Stella flitted around the room with jittery energy, seeking head pats and lap-time from anyone offering. After being denied attention, she grew restless and exhibited stress signals—she licked her lips, yawned, barked and pawed at the door to leave.
Next, Siracusa performed a physical exam to check for any pain that might cause behavior problems. He also held her down for an orthopedic exam, which evidently caused her pain. Most dogs defend themselves after prolonged, unpleasant force, but Stella didn’t even growl. Her unusual submissiveness, Siracusa and Seward said, might account for some of her anxiety.
We left after five hours with a behavior modification regimen and two new drugs—Buspirone and Trazodone. Dodman of Tufts said he introduced Buspirone, a non-addictive antianxiety drug, to veterinary medicine in 1987 after his (human) neighbor touted its effects. Trazodone was developed as a human antidepressant in Italy in 1966, according to a 2008 study, but became more popular for insomnia because of its sedative effect. Veterinarians started prescribing it to anxious and phobic dogs in the mid-90s. By this point, the novelty of giving Stella human drugs had worn off and I accepted that my dog was a canine mental patient.
Psychiatric drugs help stabilize chemicals in both human and dog brains. While meds like Prozac, Xanax, and beta-blockers were developed for humans, they appear to have analogous benefits for dogs. Vets and researchers have increasingly accepted functional neural similarities between the two species, according to Dodman, who compares psychiatry and behaviorism in his upcoming fourth book Like Minds.
“In the last 25 years, all of the sudden, we’ve gone from zero to 60,” said Dodman of the popularity of behavioral pharmacology. “People who aren’t doing it are out of the flow. Some vets still aren’t comfortable using Prozac, but I imagine that about 20 years from now, it will be something every vet has on the shelf.”
Dogs take psychoactive drugs for some issues that probably seem dog-like, such as thunder phobia and fear-based aggression (i.e., biting when scared). Veterinary behaviorists have also explored new drug therapies for dog behavior that one might consider distinctly human, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Canine PTSD isn’t an official term, but Dodman said dogs and humans have similar chemical and behavioral responses to crisis. More than five percent of military dogs return from combat and display PTSD symptoms including nervousness, hypervigilance, aggression and antisocial behavior, the military’s chief veterinary behaviorist has said.
Similarly, dogs abandoned after the 2011 Japanese earthquake showed problems with attachment and trainability and, researchers found, had much higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than abandoned dogs who hadn’t endured a disaster. Even seemingly minor distress, like an insect bite, can make dogs unravel. Beta-blockers, Dodman said, can effectively treat canine trauma if administered within a few hours. Psychiatric research suggests that beta-blockers are also helpful for PTSD in humans.
Dodman is currently part of a team studying the effects of oxytocin, the human love hormone, on formerly abused dogs who fear their new (non-abusive) owners. After receiving as little as one dose of oxytocin nasal spray, some of the dogs no longer demonstrated fear.
“[The oxytocin] seemed to engineer a new bond,” said Dodman.
Though psychoactive meds can stabilize chemical levels in dogs’ brains and alter their behavior, we know almost nothing about what’s going on inside those furry noggins; canine cognition is still largely a mystery. In an attempt to clear the fog, researchers have begun scanning dogs’ brains.
Last year, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, trained conscious dogs to lie still inside whirring-full body fMRI scanners. This month, he published a study in the Journal of Behavioral Processes about 12 dogs’ neural reactions to odor. Neuroimaging of the dog caudate nucleus, believed to be the reward center in the human brain, showed a distinct reaction to the smell of familiar humans—similar to humans’ caudate reaction to photos of loved ones who aren’t physically present. It’s not clear whether the dogs’ responses reflect anything more than Pavlovian anticipation of a positive reward. But this is a first step in investigating whether dogs could be capable of higher-level emotions.
Along the same lines, Yale University recently sent college-style acceptance letters to dogs selected for its brand new Canine Cognition center, where researchers plan to use neuroimaging to explore the dog brain.
After about two months of Stella’s new regimen, I noticed a small but meaningful improvement in her behavior. Stella grew less sensitive to highway traffic and other loud whirring sounds. Eliminating just a few sources of fear helped me identify consistent triggers, including flies, loud sneezes, and rain plinking on metal rooftops.
Overall, however, her progress ebbed and flowed. A bout of normal behavior—no skipped meals or stress ticks—might give way to a day lying in the bathroom panting suspiciously.
Stella has never shown aggression, which is the most common behavioral issue for which pet owners seek medical assistance. Behaviorism has helped debunk the belief that some dogs are “bad,” as The Atlantic reported in 1997 in “So Long to Bad Dogs.” Aggressive behavior, however, is a common reason people give up dogs. Shelter euthanasia is the leading cause of death for young dogs, according to the American Humane Association. In some way, I feel lucky that fear made Stella cower rather than snarl.