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.
Sensitive dogs are likely to crumble in the wake of trauma, according to Dodman. As a brawny pit-mix, Stella doesn’t look like a dog who likes to wear a raincoat when it drizzles. Alas, she’s a wimp. I don’t know what trauma she’s endured, but the three main post-traumatic behaviors, Dodman says, are avoidance of the situation, hyper-vigilance and active dreams. Stella, who treats idyllic Brooklyn Heights like a war zone, reserves a chunk of time each day for obsessive sniffing, and doggy paddles in her sleep most nights, fits the bill.
We returned to Penn almost a year after her first appointment for a re-evaluation. Stella had plateaued after her initial behavior boost. Granted, having a nutty-but-functioning dog is better than a barely-functioning dog.
The goal was that the psychoactive drugs would balance her mood enough so that she could revisit a place she feared, like the street corner outside my building, and replace her traumatic memory with a new sublime experience. No such luck. After months of tinkering with her dosage and discussing behavior modification strategies, Stella seemed off. She was often lethargic and still froze during walks, even though I chose the most placid streets around. This behavior—halting, panicking and turning around—is what Dodman calls “balking.” Every case he’s seen of balking has involved a city dog, and almost all of them have lived in New York City.
The meds had reduced her noise phobias to some degree, but her general anxiety still flared as her energy plummeted. And her hometown, I feared, stirred the pot.
A few weeks ago, Stella walked into my Brooklyn apartment in an excited, if not slightly manic, state. As usual, I stocked up for a successful stay—fatty chews, frozen marrowbones, favorite toys, familiar blankets, her thunder-wrap, and other treats and comforts. For the first time in two years, my optimism wasn’t in vain.
Stella and I traipsed around Brooklyn like the good old days. She walked without halting, visited parks and dog-friendly stores, and mostly let me choose the side of the street we walked on. But, true to form, she displayed a new idiosyncratic behavior. She would walk almost anywhere—as long as we first went to the nearby Pet Smart. Five days, no panic. I don’t know why Stella had a successful visit, but I’d rather be baffled by her happiness than blindly fighting her fear.