SARAH HEATH BVSc Pg Cert VE Dip ECAWBM (BM) CCAB FHEA FRCVS

Sarah qualified from Bristol University in 1988 and quickly found her calling, behavioural medicine, by setting up a behavioural medicine referral practice in 1992. Since then she has obtained postgraduate qualifications and a great deal of practical experience. She teaches behavioural medicine as an external lecturer at Liverpool University Veterinary School, and has published widely. Her particular interest is in the interplay between emotional and physical illness in dogs and cats.

The beginning of her veterinary webinar outlines the basis for problem behaviour prevention. For this the aims are to 

  1. Ensure that dogs are in good health
  2. Health is a triad of three equally important components, which must be assured for optimal behaviour to be achieved 
  • Physical health
  • Emotional health
  • Cognitive health

 

There is a link between poor physical health and the emotional state, and some examples are given, such as acute and chronic pain, hormonal, neuroendocrine and gastrointestinal disorders. Dealing with problems such as these promptly is part of problem behaviour prevention

Cognitive health is perhaps the area most readily associated with problem behaviour prevention. Owners often state that the dog ‘just needs more training’ but preference is given in this presentation to education rather than training. Cognition is important and education through learning can significantly influence how a puppy behaves.

Behavioural responses are motivated by emotion and modified through learning. Sarah notes that some emotions are justified and appropriate and behavioural responses are appropriate, although sometimes the resulting behaviours are not considered appropriate by caregivers.

Dogs need to be prepared for domestic life by optimising emotional health. This involves creating emotional stabilityand emotional intelligence. The first of these is influenced by many factors, and to achieve it there is a role for all those that care for dogs from the moment of birth. The important role of breeders and caregivers is outlined. Later in the webinar there is a lot of detail on what responsible breeders can do to maximise success. Assuming optimal breeding practice and early socialisation, the caregivers should aim to provide an optimal physical and social environment and provide the opportunity for beneficial learning. For this examples of classical and operant conditioning are given.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of control, and express one’s emotions, while handling interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically (people). For dogs the most important element is to express and control their own emotions. Teaching emotional intelligence involves exposing puppies to a variety of contexts and establishing suitable emotional associations, essentially aiming to set up puppies to succeed. Emotional stability depends on an individual having adequate emotional capacity.

Here Sarah introduces her own concept –the Heath Sink Model of Emotional Health. This takes the form of an elementary lesson in plumbing. There is a diagram of a sink, representing the capacity for arousal, taps responsible for the input of positive and negative emotions, and a drainpipe representing calming of emotions. The various plumbing abnormalities that can occur are cleverly associated with the potential for behavioural abnormalities. These diagrams just have to be seen to make sense of the concepts.

Essentially we don’t want the sink to be full all the time, (emotional arousal,) avoiding overloading from the taps, but we do want adequate ‘calming’ drainage. An example of calming drainage behaviour is appropriate chewing, which will being down the level of emotional arousal and empty the sink. Adequate sleep is also important and the statistics for this are, at least for me, a little surprising. Adult dogs sleep between 16-18 hours per day. Pups sleep for 20 hours in 24 thus you only have 4 hours to engage in emotional management. On the other hand overloading pups with education and depriving them of sleep is not ideal.

Preventative behavioural medicine should be practiced by every veterinary practice. Of importance is the vaccination or post purchase appointment, offering the opportunity to offer practical advice on the importance of emotional health and intelligence. Emotional intelligence classes for puppies exist, with information on how to access these in the webinar, and later there is considerable detail on adolescent dog behaviour and the usefulness of nurse clinics to help with this aspect of a dog’s development.

The conclusions to the webinar are as follows: 

  • Preventing problem behaviour has many aspects to it
  • Consideration of the health triad is important
  • Optimising physical, emotional and cognitive health reduces the risk of problematic behaviour
  • Rearing emotional stable puppies is a complex task and one that requires a great deal of thought and practice
  • Breeders and caregivers and the veterinary profession all have a part to play
  • It requires an understanding of emotional motivations and the concepts of emotional stability and emotional intelligence
  • The veterinary profession has a responsibility to safeguard the health and welfare of puppies
  • This includes physical, cognitive and emotional aspects
  • Developing emotional intelligence in puppies is the key to them becoming sociable, confident and adaptable members of society.

Sarah is available for access to behavioural advice. Contact BASS@brvp.co.uk

This is a very thought-provoking webinar from an acknowledged national expert. I had expected a list of dos and don’ts when dealing with naughty puppies. Instead we are given an insight to the emotional state of puppies during their development and how an understanding of this can help guide them and their caregivers. The plumbing analogy is particularly good but needs to be taken slowly and reflected on before moving on, because it is so important. There is obviously a very good potential for nursing clinics and this webinar is of particular benefit to nurses as well as vets and students interested in behavioural medicine.