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PetPourri: Pup-Psychology – Therapy for Your Troubled Companion

By Lisha Ross

Rudy the Rude Dog more than earned his nickname. A purebred German Shorthair with a hot temper, he was prone to attacking unfamiliar dogs and exhibiting aggressive, territorial behavior. Despite all his shock collar and obedience training, and a mild, loving manner inside the home, his gnarling turf wars with neighborhood dogs left Rudy’s owners with few options to ponder, the least desirable being euthanasia. With nowhere else to turn, Rudy’s owners took him to a pet psychologist. What came of just one session was nothing short of a miraculous turnaround. After careful observation of Rudy’s mannerisms, the psychologist was able to pinpoint his triggers and teach his owners practical strategies to correct his aggressive behavior.


Sound like a furry-tale? Rudy’s story is, in fact, non-fiction, and he’s far from alone. According to Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., CAAB, Executive Vice President, National Programs and Science Advisor, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), “Behavior problems are the most common reason given for the surrender of companion dogs and cats to animal shelters in the United States.” Pet psychologists can and do help eliminate this problem by applying scientific principles of animal behavior to, as Zawistowski states, “mediate conflicts or problems that exist between humans and animals in a way that does not require killing or hurting animals.” It worked for Rudy; it might just work for your troubled pet, too.

Fido vs. Freud

Just as humans are susceptible to angst from a variety of sources, so too are our pets, making emotional support and social cultivation key points in a healthy human-to-pet or pet-to-pet relationship. It is when those relationships are jeopardized by a pet’s fear, nervousness, anxiety, jealousy, compulsive behavior and aggression that a professional pet psychologist can save the day.

A pet psychologist, more formally known as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), is a professional that has studied the science of animal behavior in depth, giving them intimate knowledge about the instincts and social rituals of cats, dogs and other animals. With that knowledge, CAABs use scientific principles to identify and diagnose troublesome behaviors and devise a plan to modify them.

Though it’s tempting to throw them into the same category, pet psychology is not obedience training, which is oftentimes based on a system of dominance, negative consequences, control and bribes for good behavior. On the contrary, pet psychology works by establishing leadership, mutual respect and a clear pack structure via positive reinforcement and compassion. While obedience training may help with some issues, such as basic manners and obeying commands, when it comes to deep seeded behavioral and emotional problems, it may not be enough. According to Pearl Kam, Animal Wellness Consultant for Gentle Care Natural Pet Products, obedience training and the rewards that come with it may please both owner and pet superficially, but psychological training helps animals be happy on a deeper level, as they will learn how to live with humans by managing their natural instincts. 

On the Couch

So, how does one go about teaching an animal to manage their natural instincts in an unnatural environment? Well, it starts with a firm understanding of pack mentality, something educated behaviorists are well versed in. Put simply, pack animals have a pecking order; as such, they fair best when there is a clear leader, one that offers protection and support. Furthermore, animals respond better to a leader that is calm, alert and in firm control. Excitability, anger and fear are all emotions that animals pick up on. Meek animals will emulate these behaviors; dominant ones will attempt to assert their own control over the situation. Similarly, if an animal is confused as to whom the leader of the pack is, they are equally bound to lose confidence and act erratically.

The role of a pet psychologist, as Kam states, is to “redirect [these] unwanted natural behaviors and instincts, without suppression, in order to help human caretakers adapt animals to our society in a safe and acceptable manner.”  To that end, a behaviorist will interview you about your current situation, observe your pet, diagnose its problem and draw up a solution. To be sure, you, as the owner and leader of the pack, will be doing most of the work. More often than not, it will be your responsibility to learn how to communicate effectively with your pet. This may mean learning how to control your body language, tone of voice, and reaction when your pet’s behavior gets unruly.  

 The Dog-ter Is In

When searching for the right specialist for you and your pet, it’s important to note that the terminology can get confusing. There are Animal Behavior Counselors, Animal Behaviorists and Veterinary Behaviorists, so it can be challenging to find one suitable for your unique situation. The difference among them has to do with certification.

  • Behavior Counselor: While there are some self-recognized Behavior Counselors out there, they do not require certification or accreditation. These professionals could be of some help when it comes to minor behavioral problems, but they may not have the kind of expertise in animal behavior necessary to address more complex conditions.


  • Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB): CAABs, the pet’s equivalent to a human psychologist, are required to have an M.S. or Ph.D. and certification by the Animal Behaviorist Society (ABS). They can be of assistance when an animal’s behavior has become so unruly that you are considering euthanasia or turning your pet over to a shelter.  


  • Veterinary Behaviorists: Veterinary Behaviorists, the equivalent of a psychiatrist, are doubly adept, as they can treat any medical issues that may be the cause of your animal’s behavior. For example, if your dog suddenly begins to urinate inside the home, he/she could be suffering from diabetes, kidney disease, cystitis or a number of other conditions. VBs must have a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) plus a residency in animal behavior and certification by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).


The one you choose depends on the severity of your situation and your confidence level in that professional. Start by asking friends or a trusted veterinarian for a recommendation. If that leads you to a dead end, pick up the yellow pages and call area veterinarians. Armed with a list of contact names, call each one and inquire about their education, certification, and if they have experience dealing with your particular problem. While certification is important, it’s even more important to find someone that is patient, relaxed and possesses an obvious love for animals. And since the psychologist will be working with you as much, if not more than with your pet, you should also seek out a professional whom you like and respect.  The right professional, regardless of certification, should use a non-violent technique, and if you have any doubts about their methods or treatment of your animal, don’t hesitate to fire them and move on.

We all need a little help sometimes, whether it’s advice from a trusted friend or assurance from someone we love. But in the real tough times, when emotions run hot or fear gets the best of us, we must turn to a professional for guidance and support. Animals are no different.  Help your beloved companion get the help he or she needs by turning to a pet psychologist. It can do more than save your relationship; it can save lives.


Help is On the Way

Although pet psychology and emotional therapy is a growing field, professionals with accreditation are difficult to come by. Crista Coppola is the only CAAB in Las Vegas and can be reached at 609-7991 or by email at Crista@dogandco.com. At Dog and Company, Crista specializes in a variety of services ranging from home consultations to group workshops. Discover how she can help you help your pet at www.dogandco.com.

For a list of CAABs and Veterinary Behaviorists in surrounding cities that may offer consultations over the phone, visit the Directory of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists at www.certifiedanimalbehaviorist.com.

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