Risk Analysis of Behavior Problems: Animal Factors, 2

Animal factors play a role in the decision that owners face with problem pets.

Posted Oct 09, 2015

M. Bain
Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS, DACAW, with her dog Thumper
Source: M. Bain

By Melissa J. Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS, DACAW. University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Clinical Animal Behavior Service, Davis, CA.

Many things affect an owner’s decision regarding the risk that they will take when making a decision about a pet with a problem behavior. In this blog post we will address the factors related to the animal.


This affects the owner’s ability to control the dog, as well as the increased danger that it poses to others if it were to bite a person or another dog or animal.


Humans have bred dogs for many years for specific purposes. If an owner complains about their border collie herding their children, it will be difficult to stop this behavior. Likewise, if an owner says that their pit bull-type dog is fighting with other dogs, it will be difficult to stop this behavior as well, as pit bulls were bred to fight dogs. Owners of pit bull-type dogs may also feel more scrutiny from the public, therefore, they may feel more pressured to euthanize their dog.

Age of onset

If the behavior started at a young age, there could be a stronger genetic predisposition to engage in the behavior, compared to another animal for which the behavior started at social maturity. Likewise, if the behavior started at an older age, there is a higher likelihood that there is an underlying medical condition predisposing it to a behavioral change.

Diagnosis and motivation

Most cases of aggression are due to an underlying motivation of fear. However, some dogs have been continually punished for expressing any type of aggression, such as growling, so that eventually the dog doesn’t display ANY warning sign, but instead goes directly to biting someone.

Rarely do dogs display aggression based purely in confidence. However, if a dog truly has this motivation, the prognosis is much poorer for a more complete resolution of the problem. Additionally, there are breeds with a stronger genetic predisposition for some behaviors (terriers bred to hunt rodents—kill the pet rabbit; Border Collies bred to herd—nipping the kid’s heels), which make it more difficult to manage. Predatory behavior is a normal (but unacceptable) behavior, and can be very difficult to manage.

Animals can also have severe anxiety that must be managed with medications. If an owner is resistant to treating the animal with medication, it will suffer.

Bite inhibition

It is a much worse prognosis if the animal has bitten, and bitten hard, than if the animal growls over many things, but it never escalated beyond a growl. It is not necessarily true that the bite severity increases over time, but it could if the owners continue to ignore the early warning signs.

It is important to seek help for pets with problem behaviors from a professional such as a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. They can be helpful in diagnosing the problem and giving you a prognosis for the outcome.