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10 life-threatening behavior myths


In this article, I discuss 10 common myths about animal, particularly canine, behavior--misconceptions that may increase the likelihood that a pet will develop a behavior problem and, thus, can lead to the pet's abandonment or euthanasia.

Behavior problems continue to be the leading cause of relinquishment and euthanasia of pets in the United States.1-3 Yet most veterinarians graduate with minimal to no training in the normal or abnormal behaviors of domesticated animals.4

To further complicate matters, no other subject within veterinary medicine is as rife with myth and belief based on anecdotal information as animal behavior. If a student enters veterinary school having seen a grandfather apply motor oil to a dog to treat mange, he or she quickly discovers that this is inappropriate and learns how to treat mange based on the latest findings. However, the same student can enter veterinary school having been told that rubbing a dog's nose in its feces is an appropriate and effective means of housetraining, but is unlikely to be taught the potential danger of this technique. A recent study shows that 31.8% of pet owners think that rubbing a dog's nose in its feces is an appropriate training technique5 even though as much scientific evidence is available to disprove this method as there is to refute treating mange with motor oil.

In addition, evidence suggests that when the owner-pet bond is weak, people are less likely to give their pets the best veterinary care.6 And, without a doubt, behavior problems can severely damage this bond.

In this article, I discuss 10 common myths about animal, particularly canine, behavior—misconceptions that may increase the likelihood that a pet will develop a behavior problem and, thus, can lead to the pet's abandonment or euthanasia.


"Puppies shouldn't go to puppy classes until they have had all their vaccinations, or they will get sick."

Despite the growing body of data supporting the benefits of proper socialization, many veterinarians continue to be skeptical about the safety of puppy classes and the critical importance of these classes to their patients' long-term health.7-9 Classes held in an indoor (and, therefore, easy-to-sanitize) area and restricted to puppies of a similar age and vaccination status are unlikely to lead to disease outbreaks. (To read a position statement on puppy socialization recently released by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior [AVSAB], go to www.avsabonline.org.)

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Dogs are best able to form new relationships with those of their own and other species and to adapt to stimuli in their environment (habituation) during their socialization period, commonly considered to be between 4 and 14 weeks of age. During this period, puppies begin demonstrating startle reactions to sound and sudden movements as well as fearful body postures. Unsocialized puppies do not learn to discriminate between things that are truly dangerous and those that are not. Such puppies are likely to become increasingly fearful of novel objects, people, and environments.7 Proper socialization during this period is critical if an owner desires a dog that is tolerant of other people and animals and is unafraid of new environments and situations.

Clients need to be educated about what constitutes appropriate socialization. Simply taking a puppy to a dog park and turning it loose with a group of dogs does not necessarily socialize it. Proper socialization means exposing the animal to a novel stimulus in a way that does not cause fear and should be an enjoyable, positive experience. Many dog owners force their dogs into interactions when the dogs are already showing signs of fear. This forced interaction only serves to convince the dogs that the particular situation or person is terrifying and to be avoided in the future.

Well-run puppy classes are the easiest way to expose a dog to novel people, dogs, and situations. In a good puppy class, puppies will be exposed to children, men in uniforms and hats, wheelchairs, umbrellas, and other stimuli that are likely to frighten older dogs that have not had those experiences.10,11 Be aware that some trainers label a class a puppy class when it is primarily aimed at teaching basic obedience.

Numerous excellent resources provide instructions for giving puppy classes. Early Learning for Puppies 8-16 Weeks of Age to Promote Socialization and Good Behavior by Julie Jackson, R.K. Anderson, and Scott Line (Premier Pet Products) is a particularly user-friendly guide,14 but most of the behavior textbooks also contain good chapters on teaching puppy classes. If you don't have time to offer classes on your own, work with other veterinarians in your community to form classes. Different clinicians and trained technicians could rotate the responsibilities of teaching the classes. And it has become increasingly common for trainers and pet stores to offer puppy classes. As long as a qualified person watches the classes and confirms that they are well-run, give correct advice, and cover the most appropriate subjects, you can recommend that facility.

