Face your behavior fears—with confidence


Unruly behaviors cause significant distress between clients and their pets, and can significantly increase the risk of relinquishment. These behaviors usually stem from pet owners’ misunderstanding of species-specific normal behaviors, as well as how animals learn. Unwanted behaviors differ from behavior disorders. True behavior disorders often have complex underlying motivations, including but not limited to anxiety, fear, phobia, stress, territorial overprotection, pain, and so on, and need treatment with a veterinary behaviorist for the best outcomes. Many veterinary teams shy away from tackling behavior issues in their practices for a number of reasons. But the good news is that common unruly behaviors can be addressed by interventions and are often easily treated in compliant households.

In order to support families managing unruly behaviors, staff has to work through some common fears. Many veterinary professionals have never received formal behavior training and are uncomfortable diving into behavior topics without the proper tools. Time is also a factor, because behavior-modification strategies often require demonstrations or discussions that don’t neatly fit into a routine exam. There can be liability risks in not providing adequate treatment to behavior cases, but there is also some risk in treating them.

Given these factors, it is totally normal for a veterinary staff member to be uncomfortable when it comes to animal behavior. Many of the most common unruly pet behaviors that risk damaging the human-animal bond, however, are low risk to the clinician. It is worthwhile, then, to put a triage system in place for dealing with the behavior issues your practice faces. Here is a low-risk, easy behavior SOP that you can implement in your practice. You can begin to tackle behavior issues with your patients immediately, and vastly improve the human-animal bond as well as client retention. 

Identify behavior disorders and unruly behavior early

Many clinicians have been taught to ask clients open-ended questions, but asking more specific questions can be helpful when it comes to identifying behavior disorders and unruly behavior issues with pets. At each appointment, be sure to ask the client direct and clear questions about their pet’s behavior. To gather information quickly, add behavior questions to your practice’s intake forms. This way, you’ll be prepared to schedule a separate behavior appointment or walk into the exam room with helpful resources. Proactively gathering historical information will allow you to get the client and pet help early, before the behavior results in rehoming considerations or use of punishers (which can make symptoms worse and, in some cases, be dangerous to humans and animals).

Advise clients to avoid triggers

One low-fault and low-risk way to handle unruly behaviors is to avoid the triggers altogether until more thorough help can be secured for the pet. For example, if a client’s dog is jumping up on visitors, ask that the family stop letting the dog meet new people at the door. Advise them to give the dog a high-value treat or toy in another room or behind a secure dog gate. Avoidance like this prevents the animal from practicing the unwanted behavior. Remember, practice makes perfect: Practicing the unruly behavior will make it harder to resolve. And inappropriate attempts to solve unruly behaviors can make them more difficult to treat in the long term. Avoidance until professional help can be sought is an important first step in treatment. However, remember that this recommendation may be different from what clients see on TV, hear from laypeople, find on Dr. Google, or receive from some trainers.   

Develop a support system for animals with unruly behaviors

Decide how to provide your clients with additional support. Get to know your local positive-reinforcement trainers. Some of your staff members may also be interested in behavior and would welcome the continuing education and responsibility of supporting families managing unruly behaviors. Interview local trainers and stick with one or two great ones. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists provides tips on how to select dog trainers. Just like a diet recommendation, your client is more likely to be successful if you present them with a direct and easy next step in their treatment plan. It saves them time and energy researching behavior-treatment options, gives them clarity for the next step, and can help build the trust in your practice.

Do not allow unknown trainers or other service providers to leave cards, brochures, or “freebies” in your hospital. This is an implicit endorsement and can decrease compliance with your recommendations.

Have a sample pet routine ready for clients to access

Implement a solid daily routine for each of the species that your practice treats that can be shared with clients. Many unruly behaviors result from a lack of routine in the home and a misunderstanding of the daily needs of each animal. When a family has access to an expert plan for the day, they are better able to proactively meet the intellectual, physical, and olfactory stimulation needs that are basic for their pet. A positive routine also reinforces good behaviors as they happen rather than just reacting to negative behaviors as they come up. Your practice can come up with their own recommended routines for your clients, and here is an example of a dog routine developed by my team at Behavior Vets to give you some inspiration.

Putting these steps into your practice will streamline and proactively process your behavior cases. Rather than ignoring unruly behaviors, this system will allow you to make the situation safe, avoid reinforcing unwanted behaviors, and protect owners from accidentally making the situation worse with inappropriate interventions. 

Want to learn more about animal behavior and how to help your clients? Bring your questions to my interactive behavior lecture at the 2020 virtual Connexity conference. I’ll be discussing causes and treatments for common unruly behaviors and offering tips on how to help your clients understand their pets better and enjoy them more.

Learn more about the Connexity 2020 virtual and on-demand conference.

About the author

E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB, is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and an international lecturer and author. She is the Chief Medical Officer of Behavior Vets of Colorado and New York City. Her team of trainers, behavior consultants, behavior technicians, and behavior veterinarians provides all levels of behavioral health services, from basic training to complex veterinary behavioral diagnoses and treatments in all species. She is frequently featured in various media outlets and loves to share her passion for veterinary behavior with her colleagues and clients through speaking engagements and writing. Christensen is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and Fear Free Speakers Bureaus. She is leading the Make It Stop! Unruly Behaviors—What They Look Like and How to Treat Them session at the 2020 virtual Connexity conference.

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/Slavica