The volunteers who staff our Behavior Helpline have completed an extensive training program taught by animal behavior professionals. We are able to assist pet owners with many types of animal behavior problems; however, there are some problems we canít resolve over the phone because it isnít safe or accurate to diagnose certain behavioral problems without observing the animalís postures and reactions to certain stimuli.
There are many reasons an animal may behave aggressively, including fear, dominance, food or object possessiveness, territorial behavior or protective behavior. Itís necessary to obtain a complete behavioral history through detailed information gathering and direct observation of the animal in his own environment, before a diagnosis and recommendations can be made. This canít be accomplished over the phone, however, we can provide detailed handouts explaining the causes of aggression and procedures that should be avoided because they may make the problem worse. An animal that threatens another animal or human by growling, hissing, baring his teeth, snapping or biting, presents a danger to others.
The first step is to have a veterinarian examine your pet to evaluate him for possible medical reasons for the aggressive behavior. If itís not a medical problem, you should seek the services of an animal behavior specialist. If a professional animal behaviorist canít help, it may be best for all concerned to have your pet humanely euthanized. You may either have your own veterinarian euthanize your pet, or you may surrender him to an animal shelter. If you choose to surrender your pet to a shelter, please relate all the information you have about his behavior.
Some animals, usually dogs, may develop intense, irrational fears, including fear of thunderstorms, firecrackers and other loud noises. Many phobias can be successfully treated using a combination of behavior modification and short-term drug therapy prescribed by a veterinarian. This type of treatment cannot be administered over the telephone. We do have several handouts that explain these problems and the types of behavior modification procedures used to work with them. If your pet exhibits this type of behavior, you should contact your veterinarian for information about medication and for a referral to an animal behavior specialist.
Dogs and cats will sometimes lick themselves excessively until skin sores form, or will pull patches of hair from their bodies. Treatment often involves a combination of drug therapy and behavior modification that can only be obtained through your veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist.
Finding Professional Help
When an individual case is too complex to analyze and resolve over the telephone, you should seek help from a veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist, however, knowing where to turn can be confusing. People who work with animal behavior problems are not regulated by any government agency and may have very different types of qualifications.
- Veterinarian: When your pet has a problem, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Urinary tract infections, hormone imbalances, neurological conditions, genetic abnormalities, orthopedic problems and dental disease are just a few examples of medical problems that can influence your petís behavior. Ask your veterinarian if he has received any specific training in animal behavior, and if not, ask him if he can refer you to an animal behavior specialist.
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist: Animal behavior is a specialized field of scientific study. In order to become a certified applied animal behaviorist, an individual must have specialized training in behavior problems in companion animals. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) grants certification to behaviorists who are academically trained, have experience in the field and meet the ethical standards of the ABS. People whoíve worked with or trained animals for many years, arenít animal behaviorists unless theyíve received specialized academic training.
- Animal Trainer: Some animal trainers are self-taught, and some may have apprenticed under another trainer and/or attended various training seminars. Animal trainers donít usually have specialized academic training in the study of animal behavior. Good animal trainers are knowledgeable about different types of training methods that focus primarily on reinforcing good behavior and use punishment sparingly, appropriately, humanely or not at all. Innapropriate use of correction collars, including using chokers to lift dogs off the ground and "string them up," arenít appropriate or humane training methods and may cause injury to your dog.
- Dog obedience classes are an excellent way to develop a good relationship with your dog and gain more control over him by teaching him to respond reliably to specific commands. However, resolving behavior problems, such as housesoiling, barking, aggression or separation anxiety requires more than teaching your dog commands. Specific behavior modification techniques must also be used. Some animal trainers also offer behavior consulting services.
- Ask the trainer what methods they use and how they were trained. Go to a class, and if you observe techniques youíre not comfortable with, find another trainer. Dog obedience instructors can be endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI). Endorsement indicates that instructors have been approved by their peers and use humane methods of training. If the trainer is endorsed by another organization, ask about the criteria for endorsement.
Things To Watch For And Avoid
- People who guarantee their work: Qualified behaviorists and trainers will always do their best for you, but cannot guarantee outcomes, because animals have minds of their own, and can never be completely controlled by humans.
- People whose primary methods focus on punishment: If their recommendations involve choking, hitting or slapping your pet, confinement or isolation, this indicates little or no understanding of animal behavior.
- People who misrepresent their qualifications: People who call themselves animal behaviorists, even though theyíre not academically trained in animal behavior.
- People who want to train your pet for you: Most behavior problems are a result of interactions between the animal, the owner and the environment. Giving your pet to someone else to "fix" the problem is rarely successful because these three elements arenít addressed. Owners need to work with the animal in the home environment.
If youíre committed to working with your pet, and find qualified people to help you, the chances are good that youíll successfully resolve your petís problem behaviors.
© 2003 reprinted with permission from The Denver Dumb Friends League