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ACUTE MANAGEMENT OF PROBLEM BEHAVIOR
Management is critical for any behavioral problem. It serves to provide safety and/or
stops the escalation of the behavior while you work on a behavioral modification
Safety: Often there is potential for injury. Aggressive pets may harm targets via
biting/scratching. In cases of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders, the pet may
inflict injury upon itself. Owners must engage in steps to protect the safety of others
and the pet. Proper containment is indicated at all times. The level of containment
will vary between cases but minimally should include secure property fencing or
the pet being leashed when not enclosed in home property.
Interrupting the escalation of the problem behavior: When the pet engages in
the undesirable behavior, there is usually pay-off/reinforcement for the pet. When
a dog barks aggressively at a person passing by the house, their retreat rewards
the aggressive display. When a dog urinates on the rug, the immediate relief of an
empty bladder makes the pet more comfortable. The following steps will interrupt
the escalation of the problem behavior:
■ Identify and avoid triggers for undesirable behavior. Examples follow:
Interdog aggression: Avoid high-density dog areas/times on walks; if you do
encounter other dogs, create space between your dog and the other dog.
Owner-directed aggression: Avoid triggers, don’t disturb when resting, don’t
allow dog on bed if dog is aggressive when disturbed in bed; feed dog without
disturbances for food aggression, etc.
Aggression to visitors to home: Place dog in another area before allowing visitors
Dog with separation anxiety: Avoid leaving alone in home for periods that evoke
■ Don’t respond to undesirable behavior with interactive aggression/punishment:
Punitive responses often escalate the problem. An animal in an aggressive state
is highly aroused and highly reactive. Pets with aggression or other problem
behaviors may have underlying anxiety. Aggressive responses will likely aggravate
the condition and may result in injury.
■ Don’t respond to undesirable behavior with comforting: While trying to reduce
anxiety/distress, comforting from the dog’s perspective is very similar to praise.
The dog may misinterpret this interaction and think you actually like the undesirable
■ Respond in a calm, controlled fashion to undesirable behavior: If you find something
after the fact (elimination/destruction), there is no helpful response. Clean
it up and try to avoid the trigger circumstance that caused it in the future. If
the pet is highly aroused and actively engaged in the undesirable behavior, try
to remove the pet from the situation or remove the trigger for the behavior. Remain
calm, give direction to the pet for an alternative behavior, such as obedience
commands, and recognize that this is a damage-control situation; you are trying
to prevent this episode from making things worse. Since the pet is highly
aroused/reactive/upset, these are not good training opportunities. If the pet is too
aroused to follow a command, try “changing the subject” by offering another
activity the pet may want such as a ride in the car. This activity is used to divert
the pet in a critical situation only; repeated use could inadvertently reinforce the
Authors Drs. Horwitz and Neilson, Canine and Feline Behavior
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