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.


Learning Theory and Facebook Likes


As I study veterinary behaviour and study how animals learn I see evidence of learning theory in action all the time.

Just take Facebook for example.

For a behaviour to continue it needs reinforcement. For users of Facebook this is what that little thumbs up “like” button is all about. Every time a photo or post receives a “like” you are spurred on to contribute more. To up the ante. To get more “likes.” People may think it is superficial or silly, but it follows the laws of behaviour. In essence you can’t help but be motivated by the positive reinforcement of the little thumbs up. When a behaviour is positively reinforced with a “like” the behaviour is encouraged and the learner even keener to see if they can get a repeat pat on the head. Compare this with a mean-spirited comment which acts as a “punisher.” (A punisher is anything that makes a behaviour less likely.) A churlish comment attacking your post might mean a retreat from the using of Facebook – a wounded learner. Think of the dog who doesn’t come when called if all it gets is a berating from its owner.

When we want animals (and children) to engage and learn we would do well to remember what is motivating. It is not inspiring to be told you are not working hard enough, or you could do better. It is motivating to hear the American phrase “Good Job”, or “Thatta boy.”

I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg knew much about Learning Theory (he did study psychology so probably yes is the answer) when he designed Facebook with its little “like” button, or whether it just came naturally to him to praise the efforts of his peers. Because the “like” button is a generous thing. Push it often. Don’t be surly about it. It doesn’t cost you. It makes the author of the post know the post was read and received with pleasure. It means they will post this way again. Just as the dog who has the best recall will return from across the oval for the snippet of liver treat. Those “like” buttons are powerful reinforcers.

But controversy exists over who really came up with the “like” button first and a Dutch company claims to be the inventors. Rembrandt Social Media has sued Facebook, asserting that the “like” button violates two patents granted to Joannes Jozef Everardus van Der Meer in 1998. But of course no one can own the idea of “liking.” It is what we humans do – we have opinions on things and we want to express them to one another. As a completely social animal it is no surprise that Facebook is such a success. People may bemoan the lack of real intimacy in today’s world but to me Facebook is a testament to the craving that people have to connect with one another.

What seems good about the Facebook “like” button is that there is no nasty alternate “dislike” button. You just say nothing if the content of a post doesn’t appeal. Just slide on past. Just as you ignore the barking dog or the dog that jumps on visitors. “Extinction” is the practice of ignoring a behaviour with the intention of it not receiving any positive feedback, it will eventually die away. What if your posts never received a Like? After many repeated check ups on your posts you would eventually tire of checking in. You would do so less often. Having no “likes” decreases the amount of time someone spends on Facebook and therefore acts as a negative punisher – absence of reward causes behaviour to decrease. Then one day you would wake up and you would not even recall your password. Facebook would have become a place of inconsequence for you.

And then there is the “share” button. This may be the most positively reinforcing button on Facebook. For a “share” denotes special love of a post. Not only do you “like”, but you “like” it enough to go that extra mile and “share” it on your page. When you ask a child to share there is a feeling of losing some of what they have and of having to divide it amongst a hoard of others. Sometimes just sharing with one is hard. Sharing leaves you with less of what you want. If there are eight people eating cake, how much do you get each? Many a mother has lamented the child who has trouble sharing their toys. Isn’t this a reason for play dates? Learning to share. But we all know the value of sharing as we grow up. There are share plates of food at restaurants which invite conviviality and conversation, there is sharing a bottle of wine, there is sharing the bed. And now in the age of the internet there is sharing information, ideas, images and, of course, words. As far as Facebook goes “sharing” is multiplying, not dividing. It is expanding and sending forth, propagating and spreading. I like to think of it as a “seeding” button. Wind and birds pick up kernels – taking them far and wide – the seeds are scattered, deposited in fertile soil and the germination begins.

Susan Friedman on Behaviour

Susan Friedman

I am forced to get off the comfy king sized bed – the urge to write overrides the laziness I feel when faced with the chore of getting on my wheelchair to go to my bag and dig out the moleskin notebook. I momentarily chide myself for not being forward-thinking enough before I got onto the bed in the first place. Being in a wheelchair teaches one the economy of transfers. But laziness and the desire to write are strong competitors, and the urge to put pen to paper wins, almost every time. This is how I know I am a writer. I do it compulsively. I don’t just want to think this stuff – I want to capture it for later when I want to recall the weekend. I want to revisit the Lego-like image of plane after plane taking off and landing across the water of Botany Bay – as I view them from my balcony window in the Novotel Sydney Brighton.


The planes are thunderously loud. They boom across the sky. At night it seems they are louder than during the day, as if the day-air somehow absorbs and blankets the sound. Chunky Sydney air – thick with moisture always – so different from Perth’s air – gauze thin. On a still Sydney night the jets crack the sky. Some dogs must hate this; living beneath the flight path. Others must habituate to the noise and become the seriously bomb-proof hounds.


