Dr. Jen and I talk about how to tell whether a behavior is problematic or outright abnormal, plus what some of the options are for working on problem behaviors, including medication, management, and more.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Dr. Jennifer Summerfield.
Dr. Jen is a veterinarian and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), with a focus on treating behavior problems including aggression to humans or other animals, separation anxiety, and compulsive behavior disorders. She also teaches group classes and private lessons in basic obedience for pet dogs, and coaches students getting started in dog sports such as agility and competitive obedience.
Dr. Jen is proud to be a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). She is a passionate advocate for positive, science-based methods of training and behavior modification, and loves helping pet owners learn to communicate more clearly with their dogs.
Hi Jen, welcome back to the podcast!
Jennifer Summerfield: I'm happy to be here.
Melissa Breau: I'm happy you're here. To start us out, can you remind listeners who each of your dogs are and what you're working on with them?
Jennifer Summerfield: Sure. I have three Shelties at the moment, so always lots of barking and lots of hair in my house. That's the norm. My oldest is Remy, and Remy will be 13 in April. There's not a whole lot that we're actively working on with him right now. He's done competitive obedience and rally and agility and all kinds of things, but mostly he holds down the couch now and he likes that pretty well.
My middle dog, Gatsby, is 7 years old, and we mainly do agility. That's what we had been working on. I'll say we haven't done much this year. With the pandemic it's been hard, obviously. We haven't been going to seminars like we normally would be, haven't been trialing or anything, so a lot of stuff has been paused because of that. But mostly agility is what Gatsby does.
My youngest dog, Clint, previously has worked on mostly agility and some herding, but that's on pause right now because he was diagnosed with a nasal tumor several weeks ago, which has thrown a whole wrench into things. He just got done this past weekend with a four-week course of radiation therapy for that. So currently he is hanging out wearing a giant cone on his head because he's got some irritation and hair loss where the radiation treatment site was. He's miffed about that, and the other dogs are weirded out because he's got a giant cone on his head and they've never seen that before.
That's been our house this year. Hopefully he's supposed to be able to have his cone off and get back to normal life within the next two or three weeks, I think, and we'll see what we can get back to at that point, depending on the COVID situation. So 2020 has been an odd year, probably an odd year for everybody, but it certainly has been for us as well.
Melissa Breau: I hope he makes as good of a recovery as can be expected.
Jennifer Summerfield: He's doing good at the moment. He's got hopefully pretty good survival time to look forward to, and he's certainly very happy, and his enthusiasm is undimmed. He's crashing into everything in the house with his cone and it's kind of comical.
Melissa Breau: I'm glad to hear that. I want to jump right in. You're teaching your class at FDSA, Normal or Not? this term, which is on common behavioral disorders. I was thinking about the topic, and I was thinking a lot of times our sports dogs can tend toward extremes in behavior. When we're talking about behaviors as "normal" or "not," is it really that black and white, or is it more of a spectrum?
Jennifer Summerfield: That's a good question. I would say that so few things in life are black and white, and even fewer things in dog behavior are black and white, so definitely more of a spectrum.
To some extent it's even a bit context-specific, and specific to the dog's age and breed and things like that, because what's normal for an 18-month-old Belgian Malinois is probably not the same thing as what's normal for a 12-year-old French bulldog. It depends on what metric you're using for that, so we do look at what's normal for the breed, what's normal for the developmental stage or the age of the dog, and for sure there are things that fall into a gray area.
It's not always super-clear, like, "That's totally normal," or "That's a problem." A lot of things fall on the borderline, so I don't think we can always say with a hundred percent certainty what category things fall into. But I do think that thinking about behavior as being normal or not normal gives us a useful framework to try to analyze what's going on with our dogs and try to figure out what our best approach is going to be to address that, because the way that we address normal behaviors that are just annoying for the owner — things like jumping up on visitors because they're excited, or pulling on the leash, or things like that — our approach to those kinds of problems is, I would say, fundamentally different in a lot of ways from how we approach dogs that have true pathological behavior problems, like dogs that have severe anxiety issues or dogs that have compulsive behavior disorders.
These aren't training problems. These are problems where there is something abnormal about the way the dog is perceiving their environment or interacting with their environment, and the way that we treat those issues is really different. That's why I think it's a useful starting point, when we look at behavior, to think about do we think this is normal, do we think it's not normal, and how does that influence where we go from here.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To build on that a little bit, I often think about some of the things that we want and even breed for, behaviors like extreme focus, that can backfire as canine OCD. How often are behavioral issues just extreme versions or even maladapted versions of behaviors we actually want?
Jennifer Summerfield: I certainly think that they can be. There are times when that can be an issue. For example, a lot of the breeds that we tend to see being overrepresented with things like, let's say, fear aggression towards strangers or leash reactivity or things like that, are frequently breeds that historically have been bred as guard dogs or watch dogs or for that tendency to react to new things in the environment, or to react specifically to unfamiliar people by defaulting to an aggressive response. That's something that historically has been desirable in a lot of breeds, and now suddenly in 21st century human society it's a problem. So things like that can be an issue.
