Part 4 - Medication
As many of you know by now, I come from a medical background. I entered the world of behavior as a licensed technician originally to help my patients tolerate medical procedures and handling. Cooperative veterinary care (CVC), is what they call it these days. One of the biggest complaints I get about CVC from the veterinary community is that it takes time. They want to get their patients in and out and get on to the next appointment. Well, as all our fabulous force free trainers are aware, that's just not how it works. If you want to teach animals to work with you, it takes time and effort and patience. The other option, is to get a leg up in the process.
In our last post, we talked about arousal. To review: arousal is the intensity of an emotion. I can have a dog who is having a grand time or one who is terrified, they are both experiencing high levels of arousal. High arousal makes it difficult for animals to concentrate. They can't rationalize as easily and don't make good decisions. Typically, we use management to keep arousal as low as possible so the pets can learn more appropriate responses. Some examples might be blocking access to windows, using white noise to block out sounds, going for walks during quiet times of day, etc. Management is important, but it has it's limitations. Some animals have such a hairpin trigger that no amount of management prevents them from going over threshold. Without keeping them under threshold, they can't learn. If they can't learn, they're not going to change.
This is where medication comes in. The goal of medication is to help bring down the pet's arousal baseline so that it takes more stimulation to push them over threshold. This gives the trainer/handler more time to intervene, counter-condition, and teach new skills. We use it as "chemical management." The goal is not to sedate the dog, make them so sleepy they can't react, or otherwise change their personality, it's simply to give them more opportunity to learn.
In spite of how far mental health and behavioral care has come in recent years, there is still a lot of negative feeling about the use of medication. Below are some of the concerns we most often hear:
1.) "I don't want it to change my pet's personality."
Neither do we! I want to keep all fun, silly things you love about your animal, and just get rid of that over the top response to everything. At any point, if you feel like you're losing your pet, we need to chance the medication. That is not an appropriate response.
2.) "It feels like I'm failing" or "Medication is just a last resort."
Force free trainers often feel like they have to support the whole world on their shoulders. If they can't fix the problem, they must have failed, or they didn't do something right, the "shock jocks" are going to win out after all. Please don't think that. Sometimes there are true medical disorders or neurochemical abnormalities that we have absolutely no control over. Just like depression and anxiety in humans is a medical disorder, inappropriate aggression and anxiety or phobias are too. Behavior is like any other medical discipline.
Let's pretend I have a diabetic. Yes, in my perfect world, I use diet and exercise to help them. For a lot of people, changing lifestyle and implementing education is all they need. For others? They need insulin to help them on a day to day basis. Behavior is exactly the same. If basic training and enrichment don't help, maybe we need to implement some medication to help as well. Medication should never be a last resort. For many pets, it makes learning easier, faster, and everyone is happier for it.
3.) "My animals isn't anxious, she's just high energy."
This is one of my favorites, actually. When we talk about fear, anxiety, and stress there are 4 manifestations: Fight, flight, freeze, and fidget. Fidget... this means they can't sit still. They pace, pant, any noise and they're up and bouncing around. Yes, these dogs might not be terrified of everything or act highly aggressive, but they're just as stressed and overly aroused as those other animals. Back in the day, we could manage this high energy dogs by working them into the ground every day (Border Collies, anyone?). In our world though, we do the best we can to provide structure, predictability, and appropriate enrichment, but it's not enough. In this case, the best thing to do is help these pets unwind a little and slow down. I can't imagine how exhausting it must be to be constantly "on."
Before I really got into behavior, I hated medication. I thought it was cheating, your training skills aren't good enough. The more I get into this field though, the more difference I've seen it make. It's not for everyone! It's not a magic wand! Medication simply helps animals (and people) go from being completely overwhelmed by their world, to being able to step outside their front door for 5 minutes. The training can then go from there.