Book tells of bonds with pets

Vet recounts tales of behavior change
By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2002

When writing his other books, Nicholas H. Dodman, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, always had to tell stories that ended on a happy note.
The publisher insisted on it.
But the editors at W.W. Norton & Co. set no such guideline, and Dr. Dodman’s latest book, “If Only They Could Speak: Stories About Pets and Their People,” provides a realistic look at the ups and downs of the human-animal bond.
In 13 stories, Dr. Dodman, who founded the animal behavior clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton 15 years ago, recounts tales in which behavior modification, often combined with medication, had phenomenal outcomes — and other times when herculean efforts could not turn a bad situation around.
In the book, which will be in stores the second week of June, Dr. Dodman offers a cautionary tale in recounting the experience of Nigel Darling, a young man from Springfield, and his pit bull, Tucker.
Mr. Darling had always wanted a dog, and when he moved away from home, he sought out the perfect canine companion. He ended up with a pit bull puppy, attracted to the breed’s character and playfulness.
What he did not take into account, Dr. Dodman writes, is that the pit bull, bred for aggression and tenacity, has the potential to be “as dangerous as a handgun without a safety lock.” If socialized and handled with a kind but firm hand in the first few months of life, it can be a good companion. But potential for trouble lurks in the genes.
Tucker’s aggressive tendencies showed up at 5 months when he growled menacingly at Mr. Darling’s mother as she waved a ham bone at him while ordering him to “sit,” and “lie down.” Tucker became increasingly obsessive about his food and went on to menace or attack every one of Mr. Darling’s relatives and friends. Eventually, his owner turned to Dr. Dodman in desperation.
Dr. Dodman put dog and owner on the “12-Step Leadership Program for Dominant Dogs,” forcing Tucker to work for food, petting, exercise, attention and freedom. The dog also went on anti-aggression medication. To no avail. Tucker attacked Mr. Darling, who made the difficult decision to euthanize his pet.
“If only Nigel could have communicated to Tucker that he didn’t have to be possessive … perhaps Tucker would have seen the error of his ways,” Dr. Dodman writes. “But, alas, dogs of this disposition do not display such profound thoughts and many protect the darnedest things because of their insufferable paranoia.”
The stories in “If Only They Could Talk” are true and were selected from experiences with dozens of clients who come to the Tufts clinic — some from as far away as Dallas and Minneapolis.
Unlike other authors of animal books, who tend to approach their subject clinically, Dr. Dodman, 56, writes a compelling narrative. He said that the renowned dog trainer and author Brian Kilcommons once commented, “I love your books, Nick. Who writes them for you?”
Because of his style and his obvious affection for animals, Dr. Dodman has been referred to as the “heir apparent” to James Herriot, the English veterinarian whose highly popular books defined a generation of the animal-story genre.
Dr. Dodman, too, is English, and his writing style developed early on while attending boarding school. Every Sunday for two hours, each boy had to write home describing the week’s activities. Dr. Dodman found the task to be easy and fun.
He went on to the University of Glasgow, where he studied veterinary medicine and served as an anesthesiologist for 10 years. He realized the part of the job that interested him was the pre-anesthesia state, when animals were often frightened and sometimes in pain. He would give them a medication to calm them before putting them under.
“I used to call it the magic carpet ride,” Dr. Dodman said, explaining that the animal would experience a floating sensation. “When they woke up, I wanted them to wake up quickly and feeling well.”
It was in the early 1980s at Tufts that Dr. Dodman, using his expertise in brain function, gradually got into animal behavior, first through studies on horses and then dogs. By 1987, he realized that, not only could he charge for the service, it was in great demand.
His latest book is his fourth. The others, all best sellers, are “The Dog Who Loved Too Much,” “The Cat Who Cried for Help” and “Dogs Behaving Badly.”
Dr. Dodman’s approach to animals — that they are creatures of intelligence, emotions and self-awareness — is controversial in some circles. This is true, he said, despite the fact that observation and studies over the past 15 years clearly indicate that animals are “sentient beings who appreciate their own and others’ circumstances.”
He noted that people keep an astounding 60 million pet dogs and 70 million pet cats in the United States.
“That people love and need their pets there is no doubt,” Dr. Dodman writes. “But do the pets love their people? I believe some do, to the point of exhibiting jealousy, rebellion and extreme attention-seeking behavior.”
It is this fascinating — and sometimes heartrending — interaction between the species that informs Dr. Dodman’s latest book. Several of the tales help explain what makes that bond so enduring.
The story of Sam is one of them. A yellow Labrador retriever, Sam had been dumped by two families by the time he was a year old. He was sitting on death row in a tiny, cold, concrete cell when Ernie and Mary Fowler adopted him from a shelter.
Not surprisingly, Sam had all kinds of behavioral and health problems. With great patience and innate understanding, the Fowlers helped Sam overcome a problem of dominance aggression, fueled by underlying anxiety. They discovered he needed a special diet. At one point, they came close to giving him up, but they stuck with it and, by fits and starts, they socialized and trained him.
Sam has become a model dog and a treasured member of the Fowler household.
None of this surprises Dr. Dodman, who remarked, “Pet power is alive and well in the United States.”