Early this year, I finally convinced my husband to get a second dog, the same English yellow Labrador breed as our older dog. We assumed he’d be like our first, Santo, a 9-year-old charming gentleman of a canine. Santo is a happy-go-lucky lab beloved by all.
We were so wrong. Benito, our youngster, now 1, quickly displayed characteristics of a juvenile delinquent, plenty playful yet difficult to housetrain, and determined to physically dominate his stepbrother even when he was half his size.
He was part puppy, part gangster; an irrepressible, indomitable alpha whose motto was “might makes right.” This summer, one of his vets, after being in Benito’s company for about 30 minutes, nailed our pup’s temperament: “Wow, he’s a lot of dog for a puppy.” If Benito were human, he would have gotten himself a skull and crossbones tattoo.
Worst of all, Benito appointed himself sentinel of our Hyde Park neighborhood, on high alert when on walks to any perceived threat, any newcomer in this path. Whereas Santo never barked or growled in mixed company, Benito would always bark first and ask questions later, at times making an average walk an ordeal. We hoped he’d grow out of it, but it was only getting worse.
Alarmed and in search of professional help, we turned to a well-regarded trainer (at least according to Google) this summer. After spending some quality time with Benito, her diagnosis: the dog, 6 months old at the time, had a high degree of anxiety and would benefit from medication, probably Prozac. She told us to ask our vet about it and that they would probably agree.
We had never considered it, nor did we realize how widely Prozac is used to treat pets. A recent New York Times article laid out the case for pet antidepressants, including how to spot signs of anxiety. The story points out that we may be seeing the tail end of the pandemic, so to speak, following the adoption of some 23 million dogs and cats between March 2020 and May 2021. Many owners adopted dogs and cats to help treat their loneliness and anxiety, and now the animals are experiencing anxiety of their own as their owners return to work. Funny, I’ve always considered spending time with puppies the best antidepressant, my own personal Prozac. But that was before Benito.
The pet medication surge is consistent with the broader trend of celebrating, coddling, and quasi-humanizing our pets — including special diets (I’m guilty), Instagram and TikTok accounts (super guilty), individual swimming sessions (also guilty), and a massive assortment of toys (totally guilty). I happily confess to treating my dogs as esteemed members of the family, and sometimes I go overboard.
But drugging our puppy? It feels like medication would be a crutch — a shortcut, and not necessarily an effective one, for the right kind of training. And Benito is smart, affectionate, and looking for his owners to show him the way. We only need to figure out how to bring out the best in him. We haven’t reached the point of feeling he needs to be dulled with medication — right?
The gangster is still a work in progress. We turned to a new trainer whose slogan signaled good vibes for us: Train, don’t complain. We’ve gotten over comparing him to Santo, who is incomparable. And Benito is changing. He loves his stepbrother, cuddles with me every night, barks less on his walks, is increasingly obedient, but still is a scofflaw at his doggie day care. After all, I try to remind myself, Benito is just a dog being a dog.