What’s My Dog Thinking? Getting Inside Fido’s Head

Anyone who owns a pet understands the strong connection that can develop between people and animals. But that deep bond doesn’t let us see behind strange or compulsive behavior of our beloved dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and other animals. Nicholas Dodman, a renowned Tufts University veterinarian and researcher, has spent decades studying pets in order to demystify and treat their behavior disorders. He explores the topic in his latest book, Pets on the Couch, which breaks down complex scientific research into a user-friendly guide to help owners get a handle on what’s going on with their pets. Dodman joined the [email protected] show to talk about the book. The interview aired on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

What's My Dog Thinking
Image source: Pixabay

[email protected]: It is important to understand our pets a little better. That’s what your book is about.

Nicholas Dodman: Yes, I think that’s true. Half of American homes have a dog, and more like two-thirds have a pet, so that would include cats, too. There’s 300 million of us and, who knows, 100 million homes, so there’s a huge number of people own pets, interact with pets and have close relationships — or not.

[email protected]: You chronicle how a lot of our four-legged friends have some of the same medical issues that we deal with on a daily basis. That leads me back to something I saw on the notes from the publisher, which said that the book was inspiring, fascinating but also heartbreaking. The heartbreaking part obviously goes to some of these medical issues.

Dodman: There are some parts in there that would stir emotion. I talked to somebody the other day who said when she read about the situation that I rescued my dog Jasper from, she was just crying. It was a tragic situation, but the good news is that he’s landed on his feet in a home where he gets lots of walks, lots of freedom, and he is allowed on the couch. He can now bark when he wants to. You know, happy ending. But he was kept in a crate like 23 hours a day, wasn’t fed on a regular basis. When I acquired him, he weighed 45 pounds. He now weighs 85, which is his proper weight. He’s got a tucked abdomen and runs like the wind. But at 45 pounds, he was ravenous all the time, nearly took your fingers off when you offered him a treat just in case it disappeared. He’d snap like an alligator.

But I managed to acquire him from that situation because he was so hungry that when, on his rare trips out of his crate, he ate a bunch of tampons and threw up some. Three got stuck, and the vet charged up to $5,000 to do the surgery to remove these objects. His owner couldn’t afford it. She was going to put him down, and we heard about it through our daughter, who is now at the University of Pennsylvania medical school doing a residency. Our daughter said, “You’ve got to help this dog.” We ended up calling the girl and saying, “We’ll do the surgery for free as long as you promise you will let us find him a decent home.” She reluctantly agreed, we did the surgery and Jasper recovered. We were looking around for a home for him, but nothing was right. People were away at work, he was going to be left alone, and actually it turns out the best home for him was with us. So here he stays.

There isn’t human medicine and veterinary medicine. The two of them are intimately linked together.

[email protected]: Unfortunately, that ends up being the story for thousands of animals in the United States and around the globe that need either to be rescued from a very bad situation or are out on their own, fending for themselves.

Dodman: That’s exactly right. It’s a tough life for some of them, and some of them are just misunderstood by their owners, so I hope the book helps to clear up for some people what their dog is doing, why it’s acting out and what they can do about it. The book is peppered with all kinds of stories. You could kind of read it and weep or read it in joy hearing the stories of the animals I’ve encountered over the last 35 years as a behaviorist.

There’s a theme that goes through the book, which is there is but one medicine. There isn’t human medicine and veterinary medicine. The two of them are intimately linked together. Things that happen to people can happen to pets, emotional issues that affect people can also affect pets, and even psychiatric issues that happen to people, happen to pets. Post-traumatic stress happens to people, happens to pets. Obsessive compulsive disorder, the same.

I’ve used almost as a bible … The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the psychiatrist’s guide to diagnosing human psychiatric issues. There are chapters about anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome. For every one that is in the human psychiatric manual, there is an equivalent in the animal world, with the possible exception of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

[email protected]: Depression is one that you go into as well, but that is not as surprising because perhaps depression is easier to see in pets than some of these other issues.

Dodman: Absolutely. There are two types of depression: one of them is called state depression, which animals certainly suffer from when they are bereaved of a beloved animal, friend or person that they are attached to.

Maybe the person moves away, they pass on, and they find themselves without that person, without that other dog friend or whatever. They can show all of the signs of state depression, which sometimes with a little help from their friends like me, we can bounce them out of that. We know things that can be done to help to shorten that period of grief, make them feel a bit happier and get them back on the road.

But the one that hasn’t really been identified yet, not saying it doesn’t exist, is trait depression. When you talk about a depressive personality, there are people who oscillate between feeling relatively normal and then, all of a sudden and sometimes for apparently no reason, they go into the depths of despair and depression, which eventually shifts and then they’re back to normal. They’re oscillating back and forth from normal, and that’s called monopolar depression. But it is a character trait. I’ve not actually seen trait depression in animals, only state depression.

[email protected]: How important is it for pet owners to at least consider these things when they are thinking about adding a pet to their family?

Dodman: There are certainly a lot of considerations that you need to carefully chew over or think about before acquiring a pet, because a lot of people acquire a dog or cat for the wrong reason. Sometimes it’s the Christmas puppies that are given

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