How to Promote Good Canine Behavior

What all veterinarians need to know.

Veterinarians agree that pet behavior problems are on the rise because animal owners tend to wait too long before seeking qualified professional help. What might begin as a simple training issue becomes more serious when owners inadvertently make the problem worse by trying to resolve it based on poor advice.

“Understanding and working with behavior is no small task,” said Don Hanson, co-owner and director of behavior services and training at Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine. “It is a field that requires knowledge in a wide variety of areas including ethology, operant conditioning, classical conditioning and more. It is not something one can expect to learn in a one- or two-day seminar.”

The No. 1 issue in any study that’s been done on the topic is aggression.

Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, director of the animal behavior program at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, noted that different types of aggression require different treatments. The most common are conflict aggression (in the home) and fear aggression (directed outwardly at strangers).

“I think that’s 70 percent of all problems that come in,” said Dr. Dodman, DVA, Dipl. ACVAA, Dipl. ACVB. “With conflict aggression, it’s all about righting the ship and making sure there’s no confusion between the owner and the dog. There are three elementary moves that can be done: We teach people line by line how to avoid confrontation; we teach the dog to respect the owner’s authority; and we show how not to lose patience.”

In addition to aggression toward humans or other animals, common behavior problems that Dodman said veterinarians need to understand include:

  • Age-related cognitive dysfunction: This includes night waking, pacing, elimination mistakes and disorientation to the environment. 
  • House-soiling and urine marking: Inappropriate eliminations involving feces, urine or marking behavior. It also may be anxiety-related, a form of social conflict, or involve underlying preferences or aversions. 
  • Separation anxiety: Think acute, chronic barrier frustration, destructive behavior and excessive vocalizing. 
  • Unruly and destructive behavior: This consists of things like jumping on counters or furniture, stealing food or objects, scratching or chewing furniture, vocalizing excessively or pulling on a leash. 

For dogs with fears and phobias, Yody Blass, MA, an animal behaviorist at Companion Animal Behavior in Leesburg, Va., recommends systematic desensitization with counterconditioning.

“The focus is to systematically expose the dog to fears and phobias subthreshold, without anxiety, and gradually increase the frequency or intensity as fears and phobias improve,” she said. “Calming remedies can help [dogs] progress further faster.”

The behavioral issues that Hanson deals with most often at Green Acres are reactivity and aggression. These issues often are based in fear and can be due to:

  • Inadequate or inappropriate socialization and habituation as a puppy.
  • A traumatic event such as an attack by another dog or a person.
  • Lack of training, or training using harsh techniques.

“More and more people are adopting a rescue dog rather than getting a dog from a breeder,” Hanson said. “That is a very good thing, but there is also a higher probability of a rescue dog having behavioral issues.

“Shelters and rescues typically are underfunded and understaffed, which means that many do not have the expertise to assess and rehabilitate dogs,” he added. “Because dogs usually are stressed, even when they are in the best shelters, a behavioral assessment does not always reveal the true nature of a dog.

“People meet the dog, things seem to go well, and then a few days or even a few months later they report undesirable behavior,” he said.

Promoting Good Dog Behavior At the Vet’s Office 

A dog’s fear can extend to seeing the veterinarian. In general practice, it’s estimated that as many as 70 percent of dogs that enter a clinic show some signs of fear.

“Veterinarians should be aware that dogs that are fearful don’t get better over time unless a plan is implemented to help the pet overcome its fear,” said Leslie Sinn, DVM, of Blue Ridge Veterinary Associates in Purcellville, Va. “Specifically, [we recommend] ‘happy visits’ for dogs where the dog comes to the vet hospital to get treats and petting on occasions other than when there is a need for actual health care. It should be a team effort on the part of the client, the staff and the veterinarian to make the visit as stress-free as possible.”

Hanson said the biggest challenge a hospital faces is preparing itself to address behavioral concerns when, for most practices, this probably has not been a major focus. It often involves staff training as well as changes in hospital design to create a low-stress environment.

Some veterinarians think that they don’t have time to deal with behavioral issues. The reality is that not dealing with problem behaviors quickly and efficiently can lead to a breakdown in the human-animal bond.

“Vets can’t fix a behavior problem in 15 minutes any more than they can deal with a complex medical problem in 15 minutes,” Dr. Sinn said. “Therefore, a game plan needs to be in place. “An LVT who has an interest in and is trained in basic puppy development and learning theory can do tech appointments and field the normal puppy questions and problems,” she said. “A handful of carefully screened positive-reinforcement trainers can handle basic training while true behavior problems should be referred to an American College of Veterinary Behaviorists diplomate.”

Keeping Up With The Latest in Animal Behavior 

A savvy veterinarian will do more than read articles about the latest in animal behavior research. Blass, of Companion Animal Behavior, noted that a vet should participate in behavior courses, workshops and conferences to be up to speed on today’s issues and solutions.

“Also, it is very important to know when to refer to a behavior expert or trainer before issues are ingrained and difficult to change, and before the client has already given up hope,” she said.

Veterinary practices would do well to consult nonveterinary professionals who are knowledgeable and experienced in behavior and training, and to establish relationships with them, Hanson said.

Continuing education is available at conferences and online. Veterinarians also may join the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and find resources at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists website. 

Dogs do not need to be trained to be obedience champions, the experts said, but they do need to be taught how to live successfully in our world so they become the companions that owners want to share their lives with. Getting to that point takes time.

Dealing with Feline Behaviors

While dogs are commonly associated with behavioral problems, cats also can exhibit signs.

Yody Blass, MA, of Companion Animal Behavior in Leesburg, Va., said common behavioral problems in cats include inappropriate elimination, spraying, feline rivalry, aggression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness.

For cats with feline rivalry issues, Blass recommends separating and reintroducing the animals.

“Create positive associations systematically, beginning with closed doors and gradually increasing intensity and visibility while maintaining calm and nonaggressive behaviors using food, toys and other positive stimuli,” she said. “Calming remedies can help facilitate progress. Switching cat territories in some cases can help as well.”

The No. 1 problem is usually inappropriate urination and defecation, said Don Hanson of Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine.

“I occasionally see a cat for interspecies aggression, but that is rare,” he said. “However, from my perspective, it appears that cat owners are less likely to pursue treatment for behavioral issues and chose instead just to live with the problem.”

Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, director of the animal behavior program at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said the top problem with cats is that they scratch. But that’s something innate that’s not going to change.

“The scratching posts people buy are totally inappropriate,” he said. “People need to learn about scratching posts, and there’s a lot of education that can be done. Knowing a little about behavior enriches the job as a veterinarian.”

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