As both a practicing veterinarian and pet health “advice” columnist for The Miami Herald (my local paper), I get to hear all kinds of questions. If I had to pick one category of query most often asked, I’d be forced to affirm that the topic we veterinarians refer to as “behavior” (or “pet psychology,” depending on your point of view) is the clear winner.
Unfortunately, these questions are seldom the ones veterinarians are most excited to answer.
Why? It often seems like the preponderance of behavior concerns is muddled by a whole lot of mythology. As in, concepts that are untrue but often mistakenly adopted and unwittingly perpetuated by those who’ve bought into them.
Myth #1: Aggressive pets are trying to dominate us.
This is not always true. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. Aggression is much more likely the result of fear than anything else. Nevertheless, people seem to prefer to believe that aggressive or difficult pets are attempting to control their environment rather than reacting to its stresses.
The trouble with this particular misconception–– widely disseminated by certain popular media personalities –– is that it has led to the more widespread use of aggressive, punishment-based training techniques that can lead to even more serious behavior problems than they purport to address.
Myth #2: Physical abuse is at the root of fear and aggression in pets.
If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve been informed of my patients’ history of abuse… Sure, it’s possible. But if every pet whose owner believed their pet was formerly physically abused was correct in their speculations, we’d have to assume that pet abuse is far more prevalent than we currently believe it to be.
What does it matter, you ask? Here’s the problem: Pet owners who are undeterred in their belief in abuse as the root cause of any given behavior problem tend to ignore or deny the possibility that the condition is progressive and/or treatable. Not only does that mean pets will fail to receive treatment for their conditions, but pets with anxiety-based disorders that do tend to get worse over time will likely continue to deteriorate.
Myth #3: It’s all in how you raise them. Genetics doesn’t mean much when it comes to pet behavior.
As a staunch opponent of breed-specific legislation, I’d like to buy into this one. But I can’t. Though I’ll still deny that laws prohibiting certain breeds of dogs are either needed or effective, as a veterinarian I have to allow that genetics informs how certain dogs and cats have a propensity to act. In fact, fearful and shy behaviors in particular have been found to be quite heritable.
Though it’s undeniably the case that raising and caring for our pets responsibly can overcome most negative behaviors, ignoring the reality of our pets’ genetic proclivities does them no favors. This is especially true when it comes to selecting certain breeds, and why owners need to be very careful about making selections that fit their lifestyles.
For example, I know of no veterinarian who’d ever recommend a high-drive working dog like my Belgian Malinois to anyone who doesn’t lead a very active lifestyle or have a large yard. It just wouldn’t make sense. So why is it that so many of our clients are surprised when their Jack Russells are too energetic and their English Bulldogs are unable to accompany them for walks. If we accept that genetics counts for a lot when it comes to behavior, we’d have happier pets, happier people, and less populated shelters.
Myth #4: Puppies should wait until they’re fully vaccinated to attend behavior classes.
Pups should be socialized with others of their kind (puppies and adult dogs) as early on as reasonably possible. And because the ideal window of opportunity for socialization is between seven and eleven weeks of age, veterinarians no longer demand that pups be fully vaccinated before embarking on a “puppy kindergarten” class. (Vaccination is typically not considered complete until sixteen weeks of age.) Socialization is just too important.
Myth #5: Drugs are an effective solution to any behavior problem.
Drugs can be useful in the treatment of a wide swath of pet behavior abnormalities, but they’re seldom among the first tools a veterinarian reaches for and they’re never considered the sole approach to dealing with a pet’s behavior issues. In fact, research shows that dogs receiving medication for behavior problems may respond more rapidly to a behavior modification program.
Yet drug therapy is often the solution pet owners beg for in the exam room. Which I guess is understandable. I mean, if there was a magic pill that made my life perfect I’d want one too.
Myth #6 Pets who urinate and defecate inappropriately in the house are often doing it because they’re angry with us.
They’re not mad, they’re stressed. And there’s a difference. Because if you think they’re angry you’re likelier to a) get angry unnecessarily and b) fail to realize that there may be an actual solution to the problem by identifying the source of stress and working to eliminate it or identify alternate solutions.
Luckily, all of these myths are pretty easily busted by veterinarians and animal behaviorists. Now, if only it was as easy to get the word out …