Ethology and veterinary practice: Effect of person
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Why could putting a "Watch!" or "Aggressive!" label on a patient file backfire if the file included no supporting behavioral and bond information? This takes us to one of the unique factors that characterizes the natural environment of companion animals compared to their wild counterparts: they live in a human-controlled environment.
However, long before homosapiens entered the scene, wild animals routinely shared their environments with animals belonging to different and similar species.
As they co-evolved in these environments, they developed the ability to recognize, interpret, and respond to vocal, scent, visual, and other cues from members of other species that could enhance their own survival in some way. Because the perceptual range of multiple species often exceeds ours, many are better at this than we are.
A familiar example of this are the alarm calls that may put animals of multiple species on the alert. Depending on the context, those who hear the calls may freeze, flee, or prepare to fight. Many people automatically will look up and try to locate the source of a jay or crow uttering such a call.
In the human-companion animal realm, we have all those people who will stop what they’re doing and react to their alarm barking dogs or cats growling or screaming at perceived threats. But even though energy-intense alarm calls are geared to generate the most dramatic results, the bulk of interspecies communication occurs in more energy-efficient ways.
Consequently, it should come as no surprise that companion animals could and would collect similar data from any people in their environment, too. Granted for many people, including some veterinarians, “the bond” elicits images of service or assistance animals, pet loss counseling, or companion animal-related marketing strategies.
However, the bond also refers to the amount, quality, and flow of information human-animal pairs consciously or subconsciously share via the associated changes in their physiology. Studies of the effects of human presence on canine physiology, collectively referred as effect of person (EOP) studies, pre-date those measuring similar canine effects on humans by decades.
Lately concern about the welfare of the growing number of animals used for service, assistance, or emotional support work has fueled increased research in the EOP in other species too.
Veterinarians who open an unknown animal’s file and see a “Watch” or “Aggressive” in bold, red letters with no supportive history regarding what these words mean relative to this particular animal also provide evidence of the EOP.
What emotions the practitioners experience — or rather the physiological changes associated with those emotions — will be communicated to the animal in addition to the sometimes subtle changes in body language that accompany them. But as always and sadly for those seeking concrete recipes, how a particular animal will respond will depend on multiple factors.
For example, if Ruger comes in with Mr. Jones, who spends a lot of time with the Rottweiler and feels confident about his ability to handle the animal, the dog will take his cues from Mr. Jones instead of Dr. Smith.
However, suppose Ms. Jones — who adores her “furbaby,” but hates taking him anywhere because she can barely hang on to him — brings the dog in for his annual check-up. Her heart pounds, her blood pressure soars, her hands sweat. Unlike her husband, she unwittingly communicates to her dog that she’s incapable of taking care of herself and him in this same environment.
Now suppose that the veterinarian’s dread of seeing the edgy dog and ever-anxious Ms. Jones causes Dr. Smith’s heart rate and blood pressure to increase, too. To dissipate her negative feelings, the practitioner then goes into tend/befriend fear mode, chattering gaily to Ms. Jones, establishing eye contact with Ruger and gushing over him while tossing him treats.
If she’s lucky, this mixed bag of subordinate and insubordinate signals will convince the dog that the veterinarian is deranged but harmless. In that case, he may tolerate her doing the bare basics. But if her behavior causes him to exceed his stimulus threshold, then he may do whatever he considers necessary to keep her away from him and his owner. Regrettably, that may include growling and lunging.
Preventively it is beneficial for veterinarians, staff members, and clients who experience anxiety around certain animals belonging to them or others to take the “mirror test.” To do this, stand in front of a mirror — preferably full-length — and interact with the mirror as if it were the anxiety-creating animal(s).
Pay attention to the volume and tone of your voice, your posture and body language. Ask yourself whether what you see and hear communicates your complete confidence in your ability to take care of yourself, the space, and everyone in it (including the animal), or something else.
Decades of clinical experience with aggressive dogs convinces me that dogs rarely associate their owner’s anxiety with what those people think the dog might do. Instead, these animals more likely associate the fear with whatever change in the environment triggered the owner’s anxious response or heightened it.
Because these people don’t realize that their fear inadvertently may throw the dog into a self- and owner protective mode, they may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Ruger snarked at Dr. Smith’s associate the last time Ms. Jones brought him in, the already anxious Ms. Jones’ body responds with another cascade of stress hormones and related changes that she communicates to Ruger via the EOP the instant the veterinarian enters the room.
This awareness leads to three possibly familiar recommendations regarding appointments with edgy animals:
- Schedule these animals at times of lowest stimulus load. First thing in the morning when the human and animal sound and scent load will be lowest and the animal can be seen immediately often is best.
- Be in the exam room before the client and animal arrive.
- Remember that animals evolved to learn via social learning or modeling i.e., monkey see, monkey do. Or as the old saying reminds us, “You can’t sell from an empty wagon.” We can’t expect our clients and their animals to feel relaxed and trust us if we do not feel relaxed and confident in our ability to handle the situation in their presence.
The bond with its EOP and effect of animal (EOA) components, combined with knowledge of ethology play vital, if often ignored, roles in stress-free interactions for veterinarians, clients, and animals alike.
Ethology tells us why animals do what they do. That replaces (usually negative) emotion with knowledge. EOP and EOA tell us how that behavior will affect the animal’s health and relationship with the owner as well as others.
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