Sookie is who she is.
Sookie is who she is.

Can dogs suffer from mental illness?

This is a sensitive issue. My dog Sookie is not always "OK."

I often describe her as mentally ill. I admit this is more a term of endearment than a diagnosis from a professional. I do not say it in jest or with any disrespect to humans suffering with mental illness. I use the term to encapsulate Sookie’s behavioral challenges and people often giggle, but the popularity of "doggie Prozac," the emergence of pet behaviorists and even "psychologists," is evidence that pet mental health is a growing concern.

The question of weather a dog can actually be mentally ill is a controversial topic in veterinary medicine. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, "Mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis." Sub the word "dog" for "person" and this describes my Sookie’s inability to engage in what are considered "normal" daily activities like going on a peaceful walks or relating genially with other dogs.

Cohabitating with a mentally unstable 65-pound Boxer is not always easy, but it resulted from only the most loving intentions. We rescued Sookie from the SPCA in 2011. I was looking for a workout partner, a big dog to jog, hike and walk endlessly with. I wanted a buddy to provide some protection and "intimidation factor." I desired an animal to hang out with me in the house while I work, that I could take to the dog park and sit at pet friendly outdoor cafes with. I wanted to travel with the lucky canine we would adopt. I decided I would even let her sleep in our bed. I was ready for a new member of our family.

I spent hours on rescue organization web sites searching. Then, one night I saw a photo of Sookie pop up on the local SPCA website. I fell in love with her goofy face, her direct gaze into the camera, the markings that made her look like she was wearing terribly applied black eye liner and lipstick. I know. Looks are a totally inappropriate reason to adopt a dog. My mistake. I own this. In any case, I made my husband arrive at the shelter an hour before they opened to be sure we would be first in line to see her.

They were closed when we arrived – I had forgotten to check their days of operation. This was, perhaps the first sign from the universe that I should have slowed my roll on adopting the Sookster. I was devastated and made a promise to return – when they were actually open. We repeated the early arrival the next day and were first in line as the volunteers gushed about what a "lover" and "sweet girl" she was.

Sookie’s challenging behaviors were evident in the "meet and greet" we did with her at the shelter – particularly when she was outside. I was ignorant to how serious most of these signals were from pure lack of experience. I remember her charging out of her pen uncontrollably and thinking who could blame her? Shelters are kind of like doggie jail, but the inmates have not necessarily committed crimes and their incarceration usually has a happy ending.

When we took her to the outdoor pen they had us spend time with her in, it was as if we did not exist. If an SPCA volunteer walked by with a dog, she rushed the fence, barking, fixated on the action. Her focus was unshakable on the other dogs in cages surrounding the pen, birds, cars, and humans - really on anything other than the people who were trying to pet her and get her to answer to her name.

This was contrasted by when we were inside, in a private room with her and she wanted nothing more than to be as close to us as possible. She knew basic commands and played fetch with a tennis ball. I remember sitting on the couch in the room and Sookie coming right up and sitting next to me, leaning her weight into me as if in a gesture of needing comfort and contact herself and answering my need for it as well. As someone looking for a "companion animal" I was happy to see that indoors this monstrous mass of muscle was a cuddle bug.

However, every time someone walked by that room with a dog, Sookie’s focus went to the door to bark and paw almost ferociously. I remember thinking her attentiveness indicated she would be an excellent watchdog, which she truly is. I was particularly drawn to Sookie’s attraction to my stepdaughter. She clearly chose her as her "person" that day. That sealed the deal that Sookie would be an excellent addition to our family.

And she has been. Don’t misunderstand me. This dog has a great life. Sookie is a full on member of our clan, despite her shortcomings – just like the rest of us. She’s even "written" a blog on this site, which is an example of how, like so many animal lovers I often blur the line between species. But, no matter how often I connect with the more human qualities of Sookie, I realize that animals are just that – animals.

I wince at the terms like "own a dog," "breeders," and even one I used above "companion animal." I’m not entirely sure domestication is "right" or even possible for most species. Sometimes I question whether it’s appropriate for humans either. But, in the particular case of dogs, cats, birds and rodents - I am always aware that their lineage is wild; that animals – even ones that sleep with us in our beds - are unpredictable. Sookie overqualifies for that analysis. In fact, the word "unpredictable" has been used by every one of the over ten trainers and behavioralists she has seen.

When we completed the adoption process and walked Sookie to the car on leash, the real "problem" surfaced. It was clear she was a "puller" but this did not concern me because I knew that there were harnesses, collars and training methods to remedy this. But, when a person walked by us with a dog, she went ballistic. It was at that moment, when the pulling transformed into jumping, flipping, foaming at the mouth I realized exactly why she ended up at the SPCA. Her hackles were up. She was literally out of my control. This obviously did concern us. My heart sank. But, we got her in the car and continued homeward and resolved to put in the work she required.

