Psychological therapy for animals

Recently (March 2015) the prestigious American weekly “Time” published an interesting survey on the psychological and psychosomatic disorders that also afflict our pets , in particular focusing on dogs.

It seems, in fact, that they can suffer from the same discomforts as human beings, such as anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression etc., manifesting them with similar symptoms, so much so that they have to resort to the help of real specialists.

More and more often, not only in the United States but also in our country, dogs are brought by their owners “to be treated” by following psychological therapies .

In Milan, for example, and also in other large Italian cities, specific clinics have recently been opened, both private and within the public veterinary services of the ASL.

It is natural to ask whether the dog psychologist is really useful or, especially in times of crisis like the present ones, is it not an exaggeration.

In reality, experts confirm that the animals living in our homes can “get sick” and suffer from a psychological point of view in all respects, so the problem exists.

The study of canine psychology was born in England for decades and then developed in the USA, to take hold lately also in Italy, perhaps (in a way) not so spectacular as in well-known overseas TV broadcasts, very popular but also subjected to criticism for the educational / curative methods implemented by the conductor, not universally shared.

Definitely deepening the knowledge not only of human behavior, but also of canine behavior, serves to mediate between the needs of the two species, in order to improve mutual coexistence and facilitate a relationship of well-being.

Let’s see, in practice, what this therapist does, analyzing what his activities are and the reasons why he is required.

The advice can be useful to various figures: pet owners (help to choose a puppy, understand its language, stimulate the right type of attachment, identify and modify its dysfunctional behaviors and / or treat real disorders); breeders (help to understand the specific character of puppies, identify any problems early, match the most suitable animal to each future owner, taking into account the needs of the customer, his type of life and the dog’s breed); veterinarians (cooperation necessary to facilitate the exchange between the doctor and the owner, prescription and administration of psychotropic drugs, emotional support in case of intervention / euthanasia / death of the animal, help for relationship problems between man / dog).

It must be said that, often, it is the veterinarians themselves who further specialize to obtain the qualification of expert in canine psychology, in order to be able to operate directly in both the pharmacological and behavioral fields, also considering that there is one close link between physical health, the emotional-cognitive sphere of the animal and its behavior (which, however, is also valid for the human being).

The most interesting and innovative sector of intervention certainly concerns the treatment of behavioral disorders ; often these problems derive from traumas such as mistreatment, neglect and / or violence, abandonment, premature estrangement from the mother, etc., experienced above all in the first period of life, the most delicate.

On the other hand, these same disorders, when consolidated, are in turn the first cause of rejection of the dog by the owner, with suppression or transfer to the kennel, as it is not able to manage it.

All this could be avoided thanks to a correct education of the animal , from a puppy, and of the person who takes care of it.

It should be noted that behavioral disorders are understood to mean both unwanted behaviors (for example, the dog that goes to the toilet in inappropriate places, chews / eats objects in the house, etc.), and those behaviors that are actually , symptoms and manifestations of real pathologies.

The reasons for turning to a therapist can therefore be varied: aggression towards one’s fellow men and / or towards man; separation anxiety when left alone (expressed discomfort with prolonged barking, howling, destruction of the surrounding environment, etc.); fears and phobias (due to loud and sudden noises, strangers, visits to the vet, etc.); hyperactivity ; stereotyped and obsessive behaviors (such as chasing the tail, licking and / or biting some parts of the body until causing wounds and sores, pulling the hair, etc.).

In almost all cases these problems never occur suddenly, except in the presence of rare neurological diseases (however well recognizable by veterinarians), so it is advisable that owners pay extreme attention to all those attitudes that can represent alarm bells of something wrong with the dog.

The first signs of disturbed behavior may be biting for no reason, growling, general unmanageability, out-of-context hunting instinct, etc. Certain signs must not be neglected, because the sooner you intervene with adequate treatment , the more successful you will be and the “work” of recovery will be easier.

Behavioral therapy, as the name implies, aims to modify those dysfunctional behaviors of the animal, using scientifically based methods, which in part refer to the theories of behavioral psychotherapy typical for humans.

To be able to identify the most suitable therapeutic strategy, it is necessary to first formulate a correct diagnosis, collecting anamnestic information as detailed and accurate as possible not only on the dog (current health status, past diseases, behavioral patterns, daily habits, life history, any trauma, etc.), but also on the environment in which he lives and on the owners (family, rules, educational style, type of relationship with the animal, etc.). In addition, the animal is subjected to observation, both in the clinic and in a natural setting.

After a first meeting, or at most a couple, lasting about two hours each, the specialist is able to express his opinion on the case and set up a therapeutic path .

Depending on the situation, times vary: a single “visit” may be sufficient to solve small problems, while in the face of more complex problems it is necessary to program a protocol of practical sessions, with specific methods, exercises, etc.

Generally, a few months are essential to overcome anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive behaviors; however, thanks to behavioral modification techniques (systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning, etc.) improvements are certainly achieved in a short time.

In more serious cases, it is useful to integrate behavioral therapy with the prescription of drugs by the veterinarian; as for humans, the animal is also given psychotropic drugs (but in different doses and combinations), according to its state of health and the diagnosis made. Of course, the drug alone cannot be decisive, but as mentioned before it must be associated with a correct management of the subject.

The relationship with the owner is very important, who must be aware of the times and methods of drug therapy, of any side effects and, moreover, must be reassured that it will not last for the entire life of the animal, but will be temporary, depending on of the response obtained.

After the first evaluation meeting, the progress of the therapy is monitored through contacts / interviews with the owners and follow-up visits with the dog. As already mentioned, it is essential that the established procedures are followed consistently and that there is a close collaboration between master and therapist , so that they work together with the same goal.

An important part of the interview is also dedicated to explaining the behavior of our dogs (attributable to the concept of psychoeducation in human psychotherapy sessions): understanding the real motivation of a behavior is already a great step towards solving the problem.

Being different species, in fact, we interpret the world and we approach it with other eyes; communication is also different, since the dog does not have the word, but “dialogues” with his peers and with the human being through the use of parts of his body (how he moves his ears and head, the expressions of the muzzle, the various positions it assumes in space) accompanied by vocalizations.

A common mistake of owners, derived precisely from the misunderstanding of animal language, is to “humanize” their dog too much , treating him like a child and / or attributing too complex feelings to him: for example, if the dog ruins our furniture. absence, we believe he did it to take revenge for being jealous, in reality he was simply bored not knowing how to spend time alone, and that was his way of expressing the discomfort.

Then, it will be as much necessary as necessary, by the psychologist, to support work of / with the human subject, however useful also in other circumstances that may occur, such as support in the event of mourning (death of the dog, decision for euthanasia), long illness, needs in specific situations (eg elderly dog).


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