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What is your client thinking?
Not man’s best friend
  1. Gemma Bourne


Gemma Bourne describes her dog, Max, who displays challenging behaviour and what she wants from her vet

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What you need To know

  • A dog’s behavioural problems can have a huge impact on their owners. Take time to understand owners’ perspectives about what they can and cannot manage to ensure you are offering them the best advice for their unique situation. It may be easiest to do this without the dog present.

  • The Association of Pet Behaviour Councillors (, the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers ( and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers ( each have clear accreditation standards for membership and their websites provide a range of useful resources that can help in identifying a suitably qualified person.

  • Several owners have recommended a closed Facebook group called ‘Reactive Dogs (UK)’. They advocate fear free training and positive reinforcement, and their network provides support and advice. This may be a useful resource to suggest to clients.

IN 2015 I adopted a dog. Ours is not a cosy tale of happy ever afters. It’s about life with a dog who displays extremely challenging behaviours. Max barks, growls and lunges at people when he feels threatened and it doesn’t take a lot to unsettle him. The worst of his behaviour is centred on our home. There are only four people who can be inside with him. We need warning if friends want to visit and we try to arrange deliveries when one of us can take Max out. Because of his potential to react, walks have to be carefully managed and we will never be able to show him off at a dog show, take him for a pub lunch, or a day at the beach. I would not have chosen this path but I did not know what we were getting into. I found myself with two options: euthanasia or find a way to make it work.

Euthanasia certainly crossed my mind. I was angry someone had put this problem our way. I eventually discovered that Max was raised in a very impoverished environment with minimal human contact. At four months, he went to a home where his fear was misdiagnosed as dominance, and so he was subjected to a regime of physical punishment. His behaviour deteriorated and eventually he was fitted with a shock collar. The technique failed and he was given up for re-homing.

What stopped me euthanasing Max was discovering that with a different approach he can learn to trust. He accepted me from our first meeting but beyond that he proved he could build a relationship with my husband, my mum and his dog walker. He was not beyond hope. Max was also very lucky that we could manage his behaviour without putting others at risk. We have a detached house in a rural setting, we don’t have children and had enough income to pay for accredited behaviour support and to put security measures in place that keep everyone safe. We are also of an age where we can reluctantly give up wild house parties! Still, it is a hard life. What makes it worthwhile is that underneath all his issues Max is a delightful dog. With us he is gentle, loving and funny. If you could see him playing with fallen apples, wagging his whole body in greeting, sleeping at my feet with all four legs akimbo or doing his very best to work out what we want just to earn himself a ‘Good boy!’ then you would see the Max we know and love. The Max he should always have been and that deserves to be happy.

Should we ever have need of your veterinary care, I would ask for three things. First, please listen to me about what Max can cope with because this is for your benefit as much as ours. I accept that he could not be managed around major surgery or hospitalisation. Rest assured that if he was seriously ill then there are definite limits as to how far we would go and what we would ask of you. Secondly, please don’t judge us too harshly. Remember how far Max has come. He now has a number of friends he meets on walks, he goes to training classes where he particularly enjoys agility and heel work to music and he even became a bronze good citizen! Finally, please make sure that your own behavioural knowledge is up to date so you do not offer the wrong advice, and know where to turn for specialist support. Max is an example of how easy it can be for people to make or break dogs. If reading this can lead to other owners avoiding the same fate then that’s a legacy we can add to his growing list of achievements.

“Please make sure that your own behavioural knowledge is up to date so you do not offer the wrong advice

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