The dog and his shrink

The dog and his shrink

The dog and his shrink

Some are aggressive; others suffer from separation anxiety, have toileting problems, bark too much, or have phobias. Shirin Merchant offers a zany dekko into the exciting world of dogs and their owners.

“I want you to teach my dog to kill my mother-in-law!” stated the woman, without batting an eyelid. Half an hour ago, the lady had walked in with herfriendly Boxer for a canine behaviour consultation; her dog was destructive when left alone at home.

“Well… um… ah...” I fuddled, with no intelligent answer in mind. In my sixteen years as a canine behaviourist, I have had many odd requests, but this one was a new challenge. 

“What exactly did you have in mind?” I asked the lady, intrigued by the thought. “Can’t he trip her or push her down the stairs?” she demanded. My eyes grew wide at the thought of me languishing in jail as an accessory to murder, and I politely informed her that it wasn’t a good idea. 

“Fine!” she said disappointedly, giving me a look that suggested I was useless, as she walked out the door. 
Welcome to my wonderful, zany and exciting life as a canine behaviourist. Owning and living with a dog should be fun, but for many pet owners the fun is overshadowed by unhappiness or fear.

 That is where I step in. As a practising canine behaviourist I regularly work with canines that are aggressive, destructive, suffer from separation anxiety, have toileting problems, bark too much, or have phobias. Problems normally arise when pet owners fail to understand normal canine behaviour.
 During the consultation, I establish the root cause of the dog’s behaviour and then get the owner to understand it. After which, I plan a behaviour modification programme for the owner to follow out at home. Contrary to what some pet owners think, I do not lay the dog down on the couch and ask if its parents were cruel to it. 

In most cases, I get to work with aggressive dogs. And to break a myth here: dogs don’t bite without good reason. 

By nature they are flight animals – which means when confronted with an unpleasant situation, a canine will choose to go away rather than fight. They only use aggression when all other options seem unviable. In most cases where people get bitten, it is because the person did not understand the dog was upset. Learning how to read a dog’s body language can help prevent thousands of dog bites from happening. Part of my work involves educating people about this so that dogs and humans can learn to live in harmony. 

But not all my work is serious. I am routinely asked to put right humiliating behaviours. Behaviours that range from the simple - “he’s not coming back when called and I had to chase him around the park,” to the slightly bizarre – “my dog attacks my husband in the toilet.” 

Yet, not all pet parents end up with difficult dogs. In most cases, bringing a pet into the home has brought immense happiness and calm to a home. Sahil was just ten years old when he lost his parents in a car crash. The year that followed was filled with nightmares and panic attacks. Till his aunt got Sahil a dog – Zen. Zen’s presence in Sahil’s life has erased the panic attacks, and the nightmares have reduced drastically. Sahil has returned to school and his attitude has become optimistic. 

“There's no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner,” says John Grogan, author of the best seller, Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog. Whilst I disagree with that statement, it is true that most of the problem behaviours crop up in domesticated canines because of how we bring up our pets. 

Many years ago, an elegant Parsi lady summoned me to her mansion to meet Mr Darwin (the dog, not the husband). The haughty Jack Russell Terrier had recently taken to attacking the car seat every time he went for a drive. Since it was the only outing this dog got, the owner was reluctant to stop it, but she was equally unhappy paying exorbitant bills repairing the upholstery. 

The chauffeur, in full uniform, held the Mercedes’ door open for us as Mr Darwin got in on the front seat and we made ourselves comfortable at the back. The drive was pleasant, till Mr Darwin spotted a dog on the street. He dropped his ‘propah’ act and lunged ferociously at the dog. Unable to get to it, he redirected his anger onto the leather upholstery and started shredding it to pieces. 

“He does it every time we see a street dog,” she said matter-of-factly. Then she leaned over and conspiratorially whispered, “I think it’s because they are pariah dogs.” Amused, I asked if she presumed her dog to be racist. With eyes shut, she nodded her head in assent and insisted that he couldn’t be faulted for it. After all, he was landed gentry, she reasoned.  I explained that the dog wasn’t racist and was just frustrated. A bit of training and socialising with other dogs could put right the problem. But she would have none of it. Mr Darwin was not going to make friends with any pariah.

As you can see, a canine behaviourist’s job is never boring. At the end of the day I have to be prepared for anything and everything – from a dog that only eats mithai to pet parents who want a divorce because of the dog! But that’s what makes my work exciting and so much fun. And knowing that I am responsible for many a happy ending, makes it all worthwhile. 

I got the call a week ago on a balmy Monday morning. It was the lady with the Boxer. “Hello” she whispered excitedly. “I just called to tell you that today we had a close shave! My mother-in-law was standing on the balcony and my dog jumped on her back and knocked her over!” Thankfully, the mother-in-law had a near escape from being tipped over the railing as she fell. “I think my mum-in-law suspects something is fishy,” she whispered conspiratorially. “If she calls you, don’t say a word.” She hung up abruptly.

I think its time I go on a long vacation and change my phone number. 

(The writer is a canine behaviourist based in Mumbai. And all names and breeds have been changed to protect owner and canine privacy.)

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