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10 Life Threatening Behavior Myths

10 Life Threatening Behavior Myths - stoPEER-REVIEWED 10...

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Unformatted text preview: @ stoPEER-REVIEWED 10 life-threatening behavior myths Have some of your clients—or even you—voiced any of these misconceptions? Think about your responses to colleagues and clients who perpetuate these myths. Your words can be the best medicine for preventing relinquishments and euthanasia and bonding clients to your practice. Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB ehavior problems continue to be B the leading cause of relinquish- ment and euthanasia of pets in the United States?3 Yet most veterinarians graduate with minimal to no training in the normal or abnormal behaviors of domesticated animals.4 To further complicate matters, no other subject within veterinary medicine is as rife with myth and belief based on anec- dotal information as animal behavior. If a student enters veterinary school having seen a grandfather apply motor oil to a dog to treat mange, he or she quickly discovers that this is inappropriate and learns how to treat mange based on the latest findings. However, the same stu- dent can enter veterinary school having been told that rubbing a dog’s nose in its feces is an appropriate and effective means of housetraining, but is unlikely to be taught the potential danger of this technique. A recent study shows that 31.8% of pet owners think that rubbing a dog’s nose in its feces is an appropriate training technique5 even though as much scientific evidence is available to disprove this method as there is to refute treating mange with motor oil. In addition, evidence suggests that when the owner-pet bond is weak, people are less likely to give their pets the best veterinary care.6 And, without a doubt, behavior prob- lems can severely damage this bond. In this article, I discuss 10 common myths about animal, particularly canine, Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB PO. Box 1040 Fort Worth, TX 76101 behavior—misconceptions that may in- crease the likelihood that a pet will develop a behavior problem and, thus, can lead to the pet’s abandonment or euthanasia. MYTH #1 “Puppies shouldn’t go to puppy classes until they have had all their vaccinations, or they will get sick." Despite the growing body of data sup- porting the benefits of proper socializa- tion, many veterinarians continue to be skeptical about the safety of puppy classes and the critical importance of these classes to their patients’ long-term health.7'9 Classes held in an indoor (and, therefore, easy-to-sanitize) area and re- stricted to puppies of a similar age and vaccination status are unlikely to lead to disease outbreaks. (To read a position statement on puppy socialization recently released by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior [AVSAB], go to www.avsabonline.org.) Dogs are best able to form new rela- tionships with those of their own and other species and to adapt to stimuli in their environment (habituation) during their socialization period, commonly 504 September 2008 VETERINARY MEDICINE considered to be between 4 and 14 weeks of age. During this period, puppies begin demonstrating startle reactions to sound and sudden movements as well as fearful body postures. Unsocialized puppies do not learn to discriminate between things that are truly dangerous and those that are not. Such puppies are likely to become increasingly fearful of novel objects, people, and environments.7 Proper socialization during this period is critical if an owner desires a dog that is tolerant of other people and animals and is unafraid of new environments and situations. Clients need to be educated about what constitutes appropriate socialization. Simply taking a puppy to a dog park and turning it loose with a group of dogs does not neces- sarily socialize it. Proper socialization means exposing the animal to a novel stimulus in a way that does not cause fear and should be an enjoyable, positive experience. Many dog owners force their dogs into interactions when the dogs are already showing signs of fear. This forced interaction only serves to convince the dogs that the particular situation or person is terrifying and to be avoided in the future. Well-run puppy classes are the easi- est way to expose a dog to novel people, dogs, and situations. In a good puppy class, puppies will be exposed to children, men in uniforms and hats, wheelchairs, umbrellas, and other stimuli that are likely to frighten older dogs that have not had those experiencesm11 Be aware that some trainers label a class a puppy class when it is primarily aimed at teaching basic obedience. Numerous excellent resources provide instructions for giving puppy classes. Early Learning for Puppies 8-16 Weeks Getty Images of Age to Promote Socialization and Good Behavior by Julie Jackson, R.K. Anderson, and Scott Line (Premier Pet Products) is a particularly user-friendly guide,14 but most of the behavior textbooks also contain good chapters on teaching puppy classes. If you don’t have time to offer classes on your own, work with other veterinarians in your community to form classes. Different clinicians and trained technicians could rotate the responsibilities of teaching the classes. And it has become increasingly common for trainers and pet stores to offer puppy classes. As long as a qualified person watches the classes and confirms that they are well-run, give correct advice, and cover the most appropriate subjects, you can recommend that facility. Finally, socialization biscuits are an important socialization tool you should discuss at every first puppy visit, espe- cially if the owners cannot get their dogs into a puppy class.10 Recommend that owners carry special treats everywhere with them and their new dogs and al- low strangers to offer these treats to the dogs. These dogs will learn to expect good things to happen every time they meet a new person. The fact is, more of your patients are likely to die because of behavior prob- lems than of infectious diseases such as parvovirus infection or distemper, so teaching your clients the importance of proper socialization is critical. MYTH #2 “Crazy owners have crazy pets.” I am surprised at how often I hear this comment from veterinarians as well as nonveterinary professionals. Studies have demonstrated that owner personalities Untreated behavior problems usually worsen with time. that might be expected to contribute to pet behavior problems are not correlated with a higher incidence of problems.12'13 Furthermore, studies have shown that behavior and behavior problems are strongly influenced by genetics.14 Certainly, a dog’s environment and experiences affect its behavior, but they are seldom the sole causes of a behavior problem. To suggest that pet owners’ personalities can cause pets’ behavior problems is not only hurtful, it is also counterproductive because an owner distressed by guilt is not in an emotional position to do the hard work that treating a behavior problem requires. Pet owners need to be receptive to your advice. So tell them that what they do affects their pets’ behavior but does not necessarily cause it. Then teach owners appropriate management techniques, and they will be in an excellent position to improve their pets’ behavior. I find a comparison to diabetes to be effective in helping clients understand the clinical approach to behavior problems. We do not cure diabetes; we manage it. And diabetes is usually not managed with insulin alone, just as behavior problems are rarely managed with drugs alone. Managing diabetes requires that clients have a basic knowledge of glucose me- tabolism so they can manage their pets’ environment and behavior appropriately (Le. maintain a fairly consistent diet and exercise regimen). Managing behavior problems will similarly require a basic knowledge of normal dog behavior and the principles of learning. The fact is. for many behavior prob- lems, early recognition and appropri- ate management can improve a pet’s behavior, strengthen the owner-pet bond, and help avoid relinquishment. An owner’s personality has little, if any influence. MYTH #3 “My dog is aggressive/fearful] shy because she was abused as a puppy.” Certainly, if a dog is acquired after 6 months of age and is fearful, no one can be certain that it was not abused. But by focusing on that possibility, we fail to emphasize the more common causes, and we miss an opportunity to educate our clients about what they can do to help prevent and treat fear- related behavior problems. Believing that an animal’s behavior is strictly a result of events that happened before it was acquired enables many pet owners to completely deny responsibility for their pets’ behavior, likely setting the pets up for disaster. Behavior problems, especially those based on fear or anxi- ety, when ignored will almost always worsen with time. Although we still have much to learn about the genetics of behavior, it is well- documented that fearful or shy behaviors are highly heritable traits.14'15 However, the expression of these traits will also be influenced by learning and the environ- ment. Dogs can be habituated to the stimuli that cause them fear by using properly designed programs of desensitization and counterconditioning. These programs can be highly effective, especially if started as soon as the problem is identified. The longer VETERINARY MEDICINE September 2008 505 ...
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