< A version of this article was published in the August 2015 issue of Down East Dog News>
Since April of this year I’ve been writing about a trend towards kinder and gentler pet care; our pet-friendly philosophy at Green Acres Kennel Shop, the force-free principles of the Pet Professional Guild, and the fear-free movement among the veterinary community. I am extremely pleased that last month the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) took this trend one step further with the publication of their Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines. This ground-breaking document acknowledges that your pet’s behavioral health is every bit as important as their physical well-being. The guidelines are 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 practice immediately.
The adoption of these guidelines is critically important because “More dogs and cats are affected by behavioral problems than any other condition, often resulting in euthanasia, relinquishment of the patient, or chronic suffering. [Emphasis added]” 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, live with and work 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 their veterinarian.
While these guidelines are focused on veterinarians and their staff, everyone in the pet care services industry; boarding kennels, doggie daycares, dog walkers, groomers, dog trainers, and pet sitters as well as animal shelters, breeders, pet shops, rescue groups, animal control officers, humane agents, and animal welfare program directors should be aware of these guidelines and be implementing the policies, procedures and training necessary to ensure the behavioral health of the pets in their care.
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. In some cases I have used bold type for added emphasis.
- “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. I love that I can take my pets to see any of their veterinarians and my pets are unafraid. Not all people can say that and that needs to change.
- “Veterinarians must be aware of the patient’s body language at all times, understanding that it conveys information about underlying physiological and mental states.” At Green Acres we teach clients to understand an animal’s body language and emotions in our training classes because it is an essential part of understanding, teaching, and living with our pets. The guidelines suggest that veterinary practices can and should use this same knowledge of body language and emotions to ensure your pets visit and exam is as stress free as possible. Both you as the person responsible for your pets care, as well as your veterinarian need to know and understand this so that together you make sure it happens. When choosing a veterinary practice I encourage you to look for one that invests in the training and continuing education necessary to teach all of their staff the fundamentals of animal body language and emotions.
- “All veterinary visits should include a behavioral assessment.” While the veterinary team needs to ask about behavior, as an owner you need to be ready to talk to your veterinarian about behavioral issues. When I receive calls from clients about behavioral issues the first thing I ask is “Have you discussed this with your vet?” and too often the answer I get is “no.” Make sure that your pet’s behavior is discussed at each and every visit.
- “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 it. 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. Preferably, you should start planning these effort’s before you bring the new pet home.
- “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 the puppy is 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. However, you need to plan these trips to make sure that they will be a good experience for your pet. Working with your trainer on this process can be very helpful.
- “Puppies should not be separated from their littermates and dam until at least 8 wk 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 them to the Animal Welfare program and get your puppy elsewhere. If you want the best possible puppy, don’t start with one that is already at a behavioral disadvantage.
- “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.” When looking for a trainer don’t choose one strictly on price or how close they are to where you live. Check out their credentials as recommended by the AAHA guidelines and make sure that they are certified by either the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB), the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and that they are continuing their education
- “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].” The techniques and tools used to train a pet and to change behavior do matter and some should never be used. Do not assume that just because a trainer is certified that they will not use these tools. You need to ask.
- “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, both individuals and organizations, have been afraid to say for fear of offending a colleague who still insists on using pain, fear and coercion. The guidelines make it very clear that certain techniques, some still used all too often (prong (pinch) collars, shock collars, alpha rolls), some promoted by TV personalities like Cesar Milan, have absolutely no place in the training or altering of behavior of pets.
The only association of professional trainers in the USA to currently have a similar position to the AAHA guidelines is the Pet Professional Guild with their Guiding Principles (http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/PPGs-Guiding-Principles). As a pet owner, that’s important for you to know when seeking a pet trainer. Here at Green Acres we have not used, recommended or sold these techniques/tools since 1998. It’s time for the other large training and behavior organizations, as well as individual trainers and businesses to quit making excuses for using these harmful tools and techniques.
While there are many excellent recommendations in the guidelines that I agree with, I cannot completely agree with: “Under no circumstances should aggression or any condition involving a clinical diagnosis be referred to a trainer for primary treatment. Referral to a dog trainer is appropriate for normal but undesired behaviors (e.g., jumping on people), unruly behaviors (e.g., pulling on leash), and teaching basic manners.” While I agree that clients should ALWAYS see and discuss behavioral concerns with their veterinarian to rule out any medical causes, I believe suggesting that the client should not be referred to a qualified, certified dog trainer or dog behaviour consultant may be counter-productive. I’m not saying that all dog trainers that take behavioral cases are qualified to do so, but truth be told, many veterinarians are also not comfortable developing a behavior modification program and then teaching the client how to implement that program.
The guidelines suggest that aggression cases can be referred to a Board-certified veterinary behaviorist (diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists); however, according to the ACVB website there are only 66 such individuals worldwide. While such a specialist may be helpful they may not be an option for many people simply due to geography or cost, thus forcing a client to euthanize or relinquish their pet. Instead, I suggest that primary care veterinarians take the time to get to know the trainers and dog behavior consultants in their community so they can determine if they feel comfortable referring to those individuals. A good place to start is with members of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (www.iaabc.org) and the Animal Behavior Society (http://www.animalbehaviorsociety.org/).
However, since these organizations do not have clear and definitive guidelines on the use of techniques the AAHA guidelines has defined as aversive, it is up to veterinarians and pet owners to make sure that the individual practitioner they select does comply with the AAHA guidelines.
There is much more in this ground-breaking document that has the potential to greatly improve the lives of the dogs and cat 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 an advocate for their pet. 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. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at http://www.wzonradio.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.
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