pet behaviourist helps adopted dogs unlearn previous behaviours

What is a Pet Behaviourist? We Ask an Expert


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If your pet is your child (or best friend), you’ll know what it means to visit the vet. But what about taking them to a cat or dog behaviourist? Just a quick Google search reveals a host of pet behaviourists in Auckland and elsewhere in New Zealand. But when and why do you call on one?

To find out more we’ve spoken to a local Kiwi expert, veterinary behaviourist Dr Jess Beer. Dr Beer has a BVSc MANZCVS in Veterinary Behaviour and was president of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists’ Veterinary Behaviour Chapter from 2018 to 2020.

What is a cat or dog behaviourist?

Think about it like this: taking your pet to the vet is a little like taking your child to the doctor or dentist for a health issue. But a different approach is needed with a behavioural issue.

If your child is crying, bullying or acting out, for example, you might take them to see a psychologist or an occupational therapist instead. Likewise, if your cat or dog is scratching, biting or peeing and pooping in all the wrong spots all of a sudden, it might be time for a behaviourist.

cat pees and poops inside and needs a pet behaviourist to correct this

Helping animals unlearn negative behaviours

Typically, dogs who’ve been rescued from abusive homes need a pet behaviourist to help them regain a sense of trust so they can begin to live a wholesome life again. Dr Beer often works with rescues who are fearful or aggressive on account of what they’ve been through.

“One such girl was adopted at about 6 months after an abusive home. She still had scars from cigarette burns and was showing very fearful behaviours despite being in a loving home.”

– Dr Beer

“She had growled at a family member, was impossible to walk on leash, and overreacted to other dogs. So, we focused on getting the right management, medication, and protocols. This was to teach her to be safe, comfortable, and responsive to people without manipulation.

“Within a few months she was happy on lead, relaxed, and playing with strange dogs in the park.”

Want to fill your heart and home with a new pet? Read about bringing home and adopted dog and the top tips from our dog adoption checklist.

anxious dog fights can be solved via dog behaviourist treatment

15 things a pet behaviourist can help with

Dr Beer finds the job rewarding because it’s about education and experience and always wanting to learn more. She says:

It’s a part of my job I love. Seeing guardians come to learn and understand their pet and help them through their fear and anxiety. It’s all about reaching a better behaved and most importantly mentally healthy pet.”

Here are some examples of behaviours a cat or dog behaviourist (or other animal behaviourist) can address:

1Anxiety, fear, or phobias
2Chewing/digging/destructive behaviour
3Dog to dog aggression
4Dog to people aggression
5Issues with riding in cars
6Jumping up
7Nipping and biting
8Obsessive compulsive disorder
9One on one obedience training
10Over excitement with visitors
11Persistent and excessive barking
12Pulling on a lead
13Puppy oriented issues
14Separation anxiety
15Unruly behaviour

Pet behaviourist vs veterinary behaviourist

If you think your pet needs to see a cat/dog behaviourist, know what you’re looking for. As it happens anyone dealing with companion animal behaviours is by definition a pet behaviourist. However, vets that go the extra mile to qualify as specialised animal behaviourists are actually called veterinary behaviourists.

That’s what you’re after for the ultimate knowledge base: a veterinary behaviourist, also sometimes called certified applied animal behaviourists.

dog behaviourist corrects aggressive behaviours

Finding an accredited cat or dog behaviourist in NZ

Before you sign up with a behaviourist, check on whether they’re a veterinary behaviourist. Also be sure to check and even ask for their credentials. People need work (especially since COVID), and the last thing you want is to end up sending your fur kid to a behavioural hack.

“Having a qualified behaviourist – with credentials and memberships to appropriate institutions – who understands your pet is the key. They will help you truly optimise your relationship to one of trust and enjoyment.”

– Dr Beer

If your pet is expressing harmful or dismaying behaviours and you’re not sure why, or how to help them, you need an expert accredited veterinary behaviourist. They’ve put in the hours and learned to understand animal behaviours – and, more importantly, the process needed to rectify negative ones.

When choosing a veterinary behaviourist, find out what type of techniques they use. Also check what other people say about them in online reviews and social media. Other happy pet stories will help you choose from the options on your screen so you and your pet can get an expert veterinary behaviourist and come out on top.

What to avoid

Avoid using the services of people that rely on controversial and unproven practices like ‘dominance’ or ‘pack theory’, which may do more harm than help. Don’t take your pet to someone advocating the use of prong collars, chains, electric collars or any other types of cruel devices, either.

