if he could.
After eight weeks friends began asking if Tamlin had just gotten a massage. One of my friends exclaimed how “relaxed his face looks!” My agility instructor watched dumbstruck as he lay quietly on the sidelines while I set up a course. His MO up to then had been to scream his head off. He began to play more, and could relax in a room even if I wasn’t there.
Tamlin is now four years old. He is a Canine Good Citizen, competes in Agility and Rally Obedience, and knows how to open the refrigerator. Currently, the dog I once had to keep with me 24/7 can now be left alone for up to 3 hours with no signs of anxiety or destruction. He is still young, and we have a long way to go. Medication wasn’t a cure-all. We still have some bad days, and the behavior modification training I had done and continue to do plays a huge part in Tamlin’s therapy. However, medication was the missing piece; with it now in place Tam can lead a panic free life. Not all dogs need to be on medication, but some dogs definitely should.