Unruly, unhappy and aggressive pets can be a problem not just for the pet parents but also those around. SHALINI SAKSENA speaks with SHIRIN MERCHANT, the pet shrink, who busts myths and tells you how to understand what dogs are saying
She was born into a family that had dogs. She grew up along with them. She has always loved animals, especially dogs. When she was in her early 20s, she met her mentor John Rogerson, who had come to India for a workshop. When she attended this session, with her pet, realising that it would change her life. She loved the session so much that she ended up meeting Rogerson, went to England to study and when she came back to India, she started her practice. Meet the country’s dog shrink — Shirin Merchant.
What is a pet shrink or a dog behaviourist and how what he does is different from a vet? “Just like in the human world there are different professions, the same is true in the animal world. There is a dog nutritionist, a physiotherapist, a dog trainer and a vet who treats the animals and then there is the behaviourist. A behaviourist is a person who acts as a bridge between the pet and the humans and reduces the gap that exists between the species. He helps you to understand your pet and the problem the human is facing. A number of times the humans and the dog faces problems because they can’t understand each other. Very often the pet parents have a problem because they can’t understand what the dog wants since they don’t speak dog language and the canine can’t express what he is feeling since it is a dog. A behaviourist bridges the gap by explaining the canine behaviour and how to work around the problems to the pet parents. Typical issues that are faced by humans when it comes to their dog includes urinating inappropriately, destruction, fear and depression to name a few. He is a kind of a dog psychologist,” Merchant explains.
She tells you that even though humans have been keeping pets for centuries, yet the need for a pet behaviourist has gone up. There is a reason for the same. “For centuries, we have been keeping dogs; for centuries villagers have been keeping dogs in the country. If one were to see villager with a dog, the pet will come when called, takes the cattle to the pastures, comes when it is hungry, walks for kilometers with the owner and doesn’t need a leash. Yet the animal is the happiest. If you talk to a villager and mention trainer and behaviourist, he would have a blank look and want to know what the work would entail and that it is the most ridiculous profession under the sun. Today, in the urban set-up, there are far more trainers and behaviourists than ever before. Yet we have more dogs that are abandoned and put up for adoption due to the pet’s behaviour than ever before. This means that as per parents, we are doing something that is seriously wrong.
“One of the reasons partly is why we keep a dog, to begin with. In the past, when people kept a dog, they were ready for it. Today, people keep a dog on a whim. ‘I have a big house, let me keep a dog’. ‘My child is lonely, let me get a dog’. I want a bigger and fancier breed than my neighbour’. Research shows that we spend more time while looking for a car that we will buy and probably have only for three-four years than on an animal which will stay with them for more than 15 years. People don’t give it much thought. They get the dog on a flimsy reason. Then they realise that the pet is far more of a responsibility. When they realise they can’t cope and that is when the dog is put up for adoption. Also, there are so many people around them and they feel that they can be roped in to look after the dog,” Merchant says.
Let’s take the Husky. She tells you that there is a need to choose the right breed as well and this is not applicable to India. Everyone wants to keep a foreign dog. This is truer in the Indian scenario. Everyone wants an exotic looking dog. There is no denying that is a beautiful looking dog. “But it is not fit for the Indian weather. It is not just the coat. The Husky has a double coat to protect it from the freezing temperatures. I see the Husky from the point of view of what it was made to do. It was not bred to sit at home and taken for two walks on a leash. The Husky was made to pull the sleigh in the freezing temperature. If one can’t give the environment in which it was supposed to be, there is a difference between a dog thriving and a dog surviving. When we choose a breed, we must choose what suits our environment and lifestyle. When people say that they want to keep a Dalmatian, I tell them no. The animal was made to run. The dog loves to run. It won’t die, if it doesn’t run, but then again the survive and thrive rule applies here as well,” Merchant says.
She opines that one of the reasons why some dogs act up is because they don’t get the environment that they are genetically bred for.
She tells you that people make the wrong choice when it comes to choosing the dog; they do so on the basis of how they look. “Some people say they want a small dog and keep a Beagle. But they forgot that the breed is a hound and needs twice the amount of mental exercise than most other dogs. We often refer to a dog having the best life ever since all he ever does is go for walks, eating, sleeping and having a little playtime. We have to understand that just because it is sleeping it is lucky. Dogs don’t want this. These are working dogs and want to do something with their mind. When we don’t give it this, it is just lying around. We don’t give the dog a purpose to wake up everyday. Just like we plan our day,” Merchant says.
If one has a dog, they already know what it loves. Take the dog for a drive, take it to meet the person they love. Day after, take it for an ice cream. Play a different game. This will make it want to wake up every day wanting to know what it will be doing that day. But don’t do things that are not viable since they pet will be with you for years and years.
“Labradors love to swim. Take it to a place where they can do the same. Take the dog for a trek as a surprise. One can change the direction of the walk. Small things, just like we have in our lives that keeps us going. Not all pets requires the same kind of commitment. However, one has to be breed specific for certain dos and don’ts. If one has a sedentary lifestyle don’t keep a dog that needs exercise. If you work from 8 am to 8 pm, don’t get a dog at all. Dogs don’t need a designer bed or a fancy home or money or aroma therapy baths. They need time from us, they want to play with us. The biggest do is give them time. Teach them manners, how to behave in the society and train it in a way that doesn’t take away the trust it has put in you,” Merchant says.
She doesn’t agree that a dog should not be trained. Just like we teach a child to behave, they same way, we need to train the pet. “It is our responsibility to teach our pet manners. In order to train the pet, it has to be reward-based than aggressive tactics,’ Merchant says who doesn’t mind when she is called the dog shrink.
She busts some myths. She tells you that it is not necessary for a dog to choose just one master and be loyal to him. “It is not true that a dog is loyal to just one person. If there are seven-eight, it depends who are invested in the dog’s life. If all are invested, it will respond to all alike. But if there is only one person who feeds him, plays with him and trains him, it will be more invested in that person. The best part is that it doesn’t affect the psyche of the dog. They are social animals and love to be with a larger group,” Merchant says.
She tells you that aggression in dogs is due to certain situations since dogs are social animals. She tells you that Doberman is not necessarily an aggressive dog. It depends on his genetic make-up and how he has been trained. “I know and have come across many Dobermans who are the friendliest of the lot,” Merchant says.
She tells you that dogs don’t always understand everything that the human says. “They have been conditioned in a manner where they can pick up body language. They don’t pick up just words, but cues and gestures as well and therefore some times they will come and nuzzle the human if the human is sad. But not all dogs will do the same, it may care less,” Merchant says.
She points out that since each dog has its personality traits, there are certain points that one can pick up to understand what the dog wants or is feeling. “There are certain signs that one can pick up when the dog is stressed. Sleeping a lot, sniffing the ground, licking its paws, refusing to eat, yawing a lot, panting, hyper-active behaviour. These are some of the signs that one change in a dog’s life. Look for situations that cause stress and then eliminate them,” Merchant says.
In over two decades that Merchant has been a behaviourist, there was a case that was tough to handle. But is was more because of the human rather than the dog.
“A young girl had called saying that the dog had bitten off her face, her lip and the part of the thumb. Over the phone, the situation didn’t sound very encouraging. But the lady kept insisting so I agreed to meet her. As we went through the consult. I found that the only time that the dog would bite was when the young person would hug the pet and disturb it when it was sleeping. The next week, the dog bit the girl again. I told her that she needed to change her behaviour. ‘But she looks so cute while asleep’ she said. Thankfully, daughter had got her mother who put her foot down. Luckily the daughter changed her behaviour and all was well, Merchant says.
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