Is Cesar Millan going to fix your dog?

April 16, 2012



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.

As such, it is important not to take the tips given on famous pet shows like Dog Whisperer, It’s Me Or The Dog and My Cat From Hell.

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!

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About Rayya T-Malaeb

Hi I am Dr. Rayya. I created this site to take you on a journey of my life as a vet! I hope to inspire you, teach you, learn from you. Most importantly help pet owners and animals around the world by sharing pictures, videos and posts from my everyday experiences.

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57 Comments on “Is Cesar Millan going to fix your dog?”

  1. Alli Farkas Says:

    Wow, an “unfriendly” Lab–sounds like an oxymoron! Really makes you wonder what happened all along the way to create this behavior.


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Alli. Thanks for your input. Nowadays we are seeing an increased prevalence of anxiety disorders affecting popular breeds like Labradors, Staffies, Cavaliers & so forth. Unfortunately there is a genetic predisposition but other factors play a major role. That is a subject for discussion in one of my future articles :-)


  2. 2browndawgs Says:

    That is a sad story. Unfortunately there are occassionally dogs that have serious behavior issues and cannot be saved. I am curious though, were any tests done to rule out a physical problem that may have been causing the agression?


    • Rayya Says:

      It is indeed very sad. We did a full physical exam and blood work. Her results were normal. You bring up a very important point and I thank you so much for that. It is crucial to rule out an underlying medical/physical issue first. You can only be referred to a vet behaviourist once your vet has done a full workup!


  3. Real World Mom Says:

    Very interesting article!


  4. becomingcliche Says:

    I’m sorry that Poppy’s case had such a sad outcome.


    • Rayya Says:

      Thanks Heather. It was pretty aweful for all involved :-(


      • becomingcliche Says:

        I can only imagine. I have a friend who has a breed that is typically self-assured and friendly, and every single one of them is a weirdo. The common denominator is the owner. I hate to say it, but sometimes we spoil our pets too much. To their extreme detriment. I am so excited for you and your up-and-coming specialty. It is much needed!

      • Rayya Says:

        Hey Heather.
        Thanks for sharing your personal experience. Yes some pet owners do influence their pet’s behaviour. However, I have on many occasions met great owners that have a normal dog and a very mentally unstable dog. Those poor owners often bring in the normal dog to prove they are not the common denominator :-). Veterinary behavioural medicine should also include a pre-requisite in human psychology ;-). Thanks for the thumbs up and support for my future specialisation.

      • becomingcliche Says:

        I so agree on requiring psych for vets.

        You’re so right. Sometimes it’s NOT the owner at all. Sometimes it’s just one of those inexplicable anomalies. So sad when it happens!

  5. michellegilstrap Says:

    Thank you for a great article. I really appreciate the information. I have raised two puppies through their adult years until 17 and they did have to be taught early the behavior and accepted ones in the house.


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Michelle. Thanks for your great feedback. You are absolutely right, early socialisation is very important. If a puppy isn’t well socialized during the critical period of 4-14 weeks of age, it can impact the rest of its life negatively!


  6. Jyll Says:

    This is terribly sad that a dog had to be killed because the owners were too naive or stupid to not train their dog. You sympathize with the owners but not with the animal. The animal did nothing in this case but had bad owners. Maybe they tried to have it trained but I have to wonder how hard did they try ? A dog should be taken like a responsiblity similar to a child. Do not get one if you are not willing to put the work into owning an animal.


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Jyll. In all honesty, I don’t think training alone would have helped ‘Poppy’. Her issues should have been addressed much earlier on and she would have required anti-anxiety medications in the initial period to allow her to respond to training and may have indeed needed life long medication. Personally, I rescued my dog ‘Shepo’ who was going to be put down for biting and I rehabilitated him and he has never bitten since. My duty is to educate as many people around me about sad cases like these.


  7. Sonel Says:

    Wow! It’s strange to hear about a Lab having behavioural problems like that Rayya. What a sad case it must have been for you indeed hon. Sorry about that. :( Unfortunately I have to agree with some of the bloggers and that is that the fault lied with the owners and they were only there for a “quick-fix” as you called it.
    Stunning article with true facts about not taking tips from pet shows. Most people must start realising that pets are way more intelligent than we will ever be and most of the times we are the problem, not them.


    • Rayya Says:

      Sonel. I think you are awesome! You always find a way to put a smile on my face and cheer me up. This case was very hard for me to write about and there are so many others that are bottled up inside!
      I totally agree, pets are way more intelligent that people are willing to give them credit! :-)


      • Sonel Says:

        I am glad I could bring a smile to your lovely face Rayya. I know for a fact that this was a very tough case for you because you would have loved to save this beautiful Lab and I am sure there are still lots bottled up inside hon. You must let it out and if you ever feel like it, you are more than welcome to send me and email and just get it all out. No questions ask, no judgment you will ever get from me because I understand completely sweetie and I know it helps to just talk about it. Just see on top of my blog (contact me).

