I am absolutely delighted to have been asked to write an occasional blog for Halo, Purely for Pets. I personally know the company’s CEO, Steve Marton, as a successful businessman; a knowledgeable, ethical individual; philanthropist, member of my veterinary school’s advisory board; and also as my friend and advisor. I am happy to step up and contribute to Halo’s good cause to deliver quality, whole-food diets to the nation’s pets and provide bone fide helpful information to pet owners everywhere. Recently, Halo has become the first sponsor of a separate venture I am involved with as chief scientific advisor- The Center for Canine Behavior Studies (CCBS). CCBS plans an inaugural study to learn more about the effect of owner personality on the behavior of dogs. Working together, CCBS and Halo will produce and disseminate the results of the inaugural study to improve the lot of dogs everywhere and help ensure that all dogs have a good home for life.
It occurs to me, as a new Halo blogger, that you may not know much about me or why I have been asked to contribute, so I thought, first of all, that I had better introduce myself. I am, first and foremost, a veterinarian and have been one for almost as long as I remember.
I graduated from Glasgow University Veterinary School in 1970, not quite clear what path my veterinary life would take at that stage. To give myself time to think and also experience one aspect of veterinary medicine I chose to join the Surgery Department of my veterinary school as a “house surgeon” (like an intern) for the first year after graduation. During that year I spent my entire time either operating on dogs and cats or anesthetizing them and, I must say, that I enjoyed the experience.
After that, I awarded myself a little break, in the form of world travel, but again focused on my veterinary interests as I traveled to San Francisco Bay Area to help out in a busy small animal practice. My experiences on the West Coast were transformative and I fell in love with the big US of A. My visa expired after six months and I returned to Southern England where I joined a small animal practice and performed James Herriot-style work running around in a Land Rover treating all creatures great and small.
After a few months of this rural life I saw an advertisement in a veterinary journal for a lectureship in veterinary surgery at my alma mater, Glasgow Veterinary School. Not thinking I had much chance at getting the position because I was so young, I went ahead and applied anyway, not exactly holding my breath. I was amazed a few weeks later to be asked for an interview and, you guessed it, I got the job.
On my first day on the job, I was approached by two professors, one the Acting Dean of the School, and the other the professor in charge of my department. The first professor, Sir Williams Weipers, said, “Nick, the age of specialization is not yet upon us so I am hoping that you will engage in all aspects of this department’s works including performing surgery and helping with anesthesia.” Within minutes, the second professor arrived, Donald Lawson, and he announced that the age of specialization had arrived and that I should focus all my efforts on becoming a superlative veterinary anesthesiologist.
I have to say that I was not thrilled with the last edict from the person who really mattered, my immediate supervisor, as my first love at the time was performing surgery. I plodded on for several years in the department, achieving a specialty qualification in anesthesiology in 1975 and, eventually, using my anesthesia credentials as my ticket to ride to get me back to the place I so missed, the United States. I applied to the University of California’s Veterinary School in Davis but was not offered a position. I then applied to the University of Florida, the other Sunshine State, and they really didn’t want to bother with the paperwork of immigration. So there was no go there either. Eventually, I got a call from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, from a former professor mine, Dr. Bob Cook, who invited me to Boston for an interview. Needless to say, I came like a shot and, after several days of interviews, was eventually offered the job.
I was cock-a-hoop about the new appointment, was thrilled to be back in the United States and delighted with my home, new salary, and enhanced purchasing power. Everything was a dream except for one thing; I did not really feel that I wanted to spend the rest of my life as an anesthesiologist. After all, all my patients were asleep most of the time. Then I had a stroke of luck, a professor from the Tufts Medical School, Dr. Lou Shuster, invited me to join him in a study to look at the effects of morphine in horses – an appropriate research topic for a veterinary anesthesiologist.
During the course of the experiment I made the observation that morphine induced behaviors that occur spontaneously in client-owned horses and that equestrians are familiar with as stall vices. We observed pacing, stall walking, cribbing, and digging to name but a few of the repetitive disorders induced by morphine. The obvious question was are the behaviors seen in clients horses fueled by nature’s own morphine-like chemicals, the endorphins?
To test the hypothesis we blocked endorphins in horses with naturally occurring stall vices and, low and behold, the behaviors were stopped in their tracks. The first time we observed this effect was – to say the least – a Eureka moment. The horse owner who was there decided on the strength of what she witnessed to leave her job as a highly-paid executive at a company in Boston and to go back to Loyola University in Chicago to do a PhD in Bio-Chemistry. Dr. Shuster, who was world renowned for his work with drugs of addiction changed his focus to looking at behaviors of addiction and has continued to work with me on that topic over the years. I was changed, too. I now knew what I wanted to do with my veterinary career – I wanted to become a behaviorist, I wanted to study behavior, to understand it, learn how to control it, and solve people’s problems when they have pets with behavior problems.
I slowly managed to morph my anesthesia job to include some elements of clinical behavior and gradually turned my whole position around completely so that by 1990 I was working purely as a veterinary behaviorist. Somewhere in the middle of the 1990’s I passed the specialty board examination in veterinary behavior and have continued on my path as a veterinary behaviorist through the present time. As I sit here writing this retrospective, I realize that it has now been forty-four years since I graduated from Glasgow University Veterinary School in those days of uncertainty and it has been over thirty years since I found my true calling in veterinary medicine. I have an interest in the behavior of all species though I focus particularly on dogs, cats, and horses. I have been particularly interested in what are called compulsive disorders, like the equine stall vices I mentioned earlier, with many other side interests and my bread-and-butter work of dealing with cases of aggression and various fears and phobias, including separation anxiety and noise phobia.
What has occurred to me over the years is that there is only one medicine that embraces all animal species including man. The conditions I have seen over the years have led me to discover and study conditions like Tourette’s syndrome in horses, autism in dogs, post-traumatic stress disorders in dogs and to recognize the expression of various really strange bout-like behaviors caused by complex partial seizures. Certainly, the world of animal behavior has been, for me, like an Aladdin’s cave discovery.
I have written several books along the way that have taken me to places I never thought I would go and have caused me to meet people I never thought I would meet. From Oprah Winfrey to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson I seem to have met them all. One of my most impressive meetings was with my former prime minister, the Right Honorable Lady Margaret Thatcher. She was introduced to me by the university president who said, “Lady Thatcher, this is Dr. Nicholas Dodman, he’s interested in animal behavior.” Whereupon Lady Thatcher rolled her eyes heavenward and said, “Ah, yes, behavior, that’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it.” And the great lady was right, her wits sharpened by years of verbal sparring in the House of Commons.
We own animals because there behavior endears them to us. They accept us with unconditional love and repay any kindness or affection in spades. They’re even good for our health, causing us to have lower blood pressure, a better social life and live longer.
Sadly, however, sometimes things go wrong and a behavior that is troublesome or tedious emerges in a pet to dampen an owner’s enthusiasm, sometimes even causing them to give up what they hoped would be a dear friend. That’s where a behaviorist comes in to repair a weakened bond, to correct troublesome behaviors, to put everyone back on the right track and ensure that pets have a happy home for life.
In my future blogs I will discuss some of the issues that arise ranging from aggression through fears and phobias to compulsive behaviors and on down the list. I hope that the insight I provide will help some readers to better understand their pet’s behavior and be able to solve any problems that exist for them. With that final thought, I’ll sign off but I’ll be back again before too long with the first installment of a blog that could be called Pets on the Couch.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.