Mental Health and Illness in Dogs

Stoli in the pool

The range of dogs I see in my dog training/behavior practice run the gamut from easy going and happy happy joy joy pups to radically disturbed dogs. The disturbed dog can be an especially unsafe dog -- to other dogs (dog/dog aggression), people (dog/people aggression), stuff (destructive) or in some cases, self destructive.

NOTE: A definitive ruling in or out of organic causes for behavior is only possible with an autopsy. What I deem to be the unworkable disturbed dogs, those with serious brain damage, those I have recommended euthanizing, include only 6 dogs out of the hundreds and hundreds of dogs over many many years -- and of those six, 5 were dangerous to people and one was actively suicidal. I use my own "hairs standing up on the back of my head" for such a dire diagnosis, and as noted, that experience is very rare for me. I always recommend at least a second, if not a third opinion before euthanizing and I would NEVER recommend euthanasia without first handling the dog in person. In one of the most severe cases, and unsolicited, my veterinarian did a necropsy and confirmed my suspicion -- the dog had multiple lesions on his brain. These lesions were most likely the result of intentionally inflicted head injuries he reportedly sustained in his early hellish life before "rescue" -- he was the scariest dog I ever met -- a ticking time bomb who did not have one redeeming feature. He spent most of his energy looking for something new to harm. He didn't deserve the beatings he received as a pup before he was adopted, no sentient being does, but society didn't deserve his terrorizing anti social and aggressive behavior. I did end up holding his paw as he peacefully died in a calm, relaxed environment -- a final act of kindness for a tragically damaged dog. But these are extreme cases and not the ones I refer to below.]

I have seen dogs who present with depression, anxiety, extreme fear, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), PTSD, and other mental health maladies. Mental illness can be caused by an imbalance of the brain chemistry and I recommend health checks before or in the early stages of behavior modification work if the owners haven't already ruled out a medical problem. Most problems dogs have behaviorally have to do with poor early socialization and/or neglect, inconsistent or unrealistic expectations, improper care or handling of the dog, anthropomorphizing of the dog by the owner suggesting a communication gap, and a reactive mode of humans to what is the dog perfectly fine behavior. These are all nurture problems. Nature, the genetics, also play a role. Another reason why it behooves one to know the characteristics of the breed or mix of breeds their dog possesses to help keep training in perspective.

The Six Pillars of Dog Training Wisdom follows a rubric intended to help people with their dogs, whether just starting out or addressing obvious problems. The Six Pillars include The 3 D's & SMT. In brief, one must consider, usually in this order, Distraction, Distance & Duration within a Structure (routine) while using Management in the context of Training.

History: Stoli (pictured) is an approximately 18 month old Rottweiler mix adopted earlier this summer by a young woman about to enter her senior year of college. Stoli had apparently been found, along with a cat, in the attic of an abandoned house. It's not clear how long she was left there, although she was rather emaciated when she was found. And she was found only because her frantic, chronic barking alerted people to investigate. She was fostered through a rescue group and deemed to be socially fit with both people and dogs. The young woman who adopted her brought her to her parents house for the summer before going back to school with her new dog in tow. The presenting problems as described to me included a series of fights that had occurred between Stoli and the resident dogs in the parents' house. Gromit, an 11 year old n/m mixed breed of undetermined origin (Keeshond? Shepherd?) and Izzy, a 7 year old Great Pyr/Irish s/f Wolfhound mix. The slightest of triggers escalated into a full out fight, but because of remarkable bite inhibition, there were never any injuries. A lot of slobber and understandable concern. In addition, Stoli was extremely reactive, and strong, when out on walks. Whenever she saw another dog, even from a great distance, her tendency was to go ballistic.

Protocol: I put a pretty strict behavioral modification plan in effect with a lot of management to keep all safe and invited family to bring Stoli to a DIP to observe her with others. Her behavior was pretty fascinating. Entrances into DIP begin with a slowing down. Dogs that are overeager to enter are managed until they are calm enough and then let off the leash with permission to "go play." The dogs already in are managed at a great enough distance to help in the process, after which they too are allowed to "go play" when the new dog enters. When dogs exit, the process is repeated in reverse order. My observations of her interactions showed some interesting behaviors. Present at the DIP were two of my dogs -- Trip and Tommy, and another regular, Cody. With both Trip and Cody, something triggered an explosion and a brief spat which I interrupted and as soon as she was separated, I let her go and she got along fine with both. With Tommy, my wizard, he growled at her and she let him be. Interestingly, growls from other dogs trigger her to react. Not from the Wizard.

Before long Bubbles and her autistic charge, Sammy and his father arrived. Despite multiple efforts to get them to coexist peacefully, Bubbles' generally submissive nature caused Stoli to bully her repeatedly. There was a brief interlude in which both female dogs were loose and fine, throwing out a lot of calming signals to each other, but it didn't last. My diagnosis. Canine PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To her credit, Stoli is fantastic with people. She is smart. But she is strong and her behavior is scary. To the trained eye, she does exhibit some behavioral cues to indicate a reaction. Here's a picture of her stalking which I noted right before another attempt to charge Bubbles (I stopped it).

What happens in Stoli's rehab remains to be seen, but her road to recovery will require a very proactive path indeed. Management and structure are key to her training while bearing in mind the 3 D's. Helping desensitize her to the triggers that cause her to go on the highway to hell will take time. I'd like to get her on some Bach Flower Essences and a strict protocol. And I'd like to see her return to DIP for more observations, experience and rehab. And about that baby pool? I've seen it before and I see it in her. When Stoli is feeling overwhelmed, going into the baby pool with a few inches of water helps calm her down and refocus. Within the 90 minutes or so she was at the DIP, she entered the pool multiple times. Each time she exited, she was a little less crazy for a little bit longer. Stay tuned for her continuing road to recovery. Good to note, she is exquisitely gentle with cats.



With today's best vet diagnositics, often available only at a vet school, some of the medical conditions that cause mental aberrations or abnormal behavior CAN be detected and diagnosed in the living dog.

EEG can detect seizure activity and Nicholas Dodman has described cases of sudden violent aggression that correlate with seizures. This makes sense in terms of brain sites for aggression. Whether or not anti-seizure medication can give enough control and how much risk the owner is willing to live with would vary case to case. Size and power of dog would be a key issue as an all out attack from a Chihuahua is a diffferent thing from an all out attack by a Rottie or a Saint (gee, maybe someone could get a novel or movie out of that one).

MRI and CT can find brain tumors in living dog. And some of these can be cured by surgery or by radiation therapy. and there are some new modes of radiation that let a cure be done with only 2 or 3 treatments rather than a long series.

A liver shunt can cause abnormal behavior and can be diagnosed in living dog and treated. There's a couple other liver metabolic problems that can affect behavior and that are diagnosable and treatable.

and of course low thyroid can be an issue. easy enough to diagnose and treat.

Vet science is a moving target. Never think that because something couldn't be done or wasn't understood 5 years ago that it's still the same today.

But of course a necropsy can be revealing of something that couldn't have been diagnosed. Necropsy can give an enormous relief and peace of mind when you have euthanized a dog because the dog was so dangerous that no reasonable person could deal with him. Likewise when you have euthanized a beloved dog because medical issues were causeing suffering. I've had a number of adored dogs necropsied at the UC Davis VMTH , dogs who had been treated there, and the results always ratified the rightness of the choice and timing of letting that dog have a peaceful exit.

And there was one dog, a dog I had previously fostered, who became unpredictably aggressive, very suspicious of seizure disorder or tumor, who got to the point (despite heroic efforts) of being horrifically dangerous and so was euth'd and whom I wish we could have done a necropsy on. Two years earlier this dog had seemed absolutely normal and more stable than most. and I know it wasn't bad management by the adopter or anything she did wrong. Very painful for both of us to have to let him go. and we will never know for sure just what was the cause. but we did have to admit that he was just too dangerous. fortunately that is rare.

How very interesting that Stoli has discovered that she can relieve herself mentally by lying in a few inches of water. That may be suggestive of a metabolic issue or neurological one. because it suggests that she is over-heating. I wonder what you'd see if you were to take her temperature at intervals, and especially right before she dips herself and right after she exits the pool.. now rectal temp is something most dogs find disagreeable, but the ear temp devices should be quite acceptable ; they are not considered to be quite as accurate as rectal, but for the purposes of this little uncontrolled experiment should be good enough. and if she is spiking temperature, well that's something to discuss with a vet who is boarded in Internal Med (ACVIM after her name). metabolic, endocrine, neurological ??? I'd take her to a vet school because there you have every kind of expert.

but even if the reason why her dips in the wading pool help her to calm herself is never discovered or understood, at least you know that she'd benefit from always having that pool available. that's something any owner could have in their yard. these are dirt cheap. I've got one in my yard that I got at the thrift shop ; fill it on hot days because some of my dogs like a short soak --- got to close the stretch gate to my bedroom then so I don't have a wet dog hop up on the bed.

one more thing. you say "a full out fight, but because of remarkable bite inhibition, there were never any injuries" and to me that's something of a self-contradictory statement. in an all out fight, there would be no bite inhibition and at least one dog would get injured. bite inhibition means it's less than all out. and that would be good news to me. now it's still something you want to change. because these kinds of "full of sound and fury" incidents are very upsetting to people and probably not real pleasant for the dogs --- and once in a while a serious injury can occur even though neither dog really intended to do serious injury.

