Behavior Issues: A 6-Step Intervention Plan

Step 1: Rule Out Medical Causes

For any new or worsening behavior issues, our first step is an exam and lab work to screen for underlying medical causes like thyroid disease. Pain is a common cause of behavior changes, so this step frequently includes a 3-week trial on medications like an NSAID (carprofen, Galliprant, meloxicam, Onsior, etc.) and gabapentin.

Step 2: Manage Problematic Behaviors

Take steps to manage the environment to prevent the practice of problematic behaviors, avoid further incidents, provide immediate safety, and reduce the pet’s overall stress. We want to set up the environment for the pet’s success, making the right choice easy.

Specific strategies might include:

    • Basket muzzle (ALL dogs should be trained to comfortably wear a muzzle!)
    • Thundercap (reduces visual signals, helpful for situations like barking in the car)
    • Baby gates, kennels (ALL dogs should be trained to be comfortable in a crate! Check out this effective puppy crate training schedule!
    • Window film, white noise, Through a Dog’s Ear speaker (block visual or auditory triggers)
    • Avoidance (put away food, shoes, laundry, etc)
    • Avoid certain tasks/triggers like nail trims while working through training
    • “Don’t touch me” bandana, “don’t ring the doorbell!” sign, etc to advertise your management to others

Management is not a replacement for training, but it is sometimes adequate for controlling a problem. If an issue is totally avoidable, we may not need to go any further. If the issue is not avoidable, then we need to proceed to Step 3.

Step 3: Increase Mental Enrichment

Mental enrichment is important for health and well being, it satisfies a need for exploration and critical thinking, and it gets your pet to use his cognitive brain rather than his emotional one. Surprisingly, a stimulated brain tends to lead to a tired, relaxed pet much more readily than physical exercise (also important!).

Our goal is 10-20 minutes of training once or twice daily. Trick training and puzzle feeders/feeder toys can be easy and fun interventions. Here are some great resources to help get you started:

Step 4: Modify Behavior

“If you want to change the way I behave, you have to change the way I see the world.”

The general goal here is rewarding the behaviors we want more of, like calmly resting during a human family member’s departure or calmly observing other pets/people. Step 4 generally requires the help of a skilled trainer. We recommend Jane Collins at Springfield Family Dog Training for private lessons focused on specific behavior problems.

Step 5: Medications & Supplements

There are 3 goals when starting medications, supplements, and other behavior-modifying products:

  • Reduce the intensity of unwanted behavior
  • Reduce the frequency of unwanted behavior
  • Reduce time to recovery to calm baseline after a trigger

Behavior medications are either intended for daily or event/situational use. Our most common side effects are gut-related (loose stools, vomiting, reduced appetite), as there are more serotonin receptors in the gut than elsewhere in the body. Aside from digestive upset, behavior medications are considered extremely safe with most having no potential long-term organ damage to monitor for–these medications can be used lifelong. However, you should always let us know if you notice any unwanted changes.

Daily medications: The most commonly used options are fluoxetine and clomipramine. It can take 4-6 weeks to see a full response, and then we often modify if needed based on the individual pet’s response.

Event medications: This group includes benzodiazepines like alprazolam, gabapentin, and trazodone. These typically take effect more quickly than the daily medications, so they may be added on while waiting for daily med to take effect, in addition to a daily medication for specific stressful events, or exclusively when a daily med is not needed.

Note: Grain-free diets should be avoided, as they’re often too low in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, which means they may increase behavior issues.

Step 6: Monitor and Modify the Plan

We recommend journaling your pet’s progress, and grading the following on a 0-10 scale: intensity of behavior issue, frequency of behavior issue, how long it takes to recover back to baseline calm. Over time, we’ll reevaluate individual patient goals and move forward as able.

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Alison Barulich DVM

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