Finally, socialization biscuits are an important socialization tool you should discuss at every first puppy visit, especially if the owners cannot get their dogs into a puppy class.10 Recommend that owners carry special treats everywhere with them and their new dogs and allow strangers to offer these treats to the dogs. These dogs will learn to expect good things to happen every time they meet a new person.

The fact is, more of your patients are likely to die because of behavior problems than of infectious diseases such as parvovirus infection or distemper, so teaching your clients the importance of proper socialization is critical.


"Crazy owners have crazy pets."

I am surprised at how often I hear this comment from veterinarians as well as nonveterinary professionals. Studies have demonstrated that owner personalities that might be expected to contribute to pet behavior problems are not correlated with a higher incidence of problems.12,13 Furthermore, studies have shown that behavior and behavior problems are strongly influenced by genetics.14

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Certainly, a dog's environment and experiences affect its behavior, but they are seldom the sole causes of a behavior problem. To suggest that pet owners' personalities can cause pets' behavior problems is not only hurtful, it is also counterproductive because an owner distressed by guilt is not in an emotional position to do the hard work that treating a behavior problem requires. Pet owners need to be receptive to your advice. So tell them that what they do affects their pets' behavior but does not necessarily cause it. Then teach owners appropriate management techniques, and they will be in an excellent position to improve their pets' behavior.

I find a comparison to diabetes to be effective in helping clients understand the clinical approach to behavior problems. We do not cure diabetes; we manage it. And diabetes is usually not managed with insulin alone, just as behavior problems are rarely managed with drugs alone. Managing diabetes requires that clients have a basic knowledge of glucose metabolism so they can manage their pets' environment and behavior appropriately (i.e. maintain a fairly consistent diet and exercise regimen). Managing behavior problems will similarly require a basic knowledge of normal dog behavior and the principles of learning.

The fact is, for many behavior problems, early recognition and appropriate management can improve a pet's behavior, strengthen the owner-pet bond, and help avoid relinquishment. An owner's personality has little, if any influence.


"My dog is aggressive/fearful/shy because she was abused as a puppy."

Certainly, if a dog is acquired after 6 months of age and is fearful, no one can be certain that it was not abused. But by focusing on that possibility, we fail to emphasize the more common causes, and we miss an opportunity to educate our clients about what they can do to help prevent and treat fear-related behavior problems. Believing that an animal's behavior is strictly a result of events that happened before it was acquired enables many pet owners to completely deny responsibility for their pets' behavior, likely setting the pets up for disaster. Behavior problems, especially those based on fear or anxiety, when ignored will almost always worsen with time.

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Although we still have much to learn about the genetics of behavior, it is well-documented that fearful or shy behaviors are highly heritable traits.14,15 However, the expression of these traits will also be influenced by learning and the environment. Dogs can be habituated to the stimuli that cause them fear by using properly designed programs of desensitization and counterconditioning. These programs can be highly effective, especially if started as soon as the problem is identified. The longer the problem exists, the harder it is to treat. Clients need to be taught this principle so they do not ignore a problem until it worsens to such an extent that the bond is damaged and treatment becomes more costly, difficult, and time-consuming. If an owner acquires an adult dog with fear-or anxiety-related problems, encourage the owner to begin an appropriate treatment program as soon as possible, preferably under the auspices of a qualified behaviorist and using the assistance of a trainer when necessary.

An awareness of the importance of genetic influences on behavior can also be useful in helping clients choose a pet and a breeder (see boxed text "Helping clients choose well-tempered pets").

Helping clients choose well-tempered pets

The fact is, an animal's behavior is a result of the complex interaction between its genes and its environment. It can rarely be attributed to a single event, and even if it can be, change is still possible.


"This new medication will treat your pet's [insert behavior problem here]."

