Winston, Part Two

Continued from Winston:  A Story of Desensitization Winston, a story of desensitization | The Animal Nerd

Keeping in mind the three objectives that we established, I began spending more time with Winston.

Over the next two sessions, Winston’s attachment to me became stronger, as did his social anxiety.  He was able to relax and play when no other people were around but, as soon as other people appeared, he would seek physical contact with me, often positioning himself so that I was between him and other people and avoided looking at them.  This was particularly the case in indoor settings, such as the shelter lobby.  I also noted that he was still not engaging in any self-soothing behavior and that his level of anxiety would slowly increase while in social settings.  On the plus side, the shelter staff has determined that he is well socialized with other dogs; he behaves appropriately and invites play upon meeting new dogs of varying ages and sizes.

He was able to relax and play, and accept more human handlers.

I began by introducing play during both outdoor and indoor sessions.  He enjoyed retrieving tennis balls in our outdoor pen, so I would start the sessions there and let him play until he was in a relaxed state of mind.  Following that, we would have some quiet time, sitting with him and letting him watch the shelter grounds.  After two of these sessions, I found that he would relax during the quiet time and allow some distance between us.  He was also starting to show stress-shedding behaviors, such as yawning and body shakes.

He was also beginning to open up to some of the shelter staff and was showing attachment to them as well as to me.  So, after consulting with the shelter behavior team, I began recruiting experienced volunteers to handle him during walks and play, with the goal of giving him pleasant experiences with new people.  When introducing him to new human friends, we did this in the least stressful way possible, with me leashing him and taking him from his run then starting a walk with the new handler.  After a few minutes I would hand off the leash and accompany them to the play area.  At this point, I would stop reacting to him and have the new person engage in all play and displays of affection.  It never took more than one session for him to accept the new volunteer as a trusted friend.

In indoor settings, I began using the “find it” game (tossing high-value treats within the radius of his leash) whenever he began showing distress or started clinging to me when other people were around. This was successful in getting him to reduce his anxiety level and interact with his surroundings rather than avoid them.  I also encouraged his growing circle of human friends to engage with him when I had him on leash in the shelter lobby.   I continued to disengage from him when other handlers were present, and he has responded to that by engaging with them.  At present, he is able to lie down and relax on the cool lobby floor when new people are present.

Winston is getting close to being adoptable.  The shelter staff will attempt to place him with adopters who already have a well-socialized dog and are willing to commit to a continued management program in order to identify and address any guarding behaviors that may arise as he adjusts to being in a new environment.  From what I can see, his prognosis is good.

Update (8/21/2021):  Winston has been adopted.

 

Winston, a story of desensitization

Last month I was asked to take on another “project dog”.  That’s how I met Winston.

        Affection or insecurity?

He had been returned to the shelter after his adoptive owner experienced problems with him.  Winston had gradually become emotionally dependent on her to the point that he guarded her as a resource and was being aggressive with any visitors to the house.  He was also displaying high levels of anxiety about noises outside the house and was becoming extremely reactive to them.  The owner eventually decided that she couldn’t handle his issues and brought him back.

When I first met him through the glass door to his run, he was extremely reactive.  He was baring his teeth, giving low growls and short, staccato “warning” barks.  I followed my usual initial practice of sitting down on the floor outside his run, facing away at an angle and reading my messages and Facebook feed, while occasionally putting a treat in the run (There are “treat holes” in the glass fronts to the dog runs.  These encourage the dogs to approach visitors and potential adopters.)  I repeated this three times on the first day.

The second day, he was quieter when I approached his run, but still visibly nervous.  This changed when he saw that I was unlocking the run, at which he visibly relaxed. He had come to associate this motion on my part with food and potty breaks, and he was visibly happier and more relaxed.  I was able to leash him up very easily and took him outside.  That’s when I was able to get a good look at him and his behavior.

The shelter has a large, very pleasant, outdoor area that includes a large field, a large, enclosed play area and the grounds have shaded areas with benches.  I took Winston on a walk around the entire grounds so that he could have a few good sniffs and relieve himself, then just sat with him on a bench that had a view of the building entrance, to see what he did while people came and went.  I saw that he became alert whenever anyone came into view, but that he didn’t engage in any self-soothing behavior during quiet times.  I also saw that his level of tension was ramping up, and that he was beginning to seek physical contact with me.  I took him around the building to a quiet area in the back of the building, near a wooded area, and he was still unable to relax.  He began to increase his contact-seeking behavior, putting his head and paw on my knee and pressing himself against my leg.

