To medicate or not for bad behaviour

There could be a myriad of reasons why you feel your dog needs medication to alter his behaviour. In some cases, dogs may need something to calm them down, but medication is not always the ideal solution. Often, a dog and his owner just need therapy. This article discusses the two options, and the type of specialist to consult.

Veterinary behaviourists are essentially psychiatrists and non-veterinary behaviourists are essentially cognitive behavioural psychologists. Some of the methods used are the same, just as a psychiatrist and psychologist will both use cognitive behavioural therapy on humans, but vets can diagnose medical conditions and use prescription medicines to treat them.

Prescribing medication

Typical cases that need medical diagnosis and therefore a vet behaviourist are those where the reaction of the animal is irrational and disproportionate to the trigger, or truly unrelated to the trigger. Disproportionate reactions are like those in pets with separation anxiety or noise phobia. Reactions unrelated to the trigger are because of things like obsessive-compulsive disorder (or temporal lobe epilepsy, which could present the same way in the animal’s history). In these cases, it’s pretty clear that the person treating the pet will need to monitor and adjust the type and dose of prescription medication as a part of the pet’s ongoing treatment, so a vet behaviourist will need to be used.

Rational behaviour

On the other paw, there is the case where the animal’s behaviour, while problematic and inappropriate, is entirely rational considering his history: the dog who was shut away every time the leather-jacket-wearing boyfriend came around and who now does not tolerate anyone with a leather jacket near his owner; the dog who was ignored when he growled and has learnt to stop giving that warning signal and just to bite when someone tries to touch him.

Of course vet behaviourists can use cognitive behavioural therapy to help these pets and their owners, but the majority of the work required here is retraining and trigger avoidance or reassociation. The animal does not need medicine, because his reaction remains rational under the circumstances. This is arguably better done by a non-vet behaviourist who has focused knowledge and experience with cognitive behavioural therapy (for the owner) and operant conditioning (for the pet).

There are cases where a life event triggered an extreme response, such as a new pet moving into the household causing severe feather plucking, or an attempted hijacking causing overwhelming and intractable fear of all cars or loud noises. In this case, even though the behaviour can be explained, there may be an underlying neurochemical imbalance preventing the pet from returning to emotional calm. This is when medication is often also a valuable part of treatment.

It has to be pointed out that vet behaviourists are not just pill pushers. In the same way that human GPs can prescribe antidepressants without any behavioural therapy but really shouldn’t, all vets can prescribe psychoactive medication, but this does not make them psychiatrists and in most cases medical treatment alone does not solve the problem. All behaviour is our response to the environment, and we have to work with the environment, not just the brain chemistry, to alter it.

Changing brain chemistry gives a pet the potential to react differently, but without teaching him what to do instead; this is like trying to treat alcoholism by giving the affected person a bottle of water in addition to their bottle of whiskey – they have the potential to change their behaviour, but we know they need more help than that.

Asking questions

So, who should you choose? My suggestion is to ask just three or four questions to determine if the behaviour is rational or not and if there are any potential medical problems with the pet. If the behaviour seems to be completely rational in an undertrained but otherwise healthy pet, the pet owner is probably better off with a non-vet behaviourist who will charge slightly less per session. Regarding costs of consultations, every behaviourist charges differently, be they a vet or non-vet behaviourist. You could expect to be charged anything upward of R800 for an hour-long initial evaluation. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a vet’s time is also more expensive, so if an animal does not need medical treatment, his owners are probably better off going to a non-vet!

If there is any doubt at all, choose the vet behaviourist first. The truth is that a lot of us work closely with non-vet behaviourists and will refer people on for ‘continued therapy’ if we see that medical intervention is not essential. Many non-vet behaviourists will also insist that the pet have a full medical examination done prior to consultation to ensure the behaviour has no medical cause.

Both veterinarians and veterinary nurses study a behavioural component as part of their qualification, but it is essential for anyone practising as a behaviourist to have done additional studying. There are many behavioural associations that can recommend qualified and experienced behaviourists, be they vets or non-vets.

Not acceptable training

Aversive training (physical punishment, shock collars, ‘alpha rolls’) is never acceptable. Dogs learn by associating their actions with the immediate consequences. Dogs need a positive reaction to their correct actions within one second of the required action being performed. The consequences of their reactions are viewed as positive if they offer a reward to the dog. Some results that dogs view as positive are: treats, attention (even if it is seen by the owner as scolding the dog), play, interaction, toys and touch.

The body language that the owner uses around the dog is very valuable to the dog, as he interprets it as either positive or negative. Operant conditioning entails getting the dog to perform an action because the action has a positive result or reward. An action that the dog performs that is undesirable to the owner must receive an immediate negative reaction. This does not include physical punishment or shouting at the dog. A negative reaction from the owner is not reacting to the undesirable action at all or interrupting the action. The dog must be motivated and have a reason to perform the desirable behaviour. Overzealous punishment is the main reason dogs develop behaviour problems. Anything that causes the dog to show fear towards the owner is seen as abuse. (See page 8 for the article on punishment.)

Remember that the behaviours the owner often sees as ‘wrong’ are actually quite normal for the dog. That is why we refer to behaviours as acceptable or unacceptable (to the owner, not the dog). The owner must only have realistic expectations of the dog’s behaviour and not expect the dog to perform miracles. No physical force must be used when working with any animal. If a dog is going to be a pleasurable, well-behaved dog in social situations, he will need to be socialised.

Socialisation includes exposing the dog to as many different experiences as possible from as young as possible. Ensure that the experiences are seen as pleasurable and do not scare the dog. This includes exposing the dog to other animals, other dogs and different human races, genders, sizes and clothing. The dog will then see that new things are usually fun and will be much more open to accept new situations. This will ‘habituate’ or get the dog to accept new stimuli without being afraid or stressed. This is more difficult with older dogs, as they generally have set responses already, but this can be slowly and calmly changed.

In conclusion

If a behaviour that a dog is performing is seen as unacceptable to the owner but is logical (to the dog) in the circumstances, then a non-vet behaviourist is best. However, if a behaviour is not reflective of or acceptable in the circumstances, there may be a medical reason for it and a vet behaviourist needs to be consulted.

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