Barking up the right tree

Help is available if a family adopts a dog or cat that turns out to have been abused.

Lisa the dog with Janci Benvenisti and children (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lisa the dog with Janci Benvenisti and children
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was an emergency. The Benvenisti family in Jerusalem decided with great regret to “put down” the mixedbreed Labrador Retriever named Lisa that they had agreed to adopt. Little did they know that the previous owner had abused the dog, leaving her alone at home for as many as several days at a time, sometimes without food and water.
The dog in her new home was happy, loving and house-trained when family members – including small children – were present. But she absolutely refused to stay at home alone, even for a few minutes. Lisa barked and cried incessantly, and the neighbors were at their wits’ end. When they took her to a friend or relative, Lisa scratched the doors hysterically, causing damage. The working parents tried desperately to find someone affordable who was willing to take care of her during the day, but they didn’t succeed. After hearing of the dog’s problem, everyone who was willing to adopt her changed his mind.
An email to Prof. Hylton Bark (this is indeed his name), founding director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital of the Hebrew University School of Veterinary Medicine in the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food & Environment in Rehovot, quickly brought relief. A South African-born internal medicine specialist in the treatment of animals, he had no background in dealing with their psyches.
But he was able to recommend a Jerusalem veterinarian who has much experience in animal behavior and knows how to change it.
Dr. Ofra Gallily of the capital’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, who has been teaching at the veterinary school for 20 years, is one of only three Israeli veterinary behaviorists in the field.
For a fee, Gallily (tel. 052-374-0957) came to the Benvenisti home and spent two-anda- half hours observing Lisa’s behavior and her interactions with the family and counseling the parents. The veteran veterinarian prescribed fluoxetine (Prozac), clonazepam (Clonex) and other psychoactive drugs to calm the dog down (available from an ordinary pharmacy, where the Benvenistis pointed out that the pills were for their dog and not for themselves) to calm Lisa down.
But Gallily stressed to the family that the drugs were only a temporary measure, to be used for three months or so and then tapered down gradually. To improve Lisa’s behavior and reduce her separation anxiety, the family had to learn special training techniques, such as leaving food toys to occupy the dog when she was alone, together with desensitization to owners’ departures. Gallily taught the parents how to practice the lessons with Lisa.
The parents already report improvement in the dog’s behavior and are optimistic that she will be able to remain an integral member of the family.
Gallily has never recommended that a psychologically traumatized dog be put down.
“There are institutions that can care for them and volunteers that can give them foster care,” she said.
Asked where a good citizen can report abuse against animals, Gallily said that one should “call the police. Whether they take action is something else. It is more likely if it’s an extreme case. Dr. Dganit Ben-Dov, a veterinarian in Beit Dagan, deals with serious cases and state enforcement of the Animal Abuse Law.”
Before studying an aggressive animal, Gallily always examines it for any medical problems, as an infection and pain can make them behave badly. Among the techniques sometimes used by dog trainers to teach the animals new habits are clickers for giving positive reinforcement.
“If they make too much noise, the clickers can cause confusion, but the click may help the dog remember. Training must always be positive and reinforce good behavior, not serve as punishment. Food treats are helpful in teaching correct behavior.”
‘I LOVE animals and have had a dog since I was 13, but I’m not obsessive,” Gallily told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview in her Jerusalem home. “My parents, as academics, left to be at the California Institute of Technology and in Baltimore, but we returned when I was 10, in 1969. I earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and then was accepted into the first class of the veterinary school. When I was a student, there were so few local experts that senior veterinarians had to be brought from the US to give lectures over a period of weeks. Today, there are enough home-grown veterinarians to teach.”
There were 20 graduates in 1989, 15 of them men.
“Today, there are 60 graduates a year, about two-thirds of them women,” said Gallily. “I suppose this is because veterinarians’ earnings are lower then they were before.” Her husband is a veterinarian who treats farm animals.
But the specialty of animal behaviorists remains very limited in the US. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, she continued, has produced only a few dozen board-certified experts. There is no board certification in Israel, but the veterinary behavioralists are known to people in the veterinary school and among dog owners by word of mouth.
“The situation is the same as for human ‘coaches’ who give themselves a title without having any training,” said Gallily. There is little or no oversight or enforcement.
“There is someone who works on horses that have been traumatized, but I concentrate on dogs and cats. I have hundreds of cases, but in Jerusalem, at least, pet owners like to get advice without paying a fee. Dr. Noa Harel, the animal behaviorist in Tel Aviv, tells me that in her area, pet owners are more used to paying for counseling. I give free advice only to people with emergencies who have new pets, for example, but my paid consultations save many animals.”
(Dr. Stephan Bauer, a recent immigrant from France who lives in the center of the country, is the third veterinary behaviorist.) Gallily has to give her own eight-year-old mixed-breed Labrador – a somewhat overweight dog named Jesse – a dose of Valium before the annual Independence Day eve ceremony (and the rehearsal a couple of days before) on nearby Mount Herzl that always ends with fireworks. As many Arab communities around the country set off firecrackers and other explosives to mark weddings and holidays, dogs in surrounding villages suffer, as their hearing is many times sharper than that of humans.
