Scout, my 90-pound black Lab, is the best duck dog I’ve ever owned. He goes all out every time, launching into icy water with enthusiasm, searching out cripples in heavy cover and making long blind retrieves as though he had a built-in GPS device. And when the hunt is over and I’m dragging my tired body back to the truck, Scout is still bouncing around looking for frogs, turtles and snakes — anything to burn off a little more excess energy.
So you can imagine how concerned I was last fall when Scout suddenly became lethargic. On our first duck hunt of the season, he went through the motions, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He wasn’t even interested in sharing my donuts in the blind, and his once-glossy coat became dull and brittle.
So I did what any responsible dog owner would do: I took him to the vet.
The vet gave Scout a thorough examination and pronounced him in good health. “Scout is in fine shape, physically,” he told me. “However, from your description of his symptoms, my guess is that he is suffering from depression.”
I had never heard of a depressed dog. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Scout hadn’t wagged his tail in weeks, and lack of enthusiasm had certainly never been a problem before.
I slumped down against the vet’s examining table. I had no idea what to do next. Scout lay on the floor at my feet, staring vacantly at the wall.
The vet put a caring hand on my shoulder. “Cheer up,” he said. “We know much more about canine depression now than we used to. I can refer you to a veterinarian specializing in canine psychiatry, and she’ll probably have old Scout romping and playing again soon.”
“A canine psychiatrist? I had no ideaâ€¦”
“Oh yes,” he said as he scribbled on a prescription pad, tore off the page and handed it to me. “It’s one of the most rapidly growing specialties in our field.”
I looked at the piece of paper. It read, “Dr. Brittany Barker: Dog Psychiatrist.”
I made an appointment with Dr. Barker, and led Scout on a leash into her office. It was obvious the woman was a dog lover. Among the framed diplomas and licenses on her walls were portraits of dogs, including a few hunting breeds. On her desk, instead of a picture of children or a husband, was a framed photo of a poodle wearing a rhinestone collar. This did nothing to reassure me.
After a short introductory conversation with Dr. Barker, I left Scout in her office and went out into the waiting room.
“Don’t expect improvement overnight,” she warned as returned Scout to me. “The canine emotional system is just as complicated as our own. I will have to see Scout in one-hour sessions at least once a week, perhaps for several months, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Dr. Barker was right, of course. After the first session, I saw no improvement in Scout at all. But after a few weeks, he began to occasionally wag his tail. After five or six sessions, I began to see noticeable progress. Scout started eating better and gained a few pounds. He had a more normal look in his eyes, and his coat was once again soft and shiny.
It was at this point that Dr. Barker called me in for a consultation. She sat behind her desk, I sat on a chair directly opposite her, and Scout lay on the floor between us.
“Scout has made remarkable progress,” she said. “When he first came here, he wouldn’t even lie on the couch.”
That didn’t surprise me. When he tries to get on the couch at home, he gets swatted with a rolled-up newspaper.
“But by using all the stuff I learned in Dog Psychiatrist School, I have helped him confront his innermost conflicts, bring them to the surface and deal with them.”
It all sounded like psychobabble to me. “And just how did you go about doing that?” I asked.
She fixed me with her steely gaze. “Dude,” she said sternly, “I went to school for 10 freaking years to learn all this stuff. Do you actually think I’ll share it with you for free?”
I apologized, and then Dr. Barker continued. “Scout now realizes that his frantic urge to find and retrieve ducks is in fact a subliminal search for the father he never knew.”
I was becoming more interested as she continued. “This took a while, but he now realizes, on an emotional as well as intellectual level, that when he approaches a wounded duck on the water and it takes to the air, dives or attempts to swim away, the duck is not rejecting him.”
Scout began to wag his tail as Dr. Barker continued. I could tell they had established some sort of rapport with one another.
“I have a question,” I said, subconsciously reverting to my school days, squirming in my chair and raising my hand. “While you were poking around in his brain, did you find out why he likes to roll in stinky stuff?”
Dr. Barker rolled her eyes, as though my question wasn’t worth her time. “Of course,” she said. “That was the easy part. When he rolls in stinky stuff, he is subconsciously punishing himself for the transgressions of his puppyhood. You knowâ€¦ chewing the furniture, wetting the rug, things like that.”
I admitted that Scout had a few “little accidents” when he was a pup.
“Actually,” said Dr. Barker, as she looked down at Scout and smiled, “those were not accidents. He did them on purpose.”
“Any more questions?” asked Dr. Barker, glancing at her watch.
I had noticed a Lhasa apso shaking uncontrollably in the waiting room, a Jack Russell terrier bouncing off the walls and a deranged border collie frantically trying to herd them into a corner, so I figured it was time for her next patient. I looked down at Scout and was reminded of one more thing I had always wondered about.
“Well, now that you mention it, why does he lick himselfâ€¦ uh, you knowâ€¦ down there? Like he’s doing now.”
Dr. Barker glanced down at Scout and tried unsuccessfully to suppress a giggle.
“There doesn’t have to be a deep subliminal reason for everything,” she explained. “He p
robably just does it becauseâ€¦ wellâ€¦ because he can.” It made sense to me.
I held my hand down toward Scout’s face. He gently nuzzled it, just like he used to do.
Dr. Barker got up from behind her desk and came toward me.
“I think you’ll find that Scout has made great improvement since you brought him to me.”
Scout stood up and rubbed his big black head against my leg.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Dr. Barker,” I said, extending my hand and shaking hers. I snapped Scout’s leash on his collar and led him toward the door. “Are there any further emotional problems that might arise? Anything I should look out for?”
“Just one thing,” she said. “He might bite you, but don’t take it personally.”
I was astounded. Scout had never bitten anyone. He was a gentle, loving companion. My children played with him, sometimes riding him around the living room like a pony.
“Why on earth would he bite me?” I asked.
Dr. Barker explained: “I convinced him that his emotional health would be greatly improved if he attempted to get in touch with his inner wolf from time to time.”It was then that I noticed the bandage on her leg.
Humorist Bruce Cochran seeks professional help in Prairie Village, Kan.