Room for Behaviour

scout hall

A room full of behaviour vets.


Women mainly. We are described as the ones engaged in the fluffy, feel good stuff, but make no mistake about the science. It is heavy. There is long-term potentiation, serotonin, biochemistry and neuroanatomy, enough to make your head spin. The desire to skip the hard stuff is slowly disappearing as the need to open it up and have it within my cells, known and understood takes over. Like learning a new language. They say when finally you’re fluent you dream in the foreign tongue.


I am feeling positive about doing my membership examination next year. Maybe for the first time. Most of us are buoyed by nearing the end of the course – feeling in a way that things are falling into place. Dr Caroline gives a talk on the brain and up flashes her slide “behaviour = protein” – she tells us it was an epiphany for her. Of course her epiphany is hers alone. They are personal connections. To her brain it makes complete and utter sense. Unless you are a behaviour brain nerd it probably doesn’t give the clarity she is aiming for. But it is a piece of the puzzle. Some bits we still have to put together for ourselves.


Analogies. Metaphors. Stories. Pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built and being likened to the architecture of the brain. They are all bits of the puzzle.


Epiphanies are being had all over the room. I have my own nonsensical epiphanies over the weekend. Dogs = prisoners. Owner = prison guard.  I think of how the prison workers I have met always correct the word “guard” preferring to be called “officers.” Because even though it is just semantics it is important.


Dr Jacqui steers away from the label of “problem behaviours” and calls them “training issues” and for dogs with the more serious imbalance of a “behaviour problem” as dogs with “mental health issues.” It helps me because the mere swapping around of the words “behaviour” and “problem” has never really differentiated the conditions enough for me. Language is how we communicate our world and with behaviour medicine so many words are already loaded, hijacked by life, before we come to them. Our words in behaviour are words we already use daily when we talk about children and spouses and all the other relationships in our life.


We are warned against using “commands” when we instruct our clients about their dogs. Another cog falls into place when we replace “commands” with “cues.” When we switch “leadership” with “working with.” The beautiful thing about behaviour medicine is that animals have a say, finally. Isn’t it what you wanted when you first chose vet science as a career? You wanted to care about how animals felt. What animals want is important to behaviour vets because we are not all about wanting control. We want peace. This is a different thing. It requires both parties to give some. We need to speak to people about managing their expectations of what they want from their pet. We need to understand the behavioural needs of animals.


Let’s think about not clipping the wings of birds and ridding them of their natural ability to escape. Maybe you shouldn’t have a bird if you want to confine it always to a cage too small for it and have it live with its natural predators looking on. And what about not picking up rabbits, since for a rabbit to be hoisted up off the ground predicts for them that they will soon be eaten. Instead train them to enter their carrier and move them this way. Perhaps buying a rabbit because it is fluffy and soft and good to cuddle fulfills the need of the human animal, but takes not into account what a rabbit wants and needs.


Behavioural medicine with the animals we share our lives with needs to be not just about what owners want but about animals in their care too. Good behavioural medicine gives animals the right to say No. It is a mind switch. Animals can tell us –I am not comfortable with that. I am frightened. It stops us labeling them vicious and mean and bad.


Just as a prisoner officer who worked in juvenile detention told me once; “Kids in here aren’t bad – just sad.” When you work with children who you perceive as being sad, as opposed to criminal, it makes an enormous difference to the way you treat them. Who punishes someone for being sad? The empathy channels are open when they are allowed to be.


Epiphanies – they force a crack open. Okay so maybe we are not having Isaac Newton type epiphanies here, but still. I feel just the beginning of the weakening of the shell, the wall. Soon the crack will widen and all the knowledge banked up beyond will flood into me.


4 Replies to “Room for Behaviour”

  1. I like this, Nic – it has parallels with my approach to working as a clinical psychologist – how we frame things non-pathologically is important in respecting the wisdom at some level of the person’s seemingly destructive or unhelpful behaviour even if it doesn’t make sense to us…


  2. Oh Nicole, so true … I struggle so with people who want dogs always to be ‘good’ when we are not, and with dogs frustrated and hyper because they are not walked, talked and touched and praised enough … like those children in detention centres these dogs may end up in Shelters. Sigh!! I worry and am powerless, apparently. Thank you … again.


  3. It’s like with grooming , I tell clients with new fluffy puppies all the time , this dog needs a groom every 2 months for the next 10 to 15 years . That’s a lot of unpleasant experiences if you don’t help the dog to learn to enjoy , kindness kindness kindness.


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