In the sport dog world, I know that's something that gets talked about sometimes in terms of when we breed dogs for things like agility. That's probably what I'm most familiar with, but I would guess it could be an issue in some of the bite sports and things as well. There's this trend in some ways toward breeding dogs that operate at this higher level of arousal as a default than maybe your average pet dog because that makes them potentially faster and more competitive in the agility ring.
But then the question we have to ask is does that also make these dogs potentially hard to live with in a lot of cases, and potentially not have a very easy time dealing with life outside of the competition ring, if they're constantly more amped up than they should be over some things.
So I definitely think that both historically what dogs have been bred for and what we're breeding them for nowadays have the potential to get either exaggerated to the point where they become a problem, or sometimes if the dog is put in an environment, like a living environment that's not conducive to what they were bred for, that can sometimes be a big issue as well.
A lot of the reactive dogs I see, for example, I have an Australian cattle dog patient I can think of off the top of my head that I know we've had this discussion with his owner before. He's quite reactive to things. He's not an unfriendly dog. When you get up to him and interact with him, he's pretty cool. But his default to people or cars or anything else is a pretty intense reaction with lots of barking and lunging and scary, blustery kind of behavior.
We've talked about how if he were an Australian cattle dog on a working cattle ranch in Australia, that would probably be a super-desirable behavior in a lot of ways because that's what they want these dogs to do. They want them to be alert to trespassers and they want them to drive off people who don't belong there. That's part of what the breed has been good for historically. But this dog doesn't live on a cattle ranch in Australia. He lives in a suburban household just outside of Catlettsburg, Kentucky, and there it's not so desirable for him to do that. So I think a lot of it does come down to what kinds of living environments dogs are in, and sometimes there's a mismatch between what they were bred for and what their current life is like, and that can create some friction for sure.
Melissa Breau: To explore that a little more, I know in the class you specifically address whether things like fear and aggression are "normal." Can you share a bit on that?
Jennifer Summerfield: Definitely. When we talk about things like fear and aggression, I think that's a good example of how there is definitely a spectrum. It's not all or nothing.
If we talk about fear first, fear can certainly be normal. There's a reason that animals have adapted or evolved over the years to have fear as a thing, because it helps keep you safe. If you're a wild animal and you don't have a good, solid fear response to things that are dangerous, you're not going to live very long. So that's a really adaptive survival response, certainly for wild animals, but even for domestic dogs to some extent because there are still things sometimes that can be dangerous in a domestic dog's environment. So all living organisms to some extent have an interest in being afraid of things that are legitimately threatening or dangerous. So for sure there are times when fear is totally normal. We should be afraid of things that are dangerous.
When it becomes a problem is when we have dogs who are consistently very afraid of things that they clearly shouldn't be afraid of, that clearly are not dangerous, are not threatening. If you're a pet dog who gets walked in your neighborhood every day, it shouldn't take you very long, in theory, to figure out that the neighbor across the street walking out to get his mail is not a threat to you. You should have seen that a lot of times, nothing bad has ever happened in connection with that, it's clearly not truly threatening in a "normal" dog. You should take that in stride. Maybe the very first time they see neighbor Joe walking down to get his mail they're like, "That's a little weird." But then they quickly realize neighbor Joe is not scary and they go on with life.
But not all dogs are like that. There are dogs that are going to freak out about neighbor Joe every single time they see him every day for as long as they live in the neighborhood, and that's not normal. That's a big waste of resources if you're a wild animal, super-abnormal to constantly be getting all worked up about things that doesn't confer any survival advantage for you. Certainly for domestic dogs that's not adaptive. That's not a behavior that's doing them any favors.
So that's an example of how it can be abnormal. We see a lot of dogs who are afraid of things that pretty clearly are not threatening and that never have been threatening. There are a lot of dogs that don't seem to have the ability to learn that the way a normal dog would. They don't adapt to things that are clearly not scary, or they do weird things, like sometimes they have a startle response that's super over the top for the magnitude of the stimulus that they're reacting to, or they generalize things quickly. They have one scary experience somewhere, and all of a sudden now they can't go for a walk in this area ever again, and maybe they can't go for a walk in other areas that remind them of this area because this one bad thing happened one time. Those are some of the ways that the fear response can be abnormal. It comes back to that spectrum again. These are the dogs that are at the far end of the bell curve.
When we talk about aggression, same kind of idea. Some aggressive behavior is perfectly normal. Some of what we call aggressive behavior is just communication signals between dogs. It is completely normal for dogs to communicate by growling, showing teeth, snarling, things like that. In a lot of cases, if they're doing those types of behaviors in contexts that are appropriate, and they're appropriately inhibited and all that, that's not really abnormal at all, even though as humans we have a tendency to freak out a little bit over communication signals, especially if they're directed towards us and other dogs.
So those can be normal, and it's even normal to be out-and-out aggressive with intent to harm in some situations, like what if your dog gets rushed by another dog that's trying to hurt them when they're out on a walk. If they fight back in that scenario and they bite the other dog and maybe injure the other dog, we wouldn't necessarily say that was abnormal, because they're reacting to a legitimate threat.
