by Dr Enid Stiles, Sherwood Park Animal Hospital
When I first started seeing veterinary behaviour cases, I was a strong believer, as I had been taught, that most behaviour problems in domestic animals occurred because “The owner wasn’t doing it right”, “Who’s the master here?”, “He doesn’t get enough exercise”, “He’s spoiled”, etc. Nurture was far stronger, in the opinions of experts, than nature. Only a few years into practice, my thoughts began to change. Thanks to some fantastic mentors and my own growing experience, I began to see a new approach. My motto soon became: “It is not always or only your fault”. Let me explain.
One of my first behaviour consultations was a not-so-rare problem: separation anxiety. Poor dog, he was only a year or so old and he simply COULD NOT be left alone. He would follow his human mommy around the house all the time; started to anticipate her departure, and when she finally left – PANIC. At the time I recommended the standard protocol, which you will still see and hear all the time: DETACH (as your attachment is causing the problem), HABITUATE to departure cues (walk around with your keys all the time, walk out in your pj’s, leave at odd times, etc), NO ROUTINE (because that makes things worse) and CRATE (because all dogs need a den). So I gave this mom the standard to-do list. And after explaining things, she began to feel guilty for coddling him, for loving him too much.
A few weeks later, when we got together for a recheck, the client said that he had changed. But it wasn’t the way I had expected. He had become reclusive, not interacting with his family, not wanting to go on walks, and his separation anxiety, which displayed itself originally as destruction while alone, had changed to urination and defecation (in the crate). I could not figure it out. She was doing EVERYTHING I asked her to: not cuddling him as much, making him work for everything, crating him, walking around with her boots on but not leaving, etc., etc. So where were we going wrong? Her description of his behaviours made me go down a path I had essentially been taught could not happen: canine clinical depression……….
All I could think was: this detachment, this change in routine, this break-up from the family, had it caused a depression? He used to be loved; now he was being ignored. From being a dog that was highly social, he had experienced a 180 degree change to a relatively non-social environment; no wonder he felt depressed! Of course, I couldn’t ask him if he had feelings of depression, but this is the story of my career. There was also the family to consider, sad that the dog they used to kiss and hug and sleep with in their beds was now a stranger in their home.
Don’t worry, this dog ended up doing really well. He went on to live a happy life and died at the ripe old age of 12 (of cancer, not depression). The treatment that eventually worked was to develop a stronger and more predictable routine which reduced his anxiety, reinforced his independent behaviours, and kept building the bond that had almost been broken. In short, we found a happy medium which allayed his anxieties while strengthening his bonds to the family.
We have dogs, why? Because we LOVE the unconditional LOVE they give us! And what more should we offer them in return, but love, shelter, food, companionship and play. I try my best to keep this in mind when I see my cases. What is most important, in my opinion, is keeping that relationship and bond healthy and strong. What have people done so far and what more (or less) can they do? Let’s be realistic about what we can achieve. It’s OK if you don’t have 45 minutes a day to train or do behaviour modification, very few people do! I certainly won’t judge you for it. Of course, we will never see change if we don’t work at it. Behaviour illness does exist and people who chastise dog owners and say things like “it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s the owners” have obviously never lived with a dog with serious anxiety, compulsive disorders, etc. I am not saying that we play no role in their behaviours. Of course we do, but it is not always or only our fault!
Written by Dr Enid Stiles, DVM MSc, Sherwood Park Animal Hospital