Behavior Counseling: Behavior Consultations - Seeing a Veterinary Behaviorist

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why should I take my pet for a behavior consultation?

Our pets can exhibit many behaviors considered to be normal that are nevertheless undesirable. Some of these behaviors can be resolved using a combination of reward-based training and management adjustments. Handouts in the “Behavior Counseling” series provide guidelines to help with these behaviors.

When our pets behave in a manner that presents a physical or emotional threat to themselves, or to the safety of people or other animals, getting a timely and accurate assessment can be critical. Extreme fear or anxiety, phobias, and aggressive behavior are all serious problems that represent a safety risk.

Your veterinarian may assess your pet for an underlying medical condition that contributes to their concerning behavior. They may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who is uniquely trained to recognize both medical and behavioral illness. If a veterinary behaviorist is not available, your veterinarian may work closely with a non-veterinary animal behaviorist with advanced training.

A treatment plan should be designed to address all aspects of your pet's behavior to avoid worsening existing behaviors. A properly trained veterinary behaviorist will help you obtain results quickly and effectively. In addition, should you require further assistance from a trainer, both you and your trainer will have guidance on how you should proceed.

What will happen during the behavioral consultation?

The behaviorist will ask you questions about the history of your pet’s problem: when it began, how long it has been occurring, and what specific triggers cause or worsen the problem. You will also be asked how you have been dealing with the problem.

Providing detailed and objective information will help the behaviorist reach a diagnosis or tentative diagnosis, and formulate an appropriate treatment plan. The behaviorist will discuss the treatment strategy that is most appropriate for your circumstances.

Who should be involved with the behavioral consultation?

All family members should participate in the behavioral assessment by sharing their observations prior to the consultation, either in writing or through a short video. It can be helpful for family members to answer questions that arise during the consultation. A telehealth platform can be used to share information in real time.

In some cases, the behaviorist may request a specific person attend the consultation. Inform the behaviorist if you and your dog are working with a trainer. It may be advisable to invite the trainer to the consultation as well.

Once all the information is gathered, the behaviorist will discuss the treatment steps. Treatment usually includes both behavioral training and management and should be done in a consistent manner. To improve the outcome, every person involved in caring for your pet should understand and follow the treatment guidelines.

Will I need to bring along my pet?

Yes! Veterinarians and animal behaviorists are trained to observe behavior and body language. They will observe your pet to evaluate general behavioral responses. They will also note the nature of any communication that occurs between you and your pet. Often, specific behavioral testing is done during the consultation.

The veterinary behaviorist will observe your pet for evidence of any physical abnormalities that may affect behavior. They may suggest a full physical examination and/or laboratory testing. If there are concerns about the interactions between household pets, your behaviorist may request you bring more than one pet to the consultation. Ask your behaviorist if this is necessary in your situation.

If there is a specific behavior that you would like your behaviorist to observe, you may be able to capture that behavior on video prior to the consultation. Never intentionally create a situation that could be stressful or physically dangerous to capture a video. In most cases, your description of an aggressive situation will be adequate. Your behaviorist does not need to see your pet behaving aggressively to understand the behavior. The most important behaviors to capture on video are the very subtle communications that occur on a day-to-day basis.

What will be involved in the treatment?

Behavioral treatment involves a combination of behavior modification, environmental modification and, in some cases, pharmacological intervention. Behavior modification may include techniques such as desensitization, counter-conditioning, response substitution, or shaping. A reward-based training program may be recommended to improve communication.

Your behaviorist will discuss changes that can be made in the environment as well as management techniques that will improve safety and reduce stress. Particularly during the initial treatment phase, it is important to find ways to avoid the triggers for undesired behaviors to keep people and other animals safe.

In some cases, drug therapy may be recommended. Medications that reduce anxiety and frustration can improve your pet’s ability to learn. Medications can also have unwanted side effects. Your veterinary behaviorist will determine whether your pet would benefit from medication.

Why can’t I just send my dog away for training?

You and your family are the key to modifying and managing your dog’s behavior. Behavior therapy focuses on improving your ability to communicate effectively with your dog; meaning, you need to be able to provide the behavior therapy. Both the physical and social environment can affect the development and maintenance of problem behaviors. It is less helpful to send your dog to another environment.

There are other concerns when sending your dog away for training. If your dog is fearful of unfamiliar people, that fear can increase in an unfamiliar environment. Additionally, many board and train facilities continue to use correction-based training methods that have been shown to contribute to fearful and aggressive behaviors. If you choose to send your dog away, be sure to investigate the methodology the trainer will be using.

It is important to not only modify your pet’s behavior, but also teach all your family members how to maintain positive changes. By going to a behaviorist, your whole family will become part of the solution, helping your pet become an enjoyable member of the family.

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