Behavior Medicine

Behavior problems are NOT training problems!  

Behavior problems in pets are frustrating and sometimes even dangerous!  We know you love your pet but if they're aggressive or destroying your home, it's extremely difficult not to just give up on that pet.  And you feel absolutely horrible for even thinking along those lines.  

We can help you get to the source of your pet's problem behavior and provide a treatment plan that restores your relationship with your pet.  


Most animal behavior problems are caused by fear, anxiety, stress, or phobias, especially aggression problems.  Some behavior problems are caused by or exacerbated by medical conditions, such as pain, or feline lower urinary tract disease.  Still others are straight-up mental illness. 


In any case, training will NOT solve a behavior problem.  In fact, punishment or dominance based training will almost certainly WORSEN many behavior problems. Unfortunately most of the trainers in this area use force, pain, punishment, and otherwise completely inappropriate and outdated training methods.  You can tell they are not current on animal behavior science if they are using choke, prong, or shock collars; if they teach "alpha rolls" and other total BS techniques.  Sometimes they disguise their true techniques by calling themselves "balanced" trainers but make no mistake, they're just "balancing" pain and punishment with praise and treats which makes absolutely no scientific sense.  RUN AWAY FROM THESE TRAINERS.  They are DANGEROUS to your pet's well-being! 

The trainers we work with and recommend- Melissa Lucas of Come Sit Stay in Sanford and Abby Ganin-Toporek of Sandhills Dog Training in Southern Pines- are 100% POSITIVE trainers.  They use the latest behavioral science to help your dog overcome fear and behave the way we want without making the problem worse.  They both can help you with obedience training and even with some behavioral problems. We work together for more complicated or severe problems.  You can ask Melissa, Abby, or us about your pet's behavior problem and we'll make sure to get a complete evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment plan.  


Fear, Anxiety, and Stress

Fear, Anxiety, and Stress (FAS) are the most common causes for many kinds of behavioral issues in pets, especially aggression.  We may not always know why a particular pet has a fear, maybe something in their past, maybe a genetic component (we know that fearfulness is a trait passed on through generations), but it doesn't matter WHY.  What matters is the pet's quality of life suffers if the object of their fear can not be avoided, and for that reason, we are obligated to fix it.  

Many dogs have what some trainers call "leash reactivity" when in actuality, it is usually a fear-based problem.  For example, a dog that lunges and barks and growls at other dogs while on a leash aren't usually doing that because they enjoy being in that state.  They do in because they are telling the other dog to GO AWAY I DON'T LIKE YOU.  You can be sure if the other dog gets close enough, your dog will attack that dog.  

This is not a training problem.  Your dog has an irrational (or perhaps even rational) fear of other dogs.  You can't train a dog to not be afraid.  In fact, many dominance or punishment based trainers make these situations a lot worse.  

Let's put it this way.  You're afraid of snakes.  Maybe you got bit by one in the past, maybe not, doesn't matter, all that matters is that you hate snakes and want them dead.  You've gotten a shovel or shotgun to a few of them too!  I LOVE snakes, I think they are awesome and I love how they rid my garden of moles and voles.  


We go for a walk in the woods together, holding hands.  You see a snake on the side of the path and start  screaming.  You'd like to run away and pull against me, so I punch you in the face.  Now, maybe you do stop screaming about the snake.  But I sure as heck didn't cure you of your ophidiophobia.  All I did was make you mad at me. 

Every time you scream about seeing a snake, I punch you.  What have you learned?  That if you tell me that you see a snake by screaming, I'll hurt you.  So you stop screaming about seeing snakes.  One day, during our walk, you see a snake and I don't.  It's close enough for you to stomp it to death, so that's exactly what you do.  I beat the crap out of you because you killed a snake.  I never taught you that you don't need to be afraid of snakes, and in fact, you are still quite afraid of them.  You are only more afraid of me punching you if you scream.  And now you're also confused because I punished you for no reason, from your perspective.  You never screamed.  I beat you anyway.  Now you hate me and and you don't trust me.  

Is that how you want your relationship with your dog to be?  I doubt it.  

What if I did this instead?  I make you one of my world-famous sangrias.  When you're nice and relaxed I ask my friend to bring a snake into the room, in a locked terrarium.  You can leave if you want, but you only get another delicious Sangria if you stay.  So you stay.  And nothing bad happens.  Every day, we repeat the process, and the snake is brought closer and closer to you.  You don't care, you're enjoying the Sangria so much you don't even think about the snake.  Eventually the snake is brought in by hand instead of in a terrarium.  The snake is calm.  It doesn't come after you.  You begin to wonder why in the heck you were so afraid of snakes in the first place.  In fact, you like your snakie-poo Sangria sessions.  Eventually you even lament that the snake can't join you in drinking Sangrias because you've become friends.  

We obviously don't use Sangria when desensitizing and counter-conditioning dogs, we prefer favorite treats or sometimes medications depending on how terrified the dog is. 

The point is that we solved the problem.  You are no longer afraid of snakes, you don't want to kill them.  Which is good because I'm not perfect and I can't keep you and snakes apart forever, which is how you managed to stomp the snake to death in the first place.  Now when we go walking in the woods, you see and snake and don't pay it any mind.  You're not inhibiting a scream because you're afraid of what I'll do to you, you're not screaming because you're not afraid.  Big difference.  

We can solve a lot of behavior problems the same way.  Things that will make your life with your pet easier, such as being able to trim toenails, have the pet groomed.  We can even teach you how to help your pet not be afraid of the veterinary procedures.  

Other problems like we said are medical.  For example, cats don't urinate outside the litter box because they are mad or spiteful.  They usually have a painful condition called Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD) that can be exacerbated by stress.  We have seen more than one elderly cat that simply can not get into the litter box any more due to arthritis.  Or they're urinating a lot more often than usual and they won't go in a dirty box.  We even had one patient that was spraying urine because he was not neutered as the owners were told, he was bilaterally cryptorchid (neither testicle descended).  It was a simple matter of actually neutering the cat!

These are just a few behavioral problems that we can help solve:

  • Aggression of all kinds

  • Inappropriate urination or defecation

  • Separation and other types of anxiety

  • Noise and thunderstorm phobias

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders

  • And more!

More on Behavior

Dr. Meghan is a long-time member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.  With this membership comes specific advanced training, resources, and relationships with Boarded Veterinary Behaviorists. 


Both Chelsea and Dr. Meghan are also Certified Fear Free practitioners, meaning that we don't CAUSE behavior problems in pets by manhandling them during their veterinary visits.  Yes, some vets actually CAUSE behavior problems in pets.  I've lost count on how many who have severe anxiety for veterinary care, to the point where even the nicest of pets try to bite!  Desperate pet owners seek our help because their previous vets have refused to see the pets due to aggression- that the vets themselves caused.  Both Dr. Meghan and Chelsea think it is terrible that the very people sworn to protect and help animals can