As a specialist animal behaviourist, Dr Gabrielle Carter is building better relationships between owners and their pets. By Kerryn Ramsey
In the past, the majority of pets in Australia lived in the backyard. These days, many pets reside in the home where human and animal co-exist in a shared environment. In response to this trend, there has been an increased demand for the skills of animal behaviourists to explain and modify the behaviour of a wide variety of pets.
“People now accept that animals have emotions that drive behaviour,” says Dr Gabrielle Carter, animal behaviour specialist at RSPCA Victoria. “There’s also a growing recognition that animals have mental health issues, just the same as people.”
Another big change is that many animals are now being bred for companionship rather than as working animals. “One way to do that is to make them more dependent on humans and that can lead to anxiety,” says Dr Carter. “If an animal is more anxious, it needs a security base and looks to its owners to act as a social group. The number of anxious animals has increased—it’s an inadvertent side effect of making them needier.”
During a consult, Dr Carter usually starts by observing the body language of an animal around their owner. If a dog shows it’s uncomfortable by yawning or licking its lips, that’s valuable information. Once it’s pointed out to an owner, they may suddenly realise the dog has been displaying that behaviour every time its head is patted. It could have been going on for 10 years but now it’s possible to change the relationship for the better.
“Understanding body language is a valuable skill in modifying animal behaviour quickly,” says Dr Carter. “Unfortunately, the veterinary profession can be overly quick to prescribe medication. Certainly, psychoactive medications can be very helpful for mental health problems but they’re not the panacea. Drugs are frequently prescribed because vets sometimes lack the confidence and training to undertake behaviour modification.”
After graduating from the University of Melbourne in 1985, Dr Carter worked in a number of vet practices and for various animal welfare groups. She then set up her own practice—a 24/7 home visiting service based in Collingwood, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne. This service was expanded to become the Fitzroy Veterinary Clinic that offered a public clinic as well as maintaining the home visits.
After selling the practice and undertaking a brief stint overseas, Dr Carter then set up Northcote Plaza Veterinary Clinic, an inner-city Melbourne practice with plenty of nearby competition.
“We differentiated our practice by marketing to the gay community,” says Dr Carter. “We advertised in the gay media and received a lot of word-of-mouth referrals. Finding a niche market was a successful business strategy.”
After 20 years of business ownership, Dr Carter then decided to shake things up. She sold her practice and went to the USA to study animal behaviour at Purdue University, Indiana. After a three-year residency, she sat her diplomate exams and became a specialist in animal behaviour. Back in Australia, Dr Carter started her own business, Good Pet Behaviour, a home visiting service in Melbourne.
“At present, I’m an animal behaviour specialist at RSPCA Victoria, as well as a learning and development consultant,” she says. “We’re rolling out training to the staff in animal handling and behaviour.”
Behaviourist versus trainer
While an animal behaviourist has specialised skills, some in the veterinary profession struggle to see how they are different to an animal trainer.
“It’s all a continuum,” says Dr Carter. “My analogy would be that an animal trainer is similar to a teacher in a school, teaching essential skills required for a good foundation. Then there are teachers who specialise in children with challenging behaviours, just as there are some animal trainers with additional experience and qualifications to deal with more specific behavioural problems. Then there are psychiatrists who undertake mental health diagnosis and can prescribe medication and institute broad treatment plans. This is comparative to an animal behaviourist with a postgraduate qualification.”
Tegan McPherson, head of operations at RSPCA Victoria, sees real value in being able to access the skills of animal bevaviourists. “We work hard to address any health and behavioural issues by reducing the amount of time animals stay in our shelters as well as facilitating rehabilitation programs in our shelters and with foster care.
“It’s a real team effort and behaviourists such as Dr Carter are critical to achieving this goal. RSPCA Victoria believes physical and mental wellbeing are equally important aspects of animal health. Our vets and behaviourists work side by side to ensure animals achieve optimum levels of both in order to ready them for adoption.”
No one solution
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to animal behaviour is that a solution for one household may not be the solution for another. Each case involves a variety of considerations and different recipes for success.
“Many vets and trainers tend to roll out cookbook solutions instead of individualised treatment plans,” says Dr Carter. “My job as an animal behaviourist is to build and maintain a relationship between the owner and the pet. Each solution is different and the context needs to be understood. One client may have a home that’s neat and tidy and the dog isn’t allowed on the couch. Another client may have stuff everywhere and dogs running all over the couches. The behaviour modification solutions have to work in each specific household for all the individuals—animal and human.”
Over the next five years, Dr Carter plans to continue improving behaviour and medication in shelters while working at RSPCA Victoria.
“I’m particularly interested in working with foster carers,” says Dr Carter. “I want to provide training and support for these people to do good rehabilitation work that provides the best outcomes for the animals.”