Misbehaving Pooch - Emotional Problems?

Ruby, a miniature schnauzer, frequently has a surprise for her owner when she comes home. Unfortunately, it's not a sight her owner is happy to see.

Ruby's owner holds down a day job and takes classes at night — and she often comes home to see her apartment trashed.

Ruby has broken into cabinets and dragged out bags of food and broken them open. She has dragged clothes out of the closet onto the floor, and used them as beds.

Ruby has even gotten into medication, forcing her owner to rush her to the animal hospital to get her stomach pumped.

Dr. Robin Kerner's poodle Magic also acts out when she's away. She rummages in Robin's purse, takes out one thing at a time and rips it to shreds.

But Ruby and Magic are not just mischievous. They have separation anxiety. Just like people, some dogs can actually have emotional problems and anxiety that lead to bad behavior.

The typical owner response is yelling or punishment. But experts say that rarely works because the cause of the pooch's problem remains. The good news is that there are treatment methods available.

Dog trainer Brian Kilcommons offers one solution: showing the dog who's the boss.

Because dogs are pack animals, asserting dominance over them can have a calming effect. It reduces anxiety and the bad behavior it causes.

"The goal of training is to be able to direct the dog's behavior. It also establishes the social relationship in such a way the dog can understand it," he said.

But Kilcommons' training depends as much on the owners as on the dogs. He works with the owners to instill in them the attitude that they are the leader of the pack.

Another Solution

Vanessa Bailey has another method of treating an emotionally dependent dog.

Her all-American mutt Sunny had a tough life before Vanessa rescued her. Sunny has scars on her snout where someone tied her nose and mouth together because she whined.

But Sunny whines and barks when Vanessa's away, annoying her neighbors. And that's taken a toll on Vanessa.

"I was quite a sensible little person, 'til I got a dog. Now I am definitely entering into that sort of 'dog freak, psycho, weirdo' thing," Vanessa laughed.

Advised by a professional trainer Stacy Alldredge, owner of a New York dog training business called Who's Walking Who, Vanessa has taken to preparing fancy doggie treats for Sunny.

Stacy is teaching Vanessa's dogs to associate her absence not with anxiety but with special treats. And it worked on the day "Primetime" rolled its cameras while Vanessa went out for more than hour, the longest she had left the dogs alone since she got Sunny.

"There seems to be no evidence of whining or misery or any kind of distress whatsoever," Vanessa said when she returned. "I'm feeling totally relaxed. Like a new person. All the anxiety has just like slipped away."


But there are times when no amount of treats, training or pleading will help. Kirk is a Chesapeake Bay retriever who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

During the week, he stays in New York City with his owner. But on the weekends, they head out to her weekend home, where there's a pool. That's where Kirk begins a freakish routine.

He's ready to dive in the pool at dawn, and when he does, he doesn't leave the pool for as many as nine hours. Even when his owner calls him to leave the water, he growls.

But it's not like he's enjoying himself. He swims back and forth — all along whining, howling and distressed.

Part of the solution was for Kirk to see a dog psychologist, Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University.

Dodman, a nationally recognized veterinarian and animal behaviorist, said Kirk's problem, like most compulsive disorders, was "a normal behavior gone awry."

"All of the compulsive disorders are actually based on natural behaviors," he said. "There's nothing wrong with washing your hands" — but if you wash them 300 times a day, you've got a problem.

Just like with people, medication is sometimes necessary to control a condition. Kirk was given a prescription for Prozac.

"The underlying thing is he's anxious, he's sort of overly excited. He's compelled. He's doing this thing to exhaustion. And if we can make him feel better and calmer inside, then the behaviors above melt away," Dodman said.

Seeing Results

Prozac takes some time to work. After Kirk was on the medication for 11 weeks, he showed a change in his behavior. He was able to spend some time out of the pool. "From 1 to 10, he's like a 5, which is a big deal for me," his owner said.

Three months after Ruby and Magic's owners started asserting themselves as "leaders of the pack," their households were also looking much neater.

"I'm trying to assert myself more as the master of the household. And I think she responds to that," Kerner said.

This story originally aired on July 8, 2004