THERE are many positive aspects
to being a veterinary behaviourist.
But there’s also one major
downside: it is very difficult not to
become a killjoy!
Dealing, as we constantly do, with
things that go wrong in pet-owner
relationships, we are always in danger of
seeing problems looming before ever
they happen. In fact, so sensitive does
one tend to become that almost every
interaction between an animal
companion and the
matter on the
face of it how
amusing the incident seems.
When everyone around is falling
about with mirth, one is often inclined
to sit poker faced and silent, the
ultimate spectre at the feast.
I recently visited the home of one
of the sweetest little dogs I’ve ever met,
for example. On hearing what she had
gone through after being rescued as a
stray it was indeed heart-warming to see
how much this delightful little beast is
At last settled and very much part
of a caring, happy family where
everyone thinks the world of her, this is
one of the fortunate few for whom
misfortune has been well and truly
The presenting problems were not
especially complicated so after the
relatively straightforward consultation
there was time for chat and relaxation –
also a little fun and games. So far so
good, until that is the children were told
to leave the room.
Taking the dog with them they all
immediately obeyed, the only problem
being that the little pooch declined to
use her legs. Instead she grabbed hold
of the blanket the smallest boy was
trailing and was dragged teeth-first out
of the door.
Everyone watching, including mum,
burst out laughing; the other children
squealing with excitement jumped up
and down. The behaviour counsellor,
however, remained glumly seated, staring fixedly at the table-top.
Was I being a complete misery? No,just someone who has too often been
called upon to deal with dogs that at
daybreak no longer pleasantly greet
their night-time clad people. Instead
they grab swirling nightdress, pyjama or
dressing gown hems, tugging all the
more ferociously when owners try
ineffectually to shake them off.
Repeatedly telling the dogs to
“stop” or howling with pain when flesh is inadvertently nipped instead of cloth,
they simply add another dimension to
this exciting game.
When called in to help resolve these
and associated problems – irritating
attention rewarded (albeit
unintentionally) behaviours rarely
remain confined to one specific
scenario – one invariably finds that the
genesis of the problem can readily be
traced back to an opportunistic
behaviour that seemed “so funny at the
A real nuisance
Possibly the amusing nature of this
now developing trait survives the next
occasion it is seen, and perhaps even
for quite a while after that. But
invariably before too long the habit it
has bred becomes a real nuisance; one
no one wants to live with any more,
finds socially unacceptable or more
concerning still results in unintentional
injury or fear of such.
It always seems a shame to point
out the potential consequences of
inadvertently reinforcing the behaviour
involved in such an amusing incident.
Highlighting the undesirable
sequelae that could result from such
seemingly innocent reactions can make
one appear humourless at best and
pompous at worst but better that surely
than later mopping up tears when a pet-
owner relationship turns sour.
Being a helpless bystander is
frustrating. Sadly, one is not always in a
position to have any impact upon a
concerning situation, even when it
seems to have all the hallmarks of a
disaster waiting to happen. A while ago,
walking through a seemingly idyllic
village, my peaceful reverie was
shattered by a vehicle alarm. On and on
it went, a split second lull followed
again by the piercing screech. So much
for rural tranquillity!
Passers-by showed signs of
consternation; murmured conversations
expressed even more concern when the
dog triggering the alarm was spotted
inside the affected car.
So bothered was one man that he
entered the nearby shop seeking the
owner. In due course, when her
business was finished, not a second
before, the woman sauntered out with a
somewhat supercilious smile.
What was all the fuss about? When
someone enquired if this was really
good for her dog, her reply was
unequivocal, “Look, she’s perfectly
happy, she always setting the alarm off.”
Apparently, then, this was no one-off
accident but a regular occurrence. And
for sure, the dog didn’t look obviously
distressed, although her repeated
hopping from seat to seat and front to
back certainly suggested she wasn’t
contentedly awaiting her owner’s return.
But what does this scenario say
about the owner’s awareness of the
likely impact upon her dog of constant
exposure to potential noise stressors?
Many pets fortunately escape unscathed
from cavalier, uncaring owner attitudes
and lack of awareness of the potentially
negative effects of repeated exposure to
intense, artificial noises from which
they cannot escape.
Many sadly do not. It would be
good to feel confidence that further
reflection would precipitate changes in
this person’s canine management but
experience suggests that holding one’s
breath whilst waiting for this to happen would be inadvisable.
So what to do?
As educated professionals we have a choice: remain
silent in the face of potential indicators
of troubles ahead or speak out. The
former is often more socially
comfortable, the latter undoubtedly
more difficult but arguably more
Who said being a vet would be
easy? Try being a veterinary
behaviourist, then you’ll see just how
troublesome social etiquette and the
antics of our animal companions can