Behavioural first aid

Behavioural first aid for owners reporting a problem behaviour- establishing a veterinary clinic protocol 

What is problematic behaviour?  

Problem behaviour is any behaviour displayed by a dog that people find problematic, so it can range from jumping up or stealing food to aggressive behaviour directed towards people or other animals. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem from the dog’s perspective, however. For example, a dog might be enjoying digging up the garden, without any risk of illness or injury, yet this behaviour could be highly problematic for their owner.  

What is Behavioural First Aid? 

Behavioural First Aid describes taking steps to make the current situation safe and prevent it from worsening, whilst accessing professional help from an accredited behaviourist to achieve longer term resolution. Things should be made easier for the owner, while ensuring the welfare of the dog.  

There are four main aspects to behavioural first aid and these are highlighted within the following flow chart and discussed in more detail below.   

Behavioural first aid Having an established standard approach to Behavioural First Aid within a veterinary practice helps every point of contact within the clinic provide a clear and consistent message to clients. 

Identify underlying medical conditions 

The first step to addressing behaviour perceived as problematic is to rule out any underlying medical cause or contributing factor and treat as necessary. 

Whenever problematic behaviour — or any change in a dog’s behaviour — is identified by the owner, it is important that any potential underlying pathology is ruled out. Many different medical or painful conditions can affect the way a dog behaves, even if an owner cannot immediately identify anything obviously wrong. Ruling these out is important, both to alleviate the dog’s pain and to bring about a positive change in their behaviour.   

Sometimes simply treating a medical and/or painful condition is sufficient to address the undesirable behaviour and for the owner to see a return to ‘normal’ in their dog — sometimes instantly. Information regarding how pain can affect behaviour is presented within ‘health, pain and behaviour’ resource and tips for identifying medical conditions in behaviour cases is provided within the framework for behavioural consultations resource.

Refer

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) states that referral should be considered when the case or treatment option is outside their area of competence1, for a behaviour case, this could be when: 

  • a problematic behaviour persists following medical diagnosis, despite a subsequent positive response to medical or surgical intervention  
  • there is no medical or painful abnormality detected  
  • an owner expresses that they would like assistance in modifying their dog’s behaviour 
  • an owner is struggling to manage their dog’s problematic behaviour 
  • the problematic behaviour renders the dog, their owner, or any other person/animal at risk of harm, or risks any third-party damage. 

The veterinary surgeon should also make a referral appropriate to the case and this will involve considering all of the relevant factors such as, the ability and experience of the referral veterinary surgeon, the location of the service, the urgency of treatment and the circumstances of the owner, including the availability and any limitations of insurance1 

The referral process for behavioural support is described here, however once an owner has voiced concerns regarding problematic behaviour the veterinary team may provide immediate first aid advice.  

Make safe

Risk Assessment: make the situation safe and prevent it from worsening  

Depending on its nature, problematic behaviour might put the dog themselves, people, other animals, or property at risk.  

The dog should be managed to minimise risk of injury, self-harm, fear, and distress. The risk of the dog being relinquished should also be considered at this point, because resolution of problematic behaviour is likely to require owner commitment. As well as being potentially emotional and time-consuming, it could also involve a financial outlay, and owners need to be prepared for that. 

Protecting other people and animals whilst help is being sought can be achieved through avoiding those interactions completely, while property may be safeguarded by careful environmental management and continual supervision. Owners should be encouraged to consider what might make both their dog’s and their own households’ lives immediately less stressful or dangerous, on top of seeking professional help. This may involve not to exposing their dog to situations in which they’re unable to remain relaxed, for example, not taking a frightened dog out to the park simply because society expects them to.  

Making the situation safe ought to involve, where possible, completely removing the dog from whatever is troubling them — or vice versa — and preventing them from being exposed to it again, until an accredited behaviourist has been sought. Unfortunately, however, the triggers which elicit the undesired behaviour are often unclear, or not at all apparent.

Examples of removing or reducing identified triggers of problematic behaviour

Trigger

Action

Visitors to the home not permitting visitors while the dog is present; arranging for the dog to be cared for elsewhere by someone they know and feel safe and comfortable with while visitors are present

Being outside the home (triggers might include other dogs, unfamiliar people/animals, traffic…)

keeping the dog solely in the home and garden, with additional enrichment activity provided, until professional support is accessed
People walking past the home

keeping curtains or blinds closed and/or preventing access to windows or places where they see outside; restricting access to quieter areas within the home

Being left alone

not leaving a dog alone at all; arranging professional dog walkers/sitters or trusted friends/family to care for dog when it is essential for owners to leave the home without them

The more a dog is able to carry out the unwanted, problematic behaviour, the stronger and more ingrained it could become as part of their routine. Where completely avoiding triggers is impossible, measures ought to be taken to reduce the intensity, duration, and/or frequency of the triggering stimulus as much as possible.

Manage

To prevent any unwanted, problematic behaviour from worsening, steps can be taken to manage a dog’s environment and interactions in such a way that prevents them from carrying out the concerning behaviour.

