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The individuals who staff our Behavior Helpline have completed an extensive training program taught by animal behavior professionals. We are able to assist pet owners with many types of problems; however, there are some we can’t resolve by e-mail or phone because it isn’t safe or accurate to diagnose certain behavioral problems without observing the animal’s postures and reactions to certain stimuli.


There are many reasons an animal may behave aggressively, including fear, food or object possessiveness, territorial behavior or protective behavior. It’s necessary to obtain a complete behavioral history through detailed information gathering and direct observation of the animal in his own environment before a diagnosis and recommendations can be made. This can’t be accomplished over the phone; however, we can provide detailed handouts explaining the causes of aggression and procedures that should be avoided because they may make the problem worse. An animal that threatens another animal or human by growling, hissing, baring his teeth, snapping or biting presents a danger to others.

The first step is to have a veterinarian examine your pet to evaluate him for possible medical reasons for the aggressive behavior. Once medical reasons are ruled out, you should seek the services of an animal behavior specialist (see below for tips on finding professional help). If a professional animal behaviorist can’t help, it may be safest for all concerned to have your pet humanely euthanized. You may either have your own veterinarian euthanize your pet, or you may surrender him to an animal shelter to be euthanized. If you choose to surrender your pet to a shelter, please relate all the information you have about his behavior.


Some animals, usually dogs, may develop intense, irrational fears, including fear of loud noises or fear of being left alone. Many phobias can be successfully treated using a combination of behavior modification and short-term drug therapy. This type of treatment needs to be prescribed by a veterinarian. If your pet exhibits this type of behavior, you should contact your veterinarian for information about medication and for a referral to an animal behavior specialist.

Excessive Grooming

Dogs and cats will sometimes lick themselves excessively until skin sores form, or will pull patches of hair from their bodies. Treatment often involves a combination of drug therapy and behavior modification that can only be obtained through your veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist.

Finding Professional Help

When your pet’s behavior problem is too complex to analyze and resolve by our helpline staff, you should seek advice from a veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist. Knowing where to turn can be confusing.

People who work with animal behavior problems are not regulated by any government agency and may have very different types of qualifications. Here are some tips that may help:

Veterinarian: When your pet has a problem, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Urinary tract infections, hormone imbalances, neurological conditions, genetic abnormalities, orthopedic problems and dental disease are just a few examples of medical problems that can influence your pet’s behavior. Once medical problems are ruled out, ask your veterinarian if he/she has received any specific training in animal behavior, and if not, ask for a referral to an animal behavior specialist.

Applied Animal Behaviorist: Animal behavior is a specialized field of scientific study. In order to become a certified applied animal behaviorist, an individual must have specialized training in behavior problems in companion animals. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) grants certification to behaviorists who are academically trained, have experience in the field and meet the ethical standards.

People who’ve worked with or trained animals for many years aren’t animal behaviorists unless they’ve received specialized academic training.

Animal Trainer: Some animal trainers are self-taught, and some may have apprenticed under another trainer and/or attended various training seminars. Animal trainers don’t usually have specialized academic training in the study of animal behavior. Good animal trainers are knowledgeable about different types of training methods that focus primarily on reinforcing good behavior and use punishment sparingly, appropriately, humanely or not at all. Inappropriate use of correction collars, including using chokers to lift dogs off the ground and “string them up,” aren’t appropriate or humane training methods and may cause injury to your dog.

Training classes are an excellent way to develop a good relationship with your pet by teaching him to respond reliably to specific cues. However, resolving behavior problems, such as house soiling, barking, aggression or separation anxiety requires more than teaching your pet to respond to cues. Specific behavior modification techniques must also be used. Some animal trainers also offer behavior consulting services.

Ask the trainer what methods he uses and how he was trained. Go to a class, and if you observe techniques you’re not comfortable with, find another trainer. Dog obedience instructors can be also certified but certification does not guarantee that a trainer uses humane methods of training – it is still up to you to determine if the trainer’s methods are humane and appropriate for your dog.

Things to Watch for and Avoid

  • People who guarantee their work: Qualified behaviorists and trainers will always do their best for you, but cannot guarantee outcomes, because animals have minds of their own and can never be completely controlled by humans.
  • People whose primary methods focus on punishment: If their recommendations involve choking, hitting or slapping your pet, excessive confinement or isolation, this indicates little or no understanding of animal behavior.
  • People who misrepresent their qualifications: People who call themselves animal behaviorists, even though they’re not academically trained in animal behavior.
  • People who want to train your pet for you: Most behavior problems are a result of interactions between the animal, the owner and the environment. Giving your pet to someone else to “fix” the problem is rarely successful because these three elements aren’t addressed. Owners need to work with the animal in the home environment.

If you’re willing to commit time, energy and resources to working with your pet and find qualified people to help you, the chances are good that you’ll successfully resolve your pet’s problem behaviors.

This material is published with the explicit permission of Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado, where it was originally developed by applied animal behaviorists. Animal Rescue Sofia owns the authorship rights over the Bulgarian translation of the material.

©2010 Dumb Friends League and ©2010 Animal Rescue Sofia. All rights reserved.

14 February 2010 | Library

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