4 life-threatening behavior myths


Have some of your clients-or even you-voiced any of these misconceptions? Now you'll know how to respond in order to protect pets and bond clients to your practice.

(Getty Images)Behavior problems continue to be the leading cause of pet relinquishment and euthanasia in the United States.1-3 Yet many veterinary professionals have little training regarding the behavior of domesticated animals.4

And clients aren't much more knowledgeable. A recent study shows that 31.8 percent of pet owners think rubbing a dog's nose in its feces is an appropriate training technique.5 It's not. What's more, behavior problems in pets can severely damage the owner-pet bond. Evidence suggests that when this bond is weak, people are less likely to give their pets the best veterinary care.6

To combat these misunderstandings and help preserve pets' well-being, this article dispels four common myths about animal—particularly canine—behavior.

Click the "Next" button to unveil the truth.

For an additional myth, see Debunking a dangerous behavior myth: Not all fearful pets have been abused.

MYTH #1: Puppy classes aren't effective and lead to disease outbreaks

Many veterinary professionals remain skeptical about the safety of puppy classes and the critical importance of these classes to their patients' long-term health.7-9 Classes held indoors and restricted to puppies of a similar age and vaccination status are unlikely to lead to disease outbreaks. (A position statement released by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior on puppy socialization is available at www.avsabonline.org.)

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Dogs are best able to form new relationships and learn to adapt to stimuli in their environments during their socialization period, which lasts from 4 to 14 weeks of age. During this period, puppies begin demonstrating startle reactions and fearful body postures. Unsocialized puppies don't learn to discriminate between things that are and aren't dangerous. They're likely to become increasingly fearful of novel objects, people, and environments as they mature.7 Proper socialization, then, is critical if an owner wants a dog that's tolerant of other people and animals and unafraid of new situations.

What constitutes appropriate socialization? Simply turning a puppy loose in a dog park doesn't necessarily socialize it. Rather, proper socialization means exposing the animal to a novel stimulus in a way that doesn't cause fear and makes the experience enjoyable. When owners force fearful dogs into interactions, they merely convince the dogs that the particular situation or person is terrifying.

In a well-run class, puppies are exposed to novel people and things such as children, men in uniforms and hats, wheelchairs, umbrellas, and other stimuli that are likely to frighten older dogs without these experiences.10,11 (Note: Some trainers inappropriately label a class a puppy class when it's aimed primarily at teaching basic obedience.)

Treats are an important socialization tool to discuss with clients at every first-puppy visit, especially if the owners cannot get their dogs into a puppy class.10 Recommend owners carry small, tasty treats around with them and allow strangers to offer the treats to their pets so puppies learn to expect good things when they meet new people.

Fact: More dogs are likely to die because of behavior problems than of infectious diseases, so taking the time to teach clients the importance of proper socialization is critical.

MYTH #2: Medication alone can cure a behavior problem

Psychotropic medications rarely cure a behavior problem when used alone; rather, they're just one tool for treating behavior problems. Sometimes they can suppress behavior enough to temporarily satisfy an owner, but the positive results often are transient unless a behavior-modification protocol also is included.12

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Take a dog with a thunderstorm phobia. If thunderstorms are relatively uncommon in the area, the owner may be satisfied by simply giving an anxiolytic before expected storms. If the owner can be home to medicate the dog whenever thunderstorms are likely, the medication may be sufficient to suppress the phobia. Over time, however, a higher dose may be required, or the dog may stop responding to the drug. But if a behavior-modification program of desensitization combined with counter-conditioning also is instituted, the dog may learn not to fear thunderstorms and eventually may not need medication. Many owners would rather work toward long-term change in their pets rather than endure a lifetime of medication.

Fact: Psychotropic medications are not cure-alls, but they do help relieve anxiety, may help to calm a dog, and can raise the threshold for responding to stimuli, putting the dog in a state of mind in which it can learn new tasks. Research shows dogs receiving medication may respond more rapidly to a behavior-modification program.13 They learn more readily when they're not anxious or afraid.

MYTH #3: Dogs know when they've done something wrong

Some clients say, "The dog acts guilty before I know what it's done." This misconception arises for two 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 most clients label as guilty-looking are appeasement behaviors. The dog may be demonstrating submission in an attempt to appease the anger it's reading in the owner's body language. Many dogs behave this way because they have learned to associate punishment with their owners arriving and displaying this body language. This learned response to the owner demonstrates just one reason why punishment fails so often to change behavior.

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For punishment to be effective, it must be applied within two seconds of the inappropriate behavior, applied every time the behavior is performed, and be potent enough so the dog will seek to avoid it in the future but not be so aversive as to frighten it.14 Dogs that experience fear or anxiety during training won't learn as well and are more likely to learn that people are scary and unpredictable. In short, it's much easier to teach a dog by rewarding it for appropriate behavior than it is to teach it what not to do by punishing it.

Fact: Dogs make associations between events that consistently occur in association with each other. Punishing a dog for something it did even a few minutes ago doesn't teach what you don't want it to do. Rather, it teaches that people are to be feared.

MYTH #4: If you use treats to train, animals will only obey when given a treat

Positive reinforcement requires you to give something pleasant within two seconds of the desired behavior's occurrence.15 Giving a reward every time the desired behavior occurs is called continual reinforcement.16

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Once the behavior is acquired and a verbal or hand cue is attached, the behavior is best maintained when the reward is given intermittently.16 This principle is the same one that keeps people putting quarters into slot machines. The machines pay intermittently, but people keep pulling the handle hoping for the reward. Behaviors trained with intermittent reinforcement are resistant to extinction, but if it's used to teach new behaviors, progress will be slow.16

Fact: When used appropriately, food rewards effectively teach a dog new behaviors. Once a dog learns a behavior, these rewards should be used intermittently.

In the words of a dear friend and colleague, "Behavior is not an afterthought for animals. Why does it continue to be for us?" We work with patients that cannot speak, so to ignore their behavior is to ignore the only way they have of communicating with us.

To learn your role in behavior management at your practice, see 10 ways any team member can help improve animal behavior. And for advice on finding a behavior expert in particularly difficult cases, see When to refer patients to animal-behavior specialists.

The references for this article are available online at dvm360.com/BehaviorMythReferences.

Valarie Tynes, DVM, DACVB, owns Premier Veterinary Behavior Consulting in Sweetwater, Texas.

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