Behavior & Training

... keys to happy ever after

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Pets enrich our lives with companionship, snuggles, adventure, and hearty laughs. That’s the expectation, anyway, and usually the reality. But when our furry, funny, affectionate companions also move in with baggage like aggression, separation anxiety, guarding, or house-soiling, life is anything but peaceful

The Golden Rule

When faced with a pet behavior problem, there’s truly only one rule: Get help. Left unaddressed, behavior issues can become more entrenched while your household grows more chaotic. Behavior issues are among the top reasons pets are surrendered to shelters.

When to get help

How do you know when to call a veterinary behaviorist, seek help from a trainer, or enroll in a manners class? “I don’t know that there’s a perfect answer, truthfully,” says Dr. Christopher Pachel, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Animal Behavior Clinic in SE Portland. Pachel’s best advice: pick up the phone or send an email. “I would love for us to be a resource anytime people aren’t sure what they should do.”

What is a veterinary behaviorist

A veterinary behaviorist is a doctor of veterinary medicine with additional years of training and board certification. A behavior clinic provides access to all forms of treatment. The doctor might identify underlying medical causes such as pain or anxiety. In that case, the doctor can prescribe medication or other medical treatments in addition to a training program.

Why choose a veterinary behaviorist

Some common behavior complaints are actually medical issues. House-soiling can be a sign of a painful urinary condition or arthritic joints that cause pain when a pet squats, climbs into a litter box, or makes his way outdoors to do his business. Aggression can also be a sign of underlying medical issues, such as pain, anxiety, or vision or hearing loss. A veterinary behaviorist can diagnose and treat these conditions along with the accompanying behavior.

Behavior clinics generally have highly-qualified trainers on staff; Dr. Pachel’s office has two.  Often, after his initial assessment, he determines that a pet’s issue isn’t medically related and can be treated entirely with training and socialization. But, he says, “People have the reassurance that the dog or cat was given a full assessment, and that this is the prescribed approach.” 

For behavior issues that don’t require a doctor’s input, Pachel says, “We have a tremendous number of positive reinforcement trainers in the Portland area.”

Choosing a Trainer

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It’s important to work with the right trainer — it's still common to find trainers using outdated approaches. Pet aggression often arises from fear or anxiety, and coercive training will make it worse. Anything that involves scolding, harsh corrections, choke- or pinch-collars, or forcefully rolling a dog on his back is considered inhumane and possibly harmful by veterinary behaviorists.

Be wary of any who promise to extinguish bad behaviors or “put a dominant dog in his place.”  Instead, look for trainers who help your pet learn new behaviors in a positive and encouraging environment. Good training redirects dogs away from undesired behaviors and guides and rewards new, desirable behaviors. Your dog should light up and wiggle happily at the sight of her trainer. Training needs to be fun and rewarding to keep your dog feeling engaged, focused, and confident.

“The vast majority of canine behavior issues have nothing to do with dominance,” warns Pachel, “so any training approach that talks about establishing dominance or being the pack leader, or uses a coercive, confrontational method, they’re working from an outmoded approach for addressing behavior concerns.”

Whether you choose a behaviorist or trainer, getting the right help does much more than address the problem that led you to seek help in the first place. As a bonus, it deepens your bond with your furry, funny, sometimes-infuriating friend. As Pachel points out, understanding creates empathy. When you understand why your pet was acting out, and then have the tools to fix it, life can be good again, for you and your fur kid.

Resources

Animal Behavior Clinic * animalbehaviorclinic.net

Association of Pet Dog Trainers * apdt.com/resource-center/how-to-choose-a-dog-trainer/

Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior * www.karenpryoracademy.com/find-a-trainer