It’s Not Just in Their Heads

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A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the effects of military service work on dogs. That dogs can and do suffer from disorders attributable to stress may be revelatory to some, for people doing rescue or behavioral work with dog, it’s old news. In April I attended the IABBC conference where Dr. Frank McMillan of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary offered a presentation on this topic.

Comforting or rewarding a dog when they are afraid does NOT reinforce fear!

When I met Dr. McMillan at the conference and offered him a copy of my book A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog he told me he already had a copy and that he thought that the picture and caption on Page 3 (shown above) was enough to make the book worth buying (I hope there were other reasons but I took his comment as a compliment). The erroneous belief that when we ‘comfort’ a scared dog we are telling them they are right to be afraid is entrenched in the pop psychology of dog behavior. However it is no more true with dogs than it would be with a toddler crying at the doctor’s office, or when sitting on an airplane with a friend afraid of flying. Being comforted by someone we trust can lower anxiety and stress levels. This type of ‘social buffering‘ is common among many social species.

Disconcerting in the article is the recommendation that medications only be used as a ‘stop gap’,  a comment made by someone who is neither a veterinarian, certified animal behaviorist or clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. It is the reluctance to use behavioral medications with dogs that slows or prevents the recovery of many animals. The quality of life for some dogs may be improved by the continued use of behavioral medications.

That we may not understand (yet) the exact mechanism of how a medication works should not be reason enough not to use it. This is the kind of advice that those working with seriously compromised dogs find reckless and potentially harmful. Veterinary behaviorists have long understood the value of medications to help dogs suffering from a variety of stress disorders. This article by Dr. Karen Overall is one example of how the study of medications and behavior indicate their usefulness in relieving suffering in dogs.

You can join blogger and author of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog, Debbie Jacobs for a seminar on the care, handling and training of fearful, shy, anxious and aggressive dogs in Bow NH, January 21, 2012. For more information.

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