Congenital Mental Defects and How To Spot and Manage Them 2

Last entry, I talked about what a congenital issue was, and some techniques for stopping specific ones. Today, I’m going to talk about something even more important: how to manage your dog’s life to decrease any “episodes” overall.

This is something I have a lot of first hand experience in, as Doc has a congenital issue. After three years of living with him, watching him change, and managing his life as best I can, I can say with 90% certainty that he is unable to regulate his emotions. He bounces between extremes with little provocation, and it’s my job to keep him balanced.

In part, this happens with commands as I mentioned last time. I know that someone petting him with great excitement and him jumping on them with joy will trigger mania (hyper-arousal, technically) within 3-5 seconds. So, the commands are “no jumping,” “sit,” “come,” and so on to manage his reaction when people come to the house.

But there are other things I can do in his life to make it easier for him to stay in a balanced mindset, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

First, exercise. We all know getting our hearts pumping is good for us. It releases endorphins and other happy chemicals and it calms down restless energy. Restless energy has to go somewhere; in a dog with congenital issues, it’s going to go into those.

Most dogs can manage with a 30 minute walk a day. (Assuming your dog isn’t a puppy or high energy breed, and with the knowledge that longer is always better.) Doc needs a 1 hour walk, and two BIG events every week — swimming, off-leash hiking, dog park, a long bike ride, etc. With that amount of exercise, his emotional state remains close enough to regular that most people don’t notice he has an issue. Without that amount, he quickly starts swinging from mania to irritation to depression, often over the span of an hour.

Ironically, you also want to make sure your dog gets enough rest. We all get cranky when we’re over-tired. If your dog’s brain is compensating for a glitch all the time, it’s even harder for them to deal with the world. Oftentimes dogs with congenital issues need more sleep or quiet time than other dogs. Doc needs more cuddle time, but not too much cuddle time or he gets possessive of me. It’s a balance. Lily and Cash can both get over-tired with boarders but still maintain good, if put-upon, behavior. Doc has a much harder time maintaining his hard-learned good behavior when he gets over-tired, and needs help in the form of leaving the house with me or being separated so others can’t bother him or trigger an emotional spike.

The other thing that will help a dog with congenital issues is a schedule. The more they can predict what their day will look like, the more brain power they can allocate to compensation instead of anticipation. If something unusual is going to happen, it’s best to wear them out a little extra and even make sure you have them trained to go hang out in a crate or separate area, in case they just need to be out of the new situation.

Finally, training. Practice basic commands, learn new tricks, have positive interactions with your dog that leaves them feeling accomplished and loved. Make it so they do their commands eagerly and quickly, so that when a problem crops up they’ll remember what to do and, hopefully, remember that they like it. Not only will you have a fail safe, but it’ll make them more self-confident that they’re good at something, and make them happier, too.

You might notice that these are all the same techniques recommended to help people decrease stress in their lives. Well, that’s because it’s exactly what we’re doing: decreasing stress for our dog. Along with decreasing stress, use compassion. Don’t think, “My dog is aggressive.” Think, “My dog can’t help this panic attack. I will get him through it, and we’ll be okay.” It’s key to keeping a relationship, effectively training, and keeping trust between you and your dog!



“I want to be awesome! I just need some extra help.”

Congenital Mental Defects and How To Spot and Manage Them 1

This is going to be a long entry, so I’m breaking it up into two parts. This first part consists of explanations and definitions, as well as common problems and trouble shooting, and commands your dog must know. The second part will consist of every day care for a dog with congenital issues.

First, some definitions. Anything “congenital” means the dog was born with it. Congenital heart failure means there was a defect in the heart when the dog was born, and now it’s finally causing heart failure. Congenital IBD would be a dog born with irritable bowel syndrome (which I’ve never heard of in congenital form, but I’m sure exists.)

When referring to mental, behavioral, or emotional problems, congenital usually means that something in the dog’s brain is hardwired wrong, or the chemistry is unbalanced due to genetic factors. It doesn’t mean the dog is hopeless, anymore than I am with my ADD, clinical depression, panic disorder, and anxiety disorder. (ADD means the biology of my brain is actually different than those without ADD/ADHD, while the rest are currently believed to be chemistry imbalance issues.) Some types of seizures can cause brain damage, leading to, essentially, a congenital disorder, as can brain injury or trauma.