While the development of pharmacologic agents to treat behavior problems in pets has brought much-needed attention to the frequency and seriousness of pet behavior problems, many veterinarians appear to have missed an important part of the educational message. These psychotropic medications are just one tool for treating behavior problems. Medications rarely, if ever, cure a behavior problem when used alone. Sometimes, they can suppress behavior enough to temporarily satisfy an owner's desire for change, but the positive results are often transient unless a behavior modification protocol is also included.16

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A good example would be a dog with a thunderstorm phobia; if thunderstorms are relatively uncommon in the area where the patient lives, the owners may be satisfied by giving an anxiolytic such as a benzodiazepine at a dose that also sedates the dog. If the owner can be home to medicate the dog whenever thunderstorms are likely, then the medication may be sufficient to suppress the signs of the phobia, help the dog feel better, and make the owner happy. Over time, however, a higher dose may be required, and the dog might eventually stop responding to the drug. But if a behavior modification program of desensitization combined with counterconditioning was also instituted, the dog could learn not to fear thunderstorms and eventually may not need medication. If educated about the options, many owners would rather have the possibility of a long-term change in their pets' behavior as opposed to a lifetime of medication.

The fact is, psychotropic medications are not cure-alls, but they do help relieve anxiety, may help to calm a dog, and, most important, can raise the threshold for responding to stimuli, putting the dog in a state of mind in which it can learn the new tasks that a behavior modification program is intended to teach it. Research shows that dogs receiving medication may respond more rapidly to a behavior modification program,17 probably for similar reasons. They learn more readily because they are not anxious or afraid all the time.


"Dogs that are aggressive are acting dominant."

Aggression is more likely due to fear or anxiety than to dominance. The terms dominance and dominance aggression are probably the most overused and misapplied terms related to animal care today. And worse, a misunderstanding of aggression and dominance has resulted in training methods that make no sense from an ethological point of view and can cause a lot of harm. For almost 20 years, veterinary behaviorists and many nonveterinary animal behaviorists have been trying to spread the message that coercive and punishment-based techniques are not appropriate for treating a dog with any type of aggression.18-20 Those who believed in the necessity of such techniques based their beliefs on wolf behavior. However, for a variety of reasons, it is inappropriate to strictly compare dogs to wolves.21,22

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More important, dominant status is maintained by subordinate animals readily deferring to dominant animals.19 Dominant wolves do not force subordinate wolves onto their backs. Subordinate wolves roll over to clearly demonstrate their deference. Therefore, the idea that by forcing dogs over onto their backs we are demonstrating our dominance and teaching them to be submissive is not only ethologically unsound—neither dogs nor wolves do this—but is also dangerous. Owners routinely get bitten when trying this procedure on an already terrified and aggressive dog, and the only thing the dog learns is that people are indeed terrifying and unpredictable.

Appropriate training for a dominant dog requires teaching the dog that the owner is the leader19,20,22 and involves being calm, consistent, and trustworthy. Most qualified behaviorists recommend using a version of the no-free-lunch or learn-to-earn protocol. This regimen requires that the owner ask the dog to respond to a command (e.g. "sit") for every resource the dog desires (e.g. food, walks, play). The worst thing that can happen to a dog with this protocol is that it does not get what it desires. Maintaining this protocol teaches the dog to defer to its owner. These command-response-reward interactions also make the owner interact with the dog in a trustworthy and predictable manner, thus relieving the anxiety that many dogs have after undergoing inappropriate training.

Many excellent arguments exist for being more careful about our application of the term dominance behavior, so the term's use will not be covered in depth here.22-24 But remember the key attributes of a truly dominant aggressive dog: a confident body posture; a stiff, upright, or leaning forward stance; staring; and erect tail and ears. In my clinical experience, these dogs are relatively uncommon.

Sadly, dominance aggression seems to be the diagnosis du jour, and dogs are labeled as dominant because they resist going into their kennels, having their nails trimmed, or being bathed (all while clearly showing signs of fear). I have even seen dogs labeled dominant for demonstrating signs of separation anxiety.

