Loving a Pet with Behavior Problems

A special interest of mine within veterinary social work is supporting pet owners of pets with behavior problems.  Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, of Insight Animal Behavior Services, and I published our research the impact on owners of pets with behavior problems. You can download the full article for free here:  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787820300356?via%3Dihub

Understanding animal behavior:

Many owners have shared that one of the most helpful things for them has been having a better understanding of their pet’s behavior and what their pet is communicating through their behavior. Below are some resources on animal emotions and behavior, learning how to observe and understand your pet, and on human and animal communication.

Dr. Sophia Yin’s website and books

“Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” by Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson

“Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones” by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, edited by Debra F. Horowitz DVM, DACVB and John Ciribassi DVM, DACVB with Steve Dale.

Julie Hecht’s blog, Dog Spies

“Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” by Alexandra Horowitz

“For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend” by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. 

Finding help for your pet

Navigating how to find professional help for your pet can be daunting and confusing. Below are some resources to clarify what different qualifications mean in the veterinary, behavior, and training fields; what different training terms mean, and questions you may want to think about asking of a pet professional you are considering working with.

Explanation of dog training terms

Questions to ask when interviewing a potential trainer

Information on Veterinary Behaviorists

Information on Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists

Living with a pet with behavior problems:

It is really stressful to love and live with a pet with behavior problems.  Connecting with others who understand what it is like to live with a fearful or reactive pet can be a great source of support to owners. Below are some websites and online supports that owners have shared as being helpful to them.

Living with DINOS (Dogs in Need of Space) online class: https://jessicadolce.com/living-with-dinos-course/

Support groups: https://dogsinneedofspace.com/support-groups/

The Muzzle Up Project

Falling Short: Live and Love with an Imperfect Dog by Jeannine Moga

Veterinary Social Work Corner posts on VetVine

In order to address a pet’s behavior problem, it often requires that we as owners also change our behavior in various ways.  Many owners have shared how they struggle with how their own behavior or reactions to their pet may influence their pet’s behavior problems. For example, a common reaction for those of us with dog with leash reactivity is that we actually become tense when we see our dog’s “trigger” coming towards us on a walk! Understanding what’s happening on “our end of the leash” can help us as owners have more tools of what we can do to be aware of and change our own behavior. Below are some resources that owners have found helpful.

“The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.

Janet Finlay facilitates “Your End of the Lead”, an online course supporting owners of reactive dogs.

Saying goodbye

Sometimes what a pet needs is beyond what even the most loving and caring owner is able to give.  Coming to terms with the reality that what your pet needs is not what you and your family can provide is a painful and difficult struggle and not a decision that any owner comes to lightly.  Many owners have tried everything that they are able to do to help decrease their pet’s distress.  When owners come to this heartbreaking decision to say goodbye, it can be difficult to find resources and supports about what to do next.  If you are considering relinquishing, re-homing or euthanasia, speak with the pet professionals you work with and seek support.  Below are some stories and information other pet owners have found helpful.

Falling Short: Lessons in Letting Go

Making the Decision to Euthanize Our Problem Behavior Dog

Euthanizing Aggressive Dogs

Behavioral Euthanasia Information Sheet

“When is it time to put down a dog who is aggressive towards people?” by Patricia McConnell

Grief and loss 

The grief and loss of a pet with a special needs is often a combination of intense sadness, immense guilt, and also a feeling of relief. Many owners often report feeling guilty about the feeling of relief.  It is a completely normal reaction, when you have been taking care of a pet that has needed so much from you, to feel a sense of relief when those responsibilities are no longer on your shoulders.  Owners sometimes feel guilty that they should have done more for their pet.  Dr. Patricia McConnell wrote about the normal-ness of feeling guilt when losing a pet. It is important to remember all that you did do and how much you did care about your pet, and that your decision came from that place.  Allow yourself the space to grieve in the way that honors your relationship with your pet.

If you are thinking of attending a pet loss support group, you might want to speak with the facilitator first to ensure that the group will understand and be supportive of your loss as not everyone understands the complexities of losing a pet with a special needs problem.

Below is a story reflecting on the grief and loss of their pet with behavior problems.

Falling Short: Reckoning with Loss and Imperfection