Forums » Veterinary Social Work Corner

Tips on When to Seek Help for Behavior Problems

    • 13 posts
    May 25, 2017 11:52 AM EDT

    When you have a pet with behavior problems, finding help can be key for turning the tables and helping to make everything better. It can also be very daunting to begin searching for the help you need. Many pet owners I’ve spoken with have noted that it was finding the right help for them and their pet that helped them the most, especially when they were in the most intense period of dealing with their pet’s behavior problems.

    These tips can help you identify when you need help (and watch for the upcoming post on where to find help). I’m a big fan of the more support, the better!

    When should you seek help?

    1. As soon as you feel you might need it!

    If you’ve gotten a new pet and (of course!) have your hopes and dreams of how that pet will become a part of your day-to-day life, the emergence of a behavior problem (like separation anxiety or aggression) can be a very jarring experience. Pet owners that I speak with often say that the advice they would give to someone else in their situation is to get help right away - as soon as they notice the very beginning of a behavior problem. In doing so, you’ll also be able to get professional feedback about what is going on with your pet and suggested next steps for helping to manage the problem(s).

    2. When you are feeling overwhelmed or don’t know what to do:

    It is totally normal to feel overwhelmed by a pet’s behavior problem, and it is totally normal to not know what to do. And, unfortunately, it’s also totally normal to feel isolated and lost about how to find help. The great news is that there are professionals in the fields of veterinary behavior & behavior and training who are educated and informed about these issues, and they are available to help us understand what is happening with our pets and advise us on how we can best help them. The help is out there and available! And within VetVine we are lucky enough to have the wonderful Dr. E’Lise Christensen as a resource for you.

    3. When there is a safety concern (or a concern that there could be a concern!)

    Safety first! I’ve heard many stories of owners who have gone through the heartbreaking experience of witnessing their pet bite another animal or a human. It is a horrible thing to go through, and there are waves of emotions that often come after an experience like that. Getting professional help for the pet after a situation like this can help owners better understand and deal with the problem, and it is also supportive to both the pet and all of the affected people affected. I’d also suggest making sure you have emotional support for yourself as well! I’ve also spoken with owners who have been worried or expressed concerned that there could be a situation where there might be a bite incident, and have sought professional help as a preventative strategy.

    4. When you just love geeking out about animal behavior

    Many owners have told me that having a pet with a behavior problem led them to learn more about animal behavior than they ever would have with a normal” pet. Ask many people involved in the behavior and training field why they chose that work – it was often experiencing behavior problems with their own pet that led them to want to learn more! And there are some great online courses, books, and info about the science of animal behavior out there for those who want to dive into that knowledge base!

    Here are some resources on where to find help.

     What prompted you to reach out for help?

    Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

    • 147 posts
    July 2, 2017 11:29 AM EDT

    Very helpful information, Kristin!  It seems intuitive that people should know what to do, where to go, and when. But it is not ... awareness about problem behaviors in pets, the impact they have on people's lives, and the resources that are available to help is key.

    I have to admit, in spite of having grown up with and owning dogs throughout my adult life, I was unprepared for what would come my way just about 6 years ago. Mind you - I'm also a veterinarian and I briefly worked with a dog trainer (who trained working guard dogs) during my pre-vet years.

    I had decided to adopt a puppy that was "a dump" at a practice where I'd previously worked. He had been comatose when he'd been brought in (probably due to a traumatic brain injury), and the previous owners requested euthanasia. Long story short, the 4 month old puppy was surrendered, survived, and had residual brain damage. Nobody was quite certain how "normal" he would be, however he had been showing signs of "improvement" up through the time I adopted him. 

    It was apparent to me that he was super sweet, smart and trainable, but at times he was out of control with bursts of activity and behaviors that were inappropriate and that I could not manage. I had him neutered at an early age and started him in puppy obedience classes earlier than recommended - believing these would help to get on the up side of this situation.  

    My beliefs were only partially validated, and he continued to show troubling behaviors. It was stressful, frustrating, and I felt like I'd experienced several moments of temporary insanity in trying to deal with him.  He had impulse control issues and bit me on at least 5 occasions before he was 8 months of age. I started to feel a bit at a loss. I did do some research and reached out to trainers. Contrary to my personal beliefs, I briefly accepted one trainer's advice and probably set my dog way back. Following this trainer's advice (which incorporated aversive techniques and use of equipment), I now know I did my dog more harm than good, and it negatively affected our relationship, too.

    I did finally consult with a veterinary behaviorist (VetVine's very own --- Dr. E'Lise Christensen), and wish we'd connected much sooner. It really was an eye opener. What did I learn?  

    1) My beliefs and understanding - based on years of dog ownership and veterinary training - were only partly correct, and in some respects downright wrong as it related to THIS dog.

    2) The saying that "there's more than one way to skin a cat" ... took on new meaning.  There were things that I had to learn to do differently. I had to approach the situation differently in order to CONNECT with this dog and effect change in him. I had to learn new and different ways of trying to bring about the desired result from this special needs dog. And it was "hit or miss" for a while --- it took some trial and error, and then practice and repetition to get in a groove.

    It's like night and day. When I speak about my history with this dog I tell people, "Our first year was a nightmare. Our second year was nightmarish. Our third year was a bad dream, but by year 4 things took a turn for the better."  We were both unhappy for too long. He's now 6 years old. I cannot imagine my life without him. I am SO proud of him and for how far he's come. I'm also very, very grateful for the lessons he has taught me, and for our bond that is as tight as they come. I've been reminded of the virtues - patience and persistence. The importance of being proactive and open-minded. The power of positivity and the blessing in forgiveness.