Susan Friedman is an Applied Behaviourist and specialises in teaching people how to assess behaviour across all species. She has a penchant for work with captive birds. She has talked for two days solid. A true New Yorker, despite living and teaching these days in Utah. Some heavy reinforcement must have been declared, since she has turned a normally 8-week long course into a two-day seminar. “Strap yourselves in,” she tells us; peppers us with “Good Job”.


She is not speaking to the uninitiated in behaviour. It is an audience of veterinarians who are interested in behaviour or have done further study, of animal trainers, of zoological keepers and behaviour practitioners. I guess we could be considered a weird bunch; heavily analytical and deciphering.  Even making her morning coffee with a new machine, Friedman, sees behaviour in everything she does.


And why wouldn’t you? It is one of those areas. The more you learn about how animals learn the more you see the world through a behaviourist’s eye. From a gnat to a blue whale – we all learn the same. Through motivation. Through being reinforced. Through wanting to move towards something or escape something else. The more we study behaviour across species the more we see the similarities, especially when it comes to learning and behaviour. There was a time, sadly not that long ago, when we concentrated on the difference between us and animals, even believing animals felt less pain than we do and hence operating on them without adequate pain relief following. That seems ludicrous now.


Susan Friedman has a simple message for all. Behaviour is what animals do – all of us – on Earth. To change behaviour is simpler than you think. What comes before the behaviour is called the antecedents – the environmental circumstances that the behaviour happens in. And what comes after the behaviour are the consequences of the behaviour itself. So, if a dog bites a hand, the bite is the behaviour, and the hand being near the dog is the antecedent and the consequence is that the hand goes away. To successfully change the behaviour we can work both with the antecedents and the consequences. We can change the way the dog thinks about an approaching hand by positively reinforcing the approach of the hand. Much behaviour can be managed by changing both the consequence and the antecedent before addressing the behaviour itself. Looking closely at the consequence of an animal’s behaviour can tell us what it was doing the behaviour for in the first place.


Having worked with delinquent children she sees the need for working ethically and changing behaviour by trying the least intrusive method first. This means we should not be reaching for shock collars when we deal with a barking dog as a first port of call. (I would say there is always another way.) Ethics demands we explore the least punitive measures first and so therefore, with our barking dog, as an example again, we should ask at what and when does the dog bark? Can we first manage the environment to stop the dog barking?


It was one of those conferences that sees you delving into the behaviour of your child and spouse and unpicking their behaviour in the behavioural assessment kind of way. And holding the mirror up too. Perhaps it is as simple as reinforcing the behaviour you want. She told the delightful story of a group of psychology students who successfully manipulated their professor to only teach from one corner of the lecture room. Whenever he moved towards that corner they became more attentive, listening and nodding, smiling as he spoke. When he moved away from that corner they looked down and uninterested, fiddled and feigned disinterest. By the end of the term he was indeed corralled exactly as they had planned – all with the use of positive and negative reinforcement.


A mantra she taught us to ask when looking at behaviour is, “What is the Function?”  Use this when studying behaviour and you can see how useful it is. Perhaps when people believe they are unable to change a behaviour then it is because they are invested in the behaviour continuing unaltered.


She also talked to us to be wary of the investment in“story”. As behaviourists let us not get too caught up in how the behaviour developed in the first place. It is common for people to want to tell you stories of how a dog’s jealousy, anger or fear arose, but as behaviourists, we should concentrate more on teaching animals what to do and be less concerned on what NOT to BE. This too carries over to children who, for example, have been shown to do less well at school once a label; such as having a “learning disorder” is attached to them.


Most clients will want the tool to “stop” a behaviour that is causing them problems, when really they would be better served asking themselves what would they like the animal to do instead – and then teach it. It sounds simple and is – but this is not the same as easy – since people live in a “cultural fog” of misinformation regarding animal behaviour – from thinking animals should just do it because you have asked it of them, to believing that animals are incapable of learning anything at all.


At the end of the two days, as the organisers were getting ready to thank Susan for her talks, the fire alarm went off. Loud.Persistent. The conference could not continue over the siren. Intermittently a recorded voice came on and asked us to stay where we were and await further instructions. I thought of 9/11 and the people who died because they heeded that advice. I thought we should leave the building. Isn’t that what you do when a fire alarm goes off? After several minutes the alarms had been switched off and another announcement told us the source of the problem had been located. Susan was presented with a sculptured galah, which she sincerely claimed to love. A behaviourist till the end, she left us saying she hoped she wouldn’t be paired  forever more with the piercing sound of a fire alarm. The lectures were over.


I ascended the building in the lift and could smell the smoke as I entered the sixth floor. I could see no smoke. In the corridor two heavily clad firemen stood by the entrance to the laundry. They had tracked the smoke to the laundry room where someone had set a meal aflame in the microwave. The perpetrator had fled with the burning meal and the smoke had made the alarms go off. Now there was just unmistakable taint of smoke and burnt food lingering.


