Pet Behavior Modification

Should it be more widely used?

Over 2.5 million pets are euthanized each year due to their “bad behavior”. Euthanasia is a humane way of putting an animal to death. Training is critical for pet’s behavior because it could mean life or death. Euthanasia could be avoided if pet owners were more educated on the consequences of not properly training a pet. If better ways can be used to change these pets behavior then why not do that instead of resorting to euthanasia? This could be changing the owner’s behavior and/or changing the pet’s behavior. In referring to the owner’s behavior, meaning, if the owner properly trains the pet then pet behavior modification probably would not be necessary. Obviously, if the owner doesn’t properly train the pet or put the time and effort required in to owning a pet then pet behavior modification is likely necessary.

Pet Area (Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik)

Pet behavior modification is, after determining that there are no underlying medical conditions contributing to this behavior, to modify a pet’s behavior. These behaviors range from chewing, licking, biting/nipping, aggressiveness, urinating inappropriately, destroying material items, and excessive barking among many other behaviors considered “bad” (Maxwell). Pet behavior modification can be assisted, however, with prescription medication. This does not mean the medication alone can modify the pet’s behavior but assist in changing or controlling the behavior(s). Some of these medications are similar to anti-depressants or calming medications that humans take (Time).

Pet behavior modification can affect the human/pet interaction because the human usually has to change their behaviors to get a positive response from the pet. Pet behavior modification needs to be positive because, as in most situations with a negative or positive outcome, it can have negative outcomes if not done in the proper manor. The owner needs to understand what their role is within this modification process as well so that there is a positive and not a negative outcome. Some benefits of pet behavior modification can be to change risky, bad behavior to reliable, good behavior. This can also take some of the guilt away from the pet owner because they won’t have to resort to euthanasia. There needs to be more concentration given to modifying a pet’s behavior.

Sometimes there are underlying medical conditions that can influence a pet’s behavior. These medical reasons need to be ruled out before pet behavior modification is even considered. This means the pet needs to be taken to a veterinarian and every possible medical prospect needs to be ruled out. Usually the veterinarian has to refer the pet to a professional pet behavior modifier before the professional will even consider the pet for evaluation.

Throughout my research I determined that there are many problematic behaviors executed by many pets. One common problematic behavior, probably the most common, is aggressiveness (Maxwell). Some sort of traumatic experience such as being abused can cause a pet to be aggressive. The owner can also train aggressiveness. This is not a positive form of pet behavior modification but it can be trained. This is usually done for fighting purposes and almost always involves some form of betting. Aggressiveness can also be caused because the pet wants to establish dominance. Pets can be very territorial which can cause aggressiveness because they want to protect everything that they consider theirs. Things that frighten a pet can cause aggression as well as anything that makes them anxious.

Aggressiveness can be controlled or tamed by safety training pets. These pets can be taught “courage” and “self-efficacy”. This method of training, or cognitive modification, can promote success and stability of the outcome by teaching what is called a “learned helplessness” (Safety). This learned helplessness is a psychological term which refers to animals that build a sense of helplessness, acting helpless, that can be restored by it helping itself simply by avoiding certain circumstances that are unpleasant or harmful. With pets, just as humans, they can have a negative perspective on many different circumstances. This learned helplessness usually needs the interaction of the pet’s human counterpart to help modify the behavior such as avoiding these unpleasant or harmful situations. Cognitive modification basically means changing the pets thought process. This takes a lot of involvement from the human counterpart. The cognitive and “learned helplessness” go hand in hand meaning when one usually plays a role in why the pet acts the way it does then the other one is more than likely involved. There are many ways a pet can reveal these aggressive behaviors such as barking, growling, lunging, showing teeth, snapping, or biting towards an object, and scratching (Maxwell). These behaviors usually come from these pets that have such a negative outlook or negative attitude towards certain situations.

Separation anxiety is considered problematic and many pets have this problem. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has approved drugs that can assist in correcting this behavior (Time). Pets can have a pessimistic or optimistic view on situations just as humans can. Barking, jumping on furniture, howling or excessive meowing, and scratching inappropriate things among other representations of anxious behavior are all examples of these so-called anxious behaviors (Science). Many pets that have separation anxiety are often assisted with medication along with modifying the pet’s behavior. This usually just depends on how severe the case is. If this separation between the pet and the owner is causing bodily harm to the pet then that is when medication is, more often times than not, used in assistance. An example of this would be, a pet crated for about six to eight hours of the day while the owner is away, and the pet digs and digs at the bottom of the crate ripping toe nails and causing excessive bleeding and damage to their feet and/or face. This is a severe case and medication is needed to assist. This can be overcome when all proper measures of assistance and pet behavior modification are taken.

