There are many reasons an animal may behave aggressively, including fear, dominance, food or object possessiveness, territorial behaviour or protective behaviour. An animal that threatens another animal or human by growling, hissing, baring his teeth, snapping or biting, presents a danger to others.
It’s necessary to obtain a complete behavioural history through detailed information gathering and direct observation of the animal in his own environment, before a diagnosis and recommendations can be made. This can’t be accomplished over the phone.
The first step is to have a veterinarian examine your pet to evaluate him for possible medical reasons for the aggressive behaviour. If it’s not a medical problem, you should seek the services of an animal behaviour specialist. If a professional animal behaviourist can’t help, it may be best for all concerned to have your pet humanely euthanized. You may either have your own veterinarian euthanize your pet, or you may surrender him to an animal shelter. If you choose to surrender your pet to a shelter, please relate all the information you have about his behaviour.
Some animals, usually dogs, may develop intense, irrational fears, including fear of thunderstorms, firecrackers and other loud noises. Many phobias can be successfully treated using a combination of behaviour modification and short-term drug therapy prescribed by a veterinarian. This type of treatment cannot be administered over the telephone. We do have pages that explain fearful dog and fearful cat behaviours and the types of behaviour modification procedures used to work with them. If your pet exhibits this type of behaviour, you should contact your veterinarian for information about medication and for a referral to an animal behaviour specialist.
Dogs and cats will sometimes lick themselves excessively until skin sores form, or will pull patches of hair from their bodies. Treatment often involves a combination of drug therapy and behaviour modification that can only be obtained through your veterinarian and an animal behaviour specialist.
Finding professional help
You should seek help from a veterinarian and an animal behaviour specialist, however, knowing where to turn can be confusing. People who work with animal behaviour problems are not regulated by any government agency and may have very different types of qualifications.
When your pet has a problem, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Urinary tract infections, hormone imbalances, neurological conditions, genetic abnormalities, orthopedic problems and dental disease are just a few examples of medical problems that can influence your pet’s behaviour. Ask your veterinarian if he has received any specific training in animal behaviour, and if not, ask him if he can refer you to an animal behaviour specialist.
Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist
Animal behaviour is a specialized field of scientific study. In order to become a certified applied animal behaviourist, an individual must have specialized training in behaviour problems in companion animals. The Animal Behaviour Society (ABS) grants certification to behaviourists who are academically trained, have experience in the field, and meet the ethical standards of the ABS. People who’ve worked with or trained animals for many years aren’t animal behaviourists unless they’ve received specialized academic training.
Some animal trainers are self-taught, and some may have apprenticed under another trainer and/or attended various training seminars. Animal trainers don’t usually have specialized academic training in the study of animal behaviour. Good animal trainers are knowledgeable about different types of training methods that focus primarily on reinforcing good behaviour and use punishment sparingly, appropriately, humanely or not at all. Innapropriate use of correction collars, including using chokers to lift dogs off the ground and “string them up,” aren’t appropriate or humane training methods and may cause injury to your dog.
- Dog obedience classes are an excellent way to develop a good relationship with your dog and gain more control over him by teaching him to respond reliably to specific commands. However, resolving behaviour problems, such as house soiling, barking, aggression or separation anxiety, requires more than teaching your dog commands. Specific behaviour modification techniques must also be used. Some animal trainers also offer behaviour consulting services.
- Ask the trainer what methods they use and how they were trained. Go to a class, and if you observe techniques you’re not comfortable with, find another trainer. Dog obedience instructors can be endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI). Endorsement indicates that instructors have been approved by their peers and use humane methods of training. If the trainer is endorsed by another organization, ask about the criteria for endorsement.
Things to watch for and avoid
- People who guarantee their work. Qualified behaviourists and trainers will always do their best for you, but cannot guarantee outcomes, because animals have minds of their own, and can never be completely controlled by humans.
- People whose primary methods focus on punishment. If their recommendations involve choking, hitting or slapping your pet, confinement or isolation, this indicates little or no understanding of animal behaviour.
- People who misrepresent their qualifications. People who call themselves animal behaviourists, even though they’re not academically trained in animal behaviour.
- People who want to train your pet for you. Most behaviour problems are a result of interactions between the animal, the owner and the environment. Giving your pet to someone else to “fix” the problem is rarely successful because these three elements aren’t addressed. Owners need to work with the animal in the home environment.