“Roouf!” says John C. Wright. He is standing by his car in a parking lot in Atlanta. Wright, a certified animal behaviorist, is demonstrating an antibark collar that emits a high-pitched tone when it detects barking. Wright’s bark is friendly enough, but it appears to have unnerved the owner of the Toyota parked beside us.
“Roouf!” he says again. The collar beeps in his hands. The Toyota owner locks her door.
It’s my fault. I asked to see Wright’s “bag of tricks,” a briefcase he keeps in his trunk but rarely uses. He doesn’t believe in gadgets. Like his counterparts in human psychology, he believes in listening and creative problem-solving. Wright spends weekends making house calls to distraught pet owners. He is one of a handful of animal behaviorists who prefers to meet with clients in their. homes, rather than in a clinic or over the phone. “This way you’re part of the family,” he explains. “You really get a feel for what’s going on.” Besides, Wright is not a vet, he’s a Ph.D. and a professor of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, GA, and, as such, has no facility for office visits.
Our first stop today is at the home of Debra Parker, 42, who runs a cleaning service out of her home, and her husband, Rick, a freelance graphic designer. The Parkers share a modest split-level home with six cats, three dogs, and a pair of rabbits. (Actually, Parker is not their real last name, they have more pets in their house than local codes allow, so they have asked that their identities be disguised. We are met at the door by Debra Parker and a wall of pet smell.
Debra escorts us into the living room, where we take seats on a fabric-covered obstacle course of dozing cats. A Chihuahua is yipping frenetically in the kitchen. There’s another cat hunkered down by the umbrella stand. The carpeting has three enormous scalloped chunks taken out of one edge, as though there were a very large and scary twelfth pet somewhere about.
Wright begins by trying to sort out when the problems began. He gestures with his pen to the black-and-white fuzzloaf now parked on his briefcase. “So this is Mitten, and you’ve got five other cats?”
Debra fills him in on the Parker family-pet tree — their relationships, their neuroses, their quirks, and their habits. Wright is madly scribbling notes. “So Mitten is attacking Ick.”
“No, Chang is. All Mitten does is poop and pee on the carpet.” Debra isn’t sure what to chalk this up to, but she mentions the cat’s in-vitro trauma: When his mother was pregnant with him, she was partially crushed by a hay bailer.
But to Debra’s surprise, Wright is less interested in a pet’s history; he’s most intent on figuring out what, in the current environment, might be changed to stop the unwanted behavior. As Wright says, “I don’t want to put the pet on the couch. I want to get the pet off the couch.”
“So who’s spraying,? Ick?”
“No, Chang. Chang sprays and attacks Ick. He scares her so bad, she’ll defecate right there. It’s a love-hate thing.”
Wright continues to take notes, though it’s unlikely that they say “possible love-hate thing.” More likely, they say: “Female, six years, inappropriate elimination.” Four out of five of Wright’s cat-owning clients are dealing with a pet’s inapproprriate elimination. With dogs, the problem is usually aggression or destructive behavior during the owner’s absence.
Debra halts her narrative to scold Toby, another cat, who is under the coffee table eating carpet fuzz. Wright takes the opportunity to steer the session back to the present. “Can we go look at the litter boxes?”
Debra grins. “You know how to have fun, Dr. Wright.”
Wright explains the three requirements for a successful litter box: location, location, and location. It’s not enough that a box be kept clean. A cat needs privacy and — something few cat owners realize — an escape route. Cats feel vulnerable when they’re doing their business, so they want to be able to see who’s coming and flee if they choose. For this reason, hooded litter boxes may prove problematic. Debra makes a note to relocate the second litter box, currently parked in a too-cramped bathroom cul-de-sac.
Back downstairs, Wright opens his notepad again. “Let’s talk a little about Chang. How many days a week does he spray?”
Debra sinks lower in her chair. “Oh — every day.” She points to a nearby wall. “He sprayed so bad there, the wood rotted and the nails rusted. He’s sprayed the TV stand. He sprayed all over my lace shower curtain.”
On the way over here today, Wright mentioned a study that found a strong correlation between the number of cats in a household and the likelihood that one or more of them will take to spraying. The most effective solution to Debra’s problem would probably be to find new homes for some of her charges.
Wright doesn’t even bring it up. The people whoseek out his services are people for whom pets are not property, but members of the family. For a good many, they’re the whole family; he estimates that four out of five of his clients have no children and some freely admit that their pet’s are child substitutes. Wright himself is engaged to a (people) therapist. For the time being, the couple cares for a standard poodle, a Jack Russell-terrier mix, and two cats, whom I caught Wright referring to as “our two girls.”
