Behaviour: Some Thoughts and Tips

If there is one thing I could change in the world it would be that owners don’t walk up to any Vet and say; “Can I just have a quick word? It won’t take up too much of your time? My dog is barking or biting etc, can you tell me how to stop it.”

No one would walk up to a Doctor or a Vet and say: “Can I have quick word? It won’t take long-my child/pet has been Vomiting for months-how can you stop it?

Vomiting is a sign something is wrong with the Body.

Barking, or other behavioural issues are signs something is wrong with the Brain.

Both can cause serious injury to the sufferer but also to those around them.

These problems need time and effort from everyone involved in the case and needs to be given the Respect they deserve.

Yet owners put the Vet on the spot: they want a highly complex problem solved in about 60 seconds flat and then get grumpy and dismissive when the Vet asks to the owner to book a proper time slot, so that the issue can be given the respect it deserves.

Medics Educate, Owners Heal. All of that requires Time.

I attended an on-line webinar recently held by the company that we use to train our nurses in Puppy School Instruction. It was a very good presentation, which served to  remind me it was time to again re-emphasise to owners some of the basic tenets of behaviour that often get overlooked and confused by owners whose pet has ‘issues’.

There is no magic cure for pet Behaviour issues.

There are cures for Training problems but not for Behavioural issues.

Training is needed for walking properly on a lead ie no pulling on-lead, no jumping up, how to have ‘manners’ and other basic social interactions we want our pets to know. All of that that is basic normal behaviour/manners  and those issues need a Trainer not a Behaviourist.

Barking is normal; Barking all day is not. You can train your dog to bark on command and to not bark. A dog whose barking cannot be controlled has a problem, a Behaviour issue. To stop that abnormal level of barking requires commitment from the owner and often behavioural medication from the vet.

If your dog raids your bin, that is normal. The dog doesn’t need medication to stop this. It needs the owner to remove the bin from access and place something on the original site to retrain the dog to have a different expectation of that area.

If you have a Dachshund or a scent hound and it spends its time with its nose on the floor of your kitchen hoovering up ‘invisible’ (to you) crumbs-that is normal. These dogs live in a world of scent and your kitchen floor is scent central. These dogs don’t need medication; your dog is normal and happy doing this with no harm done to anyone.

Biting is normal if in pain or fighting with another dog. We don’t like when they do this, but we can understand the How and the Why. We can stop these dogs from failing and set them up for success by use of a muzzle and gentle handling and remaining on an ‘appropriate’ lead. (More on ‘appropriate leads’ in another post later).

It is not normal if a dog bites everything and anyone out of context (or so it seems to the humans) and unprovoked (to the human’s way of thinking) etc.

Behavioural problems are where both the brain and the brain chemicals are misfiring and that pet is now not listening or Responsive but instead is Reactive.

These dogs do need medication to assist in re-wiring the brain to a less reactive state wherein the pet can now be calm enough to learn. Again-you don’t learn to swim for the first time when you are drowning. You have to be in a receptive calm state to learn; the same holds true for our pets.

Brain disease manifesting as abnormal mental or emotional health may be due to a deficiency of the hormone Serotonin; a deficiency that often requires life-long drug therapy to stabilise. No owner would have a personal issue or conflict with being told their dog has Diabetes because the pet doesn’t produce enough of the hormone know as Insulin; all accept the need for the lifelong supply of the hormone Insulin. Serotonin hormone deficiency should be viewed in the same manner.

Back when I was a vet student, we had to study animal behaviour as a full examinable part of the degree. (I do get irked when I now attend courses etc where the non-vet speakers talk of needing to engage vets in behaviour. Every animal a vet handles requires application of behaviour knowledge. For the vets I know, there is no start nor stop-point to behaviour management-we have been doing it for years; just not loudly and with labels and promotion). So, as students we learnt what was normal and what was not. Other than the Dominance theory, very little has changed since then in regards to what we consider normal behaviour.

What has changed is how we address the abnormal.

What I believed/practised 20 or 30 years ago on management of behaviour has changed considerably. With the explosion of knowledge in brain chemistry and function, of neuroplasticity and PTSD, of primary brain disease, we now can reach a greater number of animals with mental or emotional health problems and make their lives better.

However, there will remain a group of pets that no matter how much love and time and effort is put into that pet, their damage is so bad and so permanent that Euthanasia may be the only option. Every animal has a Right to Live but also a Right to Die. We forget that last right in our bid to keep all animals alive. Mother Nature would not allow such an animal to persist in such pain. Either a larger predator would remove it from the herd and end its suffering or the animal itself would crawl away and allow itself to die. When we take animals into our lives and homes and remove them from the natural circle of life, we have to provide the right to die as well as the means to live. Euthanasia is the giving of a gentle death. Sometimes that is the best gift you can give this group of mentally tormented animals, for whom life has no quality, despite all external appearances of good physical health etc.

Behaviour Tips:

  1. Don’t just stop your pet failing- Set your pet up for success.

Don’t focus on just stopping an issue:provide the means to give the pet an option to experience/do the right thing

2. Socialise but do not Sensitise to Life: Don’t overload or overstress the pet with too much at any one time.

Provide a simple ‘Safe-Zone’ that the dog has access to 24/7.

