Discussion of Dogs’ Behavioural Problems at the Vet

Behavioural issues are often not mentioned at the vet, even when they are a problem.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Surprisingly little is known about where people seek advice when their dog has a behavioural problem such as aggression, soiling in the house, or fear of fireworks. One place to try might be the vet, but do veterinarians talk to their clients about behavioural problems during the annual consultation for vaccinations?

A golden retriever has its temperature taken by a female vet

A study published in the Veterinary Record by Roshier and McBride recorded vet consultations and transcribed the conversations for analysis. The study was conducted at a vet’s in Nottingham where six veterinarians took part. The receptionists identified people who met the criteria for the study, and directed them to the researcher who was waiting in the waiting room. Of twenty-one people who were asked to take part, seventeen agreed. After the consultation, participants completed a questionnaire about themselves, their dog, and their relationship with their vet.

The consultations were with dogs aged from one to three-and-a-half years who were attending for their annual vaccinations. The time ranged from five to fifteen minutes, with an average of nine minutes per consultation. The researchers identified five main themes to the consultations. One of these was to do with managing the interaction, such as greetings and so on. The medical, husbandry and behaviour themes came up in all consultations, and cost was only mentioned in some of them, perhaps because the costs of the vaccination schedule were already known.

Vets led the consultations in general, but vets and their clients were equally likely to mention behaviour. The questionnaire, completed by clients after the consultation, identified a total of fifty-eight behaviour concerns, of which only ten were discussed in the consultation – the others were not mentioned at all, even though some were rated as ‘a bit of a problem’ or ‘a big problem’. 

It seems that vets sometimes missed opportunities to bring up behavioural topics, and that owners do not necessarily recognize potential behavioural problems in their dogs. Roshier and McBride give the example of an owner who described their dog as calm during the consultation, but problematic at home. However, the vet’s notes on the consultation described the dog as being like ‘a coiled spring ready to go.’ This shows a mismatch between the owner’s and vet’s opinion of the dog, and a missed opportunity to enquire whether the owner needed behavioural advice or support for the dog at home. There were also cases where clients mentioned a behavioural problem but it wasn’t followed up by the vet.

Roshier and McBride discuss two barriers for clients mentioning behavioural problems; a psychological barrier, in which it is embarrassing to mention the problem, and an interactional one, in which people don’t wish to disrupt the flow of conversation. This suggests that vets could make a point of asking about behavioural issues, to give clients an opportunity to mention them. 

It is not surprising that owners were not always aware of problems. For example, a recent paper on fear of loud noises by Blackwell et al found that many owners did not recognize signs of fear in their dogs. This is another reason for vets to discuss behavioural issues, as their training helps them identify potential problems.

Interestingly, the client questionnaires showed that some people thought it wasn’t appropriate to discuss behavioural issues with their vet. When asked who they would ask about a behavioural problem, the most common answer was ‘other’, as in no-one at the veterinary practice. This is interesting, as a study by Meghan Herron of owners seeking help for canine behaviour issues gave themselves (i.e. the owner) as one of the most common sources of ideas for specific interventions, along with dog trainers, rather than vets.

The questionnaire showed that some clients prefer to discuss some kinds of problems with e.g. the receptionist or veterinary nurse, showing that all members of the veterinary team are important. Clients were satisfied with their consultation and gave it excellent ratings.

This is a small-scale study, but a detailed one. It shows that further research is needed to find out where people seek help for behavioural problems. This would help science-based trainers, behaviourists and dog welfare organizations know how to target advice about canine behavioural problems.

Since animal behaviourists often take referrals from vets (or require them), this study also suggests they might be able to develop better ways of working together; if existing behavioural problems aren't discussed, that's a missed referral from the behaviourists' perspective, and a missed chance to solve a problem.

Further research could investigate when people seek advice for behavioural problems, as earlier advice-seeking might resolve problems while they are still 'a bit of a problem' and before they become 'a big problem'.

For a fearful dog, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Where do you go for advice on dog behaviour problems?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Roshier, A. L., & McBride, E. A. (2013). Canine behaviour problems: discussions between veterinarians and dog owners during annual booster consultations. Veterinary Record, 172(9), 235-235.

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