I spoke to the firemen because. Because they are in yellow, with bulky suits and because they are firemen. FIREMEN. Since our own house fire, years ago, I have the conditioned response to firemen (the conditioned stimulus) of going weak at the knees and running off at the mouth. I hovered about them as they measured the smoke with their machinery. I asked them about the rule of not using a lift in a fire. They said I could use it. The lift was for them and me. They said the person who had set the meal on fire could be charged with a criminal offence if caught. I thought of the learning we had been doing moments before downstairs. Of how punishment is entrenched in the way we humans do stuff. Despite there being no injury or damage caused, the punishment inflicted could be severe. Deterrent enough to being caught. If the world could become the tiniest bit like the world offered up by Susan Friedman we could see more harmony between our species too.







Letting the day slip away…


There is guilt of course.

There is a lime green file. It is full of pages of neurology and psychopharmacology. It is mind bogglingly hard to fathom. When it starts to grind down to the DNA in the cell and the enzyme RNA polymerase I feel something slipping in my brain. I read and reread the same sentence. Neuronal stutter. Like the old Holden EH clutch that my mother’s foot fumbled with at the hill by the prison going to visit my Dad in hospital as a child. How she dreaded the hill. Even as children, in the back seat, we felt my mother’s dread of the hill. Sitting on our hands on the sticky blue vinyl. Her anxiety a wave of heat. Please turn green lights so she doesn’t need to ride the clutch and do a hand brake start and risk rolling backwards into the car behind, or else konking out.

The green file notes try to make analogies that are easier for the brain to grasp. For instance, it cutely describes neurotransmission as a “pony express.” But somehow I can’t quite make the jump from molecules to horse riders and it just makes the whole thing harder still. I am learning that the brain is not a collection of “wires” (I am not sure I ever thought it was) but rather is a chemical “soup”. The neurotransmitters are swilling around, turning on and off the genes in cells so that axons grow and stop growing. Make connections. Stop making connections. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but that’s how I am imagining it. This is today’s take home message. Brain = chemical soup.

I learn that 90% of the neurons made by the foetal brain commit apoptotic suicide before birth. The discoverers of the process who named it apoptosis wanted the word to rhyme with the messy process of cell death called necrosis and used the Greek ptosis meaning “falling” and apo meaning “off”, just as autumnal leaves fall from a tree. Even in science humans search for words to be beautiful. Cell death = falling petals. In apoptosis the neurons just shut themselves off and disappear. No pus. It seems only the strongest and fittest neurons survive and thrive in our adult brains. In the adult brain there are still changes being made all the time but they are not as dramatic as those of the foetus or child. An adult brain is like a well-established garden where the neurons, like roses, need pruning and shaping, but, please, no major landscaping.

Even in science, or maybe especially so, we need to keep bringing it back to something more understandable. Something more concrete. Gardens and cooking. Houses and sheds. Nerves as having branches, brains as full of soup. For who can imagine the inside of a cell with its mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum. We need the mitochondria to be the energy power house, the nucleus the central headquarters. But despite its helpfulness there is still chemistry and molecules and who can really understand that everything living is made of atoms of carbon?

And maybe some where along the way I lost that neuron (or two) that was responsible for that little bit of understanding and that’s why it’s so hard. Perhaps when all the neurons were in a lemming-like mass walking off their apoptotic cliff there were a couple who really should not have leapt. They were the ones supposed to “get” the DNA and RNA and the enzymes and peptides. And as science is able to dig deeper and examine more and more finely we discover more and more detail. You think you have come to the end of something and then they explode it apart and describe it again at a more intricate level. Ad infinitum. When once seeing inside the cell seemed miraculous, now we can see inside the structures inside the cell. Just as space goes on for ever, can we continue to magnify and see deeper and deeper into molecular structure? We can explode apart genes so they become lists of proteins. We can see what receptors are made of. Like an artist who constructs a world on the top of a pin. Each cell is a world.

Doesn’t it blow your mind?

war games

Doggy Dementia


Just the other day I euthanised a pooch whose owner described him as having doggy dementia. She came in with him clutched to her. He was a sixteen-year-old little white fluffy who spent his days wandering the house, soiling himself and the floor, refusing to let anyone rid his coat of the tangled matts and deteriorating into a bundle of anxious quivering. She didn’t care that he stunk. She did care that he was in pain. If she could have admitted him to a nursing home for dogs maybe she would have. Maybe not. Recently she had had to go away and she’d left him with her sister. He’d not slept for three days.

Now I am reading Rebecca Mead’s absorbing article in The New Yorker about the advanced-dementia care at Beatitudes and I can’t help but think of the little white fluffy. Dogs get dementia too.

The director of education and research, Tena Alonzo, at the unusual and forward-thinking nursing home says, “All behaviour is communication.” With dogs it is even more so, since we never have a verbal language in common to begin with. We cannot ask them how they feel. To be a vet you must watch and listen. To know dogs is to observe and interpret their body language. To understand the demented human, body language needs to be read too. Alonzo gets the staff to practice interpreting non-verbal queues on each other, by having another staff member instruct them in a foreign language. She also gets the staff to brush one another’s teeth and to spoon feed each other – this is how you come to understand what it feels like to be the resident. The dedicated take to wearing adult diapers – to get a real sense of what life might be like for a dementia sufferer.

