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This Single Technique Can Make or Break Your Case

I’m excited to finally have my first approved CE program for veterinarians and technicians: Introduction to Veterinary Behavior Therapy. My hope is that I can broach this vast, dynamic specialty in such a way that learners can start to find enough footing to stand and then successfully build their knowledge base. I remember when I first dipped my toe into these waters, I found it very overwhelming. In the early days, I was mostly self-taught. There weren’t (and still aren’t, really…) a ton of resources available for veterinary behavior. Instead, I did what I could reading books, articles, and listening to podcasts. When I finally started working with a boarded veterinary behaviorist, I quickly learned how wide the gap was between “book knowledge” and “practical knowledge.” One of the common pitfalls for newcomers is this concept of “management.” On the surface, it seems like a pretty basic concept: you avoid triggers and you prevent outbursts. Easy, right? Well, over the years I’ve found newer providers, whether they’re trainers, nurses, or doctors, fail most when it comes to this concept. We’ll explore the importance during the actual Webinar, but I thought it was important enough to give some context ahead of time.

 

I’ve been around the Northern Virginia area a lot lately and have met with several clinics that are new-ish to the behavior-game. There was one case in particular: she was a 2 year old, spayed female hound mix that was just terrified of the world. Her doctor had started her on Reconcile and this was her first recheck. After touching base about her response to medication, her clinician started diving into training. The concepts she presented were sound: exposure therapy that involves sitting on her front stoop, watching the world, and getting high value treats. The goal here, is that the dog has positive associations with common triggers, thereby changing her default emotional response from one of fear to one of joy. The problem with this plan, however, is that the family never discussed the role of management in the training process.

 

So what is management? I define management as “manipulating the environment to prevent, or significantly decrease, perception of a known trigger.” The idea is that if the animal never sees, hears, smells, or otherwise perceives something that causes them distress, the unwanted behaviors, such as barking, spinning, charging, or whatever, never happens. We want to find ways to prevent the repetition of the unwanted behavior, decreased the pet’s overall stress, and develop a calmer baseline on which future training can take place. Below are some examples:

 

Scenario #1: Dog barks when they see other dogs

Management Options:

·       Skip walks, only go in the backyard.

·       If walks are necessary, go at quiet times of day.

·       Drive the dog to remote locations

 

Scenario #2: Vocalizing, panting, digging, and eliminating when left home alone.

·       Avoid leaving the dog home alone.

·       Make use of day care, pet sitters, or neighbors to watch your dog.

·       Work from home and use grocery delivery services.

 

Scenario #3: One cat bullying another off their food

·       Feed in separate locations

·       Have lots of feeding stations throughout the house

·       If severe enough, physically separate when unable to supervise.

 

It’s important to remember that management doesn’t “fix” the problem. You just work around it. You’ll find that working with neurodivergent animals, regardless of the species, you very rarely tackle the problem head on. Instead, we use creative strategies to work around, often breaking social norms in the process. For most people, having an “all or nothing” frame of mind is easier than have shades of grey. The rules are very clear. The boundaries bold. You don’t do x, y, and z. That’s fine… until you start working on behavior modification.

 

My learner and family are finally more relaxed at home. Maybe we implemented some indoor enrichment, nutritional changes, and explored ways to stabilize the pet’s neurochemistry. Now the family wants to start working with their pet on how to truly cope with their triggers. This is where the boundaries start to blur and grey somewhat. You need to be able to expose the learner to their triggers in small enough doses that they do NOT have a dramatic emotional response. Let me repeat that. We do NOT want a negative emotional response. Every time your learner becomes distressed in the presence of their triggers, they respond with their previously learned coping strategies, and their negative perception of that trigger is reinforced. Now we need to introduce another fundamental topic in behavior modification: thresholds.

