Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM (BM), CCAB, MRCVS, European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine (Companion Animals)
We have come a long way from the days when animals were thought of as simple stimulus and response operated machines and most people now consider the companion animal species that we share our lives with to be capable of a certain level of thought. However, there is still a tendency to underestimate the importance of "how" they perceive the world around them, and misunderstandings between our species are often found to be involved in cases where owners report behavioural problems in their pets. When dealing with behavioural cases there are some top tips which help to improve accurate diagnosis of the underlying emotional drives behind the commonly presented behavioural problems, and thereby assist in establishing treatment and management approaches which offer a long-term solution rather than a quick fix.
Consider the Canine Perspective
When dealing with canine behavioural cases from a veterinary medicine perspective, the aim is to understand why a patient is responding in a particular manner to its environment. In order to achieve this aim, it is necessary to assess the situation from a canine perspective and to consider how the patient "thinks." The end result of this process is a treatment programme, which takes into account the important contributions that canine ethology, learning theory and emotions make to the behavioural sequence and seeks to alter the animal's perception, such that it no longer perceives a need to behave in an unacceptable or undesirable manner. The alternative symptomatic approach to behavioural problems relies on behavioural therapies, which are based on the more simplistic goal of stopping the behavioural response and, as a result, it disregards any importance of modifying the animal's way of thinking, and concentrates instead on preventing the unwanted behavioural reactions from taking place. The end result in this case is a treatment strategy, which relies on making the behaviour difficult or even unpleasant to express and overlooks the potential to adversely affect the animal's emotional state and consequently its learning.
The Pack Issue
When people talk about dog behaviour, the most commonly quoted phrase is "they are a pack animal" and it is widely suggested that we have a good understanding of the social structure of canine society. Discussion about hierarchy and pack leadership predominates during the popular television programmes about dog behaviour and many dog owners in the UK will proudly tell you that they are keeping their pet in his place and making sure that he stays at the bottom of the pack. However, the debate about the significance of this pack information is very much alive and when it comes to assessing the influence of natural canine social behaviour on the problems that owners report in their pets, we need to be very careful that we guard against the perpetuation of urban myths at the expense of true understanding.
What is the Purpose of a Pack?
There are a variety of social systems in the animal kingdom and one of the reasons why dogs and people have traditionally worked so well together is that our social systems have a lot in common. Both species are obligate social creatures and need social interaction with conspecifics in order to survive. Both have a highly developed system of communication, which is designed to facilitate co-operation and ensure the survival of the group as a whole, rather than any one individual. The presence of a stable social group helps to create a harmonious social environment in which to encourage the social and emotional development of young and adults, be they human or canine. More confident individuals, who are often those that are older, take on the responsibility of setting social rules which will induce feelings of safety and security for younger or less confident members of the social group, and thereby enable them to develop into functional social adults.
In order to fulfill these aims members of the group need to use consistent, predictable and unambiguous communication and there is no evidence, from human or canine literature, that the use of force and physical punishment is necessary to establish or maintain a successful social group.
The Importance of Safety and Security
Taking the concept of a safe and secure social group to its logical conclusion it makes sense that the ultimate goal for any member of a group living species is to co-operate successfully with its fellow social group members and to ensure the ultimate survival of everyone within the group. In order to achieve this goal an ability to communicate is essential and each individual needs to be able to trust those around it. Honesty about emotional states and respect for the reactions and responses of others are important factors in achieving that trust and an ability to send and receive accurate signals is central to a functional social group.
The Dominance Myth
There is a common misperception that the most important issue for dogs is their relative position within their human "packs" and that they are constantly seeking to challenge authority and move up the social ladder. However this simply does not fit with the social group concept in which co-operation for the survival of all is the over-riding aim and misguided attempts by people to actively demonstrate their authority and power, coupled with the inherent inconsistency of most owner-dog interactions, have the paradoxical effect of destabilising the social group and increasing negative emotions such as anxiety and fear. The result is a pet that perceives the world as hostile and threatening and consequently develops behavioural strategies which are aimed at seeking reassurance, warding off threats and reducing the potential for physical confrontation.
The Risk of Preventing Emotional Expression
The behaviours which are reported as problems in the pet dog population are ultimately the outward expression of an underlying emotional state, which has arisen from the dog's perception of the environment in which it lives. Techniques, which aim to suppress those behaviours through the delivery of aversive signals such as water pistols, rattle cans and shock collars, fail to take into account the importance of these behaviours as a visible sign of the animal's perception of the situation and run the risk of inadvertently inducing other, perhaps more unsuitable, behavioural expressions. For example, a dog which is frightened of people and is using aggressive signals to ward them off is not going to alter its perception of people simply because its owner squirts it with water every time it growls or throws a chain at it when it curls its lip. It is true that it may learn not to growl or curl its lip, for fear of the negative consequence of that behaviour, but the underlying emotion of fear in the presence of strangers is likely to be further confirmed and the risk of more intense aggressive signals such as a sudden lunging bite thereby increased.
Basing Therapy on What the Dog is Thinking Rather Than How it is Reacting
The alternative approach is to base behavioural therapies on the concept of altering how the dog thinks about the stranger and changing the social interaction in a way that encourages the dog to select other, more appropriate and acceptable, behavioural responses.
One of the major differences between these two approaches is in the apparent speed of response and it is easy to see why the more simplistic symptomatic approach is so popular with television programme makers. After all, this approach can be very dramatic in a visual sense and yields apparently impressive results in terms of rapidly changing what the dog is doing. In contrast, the behavioural medicine approach takes time and needs to be carried out in logical and progressive steps, which enable to dog to change its way of thinking and ultimately change the reason why it is behaving inappropriately.
A Motivational Approach to Behaviour
There are two main components to the motivational treatment approach:
Modify the animal's level of emotional arousal - aim for emotional stability and self confidence.
Alter the animal's threshold for expression of the inappropriate response - change the way the animal sees the world.
Emotional stability depends on self-confidence. Lack of self-confidence fosters anxiety and a lack of consistency and predictability fosters emotional instability. Modifying emotional responses, therefore, relies on enhancing emotional stability and creating a consistent and predictable environment. As veterinary surgeons it is important to consider all factors, which contribute to emotional stability including health factors, hormonal factors, learnt components and environmental influences, both social and physical. In order to do this it is necessary to obtain a comprehensive history which in turns enables the practitioner to implement an appropriate treatment and management approach, which includes advice on issues such as neutering, health issues and behavioural and environmental management.
Changing the Threshold of Behavioural Expression
Once emotions have been modified the second phase of behavioural therapy involves changing the animal's perception through forming new and positive associations with previously problematic situations and stimuli.
In cases of frustration it is important to provide a consistent means of gaining access to resources, while in cases where relief is the underlying motivation for the behavioural response it is necessary to work to remove unintentional signals of confirmation that the behavioural response is successful as a means of avoiding unpleasant outcomes. In cases of anxiety the aim is to make the world a more predictable place and in cases of fears and phobias methods such as desensitisation and counter conditioning are the cornerstone of the treatment approach.
Understanding how dogs think rather than simply studying the way in which they react is the key to a behavioural medicine approach to behavioural problems. While the end result may superficially appear to be similar in situations where aversive methods are used to stop a dog behaving in a particular way, the application of behavioural medicine principles creates the scenario where the inappropriate behaviour stops because there is no longer a need for it to occur. This not only offers more long-lasting results, but also offers a more positive approach to dealing with behaviour problems from an animal welfare perspective.