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A Closer Relationship

Ewa Highland reports on how she is helping her local veterinary staff learn about canine


behavior and body language in a move to make vet visits less stressful

fter many years of going to the same veterinary clinic in West Sussex, U.K., which employs around five veterinarians and probably as many nurses, the resident staff decided that they wanted to find out just exactly what I do with my dogs to get them to such a state of happiness every time they enter the clinic doors. The idea was thus borne for me to conduct a seminar for the staff to help them better understand canine (and indeed other pets) emotions and behavior, and to help relieve the fear, anxiety and stress that many pets (not to mention their owners) experience when going to the vet. The seminar was attended by three veterinarians and three technicians who came prepared with plenty of questions. From my side, I had a plan for what I wanted to get across to them in the 90 minutes I had been given.


One of the first topics I wanted to cover was the importance of counterconditioning. The staff are there, from that very first vet visit when a young animal still has all the trust in the world and does not fear novelty, throughout his whole life. The vets have, in general, 15 minutes with each patient. In that time they are supposed to talk to the owners, handle and treat the animal, and also complete their notes. It is very little time. Counterconditioning is therefore absolutely key, in my opinion. There is no time for systematic desensitization with positive reinforcement, except perhaps on very rare occasions. What can be done though is to always, always give the patient treats after -- and possibly also during -- the consult. If the pet does not take treats under the circumstances, they can be sent with the owner to give him on the way out, but before they actually leave the premises. Hopefully, over time, the pet will be able to take a treat in the treatment room if the procedure is repeated often enough. In relation to counterconditioning, we talked about how we can change a negative emotional state to a positive one, and therefore it is not an issue to give a treat even to a biting dog or cat. Some of the veterinarians thought this was a little strange so I explained it further. We discussed classical and operant conditioning and how we, in this situation, are dealing mainly with classical conditioning. They all agreed in the end that we are not actually reinforcing a specific biting behavior, but are instead changing the consequences for the animal regarding vet visits and, therefore, the distant setting events (distant antecedents) for future visits.

„Alpha Dog‰?

Another topic we covered was the so-called alpha dog model. I explained that dogs generally roam around in various constellations if they are free to do so. One day they might be with a few 12

BARKS from the Guild/July 2017

Ewa Highland (standing, back right) is helping her local veterinary clinic make vet visits less stressful for pets, owners and the vet staff themselves

other dogs, another day they might be alone. It is not only one dog doing the mating. And, of course, dogs are not wolves. My audience all agreed to that. We also agreed we could lay that old, outdated theory to one side and work instead with the setting events (antecedents) and consequences. Different Approaches We also talked about the various approaches, such as medical, behavioral and ethological, one can take when handling an animal. For example, how important it is to incorporate not only a medical approach into the welfare of animals suffering from chronic illness, but also to take a behavioral and ethological perspective. If vets could involve a behavior consultant early on, before an illness has taken hold, any side effects from cage rest, daily medication and physical therapy treatments could be minimized, or at least reduced. As a behavior consultant, I have seen so many cases of young animals who have developed quite severe behavior issues from long-term cage rest, especially if it has happened during the important socialization period.


As my talk progressed, I raised the issue of labeling. Examples might be “the cone of shame” or “this dog is aggressive.” The “cone of shame” is, of course, the buster collar. If a veterinarian gives it such a label, a new owner might easily believe it is something the dog will feel “ashamed” about. Anthropomorphism aside, this may lead to a well-meaning owner taking off the collar so wounds take longer to heal and the animal suffers for longer. I discussed the issue of calling the collar by its real name and how vets could educate owners about counterconditioning it into something the dog actually enjoys wearing. In the case of “this

BARKS from the Guild July 2017  
BARKS from the Guild July 2017  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...