It becomes abnormal, same kind of discussion as what we were just talking about with fear, if it's over the top. There are some dogs that will react to what seem like pretty minor stimuli with this 0-to-60 reaction where especially they don't give a lot of warning beforehand. They just go straight to a pretty serious aggressive response.
This is like the dog that, let's say, somebody nudges them on the couch and disturbs them when they're sleeping, and instead of hopping off the couch or giving a little grumble, they turn around and bite hard enough to send somebody to the hospital. That's abnormal. That's an overreaction to the situation.
That's an example of a way that aggression can be abnormal. It can be abnormal sometimes in the same way that fear is, if we have dogs that are consistently reacting to things with aggression that really don't warrant that response, and you would think the dog would learn that "This is not a thing to react that way to," but they don't seem to. Of course there's a lot of overlap here because an awful lot of aggressive behavior is driven by fear, so a lot of it comes down to the same thing.
I think those are very interesting topics to talk about, so we do spend a few lectures talking specifically about fear and aggression, and how they're normal and how they're not normal, depending on the situation, in the class.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of time people get a new puppy, and they get super worried the first time something seems a little off. Maybe they bark at another dog, or they jump backward and seem afraid of the trashcan at the end of the driveway. Especially with a young dog, how can we tell when something is a "one-off" normal behavioral thing, they're just going through a phase, versus a sign that something is wrong with the dog and we should start thinking about this more seriously?
Jennifer Summerfield: That's always something that most of us worry about with young dogs. This is an area where sometimes a little knowledge makes us super-anxious. A lot of times the average pet owner doesn't give this a lot of thought and they're blissfully not worried about the same kinds of things we're worried about.
But certainly in the dog sports world, or people who are a little more into dog behavior, and we know this can be a problem, I think most of us are a little paranoid to some degree when we have young dogs about, "Oh my gosh, he barked at something. He's going to be fear-aggressive. It's terrible. There's nothing I can do."
I think a lot of it comes down to what you alluded to in your question, is whether we have a pattern of behavior or whether we have "He did that weird thing that one time, but it was no big deal." We know that it's not necessarily abnormal for puppies and adolescents to occasionally overreact to random things or to go through what we call fear periods sometimes, where maybe for a couple of weeks they're weirdly suspicious of things and they startle more easily and they're skeptical of stuff that they didn't used to be skeptical of. That's not necessarily a reason to panic.
I would say I would tend to be concerned if you're seeing a consistent behavioral response like that that lasts more than a couple of weeks, where you're like, this is a trend at this point it doesn't seem to be getting better, and if anything, a lot of these issues that pop up early in life tend to get worse over time. So especially if you feel like that's a trend over multiple weeks, I would say yes, we have a problem here that we want to try to address sooner rather than later.
But if you have a dog who's been pretty well adjusted and they go through a week or two where they're weird about some things, I wouldn't necessarily panic about that just yet, because they may come out the other side and be totally fine again.
Melissa Breau: What are some of the early warning signs? In general, how do behavior problems develop? What should we be watching for?
Jennifer Summerfield: Most dogs — and this isn't true a hundred percent of the time, but it's true in an awful lot of cases — most dogs who are going to have serious behavior problems either have them to some extent from the time they're quite young. A lot of my clients will say, "We could tell from the time we brought him home at eight weeks that he wasn't quite normal." Sometimes you can tell right away, and sometimes you see them pop up right around social maturity. The other common story I get is, "He seemed like he was fine until he got to be about 18 months old, or 2 years old, and that's when he started barking and lunging at people," or "That's when he first bit Grandma," or whatever.
I would say those are the two most common histories I get on dogs. It's usually early in life. Much less common for us to see a dog that truly was pretty happy and well adjusted up until they were 6 years old or 8 years old and then randomly developed problems. That's where we think hard about medical issues playing a role there.
So I would say most of the time you'll see it fairly early on with behavior issues, either from the time the dog is a puppy, or you might not see it until they hit social maturity age, but you'll see it then.
A lot of times the types of things that people notice — it depends on what the problem is, of course, but I would say the majority of issues I see are fear-related one way or another. Some of the common things people report to me are puppies that were never particularly friendly. You know how most puppies are pretty obnoxious. They want to run up to everybody and say hi, and they want to eat your shoestrings, and they want to search in your purse and drag your stuff out. It's annoying, but that's what normal puppies do. That's what we want to see in puppies.
And so a lot of times, the type of history I get when I see behavior clients is that their puppy didn't do that kind of stuff. Sometimes people perceive those puppies as being really well behaved, too, which is unfortunate. They're like, "He was such a good puppy. He never bothered anybody, he never jumped on people." That was probably nice at the time, but that's a red flag in retrospect. That's not normal puppy behavior.
Those are probably the biggest early warning signs that are subtle. Obviously, if your 12-week-old puppy comes into the vet's office and makes serious attempts to bite people, that's not normal. Occasionally that happens and that's pretty scary, and those I think are signs that most people can say, "That's not normal." But the more subtle signs, probably that's the biggest thing I hear is puppies and young dogs that never were particularly friendly or interested in interacting with people, or interested in interacting with the world, which oftentimes people don't realize is a problem until it becomes clear a little bit later.
