Hazel Shimmin, Holly House Vets’ new resident dog behaviourist, proves old dogs can learn new tricks.
Hi Hazel, tell us how you’ve come to understand our furry friends so well!
I’ve owned dogs all my life, from cross breeds, to standard poodles and Rhodesian ridgebacks. I’ve been working as a dog trainer and instructor for 15 years, previously combining my work with a lecturer role at a land-based college. This gave me the opportunity to develop my interest in dogs and run a range of courses for owners and ultimately set up a canine department offering courses up to degree level in Dog Training and Behaviour.
Along the way I undertook a MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare, where I specialised in Behaviour of Dogs. Two and half years ago I left the college and set up as a self-employed dog behaviourist working through referrals from several vets, before moving to Holly House Vets six months ago to work as a full-time dog behaviourist.
What does your role at Holly House Vets involve?
While the physical and medical care of dogs are well looked after at Holly House, in order to have a well-adapted and happy dog, we also need to consider their emotional and behavioural health. That’s where I come in. Where potential problems are identified, usually by the owner, but sometimes by the vet or nurse, they will refer to me. Some problems may be resolved with training or management e.g. jumping up, mouthing or attention seeking. Others will need a more detailed behavioural analysis and a specific modification plan.
After speaking to each owner to determine the nature of the problem, we decide whether to book a training session or behaviour consult. I then visit the owner in their home to help them work through their problems. Hopefully this leads to a better relationship between dog and owner, less stress and frustration for both and a more enriched life for the dog as it can be fully integrated into all the family activities.
What kinds of issues do your canine clients face?
The most common behaviour problem I deal with is dogs which are reactive on their leads. While we can’t always make dogs friendly, there is lots we can do to increase their confidence and reduce fear, so they are able to happily walk past other dogs and people without worrying and reacting.
I also see lots of dogs that struggle being left alone, have various fears (especially of noises such as thunder and fireworks), show aggression around possessions (resource guarding) or are territorial. However, I am happy to deal with whatever dogs come up with and have had many unusual cases along the way…
What are the common causes of problem behaviour?
When I tell people I’m a dog behaviourist, the common reaction is, ‘it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s the owners!’ Well, this is just not true. All the owners I work with are wonderful, caring people who have done the best they can for their dog, but sometimes need a little more help.
Some dogs are difficult and struggle to cope with previous bad experiences or their innate sensitivity to certain situations. I actually find it amazing that so many dogs cope as well as they do when we consider all the demands we place on them!
What can owners expect from behaviour consultations?
In a behaviour consultation, owners will fill out a pre-visit questionnaire, so we can gather all the background information to be able to understand the cause of any issues. We then discuss this, in their home, so we both understand exactly what is going on, and together devise a plan to help.
All cases are unique and plans are individually designed to suit the specific situation. Most plans will include some stress reduction, (sometimes for the owners as well as the dogs!) as fear and anxiety are probably the most common contributory factors to problem behaviour. There will then be specific behaviour modification techniques to change how the dog is feeling about situations, as it is these emotions usually driving the unwanted behaviour.
As the dog then learns better coping strategies, we will put in training to help teach them alternative responses. Everything is very positive, no one is blamed and there is no punishment or harsh treatment – we concentrate on enhancing the relationship, increasing understanding, decreasing stress and managing the situation so that everyone’s needs are met.
How soon will they start to see an improvement?
This depends on the problem and how well each individual dog responds. The owner’s commitment to the plan has a big influence. Sometimes we get quick wins (changing management for territorial aggression often has a big impact) but usually progress is steady. But when owners have a better understanding and management techniques to help in the meantime, life becomes a lot easier quite quickly. Reactivity on leads can take about six months, but there is usually a gradual improvement along the way, and we put in coping strategies from the beginning, so issues are more manageable from the start.