Mental Health & Illness in Dogs

The range of dogs I see in my dog training/behavior practice run the gamut from easy going and happy happy joy joy pups to radically disturbed dogs. The disturbed dog can be an especially unsafe dog — to other dogs (dog/dog aggression), people (dog/people aggression), stuff (destructive) or in some cases, self destructive.

NOTE: A definitive ruling in or out of organic causes for behavior is only possible with an autopsy. What I deem to be the unworkable disturbed dogs, those with serious brain damage, those I have recommended euthanizing, include only 6 dogs out of the hundreds and hundreds of dogs over many many years — and of those six, 5 were dangerous to people and one was actively suicidal. I use my own “hairs standing up on the back of my head” for such a dire diagnosis, and as noted, that experience is very rare for me. I always recommend at least a second, if not a third opinion before euthanizing and I would NEVER recommend euthanasia without first handling the dog in person.  In one of the most severe cases, and unsolicited, my veterinarian did a necropsy and confirmed my suspicion — the dog had multiple lesions on his brain. These lesions were most likely the result of intentionally inflicted head injuries he reportedly sustained in his early hellish life before “rescue” — he was the scariest dog I ever met — a ticking time bomb who did not have one redeeming feature. He spent most of his energy looking for something new to harm.  He didn’t deserve the beatings he received as a pup before he was adopted, no sentient being does, but society didn’t deserve his terrorizing anti social and aggressive behavior.  I did end up holding his paw as he peacefully died in a calm, relaxed environment  — a final act of kindness for a tragically damaged dog. But these are extreme cases and not the ones I refer to below.]

I have seen dogs who present with depression, anxiety, extreme fear, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), PTSD, and other mental health maladies.  Mental illness can be caused by an imbalance of the brain chemistry and I recommend health checks before or in the early stages of behavior modification work if the owners haven’t already ruled out a medical problem. Most problems dogs have behaviorally have to do with poor early socialization and/or neglect, inconsistent or unrealistic expectations, improper care or handling of the dog,  anthropomorphizing of the dog by the owner suggesting a communication gap, and a reactive mode of humans to what is the dog perfectly fine behavior. These are all nurture problems. Nature, the genetics, also play a role. Another reason why it behooves one to know the characteristics of the breed or mix of breeds their dog possesses to help keep training in perspective.

The Six Pillars of Dog Training Wisdom follows a rubric intended to help people with their dogs, whether just starting out or addressing obvious problems. The Six Pillars include The 3 D‘s & SMT.

In brief, one must consider, usually in this order, Distraction, Distance & Duration within a Structure (routine) while using Management in the context of Training.

History:  Stoli (pictured) is an approximately 18 month old Rottweiler mix adopted earlier this summer by a young woman about to enter her senior year of college. Stoli had apparently been found, along with a cat, in the attic of an abandoned house. It’s not clear how long she was left there, although she was rather emaciated when she was found. And she was found only because her frantic, chronic barking alerted people to investigate. She was fostered through a rescue group and deemed to be socially fit with both people and dogs. The young woman who adopted her brought her to her parents house for the summer before going back to school with her new dog in tow.

The presenting problems as described to me included a series of fights that had occurred between Stoli and the resident dogs in the parents’ house. Gromit, an 11 year old n/m mixed breed of undetermined origin (Keeshond? Shepherd?) and Izzy, a 7 year old Great Pyr/Irish s/f Wolfhound mix. The slightest of triggers escalated into a full out fight, but because of remarkable bite inhibition, there were never any injuries. A lot of slobber and understandable concern. In addition, Stoli was extremely reactive, and strong, when out on walks. Whenever she saw another dog, even from a great distance, her tendency was to go ballistic.

Protocol: I put a pretty strict behavioral modification plan in effect with a lot of management to keep all safe and invited family to bring Stoli to a DIP to observe her with others. Her behavior was pretty fascinating. Entrances into DIP begin with a slowing down. Dogs that are overeager to enter are managed until they are calm enough and then let off the leash with permission to “go play.” The dogs already in are managed at a great enough distance to help in the process, after which they too are allowed to “go play” when the new dog enters. When dogs exit, the process is repeated in reverse order.

My observations of her interactions showed some interesting behaviors. Present at the DIP were two of my dogs — Trip and Tommy, and another regular, Cody. With both Trip and Cody, something triggered an explosion and a brief spat which I interrupted and as soon as she was separated, I let her go and she got along fine with both. With Tommy, my wizard, he growled at her and she let him be. Interestingly, growls from other dogs trigger her to react. Not from the Wizard.

Before long Bubbles and her autistic charge, Sammy and his father arrived. Despite multiple efforts to get them to coexist peacefully, Bubbles’ generally submissive nature caused Stoli to bully her repeatedly. There was a brief interlude in which both female dogs were loose and fine, throwing out a lot of calming signals to each other, but it didn’t last.

My diagnosis. Canine PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To her credit, Stoli is fantastic with people. She is smart. But she is strong and her behavior is scary. To the trained eye, she does exhibit some behavioral cues to indicate a reaction. Here’s a picture of her stalking which I noted right before another attempt to charge Bubbles (I stopped it).

What happens in Stoli’s rehab remains to be seen, but her road to recovery will require a very proactive path indeed. Management and structure are key to her training while bearing in mind the 3 D’s. Helping desensitize her to the triggers that cause her to go on the highway to hell will take  time. I’d like to get her on some Bach Flower Essences and a strict protocol. And I’d like to see her return to DIP for more observations, experience and rehab.

And about that baby pool? I’ve seen it before and I see it in her. When Stoli is feeling overwhelmed, going into the baby pool with a few inches of water helps calm her down and refocus. Within the 90 minutes or so she was at the DIP, she entered the pool multiple times. Each time she exited, she was a little less crazy for a little bit longer.

Stay tuned for her continuing road to recovery. Good to note, she is exquisitely gentle with cats.

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