The one place where veterinarians should absolutely not assume that an aggressive dog is being dominant is in the veterinary clinic. Dogs learn to fear the veterinary clinic through classical conditioning. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians would make their jobs much easier if they would teach owners of new puppies the importance of habituating their dogs to routine handling similar to what the dog will experience when being examined or groomed. This is easy to do with an 8-to 16-week-old puppy by using small, tasty food treats during examination. You can briefly demonstrate this routine handling during the puppy appointment. Then encourage owners to practice it at home.

Maintain this learning by encouraging clients to stop by regularly with their new puppies so the puppies can be brought into the clinic for a few minutes, receive a food treat, and leave without anything scary happening. This important training can continue in the same manner after a dog is an adult. The new emphasis on the importance of managing pet obesity gives veterinarians an excellent opportunity to emphasize these two messages. Encourage owners to bring their dogs by regularly for a weight check that can be rewarded with a calculated amount of a low-calorie treat.

The fact is, aggression is more often related to fear or anxiety than to dominance. Take time to teach your clients appropriate interactions with dogs that have aggressive tendencies to keep everyone safe and happy.


"See how guilty he looks? He knows what he did was wrong."

This myth probably results in more unintended animal abuse than any other and often arises because a dog is routinely destructive in the house, housesoils, or gets into trash cans. Most owners will be quick to insist that the dog "acts guilty before I even know what it has done!" This misconception arises for two primary reasons: 1) The owner anthropomorphizes, and 2) the owner cannot read normal dog body language. The lowered head, tucked ears and tail, and avoidance behaviors that most clients label as guilty looking are appeasement behaviors. The dog is demonstrating submission in an attempt to turn off the anger that it is either reading in the owner's body language or expecting from the owner because of previous experience with similar situations.

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I explain this concept to owners by encouraging them to perform the following experiment: Leave, sneak back into the house, turn a trash can upside down, spread trash around, sneak back out, and then return home later as you normally would. If the dog has had time to discover the mess, it is virtually guaranteed that the dog will demonstrate the same behaviors it would have demonstrated if it had made the mess itself. The dog has made the association between the presence of a mess (whether it is feces, urine, or trash) and an angry owner. It has not made the association between its behavior and the angry owner. If an owner chooses not to try this experiment, simply describing it can be educational.

For punishment to be effective, it must involve three principles: 1) it must be applied within one or two seconds of the inappropriate behavior; 2) it must be applied every single time the behavior is performed; and 3) it must be potent enough that the dog will seek to avoid it in the future but not be so aversive as to frighten the dog.25 The AVSAB has issued a position statement on the use of punishment for behavior modification in animals as well as guidelines on using punishment (www.avsabonline.org). Dogs that experience fear or anxiety during training will not learn as well and, as already mentioned, are more likely to learn that people are scary and unpredictable. Since most pet owners are unable to use punishment according to these three principles, the chances are great that they will do more harm than good. In short, it is much easier to teach a dog what you want it to do by rewarding it for appropriate behavior than it is to teach it what not to do by punishing it.

The fact is, pet owners need to be taught that dogs make associations between events that consistently occur in association with each other. Punishing a dog for something that it did even a few minutes ago (no matter how the dog is acting) does not teach the dog what you don't want it to do. It teaches the dog that people are to be feared.


"If you use treats to train a dog, they'll always be needed to get the dog to obey your commands."

Positive reinforcement, an excellent way to teach an animal a new behavior, requires that you give something pleasant within one or two seconds of the occurrence of the desired behavior.26 And the animal will learn most quickly if the reward is given every time it performs the desired behavior, which is called continual reinforcement.27

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But once the behavior is acquired and a verbal or hand cue is attached, the behavior is best maintained when the reward is given intermittently.27 This principle is the same one that keeps people putting quarters into slot machines. Slot machines only pay off intermittently, but people continue pulling that handle on the chance that the next time they will get the reward. Intermittent reinforcement is powerful, and behaviors trained with it are resistant to extinction, but if we used it to teach new behaviors, progress would be slow.27 With intermittent reinforcement, the dog never knows for sure whether it is going to get the food. The reward is presented and given only after the desired behavior is performed. In contrast, a bribe is shown to the dog when it is asked to perform the behavior. The dog knows it is going to receive it.

