The Emotional Wounds of Rescued Animals
Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.
Comet, Poker’s Queen Bee, Mobey, Elsa, Gina—so far we’ve put more than a few animals “on the couch” for analysis. But I have gotten a little ahead of myself, and I should fill you in about how I came to treat behavioral issues in animals in the first place.
When people find out what I do for a living, when they learn what my entire life’s work has been, they usually assume that I’ve had my own pets. And they’re mostly right. I’ve always lived with easily looked-after pets like cats, rodents, and birds. And I have horses in full board at a nearby barn. But because of my long hours at the veterinary clinic, I couldn’t make enough time to properly care for a dog. In recent years, with a more flexible schedule, even though I didn’t really set out to become a dog owner, I’ve been lucky enough to share my home with two wonderful rescue dogs, Rusty and Jasper.
First, there was Rusty. One summer afternoon, as I was about to tee off on the golf course, my wife, Linda, who is also a veterinarian, called me from a local shelter, the Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Because our kids were grown and gone, Linda and I had been in search of a cat or two to rescue.
The old saying that owners are picked by their dogs, rather than the other way around, applied in this instance. Upon arriving at the pound, Linda spotted a dog being walked across the parking lot. Rusty spotted her at the same time. She knew immediately that he would be ours.
Since I was about to tee off, I had to trust Linda’s judgment. The same day, she also managed to rescue a cat. You know, in order that Rusty might have company!
What could possibly go wrong? A veterinary behaviorist and his house-call veterinarian wife had rescued a dog from a local shelter. Let’s just say it came as a surprise to find out, very early on, that Rusty had some significant behavioral issues. At least he’d wound up at the perfect home. It was like a chocoholic getting adopted by Willy Wonka.
The first sign of Rusty’s distress came when I arrived home from work one day and removed my tie. That simple gesture caused Rusty to cower, which he would also do any time I removed my belt. Cowering wasn’t the only response. Rusty also leaked. A submissive urinator, he displayed overwhelming and unnecessary groveling behavior whenever I greeted him. He wasn’t just glad to see me. He couldn’t contain his joy and in his desire to be submissive to my “almighty” towering presence, he wetly demonstrated his response all over my shoes.
The flip side of this anxious conduct was significant separation anxiety. If Linda was away in the barn, Rusty sometimes took that as a cue to defecate in the house. Basically, he was so stressed that he had an accident in his pants, even though he wasn’t wearing any. Rusty also liked to empty our garbage can if we left him home alone even for a short time. Yet he reacted with terror whenever we shook out a new trash-can liner.
All in all, Rusty faced a long road back to something like normal. Fortunately, Linda and I had strategies with which to help him.
The first such measure was to make him feel safe. He’d obviously been harshly disciplined at some point in his short life. He might have been beaten, presumably with objects that resembled ties or belts, which could explain Rusty’s reaction when I removed my own belt or tie. He could also have been flashing back to earlier mistreatment or punishments when he had accidents in the house or emptied the trash can.
Linda and I put in place a new set of house rules. We would not verbally scold Rusty whatsoever; we would not confront him about his accidents or other anxious behavior, and of course, we would never physically punish him. We wanted to build up Rusty’s confidence, and then we’d see just what kind of dog he would be. Up to now, he was fearful. We looked forward to discovering what kinds of personality traits a non-anxious Rusty would exhibit.
Our work took a while to take hold. And it was work. It’s difficult to restrain the very human impulse to become snappish in response to misbehavior, but we did. And slowly, gradually, Rusty came around. Linda and I were re-ordering his world, changing it from one of fear and anxiety to one of trust and safety. The incidents and accidents decreased until they disappeared entirely. In place of Rusty the Trembler we had now teased out the dog he really was, Rusty the Keeper of the House. He loved his new place in the hierarchy and he knew his important role.
As a researcher into animal behavior, I think about all the curses, shouts, and screams that are flung at dogs, the rolled-up newspapers, the paddles and straps. It’s all so unnecessary. Much of the time the dog simply serves as an outlet for a human’s frustrations. Rusty demonstrates that a careful, reasoned approach to correcting unwanted behavior in dogs is effective. Emotional, irrational approaches often are not.
