Behavior Treatment

Pets who act out with any kind of aggression or suffer from fear or anxiety need behavior treatment, not training. Training is only one tool to help a pet become a happy and well-behaved member of polite society. Most pets do very well with basic training only. Pets with emotional issues need more tools.

Behavior treatment is a multi-faceted approach to addressing the underlying emotional state that causes the undesired behavior.

Tools Used in Behavior Treatment

  • Resolving any medical conditions that cause or exacerbate the behavior problem.
  • Addressing the safety of the family and other people, the pet, and other animals.
  • Managing the pet’s lifestyle to avoid the situations that cause the undesired behavior.
  • Behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counter-conditioning.
  • Teaching alternative behaviors and relaxation.
  • Sometimes we use medications to help the pet achieve an emotional state conducive to learning.

There is no magic pill that fixes a pet’s behavior problems. All behavior treatment programs involve teaching the pet a new way to cope with the situation that causes them stress. We only use medications to address the pet’s chemical imbalance that interferes with learning those new techniques. In other words, you as the pet’s guardian will be required to put in a lot of work to help your pet achieve a calm confident emotional state. It is that calm confidence that extinguishes behaviors borne out of fear.

Helping Your Pet

Behavior treatment is most effective when we can correct the problem early. That doesn’t mean that you should allow your pet to continue to suffer from a behavior problem just because they’ve been like that for a long time. You don’t want to wait for an aggressive dog to actually maim or kill someone, or for a thunderstorm-phobic dog to jump out a second-story window (it’s happened), before acting.

Recognizing the Problem

So the first step in treatment is recognizing there is a problem. In the video below, I’ve shown the incident that made me take action to help Natasha accept and enjoy Annika’s company. Natasha had just woken up from a nap and discovered that the new dog, Annika (the sleeping husky), was WAY too close for comfort.

Signs of anxiety in this video

  1. Lip licking, smacking
  2. Turned her head from the scary dog
  3. Increased respiratory rate
  4. Ears back, tense facial expression
  5. Whale eye (aka side eye)
  6. Yawn
  7. Grooming and chewing on herself

That’s a lot of signs of anxiety in a one-minute video! A few seconds later, Natasha got off the couch and went into the kitchen. She was just too nervous to be near Annika, even though Annika remained sound asleep. There had been no incidents of aggression between the dogs, they enjoyed playing together. It was just that Annika was new to our home and Natasha wasn’t sure of how she felt about her being that close.

Graphic depicting the spectrum of fear, anxiety, and stress in dogs and cats from Fear Free Happy Homes. Recognizing the problem is the first step in behavior treatment.
From Fear Free Happy Homes

It is also important to note what else was going on. In Natasha’s case, nothing. But if you suddenly noticed your dog behaving this way, and there was a thunderstorm happening, maybe the storm added another layer of stress to the situation. You’d have to watch your dog again during a storm to see if they reacted the same way.

Behavioral Journal

That’s why a behavioral journal is so important. It’s hard to remember the details of each incident of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression. A lot of times, we can see patterns that make behavior treatment more successful. For example, while Natasha is not afraid of thunderstorms, Annika is. And when she is afraid, she has a very short fuse. Things that don’t normally bother her bother her a lot. Like Natasha getting “too close” to Annika’s favorite toys. So if it’s storming, I put Annika’s toys away.

If you suspect that your pet has separation anxiety, taking a video of what they are doing while you are away is extremely helpful. Sometimes the problem isn’t separation, but boredom, barrier anxiety (being kenneled or otherwise confined), something happening outside the home, or something else. Treating a dog for separation anxiety that is only anxious because they are in a crate is not going to solve the problem!

What to Include in Behavior Journal

  • Who was present during the incident of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression?
  • Where the incident took place: in a crate, at the front door, on a walk in the neighborhood, etc.
  • What were the factors leading up to the incident? When did you first notice the signs of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression?
  • What did you do when you first noticed the signs of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression?
  • What were the results of your intervention, if any?
  • What happened immediately after the incident? How did your pet act later?
  • Note anything else that may be useful such as medical conditions, changes in the home environment, or other potential stressors that may have contributed to your pet’s behavior.

Avoidance

You know the old joke: Doc, it hurts when I do this. The doctor replies, “don’t do that.”

In the course of your journaling, you may have already discovered the things that cause your pet to experience fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression. Whenever possible, avoid putting your pet into those situations. Obviously, you can’t make it not storm for a dog with thunderstorm phobias. But you don’t have to walk your dog on popular courses or times when they can meet other dogs that cause aggression in your pet. If it’s not an emergency, you don’t have to take your cat to the vet right now. The vet visit can wait until after your pet has been successfully treated.

This obviously NOT Fear Free Certified veterinarian doesn’t offer this clearly scared dog any distractions or comfort for the exam. They should adjust how they are approaching this dog to make him more comfortable.

