Murray has taught me a lot about dogs. Until I met Murray I was under the impression that with a little guidance and socialization all dogs could find a calm, balanced place. But Murray isn't like any other dog I have ever met. He is one of the sweetest love bugs around, but he is different, and he is not easy to care for. Murray is a purebred Wheaton Terrier who has extreme noise sensitivity, moderate touch sensitivity, and no filter. He loves to play but has no idea how to play appropriately; he fixates on things and when stimulated he goes from zero to ten in a panicked way, with nothing in between. Sometimes he just stares at the wall for lengthy periods of time. For the most part Murray is harmless, just very loud.
The other dogs in the group do a great job of tolerating him when he gets fixated on humping them or when his sound sensitivity is triggered and he barks suddenly non-stop or obsessively pees on the walks. (It's an obsessive biological urge and not about marking; I counted 28 pees in one 40-minute walk once.) He can however be a target for dogs outside of the group who (I assume) must find his unstable energy threatening. In the past his parents tried multiple trainers who thought they could train the behavior out of him—and even a few psychics to try to figure out what the underlying issues were. Finally they found a certified positive reinforcement trainer through their veterinarian who, after a few sessions, believed he was unique in his "wiring" and recommended he see a veterinary animal behaviorist.
I had never heard of a veterinarian animal behaviorist before. I later learned most who call themselves "animal behaviorists" have no legitimate credentials, but a veterinary animal behaviorist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral problems in pets. They can rule out underlying medical issues as a cause of an animal's behavior and can prescribe medication, environmental and lifestyle changes, and behavior modification techniques in a comprehensive personalized treatment plan. I liken them to a pet psychiatrist.
Was it autism? OCD? ADHD? A panic disorder? After much research the verdict is still out. Veterinarians do classify dogs with autistic-like traits as canine dysfunction behavior but have yet to officially diagnose autism in dogs; more research is needed. They do however know that canine dysfunction behavior is congenital; symptoms begin as puppies and do not develop from environmental triggers. Murray has exhibited many of the traits linked to autism since he was young, like his sound sensitivity and inappropriate or over-reactions to stimuli in general. But he is also very social and definitely not lethargic, which can be another common trait in dogs with autistic-like behavior. So was it ADHD?
According to veterinarian Dr. Heather Oxford, dogs can be diagnosed with ADHD, technically known in the canine world as hyperkenesis, but it is rare. Dogs who are diagnosed with hyperkinesis show symptoms like distractibility, inability to stay still, impulsiveness, and nervous energy. Murray definitely exhibits a lot of those same traits as well. What about OCD? Or a panic disorder? Though Murray does have a few obsessive compulsive traits he doesn't really fit the description of a dog with OCD. Dogs with OCD exhibit behaviors like chasing their tail or obsessive licking and chewing. He does appear to panic in his response to certain stimuli, whether by barking or pacing frantically, but that's mostly due to his sound sensitivity. Panic disorders are most often found as a co-morbid condition and seen in dogs who have other behavior-related conditions.
To arrive at an official diagnosis, the veterinary animal behaviorist performs a variety of behavior and medical tests in combination with a medication trial. Once there is a diagnosis, the treatment plan for all of the behavior disorders mentioned above is very similar, and it's really essentially a management plan. For dogs with OCD and ADHD anti-anxiety medication can be prescribed and for those with autistic-like behaviors, a veterinarian behaviorist can prescribe a stimulant much like those prescribed for children diagnosed with ADHD. Environmental and lifestyle changes, along with behavior modification using desensitization, counter-conditioning, response modification, or shaping techniques, are all part of the package. All behavior management requires a consistent routine of positive reinforcement behaviors, physical exercise, and enrichment activities, with an emphasis on calming behaviors and therapies like dog-appeasing phermones (DAP), calming music and calming wraps. Like with any program, consistency is the key to achieving the desired results. Knowing the triggers in your own unique dog and managing them with guidance from your veterinarian can help to create a calmer, lower stress canine.
I really wish I could say Murray actually did get an official diagnosis, but once his family really understood he was indeed wired uniquely, they stopped being so frustrated in trying to make Murray the dog that he wasn't and began accepting him for the dog that he is. They became more mindful with personalized management tools and some of the burden and stress was lifted. Murray can still be a challenge at times for sure, but he has a family and community of dogs and people that love and support him and his unique personality.
If you think think your dog exhibits any of the behaviors listed above it's worth a conversation with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues and to create a personalized treatment plan for a calmer, happier pup and home.