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Does your dog bark, lunge, snarl, or growl when on leash? You are not alone!

The 2019 Midwestern Veterinary Conference once again provided exceptional sessions on a variety of topics from “Surgery in Pet Fish” (which I didn’t attend) to “Common Behavioral Problems in Working Dogs” (which I did attend). I spent two days in a special lab on “Aggression in Dogs: Defensive Handling and Training” and I attended several sessions offered by Dr. Christopher Pachel*, a veterinary animal behaviorist from Portland Oregon. His session on leash reactive dogs was great and he offered a lot of insights as well as practical solutions for dealing with canines who lose their minds while out walking.

The first thing he did was to define leash reactivity as “the term commonly used to describe a dog that engages in any combination of barking, snarling, growling, or lunging toward people, other dogs, or other specific stimuli when on leash.” Reactivity can result from a variety of reasons, including fear, frustration, or arousal. He also emphasized that it is “important to identify whether this is truly an isolated problem, or whether similar behavior happens in other circumstances as well.” If a dog shows similar reactivity  in various situations, then leash reactivity may well be a symptom of a more far reaching problem. If you are uncertain as to the pervasiveness of your dog’s reactivity, consult a positive reinforcement trainer, or a behaviorist who can help you to clarify the situation, as well as create an effective treatment plan.

Helping your dog to overcome his reactivity can be a pretty straightforward endeavor, but it is imperative to understand not only what triggers your dog’s reactivity, but the concepts (such as thresholds and recovery time) behind the treatment plan. Knowing how much and when to expose your dog to its triggers, and when and how to effectively avoid them, as well as building strong foundational skills, can make the difference between success and frustration or failure.

One terrific source for help with establishing foundation skills as well as reducing or nearly eliminating leash reactivity** is the Instinct Dog Training: Leash Reactive Dog Course. This FREE program is great, and a terrific place to start learning how to handle your dog in tough situations. It has 5 parts, and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing each part in order. If you want to change your dog’s behavior, then it will happen the quickest, safest, and most effectively if you follow their instructions and build your skills and your dog’s skills in a logical, systematic fashion.

Here are the 5 Parts:

  1. Part 1: Getting Started. 
    -Your Course Roadmap
    -Tools for Success
    -Rewards that Work
    Get a clear picture of what this course includes, how it works, and what you’ll need to get started.
  2. Part 2: Key Concepts
    -Leash Reactivity:
    What, Why, How to Help
    -Threshold, Frequency, Recovery Time
    Review important behavior concepts before you jump int0 hands-on training.
  3. Part 3: Foundation Skills
    -Unprompted Attention
    -Leash Pressure Cues
    -Loose Leash Walking
    Learn how to teach your dog the three foundation skills every leash reactive dog should know.
  4. Part 4: Defensive Handling for Everyday Encounters-U-Turn -Arc-By -Call-to-Front
    Learn three defensive handling techniques to use with your dog to reduce episodes of lunging and barking.
  5. Part 5: Changing Your Dog’s Emotional Response to Triggers
    -Understanding the Stress Response
    -Setting up Counterconditioning Sessions
    Learn to use principles of counterconditioning & desensitization to change your dog’s emotional response to triggers.

How long this process takes depends on several factors, but they estimate that it will take you 10-16 weeks. As they put it:

Remember, every dog is different. The timeframes included above are estimates. Your rate of progress will vary based on your dog’s starting reactivity level and learning history; the complexity of your environment; and the time you have available to practice.
 
As you make your way through the course, watch for positive trends in your dog’s behavior, and try not to get discouraged by the occasional bad day!

I have been working through the materials and videos and they are universally excellent, easy to follow, and encouraging to owners! I would invite anyone who has concerns about their dog’s behavior on leash to take a look at this program. Even if your dog is not leash reactive, there are some great foundation skills to learn and practice, as well as techniques that can keep you and your dog safe and happy on walks where you encounter an over the top canine. 

*Dr. Pachel joined Colleen Pelar and me on Your Family Dog for two episodes. You can check them out here:

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 1: Trauma and Your Puppy

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 2: Over Stimulation

**It is important to understand that behavior cannot be unlearned. If your dog has learned to react in a given way (such as barking or snapping at another dog), that particular behavior cannot be fully eliminated or cured. But, it can be reduced or greatly diminished, depending on the circumstances. As one veterinarian at MVC said, “Think of aggression like cancer, we hope to get it into remission.”

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Aging With Canines

Often times, when we think about dogs and special populations of people, our thoughts turn to infants or small children. Certainly I have written and podcasted about a variety of kid and dog issues.*

Pat Miller, trainer extraordinaire, has an article in the January 2019 Whole Dog Journal called Spending the Golden Years with Dogs.** She addresses the pluses of owning a dog in your senior years as well as important points to remember about how much canines can cost, and how critical it is to make the right choice about the type of dog you adopt.

Some of the positive points she makes:

You will likely be home more. In retirement, most people have more time to spend with friends, family, and dogs. This is a grand time to have a dog. If you are an active soul who loves to walk and hike, how much more will you enjoy it with an enthusiastic canine?

You might travel more together. Have you ever considered a motor home to see the country? This is a great way to have your dog come with you without worrying if relatives will welcome your dog, or if you can find a dog-friendly hotel.

Keeping a canine companion for company is good for you! Increasingly, retirement and assisted-living communities not only allow, but welcome pets as they recognize the importance of companionship to mental and physical health.

She does caution the following:

Providing proper care for dogs can be costly. Retirees are likely to be on a fixed income and can limit the amount someone feels he or she can spend on a pet. Pet insurance can help with some of the medical costs (especially for catastrophic illnesses or injuries), but keep in mind that pets require regular vet visits and medications such as heart worm and flea/tick preventatives.

Seniors must be sure, more than ever before in their lives, to make good adoption choices. I thought this was one of the most important points she made in the whole article. If you are 68 years old and have recently lost your 14 year old Golden Retriever, you may be tempted to get another Golden. You have had them all your life and they are your breed. Think, however, about the fact that you were 54 when you last got a puppy. Are you really, truly, up for the challenges of an energetic youngster? Can you lift a large dog into the car if injured or sick? Perhaps it is time to consider a medium size dog, and/or a middle-aged or senior dog at the shelter who needs a home and can offer you 6-8 years of loving companionship. Think seriously about what you can and cannot do, and choose wisely grasshopper.

Ms Miller goes on to address training tips and equipment that might make life easier and safer for everyone involved. Included are tips on leashes, harnesses, treat delivery systems, and training.

She also includes a section on Caring For Your Dog After You’re Gone. It is important to recognize that your dog may outlive you and you need to make provisions for his health and well being. She outlines various strategies, including setting up a pet trust, providing for your dog in your will, and/or making a written agreement with a someone you trust to love and care for you pet when you are gone. I know from personal experience that it is very easy to have a clause put in your will for your dogs. I have had one in my will for over 20 years. Having recently updated my will, I can attest that a good lawyer will not laugh at you, but respect you for caring so completely for those who cannot care for themselves.

But for now, as I seem to be careening towards my senior years, I am happy to hike, travel, and cuddle with my canine BFF, and I look forward to many happy dog years ahead! I wish the same for all of you!

Cuddling puppies in Alaska!

*Click here to see my blogs on kids and dogs; and here to go to Your Family Dog Podcast, where we have several episodes on kids and dogs.

**Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to access the full article, but here is the link nevertheless: Spending the Golden Years with Dogs

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Sometimes it is the dog, not the owner.

Dr. Laurie Schulze is a visiting veterinarian who specializes in behavior consults. I have used her services myself, and have directed several clients to her. She is a compassionate professional and we had a great interview with her on Your Family Dog. She posted an article on Facebook from the website Animal Sheltering called “When love isn’t enough” about times when shelters and canine foster groups have to make the decision to euthanize a dog due to behavior problems. There are times when love isn’t enough to fix the problems that a dog has. All the best efforts of trainers and vets do not alleviate the issues, and the very hard decision to euthanize an otherwise healthy animal has to be made, not only by shelters, but by owners as well.

So, why is it that some behavior problems cannot be resolved? With enough time, money, and talent, couldn’t every behavior problem be successfully addressed? Maybe…but dogs, like kids, are not blank slates when they are born. They bring their own personalities and genetic makeup to how they interact with and interpret this experience we call life. While puppies are malleable in many ways, there may or may not be things they can tolerate, things that scare or enthrall, experiences that are joys to one dog, terrifying to another. We can ameliorate many difficult situations, teach our pups that the world is a good place to be, but some dogs have more resilience to difficulties than others, some are more inclined to use force, and some are destined to see the world as a terrifying place, no matter what we do to convince them otherwise.

