Pets and Mental Illness

The other day, I was in Albertsons picking up a few odds and ends when I came across Time Magazine in the checkout aisle.  Time devoted its most recent publication and titled it, The Animal Mind: What They’re Thinking and Feeling and How to Understand Them.  You can check out a bit on the edition: The Animal Mind.

Time discusses aspects of the animal mind from what is their level of awareness or consciousness to concepts of language and communication and pack units.  The one area of focus which struck me and I’ve found relevant in my work as a dog trainer is the idea of mental illness and animals.  I find mental illness so intriguing in both the human and animal world and how it manifests and becomes integrated into an individuals world and the impact into the family and larger community.  I’ve studied Social Work in both undergrad and graduate school and I have direct care experience in working with people, particularly, children with mental illness.  I don’t espouse myself an expert in the field, but I do have a deep understanding the impact of it in our lives.  Now, I find myself seeing mental illness in our furry companions.

I’ve heard this before, but not in specific context of animals having mental illness, “Animals in the wild live lives they’re intended to live.  Animals forced to interact with us live very different ones.  They live in our homes, zoos and amusement parks….And so they go nuts.  Animals that live in zoos sway, pace or sink into languor.  Parrots in cages tear at their own feathers.  Abused dogs retreat in terror at the sight of a human hand” (Mental Illness is Not Just For Humans, Time Magazine Aug 2014 pg 84).  Yes, dogs are domesticated.  Yes, over generations have become integrated into family units and look to their human counterpart for direction, love, partnership and work.  The last part, I see becomes lost and a dog’s purpose becomes fuzzy which leads in varying degrees to mental illness.  In the traditional sense, dogs such as Great Pyrenees worked on farms in herding sheep or chickens and it modern terms, Belgian Malinois work in deployment zones finding IED’s or work for the Secret Service in chasing down perpetrators.  Now, not all dogs would excel in these capacities, but dogs have a purpose depending on their breed and the essence of being a dog.  Its our job in drawing out what that purpose is and integrating it as work into our dog’s lives while making the experience fun and rewarding.

The above examples show instinctual traits being harnessed into desired behaviors. These along with many other breeds of dogs are intelligent and highly energetic dogs. Generally speaking, the working breed dogs have a deeper level of energy for work.  If their energy isn’t matched with a job, their behavior becomes destructive.  I’ll take my Jack Bear as an example.  When we adopted him, he was completely frustrated.  Up until that point, he didn’t learn what his role was in the home and would constantly work out his frustration and maybe some anxiety on destroying shoes, purses or anything else which was in his reach.  At that time, he was unemployed and with his high energy and his deep desire for something to do, he found ways in releasing that pent up energy.  If we remained complacent and directionless, I bet you, Jack’s behavior would escalate and he would become unmanageable and it probably would have required a behaviorist’s treatment plan for mental health improvement.

In my short tenure as a dog trainer, I’ve often encountered families who adopted dogs, but have done little or no research on the breed(s) of the dog.  Often, families adopt dogs like German Shepherds or Weimaraners thinking they are so cute as puppies or desire them in becoming a service animal.  When I get referred a client, I often meet the family after the dog began being destructive or displaying more anxious or skittish tendencies.  At this point, its not just basic obedience training, but behavior modification which requires changing the emotional response of the dog.  This type of work is more challenging not only for the dog, but for the owner.  It requires completely knowing your dog from triggers to what the dog finds pleasurable and incorporating BAT training.  This type of work can take months or even years to overcome and may even be for the life of the dog.  Sadly, I may not see a client and their dog until a behavior becomes compulsive.  For instance, I recently met a Belgian Malinois who paced the fence to the point of wearing a circular track in the yard.  He even would chase his tail when becoming overly aroused and needed something to do to displace his energy.  These behaviors are a manifestation of his high level of energy turning into anxiety.  The clients thought the tail chasing was enjoyable and fun to see the dog do while they were upset their backyard was “ruined” because their grass was destroyed by the constant pacing.  Now, it takes more concentrated time and energy by the family in interrupting these behaviors, providing a more appropriate outlet for the energy and constant supervision until the dog is more settled.  The more attention required by the family at this point is overwhelming and often I hear I can’t do this and discussion moves towards re-homing their dog which they’ve had for several months or years.  If the family understood the needs of the Belgian Malinois before this point and provided him with basic obedience as soon as he entered the home and learned about some other higher level training like agility or herding classes (herding is the natural instinct for Belgian Malinois), then he most likely may have found fulfillment in his life and his energy would be properly displaced on to more desirable activities.

The main takeaway is remember your dog is still a dog and even though he has the capability for love and requires the utmost consideration of his wellbeing, he still needs and will thrive with structure, rules, obedience and finding his purpose for life.  If you find yourself in a situation where you think you may need some help, look for positive reinforcement trainers in your area.  Your trainer will be able to evaluate if the behaviors warrant a trained behaviorist.

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