There’s no such thing as a stupid question’

Ian Florance talks to Anne McBride about animal behaviour counselling

That’s something my dad taught me, and which I tell all my students.’ This was welcome news as I started to interview Anne McBride, Course Director of the Postgraduate Diploma/MSc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling at Southampton University. Anne talks easily; mixing home, professional and intellectual ingredients to create a gratifying conversational ‘meal’. So, how did a first degree in psychology lead her to rabbit parenting and housing associations’ pet policies?‘

I wanted to be a vet but quickly realised it wasn’t for me. Most vetting is about dysfunctional bodies, while I was interested in healthy things. I’d been surrounded by huge numbers of creatures and pets as a kid and I wanted to understand why they did what they did. I think Dad set up the interview at the Tavistock Institute: oddly, considering he viewed psychology as a pseudo-science! I did my degree at UCL and loved it. My third-year project was on hearing in neonates and I was hugely influenced by Cathy Weir, and Maggie Redshaw who was researching gorilla hand functions. I spent some time at Jersey Zoo where Gerald Durrell told me to get a PhD. I studied social and parental behaviour in European rabbits: Henry Plotkin, who is one of my heroes, set me off on this track. He was at UCL and had some funding for work in learning and development. I became his research assistant while doing my PhD. It resulted in my books Rabbits and Hares and Why Does My Rabbit..?’

The Animal Behaviour course at Southampton was the UK’s first and there’s a growing interest in animal behaviour stimulated by Darwin’s anniversary, repeated media reports on dangerous dogs and various television programmes. You must feel that you’re a pioneer in the area? ‘A lot of animal studies now centre on policy issues like the welfare of farm animals or psychological/ medical studies at a cellular level. These are important, but I’m interested in practical and social issues in pet owning and human–animal interaction.’

After her PhD, Anne lived on a mid-Wales hill farm and worked for the Manpower Services Commission, and wrote a book on the Elan Valley, a chain of man-made lakes that supplies Birmingham with water. ‘I learnt a lot about Victorian civil engineering, apart from anything else.’ You seem eclectic in your interests. ‘Mongrels are stronger than pure breeds! My bookshelves are filled with cookery books and poetry. Cooking is my out-of-work passion. I suppose my eclecticism goes back to my mother and father. They taught me that learning is an absolute good and that working in teams is critical. These principles have really shaped the course here; it depends on a large number of part-time tutors who bring all sorts of knowledge and skills.’

How did the course start? ‘I worked with Roger Mugford at the Company of Animals for a while, then travelled round the US before working in a health food shop when I came back to the UK. Then I got a job at the Royal Veterinary College, running their computer department! I saw behaviour clients and started a puppy class as well. I kept meeting pet owners and trainers who hadn’t been trained in areas like body language, signalling, learning theory and basic ethology. They had attended or run dog classes but didn’t know the basics.’ This is where your psychology training came in? ‘Yes, because you’re working with owners as well as pets. It’s about a relationship and not a one-sided one. Experts sometimes try to make their area too heavy-duty, jargon-ridden and elitist. Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence suggests military disasters happen partly because commanders underestimate enemies. Knowledge experts, clinicians and academics often underestimate their lay audiences in the same way. You have to respect them enough to want to communicate. This all led to the course being in Southampton: Adult Education was the first department to show an interest. The first student intake was in 1994.’

Is this the initiative you’re most proud of? ‘I’m not a career academic. I love teaching though, particularly as I get so much out of my clever, motivated students! But I’m particularly proud of the Homeless Owners with Pets (HOPE) project. Colette Kase had been homeless and was doing an independent studies course at North London Poly. She got my name and asked me to meet her at a homeless shelter near Old Street. We set up the charity straight away and it ran out of my front room for years. We had a team of volunteer vets who offered free street clinics starting at the Bullring in Waterloo. This led to the formation of Pathway, my running a survey of housing providers’ pet policies and has led to reforms in policies of social and private housing providers. The Dogs Trust now run the scheme and address the full spectrum of pet issues involved in homelessness and housing crisis: older people moving into sheltered accommodation and house repossession, for instance.’

Some people might think of pet care as peripheral in society: you talk about it as a social or even political issue. ‘Yes, I see it like that. And a fascinating scientific area. For example, homeless people have 24-hour relationships with their pets. It’s a very natural relationship, more like ones you see in hunter-gatherer societies earlier in our evolutionary history. Homeless – and indeed retired – people are very attached to their pets. And dogs of homeless people are amazingly well socialised to people. In fact when such people are housed, and get work, the dogs often suffer from loneliness because they’re so used to constantly being in human company, and need behaviour modification therapy. That mutual dependence is an important part of some people’s lives. It is in mine. For instance, I’ve got no ability to form mental maps, a true maze dull rat. So I easily get lost, and my dogs have to find my car for me! We’ve had long domesticated relationships with dogs, horses and elephants. We’ve used them in transport, war, exploration and in our work. There’s something special there and understanding it is as much about human thinking and behaviour as it is about other species’.’

 

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