Dr. Sigmund Doolittle

By Jeffrey Kluger|Thursday, February 01, 1996
RELATED TAGS: ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE
If you’re in the market for a dog, think twice before making that dog a dachshund. No doubt there are millions of happy dachshund owners who would disagree, but millions of happy dachshund owners never met Sossi.

Sossi was a dachshund of indeterminate age that lived next door to my family during the late 1960s and, given the rancor she inspired among her neighbors, was lucky to see the 1970s. The first problem with Sossi-- one that, granted, wasn’t her fault--concerned her looks. When choosing a dog, most dachshund enthusiasts set their aesthetic standards low--and well they should. Given the canine industry’s obsession with breeding and bearing, it takes some courage to select a dog that looks as though at least one root of its family tree is firmly planted in the Jimmy Dean sausage factory. Sossi, small at birth and throughout her life, took the distinctive dachshund body type even further, appearing less like a huggable household pet than a sort of high-speed kielbasa with feet. But Sossi’s worst feature was not her wurst feature.

If part of a dog’s job in the whole interspecies domestication deal involves keeping the human’s home safe from intruders, Sossi was evidently bucking for employee of the month. To be sure, a home guarded by 11 pounds of mobile luncheon meat is not exactly impregnable, and Sossi must have known that, deciding that what she couldn’t accomplish with her bulk she would accomplish with her bark. Rising at least 15 minutes before sunrise, she would spend up to 11 hours a day standing in her front yard and barking in a high, piercing register at any unfamiliar person she detected within the tristate area. As Sossi got older, she grew even more cantankerous, routinely barking not just at strangers but at family members, friends, cats, plants, furniture, and on one memorable occasion, a fresh loaf of Roman Meal sandwich bread. Eventually, Sossi became so antisocial she simply retreated to the attic, took her meals in her room, and spent much of her dotage looking out her window and alternately barking at passersby and yelling at neighborhood kids to turn down that confounded rock and roll.

Sossi’s snappish temperament is not uncommon among dogs, and it is by no means the only behavioral quirk the canine personality can exhibit. For every breed of dog available, there is a breed of dog dysfunction never mentioned in the owner’s manual. Nowadays human beings are beginning to realize that their best nonhuman friends have psyches that are every bit as complex as their own--and every bit as in need of understanding. More and more, the person providing that understanding is Dr. Nick Dodman.

Dodman is the director of the Tufts University Animal Behavior Clinic in Grafton, Massachusetts, and the author of the upcoming book The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatment, and the Psychology of Dogs. The acknowledged leader in the admittedly narrow field of dog psychology, Dodman has spent much of his career studying the canine mind and has developed a wide range of methods for curing what ails it. The way Dodman sees it, troubled dogs, like troubled humans, can respond to a variety of psychotherapeutic protocols, including behavior modification regimens and even the use of psychotropic medications like Anafranil and Prozac. While many pet owners may doubt whether treatment of this kind is ever right for a patient that would just as soon chew a couch as lie down on it, Dodman, a dog lover himself, is not among them.

As people who own and study dogs discover, Dodman says, keeping a dog healthy is far more complicated than it seems. The old idea that a dog with behavioral problems is just being obstinate is falling out of favor. In its place, people are beginning to accept that a misbehaving dog is usually a troubled dog, and a troubled dog needs care.

While Dodman has identified a wide range of canine personality disorders in his years in practice, he believes that all the emotional problems dogs exhibit tend to fall into one of three broad categories: aggressive behavior, fearful and anxious behavior, and compulsive behavior. Of the three, aggressive behavior poses the biggest problem.

Twelve thousand years ago, when humanity’s Ice Age House Pet Selection Committee was first considering candidates for domestication, the dog must have seemed an unlikely applicant:

NAME: Dog.

TURN-ONS: Meat.

FAVORITE FOODS: Meat.

LEISURE ACTIVITIES: Stalking and killing things to get meat.

CLOSEST RELATIVE TO CONTACT IN CASE OF EMERGENCY: The wolf.

