You’ve tried everything — desensitization, counter-conditioning, safe places, and more — and it’s not enough? Or you know your panicked dog needs relief now while you start other protocols? Here are some more tools to consider.
First off, let me remind everyone that I’m a trainer, not a vet, and a blog post is certainly neither a diagnosis nor a recommendation. State law forbids me (a non-veterinarian) from discussing drug recommendations with clients, so this is purely general and informational. Okay, now that the lawyers have been held off, let’s talk about options!
For pets who have deeply conditioned fear or show dangerous behavior due to fear, drug intervention may be one of the kindest options available. Often owners worry that drugs will change the pet’s personality or be required long term, but that’s not the case — a proper prescription will not affect the dog’s daily personality or zone him out during trigger situations, and very often they are simply a short-term tool while the other tools (counter-conditioning, etc.) take effect.
One day I left Laev in her comfortable outdoor run for a few hours on a comfortable sunny day. While I was gone, apparently the neighbors began gun target practice. I returned to find the roof torn off the kennel and blood on my front door, where Laev had attempted to break in before bolting. I knew then we needed help! But you don’t have to wait until things get that desperate. If your dog is shaking and drooling, or especially if he cannot accept food during a trigger, then seek professional help, pronto. You need to give the other techniques a chance to work, and right now panic is overriding most or all of any training or conditioning you’re attempting.
Event drugs of choice vary by individual and situation. I keep an emergency bottle of alprazolam on hand for Laevatein, but Alena’s dog Valenzia uses trazodone — both are Doberman females, not too different in age, but they have different prescriptions. Valenzia takes hers regularly; Laev gets hers only in special situations now, but used it more regularly at first.
It’s critical that you discuss the drug option not only with your vet, but with a specialist who understands this rapidly-changing field. The wrong drug can harm or endanger you or your pet, and general practitioners have enough to stay abreast of, in enough different species, that it’s unfair to expect them all to be updated experts here as well. No one can keep up with everything! I encouraged one client to ask for specialist help, but they were confident their local clinic could handle it, and the dog was prescribed a popular anti-anxiety drug. A week later, the client called me after the dog had bitten their child in an unprecedented incident, affected by the drug. If your vet isn’t comfortable prescribing anti-anxiety meds — and that’s a good sign, that they recognize their limits! — then help is available for them or for pet owners from veterinary behaviorists. In my home state, I usually recommend Purdue Animal Behavior Clinic, but there are other great options, too!
Some vets still use acepromazine or other tranquilizers for anxiety or phobias, but this is decidedly not recommended. Ace is a dissociative drug; it scrambles perceptions and sends the dog on a uncontrolled drug trip. I don’t speak pharmacology well, so I hit up Wikipedia for a quick version:
The effects of dissociatives can include sensory dissociation, hallucinations, mania, catalepsy, analgesia and amnesia….. they are also considered hallucinogenic, psychotomimetic and psychedelic.Perhaps the most significant subjective differences between dissociatives and the “classic” hallucinogens (such as LSD and mescaline) are the dissociative effects, including: depersonalization, the feeling of being unreal, disconnected from one’s self, or unable to control one’s actions; and derealization, the feeling that the outside world is unreal or that one is dreaming.
It’s not hard to see, once we think about it, that hallucinations and the inability to control one’s body are not likely to make a frightened animal less upset about the situation — rather the opposite! Ace and similar drugs may win the battle of keeping a dog conveniently sedated for a single event, but they certainly lose the war in long-term training and associations. Stay well away from this type of drug.
Of course, drugs aren’t a magic bullet, and they don’t work alone. (No, really, drugs without accompanying behavioral therapy don’t have much effect; they just help the behavioral therapy to work more effectively and more quickly!) There are other options to consider, as well.
Bioacoustics Sound Therapy
These are specially-designed CDs which not only provide a masking background noise, but include psycho-acoustics to soothe dogs. Clinical studies show slower heart rates, respiration, and brain waves. I have not used this tool much myself, but word of mouth from other professionals and pet owners has been generally positive. See Through A Dog’s Ear for information and product.
This over-the-counter supplement was an experiment in our household which paid off. Sold as a natural sleep aid for humans, it does not seem to induce sleep in dogs — but it does often reduce sensitivity to sounds. The theoretical mechanism at work here, according to the veterinarian I asked, is that melatonin is a chemical precursor to serotonin, so increasing melatonin levels allows the body to produce more serotonin. In any case, it works for much of the population!
I started melatonin without seeing much effect, but I continued because I had read that sometimes it takes a while before results are seen. Besides, I had already purchased the bottle, and there are practically no side effects, so what was the harm? And it gave us a chance to train as a cued behavior.
A few months later, I realized that the Dobermans’ storm fears seemed lessened, and I realized the melatonin was indeed having a gradual effect. When I combined the melatonin dose with a bully stick to chew (adding active stress relief and counter-conditioning), suddenly we could all make it through stormy nights, after all. What a lifesaver!
It doesn’t work for all dogs; Inky seems largely unaffected by it, in my non-clinical observations. For those it does help, though, it can be great. Many dogs show positive responses to melatonin within minutes, but don’t be afraid to give it some time to work as I had to do.
Melatonin is generally regarded as safe, but it is also used as a natural treatment for epilepsy, so it does affect other systems and it’s a good idea to mention it to your vet. Recommended doses, given at the start of a storm or before the trigger, are 1 mg for dogs up to 10 pounds, 1.5 mg for 10-50 pounds, 3 mg for 50-100#, but I have double-dosed in severe conditions (I live in Tornado Alley, and allegedly melatonin is routinely safe up to 6 mg). Be aware that some brands sell by the mcg, not the mg, so check labels and remember your metric system!
A more recent option on the market is the Thundershirt, a garment meant to provide gentle, universal pressure to soothe anxious dogs. The company boasts an 80% success rate, and based on talk within the professional community, I believe it. The concept is based both on studies correlating heart rate with body pressure and observations of pressure soothing (pressure vests for autistic children or anxious adults, swaddling infants, etc.).
I did try one for Laev, but she’s not one of the 80%, apparently; I noticed no real effect in my observed trials. But I have enough friends and clients who claim real documented success that I don’t hold this against the Thundershirt, and the company offers a 100% guarantee; if it doesn’t work for your dog, they will buy it back, no argument.
The recommendation in the professional community seems to be that the Thundershirt not be used right away in the most extreme cases, but brought in when the dog is started on the path to a calmer outlook. This keeps the shirt itself from becoming a conditioned trigger, but also introduces it when the dog is more capable of recognizing the soothing pressure (a dog in deep panic may not).
There are no side effects or risks with this, not even financial with the buy-back guarantee. Another similar product is the Anxiety Wrap, but I have less personal feedback with this one.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone is a plug-in, similar to an air freshener, which releases pheromones to simulate a puppy’s experience in the litter snuggling with its mother, intended to calm and soothe stressed dogs. This product is popular in some kennels, shelters, and day cares, but I have not seen much research on its use with noise anxieties or phobias. Nor do I have any personal experience with it. But I have heard some anecdotal success stories, and like the Thundershirt it has no side effects or risks, so it really can’t hurt to try it. You can buy it online or at many pet supply stores.
I have not used this myself, but some do report success with it; I have seen no research on the subject, but it’s nearly risk-free to try. Lavender is a traditional calming scent which is usually recommended.
Never apply aromatherapy oils directly to the dog, and make sure your dog can leave the treated area if desired. It’s easy to over-do scents for a canine nose! and some dogs do have sensitivities to oils.
Don’t Make Your Therapies Into Triggers!
One common mistake is to present a counter-conditioning stimulus or a therapy tool only in association with the fear trigger, which by the laws of classical conditioning, can make your good thing into a bad thing which predicts the fearful situation!
This is the reason for introducing and practicing with the Thundershirt and other therapies well away from triggers; you don’t want the dog to become more nervous when you bring out the therapy!
To keep your good things good, make sure they are introduced and practiced outside of storms, fireworks displays, etc. If pill-taking predicts an incoming storm, it won’t be long before your dog associates pills with storms and not only refuses the pills, but is actively frightened at seeing them. If matwork only means scary noises, the mat becomes a place to avoid. But if we take pills or practice matwork regularly, then the storm or fireworks are only an occasional occurrence just like all the other distractions we rotate through training sessions.
Got more ideas or a story to share about alternative therapies? Post a comment!
Next post: Why storm phobia, anyway? and emergency management. See you then!