When a dog feels stressed, what is there to do? Take it to a psychiatrist. Obviously.
It is hard to miss the hoard of dogs that evade the streets of Buenos Aires – the four-legged, tail-wagging, tongue-dangling creatures are absolutely everywhere. A survey released this year by Mars, world leader in pet food manufacturing, reveals unsurprising statistics that prove Argentina to be the Latin American champ of the nations for indulging in pets.
Eight out of ten households in Argentina house a pet, 63% of which are dogs. From individual walkers to ‘paseadores,’ it seems the city is but a playground for canines.
But however fun Buenos Aires is, cities can be difficult places to live in. The endless hustle-bustle, being cooped-up in small apartments, and the ever-looming cloud of pollution is stressful even for us humans. Dog psychiatrist, Ricardo Bruno, argues that for most of these miniature urban dwellers, the city is detrimental.
It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that in a country where visiting a therapist is as part of a daily routine as the gym, and where nine million dogs are domesticated, that psychiatry has been elevated from its originally human realms to those of dogs.
Bruno is one of ten pet psychiatrists in Buenos Aires, resolving issues with aggression, fear, and compulsive symptoms, ultimately socialising troublesome cats and dogs. And not just by dog whispering. “I am a doctor, I medicate animals with anti-depressants such as Paroxetine and Lorazepam,” he explains.
Isolation vs. humanisation of dogs
Over thousands of years, dogs have been domesticated to instinctively relate to their human families as being part of their pack, but there is a fine balance between needing to be socially involved in family life and being considered too much to be like a human. Various factors create festering problems in pets, which eventually need treating.
For one, dogs bought for security tend to be left alone in backyards, away from crucial human contact. All the dog’s instincts tell it to be part of the pack, causing it anxiety and stress.
“We have a large problem with security, so many people buy dogs for security rather than love, but in the end the dogs attack them. It is the same as people buying a gun for security, but end up shooting themselves in the foot, literally,” Bruno laughs.
The problem also persists with dogs that are bought just for show, many owners do not have time for their dogs, leaving them alone in the house for extended periods of time.
Dogs left alone tend to break everything, explains Bruno, which escalates into a larger problem as ‘destructive’ dogs then become further isolated, left on a terrace where they are unable to destroy things in the family home.
“People in Europe are more conscious when they are thinking about buying a dog; they think first. Here, they first buy the dog, and then they think.”
Although dogs thrive on companionship, owners can also run the risk of involving them too much in the family. Dogs are often accepted into a family like a human being, along with human expectations and without training.
Bruno theorises that people often feel alone in a city like Buenos Aires, so they take on dogs, and they love them like humans, and with such high expectations, owners get frustrated when their dog ‘misbehaves’, creating a confusing relationship for the dog. “Often, the problem is that the owner does not understand that they must be the leader. People see humans in their dogs. But they are not humans: they are dogs.”
Most dogs in Buenos Aires are not born with mental disorders – the conditions of living in an urban environment cause them, argues Bruno. “If you put any one of them in the countryside, they would be fine.”
So has Buenos Aires’ dog-crazy population created monsters out of canines?
Dog behaviour specialist, Mariana Bontosela, believes that Buenos Aires’ dogs are not doomed; though admitting to an Argentine pet ownership problem, she is much more optimistic. “Dogs have been domesticated for the last 16,000 years, they have long since adapted to living with humans and within cities.”
Bontosela does, however, agree there lacks a culture of education here – dogs are not typically taught tricks or even simple things such as ‘sit’. But she adds that as long as dogs are trained for their function, it is unlikely there will be problems. As an example, she uses security dogs, which function just fine left outside of the house; if trained properly, they should not present problems.
“For pet dogs, contact is vital,” she adds, reiterating Bruno’s concerns, emphasising that an increase in pet-owner interaction is essential.
But generally, she believes that respect for dogs in Argentina is on the up: “People have been a lot more careful in the last few years, with zoological awareness on the rise. It is true that humanisation of dogs is still a problem, but Argentines really love their dogs, and attempt to treat them well.”
Both Bruno and Bontosela believe that the way to change the behaviour of Argentina’s pet dogs is through adapting interaction between pets and owners. Owners need to further understand their dogs, working with them. Though the allocation of drugs is essential for some, medication should only be assigned with an increase in human attention.
“It is really important to make people understand their pets, it interests me more to speak to the owner, because I want the people to understand the meaning of their dogs,” Bruno explains.
“If a dog keeps jumping onto people, give it special attention when its feet are on the ground. Although there are different variations of behavioural correction, this forms the crux.”
Dominique Gutierrez and Ryan Long, dog psychology first-timers, took their misbehaving pup, Joey, to Bruno for help earlier this year. “Sometimes a switch would go, and he’d get really angry,” they explained. They were convinced Joey’s constant snapping and aggressive tendencies could not be changed, but they could not put up with his disruptive behaviour any longer.
Bruno prescribed him female hormones for a month, assigned the dog a special lead, and told the couple “you can deal with this,” telling them to show Joey who was boss. Through Bruno’s various methods, the couple have seen huge improvements in Joey’s behaviour.
The message is clear, in a city of undeniable dog lovers, it is best not to smother or ignore pets, but to create a healthy balance. Though most of the city’s dog owners have their hearts set in the right place, more attention needs to be given to the way they interact with their dogs. Love is simply not enough.