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Treating Behavior Problems in Dogs

ASPCA logoOver the last two decades, the role of the domestic dog has undergone significant change. Dogs who used to live in a house with family members around all day, every day-and who had a big backyard in which to play and chase rabbits-may find themselves in an empty house 8 to 10 hours a day and being taken on a leash to a place to eliminate. Some dogs have a difficult time adjusting to this lifestyle, and many behavior problems occur because dogs are on their own and entertaining themselves inside the house. Other problems arise because dogs are more intimate members of the family than they were before and share closer quarters with their human families. Still other problems occur because of the difficulty dogs have adapting their natural behavior’s to the limited environment of the modern urban home.

Behavior problems arising from the limitations imposed by the modern urban environment can be complex and difficult to treat. Anxiety is often a factor. In such situations, medication can help with treatment success.

Is Medication Necessary?

Some pet parents don’t want to give their dog behavioral medication. They’re not comfortable treating behavior issues with drugs and would rather resolve the problem through training and behavior modification. This reaction is understandable. However, some problems can be resolved more quickly and with less distress (for the dog and the pet parent) if behavior medication is added to the treatment plan.

In an ideal world, the most effective approach to treating a behavior problem is behavior change training. Behavior modification treatments designed by knowledgeable, qualified professionals treat the problem behavior by either changing the dog’s perception of a situation or a thing, by changing the consequence of the dog’s behavior, by giving the dog an acceptable behavior to do in place of the problem behavior, or by a combination of these things. (Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for help choosing and locating a qualified expert in your area.)

However, with many problem behaviors related to fear, medication is necessary to reduce the dog’s fear to a level that allows treatment to begin. Please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning for information about these effective treatments that are commonly used for fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

Can Medication Be Used Instead of Behavior Modification?

Behavioral medication alone isn’t usually effective for resolving a behavior problem. For the dog, medication serves to make a situation tolerable but not necessarily acceptable. Behavior modification can then be used to make the situation acceptable. For instance, if a dog is afraid of thunder storms, medication can ease the dog’s fear enough that he can tolerate the storm and undergo the counterconditioning necessary to treat his fear. But it’s the counterconditioning that helps him overcome his fear. In addition, many dogs can develop behavior habits because of a problem that requires medication. The medication can help the core problem, but behavior modification is still necessary to treat the accompanying behavior habits.

WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist

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