You can get the most joy from your pet if you understand the signals they send through their behaviour. Your pet will also be more relaxed and self-confident if it’s behaviour is understood and there are appropriate responses.
Pet behaviour is determined by genetics, previous experiences, environmental influences, and individual variations in brain function. You don’t have control over the genetics, and may not have been there to influence previous experiences, or the environment. But the good news is that you can influence current experience, the current environment, and with the help of your veterinarian, manage aberrations in brain function.
It can be difficult to identify the most appropriate course of action to take when trying to modify your pet’s behaviour. An important step is to consider the subtle difference between a problem behaviour and a behaviour problem.
A problem behaviour is a behaviour that would be considered normal for the breed and age of the animal, yet is seen as inappropriate by the owner or community. An exuberant pet that jumps up on owners or visitors is an example. It is normal for dogs to want to jump and greet. But jumping on visitors, while perhaps cute when the dog is young, can be uncomfortable and possibly dangerous when the dog is fully grown. Assistance from an animal trainer can help such pets to be trained to sit while being greeted. Owners may also be able to assist their pet by improving their knowledge on animal training techniques. There are good texts to help with this.
In contrast, a behaviour problem will generally have a medical component to the condition requiring veterinary diagnosis and medication as part of the management regimen. For example, up to 20% of dogs seen by veterinarians have manageable behavioural problems such as anxiety. Many of you will be familiar with the storm-phobic dog that tries to destroy the door or furniture during their distress when there is thunder. Another example is the dog suffering from separation anxiety that either won’t stop barking, or commences self-destructive behaviour when the owners are away. If these dogs are correctly diagnosed, they can be treated and managed, rather than ending up being surrendered to shelters, or euthanased.
Problem behaviours can be mitigated by well managed training, while behaviour problems require a veterinary diagnosis. This diagnosis may be provided directly by a veterinary GP, or may involve referral to a veterinary behavioural specialist. The good news is that an accurate diagnosis of behaviour problems can allow specific treatment regimens. Such regimens may involve a combination of modifying the environment, behaviour therapy to mitigate the effects of adverse experiences, and targeted medications. Rather than categorising a dog with a behavioural problem as “mad”, it is better to think of it as having a medical condition that requires specific treatment.
The Call To Action
If you own, or know of a pet that is difficult to manage, try to identify which broad category it falls into. You can then progress to identifying the most suitable person to address the problem. If in doubt, veterinarians can provide professional advice.
For further information on this topic, we have identified the following books as useful references:
What’s Your Dog Telling You? – Australia’s best-known dog communicator: explains your dog’s behaviour. This book has good practical suggestions to assist with training your pet and improving communication between you and your pet.
Decoding Your Dog: Explaining common dog behaviours and how to prevent or change unwanted ones. This book is well founded on science and will provide a deep understanding of behaviour signals and how to address problems.
Remember that only problem behaviours will respond to appropriate training alone. Behaviour problems will usually require medication as a necessary part of the multi-factor treatment regimen.