Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Are we making our pets crazy, too?

3/5/1964-Jim Buck, professional dog walker, walking in and around Central Park. Sack 69480. Staff photo. NYTCREDIT: Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
Jim Buck, professional dog walker, walking in Central Park on March 5, 1964.

If captivity can make wild animals anxious or depressed, freedom — or something approximating it — may be the best cure. But what to do about pets? We can’t just set our cats and dogs free. They’ve been bred, for thousands of years, to live with humans. They need us, even if we drive them crazy sometimes.

Stephanie Borns-Weil, a veterinary behaviorist who runs the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, spends her days working with dogs who are overly aggressive, fixated on shadows, and snapping at nonexistent flies. She believes in the power of medication — not as a sedative, she emphasizes, but as a tool for behavior modification. The toys, treats, and muzzles she wields in her brightly colored examination room, modeled after a child psychiatry office, can be helpful, too.

But ultimately, she says, we have to rethink our relationship with our pets. “We have to start asking not just ‘What does my dog do for me?’ but ‘What do I need to do for my dog?’ ” That can mean shielding our dogs better on the street; many don’t want to be petted by a stranger any more than we do, Borns-Weil says. It also means thinking about exercise more seriously. Working dogs, she notes, need to work.


But the more profound change may need to come in our own lives. In short, we need to set aside more time for our pets.

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“Most urban and suburban dogs are only encouraged to be themselves for a small fraction of the day,” author Laurel Braitman writes in her book “Animal Madness.” In the evening, “they flood the sidewalks around my house with their pent-up frustrations, pissing and smelling and dragging their people along behind them like water-skiers.” Then, “it’s back to the house for dinner, some petting, maybe some television with the humans, and then bed.”

To keep our pets emotionally sound, we may need to pull away from our TVs and offices. We may need to devote entire afternoons to strolls through the woods or across the prairie — watching our dogs hunt and run. Who knows, maybe our own mental health will improve, too.