March 31, 2008 -- Can well-fed, comfortably housed dogs show signs of depression or anxiety? Could these signs actually be indicators of chronic pain, or even chronic boredom?
And if it's the latter, could "food puzzles" be part of the answer? Well, let's start from the top.
First, only a cat person could think to ask the former question. But for those of us whose morning routine includes head-cradling, nose-kissing and baby-talk, and then that inevitable rock of guilt in the gut as we leave for work. well, we know there are few loves as profound as a dog's love for his or her human.
And with that love, like many great loves, comes the anguish of perceived betrayal. And retaliation can be vicious.
When I first met James at the ASPCA in 2004, he was 2-years-old. When I kneeled to get a good look at the 40-pound tangle of filthy gray hair, the bearded Collie-sheepdog mix flew into my arms, knocking me backward, covering my face with saliva.
We've been together ever since.
That first long weekend together, he was a joy. We chased rabbits in the graveyard, explored the urban landscape, lay in bed reading the Sunday paper. He gazed at me while I cooked dinner for two -- chicken and rice -- with enormous, almond-colored eyes. I took a photo when he closed them, long eyelashes fluttering, nostrils flared.
Tuesday morning I left for work. He sat at the door, cocked his head to one side and then the other as I grabbed keys and bag but, to his obvious consternation, not his new leash.
When I returned -- disaster.
My Jamesy had spent the day attempting to dig through the floor in an effort to squeeze beneath the door. The cream-colored carpet was in shreds; my landlady unsympathetic.
Marty Becker, an Idaho veterinarian and author of "Fitness Unleashed," says that most likely the physical exercise I gave James in the evenings and on weekends just wasn't enough. He needed mental stimulation as well.
"A dog was not meant to be born retired," Becker says. "Most dogs have a genetic exuberance. They want to do something. The modern dog is bored out of his skull."
Vets say that sometimes the solution can be as simple as replacing the bowl of kibble with multiple food puzzles.
Food puzzles are rubber dog toys in which you stuff dry food or treats. The simplest versions look like hand grenades, with a hole at the top. Others resemble preschool toys, and will take a smart dog hours to figure out.
The point, Becker says, is to keep the dog occupied for a good stretch of time while you're gone, making use of the skills nature gave him.
There're three goals for dog caretakers to keep in mind, says veterinary behavioralist Gary Landsberg of Toronto: Meet the animal's social needs by spending time with the dog and going out to play and exercise daily; Provide enrichment for when you're gone; Give the dog a comfortable place to nap.
Becker remembers the first time he introduced his family to food puzzles. "When we first threw out the bowls [to start feeding their dogs with puzzles] my wife, Theresa, thought it seemed cruel."
He says she watched one of their dogs just staring at the puzzle.
"'He looks unhappy,' she said. But I said, 'no, he looks like our son playing video games. He's delightfully frustrated and anxious -- like me playing poker!'"
Chad Dodd, a vet who used to work for a pharmaceutical company and now works for a Kansas-based company that specializes in scientifically formulated dog food, is another puzzle fan.
He says they can be particularly effective for older dogs whose brains could use a workout, or for dogs with separation anxiety -- like my James.
In speaking of the value of keeping a dog occupied during the day, it's easy to jump to the "dogs in the wild" metaphor. To do that takes something of an imaginative leap because dogs have been domesticated for such a long time. Still, it has been estimated that wolves, their closest cousins, spend 75 to 90 percent of their waking hours hunting, scavenging, and fighting off other carnivores.
This food-securing process requires cunning, stealth, and patience -- traits that the modern dog rarely has the chance to fully develop. (Here it should be mentioned that some vets say that dogs in multiple animal homes -- be they fellow dogs, cats, or even birds are better adjusted and develop better cognitive function than those in single pet homes.)
But if you're not ready to take on another pet, food puzzles have undergone major development in recent years.
Kong, the granddaddy of food puzzles, is the best-known brand, but a myriad of large and small companies have come out with ways to engage and productively frustrate the minds of your dog, including Canine Genius and Busy Buddy, to name a few.
But if stimulation and exercise don't cure your dog's depression, anxiety or destructive behaviors, the solutions grow a bit more complex.
New York's Veronica Burke says she has worked with troubled and depressed pets for 25 years. Usually referred to clients through local vets, the self-described pet therapist says she helps dogs primarily through the use of what she calls therapeutic touch and breath control.
Depression -- which often manifests itself in destructive or manic behaviors -- is often the result of chronic pain. And clients say Burke has a special gift for uncovering and healing that pain.
Most recently she went to a home to assist a vet in calming an 11-year-old dachshund with what she called a "mildly hysterical licking problem." The dog was recovering from disk surgery, so it was in physical pain. But it was also in mental anguish because his owners of 10 years were separating.
One of the women was deeply sad, so besides dealing with his back pain, the dachshund was desperately trying to comfort her -- and making himself difficult for others to be around in the process.
Burke says she worked on the dachshund for two hours, helping him breath into the stressed areas in his body. She also worked with one of his owners about calming her own breathing, so that she didn't continue to pass her own anxiety onto the dog.
If you don't have access to a specialist like Burke (and few of us do), a trip to the vet might uncover a rotting tooth, a leg sprain, or some other less esoteric ailment. Figuring out the source of the pain and resolving it can solve the behavioral problems.
There are times, however, when medication may be in order.
Virginia Hoffman, a dog behavioral consultant who also works out of New York, could be described as a sort of "Super Nanny" for pets. She comes to the clients home to try to get to the root of behavioral problems.
Hoffman, who has mixed feelings about "puppy Prozac," suggests that it's overprescribed. She hates the idea of owners going to the sort of vet who just doles out prescriptions like business cards, especially if they are not told that the key to maximum effectiveness is for the owner to work on behavioral modification in conjunction with the medication.
"Sometimes we rush to the drugs," she says. "It's the last thing I will go to if people have worked diligently [at exploring other options] ," says Hoffman, who adds that she's seen dogs get very lethargic and withdrawn. It's generally a matter of dosage or of that particular drug not being suited to the dog's chemistry.
Quora, a 16-pound Chihuahua mix that veterinarian Becker calls "the canine cocktail" or "the hairy hand grenade" spent her formative years in a cage in someone's backyard before being adopted. She had issues.
She delighted in tearing apart favorite shoes including Becker's Sorrels and his mothers bedroom slippers. She would urinate in the house and hypersalivate. Unlike with their other two dogs, food puzzles, exercise and play time didn't help.
Eventually, he says, they decided to try Reconcile, a chewable antidepressant for dogs. She's been on it for about six month, he says, but they noticed a difference within a week. "She's still vibrant but not as bipolar," he says. "No more super highs and super lows. She seems more content."
And now that her shoe fetish has dissipated, the Beckers no longer call her "Imelda Marcos."