Halloween is almost here and something wicked this way comes. The cackling of a witch is not what I hear, but a much more menacing sound. It is the growl of a Min Pin.
Some may think it is cute when a tiny dog growls, but I can assure you that it is not. For it is often a precursor to more aggressive behavior. A growl was the first sign of inter-dog aggression in our home. I cannot remember exactly when I first heard this sound, but it was around the time of the pups’ first birthday. Aspen would growl at Malibu for no apparent reason. Sometimes it appeared to be resource guarding of toys or preferred seating, but other times it seemed totally random.
For the first few years, that is all it was, growling. Over time, Aspen’s growling transitioned to lunging and pouncing on Malibu. Trying to protect herself from an attack, Malibu will shake Aspen off of her back. Then the two of them will be standing on their hind legs in a face-to-face scuffle. The entire episode, from start to finish, lasts less than ten seconds. Fortunately, this scenario is not a regular occurrence, and I am hoping that it never becomes one.
When Aspen began showing aggression towards Malibu, unsolicited advice given to me early on with the pups began creeping back into my thoughts. Seeking information about mouthy puppies, I had visited several online forums shortly after bringing the pups home. The mouthing was not addressed at all; instead I was warned about aggression among female littermates and encouraged to rehome two of the puppies. I was told that female littermates have a tendency to fight, and that those fights can be brutal, even deadly.
Physically, none of my Min Pins have been injured thus far and I would prefer to keep it that way. I admit that I should have sought help much sooner, but as we all know, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Had I known a growl would lead to more…
Desperate for advice on inter-dog aggression, I scheduled an appointment with a vet behaviorist. I decided against returning to Tufts University, where I had taken Quest for her hyper-reactivity, when I learned that another highly-regarded behaviorist was only a couple of hours away.
In early summer of 2014, I took my entire crew to meet with veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall. My Min Pins were six years old at the time of our visit. Prior to our consultation, I was required to complete a lengthy survey and submit videos of our home environment, daily routines, and, if possible, the problem behavior. A clear representation of Aspen’s behavior towards Malibu was captured, providing Dr. Overall with solid evidence of the drama that unfolds inside of our home.
We spent several hours with Dr. Overall discussing Aspen’s aggression towards Malibu, Quest’s previous diagnosis of social phobia, as well as the general reactive behavior of our Min Pins. While we were with Dr. Overall, Quest had her anxiety on full-display and Aspen picked a fight with Malibu. Both events provided Dr. Overall with a front-row seat to the primary issues in which I have been struggling to find solutions. As for Aspen’s outburst, Dr. Overall stated, “Aspen is pretty serious in her threats, but is not as overly aggressive as she could be – she is so explosive that we are lucky she doesn’t bite.”
Dr. Overall relieved me when she added, “Since Aspen’s behavior has remained the same over the past few years, and not escalated to more serious aggression, it most likely will not worsen over time.” Of course, there are no certainties, but I did feel better after hearing Dr. Overall’s view on future episodes of inter-dog aggression in our home.
I was not surprised that Dr. Overall felt that both Aspen and Quest would benefit from medication. Gabapentin was prescribed for Quest and Fluoxetine for Aspen. Several adjustments have been made over the last couple of months. Trazodone was added for Quest and seems to be helping her. I will update Quest’s progress in a future post.
After being on the Fluoxetine for a little over two months, I weaned Aspen off when I saw no improvement in her behavior. She then began taking Trazodone which helped less, making me realize that the Fluoxetine may have been working. Aspen is now taking both Fluoxetine and Trazodone. It is too soon to know if this combination of drugs will help, but I have learned to take things one day at a time.
Shortly after our consultation, I received a detailed plan that included a diagnostic summary for each dog, medication information, highlights of our discussions, protocols for behavior modification and relaxation, and much more. This plan has become my handbook as it is now an essential component in the rehabilitation of my dogs. Dr. Overall continues to oversee the well-being of my dogs. No drug or dosage change is made without her guidance. Dr. Overall also views the videos that I send and responds promptly with a detailed behavioral analysis. This feedback helps keep my dogs’ progress on track and headed in the right direction.
Protocols for deference, breathing and relaxation, programs created by Dr. Overall, were included in the plan for my three dogs. The goal of these protocols is to create calmer, more relaxed dogs by teaching them that they have some control over their reactivity. Other protocols focus on inter-dog aggression, “special-needs” pets and behavioral medication. It has not been easy fitting these programs into an already hectic schedule, but I am in it for the long haul. These programs will be practiced with my Min Pins for years to come.
Dealing with my crew’s reactive behavior has been a walk in the park compared to handling inter-dog aggression in our home. To a degree, reactivity can be managed by avoiding certain places or situations. Further, through various channels, I have learned how to handle my reactive dogs. It continues to be challenging, but I have gotten a lot of hands-on experience over the past few years.
Inter-dog aggression is a complicated problem with no easy answers or quick fixes. I cannot explain why Aspen is aggressive towards Malibu, and will probably never know the cause of her behavior. Dr. Overall feels that it may be genetic or due to environmental stress that was placed on the litter in their first few weeks of life.
When I look at Aspen, I don’t see a “bad” dog. I see a sweet, affectionate dog who, for lack of a better expression, is unbalanced in some capacity through no fault of her own. I remain hopeful that medication will help decrease, or even eliminate, Aspen’s aggression towards Malibu. Whatever the outcome, I am dedicated to helping Aspen learn how to control her impulses and confrontational behavior.