Undesirable pet BEHAVIOUR: Training or Mental Health


Training or mental health - who cares?

It is important to establish whether your pet’s undesirable behaviours are training problems or due to an underlying mental health issue.  This is because how we address training problems vs mental health issues is completely different.  Determining the difference means that you can seek the appropriate help for your pet, whether that be a veterinary behaviourist, positive reinforcement trainer or obedience club.

Training and obedience is not the answer to mental health problems.  In most instances, trying to fix your pets mental health issue with training, will be unsuccessful, and delay the appropriate management and treatment plan. 

What do we mean by training problem(s) in our pets?

Training problems are generally normal behaviours exhibited by your pet that are perceived to be socially unacceptable or a nuisance to either the owner or the community.

Example of training problems include:
+  chewing
+  barking
+  digging
+  nipping
+  jumping up on people
+  pulling on the lead
+  jumping up onto the kitchen bench (cats)
+  scratching the furniture (cats)

These behaviours are “natural” behaviours for your pet to exhibit.  Owners attempt to teach alternative behaviours that are more desirable, such as chewing their toy and not the owner’s shoes, walking on a loose lead or not nipping during play.

Most pets that exhibit these nuisance behaviours have inadvertently been reinforced for doing so, often with attention.  Essentially the behaviour works for the pet, that is; exhibiting the behaviour is pleasurable for them (internally rewarding) and so will continue to do these behaviours.  When owners rely on punishment in an attempt to stop these nuisance behaviours, they fail to teach the pet what to do instead.  Appropriate management, redirection, removal of reinforcement and positive reinforcement methods are the best ways to address training problems.

What do we even mean by behaviour problem(s) in our pets?

For our pets, a behaviour problem can be defined as a disorder, dysfunction, and or
disturbance of normal of every day functioning.  

That is, the behaviours exhibited by your pet negatively affect how the animal interacts with other pets or people, and or its environment.  Behaviour problems impact their every-day existence and their quality of life.  

Examples of behaviour problems in our pets can include (but are not limited to):
+  Anxiety Disorders, eg. generalised anxiety, situational anxieties
+  Separation Anxiety
+  Phobias, including noise and storm phobias
+  Fearful behaviours
+  Aggression problems
+  Inappropriate toileting
+  Obsessive compulsive disorders
+  Cognitive dysfunction syndrome etc.  

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The take home message:

  • It is important to distinguish between a training issue and a behaviour problem (mental health)
  • Mental Health Issues ARE NOT obedience or training issues
  • Mental Health Disorders in our pets require a proper diagnosis, management and treatment plan with the help of an experienced professional (ie. veterinary behaviourist +/- positive reinforcement trainer).
  • Early intervention and treatment help to improve the outcome for you and your pet.