TRENDS IN YOUR INBOX: New Puppy Behavior Tips
New Puppy Behavior Tips: The Importance of Behavior Education During Puppy Visits in the Clinical Setting
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There’s never a dull moment in a veterinary general practice, as patients are seen from the moment the doors open until long past what should be the end of the day. It can be especially challenging to move from new puppy and kitten visits, routine wellness checks, vaccinations, and elective surgical procedures to serious metabolic emergencies, acute trauma, and end-of-life discussions. A veterinary general practitioner is expected to know enough about infectious diseases, parasites, ophthalmology, dermatology, soft tissue and orthopedic surgery, radiology, oncology, and internal medicine to assess, diagnose, and treat all patients and to educate all clients successfully. So where does behavior medicine fit in?
Studies have shown that pets with behavior problems (both abnormal and normal behavior) are more likely to be relinquished to shelters or rehomed. This typically occurs before three years of age, resulting in a true crisis of adolescent or young adult dogs and cats.
Screen for Problems
Behavior concerns should be addressed at every office visit, but that can be difficult if the appointment was originally scheduled to address a different medical issue. A standardized behavior-screening form can be helpful in early detection of behavior problems. This can be filled out at home prior to the appointment, or a client-care counselor can assist the client with completing the form upon arrival. When inquiries about behavior problems are addressed at every visit, changes in behavior can be noted in a timely manner, management can be discussed to help set the pet up for success and keep everyone safe, and more serious behavior issues can be given a separate appointment to develop a complete treatment plan.
Behavior concerns should be given the same level of consideration as any medical problem, and a complete physical and medical workup should be offered for all behavior concerns. This may include blood and urine tests, consults with neurology and ophthalmology, and advanced scans and screenings when warranted. An understanding of normal versus abnormal is essential for all aspects of veterinary medicine, and behavior medicine is no exception. It is highly advisable for everyone in the practice to have at least a general understanding of the most common types of behavior complaints. Being able to triage and advise clients with pet behavior concerns can help build the client-pet relationship and prevent worsening of behavior conditions and may avert relinquishment or euthanasia.
Some of the most common behavior concerns that will be presented by families in general practice are discovered during the new puppy visit. In addition to the conversations involving vaccination and deworming schedules, preventive healthcare, heartworm and flea control, nutritional recommendations, and spay or neuter discussions, the clients will undoubtedly have a list of questions pertaining to husbandry and behavior concerns.
Top Puppy Issues
For puppies, these concerns will most likely involve housetraining, puppy mouthing, nuisance behaviors, basic training, and socialization. It is important to provide new puppy families with the most recent and accurate resources for these discussions and to follow up-to-date and science-based recommendations. Following the policies set in the 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines will get these families started on the right path.
All veterinarians should be familiar with the best puppy-raising materials, including Puppy Start Right by Kenneth Martin, DVM, DACVB, and Deb Martin, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Perfect Puppy in 7 Days by Sophia Yin, DVM; and Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, and Well-Behaved Dog by Ian Dunbar, DVM. Avoid following the advice of television personalities with little educational background or outdated books with misguided recommendations that have been disproven. Become familiar with the position statements found at avsab.org, including “Debunking the Dominance Myth,” “Puppy Socialization,” and “How to Choose a Trainer.”
Clients with new puppies need to rely on their veterinary caregiver to provide them with the best behavioral advice. This includes directing them to positive-reinforcement–based trainers (preferably educated in behavioral science and certified through a high-quality academy, such as the Karen Pryor Academy, Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, or Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws Academy). Veterinarians and hospital staff should make recommendations to trainers based on the trainers’ methods and efficacy. Relationships should be formed between veterinary hospitals and highly skilled and humane trainers so that clients can be offered a team approach for behavior concerns. Trainers can be invited to offer puppy classes in the hospital setting, to help teach cooperative care and techniques for better handling, and to work together with the veterinarian to coach clients through behavior modification techniques.
Punishment-based or balanced trainers should be avoided, as they rely on fear and the use of aversive tools to stop behaviors rather than teaching and changing emotional responses through positive-reinforcement techniques. It is important to remember that outdated practices such as alpha rolls, intimidation, or force will lead to even more behavior problems (such as fear or aggression), as they break down the relationship between people and their pets.
Veterinarians can no longer doubt the long-term harm that occurs as a result of the use of force, including choke, prong, and shock collars.
Learn the Milestones
Understanding milestones and sensitive periods in a puppy’s development is critical to providing optimal behavior advice. Socialization is a topic that is highly misunderstood. Socialization is a developmental period that seems to begin at around 3 weeks of age and ends at around 16 weeks. During this period, a puppy learns how to communicate effectively with other dogs and humans and explores the world with increased confidence and resilience. It is also believed that a fear period may exist from 8 to 10 weeks of age, during which exposure to aversive stimuli should be avoided. Unfortunately, it is exactly during this age period that many puppies are delivered into their new homes. Potentially frightening experiences should be delayed until the puppy is past this phase and more adaptable to change.
