Dr. Nichol’s Podcast – Freaked out by Strangers & Sick when Alone

The Mind-Body Connection is Big

Lulu is a really sweet female Australian cattle dog and she’s mighty cute too. She’s 2 years old and she’s a big girl, weighing in at 50 pounds. Lulu lives with a very committed pet parent who will do whatever it takes for her dog’s well-being. That’s a good thing because this girl has faced a few serious challenges.

Lulu had been adopted from a shelter just 2 months before she and I first met. An excellent new anti-itch medication called Apoquel was helping but Lulu wasn’t taking it consistently because it upset her stomach. She landed in my exam room because her behavior was scaring the daylights out of people. Anybody who rushed onto the scene could trigger this dog’s fear-related aggressive displays. “Scary monsters don’t belong here. Move to the next county and nobody gets hurt.”

A panicked dog spews an explosion of canine obscenities and jumps around and acts crazy, all in in an effort to motivate the invading fiend to just back away. I know I would. Then, with greater distance from the 3-headed alien, an unhinged dog of any size and description can finally calm down a little and take a few deep breaths.

Poor Lulu’s anxiety has caused her to struggle with more than fear-related counter-threats. She was over-bonded, following her special person from room-to-room around the house, always worried about being alone. The poor kid was freak-out a lot of the time – even without alien invasions. OMG!

Lulu’s anxiety was causing significant damage to her quality of life. After carefully observing Lulu, and gathering reams of details about her I explained the causes and management of Lulu’s challenges to her person. I phased-in behavior modification protocols for Mom to apply, one step at-a-time. As her good leader exited the house she was to fully ignore, while dropping a few food toys on the floor. Rather than wringing her paws and sweating out her person’s absence the hungry Lulu stayed occupied, engaging her brain in the natural and essential canine survival behavior of foraging.

Lulu’s fear of visitors had its own management strategy. Strangers who entered the house were to sit before this girl was allowed out into the living room. Being closer to the floor made them seem smaller and less threatening to her.

Pets with severe behavior disorders need every advantage if they’re going to have a decent chance at success. Medication, while not the entire solution, made it possible for Lulu to learn better alternative responses.

Avoidance of Lulu’s fear triggers was also important. By not allowing her to ramp-up her arousal we could prevent the strengthening of the neural circuits in her brain that were responsible for her old dysfunctional coping habits.

Simply scolding a dog for doing the wrong thing, like lunging and snapping, never works because she’s agitated in-the-moment and has to do something. Punishment is faster but an anxious dog can only get more anxious and behaviorally sicker when getting repeatedly hammered.

Lulu’s physical symptoms were a related but separate diagnostic and treatment challenges and a serious drag on hers and her mom’s life. When Lulu was boarded or left in the care of a pet sitter this over-bonded girl struggled with diarrhea and often vomiting too.

Following one stint at the kennel Lulu broke with a mange lesion on her face. Those microscopic burrowing insects, called demodex, had very likely been on-board since the kid’s earlier stretch in the shelter. An oral medication called NexGuard will reliably rid her system of those annoying mange mites. But back in the day, mange could be a tragic and sometimes fatal, affliction.

The underlying causes of stress-related diarrhea can be deeply rooted. We’re taking Lulu’s long term GI management one step-at-a-time. Right now we’re giving her a probiotic called Proviable to repopulate her intestines with healthy bacteria.

Lulu’s life hasn’t been a cake walk but she is doing much better. Behaviorally she’s made real progress. She’s calmer around unfamiliar people and hasn’t threatened anyone’s life.

I’m optimistic for Lulu. Lulu’s person, her leader, has a can-do attitude. Her dog has already learned to abandon her old fear-driven defensive reactions.

Over my career I’ve ridden the roller coaster of success with many pets and disappointment with a few others. There are lots of factors in every case but resiliency is what matters most. Lulu the dog is optimistic because her person is.

Lulu’s mom has faced adversity. But she stood tall and adapted. Her self-assurance and confidence are infectious. Her dog recognizes it and so do I. People like this good lady bring out the best in everybody around them, including their pets. Her underlying belief in kindness has made it possible for her dog to succeed. I’ve been inspired by her and by Lulu too.

I hope you’ve found this information on dogs and their people helpful. And I invite you to share it with your pet loving friends. If their dogs react badly to surprises or get sick and act out when their people are away, they’ll be glad to have this information.


Each week I make a short video or podcast or write a blog to help bring out the best in dogs and cats. Sign up at no charge on my website, drjeffnichol.com, and I’ll also send you my At-Home Emergency First Aid and CPR guide for pets. Thanks for listening. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.