Borrowing a lab coat

When I realized that Lyra struggled with “out of the ordinary” fear — and that it wasn’t a phase (“It’s not a phase, Mom!”) — I made a promise to her: to help. I had no idea it would involve setting up experiments.

For example, to test a drug. With clonidine, the doses for dogs are anecdotal. There is no sure thing. Trazodone can make a dog less anxious or … more anxious. There is enough scientific research to support a trial in each case — what is called statistical significance — but the stats offer no guarantees. What helps one dog can make another dog worse; or (as with the Mutt Muffs), what helps one dog may not help Lyra. Does clonidine work better for her than trazodone? Is a particular (non-drug) strategy lowering the number of fearful reactions?

To test if something works — or is likely to — you have to set up an experiment. In my first-year biology class at university, we wore white coats to our labs. It felt like a costume — which is how I feel now, setting up experiments for Lyra.

What does an experiment involve? At the very least, you need 1) a hypothesis, 2) a system of recording and analyzing data, 3) a control, or comparison, 4) a conclusion based on 2 and 3. You should also note any errors (e.g., small data set, or rogue variables) to decide if the results have any meaning. Ideally, you would have enough repetitions of the experiment to provide statistical significance.

My experiments with Lyra will never provide statistical significance. I don’t repeat them more than a few times; no one applies the exact same experiment on other dogs. It’s also hard to get a reliable control. I can video Lyra walking near a busy road one day — without meds — and compare it with a video of her on another day — with meds — but it’s haphazard. In other words, I don’t pretend to be conducting real science. I’m just borrowing from the scientific method in order to get answers that are truer than guesswork; to get some knowledge that will help my own dog.

My post is not a paean to bad science. I simply want to underline the fact that most of us aren’t scientists. Owners of fearful dogs have to dig in and try things. We aren’t given experiments in a box — like model volcanoes with all the working parts. At best, we get excellent advice — specific to our own dog — on what to try next. I’ve been lucky to get that for Lyra. Emphasis on “try”.

Using salmon to help Lyra accept the wearable vest

But isn’t that called “life”? The short life of dogs, especially, means that we can’t wait for watertight results. We have to try stuff — put stuff to the test — because dogs can’t tell us what works and what doesn’t. Maybe someone will come out with an idiot’s guide to fearful dog experiments one day. Until then, I’m grateful for a patchwork of online resources.

Of course, the element I haven’t mentioned is ethics. Universities have research ethics review boards. They have protocols. Me? I have a handful of questions that I ask myself: 1) do I have good reason (i.e., research) to think this might help? nb I would never test a drug on Lyra without the support of a vet or (ideally) vet behaviourist; 2) will it cause harm? (Lyra felt crummy on fluoxetine at first, so, yes, it’s a tough question), 3) are there steps I can take to mitigate any harm it might cause? (probably), and 4) will the time and money I spend on this take too much away from what I should spend on my family/friends/species. This last question is the hardest — in some ways, impossible — to answer, but the one that comes up more often is practical: do I expose Lyra to a trigger “needlessly” to test if something is working? My workaround is to use a situation that serves a need (e.g., I need to be able to walk to the vet’s) or that we can’t entirely avoid (hearing trucks on Friday) but I don’t know if my ground is very solid. I.e., I’ve not yet developed a conscious process for ethical decision-making. (Which doesn’t mean that it never happens; just that it’s not closely examined.)

On a practical note: I am currently working on two (imperfect) trials: 1) a higher dose of clonidine, and 2) a wearable device called Calmz, which I’ve borrowed from Lyra’s veterinary behaviourist. We saw him a few days ago. More on that later …

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