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Part 1 - Behavioral History

The most important thing you can do for your patients is take a complete behavioral history. This is an extremely complicated topic. That’s one of the reason so many consultants make use of questionnaires before sitting down with the family. Even simple information such as diet and bathroom habits tell me a lot about the composition of the household. At the bottom of this article is Dr. Pike’s current questionnaire form. [Edit: I couldn't figure out how to do that so it's going to be on our "Consults" page] This will give you an idea of the information we typically request of our patients. Customize your own though, organize as needed, and include more or less information depending on how you operate.

First, we need to assess the basic composition of the household. Who lives there, how do they interact, what type of training has the animal had, etc. All of those basic questions are outlined in the questionnaire. Most of us know how to do that, so I won’t beat it into the ground. Instead, I’m going to list the top 10 aspects of a behavioral history and explain why they’re important.

Identify 10 key points:

  1. What is the problem behavior?

  2. When did it start?

  3. What was the most recent incident?

  4. Any other instances of similar behavior, but in different situations?

  5. Has the dog been in similar situations, but not demonstrated the behavior?

  6. What have you tried to correct the problem? What was the result?

  7. Are there any other abnormal behaviors present?

  8. What is the owners’ current relationship with the pet?

  9. What is the owner’s expectation for change?

  10. Is the pet medically healthy?

What is the problem behavior?

Humans had a difficult time being objective. Listen to what the family is saying, but make sure you’re coming to your own conclusions. Don’t let their perception skew the reality of the situation. Family’s are asking for help because they don’t know what to do, but that doesn’t stop them from coming to their own conclusions. Get to the bottom of what their true concern is. If you don’t know what we’re trying to change, you’re set up to fail.

When did it start?

The younger the pet when the behavior manifested, the stronger the genetic predisposition, and more challenging it is to treat as they age. A dog with aggression at 10 weeks of age is a serious problem compared to an 8 year old who’s been perfect his whole life. Besides the age of the pet, it’s important to understand what other circumstances were occurring around that time. Maybe something environmental contributed to the manifestation of the problem?

What was the most recent incident?

Try to analyze those ABC’s: Antecedent --> Behavior --> Consequences. What led up to the behavior? How intense was the behavior? What happened afterwards? How well did the pet recover? Was it an appropriate response given the circumstances? These are all aspects you need to analyze as part of this question.

Any other instances of similar behavior, but in different situations?

Has the dog been in similar situations, but not demonstrated the behavior?

These two questions really go hand-in-hand. Animals tend to be very contextual. This means they take into account specific environmental factors when deciding how to behave. It is more promising for the animal to be aggressive in one specific situation versus several. It is also helpful to know if the animal can inhibit that typical response if the circumstances are correct. This information will be important as you put together your training and management plan.

Are there any other abnormal behaviors present?

Comorbidity is very common in behavior. This means that there is usually more than one disorder present at once. For example, if a dog has separation anxiety, they’re very likely to have noise or storm phobias. Dogs who are reactive on leash often suffer from impulsivity problems. When addressing behavior problems, everything affects everything else, so it’s important we tackle every issue present, not just the owner’s primary concern.

What is the owner’s current relationship with the pet?

The human-animal bond is the relationship that keeps pets with their family. If the family is exhausted, annoyed, angry, etc. they are far less likely to put forth the effort to train and help their pet. It’s important we recognize how strong their bond is from the very beginning. If it’s weak, that should be our primary focus: we need to strengthen this relationship. We’ll talk more about this in future posts.

What is the owner’s expectation for change?

Is it realistic? I need to help set up realistic expectations for my family. A dog that has been aggressive since 10 weeks of age and is now 5 will not suddenly get better. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that a trainer will be able to help that dog much at all. As educators, it is our job to make sure the families will be successful, but part of that is having a good goal in mind.

Is the pet medically healthy?

The first sign of a medical problem is a change in behavior. If there are any chronic disease processes, acute illnesses, infections, pain, etc. these are all going to increase irritability and make it more difficult for the pet to concentrate. Make sure you have a client that will take their pet to their veterinarian regularly for check-ups. Always try to rule out medical components before tackling behavior problems.

To summarize your history:

Part 1 – Basic household, lifestyle, training history.

Part 2 – The above 10 questions.

Part 3 – Investigating each abnormality individually.

If something doesn’t seem right, it’s probably not. Investigate further and use open ended questions as much as possible. More than anything, don’t be judgmental. People are contacting us because they want help and don’t know what else to do. We are educators, so educate!

Up Next: Behavioral Triage