Socialization also means that experiences during this time should be as positive as possible. This does not mean taking a puppy everywhere, playing “pass the puppy” with strangers, or exposing the puppy to loud noises or scary events. Rather, appropriate socialization means setting the puppy up for success by planning careful experiences that will allow the puppy to learn that the world is a safe place and that other people, other animals, strange surfaces, new noises, and novel experiences can all be good.
Most importantly, it is imperative that puppies receive these positive socialization experiences before the age of 16 weeks. This means that even though a puppy has not finished their series of immunizations, this socialization needs to happen within this timeframe or the window of opportunity will be closed. It is certainly a veterinarian’s primary job to keep their patients healthy, and preventing infectious diseases is among the most critical part of puppy healthcare.
However, it has been shown that the chances of acquiring parvovirus, distemper virus, or parasites are minimal when careful precautions are taken. Compared with the risk of developing a lifelong behavior problem as a result of inadequate socialization, this is an acceptable risk. Veterinarians should be familiar with the letter written by Robert K. Anderson, DVM, MPH, DACVB, DACVPM, in which he explains the importance of positive socialization for puppies and the care that should be taken to ensure the puppy’s wellbeing.
Both the 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines and the AVMA explain the importance of socialization during this critical timeframe. Keeping the new puppy out of dog parks and doggy daycare facilities and away from pet stores with unfamiliar dogs with potentially inadequate vaccine histories are ways to reduce the risk of infectious disease in the young puppy. Exposing the puppy to dogs known to be stable and well vaccinated in controlled, organized settings (such as play dates at a friend’s house) and attending puppy classes in clean facilities that require proof of vaccinations are excellent ways to get a new puppy started on the right path.
Understanding normal and abnormal puppy behavior allows the veterinarian to address the client’s concerns pertaining to typical puppy behavior (mouthing, jumping, barking), but it also enables the veterinarian to note any causes for serious concern. Veterinarians should understand the role that genetics, epigenetics, negative experiences, or a lack of positive experiences can have in the development of a puppy. Studies have shown that puppies who show fear, anxiety, or aggression will not grow out of these behaviors and that early intervention is critical in addressing them. These puppies can be easy to detect during initial puppy visits to the hospital. Keep careful notes of signs of stress, including hiding, shaking, withdrawal, excessive barking, or growling. These puppies are not trying to “show dominance” or “manipulate” people so they can get their own way. Rather, these puppies are doing everything they can to feel safe. Growls or attempts to bite should not be punished but instead taken seriously as signs that this puppy needs help with a professional. These puppies should be carefully monitored, started on a completely positive approach to behavior modification, and referred to a veterinary behaviorist for early intervention.
Keep It Positive
Finally, a puppy’s visits to veterinary hospitals should be as stress free and as positive as possible. More hospitals are using high-quality treats during examinations (cheese, peanut butter, chicken, etc.), but great care should be taken to recognize a puppy’s potential for distress in every aspect of the veterinary setting. Be careful not to use treats as primary components of distraction techniques, but rather learn how to positively pair the potentially troubling procedure with something wonderful. Waiting in the reception area, stepping on the scale, entering the exam room, being greeted by the hospital staff, and being handled for treatments are all areas where a puppy might feel anxious. Moving slowly, speaking in soft, encouraging tones, and allowing the puppy to set the pace of the visit can lead to a successful appointment. Keep in mind that everything the puppy experiences during the visit will set him up for success or failure in future visits. Invite the puppy to come to the hospital for fun, weekly visits in between immunizations so that the veterinary setting becomes a positive and familiar place. Work with skilled and positive trainers in the hospital who can coach clients and staff to recognize the signs of stress and to teach cooperative care techniques so that all pets have a say in their own care.
Above all, remember that most puppies are spayed or neutered during their juvenile developmental stage and are very likely to go through a second fear period during that time. Keeping that potentially frightening hospital stay as calm and positive as possible, and encouraging the puppy to return for frequent, fun visits long after the procedure, will help maintain all the solid building blocks that have been started and retain the client-doctor-patient relationship for years to come.
Adding behavior protocols to general veterinary practice can be a valuable way to prevent behavior problems, manage current concerns, and improve the relationship between clients and their pets. Starting positive behavior protocols in the clinical setting with puppies and providing clients with high-quality advice can contribute to a lifetime of joy.
Lynn Honeckman, DVM, is owner of Veterinary Behavior Solutions, a veterinary behavior-consulting company based in Kissimmee, Florida. She is a resident of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.