News & Politics

“What’s on Your Mind?”

Dogs and cats get stressed, too. Some even end up seeing pet therapists.

When my family got Spike, our long-haired Jack Russell, he was a good-natured puppy who clamored for attention. On walks, he was friendly and enjoyed playing with other dogs, although he wasn’t very good at fetching.

Spike was about six months old when our house was robbed. He was the only one home. Soon we started noticing changes in his behavior: He’d stand guard at the bay windows, barking at anyone who walked by, and bare his teeth when we tried to get him to stop. He’d jump on other dogs and chase people on bicycles, snapping at their ankles.

We could tell Spike was disturbed by the attack—we suspected the burglars had hurt him to quiet him—so we tried noise-activated spray collars to control the barking. We also tried obedience training. Nothing worked.

When a friend suggested a pet therapist, I was dubious, but we decided to try.

Pet therapy isn’t as alternative as it sounds. Unlike standard obedience training, which emphasizes submission, therapy addresses the root cause of behavior. It’s often used to treat anxiety disorders such as posttraumatic stress or fear of thunderstorms and other phobias. Therapists, also called animal behaviorists, are usually trained in psychology.

Kinga Berro, a Falls Church pet behavioral expert who has worked with abused and abandoned animals, says you can’t achieve obedience until you understand a dog’s psychology. For traumatized animals, behavioral therapy is usually most effective, but there are other treatments.

Dogs with separation anxiety, for example, may be prescribed antidepressants such as Clomical—some vets call it “pet Prozac”—and some therapists offer acupuncture, massage therapy, and homeopathic treatments. Prices vary; an initial consultation is usually $100 to $200.

Yody Blass, director of Companion Animal Behavior in Leesburg, says acute trauma in pets is related to a recent event; chronic trauma is one that’s still affecting an animal months after the incident. Chronically traumatized pets might act aggressively, hide, destroy things, be clingy, or try to attack people. In Spike’s case, he especially went after anyone in uniform.

Our pet therapist, Linda, asked about Spike’s behavior and considered the problem: In response to the attack on our home, she said, he was asserting dominance. Linda watched him sit in a chair by the window and growl as we tried to get him down.

“He obviously thinks that he’s the boss in this house and that’s how he can prevent another attack,” she said. “And now we need to make him understand that’s not the case.”

Linda had us put Spike on a leash and walk him around the coffee table. After a few minutes, he began dragging his feet and yowling, but we carried on walking. Then we placed a treat on the floor, took him off the leash, and watched.

“No,” Linda told him. We walked him around the table again and put down the treat. He hesitated. “That’s good,” she said. “He’s beginning to understand that he’s not in charge.”

We moved on to other behaviors, such as not letting him tear up the mail. In each case, walking him on a leash, along with occasional rewards, asserted who was boss. Halfway through the training, we noticed Spike’s fur coming out.

“That’s a sign of stress,” said Linda. “His whole understanding of the world is starting to shift.” The shedding stopped by the next day.

Berro likes to see an animal three to five times. She once worked with an abused dog named Tillah, a five-year-old Labrador mix who was rescued from Afghanistan and was terrified of men and other dogs, causing her to behave aggressively. Berro helped desensitize Tillah by taking her to adoption events to get her used to people and animals. Tillah has been happily settled with her adopters, both male, for seven months.

A year after therapy, Spike is back to playing with other dogs in the park. He’s stopped trying to run from us on walks. He’s calmer and less aggressive.

“Therapy takes a lot of patience and dedication,” says Yody Blass. “Animals need to learn to trust again.”

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