The lovely dog in the video below is doing and exercise with his owner where he needs to “stay” and “look” for his treats. It a good example of how management is different for individuals who may have a physical impairment. This dog is deaf, so his owner uses hand signals to ask him to do things and to tell him when he is correct (notice the thumbs up). Rather than finding his deafness frustrating, his owners and their friend have been able to utilise his inability to hear to manage his behaviour problem more effectively by doing exercises that focus his visual field on the ground when he might be exposed to something he fears. Working with animals with behaviour problems, it is vital to try to perceive the world from their point of view.
Thank you to Dr Debbie Calnon and trainer Jenny Judson for helping this dog’s owner who has worked hard to offer her dogs full and happy lives.
Whenever I am approached by someone who wants to have a behaviour consultation for their pet, I often recommend that the pet with problems has a physical health check with a general practice veterinarian. Many people think it is strange, but it is important, especially if the behavioural change has been sudden.
When an animal starts to behave in a way that is a problem or seems strange, people often disregard that there may be a medical issue underlying the cause. Behaviour can be influenced by many factors; for example, the behaviour exhibited can be a response how the pet perceives the surrounding environment or how comfortable the animal is in him/herself.
If an animal has pain somewhere, they can be very good at hiding that pain, but they may become more irritable or more timid. Itchiness may also lead to irritability. If an individual starts to perceive the surrounding world differently, such as occurs with a loss of sight, the pet may become more reactive in his or her behaviour. A disease that changes the balance of chemicals and hormones in the blood can affect the brain and the brain tells an individual what is perceived in the external environment and what behaviours to perform. The brain is also important for many other functions that affect behaviour, such as emotional responses. Because changes in the blood affect behaviour, I generally recommend certain blood tests for animals with behaviour problems, prior to coming to me for behaviour consultation.
Even if the animal does have an underlying mental health issue that leads to reactive behaviour, the emotional problem can become worse if there is also physical illness present. When dealing with behaviour problems, the approach is holistic: we must consider the whole individual including his or her current health status, the environment in which the pet must live and also the individual’s past experiences and how those experiences have influenced the development of the pet and his or her behaviour. Unless all factors are considered, understanding of how an animal perceives the surrounding world and decides to interact with that world is not complete and the diagnosis may be less certain and the therapeutic plan could be less focussed on the specific underlying cause of the behaviour problem.