Out of The Doghouse … … And Onto The Couch

Out of The Doghouse … … And Onto The Couch

Larry Lachman

Between three and six million dogs are put to sleep each year not for physical ailments or old age, but for bad behavior. Larry Lachman, Psy. D., plans to change all that with a revolutionary approach to animal therapy.

An exhausted Eunice Randal had just plopped onto her sofa, about to release a sigh of relief at the end of a hectic workday, when her new cat, Mumbles, laid claim to her lap.

“I started petting him and, suddenly, he grabbed my arm with his teeth and claws,” says Randal, of Claremont, California. “He leapt up and bit me again and again, until my arm was streaked with blood. I can still see that glare in his eyes.”

A few miles away, Joey, a Siberian Husky-German Shepherd mix, slumped in the back of his cage at the Irvine Animal Care Center. Abandoned by his original owner for jumping fences, Joey sank deeper into depression with each month of confinement. After 10 months at the shelter, he had lost interest in people, toys, even food.

“Physically, he was sound, but emotionally, it was like he was giving up,” says Bonnie Arita, a shelter volunteer who brought Joey home to restore his outlook on life. During his first week there, however, he urinated and defecated all over her house and refused to go near his food bowl.

When I spoke with Eunice and Bonnie, I could hear the desperation in their voices. Both pet owners were stumped by their failure to ease the new arrivals into their loving families.

All too often, unsuspecting animal lovers adopt a new pet, only to have it react violently or uncontrollably. Far too many family dogs and cats are surrendered to animal shelters for biting, scratching, urinating in the house, barking, ignoring their owners’ commands and other problems. Each year, between three and six million dogs and cats are deemed unadoptable because of bad behavior and are euthanized, according to national animal shelter statistics. And up to 90% of the dogs put to sleep by veterinarians had nothing physically wrong with them–they are killed solely because of behavioral problems.

Ironically, this occurs at a time when, more than ever, dogs and cats are considered bona fide family members. Gone are the days of pets as mere protection against burglars or mice: Nearly 70% of the 80 million Americans who own pets say they give their dogs and cats as much attention as they do their children, according to national surveys. Half admit they even leave answering machine messages for their animals when they are away.

Treating pets like family may partially explain why good pets go bad. It’s also how my personal form of therapy works to solve their problems. Having been an animal behavior therapist for 14 years, I am often sought out as a last resort to try to tame misbehaving animals before they are given away–or euthanized. I have adapted the same approach I’ve used for more than 20 years to successfully counsel abused children, couples in marital therapy and chronically ill patients. Called Structural Family Therapy, it treats dog and cat behavioral problems with radical results. Though other behaviorists, especially those who belong to organizations such as the Animal Behavior Society or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, are beginning to adopt these concepts for use with animals, as far as I know, I’m the first to have fully developed a pet behavior program around this specific form of therapy.

Structural Family Therapy, first created by family therapist Salvador Minuchin, involves changing the organization of the family and the way members relate to each other. The program has been tested and validated in dozens of scientific studies, including one this year in the Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling. The main premise is that once the hierarchy of the family group is transformed, the relationships of family members can be altered for the better. For example, I once treated a single father of two teenage daughters, the younger of which was chronically shoplifting and skipping school. It turned out that the father had unknowingly elevated the older daughter to the status of surrogate wife and mother, changing family dynamics and causing the younger sister, confused, to act out for attention. Only by restructuring the family, so that the father served as an authority figure above both his daughters in the group hierarchy, could I resolve the youngest daughter’s behavior.

This sort of structural therapy can help families with pets. I have found that in pet households, a power hierarchy, with repeated patterns of relating to each other, underlies the functioning of the group. It sets the rules and boundaries for the family. The only effective way to correct improper pet behaviors is to make clear where the pet stands in relation to the rest of the family. Since half the animal behavior problems I see stem from a pet’s isolation, lack of nurturing or unclear emotional boundaries with their owners (genetics and biological problems also play a role), the entire household must change the way they interact with their pet in order for the pet’s behavior to improve.

Problems mostly occur when boundaries between a pet and its owner become too enmeshed or disengaged. By enmeshed, I mean that there are no clear hierarchical positions or there are inappropriate crossings of those lines–for example, when an owner responds to every little attention-getting action the pet performs, making the dog or cat believe that it’s in the driver’s seat. This often leads to acts of dominance, aggression and separation anxiety. A disengaged boundary, on the other hand, is inappropriately rigid, occurring when owners are too distant from their pets, fostering a feeling of lack of belonging and often leading to fear-induced aggression, barking or meowing, and urine spraying or marking.