He continues his line of questioning: Are there neighborhood cats that come around and threaten Chang? Does he exhibit any other strange behaviors?
Debra thinks for a moment. “He stands in the hallway and howls. Is that strange? Also, this is new: He’ll come tearing into the living room and make this chirping noise. Oh — and he hunts for our socks and howls when he gets them. He brings them to the water dish and dips them in and then carries them around like they’re kittens.” Rick Parker and I are doing all we can to keep from busting out laughing, but Wright maintains a professional deadpan.
The diagnosis is that Chang is over-aroused. He’s an excitable cat in an over exciting household. If he were spraying simply to establish his territory, he’d be more likely to concentrate on marking boundaries of the household, rather than covering every square foot of it. The most effective treatment for such “indiscriminate spraying” is some form of tranquilizer. Debra volunteers that her vet had Chang on Valium several years back. “It wasn’t working,” she quips, “so I took it.”
Wright thinks owners too often expect behavioral problems to be solved with drugs. Only recently have courses in learning theory become common in veterinary medicine curriculum and vets begun to refer owners to behaviorists. Certified animal behaviorists — which number fewer than 30 nationwide — must meet stringent certification requirements, including a graduate degree in behavioral science and five years, experience with animals.
Wright does sometimes ask the referring vet to prescribe drugs, but only in combination with behavioral therapy — and not without trying behavioral modification first. For certain problems — stress-related licking in cats or separation anxiety in dogs — drugs are sometimes the only thing that works.
In Chang’s case, Wright prescribes well-timed distraction. “When you see him starting to back up and quiver his tail, call his name. Interrupt behavior. Initiate play.” Wright picks up a toy spider on an elastic string and dangles it in front of Chang, presently lounging on a sofa bolster. Chang looks supremely bored. Wright withdraws die spider. “Or you can try this. Touch his tail — put it down when he’s raised it. That’s another way to inhibit the spraying. The less he sprays, the less likely he is to spray in the future. Whatever you do, don’t yell at him. That’s going to increase his arousal more and make the problem worse.”
Debra shoots a horrified look at her husband. “Oh, no! We yell at him all the time. We didn’t know!”
Wright reassures her. “How could you have known? That’s what I’m here for.” Most owners of misbehaving pets blame themselves. They worry that they don’t spend enough quality time with the animal. Debra believed Chang’s spraying was a way of getting back at her for spending too much time with the rabbits, who are cram in her home office.
Whether it’s from guilt love, or both, Wright’s clients are keenly motivated to make behavioral therapy work. The Parkers agree to pull up the rest of the stink-ridden carpet, scour the walls and floors, and buy a dehumidifier to banish the smell of “errors” and discourage repeat performances (the smell of cat spray may trigger more spraying). They also allow Chang to roam in their fenced-in yard to work off some energy.
The hour is nearly up. Before Wright leaves, Debra wants him to meet Abbey. Rick lumbers to die kitchen and returns with an armload of piebald cat and that goofy soft-eyed look that passes for affection in some men. “She thinks she’s a dog.”
Wright closes his notepad and smiles. “That’s a little too complex for me.”
Strange things are happening at Mike and Karen Pado’s house. Karen came home one night to find what she describes as “voodoo on the carpeting”: a wet circle of urine with lines radiating out all around it in the nap of the carpet. Inside the lines were tiny flecks of dried blood.
The prime suspect, Shadow the cat, has been cleared. She has an alibi: The last time the voodoo appeared, she was at the vet. Which leaves Shauna.
Shauna is a 12-year-old mix of cocker spaniel, poodle, and Kewpie doll. You cannot fail to fall for this mutt. It’s hard to imagine her as the source of mischief on die Pados’ carpet.
“Oh, it’s her all right,” says Karen. “We caught her on video.” She gets up to load the VCR. Everyone gathers around the television, including Shauna. Mike fast-forwards through one and a half hours of stationary shots of the southwest corner of their living-room floor.
He leans forward. “Here she comes.”
On the screen, Shauna pads into view, urinates calmly, and then proceeds to push her nose through the carpet toward the spot, over and over, making a circle of rays around the puddle. “She did it so much she rubbed the top of her nose raw,” says Karen. “That’s where the blood was coming from.”