Melissa Breau: Would you describe that as curiosity about the world at that age?
Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah. I would say that normal puppies should be curious about the world. They should want to check stuff out. I always say in the exam room normal puppies should be trying to eat my shoestrings, and they should be trying to get into the garbage can to see what's in there, and they should be trying to play with the door stop and pulling on that, and they should be chewing on my hands when I try to look at them. That's all normal puppy stuff.
If I come in and I'm seeing a 10-week-old puppy for the first time and all it does is sit beside its owner's chair and cower there, a lot of times the owner perceives that as, "He's very well behaved. Look," because he's not getting into anything and he's not causing any problems. But we know that's a puppy that's not comfortable interacting with the world and interacting with strangers, and at 10 weeks the puppy deals with that by hanging out in once place. But at 18 months or 2 years old, it's likely the puppy may start to deal with that by barking and lunging at people or developing other types of more outward anxiety-type behaviors. So those are some of the things that usually I try to counsel people to keep an eye out for.
Melissa Breau: What are some of the more common behavior issues that come up in pet and performance dogs?
Jennifer Summerfield: I would say for me, the population of clients that I deal with is largely pet dogs. I certainly do performance stuff with my own dogs, and I have friends in those circles, but the majority of dogs I see as patients are pet dogs.
I would say probably the most common issues that I tend to get calls about are I see a lot of leash reactivity, variations on dogs who bark and lunge at people and/or other dogs, very common on leash. I see a lot of dogs who are fear-aggressive toward strangers, like visitors in the house particularly. That's really common. I see a fair amount of separation anxiety. That seems to be a relatively common issue. There may be more of that coming as people go back to work after being quarantined and off work. And then I see some owner-directed aggression. I would say not as common as some of the other issues, but a fair amount. And then just a smattering of things like compulsive behavior disorders and things that are more rare. That's the breakdown that I've seen.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier the medical cause piece of things. How often do those common issues tend to have a medical cause versus being something that's purely behavioral? You mentioned the age thing as a major flag for how you can tell. Are there other things that clue us in?
Jennifer Summerfield: I would say it's not super common to see behavior issues that turn out to be purely medical. Occasionally you see it and that's kind of cool. I would say the most common scenario is that we have behavior problems that maybe are being made worse by an underlying medical issue that if we can treat that, that at least helps us. It's pretty rare to have a case where we treat a medical problem and it totally fixes all the behaviors that the dog was having, sadly. Although you never know. It can.
As far as red flags that tend to make us think about medical stuff, probably the biggest ones for me would be late age onset, because we know that's super-uncommon. Behavior issues are almost always present from the time the dog was very young, or they start around adolescence or social maturity. That's the common pattern, so just super, super uncommon for a middle-aged or older dog to have a new onset behavior issue without an obvious environmental change. It's one thing if "My dog is 8 years old, and now we had a baby and the dog is having problems." It could be medical, but there may some reasons for that, but if there's no obvious environmental change, nothing you can really point to, it's like, "My 8-year-old dog just randomly started biting us and he's never done that before," those are the types of cases where we really look hard for a medical issue.
The other thing is that if the dog has any other symptoms that make us think that something may be going on there, like if it's a dog that, oh, by the way, has some chronic vomiting or diarrhea issues, or they have chronic skin problems or ear infections or something like that, or they have a gait abnormality that makes us think they have an orthopedic problem or arthritis or something, because we know that a lot of behavior problems will be worse if the dog is painful or uncomfortable.
That's what a lot of it boils down to, because some of the things that make dogs painful and uncomfortable are pretty obvious, but some of them are not, and it's hard because our dogs can't tell us, so sometimes we're looking for subtle signs. Anything about the dog's history that people tell me that perks my ears up and makes me say, "It sounds like maybe there's something medical going on with your dog as well," if they're also having behavior issues, it's often worth exploring that because it may not totally fix the behavior problem, but it oftentimes will at least get us some improvement or make it easier to work with the dog if we can get the medical side of things under control.
Melissa Breau: Let's say a dog is exhibiting a behavioral issue. What are the options on the table for treatment?
Jennifer Summerfield: In terms of the broad picture — because obviously the specifics are going to depend on the case — certainly we think, as you mentioned, about we could have any underlying medical issues going on there that we should be worried about, and if so, make sure we go down that road.
We look at management options often as a first-line thing. If it's a dog that's biting people, for example, the first thing we need to do is come up with a plan to keep everybody safe while we're working on our game plan. Maybe that means we manage the dog differently around visitors right now. Maybe the dog goes in the spare bedroom when visitors come over and that's where he stays. If the dog is biting people in the owner's bed at night, maybe that means the dog doesn't sleep in the bed anymore — at least not right now. So we look at that.
Then we often look at either training or behavior modification. There's some overlap, they're kind of the same thing but kind of not, but we look at basically teaching the dog some kind of alternative behavior for the situations that are causing a problem, or we're working on changing the dog's emotional response to the types of situations that are currently making them get upset.
