10 life-threatening behavior myths


10 life-threatening behavior myths

Have some of your clients—or even you—voiced any of these misconceptions? Think about your responses to colleagues and clients who perpetuate these myths. Your words can be the best medicine for preventing relinquishments and euthanasia and bonding clients to your practice.
Sep 01, 2008

Behavior problems continue to be the leading cause of relinquishment and euthanasia of pets in the United States.1-3 Yet most veterinarians graduate with minimal to no training in the normal or abnormal behaviors of domesticated animals.4

To further complicate matters, no other subject within veterinary medicine is as rife with myth and belief based on anecdotal information as animal behavior. If a student enters veterinary school having seen a grandfather apply motor oil to a dog to treat mange, he or she quickly discovers that this is inappropriate and learns how to treat mange based on the latest findings. However, the same student can enter veterinary school having been told that rubbing a dog's nose in its feces is an appropriate and effective means of housetraining, but is unlikely to be taught the potential danger of this technique. A recent study shows that 31.8% of pet owners think that rubbing a dog's nose in its feces is an appropriate training technique5 even though as much scientific evidence is available to disprove this method as there is to refute treating mange with motor oil.

In addition, evidence suggests that when the owner-pet bond is weak, people are less likely to give their pets the best veterinary care.6 And, without a doubt, behavior problems can severely damage this bond.

In this article, I discuss 10 common myths about animal, particularly canine, behavior—misconceptions that may increase the likelihood that a pet will develop a behavior problem and, thus, can lead to the pet's abandonment or euthanasia.


"Puppies shouldn't go to puppy classes until they have had all their vaccinations, or they will get sick."

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Despite the growing body of data supporting the benefits of proper socialization, many veterinarians continue to be skeptical about the safety of puppy classes and the critical importance of these classes to their patients' long-term health.7-9 Classes held in an indoor (and, therefore, easy-to-sanitize) area and restricted to puppies of a similar age and vaccination status are unlikely to lead to disease outbreaks. (To read a position statement on puppy socialization recently released by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior [AVSAB], go to http://www.avsabonline.org/.)

Dogs are best able to form new relationships with those of their own and other species and to adapt to stimuli in their environment (habituation) during their socialization period, commonly considered to be between 4 and 14 weeks of age. During this period, puppies begin demonstrating startle reactions to sound and sudden movements as well as fearful body postures. Unsocialized puppies do not learn to discriminate between things that are truly dangerous and those that are not. Such puppies are likely to become increasingly fearful of novel objects, people, and environments.7 Proper socialization during this period is critical if an owner desires a dog that is tolerant of other people and animals and is unafraid of new environments and situations.

Clients need to be educated about what constitutes appropriate socialization. Simply taking a puppy to a dog park and turning it loose with a group of dogs does not necessarily socialize it. Proper socialization means exposing the animal to a novel stimulus in a way that does not cause fear and should be an enjoyable, positive experience. Many dog owners force their dogs into interactions when the dogs are already showing signs of fear. This forced interaction only serves to convince the dogs that the particular situation or person is terrifying and to be avoided in the future.

Well-run puppy classes are the easiest way to expose a dog to novel people, dogs, and situations. In a good puppy class, puppies will be exposed to children, men in uniforms and hats, wheelchairs, umbrellas, and other stimuli that are likely to frighten older dogs that have not had those experiences.10,11 Be aware that some trainers label a class a puppy class when it is primarily aimed at teaching basic obedience.

Numerous excellent resources provide instructions for giving puppy classes. Early Learning for Puppies 8-16 Weeks of Age to Promote Socialization and Good Behavior by Julie Jackson, R.K. Anderson, and Scott Line (Premier Pet Products) is a particularly user-friendly guide,14 but most of the behavior textbooks also contain good chapters on teaching puppy classes. If you don't have time to offer classes on your own, work with other veterinarians in your community to form classes. Different clinicians and trained technicians could rotate the responsibilities of teaching the classes. And it has become increasingly common for trainers and pet stores to offer puppy classes. As long as a qualified person watches the classes and confirms that they are well-run, give correct advice, and cover the most appropriate subjects, you can recommend that facility.

Finally, socialization biscuits are an important socialization tool you should discuss at every first puppy visit, especially if the owners cannot get their dogs into a puppy class.10 Recommend that owners carry special treats everywhere with them and their new dogs and allow strangers to offer these treats to the dogs. These dogs will learn to expect good things to happen every time they meet a new person.

The fact is, more of your patients are likely to die because of behavior problems than of infectious diseases such as parvovirus infection or distemper, so teaching your clients the importance of proper socialization is critical.