I know of another dog who almost certainly has something that can be called PTSD. dog fostered by friend of friend. this poor dog two years ago somehoe wrapped an electric cord around her neck and then bit into it. she was being electrocuted and it took her person a bit of time to manage to get the cord unplugged or to find main breaker and shut all juice off. the dog has a hole in her tongue. well ever since then if someone grabs hold of her collar or takes hold and pulls, the dog panics -- panics and bites wildly. easy enough to understand. I don't know if anyone has tried to desensitize her, but it wouldn't be too surprising if that failed. I've suggested that the dog simply not wear any collar at all and have her tags attached to a body harness. no collar would mean that no one will grab her collar or pull on it. thus protecting people in public who wouldn't know about her problem (though of course grabbing a strange dog's collar is pretty stupid thing to do). dog is OK about being on leash and may well be OK about being guided by a tab left hanging on the collar. fortunately she is with someone now who is a very smart trainer and eclectic enough to think of methods that could work.

Given that dogs have almost all the same brain structures that humans do (everything but the extremely convoluted cerebral cortex), same emotional brain structures, and the same neurochemistry, it's only reasonable that they could have a lot of the same mental illnesses. maybe not manifesting quite the same or diagnosed the same. how would you know that a dog is hearing voices in her head ??? (Joan of Bark ??) some of the same medications seem to work. talk therapy doesn't work of course. and dogs don't create their own mental anguish in the way people can do so well. a lot of the damaging self-talk that Cognitive Therapy works to combat are things a dog would never say to himself. So crazy dogs are probably a lot less common than crazy people. and dogs can't get hold of assault guns .

Work with enough dogs, as trainer or behaviorist or rescue person, and sooner or later you find yourself saying "that one has a screw loose". that might or might not amount to a mental illness. might just reflect the person's limitations. but some of them really do have something wrong with them mentally. and there's no separating mind from body, so what's wrong mentally can be something wrong medically that can be found and treated.


Fascinating response. Thanks so much for it. As it happens, I am likely to see Stoli again today for another DIP. I will be watching her for any measurable improvement. And yes, when I meant fight, I saw her behavior as severe enough to cause harm because of her physical strength.  In one of the exchanges between Bubbles the submissive and agreeable Golden Retriever, after I had muzzled her just to err o side of caution, I saw Stoli trying to use her paws to almost slap at Bubbles. I wish I had some video to see more specifically the sequence I saw -- unfortunately I can't videotape and wrangle ballistic dogs at the same time. Maybe I need a miner's helmet with a video camera attached! Hey, there's an idea!

I don't think it's seizure activity. I could be wrong. But honestly, from my observations of her, there seems to be some sort of precipitating trigger (a growl, a stare, something) and if the dog is deemed by her to be not to her liking -- either too submissive as in Bubbles case or very entitled as one of the resident dogs in her owner's parents home, she cannot contain herself and needs restraint. Most fascinating of all to me what when my shih tzu wizard Tommy growled at her for annoying him with her overbearing essence  (and growling is one of those triggers that causes her to go ballistic), she respectfully curved away from him. However, also interesting, is Tommy chose to go in the house and not remain outside with us. That is an occasional but rare behavior from him. He usually wants to be near me. In fact, at one point I went in and asked him to come out. He did, but then went in shortly thereafter and I let him stay. I purposely left my 9 year old ESS, Bean, in the house, just to keep things more manageable and partly for Bean's need to learn to be less distressed when away from me when I have dogs over. I suspect in all honesty I thought that Bean and Stoli would have a rough time of getting along, and I didn't want to add to the rip tide season of this particular Drop in Play session. I may cross that today when she returns.

I am fascinated by the temperature exploration. Not sure if I can manage it today, and Stoli may be going to a kennel for boarding (clients had wanted me to do a board and train but I am already fully booked and with her unpredictability, I wouldn't want to overburden myself). I just wonder how that kenneling experience will impact her. Time will tell.


