What's Worrying The Modern Dog?

Wednesday December 2nd, 2009

Square 140 canine anxiety epidemic monty beach
Monty after an ocean swim

The psychological unraveling of Monty, an eight-year-old McNab mix, began with a trip out of town. Eight months after San Francisco resident Anne Walzer adopted him from a shelter, she went on her first vacation without him, leaving him in a neighbor's care. Within a day, the affectionate and fastidiously housetrained dog had his first housesoiling accident and nipped a housecleaner.

Alarmed, Walzer cancelled her trip and rushed home. But things only got worse. Neighbors in her apartment building started pressuring her to get rid of the dog and Monty, she says, soaked up her considerable stress. Where before he'd been slightly jumpy around loud noises, he now went into full-fledged panic attacks.

Monty begins shutting down

He started refusing to walk in certain parts of what had been a favorite hiking spot after getting spooked by loud bangs. Eventually, he dug in his heels and refused to go at all. "I tried to fool him with new routes and treats," says Walzer. "Then I waited four months and tried again. Even then he just wouldn't get out of the car."

Walks around their neighborhood became increasingly short. Eventually, Monty's world was confined to the two blocks outside Walzer's apartment. When asked to step outside his safety zone, Monty went into what Walzer calls 'civil disobedience mode'--flopping down on the sidewalk and going limp. When scared by a noise, he would bolt or drag Walzer home.

"It's like being pulled by a team of draft horses," she says. "I eventually developed elbow problems."

Anxiety on the rise?

Monty would once have been considered a canine oddball, a furry freak, an unusually challenging dog. But talk to enough trainers and vets and you get a different picture. Although Monty's case is an extreme one, his psychological troubles are anything but rare.

No one tracks how many dogs suffer from canine anxiety, but experts peg the rate at somewhere around 30 percent and, many say, probably rising. In its wake, a whole new industry has sprung up to serve the owners of anxious Beagles, Chihuahas, and mutts, with everything from canine lullaby CDs to stress-relieving alternative remedies and pharmaceuticals.

"It's almost impossible to get a handle on whether canine anxiety is on the
rise--it wasn't tracked in the past, and people diagnose it differently," says well-known behaviorist Patricia McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash. "But it's reasonable to speculate that the problem is growing. These days, the conditions that make dogs anxious--not giving them enough stimulation or exercise, for instance--are very common."

Why Fido frets

A canine anxiety epidemic seems out of sync with a world that includes organic food, daycare centers, and memory foam beds for that special canine in your life. There are dating sites for people partial to spending their free time with dogs and travel agencies that can plan entire vacations around you and your dog.

In canine-obsessed times such as these, how bad could a dog's life be?

The truth is that most dogs aren't along for the ride. Even the ones lucky enough to be adopted by responsible people spend a good part of their lives inside and on their own. They're waiting for someone to come home, and they're lonely.

"With both parents working, dogs are left alone for much of the day," says veterinarian Nicolas Dodman, head of the Animal Behavior Department at Tufts University and co-founder of ThePetDocs.com. "And since dogs are social animals they don't do well in isolation."

Even when people are home, they're often distracted by everything they need to catch up on after a day away. And all that time on the phone, the Blackberry, or the computer takes time away from exercising, playing, and just plain hanging out with your dog.

Needless to say, it can all leave dogs feeling a little...anxious.

Sloppy breeding worsens problem

Here's another reason the modern dog is more anxious than ever: careless breeding. America's love affair with dogs has led to a higher demand for them, and the unhappy result is a thriving puppy mill industry.

These huge breeding operations churn out masses of purebred and designer hybrid dogs, with little concern for what a puppy's temperament or disposition could or should be. The vast majority of these unskilled breeders are aiming for a particular look instead. In the process, they're accidentally creating whole dynasties of nervous or neurotic dogs.

The conditions these pups are born into, crowded with dogs but thin on opportunities for human interaction, only exacerbate the problem. "Puppy mill puppies are around lots of other dogs but get no contact with people so they miss out on socialization completely," says Patricia McConnell. "Then they land in homes where they're by themselves all day without any other dogs."