        The vet I worked for ended up with 43 dogs and cats (and that was the total when we moved..hehehe) and most of them were cases where the owners didn’t want the pets anymore because of 1 leg that had to be removed, or where the pet was just left and the owner didn’t come back for it, etc. Doc and his wife could never get it over their hearts to take these animals to the SPCA. That is the kind of people they were and his wife still helps everywhere she can and you remind me so much of Doc. You have such a kind, loving and caring heart and my heart breaks for you because I know what you’re going through. :)

        Take care my sweet friend and know I am here for you. :)
        *big hugs* to you and those gorgeous babies of yours from me and Simba. xxx

      • Rayya Says:

        Hey Sonel. I might definitely take you up on that offer. Wow Doc and his wife did do much, keeping 47 animals is a big responsibility. You are absolutely right, it is shocking test people think it’s easy for a vet to put down an animal. I took an oath to protect those creatures from harm & I honor it each day. Thank you do much for your amazing support. Big hug back.

      • Sonel Says:

        You are very welcome hon and my offer stands always. Yes, they really loved these furry beasts as they called them and it is shocking that people can think that. I’ve seen many times how Doc cried when he had to put one down. Sometimes you just don’t have a choice but never ever doubt yourself hon. I also believe that people who judge should make sure they’re perfect before they do it. :)
        Have a great day hon and big hugs and smooches for you and your beautiful kiddies. :)

  8. magsx2 Says:

    A truly very sad story, it just makes you wonder how the dog really got that bad in the first place, training I feel is a must from the time you pick up your puppy all through the life of a dog,
    It really must of been a terrible position you were in.


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Mags.
      It does make you wonder a lot about how Poppy’s behaviour developed over time. However, there is a big misconception that all dogs can simply be trained out of certain habbits. Some dogs have behavioural issues and these are medical conditions requiring medication and training alone won’t fix it.


  9. animalartist Says:

    I’m neither a veterinarian nor an animal behaviorist, yet people ask me for advice for their cats all the time. They never consider actually consulting with a professional of any sort and I’m sure dog owners don’t either. Usually with cats it’s not aggression, it’s peeing in the house, put bluntly, but plenty of cats have been euthanized just for that when owners aren’t willing to determine why it’s happening, they just want it to magically stop.

    But like the dog and the cats, if the animal really needs to go to another place for its behavior to be modified, and there is no place to go, what can be done? Aside from taking it in ourselves, the owners decide. There is no good ending.


    • Rayya Says:

      Dear Bernadette

      Thank you for your very relevant point of view. I highly regard your opinion.
      I rarely get owners bring in their cats for spraying until they have had enough of it. It often shocks me that they have tolerated the smell of urine for so long without asking for vet intervention to help treat the problem. Most of them walk in uninterested in hearing any solutions for a long standing problem.


  10. Animalcouriers Says:

    A very sad outcome but as you say, you need to treat this kind of behaviour very early to stand any chance of resolving the problem :(


  11. Jo Woolf Says:

    I didn’t realise that dogs – or any pets – could have such a range of psychological disorders. That’s a sad story. Good luck with your training – sounds like the vet world needs more specialists who can offer real help and solutions to these problems.


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Jo.
      Yes there a quite a few animals that suffer from psychological issues and are often unidentified. They can be treated and managed well if the owners end up getting the appropriate advise from qualified vet behaviourists. Often people blame the owners for their pet’s issues but in some cases, these owners aren’t at fault and their pet has some serious underlying anxiety disorder requiring medical attention. Thank you for the support. Veterinary behaviourists are definitely on high demand these days :-)


  12. Jodi Stone Says:

    This post makes me very sad. It would seem from Poppy’s demeanor that she was frightened and confused. It’s sad the owner wouldn’t explore some other options.


  13. amyshojai Says:

    Excellent and important post, and I will share. Thanks so much for all you do for the animals–and the people involved. Sadly, not all can be saved–but Poppy’s sacrifice hopefully will help the owners and others learn that there are ways to help.


  14. Bassas Blog Says:

    Very, very interesting. I had wondered why my kitten likes the water tap.


  15. Paws To Talk Says:

    We had tears in our eyes as we read this post. Our mommy is reading over our shoulders and she is crying. We wish Poppy met a better fate. It seems that you did all you could and your plea for more training is so important.
    Bella and DiDi


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Bella & Didi. This part of my job always,makes me,want to cry too. It’s not easy to not be given an opportunity to save a pet.


  16. Nicolas Says:

    Great tips. Thanks for sharing.


  17. Rosie Scribblah Says:

    So sad. We shouldn’t assume that we fur-less monkeys are the only species to have psychiatric and behavioural problems.