Experience, unfortunately, has taught me that as much as families may love their dog, there are some dogs who cannot change enough to fit their circumstances. A dog who does not have bite inhibition; has low tolerance for stressful situations; is overly sensitive to stimuli, touch, noises, movement; startles easily; and/or reacts with barking, growling, or biting to stress; may not have the underlying temperament needed to live in a family and may not have the resiliency to adapt and change enough to be happy and safe in society. 

When evaluating a situation, I try to look at both the big picture and the individuals involved. I have to help the family as well as the dog. Each child, each pet, each person has a stake in the future of the family. My job, in part, is to help them decide whether or not this particular dog can become a well-mannered member of their familiar unit. To do this we need to look at the dynamics of the family, their willingness and ability to manage and train the dog, the responsiveness and resiliency of the dog to training, and how much time, money, and effort can be expended to resolve the situation.

Sometimes the family does not have the resources needed to rehabilitate a dog. Other times the risk of serious future incidents is too high to consider behavior modification and strict management protocols effective enough to prevent calamity. And sometimes, the dog itself does not have the internal resources necessary to be rehabilitated.  The family may have raised the dog correctly: socializing it to a variety of people, places, and things; getting it to puppy class; using positive reinforcement training methods, etc. But, the innate reactivity of Rover to stress makes it hard to manage him safely around people, especially if he is prone to biting to resolve conflict. 

Let me pose a hypothetical: Suppose you have a dog who is friendly 95% of the time*, yet is quick to amp up and has bitten when excited. Perhaps the first bite was minor, scraping the skin and drawing blood, but no puncture marks. You vow to manage her better, especially when she is excited, but quite unexpectedly, she bites and delivers a puncture to the forearm of your elderly mother. Then, one of your kids trips, and falls down next to the dog. She bites your 6 year old daughter on the leg three times, leaving 4 punctures, as well as scraping her teeth down the side of your daughter’s head. These incidents all happen within 6 weeks of one another. The dog is 1 year old.

What do you do?  If things reach this point, there are several options you can consider:

  1. Hope for the best.You can just wait to see how the situation continues to develop. After all, having bitten 3 times doesn’t absolutely mean she’ll do it again…right?
  2. Rehab and manage. This second option means strict management protocols both during and following a behavior modification program. This is not easy, nor can it offer a 100% guarantee she won’t bite again. The probability of success depends on many individualized factors including the severity of the problem, the composition of the family (number of people in the household, number and ages of children, impaired individuals, other dogs or pets, etc.) and how much time they can realistically devote to the program. Questions that need to be asked are: Did any bites require medical attention? Can you follow strict supervision protocols and be sure they are fail proof? Would you really trust her with your children again? Can you afford (financially, emotionally, and time-wise) to work with a trainer or behaviorist?
  3. Re-homing the dog. This may be an option, but under Ohio law, you must fully disclose the dog’s history to the new owners. Ask yourself, would you take on a dog that bites? Or, would you feel completely at ease passing her on to another family? What if they can’t or won’t manage her?
  4. Humane euthanasia. This way you prevent any future incidents, but you are ending the life of a young, healthy dog, which is unbelievably heartbreaking.

Are any of these options without consequence? No. Are any of them easy? No. But, ask yourself this: what if you were a parent and your child was bitten by a dog at a friend’s house. How would you feel if you found out the dog had bitten previously? Wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you be asking why the dog wasn’t better supervised, or why the dog was still there?

All this said, I am not advocating wantonly giving up on troublesome dogs. Rather, for those who are inclined to believe it is the fault of the owner for not trying hard enough or not loving the dog enough, I am urging compassion and sensitivity when looking at a situation where a family (or a shelter) is dealing with an aggressive, problematic, and/or biting dog. In all likelihood, those on the outside do not know the entire story. They do not have to live with the dog (and the consequences of its actions) on a daily basis.

Nor, have I yet to find anyone facing this dilemma who takes this lightly or without a great deal of soul-searching, pain, humiliation, fear, and uncertainty. They have probably lived with the problem for months, struggled with the solution, and are trying to do right by the dog, their family, and their community. 

And, in most cases, there are no simple, easy, unemotional, or painless solutions to the problem, nor is there any one best course of action. These families will have to live with the decision that they make for the rest of the dog’s life, and they will likely rethink and reevaluate it for the rest of their lives as well. I know, because my family has faced this decision, and even though I am a trainer, this was no easier or clearer for me than it was for any other dog owner.

