I love being a veterinarian and I love what we stand for – using science to provide the best health care and to maximize the welfare of all the animals. Veterinary medicine has come a long way with many recognized specialties that help us reach both those goals. As a board certified Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB), I take the emotional and medical health and welfare of all patients very seriously.
That is why I was very disturbed by two events in recent weeks. The first was the appearance of a television personality to advertise a veterinary product and this same personality causing harm to an animal on his show under the guise of “training”. I feel I must take a public stand against these two events.
Veterinarians are constantly working to improve the care and well-being of our patients through better treatments for medical disease and appropriate and humane interventions for emotional and behavioral illness, and we expect our industry partners will do the same. Behavioral medicine is an integral part of veterinary medicine with boarded certified individuals who have been trained in the behavioral health of animals. To utilize an untrained individual to reach out to veterinarians in this area, where there are many good role models, is disappointing.
In a recent television episode, a dog with known predatory behavior and aggression toward animals was brought to this individual for treatment. Predatory behaviors are common in dogs and may be tolerated toward squirrels or other “wild” animals. They are part of the normal behavioral repertoire of dogs, although individuals vary in how they express this behavior. This patient had a history of aggression towards other animals and has even killed another pig.
The treatment applied? The dog was brought in contact with one of the species he had harmed, a pig. The dog was exposed to the trigger (animals) without adequate control or safety precautions. At the very least he should have remained on a leash and have been acclimated to wearing a basket muzzle so no one, animal or human, would be harmed. This was not the case.
Additionally, the dog was reprimanded for undesirable behaviors while never being rewarded for the appropriate, calm, non-aggressive behavior. How was he supposed to learn “what to do” without clear signals of the correct behavior? At one point the dog turns his back on the pigs-not because he was “getting along” but because he was overwhelmed by the environment and perhaps the interventions utilized. Unfortunately the dog was allowed off leash, ran toward and attacked a pig, taking a bite out of his ear.
What ensued was further mayhem as the humans tried to catch the dog and the dog continued to chase the pigs. This is not an appropriate training method and caused physical and emotional harm to another animal and probably to the patient as well. Serious injury was possible both to the pig and the people trying to catch the dog. No trained individual would undertake this type of exposure to try and “teach them to get along”. Countless experts with years of research and experience under their belts will tell you the same thing.
So what does work? Predatory behaviors can be quite strong and good management is always important to prevent further harm to any animals or people. Slow, long distance exposure with rewards for the appropriate behaviors should be used to help the dog learn new responses. This would not be good television, but the correct use of behavior therapy.
As veterinarians we pledge that “Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”
We must unite and speak out when any animals are harmed physically and emotionally through inappropriate treatments, whether they be medical or behavioral interventions. I hope others will lend their voices when any animals are harmed through the inappropriate actions of others and stand up for animal welfare in all situations. That is our job and our pledge.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
About the Author
Dr. Debra Horwitz is a diplomate and past president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. She has lectured all over the world on behavioral topics and has authored numerous books, articles and other materials on behavioral medicine.