The fact is, when used appropriately, food rewards are an excellent and effective way to teach a dog new behaviors. Once a dog learns a behavior, these rewards should be used intermittently. One of the more common mistakes a pet owner makes is to think that a dog knows a behavior long before it actually does. To learn more and to help interested clients learn more, refer to the books and other resources listed in Table 1.

Table 1 Recommended Reading and Resources


"Dogs chase their tails because they are bored."

This statement is a dangerous oversimplification of a problem that we still have much to learn about. Repetitive behaviors such as tail chasing and pacing have long been noted and studied in confined domesticated and wild animals. A commonly held belief is that these behaviors are a response to a barren or somehow inappropriate environment.28 However, the etiopathogenesis is probably much more complicated. Evidence suggests that what initiates these behaviors and what maintains them may be two separate mechanisms.28

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In addition, these behaviors are often a response to an underlying medical condition. Recent studies have documented that at least two problems (psychogenic alopecia in cats and acral lick dermatitis in dogs) previously thought to be primarily behavioral have a good probability of being primarily medical problems.29,30 In my experience, pain-related discomfort is an often overlooked cause of behavior problems such as tail chasing. Since our patients cannot talk to us and we do not always have the diagnostic capability to identify the presence of pain or altered sensation, it is imperative that we not dismiss these possibilities too quickly.

Clinicians also need to understand the role that learning may play in behavioral conditions. An animal that discovers that its behavior results in attention—whether good or bad (e.g. being yelled at)—from its owner may continue to perform the behavior even after the inciting cause is alleviated. This situation is similar to a cat that quits using its litter box because of urinary tract disease yet continues housesoiling after treatment because of a learned substrate or location aversion.

When confronted with dogs or cats performing repetitive behaviors, first diligently rule out underlying medical causes for the behavior. Collect a complete and detailed history, and perform appropriate diagnostic tests, preferably before referring the patient to a behaviorist.

The fact is, the cause of repetitive behaviors can be a complicated combination of physiological, environmental, and learned factors.


"Any trainer can handle all behavior problems."

Sending a dog with a behavior problem to the wrong person can be as dangerous as not recommending any treatment. Not all trainers and behaviorists are the same. Explain to your clients that anyone can call himself a behaviorist or a trainer without having any education in the field. Making the wrong choice can have potentially devastating consequences to their pets' health and well-being.

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Referral to a trainer

Veterinarians need to have a basic knowledge of learning theory so they can tell the difference between a trainer using appropriate techniques and one using dangerous, outdated techniques. Even if you have the interest and the knowledge, if you are in a busy practice you may not have time to demonstrate training methods. So it is critical that you know which trainers in your area you can safely send your clients to.

Trainers are especially helpful for a pet that needs basic training such as learning to sit, stay, or come on command. A good trainer uses primarily reward-based training, doesn't insist that a pet owner do anything ethologically unsound or dangerous (e.g. trying to force a dog over in an alpha roll), and is willing to work with other professionals such as a veterinarian to develop a plan that works for the individual. The AVSAB has an excellent position statement on behavior professionals and how to choose a trainer (www.avsabonline.org).

Referral to a veterinary behaviorist

Be prepared to refer a pet that has a problem that may be anxiety-related (e.g. barking or housesoiling) or that poses a public health threat (e.g. aggression) to an appropriate professional when you do not feel comfortable handling the case. The ideal first choice would be a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists (diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists [ACVB]) are licensed veterinarians who have undergone extensive training in the science of behavior, psychopharmacology, learning theory, and behavioral development. They are in the best position to recognize the complex ways in which medical conditions affect behavior and have a good understanding of how genetics and environment interact to contribute to behavior problems.

Although there are still too few veterinary behaviorists to serve every community in the United States, it is your professional duty to tell clients where the nearest diplomate is and allow clients to make informed decisions about their pets' treatment. Many clients will readily drive several hours to get the best possible care for their pets.

