Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Your Vet, The Psychologist

Mrs. Stompf always carried her little Yorkie Sydney into the clinic the same way. He would sit up in the bend of hr elbow, front legs wrapped around her neck, head buried under her chin, and hoping that if he couldn’t see us then of course we couldn’t see him. (Perfectly sensible if you are a dog, or a three year old). She carried him everywhere. He is one of my patients that I wonder if he has ever felt a floor or grass under his feet? Although he seems perfectly content to not know what they feel like. And, I think his mom feels that he is safer in her arms. They have both built a very inter-dependent lifestyle around each other. They are each others’ security blanket. It is the reason many of us seek a pet. It is that unconditional love, acceptance and mutual need for each other’s company.

I am trying to recall if I ever saw Mrs. Stompfs’ husband escort the two of them into our clinic? She is a very good client, who is very devoted to her constant little hitch-hiking Sydney. She watches his every move, behavior, and action. Trouble is, I never get those reports from her in the first person. I receive every report from her in the third person. Well, actually, I get the reports from the vantage of her husband. He would interpret her observations and findings and then she would relay them to me. I would often ask her “what her thoughts are on whatever Sydney-issue of the moment we were discussing was?” And instead I would be told, “My husband thinks it is…” Those discussions were a little futile and frustrating for me. On one level I had to try to interpret for Sydney via a middle man, it's not like trying to identify a pets problem isn’t hard enough when they don’t speak, try trying to figure it out when your patient doesn’t speak and their caretaker doesn’t have their own voice.
Everywhere Mrs. Stompf went Sydney went. They were as connected as a pirate to the parrot that perched on his shoulder. Sydney was an extension of her. I understood very early on that these two needed each other as much as any pet and parent ever could. She needed his companionship, and he returned the devotion by being afraid of everyone (and thing) else in life. It is the reason many of us seek the companionship of a pet. It is the unconditional devotion, acceptance, and love that only a pet brings to our lives. It is the reason we are so drawn to pets, and it is the reason so many pets develop behavioral issues. Pets, in many ways, are like children. They are an independent complex assortment of genetics (that’s why my Beagle Jekyll can’t stop howling at the wind), and “learned behaviors”. If you never let your pet meet, greet, interact, or play with another person or pet they will think that anyone (and anything) else is something you fear. It is often a difficult, delicate dance we as Vets have to try to maneuver as we try to address the behavioral problems, (sometimes only the Vet recognizes the too tight tie between a pet and their parent) and not disturb or disrupt the bond between a pet and parent.
I think that the reason most dogs bite or mis-behave is a general lack of early appropriate socialization. There are many articles written about this, and a huge over representation of behavioral problems, i.e. separation anxiety, because single women over protect and over shelter their pets. In almost all cases they don’t even understand their part in the process, or that their actions influenced the end behavior. To this I would offer the following advice. Your obligation to your pet is in many ways the same as it is to your children. You are there to help provide protection and assist them into becoming an independent (almost) self sufficient part of society. Your pet needs all of the same training as a 3 year old does. No biting/hurting others, don’t be afraid of the world if you are with your friends/family, and we all need to eliminate in an appropriate place.
It is often a difficult discussion to have with a client. How to explain to them that the reason their dog bites at everyone else, tears up your house when you walk out the door, or can't travel anywhere is because you never introduced them to the world and the other people in it? I have learned that it is a delicate fine line between addressing the problem and not placing blame on the owner or resentment toward the behaviorist trying to help recognize, address, and treat the problems. And then there is the whole big can of worms where some owners don't actually want their companion to like anyone else.

The following is from "New Dog Choosing Wisely and Ensuring A Happily Ever After" by Dr. Bruce Fogle. I love this book. It is a great resource for all owners, but especially the owners looking for a new pet.

And also some information on Behavioral Problems from The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health

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