Calming Methods for Restless Itchy Dogs


Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC, shares insight on using systematic desensitization as a behavior therapy tactic to settle down restless atopic dogs while their owners are away.

Ashley Bourgeois, DVM, DACVD: The other thing with my dog is, she is 1, that now we have been home a lot more. I have not travelled for a year, I hope that law is changes very soon. My husband's working from home. When we talk about calming methods or the age-old question of what's going to happen to all these dogs who are restless? Plus you add on Adaptil to it, what are some suggestions, whether it's the pheromones or other behavioral modifications, or calming methods we can use for these pets that are dealing with chronic disease?

Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC: There's a huge population out there of not only animals that we know have issues, for example some of the dogs that have had a diagnosis of separation anxiety prepandemic, who are now living their best life with their people at home, we know we're going to run into problems with those dogs. We have a huge population that are unknowns. Where they may be young enough that they've not experienced anything significantly different or maybe they were adopted during this time and it's gone on for long enough that we just don't know what's going to happen next. That's an unknown population.

I would also add that there's a population of dogs who are more of our generalized anxiety patients that quite honestly, any change is a stressor. Whether were shifting from working to home, from home to working, or going back and forth, just the fact that it's different is going to create a stress level for those animals. To some degree, we've got multiple populations that we’re lumping together here. Honestly, I think for me, the answer that looks at all those populations is trying to predict what life is going to look like for the animal. If that means that we are likely to be spending more time away now, is there a way to start creating those experiences now while we're still at home, for example.

Is it an opportunity to take a 2-minute walk around the block, where we give the dog a long-lasting food toy—assuming this is something that they are comfortable with and we're not creating any risks by doing so—we give the dog a long-lasting food toy, we step out the door, and now we've got a 2-minute work departure. If 2 minutes is OK, cool, then 4, then 7, then 12. Maybe we jump back to 4 and then we jump to 15. We're creating an experience that creates a learning history for the animal so when that actual change occurs, it's not a sudden out of the blue transition that doesn't make sense to the animal. Can we help them acclimate and adjust even before that transition happens? That's a helpful strategy for a lot of these patients regardless of which bucket we might be putting them in, in terms of their diagnosis.

Ashley Bourgeois, DVM, DACVD: I love that. I notice a little theme as far as adjusting. You said the same thing in different ways for both adjusting to topical therapy. You mentioned do we wipe the paws for 2 seconds, give a treat, wipe the paws give a treat, rather than saying, “Do it for 10 seconds.” Then also the leaving. Going away for a couple of minutes. It sounds like, from a behavior standpoint, you don't really want anything to be cold turkey. Is what I'm gathering?

Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC: Yes. We often think, in behavioral terms, of green, yellow, and red. Red is the panic response over threshold, worry. Green, the animal is completely calm and relaxed. Yellow, there's a moderate level of concern. The sweet spot where the majority of really successful learning tends to happen is right at that green to yellow interface. If we're putting the animal into a red situation, full day workday, using our example here, we're hoping that the animal gets used to it and we're expecting the learning process of habituation to kick in. If the animal is experiencing a level of panic in that moment, whether it's because of that separation or it's because of the 10 minutes required to stay in the bath, either way, we're more likely to sensitize that animal and we create a traumatic experience in the name of therapy. That's not what we're going for.

Can we get that animal back to green, back to comfortable and basically stretch their tolerance? Get them just to the edge of yellow where they're saying, “This is different, this is a little…OK but it ended it well. I can work with that.” We're back to green. Then we create these recurrent exposures because when you do, suddenly the green to the yellow feels a whole lot greener. Now we push a little bit more and that's our new green to yellow. Truly, that's the process of systematic desensitization that we talk about as the cornerstone of behavioral therapy across all aspects of what we do.

Ashley Bourgeois, DVM, DACVD: Great.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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