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A Behavioural Journey

So last week I passed my Membership exams in Veterinary Behaviour with the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists. I had, just prior to receiving the results sat an oral exam, and a month prior to that sat two written papers as part of the examination process. Completing those exams was the culmination of nearly two years of intensive study and a natural progression in my interest in the field of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine which began almost 7 years ago.

Why behavioural medicine? Why didn’t I pursue further accreditation in a more popular, mainstream and potentially lucrative field of veterinary medicine? Veterinary Behavioural Medicine is a relatively new, and up-and-coming field in the profession with a comparatively small coterie. But it is so NEEDED. Every day I see animals that struggle with their environment, or the choices they see in front of them. Nearly every day I see animals who show unusual or extreme responses to stimuli either as a result of their natural genetic disposition, their early upbringing or environment and the impact this has had on them, or as a result of choices they have made before and the consequences those choices have yielded.

In the last 20 years or so pets have shifted from being a possession or a companion, to a true member of the family. With the recognition of sentience in animals, as well as emotions a whole new level of understanding is coming to the fore. Together with the debunking of the Dominance Theory we now see our pets as not stubborn, but fearful or misunderstood, we don’t see viciousness but an animal that genuinely fears for their safety. By changing the way we see our pets, we can employ a greater level of understanding in how they see the world, communicate (with each other as well as humans), and, more importantly LEARN. By understanding this we can engage a more compassionate approach to their management.

My dog Lulu that had behavioural problemsIt all began when I bought a puppy years ago. This puppy, Lulu, was very timid when I got her, but like most people I just thought it was the change in home environment and being separated from her litter. And to be fair a lot of puppies are a little inhibited in their first days in their new home. But Lulu never improved. In fact, she worsened with time. She would cringe and cower and avoid contact with all of us. She would hide in her crate all day and slink out to eat her dinner before retreating back into her crate. In my ignorance I thought if I showered her with love I could improve her outlook on the world. Except she didn’t enjoy my attention or that of my family. She would soil inside during the night, hide in her crate during the day and she never, ever, wagged her tail. What had I done to make this puppy so sad? Why couldn’t I make her happy? We had a happy household on acreage with lots of rabbits to chase, a companion dog with an even temperament and a family that loved her. We provided treats and toys, gentle handling and we wanted pets for nothing other than companionship. So why wasn’t she happy?

It was about this time I attended a conference in Brisbane and sat the behaviour stream to try to learn why my dog was so … sad and broken. After a lecture I managed to grab Kersti Seksel for a rushed chat about my puppy to see if she had some information. Kersti is one of the two Veterinary Behaviour Specialists in the country and gave me advice to medicate my dog ASAP with antidepressant medications. ‘Really??!’ I thought, ‘She’s just a puppy’, but Kersti is a leader in her field so after opening my eyes a lot more during the week sitting the behaviour stream I came back home and started my puppy on Prozac. And boy did it make a difference! Not straight away, but over the next few weeks we saw Lulu come out of her shell bit by bit. I, by this time, had begun to research what I could do for a dog in Lulu’s situation and began a lifestyle of structure, routine and POSITIVE-ONLY interaction (which means NO punishment EVER!). The only consequence of Lulu performing a behaviour I didn’t want was no reward. But never punishment. We’re not talking hitting or kicking or physical punishment here, but even yelling or time-outs are punishment. Punishment is never helpful for animals with a psyche like this and worsens their behaviour.

Over the next couple of years Lulu progressed from being the saddest, most heartbreaking recluse to a dog who truly enjoyed her SMALL world and the people in it. We had routine, she loved the humans she knew but remained uncertain of people she didn’t know. She would offer play to me and engage in tugs and chase, abandoning it instantly if someone outside of her immediate family entered the room. She would seek us out and sit with us of an evening on the couch, not hiding in her crate in another room. She stopped soiling inside because I understood she was too scared to go outside alone when it was dark. So I chaperoned her outside to toilet every evening before bed. She enjoyed the engagement of learning and thrived on the structure and we ended up being able to off-leash run at the Pine Forest where she could experience a sensory smorgasbord in addition to aerobic exercise. Despite much training and low-stimulus counter conditioning Lulu remained fearful of other dogs but that didn’t matter to me because I didn’t need her to love all other dogs. She was never, from the start, going to be the kind of dog I could take down to the markets or the cafe and expect her to cope with the hustle and bustle, the mass of unfamiliar people and dogs: the emotional challenge was just too high. And that was fine by both of us.

