THE TRIFECTA FOR A CURE: VETERINARIANS, TRAINERS, AND OWNERS
Most of my clients find me by way of their veterinarians, and that’s a very good thing for the dogs for several reasons. The first thing I recommend that owners do is contact a qualified veterinarian to rule out any potential medical issues that contribute to or cause aggressive, reactive, or anxious behavior. Dogs can’t talk and tell us that they have pain in their hips or a bad tooth or any myriad of problems that affect a dog’s mood and responses to life with humans. Think about how you behave when you are in a great deal of pain. Are you on your “A game” while suffering, or are you cranky and just want the pain to stop? Even though dogs can be quite stoic, what’s happening inside their bodies does impact the external behavior that we see. It’s only fair to rule out a medical contributing factor before beginning any training program.
Ultimately, we have to recognize that behavior abnormalities start in the brain and that no amount of training will resolve some of these behavioral issues. Quality behavioral modification combined with medication that addresses the brain’s neurochemistry is the best tool we have at this point in time to assist troubled dogs.
Your Dog’s Team
Is it expensive to first go to the vet and then hire a trainer? It can be, but so is the potential cost of keeping an anxious, scared, or aggressive dog in your home. Dog bites are a serious matter and often become litigious, not to mention how awful most people feel if their dog hurts another being. Furthermore, an anxious dog is an unhappy dog that can make an entire household become off-kilter and hypervigilant.
I’ve had the opportunity to take a team approach with many dogs displaying behavior that creates concerns for their owners. An owner who finds a veterinarian–trainer duo to assist them is a lucky owner indeed, and I will tell you why. As a nonveterinary professional trainer, I am not legally able to practice medicine, nor do I want to. I leave it in the hands and minds of knowledgeable, trained, and degreed veterinarians. Just as I cannot prescribe antianxiety medication for a dog, a general practitioner veterinarian isn’t trained in behavior modification protocols. In fact, studying animal behavior is not required and is rarely taught to veterinary students, which is a great shame and a disservice to their animal clients.
Finding a board-certified veterinary behaviorist can be hard to do. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists has only sixty-six board-certified behaviorists in the United States at the time of writing. There are only 160 DVM veterinary behaviorists who are members of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Often, your best bet is to work with your regular veterinarian and ask him to contact a behavior specialist if he is not well-trained in this area, as is the case for most veterinarians.
The top of the training heap are those credentialed as veterinary behaviorists. But even these highly trained specialists, who certainly understand behavior modification and can advise a client on training protocols, don’t actually do a lot of hands-on training. It’s trainers like me—who have spent decades studying canine behavior and staying current on the latest research—who do the training work in most cases. Actually, that isn’t even correct. The person who will do the most training is you. You live with the dog 24/7. You are the one who is legally responsible for your dog’s behavior as well as for his sense of happiness and adjustment to life with humans.
Does this resemble your dog on a walk? If so, it’s worth it to seek the opinion of a veterinarian as well as a trainer.
Trainers need veterinarians to give their medical expertise regarding canine behavior concerns, and veterinarians need trainers to work one-on-one with owners and dogs to initiate and coach human clients toward successful behavioral modification. But none of our skills matter if we don’t have you, the owner, stepping up to the plate and doing the work that we teach you, which will—in most cases—make a tremendous difference in the outcome for your dog. This gives you enormous power but also giant responsibilities. Are you up to the task? If you are still reading this book, my guess is that, yes, you are.
A trainer works to modify the dog’s behavior as well as to teach the owner how to work with his or her dog.
From the Veterinarian’s Viewpoint
I not only have collaborated with many veterinarians over the years, but I’ve interviewed several for this book because I wanted to get specifics on what owners can do better to assist veterinarians who have an interest in behavior cases. I also share with you what we trainers need and want most from owners who live with troubled dogs so that you can be armed and ready to be a good partner in helping your dog get better. You, the owner, make the ultimate decisions on behalf of your dog, so your role is the critical one in the trainer–veterinarian–owner trifecta. I like what I read from one veterinary behaviorist about working with owners: “I’ll work as hard on behalf of your dog as you do.” It has become my motto as a trainer.
