Today I would like to talk to you about Poppy, 2 year old Labrador with aggressive tendencies. She was booked in with me two weeks ago for a brief consultation to discuss her behavioural issues. The owner walked in the consultation looking quite unsettled. He handed me the behavioural questionnaire I requested his family to fill out and said:
‘After going through the questionnaire, I don’t think ‘Poppy’ has a behavioural issue?’
I instantly realised how tender the subject was for this owner and that he may well indeed be in the denial period.
I asked him to tell me why he then felt this consultation was necessary and to discuss his concerns with me openly. He explained that ‘Poppy’ had nipped two family members on a few occasions over the past year and her aggressive behaviour seems to have escalated over the past 6 months. He was very concerned that her aggression seems unpredictable and was concerned she ends up causing some serious damage.
My job at that stage was to guide the owner by answering key questions to help us both trace the problem back to its roots. Unfortunately we were only booked a half an hour slot because this was the only preliminary consultation available that suited the owner.
It is crucial for me to note that I am not a qualified veterinary behaviourist yet.
I have done lots of training in this area and currently discuss all my cases closely with Dr. Gabrielle Carter, one of the only two veterinary behaviourist specialists registered in Australia. I have discovered a niche in this area of veterinary medicine and am working towards completing my membership in this area in the next 1-2 years and hopefully specialising later down the track.
On that note, you must be aware that the average veterinarian is not trained in veterinary behavioural medicine. However, before you can be referred to a veterinary behaviourist, you must go to your local veterinarian so they can examine your pet and rule in/out any underlying medical conditions and to discuss your primary concerns. ‘
They will then be able to distinguish if your pet is suffering from a problem behaviour rather than a behavioural problem.
There is a clear distinction between the two. Behavioural problems include separation anxiety, noise phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder or any other type of psychological disorders and these usually require medical intervention by a qualified veterinarian; ideally one that is experienced in behavioural medicine. On the opposite spectrum, problem behaviour is a normal behaviour in a pet that is perceived as unacceptable and problematic based on where it occurs. For example, a dog with toileting issues indoors or a cat that drinks from water taps. Generally speaking, it is a normal behaviour for a dog to answer nature’s call but it is the context in where it occurs that becomes problematic. Nobody appreciates pet excrements on their carpet. It is also quite normal for a cat to want to drink from a stream of water and that is why they crave drinking from the water tap. However, again it is not hygienic to have your water taps infused with cat mouth germs.
Your local vet should be able to give you appropriate advice on how to manage a problem behaviour.
It usually only requires the vet to explain to you that it is indeed a normal behaviour but needs to be managed appropriately. For the dog that urinates/defecates indoors, if it has not been toilet trained indoors, then that’s all it needs and the areas need to be cleaned with appropriate products like urine off. As for the cat tap hogger, you just need to get it a cat fountain that it likes and encourage it to use that instead.
Sometimes some problem behaviours may indeed have an underlying medical component and if that is not addressed, things can go pear shaped quite quickly. Owners usually come to veterinarians when they have reached the end of their tether. They usually have expended all their energy on implementing advice from pet trainers, famous pet shows or even neighbours who have grown up with animals.
Clearly, people should realise their pets are individuals and their experiences can be quite variable depending on many factors: their origins, the types of people that own them, the environment they live in and the interactions they experience from when they are born until this very day. Personally I feel each one of my pets carries a unique personality and would be insulted if someone met any one of them and acted like they knew everything there is to know about them.
They all offer a range of great advice specific to each case they discuss. That particular advice may not apply to your pet and may escalate its problem behaviour or behavioural problem instead.
Back to ‘Poppy’s consultation, I basically had to determine two key issues in a very brief period. I needed the owner to express his intentions clearly without feeling so vulnerable about what his aims were with ‘Poppy’. I also had to explain to the owner my role in this whole process. The owner was very honest but vague.
He could not utter the words euthanasia but clearly stated he and his family had totally lost faith in their dog and they doubt they can ever trust her again.
I then had to be brutal with my questioning and simply asked: ‘Are you saying you have decided to put ‘Poppy’ down?’. I felt that I already knew the answer to that question but the owner baffled me in his reply. He said: ‘No we don’t want her euthanized, she is a lovely dog and we think she needs to be re-homed to a more suitable owner (one without children) that can manage her issues better’.
While the owner went on to explain his reasons for opting to re-home ‘Poppy’ instead of being involved in managing her issues himself, I closely observed her movements in the consultation room. She had her tail between her legs, adopted a very tucked up position and hid behind her owner. I could immediately tell this poor pooch was very timid. Seeing that she was a Labrador and food was usually the breed’s forte, I tried to lure her to interact with me via liver treats. I failed miserably. She would only take the treats if I threw them right in front of her nose; otherwise, she maintained her distance.
Re-homing ‘Poppy’ did not sound a like a good idea to me.
She was very anxious and in a new environment, I doubted she would cope unless it was with a much clued on person that was committed to taking her on with all her baggage.
We discussed other options like proceeding to the next step which would involve a full behavioural consultation and the owners re-committing themselves to Poppy and allowing me to help amend their fractured pet-human bond.
I applied an Adaptil collar on to help reduce her anxiety. Unfortunately, that backfired as her level of aggression seemed to spiral out of control. I honestly can’t say it is because of the Adaptil collar as she was already not bite inhibited. In saying so, I totally respect the owners feedback and wonder if in this particular case, ‘Poppy’ gained more confidence with the dog appeasing pheromone to launch more attacks on both her human and non-human co-inhabitants.
Sadly, ‘Poppy’ was posing too high a risk to keep at her current home and the owners could not house her on their premises while trying to find a suitable new owner.
I supported the owner in his final decision to put her to sleep because I knew deep down it was the best thing to do given these circumstances.
I must acknowledge that these pet owners are very dedicated animal lovers. This decision certainly did not come easy to them. They are the same owners that gave me the okay to operate on their pet goose ‘Goosey‘ which isn’t very common.
This is definitely not the outcome I strove for when I conducted this behavioural consultation. I wished I had met ‘Poppy’ 2 years ago when she was a puppy and been able to pick up on her anxiety issues. It makes me really wonder if I may have averted this situation through treating her anxiety and giving the owners sound guidance on her management and training.
In my experience, I find that vets are always involved in the raw end of the deal when it comes to behavioural issues in pets. I am often very excited when owners have booked me for a behavioural consultation. However, this excitement is more often tarnished when I realise some owners are only after a quick solution. They hope I can magically fix a problem that has been ongoing for several months/years or that I can give them the emotional support they seek to put down their pet without feeling ‘guilty’.
I leave you with this plea.
Please seek the advice of a veterinarian that you have established a great rapport with especially when it comes to issues with your pet’s behaviour.
Don’t leave your veterinarian as the last resort because it may indeed be too late to offer any helpful advice at that stage!
This is a video of one of my behavioural cases. The owners happened to land me for a vaccination consultation when he was a year old and I knew he had issues then. Meet ‘Gus’, a 2 year old Beagle cross with generalized anxiety. It took the owners about 6-8 months to seek my veterinary behavioural advise and they too waited until it was almost too late. Thankfully, they are very dedicated owners and are trying to manage his issues under my guidance with anti-anxiety medication and behavioural modification training.
Don’t leave your pet until he gets to this stage!