Veterinarian's role in preventing behavior problems (Proceedings)


Many pet owners are misinformed or naive when it comes to understanding the behavioral development and training of pets.

Behavior counseling in the veterinary clinic

Many pet owners are misinformed or naive when it comes to understanding the behavioral development and training of pets. From the time pet owners obtain their pets or even before they select their pets, the veterinarian should be offering constructive behavioral advice to help prevent behavioral problems. Most pets relinquished at shelters in North America are because of a poor pet-owner bond which is often due to undesirable behavior.. In addition a poor bond will have a negative impact on the level and amount of veterinary services that the owners are willing to provide. Between the ages of 6 to 24 months, this is when there is the highest level of relinquishment for dogs and the second highest for cats. Therefore the initial few puppy and kitten visits provide the best opportunity to guide pet owners to develop a positive and healthy relationship with their pet. Specifically it has been found that dog owners that have 2 or more puppy visits, and cat owners that are provided with sufficient information and reading material may be at reduced risk for relinquishment.Yet only about 25% of veterinarians routinely inquire about behavior. Additional risks factors were housesoiling and lack of neutering in both dogs and cats, while dogs that lacked obedience training were also at increased risk.

For some of the more common problems, many owners are still making training and reinforcement errors. Many owners inadvertently encourage or reinforce undesirable behavior. Alternately they may resort to isolation, yelling at their pets or pulling on choke collars and almost 50% of pet owners in one shelter study thought that rubbing their pet's nose in a mess might be effective.

Both veterinarians and staff members can offer preventive advice as well as advice on emerging behavior problems. This can be complemented by handouts, pamphlets, DVD's and by providing a list of recommended reading. A clinic website can help to guide the owners to links that provide educational material that your clinic has screened and found to be useful (see The AAHA behavior pamphlets and the Lifelearn® CD of behavior topics ( have been designed as client handouts. Handouts and forms are also available on the CD accompanying the in the Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, and on the CD accompanying the Blackwell's Five Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion Canine & Feline Behavior

1) Preselection consultations

Preselection counseling can help owners choose the most appropriate pet for the household, as well as prepare the home for the arrival of the new pet.

i) Breed: Since puppy assessment testing has shown to be of little or no value in predicting adult behaviors unless the puppy is exceptionally fearful, the best predictors of behavioral and physical attributes are those of the breed and of the parents of the puppy. The veterinarian can aid in finding a breed suitable to the family based on physical factors (e.g. coat, size); family factors (e.g. ages, schedule); and behavioral factors (e.g. herding, guarding).

ii) Age: Obtaining a puppy or kitten is advantageous if the new family has the time and knowledge to socialize, train, and shape the puppy or kitten's behavioral development. Owners that cannot commit to the needs of a puppy or kitten may do better with an adult pet that has had training and socialization. In fact, adult cats may be less problematic when first adopted than kittens.7

iii) Sex: The differences between males and females in size and behavior should be discussed, especially for those owners that are not planning to castrate their male dogs.

iv) Where to obtain: Perhaps the best reasons to obtain a pet from a breeder are to be able to assess a) the health and behavior of the parents and b) the type of upbringing that the puppies or kittens have had. Obtaining references from the breeder can also be invaluable.

v) Temperament testing: Since there is little value to puppy testing, temperament testing for fear, aggression and training problems becomes somewhat more accurate with maturity and into adulthood. Cats might be assessed more readily even at a young age, since their primary socialization period begins to decline by 7 to 9 weeks. Cats have been categorized as falling into one of three behavioural categories of a) confident and easy-going; 2) active and aggressive or 3) timid and nervous. therefore, cats that are fearful or aggressive when petted or handled should likely be avoided. Testing of adult cats or dogs may be somewhat predictive of temperament in the home.

2. Advice for new pet owners

a) Learning principles and training

The principle rule of training should be to reinforce those behaviors that we want and to ignore or prevent those that we don't want. For reinforcement based training, the owner will need to determine what items and what forms of interaction are rewarding for the pet so that these can be used as reinforcers. By avoiding casual interactions and insuring that each social interaction (affection, play, walks), toy, treat or feeding session is used to reinforce those behaviors that the owner wants the pet to learn, the pet in turn gains control over its rewards by engaging in these behaviors.

