BARK UP THE RIGHT TREE

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - PETS EYE - WORDS: DR MARK REEVE

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.

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