This chapter covers
Promoting behavioural health
The concept of behavioural husbandry
What to do and not do to prevent/minimise behavioural damage
I am fully prepared to admit that my first interest in dog behaviour was sparked purely out of self-interest and being wholeheartedly fed up with dogs who ‘misbehaved’ in my consulting room. As I had somehow gained the reputation of ‘being good with dogs’, I may well have been unwittingly landed with more than my fair share of patients who were likely to bite me.
A practice where I worked (before my behavioural epiphany and before computerisation – yes that long ago!) had written client record cards which were brought into the consulting room by the client themselves. To warn the attending vet of a patient’s propensity for violence, yet supposedly keep the information hidden from the client, the code ‘DOS’ was inscribed on the top right-hand corner of the card. It did not of course require the brain of Einstein to work out that this was ‘SOD’ written backwards. But this is how such dogs were routinely viewed and treated: vicious creatures who had to be manhandled and ‘dominated’ in the only way they understood so that we could get our job done. During this time, I became adept at fashioning makeshift muzzles out of a roll of bandage and using a dog catch pole to extricate such ‘sods’ out of their kennels. I even remember myself saying, when about to do something I knew a dog was likely to object to, that ‘nice dogs wouldn’t mind a muzzle, and nasty dogs needed one’. I cringe at the thought of how I justified my ignorance.
And what was a ‘sod’? With the wisdom of hindsight, simply a terrified animal who had learned to bite first and ask questions later.
While working in a subsequent practice, I was more often found walking a dog round the block to demonstrate the advantages of a head collar. I had found the judicious use of bits of food combined with a head collar far preferable to a choke chain to control a dog. Creating a backlog of my clients in the waiting room and irritating the receptionists was the only price to pay. But not all practices were so accommodating.
I once did one day a week for a local one-man practice. I had already become aware of how important it was to try to ensure that every dog, particularly young ones, enjoyed as many aspects of a surgery visit as possible. To this end, I habitually put a tub of tasty dog ‘treats’ next to the stethoscope (before they became fashionable to wear round the neck!), thermometer and other essential consulting room paraphernalia. The practice nurse followed my lead and began to dole out dog biscuits in the waiting room.
I took great satisfaction when clients remarked how much happier their puppy was for its second vaccination than the first. But I of course could not be aware of how they had felt when my employer administered the second injection, after I had given the first. Nor did I realise that there were to be repercussions.
The unintended consequences of my actions therefore only became apparent when I began to notice that, every week when I arrived for work, the tub of dog treats had been deliberately put away by my employer at the very back of the furthest cupboard. This was the way he tacitly expressed his thorough disapproval.
We parted company shortly thereafter.
So why do we as vets and other veterinary professionals need to worry about anything other than treating physical ailments to the best of our ability?
An American Veterinary Medical Association mission statement regarding the human-animal bond reads, ‘The veterinary surgeon’s role in the human-animal bond is to maximise the potential of this relationship between people and animals’.
With this in mind, I first introduced the concept of behavioural husbandry in an article I wrote for the Veterinary Record sister publication In Practice in 2007.
The aims of behavioural husbandry were two-fold:
•To create an appropriate management system by giving guidance at start of a dog-human relationship. Opportunities can be created at the time of puppy vaccinations and during puppy parties and classes. The veterinary consulting room and surgery should be presented as a role model for the rest of a dog’s life.
•To sustain the dog-human relationship by identifying and optimising the continuing management system. This includes the communication system between dog and owner, the relationship between dog and environment and awareness of the impact of veterinary intervention upon both.
I quote from the article:
Any form of veterinary intervention should at the very least, aim for limitation of behavioural damage and at best (‘best practice’) should achieve an improvement in the relationship between the dog and veterinary clinic and between the dog and its owner and/or its environment. (p. 541)
To fulfil this aim and implicit obligations, as well as enhancing the welfare of both parties, it is impossible to ignore the emotional and behavioural aspects of these relationships in favour of purely physiological illness and disease. In addition, rather than only addressing defects in the dog-human relationship which have already occurred – the client complains about destruction in the home, urinating indoors or being snappy towards the children, for example – the onus is now on all of us to be rather more proactive in our approach.
We must also realise that a relationship does not exist merely between a particular pet and its family, but between that animal and all the humans it may happen to come into contact with elsewhere, including those inhabiting veterinary surgeries. The dog which becomes progressively more hard to handle in the surgery over time, although frequently labelled as ‘aggressive’, ‘difficult’ or downright ‘nasty’, is in reality simply one whose behavioural needs and emotional welfare have been inadvertently damaged in the process of maintaining physical health or attending to physical disease.
On the other hand, an animal who is genuinely pleased to come to the surgery and whose behaviour and emotions have been nurtured in the same way as its physical needs is a tribute to the attending veterinary surgeon as well as its owner.
Here follows a summary of essential ‘dos and don’ts’ with brief explanations as to why and how they should be carried out or not, as the case may be. For more in-depth explanation where necessary, the more avid reader will be pointed towards elsewhere in this book.
Do ensure that competent behavioural ‘first aid’ is available in-house
Much can be done to assist in cases of apparent behavioural ‘emergency’. Emergencies often involve dogs which have just bitten for the first time. Without doubt, this will have caused considerable upset all round. There may even be a ‘knee-jerk’ request for euthanasia, as the myth of ‘once a dog has tasted blood’ is seemingly alive and well in the minds of some owners and, dare I say, veterinary surgeons. Offering to hospitalise the offending dog overnight to allow emotions to settle is a sensible first move. After all, the presentation may be as life threatening as a road traffic injury. Information regarding the incident can then be more rationally ascertained and analysed later.
If the in-house source of behaviour advice is an experienced veterinary nurse, ensure that by passing the client on to them, dealing with behavioural issues is not relegated to the realms of lesser procedures, such as suture removal or dressing changes. The importance of behavioural problems, particularly aggression, must be seen to be taken very seriously, even though an attending veterinary surgeon may have less knowledge in this regard than a veterinary nurse.
Do include social details on the dog’s records as a matter of routine
Whereas companion dogs and other animals may be automatically listed on a client’s records, other details pertinent to behavioural history may not be. These include the type of accommodation a dog lives in and whether it has a garden, how many adults and children are in the family and who goes out to work and who has more time to spend at home. It is most important to ascertain if the dog has attended training classes and what training methods have been used (see Chapter 3 ‘Peri-operative behaviour counselling’).