I often say that my job is about giving owners the right management tools to create a better way forward for themselves and their dog. It’s not about me training their dogs; it’s about me showing them how to train their dogs themselves.
On average, I will spend a couple of visits with an owner and their dog, after getting an outline of what they’d like help with. During the visits, I’ll guide owners on how to address those dog behaviour issues. At the end of the second visit, they might still be working on the issues, but usually that’s enough time to see clear progress in getting to where we want to be.
What sort of behavioural issues do you see in dogs?
It can be anything from the dog getting nervous on walks, around other dogs or close to traffic, to barking excessively. Recently, we’ve also seen dogs struggling with the impacts of Covid-19. Lots of people have acquired new pets during the pandemic, while many of us have also been leading a quieter, more isolated life. This means that some dogs have not had the usual opportunities to become socialised around people or other pets, resulting in a spectrum of social problems ranging from uncertainty to fear and aggression.
Meanwhile, we’re also seeing issues such as separation anxiety or depression in dogs that have become used to human company at home, until their owners start spending more time away from the house again or with a new baby. The good news is, the majority of behaviour issues we see in dogs can be improved after working with them and their owners.
What qualities does a dog behaviourist need?
It’s not enough to love and understand dogs; you have to be good with people, too. Opening up about problems with their dog can be a difficult and emotional process for owners. So you have to be able to empathise and communicate with people to do this job. I was a telephone counsellor with the Samaritans for a while, and I’m sure that has helped me learn to listen to people and find out what’s really going on with them.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to dog owners?
Don’t just ignore a dog behaviour problem and hope it will get better on its own. A lot of people think that if they ignore poor behaviour, their dog will get bored and stop doing it. That may work with minor attention-seeking behaviour in dogs, but you shouldn’t apply the same principle to more serious issues, such as your dog growling at you, behaving territorially at home, or not letting you cuddle your partner on the sofa. If ignored, these kinds of antisocial behaviours can worsen, so they need to be addressed.
How can owners get off to the right start when training their dog?
It’s important to remain calm and in control, and show leadership, without being harsh or heavy-handed with your dog. I’ve seen big men being pushed around by tiny, yet domineering, dogs. Positive reinforcement is key – although that doesn’t mean constantly giving your dog treats.
What do you find most rewarding about working as a dog behaviourist?
When people tell you that your help has changed their lives. If, for example, they’re in a situation where they can’t leave their dog alone for five minutes, and that is having an ongoing impact on their lifestyle, we can hopefully help them get their freedom back. That’s very rewarding.
What are the toughest behavioural problems to solve?
Some dogs are so nervous and stressed around people that I wouldn’t wish to touch or approach them, because doing so could put me at risk. So you can get off to a bumpy start sometimes, if a dog is trying to bite you. However, it’s very satisfying to find ways of alleviating stress in dogs.
Occasionally, however, we have to be realistic and recognise that a behaviour issue in a dog may be too far advanced to get the outcome the owner is hoping for. In a case where a dog has shown clear signs of aggression towards children, for example, it may be better in the long run for the dog to leave that household. But, most of the time, we arrive at more positive outcomes for owners and their dogs – and both are much happier.
What do you enjoy about working with Petplan?
I like talking about my work as well as doing it, so when Petplan was looking for a behaviour expert, it was a natural fit. I’ve been working with Petplan for around 15 years now, but I was aware of them well before that, as they’re one of the industry leaders in terms of offering insurance cover for behavioural work with dogs.
I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned in 20 years of doing this job – and since there are always new people coming into the field of pet ownership, there’s always a need for practical behaviour and training advice.
If you’d like our experts to address a tricky canine health or behaviour issue in a future article, we’d love to hear from you – share your story using the tag #PethoodStories on Instagram or X.