Advice for Veterinarians on Behaviour Management Products

a dogThere are numerous products on the market that have been designed to promote appropriate behaviour in pets. For example, leads, harnesses and head collars are used to help control pets, especially when outdoors, an indoor pen or crate can provide a safe comfortable home for a dog, when the owners are not available to supervise, child locks and child gates can be used to keep pets away from potential problem areas and interactive toys can keep an inquisitive puppy or kitten busy.

This leaflet will deal with a range of products excluding toys as these are covered in a separate sheet. New products come onto the market frequently so please contact us if you hear of something that is not discussed here.

What products help prevent destructive behaviour?

  • Puppy chewing – please see the handout on toys for a discussion on products that will alleviate chewing. In general the aim is to find a variety of safe toys that the dog wants to chew first and only consider deterring it from chewing other objects afterwards. It’s easier to teach what you want than to deter all the things you don’t!
  • Cat’s scratching - Providing a scratching post with a surface that appeals to a cat is the best way of directing this behaviour away from a favourite piece of furniture and onto an acceptable surface. Please see the leaflet on scratching for additional details regarding the use of scratching posts.
  • A number of commercial products have been developed to deter undesirable chewing. Products such as bitter apple and Tabasco sauce may also be effective, but some pets actually find them appealing. 

Other products that may help is a synthetic analogues of a feline facial pheromone .Pheromones are chemicals that the cat naturally produces to mark its territory using its his her cheek glands and cats tend not to scratch where they detect this scent. The spray should be applied to areas that might be scratched. It is not an aversive deterrent and the use of products that are aversive is generally not recommended given the cat’s highly developed sense of smell.

What type of training collar should I use for walking and controlling my dog?

There are a variety of collars, halters, and head collar systems that can be used for walking and control. 

  • No-pull body harnesses will help to stop pulling, but on their own, many do little to provide the owner with additional control. Plain body harnesses will not reduce pulling and can encourage it, so clients should be encouraged to speak to a professional if they are contemplating using a harness on a dog that pulls.
  • Head collar systems are one of the most effective means of controlling dogs that pull, as well as dogs that react to environmental or other stimuli and need to be turned away from these. As the head collar is placed around the muzzle, it does not choke, and can be used to effectively control pulling and break eye contact. As with all tools, head halters must be selected to fit correctly and used appropriately, please see the specific handout for additional information.
  • Flat buckle or clip collars are very effective for most dogs when correctly fitted and combined with proper training in loose leash walking.
  • Choke (check) or pinch collar systems are not recommended as they often cause undue discomfort and fear, and may easily also cause injuries if used inappropriately. 
  • Harnesses are very useful for dogs that have neck or head injuries or disease that make the use of a collar or head halter inadvisable. They are also better if owners are walking their dog on a extendable lead or long line.

What products are useful for house-soiling problems?

One of the most important factors in solving a house soiling problem is to remove the scent of the urine and faeces so that the pet is not attracted back to the spot by the residual odour. The animal’s sense of smell is extremely acute and even when the area smells clean to humans, a pet may still be able to detect traces of the scent. The aim is to break down the odour entirely and not to replace it with another odour that may be challenging to the pet. 

  • Avoid cleaning products that contain ammonia or chlorine. 
  • One very successful method of cleaning is to use a ten percent warm solution of a biological washing powder, rinse with cold water and then wipe over with an alcohol, such as surgical spirit. Test these products on an inconspicuous patch of furnishing before use as they may discolour the surface.
  • There are a range of commercial odour eliminators available for use in cases of indoor house-soiling. Odour eliminators that use chemicals, bacteria or enzymes to break down the odour also claim to be successful in removing it entirely. Some are designed specifically for pet odours.
  • For cats a synthetic analogue of feline facial pheromone is available that can be sprayed on cleaned areas where the cat might be inclined to spray or mark, in order to reduce the cat’s anxiety and reduce inappropriate marking. This product is also available as a diffuser, which can be used to spread the pheromone throughout the home, rather than in one specific location. This form of the product can be particularly useful when house soiling problems are the result of underlying generalised anxiety. More details are available in our handout on house-soiling problems

What products are available for correcting general undesirable behaviour?

