ACUTE MANAGEMENT OF PROBLEM BEHAVIOUR – psychological first aid

Acute management refers to the ‘emergency first aid’ or damage control – steps which can be taken to manage a serious behaviour issue. This is critical for any behavioural problem, but is especially relevant in cases of aggression or extreme anxiety. It serves to ensure safety and/or stop the escalation of the behaviour – to gain some time until a professional behaviourist helps you work on a behavioural modification program.

Safety: There is potential for injury since aggressive pets can cause severe harm to their targets through bites. In cases of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders, the pet can inadvertently inflict serious injury upon itself. Owners must engage in steps to protect the safety of others and the pet. In all cases, psychological injury is prevalent, so the problem behaviour must be prevented or minimised wherever possible. Proper containment is advised at all times, and will vary between cases, but minimally should include secure property fencing and the pet being leashed when not enclosed in the home property.

How problem behaviour escalates: When a pet engages in undesirable behaviour, there is usually pay-off (reinforcement) for the pet. For example, when a dog urinates on the rug, the immediate relief of an empty bladder makes the pet more comfortable, which reinforces the inappropriate behaviour of urinating inside. When a dog barks aggressively at a person passing by the dog’s territory, such as the owner’s car or house, the stranger’s ‘retreat’ rewards, and therefore reinforces, the aggressive display. In other words, the dog thinks that the stranger has retreated because it barked aggressively at the ‘threat’, so it learns to keep behaving in this undesirable way, to remove future threats.
Interrupting the escalation of the problem behaviour: It is imperative to reduce the level and frequency of behavioural problems, because the more often a pet engages in undesirable behaviour, and the higher the level of intensity of that behaviour, the worse the problem becomes, and the harder it will be to resolve. The ‘damage control’ steps listed in the following examples can help to interrupt the escalation of problem behaviour, to calm a situation and provide a level of safety, while professional advice is sought:

■ Identify and avoid triggers for undesirable behaviour

Interdog aggression: Avoid high-density dog areas/times on walks and never allow an aggressive dog off the leash in a public place. If you do encounter other dogs, create as much space as possible between your dog and the other dog – whatever distance is necessary to prevent any form of the aggression from occurring. This could be several metres or it could be one hundred metres, if this is what it takes to prevent your dog from becoming aroused or anxious by the presence of another dog in its sight.

Owner-directed aggression: Avoid all known triggers: in the case of aggression towards children, never leave the pet unattended in the vicinity of children; don’t disturb the dog when resting, don’t allow the dog on the bed if it is aggressive when disturbed; feed the food aggressive dog without disturbances; in the possessive-aggressive dog, do not remove its precious resources (bowl/bone/toys) while the dog is nearby etc.

Aggression towards visitors: Place the dog in another room/area before allowing visitors into the house. Only let the dog out when the visitors have been settled in and keep the dog on a leash if there is any risk of aggression. If there is certain risk of anxiety or aggression, keep the pet away for the duration of the visit.

Dogs with separation anxiety: Avoid leaving the dog alone for periods that evoke distress.

Dogs barking as an anxiety response: Do not castigate the dog to quieten it, as this will exacerbate the level of anxiety the dog is experiencing. Remove the pet to a quiet, isolated place or remove the trigger (the cause of the anxiety) from the vicinity of the dog.

NOTE: These damage control actions are only intended to be temporary safety and stress/aggression minimisation measures – they are NOT long term solutions. All these situations require the intervention of a qualified and experienced behaviourist to set up a behaviour modification program, to address the underlying cause of the anxiety/aggression, and help owners learn how to shape the pets behaviour, to prevent repetition and escalation of the undesirable behaviour.

Don’t respond to undesirable behaviour with interactive aggression

Punitive responses (castigation, punishment) will escalate these problems. Pets with aggression or other problem behaviours usually have underlying anxiety. An animal in an aggressive state is highly aroused and highly reactive. Unhelpful emotional responses such as shouting, screaming and crying are all extremely inappropriate reactions, and will only serve to heighten the pet’s anxious/aroused state. Disciplinary responses are likely to be interpreted by the dog as aggressive and will aggravate the condition, possibly resulting in injury. Remain neutral, calm and confident when dealing with inappropriate behaviour.

■ Don’t respond to undesirable behaviour with comforting reassurance

Trying to reduce anxiety/distress, by comforting or molly-coddling the pet with petting and soft verbal reassurance is NOT helpful. This is very similar to praise and reinforcement from the dog’s perspective, so the dog will misinterpret this enjoyable interaction and think you actually like the undesirable behaviour. This will increase the likelihood of the pet repeating the behaviour. As tempting as it is to comfort an anxious pet, a neutral response, such as ignoring the pet, or using distraction techniques will have a much better outcome.

■ Respond in a calm, controlled fashion to undesirable behaviour: There is nothing to be gained by castigating or punishing a pet after an undesirable act, such as inappropriate elimination (urinating on the carpet) or stress-induced destruction. This is because if more than ten seconds has passed, the pet has no association between your response and their act that caused your anger/irritation. Unless you actually catch the pet in the act, there is no helpful response for any undesirable behaviours. If the pet is still present, calmly remove it, clean up the mess and, in the future, try to avoid the trigger circumstance that caused it (e.g. give the pet outside access to urinate, or do not leave it alone to become anxious).

In the case of a highly aroused pet that is actively engaged in aggressive behaviour, try to remove the pet from the situation (if safe to do so) or remove cause of the behaviour (the trigger). Remain calm and in control, give direction to the pet for an alternative behaviour, such as obedience commands, to distract the pet from its focus on the trigger. It is important to recognise that this is a damage-control situation – you are merely trying to prevent this episode from escalating, by changing the pet’s emotional state.

When a pet is highly aroused/reactive/upset, this is not a good training opportunity. If the pet is too aroused to follow a command, try ‘changing the subject’ by offering another activity to distract the pet from its current frame of mind, and from focusing on the trigger. Try something the pet may enjoy, such as going for a walk or a ride in the car. In the case of a highly aroused aggressive animal, physical activity, such as chasing a ball, can help to calm the dog’s state of mind and redirect its instinctive drive.

These diversion activities are used to divert the pet in a critical situation only, and it is very important to remember that repeated use of enjoyable diversion tactics will inadvertently reinforce the undesirable behaviour and actually encourage it. Therefore, only resort to this damage control activity in the first instance, and seek urgent qualified behavioural advice.

Comments are closed.