In no case should you ever attempt to punish your pet for their undesired behavior. Most behavior problems are caused by fear, anxiety, and stress. Adding yelling, yanking, hitting, shocking, choking, beeping, vibrating, spraying, and other punishments to the situation will cause the pet additional stress and make the problem worse. Even if you are temporarily successful at suppressing the undesired behavior, the underlying cause is worse. This is where we see aggressive dogs biting “out of the blue.” They have been punished for growling, so they give no warning that they are fearful. They just bite. There is no hope for a long-term cure for behavior problems by using punishment. That has been proven with research.

Hiring a Behaviorist

Who you choose to help your pet is critically important. For pets suffering from fear, anxiety, or aggression, the last thing they need is someone who instructs you to choke, shock, pinch, or otherwise add more stress to their lives. Unfortunately, there are many behaviorists and trainers who are still using these inhumane and antiquated methods to correct behavior problems.

Behavior Treatment Credentials

Veterinary Behavior Specialist

A veterinary animal behaviorist is the most qualified person to help you with behavior treatment in your pet. The veterinarian behavior specialist has not just completed their doctor of veterinary medicine degree, they have also done a year-long internship and at least 3 years residency, then passed a national board exam. A Diplomate in animal behavior has DVM and DACVB following their name. Many veterinarian behaviorists work in specialty hospitals or at veterinary colleges. Unfortunately, there are only about 80 veterinarian behaviorists in the USA. They can be found on the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist website. For pets with severe aggression, a veterinary behavior specialist working with a committed pet parent is the best hope for successful treatment.

Applied Animal Behaviorist

The Animal Behavior Society is a professional organization that promotes and advances the scientific study of animal behavior. There are 2 levels of certification for an Applied Animal Behaviorist: Certified, and Associate Certified. Both certifications require at least a Master’s or Doctoral degree, original research, and extensive experience in scientific animal behavior research or treatment. A Certified/Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist may be a veterinarian or other professional who works in zoos, shelters, academia, agriculture, wildlife organizations, and other fields where animals may exhibit behavior problems. An A/CAAB has a deep understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn, and the tools used to change the behavior in a humane way.

Veterinarian

Some veterinarians, like myself, have a special interest in behavior treatment. I didn’t do an internship or residency and while I have undertaken hundreds of hours in continuing education in behavior treatment for animals, I am not a specialist. That title is reserved for Diplomates. Shockingly, even though the number one cause for pets to be rehomed or relinquished to an animal shelter is behavior problems, behavior is not a required course in vet school. In other words, most veterinarians do not have the knowledge to prevent a major cause of death in owned pets. No veterinarian will undertake a case for which they are not qualified, therefore few veterinarians provide behavior treatment services at all. Practically speaking, it is difficult for a general practitioner to provide behavior treatment services due to the time and education involved. One reason I chose to limit my services is so I can focus more on behavior. Many veterinarians can collaborate with others to help pets with behavior problems.

Registered Veterinary Technician Specialist in Behavior

One such person a veterinarian can team up with is a registered veterinary technician behavior specialist. After completing the program and passing national boards to be a registered veterinary technician (RVT), the individual must also log 4000 hours of behavior treatment and pass a national board exam in behavior. While an RVT can not legally diagnose or prescribe, they are incredibly helpful in implementing the behavior modification plan. More information about RVT-VTS(behavior) and a member directory can be found on the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians’ website.

Animal Trainers

Anyone can call themselves an animal trainer. There is no national board exam, standardized curriculum, or certification process that ensures the quality of an animal trainer. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a very good explanation of the situation. That said, there are some programs that have their own certificates of successful completion of their curriculum. The quality of the curriculum can vary since again, there are no standards. The good programs focus on scientifically researched modern learning theory, animal behavior, and Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) behavior treatment techniques. You can read about bad trainers on our training page.

Our trainer, Jael, is a Certified Animal Behavior College Dog Trainer (ABCDT) and Mentor. As a Mentor, Jael is qualified to teach ABC students the hands-on skills needed to be a successful dog trainer. Jael is also a Fear Free Certified Trainer and has recently completed her Fear Free Veterinary training. Dr. Meghan (Elite Fear Free Certified) and Jael collaborate to provide the most comprehensive behavior treatment program for your pet. By working with a veterinarian and a trainer, you ensure your pet has all the necessary resources to be a happy healthy family member.

Additional Good Trainer Certifications from Fear Free

Trainers without credentials can be excellent at their job as well. Just ask for their views on LIMA or Positive Reinforcement, or if they ever recommend shock, pinch, or choke collars, and you’ll have your answer right quick.

Behavior Treatment Success

You’ve identified the problem, kept a detailed journal, avoided situations that cause fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression if possible, and hired a professional to help guide you. Now what?

