One of the reasons I decided to pull Jai from the therapy dog test last week is his new riding-in-cars phobia. It started quite suddenly over Christmas. We were in the middle of a five hour long drive home from gramma's, and in the space of about ten minutes, he went from napping to crying, shaking, drooling, panting, and trying to dig through the bottom of his crate. I still have no idea what triggered this phobia.
We've been working pretty hard on this issue for the last three months. Jai is still eager to jump into the cars, so we've been working on maintain that enthusiasm, getting cookies for being in the car while it's moving, and counter-conditioning bumps in the road with extra yummy peanut butter. And we've made steady progress. Jai gone from total melt down to some shaking and light panting. But couple the stress-inducing car ride with a new building and new dogs, and I didn't feel doing the TDI test would be setting my dog up for success. And while I wish we had been able to take the test, I still think that pulling him was in his best interests.
So if we're creating improvement and making good decisions, why did I decide to put Jai on meds?
First, I felt that our counter-conditioning and desensitization training would be more effective if Jai's brain was in a better state for learning. When we are stressed, frightened, or depressed, our brains secrete a the hormone glucocorticoid. Glucocorticoid, among other things, actually kills cells in the hippocampus. One of the important roles of the hippocampus is to turn short term memories into long term memories. Basically, glucocorticoid makes it harder for our brain to turn lessons into learning. When Jai is terrified, it's hard for him to remember good things that are happening; all he remembers is being afraid. Luckily, we know that antidepressant medications can increase the number of stem cells that become nerve cells in the hippocampus, thereby improving memory. Putting Jai on medications will help promote better learning.
Second, we've come to the point where our environment is working against us: welcome to pothole season in Minnesota. If we go over enough bumps right in a row, Jai becomes so frightened that he can't eat. When this happens, I'm pretty much just holding my dog prisoner in a giant torture box. It's not always feasible to stop the car and wait until he calms down again, or to turn around and go home. By putting Jai on medications, I'm hoping to increase his thresholds so that the same amount of bouncing will have a smaller impact on him. We've done a ton of really hard work in the last three months, and I don't want to lose it because Minnesota can't keep its stupid roads in one piece. This time of year, they're only going to get worse, and I don't want Jai to regress.
Third, I want to improve his recovery time. Stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine can stay in the body for up to seventy-two hours after a stressful event, lowering thresholds, decreasing learning capacity, and just making a body miserable. While recovery can certainly occur in a shorter period of time, Jai has never been one of those dogs. He and I have both been struggling with the impact of his car anxiety on his other behavioral issues of neophobia and reactivity. By reducing the stress he experiences in the car and by balancing some of the chemicals in his brain, we'll make it harder for his car anxiety to influence his quality of life outside the car.
|I don't have pictures of Jai in the car, but I do have pictures of Jai at the vet.|
I'm not too concerned, though. There are many behavior medications out there, and it took Maus a few tries to find the right one, too. Behavioral meds can be a great asset to a behavioral rehabilitation program, but it's not our only tool, either - we'll be using them to augment our training program, not replace it, and eventually I'm confident that we'll find the right combination of tools to conquer Jai's fear. And in the meantime, we'll just keep traveling the road in front of us.