Bulldog looking guilty

Dogs can’t tell us what they’re feeling, so it can be difficult to determine the right course of action when it comes to resolving bad behavior problems. How do you know if you should take your pet to a trainer — or if you should go straight to your vet?

The best answer is both.

There’s a growing trend of veterinarians and trainers partnering to create the best overall treatment plan for a behavior issue. In certain instances, behavior problems may be caused by underlying medical conditions, such as when an abscessed tooth causes pain, resulting in growling and snapping. Other times, the behavior is rooted in a training issue, like when a dog jumps on people to get their attention.

But, many times, a behavior problem is a complex issue, so it’s important to determine the cause of the aggression first. While behavior modification may work in some pets, other cases may require both medication and training. Case in point: Aggression, which is similar to such human psychiatric disorders as anxiety or depression, is ideally addressed through medication and behavior therapy.

When to Consult a Veterinarian

I first became aware of how medical issues could impact dog behavior when my pug, Bruce, began exhibiting anxiety. Before starting on a behavior modification program, I took him to the veterinarian, who found a painful staph infection in between his footpads. As soon as the condition was treated, his anxiety was gone. This is why seeking help from a vet should always be your first course of action.

Behavior issues are very complex, and some bad behavior can start out as a medical issue and then turn into a habit, which needs to be treated on multiple levels. An example of this is aggression that stems from an abscessed tooth. At first, the dog lashes out because he is pain, but then he eventually realizes that his behavior gets people to move away from him in any situation. In order to fix the problem, a vet needs to treat the tooth, and a trainer needs to work with the dog to find alternatives to his aggression. 

When to Consult a Certified Dog Trainer

Although some poor manners — pulling on a leash, jumping on people, stealing food off the table or chasing the cat — may appear to be obvious training issues, others may actually stem from a medical condition, so you should still check in with a vet first.

A classic example: I once consulted with the owner of a Pomeranian puppy who was able to hold her bladder for only an hour or less. I referred them to a vet, and it turned out that the dog had a urinary tract infection. Once the puppy was put on medication, I could successfully housetrain her.    

Following a dog training consultation, I send a note to the client’s veterinarian to let them know what types of behaviors I observed, along with an outline of my training plan. I also ask for suggestions from the vet, as well as an update on any medical treatment plan that the vet has deemed necessary. 

If you are unsure about whether your dog requires a medical professional or a trainer, always see your veterinarian first to rule out any medical issues. The vet can then refer you to a trusted trainer who can craft the best approach for tackling your dog’s behavior problem.