So you work part-time at some of the vet clinics in town and then you do case-by-case behaviour consultations?
Yes. I work locum so I basically fill in at vet clinics in town — predominantly Brandon Animal Clinic and Grand Valley, but I’ve also worked a little bit at Wheat City. Sometimes I see behaviour cases at the clinics, but I honestly prefer to do in-home visits because I can see the pets in their own environments and I can see the interaction between the pets and the owners in a more natural situation.
You will either love or hate this question, because I know a lot of people respect Cesar Millan, the ‘Dog Whisperer,’ and his TV show. I know his philosophy is that it’s more about training the owners than training the animals. What’s your take on what he does?
The ‘Dog Whisperer’ is based on dominance training, and I am extremely against dominance training. Dominance theory was based on research on captive wolves. Dogs aren’t wolves. Dogs do not behave like wolves. And they’ve actually now disproven that the theory is even relevant to wolves. And when people think that behaviours are happening because dogs are dominant, there’s an overwhelming desire to punish them.
Almost all behaviours that are inappropriate in dogs — and in cats, usually, too — are fear-based. They may not display the fear anymore, but they’re still fearful. And when they look at the science behind training, dogs that are trained using dominance methods show lower scores on obedience trials, and they show a higher risk of becoming aggressive.
So what I use are psychological methods recommended by behaviourists, where we usually do what’s called counter-conditioning and desensitization. So if the dog was reactive when it saw another dog, we would first get the dog in a calm environment to sit, to look at us, and to take a treat for doing that. So focusing on rewarding the dog for calm behaviour.
If the dog started to react to dogs 100 feet away, we would probably start at about 105 feet. And after the dog had those foundation behaviours and could walk well on a leash and could sit and look at us to take a treat and was relaxed doing that, then we’d ask them at 105 feet, with a dog in the distance, to sit and look at us and take a treat. And then we would just keep progressing that very slowly, and moving closer and closer, until the dog could get closer and closer. That’s a pretty big simplification, but that’s kind of how we approach it.
I also assess, too, whether the behaviours could have a medical cause, and suggest that they work with their regular veterinarian, or me at one of the clinics I work at, to make sure we have addressed any medical issues that could be contributing to, or worsening, or even causing that behaviour. And sometimes we even medicate dogs.
The rate of mental issues in dogs is about the same as humans — probably about 20 per cent. And some dogs are so fearful that it actually affects their ability to learn. If we don’t address that, it’s very difficult without medications in an extremely fearful pet to improve their behaviour. By managing their stress level, they can learn better, and they’re more likely to be successful.
It’s interesting you should mention mental health issues in dogs — and other animals too, I’m sure — because we make so many allowances for people to have different personalities and different peccadillos and that kind of thing. And I used to really believe that nurture was the big thing. But I’ve become convinced over the last few decades that nature plays an even bigger role. I think we’re predisposed genetically to be a certain way, whether it’s fearful, whether it’s aggressive, whether it’s anything. Is that legit, do you think, when it comes to animals?
That’s a really good point. Because a lot of owners who have dogs with behaviour issues feel it’s their fault. But a lot of times, it’s a combination of things, with genetics being a huge one.
Early socialization is really important. Sometimes what’s happened with the breeder before you even get the dog, or if you have a rescue dog, or if they had a bad experience at a vet’s, had a bad experience in a car, had a bad experience with another dog — all of those are factors.
And usually there are things that owners are doing that aren’t helping with a problem behaviour, but it’s not their fault. The animal has this tendency. And if a dog has a tendency to fear, or to be aggressive in a situation where they’re fearful, that is their underlying nature.
We can work with that, we can improve that, we can make them less reactive by teaching them that those situations need not be fearful, but that is their tendency.
We can’t cure these dogs. We can manage them, we can improve their behaviour significantly, but we always have to be a little bit careful of what situation we put them in so that we don’t overwhelm them and have a recurrence of that problem behaviour.
So when you go to a person’s place and the dog barks, some of that might be the watchdog syndrome, and others may be fearful, or even excited. And I’m sure it differs from owner from owner or from pet to pet.
Yes, yes — very true. You have to sort of think about what is the motivation to a dog barking and what is the best method to deal with it. So it kind of depends on the situation.
And a lot of behaviours are natural, normal behaviours of a dog that are simply unacceptable to us. Barking is one, biting is another, peeing on things is another. Those are all natural, normal behaviours. If we don’t teach them what’s appropriate and what isn’t appropriate, then they’re going to persist.
With barking, one of the main things is to reward them when they’re calm. And another sort of trap that owners fall into is the dog starts barking and then they yell at the dog. Some of these dogs are acting up to get attention, and yelling at them is giving them attention. So they’re like kind of a naughty teenager that will act up to get attention even if it’s negative attention. So owners are rewarding that behaviour not meaning to.
I just had a client the other day talking about that. There’s some really great videos on YouTube on teaching ‘speak’ and teaching ‘quiet.’ If you teach those two in combination, putting the ‘speak’ on a cue, generally the dog stops performing it when they know they aren’t going to get rewarded for it. So that often helps.