Initial Behavior Treatment Consultation

Your behavior professional needs a detailed history and understanding of the problem. Prior to the initial consultation, you will complete a very long (sorry) form that details the problem(s), your pet’s history, lifestyle, and other aspects of their situation that are important. I conduct a full medical examination and in certain cases, also obtain full lab work to ensure the pet doesn’t have any medical conditions that can cause or exacerbate the behavior issue. If there is a medical concern, we address it first. In some cases, that alone resolves the behavior issue!

At the same visit, Jael performs the baseline behavior assessment. We address any safety concerns and provide alternative management strategies to reduce the pet’s fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression. Jael and I discuss your goals and expectations for behavior treatment. Then we collaborate to design a plan that achieves reasonable success.

Implementing the Behavior Treatment Plan

We’ll be honest. Most of the work falls on you, the pet parent. We’re here to guide you.

In some cases, Dr. Meghan prescribes medication to help your pet achieve the calm relaxed state required for learning. Some pets have daily or highly unpredictable exposure to situations that cause fear, anxiety stress, or aggression and they can’t be avoided. Or the pet has a high baseline stress level. In those cases, I prescribe daily medications. The situations that cause other pets to have problems may be controlled and predictable, like vet visits, or people coming to your home. I prescribe situational medications that work short-term to control your pet’s stress until they can be successfully desensitized and counter-conditioned.

Jael works with you and your pet weekly for at least 5 sessions. During each meeting, she evaluates your pet’s progress, makes any necessary adjustments in the treatment plan, and if appropriate, moves on to the next phase of treatment. In between the weekly sessions, you perform the exercises demonstrated by Jael. Most of the exercises are completed in less than 30 minutes per day, broken up into short periods. She will also instruct you to do some informal training. For example, we like to reward calm relaxed behavior. All it takes to do that is to carry a treat pouch, and any time you see your pet calmly relaxing, throw them some treats. It takes 2 seconds to do this but it can make a huge impact on your pet’s behavior.

This dog has most assuredly been rewarded for calmly laying under the table while the people are eating.

Pets are always learning

Whether you are directly teaching your pet or not, they are always learning. That is how pets understand your schedule. I’m sure you never told them that dinner is at 5 pm but if you always eat at 5 pm, that’s what they learned. Pets are very sensitive to your behavior. If you get anxious and pull up your dog’s leash whenever you see another dog on a walk, your dog will know something bad is about to happen. You can accidentally train your dog to be leash reactive!

Therefore, the major part of Jael’s job is instructing YOU to behave differently so your pet’s behavior changes. If there are multiple people in the home interacting with the pet, they must all be consistent with Jael’s instructions. We recommend that all family members attend the behavior modification sessions with Jael if possible and safe to do so.

Dysfunctional Families

Which dog should be treated for aggression in the above video? If you didn’t answer “both,” then you got the wrong answer, like this trainer. In fact, the trainer is purposely and cruelly subjecting the defenseless muzzled little dog to his fear-aggressive Doberman in a completely misguided effort to teach the little dog “dominance.” So many things wrong here….

Sometimes pets do not get along. Inter-pet aggression is one of the most challenging behavior problems to treat. We think it is because the current methods are flawed. Imagine if you owned both of the pets in the video above. Veterinarians are trained to pick out the “problem child” and to focus all of their attention on reducing the aggression in that pet. In this scenario, BOTH dogs are fear aggressive (though the Doberman hides it well, you can see him back up initally when the little dog comes after him) and therefore BOTH dogs need behavioral treatment. The trainer and the owner of the little dog also need education!

A family problem requires a family solution. That is why we created the Dysfunctional Family Behavior Treatment Plan. It’s our unique approach to solving a very difficult, stressful, and dangerous problem for families with multiple pets.

Our Behavior Treatment Services

If you are concerned about any aspect of your pet’s behavior, we can help restore peace in your home and comfort for your pet. There are 3 ways to get our behavior services:

  1. If you are a current client, ask Jael to send you a behavior to email you a behavior history form. Once we have that back, Jael and Dr. Meghan will schedule the initial behavior consultation.
  2. Your veterinarian may refer your pet to us.
  3. You can transfer your pet’s care to us. You will need to complete the new client, new patient, and behavior history forms, as well as have your previous veterinarian send your pet’s complete medical records. Then we can schedule the initial behavior consultation.

Jael is available for a free 15-minute phone consultation to address questions or concerns.

The initial Behavior Consultation is $95. There may be additional charges for lab work. If you decide to proceed with Behavior Treatment, the cost is $600 for 5 sessions. The $95 consultation fee is applied towards the $600.

Our Dysfunctional Family Plan is $995 instead of $600 for however many pets are involved in the problem.

Please fill out one new pet and behavior history form for each pet. It will take at least an hour to complete the behavior history form.

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