Let me just start this one by saying that vets are amazing.
They have to learn so much, understand at least the basics of so many different species from the common cats and dogs, to horses, cattle, geckos, budgies and the myriad of other animals we keep for companionship or work. They rely on our largely inaccurate descriptions of a problem, diagnose an animal that cannot speak to explain the problem, work out doses of hundreds of medications, perform often complex operations and have to do it all without getting bitten.
It’s not a job I could do (although I wanted to as a kid!).
The vets we see day to day are the GP’s of the animal world – they have to have a broad knowledge of pretty much everything so they can make the best assessment possible to diagnose, provide treatment or possibly, refer to the appropriate specialist.
What they are not is behaviourists or trainers.
Apart from a select few vets, who actively choose to study dog behaviour and training, most vets have little more than a basic understanding of dog behaviour, psychology and current, effective and ethical training practices (some vets have less than that, and actually, that's fine!). As standard, vets study dog behaviour for between 1 week to 1 month. Out of the many years at Uni and gaining field experience, that is a minuscule fraction of their study and really, in the grand scheme, simply isn't time enough to grasp the complex mess that is animal psychology. This is in part because they have so much else that they need to understand that behaviour takes a low priority, one which mainly focuses on body language/behaviour that may indicate pain or other medical problems. So by extension, it does not include;
- Separation anxiety
- Puppy emotional & behavioural development
- Reactivity / aggression
- Puppy biting
- Resource Guarding
- Fears & phobias (except regarding medications that may help)
- Handling aggression
- And so much more
And yet often a vet is the first person a new puppy owner will ask about a training problem, or a dog owner struggling with dog reactivity will ask for advice.
Most vets are great and simply refer people to an appropriate local trainer/behaviourist, but some persist in giving out advice that is not accurate or scientifically founded.
I, not being a vet and having not studied the inner workings of these animals, cannot give out medical advice to a client, or advise nor suggest a named behavioural medication – I can only advise them to speak to their vet (or I can liaise with the vet directly if the client wishes!). If I was to give medical advice or make a prescription (name a medication) I would be breaking the law and the code of ethics for all of my membership organisations, I would also be risking my accreditation with those organisations. I am a behaviourist. Your dog's behaviour is my area of expertise, not its health.
So why do vets keep giving out behaviour advice when they are not qualified to do so? Don't get me wrong, there are phenomenal veterinary behaviourists out there who are qualified above and beyond. But most vets are not. And the advice I have known some vets to give has been quite frankly shockingly dangerous and unethical. For example, over the years I have seen/heard vets say/do the following;
- Advise the owner of an 8-week old Cockerpoo to leave it shut in the crate for “as long as it takes to stop barking/whining, even if it takes three hours”. This puppy went on to develop severe separation anxiety caused largely by this piece of advice. It still suffers this, despite my best efforts and the owners wonderful dedication. Whilst it is better managed now, it likely will still suffer this for its entire life.
- Pin a scared and fearful rescue dog to the floor because “he needed to learn” that she was in charge and the “Alpha”. (Ahh, Dominance Theory. I have a separate post on this... gem)
- Grab a dog by the scruff of the neck and bellow “NO” down his ear because he growled at her when she went to check his teeth. This dog then tried to bite her in the face and had to be sedated for all future vet visits. Funny that, isn't it?
- Advise the owner of a dog reactive dog to use a pet corrector spray whenever he reacted to another dog. This dog then bit his owner's leg when she was using the pet corrector in one of the worst redirected bites I have ever seen, and then became severely noise sensitive/fearful.
- Advised me (yes, me, a qualified behaviourist) to ignore my Jack Russell's behaviour whenever fireworks go off or a thunderstorm comes in because I was reinforcing her fear and making the phobia worse by letting her cuddle against me for protection. There is no evidence to show that reassuring your phobic dog does anything to increase the phobia. It can, in fact, help them. (do you ignore a child scared of the monster in the closet, or do you reassure them?)
- Smack a puppy across the nose and shove their face in any accidents he had in the house. He became scared of toileting in front of his humans and took almost a year to housetrain.
- Use a prong collar (A detestable device which I, of course, have another post on) to stop my excitable 6-month-old Athena from jumping up
- Use a rattle can (bottle/tin full of pebbles or coins) to stop the dog from barking. Again, this dog went on to become severely noise phobic.
This is just a selection of the things I have heard vets say/do over the years, we’d be here for a week if I listed everything I could remember.
The trouble is that we generally tend to trust the advice coming from our vets – after all, they are the professionals – so owners follow the advice they give and often end up with detrimental results or serious behaviour problems.
So please, please, please, when it comes to your dogs (or other animals!) seek your vet's advice for anything medical and seek out the advice of a qualified, accredited, positive reinforcement trainer/behaviourist (Like me!) for anything to do with behaviour/training. Do your research and make sure that your chosen trainer is actually going to give you the best, up to date and ethical advice.
Though really, if you're already reading this, do give me a call.
The following alphabet soup organisations all hold their members to the highest of ethical standards and only accredit people who only use R+ training methods. You'll find me in CAPBT's and ICAN's databases.
*Note that Kennel Club Dog Clubs are NOT the same as KCAI’s and are not assessed/held to the same standard of basic knowledge and unless they are run by a KCAI (Kennel Club Accredited Instructor) I do NOT recommend attending one*
And as always, I'll finalise these posts with a simple sentiment. If you need help, with behaviour, please: drop me a message, call, or email. If I can't help, I'll happily direct you to one of the many highly qualified, brilliant behaviourists' in the area. My priority is, always, you and your dog's happiness.
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Dog Trainer,