Dogs Provide Help For Veterans With PTSD

    In honor of memorial day, I thought I would highlight the role animals play in helping our veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Here in Arizona, the nonprofit organization Soldiers Best Friend matches dogs with soldiers who suffer from this debilitating problem.  Once a soldier is accepted into the program, they are matched with a dog who is usually adopted from a shelter.  From that point on, the two live together in order to quickly create a deep bond.  They attend classes that teach the veteran and the dog how to work together as a team.  Depending upon the program selected, dogs will graduate as either a Certified Service Dog or a Therapeutic Companion Dog.  
    People with PTSD suffer from a multitude of symptoms including acute panic attacks, fear of crowded areas, nightmares, depression and anxiety.  The dogs learn to read their veteran’s emotional state and provide comfort by waking them up, cuddling into their side or protecting them from strangers.  The dog gives the veteran the confidence to go out into the world again.  More information is available at www.soldiersbestfriend.org
    The Veterinary Health Care Team of Arizona decided to sponsor the team of Staff Sergeant Michael Harris and his dog, Maddy.  Maddy was adopted from the Yavapai Humane Society in Prescott, Arizona.  They are trying to raise $2,500.00 for training expenses.  If you would like to help, please go to www.veterinaryhealthcareteam.org to make a donation. 

Dogs are Chick Magnets

The first time I heard one of my clients refer to his dog as a ‘chick magnet’, it surprised me.  But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed.  When I am walking, I am naturally attracted to people with pets.  The pet is an ice breaker, a conversation starter for people who don’t know each other.  
    In 2000, Dr. June McNicholas and Dr. Glyn Collis carried out a study to determine if dogs are indeed, chick magnets.  In the first phase of their study, they had a male test subject walk alone and with a highly trained therapy dog who would not solicit attention through a park and measured the number of social interactions.  Of course, the number of social interactions were the greatest when the dog was present.  In the second phase, they used a new male test subject and changed his appearance from well dressed to scruffy and measured the number of social interactions he received with and without the dog.  Again, the test subject received the most social interaction when the dog was present irrespective of his dress.  The scientists concluded that dogs are a great catalyst for human social interaction.
    People share an innate connection with animals.  Simply being around an animal will lower our stress and improve our mood.  Scientists call this ‘the human-animal bond.’  My next series of blog posts will focus on this wonderful relationship.  In the meantime, please enjoy the picture posted below of Paul with two adorable chick magnets, Sasha and Captain!

-McNicolas, J. and Collis, G. ‘Dogs as catalysts for social interactions:  Robustness of the effect.‘ British Journal of Psychology (2000), 91, 61-70.   

 

Dominance Based Aggression in Dogs

    Dominance based aggression which is also referred to as impulse control aggression or conflict aggression is the last type of canine aggression.  Frankly, I don’t care too much which term is used as long as people understand how dangerous it is to interact with dogs with this kind of aggression.  These dogs are bullies!  They want to control everything and everybody in their lives.  Thankfully, in my experience, this is the least common cause of aggression.  Out of the hundreds of aggressive dogs I have worked with, only a handful exhibited this form of aggression.  
    Here is a common history for dogs with this problem.  A puppy starts to bully other animals in the family for no apparent reason.  By one year of age, the dog is now targeting human members of the family, usually the youngest child.  As the dog ages, they work their way up the chain of command.  I had one client call me on emergency because their aggressive dog cornered the entire family in the bathroom.  They had to remove the screen and escape  through the window.
    What can be done for dogs with dominance based aggression?  It grieves me greatly to say this but I cannot in good conscience recommend treating this kind of dog because the risk of serious injury for everyone in the family (humans and pets) is always present.  In my experience, behavior therapy only masks the unwanted behavior lulling the family members into a false sense of security.  Sadly, these dogs should never be trusted.  It is too often only a matter of time until they attack.  Therefore, I recommend humane euthanasia for dominant aggressive dogs and adopting a shelter dog instead.  With so many wonderful dogs being euthanized every day because of a lack of shelter space, I think it truly is the only answer in these rare, but difficult cases.        

Resource Guarding Aggression in Dogs

Resource guarding is a common form of aggression in dogs. The dog protects valuable resources such as food, toys, treats, furniture, blankets, other dogs and even people.  For this reason it is also known as possessive aggression.  The dog protects its possessions with a growl or stare.  If the warning is ignored, they may escalate to biting.  