The couple first consulted their veterinarian, who told them to confine the dog to one room and work on rehousebreaking her. But little Shauna did not take well to this plan; she ate through the door. Next the Pados tried crating her, but she broke a tooth trying to chew free.
Wright is puzzled. Before he saw the video, he guessed the behavior to be a symptom of separation anxiety. “But if that were the case, we’d be seeing the behavior two or three times a week — not once or twice a month. And look at her tail. She’s not agitated. Nor does she seem depressed.”
Wright admits he’s stumped — a career first. “However,” he adds, “we don’t have to know why she’s doing it. We can still stop it.” As with Chang, it’s a matter of disrupting the behavior pattern. He instructs the Pados to initiate play in the area where the “errors” are occurring. “You want her to think, This is where I play.. I don’t pee here.”
Karen reports that a dog trainer once told her that if she wants her dog to be compliant, she needs to establish dominance and become “the alpha wolf.”
Wright listens patiently, though I know for a fact he thinks it’s bunk. Earlier today, he told me about the wolf theory, currently in vogue among certain circles of do, trainers. Since wolves reinforce dominance by salivating on food before the rest of the pack eats, owners are advised to salivate on dog biscuits and then serve them to their dogs. Wright thinks analogies to wolf-dom are irrelevant and unhelpful. “This is a relationship,” he tells Karen, “not a dominance hierarchy.”
Wright hands Karen written notes repeating his play advice, and more ideas, including that she place plastic carpet runners over the spot to change the feel of it and break Shauna’s attraction to it; and that they try to take her on more walks. “There’s nothing wrong with your dog. She’s a great pet. She’s just doing something strange.”
Out in his car, wright rummages through his briefcase for the file on the day’s list appointment, a follow-up visit with Elvis the hissing cat. Manila folder of current cases are piled on the seat beside him: the woman whose do bit the hand of a concert pianist, the cat that attacks its owner’s boyfriend, the woman whose basset hound blocks the front door in the morning and won’t let her leave. (Exiting by a different door was enough to throw the dog off track and remedy the problem.)
Two out of three of Wright’s clients are women. Wright theorizes that women are more likely to form emotional attachments to pets — or admit to them — and are thus more motivated to expend time and money correcting a problem rather than giving up and surrendering the pet to the pound. But Wright concedes that he encounters plenty of men who love their pets deeply, “men who tear up at the thought of losing a pet.”
Mark Niepmann isn’t one of them. We are sitting in the Niepmann kitchen with Elvis and his owners. Wright is describing his visit to the Parkers. “Only one of the six is spraying?” says Mark. “That sounds easy to solve.”
Amy shoots him death looks from across the table.
Elvis, they report, is making excellent progress. He had developed a deep distrust of strangers following a traumatic incident with a plumber. (For whom the incident was most traumatic is open to debate. The plumber claims to have looked up from his work to see the cat springing into the air, making straight for his neck, where upon he shut the bathroom door “just in time,” and heard the cat slam into it in midleap. Amy doesn’t buy it: “Elvis would never do that.”) Wright instructed the Niepmanns to distract Elvis by tossing a treat or a toy whenever they saw his ears flatten or his whiskers rotate forward — signs that he’s feeling threatened and hostile. “Not only does this disrupt the aggressive behavior,” explains Wright, “but the cat will begin to associate people with stuff that’s fun or tastes good.”
There is no charge for today’s visit. Six weekly follow-up consultations, most by phone, are included in the price of the treatment ($350 to $450 for dogs, $200 to $250 for cats).
Wright doesn’t think of his services as expensive — particularly compared to the cost of a new sofa or living-room carpet. Nor do his clients. It’s the rest of the world that sometimes casts a quizzical eye. “A female TV news reporter asked me last week to comment on the tendency among Americans to spend lavish amounts of money on extravagances like dentistry and counseling for their pets,” says Wright. He shakes his head. “For people who own a pet that’s part of the family, these are not extravagant things.”
Amy is looking at Elvis as though he were the most precious parcel the world had ever seen. “That woman,” she says, “must not have an animal in her life.” Epilogue: Since the Parkers followed Wright’s advice and pulled up the soiled carpeting, cleaned the walls and floors, and relocated Mitten’s litter box, Chang has stopped spraying altogether, and Mitten has had only one “accident.” Over at the Pado house, Shauna has only “made voodoo” twice since Wright’s vis it. Wright believes the problem must have stemmed from the, dog drinking too much water in the morning before his owners left for the day Elvis continues to be less aggressive around strangers.
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