Monday, April 8, 2013

What a difference a drug makes... Pt. 3

When we first met with Dr. Dodman to address Bella's aggression towards Jan, we were most concerned, rather obviously I suppose, with the aggression aspect. But in our dissection and discussions, our researching and reading, our observing and opining and (Oh I'm sorry, are you still reading this? Bella tells me she's gone out for coffee and returned by now.... Moving on...)

My point was, as we started thinking things through, we were able to come up with patterns and identifiers as to when Bella was going to short-ciruit on us. And it was all, drum roll please: fear/anxiety-based.

This isn't a huge revelation, to us or the veterinary/behavioral profession. Most aggression in dogs is fear-based. But while we were focusing on her aggression, we weren't paying attention to the effects fear and anxiety were having on her temperament. The "Fly Incident" made us all re-focus on what was sending Bella over the cliff rather than just focusing on the cliff itself.

And thankfully Dr. Dodman had one more tool in his pharmaceutical toolbox for us: Clonidine.


We had been giving Bella Clonidine on an 'as needed' basis for thunderstorms since we first started seeing Dr. D. He now recommended we try giving it to her every day to see if it helped with her anxiety. We had a .2 mg Rx for Bella to handle thunderstorms already with the instruction to give 2 - 4 tables up to twice a day. HA! HAHA!

We made the mistake of giving Bella 2 tablets twice in a day during the "Snowtober" storm of 2011 shortly after first getting the prescription from Dr. Dodman. It worked but the second dose worked so well, Bella actually wet the bed while she was sleeping she was so sedated by it. NOT what we were looking for. Poor drugged baby dog.

So this time, after a bit of discussion with Dr. D, we started by giving Bella 1 tablet in the morning and 1 tablet just before going to bed.

Unfortunately, Clonidine only works for about 4 - 6 hours and we found we had a considerable gap in the late afternoon/evening time-frame. We also noticed that giving Bella a whole Clonidine in the morning just left her sleepy (a positive for its continued use in the evenings however).

We needed to balance out the fact that she was sleepy in the morning but still anxious by the evening. We found giving her 1/2 a table with her breakfast, 1/2 a tablet with her dinner and then a whole tablet just before bed seemed to offer us the greatest benefit.

It took a few weeks for her to adjust to it but every week as we took her to agility class, our trainer Carolyn could see more and more improvement. Seeming a little sluggish in the first few weeks Bella was gradually getting back to her spunky self just without all the anxiety attached.

It has turned out to be our miracle drug.

For the first time in her entire life with us, Bella wasn't running from the room at the drop of a pine cone. She wasn't trembling at the sight of trees blowing in the wind. And, finally, it seemed, Bella was going to earn her "Sato ears".

Who are you calling Dumbo?
Satos in general have ridiculously big ears and they tend to either stick out to the side of their heads or straight up. Honestly, I can often identify a Sato from a block away just for their adorable, crazy ears but Bella never had them. Her ears were so often pinned back to her head due to stress and anxiety, I didn't even realize she should have them. I just assumed her ears were supposed to be that way.

Until she started on the Clonidine and her Sato ears began making appearances.

Just occasionally at first but more and more over time. Bella's ears don't always stick straight up, they are floppier like a Labs ears but more and more often I have found them sticking out to the side or popping up in the air. They are so freaking cute.

But what really has me over the moon is that it is not just something we think we're seeing in her behavior that proves she's feeling better. We can actually see in her physical appearance that Bella has moments in life now where she's not scared. That may sound extreme to someone who hasn't lived with a fearful dog and it probably makes us sound oblivious and stupid to not have realized earlier just how much distress she was in. But if all you've ever seen are flat-back ears, how do you even know there's anything different to work towards?

Bella's progress since adding the Clonidine has been extraordinary. She still has some cranky moments but a few weeks ago Jan did something she didn't like (he might have stepped on her foot, I think) and she barked at him. That may seem inappropriate to anyone with a 'normal' dog but it was an enormous step forward for us. I believe dogs have a right to tell us when we're doing something they don't like. And that's exactly what Bella did.

She didn't overreact from living in constant distress with a hair-trigger temper. She barked. I'd have been happy with a growl. She didn't lunge. She didn't bite. She barked. She's learning that she has a voice and it will be respected and listened to. She's beginning to understand she doesn't have to fend for herself and treat every transgression as a life-threatening attack.

She's beginning to trust.

Without medications, I don't think we would have ever been able to bring Bella to this point. We would never have gotten her "below threshold" so we could teach her more appropriate ways to react, improve her confidence and see those Sato ears. We are still figuring so much out about her and she is still growing by leaps and bounds to our utter amazement. I will never trust her to be alone with a child, that's a given, but I am so proud of how far she has come.

I'm sure there are people who think medicating dogs for fear and anxiety is a cop-out, a quick-fix in a world that seems too dependent on instant gratification and simple solutions. I believe I waited too long to help Bella because I was worried about exactly that: worried I was seeking easy answers to complex problems. I can tell you this, none of this has been simple. And after a year and half of working with behaviorists, trainers and vets, it has certainly not been a quick fix. But it has been a life-saver.