Prevention is the key to dealing with this form of aggression.  Feed the possessive dog in a separate room or kennel to make sure they can eat in peace.  Give them tiny treats that are eaten in one bite without the need to protect leftovers from others.  Separate them for treats like chew sticks that take longer to eat.  I do not recommend removing the food or treat from the dog once it has been served.  In my experience, this makes the dog’s aggression even worse.  For serious cases, I recommend putting the dog outside while their food is prepared.  Place the bowl in the room or crate, remove all the other animals or people from the immediate area, let the dog in and then close the door behind them.  Do not disturb them until they let you know they are finished licking the bowl.  Put them back outside and put the bowl away. 

For dogs who protect toys, blankets or dog beds, I would remove the object to prevent aggression.  Bring out the toy for individual play time and then put it away again before encountering other dogs.  If the possessive dog sleeps on the bed with its favorite human and growls at other family members, ban the dog from the bed.   

In my experience, dogs can never be “cured” of resource guarding.  This behavior may be lessened but I would always be cautious in situations that may stimulate resource guarding.  Use extreme caution with young children!

Anxiety Based Aggression in Dogs

As discussed in my prior post, some dogs become aggressive due to fear.  These animals live by the slogan, “The best defense is a great offense.”  Some dogs become aggressive after a specific incident such as being attacked by another animal.  The other common cause is anxiety.  Anxiety causes fear in both humans and animals.  If the dog can’t escape from the anxiety provoking stimulus, it becomes aggressive. 

The principal behind treating an anxious dog is simple – build up their confidence.  But doing that can be challenging.  As is often the case, a little common sense and patience go a long way.  Here are some tips for helping an anxious aggressive dog.  Please note, some severely anxious dogs require anxiolytic therapy before implementing the following steps.   

Step 1:  Identify anything that triggers an anxious response in the dog and avoid it.  I like to have people keep a log with the following information; date, time, environment (includes temperature, noise and scents as well as objects), brief description of what happened and how the dog responded.  Once a trigger is discovered, remove or avoid it to lessen the dog’s anxiety.

Step 2:  Create a consistent environment for the anxious pet.  Knowing what comes next is a great stress reliever.  Even people prefer consistency – think of how financial markets sometimes respond before a close election.  Keep things as consistent as possible by following a strict schedule for feeding, playing and resting.  Only the animals and people who actually live in the dog’s house should be present.  No visitors or guests until the dog’s anxiety is under control. 

Step 3:  Provide strong leadership for the dog.  Since dogs are pack animals, they will naturally look to their people for direction.  Set a good example by remaining calm, using a gentle voice and touch.  Consistently reinforce good behaviors with praise, treats (in moderation) and attention.  When a dog knows you have the situation under control, it reduces their anxiety.  (Please see note regarding the term ‘pack’ below.)

CAUTION: Providing strong leadership does not mean dominating the dog.  In my experience, dominance based training will make anxiety worse, not better.  In my opinion, and as a veterinarian, I find some of Cesar Millan’s approach in this regard quite disturbing.  Punishment teaches the dog to mask their feelings until it is too late and they bite.  I would rather have a dog let me know how they are feeling with a growl than wait and bite. 

Step 4:  Teach the settle command.  Engage the dog in something they really like to set a positive tone.  Perhaps the dogs likes to lie on their back and get a belly rub.  When the dog is relaxed, give the command “settle” repeatedly.  Once they understand this command, engage the dog in an activity such as playing with a toy.  After a few minutes of fun, give the settle command and reward them for calming down.  Practice the settle command several times during play sessions before using it during a stressful situation. 

Step 5:  Start desensitizing and counter-conditioning the dog to anxiety inducing triggers.  Go slow!  I cannot emphasize this enough.  If your dog is anxious around strangers, start by letting them view the person from a distance.  When the dog becomes anxious, use the settle command and reward them when they calm down.  Slowly, bring the dog closer and closer until the friend is the one rewarding the dog.  This might take weeks (or longer) in severely traumatized animals.  Patience, patience, patience!

Note:  The term ‘pack animal’ to describe dog behavior has fallen out of favor with some behaviorists and trainers.  They believe dogs are basically loners, who only get together for brief social interactions before heading off to find their next meal.  These studies suggest that dogs do not form strong relationships with other individuals, dogs or otherwise.  While this might be true of feral dogs, it does not correlate with what I see in the clinics.  In my experience, dogs form strong attachments to the people, dogs and other animals in their lives.  They love their families!  Whether their social unit is termed a pack, group, gang, click or family doesn’t matter to me.  The important point is that dogs seem happiest when they are part of a family.  Here’s to forever homes!