All this inside of 30 -45 minutes (which is the maximum time that I spend with a dog during behavior modification treatment).   In two short sessions, he had gone from giving me teeth-baring distancing signs to extreme contact-seeking behavior.  At this point, I had a pretty good idea of his issues:  He was an extremely anxious dog who had trouble shedding stress and sought contact with a human handler as a means of feeling secure.  It’s very understandable how an owner could mistake this contact-seeking behavior for displays of attachment and affection and encourage it.   Its adorable, but its also the exact opposite of a healthy, relaxed behavior.

So, the job was to increase his confidence regarding people, help him to relax and engage in self-soothing, and help him to tolerate strangers in his space.

To be continued.

Bird illness – update

Update (August 22, 2021). Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine have advised that, although the reason for the bird mortality is still undetermined, cases are declining the infection appears to be waning.  State wildlife officials throughout the Midwest and Atlantic seaboard have rescinded their guidance to take down bird feeders. Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders | The Animal Nerd

Update – although the mysterious illness that is killing songbirds in the mid-Atlantic and mid-west appears to be declining in those states (Zenkevich, 2021), the Hartford Courant is reporting that cases have now been identified in southern New England (Arnott, 2021).  We are still being asked to refrain from putting up bird feeders and bird baths.

Arnott, C. (August 6, 2021).  Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’.  Hartford Courant.  Retrieved from Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’ – Hartford Courant

Zenkevich, J. (August 4, 2021).  Reports Of Mysterious Bird Disease Decreasing In Pennsylvania. Retrieved from  www.sciencefriday.com/articles/bird-disease-decreasing/ 

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 3

Our shelter staff found a very experienced foster family to take in Penny and help her acclimate to living in a house.  Two Fridays ago, they picked her up from the shelter and brought her to their home.

The following afternoon, I arrived at the shelter and found Penny back in her run, very happy to see me.  It turns out that Penny had two additional issues that we had not known about:  She was afraid of cars and she refused to use stairs.  The first issue came up as the shelter staff helped her get into the foster family’s car.  The second issue came up when they got to their home, which happens to be a second-floor walkup apartment.  I should note that, for all her anxiety and self-harming tendencies, Penny is a remarkably gentle dog.  When she objects to doing something, she simply freezes in place.

So.  Two steps forward and one step back.  Now we have to add cars and stairs to the list of things that Penny needs to become habituated to using.   I tried the usual methods of getting her to use the shelter staircase, first by luring her with high value treats and later asking her to follow another friendly dog up them.  I was able to get her to go up four steps and she finally put her hind feet on the bottom step, but that was as far as I could get; she would become overly anxious and shut down.  And using this particular staircase became a non-starter when she caught on to the fact that the cats and small animals were housed near the stairs.  There’s no way that treats were going to distract her from those.

Once she began to associate cars with pleasant experiences, she decided that they weren’t so bad.

So I decided to use a different approach to conquering her fear of stairs by getting her to use outdoor stairs in open areas.  Unfortunately, large as our shelter grounds are, there are no stairs outside the building.  We figured that a nearby middle school, which had wide outside steps, would be perfect for this effort; but that would mean getting her in a car.  And we knew that Penny would have to become habituated to using multiple cars and generalize being in them.  So, several of us began an effort to make cars fun and desirable by a combination of high value treats and pleasant experiences in them.  We got her to follow us into cars and then took her on field trips to fun and interesting places, with lots of things to sniff.  Within a few days, she was jumping into cars with minimal encouragement.

Then I started taking her to the middle school and using the stairs.  On the first visit, a couple of days ago, she went up and down a low set of outside steps (four steps) but balked at using a larger one.   We’re continuing to work on that.

We have more work to do with Penny, but she’s come along far enough that the shelter staff believe that she can be adopted out to a family that’s willing to work with her post-adoption.   In the meantime, I’ll keep working with her on her few remaining issues.