Bella will never be a social, out-going dog. But last week we took her to a major city animal hospital and she survived both the waiting room and being handled by any number of staff with, if not aplomb, at least a modicum of dignity. She is a smart, sweet dog who just needed a little patience and understanding to bring out the best in her and we are thrilled at her progress.

We have experienced any number of milestones in the last year with her that I hope to relay in future posts. Bella's story is a long way from over but I hope you've enjoyed reading about her journey thus far. I know I'm looking forward to seeing what she's going to do next.


  1. Two French BulldogsApril 8, 2013 at 11:45 PM

    So happy to hear sweet Bella is making progress. She is lucky she has you
    Benny & Lily

  2. It's so hard isn't it? We want to do what is best, and healthiest for our dogs, and do our best to stay away from drugs, but sometimes it is exactly what they need to help them. Good for you for sticking it out with your sweet girl and congratulations on finding a solution. Bella is such a lucky girl (and I LOVE those big ears!!).

  3. Glad you found something that helped her! It seems like "natural remedies" are all the rage these days, but truth be told they don't do the trick for most normal to severe cases of many pet health problems really.

  4. Your patience to work through all this is amazing. Bella is a very lucky dog to have someone like you! I am happy for all of you!

  5. You are an AWESOME dog parent!

  6. English Rider myeffingponyApril 9, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    This post is a very clear narrative of a pivotal moment in Bella's life. It is lovely to see her photographed without that tension that always showed through before. I think you'll be able to build on her strengths and, over time, indoctrinate her with a more positive view point. Go Team Bella!

  7. You have to do what's right and what works for you, for Jan and for Bella and only you know what that is...You have found something that is working for you ...That's excellent...It's not a cop out and no one has the right to judge...WTG Bella!

  8. I love Bella's "Sato Ears"! And I am oh so happy that she's finally able to show them off :) What a wonderful gift you have given her.

  9. Wow...that med was the perfect one. As you know, we saw an almost identical turn around with Meadow, but by using a low dose of Fluoxetine (Prozac). It is amazing what the right medication can do to help the progress along. And I was way anti-medication before trying it, but now I am so thankful I did.

  10. I'm so glad that you have Dr. D nearby. It sounds as if that drug has made all the difference. You and Jan have such a wonderful attitude about Bella. She is so very lucky to have found you.

    I adore her Sato ears! And, the point that you made about not knowing how much distress she felt was really insightful. I'm finding that now with Shyla. She still has times of distress - but I didn't even know that I wasn't seeing her "normal" state until quite recently. In particular, for Shyla, she made herself smaller by using an odd posture for months and months. Now, she even looks bigger most of the time. :)

  11. I love seeing her "Sato ears". (And am glad I finally got a chance to catch up on the saga.) Here's the thing, for me, about meds in people or dogs- you tried no meds and it wasn't working. You then carefully tried meds in controlled doses AND continued working with non-medication therapy. As far as I know, that's the most responsible way to do it. You haven't relied solely on meds and done nothing else. It's possible, because of the work you've done, one day Bella won't need the meds. But even if she does need them the rest of her life, I call this success, because she can spend her time enjoying life instead of living in constant fear and anxiety.

  12. You made a really good point in saying that you never really know how much fear the dog is living with on a daily basis. We too are thrilled with how well she is doing as I have noted previously, she is a very lucky girl to have found the tow of you!

    Not all of our pack is social, some would rather not interact with others and that's okay!

  13. I can't even tell you how happy this makes me to read. My own Bella girl started on this same transformation a couple years back. She is on a different med-but similar results. She is now quite a "normal dog" for most of the day in my home. Although I belive she will always have some issues and triggers.

    I can't wait to hear how much your Bella changes. It is just amazing to watch them bloom.

  14. Jan K, Wag N Woof PetsApril 11, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about the journey, thank you for sharing it! I am always reluctant to turn to medication, for myself or my pets. But sometimes it is just simply needed to get to where we need to be. As Erin said in her comment, you did everything right....and you had a lot of patience in finding the best solution for Bella. She is a beautiful dog. I never knew that about the Sato ears, but not that you've said it I have seen other Satos and they do have those same big adorable ears!

  15. Leslie, I'm bawling my eyes out reading this. That picture! Those ears! Someone who hasn't gone through it can't truly appreciate those "moments without fear" and what they really mean.

    I wish you the same result that those single moments of fearlessness brought Felix - an opening. An opening that leads to more openings and maybe one day, just openness. Bella is so lucky to have such amazing people who care enough to help her fight through this. Not everyone would. <3

  16. I think the best part about the internet is how much you can learn from others. I've learned an incredible amount about dogs, which (along with my Sampson) has been life changing. You are right, if you don't know any different you don't know what you need to work towards. You're doing a great job with Bella, you really are! She's come a long way!

  17. So glad she is making such progress! Y'all must have jumped for joy when she just barked at Jan. Wahoooo! :D I just adore this last photo of her. Superb!

    Waggin at ya,