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Are Veterinary Behaviorists Qualified to Work with Dogs?

May 27, 2017Category : Articles
Are Veterinary Behaviorists Qualified to Work with Dogs?

Last week, a woman came for a consultation for her Schutzhund 3 working line GSD. She had bought the dog from Germany, was unequipped to handle him, and –no surprise—the dog had started lunging, barking, and snapping at people.

The owners came to see me because they had gone to a veterinary behaviorist and, again no surprise—what she recommended wasn’t working.

As far as I can tell, a lot of these people don’t have any experience actually working with dogs or even understand canine behavior outside a book– especially those who are drunk on positive Kool-Aid.  They can’t even diagnose the simplest things correctly.

What they do—at least what THIS one does—is charge several hundred dollars to get a history from the owner and spend a few minutes observing the dog. Then they hand the owner a form letter diagnosis with recommendations.

I have stacks of these form letters from people who end up coming to Nitro K9. They’re pretty much all the same. So, when I saw the report, I knew pretty much what to expect.

  • Fear-based, protective, and territorial aggression and generalized anxiety.
  • Cocktail of drugs: Fluoxetine (Prozac), Trazadone, and Clonidine.
  • Muzzle training and crating. Presumably a SchH3 dog would be muzzled-trained already, but okay.
  • Feel-good stuff for the human: Adaptil spray, a doggy music CD, a weighted backpack for walks, and puzzle toys to feed the dog from to “provide him with mental stimulation and an appropriate outlet.”
  • Complete solitary confinement kit: Happy Hoodie, Mutt Muffs, and a ThunderCap. Not just one—all three.
  • A garbled mess of “positivity”: The usual stuff—like never say no to the dog, teach the dog to “look at me” with food, and detailed, ineffective counter conditioning methods.

This is bad enough when it comes to Bob’s reactive doodle down the street. (They’re not helping pet dogs much either.) The problem is we’re talking about a working line GSD here—and one that has been trained to bite. This behaviorist is creating a liability, not solving problems. And the worst thing is that she doesn’t even know it.

Here’s what she didn’t do:

  • Consider the role of breed and lines. Even with non-working lines, barking, lunging, and snapping are the behaviors we resolve in 9/10 of the GSD we see. This is very, very common. This dog most likely has some defensive or fear-based tendencies to start with. If you don’t understand why breed matters or the difference between lines, you have no business working with dogs. Period. This is why so many malinois are in rescue, why most GSD are basket cases. Positive people do not know how to raise these dogs.
  • Recognize that she had no experience with working dogs. Protection, protection sport, police dogs all have higher drives that can make them quite neurotic if not managed and channeled properly. This is someone who is telling people to never say no to a dog that is trained to attack. At the very least, consult with a trainer/handler who has experience with these dogs. This is not a sign of weakness; this is due diligence.
  • Assess the dog’s obedience. SchH3 requires a high level of training that includes obedience. She did not run the dog through what he knows, or explore how to use this obedience to resolve the issues. Instead, she attempted to address the issues—barking, lunging, snapping—in isolation. If the behaviorist knew he was trained to bite, why would she not use foundational obedience?
  • Recommend that the owners learn the German commands. Here’s a dog that was shipped to new owners in a foreign country, where no one speaks the language he was taught. Why not handle the dog in the way the dog was trained, using correct vocal commands in the correct language, and with the correct leashwork. This is common sense.
  • Overcome ideology for the sake of the dog. The force-free garbage runs strong with most veterinary behaviorists, with the usual positive language about “physical punishment” and “teaching the dog what to do instead.” Yet here’s a dog that is trained to a high level (not that she would know), almost certainly using a prong collar. Again—it comes back to someone treating a dog, without any knowledge of what she is doing.

When I saw the dog, he was depressed and lethargic, and frankly I think he was probably reacting because he didn’t understand what was expected of him, what was okay and not okay, etc. The owners were never instructed on how to handle him. These are common sense things that anyone with the slightest experience with dogs—much less a working dog—would recognize.

He was also so doped up he was practically cross-eyed. I put a prong on him, and ran him through the obedience. If you want to know the truth, I think the owners may have been scammed—but it’s hard to tell because he was pumped so full of meds. I will say that there’s no way this dog passed the courage test. However, he would train up beautifully.

I ended up giving the woman a couple other names in case she wanted a second opinion. Anyone with any working dog experience will tell her the same things I did.  He was a nice dog. I’d like to see him off all the drugs and handled appropriately.

And I would really like to see fewer people going to veterinary behaviorists, even those who don’t have working line dogs.

3 thoughts on “Are Veterinary Behaviorists Qualified to Work with Dogs?
  • Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB

    I am not sure this will be published for discussion, but I did feel compelled to respond after reading your blog post.

    I am a board certified veterinary behaviorist. Like you, I have worked with dogs of many breeds and backgrounds. I grew up handling and training Doberman Pinschers and now pit bulls.

    I think you make some valid points in your blog. My disappointment stems from your blanket condemnation of an approach that differs from your own. Admittedly, most veterinary behaviorists have little personal experience in the protection dog world. However, most of us have extensive experience handling dogs in a variety of other contexts and disciplines. Just in the course of our veterinary work, we routinely handle dogs that want to bite us or otherwise injure us. We are involved in a wide variety of dog sports at different levels. We train dogs (and other animals) to do behaviors that no protection dog trainer ever has — or has ever thought could even be done. We are backed by the science of animal behavior, which is a large and growing field. Experience is important (critical even), but science is what moves us forward to a more evolved and educated society. We don’t use positive reinforcement techniques because we are bleeding heart wimps. We use them because the science actually tells us they are superior in most, if not all, situations.

    For each dog that you feel has been ruined by a vet behaviorist, I have an equal number dogs that have been ruined by protection trainers. There is a long list of clients in my caseload that have been instructed to implement techniques that have resulted in them being bitten and injured by their own dogs. These bites often were not caused by faulting implementation of the technique but rather by the technique itself.

    So I suggest that you can help more owners and dogs if you realize that there is more than one pathway to helping pets. Every dog, family and situation is different and plans should be tailored to each of these. There is more to be gained by having productive discussions with other professionals in your field — and even expanding your sphere of influence to include those that might have approaches a little different from your own.

    Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB

    • Nitro K-9


      Thank you for the nice response. I was speaking about one situation that sadly I see happening a lot. So it was more about that than anything else. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to medicate a dog for behaving the way they were bred to be. At least in my view.

  • Steve Robinson

    My experience has been pretty much the same as yours. Most vet behaviorists are ill-equipped to deal with working dogs. They’re especially inept at dealing with aggression because they don’t really understand it, and don’t work with it on a regular basis. I doubt few of them would deal with an aggressive dog on a hands-on basis.

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