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10 Ways Veterinarians Can Contribute to Your Dog’s Overall Behavior Treatment Plan

 
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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"I've found that the majority of veterinarians are helpful contributors to the treatment plan team."

People rely on their veterinarian for their dog’s physical health. Vets can also be counted on to play a role in a dog’s behavior treatment plan.

In moderate to severe behavior cases it may be necessary to use psychopharmaceutical medications (see “The Truth About Doggy Downers”) as part of the behavior treatment plan designed by a certified behavior specialist.

The probability of a successful outcome for a treatment plan is improved if the veterinarian is properly involved in finding the best psychopharmaceutical drugs for the client’s dog.

I like to tell clients they are part of an all-important three-member team: dog owner, behavior specialist and veterinarian.

Your veterinarian plays an important role by:

  1. communicating well with everyone on the team. In other words, the vet makes it easy to give and get information from his or her office.
  2. getting information from client’s animal behavior specialist about behavior observations and assessments before prescribing any medications. And the vet’s office will make these notes part of the dog’s health record.
  3. engaging in a dialogue with the client’s dog behavior consultant about medication considerations before any prescriptions are written.
  4. ensuring the client is not overpaying for medications by offering competitive prices at the vet’s in-house pharmacy or writing prescriptions that can be filled at competitively priced human pharmacies.
  5. writing prescriptions for outside pharmacies if the appropriate medication is not immediately available at the vet’s in-house pharmacy.
  6. staying in touch with the dog’s owner to adjust dosages either up or down and assisting in tapering off the drugs when appropriate.
  7. informing the clients about the possible side-effects of medications.
  8. administering any physical rule-out tests deemed necessary by the vet or requested by client or behaviorist (e.g., thyroid profile, blood chemistry panel).
  9. not wasting resources on inappropriate or ineffective over-the-counter remedies that are frequently more expensive than tested and proven prescription medications.
  10. fully supporting the treatment plan created by the behavior specialist.

I've found that the majority of veterinarians are helpful contributors to the treatment plan team. However, if your dog has a serious behavior issue and you find that your veterinarian is not an enthusiastic and positive contributor to your dog’s treatment plan, frankly, you may want to consider finding another vet.

The team approach to behavior modification in serious cases works extremely well; I’ve seen many dogs make exciting and inspiring improvement using this model.

Will Behavior Medications Change my Dog's Personality?

 
 

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"…for the first time in the dog’s life, they are seeing their dog’s true character that now includes play, increased confidence and increased energy."

Many moderate to severe behavior issues I see in dogs require the use of behavioral medications as part of the treatment plan. It can greatly increase the success of behavior modification in some cases; it can also speed up the process.

These drugs are known as psychopharmaceutical, psychotropic or psychoactive medications and are the same drugs used in humans for the same issues. See my article, The Truth About Doggy Downers, for more information.

Common, and not so common, examples of these drugs used for dogs to facilitate behavior modification include fluoxetine (Prozac), trazodone (Desyrel), alprazolam (Xanax), clonidine (Catapres) and naltrexone (Vivitrol).

In most cases, I work with your veterinarian to help control your dog’s anxiety using medication since anxiety is the root cause of most behavior issues such as aggression (all types except prey aggression – although I would argue that prey aggression is not really aggression at all), separation anxiety, inappropriate urination, fear and compulsive disorders.

When the subject of these medications comes up, the next statement from the owner is usually, “But I don’t want to change my dog’s personality.” I completely understand, but I encourage the owner to consider the following:

  • When dosed correctly, most of the medications have no significant sedating effect on the dog.
  • I remind owners that in some cases we want to modify the dog’s personality. This would be especially true in cases of aggression and fear issues.
  • It is not uncommon for clients to tell me that their dog’s temperament has changed in ways they didn’t expect after starting meds.  They frequently reveal to me that, for the first time in the dog’s life, they are seeing their dog’s true character that now includes play, increased confidence and increased energy. Anxiety can negatively affect dogs in many ways.

Another question I get from owners is “How long will my dog need to be on these drugs?”

  • Normally I tell clients to consider an initial six-month trial period. During this period, it’s important to adjust dosages as necessary and possibly change medications if we’re not getting the desired results.
  • At the end of the trial period we can evaluate whether it is necessary to continue the medications.
  • While a small percentage of dogs will stay on these medications for an extended period, most can be tapered off these drugs as we begin to see the results of behavior modification.

The other question I often get from dog owners is, “How much will this cost?”

  • Fortunately, all of the medications used to help with behavior issues are available from local human pharmacies such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS. As a result, owners are also able to shop for competitive pricing using tools such as GoodRX.com.
  • Just like with humans, the amount of medicine required varies according to the dog’s weight and the specific medication. I’ve found that the cost averages about $50 per month per dog when generics are used. Surprisingly, in many instances the cost for prescription medications is less expensive than lesser effective (or completely ineffective) over-the-counter supplements that frequently are nothing more than an owner placebo and a profit generator for the seller.