Lessons learned: 

First, do not rush.  Get the dog to accept and trust you before attempting to modify her behavior.  If, as far as she is concerned, you’re just a treat bag with an arm, you won’t get results that will transfer to an adoptive family and home.

Second, get the dog familiarized and comfortable in environment in which the behavior modification treatment is taking place.  If she is stressed by being in a new location, you’re not going to get anywhere.  Depending on the dog, this may take several visits.

Third, do not forget the basics.  Penny’s treatment was complicated by the fact that the only skill in her repertoire was “sit”.  This is a great help in leashing her up, but not good for much else.  When you’re trying to get a dog to overcome a fear of performing a certain action, there is no substitute for having a good, solid recall.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 2

Continued from Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd

So, with progress made on her overly active greetings, which were affecting the number of shelter volunteers who were allowed to, or willing to, work with her; and with her anxiety at being outdoors reduced to the point that it was no longer apparent, it was time to start work on getting her to tolerate indoor spaces.

I continued taking her to explore outdoor areas and relaxing with her in shady shots where she could watch the comings and goings at the shelter.  And I started experimenting with her behavior indoors.  It soon became apparent that she:  A. Refused to go through any doors except those that were in a direct path the outdoors; B.  Refused to go through any interior corridors; and C. Wouldn’t walk on shiny floors.  She didn’t panic when asked to go to any of these places.  She simply froze in place and refused to move.

All of which would seriously get in the way of getting her adopted.  On the plus side, she was very food motivated, and loves people and other dogs.  So, this gave me something to work with.

In order to get her to tolerate shiny surfaces and being inside a building, I first had to get her to accept going through doors.  I picked an entrance to the shelter that was in a fairly quiet spot and didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, but was near a section of occupied kennels (providing a scent-rich environment).  After she had a nice walk and some down time, I walked her up to the entrance whereupon she balked and froze as soon as the door opened.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  I kept her on leash, propped open the door, sat down and broke out my weapons:  small pieces of sliced of hot dogs, string cheese and the stinkiest training treats that I could buy in my local warehouse store.  I tossed an assortment of them on the ground immediately outside the door and, after some hesitation, she vacuumed them up and got praised.  I repeated this several times, each time tossing the treats closer to the door threshold and praising her every time she stepped closer.  Each time she advanced; I took up some of the slack in the leash without pulling her.  This prevented her from retreating to square one, but also allowed her to establish a new comfort zone.  It also precluded any oppositional pulling.

After several iterations during the following week, I was able to toss the treats inside the door while she stretched inside to get them; then, as I put the treats further inside, she began putting her front paws across the threshold.  And she eventually stepped all the way inside.  Once she was far enough in, I gently closed the door and kept praising her while giving her a good scratch.  That was enough for the first day.  She had earned a good cool down in her run.

The shelter lobby became her favorite place to hang out with her human friends

On the next session, she balked at the door again, but overcame her fear more quickly and with fewer treats.  By the third session, it took half as much time and reinforcement to get her inside.  After that, I was able to get her to stay in the interior corridor without asking to leave, while getting scratches, pets and treats.   I then enlisted some volunteers to join us in the corridor, and she relaxed enough to walk up to each of them and ask for pets.  During the next session we moved further down the corridor and, she willingly entered the main lobby on the following day.

This was the big breakthrough.  After getting her used to being in the lobby of the shelter, I was very quickly able to get her to visit all the public areas in the shelter, and she began to enjoy being around her human friends (e.g., everybody she met).   She willingly used all the building entrances and the shelter lobby became her favorite place.  She was getting very popular with the staff and volunteers, and had lots of positive interaction.

She was still occasionally snapping at the stump of her tail occasionally.  Often when food was provided or she became excited.  I began responding to this by giving her scratches on her butt and  hips whenever she did this.  She initially reacted to my doing this, but after a few repetitions, she began to accept this as a pleasant stimulus and relaxed and leaned into me while I was doing it.  I enlisted other handlers and volunteers to do the same thing, and her self-harming reduced over the next several days as she accepted that activity along  her flanks hindquarters was a good thing.

