Helping People Help Their Pets

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Twitter: @DebraHGVM
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This month features Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi, experts and leaders in the field of veterinary behavior with decades of combined experience and now editors (with Steve Dale) of a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior. Dr. Horwitz, past president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), was named 2012 Ceva Veterinarian of the Year and voted the North American Veterinary Conference Small Animal Speaker of the Year, and Dr. Ciribassi, past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior is a popular speaker and author.

A veterinary behaviorist sounds very interesting. What exactly do you do?

It actually IS very interesting. We get to marry together the two things we all love-medicine and behavior and emphasize the interplay between medical health and behavioral health. We help dogs and their families when the dog’s behavior is causing stress for them both and keep pets in their homes. We do so by first being sure there are no medical reasons for the behaviors; take an extensive behavioral history through both a written and oral interview-like process with the family and key people who have a relationship with the dog. This allows us to arrive at a behavioral diagnosis and put a treatment plan in place, which involves behavior modification regimes, environmental changes and perhaps the use of medication. In most cases, the underlying basis for the problem behavior is anxiety. We typically address concerns with separation anxiety, noise and storm sensitivities, aggression and unusual compulsive-type behaviors.

What is the difference between you and a trainer?

This difference is best illustrated with an analogy based on the field of human behavioral health where different providers work together to optimize success. Trainers can best be compared to social workers and psychologists who help manage individual and family issues that are based on communication or environmental deficiencies and not necessarily emotional disorders. Issues with emotional disorders or problems that are damaging to daily life are often referred to psychiatrists who are able to coordinate behavioral management and add in medication when necessary. Veterinary behaviorists are more closely aligned with these professionals as we often deal with inappropriate and perhaps abnormal behavior or responses to situations as opposed to inappropriate but normal behaviors that may be addressed by a trainers.

Can you tell us how you both decided to become veterinary behaviorists?

John – Veterinary school did a great job in preparing us to help our patients in most fields with one glaring exception….behavior problems. And, as a result, I was constantly faced with many behavior issues during appointments that I was becoming increasingly frustrated with and did not know how to approach. In addition, I always wanted the challenge of attaining board certification in a specialty field of veterinary medicine. The decision seemed to be made for me and I have never looked back!

Debbie- I actually entered the field relatively shortly after becoming a veterinarian as I began to interface with pet owners and see what happened between them and their pets. When a pet owner loses their pet for a medical reason although they can be very upset, usually they realize they have done all they can to maintain the quality of life for their pet. But when they lose a pet because they can no longer live with their behavior, it can be very devastating in a much different way-they feel they have failed and I wanted to help prevent that from happening.

This is the first book of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. What made you and your colleagues decide to write a book together?

We feel there is a lack of accurate information available for the pet owning public that explores dog behavior in a scientific, but readable, manner. We wanted more than a book on training but one that actually looks at why dogs do the things they do and give people insight into the cause and treatment of problematic behaviors. We added sections on prevention and choosing a new dog to help people get off on the “right paw” when they begin their lives with their new companions. Finally, we want to set the record straight about erroneous and outdated theories of dog behavior that have unfortunately led to the mistreatment of some dogs.

How did you come up with the title of the book?

We often tell clients that communicating with their dog is almost like learning a foreign language. You have to learn to speak dog and the dog has to learn to speak the language you are speaking. In a sense, you are breaking a language “code” that, once understood, opens up a whole new insight into the relationship you have with your companion.

How is the book organized to be most helpful to dog owners?

Although different veterinary behaviorists write each book chapter, we utilize the same template throughout. We help people get started taking care of the issue addressed in each chapter and end with a summary of the important points. Each chapter includes a “facts not fiction” section, an “is that really true” section to help dispel inaccurate ideas, a “what does it mean” section for definitions of the appropriate terms for that topic and most importantly, “How do we begin?”section. Each chapter ends with two summary sections: “Avoiding pitfalls and staying on track” and “What did we say?”

We believe these sections will allow owners to return to each chapter again and again to help them stay on course. Finally each chapter has some vignettes — examples that help people relate to the topic at hand and hopefully understand it better.

What are the most common problems that the book addresses?

It is now well understood that too many dogs end up in shelters because of their behavior, so we want to address the issues that often cause that break in the human-animal bond. We help families integrate a dog into their home, keep their dog busy and how to deal with common unwanted nuisance behaviors. House soiling is a major reason a dog loses his or her home, so we have an entire chapter addressing this frequent problem. Other chapters deal with behavior problems including separation anxiety, noise sensitivities, compulsive disorders, aggression and finally senior dogs.

What are the kinds of problems the book addresses that dog owners have difficulty asking about?

I think many dog owners are embarrassed to ask about aggression believing that it means they have a “bad” dog. We want to dispel that viewpoint and help people realize that a dog does not “mean to be mean” but rather is using aggression to signal how uncomfortable they are with the situation, how frightened they may be and how trapped they may feel. We also want dog owners to understand anxiety-based problems, such as separation anxiety, noise sensitivities and compulsive disorders, which can cause dogs and their people extreme distress. Finally, as veterinarians we know that pet owners have problems admitting that they cannot do routine tasks for their pet like brushing their teeth, trimming nails and cleaning ears, so we address how to do that as well.

Do each of you have a favorite chapter of the book?

John — I often hear that question asked of musicians and the answer is typically something like, “that would be like asking me which of my children do I like best.” But for me, I really can pick one. It is the chapter on body language and how dogs communicate. This is the foundation of all we do. Without this knowledge we cannot hope to understand why dogs do what they do nor can we make any impact on helping them cope with the complicated world we have brought them into.

Debbie — When the editing of the book was going on, as each chapter came in I thought, this is my favorite, no wait, this is my favorite, and now I just cannot choose. The entire book will enlighten, entertain and most importantly, help people understand and live a full and complete life with their dog. Every author brought so much depth, warmth and information to each chapter I just can’t pick one over another.

Is there anything else about the book you would like to add?

Yes, we want this book not only to help people with their dogs, but for them to realize they are not alone in this journey. There is help out there and the dedicated members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists stand ready to help enhance the bond with your pet and improve your life together.

To order a copy of Decoding Your Dog click here. To learn more about the College of Veterinary Behaviorists, visit or visit us on facebook at dacvb.

The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.


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