Stopping lethal behaviors: life-saving client-keeping strategies (Proceedings)
Tens of millions of dogs and cats die from behavioral problems each year. The exact amount is unknown and perhaps unknowable, but tens of millions is a pretty good ballpark number. This number exceeds all deaths at veterinary clinics from all causes, by several times. Realistically, if you can keep more of these animals alive, they will need veterinary care. Dead, they neither bring joy to their owners nor generate income for your practice. Discovering easy ways to foster their survival requires that you recognize lethal behaviors and know how to stop them from taking your patient's life.
1. Jumping on people: While not the number one complaint of pet owners, jumping on people is one of the top ten killers of dogs. Sadly, this behavior is not instinctive and is invariably taught by humans – therefore completely avoidable. Ironically, it is the human love of dogs and puppies that teaches those same animals a fatal behavior. There is no more literal and apt description of this process than "killing them with kindness." The scenario for teaching a dog to jump up is easy to create. There are several criteria that will cause this behavior, starting with cuddling a pup to your face. Both dogs and humans use eye-contact and face to face contact as important aspects of social interaction. Understanding how to stop this behavior requires a minimum of knowledge and the realization that failure to inhibit jumping may result in the dog's death.
2. Biting people at home and in public: Biting is a normal behavior. As such, it may be the result of very clear discriminations. A dog may bite at home and be an angel at the clinic and the dog park. i.e. Biting at home or at the clinic may not be correlated. Regardless, interviewing pet owners to discover if the dog displays threatening behavior may help save the animal's life. Marking a dog as "dangerous" in your chart is rarely sufficient to prevent the dog from being destroyed. Having a good stable of local trainers and behaviorists who can stop aggression is a requirement if you wish to help your clients with this common and deadly problem.3. Destroying property: Destruction is something that can invariably be controlled. Dogs who destroy furniture can be taught to stay out of particular rooms or away from specific objects. "Indoor" electronic fencing products can achieve this goal with minimal involvement from the owners. Though the process of using these tools is not rocket science, having an experienced advisor to guide the process may make the difference between success and failure.
4. Running away: Proper confinement in the house and outside the house is a necessity. Some owners imagine that their animal needs to "run free" in order to remain mentally healthy. This is a topic that is well addressed by the family veterinarian but is rarely broached by the dog or cat owners. If your client is interested in ways to confine their pet, be ready to offer knowledgeable advice about standard fencing and electric containment systems.
5. Improper elimination: The single biggest complaint of pet owners is improper elimination. Few people will live with an animal who perpetually pees and poops in the house. As a result, most of these animals are condemned to living outdoors. Isolation away from the family usually leads to destructive behavior or escapes that lead to municipal citations and impoundment. Eventually the dog may be abandoned or surrendered to a shelter. The odds of survival at the shelter are about 8.5 to one, against.
6. Tugging on leash: One of the most common lethal behaviors is pulling and lunging on leash. If a dog cannot be trained to walk in public the dog is confined to home and yard. The boredom associated with house arrest normally leads to indoor destruction, chronic barking, outdoor destruction and escape. Proper leash training insures that the dog can go places and do things with the family. In my experience, the best tool for this job is a head-halter. Several varieties are available on the market. I am familiar with pinch or pronged collars, choke chains and several other "no pull" devices. I have not found them to be broadly acceptable to most pet owners. Anything that looks "cruel" or causes the dog distress while walking most likely will be abandoned after a short while. (Head halters are often shunned because they look like some kind of muzzle.) The advantage of a head halter over other forms of restraint is that they take the dog's eyes and teeth out of line if an attack should occur. It also removes the dog's ability to lunge in a straight line so that the handler stands a good chance of being able to redirect the lunge.
If you look closely at your client records you will find people who appear once or twice for appointments and then simply disappear. Not all of those people can be chalked up to moving or dissatisfaction with your service. Some of them took their animals to the county pound, a rescue group or dumped the dog somewhere. With proper and timely behavioral treatment these animals can become long lived, happy campers who will boost your active client base. Discovering tools and strategies for behaviorally saving your patients is no different than providing for their medical treatment and has exactly the same rewards, all around.