Or, alternative title: Adventures in the Willie Wonka Fear Factory. If you’re cocking your head in confusion, this is about Willie’s recent (and relatively new) fear of men. To review briefly: As a puppy he was pathologically afraid of other dogs, exceptionally sound sensitive and, in some contexts, quick to anger. But he adored people, loved everyone. As an adolescent, like many dogs, he developed new fears, and became cautious around unfamiliar men, but it was easily handled by having guys throw balls for him. I always knew I’d need to manage it and that I could never completely close the book on his fears, but it was easily handled and he usually appeared to be thrilled to meet unfamiliar men after about 4-5 months of counter conditioning.
And then, three weeks or so ago, he barked in terror at a male visitor. He was so fearful he urinated on the spot (the spot being the living room rug–no worries there, it is ancient and god knows how many microscopic particles live within in it, but I mention it just to let you know he saw the visitor, barked in terror and peed his pants where he stood.) A week later he avoided another male visitor, a guy he’s met multiple times and always been friendly around. His fear was overwhelmingly obvious–no barking, but avoidance, tail tucked, head down, eyes round, commissure retracted, weight backward, etc etc.). We had our friend toss treats and that helped, but he never completely settled into what I’d call comfort.
Two questions arise when a behavioral problem you thought was handled pops up again like a moldy piece of toast: 1) What on earth caused the regression?, and most importantly, 2) Now what? I write this out in hopes it will help others follow along if/when their reactive dog slips backwards a few steps. Of course, all cases are different, but it often helps to follow a treatment plan as a way of storing potential tools in your tool box…
Skipping ahead to #2, “Now what?” has already started: Willie has so far had treats thrown by 3 unfamiliar men. So far, all sessions have gone well. All sessions have also been out of the house, and Willie appeared much more relaxed around the guys than he did inside the farm house. Here’s what’s good about that: First, it’s always good to start classical conditioning exercises (CC) at the lowest level of intensity. If and why Willie is worse at the house is an interesting question, but my first sessions of CC taught me that 1) new-guy-at-home is scarier than new-guy-not-at-home; potentially important information, and 2) outside is where we should start because it’s the lowest intensity trigger for him.
After Christmas I’ve arranged for several male friends to come by. We’ll start with Willie meeting them outside, first far away, then closer. Then I’ll have them come inside with food or toy in hand. If that goes well, I’ll ask the next guys to come inside the house before meeting Willie outside. They’ll be asked (okay, told) to avoid approaching Willie, but to toss treas or toys for him. One of my challenges is that Willie’s best CC’er is to chase after a thrown toy. I can’t let him do that yet with his shoulder, so I’m asking guys to toss the toy directly to Willie so that he can catch it in his mouth.
I’ve made other changes too, but to explain those I need to go back to the question of what the heck caused this in the first place. Whenever you have a problem like this, it’s smart to sit down and write out all the possible causes you can think of. You may never know the answer, but it can help create a comprehensive treatment plan. Here’s my list, along with some thoughts about the potential of each to have affected Willie:
1. Isolation after injury and surgery. Seems reasonable, but since the injury was in Feb and the surgery in May, you’d think it would have shown up a bit sooner. He saw almost no visitors for about 3 months after surgery, but after that we did start having people come to the house and he seemed fine. The first sign of trouble was actually at PT about 3 weeks ago, when he barked, for the first time, at seeing someone out the window in the treatment room door. Both Courtney and I were surprised, because he’d never done that before, and he’d been there twice a week since late June. I would have thought this would have shown up at least by fall if that was the primary issue BUT I’d still rate it high on the scale of probable causes.
Implications: Set up more CC sessions with guys I trust to not overwhelm Willie, following the protocol in The Cautious Canine. We have some CC scheduled for next week, with dog savvy guys who actually will pay attention to directions and CC rather than scare Willie. It’s a bit challenging, because the best CC for Willie is a thrown toy, and I can’t do that yet with his shoulder. We’ll use treats and I’ll use Watch and Tug, plus guys tossing treats and toys. I’ll keep you posted.
2. Effects of anesthetic. I’ve seen several dogs in my practice who did indeed change after surgery (also noted by a thoughtful comment from JH in the comment section) and have often wondered about the effects of anesthetic on certain physiologically sensitive dogs. This is possible, but again, it seem less likely because the problem showed up relatively recently. The dogs in my practice became hyper-reactive early on after surgery.
Implications: Doubtful it’s a cause, but never hurts to think about a dog’s internal physiology. He had another acupuncture session last night, this time for calming and soothing. We discussed potentially using laser acupuncture versus needles, given how sensitive and reactive Willie is.
3. Effects of surgery itself. Not sure what to say about this, but given what a huge assault a major surgery is on the body, it has to be considered. However, again, the regression seems so far after the fact that it seems unlikely.
Implications: Same as above.
4. Presence of Tootsie. Tootsie had been at the farm for about two months before the first signs of trouble appeared. As I’ve written, Willie was clearly not comfortable around her for the first few days, and they still (still!) work hard to ignore each other, but he seems to have adapted to her as the new normal. He still gets lots of attention from me, and has learned that she’ll never challenge him for anything, although she’ll try to squeeze in when he’s getting petted. I suspect he’s learned that although he’d rather not have to compete, life goes on even with a pushy, tiny little princess in the house. I don’t think just her presence is a factor; just guessing here, but I’m bet some serious money on it.
Implications: Tootsie is here to stay, so I’ll go back to CCg him with Tootsie’s name (I did that for about 3 weeks, “Where Tootsie?”).
