Earlier this month, the dogs and I spent a week hunkered down in the basement all day, every day. Our main floor was being painted, and our furniture and books were crammed onto the front porch, which I feared might fall off the house from the weight of it all.
The basement is not a bad place to work — my desk is in front of a sunny egress window that looks up at the garden, and at the time I could see our bright orange Mexican sunflowers waving against the October-blue sky. (They are now collapsed under snow.)
For the dogs’ comfort, we hauled down one crate and the big dog bed that Doug calls “the raft,” so of course Angus and Rosie spent the days snoozing, instead, on the basement couch.
I worried that such a drastic change of location would make Angus an anxious mess, but everything went surprisingly smoothly. The weather allowed us to keep the side door open, and the dogs raced out into the backyard whenever they felt like it. And although they occasionally barked when they heard the painter moving around, mostly they were calm.
This was, I think, thanks to medication.
Last month, I wrote about how, after years of trying all sorts of alternatives, I finally made the decision to put Angus on anti-anxiety medication.
That column provoked a huge response — many, many readers wrote to share stories of their own dogs’ anxiety; a few psychics and dog communicators got in touch, wanting to help; and two readers wrote to caution me against drugs. They thought Angus’ anxiety came from things I could change — his diet, vaccinations and flea pills, or invisible waves of “electropollution” from our electronic devices.
But mostly, readers in droves wanted to know what drug Angus was on. A lot of you sounded like you were nearing the end of the rope with your own anxious dogs, and you wanted help.
So first, allow me to state the obvious: I am not a veterinarian, I am not a dog trainer, I am not a vet behaviorist, and those are the people who can really help.
In last month’s column, I didn’t name Angus’ medication because I didn’t want to appear to be giving medical advice. There are many different drugs out there for anxious, reactive or aggressive dogs and I worried about looking as if I advocate one drug over another. I don’t. I’m drug-neutral.
Over the months, readers have e-mailed me, praising the effects of fluoxetine (Prozac), gabapentin, Zoloft, clonidine and many other meds. There are a lot of drugs available, and sometimes it takes trial and error to find the one that works best for your dog.
For Angus, twice-daily Trazodone helps tamp down his anxieties. It doesn’t halt his reactivity toward other dogs and people, nor does it curb his prey drive toward squirrels and cats. It doesn’t need to build up over time, like Prozac, but is fast-acting (and fast to leave the system).
But with his anxiety level lower, he is able to employ impulse control in a way he couldn’t before. He listens better (mostly). And, more important, he is no longer terrified of normal aspects of everyday life; brooms and baby gates and things out of place no longer faze him, and he no longer disappears upstairs in the evening to bark plaintively, alone.
He’s calmer. He’s happier. Walks are less fraught. (Though he still will not walk through a door unless it is wide open.)
For Angus, the side effects of Trazodone are minimal — the drug does suppress his appetite at night, so now he only gets a half-dose in the afternoon. Some other dog owners, though, don’t like it — they have told me that Trazodone turns their dogs into zombies. To me, that’s the scariest thing about giving meds to a dog — the dog can’t tell you how it feels. You have to pay close attention to how it responds.
As the painter tromped around upstairs, the floorboards of our 105-year-old house squeaked. Angus, from his perch on the couch, looked up. He looked at me. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “He’s supposed to be up there.” And Angus settled back down.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. She has been chronicling the life of her rescue dog since he was 4 months old. startribune.com/puppy @StribBooks