Behavioural issues: why delay intervention? - Veterinary Practice
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Behavioural issues: why delay intervention?

Francesca Riccomini explains how dealing with problems at the earliest possible opportunity can resolve minor issues easily while heading off more significant matters.

“ISN’T he/she too young?” This
query is not uncommonly directed
at behaviour counsellors by owners
and veterinarians alike.

Not in itself an unreasonable
question, it often seems misguided
and one is tempted to reply, “Why
would he/she be too young?” After all,
there has to be a reason why people
are experiencing
problems with
their pet’s

It may turn
out to be as
basic as their
own unrealistic
expectations of
the animal or the need for good advice
about basic husbandry for the species –
so much the better. But this is not easy
to assess in the artificial clinic situation
where time to address suspicions is
invariably lacking.

Therefore, when difficulties arise
the best approach must be to deal
with them at the earliest possible
opportunity. When issues are minor,
they will be most straightforward and
easily resolved; if more significant,
what on earth is to be gained by

Whatever the nature of the problem,
the longer it continues the more
established and complicated it is likely
to become; and when not directed to a
professional capable of doing the job
properly, struggling owners are almost
guaranteed to seek advice elsewhere.

Some received wisdom may be of
value but chances are high that much
will be anecdotal and inappropriate at
best; at worst it will be based on fiction
not fact, not unusually outdated and/or
frankly abusive.

Rubbing the animal’s nose in
excreta is sadly, for example, still
not uncommonly offered for house
soiling. And where aggression is
concerned, “off the peg” strategies
are frequently not only unhelpful in
their failure to address the underlying
causes and contributing factors but
invariably increase the physical risks
to anyone dealing with the pet – even
with aggression directed at other dogs,
humans can become “collaterally

Such tactics may also lead to an
escalation of the problem’s intensity
so that something that could have been successfully dealt with when it
started becomes very challenging, if
not impossible, to resolve by the time a
competent behaviourist is brought in.

Time can simply run out

Delay is particularly distressing
when, after examination of the pet’s
environment, detailed discussion of its provenance, early experiences,
introduction to the home, routine
management and interaction with
household members and other animals,
it becomes obvious that from the
outset the situation was never going to

At this stage some owners may be
relieved at having an excuse “to get
rid of the problem”. Many decent
people, however, are distraught at the
thought of parting with a problem pet,
even one from which they’ve gained
little pleasure. Some feel they have let
the animal down, making a negative
outcome that was always going to be
distressing even more so.

It is rarely easy for such owners
to accept that they made a mistake
in the choice of animal for their
circumstances – reality may suggest no
pet at all would be the most sensible
option – but it is certainly easier for
caring, responsible people “to let
go” early in a relationship than when
they’ve had an animal for a while.

And what of the individual’s welfare
when it is simply the wrong animal for
these particular circumstances? Why
unnecessarily prolong its suffering in
the hope that the situation will sort
itself out?

Songsters may claim that “things can
only get better” but not infrequently in
real life, without adequate, appropriate,
early intervention, problem behaviour
gets worse, sometimes remarkably

The number of times that a
behaviour consultation has been
arranged too late is a truly depressing
feature of my experience in the eld.
Often there was no good reason for

When the first signs of problems
with its behaviour were seen the animal
was simply considered too young
to warrant such attention. So, not
unusually, by the intervention stage the
owner-pet bond is strained and time is
running out, because a major change
in circumstances is commonly the
stimulus for owners to seek dedicated behavioural advice.

Unfortunately, the imminent home move,
baby’s birth, divorce or
other major life stressor
that looms on the horizon
makes it a less than ideal time for anyone to
start tackling their pet’s
challenging behaviour.

Against tremendous
odds some people
succeed but for many,
if improvement is still
achievable at this point,
results never seem as
good as they could
have been with early

should never
be lost

In these cases, what is
frequently puzzling is why
no one acted initially.

Clients may have been
unwilling or unable to
undertake the exercise or
not in a position to fund
it. However, when none
of these negative factors
entered the picture, delay
seems commonly to
arise from a view that referring such a
youngster could/would simply not be

A lack of confidence can also lead
colleagues and owners to feel hesitant
about “making a fuss” over apparently minor issues. What if a
dedicated behavioural
appointment reveals no
abnormality: will this not
cause embarrassment all

But why should it?
When an owner “feels
there is something wrong”
with their pet’s health, we
would never consider a
clinical examination that
revealed no cause for
concern a waste of time
and money. We would all
feel reassured and satis ed
we’d done our best.

So why not take the
same approach with
behavioural issues? A more
time-consuming and costly
behaviourist appointment
may seem like “a bigger
deal”, something to keep
for serious concerns,
but it really isn’t. And
as the number of pets
relinquished or euthanased
because of problematic
behaviour continues to
appal anyone interested
in animal welfare, self-
evidently the time to act is
as early as we can.

So the answer to the
original question must surely be a negative. Ultimately, why would any
struggling pet ever be too young
to deserve dedicated attention
from a suitably qualified behaviour

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