BOOKS: If Only They Could Speak

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2009:

If Only They Could Speak:
Understanding the powerful bond
between dogs and their owners
by Nicholas H. Dodman
W.W. Norton & Co. (500 Fifth Ave., New York,
NY 10110), 2003, 2008. 262 pages, paperback. $15.95.

W.W. Norton & Co. published this second edition of one of
Nicholas Dodman’s most popular books in September 2008. Dodman
heads the Tufts Behavior Clinic at the Tufts University School of
Veterinary Medicine. His 1999 volume Dogs Behaving Badly made him
one of the more acclaimed dog behavior gurus of our time–but Dodman
was already well known to news media for promoting the idea that many
dog behavior problems can pharmaceutically treated.
“Throw in a shrink” has long been standard editorial advice
to reporters trying to find experts to explain difficult or
disturbing news. Dodman’s recommendations, often summarized as “Put
your dog on Prozac,” have made him perhaps the most quoted doggie
shrink ever.

Dodman has developed his own versions of behavior-modifying
drugs for dogs. In 2007 Dodman and Tufts University sold licensing
rights for Prozac-like anti-aggression and anti-obsessive compulsive
disorder doggie drugs to the British firm Accura Pharma. Accura
Pharma lists Dodman as an advisory board member, and projects sales
potential for the behavior drugs as $1.2 billion per year.
The Dodman approach is increasingly popular with harried dog
keepers who feel they don’t have the time or budget to invest in more
training–or re-training–than the average dog receives.
But British dog training expert Ian Dunbar, for one, is
critical of drugging dogs. “I’ve never had to resort to drugs to
deal with some quite serious mental problems. But the average pet
owner wants a pill because he thinks it’s a simple solution,” Dunbar
told Tom Leonard of The Daily Telegraph in December 2008.
Added Royal SPCA chief veterinary officer Mark Evans, to
Jasper Copping of The Daily Telegraph in March 2009, “Drug companies
are obviously keen to find pharmaceutical solutions, but instead of
simply tackling the symptoms, owners should be encouraged to look at
the underlying causes of difficult behaviour, rather than create a
culture of pill-popping dogs.”
Many of the 13 case histories described in If Only They Could
Speak may be seen as either arguments for the Dodman approach, or as
thinly disguised commercials.
Prozac, by itself, was clearly not the right answer in one
of the cases most often mentioned by reviewers. A young German
shepherd, Tina, acquired from a pet store by a Mrs. Spinelli,
became extremely jealous of Bonnie, an older poodle who came from a
shelter. “I think she’s going to kill her,” Mrs. Spinelli told
The problem, in gist, was that Spinelli showed favoritism.
Bonnie, adopted from a shelter, was queen. Spinelli also kept
several beloved exotic birds.
Tina acted out. Dodman recommended that the dogs had to be
kept carefully separated, and that Tina would have to feel secure
and accepted as the dominant dog.
Tina was started on Prozac, but the most essential part of
the behavioral remediation program was that Spinelli was to praise
Tina and fuss over her when she returned home from work every day.
Weeks later, she admitted that she hadn’t done it. Instead, she
punished Tina for displaying hints of aggression toward Bonnie.
Several months later, Dodman heard Spinelli’s quivering
voice on his answering machine: “Bonnie’s dead. Tina killed her.”
Spinelli kept Tina, despite the attack, until Tina killed
one of her treasured parrots. Then Spinelli had Tina euthanized.
Prozac was apparently part of successfully treating Merlin,
a shelter dog from New Hampshire, who was adopted as a companion for
Sammy, an older mongrel. Merlin bonded with Sammy, but “would
cower, shake and urinate submissively, or attempt to run and hide”
when around most people, Dodman recalls. The sight of sticks, rakes
or even flyswatters caused him to panic, suggesting a history of
abuse. Merlin later displayed aggressive tendencies.
A treatment plan included Prozac as well as behavior
modification. During the course of treatment, however, the family
home caught fire. Merlin hid under a bed. Firefighters were only
able to rescue him after smoke overcame him.
During the next several months a parade of contractors,
electricians and painters rebuilt the damaged part of the home.
Merlin remained skittish and fearful, but slowly his behavior changed.
If Only They Could Speak is subtitled “understanding the
powerful bond between dogs and their owners,” but three chapters are
devoted to cats, including Honey, a Burmese who only trusted one
person, Susan Gale, and resisted all efforts to reconcile her to
Gale’s new husband when she married. Susan and her husband persisted
in trying to cope with the jealous, cantankerous cat, with Dodman’s
intervention–and Prozac.
Part of Dodman’s success in promoting pharmacological
behavioral intervention appears to be his insightful, entertaining,
sometimes sad and always educational descriptions of dogs and cats
with behavior problems. The books of noted dog writers Arden Moore,
Roger Tabor, and Cesar Milan are worthwhile, but Dodman presents an
especially clear picture of each dog or cat’s behavioral issue and
how it impacts the animal’s people.
–Debra J. White & Merritt Clifton

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