Once, I tried to wean her off her medications because, for some reason I can’t remember, I didn’t want her to be on them all the time. But Lulu relapsed badly as I tried to wean the dosage. So she stayed on her medication, and she improved again.

After about 2 years, maybe a bit more, we kind of reached a point where Lulu was, I felt, about as good as she could be. She was interactive and outgoing at home, engaged in play in her home environment, was responsive during walks (if we were alone, and we always tried to keep walks to the less busy times of day – or night), and even wagged her tail! She was happy with her ordered, structured, predictable and small world where she knew what to expect and her brain could cope. And this is where we stayed. We managed Lulu’s environment to help her, we changed how we took holidays and where we went, who we had house-sit and I chaperoned her outside EVERY SINGLE NIGHT for these years, because that is what she needed. I could have said ‘stuff you, It’s too hard and I’m not doing it’ and done whatever but that was not going to be fair on Lulu to live with constant uncertainty about her life. I could have, and to my shame nearly did, give up on her because to be brutally honest it’s bloody hard work, but that wasn’t fair on Lulu either. Who was going to take on a dog like this? What rescue or shelter would she end up in? None of them have the resources for a dog like this and I knew that. She would have been euthanased at the top of the ‘too hard’ or ‘not rehomable’ basket. Yes, even with me being a vet I found it extremely challenging. Yes, I had two very small children at the time and life was busy. I had all the usual problems, excuses, outs … whatever you want to call them. I could have used any of them. But you know what stopped me? The fact that I got this dog, and I owed it to her to give her the best life I could. And I loved her. We ended up, after so SO much hard work, in a place where I think all of us were pretty happy and were managing just fine. Lulu wasn’t the dog I expected, or really wanted if I’m completely honest. Very few people would choose a dog as broken as that willingly. And Lulu wasn’t completely comfortable with the whole world, but she was comfortable with her little world, as long as we kept it small and stable. We had an acceptable compromise.

It wasn’t long after this that Lulu was out and about in the paddock and startled a rabbit as she nearly walked on top of it. It took off with Lulu in hot pursuit and it dashed across the road safely. Lulu didn’t. I was heartbroken, and relieved. That’s an honest response. I loved the hell out of my special edition dog, and she was even that bit more special because of the amount of work we’d done together in the previous years. But I was also just that tiny bit relieved because the constant management, the constant monitoring is draining in a way that those without special edition animals will not understand. I don’t think anyone who has owned a special edition would willingly choose one again, but if they did, they’d be the better owners for having owned one before.

Even now, many years later I still recognise that Lulu was a particularly special ‘special edition’ dog. I have not seen many dogs like her, or with her level of generalised anxiety. But I’m so, SO grateful to have had her. She taught me immeasurable amounts about how to manage these pets, that medication can absolutely improve their quality of life, that medication can (and should) be given early. In fact, if I knew then what I know now I would have started Lulu on medication as soon as I saw just how badly she was coping with the world in general. Lulu also gave me a view ‘over the fence’ to what owners of behavioural cases face when trying to manage lifestyle, home life, work, kids and all that with a pet that isn’t fitting the mould. It’s hard, it’s emotional and there’s a different kind of grief experienced when you realise the pet you got wasn’t the pet you anticipated. It’s hard on the human-animal bond. And I know that. I know it’s tiring, it’s endless, but it’s also so rewarding in many ways. By having to see the world from the dog’s point of view, by having to recognise behaviour and body language these owners are better equipped to manage future pets with more patience, compassion and insight than maybe they otherwise would have had.

Lulu is the reason I followed this path.

Lulu, and all the pets like her that need help, whose owners need advice and guidance. Once I began to see the world of behaviour I saw pets who are failing to cope everywhere. Storm phobias, separation anxiety, dementia through to aggression, inappropriate urination and global anxiety. These are the ones that don’t have a choice to alter their environment, who aren’t provided with the ability to change their situation, or who are genetically or otherwise predisposed to an imbalance of normal brain transmission which renders them unable to make good decisions in challenging situations. These guys are the reason I followed this path. Because there are many of them of varying degrees, and I’d like to be the someone who can help them live a life of the best quality they can. By doing so, I am able to witness the improvements in confidence, the improvements in quality of life in these pets as well as the increasing confidence of the owners and emotional bond between the duo. And this, all by itself is immensely rewarding.

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