The leash issue only progressed over the next few days, so I took advantage of the "free" behavior consulting/training offered by the SPCA. The trainer was shocked when she witnessed Sookie both on and off-leash at the dog park. Sookie ran in circles by herself until another dog came on the scene. Then, after charging up to the dog for an abrupt hello a vicious fight broke out between the two. With a tear in her eye, the trainer commented under her breath that she was surprised intake didn’t put her on "death row." However, the trainer dismissed what happened as Sookie’s inability to make a proper dog introduction and told me we could work on this together.

Sookie and I endured several private training sessions at the SPCA designed to "get her reaction to other dogs down." I watched my lovable Sookie, who was absolutely fine, calm and "normal" when alone with us inside our home grow anxious, agitated and ultimately go into the "red zone" when other dogs were brought into her environment. This same scenario has been replicated time and again with specialists and experts we have brought in. Once she becomes aware of another dog she is obsessed. The transition is so fast there is no time to redirect or calm her down before escalation. It’s like there is a past trauma there that gets instantaneously ignited. It’s a behavior pattern too set to alter. We’ve tried method after method, even tried medications and herbs, reiki and massage.

Off-leash dogs have also attacked my poor Sookie twice. Both times while I was walking her on-leash in our neighborhood. As the one who has been walking her, I can testify that Sook did nothing to provoke these particular attacks. In fact, both times she was uncharacteristically calm on the leash. Both times, dogs in unfenced yards rushed her for no apparent reason. We’ve witnessed this time and again when we do bravely and patiently introduce Sookie to other dogs. Sookie can be just standing in a yard, doing her own thing, doing "well" and the other dogs will come up and pack her. Discussion with vets, trainers and behaviorialists has concluded that other dogs must see Sookie as weaker (I think due to her mental deficiency) and are provoked to attack, to take out the fragile one in the pack.

Referencing back to the definition of mental illness, all of this illustrates that Sookie has a "condition that impacts her thinking, feeling or mood and may affect her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis."

I should note that over time, we have discovered ways to introduce Sookie to other dogs out of necessity, but she must be supervised. People have brought their dogs to our house and she can usually hang after a while, but our eye is never off her. We are blessed that we have found wonderful people to care for her when she can’t accompany us on our trips, who love her and adjust for her behaviors. I still walk her almost every day because I feel too guilty not to.

Trainers, vets and behavioralists have disagreed as whether Sookie is aggressive or just overzealous to play and improperly says "hello." The term "leash aggression" has certainly been applied to her. The issue is dogcentric. She is overenthusiastic when greeting new humans that come into our home, but eventually calms down to her mellow home-self. Sookie has never turned on a human, nor exhibited this behavior on a human. She is wonderful and gentle with children.

After one particularly bad session with a trainer who concluded that Sookie was volatile and a liability, it was suggested that I should seriously consider another homing situation for her. She was not the first to recommend this. Most trainers doubt the extremity of her behavior I initially describe and then look at me with mouth agape when they witness it and are unable to "control" or "correct" it. The last vet I saw for a referral to another behavioralist suggested that I consider euthanasia. I am not kidding. And, no – this is not an option even remotely being considered.

Here’s the thing.

I am very conscious of the whole "your dog is a reflection of you" or "the animal absorbs the human’s energy" thing. I am truly Zen in even the most heightened of moments with her. I maintain control and dominance. I learned to stay calm day one. But, sometimes it’s the "after" moments that get me, when we’re back at home and all is quiet. It’s after four years of the same issues on walks, when she pulls and reacts the same way to stimulus no matter what methods I have employed that I get sad, stressed and frustrated. It’s after four years of not being able to do most of the things I want to include Sookie in doing that a cloud hangs. It hovers, reminding me that I am unable to control or change Sookie’s behavior.

It is painful for me because I can’t imagine that it is pleasant for Sookie to continually get into that heightened state on our walks. To me, she seems stressed and anxious. And so I wonder, is the life Sookie has with us the right life for her? Do I love her enough to let her go live somewhere else? Is that the solution?

Or is it even right for me to try to "change" Sookie? I learned long ago that you can’t change other people, that you can only change yourself and that all we have control over is our own reactions. I know Sookie is not a person, but I believe dogs are sentient beings. I have accepted her shortcomings. I’ve learned to live with her behaviors. I love her for who she is and I try to avoid situations that will escalate her. I minimize risk.

There are lots of hard days, days when it all gets quite tiring. But then there are days when I wake up before my alarm at 4:47 a.m., open my eyes to the pitch-blackness of the bedroom and feel Sookie’s head resting on my leg, all of her body weight pressed against me. She lets out one of her big dreamy sighs and I know that she is OK.

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