What is a differential diagnosis in equine behaviour cases?

In clinical behaviour the practitioner carries out a differential diagnosis to look at the possible explanations for the unwanted behaviour. When clinicians ask owners a long list of questions, they are narrowing down the list of possible explanations. These help them to identify the differential diagnoses, confirm the diagnosis and develop a relevant and effective treatment plan.

Step 1 of a differential diagnosis is to rule out general medical conditions that can cause behavioural signs. Clinical behaviourists are not experts in assessing horses for medical conditions and cannot legally or by their code of professional conduct operate outwith their area of competence; this is why they work in liaison with the referring vet, who can establish any medical disease or dysfunction before the behaviourist assesses for behavioural disorders.

During the course of a behaviour consultation the vet-led team, of which the behaviourist is a part, determines if a medical condition is causing unwanted behaviour or if problematic behaviour is contributing to a medical condition, in order to establish the right treatment plan for the individual patient.  In this context, a clear understanding of the relationship between pain and behaviour is essential among vets and paraprofessionals including behaviourists and physiotherapists.

Contact me at info@animalbehaviourclinics.com if you have any questions about behaviour consultations, what’s involved, how it works, how to book, how to get vet referral, the scientific evidence base, anything at all, I’m happy to give you more information.

What’s Changed Your Life?

My first equine behaviour course was the Equine Behaviour Qualification at the Natural Animal Centre (NAC), run by the amazing Heather and Ross Simpson, ahead of their time by about 20 years or more; I’m still seeing “new” ideas about behaviour and training now, that they taught on their courses in 2004 and earlier. That was the start of my career as an equine behaviourist, running it alongside my bumbling civil servant day job.

Then I realised that if I ever wanted to achieve my life’s dream of being a Clinical Animal Behaviourist, I’d have to go right back to the drawing board to get a degree in a subject that would let me be a provisional member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). I chose Psychology. What did I find on that degree? That every module except cognitive covered material I’d already learned at the NAC. Including attachment theory, learning theory, neurobiology, theories of emotion, attention and memory. Quite amazing.

Then on to a Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare, where I specialised in equine behaviour which would not have been possible if I hadn’t already had the knowledge, understanding and skills I’d developed at the NAC. This course covered counselling and communication skills, yes, you’ve guessed it, already started at the NAC and continuing because by this time I’d started my training as a psychotherapist.

After all the knowledge bit, time to apply it as a provisional member of the APBC to work towards submitting my case studies to achieve full membership and the coveted professional title of Clinical Animal Behaviourist. On the way I successfully achieved Certified Horse Behaviour Consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. My APBC case studies passed their rigorous assessment and I’d arrived at where I wanted to be, the culmination of a decision made back in the very early 1990s, when I first heard about the profession of Clinical Animal Behaviourist.

All this achieved because of what I learned on my most influential animal behaviour course with the NAC.

But the NAC influence didn’t stop there! I’ve now embarked on a PhD in horse-human relationships, looking at the concept of “The Good Life” and sustainability in sport and leisure horse riding.

I’ve always said the NAC changed my life and it’s true. It changed my horse’s life too; I learned to train him in a different, more easeful way and changed his management regime in ways that fit his “horseness” and gave him a better life.

Are you an NAC graduate? What memories do you have of working or studying there?

“What do you do exactly?”

Interesting Event of the Day yesterday was being interviewed by a MSc Business and Marketing student about my role as a clinical behaviourist and the wider industry. Even more interesting when the John Lewis cafe lady told me they were closing half way through it!! Nobody was about and she let me stay to finish, thank you nice John Lewis cafe lady🙏)  My interviewer asked very insightful questions about the complexity of clinical cases, how I, my client and their vet work as a team to resolve behaviour problems, and issues around regulation of behaviourists.

I was very glad to have the opportunity to put my two penn’orth in, having seen many changes in the profession over nearly 20 years on the inside. The majority of my clients now find me via the APBC register, either directly or because their vet points them there, and I have five vet practices who refer their clients to me for behaviour problems. The relationship between vet and behaviourist (or between health and behaviour in other words) is so intertwined, a consultation starts with a vet referral (did you know your registered vet is legally responsible for the health and welfare of your dog or horse, whether that’s physical or mental) and the conversation never stops after that; the vet needs to know about behavioural progress to inform their decision making, and I need vet input on matters to do with any medical conditions that affect the animal’s behaviour, or medication which could relate to treatment of a condition, or medication. Health matters and behaviour are always considered in tandem in complex clinical cases, which is why your vet needs to be involved!

