Behavioural problems are frustrating for owners and a source of worry that their pet is not happy.
It is therefore understandable that when someone seeks the help of a behaviour veterinarian they are keen to get resolution as soon as possible. Sometimes a client is at the end of their tether or they have external pressures (such as council complaints) that necessitate their pet’s behaviour must change.
Unfortunately, many of these issues require we take a long-term approach which can be frustrating to accept. Some behaviours, like jumping up at visitors or pulling on the lead, are training issues and can be overcome by implementing appropriate behavioural modification (using positive reinforcement) to teach the dog what we want them to do in a given situation.
Behaviour is repeated because the consequences that result from it are reinforcing to the animal. Therefore to change an animals behavioural response we need to make the consequence of the behaviour we want more reinforcing (than the problem behaviour). This requires consistency, patience and a good understanding of our dog’s body language, arousal levels and motivational needs. But it can be done.
Depending on the problem and the frequency with which an owner can train, such problems can be significantly improved, or even resolved, in a matter of weeks.
However, for those issues that are secondary to a mental health disorder, such as reactivity towards other dogs or separation related distress, the speed of improvement is variable and can take longer. For these patients a life-long treatment plan can be necessary, as it is with human psychiatric illness.
There is often an expectation, that once medications are implemented, the dog will become ‘normal’. Whilst medications are imperative in treating anxiety-based disorders and other mental health diseases, they are only part of the answer. Patients require the addition of management and behavioural modification as part of an ongoing holistic treatment plan.
One dedicated client of mine recently wrote ‘It seems like such an inconsequential thing. But for Trouble it is a major milestone’. She was talking about her dog’s ability to sit still for his harness to be applied prior to being taken for a walk. Trouble, her beloved mixed breed dog, suffers from anxiety and poor impulse control. We trialled several different medications over several months, both alone and in combination, with little improvement seen until his most recent regime was implemented.
Luckily for Trouble, his owner is very committed and a lot of effort has been put into management and behavioural modification to also help him. Where as many of us may have lost faith in ever gaining some improvement – Troubles’ owner was realistic about his treatment being a ‘work in progress’ and has persevered. Happily we are now seeing signs that his brain is settling down and becoming responsive to learning.
It is important to appreciate that improvements observed may be very subtle. Owners have to be counselled to note these small changes in behaviour and not expect ‘miracles’ overnight. Small improvements are still improvements and a cause for optimism that things are heading in the right direction.
If there are realistic expectations and an understanding of the complexity of mental health issues then there is often more tolerance and acceptance of the process. Unfortunately, sometimes owners do not have the ability to commit to such long-term plans. That is a personal decision and one that only the family involved can make. There is no shame in accepting that your animal’s mental health issues make you feel completely out of your depth or that they are having a profoundly detrimental impact on your life.
As a veterinarian, we are not here to judge. Our goal is to improve your animal’s wellbeing and health, both physical and mental. And to support you as the owner.
The more ingrained behaviours become, the harder they can be to change. Therefore, if you are concerned in any way about your pets behaviour please seek help early. The earlier appropriate intervention is implemented, the better the prognosis for change.
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Written by Dr Emma Hughes BSc; MSc (Applied Animal Behaviour & Welfare); BVSc; MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour)