The label on the bottle read, “Sept. 17, 2019. For Angus Hertzel. Give one pill every 12 to 24 hours for generalized anxiety.”
But I didn’t. I put the bottle on a shelf and closed the cupboard door. I can’t drug my dog, I thought. It’s wrong.
Instead, over the next year, I tried every holistic remedy suggested to me: CBD treats. Treats laced with melatonin. Thunder shirts. L-Theanine capsules. A special probiotic powder for anxious animals. Essential oils.
Nothing made the slightest bit of difference.
I also kept on with the training, the redirection and the counter-conditioning on every single walk. We took more classes. I hired more trainers. I followed all of the advice.
A year later, I have come to understand: You can’t train away anxiety.
This summer of COVID was tough on all of us, Angus especially. In July and August, his allergies were worse than ever, and even after a $100 shot followed by $120 worth of pills, he licked his paws until they were dark red and chewed his legs until they were bald.
The fact that my husband and I now worked at home seemed to add to his angst; perhaps because we were there constantly, he grew extremely protective of the house. He roared through the window at dogs passing by — something he had never done before — and barked at any walker who paused in front of our yard. Mail carrier, UPS person, FedEx guy, beware — just the slam of a delivery van door would set him off.
He grew anxious about the backyard, the steps, the porch. And the saddest development was this: After dinner, he’d run upstairs and bark plaintively from the landing or the bedroom as if he were lost or had been abandoned, and we could not lure him downstairs for anything.
He seemed, in a word, miserable.
The last straw was when he barked and jumped at a neighbor, someone he has known since he was a puppy. The neighbor wasn’t bothered, but I was devastated. His anxiety is off the charts, I thought. I have to do something.
I went to the cupboard, and I took out the pill bottle. Almost one year after it was prescribed, I gave Angus his first anti-anxiety pill. Oh my god, I thought. I’ve become a person who drugs my dog.
Angus promptly spat it out.
Before giving him that first pill, I googled like mad, read everything I could find, talked to others who had used the drug. I found a woman who had given it to her dog, Mike, for 15 years, and I peppered her with e-mailed questions.
“We also resisted for a long time, trying to find a nonmedical option,” she wrote me. “But nothing worked and Mike seemed to be getting worse rather than better.”
With the drug, “We saw a marked difference and calmer demeanor. Mind you, he wasn’t ‘normal.’ Overall I would say he was 85% better, and that was a huge improvement. It gave him quality of life that he’d never had in the past.”
For Angus, it’s not a cure, but it’s making a difference. The medication doesn’t sedate him — he still plays and romps and is always up for a walk. It doesn’t solve everything; he’s still an anxious dog, with good days and bad days. That estimate of 85% improvement seems about right. But it’s enough; it mostly takes the edge off his intense anxiety and allows him to control his impulses.
For the first week, we gave him one pill a day, in the morning, rolled up in a corner of a soft tortilla and slathered in butter. (No dog on the planet would spit that out.)
Walks were calmer. Days were less fraught. He no longer watched anxiously out the window but instead played with Rosie, chewed on a squeaky toy, or napped.
But every evening about 5 p.m., he would run upstairs and start that plaintive barking, and our vet suggested a second pill 12 hours after the first one. Even with that second pill, he said, we’re still on the low end of dosage; we can go up if need be.
Now, every morning, Angus bounds up the stairs, leaps on the bed and smooches me awake to start the day. Sometimes he brings a squeaky toy; he’s a one-dog parade, filled with joy. On walks, he mostly manages to stay calm when he sees things that startle or frighten him. In the evenings, he no longer hides upstairs and barks, but goes out into the yard and chases Rosie in big circles.
A month into this experiment, Angus seems happy. And that is all we have ever wanted.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. She has been chronicling the life of her rescue dog, Angus, since he was about 3 months old. startribune.com/puppy