Companion animal behaviour is such a complex area that in my opinion it’s unethical to do a full clinical consultation without veterinary input; you are simply not seeing or treating the full picture without it, and therefore doing a disservice to the animal and to the owner who is so worried about their dog’s or horse’s (in my case) distressing or dangerous behaviour.

If you are experiencing problem behaviour and you want to ask your vet to refer you to a behaviourist, they will refer you to a Clinical Animal Behaviourist who is a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) or a CCAB assessed by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.  Clinical Animal Behaviourists have been examined at university (MSc or PG Dip), assessed and qualified by reputable bodies and rigorous process, have to meet extensive CPD standards and are insured to the hilt by gold standard professional practice insurers, until the pips squeak! Dog owners, you can claim back our fees through your insurance policy (but you absolutely must check this directly with your insurer in your own case), horse owners, sorry, behaviour cover is as rare as hen’s teeth at the moment (very interesting to consider why that might be!!) but we are working on it.

I’m always happy to discuss this further, send me a message if you’d like to do that. You really do have to be so careful if you’re seeking help for aggressive or dangerous behaviour as the wrong advice, however well meaning, can make the situation worse and put people and animals at even greater risk. Applied companion animal behaviour is no longer the wild west (at least the regulated part isn’t!) and you do have a clear route to getting great support based on research and an extensive body of evidence, just as you would want with your own health too! The organisation that regulates behaviourists in the UK is the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. Look up their website to find a practitioner who specialises in your species and is located near you (many of us work remotely too).

News! New group programme for behaviour students and trainees

I am launching a new group mentoring programme, “Consulting with Confidence”, where I’ll take you through an observed consultation case study, coach you through the steps to setting up your own consulting model, and support you in sourcing and running your own field case study. 

The programme includes regular Zoom meetings where you can learn, discuss and reflect with other students. 

At the end of the programme you can continue with monthly group supervision Zoom meetings as you develop your own consulting practice.

You can find out more about how I can help you develop your behaviour consulting skills on the Mentoring/Supervision page.

For more information please email me at info@animalbehaviourclinics.com and I’ll be happy to arrange a chat with you.

Dog loves vet collar!

Teach your dog to feel comfortable wearing an inflatable collar.

Set your dog up for receiving veterinary treatment. For example, after an operation dogs often have to wear a collar to prevent wound licking or pulling stitches.

Dogs aren’t born liking these restrictive and uncomfortable collars so it’s really helpful to get them to like it before it has to happen for real.

In this great behaviour video dog behaviourist Emily Harvey shows how to train your dog to be happy in an inflatable collar.

Click the link below to view.


Are you experiencing any behaviour problem at all with your dog? Book a call now at https://calendly.com/anicecupofteaandasitdown or email me at info@animalbehaviourclinics.com

First Virtual Equine Conference – APBC

Next Saturday!! The APBC’s first Virtual Equine Conference with talks on:

The psychology of horse training and behaviour – safety of horse and rider (Dr Helen Spence – Spence Horse Sense, ABTC registered Clinical Equine Behaviourist)
Equine behaviour from a charity sector perspective (Anna Haines MSc – Mare & Foal Sanctuary, ABTC registered Clinical Equine Behaviourist)
Positive emotional welfare in horses (Loni Loftus – PhD researcher, Newcastle University)
The role of the multi-disciplinary team in managing pain-related equine behaviour problems (Roxane Kirton MRCVS – RSPCA)

New evidence-based knowledge, thoughts and ideas from four leading practitioners in equine behaviour and welfare. See below for more information on each of the talks.

Saturday 28 November 9.30 to 4.30pm. £35 APBC members, £45 ABTC / BHS APCs, £55 others

Recordings available for 30 days after the event.

Tickets: http://www.apbc.org.uk/Events/virtual-equine-conference


Don’t chase my chickens!

