If you can predict it, you should prevent it, because practice makes perfect. Avoiding situations that trigger problem behaviors achieves 3 important results. First, avoidance increases safety, which is paramount when the problem includes aggression. Even in the absence of aggression, animals with behavior problems are often at risk for physical harm, relinquishment, or euthanasia. Second, avoidance reduces stress and anxiety for pet and owner. Owners need ways to prevent issues so that they are not overwhelmed trying to change behaviors 24 hours a day.
Third, avoidance prevents unwanted learning. A pet with a behavior problem or exposed to anxiety-provoking stimuli is learning with each occurrence. Through classical conditioning, the animal learns to associate the feelings of anxiety and accompanying autonomic responses (eg, rapid heartbeat, increased respiratory rate, panting, pupillary dilation) with that situation. For example, a dog with separation anxiety may grow anxious when the owner dresses for work.
Operant conditioning may occur when a patient’s undesirable behavior produces a response from which it receives some degree of relief. For instance, if encroaching strangers retreat after a fearful cat claws at them, the cat’s anxiety is somewhat alleviated. Owners can also accidentally reward anxious behavior. If owners come home while the dog is howling, it may learn to associate howling with the owners’ reappearance. If the patient continues to learn to associate these situations with a stress response and reacts accordingly, teaching a new set of autonomic and conscious behavioral responses can become an uphill battle.
Problems can be avoided passively (ie, after problematic situations occur) or actively (ie, before problematic situations occur). If a dog growls, snaps, or bites when a human disturbs it while it is on the couch, the passive approach is for owners to leave the dog alone when it is on the couch, thereby avoiding a reaction from the dog. The active approach is to keep the dog off the couch, thereby preventing the problematic behavioral sequence. Options include restricting access to the room, making the couch inaccessible by flipping up the cushions, or keeping the dog on leash to prevent it from jumping on the furniture.