Reducing development of aggression in dogs in office settings (Proceedings)


Aggression, elimination behaviors, and separation anxiety are the most common problems presented to animal behaviorists.

Aggression, elimination behaviors, and separation anxiety are the most common problems presented to animal behaviorists.  All behaviors are affected by factors such as genetics, early experience (in utero as well as post-natally), learning, and environmental (internal and external) variables.  Each one of these variables can play a factor in the development of aggressive behavior of an individual dog. Clinicians, RVTs, and veterinary assistants can all play a role in making the office visit a less frightening experience for the dog and thereby reduce the likelihood of facilitating aggression in that setting.  These professionals can also provide helpful information, verbally and/or with references, to owners to impede the development of aggression in other settings.

In the office, lifting and restraining should be comfortable, not painful. Petting and massaging can reduce apprehension. No kissing or hugging! Personnel must always be aware of where their faces are relative to the dog's head (and teeth). If the owner has no objections and there are no other contraindications, giving the dog a tasty tidbit when entering the room, being placed on the table, immediately before and after injections, and when the dog is returned to the floor may be helpful. Massaging is also beneficial preceding and immediately after giving an injection. Eric Klinghammer, an eminent ethologist and student of wolf behavior, calls this technique  “Embedding”.  I figure if it works with wolves, it ought to work with dogs.

If a dog is unruly and threating, broad  cone-shaped muzzle often exert a calming effect. Gauze muzzles are often applied too tightly and may cause pain and discomfort. If a dog is known to be aggressive to strangers and other dogs, owners can be advised to have the dog wear an appropriate muzzle (the dog must be able to pant ) whenever it is presented at the clinic/hospital. Be sure the dog is not also aggressive towards the owner or the dog may bite when the owner attempts to put the muzzle on the dog. If you are unsure about the owner's ability to put a muzzle on the dog, advise the owner to seek professional assistance for this from a competent trainer or behaviorist. Chemical restraint is also an option to consider. Just don't get into a rodeo contest with the dog.  Even if you succeed in subduing the dog at the moment, unintended consequences of this event will ensue.

The most helpful preventative advice a veterinary professional can give to a puppy owner is how to housetrain their puppy without using punishment. Even if the owners do not bring it up, ask how housebreaking is coming along. “Pretty good” is a RED FLAG.  This usually means the dog is still urinating/defecating in house some of time. This is your cue to strut your stuff about housetraining techniques and the unwanted consequences of “punishment”. Start by asking the owner how many times a day or week the puppy eliminates in the house and what the owner does.  At some point, be sure to emphasis that the “guilty” look is not a guilty look, but an apprehensive, submissive expression of knowing there is impending doom. This does not mean the dog associates scolding and punitive procedures with eliminating previously. If I am presented with a dog that is afraid (and often is aggressive) when  being reached for by the owner , there is almost always a history of being punished “after the act” and/or being dragged over to “the spot” and having the  nose rubbed in “it” or being spanked or severely scolded. If you don't have time to discuss housetraining with the clients, refer them to one of your associates or an outside referral.

Puppy classes are great – if done well. If you are not comfortable recommending one, consider offering one of your own. Acclimating puppies to a variety of environments and experiences before 14 weeks of age is important in preventing neophobic behaviors.  Such exposure must be balance with vaccination history. Are there safe places to take the puppies ? Relatives or friends homes and yards? Locations where only well vaccinated dogs visit? You'd be surprised how many young dogs I am presented with that have never left the house until well past 16 weeks – until fully vaccinated. Talk about housebreaking nightmares and fearful dogs.

Obedience classes can be helpful in teaching owners how to control their dogs. But, be sure that the trainers to whom you refer are knowledgeable and competent. Know what the pros and cons are regarding techniques and equipment.  Obedience classes are not panaceas for behavior problems. Behavior problems such as aggression, elimination and separation anxiety are species typical behaviors that are influenced by intersecting variables. Recognizing these variables usually  requires a broad knowledge base of animal behavior, both ethology and psychology.

Castration of male dogs generally reduces many types of aggressive behaviors,, but not all.  Spaying of females is likely to reduce aggression related to estrus, but not necessarily other types of aggression.

If  practitioners detect aggressive tendencies in a patient, it behooves them to suggest /recommend to owners that they seek competent professional help for the problem. The sooner such problems are addressed, the more likely there will a satisfactory outcome.


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