And then we talk also about medication in a lot of cases, especially where we have actual abnormal behavior issues as opposed to training problems. That's where we tend to look at meds as being potentially part of our treatment plan.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk a little more in-depth about a couple of those. First up, can you talk a little more about the role of management and what that might do for some of these dogs?
Jennifer Summerfield: I think sometimes management is underappreciated. It's not the flashy part. If you have a dog that bites visitors, what everybody wants is, "I want to teach the dog to be able to happily be around the visitors and not have to worry about it." They have this mental image of the visitors are here, the dog is loose, and everybody is co-existing peacefully. Sometimes we can achieve that with training or a behavior modification plan. Sometimes that may not be a realistic goal, and we need to adjust our expectations, which is fine.
But often what has to happen first, before we do anything else, is this dog needs to not be around visitors while we're working on this problem, or they only need to be around visitors under carefully controlled conditions more actively working on the problem, and the rest of the time they just need to not be around visitors. For a dog like that, a lot of our plan is going to be this dog needs to be in another room before people come in, and depending on what the situation is, maybe it needs to stay there until after they're gone. That's management.
In some cases, management ends up being the whole plan, which is fine. A lot of that comes down to what the owners want, and often when I'm seeing behavior cases, I put that to them as a choice too. We get a management plan in place and I say, "Currently we have a plan that's keeping everybody safe. It's not flashy, but it's managing the situation." The advantage is it's often easy. A lot of the management stuff we do is very simple. It doesn't take a lot of time or effort, and it solves the problem in the sense that now the dog is not biting people or whatever.
Some owners decide, "We're pretty happy with the management plan, we're kind of busy, and we're not dog trainers, and we don't necessarily want to spend multiple hours a week working on an in-depth training plan to address this. Maybe we just want to keep the dog in the spare bedroom when people come over from now on." And that's totally fine. So management sometimes can be the whole plan, and I'm happy with it if they're happy with it. It all comes down to what the owner wants.
There definitely are cases where that ends up being the cornerstone of what we do. But even if it is a case where we're going to be incorporating a fair amount of training or behavior modification, we still need management for all the times that we're not actively working with the dog. So the big role of it is to keep everybody safe and to keep the dog from rehearsing that behavior that we don't want at times when we're not prepared to be actively working on it.
And it's really important. I tell people all the time that if you're working with your dog actively on this problem for ten minutes a day — which a lot of training plans you can get a lot done in ten minutes a day, if you're consistent — that ten minutes is important. But if your dog is just running amuck and doing the thing we don't want for the other 23 hours and 50 minutes of every 24-hour period, you're not going to get any headway with your plan. That's where management comes in. That's the other 23 hours and 50 minutes.
Melissa Breau: It's such a shame that it's not seen as … you said it's not the flashy answer, because so often it solves the problem immediately and it's easy.
Jennifer Summerfield: Very great thing. I have a surprising number of clients who are like, "We never really thought about that. Now we feel kind of silly. We came here and paid you money to tell us to put the dog in the other room, but that's a great idea." Well, that's what I'm here for. So there's nothing wrong with that, if everybody involved is happy with it.
Melissa Breau: To go to the next piece of that, when you were talking about a broad overview, you mentioned medication. How do you decide if or when a dog might benefit from getting meds on board?
Jennifer Summerfield: I like medication in a lot of cases. I tend to be fairly quick to use it, if I think it's a case that potentially would benefit from it. So my answer to that would be pretty much any case I see where I feel there is a component of some kind of abnormal or pathologic behavior, meaning it's not just a clear-cut training problem.
If I have a dog and the owner says, "He's obnoxious and he jumps on visitors because he's so friendly," we're not going to talk about medication with that dog unless there's something super-weird about their arousal level or something. But if it's your average dog that just jumps on people, no, meds aren't on the table for that because that's not what they're for.
But for dogs I see that have significant leash reactivity issues that we think are driven by fear, for separation anxiety dogs, for fear-aggressive dogs that bite visitors, for most of the dogs that I see for behavior issues — not all of them, but the majority, I would say — we talk about meds as an option on that very first visit. I tend to be in favor of incorporating them, all things being equal.
I certainly have owners who are reluctant about that, and that's totally fine too. If the owner's not comfortable and they don't want to right off the bat, then we can absolutely try the rest of the plan for a month or so and see what we get. If we feel like we're having trouble making headway, we can circle back around and talk about meds. Totally fine.
But if the owner is like, "Whatever you think, we'll do," then I'm like, "Let's try some meds along with everything else," because there's not much downside to it. By and large the meds we use to help us treat behavior problems are very safe. There's very little downside to trying them.
The worst that can happen is you might get some kind of side effect you don't really like, and that's not super common. Most of the time we can avoid a lot of that by being careful about what we choose and conservative about our starting doses, but if we happen to get a side effect we don't like, we just stop it or we change our dose. It's not the end of the world.
I've seen so many dogs that have benefitted so much from medication as part of the plan — not the whole plan, but as part of our game plan — that I tend to be pretty open to starting them from day one with dogs that it's like, "This dog has a problem that we think could benefit from meds, so let's talk about it."
