Cocker spaniel puppy
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos
Most puppies don’t need to see a veterinary behaviorist. They need good early socialization and reward-based training to learn how to be “good dogs” in society and at home. Unfortunately, there are some puppies whose behaviors are beyond what is considered normal for a puppy at their developmental stage. Consider them special-needs puppies, just as if they had a physical problem. Those are the puppies who would benefit from working with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Think of it this way: most children do great with early socialization and learning from their families and at school. However, some children need early intervention to help them be more successful in society, and the same is true for puppies.
Our knowledge of how to raise puppies to be good with people, other dogs, going to new places, and seeing new things has come a long way in the last 20 to 25 years. We know there are benefits from appropriate early socialization, especially through well-run early puppy classes for ages 8-14 weeks old. Gone are the days when puppy owners were told to wait until puppies had received all their puppy vaccinations before starting classes, or even to wait until they were 6 months old to start training.
We have also learned that when puppies have extreme reactions to new experiences, they don’t outgrow these reactions. These reactions can include being anxious or afraid of unfamiliar people, other animals, sounds, or new places. It can include reacting aggressively at unsuitable times such as when being handled gently, when prevented from doing something the puppy wants to do, or when overly stimulated. These dogs continue to be afraid, anxious and possibly aggressive as they mature, and their reactions may get more intense when they become adults around 2-3 years old.
A special-needs puppy might be too fearful to meet new people, or who tries to get away or hide behind your legs if a neighbor approaches while you’re out for a walk. They could also be a puppy who shows aggression (growling, baring teeth, biting) at a young age, or who are anxious about loud noises, such as thunderstorms or fireworks. Normal socialization with these puppies often fails and the puppies aren’t able to overcome their anxieties. For example, a normal but shy 9-week old puppy may stay behind her owner’s legs during the first session of a puppy class, but over the next week or so, she has overcome this shyness and is enjoying the class like the other puppies. But a special-needs puppy, even with delicious treats and everyone in the class trying to make her feel comfortable, not only doesn’t she overcome her fears but may become more afraid as the classes progress.
If puppies use aggression at a young age, people may attempt to laugh it off, saying things like, “He thinks he’s such a big, tough dog,” while ignoring the anxiety or fear their aggression. Even worse, people may attempt to punish the puppy to stop the aggression, which is likely to make their anxiety and aggression worse and more dangerous, especially when they grow out of being a little puppy and become an adult dog.
If you’re seeing any concerning behaviors from your puppy, see your veterinarian first to make sure that your puppy doesn’t have any underlying medical conditions causing the behavioral problems. If behavior concerns persist after the puppy is given a clean bill of health and your veterinarian has run out of ideas, referral to a veterinary behaviorist is the next step. A veterinary behaviorist can evaluate your puppy's behavior, look for any physical conditions that may be a factor in that behavior, formulate a diagnosis, and put together a behavioral treatment plan.
Your puppy’s treatment plan will include humane, scientifically sound behavior modification and management recommendations. Medication may be prescribed if your pup’s veterinary behaviorist thinks it is appropriate. The purpose of behavioral medication is not to sedate a puppy, but to reduce anxiety and increase focus so it’s easier for them to learn new responses to things that make them anxious. A comprehensive behavioral treatment plan also includes follow-up plans to keep your puppy on the right track as she matures and reaches different developmental milestones.
I first saw Max, a Cocker Spaniel, when he was 4 months old. His regular vet saw him for a vaccine appointment and to evaluate him for a prolapsed third eyelid (cherry eye). The veterinarian was concerned at the level of fear and aggression that Max displayed during the exam and vaccines and about Max’s behavior at home. When his vet learned that Max would bark and growl at visitors, including when their high-school aged child came back from staying at her mother’s house, he referred Max to a veterinary behaviorist – me.
At his home where I saw him, Max was unable to relax with me in the house. He would not take treats from me and even when put in another part of the house where he could no longer see me, he continued to bark and react if he heard my voice. Max showed no aggression towards family members except the daughter who was only home part-time. He was afraid of some inanimate objects, like garden decorations, and too fearful to go for leash walks.
I started Max on a course of behavior modification exercises and medication. Max’s owners were diligent about working on them and not pushing him beyond what he could handle. His regular vet used low-stress handling techniques, including sedative medications, to lower Max’s stress during appointments and surgery to neuter and correct his cherry eye. Max made slow but steady progress as we found the right combination of medications to help him. He will never be an outgoing or social dog, but at a follow up house call when Max was 18 months old, he was able to follow simple commands for me and took treats from my hand. He is kept separated from most visitors because he still becomes fearful with some people, but he no longer barks and growls while they are in the house.
Thanks to the well-timed behavioral intervention, Max’s people have turned Max’s fearful behavior down a couple of notches, making him far easier to live with and a better-behaved member of society. That difference will make a significant difference in the quality of life for Max and his people.
December 5, 2021
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.