Many of the normal behaviors of young pets (e.g. elimination, greeting, scavenging) can be annoying or problematic for owners if not channeled into appropriate outlets. However, many owners focus on discouraging those behaviors that are unacceptable rather than reinforcing and encouraging those behaviors that are acceptable. To insure success the environment and daily routine should be designed to meet the pets needs while preventing undesirable behaviors. Providing a daily routine of social times including exercise, play, training and an opportunity to eliminate, followed by sessions of inattention where the pet can engage in object play or rest, insures both enrichment and predictability for the pet. When the owner cannot supervise, pet proofing or crate training may therefore be required. Should the pet engage in behaviors that are undesirable that should not be ignored, then the choices are to train an alternate acceptable behavior (e.g. where to sleep, where to eliminate, what to chew, how to greet) or to find a means of preventing the behavior (e.g. keeping the pet on leash or away from the area). In two recent studies, training that used positive techniques and agility training led to a significantly higher level of obedience, lower training problems and less behavior problems, while punishers led to a significantly higher level of training problems and lower obedience scores. While punishment may have its place in deterring undesirable behavior, it can have detrimental effects on the pet and the pet owner relationship and will be unsuccessful (or even reinforce the behavior) unless properly administered. See the guidelines for punishment at

There are many unsubstantiated, illogical and potentially abusive and dangerous approaches to dog training. Many of these are related to trying to place the dog-human relationship into a pack structure, based on extrapolations from captive wolf behavior, resulting in physical confrontations which are justified as being a means of asserting dominance. While the use of scientifically sound learning principles is the only acceptable means of training and modifying behavior in pets, there has been a recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs into submission as a means of preventing and correcting canine behavior problems, including fear. Veterinarians should utilize trainers who understand and utilize learning theory for training, rather than dominance and confrontational training.

b) Enrichment

Play with other puppies and the bitch not only aids in physical development but also appears to be an important step in the development of adult behaviors including communication, predation, and social relationships. Therefore, even after adopting puppies continued ongoing interactions with other dogs (either within the family or by attending puppy classes) is strongly recommended. In addition since social play involves chasing and biting, these are behaviors that the owners will need to direct to objects and not toward human body parts. Retrieving, tug-of-war, flying-disks, fly ball, agility or playing games with soccer, hockey or football toys, are enjoyable and stimulating ways for the owner and pet to interact. Of course the type of play should be selected to suit the needs of the owner and pet. Although social play begins to decline after 10 weeks, exploratory play increases likely as a means of familiarization with the environment. Some of the most appealing toys to stimulate object play and exploration are those that can be filled or stuffed with food, or have an odor or texture that is appealing to the pet. Many are designed to be manipulated in order for the pet to acquire treats or food. Freezing may further prolong interest Novelty is also important so that rotating or reinventing toys may be useful. If inappropriate chewing, play or exploration arises, the owners should focus on providing and encouraging sufficient exploratory outlets and preventing or discouraging undesirable behaviors perhaps with the control of a leash and head halter. When the pet cannot be supervised, a confinement area for resting and object play might be utilized.

Play in kittens is also important for physical development as well as in the development of communication, predation and intraspecific social relationships. Feline social play with siblings and queen begins to decline around 12 to 14 weeks. Predatory behaviors and agonistic social behaviors may become part of social play in the third month and object play peaks around 18 weeks of age. Social play with humans and other cats should begin early in the socialization period. To properly engage the predatory nature of the cat, object play is perhaps the most practical way for owners to play with their cats. It may be motivationally identical to predatory behavior so that it can be controlled or altered by the size and type of toy and degree of hunger. Mouse sized toys in a hungry cat are more likely to elicit close contact play and killing bites.14 Outdoor cats may eat 8 to 10 mice a day, not to mention the numerous missed "catches". Therefore owners should try and direct play toward prey type objects several times a day, particularly when the cat is hungry. Rather than chasing human body parts, wand type toys with prey type objects can be used to motivate chasing and grasping by moving and dragging in a manner that simulates prey. If these toys are filled with food or catnip they might further motivate the cat to chase. Studies have also found that cats can rapidly habituate to a specific toy, but that play itself may be heightened or intensified especially within the first five minutes.15 Therefore, it is advisable that owners should proceed to additional toys at each play session, after the cat loses interest in the first. Toys stuffed with food or treats can be used to provide multiple small and challenging feedings. Perches, scratching posts, boxes and paper bags for exploration, and cat grass are other forms of indoor enrichment.