“Exotic” animals, ranging from birds to snakes, rabbits and hamsters can also suffer from psychological trauma, noted Gallily.
“Most of these have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Birds may intentionally pull out their feathers, [similar to] humans suffering from trichotillomania who obsessively pull out their hair. Birds can die just from stress. Horses that have been confined to crowded quarters show OCD when they constantly pace their stalls.”
TREATING ANIMALS – pets and work animals – humanely is such a basic concept in Jewish law that the amount of abuse encountered in Israel is surprising and depressing. According to halacha, one may not sit down to eat if one’s animals have not already been fed. In addition, a mother bird must be sent away to prevent her from seeing her eggs taken away for food or other purposes.
Israeli authorities used to allow the keeping of puppies or older dogs in cages in pet shops, but this is much less common today. Lack of stimulation or too much stimulation for a dog may constitute abuse. In nature, said the vet, animals have to work and think hard about how to access food; just being presented with nourishment is boring. Even zoo elephants are taken on romps and encouraged to play “soccer.”
Dogs need toys, said Gallily. Her own dog Jesse regularly plays with a plastic puzzle where treats are hidden and can be found only after shifting squares to uncover them.
She also has a red rubber toy called Kong that dogs like to chew to discover treats stuck inside. British animal welfare organizations have set down animals’ Five Freedoms that encompass both physical and mental states – to be fit and enjoy a sense of well-being. Any animal kept by humans must at the very least be protected from unnecessary suffering. The five include freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
Abuse is often seen in petting zoos and pet shops, which are told to observe regulations that limit the ages of animals can can be petted.
Petting zoos are theoretically regulated by a law and supervised by the Agriculture Ministry.
Gallily said she can usually quickly identify dogs that have been abused. Taking a puppy away from its mother before the age of eight weeks is wrong and bad for both, she says. “The actual cause of abuse takes time to understand. Signs of abuse include the dog being startled by sudden movements or loud noises; being very aggressive and attacking people or other dogs or hiding under or behind objects.
“Some dog breeds like golden getrievers, Labradors, Australian Shepherds, boxers and collies – generally, but not always, larger dogs – are very good natured and suited for small children, while a basset hound tends to be apathetic, and a maltese or Pekingese may be hysterical and bite if put under stress.”
As for mixed breeds versus purebred dogs, Gallily said that those with fancy parentage may have more diseases and different temperaments than those with a variety of ancestors.
In any case, many dog owners choose dogs without knowing anything about the breeds or the way they behave. In the US, it is common to have temperament testing, said the vet, to know whether the dog is suited to the family.
“The Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organizations generally offer a month-long trial to see if the pet will fit in and suit expectations. It is not often done here.”
Some Israel vets offer “puppy and kitty classes to new owners so they learn what the pet needs and how to treat it. This can prevent behavioral problems. The rule should be to use only positive measures for teaching and discipline, never violence.”
GALLILY NOTES that rabbits, which are soft and lovable, are regularly abused because they don’t like being touched and have no voice with which to protest. Rabbits and other small animals are routinely taken to kindergartens and schools and treated badly by children who don’t know better. The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, for example, used to put dozens of rabbits and guinea pigs in an enclosure for children to pet, but a few years ago this practice was halted. Now one can only view the snoozing rodents.
Cats, said the veterinarian, “are free spirits and do what they want. They don’t like to be held if they don’t initiate it.”
But scientists who are permitted to experiment on animals are “much better than before. The law is strict, and pain management to prevent their suffering is widely used.”
Although Gallily originally treated animals’ physical illnesses like most veterinarians, she decided to investigate animal behavior and trauma after reading an article about such problems in the US, which often lead to animals being euthanized.
“Pets such as dogs often change hands a lot or are abandoned because of behavioral problems and don’t find a permanent home. When owners go abroad or elsewhere on vacation in the summer, many pets are ‘returned’ to the dog pounds where they were obtained to save money on boarding places for them. Many animals suffer from abandonment and separation anxiety, and I wanted to help them and restore the human/animal bond.”
She recalls that when an animated movie on dalmatians became a hit in cinemas, many parents bought them for their children, even though they are not suitable for many families.
In the US, parents buy puppies in the summer or for Christmas and then abandon them when they realize they get bigger, eat more and have to be walked and cared for, said the vet.
A dog that has suffered abuse can usually improve on its own if it has compassionate new owners.
“It can recover almost completely, but even after 10 years of living in a good home, it may go hysterical if it sees a man with a mustache if it had been abused by a mustachioed man,” said the vet.
It is not true, by the way, that one can’t keep a happy dog in a small apartment, she concludes.
“If the home is a large villa, it doesn’t mean the dog will be happy. Dog owners who live in a small apartment must take the dog out two or three times a day so the pet can see and smell things