Referral to other veterinarians interested in behavior or to certified animal behaviorists

For clients who cannot go see a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, be prepared with a list of nearby veterinarians who have an interest in patients with behavior problems. The AVSAB Web site (www.avsabonline.org) allows you to find veterinarians near you who are members and are willing to see patients with behavior problems. Although the AVSAB is not a certifying organization, the individuals who join it are interested in veterinary behavior and have the opportunity to seek out continuing education that provides them with the most up-to-date knowledge about pet behavior problems. These individuals can be excellent resources for veterinarians who have minimal interest or training in behavior.

Another option is a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB). These individuals have two to five years of formal postgraduate training in the field of animal behavior and have attained either a master's degree or a doctorate in the field. They are well-trained to help counsel owners about pets with behavior problems, but because they are not veterinarians, they cannot make medical diagnoses or prescribe medications. They will expect that a pet has had a thorough physical examination before seeing it and will refer a pet back to its veterinarian if they think medication may be needed. Only a licensed veterinarian can prescribe a drug, so it is the veterinarian's responsibility to be familiar with the commonly used psychotropic drugs and their side effects, contraindications, and drug interactions. Writing a prescription based only on a nonveterinarian's recommendation is unethical and could lead to a malpractice suit if problems develop. CAABs are certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), and the one nearest you can be found on the ABS Web site (www.animalbehavior.org).

The fact is, veterinarians must do thorough research before referring a client to a trainer or behaviorist. Sending an animal to an inappropriate trainer can exacerbate behavior problems and may have serious consequences.

MYTH #10

"I don't have time for behavior cases."

This misconception seems to stem from the belief that adding behavior services to a practice means blocking off two-or three-hour appointments to diagnose and treat behavior problems, which is simply not practical. However, the role that general practitioners can play is important but does not require that kind of time commitment. It does, however, require a basic knowledge of animal behavior and learning theory, which sadly, most veterinary schools still fail to teach.4

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Fortunately, excellent resources are readily available (Table 1). Most major veterinary conferences have excellent animal behavior programs, most veterinary journals publish animal behavior information, and several easy-to-use texts and client handouts have been published.31 All of these information sources can help general practitioners do what they are in the best position to do: educate clients on preventing behavior problems and offer appropriate intervention at the earliest signs of behavior problems.

Client education begins with helping prospective pet owners choose the right pet. The reality is that not nearly enough clients will take advantage of the wealth of counseling you can provide. However, once they present you with their new pets, you can still do a lot to increase the chances of their raising pets with minimal or no behavior problems. Some of these things have already been mentioned above: encouraging owners to properly socialize their pets and giving them good-quality advice on training methods and preventing common behavior problems.

You may need to initiate the behavior discussion because many clients may be embarrassed about their pets' behavior, believing that it is their fault. Asking questions about their pets' behavior is the best way to let clients know that you can help them with all aspects of their pets' health. Studies have shown that most pet owners consider veterinarians to be the best resource for information about their pets.32 If we are not prepared to provide this information, they will seek it from far less reliable and potentially harmful sources, such as the television, the Internet, and other popular media.

The fact is, you are in the best position to recognize behavior problems early and encourage owners to seek qualified help.


In the words of a dear friend and colleague, "Behavior is not an afterthought for animals. Why does it continue to be for us?" Behavior does not exist separately from physiology. It is a direct result of physiology. Stress and anxiety have long been known to lead to neuroendocrine changes that can contribute to a complex sequence of events resulting in a variety of disease processes. The importance of the interaction between psychosocial factors and a predisposition to various pathophysiological processes has been given new attention in human medicine recently and has led to the relatively new field of inquiry labeled psychoneuroimmunology.33 Veterinarians are confronted by patients who cannot speak to them so to ignore their behavior is to ignore the only way they have of communicating with us, thus, setting ourselves up to ultimately fail them completely.

Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB

P.O. Box 1040

Fort Worth, TX 76101


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