Fortunately, most people do not have to face this alone, nor should they. If you have a problem that is escalating in severity or frequency start with talking to your veterinarian. Our vet was crucial in helping us to understand the problem more clearly. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a search page where you can find someone specializing in behavior to help you review your options. If you have a trainer, talk to her as well. I am also happy to talk with you, so please feel free to contact me. 

We were very lucky that none of our supporters tried to convince us of a particular course of action, but helped us to weigh the heart wrenching options as carefully as possible. As a result, this is why I face, not only the unpredictability of pet ownership, but the challenges of helping others to wade through options that seem impossible to bear.  

*95% is the most common number I hear from owners with reactive dogs, and one reason why it is so difficult to resolve the situation. Most of the time the dog is great, but what happens during that 5% is critical to determining what course of action will be taken. If the dog has a predictable trigger that can be managed and desensitized, resolution of the problem is more likely. If, however, the dog is highly unpredictable, has multiple triggers, and/or has an escalating (in severity and frequency) bite history, then the situation is much more problematic. 

Also, consider what 95% actually mean in terms of everyday interactions with your dog. Five percent of a 24 hour day means that over one full hour of time with your dog is problematic.  But it’s actually more difficult than that implies. If your dog was unpredictable for one hour at a time, this would be manageable. But in reality, of course, this hour of potentially problematic interactions is spread throughout the day. So, in terms of interactions, that means that out of every 100 interactions with your dog, 5 could be potentially harmful (An interaction could be as simple as walking by the dog). Who can supervise every interaction, every time, with every person?

 

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Some new favorites, canine-wise.

by lana Reisner, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVB

Dr. Ilana Reisner is a veterinary animal behaviorist and an expert on canine behavior. I frequently link to her facebook page (Reisner Veterinary Behavioral Services) and when I was trolling for blog ideas I came across this article by her about dominance theory and moving past the idea that you have to be leader of the pack in order to get along with your dog. It has a good overview of where this mistaken notion came from, as well as why this can harm your relationship with your dog. 

The idea that canine behavior problems all stem from an innate canine drive to wrench control of us, leads to a gross misunderstanding of what is actually happening with a behaviorally challenged dog. It also blinds us to the body language that will give accurate cues as to the nature of the problem. 

The behavior problems most often seen in dogs—aggression, fearfulness, destructiveness, inappropriate elimination, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate attention-seeking—are associated more frequently with anxiety or frustration than with confidence and social assertiveness.

Observation of the “badly behaved” dog will frequently reveal conflict signals, such as yawning or lip licking, along with anxious or ambivalent posturing. Responding harshly to these signals increases the dog’s fear and reactivity, which, along with genetics, can lead to worsened impulsivity and aggression. In fact, fear is not voluntary and cannot be changed using operant methods, such as reinforcement or punishment. (Emphasis mine, Reisner)

This article is well written, referenced, and definitely worth reading. Your dog will thank you.

 

Kurgo Kibble Carrier

We have been traveling with Zuzu a fair amount and I decided that I needed a better way to transport her kibble than a ziploc bag.In my search for a kibble transport system, I found the Kibble Carrier at Kurgo. There are several features that I like, but the main ones are: it holds 5 lbs of kibble and keeps it fresh; and it is easy to use and carry. I like the roll top feature which creates a comfortable handle, and it opens wide enough to use a scoop. It packs easily into a small space in the car and Zuzu is not tempted to try and open it. The bottom opens so that you can add their collapsible bowl,**  there is a side pocket for treats, and a sturdy loop to attach your keys. After just one road trip, I am completely sold on it!

 

 

St. Roch by Tim Campbell

One last thing… Most people associate St. Francis of Assisi with animals, and indeed he is the patron saint of animals, merchants & ecology. The patron saint of dogs (and dog lovers), however, is St. Roch (c. 1295-1327). He was born the only son of a nobleman from Montpelier, France. According to his biography on Catholic Company.com, he was:

born with an unusual and deep red mark on his chest in the shape of a cross, a sign that the Blessed Virgin Mary had heard and answered his mother’s prayers for her barrenness to be healed. As a child St. Roch was deeply religious, fasting twice a week after the example of his pious mother. His parents died when he was twenty years of age, after which he gave his inheritance to the poor, handed the government of the city over to his uncle, and began a new life as a poor mendicant pilgrim.

St. Roch set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, but when he came to the town of  Acquapendente, he found it had been struck by the Black Plague. He diligently cared for the sick without regard for his own health, and cured many people “by simply making the Sign of the Cross over them.” He continued his healing work as he proceeded on his pilgrimage.

However, when he got to Piacenza, he realized that he had contracted the plague and it was manifesting in his leg. Refusing to burden anyone with his illness, he found an abandoned hut in the woods and waited to die. Fortunately, a local count’s hunting dog befriended him, brought him food every day and licked his wounds. A spring arose near the hut providing fresh water for St. Roch. One day, the count followed his dog into the woods, found Roch, and helped him. After his recovery, Roch “received divine inspiration that he should return to his native Montpellier.”

Once there he found the city at war. He refused to disclose his identity to the soldiers so that he could remain poor and unknown, having renounced his former life as the son of the governor. But his obfuscation aroused suspicion, and he was accused of being a spy disguised as a pilgrim. St. Roch did not defend himself against these charges…and was cast into prison by his own uncle, who failed to recognize his nephew’s altered appearance. According to legend, St. Roch was forgotten and abandoned in prison, but not by God, who sent angels to minister to him while he was held in captivity. He died there five years later.

I first discovered St. Roch when we were traveling in France and visited a church in a small village in Brittany. There was a series of carvings around the pulpit of the life of St. Roch. It was a delightful retelling of his rescue by a dog and I was hooked! There isn’t a lot of art for St. Roch, but here are two of my favorites: Icon of St. Roch by Tim Campbell, and In the Company of Saints has a statue of St. Roche in two sizes.

And finally, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and all your wonderful dogs.

 

 

 

*Not that I don’t love ziplocs! But, I have found that they last only so long. They rip, the zip stops working, or pulls out, and it is very easy for even a casually interested dog to open and indulge in an impromptu snack. 

**I do not know how well their collapsable bowl works as I have a travel bowl set for Zuzu, so I cannot advise pro or con on this item. But, I do know her bowls, which collapse and zip together into the approximate size of a CD case, fit nicely in the top of the kibble carrier, and that’s a nice feature! Her bowl is similar to this bowl by DogBuddy.

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Not every person wants to meet your dog!

Keeping your dog happy and safe is your primary focus when you are out and about. Knowing his or her individual body language is especially important as this is how your dog tells you that everything is great, just ok, or that help is needed to cope with that particular moment. Moreover, knowing dog body language will help you to recognize when other dogs may be fearful or unfriendly and when to keep an appropriate distance from them.
 
What many people don’t think about is that you can use your knowledge of body language to read people as well as dogs!* It is important to understand and respect the fact that not everyone wants to meet your dog. Cuing into a person’s body language will help you to avoid a potentially awkward situation. Moreover, from your dog’s point of view, avoiding those who don’t enjoy canines is as vital as having dog lovers greet him correctly.
 

With that in mind, here are my hints:

Watch for flight from people. Like dogs it could be very subtle (looking away, turning their head, taking a step backwards). Have treats at the ready to distract your dog from greeting  someone who doesn’t want to meet him. A fistful of treats at his nose may be all you need to keep him with you.

Watch for subtle signs of fight in people. The vast majority of people will not lash out at your dog, but fight can be the first response for someone afraid of a situation. Some signs of fight could be: furrowed brow, frowning or grimacing, clenched teeth, direct stare, stiff body posture, crossed arms, clenched fists.

Watch for freezing in people. Slowing their movements, not moving at all, trying to make themselves smaller, or going very stiff as your dog approaches are all signs that canines make this person uncomfortable.

Children can be tricky for dogs and vice versa. If your dog is backing away, do not let the child pet your dog. If the child is backing away, do not allow your dog to pursue her! If both are relaxed and comfortable, encourage the child to pet your pup softly between the shoulder blades or to stroke the dog’s back. 

Do a 3 second greeting with people as well as dogs! Maybe it will be longer than 3 seconds, but keep the meeting short and successful if you think your dog is becoming uncomfortable, or the person you are visiting is uncomfortable

Keep your leash loose so your dog has options to move. A person may startle at your dog and you want him to have the ability to move away as quickly as possible. If the leash is taut, he may lose that option.

