Truth and consequences in veterinary behavior (Proceedings)
Perhaps more in behavior than in all other areas of veterinary medicine combined, there is a flurry of incorrect myths that are either at best unhelpful, or at worst harmful, to our patients. It is important that veterinary staff know the scientific background of behavior, and to not resort to the common thought, which is sometimes incorrect.
Perhaps more in behavior than in all other areas of veterinary medicine combined, there is a flurry of incorrect myths that are either at best unhelpful, or at worst harmful, to our patients. It is important that veterinary staff know the scientific background of behavior, and to not resort to the common thought, which is sometimes incorrect. Listed here are some behavioral myths that are perpetuated amongst owners, veterinarians and staff.
1. "Aggressive dogs are dominant."
• Most aggression in dogs has a strong component of fear. The danger in using the commonly recommended punishment-based techniques is that dogs become more fearful, and perhaps even more aggressive. Over time, dogs can learn to suppress their fearful behavioral signs, such as tail tucked, ears back, etc., and begin displaying more offensive threats.
2. "Dogs pull on a leash/jump up on people/sleep on the bed/go out of doors before their owners because they are dominant."
• While some dogs that display aggression toward people also perform these behaviors, the majority dogs that perform these behaviors do so because they are untrained or just want to be closer to their owners for companionship. To get a dog to not sleep on the bed, you have to provide an appropriate place for the dog to sleep, and all family members need to be consistent in not letting him up onto the bed. To get a dog to not jump in greeting, only interact with him when he has "four on the floor", and all people who interact with the dog need to be consistent.
• There have been some popular dog trainers on television that continue to perpetuate this myth, utilizing very harsh training methods to show their "dominance".
3. "The only way to train a Rottweiler/German Shepherd Dog/Labrador is to use a prong collar/shock collar because they are stubborn/dominant/aggressive."
• The best way to train any animal, again, is to reward the appropriate behavior. Certainly there are differences in behavioral traits of different breeds of dogs, just as there are differences between individual animals, but that doesn't negate the above statement. Training methods are not breed-specific.
4. "My dog is aggressive towards strangers because he is protecting me."
• While in some instances this may be among other factors, more often a dog's behavior is dependent on the handler's behavior or presence. It is common to see a dog more confident in the presence of its owner, leading to fear being more of a co-factor. For example, if a dog is aggressive towards other dogs on leash, the average owner is going to tighten up on the leash and act anxious (rightly so!), which then alerts the dog to a potentially impending problem.
5. "If you use treats to train, you will always need them."
• If an animal is trained with treats, and not bribed with treats, this statement is false. Once the pet is able to perform the behavior fluently, the frequency of the reward should decrease. Behaviors are more resistant to extinction if they are reinforced on a variable schedule. Think of playing a slot machine...if you won a quarter each time you put a quarter in, it would get pretty boring. But if you won a bigger amount of money every once in awhile, you are more likely to stay and continue to play.
6. "Puppies should not go to puppy classes/the mall/friend's houses until they have had all their vaccinations at 16 weeks of age."
• The primary socialization period, the time of rapid social development that sets a pattern for most things in later life, ends at about 14-16 weeks for dogs. This important period has passed by the time the dog has received his or her full vaccination series. If you recommend to your clients to wait until 16 weeks, shouldn't you do housecalls to vaccinate puppies in their homes while wearing shoe covers and clean lab coats? I ask this because one place that a well-cared-for puppy is likely to get an infectious disease is in a veterinary hospital. This is NOT the same as recommending the puppy go to a dog park or other area where dogs of unknown health status visit, but to well-controlled areas where healthy puppy and adult dogs visit. Regarding puppies raised for seeing-eye dogs...they are socialized out in the real world at a young age, but are rarely reported to contract, much less die, from Parvovirus, Distemper, and other infectious diseases. Studies have also shown that attendance at puppy socialization classes is positively correlated to retention in the home.
7. "It is important to rub a dog's nose in its feces or urine to properly housetrain it."
• The best way to train any animal, whether it is a dog, cat, horse, or child, is to reward the appropriate behavior by using something that highly motivates the animal, which is most often food, but can also be toys, play, or attention. Punishment is often used incorrectly. It is often overly harsh, directly related to the owner delivering the punishment, not done within a few seconds of the behavior beginning, and not consistent to properly affect the behavior.
8. "He urinates inside/destroys the house/barks when we leave him alone because he is spiteful."
• Animals will not display these types of behaviors for "spite". Separation anxiety, lack of enrichment, redirected behavior, territorial behaviors, urine marking, and incomplete housetraining are just some of behavior problems that need to be explored more in depth with the owners and treated appropriately.
9. "Don't bother castrating a pet after he has started marking/roaming/fighting. It won't work because they have already learned the behavior."
• Studies have demonstrated that the same percentage of male dogs and cats are nonresponders to treatment of sexually dimorphic problem behaviors as develop them if they are castrated prepubertally. For example, ten percent of male cats castrated prepubertally are reported to be problem markers and ten percent of cats that were castrated specifically to stop problem marking continue to mark.
10. "This medication will dramatically help your pet with its insert problem behavior."
• While medications can be a useful tool in helping our patients overcome behavior problems, they are not a "magic bullet". Appropriate behavior modification is an essential part of any treatment plan. A corollary is treating a cat bite abscess. Treatment with antibiotics alone, without placing a drain or putting on warm compresses, is not in the best interest of the animal, and less likely to be successful.
11. "All behaviorists/trainers are the same."
• In short, trainers vary widely in their techniques, abilities, dedication and professionalism. Separately, ANYONE can call themselves a behaviorist, animal psychologist, behavior counselor, or trainer. Organizations in which there are acceptable credentialing requirements are the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (www.dacvb.org) and the Animal Behavior Society (www.certifiedanimalbehaviorist.com). The Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (www.svbt.org) is helping to develop a specialty in behavior for technicians (www.avbt.net). A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has advanced training in behavior. This person deals with all aspects of behavior, not just training, including anatomy, ethology, neurochemical, neurology, pathology, physiology, psychology, and psychopharmacology.
12. "I don't have time to learn about behavior."
• You cannot afford to not know about behavior. It is an integral part of the veterinary profession. Approximately 10% of the dog and cat population in the United States are euthanized each year because of behavior problems!!!! This can be 1 patient of yours per day. We cannot afford to ignore this situation.