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A Curious Calling: Vicky Alhadeff

Looking for a new vocation? Perhaps being a pet behaviourist is your calling too

Written by . Published on December 12th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Vicky Alhadeff

RECENTLY I took home a young hound named Marley, a foster puppy whose owner had to give him up. Quaking with nerves and wanting only to nestle on my lap, he left me in a permanent state of cuteness overdose. Within three days, however, his inner beast had chewed its way out. My phone was in pieces. My sleeves were ragged. My face was never free of puppy-spit. This week’s interviewee couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Vicky Alhadeff is a pet behaviourist, specialising in cat behaviour. Through teaching people to read and speak their pets’ language, she helps restore harmony to fractured human-animal relationships. Also a vegan and an animal activist, her approach is one of holistic compassion. At home, I tried a little ‘Doglish’ on Marley and he’s been as cool as his namesake ever since.

I was on a photography job on New Year’s Eve and noticed this horse standing knee deep in muck and I stopped to see if I was seeing things. He was in this tiny enclosure. The editor, the assistant editor and I ended up rescuing him off this traveller and taking him to a sanctuary.

How long have you been doing this for?
I completed the diploma in 2007. I’d been a press photographer for ten years; I loved it but it was intense and quite exhausting. I always wanted to work with animals but I had no idea how. I grew up in Zimbabwe so I was always aware of racism and I wanted to campaign against apartheid. Then I moved into a flat with three friends who were Hare Krishna who said, “Vicky, this meat eating has got to stop.” When I became vegetarian I started taking photographs to expose the meat and dairy industry. I did some pictures at an abattoir, some of battery hens.

How did you move onto pet behaviour?
I was on a photography job on New Year’s Eve and noticed this horse standing knee deep in muck and I stopped to see if I was seeing things. He was in this tiny enclosure. The editor, the assistant editor and I ended up rescuing him off this traveller and taking him to a sanctuary. The sanctuary had this magazine called Horse Rescue. In there was this tiny advert, “Do you want to become an animal behaviourist?” It was like an epiphany. I thought this is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Puppy What are the most common problems people come to you with?
Often cats’ problems are to do with other cats – cats visiting their gardens, cats peeing, pooing or spraying indoors. You have to work out ways to make the cat feel secure in his or her home. They have large territories – up to five or six gardens. The territories of different cats will overlap. They’ll have agreements about who’s patrolling when. For me, it’s part of the appeal of them. They have this whole secret life.

There’s a cat that lives with me who won’t go near anyone. Sometimes she sits close by but she’d never let you stroke her...
People often call in about so-called petting and biting syndrome. Humans are very touchy-feely. Animals aren’t really. It’s our need to stroke them and stroke them. They think, “That’s enough!” Cats and dogs have calming signals to communicate with each other. We have to learn what those signals are and then we can mimic them and calm them down – licking lips, yawning, sitting sideways on. With cats you can do slow blinking and looking away. Direct contact for us is polite, for them it is scary. A smiling mouth is also scary because it’s showing all our teeth.

Is it different for different breeds of dogs or cats?
Each breed has specific needs, which help to create the feel-good factor when they are met. For example, terriers were bred to dig – to dig up creatures – and so providing them with digging opportunities such as a digging pit with buried treasure or a stuffed Kong will help to contribute to providing them with a fulfilling life. I love learning how to make dogs’ and cats' lives as fulfilling as possible. That's what appeals to me the most about this work.

What’s the best way to train a dog?
Work with a positive, award-based framework. Telling off is not instructive. We speak English and dogs speak ‘Doglish’. The point of training is to learn a common language. If we can show dogs what to do and how to do it, then it helps them a lot, as opposed to telling them off, which doesn’t tell them what they should do instead. It should be about setting them up for success and making training fun.

It sounds like a good way to treat humans, too…
Absolutely. Karen Pryor who is the mother of clicker training penned a book called Don’t Shoot the Dog!, and she talks about clicker training for everyone. With kids it’s called ‘tag’. It works because we all like to be noticed if we do something right. Then you want to do it more and more.

Nimai On Scratching Post 4875 

You also volunteer at Battersea Dogs Home...
As a dog walker and socialiser. There are a lot of stressed and frustrated dogs there. Kennels are a stressful environment.

Why are so many dogs taken there?
A lot of people have lost their homes or there is an illness or death in the family. A huge percentage is just found abandoned – on the streets, in the parks, tied up somewhere. Or people leave them outside Battersea. Some of the female dogs are just being used as breeders and their teats are hanging down to the ground. They’re very fearful because they probably haven’t had much contact.

You’re also vegan and an animal rights activist...
Being vegan is the logical conclusion of my love for animals – not exploiting them or using them in any way. I do photography for Viva! and Animal Aid. Then I got involved in school talks. It’s really rewarding when children respond so passionately. Sometimes you get students who are very cynical but I think that is a cover. You show a DVD or slide show and there are some really graphic, gruesome images. The whole industry is so sick. It’s completely money driven.



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