When to call the cat or dog behaviourist?

Pets who need behavioural help should see a veterinary behaviourist rather than be sent to puppy school, or a trainer or vet. It’s important to make the distinction, and usually, it’s when behaviours are extreme that a behaviourist is needed.

“The unregulated industry makes it hard for people to determine who is qualified to help them. It’s not just training an animal – it’s working with both the pet and their guardian to reach and happy relationship. Not just control.”

– Dr Beer

Biting, aggression and self destructive behaviours bring to mind Cesar Millan AKA international dog whisperer. That’s when you know you need to make the call to get a professional veterinary behaviourist.

What are the benefits?

dog behaviourist helps adopted dog unlearn negative behaviours

According to Dr Beer, there are numerous benefits to working with a behaviourist. For example, they can help you and your pet have a calmer, more predictable life together.

“They can manage and resolve anything from problem behaviours through to significant mental health concerns.”

– Dr Beer

As a pet parent, when you encounter problematic behaviour in your pet you’ll try to help as best you can. For instance, you might try switching up their food, or their play and exercise routines. Or perhaps you’d send them to puppy school so they can practice socialising. You might try out new puppy training tips too.

But, unless you understand the underlying problem, there’s a chance that you exhaust these options with no positive outcome. And rather than pull your hair out (or brush your pet’s furballs aside), you need a pro.

Here are some examples of situations where bringing in a behaviourist can help:

Cat and dog behaviourists are equipped to understand animal behaviours from a holistic view. Therefore, they’re in a position to help your pet get to that happy place sooner.

And because our pets’ lives are shorter than our own, it’s better to help them live happily sooner. After all, the longer a negative behaviour persists the harder it will be to unlearn it. Once they help you heal the problem your pet’s having, you can continue the good work with positive reinforcement dog training (ditto with cats).

cat needs to have behaviours corrected

What to expect from a dog or cat behaviorist visit

A cat/dog behaviourist will generally set up a time to visit you at your home. First, they need to see your pet in its natural environment. This is to experience how your pet behaves at home where it’s business as usual. Then, from their observations, they’ll devise a programme specific to your pet and its individual needs.

This includes scientific tools like behaviour modification to help you manage as well as prevent specific issues and behaviours. And generally speaking, a behaviourist won’t look at training. Instead their focus is on finding the root cause of your pet’s behavioural issues.

“Guardians are more aware of possible issues that can be improved by seeking help from a qualified pet behaviourist,” she says.

– Dr Beer

The dog and cat behavioural industry is growing and evolving rapidly. Dr Beer shares with us how there have been many changes to the industry over the years. For example, the biggest change is that pet owners have a greater awareness of the professional help available to them.

A behaviourist helps bring about greater understanding of your pet’s difficulties. They help pets unlearn their dissonant behaviours. It’s a win-win for both humans and pets.

pet behaviourist helps aggressive dog become calm

Pet behaviour during COVID

The pandemic has brought us closer to our pets. Read how pet love has helped us navigate COVID, for example. We’re increasingly co-dependent on one another. And with remote work and other pandemic lifestyle changes on the up and up we also have closer cohabitation.

As a result, pets’ behavioural issues can affect us both humans and pets even more.

“We have come a long way in our science and evidence-based approach to dealing with problems. This means a greater level of success with many of the more complicated issues.”

– Dr Beer

Sadly though, there have also been people forced to give up pets as a result of forced changes to their income or lifestyle due to COVID (read more here). These pets are suddenly hurled into uncertainty, torn from the families they’ve always known. Often once they find a new home – if they do – they’re already traumatised.

Having a dog behaviourist or cat behaviourist speed up their recovery can help them live life to the fullest. It can also help you to understand them better and enjoy a deeper bond.

Pet insurance for peace of mind

Besides helping pets heal and overcome behavioural issues, another important aspect is protecting their wellbeing with pet insurance. Pet insurance means you can put a little toward safeguarding them each month then if you suddenly have a whopping big medical bill you won’t be alone in paying for it.

Cat insurance and dog insurance cover a vast range of medical needs including non-routine vet visits, prescription pet medication, hospital stays and so much more. Check up on your breed’s needs to see what they’re prone to. If they’re prone to dental issues, for example, our Deluxe plans also give you dental cover.

Did you know you get one or more months of free pet insurance when you sign up? Click below to get started today.

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