There is no reason to be afraid of these medications if they can help your dog work through a significant issue. Working with a certified dog behavior specialist as well as a veterinarian who understands and is experienced with these drugs can make this a not-so-difficult process for you and your dog.

7 Dog Behavior Questions I'm Always Asked

 
 

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"Think of behavior modification in dogs in the same way that you think of engaging the service of a fitness instructor."

As a full-time dog behavior specialist, I meet with dog owners, rescue organizations and veterinary practice employees almost every day. There are at least seven questions I am repeatedly asked by them. I’m surprised by some of them. Their questions with answers appear below.

1) Do you ever get bitten as a dog behavior consultant?

Short Answer: Yes, multiple times over the years.

Longer Answer: I do my best to avoid getting bitten (it hurts and is really annoying), but dogs are fast and sometimes it can be hard to read their intentions. When you consider that I work almost exclusively with dogs that have behavior issues, including all seven major forms of aggression, it should be no surprise that I have been bitten.

2) What breed has the least behavioral problems?

Short Answer: It’s more an issue of the individual dog than it is the breed.

Longer Answer: All breeds, including All Americans (i.e., mutts), can make great pets. Conversely, all breeds can have behavioral issues (e.g., labs, collies, poodles, etc.). It’s hard for me to select one breed in particular because each individual dog can be so different – just like people.

3) Have you ever seen another dog with my dog's issue?

Short Answer: Yes, frequently, and much much much more severe than your dog.

Longer Answer: When a behavior issue raises its ugly head, many dog owners tend to think their dog is the only dog on the planet with the problem. The reason for this is that most people aren’t aware of the range and ubiquity of unusual dog behaviors. In addition to aggression and separation anxiety cases, I routinely see dogs with canine compulsive disorders (i.e., OCD in dogs) and severe phobias (i.e., irrational fear of something such as potted plants in the home - seriously).

4) Can my dog’s behavior challenges be fixed and how long will it take?

Short Answer: It depends on many variables.

Longer Answer: For severe cases of aggression, separation anxiety, phobias, compulsions, resource guarding and fear, I tell clients we can expect the dog’s issues to improve, but usually they will not be completely eliminated. As a benchmark, I look for notable improvement in the dog’s behavior two months after behavior modification has begun. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest variables in the “Can my dog be fixed?” question is whether the owners will do the behavior modification that has been prescribed. You gotta do the homework.

5) Are you training the dog or me?

Short Answer: You.

Longer Answer: Think of behavior modification in dogs in the same way that you think of engaging the service of a fitness instructor. You meet with the fitness instructor who assesses your fitness level and goals. Next, the instructor creates a custom fitness program and explains and demonstrates the exercises to you. Finally, you execute the program on a regular basis and watch your muscles and fitness levels grow. Behavior modification in dogs is no different, but substitute a certified dog behaviorist for the fitness instructor.

6) If the weather is bad, can we still have our scheduled dog training session?

Short Answer: Yes.

Longer Answer: The majority of a behaviorist’s time is spent educating the owner about concepts. While there are some skills that need to be learned outside, most of the physical skills can be demonstrated and taught inside.

7) Did I do something to cause my dog to act this way?

Short Answer: You probably didn’t create the problem.

Longer Answer: Owners frequently want to blame themselves for their dog’s ills, but in my experience I’ve found that few people planted the seeds of their dog’s problems. It’s virtually impossible to definitively pinpoint what causes a dog to behave the way it does. The possibilities include, but are not limited to, any combination of the following: genetics, neonatal treatment, abandonment by the mother (intentionally or unintentionally), single event learning (i.e., a one-time very bad experience), neurologic, health related, environmental.

Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"Quite frankly, it exhausts me to observe one of these dog owners with their dog…"

You and your spouse met a new couple at one of your kid’s soccer games a few months ago. At each subsequent game it becomes obvious that both families really get along. Before you know it, everyone is having dinner together.

You initially are so impressed at just how well behaved their kids are. Their kids never interrupt the adults and are super-respectful. They are perfect children.

But as the evening goes on, you begin to notice their kids never seem to make eye contact with their parents, or anyone else for that matter. It also looks as though their kids hardly talk to anyone at all (no wonder they never interrupt). As the evening proceeds, you also notice the kids give dad a wide berth – they never appear to get too close to him.

A PhD in clinical psychology is not required to understand what’s probably going on in this family. Dad is the uber-disciplinarian in the family. Any infraction of his rules results in quick and decisive punishment – sometimes physical punishment. This is the kind of person who thinks there’s no other way to get compliance from children. In his world, it’s important to keep kids “in their place” using these methods. And just so I don’t appear sexist, this could just as easily be mom.

I frequently see a corollary to this story in how people relate to their dogs. I’m talking about dogs that appear to want to hide from their owner and aren’t comfortable around strangers. When these dogs walk near their owner, they appear to be crouching. In more severe cases, these dogs tend to tremble around their owner. But they are perfectly behaved dogs in the eyes of the owner.