c) Identifying and preventing fear and anxiety

The focus of early training should be to prevent any potential sources of future fear and anxiety. Some puppies and kittens quickly habituate to stimuli and situations. However, if body handling, approaching the food bowl, taking away treats or toys, or certain people, sounds or environments lead to anxiety, fear, or "possessive" or "protective" responses including struggling, shaking, escape attempts or avoidance, threats or aggressive displays, it is imperative that the owners begin a graduated exposure program (desensitization) along with counterconditioning. This might include using sound desensitization CD's; handling and food bowl exercises; teaching drop and give for favored rewards; associating new people, pets and environments with food, treats or play; and positive and gradual exposure to specific stimuli such as elevators, cars, moving objects or uniforms to which there may be emerging fear. There may be some value to the use of DAP diffuser in the home or a DAP collar in helping puppies to calm and settle and a Feliway diffuser to help reduce anxiety in kittens and cats. (See notes on drug therapy).

3) Puppy classes, kitty kindergarten and obedience training

Advising pet owners to keep their pets away from other pets until after all vaccinations are complete might be prudent to avoid illness; however, this is a time in the pet's life where primary socialization and habituation to new stimuli is critical. (See for socialization guidelines). Therefore one compromise is to introduce and socialize puppies to other pets and people in a training environment such as a puppy class. Puppy classes also help owners to identify emerging problems so that they can be addressed early and can greatly improve training skills.16 In one study retention was highest in dogs that attended puppy classes, were female, wore headcollars as puppies, were handled frequently, were more responsive to commands, slept on or near owner's bed or lived in homes without children <6.17 If puppy classes are offered in the hospital, they reinforce the clinic's role in behavior counseling and provide an additional opportunity to review techniques and products. If it is impractical to hold puppy classes in your facility, you might consider having a party for new puppy owners every few months. Puppies can then be referred to a local trainer for classes. A one to two session meet-the-staff, socialization, play and advice evening for kittens (kitty kindergarten) could also be considered.

4) Behavior screening

Questioning the owner at each veterinary visit as to whether there are any behavioral problems helps to ensure early detection and intervention, as well as to demonstrate the veterinarian's interest and concern about behavioral issues. For young dogs and cats this is particularly important since prevention and early intervention are much more likely to be effective, than trying to correct / unlearn an established behavior. Of course if screening identifies emerging problems, then appropriate behavior management advice whether by veterinarians, staff, behavioral resources or trainers will need to be provided.

5) Behavior management products

Many products serve as enrichment devices while others are designed to aid in training and control. Products have been developed for social and object play, chewing, food foraging, scratching, bedding and confinement. Odor counteractants are needed if there is housesoiling and pheromones may help reduce anxiety when a pet moves into a new home. Avoidance devices can keep pets away from areas where they might injure themselves or cause damage. Head halters, control harnesses for cats and dogs as well as clickers and targets for reward training all provide a means of insuring positive and effective training. For further behavioral guidance and head halter fitting videos visit

6) Surgery

Castration will reduce or prevent male sexual behavior. After castration, 70-80% of dogs showed improvement in urine marking, mounting and roaming, while 25 to 40% of owners reported resolution in these behaviors. Aggression toward family dogs or family members was reduced in 30% of dogs, while aggression toward unfamiliar dogs or intruders was reduced in 10 to 20% of dogs.18 Castration in cats reduces urine odor and sexually dimorphic behavior traits such as roaming, fighting, and urine marking and perhaps makes them more docile.19


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