Some people have to go through years of study to understand such basic truths; others come to it naturally and intuitively. I was blessed to be introduced as a child to the wild, woolly, and wonderful world of animals by my mother, who had enormous reservoirs of empathy. I grew up in a household where animals held a central place. My mother was my first teacher and set me on my path in life. Because of her influence, I’ve always been immersed in the animal world, watching how they function, examining their behavior, and marveling at how like us they can be.
Gwendoline “Gwen” Dodman was a wonderfully warm individual. People loved her, and other creatures did, too. She was always patient, never angry. I have visions of her during my childhood, smiling, lightly built, almost thin, very pretty. Her blond hair was so long back then that she could sit on it when playing the piano.
My mother’s twin delights were music and animals. By the time she was twelve, Gwen was teaching other kids to play the piano. Shortly thereafter she was asked to perform on BBC Radio, back in the days when radio was king because there was no TV. Animals were her other passion, especially birds but really all creatures great and small.
My own passion started out very, very small. Even though I encountered dogs, horses, and cows growing up, the earliest animal I remember, and the most prominent, was a bird the size of an infant’s fist. Pippit was a fledgling song thrush who had the misfortune to have fallen out of the nest near my grandmother’s front porch. Though the chances of a bird thriving after being put back into a nest are low, my mother felt we needed at least to try. She found the nest out of which the bird had fallen in a nearby yew tree and lifted the baby back into its home.
I was eight years old at the time. The nest was within view of my grandmother’s window, from where we monitored the situation for a full day. I sat anxiously for long hours, staring, hoping, waiting for the mother thrush to return. The nest looked strangely quiet, though, so we returned the next day to check on the little bird.
When I scaled the yew tree and got a glimpse, the baby bird was still there, but she was clearly alone and neglected. After returning to the house and spying on her for a while longer, we could tell that no mother bird was coming to the rescue. I begged my mother to intercede. She reluctantly agreed that the only possible course of action was to bring the barely feathered, broad-beaked nestling back to our home and attempt to preserve her young life. My mother gently scooped up the bird and put it into a shoe box that she had feathered with a mixture of dried grass clippings and moss. The creature resembled a pint-sized space alien, goggle-eyed and gawky. We stared at each other, bird and boy, my eyes as wide and bulging as the near-naked being in the box.
The baby thrush was no doubt overwhelmed by the smell of its new shoe-box home, formerly occupied by a pair of leather brogans. Mother tightly applied the cardboard lid, which she’d already perforated to allow proper ventilation, and together we set off from my grandmother’s house for home.
The days and weeks that followed left such an impression on me that I can trace my belief in the interdependence of humans and animals to that time. At first, my mom fed the bird every two hours. She had cheerfully concocted a home-style chow made of worms and bugs, a process that alternately fascinated and disgusted me.
Once we were sure the bird would survive, and not until then, we gave her a name.
“Pippit,” I would whisper, monitoring the creature as it wagged its out-of-proportion head, cheeped pathetically, or slept like the dead. For some reason, without any evidence one way or another, I decided the little slip of a thing was female.
At feeding time Pippit would hunker down, point her head skyward, open her beak widely, and flap her tiny wings as she hungrily gulped down the spongy-textured chow. The little bird grew and grew. Eventually, we were privileged to watch as she attempted to fly, flapping her way across the carpeted living room floor. After a few days she was able to fly short distances. Then there was no stopping her. She flew to perch on top of everything, including my mother’s mahogany Bechstein piano, where she’d merrily play with a rubber band or some buttons.
Pippit was loved by all of us, my sisters and me, and my parents. I believe she thought of my mom as her mom. But it came time to return her to her natural habitat. It was only right to let her go. With mixed emotions, we opened the French doors to the living room and, after some slight hesitation, Pippit flew off.
For weeks, I was inconsolable.
Then, a year after I had said good-bye to the little orphan bird, something magical happened. Spring had come, and even though it was rainy old England, we were able to throw open the French doors again to get a much-longed-for breeze into the house.
