"This new medication will treat your pet's [insert behavior problem here]."
While the development of pharmacologic agents to treat behavior problems in pets has brought much-needed attention to the
frequency and seriousness of pet behavior problems, many veterinarians appear to have missed an important part of the educational
message. These psychotropic medications are just one tool for treating behavior problems. Medications rarely, if ever, cure
a behavior problem when used alone. Sometimes, they can suppress behavior enough to temporarily satisfy an owner's desire
for change, but the positive results are often transient unless a behavior modification protocol is also included.16
A good example would be a dog with a thunderstorm phobia; if thunderstorms are relatively uncommon in the area where the patient
lives, the owners may be satisfied by giving an anxiolytic such as a benzodiazepine at a dose that also sedates the dog. If
the owner can be home to medicate the dog whenever thunderstorms are likely, then the medication may be sufficient to suppress
the signs of the phobia, help the dog feel better, and make the owner happy. Over time, however, a higher dose may be required,
and the dog might eventually stop responding to the drug. But if a behavior modification program of desensitization combined
with counterconditioning was also instituted, the dog could learn not to fear thunderstorms and eventually may not need medication.
If educated about the options, many owners would rather have the possibility of a long-term change in their pets' behavior
as opposed to a lifetime of medication.
The fact is, psychotropic medications are not cure-alls, but they do help relieve anxiety, may help to calm a dog, and, most important,
can raise the threshold for responding to stimuli, putting the dog in a state of mind in which it can learn the new tasks
that a behavior modification program is intended to teach it. Research shows that dogs receiving medication may respond more
rapidly to a behavior modification program,17 probably for similar reasons. They learn more readily because they are not anxious or afraid all the time.
"Dogs that are aggressive are acting dominant."
Aggression is more likely due to fear or anxiety than to dominance. The terms dominance and dominance aggression are probably the most overused and misapplied terms related to animal care today. And worse, a misunderstanding of aggression
and dominance has resulted in training methods that make no sense from an ethological point of view and can cause a lot of
harm. For almost 20 years, veterinary behaviorists and many nonveterinary animal behaviorists have been trying to spread the
message that coercive and punishment-based techniques are not appropriate for treating a dog with any type of aggression.18-20 Those who believed in the necessity of such techniques based their beliefs on wolf behavior. However, for a variety of reasons,
it is inappropriate to strictly compare dogs to wolves.21,22
More important, dominant status is maintained by subordinate animals readily deferring to dominant animals.19 Dominant wolves do not force subordinate wolves onto their backs. Subordinate wolves roll over to clearly demonstrate their
deference. Therefore, the idea that by forcing dogs over onto their backs we are demonstrating our dominance and teaching
them to be submissive is not only ethologically unsound—neither dogs nor wolves do this—but is also dangerous. Owners routinely
get bitten when trying this procedure on an already terrified and aggressive dog, and the only thing the dog learns is that
people are indeed terrifying and unpredictable.
Appropriate training for a dominant dog requires teaching the dog that the owner is the leader19,20,22 and involves being calm, consistent, and trustworthy. Most qualified behaviorists recommend using a version of the no-free-lunch
or learn-to-earn protocol. This regimen requires that the owner ask the dog to respond to a command (e.g. "sit") for every resource the dog desires (e.g. food, walks, play). The worst thing that can happen to a dog with this protocol is that it does not get what it desires.
Maintaining this protocol teaches the dog to defer to its owner. These command-response-reward interactions also make the
owner interact with the dog in a trustworthy and predictable manner, thus relieving the anxiety that many dogs have after
undergoing inappropriate training.
Many excellent arguments exist for being more careful about our application of the term dominance behavior, so the term's use will not be covered in depth here.22-24 But remember the key attributes of a truly dominant aggressive dog: a confident body posture; a stiff, upright, or leaning
forward stance; staring; and erect tail and ears. In my clinical experience, these dogs are relatively uncommon.
Sadly, dominance aggression seems to be the diagnosis du jour, and dogs are labeled as dominant because they resist going
into their kennels, having their nails trimmed, or being bathed (all while clearly showing signs of fear). I have even seen
dogs labeled dominant for demonstrating signs of separation anxiety.
The one place where veterinarians should absolutely not assume that an aggressive dog is being dominant is in the veterinary
clinic. Dogs learn to fear the veterinary clinic through classical conditioning. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians
would make their jobs much easier if they would teach owners of new puppies the importance of habituating their dogs to routine
handling similar to what the dog will experience when being examined or groomed. This is easy to do with an 8-to 16-week-old
puppy by using small, tasty food treats during examination. You can briefly demonstrate this routine handling during the puppy
appointment. Then encourage owners to practice it at home.
Maintain this learning by encouraging clients to stop by regularly with their new puppies so the puppies can be brought into
the clinic for a few minutes, receive a food treat, and leave without anything scary happening. This important training can
continue in the same manner after a dog is an adult. The new emphasis on the importance of managing pet obesity gives veterinarians
an excellent opportunity to emphasize these two messages. Encourage owners to bring their dogs by regularly for a weight check
that can be rewarded with a calculated amount of a low-calorie treat.
The fact is, aggression is more often related to fear or anxiety than to dominance. Take time to teach your clients appropriate interactions
with dogs that have aggressive tendencies to keep everyone safe and happy.