Study Shows Value of Behavioural Services in Veterinary Medicine

Interesting findings from a study of Irish vets’ and vet nurses’ understanding of behaviour problems.

Study Shows Importance of Behavioural Services in Veterinary Medicine; happy dog at vet
Photo: MAD_Production/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Canine science has grown enormously as a discipline, and we know more about canine behaviour than ever before (even if there’s still a lot to learn). One of the biggest changes has been in approaches to dog training. A study published last year by Emma Shalvey (University College Dublin) et al. looks at how vets and vet nurses in Ireland have kept up with the changes.

It is now recognized that reward-based methods are the best way to train dogs, and dog training methods based on ideas of dominance and balance  are out-dated and influence people to use positive punishment. Research shows there are risks to animal welfare when aversive methods are used.

The results of the study show that both veterinarians and veterinary nurses [vet techs] would welcome continued professional development on behaviour issues. It also shows many opportunities for vets to increase their clinic’s offerings in behaviour and to work together with trainers to whom they refer. As well, the study is one of the first steps towards identifying veterinary behaviour information that might eventually become part of the veterinary curriculum.

The study included a set of 12 vignettes about dog behaviour that reflect issues commonly asked about by clients. Participants were asked to say whether the approach suggested in the vignette was likely or unlikely to resolve the dog’s behaviour issue. The good news is most vets and vet nurses did well in answering the questions and appreciate the need to use reward-based training methods.

The scientists write,
“Overall, the most frequent response of both PVPs [veterinarians] and VNs [veterinary nurses] in each vignette corresponded with our classification of best outcome. This indicates that the majority of veterinary professionals have a good understanding of the training techniques and behavioural theory backed by current literature. However, several vignettes were identified with high levels of disagreement, indicating that there may be lack of knowledge in specific areas, especially surrounding the use of positive punishment-based training and aversive training devices. This could reflect the presence of superficial learning, as there appears to be good understanding of the application of operant conditioning in some areas but not others.”

The specific issues on which a majority made mistakes are worth considering because they reflect misconceptions that many pet owners have too.

Because pilot work showed it is easier to spot the right answer, only 3 of the vignettes gave a response that was likely to resolve the issue, while the remaining 9 suggested ways that were unlikely to be effective and could be bad for the dog’s welfare.

Most of the 217 participants gave the correct answers most of the time. However, there were four vignettes where less than half of the vets gave the correct answer, two of which most vet nurses also answered incorrectly. The approaches in the vignettes that are not likely to work refer to the use of electronic boundary fences, citronella collars, dominance training for an aggressive dog, and getting a second dog when a dog has separation anxiety.

Electronic boundary fences (called invisible radio fences in the paper) have buried sensors that trigger an electric shock to the dog’s collar if the dog passes the marker. Just under half of vets thought this unlikely to work, but around a third thought it would work when a client asked about their German shepherd escaping from the garden, in a context where there had been some sheep worrying in the neighbourhood.

In fact, a scientific review of the literature suggests that all electronic collars, including electronic boundary fences, should be banned because of the risks to animal welfare.  As well, one study found that dogs are reported to escape from electronic boundary fences at twice the rate of physical fences.  Hence, especially with concerns for sheep in the area, a physical fence is a better choice.

A majority of veterinary nurses and just under half of veterinarians said that citronella collars were unlikely to support the best outcome for barking. Citronella collars are sometimes used as positive punishment for barking. The same literature review on electronic collars also recommended that citronella collars should not be used. One of the problems is that dogs can bark for many reasons, and citronella collars do not address the cause of the barking. As well, even if they work in the short term, many dogs will get used to them and continue barking.

The remaining two vignettes were incorrectly answered by both veterinarians and vet nurses. The question about trainers did not use the word dominance, but instead used the kind of language used by dog trainers who take this approach; thus, people needed to be clued in about dog training methods in order to spot the problem. The risk is that it would worsen the dog’s aggression.

And the other vignette referred to common but mistaken advice to get a second dog in the case of a dog with separation anxiety. Research has shown that this typically does not work, and there is a risk of the new dog getting separation anxiety too. Instead, resolving separation anxiety involves very gradually getting the dog used to increasingly long absences, often in conjunction with medication prescribed by a veterinarian.

The study also looked at differences between those who had graduated before 2013 and those since, as there were changes in the curricula in Ireland at that time. Specifically, for 2013 graduates and beyond, the University College Dublin curriculum included coverage of Bradshaw et al’s (2009)  paper on dominance in dogs (see Bradshaw’s Psych Today post on dominance for more info ). This means they will have been taught that dominance is not the way to train a dog.

The scientists write,
“Veterinary behaviour medicine is essential to companion animal welfare. This study has identified potential to further develop behavioural services offered in veterinary practice or via referral and to ensure that dog trainers and behaviourists used for referrals by PVPs [veterinarians] are accredited and belong to organisations with an appropriate code of conduct regarding training methods..”
The fact that most veterinarians and veterinary nurses did well on the questions overall is very good news. Since vets and vet nurses are able to refer their clients to appropriate help for behavioural issues, it is very encouraging to see this research, which highlights the importance of good behavioural advice. It also highlights the benefits of good relationships between veterinarians, vet techs and appropriately qualified dog trainers to help dogs with behaviour issues.

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, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Shalvey, E., McCorry, M., & Hanlon, A. (2019). Exploring the understanding of best practice approaches to common dog behaviour problems by veterinary professionals in Ireland. Irish Veterinary Journal, 72(1), 1.

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