My goal as an animal behaviorist is to identify owners who are too enmeshed with or disengaged from their pets and then to restructure their relationships, without violence or drastic measures, in order to eliminate problem behaviors. And you can do it, too, with a few simple steps.

Try This At Home

There are two main principles you should remember when attempting to overhaul your pet’s behavior. 1) Change the way you interact with your misbehaving dog or cat. Do not look at, talk to, pet, feed, play or let out your dog or cat when it is in the act of misbehaving. If you do, you are rewarding the very misbehavior you seek to eliminate. 2) Notice good behavior whenever it occurs, no matter how fleeting, and then look at, talk to, pet, play and feed your dog or cat. It will learn very quickly what gets a paycheck and what gets a pink slip. By positively reinforcing good actions and not reinforcing the bad, your pet will misbehave less and behave more.

Dogs and cats don’t have elephantine memories. To make them understand why you’re punishing them, you must catch them in the act of bad behavior, interrupt them right then and there, and redirect them to a preferred behavior. I call this my Startle-Wait 5-Redirect-Reward approach. Remember: S-W-R-R only works when you catch your dog or cat in the act. Otherwise, behavior modification techniques will be ineffective and may even create confusion.

* First, startle the pet in the act of a misdeed. Say your cat is clawing your couch or your dog is chewing your leather shoe. Alert it without touching it by shaking a soda can with pennies inside, squirting it in the rear end with a blast of water from a spray bottle, clapping your hands or yelling, “Stop!”

* Wait a few minutes and redirect your pet to an acceptable replacement behavior. Lure your cat to its scratching post by dusting it with a little catnip, for example. Give the canine a chew toy.

* Finally, redirect your pet with praise or an edible treat once your cat starts clawing its scratching post and your dog starts chewing its toy.

Do this consistently and before long, your cat or dog will figure out that there is a better payoff for good behavior than for bad.

After you’ve separated the good behavior from the bad, the next–and harder–task is to change the emotional boundaries between you and your pet. Two of the most prevalent consequences of enmeshment and disengagement are separation anxiety, which can lead to destructive chewing and biting, and general anxiety, which can cause house soiling.

If your dog has separation anxiety, you are likely too enmeshed with the pet. You may have to lay down the law and stop responding to all of its demands for attention. If your cat is house soiling, you’re probably too disengaged from it, and you may have to bridge your distance by spending more quality time together. Here’s how.

Chewing, Barking and Biting

People often develop separation anxiety disorder when they are worried about being distanced from their home or from members of their household. This may occur after a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, an illness, a relocation or a new job.

Pets, too, suffer from separation anxiety disorder. Some go absolutely nuts whenever they are left home alone, regardless of whether the time apart from their owner is 10 minutes or 10 hours. They continuously bark or meow, frantically dig, or gnaw on their feet or other body parts.

This is a difficult behavior to correct because it takes place only when the pet’s owners are gone. I’ve learned that the heavy-handed punishment techniques often recommended by traditional trainers only worsen the problem and elevate anxiety levels. The goal is to counter-condition your pet so that it now views your departure as a positive thing–or at least not a negative thing.

Keeping in mind that each case has its unique concerns, here are my general guidelines for correcting the problem:

* Have your veterinarian do a thorough medical exam to rule out a physical cause, such as overactive thyroid glands.

* Keep your home arrivals and departures very low-key.

* Ignore your pet’s demands for attention whenever you enter or leave the house.

* Give attention to your pet only during moments when it is not actively seeking it.

* Pick two days that you are home and ignore your pet for eight hours. This matches the time you normally are at work. During this eight-hour stretch, only feed or let your pet out to go to the bathroom.

* The following week on your day off, do everything you normally do when you get ready for work in the morning. Shower, dress, pack a lunch, grab the car keys, but do not leave the house. Instead, stay inside and play with your dog.

* On your second day off, repeat the above preparation steps and then step out and come right back into the house.

* For week three, start a daily habit of taking your dog on a vigorous 15-minute on-leash walk 30 minutes before you’re ready to go to work. Walk quickly and have your dog heel and sit every 30 paces. This makes your dog tired and ready for a nap.

* Confine your dog or cat to one area of the house.

* Provide your dog with six natural, sterilized bones, beef jerky, a clothing object with your scent and a buster food cube loaded with kibble 15 minutes before departure. Your dog will be engrossed in chewing while you make a quiet exit. Do the same with your cat, leaving catnip, treats, clothing or a tape recording of your voice. When you return, remove the props until you’re ready to leave again.