One of the veterinarians I interviewed is Dr. Jean Dodds, a California-based veterinarian with a worldwide influence on fellow veterinarians and dog owners. She is the founder of Hemopet.org, the first nonprofit national animal blood bank. Hemopet’s range of nonprofit services and educational activities include providing canine blood components, blood bank supplies, and related services; conducting specialized diagnostic testing using all-“green” patented technology and clinical-pathology consultation through Hemolife; and educating animal healthcare professionals and companion-animal fanciers about hematology and blood banking, immunology, and endocrinology.
In addition, Dr. Dodds is considered by many to be the world’s foremost authority on canine thyroid disease. Her 2011 book, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog (coauthored with Diana R. Laverdure) is a must-read for owners, trainers, and veterinarians. If you are an owner, consider buying it, reading it, and then giving it to your local veterinarian.
What is so important about a dog’s thyroid gland? Dogs usually become hypothyroid (too little thyroid) rather than hyperthyroid (too much thyroid), and there is as much as a 60-percent chance that low thyroid can impact a dog that is displaying aggressive or hyperactive behavior. Thyroid dysfunction can cause many physical symptoms, including dry skin, megaesophagus, weight gain, stunted growth, and infertility, and Dr. Dodds says that thyroid dysfunction can include the following behavioral symptoms:
• unprovoked aggression
• sudden-onset seizure disorder
• erratic temperament
I asked Dr. Dodds if we observe aggression in a dog, should the dog be tested for thyroid disease, and her is her important answer: “Yes, because aggression in a formerly sociable pet is abnormal, whether it’s dog-to-dog or dog-to-human. Thyroid dysfunction needs to be ruled in or out as one of the possible causes, and a complete thyroid antibody profile should be run rather than a simple T4 or free T4.”
Your veterinarian is a crucial part of the puzzle.
How do you, as an owner, get your local veterinarian on board to conduct this important test? For one thing, it is your dog, and you have the right to request this test if you are concerned about it or if your trainer has asked you to rule it out as a contributing factor. As Dr. Dodds advises, you can provide a simple, straightforward explanation—with documentation from her book, if needed—about the relationship between thyroid function and behavior. You can print out my interview with Dr. Dodds for Dogster.com (http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/we-interview-dr-jean-dodds-expert-dog-thyroid-issues) and hand it to a reluctant veterinarian. Dr. Dodds said in that interview that “if your veterinarian doesn’t wish to perform the requested diagnostic testing after polite insistence, then go to another veterinarian.” I could not agree more!
Because most veterinarians send thyroid bloodwork out to a lab for analysis, it’s important that you ask your veterinarian to send your dog’s sample to Dr. Dodds’ lab, Hemopet, in California. It costs about the same to send it to her as it does to any other lab, and she will send the results back to your local veterinarian. Visit Dr. Dodds’ website (www.hemopet.org) for instructions on submitting a blood sample. Why not have the best of the best look at your dog’s thyroid levels?
Regarding canine thyroid issues, there are two crucial takeaways from this wonderful, talented, and caring veterinarian:
1. Owners and trainers need to understand the impact that a dysfunctional thyroid gland can have on canine behavior.
2. As an owner, you need to step up and ask for relevant tests for your troubled dog. If your veterinarian refuses, find a vet who will be your partner and work with you.
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall stresses the importance of not waiting for a dog to simply get better on his own once behavior problems show up. In discussing the important function that antianxiety medications can have in helping with behavior problems, Dr. Overall says, “The thing that concerns me is that people think it is OK not to use drugs when a situation can be helped by their use. If owners understood that time penetrates, if they understood that this dog is getting worse, the earlier you treat it, the better the outcome.”
Another one of her key messages is this: “The earlier you treat it, the more likely you are to be able to get this dog off of drugs. If you keep waiting, not only are you causing the dog to suffer, you are causing that neurochemistry to change.”
Not only is time wasted by delaying a medical intervention, but the undesired behavior is repeated and often strengthened the longer the dog has the opportunity to practice it. Dr. Overall says that not administering drugs when they are needed allows the dog to continue suffering. Who wants his dog to suffer? I see medications as a helpful tool just like any other tool, such as when we employ a muzzle or a harness instead of a collar to protect the sensitive neck area. The difference is that the tool of medication is often the only chance that a dog has to get off the roller coaster of extreme behavior because something is amiss inside his brain.
