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 www.kristinbuller.com.

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 www.kristinbuller.com.

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, visitwww.kristinbuller.com.

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 www.kristinbuller.com.

3 Ways Owners are Impacted by Pets with Behavior Problems

As part of the veterinary social services I provide, I work with pet owners who care for pets with behavior problems. While there is a lot of wonderful professional support available for the animals’ needs, the impact on the pet owners often isn’t acknowledged. Dr. Kelly Ballantyne and I are conducting a research project on this topic, and our initial findings echo what I hear from the pet owners I work with – there are three areas of impact: emotionally, day-to-day life, and on their relationships

1. Emotional impact:

Owners caring for a pet with behavior problems often report feeling a mix of positive and negative emotions. First and foremost, I want to make clear that these owners love their pets. They feel joy, pride, and happiness. However, they also feel a lot of stress, frustration, sadness, worry, hopelessness, and guilt. Often times they feel isolated from others, and feel a lack of understanding and outright judgment from others. They can feel these conflicting positive and negative feelings all at once! It can be an emotional roller coaster caring for a pet with behavior problems.

2. Day to day life:

Owners who are caring for a pet with behavior problems often have to re-adjust their own day-to-day life to meet their pet’s needs. Many owners do this and do this with love, but it can still be a great source of stress for them. Daily care can include management and training, giving the pet medication, and both the mental preparation and practical planning for situations they may encounter with the pet. For example, if a pet has separation anxiety, an owner may need to plan strategically about how to get out of the house in such a way that causes the pet the least amount of distress. This usually involves not being able to go back into the house if they forgot something (so spending their day without their cell phone if they forgot that inside!). Or, if a pet has reactivity issues to unfamiliar people it means deciding what management plan will be put in place when a new house guest comes over in order to reduce the pet’s stress, while also ensuring safety for the visitor.

3. Relationships:

Caring for a pet with behavior problems can have an impact on relationships within the household, as well as between the owner and their family and friends. Household members can be a huge support to each other as they work together caring for a pet, but many times the stress of caring for the pet can also cause stress within these same relationships. Pet owners also share how much they appreciate friends and family who are understanding and supportive. Alternatively, it’s particularly stressful when friends and family don’t understand or even worse, are judgmental of their pets. Owners also experience judgment from strangers on the street which is hurtful.

There are many ways that caring for a pet with a behavioral issue can impact owners. From the stress of day-to-day caregiving to strains on important relationships, pet owners are likely to experience a wide range of emotions that may take a toll. It’s important for people in this situation to know that they are not alone and that there is support available. Stay tuned for future posts about finding help for your pet and caring for yourself! And join us on VetVine for a Roundtable Discussion on April 26th about the Emotional Impact of Caring for a Pet With Separation Anxiety – more details here.

In the comments, tell us: what impact has your “special needs” pet had on your life?

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 www.kristinbuller.com.

What in the world is veterinary social work?

When I tell people that I provide veterinary social work services, I almost always get a confused look, sometimes a disbelieving smirk, and the question “what is veterinary social work?” It’s a fair question, and I’ll do my best to answer it.

The term “veterinary social work” was coined by Dr. Elizabeth Strand (my amazing mentor!) as a way to name the work social workers and mental health professionals have been doing in different ways for years – supporting the human in the human-animal bond. As veterinary social workers, we take the following oath:

“Specializing in veterinary social work, I pledge my service to society by tending to the human needs that arise in the relationship between humans and animals. From a strengths perspective and using evidence-based practice, I will uphold the ethical code of my profession, respect and promote the dignity and worth of all species, and diligently strive to maintain mindful balance in all of my professional endeavors.”

 Basically, we honor the significance of the human-animal bond and provide support to the people who love and care for animals.

I came to veterinary social work because of my interest in supporting people who have pets with behavior problems. My veterinarian behaviorist (and now colleague and friend) Dr. Kelly Ballantyne was the first person to tell me about the field of veterinary social work. (More about my story here). I soon signed up for University of Tennessee’s Certificate in Veterinary Social work course, which I completed in May of 2016.

In veterinary social work training, we study the four pillars of veterinary social work:

  • Compassion Fatigue & Conflict Management
  • Animal Assisted Interventions
  • The Link Between Human & Animal Violence
  • Animal-Related Grief and Bereavement

You can find mental health professionals attending to the human-animal bond in all types of ways. Some veterinary hospitals have vet social workers or counselors on-site to support both staff and pet owners. Some therapists utilize animal assisted interventions in their work with clients. Others work on research about violence against animals & intimate partner violence. Many communities have pet loss support groups facilitated by mental health professionals. Others focus on promoting the mental health wellness of veterinary professionals. And the list goes on.

In my work as a private practice therapist, my passion is in providing the following veterinary social work services:

  • Support groups for pet owners who have pets with “special needs” (specifically behavior problems)
  • Pet loss counseling
  • Presentations about compassion fatigue & self-care for professionals in the veterinary, behavior and training, and animal welfare fields.

What I love most about the field of veterinary social work is how broad reaching it is – anyone who wants to find a way to incorporate their passion about the human-animal bond & their social work skills can find a way to do that within the veterinary social work certificate course and become part of this incredibly supportive vet social work community.

What questions do you have about veterinary social work?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work who lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com. To find a veterinary social worker in your area, call 865-755-8839 or email [email protected].