The Hippo


Oct 26, 2016








Pets on the Couch, by Dr. Nicholas Dodman
(Atria, 263 pages)


 This is your dog: Moody. Crazy. Depressed. Forgetful.  Aggressive.

This is your dog on drugs: Lassie. Or, at least, a manageable dog you won’t have to put to sleep.
Drugs designed for humans can treat a variety of bad behaviors in dogs because they share much of our biochemistry, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian near Boston who specializes in animal behavior. Dodman’s new book, Pets on the Couch, recounts a lifetime of clients, including a destructive beagle, an agoraphobic cow, a bulimic gorilla, a horse that couldn’t stop eating wood and a German shepherd that wouldn’t stop chasing his tail.
Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, Dodman treats his wayward patients with a controversial approach he calls “One Medicine,” in which he looks for similarities between humans and other animals, instead of differences. 
“Under the hood, so to speak, in terms of the nervous system or other organ systems, there is not much difference in how things work,” he writes.
His methodology has gotten pushback from others in the medical community, including an unnamed psychiatrist who blackballed a grant Dodman sought, saying “You will never be able to discover anything about human beings by studying dogs.”
Years of occupying territory others see as the fringe of medicine seem to have soured Dodman somewhat, and his writing sometimes seems unnecessarily bitter and vaguely political. (Early on, he blusters about “a whole host of pigheaded conservatives who remain mired in the past.”) 
Moreover, he enthuses so much about the wonders of prescription drugs that the reader may at times wonder if a pharmaceutical company funded this and his five other books.
But he effectively makes the case that there are some veterinarians treating animals who probably shouldn’t be since they don’t seem to care very much about their clients, and if you were a dog who squatted and urinated every time your owner came home, you’d want Dodman in your corner or, more realistically, your crate.
Bad behavior, not cancer or cars, he says, is the No. 1 killer of pets in the U.S.
“What is the answer when a dog turns aggressive and starts attacking people? When a cat becomes incontinent and fouls a new carpet? Off to the pound with it!” he writes.
This is partly because veterinarians too often use the term “idiopathic” — which Dodson calls the five-dollar word for “I don’t know why your pet is behaving like that.”  
And they don’t know because they haven’t been taught. Of about 30 veterinary schools in the U.S., only about a dozen teach animal behavior, he says. 
This seems odd because figuring out why and how a crated dog managed to cross a room, open his owner’s purse and eat a lipstick seems far more interesting than administering rabies shots and neutering cats for a living. Dodson has had a fascinating career, and his cases make for interesting reading, occasionally spiced by a flash of wit. (“In the midst of crate panic, it’s as if the pet entered the phone booth as Clark Kent and emerged as Superdog, developing the strength of ten.”)
He writes movingly of the childhood experience that was an impetus for his career. His mother, an animal lover, rescued a baby bird that had fallen out of a nest and was rejected by its mother. She fed it worm chow every two hours and cared for the bird until it learned to fly in their living room. The family named it Pippit, and Dodson, who was 8 at the time, was inconsolable when they released it to the wild. A year later, however, “something magical happened.”
Pippit returned with a mate, and flew in an open window, where she perched on the piano where she used to sit. After a few minutes, she flew away, and the family never saw her again, but the effect on Dodson was profound, he wrote.
“A creature had flown across the species barrier and touched my mother and me. Later on in life, I became all about challenging that barrier, reaching across it, questioning whether it is really a barrier at all.”
Cynics may question whether it was really the same bird, but Dodson is certain it was, as certain as he is that dogs can have ADHD and depression and get Alzheimer’s disease. His arguments are convincing, and he points out to skeptics who resist giving human medicines to dogs that animals are the reason we have these medicines at all.
“It may seem outlandish, yet all our medicines — every single pill humans place into their mouths, every injection, every balm, every suppository, even — was first tested, developed and refined using animals,” he writes.
That’s a truth even pigheaded conservatives can’t ignore. B+ 
— Jennifer Graham 

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