When Lyra first got diagnosed with a fear disorder — by a board-certified vet behaviourist — we put her on a dose of fluoxetine. At first, she grew worse. She hid in my closet most of each day, refused to go on walks, and had little appetite. It was distressing to watch. Gradually, though, she emerged — and at 11 or 12 weeks I began to see a slight change. If a sound scared her, she recovered more quickly. She was more open to trying things. It was like a small gap had opened, which gave counter-conditioning a toehold. She continues to take fluoxetine — and while it’s not a magic pill (most of her original triggers remain) it seems to have lowered the intensity of her reaction.

We’ve had less luck with other drugs. Most recently, we tried adding buspirone. I’d heard great things about it — regarding fearful dogs — and was hopeful. After 3 months, however, I can see no benefit. It’s a very expensive drug, in Canada at least; besides, I don’t want to keep her on any drug unnecessarily, even if it cost nothing. So we are now in the (very slow) process of fading its use.

We also tried trazodone and clonidine for one-off events. Both, overall, seem to increase her anxiety. Trazodone, especially, put her into a strange state (higher anxiety) at 5 hours post intake; at her maximum dose, Lyra got wobbly and glassy-eyed.

In summary, Lyra seems to be highly sensitive to drugs that are meant to lower anxiety. My guess is that even a slight sedative effect worries her. It may be that we’ve not yet tried the magic combination — other drugs exist — but it’s a long and expensive process with no guarantees. Right now, I am trying to bring Lyra back to her baseline of fluoxetine and put my efforts into more methodical counter-conditioning.

Medicating dogs for anxiety is a hot topic. My own sense is that it’s important to try if a dog’s fear is extreme (i.e., not just the occasional startle response). No one can learn — e.g., that a sound predicts good stuff — while in a state of constant anxiety or hyper-vigilance. However, I’ve also learnt that the pills do not always do what you read on the box. The science in this area is still young. Trust your own observations — and take careful notes.