Psychologie du chien – Stress, anxiété, agressivité (La)

Beata La psychologie du chienPUBLISHING YEAR: 2013

SUMMARY: Fly-on-the-wall account of a French veterinary behaviourist’s practice, with the author’s reflections on the profession’s best practices.

AUDIENCE: He would like the book to introduce the profession (vet behaviourist) to pet parents. Effectively, though, the book will be too high-brow for a pet parent looking for a casual read. It is also too speculative for academics, and too broad for practitioners. That leaves us with the intellectual owner or philosophical practitioner.

01 Owner



The book alternates between dialog (transcripts of client intakes) and his musings on the profession. The dialogs made for lively reading, but the rest was quite high-brow. So not a casual beach read by any stretch of the imagination. Especially given how jargony the author could get: e.g. “The dog was in decubitus ventral position” to mean sphinx position. This ivory tower language put some regrettable distance between author and reader.

I also felt allegories and symbolism were over-used. To the non-French reader, some passages read more like art-house than non-fiction.

French vs. Anglo-Saxon school

The contrast he presents between American and French veterinary behaviourism was a real eye opener to me. Here is a couple of the major differences he discusses:

  • The French practitioners hardly focus on training at all – his plans fit on the back of a prescription pad! Psychopathology and ethology take a front seat instead.
  • The French practitioners try to only treat abnormal, not inconvenient behaviour. He posited that the French practitioners were more dog-centered than owner-centered.


It was interesting for me to map my diagnostic model (I use Overall’s 1997 scheme) with his. He appeared to be approaching some pathologies from a slightly different angle, with necessary symptoms slightly different from the English system. He mentioned bipolar, irritation aggression, dyssocialization, primary hyperattachment dysfunction, and sociopathy, for example. These conditions do not necessarily get presented in that way in the Anglo-Saxon literature.

In seeking information about the disease course, he would also show the occasional Freudian obsession with early puppyhood (way beyond socialization issues). The puppyhood thing, and his penchant for symbolism, got me thinking I had landed a volume on psychoanalysis at times.

Classical ethology

His quaint application of classical ethology in everyday practice confirmed my impression of him: he’s a “man of the books”. The author knows his theory inside out. He brings dusty old ethology concepts into a new light: consummatory/appetitive sequence analysis, appeasement signals, inter-/intra-specific socialization, etc.

He relies on dominance quite a lot (e.g. advising owners to eat before the dog!), but his chapter on the topic (p. 249) did give me pause. I would like to reflect more on conflict-related problems without dogmatically boiling them down to fear as I have been doing.

Behaviour specialists and self-reflection

He breaks down core themes in our profession into a neat analytical framework that will get you thinking:

  • What clients need to get out of a consult: I loved it so much I summarized it on my training page (under ‘Walked in confused…’)
  • Getting to a diagnosis systematically: through nosographic, resource, differential and functional diagnoses.
  • He distinguishes different levels of analysis behind why the client called, and invites you to consider these (p. 190).
    • Motive (i.e. what specific behaviour of the dog is of concern): e.g. My dog has bitten someone
    • Question (i.e. what client hopes to get out of meeting you): e.g. I want him not to bite again, or I want you to tell the world he’s not dangerous.
    • Cause (i.e. what prompted the client to get in touch): e.g. My neighbours are threatening legal action, my boyfriend is pressuring me, etc.

He also has great expressions like:

  • “therapeutic team”: the pet parent and practitioner teaming up to help the dog.
  • “chemical straight-jackets”: the senseless prescription of psychotropic meds
  • “co-therapist”: bomb-proof dog that can be used as model

Trained in client skills

He mentions he followed additional training on the social aspects of his job. It really shows. His client skills are awe-inspiring.

Here’s what he says in a a consult where clients quarrelled about euthanasia (p. 240): “I suggest you give me all the information I need. I will then be able to give you the best advice. The final decision will always be yours, but it will need to be a united decision. Madam, I can sympathize with your fear, but I will not take the decision to euthanize the dog on your behalf. Sir, I want to keep the dog alive, but if my analysis reveals important risks, I will not hide it. Are you ready to help me understand what could have happened?”

And here’s how he sets the record straight with a skeptical, resisting client (p. 193): “What I am interested in is whether the behaviour of your dog reflects behavioural suffering. It’s nearly always the case. I will then do my job as a vet. I will try to improve your dog’s well-being [‘équilibre’ in the original text]. As far as identifying the causes, we will do this together, and we will decide together of possible attitude changes, if these are necessary.”

Read his conversation with clients and you’ll be hit by his mastery of the history-taking process. He compares history-taking to house-building: starting with information about puppyhood and problem onset, then moves on to medical history, the behaviour of dog’s parents, etc. He gets the information in a conversational, unforced way and still emerges with a soundly reasoned diagnosis. His history-taking on a dog with elimination problems, for example, was a thing of beauty (p. 107).

Veterinary insight into behaviour

The book had interesting paragraphs on psychopharmacology. His approach is so much more subtle than what I have seen from other practitioners. In my region, I am lucky if I get to chose between anxyiolitics and antidepressants for my clients’ dogs, nevermind fine-tuning GABA and dopamine effects.

He also discusses the physiological aspects of behaviour (e.g. therapeutic castration, canine geriatrics, neurological conditions) in a way only a trained vet can.

And more little bonuses

  • He prepared a step-by-step guide on how to react when someone complaints officially about your dog (p. 215).
  • He shares his system for measuring progress: a scale from -10 to + 10 with 0 as the starting baseline, on each problem behaviour.


  • There were no citations, so opinion and fact were tangled up. This was particularly problematic around prognoses (he would declare a 1:3 chance of satisfactory recovery, or that something will take between 12 and 18 months. Without reference to the epidemiological research behind these figures, this was more divination than statistics.
  • He also argued for limiting the canine behaviour advice professions to board-certified vets. Welcome back to the psychiatrists vs. psychologist battleground…
  • He is all about the pack theory. For a book last published in 2008, this is frankly archaic.
  • His advice for severe reactivity was similarly archaic: a firm reprimand and asking the dog to sit. This is the recipe for worsening a fear-based problem.


I enjoyed the intellectual gymnastics of mapping my Anglo-Saxon approach with the French model, and his analysis of the profession really got me thinking. But his flights into symbolism alienated me a little, and he totally lost me on the pack theory. So I am not sure I would recommend it to many people, but still, it’s left a big mark with me.

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Author: Béata Claude
Genre: autobiography
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