I don't think there's a lot to be gained by having a dog that clearly has some pathological anxiety issues or fear issues or aggression issues and saying, "We really want to exhaust all of our options and we want to make these people work with it for six months on this plan before we think about maybe doing meds," which unfortunately I think is a common approach. That's not me. I think that can be frustrating for everybody involved, to make them bang their heads against the wall for six months or however long, working on a plan that's not going to make any headway until we're able to get the dog's brain chemistry where it needs to be. So I tend to err in favor of saying, "If the owner's up for it and we think this dog has an actual pathological problem, let's start some meds on board right away with our plan."
And then if we need to make changes, we can. If the dog doesn't tolerate it, we can make changes. That's no big deal. I never want dogs to have side effects that we don't want, and normally it's very doable to avoid that or to just stop meds if we have a problem. I think they're pretty great. I use them in a lot of cases, and I don't think there's much downside to using them. That's my position on meds.
Melissa Breau: I know you typically group meds into two categories: daily and situational. Can you talk a little bit about the differences and when you might use what?
Jennifer Summerfield: I would agree that there are two broad categories of medications that we will sometimes use for behavior issues. With daily meds, as the name implies, these are meds that you're going to give every day, regardless of what's going on.
If your dog has separation anxiety or something, we're talking about a daily med. It's not something that you're only going to give on the days that you leave. It's got to be given every day because it's going to be in the dog's system all the time at a steady state, always working in the background. Those tend to be meds like, we use a lot of SSRI's for that in dogs, so meds like Prozac, sometimes things like Zoloft or Paxil, or some of those lesser-known meds as well.
Those we tend to use for problems that are either happening pretty darn frequently or problems that are constant, like a dog that has generalized anxiety, or issues that are coming up multiple times every week to the point where it's like it would be good to have something on board all the time. Or things that are unpredictable, things that we may not know when they're going to come up, things like thunderstorms and issues like that, where we may not always know when the dog is going to need something on board, so it's best if there's something that's working all the time.
We do use those pretty frequently. They usually have a relatively subtle effect on behavior, so I usually tell people "Don't expect a night and day."
The goal is not we started the dog on Prozac and now he's cured. He doesn't do the thing anymore, and it's great. That rarely happens. Usually it's more a question of when he does react to something, it's not quite as intense, or it takes just a little bit more to get upset, or it's a little bit easier for him to calm down, for me to get him redirected. That's the kind of effect we're looking for.
Most of those meds are really well tolerated. We tend to have minimal side effects for the most part, and if we do have a dog that has side effects more than what we think is reasonable, then we stop it and try something else. Totally fine.
Our situational meds are meds like valium and Xanax fall into that category, anti-anxiety meds that are short-acting for just a few hours, things like trazadone and gabapentin that sometimes we use at high doses for anxiety. So lots of different meds that fall under that umbrella. Basically they're shorter-acting meds that last anywhere from a few hours to several hours in most cases, and they're things that we can use as needed.
If we have a separation anxiety dog, for example, we can have meds that the owner just gives about an hour before they leave the house, so that by the time they leave, they're working, and they're only working for a few hours while they're gone, and then the rest of the time that med isn't on board.
They're nice because they're flexible. It's nice to have something you can just use when you need it. And these meds can have more dramatic effects. For something like separation anxiety, often we get our biggest effect from our short-acting situational meds that the owner is giving before they leave. We do often see things like sedation with meds like this, but the plus side is oftentimes that's not the worst thing in the world. If it's something we're giving because there's a thunderstorm, or we're giving it because the owner is gone and they don't want the dog to be trying to escape from the crate, oftentimes a little sedation is not the worst thing in the world, and maybe it's desirable sometimes for a few hours.
That's not the only thing we're trying to achieve, obviously. We're not just trying to make dog sleepy. We want them to be less anxious. But we do see that as a side effect with a lot of those meds. But they're nice because they're flexible. You can just use them when you need them. Or, with some of them, you can use them every day, if you want to. You have to dose them every eight to twelve hours, something like that, to get relatively steady states throughout the day, and even then you're probably still going to get some ups and downs with the effects because they're not as long-acting. But you can also use them that way. So a lot of flexibility there, and we can combine them if we need to. So there's a lot of different options that we have to tailor it to the individual dog, which is nice.
Melissa Breau: I think, and you'll have to correct me if I misheard, but I think you mentioned separation anxiety in both categories. Do you sometimes use both at the same time?
Jennifer Summerfield: Totally. Separation anxiety is a good example of a problem where we often use both. The reason that sometimes we might use combinations of meds is that oftentimes we can get a better effect by using two or three different things that all work in different ways, and adding them together so we can get better efficacy without side effects versus just taking one medication and trying to crank the dose way high up to get the effect we want.
With most medications, there's a limit to how much effectiveness you're going to get by just continuing to go up on the dose, and you start to get more side effects. So rather than we're just using this one med but we're going to use a whole lot of it, it's often better all around to say, "What if we use two or three different meds that work in different ways that are approaching it from different angles," and then we can use moderate doses of all of them so that we're not having side effect issues, but we're also getting the effect that we want.
