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The Lowdown On Pet Behavior with Brittany Thomas

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Brittany Thomas is the owner and founder of Companion Pet Behavior Solutions, a full-time facility in Louisville, KY that specializes in feline and canine disorders and training.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself

A: I am a licensed veterinary technician, a Fear Free Elite Certified Professional, Low-Stress Handling Certified Silver, a certified animal behavior consultant through IAABC, Karen Pryor Academy Certified Trainer and I am in my fifth and final year studying to become a Veterinary Specialist Technician in Animal Behavior. I am the only person in the state with my certifications and qualifications. 

I have been strictly practicing in animal behavior for the past five years, and during that time I founded Companion Pet Behavior Solutions, the only facility in the state of its kind that specializes in behavior, disorders, and training.

I work closely with local veterinarians and board-certified veterinary behaviorists to help owners address behavioral concerns. 

Q: What are the most common issues you deal with? 

A: The most common concern that I see is aggression issues both in dogs and cats. Whether its inter-dog aggression, aggression toward people, or two cats fighting in the home, aggression is the number one concern I see. It is also the number one reason why pets are relinquished to shelters.

I also commonly see cats with inappropriate elimination habits and dogs with symptoms of separation anxiety. 

Q: What are some common misconceptions about pet behavior? 

A: Some common misconceptions of animal behavior is that the animal “knows” they are in the wrong. When in reality are pets are always learning and modifying their behaviors based on OUR reactions. 

An example would be the “guilty look”. The pet knows they did something bad because they look guilty. The reality is that the pet is modifying its behavior based on past experiences. Maybe the pet chewed up a shoe, and then the owner yelled. So when the owner shows the pet a shoe (doesn’t even have to be chewed) the pet gives this guilty look (ears back, whale eye, furrowed brow.). What the pet has learned is that shoes (chewed or not) mean my owner yells at me. Therefore, the pet is offering appeasement behaviors which basically means please don’t yell at me ) not that they feel “guilty”. 

Another common misconception is that every behavior concern is a training issue. When in fact behaviors can have underlying issues such as anxiety or a medical component. 

Q: Are cats really trainable? 

A: Absolutely! Any species is trainable with positive reinforcement. Think about the trainers who teach tigers how to offer their leg for blood draws.

 I do offer training for cats. The trick with cats is finding a motivator, and keeping sessions really short. I mean like one minute tops. 

Training cats can be really fun and I hope to do workshops in the future for cats. 

Q: Do you believe in “aggressive breeds?” 

A No. When it comes to aggressive behaviors the underlying cause is typically due to some sort of fear or anxiety. Rarely is it ever anything other than that. 

I have seen a variety of different breeds and mixed dogs over the years with aggression issues. 

Q: What would you suggest to someone who has a dog with a history of aggression but wants to be able to be in social situations with other dogs? 

A: Schedule a behavior consultation with me to determine the underlying cause of aggression, and then create a personalized plan to work with that pet through pharmaceutical intervention, management, and training. 

Q: Any general tips for training a dog to remain calm and focused during different outings (i.e. walking in busy areas, taking your dog out to eat, etc.) 

A: Always reward your dog for breaking focus from something of interest, and offering you eye contact. Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated. Therefore, if you reinforce what you like such as eye contact or breaking focus from something of interest your pup will repeat these behaviors, creating and building calm behaviors. 

Management is also a good option. For instance, take a frozen stuffed kong with you so your dog can enjoy something to keep them occupied while at a restaurant or a festival. 

Q: What can you do with a pet that is fearful of vet visits? 

A: That all depends on the severity of the fear, and owners can schedule appointments to create personalized vet plans for their pet; but here are some general tips for pet owners.

Pheromone products such as Adaptil and Feliway can help reduce anxiety when coming to the vet. You can utilize pheromone products by spraying the inside of your crate, as well as the inside of your car 15 minutes prior to exposure. You can also spray a bandana for your dog to wear, and for cats you can spray a towel and cover their carrier.

Bring your pet’s favorite treats, canned food or a frozen stuffed feeder toy.

Withhold food 8 hours prior to your veterinary appointment (healthy pets only). This can help to prevent car sickness as well as make distraction techniques successful. By withholding food and bringing your pet’s favorite treats, canned food or a frozen stuffed feeder toy your pet is more likely to engage in the yummy treats you brought than on the veterinary procedures. If your pet has a favorite toy bring that too.

If you will be bringing your pet to the vet office in a carrier, it is a good idea to leave the carrier out at all times with the door open and comfy blankets inside (add catnip if you have a feline friend who enjoys the herb). By leaving the carrier out at all times, it doesn’t become a cue to your pet that they are getting ready to go to the vet office. Also, make sure that lots of good things come from the carrier (treats, toys, pheromones).

When it is time to come to the vet, make sure that you carry the carrier low and steady. Carry it like you would a wrapped present with your arms underneath the carrier. Try not to swing it or bump it around, because this can be very stressful to your pet (it’s like being on a roller coaster). Once you are in the car, place the carrier in a flat position, spray a towel or blanket with pheromones and place it over the carrier to cover it.

Arriving ten minutes early for your appointment allows your pet time to adjust to the environment and the exam room before the veterinarian comes in. 

Q: What can you do with a pet that is fearful of car rides? 

A: Utilize pheromone products such as Adaptil and Feliway by spraying the car 10-15 minutes before travel. 

You can also take a frozen stuffed Kong or soft bed. 

If you are using a carrier you want to make sure that the carrier is secure and stable. 

Did you know that if a pet shows signs of nausea while in the car it is more than likely due to stress and not motion? In this case, an anti-nausea medication and potential situational medication such as Trazodone would be recommended, after discussing with a veterinarian.

Q: At what point (undesirable behavior-wise) would you suggest bringing your dog in for training? 

A: Immediately. The longer the owner waits for the more the pet gets to practice and perfect problematic behavior, and therefore the behavior progresses. Thus making it even more difficult to address. 

I always tell clients to be proactive rather than reactive. Teach your pet good behavior from the start instead of waiting for it (bad behaviors) to occur. 

Q: Any other last-minute tips or advice? 

A: Know your pet’s body language and what they are trying to tell you. A wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog. A cat laying on its side doesn’t mean they want their belly rubbed. 

So many unwanted incidents can be avoided by understanding body language. 

I have a blog (Companion Pet Behavior Blog) with resources on body language and other behavioral resources. 

Q: Anything else you want to say? 

A: Thank you for this opportunity. I am always happy to discuss and talk about animal behavior, and do what I can to help owners and their companion pets to live more harmonious lifestyles.
Companion Pet Behavior Solutions offers behavioral consultations, puppy counseling, kitten counseling, private training and more. Visit www.CPBehaviorSolutions.com for additional information.