Downeast Dog News
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Important News About Behavioral Wellness for All Pets The New AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines

By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Aug 03, 2015

Last month I discussed the concept of “fear-free” visits to the veterinarian. That concept has been taken one step further with the publication of the Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) in July of 2015. This document is meant to provide veterinarians and their staff with “… concise, evidence-based information to ensure that the basic behavioral needs of feline and canine patients are understood and met in every practice [emphasis added].” While these are just guidelines, the AAHA is at the forefront of veterinary medicine, and I expect that most veterinarians will begin implementing these guidelines into their practices.

According to these guidelines,  “More dogs and cats are affected by behavioral problems than any other condition, often resulting in euthanasia, relinquishment of the patient, or chronic suffering.” The reasons why behavioral problems have become the number one health concern for dogs and cats remains to be examined; however, these guidelines offer some concrete steps that all of us who love and live with dogs and cats can take to help make their lives better. This is a huge step as it now establishes that a behavioral wellness assessment should be part of every pet’s visit to the veterinarian.

Here the some of the key take-home messages from this document that every pet owner needs to know. Quotes from the guidelines are in italics and my comments are non-italicized.

  • “Veterinarians must institute a culture of kindness in the practice and avoid using either forced restraint or punitive training or management methods.” Time and patience make for a better experience for all involved.
  • “Veterinarians must be aware of the patient’s body language at all times, understanding that it conveys information about underlying physiological and mental states.” We emphasize understanding an animal’s body language and emotions in our training classes because it is part of understanding and working with our pets. A veterinary practice that has and uses this knowledge will be better able to treat your pet and will be a place that your pet will at least tolerate, if not enjoy.
  • “All veterinary visits should include a behavioral assessment.” While the veterinary team needs to ask about behavior, owners need to be ready to talk to their veterinarian about behavioral issues. When I receive calls from clients about behavioral issues,  the first thing I usually ask is, “Have you discussed this with your vet?” and too often the answer I get is “no.”
  • “Good behavioral evaluations are especially important in young animals. Studies show that 10 percent of puppies that were fearful during a physical exam at 8 wk of age were also fearful at 18 mo. Patients do not outgrow pathologic fear. [emphasis added].” “Behavioral conditions are progressive. Early intervention is essential to preserve quality of life for both the patient and client and to provide the best chance of treatment success.” In my experience, patients often wait too long to address behavioral problems, hoping the pet will outgrow them. The sooner these problems are addressed the better the odds of resolving the problem and ending the distress felt by both the pet and the pet owner.
  • “… the presence or development of fear during sensitive periods is aggravated by forced social exposure. Overexposure can make fearful dogs worse, creating a behavioral emergency.” This is why socialization and habituation efforts need to be planned ahead of time and controlled while they are occurring. Talk to your veterinarian and certified, reward-based trainer about the best ways to do this.
  • “There is no medical reason to delay puppy and kitten 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 quality. The risks attendant with missing social exposure far exceed any disease risk. [Emphasis added]” This is why starting a puppy in an appropriately designed class is so important while they are 8 to 16 weeks of age. It’s also why regular “fun” trips to the vet’s office, the groomer, the kennel, and other places are recommended during this period.
  • Puppies should not be separated from their littermates and dam until at least 8 wks of age. Puppies separated at 30–40 days versus 56 days experienced a greater incidence of problems related to the early separation, such as excessive barking, fearfulness on walks, reactivity to noises, toy or food possessiveness, attention-seeking behavior, and destructive behavior as adults.” This is the law in Maine, but too often it’s not followed. If you’re getting a puppy from a shelter, breeder, or rescue organization, do not take it home until it is 8 weeks of age. If they offer to let you have it sooner, report it to the Animal Welfare program and get your puppy elsewhere.
  • “Mistaken or misinformed beliefs may become apparent early. Clients may not understand that some undesirable behaviors are normal (e.g., young puppies cannot last 8–10 hr without urinating). Clients may not understand the difference between a behavior that is undesirable but possibly normal and responsive to training (e.g.,grabbing someone during play) and abnormal behavior that requires professional care (e.g., becoming aggressive if not permitted to play after grabbing).[Emphasis added]” People have so many incorrect and damaging beliefs about dog behavior based on myths that have been recycled over and over again for the past 70+ years. This is why working with a veterinarian and trainer who participates in regular continuing education is essential.
  • Qualified trainers can be valuable partners on a veterinary behavior management team… Trainers should have obtained certification from a reliable organization that has, as its foundation, the sole use of positive methods. Certification for trainers should require annual continuing education, liability insurance, and testable knowledgeable in behavior and learning theory trainers. Unfortunately, credentials don’t guarantee the use of humane methods or honest marketing. It is essential that clients ask trainers about specific tools and techniques used. If the tools or techniques include prong collars, shock collars, or leash/collar jerks/yanks, or if the trainer explains behavior in terms of  ‘dominance’’ or throws anything at a dog, advise clients to switch trainers. [Emphasis added].”  “This Task Force opposes training methods that use aversive techniques. Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals. Aversive techniques are especially injurious to fearful and aggressive patients and often suppress signals of impending aggression, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous. Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating. None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior. Non aversive techniques rely on the identification and reward of desirable behaviors and on the appropriate use of head collars, harnesses, toys, remote treat devices, wraps, and other force-free methods of restraint. This Task Force strongly endorses techniques that focus on rewarding correct behaviors and removing rewards for unwanted behaviors. [Emphasis added]” Kudos to the AAHA and this Task Force for saying what many in the training community have been afraid to say for fear of offending a colleague in the profession who still insists on using pain, fear, and coercion to train. I’m excited to see the AAHA support the force-free methodology of The Pet Professional Guild and those trainers that have been avoiding aversive tools for years.

There is much more in this ground-breaking document that has the potential to greatly improve the lives of the dogs and cats we love. However, it only has the potential to do that if veterinarians and other pet care professionals heed its advice and if pet owners take the time to familiarize themselves with what’s written in this document so that they can be advocates for their pets. You can read the document in its entirety at: https://www.aaha.org/graphics/original/professional/resources/guidelines/2015_aaha_behavior_mgmt_guidelines.pdf

 

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor and the 2014 Association of Professional Dog Trainers Dr. Ian Dunbar Member of the Year. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Voice of Maine  (103.9FM, 101.3FM, 1450AM & woofmeowshow.com) every Saturday at 7:30AM and Sunday at 8:30PM. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.