Lately, everywhere I look I see reactive dogs….my patients, dogs at shelter, and in my home, where we live with four rescue Aussies, including the lovely Missy Rose. The lovely Missy Rose, who came to us 26 months ago, at 18 months of age, entirely redefines the idea of a "reactive" dog.

Any change sets off choruses of high pitched barks and rapid patrol behaviors. Any dog who moves is fair game. Picasso has learned to chew his antler quietly, intently and without making eye contact. You can gauge Missy Rose’s level of reactivity by the speed with which he chews.

The rule for getting our dogs safely out the door resembles a choreographed suite, with each dog occupying the role and space that gives him/her the best chance of a low stress passage.  We orchestrate the release of the boy while the lovely Missy Rose executes a series of "sits" on progressively higher steps, moving backwards in powerful leaps when signaled by voice or hand to do so. Then she comes down step by step, then she backs up across the hall, then forward by leaps, ending each one with a  "sit," a "look," and now, finally, after two years, with a soft gaze and a deep breath. Finally, she is ready to have the door opened. 

Doors do not just open for the lovely Missy Rose – they open into one of two scenarios. Scenario 1: The lovely Missy Rose is asked to turn and sit, the back of the car is open. She sits; she looks; she breathes; she is calmly released and at the end of her very beautiful and flawless outrun turns and in mid-air and floats into the back of the car. Scenario 2: The boys are out in nature’s realm, the lovely Missy Rose is asked to sit just outside the door, and given a treat. She is shown the precious Frisbee….there is a stack, but only one is held out to her while the others are carried. She joyously grabs the disc and allows herself to be guided by the moving and talking Frisbee dispenser.  She makes catch after aerial catch, now always returning the Frisbee before running out receive the next in the stack. Then, just as suddenly as she does everything else, she stops, runs into the stream, soaks and drinks, returning as normal and calm as she will ever be.  The boys emerge from the shrubbery, sniff her and engage in social and exploratory behavior with her, behavior that each day will be as normal as it has ever been for her.

This is the best she has ever been.  I know I will say the same thing tomorrow, next month and next year.  I do not know if the damage will ever not show.

The lovely Missy Rose had four homes before she was 6 months old. She is a west Texas stock dog, brought north at barely 6 weeks of age by a Haliburton crew member who passed her on to some guy in a bar who passed her on to the guy who passed her on to me via Aussie rescue instead of killing her. In the year she’d been in her last home, she wore a shock collar and was routinely shocked for not being "house-trained" (she had chronic diarrhea). She was shocked for snarling at the fat older Labrador who stole her food. She was shocked for not wanting to go into her bare crate at the back of a house that had no rear wall.

In the last month of her time with him, her previous owner reached out to his vet, saying he thought he should put her down. The vet offered counseling based only on a description of the chronic diarrhea, her inability to hold weight and her protective approach to food and then suggested, just as a trial, adding Pancrezyme to her meals. The lovely Missy Rose had been shocked for most of her previous life because she has endocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), a medical condition.  In short, she could not digest complex proteins, and likely had never been able to do so. She is small, she was skeletal, and her behavioral repertoire consisted of various explosive behaviors. We cannot build normal brains with inadequate nutrition, yet it was unlikely that feeding her, alone, would make her normal.

Why not?  Other factors affecting reactivity will be the topics of future blog posts.

©Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB

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