Animal Behavior and Animal Rights

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by Peter L. Borchelt, Ph.D

Unfortunately, animal shelters throughout the United States are full of perfectly healthy dogs and cats who find themselves there not because they are unfit companions for the humans with whom they once lived, but because of behavioral problems the latter either did not recognize or could not deal with, or both. These problems include inability to become housebroken, rough play, destructiveness, serious aggression, and much more. It has been estimated that over 40% of pet owners report noticeable behavioral problems in their animals - which translates, nationwide, into something like 40 million pets with behavioral problems.

It is commonly, but erroneously, believed that animal behavior problems most often are due to irresponsible or "crazy" owners. If that were true, however, the chances of successfully treating behavioral problems would be quite low. In my experience, most pet behavioral problems occur in otherwise friendly, affectionate, well-behaved pets owned by the average person, people no more irresponsible or crazy than you or me - and in my experience and that of my colleagues, the chances of successfully solving the many kinds of problems are actually quite high.

For the last 20-25 years, animal behaviorists, who are trained in animal psychology, have been developing more and more ways to help pet owners prevent and solve behavioral problems. Some of the background information that led to treatment techniques came from research, from the clinical application of animal learning techniques to human problems (e.g., treatment of fears and phobias), and from basic drug research in both human and veterinary medicine. Even though there are many unknowns and much yet to be discovered, trained animal behaviorists now have enough information to greatly improve the lives of our pets and those who care for them.

At least two things are truly exciting about the field of applied animal behavior. One is the possibility of a partnership between pet animals, pet owners, and behavioral scientists and other professionals. Together, they can simultaneously help animals, help people, and help increase our understanding of animal behavior and the interactions between animals and people. This can be done using research methods and techniques that harm no one and are humane for the animals, that are helpful and interesting for the pet owner, and that advance our knowledge of animal behavior.

Equally, if not more, exciting is that by dealing with animal behavior problems as the preventable and solvable situations they usually are, beloved animals can remain with their owners and enrich their lives, rather than being dumped in shelters where they are destined to perish only because they barked too much or wouldn't use a litter box.

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