Airborne Monstrosities – High Anxiety

man and dog

Gas Abuse; Paw Pain
Frustrations come with every job. I’ve been lucky. The problems I have faced that have risked baldness, you know – tearing out my hair – have been followed by good things. Most pets get well. Bonds are forged with their people. Veterinary medicine is challenging but it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

A few years into my life as owner of the Adobe Animal Clinic I’d sent Amos, Heidi, and our other staff home on time, most days, but as we got busier they started looking frazzled. So I hired Mike, a high school student, to come in after hours to vacuum and mop. He did OK for a month or two.

One morning I arrived to find our gas anesthetic machine on its side with its valve wide open, the reservoir empty. Well, that just wasn’t normal. Who could have done this? Mice from the feed store next door? A cockroach army? Gremlins?

The next evening, I returned to the scene of the crime, rolled to a stop with my headlights off, and scurried like a cockroach to our front door. Squatting below the window I peeped over the sill to spy Mike and a couple of other juvenile hooligans laughing and staggering. So I nipped home, called the sheriff (no cell phones then), hustled back, and waited in the shadows.

The deputies disrupted the anesthesia-fueled festivities in rather dramatic fashion. The shame-faced knuckle heads had upended my equipment once again, this time breaking the vaporizer. They were alive and quickly becoming cognizant of their burgeoning police records. I returned home, feeling better and worse.

The next day I met “Little Dog”, recently found on the roadside by a really good guy named Marty, who remains a friend to this day. His new pupster’s injury was obvious. I was struck by the grotesque flattening of his right front paw, which could only have been inflicted by a car tire. While not infected, the exposed and desiccated metacarpal bones were surrounded by chronically inflamed skin. Little Dog had been doing a whole lot of licking for at least several weeks. He was tough but he wasn’t happy.


The Sky can be a Scary Place
“Little Dog” had matted fur and a dangling leg but he was in otherwise good shape, for a 20# canine street urchin. The damage was long past any hope of improvement; only amputation could relieve this boy of his constant ache. With Marty already attached to him I remember thinking that all three of us were lucky to have met. Surgery was uneventful. Little Dog went on to live a long and playful 3-legged life.

Pretty soon a nice lady, Jan, began to accompany Marty to Little Dog’s veterinary appointments. It was clear from the start that this was no summer fling. They’ve raised an excellent family, their children learning compassion by example.

After their last dog passed on, and now empty nesters, Jan emailed me that she and Marty might be ready for a puppy. So I sent her a link to my puppy selection video (search “puppy selection” on my website, They headed straight for the nearest Goldendoodle breeder. So far so good.

The dumbest thing anybody can do is let someone else pick their puppy. A knowledgeable and experienced dog breeder isn’t you. I lean hard on puppy stalkers to stand back and observe before diving heart first into a litter.

Jan and Marty noticed one of the puppies acting shy, another aggressive toward its siblings. They picked “Koko” because she seemed normal. After a few weeks she’d bonded to her human leaders but was starting to act shy. The real problem started on July 4th when the aerial assault freaked her out. Even after the bombardment ended Koko consistently scanned the sky before daring to set foot outside. Contrails, hot air balloons? Fugget about it.

Have you ever known someone who is afraid of almost everything? People and other dogs don’t scare “Koko” but if she doesn’t understand something she slams on the brakes. It got so bad that she refused to enter the backyard. I set about helping my loyal clients with their Koko conundrum. She’s turned into a great dog – with special needs.

doggie door

Airborne Monstrosities – High Anxiety
Jan and Marty had enjoyed watching the hot air balloons drift over their Corrales home but Koko’s arrival in their lives changed that and a whole lot more. This wigged-out adolescent became terrified of the backyard sky. She’d been blessed with an idyllic puppyhood, the best food and a loving family; she couldn’t blame her mother.

There was more. Koko fixated on window reflections with growing terror. Dogs on TV, who she thought were running at her with nefarious intent, scared her witless. Even when not suffering an adrenaline surge she desperately needed to be with her people, nudging and following, sometimes mounting their legs as a displacement behavior. She just didn’t know what else to do with herself. Are we having fun yet?

Koko’s brain, like everybody’s, is the body’s most complex organ. It seemed stable when she was a kid but its neural circuits, driven by her genetics, shifted as she matured. Jan and Marty were flummoxed by who their new dog turned out to be. I’m a believer in temperament testing puppies and kittens to help find a good match but the pet you end up with can be a crap shoot. Jan and Marty were committed to Koko; they decided to play the hand they were dealt.