Alonzo says, “When you have dementia, we can’t change the way you think, but we can change the way you feel.” This might be true for dogs in distress too. We could always do with a little more empathy.

She describes how a black square of carpet at the entrance to the lift might stop a demented patient entering, since people with dementia have been shown to be unwilling to step onto such a black space, imagining it to be a hole. Reading this I thought – how like the cattle grid at the farm gate. Perhaps as we slide into dementia we are becoming more akin to animals. When Alonzo talks about her own old age – she says, “when I have dementia” knowing that cognitive decline comes to nearly all of us. Most of us will go there.

She says, “one of the things that create comfort for people who have trouble thinking is space. If you are too blocked in you feel frightened.” Think again of the animal that cage guards. Lunging and growling at anyone coming near, but as soon as the gate is opened and freedom is sensed, the animal can be handled.

When a patient can’t seemed to be helped with pain killers and distractions Alonzo says, “we’re going to try chocolate.” Hershey’s Kisses are a mainstay at the nursing home, because “it’s hard to feel very bad when there’s something tasty in your mouth.” We manipulate the behaviour of dogs with food rewards and lures too. Trainers and vets have long used the momentary pleasure of food to minimise distress. Keep feeding as nails are trimmed. Offer a popsicle coated in peanut butter to be licked while a coat is brushed. We can change a dog’s perception of something it is frightened of by repeated pairings of a food reward with the thing that is the dog’s monster. All the puppies I see for vaccination are injected, mostly without ever feeling the needle, as long as they are distracted by some tasty dog treat. As patients slip into deeper dementia it is as if the primitive structures of the brain take over. There is pleasure and pain. There is fear and anger. There is flight and fight. These core parts of the brain are similar across all animals so that in the end, when we are old and have lost our cognitive function, we are not so different from a frightened dog. Or horse, or cow. We may no longer be able to operate on a high intellectual level, but we still feel. Emotion lives on, sometimes stronger, unchecked, unleashed. Patients are described as “resisting care” when really they are like the dogs who are objecting to being restrained for grooming – they just want the man-handling to stop. In the nursing home the supply of pleasurable food helps avoid conflicts and makes people feel good, just as the only thing that could quell the white fluffy’s pacing was roast chicken from the corner store.

I think about how vets have learnt a lot from paediatric dentists. Today in the dentist’s there is no fear. It doesn’t even smell the same. Fuzzy green toys hang from the lights. Toys are handed out after the clean is done. The child’s dentist is so very different from what he was like when we were little. No white coat. Now they know how to distract and comfort rather than force and bully. The nursing home is changing too. It is no longer acceptable to bomb patients with antipsychotics (developed for schizophrenia) just to make them easier to handle for staff. Rather than becoming obtunded on Haloperidol, something as simple as Panadol may be all the patient needs to feel less pain and become more cooperative. It is better to lower the bed, so there is less harm in falling, than restrain people to their mattress. People need to maintain dignity, just as animals need to feel calm. It’s all about the kind of handling. You can take them gently by the hand and lead them or you can put a collar on them and pull. Which one do you do?

Just as humans are afflicted with dementia, our pets also suffer from cognitive decline. They seem to do the same things as our human relatives do. They mix day and night. Sundowning for dogs.They wander the corridors and holler for someone to help them. They don’t know where home is. They stand in corners. They forget who their relations are. They hear non-existent noises and bark at them. They are in pain.

Seeing others. Feeling like others. When we work well, at whatever we do, isn’t it because we recognise the emotion the other is feeling? Be it animal, be it human. We aren’t as different from other animals as some humans would like to think. Connectedness. When we strive to understand what another is feeling we make great steps to knowing ourselves.


Thinking about Spencer

Spencer and Buddhist Prayer

Thinking about Spencer.


I am not supposed to be doing this. I am supposed to be studying. But somehow the picture that his owner, Janet, gave me as a thank you for my assistance in his leaving this world, has caught my attention. He is a small terrier with a big bone in his mouth. His fluffy foxtail is blurred with movement. It is a dog’s joy, is it not, that captures us?


I know she is bereft. We have done what we can do, as humans. We have given him a calm and dignified farewell. A cancer in his belly was growing like a hungry gourd. He felt nothing as he slipped off a needle of very strong anaesthetic. I recited the words the Tibetan monk gave me so many years ago on a Buddhist retreat.


Geshe-La was surprised, wide-eyed, to know, that as a vet, I routinely killed things. He had not long been in the West. He had imagined only the healing. He didn’t believe it was good for my own karma and gave me a prayer for that. At the end of each day I was to use it for purification. I have not remembered it. He gave me another for the animals, and that, I have memorized. The words are supposed to ease the transition from this life to the next. Perhaps the rebirth following will be better, more enlightened. (Of course to believe that we are more enlightened than dogs to begin with is a whole other question.) The short prayer is said in Tibetan and repeated as I inject. I don’t know how it translates and all I have is how the maroon-robed monk told me to say it. What happens if I pronounce the words incorrectly? I carry the mantra in my head. Like Chinese whispers, who knows what wish I am finally asking for and for whom I am asking it? He told me it must be said out loud to the animal as it dies. It is what I do.