Imagine the fear and anxiety inside a troubled animal when his trainers and owners go down the wrong road of thinking that the dog is disrespecting them or trying to dominate them. Not true. What is likely true is that the dog displaying abnormal behavior has abnormal brain function. How unfair, ignorant, and cruel humans are to punish a dog that has no control over his incorrectly wired brain! Would you shock, hit, poke, or spray water in the face of a child who had a brain disorder?
A dog looks to the humans in his world for help and understanding.
Because so many research studies have tested dosages on dogs in laboratories, veterinarians know the kinds of drugs and the proper amounts that help certain maladies in canines. Most veterinarians to whom I talk urge owners to not waste valuable time on unstudied and unproven so-called natural remedies that are popping up online and everywhere else. Why risk harming your dog—even if the harm is simply that these remedies don’t help at all—when we know so much about prescription medications?
You, as the owner, sit in the driver’s seat, and this book and so many others exist to give you up-to-date, quality information so that you can make wise and sound decisions as you move forward with helping your dog. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to bring in an experienced veterinarian as part of your critical care team. Even if your local veterinarian has no training or experience (yes, you can ask vets about their experience!) in canine behavior, he does have access to the expertise of specialists, many of whom will consult with your local vet at no charge. However, if your vet expresses no interest in canine behavior, move on to a vet who will be more involved in your dog’s care.
You owe it to your dog to explore all angles for his care.
One important caveat that many veterinarians bring up in our conversations is that there is no magic pill that will completely “fix” your dog’s undesired behavior. We know from scientific study that it is the combination of medications and the behavior modification protocols discussed in this book that bring the dog (and thus the owner) the fastest relief. Often, the dog does need medication to calm his body and mind enough so that we can—then, and only then—get to work using behavior modification. Dr. Overall states in her book Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine that “the reason for the enhanced efficacy of treatment approaches that combine medication with behavioral work and environmental change lies in the effects of these medications on the neurons: both learning and behavioral medications rely on the same molecular changes.”
Dr. Overall also emphasizes the aforementioned caveat: “Clients must appreciate that neither drugs nor diets are a ‘quick fix.’ Behavioral medication, especially, is not intended to blunt, mask, or disguise problematic behaviors or to sedate or drug the dog. In fact, if any of these outcomes occur, they should be viewed as side effects. Although medication alone may render the patient globally less anxious, if the patient is still being provoked by social or physical environmental stimuli, the benefit of treatment will be minimal.” In other words, please don’t be misguided and expect an entirely different dog in your home once he starts medication—the behavior modification work still has to be done! Dr. Overall’s comprehensive and important book happens to come with a DVD of client handouts, including one titled “Protocol for Using Behavioral Medication Successfully.” I highly recommend it to any owner who is considering adding medication to his store of quality tools that exist to help dogs learn to relax and successfully live with humans.
Dr. Overall has an additional tool that is not medicinal. She says that all of our work with troubled dogs comes to what she terms a “negotiated settlement.” She reached such a settlement within the first six months of bringing Flash into her home after he had put three people in intensive care. Her settlement was one that included administering antianxiety medication, teaching Flash her protocols for relaxation and deferment, and using management as a solid technique by adding eye-bolt locks at the top of every doorway in her home. She also kept Flash at home for six months and did not expose him to any humans other than herself and her husband. That life at home might have been the extent of her negotiated settlement with Flash (and it was one that she was in a unique position to live with), but Flash showed tremendous resiliency, and, with her overseeing his care, he bounced back and surpassed that original settlement.
A relaxed, reliable companion is worth your efforts.
I also spoke with one of my favorite veterinarians who specializes in animal behavior, Dr. Jeff Nichol of New Mexico. Dr. Nichol (www.drjeffnichol.com) is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Albuquerque Veterinary Association (past president). He is the author of three books: Is My Dog OK?, Is My Cat OK?,and A Lifetime Guide to Practical Pet Care. The questions and answers that comprise a major portion of his three books have been a popular weekly feature of the Albuquerque Journal newspaper since 1996.