On that breeze and straight into our living room came a bird that looked just like Pippit.
We weren’t sure at first. When the creature headed straight for the piano that was Pippit’s usual resting place, we knew that this was, indeed, our dear bird come back to visit. Perching there, as she had done a year earlier, she happily turned her head from side to side, alert, and seemingly once again at home. Out in the garden on the fence, another thrush sang and twitted. We assumed it was Pippit’s mate, waiting for his girlfriend but not tame enough to come inside.
And that’s how Pippit told us that she had survived and made a life for herself. After a few minutes, Pippit joined her mate out in the garden and left for good. But the effect on me was profound and echoes to this day. 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.
I grew to know many other animals as a child. My mother delighted in rescuing all manner of beasts. She was the neighborhood St. Francis of Assisi. It seemed like every few weeks someone would turn up on our front doorstep with some little furry or feathery creature in need of attention. Often I’d find some small animal in a box in the kitchen or laundry room. Although birds had a special place in her heart, Gwen cared for whatever species turned up, going to great lengths to make them comfortable and healthy. Worm chow was a constant of my young life—for the birds, that is.
Her compassion for animals rubbed off on me. I grew up believing her empathy and kindness was perfectly normal, the rule rather than the exception. To her, animals were sentient beings with feelings and emotions much like our own. They felt pain, they could be frightened, and they could become defeated and depressed or feel happiness, joy, fulfillment, and contentment. I still feel the same way about animals. When I look now at Rusty running after a tennis ball in my local park, for example, I see a once-frightened dog with behavioral issues transformed into a perfectly content, happy, and playful animal.
But Rusty and his issues were to come into my life much later. First, I would follow my calling and head off to university to study to be a veterinary student. On vacations I would return home and see my mother working in the kitchen on a summer day, door open, with wild birds hopping around on the counters or perched on her head. Even though my days were taken up studying animals, it was always a shock to be so suddenly reminded of my roots.
My mother’s approach was simple. Win the trust of animals first, then live with them and find her place within their group. She had little patience for the theoretical data of psychologists or ethologists, those who simply observed from the sidelines. As she saw it, such scientists considered animals to be social robots with hardwired behaviors, so-called “fixed action patterns,” which could be triggered by specific “sign stimuli.” Viewed this way, animal behavior was about as warm and fuzzy as the workings of a grandfather clock. The experiences of Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and Dian Fossey, living and working within the families of chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, were much closer to my mother’s experiences with her birds and other animals.
But the beliefs Gwen Dodman passed down to me are not always shared by others in the veterinary field.
Following the path I had first started on during my childhood, I chose a course of study in school that would have me caring for animals. I qualified as a veterinarian. From my mother and some good experiences as a veterinarian student, I came to believe without a doubt that empathy and affection for animals goes a long way toward making a good veterinarian. Yet I found that views to the contrary abounded in science and in the vet business.
A professor of human anesthesiology once said in a lecture that he did not believe animals feel pain. “Pain,” he pronounced, “is a subjective moiety whose perception requires interpretation in highly sophisticated brain regions.” I wanted to raise my hand and suggest that these regions in animals are much like those in humans, but the man went on, airily suggesting some form of species noblesse oblige: “However, I strongly believe that animals should always be given the benefit of the doubt regarding pain management and be treated as sentient beings.”
Even though he disavowed the whole notion of pain in animals, that same professor clearly acted on that “benefit of the doubt.” An owner of two gorgeous Golden retrievers, he freely admitted that if either dog ever needed surgery he would insist on full anesthesia and pain medications. Theory and practice don’t always jibe.
Setting aside differences in philosophy, it’s a sad fact that not everyone is kind to animals. Some enjoy inflicting pain and suffering. People who behave cruelly to animals usually treat their fellow human beings badly. This has been proven time and time again, and it’s the sorry corollary to my belief that all living creatures, human and nonhuman, deserve the same treatment and the same medical care.