Despite such a questionable résumé, however, it was the dog that was first invited into humanity’s collective home, and for both species, the cohabitation took some getting used to. Dogs in the wild tend to congregate in highly structured, extremely hierarchical packs, with dominant and submissive members constantly jockeying for position through threat displays, intimidation, mock fighting, and, frequently, real fighting. Human beings, who fancy themselves a good deal more socially sophisticated than this, are no strangers to such power-play behavior, but we generally express it a bit more subtly--and it’s a good thing, too. The day Newt Gingrich nips Dick Gephardt on the neck in order to assert his congressional dominance is the day I apply for a Canadian passport. When the more socially direct dog comes to live with the more socially discreet human, however, there are bound to be conflicts.

Dogs think of themselves as members of the family, Dodman says, and as such, they immediately try to determine where they fit in the hierarchy of the pack. Often the dog concludes that it ranks number two or even number one and will snap at humans it considers its subordinates, growl at them if they try to touch its food, and generally make it its business to threaten at least some of the people in whose home it’s been invited to live. Understandably, humans see this as inappropriate.

Just as troubling as the hostile dog--if a good deal less dangerous--is the anxious dog. One of the things pet owners appreciate most about the canine species is its open adoration of the human species. Unlike cats, which insist on a credit check and at least three personal references before agreeing to come live with you, dogs thrive on the company of people. Some dogs, however, thrive too much and can suffer extreme separation anxiety when left alone.

In most cases, the symptoms of separation anxiety are easy to spot, usually beginning with a dog that’s very clingy when the owners are home, whimpery when they prepare to leave, and so distressed when they’re gone that it may damage lamps or furniture or even begin urinating throughout the house. Certainly, as social protest goes, this form of free speech is not exactly the stuff of op-ed pages, but faced with even the most trenchant George Will commentary and a Labrador retriever urinating on the living room rug, I know what would get my attention. In addition to growing terrified when faced with separation, anxious dogs can also develop fear of strangers, inanimate objects, and even noises like thunder.

More perplexing than both canine anxiety and canine aggression are canine compulsions--specifically compulsive tail chasing and paw licking and chewing. For most people, few activities call the intellectual wattage of the entire canine species into greater question than the sight of a dog chasing its tail. Though even the most devoted dog owners do not pretend that their pets have the brainpower of an Oxford Fellow, they do expect them to be smarter than an oxford shirt. Dodman explains, however, that tail chasing, as well as paw licking, is not an intellectual problem but a psychological one.

Many dogs chase their tails on occasion, he says. For a handful, however, those occasions become more and more frequent until tail chasing becomes all they do. Compulsive licking, which leads to ‘lick granuloma,’ is even more unpleasant. Dogs that do this pick a spot on their bodies, generally on their left foreleg, and systematically lick and gnaw it until the fur in that area is lost and the skin underneath becomes infected.

While compulsive disorders--as well as anxiety and aggression-- generally resist the ministrations of even the most dedicated pet owners, things change considerably when a professional like Dodman gets involved. Of all three categories of illness, anxiety disorders appear to respond best to treatment, and separation anxiety may respond best of all.

To treat a dog with separation problems, Dodman recommends a two- pronged approach, consisting of what he terms systematic desensitization accompanied by counterconditioning. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are remarkably adept at reading their owners’ unspoken cues and in some cases may be aware that you’re preparing to leave the house long before you ever do. If the moment you step into the shower to get ready for a dinner date, your dog starts whimpering, you know you’re in trouble; if when you walk toward the closet to pick out something to wear, it takes to its bed, unplugs the phone, and places a cold compress on its head, you’re in big trouble. To combat this, Dodman prescribes a series of planned departures that accustom the dog to all the stimuli that cause it distress. For dogs that become anxious when they hear you pick up your car keys, for example, Dodman recommends a series of key-jingling exercises that, if repeated often enough, ultimately cause the sound to lose its power. When key jingling is no longer a problem, you would next tackle coat donning or front door opening, advancing to the point at which you actually leave the house.

Eventually, Dodman says, you expose your dog to a series of planned departures during which you leave the house for a few minutes at a time, staying away longer and longer until your dog grows accustomed to the idea of your being gone.

Similar habituation can be used, Dodman believes, to treat other canine anxieties, including fear of people and fear of noises. But what if such training isn’t effective? In these cases, Dodman believes, the answer may be less habituation than medication.

Ever since the introduction of the antidepressant Prozac in the mid-1980s, the search for the magic psychotropic bullet has accelerated dramatically. While nobody in the pharmaceutical industry has yet introduced festive, Barney Rubble-shaped Anafranil for the K-through-12 crowd, the idea of chemical treatments for people with emotional disorders has gained increasing acceptance. As it has, animal doctors have begun to discover that the same drugs can work for dogs with emotional disorders as well.

