Postgraduate Lives: Patty Hunter, MSc student of animal behaviour at Southampton University

The dog that was scared of barbecues

Patty Hunter, 33, is studying for an MSc in companion animal behaviour counselling at the University of Southampton

A few years ago, I was working in the City as an IT consultant. It was fun and very well paid, but stressful. My love for animals was strong, so I left the City and started a BSc in zoology at the University of Reading. I got involved in dog training with a local group, set up my own dog-training club and registered with my vet as a behavioural counsellor.

On the MSc course, we study normal and abnormal behaviour in animals. We learn to diagnose, identify triggers [for the behaviour], make risk assessments and devise plans of action that involve behaviour modification. The Southampton programme is renowned; it's very specialist and is recognised by the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).

The course is part-time, and every couple of months we have an intensive, week-long module. For me it's a two-hour drive to university, but other students fly in from all over the world. The most interesting module so far has been on dog law, both civil and criminal, which are very different.

Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer or dog behaviourist; there is no governing body. But organisations such as the APBC and the UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists want to see the profession more recognised and, perhaps, regulated. I'm doing the course for my own professional development, but it will stand me in good stead if there is regulation.

At the moment, my local vets refer clients to me, after they've checked that there are no underlying medical conditions causing the behaviour. I then observe the dog in the client's home. I had a memorable case with a Newfoundland who was phobic of most things. It began when he became scared of a barbecue - it really freaked him out. Then it got to the point that if someone banged a pot in the kitchen he would hide, and if anyone made any noise with his bowl he wouldn't eat. If he was taken outside for a walk, he just sat down and panicked. It was extreme. I diagnosed panic disorder and it turned out that the client also had panic attacks, which shows how sensitive dogs are to their owners' states of mind.

I set a programme to desensitise and countercondition the dog to noise. This didn't work, so I brought the dog to my house and changed his outlook. Two weeks after the dog returned to his owner, she called to say: "I'm in Oxford Street and my dog's happy and walking nicely!"

I was born in Spain, educated in Texas and have lived in the UK for 15 years. I'm a mongrel. But as for any problem behaviour, you'll have to ask my husband about that.

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