At this point, we had reduced her fear of being outside her run, had reduced her tendency to self-harm, she was greeting her handlers in a calm and friendly manner and her tendency to self-harm was greatly reduced.  Our staff decided to place her in a foster home to continue her treatment and acclimate her to a home environment outside the shelter, and I felt that she was well on the way.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

To be continued.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning

Part One

So, in late May I was at the shelter, and the Behavior Services manager asked me if I would like to have a “project dog”.  That’s how I met Penny.

She is a 3-year-old, 50 lb mixed breed with a short brindle coat, natural ears and a docked tail.  It turns out that her tail had been docked at the shelter because she was habitually attacking it whenever she had certain stimuli – such as every single meal – and had seriously injured it.

Aside from the compulsive self-harming whenever she was eating or overly excited, Penny showed signs of extreme anxiety.  Her kennel was in a quiet area of the shelter that was closed off to visitors.  Whenever she was taken outside, she would immediately head for the door to relieve herself and then continually try to lead her handler back inside to the safety of her kennel.  She refused to use any door other than the one nearest to her kennel and she would refuse to use any part of the shelter interior beyond the minimum distance between her run and that door.  On the plus side, she was friendly to every person on staff and gave exuberant greetings to her human friends – sometimes so exuberant that it was difficult to handle her – leading to her harness being kept on her at all times.  In her current state, she was a sweet and friendly dog who was completely unadoptable.

She had been held by other shelters and fosters prior to arriving at ours.  And the somewhat sketchy history that came along with her indicated that these were long-standing behavior problems – particularly her tendency to attack and injure her tail.  At this point, she had been in the shelter for almost two months, between her initial quarantine, her surgery and recovery, there hadn’t been much work done on addressing her behavior problems.   After getting the initial run-down of her (many) issues, I worked out a set of priorities with our behavior staff.

  • First:  We needed to reduce the anxiety she had being outdoors.
  • Second:  We needed her to be able to use doors and interior spaces outside the “safe space” of her kennel.
  • Third:  We needed to reduce her tendency to attack her own body parts – even with her tail docked, she was still showing a tendency to snap at her own flank and hip when food was present or she was overly stimulated.
  • Fourth:  We needed to help her control her overly-excited greetings, particularly with new people.

So…I got to work.

First things first:  Getting her to at least tolerate being outdoors.

I took her out of her run as quietly and matter-of-factly as possible.  I found that the usual method of quieting a jumping dog (negative reinforcement – removing the response to jumping, turning my back and standing still) worked very well.  I then stayed to one side of her while attaching the leash to her martingale collar and easy-walk harness.

I then took her outside by her usual route.  She was in a hurry to “do her business” and then wanted to return to her indoors kennel.  By changing direction a few times, I was able to get her to walk at oblique angles to her initial route back to her safe place, and get her to spend some time outside.  I noticed that when she was actively sniffing a new scent, she relaxed.  Her ears went back, her tail went up, her back relaxed, and she forgot to be afraid.   I could work with that.  I found a bench in a shady spot and sat with her for a while, not interacting with her unless she solicited any touching or petting, and just let her experience the day.  She never really relaxed on that first day, but she didn’t try to escape or go back inside until I brought her back indoors.

For the next two weeks, I took her outside and made a point of walking her on the shelter grounds in areas that other dogs frequented and along the tree lines where rabbits and other local wildlife were common.  Basically, anywhere that was a scent-rich environment.  This was a positive experience for her; and within those two-weeks she completely lost her anxiety about being outdoors and enjoyed experiencing the entire area that our shelter encompasses, several acres of open land.

I then took her to our outdoor exercise area, which is a large open grassy area inside a six-foot fence.  The first time I unclipped her leash inside it, she immediately ran to the gate and started leaping at it, trying to escape.  I leashed her back up and walked her around the inside perimeter of the exercise pen, letting her stop and sniff whenever she wanted, before taking her back outside for some quiet time.  After that, I made a point of taking her to the exercise area immediately after some other dogs had been there, creating a scent-rich environment.  Over the next week, she became interested in investigating the scents and was able to enjoy being there and relaxing off-leash.

Step One done. After three weeks, she was no longer anxious about being outdoors, and was associating outdoor time with interesting nose work and relaxation.  And we had made progress made on Step Four.   This was going so easily, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

To be continued.

Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders

August 22 Update:   Cornell University is still advising that, although the cause of the illness is still undetermined, cases are declining.  Wildlife authorities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as the Audubon Societies in Maryland and Rhode Island, have lifted their advisories regarding bird feeders and bird baths (Nimmo, 2021; Audubon Society of Rhode Island, 2021; Wildlife Center of Virginia, 2021;  WeinGartner, 2021).   We are requested to continue regular cleaning of baths and feeders, using a 10 percent bleach solution.

July 31 Update:  The illness is being reported in some Illinois counties where it had previously not been detected (Smith, 2021).  Reports of infected birds are continuing to decline in Pennsylvania, along with Virginia and Kentucky  (KDKA, 2021).

However, the Audubon Society is advising that the cause of the illness is still unknown.   This is a particularly sensitive time, as many of our bird species will be departing on their annual migrations to Central and South America, and there is great concern that – if this disease is contagious – that it might be spread to native bird populations there.  We will probably be requested to refrain from using our bird feeders and bird baths through the month of August (Gerrity, 2021).

July 30 Update:  News sources in Virginia and Kentucky are reporting sharp declines in reported cases of the illness that’s been affecting the mid-Atlantic and midwest states (INSIDENOVA, 2021; Times-Tribune, 2021).  As yet, the illness has not been reported in New England or west of Illinois.

Although this is encouraging news, the cause of this die-off of wild songbirds still has not been identified and it is still to be determined whether infected birds are contagious.  So wildlife authorities throughout the affected states, and the surrounding states – including New England – are asking that we continue to take down our feeders and bird baths.

July 29 Update: Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine is reporting that cases of the songbird illness are declining and the mortality rates are decreasing; and that bird populations are stable.

July 28 Update:

The songbird illness continues to take toll on our wild bird population, and is now reported in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.  It has not been reported in New England, or states west of  Illinois, although residents of the surrounding states are being advised to take down their feeders and bird baths as a means of limiting birds congregating and reducing the spread of the disease.

The cause is still unknown, however scientists have eliminated known bird viruses and the bacterium that have caused previous similar outbreaks.  The recent cicada brood hatching also appears to be unrelated to this disease, as it is being found in areas where the cicadas didn’t appear.  At this point, twelve bird species have been found to be affected:  the blue jay, European sterling, grackle, American robin, northern cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern bluebird, willow tit, Carolina chickadee, and mayow tit (Patterson, 2021).

There is some speculation that the illness may be caused by toxins associated with invasive insect species, perhaps in concert with invasive plant species (Abbott, 2021).  However this seems unlikely to be the case, as the illness would probably have been known to exist in the overseas locations where these species are native.  However, the idea that a toxin is somehow involved would seem to explain why the disease mostly affects young birds, which would have been fed high concentrations of local seeds or insects.

July 11, 2021:

In the past few weeks, a new deadly disease has emerged on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, affecting a wide variety of songbirds.   Scientists are still trying to determine the nature of the illness and how it is transmitted, and whether it is a new virus or a fungal infection, but it is causing thousands of deaths across a wide range of unrelated bird species, including robins, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers,  and others (Malakoff & Stokeland, 2021).

This infected bird was found in Washington  DC  in May of this year

The symptoms include crusted and inflamed eyes and the neurological symptoms include inability to stand and head tremors.  The birds are unable to fly or feed themselves and eventually die.
The disease was first noted in the Washington DC area in May of this year (USGS, 2021), but rapidly spread to the adjacent states.  It is now appearing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and is continuing to spread.  Although the nature of the illness is still unknown, based on its rapid spread throughout the eastern and midwestern states, it appears to be highly contagious across a wide range of bird species (Zenkevitch, 2021; ).

We can help to limit the spread of the disease by reducing the number of places where songbirds congregate and are likely to infect each other.  State authorities, even in areas such as the New England states in which the disease has not yet been found, are asking that we take down our bird feeders and bird baths until the disease has subsided, and that they be thoroughly cleaning with a 10 percent bleach solution before being put back in use (RI DEM, 2021; AP, 2021).

