CCAB Dog Behaviourist, dog trainer CCAB
No matter how loved your pet is, or how strong your bond with them, living with a pet with concerning behaviour can be stressful for all involved. Behaviourists & trainers work with you to improve pets' wellbeing - sometimes through changing the pet's behaviours, but often through changing what the humans do! Usually, the first step in a behaviour-change plan is to preserve the welfare & safety of the humans & animals involved, reduce your legal/liability risk (more usual in dog cases than cats), as well as avoid further unwanted learning, through management. This means focusing on prevention of the pet's access to any/all problem situations, interactions or contexts. This can involve "shrinking their world", and aims to take the pressure of the pet, as well as anyone else involved (human or animal).
Management, being the first piece of generic advice, is something you can get started with right now! Once prevention of exposure to stressors or problem contexts is in place, in many cases, this removes the urgency of the situation, & allows everyone to live better & safer together.
Aim to identify all/any likely problematic situations, then predict & prevent them - BEFORE there is a problem which risks human or animal safety or welfare. If in doubt, assume any context could be problematic & avoid it. Examples could include:
If you haven’t already done so, you should see your vet or speak to them about assessing for or ruling out any medical influences on behaviour. It may be there are no medical concerns, in which case, your vet can refer you directly, or sometimes behaviour concerns can exist concurrently with physical issues. This is common, especially when a new behaviour change is seen, & particularly in adult animals. For example, a middle-aged or older pet may be experiencing subtle or undiagnosed pain. In some cases, treating a medical condition solves the "behaviour problem", as the underlying cause has been addressed. In other cases, working with a behaviourist is still needed, especially as learning is always at play, &/or if there have already been behaviour concerns prior to medical ones.
Liaising with your veterinary team will be necessary to arrange your referral for a behavioural assessment and treatment. Reputable behaviourists will only accept your case on veterinary referral. This is so as to take a collaborative, & whole-pet approach to care.
Additionally, in some cases, your vet may deem it appropriate to prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help with management, safety & behavioural first aid in advance of seeing a behaviourist.
It is advised never to punish, correct or try to physically control your pet (simply aim to avoid any/all situations which allow problems to occur). Do not use any kind of "show 'em who's boss" or dominance hierarchy techniques. Attempting to correct or punish pets is unkind, unfair & ineffective. It can worsen anxiety &/or frustration, & may lead to dangerous or distressing outcomes for all involved. This applies to all species. We only recommend the use of ethical preventative measures, combined with positive reinforcement, so as to help pets & their people kindly & effectively. (Read more here, & here.)
Avoid following “popular culture” advice, which can be problematic if not from a reputable source. This includes that from videos or TV shows (which are made for entertainment, & often do not use accredited or regulated professionals, or give ethical, evidence-based, tailored advice). Suggestions from such sources may be unhelpful &/or harmful.
Depending on whether you need a behaviourist or trainer (read more here), choose carefully! Even if it means waiting a little while for the right person (and, with prevention in place, the urgency is often removed), it is worth choosing an appropriately qualified, experienced, regulated, insured & ethical professional. The field of animal behaviour & training is currently unregulated, & there is a much harm to be done by those who either mean well, but are not appropriately knowledgeable or skilled, or those who are unqualified &/or who choose to use aversive methods (which will likely make matters worse for your pet +/- all involved).
For behaviour problems, we recommend working with either a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist, or a Veterinary Behaviourist (depending on the nature of the case) who will be independently accredited in their species, & to a high level.
If a trainer is appropriate, then the ABTC list of Animal Training Instructors is useful to consult.
Whoever you choose to work with, please do be aware of that behaviour and training problems take time to assess and treat, care plans are often collaborative, and are likely to be a stepwise process - there are rarely quick solutions, no reputable trainer or behaviourist will guarantee an outcome (especially given the dynamic nature of behaviour & the many variables involved), & your input is always vital.
In all cases, working with an appropriately qualified, skilled and regulated behaviour professional is essential to set you & your pet up for success, guide & support you, & help you achieve your goals together.
Whilst the aim is to predict & prevent problems while you await your behaviour referral or training appointment, through use of management & preventing access to facilitating contexts, gathering information on interactions, triggers, inciting incidents, etc., will be very helpful. Please do not set your pet up so that you can record a problem behaviour, especially if it is likely to cause distress or be unsafe. However, do be prepared to "organically" capture video of anything of note (including your pet’s “normals”). Also, keep a record of problems if they occur - describing not just what the behaviour of concern is, but also the inciting causes, interactions or contexts (including human actions), as well as what happens as the behaviour is occurring (e.g., what you do or say), what you think your pet is trying to gain or avoid, & what happens immediately afterwards. Diarising contexts & behaviours will not only be helpful as part of the behavioural diagnostics, but will help you learn more about how to identify, & therefore prevent, problems in advance gaining professional assistance for you & your pet.
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