Once I qualified as a veterinarian, I specialized in veterinary anesthesia. When I was still perfecting my skills, I was regularly invited into hospital operating rooms to see the practical side of human anesthesia and surgery.
One day I stood in a prep room outside the OR, masked up, waiting to watch the induction of anesthesia in an already sedated elderly woman.
“Would you like to do this one?” one of the anesthesiologists asked.
“Okay,” I whispered, “but won’t she object to having a veterinarian work on her?”
“If you keep your mask up, she won’t know,” my teacher replied.
So there I was, administering a dose of barbiturate intravenously as the lady breathed oxygen via a face mask. I chased the barbiturate with a small dose of the muscle-paralyzing drug, succinylcholine, which back then was standard procedure, though nowadays other relaxant drugs are more commonly used. The woman lost consciousness and, as happens with succinylcholine, her muscles began to contract and twitch. Orderlies held her arms down to contain her movement until she became completely paralyzed. I then peered down her throat using a laryngoscope, slid a tube into her trachea, inflated the cuff, and hooked the tube up to a breathing bag. I rhythmically compressed the bag as the gurney was wheeled into the operating room.
Once there, she was hooked up to a ventilator by the tube in her trachea and the anesthetic vaporizer was pushed. As one final fail-safe, the woman was given a longer-acting muscle relaxant to suppress any reflex movements she might have during the operation.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” the head anesthesiologist asked.
I had to admit that it was easy. In the course of my studies, I had anesthetized dogs, cats, horses, cattle, goats, sheep, birds, monkeys, some big cats, a tapir or two, pigs, and, once, a potoroo, a rabbit-sized Australian marsupial. Now I had added a human to that list. This just wouldn’t have been possible if all of us animals weren’t so similar physically.
In 1981, after some academic twists and turns, I found myself in the United States, at Tufts. During my first few days in Boston, I took a trip up the sixty-story John Hancock Tower on a crystal clear day and surveyed the sprawling metropolis before me. Outside the heavily populated center, the city landscape melded into other, smaller towns. The horizon appeared far away. From my skyscraper aerie I could see the coastline fading into the distance.
This was my new territory. There wasn’t a veterinary anesthesiologist as far as the eye could see. It was an exhilarating thought. I was a pioneer in New England and at the same time a pilgrim of sorts.
What I liked most about my new home at Tufts was the philosophy of our then president, Jean Meyer (pronounced in the French way, JHON My-EER). Presiding over the medical, dental, and veterinary schools, Meyer had developed a concept he called One Medicine. It was the first time I encountered the term that would become the fundamental underpinning of my career.
The gist of Meyer’s thought is that human medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine are all variations on a common theme. He encouraged cross-campus liaisons and cooperative research, which brought together specialists from the various schools with different takes on the same underlying theme. I needed no special coaxing to fully sign on for that approach to treating animals.
It’s not rocket science, as they say. The fundamental facts are easily grasped and not really challengeable. Dogs, cats, and other mammals have brains that are very similar to our own brain in both structure and function. But it’s not just brain anatomy that is similar across the species. Animals in general, and mammals in particular, have many of the same inner workings as humans do. We share physical similarities and we respond to incoming sensory information in much the same ways. 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.
For this reason, domestic dogs and other animals have served as experimental models in psychological and neuroscience experiments for centuries. Ivan Pavlov examined conditioning by ringing a bell at feeding time, which caused his canine subjects to salivate even if they got no food. B. F. Skinner established the existence of operant conditioning in hungry rats, when behavior rewarded with food was repeated while behaviors that were not rewarded died out.
Today, while many people accept that nonhuman animals have the capacity to think and experience emotions, some still have trouble accepting that animals have a sense of self, or “theory of mind.” Theory of mind implies that individual animals can comprehend that other beings have information that they don’t possess, and that others may have different and competing desires and aims. This sounds completely plausible to me.
A now-famous experiment by Dr. Brian Hare illustrated that dogs clearly understood that the person pointing the finger knew something they didn’t, when the dogs followed a pointing finger to find a food treat hidden under a bucket. The canines employed the human’s know-how to find the treasure. Dogs also show that they possess desires and intentions when they hide a bone or food treat from competitors.