Rachel Friedman, MSW, LISW, President A Better Pet LLC

I'm also very interested to hear how this story develops. I have a dog who behaves extremely similarly (very smart, excellent with humans, seemed fine with other dogs in the first few months at home, and now has the same weird triggers to most dogs but not all). It's like she is socially dysfunctional with her own species... but the good news is she has learned over time to consistently make the best decisions, that is, to stay away and avoid confrontation. I absolutely adore this dog; thanks for the post and keep 'em coming!

re: kenneling, Stoli might be different, but I have found that my girl is much better around other dogs when in an unfamiliar environment without her owner(s) present. It's like she is outside of her comfort zone and in survival mode. I also know that a big part of her problem is owner-guarding-related insecurity (abandoned to the shelter twice during adolescence).

One last thing, has the owner tried providing more exercise? My dog is pretty high-energy so that alone can make a big difference.

to both Rachael and ginginbonbon,

My first thought when a dog has problematic interactions with some or most other dog is that this dog didn't get enough socialization with other dogs during the sensitive period = 5 weeks to 12 weeks. That's the time when the pup should be with littermates and momma bitch to at least 8 weeks and then should get good experiences with socially well adjusted puppies and adults from 8 weeks onwards (in situations where it's known that the others are all vaccinated, environment not contaminated with bits of feces tracked from more questionable areas, people haven't been handling shelter dogs or have properly decontaminated themselves, etc). Ideally this includes at least one socially nice pup-firendly adult male dog, preferably more than one. Ideally it would include some dogs of breed other than that of the subject dog, especially those with different ear, tail, visibility of lips, etc.

It's far more likely that the socially inept dog is simply undersocialized and "doesn't speak her native language very well" than that the dog really is abnormal mentally, "has a screw loose".

Now Rachael mentions video recording. YES !!!! Video is a terrific tool for all kinds of behavior analysis. Video lets you re-play the same incident many times and play it in slower and slower motion until finally you can "catch" the vital subtle clues in the body language of the participating dogs (and any participating humans). For dogs who behave one way in the presence of a particular person and another in absence of same, well video is the only way you get to see what you yourself are really doing : " to see yourself as your dog sees you". And if the video includes sound, that's another possible issue that could be involved.

Unfortunately video won't include any olfactory information , and one must always wonder what role olfactory clues are playing. Even when one is present, well we humans have noses that serve little function other than to hold our eyeglasses in place to compensate for our poor vision.

Video cameras are so very cheap these days, especially digital video cameras. Digital video could be sent over internet to someone whose opinion and help is being sought, assuming high speed connection at both ends. Or it could be burnt to CD or DVD and snail-mailed . the camera and original media can be hand-carried into any consultation with a behaviorist or trrainer.

There is just no substitute for being able to study the body language of all the participants.

Now when a human is part of the picture, when dog behaves problematically when a particular person (or human generally) is present but behaves "better" when same is absent, then obviously something that person is doing is relevant. Often a person expecting trouble will tighten up on a leash, sending tension down the leash into the dog. Often a person expecting trouble will hold their breath and tense up their body , which could be hard to spot even on video. I often advise people to see if deliberately relaxing body and breathing very slowly, long slooooow exhale especially, makes any difference.

One of my e-friends says that one of her dogs is badly behaved at vet when one of the couple takes her in but is OK at vet when the other one takes her. That statement of the issue implies an obvious solution : unless it's an emergency, let the one she behaves well with be the one who takes her. It would of course be interesting to figure out what the difference is in the two people's behavior or thought process or relationship to the dog might be that causes the difference in the dog's behavior.

It would be ideal if all doggie day care and play centers would have at least one video camera set up and running during sessions. Security cameras are pretty cheap and can be set up affixed to a wall and recording onto re-useable media and also wired to TV display or computer monitor in another room (or in some cases sent in real time over internet to a computer elsewhere). I've seen these at Frys.

Alternatively for the dogs whose people are discussing them here, a hand-held camera held by any person willing to help, anyone able to keep moving camera to follow the subject dog, would do the trick. Camera on a tripod wouldn't follow action, but may be the best you can do if no helper is available. Secure the tripod to the wall so dogs don't crash into it and cause it to fall and damage camera (use a fairly cheap camera anyway).

Rachael mentions using a muzzle. Bravo , Rachael. That's really common sense. Use of a "wire basket" = "cage the snout" type of muzzle sure does "take the worry out of being close". It can be a valuable tool to let you assess an unknown situation safely, whether that new unknown situation involves dogs or people. It can be a critical tool to achieve the first few steps in a remedial protocol, such as desensitization and counter-conditioning, in a way that is safe for participants. Nobody wants to be a helper if that means they risk getting bitten or getting their dog hurt.

