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When man's best friend goes to shrink, who's crazier?

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • November 9, 2009 - 9:47 PM

Three interns in white lab coats entered the room quietly and took their seats. First, a few questions so we can get to the bottom of this, they said. The doctor will be along shortly.

The patient is not well, I told them. He sat beside me, drooling slightly, so I put an arm around his shoulder in support.

The interns carried clipboards filled with personal questions. Very personal questions.

Does he urinate on the floor?

Yes. Yes, he does.

The patient was my dog, Frazier, and he had come undone.

I was at the doggie equivalent of the shrink's couch at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine last week. I would be seeing an animal behavior specialist to see if we could get Frazier right in the head.

The area of pet psychology has taken off in recent years, as our cats and dogs have increasingly taken on the maladies of their owners. Americans spent $49 billion on pet products last year, a third of that on health care, according to the New York Times. Pets can now get mood altering and "lifestyle" drugs, chemotherapy and even liposuction. Television shows such as the "Dog Whisperer" have spawned furious debates over the best way to lighten our pets' personal baggage.

In other words, we have all become the crazy cat lady down the block.

I had decided to skip the domination theory people in favor of the lab coat people at the university. Filling out the "preregistration" information before my appointment with Dr. Lorna Reichl, I found that Frazier was, relatively, a pretty good dog.

During intake, the interns peppered me with questions from the form. It was a long list of objectionable dog behavior ranging from stealing bacon off your plate to killing the postal carrier. Frazier was near the lower end of the bonkers scale, with a bit of separation anxiety and escalating aggression at the dog park. He has yet to bay at the moon.

There were also a lot of questions that seemed to explore my personality.

Agree or disagree: "I like watching my dog enjoy his food" was one.

How are you supposed to answer questions like that without appearing to be a weirdo?Our appointment lasted three hours, more than I've spent at all of my own doctor's appointments, total, in the past five years. We were left alone with the dog at times as the doc and interns discussed our issues. At one point, I picked up a small toy that made a chuckling sound and started shaking my rear end to the noise.

"You think they are videotaping us with our dog?" my wife asked.

I quickly sat down.

We don't have the full diagnosis yet, but after three hours and $500, the early guess was Frazier was not extremely dominant, as I'd thought, but rather insecure and acting out of anxiety and insecurity, typical of many bullies. In fact, we may have the Jesse Ventura of dogs. Meds are on order.

Meanwhile, to teach him that "nothing is free in life," we spent the weekend feeding him exclusively by hand, carrying his food around in a baggie, and generally ignoring his attempts to engage us.

We also practiced "habituation to departure stimuli," by pretending to leave the house. Dozens of times a day, I'd pick up my keys, then sit down. Put on my coat. Sit down. Exit my condo for a few seconds, then re-enter. After a while it became automatic, and more than once I detected a bemused look on Frazier's face, as if he thought I was the one being conditioned.

My wife would occasionally encourage me: Good job, she said.

If neighbors were watching from their keyholes, they would have seen a man increasingly fatigued, his hand covered in slobber and smelling of kibble, coming and going from his condo in various conditions of dress. In other words, someone in need of psychological help, if only he could afford it.

By Monday, the dog was doing well. The endless repetitive commands and focused cues had apparently broken his feeble canine mind and taught him who was really boss.

I was feeling accomplished as I fixed dinner. The dog was snoozing and my wife was reading, generally ignoring my attempts to engage her.

"Honey," she called from the living room. "Time for some more habituation. Why don't you start by taking out the garbage?"

"Yes, dear," I said.

jon.tevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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