A day in the life of… doggy psychiatrists

Pedadoggy Profiles...

Vet Behaviour teamDr Amanda Cole and Dr Heather Chee are Behaviour Veterinarians who diagnose and manage behavioural diseases such as anxiety or compulsive disorders, fears and phobias – just like a human psychiatrist.

Mental illness is increasingly being recognised in humans as well as animals. This team of specialized vets help dog owners recognise and understand their pets’ emotions, and then take the right course of action so their animals feel happy, confident and relaxed.

They don’t focus on training dogs, but work on the premise that the more anxious a dog is the less likely it will be able to learn anything new – just like a bullied child at school often suffers from poor grades. Let’s find out more about what they do and how they do it.

What are the three most common reasons your clients engage you for your services?

  1. Dogs who are aggressive or very reactive such as barking and lunging towards other dogs
  2. Dogs who are aggressive towards people
  3. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety expressed as through barking, howling, escaping, or destroying things when their owners aren’t home.

What are your top tips for getting the most out of your relationship with your dog?

Empathy is the most important part of forming a relationship with your dog. Emotionally and intellectually your dog is the same as a 2-3 year old human child, so their behaviour is never vindictive, malicious, manipulative or even guilty. Most behaviours that we do not like simply stem from fear or anxiety, so we need to move away from the old fashioned belief that you need to ‘dominate’ your dog and move towards being good, kind and consistent parents.

What’s the most common mistakes you see dog owners making?

Dog owners often blame themselves for their dog’s behaviour and think that they have not been strict enough with training. This is often not the case. A lot of behaviours and mental illnesses have very strong genetic components which are not the fault of either the owner or the dog.

This leads many owners to think they can’t comfort or try to calm their pets during scary situations such as storms or meeting people they are afraid of – especially if they present their fear as aggression. They think they have to ignore them or punish them or they worry they are rewarding their pet’s fear. You cannot reward fear. Doing anything that makes your pet feel better such as bringing them inside, petting them, giving them treats or playing with them during a situation where your pet is scared is the right thing to do. Making your dog feel comfortable will actually make it less likely to be aggressive!

What do you love most about your job?

We love opening people’s eyes to animal behaviour and rebuilding human-animal bonds which have been fractured by frustrating, aggressive or destructive behaviours. Seeing dogs go from being anxious to the point of having panic attacks, constantly barking, howling, self harming or being fearfully aggressive to feeling happy, relaxed and comfortable is so rewarding! We love seeing the relief on our client’s faces when we tell them that they can be kind to their dogs and not have to punish or intimate them anymore.

What are some good online resources you recommend for people to learn more about dog behaviour?

http://www.dogwelfarecampaign.org/

This is a fantastic website for understanding dog behaviour and why training techniques that rely on inducing pain and fear in dogs, are not only unsuccessful but also break down the relationship between an owner and their dog. Punishment based training often originates from the belief that dogs try to assert ‘dominance’ or achieve ‘status’. This a concept that is no longer regarded as a useful way of understanding dogs, and is also potentially harmful.

http://avsabonline.org/resources/position-statements

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is a group of veterinarians and research scientists dedicated to improving the lives of animals and people through an understanding of animal behavior. Their website has many position statements which are updated to reflect the ever changing science that is animal behaviour.

Find out more:

Vet Behaviour Team

http://www.vetbehaviourteam.com

vetbehaviourteam@gmail.com

 

 

Fish need friends too (and why dog punishment does more harm than good)

Please indulge me in telling you a story about a goldfish called Wiggle and why this made me think about our lack of knowledge in understanding what animals, including our dogs, think and feel.

I never picked that Wiggle would out-survive his / her, let’s go with her, three finned siblings. A few days after I got them, our cheap water pump had sucked in two fish, killing one and maiming the other. Its entire tail had become shredded and all that was left was a little stump. I quickly realised that apart from being a beautiful fan, the tail helps the fish swim and, importantly, balance when reaching for and sucking in food floating on top of the water.

With no rudder, this little fish moved her whole abdomen from side to side to move through the water, the movement earning her the name of “Wiggle”. To help her eat, I’d crush the granules else she’d end up chasing a piece of food, too big to get in her mouth, around the pond.

Wiggle’s tail has now grown back but sadly in the last few weeks, one of her other siblings was found dead and a wily Grey Heron or Kookaburra had eaten the other right through the bird mesh on top of the pond.

My little fighter was alone and clearly scared after the bird experience, just hanging out under the rock and refusing to come out, not even bothering with the food I put out. When I went to the aquarium to purchase a few more friends, they only had one left in their tank with no new stock due for a while. I decided to bring the last fish home as it was alone and Wiggle was alone, so I would be solving two problems at once.

This is where my story gets interesting in terms of observing animal behaviour. I put the new fish in its bag of aquarium water to float in the pond so the temperature would assimilate, then started slowly letting pond water into the bag so the new fish wouldn’t go into shock from a rapid change.

Well if that wasn’t the darndest cutest thing I ever saw. Wiggle spotted the new fish in the see-through plastic bag and started hovering around, tapping her nose against the bag. The new fish (now called “Dregs” by my husband as it was the last picking from the shop) faced Wiggle, slowly finning in the bag of water.

There they swam for the around half hour it took for the temperature and chemical assimilation to complete. Nose to nose and Wiggle never swam away. When I finally let Dregs out the bag into the pond, she went off to explore her new home, Wiggle swimming right alongside, fins touching. They have not been physically apart since or very far away from each other.

Look, I know I can’t put human emotions onto fish but there was something there that wasn’t just about survival instincts of eating or taking shelter. You could say that there is strength in numbers as schools of fish avoiding a predator clearly show. But from what I saw, Wiggle wanted to be with her new sibling. Physical proximity and body contact were a priority. Immediately afterwards, Wiggle started swimming around the pond again rather than just bunkering under the rock and became very excited again when food was put out.

If fish can experience (not joy or sadness, grief or loneliness, I won’t go that far) a grade of emotional pain and pleasure such as Wiggle had, where does that leave our dogs who have far larger brains and capacity for feeling, and particularly, when we consciously or otherwise inflict punishment on them? Whether that’s jerking the lead when they pull, shouting at them, leaving them alone for hours on end without providing any exercise or stimulation, or in some of the more extreme cases, using shock collars or plain outright cruelty of which the Internet unfortunately contains an abundance of examples.

Wiggle has reminded me that there is a lot we don’t know about animals. So aren’t we better of working to positive outcomes as we don’t yet understand the impact of punishment properly? I’m not a scientist, zoologist or a veterinary behaviourist and can’t pretend to understand the science of animal feelings, but I am a dog trainer that wants to get the best outcome for all dogs – for them to feel safe, loved and happy because the humans they live with are consistent, predictable and have their best interests at heart.