And I often say, ‘We’ll teach the dog to speak, maybe when he hears a knock on wood.’ And then immediately after, we’ll say ‘quiet’ and we’ll feed a treat. Then after repetition, if we’re really consistent — and you have to be really consistent with barking dogs because if you deal with it 99 times and leave it once, the behaviour is self-rewarding and it’ll persist. But if you do that consistently, you’ll get them to decrease.
My own little adopted dog — and I even have a little foster dog right now — both of them tend to be barkers. And with increasing their exercise and not rewarding the barking, I would say that in both of their cases, probably about a 75 per cent improvement in their barking behaviour.
Out in the yard, it’s a bit of a different situation, and especially if it’s because people are walking by. They see people, they bark, people go away, they think they’ve done their job.
In addition to folks who let their dogs bark, I get frustrated with people who let their cats run loose, too. There’s that fight between what we think is natural behaviour or what should be good for the animals, and again, in my opinion, disrespect for neighbours and for the animal, too, because it’s just not safe, is it?
No, it is very dangerous. We see a lot that have been hit by cars, we see animals that have been outside that we don’t know if they’ve gotten into things like rat or mouse poison or antifreeze, which can be fatal and difficult to diagnose in some cases. So there are those dangers. Trauma — going into yards and getting bitten by a dog, or the risk of being abused by people who don’t want them around.
A lot of people will make enclosures for their kitties in their backyards, and that is a wonderful solution — we’re meeting their environmental needs as well as protecting them from those issues and giving them that outdoor time.
Or some people will train their cats to harnesses so that they can walk their cats outside. It’s a bit tricky — some cats, you put a harness on them and then they just fall over and act as if you’ve killed them. And they’ll do the same with bandaging sometimes. So sometimes it takes a little bit of work and training. And cats are quite trainable — you could easily train a cat to sit and to come.
We do see a lot of issues with our indoor kitties because of boredom and lack of exercise and overfeeding and lack of mental stimulation. So a lot of behavioural problems in cats, we’ll focus a lot on environmental enrichment, and that means making their indoor environment as stimulating as we can.
And it can be very simple, inexpensive things. Like putting some boxes out with some catnip or a few treats in them, and moving those around every few days. Adding in shelves that are up high.
And there are actually strategies as to how to enrich an environment for certain types of cats and for multi-cat households, where we have a lot of vertical space, so that might be corner shelves or areas where cats can get into a nice little closet space and they have a little box in there. So for the cat that has some fear issues, having several nice little hiding spots can really improve their quality of life and can actually help them come out of their shell a little bit.
And kitties that are scared like to be up high — they like to be able to have escape routes on both sides, they like to be able to see where the other kitties are. They also don’t want to walk down a long hallway to get to their litter box. So sometimes you’ll see those fearful cats peeing outside of their box if we haven’t set their environment up so that they feel they can get to their box without being harassed.
Aggression in cats is very subtle. One cat can stare at another cat and that other cat can leave — that was an aggressive event. And most owners don’t pick up on that. They only pick up on the hissing, fighting and biting. And there’s a lot we can do before that to help improve the situation.
I’m learning a lot today — this is great!
That’s good! You know, I think the one thing that is important for owners to understand is that behaviour issues are life-threatening, in that the most common cause of euthanasia in animals is behavioural. It’s not cancer, it’s not medical issues, it’s not lameness, it’s not old age. It’s because of behaviour issues.
We euthanize lots of cats because they’re peeing outside their boxes and owners can’t tolerate it and they don’t know what to do about it and they don’t know where to get help or they get the wrong kind of help.
We euthanize a lot of dogs because they’re aggressive. And a lot of those dogs and cats can be helped — not all of them, and some owners are better able to help their pets than others, and some situations are better.
But talking to your veterinarian, seeking help at an early stage, making sure that as kittens and puppies, we get proper socialization. And that doesn’t mean taking your dog to the dog park and just letting it figure things out. It means very carefully controlled socialization so that we don’t end up with dogs that become bullies or become fearful because they’ve been put in wrong situations, or cats that develop fear of vet clinics or car rides and that sort of thing.
One other thing that’s a bit of an awkward subject to talk about but I think warrants discussion is that while some pets with behaviour issues are candidates for re-homing — some will do great in another home, some of them will do great in another home with a lot of work — some just aren’t really re-homable because of safety issues.
So sometimes we do euthanize these pets and sometimes we do recommend it because it is humane for the pet because their quality of life is so poor. They’re living in fear, anxiety, and aren’t able to go for walks or have normal interactions with people. And that’s a very poor way to live.
To contact Dr. Liana Mawer, visit her website, drlianamawer.ca or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org She understands that not everyone wants to or can afford an in-home consult, so her website contains plenty of free information. She also will answer emails for small issues without charge. As well, online videos by Dr. Sophia Yin are highly recommended.