Aggressive Dog

Veterinarians are a lot like pediatricians. Not only do our patients struggle, scream, cry, and otherwise communicate in ways that often leave much to be desired, but like "baby doctors," we also have parents to contend with. And parents come with their own set of challenges.

Perhaps nowhere is the fact of parental influence more stressful than when it comes to talking about their pets’ behavior. The preponderance of animal behavior misinformation delivered by everyone from Dr. Google and Dr. Breeder to Dr. Mother-in-Law to Dr. TV Pet Personality means that simple misconceptions can easily turn into culturally intractable myths.

Setting the Facts Straight

Sadly, veterinarians are too often relegated to the final stop on the fix-this-problem bus tour of any given pet’s by-now-too-serious-to-live-with behavior disorder. Which is probably why pet behavior myths drive us crazy. After all, we know too well what happens when behavior problems get out of control: Problem pets are unwanted pets. And unwanted pets end up in shelters.

Which is why veterinarians are always busy trying to debunk myths like these five zingers:

Myth 1: Aggressive pets are trying to dominate us. This is not always true. Indeed, it’s usually not. Aggression is much more likely the result of fear or anxiety than the desire to dominate anyone. Nonetheless, people seem to prefer to believe that aggressive or difficult pets are attempting to control their environments than reacting to its stresses. The observation of wolf hierarchies —which has been shown to be an inapt model — largely informs this canine worldview.

Sadly, this misconception about dogs — widely disseminated by certain popular media personalities — has led to the more widespread use of punitive training techniques that can lead to even more serious behavior problems than they purport to address.

Myth 2: Abuse is the root cause of fear and aggression in pets. If we had a dime for every time we were informed of our patients’ past history of abuse, every veterinarian I know would have a stack a mile high. Sure, it’s possible. But if every owner who believed their pet was formerly physically abused was spot-on in their suspicions, we’d have to assume pet abuse is far more prevalent than we currently believe it to be.

Which is bad enough. What’s worse, however, is that pet owners undeterred in their belief in abuse as the root cause of any given behavior problem tend to ignore or deny the possibility that the condition is progressive and/or treatable. Not only does that mean pets will fail to receive treatment for their conditions, but pets with anxiety-based disorders that tend to progress may continue to deteriorate in their owners' care.

Myth 3: It’s all in how you raise them. Genetics doesn’t mean much when it comes to pet behavior. As a staunch opponent of breed specific legislation, I’d like to be able to say this is true, but it’s not. Though I’ll still deny that laws prohibiting certain breeds of dogs are either needed or effective, as a veterinarian I have to allow that genetics informs how certain dogs and cats have a propensity to act. In fact, fearful and shy behaviors in particular have been found to be quite heritable, as research evaluating guide dogs for the blind attests.

Though it’s undeniably the case that raising and caring for our pets responsibly can overcome most negative behaviors, ignoring the reality of our pets’ genetic proclivities does them no favors. This is especially true when it comes to selecting certain breeds.

For example, I would never recommend a high-drive working dog like my Belgian Malinois Violet to anyone who didn’t lead a very active lifestyle. It just wouldn’t make sense, right? So why is it so many of our clients are surprised when their Chihuahuas are anxious, their Dachshunds protective, and their Jack Russells insatiably energetic?

If we accept that genetics counts for a lot when it comes to behavior, we’re well on our way to creating better relationships between people and their pets from the very start.

Myth 4: Puppies should wait until they’re fully vaccinated to attend behavior classes. Pups should be socialized with others of their kind (puppies and adult dogs) as early on as reasonably possible. And because the ideal window of opportunity for socialization is between 7and 12 weeks of age, veterinarians no longer demand that pups be fully vaccinated before embarking on a “puppy kindergarten” class. (Vaccination is typically not considered complete until 16 weeks of age.) Socialization is just too important, according to a great position statement on this subject offered by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB).

Myth 5: Drugs are the ideal solution to X behavior problem. Drugs can be useful in the treatment of a wide swath of pet behavior abnormalities but they’re seldom among the first tools a veterinarian reaches for and they’re never considered the sole approach to dealing with a pet’s behavior issues. In fact, for many dogs, behavior modification techniques alone may be all that is needed to remedy the behavior problem.

Yet drug therapy is often the solution pet owners beg for in the exam room. Which I guess is understandable. I mean, I want a little magic pill that makes my life perfect too.

With all these misconceptions in evidence — not to mention the dire consequences of their propagation — is it any wonder veterinarians want to pull their hair out whenever they’re treated to yet another behaviorally “broken” myth victim?