Maus is the dog that should have been perfect and wasn’t. I’ve long ago let go of any sorrow I may have felt about not getting the dog I wanted, because the dog I got was so much . . . more. Each accomplishment we’ve made is that much sweeter because of the obstacles we’ve overcome. Every failure, so poignant because of the severity of his issues.
I should have known he wasn’t right the moment he stepped in my door on Aug 23, 2008 – or didn’t step in, as the case may be. I mean, what kind of pit bull is afraid of cats? The first years were the hardest, partially because of the frequency with which he developed new phobias, and partially because of his unpredictability. Fire hydrants, garbage cans, plastic bags, the sun roof in my car, and paper towels are only a few of the fears we struggled with in the beginning.
But the worse was people. Pit bulls are suppose to be sweet, friendly, social dogs, and at best, Maus seemed to wish that everyone would just fall off the planet. At worse, he growled, cowered, and on a few occasions, snapped at people. Scariest for me was that I could not find any consistent quality that would set him off. I had no idea who he would react at and who he'd tolerate. To be honest, I hope it always scares me - I hope that I never take for granted to awesome responsibility that is owning a dog like Maus.
|Maus, looking sexy and getting ready to flip out at people -
his two specialties in life.
It was a hell of a learning curve. My previous two dogs, Piper and Riley, were “normal.” I had already started on my path as a dog nerd and knew the general ropes of training. But nothing prepares you for living with a reactive dog. Suddenly, I had to know about thresholds, counter-conditioning, bite indexes, body language, and a whole host of other factors I had never dreamed existed. The knowledge I picked up literally changed my life. I would not be the trainer or teacher that I am today if I had not been given Maus.
Pulling Maus out of himself will always be one of my life's greatest accomplishments. By the time he was two and a half, Maus had mostly stopped coming up with new phobias to work through. When he did, fifteen minutes of counter conditioning brought us back to faking normal again. A year later, I could accurately predict how Maus would behave in most situations. I don’t know that Maus has actually gotten more predictable, so much as I have finally figured out his long list of triggers. With people, it’s hats, glasses, small people, rapid movements, high-pitched speech, beards, erratic movements, and on and on. But we have also developed a relationship of trust and faith. If I told Maus that something was going to be okay, he tried very hard to believe it would be.
And it worked for us.
The summer of 2011 was our best year yet. Maus not only went out in public and met new people – he actually seemed to enjoy it! We marched in the Pride Parade. We went to disc dog comps and play dates. We played in the yard and went on walks and enjoyed every minute of that mild summer.
|My all-time favorite picture of Maus, taken at June Jam disc dog competition, 2011.
In September, Maus started to fall apart. It started slowly: he seemed to enjoy touching less. He didn’t want to be approached by new people. He stopped wanting to cuddle with the other dogs. Eventually, he started growling when strangers would walk in a room. He started refusing to leave the house with me (I cried the first time he did that – when I got him, it took me nine months to convince Maus that going outdoors was fun. This was a huge step back). And he picked up a few new problems. Maus started to become noise sensitive. And perhaps worse than anything else, he began to self-mutilate, scratching holes in the skin of his head and chest.
I scoured the dog-centric universe, looking for that training tool I didn’t know about, the magic bullet that would help Maus the way counter conditioning had helped when we’d started our journey four years ago. I think I confused more than a few of my friends – after all, he still acted normally, obedient and mostly calm. But I definitely felt the burden of his slipping thresholds, and I struggled to help him succeed in situations that had seemed easy only a few short months ago.
Until it all came to a head in one spectacular watershed moment.
My poor, beautiful, broken Maus.
I couldn’t afford to watch him suffer any longer, but I hadn’t found the magic training bullet that would help him. I made the decision to start looking at behavioral medications.
I put off looking at behavioral medications for Maus for a long time, and I was able to do this because training had been working. But now that it wasn’t, I had to take a close look at why I had been so reluctant to start him on anything. I think it was in large part due to my personal experiences with these medications. You see, I have severe anxiety and depression (I’m not embarrassed and I’m not ashamed – it is simply a part of who I am, they way Maus’s fear is a part of who he is). I’ve been on many medications over the years, and I’ve yet to find the “right pill” that eased my symptoms without making me drowsy or nauseous or fat or worse - more depressed and anxious. Couple that with watching many of my friends struggling with medications for their own dogs, and I would have done practically anything to spare my boy from this path.
Something had to give, and on February 28th, 2012, ten days after my watershed moment, Maus and I left the vet with a brand new prescription for prozac.
Prozac was everything I feared behavioral medication could be. Maus seemed happier in general, but he also behaved ten-cups-of-coffee jittery. Some of what had been mild, borderline OCD behaviors – water chasing and licking – became almost unmanageable. If anyone touched him when he wasn’t expecting it, he’d just about jump out of his skin. And his seizures got worse. Life on prozac was not an improvement.
On the other hand, I hadn’t come up with that magic training bullet, so after our two month prozac trial, we were back at the vet having another serious discussion about where to go next. We talked about medicating Maus for his seizures to see if that took the edge off his anxiety (we’d previously come to an acceptable seizure rate via diet and supplement changes). We also discussed a referral to the University of Minnesota’s canine behavior department. But we eventually settled on a trial of clomipramine, another behavioral drug.
Clomipramine has been a godsend. In many ways, Maus is better than he’s ever been, including during the famous Summer of ’11. His OCD has slid back into the “just quirky” range. He seeks out physical contact and once again has started sleeping in the bedroom with everyone else at night. He’s not jittery anymore – or at least, not anymore than he was before prozac. He hasn’t has any seizures since starting the clomipramine (I strongly suspect that Maus’s seizures have a stress component to them). He’s not self mutilating anymore. Had he’s only been afraid of one new object in the last two months.
There have even been improvements in behaviors that I never thought were affected by Maus’s anxiety. He plays almost appropriately with other dogs now. Well, most of the time. Usually. When he feels like it. But he’s able to, which is a big deal. He also started playing with toys, which is something he’s never done in the past – he even played tug with a new dog on a play date a few weeks ago. To the best of my knowledge, Maus’s entire litter has all been skinny and difficult to keep weight on. But ever since we started the clomipramine, Maus has not only been at a good weight, he’s maintained that good weight. It never crossed my mind that my dog might be worrying himself skinny.
My reluctance to put Maus on meds was anthropomorphizing at its worse, and Maus was the one who suffered for it. But when all’s said and done, I wouldn’t change a thing about our relationship. Rubi and I are friends of the heart, but Maus and I are connected at the soul. We understand each other, our fear and our anxieties and our joys, in ways that many others would not. I can’t love this dog and not see myself in him. To work with Maus is to see my own inner demons brought out into the light, battled, and beaten.
For today, anyway.
|Photo by Paige.