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Pet Owners Who Love Too Much.
Is there such a thing? Can excessive devotion harm a pet's health, happiness, or development?

One thing that it is easy to forget when treating behavior problems in pet animals is the dyadic relationships between the pets and people. It takes two to tango, so to speak. Dominant dogs can be kept in check by purpose-driven matter-of-factish caregivers who may never need the services of an animal behaviorist. Also, fearful or anxious dogs can have their fears and anxieties assuaged by confident owners. One no-nonsense breeder of potentially dominant aggressive cocker spaniels never had a problem with any of her pups - until they were adopted. That's when the biting started. "But he growls and snaps at us," new owners would complain. "So bring him back to me and let me check him out," this Atilla-the-breeder individual would say. Back at the breeder's home the pups all sprung to attention and were on their best behavior. "I have no idea what your problem is," the breeder would say. "He's fine with me." (Daren't be any other way, as it turns out).

What the breeder had that the owners lacked was a tough-minded sense of purpose. She was in the business of raising pups for sale or show and wasn't about to take any grief from them. For instance, if they tried to rag on her to get their own way she would insist they first obeyed a command or would ignore them until she was good and ready. Devoted new owners, however, would immediately and unconditionally respond to their pup's demands for affection, attention and treats. In the dog world, such heart-on-sleeve affection is interpreted as weakness and certain strong-minded pups take advantage of compliant owners, edging above them in the pack order. That portends trouble. All that meat and no potatoes - the potatoes, in this case, being leadership, proper direction, and limit setting. Out of control pups will express their own wills in no uncertain terms, barking at them or mouthing and biting to achieve their goals. Aggression to owners is not simply a state, it is a trait fostered by well meaning, overly empathetic caregivers. At the first sign of such pushiness owners should set limits of acceptable behavior and stick to them. Though genetics can push a dog toward such "yuppy puppy" behavior, it is owners who facilitate it and it is they who need to be educated.

With fears it's a similar story. Though some dogs have a fearful nature and others good reason to be under confident as a result of early nurtural shortcomings or adverse experiences, an owner's attitude can go a long way toward fanning or extinguishing the flames of that fear. The bottom line: obvious sympathy from a loving owner can make things a lot worse. It's proper direction that these dogs need. One dog with thunderstorm phobia sat shivering and shaking in fear next to its doting owner at the sound of a thunderstorm recording being played in the clinic. The owner was asked to leave the room and the recording was replayed. The dog sat stoically, seemingly unaffected. This is not to say that storm phobic dogs cannot panic in their owner's absence, for they can. But it does show the influence of the owner's presence and influence on the underlying condition. But sensitivity to the sound of thunder is not the whole story in storm phobic dogs. They are also triggered by darkening skies, the sound of wind and rain, and, some say, concomitant changes in barometric pressure or static fields. In other words, storm phobia is a composite fear. In a study of storm phobia that we are conducting in dogs, an anti-static jacket is fitted to the dog at the first sign of the phobia. Then owners are instructed to completely ignore their dog. Many dogs improve with this strategy, some quite dramatically. It could be that the anti-static jacket is working as intended but it is equally possible that owner's withdrawal of any facilitating attention is what is producing the beneficial effects. (Now we have placebo capes to test that hypothesis).

Finally, the highly prevalent condition of separation anxiety that affects some 12 million of the nation's 80 million dogs. The seeds of this condition are sewn early on and dogs are often adopted with the potential for it. But whether it gets worse or better with time seems to depend on the owner's attitude toward them. Again, owner behavior stemming from unconstrained love and empathy sends the dog the wrong message. If the dog thinks being alone is going to be tough, there's nothing like an owner's billing and cooing on departure to convince him that it's right to be anxious. It's as if the dog is thinking, "If they're that concerned, I should really be worried." In correcting this problem, we have to tell owners of dogs with separation anxiety to chill a bit: Teach the indepence, not codependence. Teach him to stand on his own four feet. Make leaving a fun time by feeding him and putting out tasty treats and toys as you leave. Keep greetings low key. I call the strategy "distancing" - putting a layer of insulation between an owner and a Velcro dog who is feeding his fear off his owner's affection.

I am not saying that dog owners should love their dogs - they should. But love alone is not enough; owners also need to lead. Good dog owners are like good parents; they enjoy the good times with their charge but know how and when to set limits of acceptable behavior. Children grow up to benefit from such lessons but dogs are Peter Pans who need such strong leaders on an ongoing basis.

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nick@thepetdocs.com
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