The dog mind may be less sophisticated than ours, he says, but the brain is just as chemically complex. In the case of anxious human beings, who always have the option of trying to talk their problems through, we still sometimes prescribe drugs. In the case of dogs, who don’t have that option, shouldn’t medication make even more sense?

When faced with an anxious dog that is otherwise untreatable, Dodman may use BuSpar. Similar to Valium--which is so commonly prescribed for people, it is now being used as a garnish in many fine West Coast restaurants--BuSpar mimics the effects of the neurotransmitter serotonin. A chemical essential for regulating mood, serotonin can be produced in different quantities in the brain at different times, leading to impulsiveness or aggression when levels are low, and a sense of well-being when levels are sufficient. BuSpar works by binding to the same sites on brain cells to which serotonin binds, mimicking the neurotransmitter’s action and supplementing it when natural concentrations drop too far.

Says Dodman: I don’t say BuSpar should be the first treatment tried; but as a sort of chemical shoehorn to help ease a dog into more traditional therapy, it can work remarkably well.

The same yin-and-yang, medicate-and-train option is available for aggressive dogs as well. In treating a dog that sees itself as the alpha member of the family pack, Dodman first prescribes a protocol he refers to as the Work for a Living program, in which the dog learns that everything it gets from the family--food, love, attention--must be paid for in some small way.

If an aggressive dog comes up to a member of the family and indicates that it wants to be petted or fed, it almost always gets petted or fed, he says. But why should it?

Instead of such automatic compliance, Dodman recommends that when a dog requests food or attention, you respond with an instruction like Sit or Stay. If the dog obeys, it should be rewarded with what it is seeking. If it looks at you with slit eyes, rolls a toothpick ominously around on its tongue, and suggests that maybe you’re the one who ought to be thinking about sitting, you probably need to start over from the top.

In some cases, of course, no amount of repetition is sufficient to help the dog get with this quid pro program. When behavioral treatments have failed and the dog is still so convinced of its own household dominance that it’s begun changing the locks and having its own premium cable channels installed, the medicinal option might again be the best. In these cases, the drugs that bring about the most promising results appear to be the members of the Prozac family, including Anafranil, Zoloft, and Prozac itself. These medications work not by mimicking serotonin but by preventing excess amounts of the chemical from being reabsorbed by brain cells, thus making more available in the synapses between cells, where the real signal-sending activity of the brain takes place.

In dogs that don’t respond to behavioral training, Dodman says, these so-called serotonin re-uptake inhibitors can lead to a reduction in aggression about 75 percent of the time.

For dogs with compulsive disorders, the pharmacological option might be most important of all. Tail chasers can sometimes be helped with a program of human attention and intervention in addition to being given more exercise and a better diet, but no pet owner is vigilant enough to catch the chasing activity every time it occurs.

Paw licking is even harder to cure, with existing treatments involving little more than bandaging the affected area or outfitting the dog with a large plastic cone that attaches to its collar and flares up around its head, denying it access to the wound long enough to allow the leg to heal. This, however, works only as long as the apparatus is in place, and when it is it can actually increase anxiety. Many is the cone- wearing canine that has run home in tears at the end of the day because all the other dogs in the park were pointing and chanting, Carvel-head! Carvel-head! while clutching their sides in laughter. In these cases medication may be the only answer.

Human beings with obsessive-compulsive disorder have been helped by drugs in the Prozac family, Dodman says, which relieve the anxiety that helps drive the compulsions. In dogs the drugs can work the same way.

To be sure, nobody, Dodman included, wants to be responsible for a whole generation of medicated dogs that have sacrificed their essential canineness to the prescription pad. Nor does anyone want to rely too long on reconditioning or other animal equivalents of talk therapy if they’re not working at all. But even the most conservative dog doctors would agree that when you’re providing emotional counseling to a member of the family who still has to be reminded not to drink from the toilet or eat the living room throw pillows, your treatment can’t afford to be too subtle. For the anxious Akita or the despondent Doberman, a little medication may turn out to be the only way to prevent Ol’ Blue from remaining Moody Blue.
Comment on this article
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
DSCJulyAugCover
+

Log in to your account

X
Email address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »