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Veterinary Behaviorists

By Robin Tierney

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Veterinary Behaviorists' Top Behavior Solutions and Tips from AVMA 2007 Convention Sessions


* Nuisance Behaviors in Dogs
* Management Techniques to Gain Control Now
* Maximizing Behavior Modification Success
* How to Help Puppies Become Better Dogs
* Storm Phobias
* Aggression Between Cats

Following are insights from selected presentations at the American Veterinary Medical Association's 2007 conference.

Nuisance Behaviors in Dogs

Step 1: Dispel owner notions that usually but needlessly guarantee failure: "My dog is dumb" "...is trying to be dominant" ... "is being spiteful" ... and, "my dog already gets plenty of exercise." (Then there's the eye-roller, "Oh, I tried that and it didn't work.")

"First, find out ‘what is the client's perception of the dog?'" said Dr. Emily Levine, who works from the brilliantly simple premise that people must teach their dogs in a manner they can learn. She detailed smart, practical solutions to 4 common complaints:

1. Jumping on People:

What if your mouth were duct-taped; how would you get my attention? Probably by touching me. And what if when you touched me I knee'd you? Asking the dog owner to envision that scenario will get him/her in a state of mind to listen.

Ignore unwanted behavior, reward desired behavior. "Didn't work"? That's because most people, and their family members, need "ignore" defined graphically. Ignore is: no eye contact, no touching, no talking - these are reinforcing behaviors. And far from dumb, dogs are exquisitely tuned to any signals of acknowledgment from humans. (How do you think they won status as "man's best friend"?)

Explain and demonstrate what TO do: Stand like a tree and look up. And expect that: the dog's still going to jump up, because jumping up worked before. There will be an "extinction burst" - a flurry of the unwanted behavior before the dog realizes, "hey, even when I make it obvious I want attention, my person's ignoring me, so I'll try something different.:

It's critical not to give in at that point. People usually do - which teaches the dog "Oh, I need to jump MORE!" Expect extinguishing a behavior to take many repetitions for the dog to catch on.

Then, immediately when the dog does something in the right direction, such as standing relatively still with all 4 feet on the ground, reward with verbal praise and a treat. She showed a video in which a client had to be reminded to reward her dog.

Tips: Practice exercises daily in sessions that are separate from your actual arrivals home. Be consistent and persistent. Expect behavioral change to take awhile. Be prepared for backslides and start again. Start practicing in one room, then in other places, and then with other distractions such as other people, to generalize the new behavior. Make sure other family members do the same - and don't let others undo your progress.

2. Barking and Running at the Door:

To change the behavior, first change dog's perception of what the doorbell augurs. One classical conditioning session = 10 knocks or rings. Stand on other side of the door with a bag of treats. Ring doorbell, drop the treats. Seems counterintuitive, but remember: the dog's not yet engaged in the new behavior. Teach: Knock = treat. Drop fewer treats as you continue the exercise. Hold out the treat, and get the dog to look at you, bell + SIT = treat. You're teaching the dog it's more interesting to look at you than to anticipate who's at the door. Keep treats by the front door.

3. Mouthing:

This is normal oral behavior for dogs, not "dominance." Harness the power of ignoring the dog; at first attempted mouthing/nip, stop interaction. Say "stop" and if he doesn't stop immediately, put him gently in a time-out room. This is separation, not punishment. No scolding or yelling. No "bitter apple" spraying, which typically confuses, not teaches, the dog. (Plus you can always walk away, but you can't always carry, or ask others to carry, spray bottles all the time).

You ar teaching him the meaning and reward of "Stop." Expect it to take several sessions to see change, and when you see any positive change, praise and treat quietly. Move him incrementally to the desired behavior. Make the time out just a few minutes - enough time to learn. Set up a neutral place to play and practice these exercises. Teach the new rules to others who interact with the dog.

As for mailman-induced barking, a Kong smeared inside with food gives the dog a distraction and something product to do. We hear that Kong now sells a timed product that can be set in advance.

4. Chewing:

Though undesired, this is also normal behavior. "It's a behavioral need that must be met," said Levine. Provide approved playthings; when he's chewing on them, he can't be chewing on unacceptable ones. Use "cue words" to signal the start of each session. Every person in the household must use the same words. Like "playtime." End each play session with "Stop." And "Learn Time" - to cue the dog what behavior is expected. And "chew time" - that's when you take out his acceptable toys, at least twice a day. Remember, chewing is acceptable in the right context. Just like you learn you can chew corn at a picnic but not at the opera.

"When we focus on what ‘not to to,' we're not taking opportunities to teach the dog what to do." In other words, make opportunities to teach wanted behavior.

Management Techniques to Gain Control Now

"We all do what works," said Jacqueline Neilson. "Unfortunately, aggression typically works to make threatening things go away or back off." When people back off at a growl or exposed teeth, this reinforces the behavior. The solution is not to risk a bite, but to practice exercises with the aggressive dog in controlled environments and to manage the situation - preventing an incident. Avoid triggers of undesirable behavior to avoid unintentionally reinforcing and the potentially damaging behaviors that result.

Why food aggression training techniques that annoy and aggravate often fail, and sometimes trigger bites: Randomly taking the food bowl always creates stress and is perceived as a threat. Instead, randomly slip special higher-value goodies into the bowl.

Avoidance works: So for food-aggressive dogs, no long-lasting food treats...and feed meals behind closed doors...keep kids and others away from the dog's bowl and treats. For dogs who get aggressive on walks, walk at odd hours and/or in places with little chance of encounters. For dogs with territorial aggression, block views with solid fences and restricting access to front windows.

For dogs with urinary problems, have a schedule they can count on and don't expect a dog with a medically based problem to "hold it." Take him outside before an accident can occur.

Remember that the act of emptying a full bladder feels relieving, so that's a self-reinforcing behavior.

Why force-based methods usually fail: The alpha roll or other physical act might stop the behavior that moment, but the dog doesn't learn anything except: "my person is highly agitated like I am - so there's something to fear." This strengthens the power of the trigger of the unwanted behavior. But you want to eliminate the power of the trigger, don't you?

Damage control: get the animal and yourself out of the situation so you both can calm down.

More tips:

Use "target hand" clenching a treat to teach "Watch Me."

Avoid encounters that will likely cause setbacks during periods of behavior modification.

U-Turn when see a trigger approaching, instead of trying to force a potentially aggressive dog to sit/stay (at least until you have that behavior totally instilled).

No retractable leashes for at-risk animals.

Head collars can be very helpful since they direct your dog's view to you.

Be aware that drugs can have 10% chance for paradoxical reactions, such as increased aggression, since they can mute self-inhibition.

Keep treats by the door so you always are armed and ready to reward good behavior...and to distract the dog when needed.

* The bane of vet's existence: Owner compliance.

* A guiding principle expressed by the veterinary behaviorists: "Tell the animal what to do instead of what not to do."

Maximizing Behavior Modification Success

Veterinary behaviorist Gerrard Flannigan imparted wise advice such as:

* The client should fill out the behavioral history form before consult. Then review it together.

* Have all household members, including children, attend the behavior session.

* Document, not just describe: When needed, take a video to capture the problem behaviors.

* Meeting in person is, obviously, better than long-distance consultation. This allows the behaviorist to observe the people's reaction to their dogs' actions.

* Put recommendations in writing. And keep the regular vet in the loop.

How to Help Puppies Become Better Dogs

Dr. Margaret Duxbury shared gems of uncommon common sense:

* Dogs taken to puppy obedience class at 8-12 weeks of age are much more likely to stay in the home for life.

* Teach through positive reinforcement, not punishment.

* Environment is key to mental stability and social development, driving behavior.

* Provide limits and outlets.

