Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Thomas gets appeased

The newly calm Thomas enjoys a good California chardonnay on a cozy winter night.

His PR people are going to kill me for writing this -- they've worked so hard after all, to keep the secret from the public -- but I feel like its really time to come clean now, so others can be helped.

Thomas is totally neurotic.

There. It's out. Now maybe other dogs won't be afraid to go public with their struggles.

Except for perhaps the week or so he spent in the shelter, we don't have the excuse of a traumatic puppyhood. We got him when he was only eight weeks old. He was pretty fearful back then, a little tiny scared pup who would curl up in our hands and try to bury his face in our armpits. But after about two days, he got used to us, realized he was home and let his fur down.

But he has this odd sort of uncertainty about his place in the dog world. He is thoroughly attached to me -- I can't get up to go the bathroom without him following -- but when he interacts with dogs, he gets confused. On his own turf he tends to be a real asshole. You can tell he assumes that any dog coming near is doing so for the sole and express purpose of taking What's His. Which he defines as everything, including and especially me.

Off his own turf, he's a great deal more inconsistent, alternating aggression and dominance with shows of submission, sometimes with the same dog. It's like he can't decide. He's had an ongoing psychodrama with the German Shepard down the road in Montana, who is bigger than he is and very dominant. She doesn't put up with a lot of crap, but she's gone fairly easy on Thomas. Still, he freaks out every time he sees her. Every time Bella and her comrade, an easygoing, sofa-sized Newfoundland, appear down by the road, Thomas lets out this tormented howl. Back legs stretched out, nose pointed to the sky, he yowls out a warning. He'll also do this if we simply mention their names.

Fortunately, none of this happens with people. He is uniformly submissive with people, to the point of peeing himself in anxiety when he meets people for the first time. And then there's the herding behavior.

I chalk up most of Thomas's issues to the fact that he's half Border Collie. Let's face it. Lots of Border Collies are nuts. Properly trained, managed, and worked, they can be great dogs. But they come with some mental challenges.

When we went to a new vet in Coeur d'Alene a few weeks ago, it was the first time Thomas had been to a vet as an adult. (He'd had all of his shots as a puppy, and there had been no illnesses requiring veterinary attention in the intervening year.) So the vet was able to view Thomas's neuroses in their full flower. I've done a lot with training, but sometimes I can tell he's just lost the thread of coherence and his anxieties are getting in the way. That's what happened at the vet.

So he suggested we try a Dog Appeasing Pheromone collar. It's a black collar impregnated with a synthetic version of the pheromones a nursing mother produces when she's feeding her pups. The idea with a DAP collar is that it ratchets down an anxious dog by several degrees, and allows them to face the world a little better, and also allows an opening for further training. One collar lasts for thirty days. I was skeptical. But it was only thirty bucks, so I decided to try it.

It didn't take long. The first day was remarkable. He was noticeably calmer and more reasonable after the first hour. I almost took it off the second day, because he seemed more like a sullen teenager, having lost most of the goofy charm that makes him who he is. But I decided to give it another day. And wow. We've gotten to the point where training is able to take place. He still herds, but has learned to respond quickly to the "off" command. He's less of an asshole to our other dog (free feeding helped that a lot too), he gets used to strangers much more quickly, and today he played with Bella the German Shepard.

When we take a walk down the road, it's not uncommon that one of the neighbor dogs will join us. This was always a source of angst for Thomas, especially when it was Bella. But today she joined us and they played. Hard. I was able to see for the first time what was going on -- Bella engages in a very aggressive play -- but it's just that. Play. But Thomas wasn't interpreting things that way before. Today he did, and they had just the kind of play session he's been needing -- lots of running, wrestling and jumping. We'll see if it happens again.

I'll be interested to see what happens after the thirty-day mark. The vet says that by the time the collar wears out, many dogs have learned a new way of thinking and experiencing the world
and don't need to wear another one. If you have a dog with anxiety problems, or is just generally kind of nutty to the point that its interfering with behavior or training, I'd talk to the vet about a DAP collar. I did a bit of research and in a small number of cases, the collar has the reverse effect -- more anxiety and/or aggression. So I think its something you want to watch carefully. But I can say pretty confidently that Thomas is a data point in favor of the collar.


Lewis said...

Hey, do they have these collars for human beings?

Danger Panda said...

Wow, where do I get me one of those? I'd heard of DAP and found a source on the internet, but they were selling infusers--not collars--and I didn't fancy a canine phermone scented home. Also, do you know if the collar has to be worn full time to be effective? We need it only on those occasions when we have to leave doggie alone at home, but it wouldn't kill her to mellow out the rest of the time too...

Trailhead said...

Lewis: If only.

Kristy, I think the collar does need to be worn full time, ideally. But it's not something that alters their fundamental personality (except for that second day on Thomas), or makes them sluggish -- it really seems more to alter how they take in and perceive stimuli, and so ratchets down the anxiety. So it shouldn't be a problem for your pup to wear it full time. It did eliminate some of the pointless hyperactivity Thomas was displaying, but it certainly didn't make him lethargic by any stretch.

Our vet stocks the collars, so maybe yours does too -- and if not, perhaps (s)he can tell you who does. Be prepared to have her current weight on hand, as dogs will get collars with different amounts of the pheromone depending on their weight.

If she has a separation anxiety problem, I'd encourage you to give it a try, maybe along with some other measures.

Anonymous said...

From that picture it looks as if Thomas is enjoying a nice cool glass of Chardonnay

My cat gets the crazies sometimes. Like when he would chase my leg, grab it with both arms and bite it! Iv'e used a squirt bottle to break him of this. I think it's just play. It's funny because the cat not only follows me to the bathroom like Thomas but he also has to sit on my lap! Like excuse me but do I bother you in the litter pan?

Cute pic


Trailhead said...

Fortunately, Thomas does not try to sit on my lap when I'm going to the bathroom. Sometimes its good when dogs are bigger than cats, eh?

Danger Panda said...

My mom owns the most disfunctional dog in the state of Oregon. I just told her about her post, and she ordered up a DAP collar for her dog. Gotta be worth a try, right? And I ordered one for my dog (the gold ribbon medalist of separation anxiety) too! Will keep you posted.

Trailhead said...

My vet told me to open the package and let it air out for about an hour. It has an odor, but it's not terrible. Then when you put it on, it needs to be a little tighter than the normal collar because the pheromones are released when the collar is warmed with the dog's body heat. They say you should be able to fit two fingers underneath the ordinary collar, and one beneath the DAP collar.

kris said...

I don't know - Thomas looks pretty mellow in the photo! :)

This was interesting. Kobie is neurotic - differently neurotic than Thomas, but still...
If we ever get some of his other problems straightened out, I may have to try this.

Trailhead said...

Kris, the photo was post-collar, of course. :)

I don't know whether a DAP collar would keep Kobie from eating your ornamental grasses!