This isn’t a lot to ask.  If we’re feeding the birds because we want them to be well fed and we enjoy having them in our lives then, until this disease runs its course, it makes sense for us to encourage them to look for natural sources of food and not congregate in large numbers at a common feeding site.  Our wild bird populations are already under stress from climate change and loss of habitat.  There is no reason for us to add to that by facilitating the spread of a disease.  Lets take down our feeders and bird baths, clean them thoroughly, and wait until we hear that its safe to put the up again.

Abbott, B. (July 27, 2021).  Opinion:  Seeking to Solve Mystery Songbird Illness.  CTPost.  Retrieved from www.ctpost.com/opinion/article/Opinion-Seeking-to-solve-mystery-songbird-illness-16342822.php

Associated Press (July 8, 2021).  Residents Told to Stop Filling Feeders to Avert Bird Illness.  Retrieved from apnews.com/article/ct-state-wire-birds-health-environment-and-nature-412ec4d6d2ec8c1c23f772a577795394

Audubon Society of Rhode Island (August 20, 2021) Bird Feeding Can Resume in Rhode Island.  Retrieved from asri.org/news-events/2021/audubon-monitoring-bird-illness-in-mid-atlantic.html 

Fisher, F.  (July 27, 2021).  Cornell experts not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness.  Retrieved from www.ithaca.com/news/ithaca/cornell-experts-not-overly-alarmed-by-mysterious-songbird-sickness/article_ae73fa12-efc6-11eb-9a3f-ef82b40e923f.html

Gerrity, K.  (July 30, 2021) An Update From The Connecticut Audubon Society About Bird Disease.  Patch.  Retrieved from  patch.com/connecticut/essex-chester-deepriver/update-connecticut-audubon-society-bird-disease/  

INSIDENOVA (July 29, 2021).  Mystery songbird illnesses, deaths improving in Northern Virginia. Retrieved from Mystery songbird illnesses, deaths improving in Northern Virginia | Headlines | insidenova.com

KDKA (July 31, 2021).  Reports Of Illnesses In Songbirds Declining After Mysterious Disease Caused Dozens Of Deaths.  Retrieved from pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2021/07/31/reports-of-illnesses-in-songbirds-declining-after-mysterious-disease-caused-dozens-of-deaths/ 

Malakoff, D. and Stokeland, E. (Jul 6, 2021).  Songbirds are Mysteriously Dying Across the Eastern U.S.  Scientists are Scrambling to Find Out Why.  Science Magazine.  Retrieved from Songbirds are mysteriously dying across the eastern U.S. Scientists are scrambling to find out why | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org)

Nimmo, T. (August 20, 2021). Kentuckians can put bird feeders back outside after mystery illness.  WCPO.  Retrieved from www.wcpo.com/news/state/state-kentucky/kentuckians-can-put-bird-feeders-back-outside-after-mystery-illness 

Patterson, R. (nd).  Don’t Feed the Birds!  PA.  The Mysterious Death of a Songbird in Japan Sparks and Investigation.  Pennsylvania News Today.  Retrieved from pennsylvanianewstoday.com/dont-feed-the-birds-pa-the-mysterious-death-of-a-songbird-in-japan-sparks-an-investigation-life/183199/

Rhode Island DEM, Division of Fish and Wildlife (July 8, 2021). Wildlife Health Alert.  Retrieved from www.facebook.com/RIFishwildlife/

Smith, K. (July, 30, 2021).  First cases of mystery songbird illness seen in suburban wildlife centers.  Daily Herald.  Retrieved from www.dailyherald.com/news/20210730/first-cases-of-mystery-songbird-illness-seen-in-suburban-wildlife-centers/

Times-Tribune (July 29, 2021).  Kentucky Fish and Wildlife provides update about bird illness investigation.  Retrieved from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife provides update about bird illness investigation   | Local News | thetimestribune.com

USGS (July 2, 2021).  UPDATED Interagency Statement:  USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event.  Retrieved from UPDATED Interagency Statement: USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event

Weingartner, T. (August 20, 2021).  As ‘Mystery’ Bird Illness Continues, Some in Tri-State May Put Bird Feeders Back Out With Precautions.  WVXU.  Retrieved from www.wvxu.org/environment/2021-08-20/mystery-bird-illness-bird-feeders 

Wildlife Center of Virginia (August 20, 2021).  Update of 2021 Avian Unusual Mortality Event.  Retrieved from www.wildlifecenter.org/news_events/news/update-2021-avian-unusual-mortality-event

Zenkevich, J. (July 7, 2021).  M ore Than 1,000 cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported in Pennsylvania.  WESA.  Retrieved from More than 1,000 Cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported In Pennsylvania | 90.5 WESA

Reiki for Animals

This article is the latest in my discussion of alternative medicine approaches that have become commonplace in the care and treatment of our companion animals.  Today, we will discuss the art of Reiki.

What is Reiki?

According to its practitioners

“Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.”  (What is Reiki, nd)

The origin of Reiki dates back to the early 20th century Japan and is credited to Mikao Usei.  Usei is said to have investigated ancient, lost healing arts and rediscovered the art of directing Universal Life-Force Energy (Rowland, 2010) for the purpose of healing illness and injury.  The research he is supposed to have performed in recovering this healing art is not documented and a plethora of legends have sprung up about it.  Some accounts invented by later Reiki practitioners say that he journeyed to India to study with healing mystics there and others imply that he learned the methods by which the Buddha performed healing miracles (Monckton, nd). He is said to have trained a few disciples in this healing art who, in turn, trained others.  Over the years, this practice has become both refined and varied in its application.

What is a Reiki practitioner?

There are three levels of Reiki “mastery”, each of which can be learned from a course of instruction.  There is no oversight or professional certification for Reiki; students are certified by whichever organization they enroll in for courses of training (Nelson, nd; Crowhurst, nd.)  Many of these courses are available online for home study.  Reiki practitioners are said to be “attuned” by the Reiki master who trains them, either in person or by correspondence (Adams, 2016)

How is Reiki administered?

There really is no standard of treatment for Reiki practitioners.

  • Touch: Traditional Reiki is administered by the practitioner physically touching the person who is under treatment and channeling healing energy to that person through his or her hands.

    Non-touch animal Reiki

    There are standard locations for this touching to take place (the seven chakras of the human body), however the practitioner is also able to place his hands anywhere that he feels the flow of energy is required (Cutler, 2011)

  • Non-touch: In cases of physical injury, Reiki practitioners will often position their hands over the injury, claiming that healing energies are being channeled into the wounded or injured area.   This is often done in Reiki treatments of animals.  This is often done from a considerable distance, for the safety of the Reiki practitioner (Adams 2016).  Practitioners will also “beam” Reiki from across a room for safety reasons (Paul, nd).
  • Remotely: Reiki is also administered remotely, over great distances, across time and space, by the practitioner holding a piece of paper with a “patient’s” name and address, or even a picture of that person, while manipulating symbols or crystals.  This is done by means of “The Hermetic Law of Similarity” which states that we are all made of energy and are therefore all connected (Johnson, 2015).

What is the standard of treatment?

Given that Reiki is administered either by touch, without touching, across a room or across great distances, there is no standard of treatment.  Nor are there any specific standards for addressing particular injuries or ailments; this is all left to the subjective judgement of the Reiki practitioner.

And there is no standard of training.  Every Reiki instructor certifies his or her own students in whatever methods are included in that course of training.  There is no measurement of effectiveness except for the subjects’ feelings of whether they have been helped by the treatment.

How is it used in veterinary treatment?

Canine chakras

It is used to treat animals for a variety of conditions, by the same touch, non-touch, distance methods discussed above.  Some Reiki practitioners have identified the locations of animals’ chakras, which would server to determine where the healing energy should be directed.

Does Reiki work?

There are very few quality studies of Reiki.  Most have been found to be seriously flawed by lack of control groups, subjective interpretation of data and other flaw.  A 2008 review of clinical trials of Reiki treatment for a variety of conditions concluded:

“In total, the trial data for any one condition are scarce and independent replications are not available for each condition. Most trials suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting…In conclusion, the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven.” (Lee, Pittler & Ernst, 2008)

One 2017 review of studies, performed by a member of the Australian Usei Reiki Association, claimed that the majority of clinical trials indicate that Reiki is ‘a safe and gentle “complementary” therapy that activates the parasympathetic nervous system to heal body and mind.’  (McManus, 2017).  However, it should be noted that the author of this review has no medical qualifications, and that the parasympathetic nervous system controls resting heart rate and digestion and performs no healing functions.

