Bringing Change to Minds

Pixel and puppy Deagan
I got my youngest dog, Deagan (the puppy pictured above), when he was 9 weeks old.  He is very inquisitive, active, and mouthy, which is characteristic of a breed selected to hunt, point, and retrieve birds.  Deagan is the third Large Munsterlander I have raised.  Of course, I started training and socialization right away, but I noticed that by 4.5 months of age, he was increasingly impulsive, and easily aroused to (inhibited) biting.  It was very difficult to interrupt behaviors I didn’t want, and he was distracted by every object/event in his environment.

Yes, puppies are teething and exploring the world at this age, but Deagan’s behavior was off the charts.  He just couldn’t seem to leave anything alone unless he was in his crate or exercise pen, became almost frantic if he was thirsty or hungry, and sometimes became manic when exercising outside, launching himself at us and grabbing our arms.  Despite training for relaxation on a mat and self-control exercises, it was difficult for Deagan to calm down when he became over-excited, and restraining him often resulted in aggressive behavior (see this blog about conflict behavior).  

Despite getting plenty of physical exercise, Deagan was not able to settle down outside of his pen or crate.  As the weeks passed, it was more and more difficult to interrupt his aggressive behavior, and I was getting increasingly frustrated.  And angry.  And getting angry (not what I recommend to my clients!) at Deagan just caused him to get more excited and more aggressive.  What was the matter with this puppy? – I was providing him with the best care possible and he was so difficult to handle at times! Deagan was not like any puppy I had raised before.

Finally, when Deagan was about 8 months old, I did what I would suggest to a client – I consulted a veterinary behaviorist.  I did this because of the following:
The problem behaviors were not the result of a lack of training or a conditioned sequence of events.
There were multiple behavior issues.  
There were multiple triggers for the problem behaviors.  
The behavior was getting worse and was sometimes dangerous.  
Deagan’s behavior was a serious problem for me and him.

A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who specializes in treating behavior problems.  They are skilled in diagnosing and treating these problems with management, training, and sometimes with medication.  Medication is not a panacea and prescribing it is not taken lightly.  In addition, physical or medical issues are always a possibility when a behavior problem occurs, and must also be considered.
Some dog owners are wary of medications prescribed for behavior disorders.  They may be concerned that their dog will become a sedated “zombie” or may view medications as an irresponsible shortcut to dealing with the dog’s problem behavior.  These misconceptions may prevent a dog owner from getting the help they need.  Medications that are used today for behavior disorders are not tranquilizers, and dosages are monitored carefully to avoid side effects.  In addition, medications are always used in conjunction with behavior modification (training).

And many people view the dog’s problem behavior as solely being the owner’s fault – perhaps as the result of not providing enough exercise or “leadership”.  The reality is that all behavior has both inherited and environmental components and all dogs benefit from clear and consistent communication, positive reinforcement for good behavior, and a regular routine in their daily lives.  It is the job of the veterinary behaviorist to discover if the problem is the result of a lack of training, structure, or exercise in the dog’s life; or if the problem has an underlying basis in the dog’s physiology (genetic) or from traumatic experience (environmental).  Problems with underlying causes may benefit from medication prescribed in conjunction with training.
The veterinary behaviorist I consulted took a thorough history of Deagan’s behavior and training, and made a detailed assessment of his behavior as well as reviewing his medical history.  Deagan was prescribed a commonly used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and continued positive training for self-control and relaxation.  Serotonin is neurotransmitter that helps relay signals from one part of the brain to the other and a shortage of it in the brain may lead to anxiety, panic, anger, depression, and obsessive/compulsive behavior (  The medication Deagan was prescribed keeps the level of serotonin in his brain higher than it would be without the drug.
The veterinary behaviorist confirmed that getting angry at Deagan was simply putting him into conflict, which resulted in the escalation of his level of arousal – counterproductive to what he needed – to develop more self-control.  In addition to continuing positive training for self-control and relaxation, my partner and I had to change some of our responses to Deagan’s over-excited behavior.  We stopped playing “soccer” which often led to the launching and grabbing behavior, and started training specific calming behaviors that are incompatible with the over-excited behavior (whether it was directed toward other dogs or humans).
It is not possible to measure the level of serotonin in a living brain, and I cannot directly ask Deagan how he feels.  But I can make careful observations, and keep records of his behavior.  It can take several weeks for this type of medication to take effect and to establish the effective dose for an individual.  Over a period of several months, Deagan’s behavior steadily improved.  The manic episodes and responses decreased and self-control increased.  Essentially, the medication that Deagan takes allows the training to take effect.

Deagan’s blank facial expression seen in the 
puppy picture above has been replaced with 
a more relaxed, happy face.

We are able to play soccer again, safely, without Deagan escalating into a “launch and grab” episode.

Deagan sleeping in the office next to a bone

 Deagan is able to relax and fall asleep outside of his crate or pen which he was not able to do previously.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month for humans:  Bring Change 2 Mind is a national organization that is working to end the stigma and discrimination of mental illness.  A similar stigma extends to our companion animals and their owners.  I have avoided talking to very many people about Deagan’s behavior problems because I am afraid of what they might think of me – as a responsible pet owner and a professional dog trainer.  I know that there are people who think that his problem behavior occurs because I don’t get him enough exercise, or because I use positive training methods.  I know there are people who think that prescribing medication for behavior disorders in pets is wrong.  I have to remind myself that there are many misconceptions about mental illness and that keeping quiet doesn’t help to end these misconceptions.  The Bring Change 2 Mind website states that “one of the best ways you can help someone with mental illness is by understanding what it is – and what it isn’t.  After all, myths about mental illness contribute to stigma, which in turns prevents those who are living with one from seeking help.”

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