When Puppies Need Therapy: Meet the Pet Psychologists

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This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Figaro.

Right now, about 10% of dogs are suffering from mental disorders. The same goes for us human beings. And 50% of canines are prone to mental illness at least once in their lives. Again, the same goes for us. At certain points in their lives, they may feel anxious or depressed and have phobias, just as we do. All this can ruin not only their lives but the lives of their masters as well.

Still, there are some specific disorders that are uniquely human. "Schizophrenia rarely affects animals. Psychopathology never does," says Joel Dehasse, a veterinary expert in cat and dog behaviors in Brussels and author of Mon animal a-t-il besoin d'un psy? ("Does my pet need to go to a psychiatrist?").

Nonetheless, behavioral problems that occur when the pets are with their masters or with their peers are very common. Here is one example: Mouse is a cute Anatolian shepherd who weighs 60 kg. As he has grown, Mouse has become more and more aggressive with small male dogs he encounters while out walking with his master. Little by little, what had been nice relaxing moments for the master have become major nightmares. Mouse now has to be muzzled. His owner, always on the alert, has to make sure others' dogs always stay 10 m away.

"Some masters cannot stand it anymore. That's when they decide to bring their pets to a psychiatrist," explains Bruno Legrand, a dog trainer in the Loiret in northern France and a teacher at the National Veterinary School in Maisons-Alfort. "What the masters don't know is that they will have to see the psychiatrist as well," he adds.

This is something particular to dog and cat therapy: vets have to examine the pet while also taking into account the subjective way their masters see them — in other words, the masters' distorting prisms. "In most cases, animals project how their masters feel. At the first therapy session, the psychiatrist spends five minutes with the dog and 50 minutes with its master," Dehasse says.

Then, for instance, the vet will ask Mouse's master what kind of relations he has with small dogs. The approach is very close to the systemic analysis used with children who go to see a psychiatrist because their parents want to. No wonder Dehasse also knows a lot about family therapy. "People now consider pets to be part of their families," he says.

Another similarity is that behavioral therapy for pets always starts with an inquiry about the causes of the disorder: Is it genetic, something proper to that particular breed, or is there something that happened in the animal's past that may explain its aggressive behavior? Does Mouse think he is playing with the small dogs he is actually attacking? Is it behavior that is programmed by the dog's genes? Or was Mouse taken away from his mother too early after he was born?

Once the causes of the disorder are recognized, the vets can prescribe medicine in some cases. But their first priority is to encourage the pets to behave differently. The vets have to lead the animals into a new "lifestyle," something that is satisfying for both pet and master. "Dogs cannot talk like human beings, so we try to move forward relying on their various life experiences," Dehasse explains.

Thus, Mouse will be taught to look his master in the eye whenever he hears the mere order "Look." As a result, the master will be able to control his dog's attention, even in the streets.

"An animal only needs to go to therapy for one to six months to change its behavior," Legrand says. "The results are even better when the master is very much aware of the problem, and when he or she puts daily efforts into helping his or her pet."

But if the master does not know the basics about the behavioral mechanism of his or her pet's breed and about its needs, there can be serious consequences. "People just want romantic images of fictional dogs," says Legrand.

Not knowing, for example, that your dog needs to run and to chew at least 5 hours a day may have serious consequences. So can spoiling your pet rotten. Indeed, 95% of phobic or aggressive pets, if they don't undergo therapy, will be abandoned, end up in the SPCA or be put in a shelter.

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