And lastly: If either the person or the dog starts to move away from a situation, take that as a cue that it’s time to go. The bottom line here is to trust yourself. If you are uncomfortable with a person, situation, or moment, or detect that someone else is uncomfortable, then simply move along. Often times I just smile, say hi, and give my dog a treat as we pass by a person or group of people. I try to remember that I am an ambassador for the next dog who comes along. If I am sensitive to the people and dogs we encounter, and remember that my dog doesn’t have to greet everyone we meet, then I am probably doing a good job of keeping everyone safe and happy…not to mention promoting good will towards dogs.

 
 
 
*Dr. Patricia McConnell has some wonderful photos in her book For The Love Of A Dog, that show the similarity between human and canine body language and facial expressions. And, one of my blogs on body language which might be helpful: https://apositiveconnection.com/2016/01/can-you-hear-me-now-or-learning-to-effectively-communicate-with-fido/

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Take your medicine…all of it!

In my last blog, I discussed the subject of stress and whether all stress is a bad thing. I was aided tremendously by Dr. Michael Morales, professor of endocrinology (among other things) at the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. This week Mike helps me explain why your dog needs to take all of his medicine, even when he is feeling better. While all meds should be finished, this particular discussion is about steroids, such as prednisone, used to treat inflammation and pain in people and animals.

As Mike explains:

Pain control is tricky in dogs. One reason is that many of the safe and inexpensive medications humans rely on, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen are not well tolerated or even dangerous to our canine friends. That means often the best choice to treat inflammatory pain (and other conditions) are with drugs that mimic the action of cortisol, often referred to as corticosteroids. Probably the most commonly prescirbed is Prednisone, which is structurally similar to cortisol, but much more potent.

One of the first things most people notice about steroids is the prescription is almost always a “step-down” dosage. This means that you gradually decrease the dosage over a period of time. For example, you might start with 5 tablets a day for 1 day, then 4 tablets for a day, 3 tablets…etc. Often times we see our animal friends respond quickly to the medication and we may stop giving it to them earlier than prescribe. Since they seem so much better, what’s the point in continuing? 

Mike continues: 

This is a bad idea. 

Why, you might ask? Mike goes on:

To understand why, it is necessary to know a little about how dogs (and humans) regulate their production of cortisol. It starts in the brain where stresses are initially sensed.  This information is transmitted to a brain region called the hypothalamus where the neurons increase their production of corticotropic releasing hormone (CRH).  CRH travels to the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, signaling the pituitary to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). That hormone travels through the blood stream to the adrenal gland which increases its production of cortisol.  In addition to its other functions, cortisol signals the hypothalamus and pituitary to reduce the amount of CRH and ACTH, respectively, keeping the production of cortisol at the correct level.  The technical term for this is negative feedback, and it is one of the most important ideas in biology. (See Figures 1 and 2).

What does this have to with your dog’s pain pills? Mike elaborates:

When the dog cannot produce sufficient cortisol to control its pain, inflammation, or suffering, your vet may prescribe a corticosteroid such as Prednisone. These powerful drugs do most of what cortisol does, including reducing CRH and ACTH production dramatically. That in turn turns off the production of cortisol almost completely, and the adrenal gland will actually start to atrophy. This is not a big deal, as cortisol synthesis can be restarted, but the problem is that it will take a few days (exactly how long depends on your dog’s age and overall health). Cortisol is necessary for normal health.* Quick withdrawal of corticosteroids can leave your dog without the ability make his own, opening it up to problems that might include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, anxiety and many other issues.  Slowly reducing corticosteroid dosage gives the adrenal gland a chance to recover and start producing cortisol normally.

So the bottom line here is: take your medicine, all of it. Your dog will be healthier and happier if you follow your vet’s instructions and give him the medicine he needs to be the best dog ever. 

 

 

 

*For more on the importance of cortisol in regulating stress see: Is all stress bad?

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Is all stress bad?

Me stressed? Who says I’m stressed?

My husband and I have a good friend from college, Dr. Michael Morales, who has a Doctorate in Biochemistry and teaches at the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. He was a recent guest on Your Family Dog to talk about the immune and endocrine systems in dogs. (See: The Inside of Your Dog). We had a wide ranging discussion and touched on two topics that I asked him to write a bit more about. This week I am tackling the subject of stress and whether or not there is such a thing as optimal stress.

