When Training Is Not Enough
So, you've done the right thing
You did all the research and found yourself the best dog trainer. He or she has experience, formal qualifications in animal training, uses only positive reinforcement, has great reviews from other clients - you decide that you can trust them to sort out all your dog's behaviour issues....
And then they refer you to someone else. A vet. Maybe one with extra qualifications in behaviour. Maybe even a veterinary behaviour specialist.
Why? Are they trying to avoid the work? Or maybe they are just not tough enough to take on the serious issues? Should you start to look for another trainer - someone who is willing to take on anything? No, no and no! If you have contacted or worked with a trainer who has referred you on to a vet, then that trainer is:
Smart - Some problems can't be fixed with obedience training alone (we'll cover this in more detail later).
Honest - They are not going to pretend to be able to magically make things right.
Caring - They truly want the best for your dog.
And in the long run, they are saving you time and money by directing you to the best place to help your dog.
Training can't fix everything
Depression and anxiety in people are recognised as true medical problems. Sending someone with these conditions back to school is not going to make them better. A multi-modal approach including cognitive behavioural therapy, medications and lifestyle changes are often required. Dogs with some behavioural problems actually have underlying medical conditions too. These may be due to:
Pain - Dental disease, ear infections, skin conditions, joint problems... anything that causes pain can cause an animal to be irritable and more prone to aggression or anxiety.
Hormonal Changes - Diseases like Cushing's Disease (Hypoadrenocorticism) can cause anxious behaviours.
Seizure Disorders - Sometimes partial seizures can take the appearance of a sudden onset of very odd behaviours - like snapping at imaginary flies.
Urinary tract Infections - When urination becomes painful, cats may link their litter tray with the feeling of pain and start peeing out of the box. Previously housetrained dogs may start weeing inside.
Mental Health Disorders - Sometimes the medical issue is in the brain. And this doesn't make it any less real. Just as Diabetes is caused by problems with insulin balance, anxiety can be caused by imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine. And just like training your dog won't manage its Diabetes, training your dog won't manage its anxiety.
When will a trainer refer your dog to a vet?
Your trainer may have been working with you for some time before they can no longer make any headway, or they may only need to discuss your case remotely to know that a referral is required. The following signs will prompt a trainer to refer your dog to a vet:
Anxiety and Fear - Separation anxiety, fear of certain noises (including thunderstorm phobia), fear of strangers, other dogs, or even just a generally anxious appearance. The mechanisms for anxiety and fear override logical thought. This is a sensible survival strategy for making split second decisions and avoiding being eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. However, obedience training cannot possibly work until an animal's arousal level is low enough that it can think and learn. Just imagine someone trying to get you to recite the last ten Prime Ministers of Australia while three large (and hairy) spiders are crawling down your back.
Shutting down or Freezing - A less commonly recognised behavioural strategy in fearful situations is just sitting (or crouching) very still. In some situations animals just appear to be 'being very good'. Cats presented to a vet clinic often sit very still while being examined. However, more often than not, it is because are very scared but they cannot run away. If your dog flops down and refuses to budge or interact, it may be a sign of fear (or exercise intolerance, which means you should have it checked at a vet anyway!).
Aggression of any kind - Surprisingly to some, it turns out that most aggressive behaviour is actually caused by fear. Aggressive displays tend to make other people or pets stay away, so if an animal is feeling threatened, they will sometimes use attack as the best form of defence. And as previously mentioned, pain can contribute to aggression, so this needs to be ruled out by a vet check.
Abnormal Repetitive Behaviour - The most commonly seen example of this is probably tail chasing, especially in bull terrier breeds. Although it may at first appear funny and cute, this is a serious health problem which can lead to self-trauma and loss of quality of life. It needs to be treated as soon as possible.
Sudden Change of Behaviour in an Older Pet - This is often an indicator of underlying medical disease and should always be a cause for a vet visit (and very likely further testing).
It's Just Not Right - Experienced trainers have worked with many, many dogs. Sometimes a dog's behaviour may appear just a bit out of the ordinary, but the trainer can recognise that there may be more serious problems going on.
How do I choose a Vet for my dog's Behaviour Problem?
Just like some vets love orthopaedic surgery and others (like me!) will go out of their way to avoid it, some vets feel very comfortable discussing behaviour problems, and others do not. Your trainer may know a vet who has an interest in behaviour, or your regular veterinary practice may be able to help.
Some vets hold further qualifications in the field of Veterinary Behaviour. Veterinarians who are Members of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Science (ANZCVS) Behaviour Chapter must have at least four years post-graduate experience as a veterinarian and have successfully completed both written and oral examinations in Veterinary Behaviour.
The most experienced and highly qualified people in this field are the Registered Specialists in Veterinary Behaviour. There are currently only a handful of people with this qualification offering private consultations in Australia.
What will the vet do?
Vets in general practice will be able to perform a complete physical exam on your dog, and run blood tests or urinalysis to be able to detect underlying health concerns. They may not have the facilities to run behaviour consultations in-house (these often take 2-3 hours), but will likely be able to refer you someone who can.
A veterinarian who runs behaviour consultations will take a detailed history and perform a behavioural evaluation. Once they reach a diagnosis, they will form a management plan to treat your dog (or cat, bird, or other pet!). And, in many cases, this advice will include working with a qualified trainer using positive reinforcement training techniques...
Back to the dog trainer
So, what should you say to the trainer who tells you that they want to refer your dog to a vet? Thank them with all your heart for the care that they have shown your pet. Trust that their expertise is guiding you in the right direction - don't be tempted by "the bloke down the road, who has a mate who has owned/bred/shown dogs all his life...." (Seriously, I have had leg bones all my life, and it doesn't make me an orthopaedic surgeon!). And in all likelihood, your dog trainer will continue to be your best aid and advocate, working with you on your journey with your more relaxed doggy companion!
Dr Jen is a Member of the ANZCVS Veterinary Behaviour Chapter, and runs Pet Perspective - a business dedicated to providing behaviour educational materials for pet professionals and their clients. Please see her website: www.petperspective.com.au for more information.