Tayata om muni muni maha munaye soha. Tayata om muni muni maha munaye soha.



We clipped some fur for her to remember him by and made a paw print too. We struggled to get the print right and somehow that helped us, the room of people left behind, meddling around looking for something to do, as a spirit lifted off. She wanted to be the one to carefully slide his body into the black plastic that, necessarily, was his transport to the crematorium. There was a feeling, at that moment, that Janet might gladly climb into the bag to stay with him. Spencer had with him a favourite blanket, a squeaky ball and a saliva stained hand puppet, Collin, who had been his chew toy. A dog needs little in the way of possessions to be joyful. A week later his ashes were returned in a well-crafted wooden box. Such a small bundle in the end. The crematorium rang Janet to say, Spencer was ready to come home. What else can humans do?


Janet tells me he still feels present in the house. A collar he wore will be cherished. His bed remains where it was and she senses him. Of course she does. It is only ten days. He was as loved as a child. The loss of him is human-sized. How long do you think it will take to no longer mourn him? A new puppy is on order and perhaps this will help. After all it’s a Griffin. Its piddly, bitey ways will surely distract. But an old dog is priceless. They know us. We don’t need to learn, as I have in my behaviour course, that dogs innately read human gestures, even better than primates. Dogs just get us. They see with our eyes. Owners know dogs understand them. They have always known this.


(Thanks to Janet and Spencer for permission to retell some of their story…)




from John WS Bradshaw
from John WS Bradshaw

So I am three days into the reading of Module 1.

I am freaked out by the mention of the Drosophila fly in a paper on Behavioural Genetics. I had hoped to go to my grave never seeing that word in print once more. I am taken right back to those Genetics lectures given by Professor Bradley. You know; the steep lecture theatre beside Bush Court, where half closing your eyes and navigating the steps gives you vertigo. Where swivelling desks are the bane of the left-handed. He, like a swollen bumble bee, buzzing behind the lectern, us, up the back behind our hands, giggling, not paying attention, as usual. Mesmerised and dulled by the tone of his voice, we drift off. What is it about lecture theatres that makes sleep so inevitable? We are studying vet science. We are in third year, trying our best to scrape by. Third year – where study becomes mud that must be waded through. We are eager to get our hands on scalpels. Search out ovaries through a cow’s rectal wall. What do we want to know about fruit flies?

There are words here that are vaguely familiar.

Alleles, genotype, heterozygous, homozygous, hybridisation, phenotype, pleiotropy… Who are you kidding? Did you ever know their definitions? Not knowing their precise meaning gives them even more power to alarm. If it were poetry perhaps they could be beautiful. Instead they vibrate with science. I need to look them up and add them to the glossary. To the dictionary then. The maroon-covered Merck Veterinary Dictionary. These words are now taking up space inside my brain. They jostle for position. I ache for more diagrams, more visuals, even the words could be prettier. The stories. Where are the stories? Surely genetics is the best narrative of all. And then comes the story of the cat. During medieval times she is considered cursed and the companion of witches. Seen in the street at night it was best to kill her or maim her, knowing she was likely to be a witch in disguise.

What I learn; the cat is genetically more resistant than the dog to large variations in shape and size. Its manipulation has been less malleable. They have been domesticated for a shorter period, but even with more time, they seem unlikely to become as varied a species as Canis familiaris. It is as if they have kept a bit of themselves secret from us. Always a little bit wild. When the pupil of a cat is fully open she has nocturnal vision equal to that of a bat or a badger. To think that Chinese peasants used the size of a cat’s pupil to tell the time. I look at a diagram of the cat’s superior collicus in its mid brain – an area that processes and integrates sensory information. It is all about its face and fore paws. The fact that you’ve known since childhood that a cat uses her whiskers like eyes and that her paws are stealth weapons. Some things are easy to learn. You see them.

Some things; like the fact that sled dogs always keep one foot on the ground and that that foot happens to be a sweat-free foot, selected for through breeding the best sled dogs, since it is less likely to collect ice as the dog runs, just stay with me. And that dogs who have single or double flights in their gaits, like greyhounds, would be unable to pull a sled, and instead would be struck off-balance, as all four feet leave the ground when they run. And to be a good sled dog you need to be able to poop and pee and run all at the same time. These things stick in my brain.

Some things; like the fact that in domesticating the dog we have designed a creature that needs us and depends on us and wants our company. Like a plasticine model we have pushed it into whatever shape we have desired. We have selected it for tameness (a reduction in flight distance) and in doing so we have reduced its brain size, changed the shape of its face and ears and tail, increased its vocalisation, made its sexual cycles shorter and kept it in a permanent juvenile state. Even the skulls of the largest dogs are no bigger than that of a four-month-old wolf. When we have issues with our dogs it is often a misinterpretation of the qualities we have designed them for. For instance the Border Collie who chases cars, the Blue Heeler who bites the ankles of children, the terrier who digs up the rose beds and the dog who pines for his master while he is away from home. We have asked Lassie for loyalty and boy have we got it.