What do you think of this video? (click to play)

It shows a dog learning not to chase chickens.

The procedure that is applied to achieve this is called desensitisation and counter conditioning (DS/CC). What a mouthful! In human psychology it’s usually called gradual exposure and relaxation therapy.

Desensitisation = to make less sensitive; to reduce anxiety, fear or frustration. Done by altering the distance from the trigger (chickens in this example), the duration of the trigger (how long does it last?) or the level of distraction that the trigger presents.

Counter conditioning = to change the dog’s learned response from one thing (chase chooks) to something else (stay calm and relaxed and respond to cues from owner). Done by providing something biologically important such as food (treats), a nice neck scratch, or a play session with toys.

DS/CC utilises the neural (or synaptic) plasticity of the dog’s brain (means that when brain cells have developed into set “pathways”, these pathways can be weakened/”undone”, and new pathways can be developed.)

In this video example the aim is to weaken the brain pathway where the dog has learned to chase small things with feathers and two legs, and to strengthen a new pathway which is “be calm, attend to Dad and ignore the chickens”.

When we talk about changing the strength of the brain pathways we use the analogy of changing the deep tractor tyre tracks of the unwanted behaviour into thin little sheep tracks.

Eventually we want the tractor tyres tracks to wither away to nothing at all, so the unwanted behaviour has become a thing of the past.

And to develop the new behaviour that we do want, we need to start new little sheep track neural pathways that will grow into new deep “tyre tracks in the brain” that result in calm, relaxed, attentive behaviour.

In DS/CC we are usually trying to change a negative emotional response from fearful, anxious, frustrated, sometimes even grief, to a positive emotional response of relaxation, pleasure or play.

It’s often used to treat unwanted behaviours that have elements of aggression, frustration, fear or phobia.

In this video example the owner is trying to change a natural, evolutionary behaviour of chasing chickens.

The positive emotions involved are excitement and play. There is also frustration at times when the dog is prevented from getting at the chickens when she wants to.

All these emotions need to change to greater relaxation, over-riding the desire to have fun chasing the chickens.

Relaxation helps the dog to listen to the owner and respond to any cues.

Cue = a request for a behaviour; the owner asks the dog to do something using a consistent word that the dog has learned.

When the dog feels relaxed, she can’t at the same time be wanting to excitedly chase chickens.

DS/CC is a tricky process to get right, it needs you to tune in to your dog’s body language and read their emotional state.

You need to know when to ask for a bit more (“can you sit near the chickens for 2 seconds more?) and when to back off (give treats and move further away.)

Every dog is different and every dog needs a different DS/CC programme based on its individual behaviour.

If you have a dog that chases people, cyclists, cars, cats, chickens, horses and you want to change that, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change excited chase to calm and responsive to you.

If you have a dog that barks at the door or jumps up at visitors, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change excitement to calm and responsive to you.

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change emotional loss and distress to calm relaxation.

If you have a dog that guards food, socks or their place on the sofa you’ll need to use DS/CC – change fear of loss to calm relaxation.

If you have a dog that has a phobia of car travel you’ll have to use DS/CC – change fear to relaxation.

If you have a dog that behaves aggressively to other dogs or people you’ll have to use DS/CC – change fear to calm relaxation and responsive to you.

Get in touch if you would like to find out more about desensitisation and counter conditioning! At info@animalbehaviourclinics.com


New Anthrozoology Podcast

Please enjoy our first anthrozoology podcast! Horses and dogs included!

We discussed the concept of nonhuman and human animals being “feral”: What does it mean to us when nonhuman animals “are feral”? What might it mean for the nonhuman animals? How does this relate to our research? How does legislation use the term “feral” and why might that be so?

Please subscribe to get notified about our next podcast!

Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/24ccJvozOLFQsW78rTrleJ?fbclid=IwAR2WDxZi4uVJFRcZA2liXBUDks11Gi5ASeCQQpzeOj5UFGaQnJ6RCd2-5Q8

Listen to this podcast on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/squeazantzoopodcasts

Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oR7jbnZ8YoY&feature=youtu.be

Meet the team:
Rebecca Madrid
Tiamat Warda – http://www.tiamatwarda.com/en and
Kristine Hill – https://katzenlife.wordpress.com/about-me/ and
Molly Sumridge
Michelle Szydlowski
Debbie Busby
Sarah Heaney

Books and articles mentioned in the podcast:
– Samantha Hurn – ” Humans and Other Animals: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Interactions”: https://www.plutobooks.com/9781849647267/humans-and-other-animals/
– David Philipps – “Wild Horse Country”: https://wwnorton.com/books/Wild-Horse-Country/
– “The Ought-Ecology of Ferals: An Emerging Dialogue in Invasion Biology and Animal Studies”: https://publications.rzsnsw.org.au/doi/abs/10.7882/AZ.2016.027
– Kendra Coulter – for example: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137558794
– Fiona Macdonald: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20151012-feral-the-children-raised-by-wolves
– Crowley, et al: https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pan3.6
– “Feral future: The untold story of Australia’s exotic invaders”: https://books.google.de/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XUXn5x23g4YC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=Low,+T.+1999.+Feral+future:+The+untold+story+of+Australia%E2%80%99s+exotic+invaders+.+Chicago,+IL:+University+of+Chicago+Press.&ots=knFP01EAnL&sig=WdP7UCiIWKPzHnBeEHJBGPLhKf4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
– Articles on “feral cities”: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol56/iss4/8/ and https://faculty.washington.edu/plape/citiesaut11/readings/Feral%20Cities.pdf
– “Where the wild things are now”: https://www.worldcat.org/title/where-the-wild-things-are-now-domestication-reconsidered/oclc/560526595
– “What’s in a Name? Perceptions of Stray and Feral Cat Welfare and Control in Aotearoa, New Zealand”: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10888705.2011.527604?fbclid=IwAR2ZcFVkaJP36LbVEaZXDbylTpY4MfZgrzDHMusr_uQsaevPeppkiZFSgrg
– Arluke “Loving them to death”:
– John Ssebunya’s story: http://www.mollyandpaul.org/john%20ssebunya.html
– The pachyderm debate: https://asesg.org/PDFfiles/2014/Gajah%2041/41-12-Locke.pdf
– “A walk on the wild side: a critical geography of domestication”: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1191/030913297673999021?journalCode=phgb&fbclid=IwAR0CL1gavyRZRfJt2uDkkXOlAaI4S7IY7d3lQJaCErF1sLBJmhGFiLSRkKU
– Carol Adams: https://caroljadams.com/?fbclid=IwAR2aGYKG8u0d5Qv-rEDB_Y_YxcwS07IhC21Y1DX8En6AlwqXfLReqWWu8bQ
– Feral REWILDING THE LAND, THE SEA, AND HUMAN LIFE: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/F/bo19341756.html?fbclid=IwAR0gy_CQ4I7LAQKM_Yw7KTAatO8YeqTXgxNzd8Nba2-zIJvsuZLdzzzuh2I

Feeling desperate about your horse or dog’s bad behaviour?


Too afraid or embarrassed to leave the house with your dog? Can’t even leave the yard, or enjoy a good schooling session with your horse?

Why you need a behaviour practitioner who is regulated by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council, if your horse or dog is playing up.

blog fear

The ABTC is the industry regulator supported by government for animal training and behaviour.

Click here to read more about the Animal Behaviour and Training Council

A significant proportion of my caseload is clients who sought help for complex behaviour problems from unqualified and unregistered practitioners. The animal’s behaviour went from bad to worse, and then the problem is always more complicated to resolve because of incorrect advice given, or a failure to recognise all the many ethological, biological and psychological factors at play in the development of the unwanted behaviour. Ethological factors are all those underlying elements of how an animal behaves based on the fact that it is a completely different species to us; non-Homo sapiens.

For example, horses experience stress and anxiety because we typically keep them in stables, at least for part of the day. Most people know that more turnout is a good thing for horses, but unless you have studied animal behaviour beyond undergraduate level, and gained practical experience by applying that knowledge to a wide range of behaviour cases, you won’t know precisely how that stress or anxiety affects an individual horse and how that is expressed in his or her behaviour, because you won’t be able to tease apart all the many strands that are influencing that animal’s behaviour. And to understand how to resolve a behaviour problem, you need to understand the cause of the problem.

