Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pongu Off Prozac

After many months of behavioral rehabilitation, I finally took Pongu off Prozac a couple of weeks ago.

Almost 18 months ago, he started on 20 mg/day of Prozac. A few months later, after consulting with several trainers and behaviorists, we upped that dose to 30 mg/day. At the same time we embarked upon the long, slow process of teaching Pongu how to cope with everyday life and handle his anxiety in safer and more productive ways. This took many, many months of very small steps.

We had some setbacks and we had some delays (and I got to learn firsthand about how much fun it is to try regular counter-conditioning protocols with a dog too fearful to accept even the tastiest treats anywhere outside his safe zone), but eventually we reached a point where Pongu could tolerate more noise and chaos than I ever imagined possible, and could even focus well enough to do Rally practice sessions on city sidewalks.

I don't think we would have made it without the medication. I doubt Pongu could have coped with his daily anxieties without Prozac, and I doubt he'd have gotten past his terror of training facilities without Xanax. The medications not only made it possible for him to calm down enough to focus, but enabled him to have fun -- and once he learned that he could have fun while working, the work itself became fun, and that built into a spiral of positive reinforcement that eventually gave him the ability to self-control and self-calm by doing something as simple as a Heel Sit. The familiarity of the exercise, and (I believe) its strong association with feelings of pride and accomplishment, really seem to enable Pongu to mentally regroup and switch from fearful mode to thinking mode.

Once he earned his RL1 with an Award of Excellence -- a goal that I honestly was not sure this fearful little mutt would ever accomplish, since back in the early days all the trainers we'd consulted had cautioned me not to expect Pongu to ever trial in any sport (which, looking back on it with the benefit of what I know now, I believe was mostly hedging against the great uncertainty of owner compliance) -- I decided that it was time to phase out the Prozac. He was doing well enough that I didn't think we needed it anymore, and even though he'd been on it for a long time, I was and still am a little uncomfortable about using behavioral medications longer than strictly necessary.

Besides, there were some slight side effects. The biggest one was that Prozac gave Pongu a dry mouth, which in turn caused his teeth to get dirty a lot faster than Crookytail's did. I was worried that longterm use might compromise his dental health.

So I spent a month weaning him off the medication, dropping his daily dose from 30 mg to 20 mg to 10 to nothing. I noticed no behavioral changes during the period of decreased doses, but 4 or 5 days after he was totally off the medication, his behavior did start to change a little.

Pongu is now quicker to startle at unexpected noises or movements. He seems more vigilant when out on walks. He is noticeably more reactive to strange people and dogs; he'll go into barking/lunging episodes at longer threshold distances and more frequently than when he was on Prozac. It's not such a tremendous change that I feel a need to put him back on the medication, but it's a noticeable change.

He doesn't sleep through the night as soundly; he will wake up and rush to the door barking when the neighbor leaves for work around 6:30, which he didn't do before, and sometimes he wakes up and barks at strange noises outside. He seems more insistent about pushing against me for petting and cuddles (and won't go back to sleep until I pet him a little), which I interpret as linked to anxiety.

However, not all the behavioral changes are bad. Pongu used to be somewhat anorexic -- he'd regularly refuse meals if he was bored with a particular kind of food -- and his appetite seems better since he went off Prozac. His reaction times are faster and he's more responsive during practice sessions (sometimes overly responsive, in fact; I'm having to adjust my cues to compensate). He seems more athletic; he's more energetic during jumpwork sessions and while practicing on stairs. The overall effect seems to be like lifting off a layer of cotton wool that had been muffling certain aspects of his personality, for good and ill.

It seems like we've settled into the new reality, and it's not bad. Pongu can still focus in environments that would previously have overwhelmed him, and he can still trial successfully in APDT Rally. So, for the time being, the plan is to keep him drug-free and see where the new year takes us.

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