The world of canine self help: Why my dog is on Paxil

Posted: Friday, July 18, 2003

Sure, there have been other dogs. Take Ben, an intrepid Airedale from my early childhood who consented to wear a doll bonnet and ride in a red wagon. Or Jack, a dog from my teenage years who smelled vaguely like fried chicken and preferred to chew expensive leather. They were family dogs, lolly-tongued goofballs who lapped down their kibble with drooly vigor and never really came when called. Then, I met Stella.

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Julia O'Malley can be reached at

I was 23 and I came to the Gastineau Humane Society searching for a smallish dog. In my imagination I saw the spunky, spotted little pooch from a dozen dog food commercials, a dog that could hold a treat on its nose, roll over, and sit comfortably between two people in the cab of a pickup.

"I'd like a beagle," I told the woman at the front desk.

"You're in luck," she said.

There came Stella, padding shyly up to me, her body like one large wiggling muscle. She was orangish, and her brow wrinkled in an intellectual sort of way.

Stella the dog

"I think one of her parents looked part beagle," a Humane Society volunteer told me.

"I'll take her," I said.

For the first two months of her life at my house, Stella was mute and becoming much larger than a beagle. She was also brilliant. "Do you need to go outdoors to use the restroom?" I would ask. She would go to the door. She would dive underwater like a seal and retrieve enormous rocks. She was no beagle, but she was like no dog I had ever had. I became convinced she could understand English.

Then one day, when she was about 9 months old, she started to bark. She barked at the UPS man; she barked at the neighbor downstairs; she barked at people walking by the car.

"She's finding her voice," a friend told me, and I laughed at her.

Soon, when strange people tried to pet her or made kissy sounds, she would growl at them. "She's finding her voice," I told them. Some friends, the ones who made the kissy sounds, started to talk smack about her. "Your dog is nuts," they would tell me, laughing passive-aggressively. "She needs a river trip in a gunny sack."

I stopped inviting the kissy friends over.

My mother came to Juneau to visit and I was so excited for Stella to meet her that I loaded her in the cab of my truck and took her to the airport. When my mother appeared in the window in a hooded raincoat, Stella went haywire, barking and baring her teeth like a vicious guard dog. My mother had to rent a car.

Standing in line at the car-rental counter, my mother told me the stray dog story she always tells me when she is urging me to let go of something that I care about but can't handle. When she was a girl, she befriended a mean stray dog by giving it small bowls of milk. My grandfather convinced my mother to lure the dog into the car and he took it to the vet where it was put to sleep.

"It was hard," she told me. "But it was the best thing."

Driving home, I was devastated. Maybe Mother is right, I thought. The thought of losing my little brilliant dog ripped through me. I called the pound on the cell phone but couldn't get through. Stella lay her head in my lap and sighed.

Over the next two months, I plunged myself into the world of doggy self-help. I put flower essences in her water bowl. I tried flipping her on her back and yelling at her when she growled. I contemplated a dog psychic. I took her to this New-Agey dog class where you learn to massage your dog in small circles and calm them by licking your lips and blinking.

Still, when a strange person came to the door, Stella was Cujo. "Lick your lips," I would yell at the person trying to come in. "Blink!"

The friends I had left stopped coming over.

While at the vet for her second rabies shot, Stella cowered and left small wee puddles on the floor. When the vet got close, she growled. I held back tears as the vet gently slipped her into a muzzle. On the way out the vet handed me a prescription for Clomipramine, basically Paxil for dogs, and told me it "would take the edge off."

For people, life is not like a Paxil commercial, where you take a pill and the sun comes out and your marriage gets better. But for Stella, after two weeks on Clomipramine, she was a new dog. She wasn't perfect, but people could come in the house again.

Relationships with dogs are sort of like relationships with family. If Stella were a person, she would be like my Italian grandmother. She would sit at the kitchen table in a ratty bathrobe drinking black coffee and getting indignant over the newspaper. She wouldn't let me out alone due to a slightly irrational fear of strangers. When I was sad she would put a hand on my face, and say, "Why are you sad? No one beautiful should be sad."

And, I would love her not because she was always pleasant or perfect, but because I don't really know how to do anything else, and because, after all, she is my family.

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