Because we don’t typically do autopsies on dog’s brains, they can’t tell us really what’s happening in there, and MRIs, CT scans, and fMRIs are only started to be used and are cost prohibitive, we know even less about what’s happening in dog brains than we do in human brains. Right now, the big signal that a problem is congenital rather than learned is the age of the dog when the problem crops up. If someone tells me their puppy is depressed, anxious, manic (a form of high-energy anxiety, technically called “hyper-arousal”), or aggressive before 6 months of age, that’s going to raise red flags. (You’ll be glad to know that the vast majority of the time the behavior is still within the norm, if not what an owner has dealt with before!)

Congenital problems are VERY rare. Of the hundreds of dogs I see, perhaps 1% of them have congenital problems, while the rest simply need structure, better coping skills, or a little work. Congenital aggression is the one most commonly seen, simply because it’s the most threatening one. Someone with a dog whose congenital issues lean toward anxiety is more likely not to notice, not to realize they can get help for it, or treat it themselves/with their vet with varying degrees of success. Once a dog starts attacking or biting people or dogs, though, that’s when someone like me is typically called in.

There isn’t a lot of research on dogs with congenital issues, so what I talk about here is gleaned from experience, instead. Please note: if you suspect you have a dog with congenital issues, seek professional help. Don’t read this and try things out.

Since the most common thing I see is congenital aggression, we’re going to talk about that. Common themes in dogs with CA are reacting aggressively without much warning, aggression dramatically more intense than expected or warranted, aggression that gets exponentially worse when met with a consequence (even a “no!” or a squirt bottle), aggression that doesn’t back down, aggression toward unexpected triggers, and extreme anxiety/depression/apology from the dog once the moment is over.

This sounds like a pretty terrifying thing, and it is. What’s more, it’s just as terrifying to the dog. Because these dogs almost always start cowering after the fact, sometimes so much as to run away or pee themselves, even when no one has ever done anything to them, I think of these moments as dog panic attacks. The dogs act as if they, themselves, are afraid of what just happened to them, and they cannot control it in the moment.

“Why would anyone keep a dog like this?” I hear you cry.

Because these dogs, like all dogs, are sweet, cuddly, lovable, face-licking, tail wagging members of someone’s family. If this happens once every six months, and the rest of the time your dog is wonderful, you aren’t going to say, “This dog deserves to die.” For many people, it’s like having a kid with an emotional disorder who, unexpectedly, strikes out at classmates, friends, and family. You don’t give up on the kid, especially if the rest of the time the kid is a dog providing unconditional love.

On the other hand, some people do put these dogs down. The dogs are too aggressive or dangerous, or the dogs are miserable. That is never the wrong answer, either. I had to make that call with Champ, when he became both dangerous and miserable, and sometimes it’s the right call to make.

Either way, you’re doing the right thing.

Now that we’ve covered “Why wouldn’t you put that dog down?!” as well as, “How could anyone put a dog down for any reason?!”, hopefully we can move on. (Any comments disparaging the choices people make will be deleted. These are hard enough things to deal with without strangers who are unaware of the full situation layering on shame.)

Here’s the thing: you can’t change the dog’s wiring. You might be able to help his brain chemistry. While you NEVER want to use a sedative on a dog with aggression issues (it can mute their warning signs without muting the aggression, which means an attack will come out of seemingly nowhere), there are medications currently that can help. That’s too long a topic to handle here, but you should talk to your vet.

When dealing with a CA dog, not starting a fight is important. I’m usually a big believer in rewarding good behavior and having consequences for bad behavior (often a squirt bottle, noise maker, or body blocking), but when a consequence could lead to uncontrolled aggression and/or a fight, it’s best to leave it out.

CA dogs need more command training. Since we can’t have a consequence for a naughty behavior, we need to have an alternative instead.

So, if your CA dog’s trigger is your sock, and you come out of the kitchen to see that he has your sock under the table, and you know that if you try to walk past, much less take it away, he’ll go into attack mode, then you need an alternate command. “Come!” is a great one. “Sit,” and “Stay” are musts. Will she be able to hold those commands if she sees you head for “her” sock? Maybe not, so you want to be able to have your dog stay around a corner, out of sight. In the above scenario, you walk away from the sock, back into the kitchen. Grab several dog treats. Call, “Come!” Add your sit when your dog arrives, giving a treat each time. Tell them to stay, leave the kitchen, pick up the sock and put it away, and then release your dog. She’ll probably go examine where “her” sock was and, because these dogs seem to be more obsessive than others, be reactive around the space for a few minutes while she looks for it. This is the time to just give her her space, or distract her with a toy or fun, reward-based command practice until she forgets her previous prize.

