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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Dogs

By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Research Associate, Psychiatry Department, Center for Neurobiology & Behavior, University of Pennsylvania

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Many “health” problems faced by pet dogs are associated with behavior problems or unmet expectations about the pet’s behavior. Your veterinarian will take a behavioral history before making any diagnosis. A behavioral history generally includes the following: 1) the sex, breed, and age of the dog; 2) the age at onset of the condition; 3) the duration of the condition; 4) a description of the actual behavior; 5) the frequency of the problem behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly); 6) the duration of a typical episode (seconds, minutes, hours); 7) any change in pattern, frequency, intensity, and duration of episodes; 8) any corrective measures tried and the response; 9) any activities that stopped the behavior (for example, the dog falls asleep); 10) the 24-hour schedule of the dog and owner, as well as any day-to-day changes; 11) the dog’s family history (in other words, are there signs of similar problems in the dog’s parents or littermates?); 12) anything else that the owner thinks is relevant.

Modern veterinary care includes routine screening questions about specific behavior complaints—such as inappropriate or undesirable chewing, growling, or odd behavior—in addition to routine questions that alert your veterinarian to potential medical problems. This routine screening helps establish what is normal for your dog.

Because behavioral diagnoses cannot be made on the basis of a one-time event, pet owners can complete a questionnaire at each visit to clarify the pattern of the dog’s behavior. Your veterinarian can then identify whether the signs (barking, growling, lunging) create a pattern that meets specific diagnostic criteria such as fear aggression or protective aggression (see Behavior Problems in Dogs : Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression). Both you and your veterinarian must use the same definitions for the same nonspecific signs. You both must also accurately recognize and describe behaviors that are of concern.

Video of your dog’s behavior can help ensure that your veterinarian makes an accurate diagnosis. The questionnaire relies on your description and, because of this, is more subjective. However, when combined with video, your veterinarian can use questionnaires to diagnose the behavior problem. When you recognize the behaviors leading to or associated with the problematic ones, you can avoid or prevent the situation that leads up to the problem. By viewing the problematic behavior on video, your veterinarian can work with you to help treat the condition.

Defining the Problem

The following is a brief glossary of terms that are commonly used when discussing behavior.

An abnormal behavior is one that is dysfunctional and unusual.

Aggression in animals is everything related to a threat or attack. There are various kinds of aggressive behavior in animals, such as territorial defense, predatory aggression, and inter-male aggression (see Behavior Problems in Dogs : Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression). Examples of aggressive acts include biting, growling, and scratching.

Anxiety is the anticipation of danger accompanied by signs of tension (vigilance, increased movement, and tense muscles). The focus of anxiety can be internal or external.

A dog in conflict has tendencies to perform more than one type of activity at once. For example, a dog may want to approach a person to get a treat, but may also be afraid of the person and unwilling to come too close. The motivation for the conflict, except for extreme instances associated with survival functions (for example, eating), is very hard to identify in animals.

Displacement activity is the resolution of a conflict by performing a seemingly unrelated activity. When a dog is in conflict between sex and aggression or between aggression and fear, it will often perform an apparently irrelevant activity. Examples of these irrelevant activities are grooming, feeding, scratching, and sleeping.

Dominance refers to competition over a limited resource (for example, a treat, a favorite toy, or a comfortable resting place). A higher-ranking animal can displace a lower-ranking one from the resource. Rank or hierarchy is usually defined by an ability to control the resource. A dominant animal is not the one engaged in the most fighting. Most high-ranking animals can be identified by the submissive behavior exhibited toward them by others in their group.

Fear is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, individual, or social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether a fear is abnormal depends on the context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being burned by it is normal. However, if the house were not on fire, such a fear would be irrational. If this fear was constant or recurrent, it would probably be considered an abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears usually vary in intensity. The intensity increases as the real or imagined nearness of the object that causes the fear increases.

Frustration arises when a dog is unable to complete a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles. This term, like dominance, is overused and usually undefined, which means it often is not very helpful when diagnosing a behavior problem.

Most fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobias, though, are profound and quickly developed fearful reactions that do not diminish either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time. A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, abnormal reactions resulting in panic. Phobias develop quickly, with little change between episodes. Fear may develop more gradually and, within an episode of fearful behavior, there may be more variation in intensity than would be seen in a phobic reaction. Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is enough to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure, such as the use of a shock collar on a dog, phobias can remain at or exceed their former high level for years. Phobic situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress. There also appears to be a genetic or hereditary basis for these responses in some canine breeds.

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitious, relatively unvaried actions that have no obvious purpose or function. They are usually derived from normal behavior, such as grooming, eating, or walking. These behaviors are abnormal because they interfere with the normal functioning of the animal.

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