“Why the long face?” the dog psychologist asked the depressed greyhound. Except according to vet Linda Hornisberger, canine depression isn’t a joke. Cases of anxiety and chronic fatigue are on the rise – many dogs now have to be medicated just to deal with the stress of living with us.
Hornisberger, who is also a behavioural psychologist, is reported as saying: “Today, dogs are increasingly completely overwhelmed and need to take antidepressants.”
If the modern dog were to be allowed on to the psychiatrist’s couch, what would we discover? In the not too distant past, dogs mostly had to work for a living and were probably very often physically and mentally fatigued at the end of the day – which is why we have the expression “dog-tired
Could the stress of being made redundant be the source of this apparent unhappiness? Dog behaviourist Penel Malby told me: “Dogs live very differently to the way they used to. Lots more dogs, lots more people, lots more stress for everyone, I think. If you think back even just 50 years, dogs were allowed to roam free every day, socialise with their neighbourhood friends. Now they either go out with a dog walker or go out for an hour if they’re lucky, and the rest of the time is spent at home.” And as people have become increasingly glued to social media and hand-held devices, dogs have well and truly had their noses put out of joint.
There are reports of dogs becoming reactive to the sounds of phones and laptops. One of my own dogs has perfected hitting the restart button on my laptop to get my attention.
Penel says part of the problem is the wrong dog in the wrong home: “You can’t get a working-strain gundog if you live in central London and expect it to be OK with a 30-minute trot around the park. Get the dog that fits your lifestyle, and be prepared to change your life as well. Dogs are emotional beings and need you too.”
Tamara Cartwright-Loebl, another behaviourist who has offered dog daycare to London-based clients says: “Boredom is a big issue and a lack of company and also a lack of consistency and boundaries, and the fiddly-faddly ways of people. One daycare client came to me straight from America, complete with his Xanax. To be honest, I think I needed to take it when I saw it. It was a huge semi-wild working dog that she was treating as a baby – he had pyjamas and a special song.”
Neither of the specialists I spoke to believed that drugs were the most effective way of treating dog behaviour – that is usually best tackled by addressing any problems with the owner. Having said that, there will always be some cases where drugs are a helpful tool. Jo Maisey’s dog Taffy has been on dog Prozac for a couple of years, and it has changed his life. At two years old Taffy came from a pound in Wales and was frightened of everything. He was scared of human hands, of noises, of pretty much everything. He appeared to have lived his life before that tied to a post, and his only interactions with humans were bad ones.
Jo told me: “The drugs give him a window to learn new coping strategies. They make him less fearful, less inhibited – slightly braver about trying something new. It’s not a cure on its own, but he now sometimes solicits attention from people where before he was too scared to go into our garden to go to the toilet.”
So how do you know if your dog is depressed? What are the symptoms? Penel says: “Any change in behaviour should first be followed by a visit to the vet and a thorough check up to rule out a physical cause.” Tamara adds: “Trouble is, the most likely cause of depression is the owner’s treatment of the dog, so they’re unlikely to spot it. If it’s not medical, then maybe something has changed in their life – a divorce, kids leaving home, a new housekeeper or walker, another pet dying.” Many dogs will take such things in their stride. The depressed one may be missed as it won’t be causing trouble. It will be quieter, less inclined to walk or play, and may stop eating, just wanting to stay in its bed or to lie close to the owner.
Those “devoted” dogs lying on their masters’ graves? They’re depressed. “Many dogs are simply depressed for their whole lives because they’re deprived of the normal amount of attention, exercise, and stimulation they need from day one. These humans won’t know they have a problem and won’t want the dog any livelier as that wouldn’t fit in with their lifestyle,” says Tamara.
Since we can’t ask dogs to tell us what is worrying them, we must try harder to figure it out for ourselves. That often starts by looking at our own behavior.