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Understanding the wants and needs of animals can be incredibly difficult, and this challenge is only emphasised when animals are demonstrating difficult behaviour. Difficult animals can be dangerous animals, so it’s important to know how to deal with an animal who is exhibiting problematic behaviour and protect others from the risk that a difficult animal might pose.
Whether you’re a pet owner, a wildlife enthusiast, or work with animals professionally, understanding how to address problematic behaviour is essential for the safety and well-being of both animals and humans.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to deal with difficult animal behaviour:
Introduction to the Importance of Dealing With Challenging Animal Behaviour
Problematic behaviours in animals can be easy to identify but difficult to rectify. It is an issue that is more widespread than you might think. After mosquitoes and snakes, dogs are considered the deadliest animals in the world, for example. They are responsible for 30,000 human deaths globally each year.
Dealing with problematic behaviours is an essential element of animal welfare. In a world where animals are being used for entertainment, food, medicine, fashion, and scientific advancement, and even being kept as exotic pets, it is important that healthy and trusting relationships between humans and animals are nurtured. When animals are approached through a wellness lens, their behaviour can be better understood and controlled. Focusing on improving the wellness of animals living in human societies is essential. According to the Animal Wellness Institute, an inclusive approach can lead to a new way of understanding, characterising and relating to animals so they too, can live full and meaningful lives. Ensuring that all animals are cared for appropriately is a part of dealing with difficult animal behaviours.
There are many ways in which you can seek to control negative animal behaviours. The most commonly used behavioural techniques include habituation, extinction, desensitisation, counterconditioning, response substitution, and shaping.
Understanding the Root Causes of Problematic Behaviours
To know why animals are exhibiting certain behaviours you need to understand their root causes.
There are many reasons why an animal may exhibit problematic behaviour. Perhaps one of the easiest root causes to understand is poor animal health. If animals are experiencing health problems which are painful, it makes sense that they would be more irritable or aggressive. This is in part because animals have no other way to show us that they are in pain, so they show this via their behaviours.
Other factors that can lead to problematic behaviours in animals include genetics, environment, and past experiences. Some behaviours are learnt: when a dog barks, for example, it will get attention from its owners and the dog may be unable to differentiate between negative and positive attention. Some negative behaviours are fear responses: an animal is more likely to behave in an aggressive way if they believe that their personal safety or their habitat is under threat.
Finally, in rare cases, behavioural problems may have developed as a result of genetic factors, a stressful perinatal environment (prenatal, neonatal), and insufficient early socialisation. Animals that don’t spend their important formative early months with their parents or with other animals of their species will not develop the positive behaviours that are expected of them.
When you understand the root cause of problematic behaviours in animals, you are better placed to seek to deal with those negative behaviours. That’s why it is important to take the time to discover the cause of the behavioural problems before you begin the process of addressing them.
Strategies for Prevention and Proactive Management
The age-old adage that prevention is better than a cure certainly applies to dealing with difficult animal behaviour. If you can manage negative behaviours when they start to occur and before they become problematic then this will be better both for the animal, for the safety of yourself and any other people in the environment too.
The best way to prevent difficult behaviours is to promote positive behaviour. You can do this by creating an enriched environment for the animals. Enrichment is important whether the animal is in a home setting, a zoo enclosure, or in the wild but it is a term that is generally used when discussing captive animals. The purpose of enrichment is to enhance the quality of life of captive animals by providing them with both physical and intellectual stimulation.
For enrichment to be effective, it should be provided on a daily basis. The best kind of enrichment incorporates infrastructural environmental enrichment and smaller, more changeable enrichment opportunities. Examples of infrastructural enrichment include permanent structures such as climbing frames, access to water pools, scratching posts and daily socialisation opportunities. These can be with both other animals and humans. Behavioural enrichment which can be changed on a daily basis includes scatter feeding, puzzle feeders, novel toys, and olfactory challenges.
To ensure that problematic behaviours don’t develop, all animals should have established and clear routines, and boundaries should be set and maintained. If you have a cat that you don’t want to go upstairs in your home, for example, you should never allow it to go upstairs. Relaxing the rules even once will send mixed signals and leave your pet confused. When they go upstairs again you may perceive that as a difficult behaviour but in reality they are simply repeating behaviours that have previously been considered acceptable.
Techniques for Addressing and Modifying Challenging Behaviour
When an animal begins displaying challenging behaviours it is important that these are addressed and modified as soon as possible. The longer a negative behaviour is allowed to remain in place, the more difficult it will be to correct.
Some of the most common techniques used for animal behaviour modification include positive reinforcement, desensitisation, and counterconditioning.
Positive reinforcement is a technique that uses a reward when the animal demonstrates desired behaviours. Because many animals are food motivated this reward is often an edible treat but other rewards that can be used as part of this process can include toys or praise. Positive reinforcement is one of the best and most powerful tools in your armoury when modifying challenging animal behaviour because the desire for the reward means that the animal is more likely to repeat the positive behaviour. Over time, this positive behaviour will continue to be reinforced until it becomes the norm for the animal and replaces the previously displayed negative behaviours.
