Acceptance, Expectations, and Loss When You Have a Pet with Behavior Problems

Getting a new pet is such an exciting time! We often have a whole bunch of hopes and dreams for the life to come – long walks with a new dog around the neighborhood, a pup who loves our kids, a kitty ready to cuddle up, a new furry family member who will integrate nicely into our lives. Of course, we all have these hopes and dreams But real life isn’t a fantasy. Everyday life with our pets is messier and more complicated.

Having a pet with behavior problems like aggression, reactivity, and/or separation anxiety can really shake up those hopes and dreams. Sometimes they crumble right before our eyes.

Through my work and research with pet owners I’ve found that having a pet with behavior problems involves accepting the pet for who they are in real life, and then adapting our hopes and dreams to what they need from us (and can realistically give to us). And, I would add, also honoring the loss of the dreams we had about our future with this pet.

This process also involves re-choosing whether we can provide our pet with what they need moving forward, now that we understand their needs better. Addressing a behavior problem like aggression or separation anxiety is a whole different ball game than what we might have signed up for initially.

I would encourage us all to reserve judgment when someone decides they can’t take that on, because it really is a huge thing to care for a pet with behavioral special needs (just ask anyone who has lived the experience). And when we can find a home for our pet that can help them in the ways they truly need, it can make all the difference for the pet as well.

The emotional experience of rehoming or euthanasia for behavioral reasons deserves further attention, so we’ll be looking at that in future posts.

For now, let’s follow the story of a pet owner who finds out that their pet has a behavior problem. Imagine that you, as an owner, meet with your veterinary behaviorist or other qualified behavior professional, and learn that your pet is dealing with a behavior problem which is going to require you to adjust your life with this pet.

Here are some tips for how to recalibrate in order to better understand who your pet is, what they may need from you, and how to honor your own feelings in the process:

 1. Acceptance

Understanding our pet’s behavior problem and how to help our pets (which your behavior professional can assist you with) can help us accept our pet for who they really are. Acceptance allows us to re-calibrate and say, “Okay little guy, this is who you are, I get it now.   I’m going to learn how to do best by you to help you feel as safe and secure as possible and we’ll figure this out together.”

2. Expectations

It can help to identify the expectations, hopes, and dreams that you initially had for your pet. Then to talk with your pet professional about which of these dreams you might have to let go of for now, or long term, or which could still be worked towards (maybe with some adaptations). For example, maybe you had dreams of letting your dog run free on the dog beach every day. But maybe that isn’t going to be a possibility. Eventually, if they have one doggy friend that they play well with, they can run free in a private backyard. And that can be your new dream to work towards.

3. Loss

I think loss is the thing that we sometimes forget about when we are thinking about adjusting our expectations and accepting our pet for who they are. It is a loss to give up the dreams of what we thought life would be like with our pet. It isn’t a one time “loss moment” of “I accept my pet, I feel the loss of what I won’t have, moving on.” I’ve heard it described more like waves that can come and go throughout the days, months, years with our pet. The twang when we see a dog that can play with a child and know that our dog can’t do that, and the little bit of sadness we feel if that was one of our initial hopes. The way we sigh when we can go to our friend’s house and their pet can be out to say hello to everyone, where we have to have ours behind closed doors when guests are over. Even the envy we feel when we see another owner and dog walking and they don’t feel the need to cross the street when they see another dog coming. A way of honoring the loss might be something like acknowledging to yourself, “I do wish my pet could do _______” , then allowing yourself to feel what you feel, and then re-grounding yourself in a positive “but even though he/she can’t, I really love ___________ about him/her.”

Living with a pet with behavior problems often means letting go of some dreams and welcoming in new ones. It’s a process. What has helped you to adjust your expectations about having a pet with behavior problems?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

When Your Pet Has a Behavior Problem, Finding Support For Yourself

While finding help for your pet’s behavior issues is often the first step, I think it is equally as important for owners to have support specific to them and the ways caring for their pet is impacting their life. Below are three ideas of what that support could look like.

1. Counseling

Talking with someone about what you are going through can be really helpful. Veterinary social workers or other mental health professionals sensitive to the human-animal bond can be a support for the pet owner navigating caring for a pet with behavior problems. Counseling and support groups can help provide a space for you to process your own feelings about caring for your pet and also find strategies for stress management and self-care.

To find a veterinary social worker in your area, you can contact the University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work program directly by phone at 865-755-8839 or by email at [email protected]

It can be a little difficult to find a mental health professional sensitive to the human-animal bond, but there are many of us out there! One place to start is to look for professionals in your community who provide pet loss support, and talk with them to see if they would also be able to provide caregiver support to those caring with “special needs” pets. The Pet Loss Support Page includes listings by state of counselors. You could also ask your veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, or trainer if they have any recommendations for counselors in your area. Another strategy is to do a search on Psychology Today and look for therapists who focus on grief and loss or stress and caregiver support, and then talk with them to see if they are sensitive to these issues for pet owners.

