What is a ‘behaviour problem’?

A behaviour problem is really any behaviour shown by a dog that people find a problem! People obviously vary in how much they tolerate different behaviours in their dogs, so what some people regard as a ‘problem’, others can be quite happy to live with. This means that behaviour problems can range from things like dogs jumping up to greet their owners as they return, to extreme forms of aggression, or behaviours that appear ‘hallucinatory’ such as snapping at flies that are not there. The term ‘behaviour problem’, therefore, covers a wide range of issues from situations where dogs have not been trained how to behave in response to particular events, to behaviours which are linked to medical problems.

As a general rule, if your dog shows obedience training problems such as pulling on the lead or failing to come when called, then you should look for a reputable trainer to help you. However, if your dog shows behaviours such as aggression, withdrawal from or avoidance of particular sounds or events, excessive vocalisation or destruction when left alone, then you should seek help from your veterinary surgeon, who will be able to refer you to somebody who specialises in clinical behaviour. These behaviours are often signs that your dog is experiencing a negative emotional state (such as fear or anxiety) in particular situations, 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. For example, neurological problems in the brain or spinal cord, hormonal disorders, inflammation of the bladder, or reduced functioning of the liver can all first become apparent as behavioural changes. 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.

In addition, medical or physiological factors often influence the development of behaviour even where they are not the sole cause of the problem. For example, a sore ear in a dog’s medical history may be an important factor in the development of an aggressive response to stroking on the head. It is important, therefore, for a vet to examine your dog and also ensure that a full medical history is passed on to the behaviourist at the time of referral, so that all relevant factors can be taken into account when evaluating each case.

Types of behaviour professionals

Depending on the nature of the behaviour that your dog is showing, your veterinarian may refer you to a behaviourist, or a veterinary behaviour specialist. Veterinary surgeons who specialize in behaviour are recognised as such by specialist boards. For example, in Europe, they are regulated by the European College of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine (Companion Animals), and in the USA the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. In addition to a veterinary degree, Diplomats these specialist boards have considerable further training and experience in clinical behaviour. For example, they generally require applicants to complete a three year residency training programme in an approved centre, to conduct and publish research, and to show evidence of extensive clinical experience 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.

Alternatively, your veterinary surgeon may refer you to a non-veterinary behaviourist. ‘Behaviourist’ is a widely used term which anybody can use without qualification or experience. For the welfare of your pet, therefore, it is important to seek the advice of an individual belonging to an organisation that has standards of both qualification and experience in their membership criteria. This will ensure that the behaviour expert identified is someone with the appropriate up-to-date knowledge, skills and experience to treat your pet. 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 Honours 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 and two year′s experience or a postgraduate qualification and one year′s experience. An example of organizations in the US is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABS), for which membership requirements are a Masters degree in a relevant subject and a minimum of 3 years and 1500 hours in animal behaviour consulting.

A qualified behaviourist will work to identifying the factors which have contributed to the development of behaviour problems. This includes sufficient knowledge about medical causes of behavioural change to recognise where further veterinary attention may be necessary. Their understanding of the range of factors which contribute to the development of behaviours enables them to develop structured treatment plans that are specific to the circumstances of each individual case. They also have the ability to critically evaluate new advances in research and clinical practice, and are required to attend continuing education, to ensure that they provide the most up to date and effective advice for pet owners.

In evaluating the suitability of a behaviourist it is important to pay regard to the meaning and significance of any post-nominals given, and ensure that methods used are compatible with modern practice and the welfare of animals. Inappropriate or outdated advice or methods may adversely affect your pet’s welfare and even make your pet’s behaviour problem worse in the long term.