Now even though dogs learn their social skills most easily during that sensitive period, they can still learn better skills later in their life, though not as easily or quickly. Other dogs involved should be ones who are especially socially skilled or gifted. Some dogs "speak their native language" like Shakespeare and those are the dogs who best can help those unfortunate dogs who are deficient in social skills. Some dogs are really good at "calming signals" or in some other way getting a tense dog to relax , to trust, and finally to play. If you can't find a gifted dog as your dog's teacher, at least find one who is normal and tolerant of other dog's rudeness.

ginginbonbon mentions exercise as a factor. indeed, most dogs in USA get less exercise than they'd enjoy and often less than they need , just because this has become a nation of physically inactive people. But the types of exercise that most benefit dogs behaviorally is exercise that the dog does in partnership with a person, exercise that includes an element of the dog responding to the person and being guided (or under control of) a person. I like to weave some simple cue & response into walks with dogs. Simple things like Sit or Come, plus the dog keeping leash loose (if on leashe) and responding to my pace and change of direction. This is as distinguished from the dog careening around doing whatever it pleases. Now for many dogs some of that "at liberty" exerise is just fine , as at the dog park with other socially nice dogs, but for some they just get more and more "wound up" and less and less able to settle or focus on a person. All dogs need to have an "energy saver" mode and a "rest" mode as well as a high activity mode. So doing a few down-stays during a long walk and not continuing until the dog's respiration and heart rate have dropped would be appropriate. Or it doesn't need to be a stay : just the person sits down and does some meditation and waits for the dog to similarly settle and calm. For those of us who are getting on in years, doing a rest break in the middle of a long walk may be something we would do anyway.

(Real working dogs (herders , police, search, etc) especially need to be able to take a break and go into rest mode when there is a chance to do so ; if they can't do that, then they will be "out of gas" long before the work day ends.)

Rachael mentions a client asking for "board and train". When clients ask for "board and train" it's important to get them to understand that training the dog is only part of the solution to better behavior. Always always there is something that the clients themselves will have to learn and some behavior of their own that they have to change. It's never JUST the dog, it's always at least partly the humans. But of course sometimes having trainer work the dog is an initial step, think of it as a head-start. but then the people too have to be trained and the people have to work with the dog. In the horse world it's common for a rider to learn something first on a school horse (horse who knows how to do it and is willing to do it for a less skilled rider) and for the rider's own horse to be taught same thing by the trainer , then the rider gets back on her own horse and they learn how to do it together. The same concept can apply to dogs, and when the initial lesson for dog requires a lot of skill by handler, yes, then of course letting the trainer do this initial phase makes sense. but ideally owners are watching -- and again, video is one way to do this if owners have to be absent or if you want them able to see same sequence several times and in slow motion. Also video the owner trying to do what trainer has shown them, so you can show them how well they are doing in that regard.

Evidence from the World Health Organization suggests that nearly half the world's population are affected by mental illness with an impact on their self-esteem, relationships and ability to function in everyday life. An individual's emotional health can also impact physical health and poor mental health can lead to problems such as substance abuse. Thank you.
Reinventing Aging

Dogs are beloved and most become a part of the family. But in many cases of dogs succumbing to mental illness, the owner never realizes there's a problem until too late. As dogs age, their mental capacity decreases. Knowing the signs of mental illness in dogs can mean the difference between treatment and slow mental deterioration. Thank you.

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Study shows a dog's mental health suffers simply through domestication and living with humans. Since humans pamper and do everything for their dogs, problem-solving skills and intelligence is sacrificed. Literally, dogs do not grow up in the human home. The result can manifest itself in emotional suffering, cognitive dysfunction, mental illness, emotional abuse and mental cruelty.The key to success is to get a proper diagnosis from the proper professionals such as veterinarians, veterinarian behaviorists, behaviorists, behavior consultants, behavior trainers. Medical professionals and behavioral professions can work together to make a real difference in the quality of life of a dog with a mental illness.

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Casey offers seminars for dog trainers and training groups on establishing membership programs to maximize training revenue and profit as well as seminars on positive training for other dog

Casey Lomonaco is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy and proprietor

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I love it, i just know about the The Six Pillars of Dog Training Wisdom that include The 3 D's & SMT. 


Great tips and very easy to understand. This will definitely be very useful for me when I get a chance to start my blog.

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