2. Education & information about dog behavior

Many owners I’ve spoken with have shared that understanding more about their dog has helped them immensely. There are many great books, scientific articles, and online courses to support you in learning more about dog behavior. I was introduced to the world of dog behavior through FetchFind’s Behavior Fundamentals course, which helped me increase my own understanding and knowledge of dog behavior. Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants has this reading list on their website. E’Lise Christensen DVM Diplomate ACVB reccomends the following resources:

3. Support groups & online forums for pet owners

Across the country there are now in-person support groups for pet owners of pets with behavior problems. And there are also several online forums, such as the “Fearful Dogs” Facebook group facilitated by Debbie Jacobs and the “Living with Dogs in Need of Space” course developed by Jessica Dolce. Janet Finley’s “Your End of the Lead” is another online forum that many owners have found helpful. These forums allow for owners to connect (virtually) and offer support to one another.

Many of the owners I’ve spoken with have indicated that connecting with others who “get it” has been a huge support to them. (Especially when there are people in their world who don’t get it and are not supportive in the ways they need). These are often peer-to-peer support groups, and these support groups do not replace professional help.

Where have you found support?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

When Your Pet Has Behavior Problems, Where Do You Find Help?

In an ideal world, the shelter, rescue organization, or breeder your pet came from will have a system of support available to assist you in getting the behavioral help your pet needs and your search will be done before you’ve even had to start! I’ve heard of wonderful collaborations between the animal rescue community and behavior professionals, so do ask if that is an option in your area.

I think it can be helpful to have a reference of the various types of professionals that are out there and the roles they play in providing support for people and their pets. Here are some of the professionals I hear most about from pet owners who have sought help (the ASPCA also has a nice description of the different professionals which you can find here):

Veterinary Behaviorists:

These brilliant folks are veterinarians who have completed additional intensive training and certification in animal behavior. Typically when you consult with a veterinary behaviorist you will receive a diagnosis for your pet and a treatment plan. Veterinarians are the only individuals who can prescribe meds for behavior problems (if needed), and veterinary behaviorists have advanced and specialized training in the use of medications for behavior. This is a professionally regulated field. A veterinary behaviorist may very likely recommend that you also work with a trainer. The role of the trainer is to help you implement the behavior modification recommendations in the treatment plan for your pet. The veterinary behaviorist also collaborates with the pet’s regular veterinarian to ensure that all aspects of the pet’s medical care are tended to. Dr. E’Lise Christensen is VetVine’s veterinary behaviorist, and on her website she has detailed answered to frequently asked questions about veterinary behaviorists. You can find a Veterinary Behaviorist near you on the Veterinary College of Behavior (ACVB) website.


Trainers are amazing. They have dedicated themselves to helping people learn how to communicate with their pets, and their help can be invaluable! Dog training is not a professionally regulated field, so it is wise to do your due diligence in researching a trainer you are going to work with. Learn as much as possible about their professional background and education, any certifications they have earned, and their approach in working with people and their pets.

I often hear from pet owners that they are working with both a veterinary behaviorist and a trainer – as a collaborative team. The Certification of Professional Dog Trainers (CPTD) is good place to start looking for someone who has completed the formal process of becoming certified. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers also provides some guidance on how to choose a trainer, as well as this guide from the American College of Veterinary Behavior.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this position statement recommending training methods to use (and not to use) to address behavior problems.


This is a trickier title. People who call themselves an Applied Animal Behaviorist should have an advanced degree in animal behavior.   Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) and Certified Assosiate Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAAB) have an advanced degree in animal behavior and have completed other course work and experience for certification set by the Animal Behavior Society. CAABs often partner closely with veterinarians and trainers as well as the shelter community to help pet owners have access the best behavioral help available to them. A well-known and well-respected Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) is the wonderful Patricia McConnell, who writes great books and articles about behavior problems and pets. To find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in your area, you can go the directory on the Animal Behavior Society website.

But pet owners have told me that they’ve encountered people calling themselves a “dog behaviorist” (or the like) and who do not have an advanced degree in animal behavior. “Dog behaviorist” is non-protected term. So be mindful that anyone one could call themselves a “behaviorist.” I would encourage you to ask lots of questions about training and education in behavior.

Many trainers are diligent about getting advanced training in behavior, and they might highlight that for you. Again, ask about the training and education related to behavior. For example, if they say they are a “Behavior Consultant” you can ask if that means that they’ve completed the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) training process which you can then verify with IAABC.

For me, the “dream team” of support includes professional support for the pet and for the people all working in collaboration! The next post will talk about where you can find support for yourself.

Where have you found support for your pet?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

Tips on When to Seek Help for Your Pet’s Behavior Problems

When you have a pet with behavior problems, finding help can be key for turning the tables and helping to make everything better. It can also be very daunting to begin searching for the help you need. Many pet owners I’ve spoken with have noted that it was finding the right help for them and their pet that helped them the most, especially when they were in the most intense period of dealing with their pet’s behavior problems.

These tips can help you identify when you need help (and watch for the upcoming post on where to find help). I’m a big fan of the more support, the better!