 

We use the term emotional arousal (or just, “arousal”) to describe the emotional intensity experienced by an animal. This arousal isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s simply amplitude. Arousal is a necessary part of life. We need it to get up in the morning, enjoy life, socialize, play, and work. Too much of even a good thing, however, can cause problems. If the intensity of their “big feelings” becomes high enough, the animal will essentially become “overstimulated” and unwanted behaviors occur. For a neurotypical animal, it actually takes a lot to push their arousal up and “over threshold.” They may recognize a situation is stressful or scary, but they can cope. They take a deep breath, shake it off, and move on. Below is an example of a typical dog going to the veterinary clinic, what happens while she’s there, and how her arousal level adjust with each event. This dog’s arousal never gets close to threshold and she is able to stay relatively calm for most of her visit.

In this next graph, however, we see a neurodivergent dog going through the exact same scenario. There are a few dramatic differences between this dog and the previous one. Because their perception of the world is very different from a neurotypical animal, they are already in a heightened state of arousal simply by existing. Their emotional baseline is much higher than it should be. Now the animal has less “time” between “fine” and “not fine” before reaching threshold. As if that isn’t enough, when their arousal does go up, it tends to spike much more dramatically. Then finally, when the event is done and over with, they can’t just shake it off. They stay in that negative emotional space for much longer. I’ve known some dogs to take over a WEEK to recover from a single grooming episode.

 Now that you know more about arousal and thresholds, let’s go back to see how this applies to behavior modification. Remember that the goal of behavior modification is to expose the learner to their triggers in small enough doses that they do NOT go over threshold. The animal’s threshold may be a clear line in the sand, but there will be behavioral warning signs that occur before actually hitting that point. This is where most pet educators fail their wards. This is why most trainers can’t help special needs animals because they either 1.) Don’t know how to explain this concept clearly enough OR 2.) They don’t know about it themselves. When starting behavior modification, sessions are short, positive, and uneventful. Good behavior modification should be BORING.

 

The family working with their neurodivergent critter need to know to look out for some of those warning signs that their learner is creeping up on their threshold and the session should stop now. I like to start with what a happy, relaxed, calm animal looks like:

 

Dog:

·       Lying down, one hip popped over.

·       Ears slightly back or to the sides.

·       Squinty eyes, lots of blinking.

·       Smooth forehead, no wrinkles.

·       Not looking at anything in particular.

·       Readily, but nicely, takes treats if offered.

 

Cat:

·       Lying down or sitting

·       Tail is still and quiet.

·       Squinty eyes, lots of blinking.

·       Ears slightly to the side. Maybe some movement here or there.

·       Readily takes treats or enjoys cuddles.

 

With these images in mind, you can then start watching your own learner for signs of increasing arousal:

·       Difficulty staying still.

·       Large eyes, watchful or scanning.

·       Tense body, quick movements.

·       Starts snatching treats

·       Difficulty focusing on you

 

If I start to see these types of behaviors, it means my animal is getting worried. It’s time to end the session and go back inside before they can confirm their worries.

 

How do you keep your learner in that calm state, though? With… management! You can make use of various management strategies to decrease the intensity of the stimulus. If we’re using leash reactivity as an example, use lots of distance between yourself and the triggers. You should set yourself up far enough away that your learner recognizes the presence of another dog, but they can casually look at it, then look at you for support. Good job! Treat for that. If you’re working on crate training a dog that previously panicked, hold onto the door and only close it halfway. Then treat them for staying in their crate during that process. As a general rule, the earliest signs of increasing arousal will either be frantic eating or increased movement. Calm animals stay still and casually consume their treats.

 

Ultimately, I know the doctor of that fearful dog had the best of intentions. Those of us that work with special-needs animals instinctively know when to slow down, back up, and when it’s safe to push forward. If you don’t have a lot of experience though, you just assume you can slap a nervous dog on the front porch and pump them full of hotdogs. After all – that’s what it looks like we’re doing. However, very rarely can you start behavior modification with full, unrestricted exposure to a trigger. Instead, you need to gradually ease them into, have a keen eye for signs of increasing arousal, and a quick exit strategy to prevent a negative emotional response.  At the end of the day, management is the single most important technique you can implement to help any animal, whether they are dog, cat, human, bird, horse, overcome of their distress in the face of certain triggers.

 

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