For things like separation anxiety that's severe, for a lot of those dogs, we really want all the help we can get. What I tell owners a lot of time about that is even if we put this dog on Prozac, it's not going to fix its separation anxiety by itself if it's severe, but maybe it takes it down 10 percent. Well, that's 10 percent. And then if we have another med we put the dog on before the owner leaves, maybe that doesn't fix it by itself either, but maybe it takes it down 40 percent, that med by itself. And then maybe we add another med and it does another 40 percent. And now, the next thing you know, with all three of them together, maybe we've got 90 percent improvement in our anxiety. So that's a good way to think about it. Even if each of them singularly don't feel like they're doing that much, we're looking for the additive effect of all of them, and for some of these dogs we need all the help we can get.
Melissa Breau: Before we move on, I was thinking about the situational piece, and I wanted to say that it's useful to always ask. If there's something, or somebody's listening and they're like, "That sounds like something that sounds familiar," it never hurts to ask your vet. My German Shepherd that passed earlier this year, she had extreme anxiety at the vet — just at the vet; there was no other problem. Nobody thought to suggest to me that I put her on a comfort pack. I went to a different vet, they used comfort packs, it's a regular thing that they mentioned. I asked for one at my regular vet and they were like, "We have those. We can do it."
Jennifer Summerfield: They just never gave it any thought. I think some of that comes from it really depends on the client. Depending on what percentage of your clients are open to meds and what percentage are not, it's easy in general practice to let that fall by the wayside a bit, if you encounter a lot of people who are not interested. So they may not think to say, "Would you want this?"
So there's never anything wrong with saying, "My dog gets super-anxious about this particular scenario," and vet visits are a great example of something we often use situational meds for, because the dog may be fine the rest of the time. They just get super upset about vet visits. So you can give meds before you come to the vet and everybody's happier. So it never hurts to ask and say, "My dog gets really upset about this I would be interested in meds, if that's a thing that we could do." Start the conversation. It doesn't hurt to ask.
Melissa Breau: It's hard to do a stomach palpitation if the dog has locked themselves up as tight as they possibly can.
Jennifer Summerfield: You can't feel anything in there if they're super tense. You're like, "They've got really strong abs. That's all I've got."
Melissa Breau: On that same note, if somebody is listening to this and thinking professional help may be a good idea, can you talk about their options and where they could go to look for a professional, and what they should look for in a professional?
Jennifer Summerfield: I do think if your dog has any kind of significant behavior problems, you really can't beat having somebody work with you one-on-one to help you put together a specific plan for your dog and guide you through the implementation of it, because that's hard. It's easy in theory to be like, "That's the kind of stuff we should do," but it's often hard to translate that into what do I specifically do for my dog in my situation. That's where a professional can be super helpful.
There are definitely a lot of different types of certifications and degrees and things out there. The first thing to be aware of — which I'm assuming the majority of the people listening probably know this, but maybe not — is the field of dog training is almost entirely unregulated from a legal standpoint. Literally anyone who feels the urge can hang out a shingle and say, "I'm a dog trainer. I'm a behavior expert. I'm a behaviorist." These are not legally protected terms for the most part, so it's very much buyer beware. You might be working with someone super awesome, who has lots of education and experience, or you might be working with some guy who saw a couple of episodes of The Dog Whisperer and was like, "I can do that," and there he is, now he says he's a dog trainer. Or anything in-between.
So I do think it's a good idea to know what kinds of certifications and degrees are out there, because that can give you a good starting point. It's not the end-all be-all of finding somebody to work with, but at least if you're like, "I don't know where to start," that's a good place to start.
There are veterinary behaviorists, which are a great choice, if you have one in your area. They're few and far between. These are veterinarians who, after they finished vet school, have done an additional three-year residency specifically in behavior stuff, and passed a board exam, and have done a research study that was published, and all that kind of stuff, so it's quite rigorous. They are basically the equivalents of psychiatrists in our field. Same kind of training program and board exam and that kind of stuff, so it's like a veterinary psychiatrist. Those are great, if you have one in your area.
There are certified applied animal behaviorists who have graduate degrees in animal behavior. They're not veterinarians, but they're coming at it from the applied animal behavior standpoint. They have a degree in that, and certainly they're very well versed in the science and very well educated as well.
You also can look for the International Association Of Animal Behavior Consultants, or the IAABC, is a good resource. They have a certification that's pretty rigorous. It requires you to pass an exam and submit several case studies and things that's pretty involved. I would feel pretty solid about working with anybody who's certified through them.
The Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers, the CCPTD, certifies both dog trainers and behavior consultants. They require a certain number of hours of experience and passing an exam and that kind of stuff, so that's something.
Those are all good starting points to look for somebody, and all of those organizations have websites that you can go to and search based on where you live and see if there's anyone in your area. So I think that at least gives you a good place to start.
What I will say about certifications and degrees and all that is I do think it's not the end-all be-all, because just like in any profession, you can find people who have the certification, but either they're not that great, for whatever reason. Just like you can have a plumber come in who's great, or you can have a plumber come in and they're not very good. These things happen. Every profession has people who are good at it and not so great at it, so it's not a guarantee.