Empty Nest


The Robinia is still recovering from the storm. The edges of its fragile leaves are brown and bruised. It is not how it usually looks in summer. It is autumnal, bedraggled.

The Willy Wag tail nest is still there. Stoic and strongly harnessed to its branch. But it is empty. No longer do the busy little black and white birds make their way, back and forth, with bounty from the grass.

Where do Willy Wag tails go to grieve?


Mrs. W is in her seventies. She wears a polycotton blue and white floral print dress for her visit to the vet. It is a happy dress. Benny is her Jack Russell terrier with a long history of heart disease. We have battled his belly, which grows rigid and tight with oedemtaous fluid, but the belly has won. The skin is drawn tight over the gourd-like abdomen. She keeps a measure on the size of his belly with her dressmaking tape. Today it measures 60cm. I think of Elizabeth Taylor playing Scarlett O’Hara and her less than 20-inch waist.

I can tell by the quiver in her voice. The way she holds him into her chest, that she has come to say goodbye. The medication is no longer working. His heart sounds like a working washing machine. She tells me he is not eating and he looks at her as if to say, help me, I’ve had enough.

Is she anthropomorphising? Yes. No doubt. So what. He is her only close companion these days. He is human to her.

We decide that, yes, Benny has had enough and together we will be saying goodbye to him today.

I imagine her at home, before the visit, before she has rung for the appointment. She has had to build up to this. She has tried all the foods she is not supposed to feed him, to see if he will eat. Streaky bacon. She has doubled his diuretics. She has decided to ring and then waited another day. She has sat and watched him through the night. She has dialed the number and then hung up before the phone has answered. She has driven past with him in the car and even into the car park, but turned about again and gone home. He follows her around the house, into the bathroom. She sleeps with her hand on his chest, feeling it madly vibrate beneath her palm. She has prayed that he will drift off in his sleep. She wonders how big his abdomen can get. How much can one little dog belly hold? Can it pop like a overinflated balloon?

I sedate him, and while the medication takes effect, Mrs W tells me about her old mum who recently passed away. Her mum was in a coma for days, being given morphine and not able to communicate, but, before she died she opened her eyes and looked around. She saw her daughter there and then turned her head towards the window and in the light that beamed through her daughter was convinced that her mother saw someone waiting for her. She had a wonderful, not-often-seen, smile on her face. The daughter believed it was her brother – the boy who had died of peritonitis when he was a three-year-old infant. It gave her enormous comfort to think of her mother, who had grieved all her life for her son, as reuniting with him. She then went on to tell me the story of the boy’s illness and his death. She had been five years old. She had a memory of her mother dressing the child to take him to hospital on what would be his final visit. Before this, her memory was one of his seesawing illness and her anxious parents. She remembered her mother’s tears as she reassured the boy that he would be made well.  But the small boy cried that if he went to hospital he would never come back. She promised him that he would get better. And as I am expressing my sympathy for her dear old mum and how terrible it must have been for her to lose a child she tells me that yes it is unfathomable. She says it is 2 years, 4 months and 3 days ago that, at the age of thirty six, her daughter took her own life.

Benny is feeling the effects of his sedation. His head is lowered. We both touch him. Unison of strokes. She has his head cradled in her cupped hands. She will never be ready to let him go. Wrapped up in him now is all the loss in the world. She is weeping across him. She is weeping for her mother, her brother and her daughter. She is feeling an ever enlarging whole of empty pushing its way out through her chest. Fat droplets of tears are running across her face. Blue tissues turn wet and soggy in her hand.

Now she tells me about Benny. How he came to her from a home where the children teased him and he was never allowed inside. She said he didn’t know how to play when she got him. He only knew how to hide. She asked if it was her fault that his heart was the way it was.

I held her hand and we let Benny go.

We both wondered aloud, whom Benny was off to join in the light. She thought of a previous old dog, that Benny had known, one that knew how to fetch tennis balls. He would be waiting and ready to teach him to play.

Mrs. W goes home. She takes Benny’s collar and lead. They have his smell. The lead is impregnated with his white hair. She will pick them up and holding them will remember him. His tight bellied waddle following her about the house.

Behaviour in Bankstown

I am attending the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Bankstown, Sydney.

It is an annual conference where all the dog-lover types get together. There are trainers and breeders, animal shelter and rescue workers. There are people who work with animals for film and television, trainers for service dogs, and people who work with zoo and exotic animals and a handful of veterinarians and vet nurses. What we all have in common is the want and desire to see animals treated well and trained correctly. Positively. I get it, I do.

Let me generalise and tell you they are mostly women; older, with sensible hair, devoid of artificial colour, left to go grey because, well, who can be bothered with hair dye anyway. And it’s probably been tested on bunnies in the first place. They wear sensible slacks and sensible shoes and little or no makeup. They huddle around displays of interactive dog toys like, well, dog trainers.

