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Prevention and Management: The Girdle Beneath the Glamour

Rachel Lees, RVT, KPA CTP, VTS (Behavior)

Teaching cued behaviors, working through desensitization and classical counterconditioning, and clicker training are the glamorous gowns of training plans or behavioral treatment plans. They’re rewarding because this is where owners and veterinary behavior team members can begin to see improvements in the patient.

But preventing and managing undesirable or unwanted behaviors are the foundation garments beneath the fancy dress of behavior modification. Prevention, safety, and management aren’t glamorous, but they are an important part of the plan. If the patient continues to engage in unwanted behaviors, the behaviors will continue to be reinforced (negatively or positively). To avoid this dynamic, the veterinary behavior team must coach clients as much as possible to set the patient up for success and manage any panic, stress, or anxiety present.

Avoiding Triggers and Controlling the Environment

Learning occurs with every interaction. This can work to our advantage when we can strengthen behaviors we like by adding positive outcomes. The goal with prevention is to control the environment and regulate the patient so we can prevent the patient from learning undesirable behaviors during non-training times. An example might be use of crates and playpens to eliminate urine accidents in the home.

Prevention includes setting each animal up for success and manipulating the environment to promote and reinforce desired behaviors. This can be as general as setting a puppy up for success using crate training for assist with elimination training or working with a puppy or kitten during the socialization period to promote positive experiences for lifelong learning.

Prevention can also be as detailed as using white noise to create a sound buffer for a storm-phobic patient or placing an opaque window treatment on front windows to eliminate displays at passersby. Below is a chart with some common behavioral diagnoses and types of prevention that can be recommended for these conditions until appropriate training and behavior modification have been taught and implemented. Some prevention techniques might be temporary, and others might be long-term.

Behavioral Concern Types of Prevention
Aggression during Grooming and Husbandry Behaviors (Familiar and Unfamiliar People) Discontinue all forms of grooming and medical care. If medical or grooming care must be performed (in an emergency) the veterinary team should use sedation to prevent increasing fear, stress, and anxiety during these situations
Inter-Dog Aggression Keep all patients 100% separated to eliminate practice of aggression in any or all potential situations.
Redirected Aggression to a Canine Housemate Eliminate and manage all triggers that may create arousal, aggression, and frustration.  This may include opaque window treatments to eliminate the display at passersby or may include full separation between patients if triggers are unclear.
Fear-Based Aggression to Unfamiliar People Discontinue walks and keep the patient away during all guest visits. This may include using a crate in a place where the patient cannot see visitors. This will help keep the patient as safe and comfortable as possible while the guest is in the home.
Coprophagia Pick up stool immediately after elimination to prevent the patient from ingesting the stool later.

Management: Outlets to Minimize FAS While Practicing Prevention

Providing healthy forms of behavioral management can be helpful in creating a calmer and more confident pet. Providing mental, physical, and environmental enrichment can improve any domesticated animal’s overall wellbeing. Providing enrichment can help pets find appropriate outlets for innate behaviors and physical activity. Enrichment can also help to alleviate tension or any fear, stress, or anxiety the pet may be feeling. Enrichment may be used to eliminate unwanted behaviors such as chewing and destruction by young puppies or to decrease or eliminate barking in the crate during guests’ visits. Below is a short list of different forms of enrichment that can be used together or separately as needed:

  • Puzzle Toys: Puzzle toys that dispense treats or kibble provide human-approved outlets of stimulation, can double as meal opportunities, and can manage and prevent unwanted behaviors such as barking and other attention-seeking behaviors. This type of enrichment can be more mentally stimulating than a 5-mile walk. Advise clients to give these to patients ideally in anticipation of unwanted behavior or after unwanted behaviors have been interrupted. This can set patients up for success, so they do not continue to perform the undesirable behavior.
  • Sound Enrichment: Whether clients are away from home or looking to create a sound buffer to help prevent unwanted behaviors, their pets can be enriched through sound in a variety of ways. “Through a Dog’s Ear” CDs or iCalm units provide patients with biorhythmic classical music. Studies have shown that classical music can help to reduce respiration and blood pressure. DOGTV is another form of enrichment that can give dogs visual stimulation while also providing different forms of classical and calming sounds. White noise machines can be another buffer to eliminate sounds happening outside the pet’s home environment.
  • Enrichment Walks: These walks are an outlet to burn off energy while also allowing the dog to sniff and learn about the environment. In the text “From Fearful to Fear Free,” this type of sniffing is described as a form of social media for your pet. Think “Nosebook” and “Pee Mail.” This same type of enrichment can be used for cats who have learned to walk comfortably in a harness and leash. For patients who have been diagnosed with fear-based aggression issues on walks, enrichment walks can be performed in a space with limited human and dog contact such as industrial parkways.

There are many different forms of prevention and management. This article discusses only a few of the options for some diagnosable behavioral issues. This is something that can be recommended by any veterinary team member if a client and patient are waiting to be seen by a veterinary behaviorist. Suggestions such as using baby gates at doorways to prevent dog fights or keeping a patient leashed to a person can be lifesaving recommendations. Stating some of these more obvious recommendations is essential because not every client or dog trainer understands the importance of management and prevention.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Rachel Lees, an Elite Fear Free Certified Professional, is a veterinary technician specialist in behavior, a KPA certified training partner, and lead veterinary behavior technician at The Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. She loves helping people create and maintain a strong human-animal bond.

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