5. Tootsie’s barking. This one has a higher probability in my mind of having an effect on Willie’s emotional circuits. Tootsie came as a barker–she barked in the morning to get let up on the bed, she barked for her dinner, etc etc etc. We’ve made great progress, none of the above happens anymore BUT I still can’t leave her either in her crate or loose in the house if I leave it without her barking. I’ve done lots of management around this, but about a month ago I got lazy and would leave her and Willie in the house if I had to run outside and do something quickly in the yard or barn. She’d stand at the window and bark like some crazed, operatic mouse, and I think listening to it was hell on earth for sound sensitive Willie. It didn’t happen very often, but I am sure it wasn’t helping anything. I also had to ask myself if she barks in her crate when I’m gone. I’ve snuck around quite a few times, creeping back to the house and every time she appears to be sound asleep and quiet, so I doubt this is the problem. I’ll keep my eyes (and ears) on it though.
Implications: I never leave him anymore in a situation in which Tootsie will bark while he’s beside her, and I’m working hard on teaching Tootsie to not bark in a crate or if left alone in the house when I leave for a few minutes. I’ve learned I can toss a handful of kibble on the carpet, leave the house with Willie and return to find Tootsie sleeping in her bed in the living room. “Quiet in the crate” when I’m elsewhere in the house is going to take more time, but I’m working on it and carefully managing it at all other times.
6. Change in diet, addition of chicken and lamb. About a month ago I found myself with lots of chicken and lamb scraps. I’ve avoided feeding those protein sources to Willie because of Chinese Medicine’s suggestion that they are “hot” foods and not good for reactive dogs like Willie. But all was going so well, and it pains me to throw food away, so I started giving Willie some of each for a period of about a week. I have no idea whatsoever if this was causal, but it’s easy to change, so I did.
Implications: Easy — Willie is back on beef, beef liver, fish, duck and pork as protein sources. And he’s getting even more cooked greens than usual (mostly kale and collard greens, some parsley, some celery, spinach, broccoli).
7. Sushi: Sushi as a source of stress for Willie ebbs and flows. I’ve written about it before, about his obsessive desire to herd her and his inability to see her as anything except a small, hoofless livestock representative. We worked through it well years ago, but the combination of less exercise and Sushi being in the house more because of winter has caused the problem to increase. He tends to be on edge when he gets obsessive about Sushi, and I would put this high on the list as one potentially contributing factor.
Implications: This is a tough one, obsessive as it is, as we’ve all discussed in previous blogs. It’s complicated by the fact that my allergies to Sushi continue to worsen, and I feel badly that Sushi can’t cuddle with me like she used to. Right now we are managing things and I’m working hard on keeping Willie occupied with something non-Sushi related. All alternative behaviors (sit, lie down, go in your crate, get a toy) act as secondary reinforcers, so it’s not easily fixed. I’ll write more on this later, but it’s a big topic and better saved for posts in the future. At the moment it’s being managed relatively well, but it’s on my list for things to make even better in the future.
8. Electro stimulation in physical therapy. Willie had 2 sessions of this right around the time he first reacted to seeing people out the window. Could this possibly have affected his nervous system in a negative way? I suspect it’s doubtful, but the health care professionals I asked say no (3) and yes (1), and I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.
Implications: I have no idea if this had any effect on Willie, but we stopped it just in case. Luckily, he didn’t really need it anymore anyway, his muscles in his shoulder began relaxing again so that he could do his stretching exercises.
9. Acupuncture session right around the time he began regressing. I’m doubtful that this was causal, given how often he’s had acupuncture, but he had a new practitioner this time, and who knows? I had one acupuncture session in which I was miserable for a month afterward. Anything with the power to do good has the power to do harm.
Implications: His new acupuncturist, Carrie and I discussed this last night. I cautioned her that with Willie, “less is more,” and to use the fewest, thinnest needles she could. We also discussed laser acupuncture next time as I mentioned above. I’ll probably put him back on either Shen Calmer or some kind of homeopathic remedy for fear and anxiety, but I want to spend some more time thinking about what would be best for him.
I’ve written all this out in hopes the structure of 1) thinking about causes of a regression and 2) designing a treatment plan around it, is helpful to anyone else out there whose dog has gone backward a bit. I think it would be extremely helpful to other readers if you wanted to share your own program for if/when this has happened to you and one of your dogs. Needless to say, I could write about so many aspects of Willie’s behavior and treatment that this blog would turn into a book. I’ll stop here, and enjoy letting others add their own methods.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm:
Here’s Willie (or rather, his nose), in the middle of an acupuncture session with his new acupuncturist, Carrie Donahue, DVM. He’s not a fan of the needles, but Carrie is extremely gentle and patient, and Willie sits politely for her as best he can. You’re just seeing his nose because it was dark outside and I couldn’t get a good picture of him looking at the camera without eye flash, so the heck with it, I just focused on his nose. “Do what you can”… a good perspective any time, including with photographs, and treatment plans for that matter…
We woke up this morning to another surprise snow. It won’t last long, and it’s only a little over an inch, but still, it was gorgeous when Willie and I went up the hill (too wet and cold for a hill walk for Tootsie).
I thought the image below would be a lovely way for Willie and I, and all at Redstart Farm, to wish you and yours some peace, warmth and love this holiday season. It comes with my gratitude for the community that has grown up around this blog. Thank you all for joining me in an inquiry about our miraculous relationship with dogs. Body wags to you all.