BSAVA Congress day two tackles canine behaviour and neurodiversity

25 March 2023

Veterinary practices are being given the tools they need to deal more effectively with dogs showing behavioural problems and to prevent such issues developing in the next generation.

At the British Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Annual Congress in Manchester on March 24, the Dog Friendly Clinic scheme was launched to provide training and resources for staff to recognise and address the early signs of unwanted canine behaviour, such as anxiety or aggression.

The project is a joint initiative between the Dogs Trust charity and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association. Its fundamental goal is to reduce the number of dogs rehomed or even euthanised because of their bad behaviour.

“We want every member of the veterinary practice team to understand dog behaviour so that they can recognise and manage those dogs that are showing subtle signs of fear and to ensure that this fear of being at the practice doesn’t develop in young dogs in the first place,” said Dr Rachel Casey, Director of Canine Behaviour and Research at Dogs Trust. “If the problems are recognised early, staff can talk to the owners and advise them on finding appropriate treatment.”

Behavioural therapy could help maintain a good relationship between the dog and its owner and prevent the risk of dogs being given up for rehoming which has become an increasing headache for welfare shelters. “It is also important because behavioural issues are the single biggest reason for dogs under three years old being euthanised,” she added.

The need to deal with these issues has become more urgent since the Covid pandemic,  during which there was a significant increase in the numbers of pet dogs kept in the UK, according to BVBA president Dr Chris Laurence.

“Two factors have increased the incidence of problem behaviour in dogs since March 2020,” he explains. “One was that there were suddenly large numbers of dog owners who had never kept a pet before and had no experience of their needs. But secondly because of lockdown, these dogs were unable to go out and socialise with people and other dogs. They were living a very isolated life and they didn’t get to understand the real world. We need to teach them how to cope – and that is what this scheme is all about.”

Even before the official launch of the Dog Friendly Clinic initiative, there was considerable interest from veterinary staff wanting to join up, according to Tamsin Durston, veterinary engagement manager with the Dogs Trust. She said 58 individuals and 12 practices have already signed up to receive the training on offer from the scheme for vets, nurses and reception staff.

The reason why a better understanding of canine behaviour will help the practice is that it allows staff to provide a better service for its clients. But staff may also have more personal reasons for getting involved – being able to detect danger signs in dogs before they develop into outright aggression will reduce the risk that staff might be bitten by an out-of-control patient.

It has long been recognised that good veterinary practice is as much about taking care of the health and welfare of people – in the form of clients, the general public and practice staff – as it is about looking after their animals. A large part of Friday’s programme was devoted to understanding and respecting the needs of the sizeable proportion of the UK population whose brains function in a different way to the rest of the population.

The tone for this novel feature of the BSAVA Congress programme was set by the keynote speaker – researcher, social entrepreneur and mental wellbeing advocate Dr Samantha Hiew. She explained how her diagnosis at 40 years old with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) led her to gain a better understanding the psychological struggles she had faced throughout her education and earlier career.

This also encouraged her to seek ways to give wider society a better appreciation of the different ways that the minds of people with neurodivergent conditions like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s syndrome will function and how to make them fit in more easily within the workforce. As founder of the advocacy and training organisation ADHD Girls she has been particularly involved in advancing awareness of that condition in girls because their struggles are more likely to go unnoticed by teachers and medical staff.

Dr Kirstie Pickles, a veterinary surgeon at the University of Nottingham veterinary school who herself was diagnosed with an autistic syndrome disorder, spoke on the importance of veterinary staff being able to recognise and adapt to dealing with their neurodivergent clients, staff and students.

It was important to conform with current employment by ensuring that bosses and colleagues seek to remove any barriers to recruitment in veterinary practices and create an equitable environment in which neurodivergent staff can thrive in their chosen career. As more is known about both the effects of these different forms of brain function, it is increasingly obvious that such people form a significant proportion of both the client base and the pool of potential employees.

It is also apparent that these individuals possess specific talents in terms of skills such as attention to detail and creative thinking that can make people with neurodivergent minds and important asset for any business, she suggested.