A 2011 study examined the use of Reiki in which a group of people undergoing chemotherapy underwent treatment by certified practitioners, while another group were treated by untrained persons performing “sham Reiki”, with a third (control) group of patients undergoing standard care.   This study found that the persons treated by both the certified and “sham” (placebo) groups reported the same results in terms of well-being and comfort in comparison with the control group.  The study concluded that there is no medical benefit derived from Reiki, but that patients derive a sense of well-being from one-on-one care from a nurse practitioner, regardless of the care being provided (Catlin & Taylor-Ford, 2011).  I was also able to find a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study found that Reiki had no effect over placebo on subject’s heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and stress (Bat, 2021).

So, based on the evidence, we can only conclude that Reiki is a placebo. And, despite its popularity and the mythology surrounding it, there is no indication that it has any medical or therapeutic value.  As the Catlin and Taylor-Ford study indicated, the value of Reiki is simply the one-on-one presence of a supportive person.

But, if it’s a placebo, how can it work on pets?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t.  The placebo effect is felt by the animals’ owners.  The owners are primed by the Reiki practitioner to see signs of improvement in their animals and, being inclined to believe in this treatment, fall victim to confirmation bias.  This is particularly the case with dogs.   Dogs are very attuned to our moods and are adept at reading our body language and facial expressions, and they look to us for social cues.  If a dog sees that his owner is encouraged or relieved that a treatment is perceived to be working, then that dog will respond to the owner’s change in mood – further reinforcing the owner’s belief that Reiki has worked wonders.

Conclusion:

I am sure that many Reiki practitioners are sincere and honestly believe in their work.  But the simple fact is that there is no medical value in this “therapy”.  And, if it is used in place of proven, science-based veterinary medicine, then it is harmful and amounts to withholding care from suffering animals.

References:

Adams, T. (January 4, 2016).  Reiki for Animals.  Retrieved from Reiki for Animals | Intuitive Understanding

Bat, N. (2021).  The Effects of Reiki on Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, Body Temperature, and Stress Levels: a Pilot Randomized, Double-Blinded, and Placebo-Controlled Study.  Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 43 (5).  doi:  10.1016/j.ctcp.2021.101328

Catlin, A. and Taylor-Ford, R. L. (2011).  Investigation of Standard Care Versus Reiki Placebo Versus Actual Reiki Therapy to Enhance Comfort and Well-Being in a Chemotherapy Infusion Center.  Oncology Nursing Forum 38 (3).  doi:  10.1188/11.ONF.E212-E220

Crowhurst, M. (nd). Reiki Level I, II and Master Certification – Energy Healing.  Retrieved from Reiki Certificate: Master Certification in Energy Healing | Udemy

Cutler, N. (2011). Reiki Hand Positions. Institute for Integrative Healthcare.  Retrieved from Reiki Hand Positions | Massage Professionals Update (integrativehealthcare.org)

Johnson, K. (2015).  The Awesomeness of Distance Reiki.  Retrieved from universoulheart.net/soul-journeys-2/the-awesomeness-of-distance-reiki.html

Lee, M. S., Pittler, M. H. and Ernst, E. (2008).  Effects of Reiki in Clinical Practice:  A Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials.  The International Journal of Clinical Practice 62 (6).  P 947-954.  doi:  10.1111/j.1742-1241.2008.01729.x

McManus, D. E. (2017). Reiki is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy.  Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine 22 (4).  1051 –  1057.  doi: 10.1177/2156587217728644

Monckton, G. (nd). The History of Reiki.  Retrieved from The History of Reiki (georgianamoncktonreiki.com)

Nelson, D. (nd). Reiki Infinite Healer.  Retrieved from Reiki Infinite Healer Course | Chakras, Symbols + Certification

Paul, N. (nd). Using Reiki for the Family Pet. Retrieved from Using Reiki for the Family Pet – dummies

Rowland, A. Z.  (2010).  The Complete Book of Traditional Reiki, Practical Methods for Personal and Planetary Healing.  Kindle Edition, Retrieved from Amazon.com

What is Reiki? (nd), The International Center for Reiki Training.  Retrieved from What is Reiki? | Reiki