And it's also possible that you might find somebody who looks great on paper, but maybe they're not a great fit for you. Maybe you don't click personality-wise, and that matters too, because you're going to be working pretty closely together. So it's very possible that you might also find somebody who's great who doesn't happen to have any professional certifications or degrees, but maybe they really know their stuff and maybe they're awesome. So that can happen. It's harder to find those people because I don't have a specific way to tell you how to recognize them.
But I also think when you're looking for someone to work with, besides the certifications and degrees and knowledge, look for somebody who can explain things to you in a way that makes sense, look for somebody who is nice to you and your dog — those things are important — and look for somebody you feel comfortable working with and asking questions to, because a lot of it comes down to that as well.
It's a very person-to-person kind of endeavor when you're working on a behavior problem. So if it's somebody that you don't click well with, even if they're super intelligent and they have the knowledge, but their personality is not the best fit for your personality, it may be worth looking for somebody else, because it's got to be a good fit, kind of like finding a therapist or a doctor or anybody else that you're doing a lot of one-on-one with.
Melissa Breau: I mentioned earlier your class is on the calendar. It's happening in December, so it's going on right now. I know it's sort of an "atypical" class format for FDSA. Can you share a little bit on how it's set up and how it works?
Jennifer Summerfield: It is a little bit different because, for one thing, this is not a skills class, which is different from the majority of FDSA classes. We're not teaching dogs anything in particular in this class. What we're also not doing is diagnosing anybody's dogs with anything or putting together specific treatment plans for specific problems, largely because that's not legal for me to do as a veterinarian.
The laws that govern what we can do are a little bit different from the laws that govern trainers and behavior consultants who are not vets. So it gets a little bit sticky with how most state practice acts are written. Technically speaking, I am not legally allowed to give specific treatment advice for a dog that I have not met in person. So that's not really what the point of the class is.
What it is is a concept class, so we go through and we have a different aspect of it that we look at each week. Week 1 is all about normal versus abnormal, and how do we decide that, what kinds of things do we look at. Week 2 is all about the medical stuff that can influence behavior. Weeks later on are about behavior modification, we have a week about medication, a week about prognostic stuff and outlook and outcomes, and I think we have a week where we go through and talk about a lot of specific behavior problems too.
The goal of the class is to get people thinking and give you information, and help you figure out how you might apply that to your dogs. So I do welcome people to ask questions or talk about their specific dogs, but it's like we're talking about concepts and information, and you're using your dog as a lens to understand that, if that makes sense, more than like, "Here's a plan for your dog."
The format is a little bit different, since we don't have videos and things that people are working on. It's just a Silver and Bronze level class. Bronze is Bronze like always — you observe. But if you're a Silver student, then you make yourself a homework thread, like what the Gold students would do normally, and I have little written homework assignments each week, things to make you think about the material and asking can you apply this to a dog that you've owned, can you apply this to a dog that you have known before and tell me about that. Little written assignments to get people thinking about how this information applies in real life.
You make your homework thread and we treat it much like a homework thread for Gold students in other classes. It just doesn't have videos and thing. And then of course we have the discussion, like always. It worked really well the last time we ran this class, and it's been a very lively so far this session as well. We're only about a week into it, but it seems to be things are hopping.
Melissa Breau: That's good.
Jennifer Summerfield: Yes.
Melissa Breau: One last question for you, the same one I ask everybody at the end. What's something that you've learned or that you've been reminded of when it comes to dog training?
Jennifer Summerfield: I think this year … honestly, it's been such a strange year, for the reasons we talked about, because of COVID and all that, and now because I have poor Clint with his nasal tumor and his cone and that whole situation. I think probably what I've been reminded of this year more than anything is how it is to live with dogs that are basically just being pets right now.
I mean, they're always pets, obviously, first and foremost, no matter what else they're doing, but so much of the time we are doing a lot of we're going to seminars and we're going to trials and we're doing a lot of training. We haven't done very much of that this year for all those reasons that we talked about, so we're doing a lot more of hanging out on the couch and going for little hikes and things, just having pet dogs. And there is something nice about that.
I miss doing the competition stuff, and I hope the pandemic things will look a little better sometime in the next few months and all that, and maybe we'll be able to get back to doing some of that, because I definitely miss it and I know the dogs miss it. But it has been interesting to live with them just as pet dogs more than anything else right now. That's pretty much all we're doing and it's a different kind of thing. There's no pressure, because all that stuff is on pause right now, so we're just snuggling on the couch and doing fun pet stuff, and there's a lot to be said for that too. So maybe that's a silver lining this year, but that's been a nice reminder.
Melissa Breau: I like that, and it's a good thing to think about, too. Under it all, you live with your dog more than you compete with your dog.
Jennifer Summerfield: For sure. We're all enjoying that, even if we miss the other stuff. They're very good at snuggling on the couch. Multi-talented dogs.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Jen.
Jennifer Summerfield: No problem. I have enjoyed it, as always.
Melissa Breau: Ditto. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it.
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Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!