"Crazy owners have crazy pets."
I am surprised at how often I hear this comment from veterinarians as well as nonveterinary professionals. Studies have demonstrated
that owner personalities that might be expected to contribute to pet behavior problems are not correlated with a higher incidence
of problems.12,13 Furthermore, studies have shown that behavior and behavior problems are strongly influenced by genetics.14
Certainly, a dog's environment and experiences affect its behavior, but they are seldom the sole causes of a behavior problem.
To suggest that pet owners' personalities can cause pets' behavior problems is not only hurtful, it is also counterproductive
because an owner distressed by guilt is not in an emotional position to do the hard work that treating a behavior problem
requires. Pet owners need to be receptive to your advice. So tell them that what they do affects their pets' behavior but
does not necessarily cause it. Then teach owners appropriate management techniques, and they will be in an excellent position
to improve their pets' behavior.
I find a comparison to diabetes to be effective in helping clients understand the clinical approach to behavior problems.
We do not cure diabetes; we manage it. And diabetes is usually not managed with insulin alone, just as behavior problems are
rarely managed with drugs alone. Managing diabetes requires that clients have a basic knowledge of glucose metabolism so they
can manage their pets' environment and behavior appropriately (i.e. maintain a fairly consistent diet and exercise regimen). Managing behavior problems will similarly require a basic knowledge
of normal dog behavior and the principles of learning.
The fact is, for many behavior problems, early recognition and appropriate management can improve a pet's behavior, strengthen the owner-pet
bond, and help avoid relinquishment. An owner's personality has little, if any influence.
"My dog is aggressive/fearful/shy because she was abused as a puppy."
Certainly, if a dog is acquired after 6 months of age and is fearful, no one can be certain that it was not abused. But by
focusing on that possibility, we fail to emphasize the more common causes, and we miss an opportunity to educate our clients
about what they can do to help prevent and treat fear-related behavior problems. Believing that an animal's behavior is strictly
a result of events that happened before it was acquired enables many pet owners to completely deny responsibility for their
pets' behavior, likely setting the pets up for disaster. Behavior problems, especially those based on fear or anxiety, when
ignored will almost always worsen with time.
Although we still have much to learn about the genetics of behavior, it is well-documented that fearful or shy behaviors are
highly heritable traits.14,15 However, the expression of these traits will also be influenced by learning and the environment. Dogs can be habituated to
the stimuli that cause them fear by using properly designed programs of desensitization and counterconditioning. These programs
can be highly effective, especially if started as soon as the problem is identified. The longer the problem exists, the harder
it is to treat. Clients need to be taught this principle so they do not ignore a problem until it worsens to such an extent
that the bond is damaged and treatment becomes more costly, difficult, and time-consuming. If an owner acquires an adult dog
with fear-or anxiety-related problems, encourage the owner to begin an appropriate treatment program as soon as possible,
preferably under the auspices of a qualified behaviorist and using the assistance of a trainer when necessary.
An awareness of the importance of genetic influences on behavior can also be useful in helping clients choose a pet and a
breeder (see boxed text "Helping clients choose well-tempered pets").
Helping clients choose well-tempered pets
The fact is, an animal's behavior is a result of the complex interaction between its genes and its environment. It can rarely be attributed
to a single event, and even if it can be, change is still possible.