To give a canine example, how many people know that one of those “influencing strands” in aggressive dog behaviour is motivated by fear? Fear is an emotion, there can be a trauma element involved, this requires a knowledgeable and experienced therapeutic approach. A few training sessions teaching the dog to look at you won’t cut it, and the rattle cans, sprays and e-collars advocated by many unregulated practitioners will show up as a worsening behaviour problem. Next stop, the rescue shelter, or worse. After these misguided experiences I have to help distressed owners to rehabilitate petrified and extremely aggressive, anti-social dogs. Their owners are often too afraid or ashamed to take them out of the house.

Treating a behaviour problem requires detailed analysis and diagnosis, and this is learned by education and experience. Just as we compare vets to doctors, but with clients who can’t tell them where it hurts, a clinical behaviourist is the equivalent of a clinical psychologist, but with animal clients who can’t tell us what’s up. And yet we find out what’s up, and resolve it, because of our extensive training and supervised, assessed experience. As one of my clients told me. “you’re like a doctor, but for animals.”

So if you’ve read this far, thank you🙂 and if you are troubled by any problem behaviour that your dog or your horse is showing, and you’d like to resolve it, send me an email to info@animalbehaviourclinics.com, or schedule a chat with me using this link: a nice cup of tea and a sit down

I’m an ABTC registered clinical behaviourist and I’ll be happy to help.

Can you spot a stressed horse?

Last December I and my colleagues published a paper describing one of our research studies, in the peer-reviewed journal Animals.  As the Equine Behaviour and Training Association (EBTA) we investigated how horse owners, riders and trainers recognise signs of equine stress.

We found that equestrians often fail to recognise the behavioural signs that horses display when they experience pain and fear. Consequently, the distress remains unresolved, reducing the horse’s welfare and having potential safety implications for the handler.

Negative affect is characterised by feelings of psychological distress, such as nervousness, anxiety and fear.

We asked a number of equine behaviour experts to assess videos showing various types of horse riding and training and to comment on the affective states of the horses in the videos. Then we asked members of the horse-owning or horse-riding public to view the videos and answer a set of questions.

Our respondents successfully recognised behaviour consistent with negative affect in some instances; however videos featuring natural horsemanship and bridle-less riding were often wrongly interpreted to be positive experiences for the horses.

Despite recognising behaviours indicative of distress in some videos, a minority of respondents nevertheless said they would have been happy for their own horse to be treated in a similar way to the distressed horse, even when they themselves felt that that the horse in the video was undergoing a negative, stressful experience.

Participant age and experience had little effect on the results; however responses by people who had selected “clicker training” as their preferred equestrian activity were more closely aligned with those of the equine behaviourist experts, suggesting that clicker trainers might be more accurate in their recognition of equine distress than other members of the equestrian community.

Our hope is that this study will be useful in informing outreach activity for education and welfare organisations, through improved recognition, and subsequent reduction, of equine distress.

You can read an article about the study in the online magazine Horses and People, in the link below.  It includes a link to the full article in the Animals journal.
Horses and People article

The Equine Behaviour and Training Association is UK based and operates internationally.  It aims to:
Improve the knowledge and understanding of the physical and psychological well-being of equines
Promote awareness of human behaviour and its impact on equine behaviour
Bridge the gap between academic research and practical application
Protect equine welfare whilst maintaining safety and achieving goals

EBTA members include clinical equine behaviourists, behaviour analysts, horse owners and academics who have made a commitment to understanding equine behaviour and working with horses according to the principles of behavioural science and equine welfare science. We acknowledge our responsibility to the horse as a domestic species taken out of their natural environment and required to cope with a variety of ridden and management demands.

EBTA provides support to anyone wanting to learn more about equine behaviour, we conduct research projects in areas where we feel there is insufficient overlap between academia and the “typical horse-owner” and we liaise with media organisations in order to help improve communication about equine behaviour.

The EBTA website is free to use and includes a large database of information about equine behaviour, from introductory to professional level. New material is added regularly and you can receive updates via our newsletter or Facebook page.