Sarah Rae Murray is a writer, veterinary practice receptionist and an advocate for all animals.
Beans is a small dog with a big story.
In March of 2017, Beans was one of more than 100 dogs found living in a single-family home in West Lethbridge. Prompted by a call from a concerned neighbour, Alberta SPCA officers investigated and discovered a residence packed with dogs, many of whom were in distress. They took the animals to Lethbridge Animal Services to be assessed by a veterinarian. Soon after, the owner voluntarily surrendered them to Alberta SPCA.
Like many of the dogs removed from that home, Beans was struggling with severe behavioral issues. She was classified as reactive after displaying fear aggression and extreme touch aversion. Although she was highly socialized with other dogs, her exposure to human contact had been limited.
“According to the American Animal Hospital Association, behavioral problems are the number one condition among cats and dogs. But despite the undeniable significance of assessing and treating pet behavior, it’s a subject that’s still stigmatized and rife with myths and misconceptions.”
Beans’ behavioral issues were almost certainly a product of her environment, but not all behavioral issues are the result of extreme conditions, neglect or abuse. The reality is that animals from any background can develop behavioral issues at any point throughout their life. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, behavioral problems are the number one condition among cats and dogs. But despite the undeniable significance of assessing and treating pet behavior, it’s a subject that’s still stigmatized and rife with myths and misconceptions. Fortunately, there’s a growing understanding that treatment for animal behavioral issues is possible and that it starts with a collaboration between veterinary care professionals and animal owners.
Dr. Stacy Radics, a veterinarian in Airdrie, Alberta, sees parallels between how mental health issues have traditionally been addressed in human care and how behavioral issues have been looked on in veterinary care. There has been a reluctance to treat these issues as health concerns deserving of specialized treatment. “Sometimes, as general practitioners, we’re not super comfortable with behavior. It’s okay to refer those cases… just like we would with cardiac or other cases,” says Radics. “(Behavior issues are) really no different, but they do have that stigma. The same stigma that’s with human mood and anxiety disorders too.”
Stigmatization isn’t the only factor that impacts an animal’s access to treatment for a behavior issue. This issue can be a sticky subject for veterinarians to address with pet owners, says Radics. “It’s really hard... to open up that conversation because you don’t want to offend people. You don’t want people to think that you think they’re training their dogs improperly. It’s a fine line between trying to help people with (their pet’s) problem behavior and offending them.”
Radics works to build that client-veterinarian trust by sharing information and by breaking down myths and misconceptions around pet behavior. She hears a lot of the same mistaken beliefs come up time and time again. The four facts she shares with clients are: dog parks are not happy places for all dogs, kennel training (especially in puppies) is not mean, your dog can be happy and safe wearing a muzzle, and dominance is not a constructive way to teach dogs.
Nothing about treating behavior issues is straightforward, says Radics, but establishing a treatment program is a critical first step. Although these programs vary from case to case, in almost all circumstances, pet owner participation and a good relationship with the veterinarian are key to the success of the program. Often, it’s a long, twisting road with a lot of trial and error along the way. “Chances are your dog will be as confused and frustrated as you are,” says Radics. “Stick with it, find something kind and consistent to help them feel safe and then I think you’ll really notice a difference.”
If there’s a poster child for kindness and consistency in treating an animal with behavior issues, it’s Beans’ owner, Rachel Clarke. She adopted Beans from the Calgary Humane Society in 2017 and has devoted herself to Beans’ treatment program since.
When she first came to live with Clarke, Beans had been taking Fluoxetine (an anti-depressant) and Clonidine to treat anxiety-based behavior. Clarke soon realized these once vital medical solutions were beginning to hinder Beans’ progress outside of the shelter environment. “One of her redeeming features is that she’s a very curious little dog and her curiosity can sometimes overcome the fear. The problem with having her on a medication that dulls her is that then she’s not as curious,” says Clarke. In short, the Clonidine made Beans less afraid to do things, but it also made her less motivated. Clarke took Beans off the Clonidine soon after finalizing her adoption.
A few months later, with help from her veterinarian, Clarke began the delicate process of tapering Beans off her anti-depressants. The results were positive. “I had started to notice on her days off that she was showing a lot more personality: she was more curious, she was more affectionate.” This was a major triumph for both Clarke and Beans. Beans was introduced to Clarke as a dog that wasn’t ever going to enjoy being touched or be people oriented in any way. Today, Beans is completely medication free and shows every sign of being a happy, well-adjusted, and affectionate dog.
Getting Beans to the point where she is today has been a learning process. Clarke says she has had to learn and grow alongside Beans. “You need to put real work in and you need to train your own behavior in order to train the dog. Know what you’re getting into, give yourself the tools to handle it, so then you can give the dog tools to get better.”
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