Accept that some dogs hate Doggy-Day-Care and don’t take them


Acknowledge how much your dog Loves going to Doggy-Day-care and ensure regular access

3. Not all pets like every person.

Don’t force an interaction a pet doesn’t need.

You might believe All animals love You and hence the owner saying the pet prefers to be left alone doesn’t apply to You. It Does…apply to You!

Forcing that pet to accept You is not success. Forcing that pet to accept You and not be bitten by that pet or have it run away from You is not success. When animals can’t Flee or Fight, they Freeze or Fidget. That pet you have forced to accept you may ‘look’ ok, but in fact is hiding huge stress storms and may take days to recover from your well-intentioned, but in fact forced and selfish interaction. If an owner gives you a head’s up about their pet: LISTEN TO THE MESSAGE.

4. Accept that some dogs don’t like to go on walks and prefer to stay home.

For sure, these dogs are the exception but for them, a walk is a regular exposure to terror and stress and anxiety. I know of some wonderfully funny happy dogs who love life at home, they are perfect pets until a lead appears. So, ditch the lead and up the play and interaction in the backyard: avoid the exposure to failure and fear but increase the exposure to positive play and success.

In Summary:

Trainers cannot train a dog out of a mental health problem.

Behavioural Medicine is not pet training.

Mental and Emotional ill-health does not age-discriminate. Puppies and Kittens can suffer emotional ill-health that left untreated, can scar these pets for life and often shorten their lives.

Where the behaviour is not normal, you need to move beyond a Trainer  on to a Behavioural/Vet psychology/medication intervention platform.

Emotional and Mental Health is fluid and dynamic and differs in degree for every single pet. All of this impacts on success control rates and also on failure rates. These behavioural  interventions will need Time to plan and do.

These pets need:
Time with their Vets.
Time from you the Owner.
Time for the medications to work.
Time for the environmental modifications to work.

4 Responses to “Behaviour: Some Thoughts and Tips”

  1. Aine Seavers says:

    Tanya Lockhart: It’s amazing how after having a dog with a mental issue (anxiety) for a year, thinking we had it mostly controlled, we hit a bump by simply buying new furniture. To us it was just new furniture. To our girl, it was overwhelming new smells and a loss of familiarity and it took us a couple of weeks to work out what had upset her and a few more weeks of reassurance to get her to accept it. Remembering that a step back is not a failure can be difficult, but even if we go two steps forward and one back, we are still getting ahead. If your dog has a behavioural problem, listen to the specialists and give them a chance. Luna has never given up on us. We can’t give up on her.

  2. Aine Seavers says:

    Carol Lewis:Thank you for this, this is easily read and understood.
    May I offer a resource for those who have fought the battle for their pet’s mental health and lost it because of behavioural issues?
    There is a FB Group named Losing Lulu, named in honour of a pup named Lulu who was eventually euthanised for her aggressive behaviour. Anyone who has had to do this is welcome to share their Lulu when and if they wish. It is a very supportive Group, and we have all been in that unenviable position.
    Sadly, like human mental health issues, doggy mental health is still pretty much behind closed doors, but no less real.

  3. Aine Seavers says:

    Exactly and if we don’t spread the word then more dogs will die from behaviour issues and mental & emotional health woes than just about any other physical health problem they could suffer from. Often ‘aggressive’ dogs have other health and pain issues so a full medical investigation always needed. Proper socialisation can help but genetics play a huge part. Proper informed matings and proper breeding can prevent a lot of issues. Early recognition by owners and vets even at the first puppy visit is also vital.We have been trying to get owners to understand even at the first puppy visit that in about 1 in 5 pups, we see issues of mental and emotional health concerns already. ‘Training’ doesn’t fix those pups:they need correct behaviour intervention that sets the pup up to not fail but also set them up to succeed. Some pets need medication and often it takes a trial of a number of different medications before you find the one that settles the brain so the dog can learn. However, despite all of that, no matter how much an owner loves and cares and tries their best with a particular dog, some mental illness is so severe in a particular dog that it lives a life of global fear 24/7 and is in total misery, yet to all outsiders it looks perfectly normal. Their owners then feel ‘judged’ by wider society. I weep when I see dogs on their 9th year in a rescue society because it has failed 5 or 7 homes. At what point do we stop and say-for whom and for why do we continue to do this to this animal? We can help the vast majority of pets to lead a normal life but some will not be able to be helped. The Vet profession is trying to have mental health added to all Quality of Life Questionnaires we use to help clients make a decision about euthanasia.

  4. Aine Seavers says:

    Tanya :Would you be able to share your time table for the wondrous Luna here so we can show others some of the things that are needed to keep these dogs in good emotional and mental health. You can’t name the drugs as they are S4s and there are funny rules about mentioning medications by name so maybe just cover over and say-Behaviour med, stomach meds etc. For anyone who would like to know more about Luna, we have some videos on our youtube channel where you can see Luna learn to experience life and love in the Lockharts rescue home.