BARK UP THE RIGHT TREE
Behaviour problem or problem behaviour? Through this column, I get a lot of people asking me vet questions. I have found that at least half of these focus on pet behaviour. People wonder if dogs with “problem behaviours” like anxiety or inter-dog aggression are more common now.
I don’t think they are more common. What has changed is that our expectations on dogs has increased, but our approaches to training them have not changed.
Today, dogs are part of the family. We expect them to live in our houses, sleep on our beds, and fit into our lives easily. We then get frustrated when they don’t understand this role that we want them to play. The difficult thing is that, as dogs, they experience situations completely differently to us.
Our dogs are lower to the ground, they have more acute hearing, better vision and their sense of smell is vastly better than ours. This means that we often can’t fathom what is upsetting them about a certain situation.
Dogs tend to feel safest and most confident in a situation they understand and where they know their boundaries. They are desperate for reliable feedback and training from us.
When someone brings their pet to me for behaviour advice, it is normally out of desperation — things have gotten so serious that they need help. These tend to be one of two types of cases. Firstly, dogs with problem behaviours have learnt reactions or lack effective training.
Examples are dogs that jump up too much, can’t walk on a lead, or are very reactive to the front door. Most can be helped with the right training and the right amount of practice.
In other cases dogs have behaviour problems, meaning they have a mental health disease involving neurotransmitters and learnt responses. Examples of these are anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disease.
These dogs need a three-pronged attack to help them. The immediate action is environmental control. We need to change things so that their problems are not triggered. Then we need to start cognitive behavioural therapy. This means targeted training to teach them how to respond to the right situation. This needs someone with very specific expertise, regular sessions and a lot of at-home work.
Finally, most of these dogs also need to be screened for other diseases and started on anxiolytic medications.