There seems to be a huge stigma surrounding the topic of behavioral medication, but it is something I would like to address in the context of dog rescue. If you are a skeptic, please read the entire post. Please stick with it, and hear me out.
Generally speaking, in rescue, but more specifically in special needs rescue, we often take in dogs who drew the short straw in life. We see a lot of dogs with fear and anxiety, many times manifesting as timidness, aggression, over arousal (mounting), separation anxiety, or stereotypy (obsessive and repetitive) behaviors. Many of the dogs we take in react poorly to being handled, whether this means snapping, biting, or simply pulling away. Any number of issues can be chalked up to nature vs. nurture, but at the end of the day, and in relevance to this discussion it doesn’t matter.
While a dog's history can be helpful to know, it doesn’t change the way we address the problem, so it ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a dog in front of us that is struggling. Medication is not always the first-line of defense, but it should always part of the discussion. There are much more reputable sources of information on the science behind medication than our rescue, so I would encourage you to do more of your own research (through reputable sources). I would recommend starting with this article. The experiences I am sharing here are mostly anecdotal, but still extremely relevant and well researched. Our rescue also works closely with some amazing veterinary teams to treat all of the dogs that come through our care.
It's especially important to note the importance of aggressive and early intervention in young dogs with debilitating behavioral issues.
With medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), when added to a behavior modification plan, can literally save a dog’s life. These are not sedatives. SSRI medications boost serotonin in the dog’s brain. While there seems to be little research in the dog world, in humans it's important to note that low serotonin levels have been linked to depression. “Serotonin is used to transmit messages between nerve cells, it is thought to be active in constricting smooth muscles, and it contributes to wellbeing and happiness, among other things. As the precursor for melatonin, it helps regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and the internal clock.”
In short, SSRIs have the ability to put the dog in a better state of learning. Speak to any human with an anxiety disorder, and ask them if they are on medication. They may even be taking an SSRI. Ask them how they felt before they started meds, and after. I can personally tell you that in speaking with my friends who suffer from anxiety disorders, medication has allowed them to enjoy life again, because we really can’t be ourselves when we’re anxious, and it’s unfair to assume the same of dogs.
I am going to address specifically stereotypey (often referred to as OCD or CCD) behaviors here, because we tend to see a lot of these in dogs we bring in to our rescue. Among these, are things like spinning, light and shadow chasing, “fly biting,” pacing, flank sucking, and really any obsessive repetitive behavior. These are particularly noteworthy if the exhibited behaviors disrupt normal activity.
Take for example, Roomba.
Roomba came to us as a four month old blind and deaf puppy who had been living outside in a pen with her brother. We were unsure how much handling and socialization she had, and while she was extremely friendly, she was very sensitive to touch. She was adopted by her foster, a trainer with years of experience in behaviorally difficult dogs. Several months passed, and as Roomba hit adolescence, her behavior began to raise some concern. She started flinching away at the slightest touch, despite being previously fine and never being mishandled since she came to us. She became obsessed with seeking out the family cat, despite immediate and constant training. She started spinning when new dogs would enter the room. She would seek out and pounce on things that weren’t there. She also didn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time, even through the night. Her issues spread far beyond typical adolescent developmental fear stages.
Though Roomba’s owner was an experienced trainer and was addressing her issues using a science-based methodical behavior modification plan, progress was slow, frustrating, and sometimes seemingly non-existent. A conversation with Roomba’s vet helped determine that medication may help. They figured out the right combination of meds for Roomba, and an immediate shift in her behavior was evident.
And an amazing thing happened. Roomba started remembering her cues. She started seeking out engagement and training. Her obsessive behaviors stopped. She will play with other dogs instead of spinning in their presence. She now self-interrupts from playing with the cat. She is no longer an anxious mess. She has control of her brain and her body.
Simply, Roomba is herself again. Training was sticking.
Roomba’s story is one of many, but a story I felt some of us with impaired dogs might identify with. Medication is not a replacement for behavior modification, but it can help make behavior modification go much faster. This isn’t about putting dogs on a cure-all pill. This is about helping dogs gain control over their brains, and putting them in a better state of learning so that training sticks. Many dogs do not even need to be on medication long term.
We hear from many people struggling through similar problems with their impaired dogs, and the first thing we always recommend is to seek the help of a professional. Our dogs’ mental health is equally as important as their physical well being. The brain is a functioning organ as much as any other. These are problems that no amount of holistic herbs and oils can cure. This isn’t about “resorting” to medication, this is about giving a struggling dog the best chance to be themselves.
I am not a medical professional, but I am a trainer, as well as a dedicated rescuer. I have seen damaged dogs, with their brains lost in repetitive movements. I have seen dogs who have caused themselves physical harm due to the anxiety of being left alone. Why wouldn’t we want to help these dogs if we can? I don’t know why the “M” word has such a negative stigma.
Is medication right for every dog? No. But we know the science behind why and how these pills work. We know that the risks are low. But if it can help a dog regain control of their mind, why isn’t that something we would even consider?