Behavior management starts at home

For dog owners, searching for a trainer means stepping into a largely unregulated industry

For dog owners, searching for a trainer means stepping into a largely unregulated industry. There are different schools of thought, and different ways of understanding and managing problem behaviors in practice.
For dog owners, searching for a trainer means stepping into a largely unregulated industry. There are different schools of thought, and different ways of understanding and managing problem behaviors in practice.

Companion animal behavior management is one of the most elusive issues in veterinary practice.

The main reason is it extends far beyond the clinic, and more often than not, depends on consistent effort at home.1 The problems might not always be obvious, and it is up to the owner to recognize and act upon problematic behaviors before they escalate.

Professional intervention is dependent on the willingness and ability of the owners to recognize and discuss problems and, ultimately, seek help when necessary.

False beliefs or lack of awareness can often make pet owners reluctant to seek solutions. Yet, healthy behavior can be just as important as physical health for the animal (and the owner) to have a happy life.

With that in mind, the important role the veterinarian has with owners as the first point of contact cannot be overstated.

The scope of the problem

Studies consistently show behavioral problems as one of the top reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats in developed countries. Considering it is only a last resort, this implies a large number of companion animals living with unresolved behavioral issues. A study conducted in the U.S. in 2018 shows 85 percent of dog owners experienced some sort of behavior-related problems with their pets.2 That was before the boom of pandemic puppies, which anecdotally increased the issue of poor companion animal behavior management even further.

The striking fact about all of this is a large majority of behavioral issues are entirely preventable, and if not, at least manageable to a satisfactory degree. The link between (and the lack of) early socialization and behavioral problems in adulthood is well documented in humans and known to exist amongst various other species. Yet, all too often, young companion animals are not effectively socialized.

For example, a 2017 study3 found almost a third of the surveyed puppies received only minimal socialization during the first 20 weeks of life, thus completely missing out on the critical socialization period between three and 12 weeks. Additionally, behavior problems are most often studied in dogs because they are among the most popular pets, and the ones most likely to cause serious consequences. However, the importance of socialization for cats and virtually any other companion animal is also well known, but often overlooked.

The roots of poor behavior

Behavior management is not an easy subject. Some animals are easier to manage than others, but for the average owner, proper training and socialization require a lot of research, attention, effort, and time.

As the saying goes, “it takes a village,” and that is true even in the case of non-human children. Socialization happens through the interaction of the animal with the owner, other members of the household, other animals, and the world in general … and these factors are not easy to control.

Ultimately, the owner is the one who needs to help the animal get through all the life experiences in a healthy way. Alas, how, exactly, does one do that? This is where wners often run into obstacles, first of which might be the lack of (or improper) education on behavior management. In order to deal with behavioral issues, one must be able to recognize them, but all too often the owners will find alternative explanations (“The dog is just being spiteful” or “He is just playing”). The tendency to anthropomorphize and rationalize behaviors is very natural, so there is no point in blaming the owners. Better education might help detect the problems early.

Moreover, once they recognize the problem and start searching for information, a flood of information might start coming in. There are always recommendations or pieces of folk wisdom coming from friends and family, and then there are all sorts of contradictory tips coming from online or even popular TV shows.

Pet owners might not be sure where to turn to these problems either—the veterinarian or a trainer/behaviorist? For dog owners, searching for a trainer means stepping into a largely unregulated industry. There are different schools of thought, and different ways of understanding and managing problem behaviors in practice.

One study done in Australia examined dog trainers’ perceptions of separation anxiety and found 95 percent of balanced trainers believed that separation anxiety was preventable, while reward-based trainers were more likely to refer the dog to a veterinarian.4

In short, the amount and quality of information and support available to companion animal owners is anything but universal. However, timely education of owners might be the key to socialized companion animals.

The role of veterinarians in behavior management

Companion animal behavior management is a difficult topic to broach as it involves different voices and points of view. Pet owners learn about managing behavior somewhere between everyday experience, independent research, socialization classes, trainer/behaviorist consultations, and veterinary visits.

A study not only found the majority of dog owners deal with behavioral issues, but also the most common behavioral difficulties were related to fear or anxiety. A recent follow-up study aimed to determine what sort of resolutions, if any, were employed by those dog owners.5 The results show half of the owners sought professional help to deal with problematic behaviors. In only 25 percent of those cases, the dogs were brought to a veterinarian, and in 15 percent of those dogs, it was found there is an underlying medical cause contributing to problematic behavior.

Fifteen percent is not a small figure, though, showing veterinary clinics are important as first points of contact simply because they can help discover underlying issues.

Offering timely education

The role of veterinarians can expand way beyond examining physical symptoms. Given a high number of companion animal owners will come in contact with a veterinary clinic during the early life of the animal, this is the optimal time to provide owners with advice and resources about the importance of early socialization.

Of course, the time and space available at the clinic are always limited, but offering behavior consultation, or at least pointing owners to the right sources of information, can do a lot.

Building relationships

Most veterinarians probably did not imagine they were going to be counselors for humans when signing up for the job, but that might just be the key to improving behavior management among companion animals.

The topic of behavioral issues can be difficult to broach also from a psychological standpoint. The owners might be failing to understand the behaviors of their protegees and might adopt strategies that are completely wrong. The behavior of a companion animal is deeply intertwined with the lifestyle of the owner, and suggesting something is wrong might make the owners feel guilty, embarrassed, offended, or everything at once.

This issue is not an easy one to solve, but it starts with building healthy relationships between veterinarians and their clients. When there is a relationship of trust, owners might be more willing to open up about their doubts and to listen to advice or constructive criticism.

Empathetic and non-judgmental communication is key for creating a safe space for owners to communicate about companion animal behavior. Being proactive about bringing up the importance of early socialization, especially during puppy and kitten visits, might be key to raising awareness about the importance of behavior management to prevent future problems.

Susan Elber is a professional dog trainer with more than 15 years of experience in companion animal behavior management.


  1. Nikolic, V. “When Should You Start Training Your Puppy? Gentle Dog Trainers. (Retrieved April 11, 2023).
  2. Dinwoodie, Ian R., Barbara Dwyer, Vivian Zottola, Donna Gleason, and Nicholas H. Dodman. Demographics and comorbidity of behavior problems in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 32 (2019): 62-71.
  3. Cutler, Janet H., Jason B. Coe, and Lee Niel. Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 251, no. 12 (2017): 1415-1423.
  4. Hunter, Trepheena, Diane van Rooy, Michelle McArthur, Sara Bennett, Jonathan Tuke, and Susan Hazel. Mental Health Disease or Preventable Problem? Australian Dog Trainers’ Opinions about Canine Separation Anxiety Differ with Training Style. Animals 10, no. 8 (2020): 1393.
  5. Dinwoodie, Ian R., Vivian Zottola, and Nicholas H. Dodman. An investigation into the effectiveness of various professionals and behavior modification programs, with or without medication, for the treatment of canine fears. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 55 (2022): 1-6.

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