By far the most effective way of correcting undesirable behaviour is to teach the animal to control its own behavioural responses. Teaching this by means of rewarding an alternative, desirable response is far more effective in the long term than simple punishment. In addition it is important to remember that simply suppressing the expression of a behaviour, through making it unpleasant for the animal to peform it, can raise serious welfare concerns if the underlying emotional motivation for the behaviour has not been addressed.

Where it remains necessary to reduce a behaviour in conjunction with teaching an alternative response, one of the methods that can be used is conditioned avoidance. In this situation the animal is given a signal that is paired with a lack of reward, and through this pairing the animal learns to avoid that particular circumstance in future as it learns that its own behaviour is not rewarding. Sound is an effective signal in some of these cases although light can be used in cases of deaf individuals with the same effect. 

"Where it remains necessary to reduce a behaviour in conjunction with teaching an alternative response, one of the methods that can be used is conditioned avoidance."

Once the animal has been conditioned to the signal it can be used to interrupt the inappropriate behaviour. Of course it is essential that the owner is on hand to redirect the animal into an appropriate alternative behavioural response that can be rewarded. It is very important to remember that the use of a conditioned avoidance signal is not easy and that many owners will struggle to do this effectively. It is not uncommon to see these sound signals inappropriately used as a punishment tool. It is therefore advisable to suggest that these techniques are only used if there has been one to one professional advice given as to how to use them effectively.

If the individual is already displaying a large proportion of appropriate responses, the more appropriate approach is to work to reinforce those behaviours through delivery of things that the pet likes contingent upon the desirable response happening. Once again the animal retains control over its responses as the delivery of the reward is a direct consequence of its own behaviour. 

Shaping appropriate behavioural responses can open up a whole new world of fun training for clients and can enable them to control their pet’s behaviour without recourse to elaborate devices and potentially misplaced punishment.

Specific deterrents

  • Once behaviour problems develop there are numerous products on the market that have been designed to interrupt or deter undesirable behaviour. This is a controversial area and it is a matter of debate as to whether such products should be available to the general public, as they can be easily be unintentionally misused and cause harm. There are also serious welfare considerations if such tools are used to suppress behavioural expression without resolving underlying emotional motivation.
  • To be efficient, punishment must be administered at the beginning of the misbehaviour, and must be sufficiently noxious to deter the pet, but not so unpleasant as to cause lasting harm. This is a very difficult balance to strike and the average owner is unlikely to be able to do so without the risk of complications. 
  • If a training device is not effective immediately it is potentially dangerous as the tendency is to escalate the level of aversion applied and this can cause more behaviour problems than it cures. 
  • An alternative, acceptable response should always be taught before any aversive is applied and this response should then be cued immediately the pet stops performing the unwanted action.
  • In general any product designed to be aversive should not be used by the average pet owner and should only be used by specialists with expertise in their use. 

Why do some behaviour products utilise shock? 

Because of the complexity of using punishment and the risk of causing additional problems if it is used incorrectly, this is a job best left for the specialists. Particular concern has been raised over the use of electric current as an aversive and electric “shock” collars are illegal to use in some states and territories and have been outlawed in some other countries. 

Punishment, by definition, is the application of a stimulus that decreases the probability that the behaviour will be repeated. This means that the punishment must be sufficiently aversive to overcome the pet’s tendency to perform the behaviour. It is essential when using punishment that the aim of treatment is not only to deter the pet from performing the undesirable behaviour, but also to redirect the pet into alternative and desirable behaviours that can be immediately rewarded. 

"Punishment, by definition, is the application of a stimulus that decreases the probability that the behaviour will be repeated."

Devices that cause physical discomfort (and those that cause nausea), are generally the most aversive and for this reason many of the deterrent devices that are available will utilise uncomfortable levels of shock. Many shock devices are paired with an audible warning signal so that the pet learns to avoid the warning signal alone, without the need for further shock. 

