This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
If you've started therapy for the first time as a result of the pandemic, you definitely aren’t the only one. But it’s not only humans who need some extra help with their mental health – sometimes our fuzzy animal companions do, too.
A 2019 study involving over 13,000 dogs found that 70 percent of them show some kind of anxiety generated by, for instance, loud noises; and 29 percent of the canine participants had some sort of fear, either of other dogs or of strangers or of new environments. The problem is: Dogs, obviously, cannot talk. That’s why a lot of their struggles with anxiety, boredom, PTSD and other mental health issues can manifest as aggressive or destructive behaviour.
But owners often struggle to understand the root of their dog’s problems, projecting human motivations onto their pets or thinking of them as bad dogs and abandoning them at a shelter. Fortunately, a little bit of training by a licensed professional can avoid more extreme scenarios and help improve the quality of life of the dogs and their owners.
Vlad Vancia, 37, based in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, has been a dog behaviourist for nine years. As a kid, he was always fascinated by animal behaviour and studied biology in university before working for a zoo. At the encouragement of his workplace, he decided to start taking international courses and workshops to learn more about how to diagnose mental health issues in dogs based on their behaviour and body language. I asked him what his job entails and what owners of struggling pets can do to improve their relationships with their four-legged best friends.
VICE: Hey Vlad. Before we get into these ten questions, can you talk about what a dog behaviourist even does?
Vlad Vancia: I help dogs with certain behavioural problems, like anxiety, aggression, excessive barking, lack of confidence, etc. I try to figure out where those problems come from and what type of training can solve them.
I also work a lot with the human partners of these dogs, because they affect their dog’s behaviour a lot. I try to avoid terms like “master” or “owner”. A lot of people get upset with their dogs for not obeying them. They hold these expectations just because they think of themselves as having this sense of ownership over the dog. But if we look at our dog as a partner, this expectation no longer exists.
Why do some dogs need a behaviourist?
Unfortunately, most dogs no longer lead the lifestyle they were bred for. Dogs are social, intelligent and emotionally complex animals and their needs are being met less and less. They need to be stimulated mentally, not just physically.
People say "a tired dog is a good dog", but I like to say "a properly stimulated dog is a good dog". Many behavioural problems occur in bored dogs or dogs who have breed-specific issues. An example of this would be the way that bull terriers can obsessively chase their tails. This behavioural problem can lead to a poor quality of life for the dog, and some terriers seem unable to control it. It's time to turn to an animal behaviourist if you want to make your dog happy or if you feel that it would help you better understand your dog.
How can you know what a dog is thinking or feeling?
We are lucky that these animals can communicate a lot of what they’re feeling. If you know how to read their language and know notions of canine psychology, you can figure out quite well what is in their heads. If you see your dog licking their lips when there’s no food or drink around, it could well be a case of them sending a message that they are worried, uncomfortable or stressed. If we can recognise this, we can help them overcome the problem without it escalating
What happens during a session?
First, I try to get to know the dog and figure out what caused his problems. Then I tell his human partner what I discovered and we develop a personalised training plan together. The training ends when a dog can stay home alone [in cases of separation anxiety], is no longer aggressive with strangers or with other dogs, is no longer afraid to go for a walk, etc.
What kind of people come to you?
The people I end up working with are very open minded; usually people between the ages of 30 and 50 who want the best for their dogs. They are either looking for solutions to behavioural problems or they want to make sure they’re stimulating their dog as much as possible.
What are the most common mistakes made by dog owners?
Not knowing enough about their dog's biology and needs [based on their breed].
Another big issue has to do with punishment. Humans live in a society based on punishment, but the difference between us and these animals is that, when we are punished, most of the time, we understand exactly why we received that punishment. For example, when you get a ticket, you know it’s because you exceeded the speed limit.
But humans cannot communicate with dogs in such a complex manner, so dogs do not understand why they have been punished. This can traumatise them and make them afraid of us. Sometimes punishment can even make them aggressive. Just imagine how you’d feel if you were in a country where you don't know the language and someone started arguing with you on the street. Empathy can help us a lot in dealing with dogs or other pets.
How does a difficult dog behave? What if your training doesn’t work?
Difficult dogs are my favourite. They challenge me the most and force me to be more creative, read more and ask more questions. A dog can become difficult because they have a mental illness they were born with or they developed during their life or even because of a hormonal problem. For example, dogs can be more aggressive due to increased levels of testosterone. It could also be because they were taught to behave like that. What we consider difficult might be a coping mechanism for them that helped them survive in the past. We also know that a pregnant dog that has a low quality of life can produce puppies that will be more anxious. This is why it is so important that if you buy a dog, you do it from a proper breeder that loves and promotes good welfare for his animals.
Dogs that learned to behave this way can be trained to learn that other behaviours are just as effective and less problematic for their owner and society. If I can't change the behaviour, a vet might recommend certain drugs. The best results are obtained by combining a drug treatment with behavioural training.
What can people do to have a better relationship with their dogs?
A healthy relationship with a dog is based first and foremost on trust. That means both trusting your dog’s decisions but also your dog trusting you. In order to develop this type of relationship, it’s important to be consistent in your behaviour and to do daily activities together, including modern training exercises based on positive rewards, sports and activities such as agility courses or smelling exercises and so on. It is important to play with them correctly.
How can a dog get depressed and what can you do about it?
Dogs can become depressed if their needs are not met for a long period of time. Their need for security, social interaction, freedom or mental stimulation are some of the most important. To begin the healing process, we need to start meeting those needs. Curiosity is part of an emotional system that helps fight depression, even in people. We can develop a dog's curiosity through various behavioural enrichment strategies. That includes things like using a variety of puzzle feeders [objects that make pets work for their food by using their paws or noses] and encouraging the dog to interact with them. That teaches them that new things are fun, interesting, and can be rewarding.
Some say your four-legged friend will listen to you if you act like an alpha. Myth or reality?
Myth! All the information I rely on in this profession comes from science (biology, ethology, psychology, medicine, anthropozoology, etc.), and until now, no one has been able to scientifically prove this "alpha" concept. On the contrary, several studies have shown how this can damage the relationship [between dog and owner] and the dog's quality of life. It is much more effective to have a relationship based on cooperation and trust.
On the other hand, the idea that taking care of a dog is like taking care of a child is true, but up to a point. You can explain certain things to children and you can make yourself understood quite easily as they grow up. A dog lives for at least 12 years and you can't have a conversation with them at any age. However, their needs are also quite basic: safety, social interaction, mental stimulation, good food, a clean environment, etc.
Why do you think the relationship between humans and dogs is so special?
A recent study showed that if we look into our dog's eyes, the hormone oxytocin is released in our brain, just as it happens when a mother looks at her child. It is the first animal species we managed to domesticate, more than 15,000 years ago. During all this time, we played god’s role with this species, selecting qualities so each breed has its own specific features. In addition to the physical appearance, humans selected and bred the most docile and loving dogs, the ones who were interested in interacting with us.