* Have the dog do something before giving anything in return. Aim for 40+ rewarded interactions a day to establish good habits.

* Look for learning situations - and observe what pups are learning accidentally.

* Put breaks on toddlers and visitors. It's not fair to put the pup in situations in which he feels the need to defend himself.

* She believes dominance theory has led to damaging advice. Instead, remember that behaviors that are reinforced will increase, and behaviors that aren't reinforced will decrease.

* Teach that hands never hurt - and that an approaching hand is a good thing.

* Teach pups what you want them to do before they have opportunities to learn unacceptable behaviors.

* Attaching a dragline allows you to interrupt unwanted behavior immediately, in time so the pup or dog will learn.

* Don't force interaction. Avoid situations that would prompt defensive behavior. Make sure you can get to a safe place quickly. In addition to avoid problem reactions, this protects the pup, building his trust in you.

* Put elimination on cue. Teach the cue phrase teach by rewarding elimination. No punishment for accidents, since dogs do not connect the dots.

* Remember: Dogs learn in increments rather than quick bursts of enlightenment.

* Avoid separation problems by practicing leaving and arriving in short lessons. Make sure that the pup does not learn that confinement and isolation are synonyms.

* Mouthing? Interrupt with a yipe, and redirect to acceptable item. Next, yipe and complete withdrawal; walk away from dog.

* To avoid having your dog learn that jumping up is rewarding, teach through positive reinforcement a behavior like sit that is incompatible with jumping up

* Control your visitors so they don't undo your lessons.

* Prevent unintended learning.

* Most behavior problems will show signs between ages 6 months to 3 years. Assess your dog regularly throughout his life for such red flags as "whale eye" (sideways flashing of the whites of the eyes that signals "I'm ready to attack") while at the food bowl or guarding a toy, and fast eating. By the way, resource guarding, or aggression over resources (food, objects, people, resting places) has genetic influences and is environmentally reinforced. The time for intervention is when you notice the first sign of troubling behavior.

Storm Phobias

Rather than resort to drugs, Dr. Terry Curtis suggested products that have helped many dogs, such as DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) and anxiety wraps. Based on the theory that dogs sense storm build-up through electrical charge, the Storm Defender Cape has a metallic lining that discharges the dog's fur and shields him from static charge build-up. Is it the lining or the caping that has the most effect? She's not certain, but amused the crowd with a photo of one man's attempt at a homemade "Foil Suit." An easier way for cheapskates: rub the animal with dryer sheets.

Aggression Between Cats

Karen Overall's many excellent tips included becoming aware of cat stressors: irregular and unpredictable feeding and cleaning times; absence of stroking, over-petting, unpredictable and unfamiliar manipulation, and changes in social environment. Watch: are you sure the aggression occurs in absence of any provocation and without the cat signaling he is being annoyed? Note that long-term caging has proven to be counterproductive. It's important to avoid not only the development of problem behaviors but aggressive incidents. Why? Because, she said, animals learn behaviors at a molecular level and this changes their neurochemistry - making change all the harder.

Another tip: Take a video of the animal at home. When reviewing the video, fast-forward and the problems will jump out.

Related Reading and Resources

See the Robin's Dog Tips Index for articles on related topics at


* New companion animal behavior website


* New book

Blackwell's Five-Minute Consult Clinical Companion: Canine And Feline Behavior by vets Debra Horwitz and Jacqueline Neilson (who spoke at the convention)


* Thunder and Noise Phobias


* Behavior Problem Solutions






American College of Veterinary Behaviorists http://www.dacvb.org

Animal Behavior Counselors http://animalbehaviorcounselors.org

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists http://www.animalbehavior.org/Applied/CAAB_directory.html

Association of Pet Dog Trainers http://www.apdt.com


For more Dog Tips about pet care, adoption and the work PAW does, visit our website at:

Partnership for Animal Welfare, Inc.
P.O. Box 1074, Greenbelt, MD 20768