Another common problematic behavior is urinating or defecating inappropriately. A majority of the time this behavior is caused by stress. As the pet owner, the reason why the pet is stressed needs to be determined so that it can be eliminated from the equation. An example of fixing inappropriate bowel elimination would be to find something that the pet seems to be defecting on and just slowly move that closer to the door until eventually it is moved outside into the yard. This is usually a favorite place on carpet so a piece of carpet is then placed in that general vicinity and slowly and over a period of time moved to the yard.

Excessive barking or meowing is considered a problematic behavior (Maxwell). Barking and meowing are similar to urinating or defecating inappropriately, in that, the reason why they are doing it needs to be determined and eliminated by the pet owner. Excessive grooming or licking is considered a problematic behavior and can usually be modified by pet behavior modification as well but the reason why also needs to be determined. These are the most common problematic behaviors that pet’s elicit with aggressiveness being the highest (Maxwell). Although these are the most common challenging behaviors there are still many more behaviors that are considered problematic.

Fear of noises and storm phobias are also problematic behaviors. This usually doesn’t cause harm to the pet but sends them into progression of a phobia. These pets usually hide, seek out the owner, and try to escape, refrain from acknowledging any command from the owner, drooling, and many other signs of having a noise or storm phobia. Usually more than one of these is represented when having an episode (Noise). A lot of times with these phobias owners tend to choose medications over modification of behavior. I disagree with this in cases such as this because there is a simple, yet tedious, treatment that can be used to change this pets behavior. To help in the treatment of phobias to noise or storms there is a behavior method called desensitization. This means exposing the pet to these noises from something such as a compact disc. This starts out on a low volume of something that frightens these pets and then gradually the volume is elevated. While doing this you also counter condition, meaning giving treats throughout this treatment. This eventually yields a positive association between the noises and treats (Noise). This is a simple solution to such an unruly behavior in which medication and euthanasia can be avoided. I am not against the use of prescription medication to assist with problematic behavior but until all avenues of behavior modification have been explored I don’t think prescription medications should be used.

Pet behavior modification, if done properly, usually involves seeking help from a professional. There are qualified pet behavior specialists that determine your pet’s problematic area(s) and figure out what stems this behavior. They then draw up a written outline after assessing the situation and is given to the handler to proceed in modifying the pet’s behavior. Understanding the underlying cause and then removing those from the surroundings and being consistent in correcting this behavior will ultimately provide a better environment for all involved. These professionals are able to give private sessions. They evaluate each individual case and formulate a plan for each specific pet. This plan is usually written out and determined after talking with the owner and finding the underlying cause or causes of these behavioral misfortunes (Maxwell).

I found that with any of these inexcusable behaviors they can be treated with different forms of pet behavior modification and/or assisted with prescription medications. Along with these treatments come different types of behavioral consequences. These are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. These are decided when all facets have been examined and eliminated to the resulting behavioral modification approach (Maxwell). There is always a negative and a positive outcome in many situations especially when dealing with the modification of a pet’s behavior.

Another way that euthanizing a pet with behavioral disputes can be avoided is simply attending obedience training classes. This not only teaches the pet basic obedient behaviors but it enlightens the owner of what is or isn’t acceptable reinforcement of the pets behaviors. These obedience classes can be for general disobedient pets or more perplexed cases of disobedience. Some of these behaviors are sometimes supplementary to the owners experience and the amount of time that is spent with the pet on average (Direct).

Pet behavior modification has many of upsides but has its downsides as well. If a pet owner seeks the help of a professional behaviorist then there is not a 100 percent guarantee that this pet will improve. This means, just like humans, that there are many factors involved in behavioral issues that may not all be able to be controlled. Sometimes the owner can’t control these outcomes. How long this behavior has been going on; how many members of the family are involved; and even the owner’s availability to conduct the treatment can all play a role in whether or not the treatment will be successful. Unfortunately these professionals don’t have a guarantee that behavioral treatment will work. The treatments, however, are more successful than they are inadequate (Maxwell).

Another downside to pet behavior modification is taking what is learned as the owner and using it in a negative manor to train the pet. This is a downside to having the access to this education because owners can train their pet to have more negative behavior such as the case in which Michael Vick, professional football player, trained his dog’s to be extremely aggressive. Over time he raised and killed many pets in using them to fight each other.

If a pet owner doesn’t have the time or funding then they most likely will not seek out any form of assistance. These choices consist of obedience classes and medical and professional help (Maxwell). This is also a downside but if more communities around the world were informed of these selections then more people would be well-versed in receiving some form of treatment for their pet (Direct). In many cases where more people were educated on the consequences of not properly training a pet then perhaps there would be less pet ownership. This is not a bad thing at all it would possibly eliminate the number of euthanized pets each year because negligent or disobedient pet owners would be well informed and less likely to own a pet in the future and possibly inform fellow colleagues of this information.

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