Short term management techniques and tools include:

  • the use of gardens, child-gates, indoor kennels/crates, or barriers, such as dog-pens, to keep a dog completely apart from the trigger/focus of the concerning behaviour
  • teaching a dog to relax within an indoor kennel/crate
  • teaching a dog to relax by themselves in the garden
  • teaching a dog to wear a muzzle comfortably — BUT ONLY where this is going to be safe for the owner, and implemented in an appropriate and considerate way using reward-based training methods
  • avoiding specific activities or interactions, such as touching a specific part of a dog’s body if that appears to trigger the concerning behaviour
  • keeping a dog on a lead when exercising them out and about within the local community.

These types of intervention simply manage the unwanted behaviour, they do not change the way the dog feels or involve any activity which will help the dog feel or behave any differently in future. A dog might also become frustrated by management techniques which restrict activities they are expecting to be able to engage in ad. lib. This is why seeking assistance from an accredited behaviourist is vital. An accredited behaviourist will aim to identify all the triggers for the unwanted behaviour, and ultimately the root cause of the problem — which might include many contributing factors. They will create a bespoke plan for the owner to follow, aimed at helping the dog feel and behave differently.

Include an emergency plan

Owners will benefit from having a plan in place for how to respond should the dog engage in the unwanted behaviour, despite their best efforts. Encourage owners to think about exactly when and where the unwanted behaviour happens so they can predict when it is most likely and, if they’re unable to avoid these situations completely, how they can prepare to take steps to minimise their dog’s unwanted behaviour. Preparing in advance for how to intervene can help an owner avoid panicking in the moment, which would only intensify an already emotionally charged situation. Knowing what to do in advance can help both owner and dog cope better.

How to respond will be unique to the individual situation but it could include actions like creating a distraction to divert the dog’s attention, luring the dog to a safe position, or providing an alternative outlet for the dog’s behaviour. For example, they could carry plenty of treats, ready to scatter on the ground for the dog to sniff out and eat to distract them from the sight of another dog.

Make sure the dog is not being punished, and that the owner-dog relationship is enhanced as much as possible with reward-based training

Ask the owner how they currently respond when their dog is performing the problematic behaviour, so you can make sure they are responding in a helpful manner and ensure they are not punishing their dog in any way.

Telling a dog off for behaving in an unwanted way might provide an outlet for an owner’s frustration at the situation, however it can make things much worse, doesn’t teach the dog anything beneficial, and can be damaging for their relationship with their owner (see our section on punishment ). Using physical force or shouting at a dog can make them frightened or anxious, while taking things they value away from them might make them feel frustrated.

Instead, owners should be encouraged to:

  • lure a dog away from a challenging situation to a safer position, using treasured rewards such as tasty food or their favourite toy
  • create a distraction by asking the dog to do something they have learned really well, such as “come” or “lie down”
  • make a noise or throw a toy to interrupt an undesired behaviour.

Once the dog has diverted their attention to their owner, they can be encouraged to engage in a different, safer, and more desirable activity — using treats, toys, or anything else safe that the dog enjoys, to reward them for doing so. Encouraging owners to always reward positive behaviour can be extremely helpful in strengthening the owner-dog bond and teaching the dog how to behave in different situations. Using rewards means dogs learn in a positive and enjoyable way.

Owners can also be encouraged to think about how they live with their dog and whether their dog has enough opportunities to exercise, play, chew, sniff, learn, and sleep well each day, because some unwanted behaviour might arise simply through a lack of other opportunities. It’s also helpful to ask owners to consider how consistent they are in terms of the way they interact with their dog. For example, an owner might encourage their dog to jump up on them when they’re wearing outdoor ‘dog walking clothes’ but discourage this when they’re wearing ‘going out’ clothes — yet the dog is unlikely to understand the difference. Consistency is key in dogs learning how to behave in a whole variety of situations.

Reassurance for the owner

Reassure owners that they’re not alone and help is available. No one should ever feel embarrassed about struggling or seeking help. Dogs can’t tell us what’s wrong, so we have to try our best to work it out, and that can be incredibly difficult. Many owners struggle with some aspect of their dog’s behaviour during their lifetime and ask for professional help, in the same way as they would ask for help with a medical problem.

Give owners permission to make their lives better, and their dog’s life better, by not necessarily by doing things which they might feel society deems they should. For example, if a dog is showing signs of being very frightened in the local park, letting an owner know they needn’t walk their dog for the time being, while seeking help, can be incredibly relieving for them.

While a behavioural referral is being organised, an owner might feel helpless, however they can be reminded about all the things they are able to do for the best:

  • rewarding desirable, ‘good’ behaviour whenever it happens
  • implementing enrichment activities and making sure their dog has opportunities to engage in exercise, playing, chewing, sniffing, learning and sleeping (appropriate for their life-stage and individual needs)
  • keeping a diary of day-to-day behaviour and the times/places where undesirable behaviour occurs and who is present — in order to help their behaviourist learn as much as possible about the dog’s behaviour
  • where it is safe and appropriate, to capture photos or videos of the dog performing the unwanted behaviour — but ONLY if this happens spontaneously. A dog MUST NEVER be put into a position to incite the unwanted behaviour purely for the purposes of videoing/photographing it.

References

  1. Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons website. Available at: https://www.rcvs.org.uk/setting-standards/advice-and-guidance/code-of-professional-conduct-for-veterinary-surgeons/supporting-guidance/referrals-and-second-opinions/ [Accessed February 2022]

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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.