I frequently get asked how I got into the field of applied animal behavior. This line of work is unlike many others in which there is an established path to follow. Dentists go to dental school, attorneys go to law school, chefs go to cooking school, but all applied animal behaviorists have very different stories about how they came to work with animals in the way that they do. Here’s my story.
I was in graduate school studying animal behavior in the University of Wisconsin’s Zoology Department. I had already gotten my master’s degree studying a nesting association between two species of tropical social wasp that live together. My PhD work was on the defensive behavior of tropical social wasps. These topics may seem very different than my work with dogs, but they are actually not as different as it may seem at first glance.
The wasp projects I designed came from my interest in social behavior in general and from particularly strong interests in species that live together and in aggressive and defensive behavior. Dogs and humans are two species that live together and have done so for thousands of years. Despite the generally good relationship between our two species, there certainly exists some aggression. My interest in dogs, besides coming from a tremendous love for them, stems from my broader scientific interests in species living together and in aggression. It is amazing to me that individuals living together rarely, on the whole, physically hurt one another. Sure, it does happen, but considering how many interactions occur, only a tiny percentage of them are aggressive in nature. The inhibition exhibited the vast majority of the time is quite remarkable, and even more so when it functions in situations involving more than one species.
In graduate school, I was assigned to be the teaching assistant for a class called “Human/Animal Relationships: Biological and Philosophical Issues” taught by the well-known Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell. Of all the fascinating topics in the class, the one that captivated my scientific curiosity the most was the biological miracle of the complex relationships between humans and domestic animals, including the dog. Here was the sort of relationship between species that I was always interested in, and lo and behold it involved my own species!
I began to volunteer at the local dog training classes run by Patricia McConnell with her business, Dog’s Best Friend. I spent one evening each week assisting trainers as they trained people to train their dogs using a combination of ethology, learning theory, and great coaching skills. I learned so much about how people and dogs interact and how best to teach both species new skills.
A little over a year later, I moved to New Hampshire with my fiancé (now husband) because he was starting his PhD at Dartmouth College. I investigated ways to work with dogs to continue to expand my skills in that area, and found that my options were limited. I spent the year learning about dogs in the most unexpected of ways—by grooming them! I am not a natural at grooming in any species, but I learned so very, very much about dogs. I encourage anyone interested in dog behavior to find some way to get hands-on experience with dogs to complement whatever knowledge they are getting from reading or course work. Volunteering at a local shelter or with a veterinarian are other options besides grooming.
Toward the end of my first year in New Hampshire, I began to teach my own classes, which were called Play Training and emphasized the use of play when interacting with our dogs, motivating them, and reinforcing them.
After a year in New Hampshire, I accepted a job offer as a behavioral intern in Wisconsin at Patricia McConnell’s Dog’s Best Friend. It was a tough decision to take this dream job because it meant that I would be living 1300 miles away from my husband for four years. I literally flew home from my Alaskan honeymoon to New Hampshire, packed up to move to Wisconsin, and said good-bye to my husband of three weeks. Opportunities to intern in the field of Applied Animal Behavior are so rare that it was worth the sacrifice, hard as it was. I love the work I do and would not have been able to do it without the proper training and education.
Sometimes people assume that I must be thrilled to have gotten out of the world of stinging insects. The fact of the matter is that I love wasps and miss my social insect days. Still, I love dogs, too, and I can’t help but enjoy the switch from wasps to dogs because dogs are less aggressive and much easier to work with.