Monday, November 26, 2012

Thresholds and medications, oh my!

Some recent comments and conversations have questioned why we went the route of medication with Bella.

We've had Bella for a little over 4 years now and during that time we've become all too familiar with the the language of fearful dogs. But before I had a scared-y dog, I didn't even know there were such creatures - never mind that they had their own language.

As a result, I tend to find myself writing from my current place of reference. And I can forget that some of my readers may not be familiar with the terms one learns when living with fearful dogs. Most are likely living with nice, normal dogs at home.

So here's a word I throw around like everyone knows what it is: threshold.

What is a 'threshold' when we're talking about scared-y dogs? Threshold is the point at which a scared-y dog becomes scared.

Why does it matter?

Because you can't train a dog until you can get their attention. And you can't get their attention if they are over threshold - when a dog is past the point where they are so afraid for their own safety that they can't focus on letting you teach them better coping skills.

The goal then is to approach every situation so that the dog remains within their comfort zone, not pushed past it. Keep them at a place where they are still able to concentrate, they'll still take a treat, they're still able to hear you and focus on you.

I've been in situations with Bella where I know none of that is possible. She does not hear me. She does not see me. She won't take a treat from my hand if I stuff it in her mouth. She is in a zone that I cannot penetrate.

That's over threshold.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is that, as we worked with Dr. Dodman and Bella's medications, we began to realize that Bella had never really been under threshold. Pretty much ever.

She lived her life in such a constant state of fear, hyper-awareness and hyper-vigilance that she could be resting on the couch but a pine cone dropping on the roof would send her skittering for safety. I couldn't get her to come back. I couldn't get her attention. I couldn't get her to stop running out of the room.

In her own home.

Her reactions to people were much the same. No one has been able to pet Bella except me, Jan and my mother. No one. In 4 years. Not her trainers, not her vets, not our neighbors whose dog she played with every day.

Because when Bella is that close to people, she is so far over threshold that we can't even teach her to 'say hi'. And if we can't get her under threshold when she is in the presence of other people, we can't teach her that people are not something to be feared.

So the answer to why we chose to use medication on Bella is to help her to get below threshold, at least for ordinary, every day living. It gives us the opportunity to teach her, to reach her and develop appropriate reactions to non-threatening situations. We still have to work to keep her under threshold during scary events such as meeting people and other dogs. The medication isn't a substitute for hard work, it's an aid.

When we embarked on the journey of medicating Bella it wasn't without thought. It wasn't without trying every other avenue available to us first. The use of prescription medications was an informed, considered decision. We hoped that the potential side effects were worth the risk and would avert our other, less favorable, options.

This post may be borne from a place of defensiveness and I apologize for that. If you don't know Bella's entire story, it'd be easy to think we bypassed the more holistic steps that could have helped heal her wounds and jumped right to the part that makes our life easier. I assure you, we didn't.

As amateur gardeners and cooks, Jan and I try to live in harmony with the earth and maintain a holistic life-style. We believe it is always best to try the least invasive, least damaging, least dangerous approach to resolving any challenge. If we all did that, our earth and our health would be better for it. But sometimes, you have to draw a line over what could be lost if you don't put up your best fight.

Bella is not merely a somewhat nervous dog. She's not just a difficult dog that we use medication on in order to make our life with her easier. She is a dog who can be aggressive in her fear and we don't want to lose her as a result. Her life is what we are fighting for.


  1. I know I'm not in a position to judge anybody about the decisions they make!  I'm glad you're committed to doing what you think is best for Bella!

  2. Poor Bella -- it must be very hard to be so frightened all the time. She is very lucky to have such a kind, patient family who loves her so much. People must be very silly if they think you are wrong to do something that could make Bella be able to enjoy her life more. They have probably never felt so afraid of anything...

  3. Bella is so lucky to have someone so devoted to her well being and willing to learn and adjust situations to what is best for her.  Great informational post. :)

  4. Good on you for sticking it out and working with her despite all of the challenges put before you. Bella is undoubtedly worth it but she would be a hard dog to live with for even those used to working with fearful dogs. She was very lucky the day you found her as things could have turned out so differently. You know Bella better than anyone and know what is best for her. I am so glad you have been able to access such terrific resources that have helped you learn and grow together.

  5. My heart goes out to you. I know how it feels to struggle with a dog over threshold, and how difficult it can be to keep her under threshold. Has the medication helped? We started Isis on Prozac just a few months before she died. I never was able to tell whether it reduced her anxiety or not.

  6. No judgement here! Not many people would be willing or able to devote as much time, energy and patience to Bella, even though she is super cute. :)

    Maggie and Duke both have fear issues, but not quite to Bella's level. When people first come over Duke will shake so much that it looks like he's going to levitate. We tell everyone to ignore the dogs so they can learn to relax; it's amazing how hard it is to train people.

  7. Moree used to go into what we called "barking fits" it wasn't a fear over the threshold, but it was definitely over the threshold. We had to use a combination of loud noise and physical contact to break his focus (bopping him over the head with an empty 2 liter bottle- it does NOT hurt). Before our trainers gave us that tip, even physically dragging him away from whatever he was barking at (the window) did no good. 
    I can't imagine living with a dog who was constantly over the threshold and over it from fear. At least Moree LOVED barking (his ears would be perked and his stub wagging a mile a minute), he was just obsessive about it.
    There are some things that just need medication. By using it intelligently, you are giving Bella a chance to someday not need it. I can't think of anything more responsible (and loving) than that.

  8. That is such a clear explanation of thresholds. 

    There is no way to understand how afraid a dog can be until you see it. I know that when we were fostering Cherie, I didn't even recognize all her behaviors as being caused by fear.

    As for meds or no meds, I would not take any tool off the table as long as it causes no harm. Although it took a while to figure out meds and dosages, it seems like Bella has really benefitted from the combination of confidence building and medication.

  9. I would hope people wouldn't judge for doing what you know is right for your dog.  I'm glad that medication is working for her, I've seen fearful dogs and what can happen when they are over threshold.  IMO you do what you have to and if people can't understand that.....well I can't write it here. :-)

    Keep up the great work, you've done so much more for/with her than a lot of people would.