It’s rare to be in a place with so many other dog-people. Granted, I am used to them, since I am a vet. But being here makes me one of them too. We are a bit obsessed. We are a bit preachy. Changing the world through dog training? Who are we kidding? Yet we persist. Amongst the converted it feels okay to be this excited about an interactive dog toy, and spending money on things a dog really just wants to chew up.

What I discover is that I am on the right track in regards to the advice I give owners with dogs with behaviour problems. I am following a well-worn path, laid down by the likes of Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson and Patricia McConnell. These animal behaviourists follow a scientific approach. Behaviour is a response to environment. From the smallest to the largest creature – we all learn the same. If we perform behaviour and something good becomes of it, we are more likely to do it again. It’s all about reward.

With the rise of popular dog training shows, that do not follow positive reinforcement, there is a general public perception that dogs are out to dominant and rule the world. But dogs are not seeking worldwide domination – they are just looking for the tasty morsel and the easiest way to get it. They are sometimes scared and anxious, and lashing out at the unfamiliar because they have been unsocialised at critical periods in their development, or else have had a bad experience during these sensitive periods. Have we forgotten that dogs are animals? It seems to me, we often think dogs should be able to get over their distress without recognising that humans have irrational fears themselves where no amount of “buck-up, get over it” rids them of their alarm.

This was brought to light perfectly by one of the speakers, American trainer, Pat Miller. She flashed a series of large slides to the audience of three hundred dog-lovers. The images ranged from snakes to babies, to tattoos and praying mantises. Then she asked us to gauge our response – neutral, positive or negative. She asked if anyone had a very strong negative response to a picture. When it came to the praying mantis a woman sat with her hands covering her face. She was crying and shaking. The image needed to be removed before she could bring her hands down and tell her story. People comforted her as she got through it. She spoke of how, when she was a child, she saw a tree covered in hundreds of them. Perhaps the trunk appeared to be moving? She didn’t know if it was even a real image or something she had imagined. She could hardly speak of it. She was so terrified of the insect that she had sought therapy, which hadn’t been successful, and had once dropped her baby when confronted by the insect on the pavement. Pat Miller’s point was that there was no easy way for this woman to lose her fear. Even though she knew it to be irrational. She had an emotional response on seeing the insect. Something was triggering primal fear, deep in the amygdala of her brain. And this is akin to what dogs are going through when they are barking and lunging at the end of the lead in terror of the unfamiliar. They are having an emotional response. We cannot reach them then. No amount of correction or alternate behaviour training is accessible to a brain running on fear. Our job as trainers, she said was, to turn around the emotional response. Only then could we bring permanent change to behaviour.

So…not so easy.

And now let me tell you about my experience of Bankstown. It was mostly confined to the interior of the sports club. You know the kind of place. It has garish carpet that has had lots of beer spilled on it and still seems to ooze tobacco, even though people are no longer allowed to smoke inside. It has pokies. A section of the sports club is set aside for the glossy gaming machines that whiz and ping and occasionally burp coins. People sit in front of them, transfixed by the shiny baubles, and shove money at them. I guess it is the perfect example of intermittent reinforcement at work. Just like the dog, who sits beneath the toddler’s high chair, knowing that every now and then a treat is falling from above due to the baby’s low skilled cutlery control, the gambler keeps feeding the machine the coins, knowing somewhere down the track the windfall, however puny, is coming. Any minute now.

The ATM in the foyer has a sticker on it that tells punters the chance of winning is less than a million to one, and to THINK! of their families. Perhaps the print is too small.

It is its own whole world inside the sports club; there is a rain forest with brooks and streams and ferns and moss, and a Tuscan village, complete with cobblestones and drying washing from the high verandah window. In the cafe, while having breakfast, an elephant can be heard trumpeting.

One day, beginning to feel the claustrophobia of being inside the club, I decide to walk out into the street. I find myself in Vietnam. The grocers sell Asian vegetables and the meat shops are full of different cuts of meat. The fish shops have no fillets, just whole fish with fresh eyes agog. Old Vietnamese men in loose cotton shirts and long trousers play checkers on street corners smoking cigarettes. Small girls are done-up like princesses with shiny shoes and frill lace socks.

All roads and signs lead back to the sports club. It seems to suck people into its interior. It is cool. The perfect temperature. The drinks are cheap. Filled to the brim. There is entertainment for the kiddies. You can pretend you are really eating in Italy. You never need leave.

I find my spot back in the Grand Ballroom to hear more about the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain. I love the word. Like Bollywood and Hippocampus. Like mandala and myriad. I think of it like a little hot spot in the brain – making mayhem. I think of my dislike (well come on, it’s almost phobic) to small and large rodents alike. It stems from a childhood experience when a mouse ran up my out-stretched arm, as I reached into a cavernous wheat bin, to fill a tin, in order to feed the chooks. It didn’t hurt me. It didn’t bite me. It wasn’t even that shocking, at the time. It just zoomed up my arm, leapt from my shoulder and disappeared. Now. It is their feet. Scurrying. It is their tails. Their hairless scaly tails. It is irrational. But they give me the creeps and I cannot handle the sight of them, the sound of them, or the knowing that they are nearby.