Koko’s fear of hot air balloons, fireworks, and thunder storms had become classically conditioned. She associated anxiety with the backyard because that’s where she was first exposed to these terrifying events. Being near the TV in the evening triggered a similar reaction.

Will Rogers famously said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” Old Will didn’t realize it but, beyond his sage advice, he was explaining neuroplasticity. The brain is a plastic organ because it can change its anatomy and its chemical transmitters. If Koko were forced to “face her fears” by being shoved outside during Balloon Fiesta or fireworks the neural pathways that carried and supported her intense fears would strengthen. Avoidance of her these triggers (stop digging) was job one.

dog waiting at door

Hiding from Life’s Problems: A Good Strategy
Koko’s fear of her backyard and its airborne threats was making her crazy. There would be no point in applying human behavior solutions; she wasn’t a little person in a furry suit. She was a dog: a denning creature. Her species can find security in a snug enclosure. Her well-meaning people had tried putting her in a wire crate which, unfortunately, felt like a cage to her.

There’s an easy fix for this common error. I advised Jan and Marty to use a sheet to cover the top and all sides of the crate except the bottom 4-5” of the door. Now Koko would have a private lair where she could peek at the world while taking refuge from any storm, real or imagined. Only the element of choice was missing.

Crates can trigger panic. A dog who thrashes and bites the bars while frantically trying to escape is sending an obvious message. Some freak-outs are less dramatic. Nobody should feel trapped. The solution is to never close the crate door.

Koko still needed to relieve herself. Sadly, every time her folks tried enticing her into the backyard, the site of past celestial horrors, she balked and trembled. The front yard, on the other hand, had never been associated with aerial monsters (balloons and lighting and fireworks, oh my!). A dog door provided unfettered access to this safe space. Wow. Another choice.

But if Koko’s fears were triggered in the front yard too, a distinct possibility, our best laid plans would collapse, causing the whole family to move underground and live like moles. To avoid this inconvenience, and the attendant stigma, I advised a bathroom break for Koko prior to early morning balloon theatrics and Independence Day explosions. I encouraged Jan and Marty to nurture an addiction to a weather app so they could plan Koko’s outdoor time to avoid thunderstorms.

Beyond simple kindness there was a physical consideration: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” If Koko’s brain were never again exposed to her fear triggers, or if she could sidestep the worst parts, her unhealthy neural circuits would weaken from disuse. Significant changes in her brain’s anatomy wouldn’t happen overnight but Jan and Marty were patient pet parents. Koko is better now – but she’ll always need careful management.


Don’t Say “No to Drugs”. Say “Yes” to Modern Medicine
Koko’s anxiety extended far beyond her antipathy against aerial aliens and her TV predator panic. She pestered for attention, nudging and pawing her people to distraction. She followed from room to room. They couldn’t even enjoy their privacy in the loo. Annoying? Sure. But from my side the of the exam table I saw a dog who desperately needed peace, not to mention her long suffering humans.

Half -baked attempts to improve behavior disorders deliver paltry results. Pets like Koko deserve the best shot at a good life. Research-based behavior modification and management methods were essential. Caring for the physical neurochemical imbalances in Koko’s brain was no less important. Safe, carefully selected antianxiety medication made a very big difference.

There are many medications from different classes, each targeting different receptors in the brain. Understanding the likely problem circuits and making the best choice is the veterinary behaviorist’s job. We don’t prescribe tranquilizers. No side effects are acceptable. Koko feels much better now with no risk to her internal organs, short or long term.

Koko’s anxiety responded well to sertraline but sudden noises still caused her to jump out of her skin. Gabapentin, likely the safest medication of any kind, was added at a low dose. No longer on the edge of hysteria, this sweet girl was able to learn. She started playing more and began losing her fear of the backyard.

But that @#%&!! television continued threatening Koko’s survival. Her covered crate, now a cozy den, was parked next to Jan’s and Marty’s chairs, its open door facing away from the wall-mounted digital repository of marauding carnivores. A food-dispensing toy, called a Twist ‘n Treat, was stuffed with canned food and frozen overnight, providing Koko an irresistible scavenging opportunity. Fiendish TV creatures? Who cares? This dog was working for her survival.

Sadly, afterschool activities like gymnastics and ballet were off the table. Something about a lack of opposable thumbs. Getting Koko out of the house to play and sniff the rear ends of others of her ilk would get her good and tired. I know this. The Nichol family Border collie “Mick” runs his tail off at K9 Resort. A tired dog is a happy dog,