So, you have been referred to a behaviour vet…
If we are concerned that your dog may have an anxiety disorder we will refer you to see a behaviour vet for appropriate diagnosis and treatment. A behaviour vet can be the best thing for you and your dog in this situation.
An anxiety disorder is a medical issue that affects the brain. The only person who is qualified to diagnose and treat anxiety in dogs is a vet. As behavioural trainers we are not qualified to diagnose a disorder. However, we are experienced enough to know when your dog needs to be assessed by a behaviour vet. For dogs with anxiety disorders, training alone will not fix the issue, and may do more harm than good. Please take our referral seriously and act as quickly as possible. A dog that is left to live with untreated anxiety is a dog that is suffering.
What happens to the brain with untreated anxiety
Your dog can become more sensitised to situations or objects that they are anxious about if they are continually exposed to them. Each time your dog is exposed to the thing that causes them to experience stress, this stress response triggers the part of the brain that is responsible for flight and fight. The more this response gets practiced, the stronger that response will get. If you think of that response like a muscle, the more it is exercised the stronger it will get.
The part of the brain responsible for rational thought, learning and memory (the cortex) does not effectively work when this part of the brain is triggered. The cortisol spike caused by this stress response will block the cortex for hours. For dogs who experience chronic stress or anxiety, this part of the brain can remain blocked. So we need to decrease triggering this stress response in the brain. When we do this your dog can have the opportunity to instead strengthen their thinking and learning response.
For some dogs with fear response about specific situations, it may be possible to slowly change how your dog feels about these situations without the assistance of a behaviour vet. However for many dogs with anxiety disorders it is near impossible for them to be calm and relaxed at any point. An accurate diagnosis and treatment from a behaviour vet will help your dog stop having such extreme reactions of stress. This then allows behaviour modification plans be effective so we can help your dog start to have calmer responses in situations that would usually cause them stress. We can only do this because their brains have the right chemistry to think, learn and listen. They cannot do this under extreme stress.
Anxiety disorders are predominantly genetic
Most anxiety disorders are predominantly genetic and the dog is born that way. Similar to type 1 diabetes – lifestyle can positively impact the symptoms but it requires a medical intervention like insulin. We wouldn’t withhold insulin for someone that had type 1 diabetes and we shouldn’t withhold anxiety treatment for a dog that may have an anxiety disorder.
Behaviour Vets are an investment
Think of your local vet like a General Practitioner. They can be great to start a conversation about anxiety but this conversation should include a referral to a behaviour vet. This is because our general practice vets do not specialise in anxiety disorders. A behaviour vet is a specialist in behaviour and more like a psychiatrist. Behavioural trainers are like psychologists. Beware that the training industry is unregulated so a lot of trainers are more like school teachers and may not be able to identify the red flags that indicate a dog may need assistance from a behaviour vet. It is best to start with the method that will help you and your dog the quickest.
Fees for a behaviour vet versus a general practice vet are not comparable. The fee for a general practice vet usually covers 15 minutes of advice, a behaviour vet will spend hours with you doing an assessment, history taking and observation and spend lots of time in preparation and follow up to ensure you and your dog succeed.
I wish I was referred to a Behaviour Vet sooner
When I adopted my rescue Shimmy she was 16 weeks old and she was a tricky pup. I was an aspiring trainer and worked very closely with a dog trainer. Shimmy and I spent hours each week at the training school and in my own time working on different skills. I was basically playing behavioural whack-a-mole. I would address one problem and another would pop up. All I was doing was pushing those big red warning flags below the surface.
The experienced trainer I was working with should have referred me to a behaviour vet. Instead, they were using inappropriate training techniques which created an environment where Shimmy kept being stressed to the point that it was almost all she knew. Not to mention, I wasted thousands of dollars on training when it was not a training issue. It was not until I became a qualified trainer that I identified something was not right and saw a behaviour vet. It was the best thing I have done for Shimmy.
Shimmy now has quality of life and has come a long way with treatment. But this could have been done when she was younger. This would have been far less costly and far easier to treat. Most importantly, early intervention would have saved her years of suffering. Now I live with the guilt of knowing I could have helped her sooner. I have made it my mission to help other dogs like Shimmy get the right treatment as early as possible.
If you are unsure as to whether your dog needs training or a behaviour vet, we are always happy to chat and a detailed assessment is included as part of our Behaviour Consults.