WARWICK, R.I. — The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants 2011 Conference held April 1-3 was attended by more than 300 dog, cat, parrot and horse behavior consultants.
One headline from the event emerged from a speech by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavior Clinics at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, North Grafton, Mass. Dodman discussed animals with compulsive behaviors, and said that new research may demonstrate that dogs that chase their tails (mostly terriers and herding breeds) might actually not be demonstrating a compulsive behavior, but instead could be autistic.
“Like people can have compulsive behaviors, such as famously washing their hands until their skin is raw, animals can have similar behaviors,” said Dodman, author of several popular books and editor of “Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy and Comfortable” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2010; $26).
“We don’t know how many pets have compulsive behaviors,” says Dodman. “Generally, behaviorists say around 5 percent, which makes sense and is consistent with around 3 percent of the human population who are identified with compulsive disorders.”
Dodman began to work with compulsively cribbing horses (the horse grips an edge, such as a fence or stable door, with its front teeth, arching its neck and swallowing air) many years ago, and discovered that psycho-pharmaceuticals could help. Later, Dodman was among the first to use Prozac to help control compulsive behaviors in dogs.
Interestingly, compulsive disorders in dogs follow what each breed was intended to do. For example, dogs who compulsively chase light or shadows tend to be bred originally for herding or chasing prey. Other compulsive behaviors in dogs include sucking on their flanks to the point of causing serious skin problems, and snapping at imaginary flies. During his lecture, Dodman wondered out loud if fly snapping might be a seizure disorder, at least in part.
Some cats, primarily Oriental breeds, such as Siamese, can compulsively suck on fabric, a behavior commonly called “wool-sucking.”
“In this instance, I worry about safety,” says Dodman, “Since most cats ingest some of what they suck on, it may cause an obstruction. But also the quality of life isn’t so hot when all you can think about, and all you do, is whatever the compulsion is.”
Dodman has been looking at flank sucking in Doberman Pinchers and has found a specific alteration on a chromosome which appears consistent among Dobermans with this compulsion.
“We’re on our way to proving compulsive behaviors may be genetic,” says Dodman. “If it’s true in dogs, there’s a good bet it’s true in people.”
Another psychological condition common to both people and pets may be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to Dr. Frank McMillan of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Konab, Utah.
“There’s some debate about whether or not animals actually do suffer from the strict definition of PTSD, but [no one disputes] that our pets have emotions and may suffer as a result of severe psychological injury,” he notes. There is a long list of potential causes, among them growing up in puppy mills, military service, suffering abuse, being repeatedly re-homed and potentially even force-based dog training.
Force-based training was a topic of discussion by dog trainer Victoria Stilwell of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog.”
“Dogs are sensitive, emotional, vulnerable beings that need us to help to teach them and care for them,” she said. “They’re not out for world domination. Your dog doesn’t necessarily want to be top dog. Your dog just wants to understand what is expected. It’s ridiculous to think you need to be dominant so your dog can be submissive. If you turn a dog over and hold a dog down, and the dog gives up; this is not a dog that is showing submission. It is a dog who didn’t have a choice, and shut down. Dominance training methods are dangerous and rarely teach dogs. Positive reinforcement methods allow dogs space to think and they are effective.”
Dog trainer and behavior consultant Ken McCort of Doylestown, Ohio, had heads spinning and sparked lots of conversation as he discussed cognition measurements created by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. How deep are animals’ thoughts? Are pets capable of telling one another “jokes”?, McCort speculated.
Among other speakers: Lisa Clifton-Bumpass discussed how animals are trained in zoos. Her presentation looked at how the Oakland (Calif.) Zoo has trained giraffes. Cat behavior consultant and author Pam Johnson-Bennett reviewed how to introduce a new cat into a home where there are existing cats. Legendary dog trainer Bob Bailey explained learning theory, and Kashmir Csaky talked about how to communicate with parrots.
Learn more about the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, www.iaabc.org.
In her remarks at dinner, IAABC executive director Marjie Alonso noted, “As the world of behavior consulting evolves, and as more and more trainers find themselves dealing with cases often far outside the normal boundaries of obedience training or simple household management, the IAABC serves as an important beacon of help and information, community, professional guidelines and standards of practice for those working in this often difficult field.”
Alonso also presented several awards for special achievement to: Cat Division IAABC: Beth Adelman, New York City; Dog Division IAABC: Val Pollard, Orange County, Calif.; Parrot Division IAABC: Liz Wilson, Saint Simmons Island, Ga.; Horse Division IAABC: Barbara Handelman, Norwich, Vt.; Working Animals IAABC: Heddie Leger, Liberty, Mo.; Animals and Other Nations Award: Eric Goebelbecker, Maywood, N.J.; President’s Award: Mike Delgado, Berkeley, CA and Steve Dale, Chicago, Ill.
Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can’t answer all of them individually, he’ll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; website is www.stevedalepetworld.com.