The anxiety and blood pressure spikes of white coat syndrome aren’t fun for us. Most pets have the same problem. That long walk to the exam room, running a gauntlet through other jumpy dogs, is especially harrowing for those already losing their grip.
Instead, I emerged through the side door of the clinic to invite “Newt” and his folks, Anna and Tom, inside for their behavior consultation. Bichon Frise’s are usually bouncy dogs but this 3 year old slunk in and immediately crept under Anna’s chair in my consulting room. You’d think he was headed for the gallows.
I kept one eye on Newt as I gathered a history of urine soiling, fear of visitors, clingy attention-seeking, and aggression. When I peeped over the table for a better look I saw him focusing on my feet. He growled and trembled. He would rather file his knuckles with a cheese grater than spend another minute with me.
Anxiety can be crippling. Anything new may derail a tenuous grasp on stability. People, at least, can talk about it. Newt’s family had moved 3 times during his young life, each upheaval followed by howling and crying even when they were home with him. The worst part was the urine soiling – several times a day. Everybody was miserable.
Trying to catch Newt in the act made no difference. He dribbled when he approached Tom – even when this kind man was quiet and relaxed with him. He urine marked boxes and bags that were set on the floor. He’d hiked his leg on Anna, one time while she was getting dressed in the bathroom. He’d even tagged her while they were shopping in PetSmart. Her outrage was epic.
Scolding Newt when they found messes later got them nowhere. He was a urine machine. They knew he was scared to death. When Anna tried reaching into his crate to take him out he’d started snapping at her. They were all in a hole together. They needed to quit digging.
People – Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em
Our dogs are not little people in furry suits. We love them that way but their upstairs wiring is somewhat different. With his significant anxiety disorder, Newt the Bichon Frise, struggled mightily with life in a human world. He was strongly bonded to his people, Anna and Tom, but his mind overflowed with angst. Contrary to what they had come to assume, urine marking was not his favorite pastime.
Newt was often on the edge of losing impulse control; almost anything could set him off. If Anna reached for him while they sat on the couch together he might curl his lip and spew nasty epithets at the woman in his life. He’d urinate on his water bowl and his people but then suddenly abandon these targets in favor of the walls and furniture. He’d even jumped onto the dining room table and, well, you know. This dog was only fully relaxed 10-15% of the time.
Newt was more connected to Anna. He followed her around the house, sticking to her like Velcro. When his beloved was gone he camped-out at the door, fully ignoring poor Tom’s attempts to engage him in play or even bedtime stories. Always a glass half-full person, this good man felt like a potted plant when his wife was away although, thankfully, not like a fire hydrant.
Newt’s reactive snapping also needed to change. When Anna and Tom had visitors the little devil followed them around the house, barking and nipping at them. A kind-hearted guest tried to pick him up and scared the poop out of the kid. During his evaluation for doggie day care, he nipped the interviewer. Newt desperately needed a peaceful life. He wasn’t the only one.
Prescription Reconcile is a chewable tablet that does a good job of safely reducing anxiety, impulse control issues, and aggression. And it’s FDA approved for separation anxiety. After a few weeks Newt improved somewhat. Now he urine soiled only when his people were both away from home.
The Monster in the Yard
Newt did well on his antianxiety medication. He was alert, happier, and playing with a new puppy but there was no home run. He continued to douse the house when his people were out of sight, although somewhat less often. He certainly suffered from separation anxiety but I was still missing something.
We needed to gather intelligence on Newt’s activities when his people were away from him. Drones? They’d only cause paranoia. So I advised Anna and Tom to purchase a home surveillance system like a Nest Cam. Of course, this was an invasion of Newt’s privacy. We assured him that his secrets, some of them anyway, were safe. I swear. Watching the video, I knew right away that we were onto something.
The great Dane mix and older golden Retriever snoozed on the furniture. And there, in the corner of the screen, was Newt pacing. I watched him move slowly from the living room to the sliding glass door and stop for a gander. After scanning the yard he strolled over to the wall and hiked his leg to release a generous stream.
I was immediately reminded of a comment Anna had made earlier about how hard it had been to get Newt to exit through the sliding door. He would take care of business on leash walks but never in their yard. And so I asked, “Do creatures visit outside?” To which she and Tom replied in unison, “Oh, there’s the big fat black cat.” Tom explained that Newt was “driven absolutely mad” when he spied this beast boldly sauntering beyond his reach. Sightings were consistently followed by a fear-driven indoor whiz.
It turned out that Tom and Anna loved cats as much as dogs but because Newt barked and growled at all kitties, except their sole feline pet, they doted on this stray who dropped by several times a day. Did they feed him? Oh, sure, in prodigious quantities. Newt was not only stricken with separation anxiety but fear of foreign felines.
Life isn’t Perfect; It’s Still Pretty Good
For many dogs, separation anxiety has a hereditary basis but changes in their environment often worsen the problem. It turned out that Newt had been adopted from a shelter, followed by a few moves with his new family. Videos of him home alone showed him not barking or vandalizing but quietly pacing, nonstop – except for the occasional indoor restroom break.
There was no changing Newt’s genome or his life story but we could reduce his anxiety triggers. That confident visiting cat, who routinely scared the daylights out of this nervous little dog, needed to snack at someone else’s cafe. Sadly, it wasn’t that simple.
When I flatly stated that this interloper had to go, the sour looks on Anna’s and Tom’s faces made it clear that this was not some annoying stray; they regarded him as one of their own. I would have felt the same in their shoes but I had to try. Newt’s ability to see his nemesis could be diminished so I advised his people to install frosted window film on the lower portions of their glass door. I also urged them to move this fuzzy freeloader’s feeding station to a neighbor’s yard, maybe someone whose political signs offended them. I was only kidding; cats just don’t care. (I wanna be more cat-like.)
Surveillance video now showed Newt more relaxed and not urine soiling – as much. Tom and Anna admitted that that their feline soup kitchen was still open. The word was out. More homeless cats were dropping by.
Newt improved in other ways. I explained that, despite his undying love and trust for his people, being reached for and leaned over triggered panic for this little nervous wreck. Warning them away with a growl or a snap was a defensive reaction. Newt never planned to cuss anybody out but a sudden stab of fear unfailingly unleashed unkind and uncouth utterances. If flight was not possible, only fight remained.
I encouraged Tom and Anna to set this boy up for success with a better alternative. By squatting at a distance and luring him with food they made it easy for the little guy to happily approach to snag the biscuit and enjoy their gentle petting. If those stray cats could just catch on to healthy canine leadership all would be well in Newt’s world. But, alas, that would make politicians of these fuzzy felines. And they wanted no part of that.