Soiling, Marking and Spraying

Another major emotional boundary problem occurs when a pet feels too isolated or disengaged from its owner. This is the most frequent basis for a cat not using the litter box or beginning to spray and mark the house with urine. Moving to a new home, bringing in new furniture or even visits by other people can incite some dogs and cats to soil the house.

After ruling out a possible medical cause (such as bladder infection, parasitic worms or Feline Urological Syndrome) with your veterinarian, it’s a safe bet that a change in the surroundings has triggered this action. Here’s what works to stop this behavior.

For cats:

* Clean and scoop out the clumps of litter more often. If you do so every other day, then begin daily cleanings.

* Increase the number of litter boxes and place them in separate rooms.

* Change the type of litter. If you’re buying deodorized clay litter, switch to non-deodorized sand litter.

* Remove plastic liners from the litter box. For dogs and cats:

* Make sure kitty litter boxes or places that you take a dog to do its business are in safe, quiet places. Dogs and cats deserve to use the bathroom in peace.

* Confine your pet to a room while you’re away to prevent it from attacking former urine target areas in the house.

* Cover previously soiled areas of the house with tin foil.

* Say, “Off!” if you catch the cat in the act of spraying or marking, and blast it with a squirt of water from a spray bottle.

* Spend some quiet, cozy time each day with your pet to help reduce its overall anxiety levels. Use large amounts of catnip and food treats during these sessions.

* Check with your veterinarian to see if a more nutritious diet will help.

* Be patient. By following these steps consistently, you should be able to correct the pet’s behavior within eight to 12 weeks.

Prevalent behavior problems can often be boiled down to issues of enmeshment and disengagement. I discovered, for example, that Mumbles the cat was lashing out at his owner Eunice out of fear of distance from her. Following my instructions, Eunice ignored Mumbles for a solid week. No eye contact. No conversation. Just routine care like feeding, watering and cleaning his litter box. We had to reduce the emotional enmeshment between the two.

Slowly, Eunice increased her attention; first, by saying “good, quiet” when Mumbles was relaxing and rewarding her with a food treat. Then she would spend 10 minutes twice a day playing with Mumbles. When the 10 minutes were up, she would stand up and walk away without a word. Only after a full month did she stroke his back, and that was just once a day. After two months, Eunice felt safe enough to give Mumbles affection without fear of being attacked.

Joey, on the other hand, was depressed because he had left the small confines of a shelter to join the energized Arita household, which already included a dog and several cats. Joey also had symptoms of poor appetite, sleep disturbance, lethargy and apathy. We had to create closer emotional boundaries between him and his owner and make him feel like part of the family unit. It was vital that he felt like he belonged, but he needed to be eased in gradually.

During his first week in the Arita household, I instructed the family not to leave Joey alone. If Bonnie or her husband Derek couldn’t be home, they took Joey to a nearby doggie day care. After a week of no mishaps, Joey stayed in a room with bones and food when the Aritas were away.

At night, Joey was encouraged to sleep in the bedroom with the Aritas and the rest of the pets. This helped him feel more like a member of the pack. During the day, he was leashed during meetings with the cats and squirted with water if he got too close to them. In the hierarchy, Joey needed to know he was on the bottom rung.

Soothing the Savage Beast

Once Joey knew his place, his lovable, playful personality emerged. He now licks the milk off the cats’ faces and gleefully plays hide-and-seek with the Aritas. “Joey is a wonderful, loving dog who follows us from room to room,” says Bonnie Arita. “All the pets get along so well. I’m really glad that we brought Joey home.”

Mumbles also underwent a severe personality change, thanks to family therapy. I’m happy to report that he now naps quietly on the ottoman next to Eunice when she watches TV.

“It was as if I’d reminded Mumbles, `You will live here on my terms,’ “she says. “He is a much happier cat and I can walk around my own house and feel safe.”

The cases of Mumbles and Joey illustrate that you can make drastic changes in dogs or cats that initially seem violent or anti-social. Since 1986, when I first started using a family therapy approach in my consultations and classes, I’ve had up to an 85% success rate with my canine patients and up to a 99% success rate with cats. Euthanization truly is not the only solution to bad behavior. With a little love, work and patience, you can transform ferocious felines and despondent dogs into friends of the family.

Larry Lachman, Psy. D., is an animal behavior consultant based in Carmel, California. He is co-author of Dogs on the Couch (Overlook Press, 1999) and the soon-to-be-published book Cats on the Counter (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), with journalist Frank Mickadeit.

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