These products are NOT recommended but if owners insist on using them they should never consider using one of these devices alone and without specialist advice. If ever an electronic shock product is to be used it is essential that the manufacturer is experienced and reputable and that the product is of high quality.  

What devices can be used for pets that misbehave in the owner’s presence?

In order to avoid an association between the owner and an unpleasant experience, which could result in fear of the owner and damage to the owner-pet bond, any deterrent device must be seen as a direct consequence of the undesirable behaviour and should not be associated with the owner. In addition if the punishment is associated with the owner the problem may cease when the owner is watching, but the pet may learn that it is safe (and paradoxically actually find it more rewarding) to indulge in the behaviour when the owner is away. 

  • Physical punishment should be avoided since it can aggravate fear and anxiety and may provoke aggression. 
  • Direct punishment or disruption devices must be activated as soon as the inappropriate behaviour begins, and should be programmed to "turn off" as soon as the inappropriate behaviour ceases. They should never be used in the owner’s absence as someone needs to be present to redirect the pet into acceptable behaviour and reward it.
  • These products can be used to interrupt the pet and as soon as the behaviour ceases an alternative desirable behaviour should be encouraged and rewarded. 
  • Another use of punishment would be to teach the pet that the inappropriate behaviour (e.g. pulling on the lead, jumping up) has passive immediate undesirable consequences (the person stops moving forward, attention is withdrawn) and that as soon as the pet stops, the undesirable situation will be resolved (the person  moves forward again, the dog gets attention).

What can be done when the owner is absent?

As already stated above it is important that when any behaviour is interrupted or punished the owner is able to redirect the pet into an alternative and acceptable behaviour that can be rewarded. The use of deterrents in the owner’s absence is therefore inappropriate. Instead owners of dogs with problems need to arrange for the dog to be supervised or ensure that the dog is left in an environment in which the unwanted behaviour cannot be expressed. Treatment needs to aim at altering the underlying motivation for the behaviour and will necessitate time and commitment from the owner. If the owner needs to confine the pet in order to leave it alone safely, in a pen or an empty room, it is important that they take time to introduce the pet to this environment in a positive way so as not to induce negative emotional associations with being left there. It is also important for people to be realistic about the length of time that pets are left alone and to consider the need of the animal to perform normal behaviours, such as toileting and expending energy through exercise, and ensure that these behaviours are catered for at realistic time intervals.

Are there products that can be used to control and deter barking?

When barking occurs in the owner’s absence it is essential that a full behavioural work up is carried out. There are a number of bark activated devices that are marketed to deal with the problem, but none of these should be used without an accurate diagnosis of the motivation for the problem behaviour as using one of these devices when it is inappropriate to do so could make the problem worse, and seriously compromise the animal’s welfare.

Some of the collars emit an ultrasonic tone each time the dog barks whilst others have built in microphones which activate an audible signal when the dog barks. These latter devices may need to be set up in a room or area where the dog barks, since the output speaker may not be designed to attach to the dog's collar. 

Another form of bark activated device emits a spray of citronella or some other odour or a just a puff of air each time the dog barks. It is considered by some to be a more humane alternative to shock collars, but not all dogs will be deterred by the spray and scent may actually be quite aversive. The general advice is to avoid either of these devices which concentrate on suppressing behavioural expression and to concentrate instead on finding out the motivation between the barking and deal with that appropriately.

Bark activated electronic (shock) collars should not be used in cases of barking in the owner’s absence and even when the owner is present they should never be considered without a very accurate and specific diagnosis. They must never be used without individual specialist advice.

Are there products to prevent dogs from biting?

Punishment devices are generally inappropriate for cases involving aggression as they may exacerbate the problem. Ideally all dogs should be taught to be comfortable wearing a muzzle as in a situation where they are scared this is a useful precaution against them biting. Any dog that has demonstrated a tendency to exhibit aggressive behaviour must be taught to be comfortable wearing a muzzle. Please refer to the specific handout on this matter.

As mentioned before, head halters can be a useful tool to direct a dog’s focus away from a trigger to aggression and thus assist in preventing a bite.

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