Without being taught coping skills, these pups are prone to becoming nervous, which in turns leads to behavioral problems, such as destructive chewing, excessive barking, and separation anxiety.

What anxiety looks like

There are many ways a dog's anxiety can manifest itself. Monty's noise phobia is a common one, as is fear of certain types of people, often men, and travel. But separation anxiety is the biggest anxiety disorder by far, accounting for about half of all cases. Symptoms range from signs of unease, such as heavy drooling, to all-out panic that can leave the house, and the dog, in tatters.

Patricia McConnell remembers one such case vividly. "She was my first separation anxiety client--a Shar-Pei named Peaches," McConnell says. "When I arrived, her face looked like raw hamburger. She'd tried to chew her way out of her metal crate."

No holiday for Monty

After Monty nipped the housekeeper, Walzer knew she needed help fast, so she signed up for training sessions with acclaimed San Francisco-based trainer Donna Duford to work on getting Monty comfortable around strangers.

They quickly discovered that Monty loved to learn and perform tricks, and started bringing in strangers to watch. Slowly, Monty began to enjoy performing in front of spectators.

Still, the simplest bang--a street car backfiring, say, or something falling to the ground--sent Monty right back into his shell, and it took an awful lot of work to coax him out again. "After the Fourth of July, he refused to go out more than once a day until Thanksgiving," says Walzer. "Then the New Year's Eve fireworks came around. I'd leave the country with him during these holidays if I could."

Finally, Duford told Walzer what she didn't want to hear: there was something physically wrong with Monty, something that couldn't be fixed by training. Her dog needed medication.

This is your dog on Prozac

Monty's not alone. Although training is crucial in treating anxiety, as noted by New Jersey-based trainer Kathy Santo, who appears frequently on the Martha Stewart show, a dog too panicked to learn won't get very far. "I prefer to avoid drugs, but if you're at the point where your dog's quality of life is in the toilet," she says, "I'm absolutely for it."

There are two drugs marketed specifically for canine anxiety. In 1999, the FDA approved Novartis's Clomicalm, the first medication for canine separation anxiety, and in 2007 Eli Lilly's Reconcile became the second. Despite the doggie advertisements, packaging, and labeling, they're basically meat-flavored versions of human anti-depressants.

How well do they work for dogs? That depends on what you use them for, says Dodman. Ironically, Reconcile and Clomicalm do a much better job soothing a dog who's aggressive than the one hiding under the bed. Aggression that's fear-based gets slightly less impressive results, while about half of dogs with thunderstorm phobia get some relief. Dogs with obsessive behaviors, such as repetitive licking, sometimes improve, and sometimes do not.

As for separation anxiety, the disorder the drugs are actually marketed for, Nicholas Dodman says it's not the miracle pill owners are hoping for. "If you combine it with a behavior modification plan, which they recommend you do, the drugs may help you get where you're going sooner; it may take you two months instead of three," he says. "Still, it's a bit disappointing."

Unfortunately, chances are slim that better drugs are on the horizon. Because vets can prescribe any drug, whether for humans or animals, new canine drugs compete with generic forms of the human equivalent. This means pharmaceutical companies have little financial incentive to fork over the big bucks it takes to research new drugs and get FDA approval.

"Ultimately, it comes down to a financial decision," says Dodman. And most companies appear to be deciding against it.

No easy solutions

For Monty, medication certainly didn't turn out to be a miracle cure. Last year, Walzer started him on Zoloft; she added melatonin after the Fourth of July, and a few months later, Xanax, after Duford said she'd seen dogs improve on a cocktail of the three drugs. Throughout, she kept a close, hopeful eye on Monty for signs of improvement.

He has mellowed somewhat. "I haven't seen that tension around strangers for a long time," she says. "And about a month after I added the melatonin, I was able to get him to go out for two walks a day instead of just one."

She doesn't know how much of it is due to her continued training with Duford and how much to the drugs. She's prepared to tinker with the drugs and the dosages and the training until she's got something close to what she wants: a dog who's not afraid of the world outside their apartment.

"Nothing's gotten me to where I want to go," she says, and Monty continues to try her patience at times. "But I'm sticking with him," says Walzer. "If you met him, and know him the way I do, you'd see why."