Before prime-time television executives recognized a market for canine behavior programming, veterinary professionals had been educating clients about how to teach, nurture, and maintain good pet behavior.
As experts in the field of pet health, veterinarians and technicians know that bad behavior can lead to animal abandonment. They also rule out medical causes for some behaviors, such as urinating in the house, aggression, anxiety, and self-mutilation.
To address behavior issues before they become problems, veterinary clinics across the country offer classes and refer clients to qualified professionals. Some clinics hire professionals with advanced degrees in animal behavior (certified applied animal behaviorists) and others suggest independent dog trainers. Talk with your veterinary team to get a list of trusted professionals.
Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center, an AAHA-accredited hospital in Colorado, built a Canine Academy on site and hired Eric Gillaspy, a canine behavior consultant and trainer, to work with clients referred by veterinarian Bill Moyle, Jr.
“A well-behaved dog is a good family member and is less likely to be placed in a shelter,” said Nancy Moyle, PhD, co-owner. “Anyone who has a pet [he/she] loves understands what that means.”
When addressing behavior issues — such as excessive barking, jumping, and chewing — early intervention is important. Professionals say almost all behavior issues can be resolved but they warn that effective training takes time.
Find the Right Trainer
When hiring trainers, veterinary professionals look for depth of experience. The Moyles liked the fact that Gillaspy had worked at the Academy of Canine Behavior in Washington State for six years and volunteered with a pit bull rescue group.
An important part of the veterinary team, Gillaspy (shown at right with his trusty assistant, Violet) consults with veterinarians if he suspects a medical cause for behavior problems and frequently intervenes if he sees a budding behavior problem at the clinic.
For example, if he sees a dog lunging or barking at other dogs, he may talk with the owner about how he/she can correct the behavior. He is also called into exam rooms for impromptu consultations for separation anxiety and other common behavior problems.
“I was really happy that my veterinarian had a trainer on staff that he obviously trusted,” said Bert Atkinson, a client at Lone Tree and The Canine Academy. “Eric always stresses that your dog should be having a good time, [which] makes me and my dogs feel comfortable. I think I’m learning just as much, if not more, than my dogs,” he said.
The owner of a boxer and two pit bulls, Gillaspy knows how important it is to have dogs fit into their owners’ lifestyles. To illustrate how effective his training can be, he uses his boxer, Violet, as a class assistant and a positive example.
A hospital therapy dog, Violet shows canine students how to resist the urge to bark, despite distractions, and she does tricks, such as playing dead and counting. Most dogs love to do what is asked of them and be rewarded for it, Gillaspy said.
Atkinson hired Gillaspy to address excessive barking in individual sessions and then realized that his dogs would benefit from an obedience class. “My wife and I thought we knew enough to train our dogs — we did fine with housetraining and basic commands like sit and shake. If we could do it all over again, we would put our dogs in every class possible with Eric, ” Atkinson said.
Gillaspy explained that dogs respond well to positive reinforcement of good behaviors and told Atkinson that by engaging his dogs with new tricks, he could avoid some of the attention-seeking behaviors.
In other words, if your dog is engaged and performing tricks, it is less likely to exhibit the negative behaviors you sought help for in the first place.
For the Atkinsons, that philosophy has proven to be true. “One of my dogs no longer thinks she is the boss and the other one has gained more confidence so [she] doesn’t bark at everything that moves,” he said.
When looking for help with behavior problems, Gillaspy says that personality is important. “People should like their trainer on a personal level. Trainers without people skills won’t do. They should be able to explain things in a way you can understand. Look for a trainer with lots of experience [and] always make sure your trainer has a well-trained dog. If they can’t train their own dogs, they can’t train yours.”
Some veterinarians have received additional training in behavior, which enhances their ability to diagnose and treat behavior problems. There are about 50 certified applied animal behaviorists in the United States but not all of them participate in one-on-one training with clients, which is why dog trainers like Gillaspy play an important role in training and behavior sessions.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 4, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.