Dog Psychotherapy:
Three Sane Alternatives

by Gary Le Mon

Is dog psychotherapy just plain crazy?

Americans spent more than $100 billion on their anxieties last year. In the past five years there were more prescriptions written for emotional problems than for any other category of medicine. In a culture quick to project human conditions upon animals, and treat them with human cures, I have to wonder whether more and more family dogs will wind up on psychiatrist’s couches and anti-depressant drugs.

A recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association showed 91% of Americans willing to seek counseling for themselves or a close friend following a crisis. This is not a bad thing for humans. It is a bad thing for dogs, however, because dog psychotherapy ignores the very reason humans and animals come together in the first place. It ignores the relationship.

Fourteen thousand years ago when dog and man decided to become best friends, no doubt there was an equitable exchange of value. Doggy got free food and companionship, and man got an early warning system against approaching danger, a hunting buddy, and companionship.

But another benefit came with the bargain, at least for the dog. No doubt the dog reasoned, “I’m a pack animal by nature and I’ve decided to make you my leader. Now lead the way, oh brave Alpha Dog!”

This is precisely where we fail our furry friends. Leadership.

Here's the problem.

A retired client of mine called the other day to ask if I could recommend a good psychotherapist for his Old English Sheep Dog, Higgins. My client and his wife recently sent their youngest son off to college, and Higgins now showed signs of separation anxiety. His veterinarian recommended an ongoing regimen of mood elevating drugs and follow up visits. Fees would run indefinitely and range between $300 and $400 a month. Yikes!

“What does Higgins do all day?” I asked my client.

“He just mopes around and sleeps,” he replied.

“And what do you do all day?”

“Pretty much the same thing,” he said with a slight suspicion of where my questions were heading.

I think he got my drift because the conversation quickly turned from dog psychotherapy to his investment portfolio, which is usually the reason people tell me they call, at least initially.

Fact is, in my decades of caring for animals, I have yet to see an emotional problem in a dog that wasn’t inflicted by a human, and usually by the most significant human in the dog’s life.

Implicit in our contract for animal guardianship is our responsibility to fulfill needs both physical and emotional. This includes our most important roll of being the pack leader. We must always be the Alpha Dog – fearless, resolute, steadfast – calmly and consistently asserting the correct instructions to our furry friends.

Dog Psychotherapy Alternatives

Some dogs really do suffer from phobias, and suffering of any kind needs to be relieved. If you think your best friend needs dog psychotherapy, before calling the dog shrink try these three practical procedures instead.

First, get active. Walking is by far the best exercise for dogs and people. With 20 to 30 minutes of sustained walking, circulation springs to life, joints and muscles regain their vitality, and the brain gets soaked in a sea of feel-good endorphins.

Second, get social. Take your dog to a bark park to hang out with the relatives. Dogs are social animals and crave the interaction of the pack (plus a few good butt sniffs). In dog society there is no room for depression. Dogs have more important things to do, you know.

Finally, get fortified. Don’t get me started on the worthless and downright harmful junk the commercial dog food industry throws off as “dog food.” Suffice it to say, your dog is almost certainly not getting proper nutrition, which can also lead to depression. Dogs, people and all living things need adequate vitamins, minerals and life-giving nutrients to maintain a happy, healthy and balanced life.

Give these three alternatives to dog psychotherapy a try. Before long you’ll see definite improvement not only in your dog, but also in that Alpha Dog smiling back at you in the mirror.

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