Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations
Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, DACVB, is owner of Veterinary Behavior Consultations, based in New York and Connecticut. Her clinical interests include promoting the well-being of patients when veterinary treatment is required and helping veterinarians recognize early signs of behavioral illness. A graduate of University of Pennsylvania, she lectures at national and regional conferences and is a member of Veterinary Information Network’s consultant team. She completed a residency at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Puppies are primed to learn, and veterinarians are in an ideal position to help them reach their full potential. Accurate, timely veterinary advice should be proactively provided to support the development of strong bonds between puppies and their new families.
Puppies develop quickly. The prenatal, neonatal, and transitional stages of development have already passed before most puppies leave their littermates and experience their first official veterinary examination.
Take advantage of the opportunity to influence the fourth stage of development: the sensitive period for socialization. Between the ages of approximately 4 and 14 weeks, puppies are more prepared to accept new people and animals than at any other time in their development.
Early exposure to a wide variety of people, healthy puppies, and friendly dogs, as well as to assorted sounds, sights, and scents, is crucial for normal development. If possible, introduce puppies to other species (eg, horses, cats, livestock, birds) as well. In short, this is the period to introduce puppies to anything they may encounter as an adult.
Even before the vaccination series is complete, puppies can be safely socialized. Reasonable precautions should be taken. For instance, puppies should interact with puppies and dogs that appear healthy and whose owners are following their veterinarian’s advice regarding necessary vaccinations. The risk for contracting a life-threatening disease is likely less than the risk for developing a behavioral concern secondary to inadequate socialization later in life.1-3
Behavior problems are the main reason that pets are relinquished to shelters,4,5 so early socialization is critical; it cannot wait until the puppy is fully vaccinated.
All puppies are not created equal, and 8-week-old puppies are not clean slates. Genetics, diet, early illness, and early handling are some of the factors that can affect behavioral development. Help owners create reasonable expectations. For purebred puppies, share knowledge about breed traits.
Include a behavioral assessment during each puppy appointment. Normal, healthy puppies explore calmly or playfully, exhibit friendly behavior, are responsive when invited to interact, and can tolerate an examination. Puppies that exhibit fear or aggression or are unwilling to explore or interact need immediate help.6
Teach clients to watch for subtle signs of stress (eg, yawning, lip licking, looking sleepy, refusing treats). Socialization may need to be done at a slower pace, but it cannot be delayed.
Puppies may exhibit normal yet undesirable behaviors (eg, jumping up, mouthing, destructive behavior, house soiling) that can be managed or prevented if clients are provided tools to set puppies up for behavioral success.
All puppies benefit from a structured, reward-based training program. Training should begin immediately; early training teaches puppies how to receive information from humans. Puppies learn with all interactions.
Veterinarians may choose to offer a basic training and socialization class at their facility. Before referring a client to a trainer, inquire about the trainer’s methods and qualifications. There is currently no regulating body for trainers, but excellent trainers will take advantage of continuing education to stay current in the field.
When possible, send a team member to observe or attend a training class. Confirm that the atmosphere is calm, that puppies and owners are treated with respect, and that reward-based methods are used. Research shows that confrontational training methods are associated with fear and aggression in dogs.7-9
Be sure clients know that the veterinarians at the clinic are available and have the expertise to help prevent and solve behavior problems. Even young puppies may suffer from serious behavioral illnesses, and it is never too soon to refer a young patient to a veterinary behaviorist if the diagnosis is not clear.
Collect a behavioral baseline during each puppy visit. Create a checklist to inquire about normal undesirable behaviors. These may be tolerated for the short term, but the client misconception may be that they will be “outgrown.” In fact, without intervention, these behaviors can strengthen because they can be self-rewarding and are therefore regularly reinforced.
|Behavior Checklist for Owners|
Below is a sample behavior checklist that can be distributed to new dog owners.Please let us know if you would like to discuss any of the following:
Do not wait for the call from a frustrated client. Early identification, diagnosis, and treatment of behavior problems saves lives.
Stepita ME, Bain MJ, Kass PH. Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinated puppies that attended puppy socialization classes. JAAHA. 2013;49(2):95-100.
Duxbury MM, Jackson JA, Line SW, Anderson RK. Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. JAVMA. 2003;223(1):61-66.
Kutsumi A, Nagasawa M, Ohta M, Ohtani N. Importance of puppy training for future behavior of the dog. J Vet Med Sci. 2013;75(2):141-149.
Patronek GJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM, McCabe GP, Ecker C. Risk factors for relinquishment of dogs to an animal shelter. JAVMA. 1996;209(3):572-581.
Kwan JY, Bain MJ. Owner attachment and problem behaviors related to relinquishment and training techniques of dogs. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2013;16(2):168-183.
Godbout M, Frank D. Persistence of puppy behaviors and signs of anxiety during adulthood. J Vet Behav. 2011;6:92.
Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. J Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2009;117(1-2):47-54.
Blackwell EJ, Twells C, Seawright A, Casey RA. The relation-ship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. J Vet Behav. 2008;3(5):207-217.
Casey RA, Loftus B, Bolster C, et al. Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. J Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2014;152:52-53.
Horwitz D, Ciribassi J, Dale S, ACVB. Decoding your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company; 2014.
Seksel K. Preventing behavior problems in puppies and kittens. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2008;38(5):971-982.
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