Some CA dogs are possessive (and then aggressive) around items, as above. Others can be possessive around space. A dog who doesn’t want anyone near their bed, for instance, and will lunge at anyone who gets close to it, needs different treatment. Sometimes adding multiple beds will help, so they don’t feel the need to guard one; there’s always another. Other times tossing the current bed and getting a whole new one, in a different spot, helps more. If the latter, start right from the beginning sitting in the bed with your dog; bring it into the house, do NOT draw your dog’s attention to it, put it down, and sit in it. When your dog comes over to examine it, praise and love on them and let them join you (in your lap, if needed). From then on, sit in it periodically so it remains a “shared” bed.

If the problem is guarding a space/location in the house, the best way to fix it is to re-allocate the space. If it’s a corner, put a potted plant there. The center of the room? Toss your laundry there for a few days, preferably when no guests are coming over! Anything to change the scenery and make your dog think twice. Even if you can only do this for a few days, it will help break their obsession and lessen their need to defend that space.

Another technique for guarding items, spaces, and food is to change the dog’s emotional state around it. If your dog frequently guards the space under the table and attacks from beneath, then walk near enough so he doesn’t attack, toss a treat without speaking or looking, and keep going. Do it again. Then again. And again. Most dogs take no time at all to be excited to see someone approaching the table, because they know a treat is incoming. Decrease the space needed, and keep doing it.

A CA dog isn’t “most dogs,” but treats for non-reaction will still change their emotions around people approaching. They will probably need more frequent reminders and longer training sessions to write over their brain glitching, but it can be done.

Two other commands I frequently use in a situation where the dog is either guarding a specific location or simply guarding themselves (such as a dog who doesn’t want to be moved once they’ve laid down) are “come,” used just as above with an item, and “go on,” so that if the dog is sitting, say, on my lap and I’m worried, I can order them away. Teaching “go on” is pretty simple; hold a treat so your dog knows you have it, toss it away with a pointing arm gesture, and say, “Go on.” Your dog will dive for it. A few repetitions of that, and they’re diving for the area you gestured toward pretty quickly. Reinforce occasionally with food.

The other useful command for any situation is to teach your dog a “bed” or “place” command. If they’re aggressive over food and you drop something, a quick, “Place!” will have them dashing off, to be rewarded in a moment — after you’ve picked up your egg roll. If your dog, quicker than you, managed to grab the egg roll and is now in his place eating it, then your “come,” “sit,” and “stay” commands might just save the day. Even tricks to distract your dog and get them thinking about something else can be helpful.

I once worked with a dog who refused to let me out of the bathroom after I’d gone in, the very first day we met. His owners were too afraid to try and make him move, knowing that touching him could trigger a fight response. With the cheeriest voice I could summon, I said, “Hi, big guy! Sit!”

A little confused, he did. I tossed him a treat. He stood up to eat it, and I asked him to sit again in the same, cheery voice. After he’d sat and been rewarded a few times, he was no longer defending from me, but instead interested in listening to me. I’d changed the situation. I was then able to walk forward, give him a big pet, and we left the bathroom hall together, calmly. If he hadn’t known how to sit, that could have gone very differently.

It’s tempting to feel hurt, angry, or frustrated when your dog switches into one of these modes. Don’t. This is your dog’s brain glitching; they are not making a conscious choice to be aggressive, any more than I make a conscious choice to have a panic attack in the middle of Target. They’re probably locked in the back of their minds thinking, “Something’s wrong with me, and I don’t know what or understand what’s happening!” Take a breath and give them compassion. Always feed back love; feeding back fear or aggression will only tell them something’s wrong, which will create further stress and more brain glitching.

Hopefully, this gives you someplace to start. Next: helping them manage stress, reduce glitches, and stay safe.



Coping with Failures and Setbacks

Everyone has those times when things go wrong, and your training is set way, way back. If you can think through those moments, you can often mitigate some of the trouble. The rest of it, we just work through. This is my set back story, so you can see where I messed up, what choices I made and why (for good or ill; in most cases only time will tell!), and how I mitigated it as much as possible.

I have a new foster. He’s a year and a half old pittie that I boarded this past spring for five days to try and fix some major behavioral problems. Those problems improved greatly, but in the end his owner realized that a small apartment and a 12-hour-a-day job wasn’t right for a young dog, and it would be better for Champ to be re-homed. (His owner had inherited Champ after a death in the family.)