First of all, Mike gave a terrific definition of stress:

Stress is any stimuli that disrupts normal physiologic equilibria. Stresses can be divided into two broad categories.  Neurogenic stresses are those perceived by the nervous system, like the mailman coming to your door every single day.  Systemic stresses include injuries, excessive thirst, or starvation.

He goes on to add that despite the variability of the types of stress we (or our dogs) encounter, the body has “just one integrated stress response mediated by the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands.” The adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which is always present in the blood stream, lasts a long time, and there is much more of it during times of stress. It is often thought of as the stress hormone but, “in reality, it is an anti-stress hormone” whose function is to help one cope with stress. Epinephrine is the other major adrenal hormone. Non-epinephrine from the sympathetic nervous systems pairs with epinephrine and, 

These are the famous “fight or flight” hormones. They cause your puppy’s arousal when that mail man appears. Epinephrine doesn’t last long in the blood stream, just a minute or two compared to hours for cortisol. Interestingly, one of the functions of cortisol is to increase the amount of epinephrine.  It doesn’t cause its release, but it allows more to be released at an increased frequency.

The important take away here is that there are both short response and long response hormones that are released to help us manage stress. So, if we have the internal mechanism to manage stress, why do we all instinctively know that chronically high stress is not good and can have some serious consequences? As Mike explains:

Exposure to high levels of cortisol in a puppy or even prenatally in the womb can cause psychological damage that can last long into adulthood. Cortisol influences genome function in a way that can be permanent and can potentially be transmitted across generations.  Added to this is the revolution in our understanding of brain development, and one could conclude that the responsible puppy owner avoids stress at all costs, right?  Of course, it’s not so simple. Remember, cortisol is always present, and in fact, we can’t live without it.  So it turns out that there is a correct amount of stress.

Who knew? Well, many of us knew that a bit of arousal enhances learning, but we didn’t know how the hormones worked to enhance that learning. Mike continues:

The effects of cortisol can be thought of something like a bell curve. At the top of the curve is where you are likely to find a happy well-adjusted dog.  Too much cortisol is associated with aggression and overly defensive behavior. Too little cortisol will leave your precious little bundle unable to cope with the normal stresses that invade the life of all living creatures.

 

So now it’s not your puppy’s stress you’re worried about, but you own, trying to figure out how to properly raise the little guy.  Neurobiology has provided some good news as well.  Throughout life, neurons are born and die, synapses are formed and disappear, axons and dendrites grow and are pruned. This suggests that there is considerable potential for reversing the effects of a stressful puppyhood than had been previously imagined. But it is important to understand that the longer intervention is delayed, the harder it will be to undo the consequences of excessive stress early in life. So do the best you can, and trust that a supportive environment will undo any of your inevitable mistakes.

So, when you are headed out the door with your puppy, keep in mind that some stress is necessary for your dog to grow into the well-adjusted adult dog that you can trust to handle the ups and downs of a dog’s life. Be sure to have a lot of wonderful treats on hand while you are exposing your puppy to the world, and use positive reinforcement training to build a happy, trusting dog, eager to learn new things. Be smart about where you take him before his puppy shots are finished, and don’t try to do too much at one time. A happy half hour walk to the play ground to meet a few children will likely do more for your pup than a 2 hour forced march through town!*

A final thought from Mike:

We’ve all heard of or know dogs who overcome the cruelest of circumstances to become a well-behaved and cherished family dog. The flip side is the dog raised in a loving secure home who ends up nasty and aggressive. Researchers have noticed this individual variation as well, and have seen it even in strains of mice in-bred to be genetically nearly identical.  It used to be chalked up to the dreaded “experimental variation.” It is now understood that this extraordinary variability of outcome in the face of chronic stress is not some experimental artifact but a feature of complex organisms.  Considerable effort continues to be expended to understand this effect.

In other words, do your best to help your puppy his best. And, remember, that we cannot control every situation, genetics are complex, environmental factors influence behavior, and unfortunately, sometimes bad things happen that will have long term effects.

But, on the other hand, sometimes we win the lottery. 

 

 

*For more information on socializing your puppy please see:

Blogs: 

Why your puppy should be a social butterfly

Puppy Class: Why your baby dog needs to go!

Podcasts: 

Puppy Development: What you need to know about your growing puppy

Warning Signs in Puppies: Recognizing Behavioral Problems

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 1: Trauma and Your Puppy, 

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 2: Over Stimulation

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