Who comes first — the Vet or the Behaviourist?

While walking with my dog, Ziggy, I was reminded about the importance of visiting the vet, before the canine behaviourist.

We met a lady with two small border collies, both, apparently very friendly. The older dog changed it’s demeanour in a split second, going from relaxed to bared teeth as Ziggy approached. So, an aggressive dog. But why?

In this case, the dog had a serious, but controlled, disease called Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI). This is a rare disease but one that is life threatening. Simply put, the dog’s pancreas fails to produce digestive enzymes; therefore, the dog is unable to digest food. Without treatment the dog will die. This can be exacerbated when combined with vitamin B12 deficiency (this dog was also affected by this). From a behavioural point of view, affected dogs often show aggression towards other dogs (although, not always).

Another condition that can result in behavioural changes in dogs, including aggression, is Hypothyroidism. This is a condition that is often missed, however, a diligent vet should be able to identify both of the aforementioned conditions. Of course, there are many medical conditions that will affect how a dog behaves.

In a wider context; dogs with health problems causing behavioural issues can result in difficult situations. An owner will experience negative responses from people they meet when out with their dog. Therefore, the dog that may have problems with aggression or fearfulness, for instance, may elicit unexpected responses from these people. This is not surprising. There, of course, is no way for the person meeting you to know why your dog is behaving as it is.

I would say to people who respond badly to a dog; you should stop for a moment and think about why a dog is behaving as it is. Perceived poor behaviour does not mean that you are faced with a bad dog rather, it may be one that is poorly and needs, alongside it’s owner, help and understanding — not a judgement from you.

Getting back to helping the owner with behavioural issues — clearly, without prior diagnosis of underlying diseases, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to effect any behavioural changes that may be needed. It is for this reason that a dog’s vet should be consulted BEFORE any consideration is given to appropriate behavioural therapy. A medical condition may indicate appropriate pharmacological therapy to be used alongside efforts to effect behavioural changes.

So — vet first, behaviourist second — every time.