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What Can a Veterinary Behaviorist Do For My Dog?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Before you can begin to ask what a veterinary behaviorist can do for you, you need to know what one is! The term is a very specific one that is reserved for those entitled to use it by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). But there are many vets who have a special interest in veterinary behavior and who promote behavioral medicine in their practice. The difference between vets with a special interest in animal behavior and veterinary behaviorists is one of training.

To be a veterinary behaviorist you have to have either:

  • Been inducted into the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) on the basis of founder status (so-called "grand-fathering")

  • Successfully completed an approved residency training program in veterinary animal behavior, and subsequently passed a certifying examination. After passing the exam, the veterinarian is then a diplomate of the ACVB – a formally certified specialist.

    The minimum qualification for a would-be veterinary behaviorist is the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree (or equivalent). After graduation, a year of internship is necessary before entering a behavioral residency training program. Residencies are two or three years long (depending on the resident's prior experience and coursework) and are conducted under the watchful eyes of an already boarded veterinary behaviorist. During the residency program, the trainee is required to complete a research project and publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal plus having certain caseload requirements met.

    What You Stand to Gain

    So now that you know what a veterinary behaviorist is, we can start to consider what one can do to help you with your pet peeve. Quite a lot, as it happens:

  • If you are one of the 42 percent of pet owners whose pet is displaying some kind of problem behavior, a veterinary behaviorist can quickly assess the problem and provide viable treatment options. Bear in mind that many behavior problems are actually normal behaviors for the animal but are being performed inappropriately, from the owner's perspective. For example, barking is hardly an unusual or unnatural behavior for a dog, but barking can be a real problem for owners in some situations.

    But barking per se is not a diagnosis; it is a description of a behavior. A diagnosis incorporates the reason for the behavior. For example, alarm barking is a normal canine behavior that many owners appreciate. Barking for attention, however, is a different problem. This latter type of in-your-face barking is aggravating to most owners, who inadvertently fuel its continuance. Then there's separation anxiety barking and compulsive barking – again, separate problems.

    It's essential to know what type of barking you're dealing with before appropriate and effective treatments can be planned. Although veterinary behaviorists can make these diagnoses, so can non-veterinary behaviorists (e.g. applied animal behaviorists certified by the Animal Behavior Society) and veterinarians with an interest in behavior.

  • If medical factors contribute to the problem, a veterinary behaviorist will perform a physical examination of your dog and order relevant laboratory tests to help determine the true diagnosis. This is a unique function of the veterinary behaviorist. Sub-threshold hypothyroidism and partial seizures are just two medical conditions that can muddy the diagnostic waters.

  • Once an accurate diagnosis has been made, the veterinary behaviorist moves into the next stage, a full explanation for the behavior. Sometimes, when a dog owner finds out exactly what's going on (and why), it has a very positive effect on their relationship with their pet and on their interactions with it. In addition, owners' understanding of the condition affecting their dog helps them when it comes to treatment - by enhancing their comprehension of, and compliance with, behavior modification strategies.

    Treatment

    Treatment should be holistic – that is, embracing all aspects of the dog's life. Subjects that should be addressed include:

  • The adequacy of exercise (basically, the more the merrier unless health matters dictate otherwise)

  • Diet (what is right for your dog, bearing in mind his level of activity, specific behavioral needs, age, weight, physiological status, etc.)

  • Communication (the ability to "inform" your dog what you want him to do by means of certain cues or signals – formerly referred to as "commands")

  • Control systems (e.g. head halters to provide humane control of your dog in difficult situations)

  • Environmental enrichment – employing measures to make the dog's life more interesting, absorbing, and fulfilling

  • Specific behavior modification programs - such as a "leadership program" for more dominant dogs or a desensitization program for a fearful dog
  • Medical treatment - when necessary

  • Psychopharmacologic treatment - where indicated

    Conclusion

    Not everyone requires a veterinary behaviorist to help resolve their dog's behavior problem. Certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB) are well suited to handle non-medical behavioral issues. Their psychology background makes them ideal when it comes to managing disturbed dogs that have suffered psychological trauma. The human medical equivalent of the certified applied animal behaviorist is the psychologist.

    Veterinary behaviorists also have some background in learning theory and are able to counsel on psychological problems, but are vital when medical problems are involved or when psychopharmacologic treatment is indicated. Veterinary behaviorists, whether they like the analogy or not, function as animal psychiatrists.

    Considering the huge annual canine mortality in the nation's shelters and pounds due to "unmanageable" behavior problems, it is time that non-veterinary behaviorists, vets with a special interest in animal behavior and "board certified" veterinary behaviorists pull together to help keep families and their pet's together.

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