We need to accept that species other than Homo sapiens have theory of mind in order to believe that animals experience secondary emotions like affection, contentment, and suffering, as well as tertiary emotions like eagerness, frustration, jealousy, and guilt.
Let’s take as one example what Shakespeare calls “the green-eyed monster” of jealousy, which is supposedly specific to humans. Dogs who push in between embracing couples or between their owner and another dog demonstrate jealousy. In a recent study by Christine Harris, a professor of psychology at UC San Diego, dogs exhibited significant unhappiness when their owner paid attention to a stuffed toy that barked and wagged its tail.
In my work at the clinic, I see dogs exhibit jealousy on a regular basis. I am very comfortable calling it like it is. Brody, a six-year-old neutered male Yorkshire terrier mix, is a pocket-sized Napoleon of a dog who would take up residence on the couch next to his owner. He would not let anyone approach without barking and lunging, which usually had the desired effect of making the person back off.
If his owners sat on the couch together, Brody would make every attempt to insert himself between them. He made his displeasure at their closeness very clear. In the evening, the dog favored his male owner. The wife was often forced to move. God help the couple if they were to touch or embrace. That was definitely not allowed. During the day, Brody transferred his allegiance to his female owner, threatening anyone, family or guests, who approached her. Brody wanted her exclusively for himself.
Another Yorkie I knew would hop into bed with his lady owner each night. He’d stand on alert on the husband’s side of the bed, waiting for him to come upstairs after turning the downstairs lights out. If the husband dared to climb into his own bed, the Yorkie attacked. More than once the husband found the jealous reprobate firmly attached by the teeth to one of his fingers. For this husband, discretion was the better part of valor. He often gave up the field and crawled off to sleep in the spare room.
Dogs may also be jealous of one of the other canines in the home. They will do everything they can to break up any attention shown to it. Jealousy describes the situation perfectly. Increasing evidence supports the contention that animals have more than merely a vestige of secondary and tertiary emotions.
I’ve learned a lot from treating animals, but I’ve learned a lot about resilience from my own pets. How our Rusty overcame his fears represents just one example. My other dog, Jasper, survived neglect before he came to me. As I reach down from my writing desk to give him a pat, I find once again the lesion on his upper back that was caused by a long confinement in a crate that was too small for him. The lesion is now superficially covered with beautiful, healthy fur, like a comb-over. But the lesion is still there, and it always will be.
Some animals are born with genetic tendencies to develop behavioral problems. Others have behaviors forced upon them by bad owners. Jasper, who otherwise could have been a normal dog, arrived at my home with issues because his earlier owner had treated him poorly.
Jasper’s original owner was a health-care professional who worked with autistic children. Her job caused her to be away from her apartment for long periods. As a result, Jasper, a mixed-breed, long-haired beauty, found himself in a crate for much of every day, sometimes for as long as twenty-four hours at a stretch.
The crate was so small that Jasper could not stand up to his full height. If he ever barked when out of the crate, he was put straight back in. When he was taken outside, he was quickly walked and then re-crated. The result was that, as soon as he left the building he let loose. He peed literally as he stepped outside, because he never knew how long he’d have.
His miserable life might have gone on like this forever but for the intervention of my daughter Keisha. She found herself in the apartment where Jasper was crated, and she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Keisha called me to fill me in on the condition of the dog and wondered if I or her mother could help him.
We were not looking to add to our collection of pets, a late-in-life menagerie that had grown. We were still training Rusty to turn him into a calm, non-frightened dog. Rusty already had a pal, Griswald the cat, the one who came into the household at the same time. Griswald was quite pushy, demanding to be petted by rolling on his back and looking cute, whereupon he would then bite the hand that petted him. He was deaf but was also very vocal, able to sing like a feline Caruso.
In Jasper’s case, there was no mechanism for us to intervene. The dog belonged to its owner. Nonetheless, as I listened to Keisha’s tale of woe, I felt my blood beginning to boil. Pets are helpless. They deserve humane treatment. But in this case, I was the one who was helpless. I wasn’t in a position to assist this poorly treated dog.
