Iris the Jack Russell Terrier had a rough start in life. Her rescuer, Kristi Waterworth of Springfield, Missouri, heard about an extreme hoarding situation and was called in to help. “Bigger rescues don’t want neonates,” Kristi explains. “They don’t have the manpower to foster them and care for them.”
Having a lot of experience with puppies, Kristi dropped in to help out. Iris’s mother had originally had a litter of nine puppies — seven died by the time Kristi was called in because the mother dog’s milk had dried up and no one was able to bottle feed the puppies. The other puppy sadly didn’t make it, and Kristi whisked Iris away to her home for the care and keeping she needed. Iris was just 13 days old and Kristi was fresh out of surgery — a testament to her dedication that would only grow in time.
Iris’s behavior was sketchy from the start. “We didn’t really think anything of it for a while,” Kristi says. “She was really shy and we kind of thought that was because she had so much initial trauma.” Iris would shy away from contact and not want to frolic with other dogs. She would get overwhelmed by touch and loud noises — not unusual for a dog coming from such an extreme situation. But the problems only got worse.
When Iris was four months old, Kristi and her fiancee moved to a new house. Iris showed extreme signs of distress and Kristi couldn’t figure out why — their roommates were nice, there was a big yard where she could run and play and nobody was giving her trouble. It was every dog’s dream home. But Iris couldn’t handle it. “She would chase her ball up to five hours a day. She was really obsessed,” notes Kristi. They amassed about 20 balls, all identical tennis balls with squeakers, but Iris would freak out if she lost even one.
“She would just sit there and cry and scream and freak out. It’s not anything I’ve ever seen in a dog before and I didn’t quite know what to do with it.” So Kristi did what any responsible pet parent would do: She spoke to her vet.
Following the vet’s advice, they tried to distract her, tried new toys and tried all manner of conventional training exercises to no avail. Iris’s behavior only worsened — she was barking all the time, wouldn’t sleep and obsessed over the smallest details. The vet didn’t realize the extent of Iris’s problem until Kristi boarded the dog on a trip to Jamaica. When she returned, the vet told Kristi that Iris didn’t move from the corner of the kennel the entire week she was gone.
At the vet’s advice, Kristi brought a second dog into her home to try and temper Iris’s behavior. Jasmine and Iris were uneasy at first, but then things turned violent. Iris attacked Jasmine for no apparent reason. Not a playful attack, either. “She was going for blood. Something snapped. She seemed rattled all of a sudden a lost her mind,” Kristi explains. So, of course, that meant another trip back to the vet for Iris. The vet was determined to find nothing wrong with her and insisted it was just dominance behavior and it would settle down in time. But it didn’t. Then, Kristi and her fiancee started to discuss medication.
“We were afraid it would turn her into some kind of zombie dog.” Kristi told me. “When she’s having a good day, she’s really fun and spirited and interactive and really intelligent; she’s got a lot of personality, so we didn’t want to stifle that, but at the same time Jasmine had been attacked about three times, for no apparent reason, with Iris always going straight for the throat.”
Kristi all but begged her vet. “This can’t be normal. We’ve tried everything. We just can’t get this to work. I’m losing her and it’s getting worse every day,” she explained. It took multiple trips to the vet and multiple attempts at begging before the vet agreed to try Iris on Clomicalm (clomipramine), a tricyclic antidepressant.
Iris improved on the drug — she was no longer peeing out of fear, no longer tearing things up or obsessing over her toys. And more importantly, she was no longer aggressive toward Iris. She still had her spirited personality, but the burden of faulty brain chemistry was lifted and she functioned like a normal, happy dog.
“We met with backlash after putting her on Clomicalm initially, because (people) thought it was the dumbest thing to put a dog on medication.” Kristi says. “People don’t seem to understand. We even felt that way — is it really right, is it really okay to medicate a dog?” But it got to the point where Kristi and her fiancee thought it couldn’t hurt to try. It was medication or find Jasmine a new home — and medicating Iris was better than losing a beloved dog.
It was about that time that Kristi consulted me, because she knew I’d seen it all and heard it all in my work as a vet tech. Relying on mental health medications for my own sanity, I encouraged Kristi to explore that option. When you find the right medication, your functionality and personality can be a world away from the misery you feel and display when unmedicated.
“The only other option we had was to find Jasmine a home and keep Iris alone for the rest of her life, because that was the only way we could see that working. We’re way too attached to Jasmine and Iris both. That’s why we went to such lengths to find a solution.”
The makers of Clomicalm, Novartis Animal Health, have since discontinued production of the drug and Iris had to make the switch to another tricyclic antidepressant, Amitriptyline. “It’s fine,” Kristi says, exasperated. “Better than a swift kick in the ass, but not nearly as good as the Clomicalm.”
Some of Iris’s problem behaviors have come back — her aggression and fear are worse than they were on the Clomicalm, but not nearly as bad as she was unmedicated. Her anxiety is still pretty high.
Kristi is now working with Iris on her training, with my help. It’s a slow, agonizing process with lots of setbacks, but Kristi is dedicated to helping Iris live a full and happy life, even when others have suggested she be euthanized.
“Everybody I’ve asked, save one brave soul,” Kristi says, speaking of me, “and my vet, have told me that we should stop trying to rehabilitate Iris. They think she deserves to die because she’s unwell in a way that they don’t understand.”
By telling Iris’s story to the world, Kristi hopes others will realize that medicating your dog isn’t the end of the world and it really can make a difference in her quality of life — and maybe, just maybe, it’ll save some “unsavable” dogs.
What would you do in this situation? Would you abandon training and rehabilitation in favor of medication? Tell us in the comments.
About Caitlin Seida: Owned by three cats and two dogs, she never met an animal she didn’t like. A Jill-of-All-Trades, she splits her workday as a writer, humane society advocate and on-call vet tech. What little free time she has goes into pinup modeling, advocating for self-acceptance, knitting and trying to maintain her haunted house (really!).