When should you seek help?

1. As soon as you feel you might need it!

If you’ve gotten a new pet and (of course!) have your hopes and dreams of how that pet will become a part of your day-to-day life, the emergence of a behavior problem (like separation anxiety or aggression) can be a very jarring experience. Pet owners that I speak with often say that the advice they would give to someone else in their situation is to get help right away – as soon as they notice the very beginning of a behavior problem. In doing so, you’ll also be able to get professional feedback about what is going on with your pet and suggested next steps for helping to manage the problem(s).

2. When you are feeling overwhelmed or don’t know what to do:

It is totally normal to feel overwhelmed by a pet’s behavior problem, and it is totally normal to not know what to do. And, unfortunately, it’s also totally normal to feel isolated and lost about how to find help. The great news is that there are professionals in the fields of veterinary behavior & behavior and training who are educated and informed about these issues, and they are available to help us understand what is happening with our pets and advise us on how we can best help them. The help is out there and available!  In this post E’Lise Christensen DVM Diplomate ACVB provides some recommended educational resources.

3. When there is a safety concern (or a concern that there could be a concern!)

Safety first! I’ve heard many stories of owners who have gone through the heartbreaking experience of witnessing their pet bite another animal or a human. It is a horrible thing to go through, and there are waves of emotions that often come after an experience like that. Getting professional help for the pet after a situation like this can help owners better understand and deal with the problem, and it is also supportive to both the pet and all of the affected people affected. I’d also suggest making sure you have emotional support for yourself as well! I’ve also spoken with owners who have been worried or expressed concerned that there could be a situation where there might be a bite incident, and have sought professional help as a preventative strategy.

4. When you just love geeking out about animal behavior

Many owners have told me that having a pet with a behavior problem led them to learn more about animal behavior than they ever would have with a normal” pet. Ask many people involved in the behavior and training field why they chose that work – it was often experiencing behavior problems with their own pet that led them to want to learn more! And there are some great online courses, books, and info about the science of animal behavior out there for those who want to dive into that knowledge base!

Here are some resources on where to find help.

What prompted you to reach out for help?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin,

Caring For Yourself While Caring For Your “Special Needs” Pet

Caring for a pet with “special needs” can be really stressful. Last post we talked more about the different ways having a pet with behavioral special needs can impact an owner emotionally, in their day to day life, and in their relationships.

Here are a few ideas of what you can do to take care of yourself while caring for your pet with special needs:

1. Find ways to express your feelings

Whether you are feeling stressed out, exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, sad, wherever you are at – find a way to let it out so it doesn’t get bottled up inside. Ideally you want to find a “healthy” way to express it – a way that both gives voice and relief to the feeling while also not causing someone else (or yourself!) more distress. For example, if you feel like you just need to scream for a second, maybe do that in a wide open field or in a room with a closed door by yourself, rather than at your partner or your pet! The sky’s the limit on strategies – journaling, talking to a good friend, going for a long walk, therapy, crying, laughing – find what works for you.

2. Tend to your needs

Being a caregiver can often mean putting the needs of others (including your pet’s) above your own. But like they tell us during the airplane safety demos, you’ve got to make sure you have your oxygen mask on before you’ll be able to help someone else. So find ways to identify what your needs are (and start with the basics – food, sleep, exercise!) and how you can make sure you are taking care of yourself. I’ve found with caregiving, having an option of some kind of respite is often a key part of sustaining yourself in that caregiving role. Examples of this might be hiring a professional pet sitter, or asking your partner to stay at home with your pet while you have an afternoon away.

3. Develop strategies that help to manage (or reduce!) the day to day stress

Find the caregiving routines that work for you and your pet!  The fewer decisions you have to make every time a situation arises, the more that can help you manage your stress.  For example, if you have a dog that is reactive on leash and you decide that it is easiest to stay away from other dogs, you may decide to cross the street every time you see another dog.  Now there is no pressure on yourself to decide each time how close you should get, what you want to do – just stick with your plan.  Or you find that your picky-eater dog likes taking her morning pills in smelly liverwurst more than the big bag of pill pockets you just bought – so just do liverwurst every time (until, of course, her precious self decides that only goat cheese will do! I might be speaking from experience here…).  Use a strategy for as long as it works, and then update as you need to.

4. Find support in others

We all know that there are people who will not understand the level of care we are willing to give our pets and the extent to of which we are adjusting our lives for them. Find folks who do get it. There are more of them than you might think! Find people who can both support you in your choices and will also remind you to take care of yourself at the same time you are caring for your pet.  At VetVine we are running a series about The Emotional Impact of a Pet’s Behavior Problem on the Caregiver (our last roundtable call on Wed, April 26th, we talked about separation anxiety, details here!). There are also support groups for pet owners, here is a link to more info about ongoing groups.  And Jessica Dolce of DINOS has developed a wonderful online resource “Living With DINOS” to connect with others and find support.

\What strategies have you found to be helpful in caring for yourself while caring for your “special needs” pet?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit