One of the things I really loved about veterinary school at The Ohio State University is the opportunity we had to learn about animal behavior and behavior modification. In addition to learning about it as we went through clinics, the staff and faculty emphasized low-stress handling and behavior modification to try to provide the best experience for our patients.
Many people aren’t familiar with the term behavior modification, but it is something that is invaluable with our pets and in the veterinary setting. Our goal is to modify behavior through the use of positive reinforcement. Whether you own an old dog or a new puppy, behavior modification is a technique that can be used at home.
Behavior modification is something I enjoy doing and have been working on with my dogs.
My dogs weren’t always big fans of being brushed, so I would sit down every evening with them and feeding them pieces of hot dogs while I brushed them. It’s amazing that when you associate something they don’t like with a yummy treat how quickly an animal can warm up to the situation. My dogs now get excited when they see the brush come out to get groomed.
The same can be said when my little Miniature American Shepherd gets all excited and anxious when she sees rabbits everywhere on our morning runs. Her anxiety at seeing the rabbits is not a behavior I wanted to foster nor did I want her running to the end of her leash and yanking on my arm to chase them — knowing the 55-pound Golden Retriever would follow suit — so I set forth to alter that behavior.
As soon as I would spot a furry friend I immediately asked her to watch me which means look at me and fed her treats. We repeated that several times and soon after, when she saw a rabbit she immediately turned to me instead of going after it. I reward her for staying focused on me, and we run on.
We do the same thing in the veterinary setting for patients that don’t like blood draws or are afraid of the hospital. We try to distract the dog who doesn’t like his nails cut by feeding treats. Instead of being on a table for something he hates — someone touching his feet — the table means treats.
Behavior modification is an invaluable tool when working with any animal, and I’m always happy to discuss training tips with owners to improve their relationship with their pets and their pets’ relationship with me and the veterinary team.
Dr. Jill Dentel practices at Delphos Animal Hospital.