Your dog or cat doesn't have to be psychotic or even neurotic to warrant the professional services of Drs. Ginger Hamilton and Mollie Robbins.
"Most of the animals we see," says Robbins, "are perfectly normal animals trying to cope in difficult situations."
Hamilton and Robbins could be called "dog/cat shrinks," but they prefer, "consultants in animal psychology." The initial response to their profession is usually shock, or snickers, but they are taken very seriously and are highly respected by veterinarians throughout the country, and by the hundreds of area animal owners they have helped in the past eight years.
Both women are trained in animal psychology, physiological psychology, and clinical psychology. They were the first to open such a specialized practice, and now they are two of a "handful" of animal consultants in the country.
"We are, however, the court of last resort," Hamilton says. "People come to us when they can no longer tolerate their dog or cat's misbehavior. . . by that time the problems are well under way."
These animal cases typically range from withdrawal and aggression to brain-damage behavior. Most cats show stress by boycotting the litter pan, and dogs work it out with a bite. (The average yearly caseload shows as many upset cats as angry dogs.)
"This doesn't mean that dogs are more likely to be aggressive than cats," says Robbins. "Dogs are also guilty of 'house-soiling,' but the one sure event that will bring people in here is when their dog bites a neighbor."
There is not coach in their Silver Spring office, but if there were, the animal would find it a little crowded, since both doctors insist that the entire family comes to the session.
This may include the housekeeper or the mother-in-law who lives across the street," says Robbins. "If the animal is in obedience training, we like to have the instructor here and, of course, the animal."
No, it is not group therapy, but rather a general view of family dynamics between family members and the animal. Therefore, if one spouse refuses to come, the women usually do not take the case. According to Robbins, if they can't involve all the people who interact with the animal, their service is ineffective.
Fortunately, these sometimes complex clans gather only once; the average case is handled in a single hour to a 1 1/2-hour session. (Those of you who have put in years with your psychiatrist may at this point feel a sudden urge to kick your dog.) One session proves sufficient because not all the family dynamics are dealt with, and the doctors leave the owners with the responsibility for handling the animal.
"We analyze, diagnose, and prescribe, but it's up to the owner to take care of the problem," says Robbins. "We also explain what our techniques are based upon, so they could be applied to some later and different behavior." a
Most owners are just as tense as their animal when everyone arrives for the session. After all, they have no idea what to expect, and feel slightly foolish.
"Everyone wants to talk about what the animal did just yesterday," says Robbins. Consequently the first part of the session is a controlled interview with a set of questions designed to put the owners at ease and inform them on the animal's background.
Once a diagnosis is determined, the prescription and/or the orders are written down in detail. Like new parents, animal owners tend to forget what the doctor tells them. The doctors telephone a week later to check on the animal's progress, and in some "sticky cases" the doctors call several times to make adjustments in their instructions.
When an obedience program is part of the prescription, they recommend the appropriate trainer and call him to explain the particular problem. This follow-up service is included in the doctors' fee ($60 an hour), which is always discussed when an owner first calls to make an appointment.
On one rare occasion they cured a cat without ever seeing him or his owner. A man called his veterinarian when his cat was going crazy -- jumping up and down, vocalizing, and chasing his tail. The veterinarian suggested the cat was psychotic, and referred them to Robbins. With the cat wailing in the background, the owner telephoned and described the bizarre symptoms. After much deliberation, Robbins determined that the cat, who had been playing outside all day, might be having a skin allergy or, as we laymen say, was itching to death.
An allergy medication was prescribed through the veterinarian, and the "psychosis" was cleared up in 20 minutes.
The family veterinarian plays a vital role in their consulting practice. According to Robbins, the family veterinarian has to be consulted, and/or seen prior to their session. "We want to rule out possible physical basis for the animal's behavior, and we also want a medical history and any behavior observations that the veterinarian can offer."
Dr. Earl Strimple, who is with the MacArthur Animal Hospital in Northwest Washington, agrees with this arrangement, but also is very careful as to which owners he sends.
"So many people do not take the situation seriously and have a very negative reaction to what they call a 'dog shrink,'" says Dr. Strimple, "but I find that most people are very happy once they go for their consultation." He also observes that usually just one of the spouses is anxious to go, while the other has to be convinced.
Why can't the veterinarian handle the problems? "Mainly because this type of interview takes a long period of time," Strimple, "and there are only a few veterinarians who are specially trained to handle these misbehaviors."
An example of the lengthy interview is Robbins and Hamilton's case of the bassett and his fear of thunderstorms and loud noises. He was brought in by his single owner, a woman who described the dog's phobia as severe. Within the first few minutes of the sesion the large and overweight dog fell asleep on the office rug. When a stereo recording of storm sounds was played, the dog slept right through the wall-to-wall thunder, but his owner showed much agitation.
More loud noises were produced while the dog slept peacefully. As they talked with the distraught owner shw finally admitted she was so afraid of thunderstorms that whenever one came she would take her dog into the bathroom and feed him. She had heard that he should get postive reinforcement during a fearful situation. Consequently, the dog learned to look and act afraid in order to be fed.
The bassett case is usual, but such anxiety cycles are common. For example, if a puppy is shy and reticent an owner may perceive this and over-protect the puppy whenever possible, by walking him late at night (to avoid encounters), or putting him in another room when guests arrive. The dog may then grow up to be a fear-biter: He avoids encounters, but when he feels threatened or trapped, he bites.
Another version of a "vicious cycle" is when owners unwittingly work out their marriage problems through their animal.
"We had a case where the two owners had their own problems. . . demeaning each other, cutting each other down, and talking through each other. It didn't take very long to see why there would be a problem in handling their pet. We also felt they were looking for problems with their animal so that they had something to talk about."
We were able to help the animal in this case," says Dr. Hamilton, "but we referred the couple to a clinical professional for marriage counseling." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, "From Higglety Pigglety Pop!" by Maurice Sendak; Copyright (c) 1967 by Maurice Sendak; used by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.