Never in my life did I expect to be taking my dog to see a Psychologist. It just seemed too exorbitant… pampering a dog’s temperament like that. For Rover’s sake! It seemed like an activity that a lonely, eccentric woman from Toorak, or Mosman might practice, along with her poodle, Fee-fee Fancypants. You know, for a touch of ‘therapy’ each Wednesday afternoon at 3.
[Insert posh tone] “Fee-fee, come to Mummy!” Then, grabbing his Louis Vuitton coat hanging of the rack in the marble foyer, “We are just going out for the day.” She’d say as though contemplating Fee’s deep-seated psychological issues.
Of course, with people and their snide giggles, Fee, with his baby-blue pom-pom tail, and a head, half-shaved—the poodle en-vouge way—leaving a buoyant, baby-blue pouf at the top, causing everyone to laugh at him, was oblivious to such human cruelty. People were just happy around him.
Really, why take a dog to a Psychologist?
After 4 years running on the pet-pooch-psychology gauntlet, I know why people do this:
Myself, my partner, and our 11-month-old Boxer, and Gabrielle, the Animal Psychologist, were cornered off into a room at Lort Smith Animal Hospital, in East Melbourne. Well, Gabrielle was cornered. By our dog.
A statue of Artemis, motionless, she asked, “How long has Bella been doing this?” She avoided eye contact with the growling mess sitting on the floor.
My feet felt sweaty. The room went hot. God, I hope she doesn’t go into ‘The Zone’… I wrapped the lead tighter around my hand.
Precursors to The Zone: Bella’s intense fear of people manifested as copious amounts of drool, foaming around possum-pink gums snarled back over teeth, that often frightened even me. Then the dripping started.
Hardly couch time!
“Since she first came home.” Just as any concerned parent of the fur-kid kind would, I worried. What had I done wrong? What hadn’t I done?
Gabrielle nodded sagely, “Do you know of anything happening before that?”
“She was the runt from a litter of guard dogs used in a trucking yard. I know the other dogs took her food, or so the owner said.” I hesitated teetering on the edge of second-hand bystander guilt: neighbours who knew him said he beat his dogs, locking them in the garage as punishment, I explained…
Flashbacks: A foal needing nourishment, juxtaposed against plump siblings. Soulful brown eyes melting hearts. White socks. A white chest, and then, in tan, to match the rest of her body, was the sign: a love heart, the size of my hand. At home, we lavished love reserved for human children, until she became a normal over-entitled dog. Almost.
The zone: Bella sees a stranger, growls, drools, then as they approach, her eyes glaze over, haunted by something only she sees. We no longer exist. Then, she flips out, doing summersaults, snapping left and right, sometimes biting us if we get in her way.
My partner, Dan, relayed how when Bella first came home, “She was so frightened, she’d roll over and pee on herself. And, if left outside, she’d bloody her paws just to get in.”
“Do you know much about the parents’ temperament?”
Dan continued, “Her father would growl at the local kids as they walked past after school. Her mum was friendly, though.”
Gabrielle scribbled on the ten-page questionnaire we’d filled out prior to the $450 appointment. “So, we have possible abuse, and genetics—often the case with these dogs.“ Her hand inched into a belted-bag. “And the reward word is, ‘Yes?’”
We nodded as Gabrielle testing it, threw a treat, “Yes,” she said as if speaking to a toddler. Bella’s head tilted, licking the dried liver, one eye on the treat, the other on Gabrielle.
“She responds well. What else does she know?”
Growls continued. Drool puddled. My shoes filled with water.
“She can beg; play dead. Loves to play soccer.” Dog school didn’t work out, so we used training DVDs.
When asked how Bella was with strangers, I explained about ‘The Zone’.
“And if you can’t help her? Would you still be willing to keep her, accepting she may be a dog who needs space, a secure yard, and a walker willing to take a detour?”
We loved her, but… I explained my fear about someone being bitten, and my worry that her fear was rebounding off of my fear.
Gabrielle suggested Bella try Prozac (Fluoxetine), and some more training—as much for us as her.
In Modern Dog Magazine, Stanley Coren, in ‘Pill Popping-Pups, writes, “Animal behavioural pharmacology is a growing field of research… Drugs for pets are now big business and the Pfizer Drug Company has established a companion animal division which brought in nearly a billion dollars last year.” They’re even trying to develop a beef flavoured tablet.
After six months, Bella, in a drug-induced haze, was over-sleeping, but could eat without looking over her shoulder. And while undergoing intense training, she learned to meet and make friends with family and friends, one on one.
We know that antidepressants can help re-wire the brain, however, Earo Castren at the University of Helsinki’s Neuroscience centre has this to say, “We know that a combination of antidepressant treatment and cognitive behavioural therapy has better effects than either of these treatments alone.”
Prozac gave us a window of time to work with Bella, changing her behaviour. A ‘positive reinforcement’ trainer gave this advice, “If Bella were in a pack, she’d be the dog up back, barking away, supporting the Alpha. Yet, she’s taking this on herself. That’s why she’s losing it.”
Stigma aside, a mental health check needs to be seen in the same way as a physical health check. And so, from Toorak to Mosman and from Punchbowl to St Albans, it should be for dogs too.
Medical research shows that people who are depressed, suffering a chronic illness, a disability or just settling into old age, can benefit from owning a pet far more than from taking a pill. A reply from ‘Dear Dog Lady’, in Modern Dog Magazine, explains this idea more poignantly, “Our pets provide emotional substance by just ‘being’. They’re sweeter than Prozac and much more fun.”
If only we humans could be sweeter than Prozac too. Put simply: we need to be there for our pets. For as Jennifer Messer suggests in her article, ‘Healthy Affection vs. Obsession’, “Healthy affection is but one of the ingredients for keeping your dog off Prozac.”
Even Charles Darwin, 200 years ago, believed that animals experienced emotions similar to humans.
Today, Bella’s a happy well-adjusted dog. She no longer flips out over the need to be the leader of the pack; she trusts us to stand in front and protect her. Dog psychology and pharmacology is wonderment!
More on Bella’s Doggy Shrink:
“Dr Gabrielle Carter is an American Veterinary Board certified and trained animal behaviourist who can help owners and their pets with animal behaviour issues such as separation anxiety, aggression, and repetitive and obsessive behaviour such as tail chasing. Initial consultations last up to three hours during which Dr Carter gains as much information as possible about your pet and its environment and lifestyle, its interactions with other animals, people and toys, to gain an insight into the triggers for the behavioural problems.”