Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Heartache: A Case Study

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.


  1. Love, love, love this post. It makes sense to me that you'd be reluctant to try medication given your personal experience with it and the experience of your friends. It's a risk with unpredictable consequences, and I totally get that you'd try one of everything else before taking it.

    And good for both of you that the clomipramine is helping! It's a great reminder of two truisms for me: don't quit, and don't settle.

  2. You have found the heart & soul of your dog. Hold on dearly. Great post.

  3. I would love to be a fly on the wall of your home! You are a wonderful person -- if everyone had just a smidgeon of your determination, the world would be a better place. Your dogs are SO lucky to have you...and you them!

  4. What a wonderful, beautiful blog Laura. Today I posted a photo that my cousin took and edited of a friend's dog in Florida and she captioned it "I saw an angel in the marble so I carved until I set him free." My very first thought when I read it (no joke) was of your Maus and then I saw this blog (so of course I bawled my way through it, which is normal anyway but with pregnancy hormones is pretty much unavoidable). What a wonderful dog he is and how lucky he is to have you. His journey has undoubtedly influenced the way I train and work with Penelope.

    The heartache dogs are the best kind of dogs. Thanks for being such an awesome human being and inspiring your friends like me.

    1. I messed up the quote (of course). It is "I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free"-Michelangelo

  5. Thank you for sharing how you are helping yourself and Maus. We hope for your continued success!

  6. LOVE this post. I'm so glad you shared your struggles, as many of us have been there too. I'm so glad Maus is doing better.

  7. Aw. Happy for both of you.

    Finding the right med for this stuff always feels miraculous, doesn't it?

    I keep looking at the directions they are going for depression meds and wishing they'd hurry up and get there already. I like being functional, but I miss being happy. And having energy for more than just meeting the basic requirements of life. (sorry, bit of a tangent there...)

  8. Oh wow - where to begin? What a wonderful post. I got so nervous half-way through reading it knowing most people would not go through the effort you have and worrying that Maus would meet a bad end. Thank you, thank you, thank you for not giving up on your boy.

    I also have a crazy, reactive and fearful dog and have been blogging about our experiences with her. It is a journey very similar to yours.

    I appreciate your concerns about putting him on meds - I wish we had as good a reason for our reluctance to do so with Bella. But I'm becoming an advocate for seeking it as an option sooner as I've come to see what it can do for the well-being and happiness of a dog.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story so honestly.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I also have a fearful dog, shy, under-confident ... it helps to read other people's experiences. I've struggled with others telling me how my dog is feeling (not the awesome trainers I work with!) when my gut, instincts and experience with her are telling me different. I'm getting better at reading and listening to her, knowing when she needs a break or can be gently pushed a little more. Again, many thanks!

  10. Thank you for sharing. You are a much better person than I. I don't know if I could deal with it myself. I have one that's pretty fearful and we're not at the med point, yet. We're working with a behaviorist/trainer right now.
    Best wishes for you and you handsome dog!

  11. Thank you for sharing Maus' story! As I was reading it was amazing how it felt like you were describing my Greyson. We too have found happiness in Chemistry as well as positive reinforcement training and have started to be able to go out in public as well as have play dates in the park. It's never an easy road and sometimes it's frustrating but Grats to Maus and you! Keep up the good work!

  12. Did you ever have a thyroid panel done on Maus? I applaud you for hanging in there with him.

  13. Thank you for your comments, everyone!

    LB, Maus has had several thyroid panels done: one when I first got him, one after he started have seizures, and one after the prozac trail (the last two were less than a year apart, we just wanted to make sure to rule out everything). Since I feed raw, we also do a chem panel every year. Maus has never had any blood tests outside the the normal range. If only he had! Then I would have had something concrete to work with!

  14. Thank you for sharing this story. I am fostering (possibly soon adopting) an adorable little pittie with some anxiety issues, though not as severe as Maus', they affected everyone in my house especially my two dogs. She is reactive around new dogs and has some separation anxiety. We worked with a couple of trainers that specialize in dogs like her. Neither of them were sure she would ever be able to socialize her with other dogs and it was a fluke that she did as well with our two pups, which still wasn't all that great. We kept her leashed and with us at all times to avoid fights with our older dog.

    One trainer, who is also a vet tech suggested we put her on meds. I was very hesitant and the vet we see, who is great, was also against it. We finally gave in and I am so glad we did. She is a much calmer dog and now we can truly see her sweet self. We take her on pack walks and she has even made a couple of doggy friends! It may not be for every dog but it can work.

    I am happy for you and Maus!

  15. Wow! Loved reading this! I thought at the beginning I would so recognize your story from living with my wonderful gorgeous fabulous Mr. Max (aka Maximum Carnage!) but my goodness he has nowhere near the troubles your Maus has. He is afraid of the oddly placed garbage can or the lawn sign on a neighborhood walk or if a cat crosses his path, strangers, men, people with hats, on and on. I was lucky and hit the dog lottery when I met my trainer / behaviorist and she helped me see how to work "our" way thru this - "our" being me and Max. He is SUCH a great dog and I love him so much I cry. I really identify with your statements about trust - trust really is everything with an anxious/reactive dog and I dont think you can get there without the pure sheer strength of love and a big dose of determination. I don't know you but I am soooo proud of you for not giving up on your Maus, just hanging in there and figuring it out with him. Maus hit the dog lottery with you. I am SOOOOOO glad every single day to have my Max and wouldnt trade any of it for our special bond.

  16. Thank you so much for being so open about your experience. I've had "normal" dogs my whole life, but last year we had a pit-mix wander into our life and her behavior nothing like anything I've dealt with before. Her reactions to dogs and to our neighbors got so bad that she has bitten us multiple times as we were trying to calm her. Then her fear began to generalize and she turned on our other dog, who we had to move out of the house. We were already in "reactive dog" classes when things took this turn, and the trainer we were working with recommended putting her down. So here is my advice to anyone else going though this - please, please get a second opinion. We had the appointment scheduled for her down-day, when an extremely dedicated and knowledgeable vet-behaviorist returned our call. Not only did she not think our pittie was dangerous, she also gave us affirmation that we were on the right track . . . we just needed to take it up a notch. And she put the pittie on about a half-dose of prozac.

    With the dogs living separately now for several months, we have been able to focus on the pittie. Our lives revolve around her needs -- we live a constant training regimen with 5 AM walks, reconfiguring the interior of our house, hundreds of dollars of treats so we can constantly reinforce alternative behaviors, scheduled play dates and, yes, medication. It has been so hard, it has taken a toll on our marriage . . . but you know what? It is WORKING. This morning she saw a dog across the street as we left the house and my husband was able to get her to look at him instead of reacting, something that would have been unthinkable three months ago. We haven't brought our number-one dog back yet, but this gives us hope that we can go back to being a little family again.

    It has been hard to talk to friends and family about what we're going through because you can read the "All this for a dog?" on their faces. Seeing stories like yours makes me realize we are not alone. Some things are more important than being comfortable or making things easy, but that doesn't mean you don't appreciate a kind word or an understanding smile. Your care for Maus is what makes you human, and exceptional at that.

  17. What an amazing post. If I am ever half the canine shaman you are, I will consider it a life achievement.

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