Behavior Counseling: Getting Started

Why might my pet have behavior problems?

Many behaviors come naturally to dogs and cats and are quite normal and even expected. Jumping up, pulling and lunging, digging, garbage raiding, stealing, chewing, barking, house soiling, and even some forms of aggression, such as possessiveness and territorial guarding, may all be normal for a dog or cat. Understandably, even normal behaviors may not be appropriate when exhibited by the pets that share our homes. Fortunately, most of these behaviors respond well to treatment.

Sometimes, undesirable behaviors are not normal. Abnormal behaviors might include anxiety disorders, compulsive disorders, extreme frustration intolerance, extreme fears or phobias, and certain forms of aggression. These behaviors may stem from physical and/or behavioral illness. It is important to have your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist examine your pet to identify and treat medical conditions that affect behavior.

Many factors could predispose a pet to develop a behavioral illness. It is no one’s fault, and it is important to recognize that your pet does not exhibit these behaviors on purpose. Please do not scold or punish your pet—this will be counterproductive. Treatment will focus on helping your pet relax so that new learning can occur.

Can all problems be treated?

Behavior problems often do not resolve completely but can be successfully and safely managed. The outcome is less favorable when behaviors have a strong genetic component or have been strongly reinforced through early experience. The degree of improvement will depend on many factors including the personality, genetics, and prior experiences of your pet. There are also household factors to consider—resolving behavior problems requires commitment and consistency. Finally, the outcome will be affected by the nature and intensity of the behavioral problem. If the level of fear, anxiety, or arousal is very intense, learning new behavior can be difficult.

"The degree of improvement will depend on many factors including the personality, genetics, and prior experiences of your pet."

The first step is for you to carefully explain the behavior to your veterinarian or behavior consultant. The details will help to determine the basis for the behavior as well as the prognosis, including the limitation on what you can realistically expect. Aggressive cases can pose a threat to the safety of both people and other pets. Regardless of whether a behavior is normal or abnormal, determining whether it is safe to proceed is a primary consideration.

How should I get started?

We have a number of handouts with basic training advice that are designed to you get started on the right track with your new puppy or kitten. We also have handouts designed to help prevent and treat some specific, common behavior problems. However, for those behavior problems that require more than simple training and management, some initial guidance from a veterinary behaviorist is advisable. A thorough understanding of environmental management, learning principles, and behavior modification techniques are necessary when pets are anxious, fearful, highly aroused, or phobic. Since aggressive behavior has many potential causes, some of which may have a medical basis, an initial consult with a veterinary behaviorist is recommended.

"...for those behavior problems that require more than simple training and management, some initial guidance from a veterinary behaviorist is advisable."

What common steps are involved to treat anxious, fearful, emotionally aroused, and aggressive pets?

1. Identify each situation in which the problem might arise and prevent exposure until a full treatment plan can be started and some behavioral improvement has been evident. Each exposure to a trigger stimulus can increase the intensity of the behavior, making it ultimately harder to treat. Prevention generally involves environmental management to physically keep the pet away from locations where triggers for the behavior may be encountered. Household people should avoid engaging in behaviors that are known to trigger an aggressive or fear-based response.

2. Provide sufficient enrichment to meet your pet’s daily mental and physical requirements. By providing outlets and opportunities for social interaction, play, exploration, elimination, feeding, and sleeping, you help to ensure that your pet’s needs have been adequately satisfied. Enrichment programs are customized to you and your pet and always consider your pet’s health, age, personality, and individual preferences.

3. Provide consistent, predictable communication during interactions. Create a list of behaviors you would like to see and begin to reward them. Respond consistently and predictably to your pet’s behavior to eliminate confusion. Clarity can reduce the anxiety and emotional conflict that interferes with learning. When you consistently reward desirable behaviors, your pet will begin to engage in those behaviors more and more.

Fact: behaviors that earn rewards will be repeated.

4. Avoid punishment. Punishment is designed to stop behaviors but does not address the motivation the pet has for engaging in the behavior in the first place. The behavior may stop, but your pet will not have an alternative acceptable behavior to replace the one that was thwarted. The result is an increase in frustration and anxiety. Another concern with punishment is that when it is used inconsistently and unpredictably, it causes fear. This fear may ultimately be directed toward a specific person or group of people. Some cats and sensitive dogs do not fully recover from a punishment.

"Another concern with punishment is that when it is used inconsistently and unpredictably, it causes fear."

5. Use reward-based training to teach desirable behaviors that will eventually replace undesirable ones. The first step is to choose which behaviors to teach; examples might be to sit, lie down, or go to bed. Your pet will earn a reward for offering the behavior. Remember, behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated! Once the behavior you are teaching has been perfected, you can give it a name; this name will become the ‘cue’ and you can then use the cue when you would like your pet to give you the behavior. Finally, the behavior can be requested before your pet has a chance to engage in an undesirable response.

Many behavior problems can be resolved simply by replacing the pet’s current undesirable response with a behavior that is desirable. Pets that exhibit abnormal behavior will need both relaxation exercises and training time in the absence of any triggers before they are ready to respond to any trained cues in the presence of a trigger. A professional trainer who is well-versed in reward-based training methods may help you. They may introduce you to helpful training tools such as clickers and targets.

Once your pet successfully displays the desired behavior on cue in the face of benign distractions, you can gradually proceed to train in the problem situation. At first, the stimulus should be sufficiently mild that your pet can follow the cue and receive the reward.

More detail about specific training techniques can be found in our Dog Behavior and Training series.

What are the goals of behavioral therapy?

It is important to have realistic expectations. During the initial discussion with your veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, or consultant, the intensity or severity of the behavior (including the level of fear, anxiety, frustration, or aggression) will be determined. You may discuss whether further improvement is practical. In some cases, the behavior may be improved but may not be resolved or improved enough to make the family comfortable with the outcome. If drugs, management tools, and training techniques are not sufficient to ensure safety, or if the long-term well-being of the pet is likely to be compromised, then the decision of whether the pet can safely be kept in the home will need to be made.