Help, my dog has a behaviour problem!

by Rachel Casey

Help, my dog has a behaviour problem!

A behaviour problem is really any behaviour shown by a dog that people find a problem! And because people vary in how much they tolerate different behaviours in their dogs, ‘problems’ can range from jumping up to serious aggression.

So where do you go for help? Well, for training problems, such as pulling on the lead or not coming back to you, look for a reputable trainer – and check out the advice on finding a suitable class on our training page or find your nearest Dogs Trust Dog School.

However, if your dog shows behaviours such as aggression, withdraws from particular events, panics with loud noises, or cannot be left alone without barking or causing damage to the house, then you should seek help from your vet. Your vet will be able to refer you to somebody who specialises in clinical behaviour. These behaviours are often signs that your dog is experiencing fear or anxiety, and a qualified behaviourist will be able to develop a tailored treatment programme to resolve both the behaviour and any underlying emotional distress.

Why do I need to see a vet first?

Behavioural changes can be an indication of a medical problem.

There are a whole range of different conditions that can first present as an apparent ‘behaviour problem’ but which are in fact signs of disease. Medical conditions can only be diagnosed by a vet, and may require additional tests to identify the specific disorder. Because many of these conditions are very serious, it is important that your vet sees your dog first so that any necessary treatment is started as soon as possible.

Medical factors can also influence the development of behaviours even where they are not the sole cause of a problem. For example, a sore ear in the past may be an important factor in the development of an aggressive response to being stroked on the head. It is important for a vet to examine your dog and make sure that a full medical history is passed on to the behaviourist, so that all relevant factors can be taken into account in deciding on the best treatment approach.

Types of behaviour professionals

Depending on the problem, your vet may refer you to a clinical behaviourist, or another vet who specialises in behaviour, or to a reputable trainer for training issues.

Vets who specialize in behaviour are recognised by specialist boards. In Europe, they are regulated by the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine, and in the USA by the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists. In addition to a veterinary degree, these specialists have considerable further training and experience in clinical behaviour. For example, they have usually completed a three year residency training programme in an approved centre, published some research and seen hundreds of cases before taking an entrance examination. Veterinary Specialists treat a wide range of cases, but have particular expertise on the relationship between medical problems and behavioural signs, and are also able to determine whether medication is necessary in conjunction with behaviour modification as part of a dog’s treatment programme.

Your vet may refer you to a clinical behaviourist. Because anybody can use the title ‘behaviourist’, even without qualifications or experience, it’s important to check that they belong to an organisation where members have to have good standards of both qualification and experience to join. This will ensure that they will have the right up-to-date knowledge, skills and experience to treat your dog. For example, in the UK, the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) is an independent organisation which accredits Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB). Membership includes obtaining an approved qualification at degree level or above, and undertaking an extensive period of supervised clinical training. The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) also represents animal behaviourists in the UK, and requires applicants to have at least a relevant degree, two years experience or a postgraduate qualification and one year′s experience.

In evaluating the suitability of a behaviourist, check out the meaning of any post-nominals given and make sure that rehabilitation methods used are compatible with modern practice and the welfare of animals. Inappropriate or outdated advice or methods may adversely affect your dog’s welfare and even make the behaviour problem worse in the long term.