Pet Peeves

When Fido and Socks start acting out, it's time to call a shrink.

pet therapy
Michael Baugh charms away Caseys psychosis with - the treat well-bred dogs love to eat: Liver biscotti. - Walter  Novak
Michael Baugh charms away Caseys psychosis with the treat well-bred dogs love to eat: Liver biscotti.

Three-year-old Puco Friedman had always been high-strung. Her parents' friends whispered that she was spoiled, but Mommy and Daddy just brushed them aside. She was so smart and loving. Who wouldn't indulge her?

Then Puco's perfect world turned upside down. Her parents moved from Columbus to Cleveland and adopted a baby brother, whom she instantly loathed. Worse, they wouldn't share their bed anymore.

Puco couldn't take it. She scratched and bit her mother. Then she planted herself outside her parents' door every night, crying. Puco's exasperated father started sleeping in her room just to shut her up.

The Friedmans were frustrated; Puco's neurosis wasn't helping their marriage. "We hadn't slept in the same bed for almost two months," Melissa Friedman admits.

So the couple called in a therapist. Maybe Puco needed discipline. Or medication. Maybe she needed to feel more loved.

The couple's friends were less than sympathetic. Puco, you see, is a cat.

The world is full of unhappy pets, and no wonder. Dogs are pack animals, and cats like to hunt. As pets, they're trapped inside frilly houses and tiny apartments, expected to behave like low-maintenance children.

So dogs get depressed. Cats get catty. Even birds act like deranged teenage girls, plucking out their own feathers until they bleed.

In a perfect world, fixing their problems would be easy. Birds, for example, generally stop plucking if given a mate, says trainer Jon Corrigan. Like high school geeks everywhere, their sadness often stems from sheer sexual frustration.

But few families can comfortably house a pack of dogs. So well-meaning owners have begun to treat their pets' "issues" the same way humans deal with their own.

Veterinarians now prescribe Prozac for depressed dogs and cats. Cats even have an organic alternative: Feliway, a soothing over-the-counter concoction that, for $30 a bottle, mimics the pheromones usually released by a good urine spray.

There's also the holistic approach, as practiced by Denny Mentessi of Solon's Left Foot Forward. She uses aromatic oils and flower essences to connect with traumatized pets, as well as therapeutic touch, which is akin to massage.

"They may learn to heel in obedience classes, but it's not going to help them through thunderstorms or being left alone during the day," Mentessi says. As every neurotic knows, a $65-an-hour massage beats discipline any day.

Skeptics might find it all downright weird, but Mentessi doesn't care: "More and more people are going for holistic lifestyles. A pet is just as much a family member as anyone else."

Others confronted by their pets' psychoses are turning to "behavior modification sessions," a.k.a. therapy. Trainers explore the roots of a pet's troubles, then "condition" improved behavior.

Michael Baugh, a former producer at WKYC-TV with a dog training business on the side, took a leap of faith in January, jettisoning the TV gig and opening North Coast Dogs in Brunswick. Business was brisk enough that he'd opened a second location in Lakewood by September.

At $75 an hour, Baugh's one-on-one sessions aren't cheap, nor can he tout a specialized degree to justify the price. He's taken a variety of courses and can quote B.F. Skinner, but he got his start mainly because he enjoyed training his own retriever.

Baugh's job is perhaps more difficult than a real psychologist's. For one, his animal clients have some difficulty describing their troubles. And owners often contribute to their pets' nuttiness in the first place.

One of the biggest problems is their insistence on treating pets like babies, Baugh says. They get a dog because they don't want a kid, then do their best to turn the dog into a kid anyway. "That's fine," Baugh says politely. "But the deepest love I can show my dog is to honor her, love her, and respect her as a dog."

Yet Baugh can't just tell obsessive clients that if they really want a baby, they should go make one. "If you go into their home and make them feel bad, they think, 'What have I done to fail my dog?'"

So the key becomes "very subtle coaching." In dire cases, Baugh refers clients to therapy of their own.

But Baugh's customers are generally successful people -- hence their willingness to pay $75 an hour. ("I've seen some houses that blew me away," he admits.) They call because they feel powerless.

Take Chuck and Mary Van Ness. Their poodle, Casey, is perfectly groomed, from her perky little ears to the pink heart locket at her throat. A statue of a poodle even sits on the couple's spotless white hearth. But Casey's too nervous to enjoy the adoration. She's fiercely protective of her owners, yet hates to be touched. If Chuck comes near her collar with a brush, Casey goes "berserk," he says.

Enter Baugh, armed with liver biscotti and a plan for reconditioning. If Casey can be taught to associate touching with a snack, she'll enjoy touching even when the biscotti is gone.

When Baugh goes in with the brush and a treat, Casey is at first ready to snarl, but she decides against it and swallows daintily. Mary Van Ness is impressed. "Do you want to get a room here for the next six months and just train her with us?" she laughs.

Kathleen Meyer of Rocky River called Baugh after her two-year-old beagle, Lucky, sank his teeth into seven people. Meyer was reluctantly weighing whether to put him to sleep. Just two sessions saved his life. Lucky's only bite since has been Meyer's ex-husband, and that transgression Meyer is willing to forgive.

Not every story ends so happily. Corrigan visited the Friedmans in August and diagnosed Puco with "redirected aggression" and overstimulation. "We know we've contributed to Puco's issues by pampering her," admits Melissa, a peppy kindergarten teacher known to organize her junk drawer into neat Tupperware containers.

So the Friedmans resolved to step back. They put Puco on Feliway and started administering "timeouts" for biting and snarling. Corrigan convinced them to stop sleeping with her, no matter how hard she cried. Nor did she need eight gifts from Hanukkah Harry, then another gaggle from Santa.

Puco stopped attacking, Melissa says, and though she seemed depressed, she finally began to accept sleeping alone.

But the couple were unwilling to do everything Corrigan prescribed. They balked at weeding out her toys. "Mommy has a hard time putting them away," Melissa admits. "There was meaning behind a lot of those toys."

And the relationship between Puco and baby Odot had already sunk past salvation. Corrigan suggested putting one cat in a cage to let the other warm up to its presence. But when Odot was in the cage, he freaked out. When it was Puco's turn, the clever cat figured out how to open the door. The Friedmans were too disconsolate to try again.

Of course, there are options beyond therapy, and the Friedmans love their cats enough to explore them. They recently made an appointment with the vet; like any good parents with an inconsolable child, they're looking into Prozac.

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