Desensitisation is a technique that involves exposing an animal to a stimulus that would normally cause an undesirable reaction but at an extremely low level so that they don’t respond. If a dog is experiencing separation anxiety, for example, then you could use desensitisation to treat this by leaving the dog alone for a minute or two and then gradually increasing the length of time in which the dog is left alone. Desensitisation can be a particularly effective technique in modifying fearful and aggressive behaviours.
Counter conditioning is a technique in which an animal’s reaction to a stimulus that they react negatively to is changed to a positive reaction. This is achieved by giving the animal one of their favourite rewards (usually food) at the same time as exposing them to the stimulus. An example of this would be if a cat and dog fight when left in the same room. Placing the two animals in the same room (with careful supervision) and giving them their favoured treats would lead them to associate spending time with each other with the reward. They will begin to see this as a positive interaction rather than a negative one.
Behaviour modification is not a quick fix, and all of these techniques will take time and consistency before you see results. It is important that you keep going, that you are patient, and that you don’t send mixed messages to the animal you are working with. By being consistent with the technique you choose, you will soon find that behaviour patterns begin to change.
Seeking Professional Help When Needed
It is not always possible to deal with difficult animal behaviour on your own. This is particularly true if the animal is large or if their behaviour is threatening or aggressive.
If you are responsible for an animal that is developing a behavioural problem then your first step should be to seek advice from your veterinarian. Because pain and injury can be the root cause of any behavioural changes, it is important to ensure that this is ruled out before you seek the assistance of a professional animal behaviourist or trainer. Once you know that the negative behaviour doesn’t have a physical cause, the behaviourist can work with you to improve your own training skills and give you the skills that you need to deal with difficult animal behaviour in a way that is both safe and constructive.
There are many benefits of seeking professional guidance to address complex behaviour issues. These include working with an expert who has knowledge of and experience in dealing with common species-specific concerns. Helping to control aggression and destructive behaviours that can be a real cause for concern. And helping you to understand the animals in your care, and their unique needs, better.
But animal behaviourist is not a regulated profession which means some people can work in the field without any formal qualifications in working with animals. This means that standards amongst trainers and behaviourists can vary wildly. To find a qualified and reputable animal behaviour specialist you should consider asking your vet for recommendations. They can give you the details of experienced trainers and behaviourists that they have worked successfully with in the past.
You should also ensure that the trainer or behaviourist you choose to work with holds relevant qualifications and that these qualifications are up to date. Using outdated or negative techniques can cause your dog’s behaviour to get worse and leave you with more problems in the long term, and this is a real risk if you work with an unqualified or underqualified trainer.
In the UK there are different organisations that hold registers of certified behaviourists, and they will list registered behaviourists local to you. The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) regulate and represent a number of pet professionals, including pet trainers and behaviour therapists. The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) is an academic society that encourages research into animal behaviour and they also operate a scheme to help vets and pet owners find qualified and reputable behaviourists and trainers.
Case Studies and Success Stories
The Animal Behaviour Society has included a huge number of important and heartwarming case studies on its website. These show the true value of behaviouralists, trainers, and supportive owners in dealing with difficult animal behaviour. Some additional examples of success stories include:
Dolly, who was adopted from a rescue home at 9 years old. Dolly had suffered a difficult start in life: she was underweight and in poor general condition. She also had a severe malformation on her front legs, and the pain that this malformation caused was the root cause of her negative behaviour. The solution in this case was long-term daily anti-inflammatory tablets from the vet.
Cookie is a cat who was experiencing severe separation anxiety. This was traumatic for both her and her owners. They reached out to a behaviourist who provided perches, toys, and food puzzles to keep the cat entertained and stimulated. The behaviourist also suggested that the owners leave the radio on when they go out and that they start by only going out for short periods of time using the desensitisation technique. This worked well and now Cookie is a well-adjusted cat who is happy to be left when her owners go to the office.
Conclusion: Fostering Harmony and Understanding With Our Animal Companions
Animal companionship is important. It can fulfil attachment needs, ease anxiety and loneliness, improve self-esteem, and facilitate emotional regulation. But when animals begin to exhibit difficult behaviours this can be difficult both for the animal and for their human companion.
The good news is that with the right knowledge and techniques, difficult behaviour in animals can often be addressed and improved. Tools such as positive reinforcement, desensitisation and counter conditioning can all be harnessed to change negative animal behaviours and promote positive ones instead.
There is no such thing as a bad animal: only an animal that has had a bad experience, bad luck, or a bad start to life. It is important to approach the challenge of difficult animal behaviour with empathy, patience, and a commitment to the well-being of your animal companions. Difficult animal behaviour can be treated, and animal-human relationships and bonds can be strengthened as a result.