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Book Review
Dogs on the Couch
by Larry Lachman & Frank Mickadeit

Review by: Kate Connick, August 2005

Take a rather banal dog training book and heap on a few scoops of psychobabble, and you have Larry Lachman and Frank Michadeit's Dogs on the Couch. The authors' gimmick is to interpret and handle dog misbehavior via a psychotherapeutic perspective. On the one hand, the presentation is sort of clever. On the other, the metaphor doesn't quite work to breathe life into an otherwise unremarkable book.

The delivery often feels cumbersome and unnecessary. For example, many or most dog training books somehow touch on the goal of having a solid bond with one's dog without being excessively permissive. You might call that balance or common sense. Lachman and Mickadeit make this observation:

"Salvador Minuchin, a family therapist, has outlined what he calls Structural Family Therapy, in which he examines the level of involvement and relating that goes on in families... If the parents are emotionally and physically uninvolved with their children, then the parent-child boundaries in this particular family are too 'rigid.' On the other hand, if the parent is treating the child like a co-parent, and defers inappropriate authority, or is overly involved with the child emotionally or physically, then the parent-child boundaries are too 'enmeshed'... The goal of the animal behaviorist, like the human Structural Family Therapist, is to create change in the family system and restructure the emotional boundaries with the dog."

This may strike the average reader as a whole lot more convoluted than flatly suggesting that one find a happy middle ground between being affectionate and being a pushover with one's dog. If you enjoy gooey psychobabble, this isn't a flaw. If you like your information delivered in a straightforward, pragmatic way, then this book will be unbearable. Then again, I suppose the title itself helps direct the book into sympathetic hands.

Each chapter opens with a case history to illustrate a particular problem. Although dissecting case histories can be enlightening, these particular cases aren't examined in enough detail to offer unique insights. The cases tend to be used simply as springboards for general discussion.

The authors espouse a food-based approach to training. Oddly, while they proclaim that traditional training methods "simply won't work for some dogs," they don't acknowledge that food-based methods don't necessarily work best with all dogs, either. They don't adequately address how to deal with a dog that finds other things more compelling than food.

In terms of equipment, the authors recommend martingale collars, no-pull style harnesses, and head halters. They present basic obedience exercises, a "NILF" type of dominance-aggression protocol, desensitization/counterconditioning for fear issues, and touch on the use of psychotropic medication (for aggression and separation anxiety). They routinely recommend daily exercise and interaction. The entire family is expected to participate in training, and the dog is expected to sleep in a family member's bedroom.

Plenty of the information is sensible, yet some of the information feels dated, such as warnings to avoid playing tug or the blanket recommendation of lamb and rice diets. Many dispute the validity of dominance theory, but it was well accepted when this book was published. That is less true nowadays. Some of the authors' conclusions are dubious. They appear to view all owner-absent misbehavior as "separation anxiety," for example.

The foundation of their approach to most misbehavior is little more than a startle-redirect-reward tactic. That's not unreasonable advice. Oddly, though, the authors seem unable to grasp that the intended purpose of a collar correction is basically to startle a dog so that it may be redirected and rewarded. They find any form of collar correction completely unacceptable, yet they advocate blasting a dog directly in the face with water or with loud noise from a boat horn or penny-can to "associate a mild phobic sensation with its undesirable behavior." For many dogs, those corrections would be vastly more punitive and traumatic than a collar pop. It is therefore unclear to me how they are inherently less aversive and unkind than collar corrections.

In another amusing ethical contrast, they suggest that, "if you are afraid of your dog, carry pepper spray or mace when you are around it." Yet they don't approve of using muzzles. If a dog requires muzzling, they assert that, "the dog needs to be euthanized - for everyone's safety and quality of life." I'm still trying to figure out how using a muzzle for safety impairs quality of life any more than clinging to a can of pepper spray when in the vicinity of one's pet.

The authors' sanctimonious tone is insufferable when they rant and rail about traditional training methods. In essence, they are unable to make the distinction between "traditional" training (choke collar, no food) and patent abuse (which is just that). The unwillingness to grasp that one can employ traditional methods in an effective and non-abusive manner is intellectually dishonest. Mind you, I'm not a traditionalist myself, but I nonetheless find the authors' bombastic, self-righteous stance obnoxious. Their sensationalistic portrayal of traditional training as nothing short of wanton cruelty undermines their credibility.

Organization and depth are crucial in a book of this length (300-pages), but the authors frustrate the reader with unwanted, tangential information. The housetraining chapter, for example, contains information about toxic plants and what to stock in one's first aid kit. This is tenuously linked to the subject matter under the guise of yard safety, as the authors advocate dog doors leading to a fenced yard. Yet, tough issues like hardcore urine marking and submissive urination are not discussed in any detail. A reader might find those matters more pertinent.

Ironically, some of Lachman and Mickadeit's best information is irrelevant to the book's intended topic. I suspect that the authors are really at their best dealing with matters of human psychology and not dog behavior. The chapter on pet loss and grief is well done, for example. Unfortunately, such things - while interesting, per se - don't have much to do with the identified topic of "behavior therapy for training and caring for your dog." If a reader picked up this book to understand his dog's behavior problem, he wouldn't find a chapter about dog-phobic people terribly germane.

In the end, the book feels dated, pedestrian, and undermined by its own holier-than-thou spirit. What useful content there is ends up being hampered by poor presentation, rendering the book tedious rather than practical.

Dogs on the Couch
by Larry Lachman & Frank Mickadeit.
Published by Overlook Hardcover, 1999. ISBN: 0879519223

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