It had become apparent during the initial boarding phase that Champ had some congenital aggression issues. (Congenital aggression means the dog was born with it; there’s some funny hardwiring in the brain or body, much like people with personality and mood disorders. Much like people with disorders, what the dog goes through in life will partially determine in what way and how severely the disorder develops.) We’d implemented behavioral changes that helped quite a bit, but since I started fostering him (just two weeks ago) I thought blood work and medication might be a helpful route, as well.

Today, we needed to do blood work. As it happens Champ’s vet is the vet I use, and they already know many of his issues. (The vet, owner and I were all working together. I love having good working relationships with the vet!) I didn’t have to prep anyone, which was really nice. Champ and I were let into a room for a tech visit to draw blood, and I spent a few minutes practicing his handling skills; holding his head still, giving a treat. Holding his legs, giving a treat. I did as many of these types of things as I could think of.

When the tech, Amy, came in she had a muzzle with her. Champ isĀ  muzzle trained due to vet issues in the past, and I was able to put it on him with not much fuss. Amy suggested we use a hind leg instead of a front leg, as it might be easier. I agreed.

Here’s where things went haywire. I held Champ in a big bear hug, head restrained and body snuggled up against mine. We needed two vials of blood, and the first one went pretty well. It was mostly full when he decided he was done, and kicked out.

In kicking out, the needle blew his vein. This isn’t anyone’s fault; this is animal medicine. When Amy tried to switch to his other back leg, things fell apart.

In most dogs with learned aggression, there are a few body-hold tricks you can usually do to make them submit and give up. I don’t like using these, although I will in a dire situation. This was a dire situation: it would take six months of training to MAYBE get Champ to let a stranger take blood from his back leg. We don’t have that kind of time; if we can figure out what’s wrong and treat it through supplements or pills, his whole life will get better and training will go much smoother immediately.

Back to Champ and our vet visit. He started thrashing, but wasn’t growling. I did a few restraining maneuvers while Amy tried to get blood, but each time he felt the needle Champ would thrash madly. He began growling. Knowing it might not work at all (but hoping), I decided one of those submissive-give-up holds might be kinder in the moment. If I could get him to give up, then we could get blood and be done. I could build back up trust later.

I tried a couple of different holds; Champ kept growling and fighting. One of the most common symptoms of congenital aggression is that dogs don’t give up. “Normal” dogs realize when they’re trapped and will not win, and go lax. They give up. Alternately, they realize when they’re out matched in a fight, and flee (or stop the behavior you’re trying to eliminate). This is where the idea of an “alpha roll” or pinning a dog down comes in. (For the record: I prefer to use many other methods.)

So, what did I say? Oh yeah. Common symptom: they never back down. Champ doesn’t have many of the common symptoms (and has many uncommon ones) of congenital aggression, so I was hoping a pin to make him give up would work. You can pin a dog in various ways, both to the floor and not. For a moment, I had him on the floor and I thought it was working. He took a breath, settled, and relaxed, belly-up. I cooed and rubbed with my fingers for a minute — and then he lost it again. When I couldn’t hold onto him, I knew that wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, I got his head restrained in such a way that he couldn’t toss us around anymore (me sitting on the floor, his shoulders against my chest, my arm wrapped around his head in a head lock — thank goodness pitty heads are so big!), but I didn’t have enough hands to keep his back leg still. Amy got another tech, and we finally got the blood.

The whole process took about 20 minutes. (Props to The Whole Pet Vet and their awesome techs, especially Amy, who didn’t give up on us and didn’t panic about the snarling, thrashing, 60-lbs pit bull in my arms!) Afterward, Amy and the tech (whose name I didn’t catch) left, giving me permission to use the room for as long as I needed.

To give you an idea of how much thrashing there was, my abdomen is scratched and was bleeding slightly through my shirt, I have bruises mottling one thigh despite jeans, more bruises across my arm, and I believe I either pulled or bruised my bicep and deltoid muscles. Because I was taking the battering rather than letting Champ hurt himself, he came out of it better than I did!

From a training perspective, what just happened? Well, I’m not ashamed to say it was a clusterfuck. While I know that getting blood to get him on meds was important for the long term, I also know that this is a major set back in the short term. For a dog who is already wary of strangers, he just had a horrible experience. Thanks to the staff, I was able to mitigate it as much as possible.

Still sitting on the floor, I held onto Champ until he was no longer rigid. I didn’t want to let go of him until he was willing to be with me, relaxed. While we have a relationship, I had broken his trust, pinning him still while strangers did scary, painful things to him. I needed to make sure that he and I separated with him remembering that I also provided love and cuddles.

When I felt that he’d relaxed, I let him go. He retreated, and I reached out to take the muzzle off, but didn’t otherwise try to pet him. I pulled out my phone and played Candy Crush, giving him the time he needed.

A “normal” dog is going to snap back to love pretty quickly, but Champ isn’t that. If I press love onto a normal dog while they’re stressed and anxious, they will probably respond with relief and love. If I press an abnormal dog in the same situation, they’re not going to be able to think clearly, and may even react aggressively. So my next step was give him time to relax and calm down, so that his maladapted brain could function a bit better.

I let Champ set the pace. He laid in various spots in the room, sniffed the edges, munched some fallen treats, did a lot of panting. I kept an eye on him, and when he started relaxing still more, started calling his name. If he didn’t come, I went back to my game and gave him more time. But eventually, he started coming over to take a treat. At first he would immediately leave. The temptation is to catch a dog at this point and force pets on them, but I’d already broken his trust. I wanted him to come to me of his own free will.

Bit by bit, he started coming to me and staying long enough to get petted. By the time he was lying on the floor within the reach of my arm, about fifteen minutes had passed.

My next goal was to make sure I could touch his back legs without him freaking out. I wanted to do this now, before the idea that people touching his back legs was horrible became set in his mind. I worked carefully, with lots of treats and quiet persistence, until he was all right with it. (Initially, he chewed lightly but with frustration on my hand. I would blow on his ear to catch his attention, give him a treat when he looked up, and let go. My goal here was to reward him for being calm while his leg was being held. Note: I knew that he wasn’t aggravated enough to bite me more than a pinch, maybe a bruise if it got out of hand.) If I wasn’t holding onto him and he walked away, I let him go. This wasn’t the time to bring him back by his leash; I want him learning that he can always walk away, that walking away is more effective than aggression.

Finally, when we could manage all that, we left the room and sat in the waiting area. We did more foot-games. When someone went into the room we’d been in to clean up, we walked to the door and watched her. I gave her some treats to TOSS to Champ — between his general wariness of strangers, his new extra wariness of techs in scrubs, and his general agitation, I didn’t want him jumping at her if she tried to hand it to him and, in his unstable state, he thought she was attacking.

We went BACK to the main waiting area. We did more foot-games, and calmed down even more. I wanted his surety of the vet as The Place of Evil to be shaken, though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to undo it in one session. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t set in stone.

Goals: get him to be calm in the vet’s office, calm seeing the techs, and allow me to handle his feet again. Done.

As we were leaving, I messed up and had to adapt one more time. The vet’s office was actually closed and they were putting things away for the night, and they’d locked the doors and had to let me out. As we stood there, I asked the receptionist (in scrubs much like the tech’s) to give him a treat open palmed, without touching Champ. She said no problem! He took the treat, but then jumped at her, catching the edge of her sleeve in the process. She froze (appropriate) and I made him let go of the cloth.

I had thought he was calm enough to take a treat, but that’s the thing about congenital aggression: they don’t always signal when they’re in distress (he hadn’t), and it takes them hours to come out of distress, instead of the minutes it takes other dogs.

I baited him past her with a treat, then asked her to toss him some treats. Again, I wanted him to know that aggression wasn’t working (he had to go in and do it again, instead of leaving like he wanted, and he STILL had to walk past the receptionist again), but that vet people were awesome treat dispensers. I can always work on his trust with me, so I don’t mind being the “bad guy.” I want strangers to always be the awesome treat dispensers.

Let me tell you: that is a lot of set backs for one day. It’s a lot of set backs that are going to take time to overcome. I’m lucky: I have a fabulous vet and staff who are willing to work with me, and Champ is incredibly intelligent. We’ll get through these.

Some time in the next six months, he’s going to become an amazing dog. He’s already loyal and protective, happy to cuddle, pretty good at walking, great with other dogs, and allows all sorts of indignities such as being laid on and having his ears and tail tugged. (I did check!) The rest of this, it’s trauma and biology. That can be overcome.

As for me, I’m covered in bruises. But hey, given the responses from the vet staff (some of whom I hadn’t met yet) I think my reputation as a badass is firmly lodged. *laughs!*