What will you be when you grow up?

I am contemplating this. I am still finding my own path. It seems I want to be many things. Story-teller, for one. Of course there are some dreams that I must simply accept are out of my reach. I don’t pine for them any longer. Acceptance is a good thing too. I will never be a dancer, a zoo vet or a stage actress. I no longer contemplate my curtain call bow or my darting of an elephant.

When I was six there was no bigger joy than the sight of a creature. Any creature, save a rodent. I was in love with my chocolate Dachshund. It started out skinny, smooth and wriggly. Sam was lithe and athletic. When he grew old he had foul teeth and dreadful skin. I now know it was probably Idiopathic Seborrhoea, for which there is no cure, but back then, as a teenager, I researched what I could, to find a remedy for the greasy flakiness that afflicted him, and which banned him from the good rooms of the house. “That dog smells,” and indeed he did. But somehow it did not bother me. I still hankered to have him sleep with me and play with him on my bed. Bathing was the only thing that worked, and so I did it religiously, fervently, determinedly. If I could have cured the dog through diligent shampooing I would have.

Despite his smelliness, which made most people push him away, I still wanted to be near him. I felt an incredible bond with this dog whom I’d been given as a six-year-old. He was mine. He was ill-behaved in so many ways. He was, to a right-minded dog owner, somewhat unlovable. He was ferocious, through his lack of socialisation with any other dogs. Walking him, I needed to be on my guard, because if he spotted another canine he went berserk, straining at the leash and threatening to attack. He once fought a Rough coated Collie; hidden beneath the flowing Lassie coat of the large dog he hung on, till they could be prised apart. This was to be one of his last casual saunters around the block.

My parents solution to the problem was that I shouldn’t walk him, and so he became a yard dog, confined to his quarter acre and the rear of the house. He noisily patrolled his fence line and it was a brave or careless intruder to venture beyond the side gate. He could bite. And still, I loved him.

My love for him was the seed. It morphed into veterinary science where the love of dogs becomes worn down and whittles away. For day in day out the love of dogs is tested by unruly, boisterous beings. They are deformed and inbred. They are badly trained or not at all. They are child substitutes or are, in fact, human. They are scared witless or fearful enough to bite. They are held down, and they piss and poop on you, petrified. They are noisy and smelly and, of course, sick, and sometimes dying. Sick dogs come with stressed owners. Owners who want answers, like people do when their cars have broken down. A new battery?

But despite all this, I cannot be without a dog. I need to commune with another species to be at peace. I need his soulful head to come to rest on my body. I need his eyes. What is it that being close to another species gives us as humans? It is, surely, incalculable, the way we are nourished by their presence. It is too magical to be able to be measured. Does it happen on a cellular level?

Because I am thinking of more study in veterinary science, it makes me question what my path is. I want to keep learning but am fearful of being mediocre, of just scraping through. Not trying might be the surest way not to fail. But still I have enrolled, because it is something I keep coming back to. The love. I am sure it is corny and inanely wet, to go on like this. I can feel the finger-in-the-mouth-nausea rising in the vets who will read this. Get over it. You are not six anymore. Still wanting to cuddle and hold?  That’s your motivation? Yes. I just like to be around animals. Especially ones not sick. I like to watch healthy dogs eat at the rate of knots. I like to watch fit dogs run and cavort. I like to watch tired dogs (and dogs not tired at all) sleep. I like to watch dogs dream of chasing cats or baling up the postman.

And then I want to write about what it is like to feel the dog’s coat beneath your fingertips. I want to write about watching the dog that’s been a companion for years die, as a viscous green liquid is injected into his vein. Nora Ephron, screen writer and director, said that every house where teenagers reside needs a dog, so at least there was one being pleased to see you when you came home. Greeting is what they have perfected. Joy too. Random silliness. We all need, yearn for that unrestrained love. Given so freely, truly with no strings attached (except, let’s be realistic; maybe feed me, walk me, pay my vet bills).

And then I think of Jasper and how his future might unfold. I keep a look out for him, at what he likes to do now, knowing that a seed might be trying to find its earth. His soil is teaming with life it seems. One day a soccer star, the next an AFL legend, a Wimbledon finalist. The next he is writing stories of an evil meat lover’s Pizza slice, AKA Mr. Pizza, and a humongous battle between chef and inanimate food. He is a master of the sound effects of explosions and gun-fire of all kinds. He is drawing cartoons of skate boarders taking to the skies. He hates dinner table talk of vomiting and diarrhoea, or any procedures of any kind on animals. He has an intense and burning love for his own dog, but he’s not moved to cuddle all things covered in fur. Rightly, he seems to know that loving his own dog does not necessarily destine him to veterinary science. He abides school, only just. If anything he appears to be a story-teller and so that could take many forms. But perhaps that’s what we all are, just trying to find the tale in which to tell our story…