These are dogs whose owners (or previous owners in the case of rescues) are constantly punishing the dog in one way or another for: any movement in the wrong direction, making any sound, moving too slowly, not responding fast enough, etc. These owners frequently yell nonstop commands at their dog: “sit, sit, sit, sit, heel, heel, stay, stay, stay, stay, no, no, no, no, down, down, down, come, come, leave it, leave it, leave it, look at me, look at me”…you get the idea. And this type of owner is frequently not averse to using prong collars and shock collars.

These dogs live in homes where constant punishment is the only tool used to “train” them. Their body language telegraphs they’re scared and are most likely becoming increasingly afraid of people in general.

Many of these dogs ultimately shut down out of fear and thus appear to be “good dogs”. The reality is that they’re living in a world of anxiety and their daily lives revolve around avoiding punishment.

Quite frankly, it exhausts me to observe one of these dog owners with their dog; I can only imagine what it is doing to the dog.

A meta-analysis by the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan completed in 2016 looked at 50 years of research regarding punitive techniques in raising human children. The study found that using physical punishment with children brings short-term behavior compliance but with significant and pervasive long-term psychological problems for the child including low self esteem, depression and chronic generalized anxiety.

Not surprisingly, the same is true for dogs. Using constant physical punishment with a dog may cause the owner to perceive that the dog is “well behaved.” But in reality, the dog has simply shut down and learns to fear its human family - and frequently humans in general. What kind of relationship is that with a dog?

Positive training techniques that emphasize positive reinforcement and relationship building with the owner have proven time and time again to be the best way to train a confident dog that will be a real part of the family – and with others outside of the family. And possibly the biggest benefit of this kind of training is that the dog will be happy and not live in a world of daily fear.

If your dog needs general dog training, please find a qualified and certified dog trainer who uses positive training techniques. If your dog is having behavior problems such as aggression, separation anxiety, etc., please find a qualified and independently certified dog behavior specialist or dog behaviorist.

The Truth About Doggy Downers

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"It has to be one of the greatest ironies in veterinary medicine that all psychopharmaceutical medications are developed using animals…before being approved by the FDA for use in humans and only then used clinically in animals."

Many people think the concept of “doggy downers” is funny. However, by the time many of my clients’ dogs need medication to help with significant behavior problems, it really isn’t funny at all.

I’ve observed over the years that most people treat their dogs as valued family members – this is a good thing. When serious behavior issues impact a beloved dog’s happiness and ability to function normally, behavioral medications can sometimes have a very positive impact in the overall treatment plan. 

It has to be one of the greatest ironies in veterinary medicine that all psychopharmaceutical medications are developed using animals (including dogs) before being approved by the FDA for use in humans and only then used clinically in animals. Yet many people still balk at using these medications in animals. Because these drugs were developed and tested with animals, it’s common sense that these medications can also be highly effective in treating animals – including dogs.

Veterinarians and certified animal behavior specialists have to work together when using these drugs to ensure that the right drugs and dosages are paired with an appropriate behavior modification program.

What are some of the common psychopharmaceuticals used in dogs?

  • Antidepressants such as Prozac (generic name is fluoxetine) are used as long-term anti-anxiety medications for dogs. While dogs can suffer from depression, antidepressants are primarily used to reduce anxiety in dogs. Prozac is commonly used for separation anxiety, generalized anxiety and aggression directed at humans and/or other dogs.
  • Benzodiazepines such as Xanax (generic name is alprazolam) are also used as anti-anxiety medications for dogs. These kinds of drugs are only effective for short periods and, in some instances, can cause additional behavior problems if not used properly. Xanax is frequently used to treat storm and other acute phobias.
  • BuSpar (generic name is buspirone) is also an anti-anxiety but in the azapirone class of medications; it is not a benzodiazepine or antidepressant. BuSpar can be quite effective in some dogs and usually has limited side effects. It is most effective in treating social phobias and generalized anxiety in dogs.
  • Anipryl (generic name is selegiline) is a medication approved by the FDA for use in dogs to control Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (i.e., Alzheimers in dogs). This is the same drug as Eldepryl used primarily to treat movement disorders and Alzheimers in humans.
  • Catapres (generic name is clonidine) is a human blood pressure medication that has been used by humans for decades; it can be used to control redirected biting in dogs. It works by controlling the sympathetic nervous system in dogs by inhibiting fight-or-flight responses.

Behavior medication is a new and growing area in animal medicine with lots of promise, but much education is still needed in all parts of the animal care industry. You may be surprised to learn that there are some veterinarians who are hesitant about using these medications. Many times this is a result of not having the opportunity to see firsthand how helpful these medications can be when paired with a sound behavior treatment plan.  Veterinary schools are increasingly incorporating more training into their curriculum on psychopharmaceutical use in animals.

Psychopharmaceuticals are normally used only for a period of months to facilitate a behavior modification program and then tapered off. They are tools at our disposal to help troubled dogs and can frequently bring relief and expedite treatment. Please consult with your veterinarian, dog behavior specialist or animal behaviorist if you have questions about their use.