I asked Dr. Nichol what veterinarians want most from their human clients, and he told me the following: “What is needed most from dog owners is a willingness to make any changes necessary. Simply changing methods of punishment or correction will have no value.” He adds, “Dog owners need to avoid punishments and reprimands. They need to carefully list all events, people, animals, and contexts that trigger the undesirable behavior and make conscious efforts to avoid them.”
Trainers and vets want owners to cooperate and participate.
I also wanted to know from him how trainers who deal with aggressive or reactive dogs can work best in coordination with veterinarians, and he had a very interesting response: “Dog trainers would do best to recognize that training is rarely an answer to behavior disorders. Fully 50 percent of dogs that have bitten people were trained. Training is certainly valuable. A dog should understand and reliably respond to basic commands. There is no amount of education that will modify unhealthy behavior. Adjustments in neurochemistry from research-based behavior modification and, in some cases, drugs are essential to real improvement in behavioral pathology. There are no cures.”
Dogs are always asking questions of their environment, such as “Is this a safe situation?”
Dogs with behavioral issues that begin in the brain (as does all behavior) often need medication that can impact the troubled spots. This was confirmed by every veterinarian I interviewed who specializes in animal behavior.
Please allow that to sink it. The most highly trained veterinarians in the country are telling trainers and owners that medication should not be denied a dog when it is warranted. In many cases involving abnormal canine behavior, medication is a requirement to begin helping a troubled dog.
I do agree with much of what Dr. Nichol states, with this important addition: if we can determine the starting point of reactivity, fear, or aggression, then, in many cases, behavioral modification training can and does help a lot of dogs. Let’s take another look at Dr. Karen Overall and Flash. We know from his history that he had been abused in the name of training, and he reacted to being held off the ground and strangled by injuring the trainer who did that to him. He did it twice more in situations in which he was hurt or being threatened with pain and force. That is not a brain abnormality. That is cause and effect in a dog that refuses to tolerate aggression from people.
The importance of socializing puppies with nonreactive adult dogs cannot be overemphasized.
Often I have adult dogs in my Growly Dog classes that were fine and happy to play and socialize with other dogs until they were attacked or terribly frightened by another dog. Even one such experience can turn a dog into a reactive dog. We can and often do help such dogs with behavioral modification alone. When there is a medical cause, we need a veterinarian to step in. How do you determine the root cause of abnormal canine behavior? Entire books and studies focus on just that question. Dogs obviously can’t talk and tell us what’s going on inside them, so the best we can do is observe the behavior and the environment just prior to occurrences of the unwanted behavior and then call in the true experts to determine the best way to help each individual dog.
My final question for Dr. Nichol was whether he is seeing an increase in dogs with behavioral concerns. Dr. Nichol responded, “I see more animals with behavioral concerns because my caseload is predominantly behavioral. As the only residency-trained veterinary behavior specialist in New Mexico, there are increasing numbers of general practitioners who refer cases to me. The greater reason for my growing caseload is the increasing number of veterinarians and pet owners who understand that there is real help available.”
Here is a recap of the importance of the perfect team that’s made up of you, a veterinarian trained in behavioral medicine, and a qualified trainer. Here is what is needed from the ultimate decision-maker—YOU:
• Ask questions of the trainer and the veterinarian with whom you choose to work. Remember that you always have a choice of who you put on your dog’s team. If anyone suggests punishment, force, fear, or pain as a method of helping your dog, leave that person behind; their knowledge is outdated and no longer relevant. Old knowledge can set your dog back to a point of no return.
• You have the ultimate responsibility for the well-being and progress of your dog. Helping a troubled dog is a process, and, as an owner, you’ll have a lot to learn. Give yourself a leg up and give your dog the very best chance of succeeding by bringing in both a good veterinarian and an experienced trainer—but still do your homework! Make sure that your partners really do have the experience, wisdom, patience, training, and compassion to warrant a spot on your trifecta team for success.
Understand that dogs that exhibit abnormal canine behavior often suffer from unhealthy neurological chemistry that starts in the brain. This disorder must be addressed, and it is usually best addressed by proper medication that is prescribed by a veterinarian trained in canine behavior. Unwanted behavior ranges from mild to potentially deadly, and, in every case, the sooner you address it, the better the chances of a positive outcome.