Keisha continued to monitor Jasper’s situation as much as she could. She did her best to get him out of the crate whenever she found herself at his owner’s apartment. On one visit, she judged that Jasper’s situation had become dire and called me in a panic.
Jasper had eaten something nonedible. The poor creature had made a meal out of a whole box of tampons. It wasn’t surprising the dog had ingested what he shouldn’t have, since he had become emaciated from being confined. He weighed forty pounds instead of the nearly eighty he should have. His appetite for both the edible and inedible was voracious.
He’d vomited up a few tampons, but it was clear that he had consumed many more and would require surgery to remove the others that were still in his system. The price tag for such an operation was a cool three thousand dollars.
Jasper’s owner didn’t have that kind of money. Even if she had, it was clear that she didn’t know how to care for a dog, healthy or not. Linda and I discussed what to do. Keisha was distraught. The dog faced either an expensive surgery with a return to poor conditions or euthanasia. Linda then suggested that we offer to do the surgery gratis. But we’d also keep the dog. The harder task was to convince Jasper’s current owner to go along with the plan. It would prove harder than we imagined.
The woman remained in denial about the bad shape Jasper was in, but after my wife and Keisha and I had a difficult and emotional conversation with her, we came to a mutual agreement that we would perform the surgery and keep the dog. Finally tearful and repentant, Jasper’s owner dropped him off at our practice and said her final farewell.
Linda did the surgery, while I was in charge of anesthesia and giving the dog intravenous fluids. The tampons had lodged at the outflow end of the dog’s stomach. Jasper is deep-chested, so they were not easy to get out, although eventually Linda managed it. She removed one via a stomach incision, and another she massaged so that it traveled farther down into the large intestine, from where Jasper could easily pass it without fear of further obstruction.
After the procedure, Jasper gradually woke from the effects of anesthesia. The pooch had no idea what had just happened. He didn’t know we were to be his new, more attentive owners. He just understood that he felt a whole lot better.
It’s an amazing process, to see an animal return fully to life. Over the weeks that followed, our new housemate regained strength. He learned to trust us. He soon got back to a normal weight of seventy-five pounds and was no longer desperate to eat everything in sight. Food wasn’t something to be snatched from the conveyor belt of life and he learned not to fear losing every fleeting opportunity to eat. He became much less fanatical about his chow and would occasionally leave some food in the bowl. Nor did he practically take our fingers off when we offered him a treat.
After a few short weeks, Jasper also realized that a walk outside was not going to be over in thirty seconds. He no longer peed on the back patio two steps into an excursion. He enjoyed morning romps in the woods behind our home and two long walks, both off leash, a previously unheard of privilege.
Linda and I monitored him as his muscles came back and regained tone. He got a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and learned to love swimming in nearby lakes. He was no longer crated, ever. He and Rusty became brothers in arms, a virtual Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer duo, though I would be hard put to assign which role to which dog.
Jasper now sleeps wherever he wants, which is usually in bed next to me at night or on the couch in the early evening. I often awake to find his head on the pillow next to me, his eyes fluttering half-shut, and with his long nose an inch or so from my face. He’s tired and happy by the end of each day after his many walks, but even with these outlets is ferocious with chew toys, able to take apart even the most durable ones in minutes. For this quality, he has earned himself the nickname of Jaws of Steel.
One other thing became evident as Jasper blossomed. As Big Mama Thornton would sing, he “ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” He spends half his life with his nose glued to the ground. Once he’s caught wind of something in the woods, he’s fast on the trail. At these times, he suffers from an abrupt, temporary, and, I suspect, voluntary hearing loss. No matter how much I call at these times, he simply ignores me and goes about his all-important mission.
This is what we want for all creatures, human or otherwise. We wish them to fully inhabit their true selves. In his previous crated life, Jasper’s potential was pinched back to almost nothing. Now his “walkabout” excursions have become so far reaching that I have had to fit him with a GPS tracking device. Even years after we took him in, his boldness increases by the day but I don’t want to rein him in.