  18. angelswhisper2011 Says:

    I feel so sorry for Poppy and for you, Raya, that must have been a tough decision to make, I also got a lump in my throat by reading this sad story :(
    Our cat, Little Binky, is also a problem “child”, but with homeopathic treatment, lots of patience and the understanding of her traumatic past, she is such a good cat :) And we also musn’t underestimate the influence that people have on their pets when they’re not feeling good or being depressed or in other kind emotionale charged. They say that children are the mirror of yourself, I believe pets are too :)


    • Rayya Says:

      Thanks for the support. You are absolutely right. Our emotional state will definitely influence our pets’ energy. I am happy to hear ‘Little Blinky’ is blessed with a loving and very dedicated owner that has gone the extra mile to help her overcome her traumatic past. :-)


  19. All Natural Pet Care Says:

    What a gutwrenching conclusion for both you and the pet parents to come to. It’s easy to sit back as an observer and say this (or any aggressive) dog could have been saved, but that isn’t reality. Thankfully, the majority of the time the behaviour can be rectified.


    • Rayya Says:

      It sure is a gutwrenching conclusion for everyone involved in that case. In theory, I firmly believe every dog should at least be given the opportunity to rectify its behaviour. However, in some circumstances when the risk is just too high and the owners are not willing to take it and the government doesn’t offer any support for those creatures, the animal is not given a life line :-(.


  20. tinkerwolf Says:

    This must be so so difficult for you to do. I agree that if you’re having problems with your dog then getting help (and going via your vet to a reputable behaviourist) is so important. I have read about how stress builds in dogs so if you don’t have a management plan in place things will likely get worse the longer things are left. For those dogs that have underlying problems not caused by the owner I wonder who much is to do with poor breeding, things seem to be getting worse in this area, puppy mills and breeders breeding exclusively for appearance with little regard for temperament.


    • Rayya Says:

      Thank you for your insight. You are definitely stating a fact: some breeders out there are only focusing on appearance and temperant is being put on the back burner. A reputable and educated breeder should know that temperament must be taken into serious consideration when breeding. I hope the awareness campaigns against puppy mills keeps spreading and that more stringent laws are placed for attainng a breeding licence.


  21. Elliott Says:

    Hey Rayya – I’m a vet in the U.S. Army currently working in Sicily, just across the Mediterranean from your family! I get to deal with a lot of behavioral issues, especially in our military working dogs. Fortunately we have a couple of board-certified behaviorists in the Army so I’m trying to learn all I can from them. I’m working with one dog who is recently back from a combat deployment and is dealing with some PTSD-like symptoms. Anyway, I just discovered your blog and Facebook page — quite impressive! I’ll look forward to following along in the future.


    • Rayya Says:

      Hey Elliott. I am equally fascinated to hear from you. I would love information on how you would manage and treat those dogs with PTSD-like symptoms. Are you a predominantly small animal vet or mixed?
      I am so glad to hear you enjoyed my blog and facebook page. Welcome aboard and I look forward to our continued contact. :-)


      • Elliott Says:

        Rayya, great to hear back from you. I mostly see dogs and cats in my current assignment, with a few exotics thrown in for fun (albino hedgehog this morning!). My first love is wildlife, though. I spent a month during vet school working with an awesome vet over in Cairns, QLD, who has a clinic very similar to yours and sees lots of native wildlife on the side. Therapy for our PTSD-like dogs is usually a combination of re-training with lots of positive reinforcement and one or more drugs. I’m happy to share more details offline sometime.

      • Rayya Says:

        Hey Elliott. Exotics are pretty exciting for sure. I bet you enjoyed your Queensland experience. I hear hedgehogs are so cutee :-). I would definitely love more information on therapy of PTSD-like dogs via email when you get a spare moment. Sounds like you may further specialize in wildlife/zoo medicine further down the line. Best of luck :-)

  22. Wayside Artist Says:

    Dr. Rayya,

    This truly was a sad and difficult case, with an unfortunate outcome for all. I appreciate reading your thoughts on how important it is to intervene early in a behavior situation, and to not try TV training on a pet. That makes so much sense that what works for the trainer on TV can’t be expected to work on a pet we “think” has the same problem.

    Thanks for another informative post :)

    Nanina and Poppy


  23. Rayya Says:

    Thank you so much for your great feedback. I look forward to your future comments and to reading your blog. :-)


  24. sleep aids Says:

    Excellent article. I will be dealing with some of these issues as



  1. Monday Mentions: Reading Monkeys, Chocolate Diet & Musical Cure « Amy Shojai's Blog - April 17, 2012

    [...] Is Cesar Milan Going To Fix Your Dog? an excellent post from veterinarian Dr. Rayya who explains the difference between behavioral problems and problem behaviors. [...]

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