Canine behavior is influenced by developmental age, experiences, breed, and environment. Although genetics have a significant influence on behavior, individuals are a function of their genetics and their experiences.41,42 Because behavior problems continue to be a significant cause of relinquishment and euthanasia, it is essential that behavioral evaluations and interventions be incorporated into each patient’s veterinary visit.43 The veterinarian is the primary resource for accurate and current information regarding behavior, and the AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines are a useful resource for evidence-based continuing education for the practice team.44
The general approach to veterinary visits should attempt to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress using low-stress handling techniques and appropriate anxiolytics. Evaluations of the patient’s physiological and mental state should be made by the veterinary team and recorded as part of the medical record. This will allow veterinarians and staff to adjust interactions and approach at future visits.44
Because developmental periods do not start and end abruptly, but rather phase in and out gradually, recommendations in the Canine Life Stage Checklists are a starting point to guide practice teams in behavioral monitoring and interventions. Each patient should be approached as an individual as opposed to applying a formulaic method. Behavioral recommendations for the four canine life stages include
For the young puppy:
- Behavioral development starts prior to arrival in the permanent home. Breeders can have significant influence on critical behavioral development in the first weeks of the patient’s life. Research shows gentle handling and structured environmental exposures on a daily basis during this time period can have significant benefits later in life.45,46
- Despite previous recommendations regarding “socialization,” a recent survey indicated only one-third of puppies were receiving exposure to people and dogs outside the home during critical periods for development.47 Positive and structured exposure during sensitive periods are necessary for puppies to gain life skills for their future.48,49 Additionally, the AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines state that there is no medical reason to delay puppy classes or social exposure until the vaccination series is completed as long as exposure to sick animals is prohibited, basic hygiene is practiced, and diets are high in quality.44
- Veterinarians should advise pet owners regarding sensitive periods in a puppy’s life such as initial exposure to people, places, animals, and things. Encourage enrollment in an appropriate puppy class and provide resources that will enable owners to create positive experiences for their pets. Be alert for signs that indicate the puppy may need more help with a particular situation; puppies generally do not “outgrow” their problems.50 Exposure without evaluation of the puppy’s response to the situation may result in increased problem behaviors as a result of sensitization instead of positive socialization which results in desensitization.
- Advise pet owners regarding selection of appropriate training professionals as coeducators for the puppy and adult dog.51–53
For the young and mature adult:
- The time period between ~6 mo and 3 yr of age can be the most challenging for owners as the dog matures socially and behaviorally.
- Discuss with clients normal breed-specific behaviors (such as predilections for digging or herding), individual exercise needs, and appropriate cognitive engagement to create realistic expectations of behavior and help with management of undesirable behaviors.
- Ask open-ended questions to identify common unruly behaviors that tend to occur during this age, such as jumping, barking, and mouthing. Actively question for symptoms of other undesirable behaviors, such as aggression and changes in social relationships, as safety and prevention of dog bites are a veterinary responsibility.
- Discuss areas of possible fear or anxiety. This may include fear periods, fear or anxiety associated with veterinary visits, and/or noise phobias (such as storms or fireworks). Chronic stress not only affects the owner-pet bond but also affects the health of the dog.54
For the senior dog:
- Schedule routine evaluation for symptoms of cognitive changes and/or dysfunction and track changes in the medical record to be able to intervene earlier in the patient’s life.55
For all life stages:
- Refer appropriate cases to a trainer, as recommended by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
- Address normal but undesirable behaviors (such as jumping on people)
- Address unruly type behaviors such as pulling on leash
- Teach basic manners
Cases that should have referral to a veterinary behaviorist:
- Aggression toward humans or other animals
- Profound phobias or fears
- Multiple concurrent diagnoses
- Patients who have not responded to the primary care veterinarian’s treatments