“Happy pets, happy people.” That’s the aim with which Zazie Todd started Companion Animal Psychology. The site shares evidence-based information about how to care for our pets. While exploring a variety of topics in animal welfare , there are particular themes to which Zazie often returns: the importance of enrichment for our pets; the use of reward-based training for dogs (and cats); the need to make visits to the vet less stressful; and the psychology of the human-animal bond.
Todd has a PhD in Psychology (University of Nottingham) and an MFA Creative Writing (UBC). She also Zazie graduated with honors from Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers, holds a supporting membership with the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants, and volunteers at the British Columbia SPCA. Todd grew up in Leeds, in the north of England, and now lives in Canada, with her common law husband, one dog, and two cats.
In conjunction with Companion Animal Psychology, Todd started an animal book club on Facebook, of which I am a member. Below is an interview with Todd. Get in touch with her by email at companimalpsych at gmail dot com, or on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.
ALLISON: Tell me about your first pet.
ZAZIE: I wasn’t allowed a pet when I was growing up. I really wanted a cat. When I was in high school, a neighbour’s cat used to come in our garden a lot and I liked hanging out with her. But I didn’t get a cat until I was a grad student in Edinburgh. I went to a cat rescue and adopted a young ginger-and-white cat called Snap. I found out later that the lady who ran the rescue had no intention of adopting to us that day because she didn’t adopt to students, but she thought if she let us visit she could educate us about cats. But she had a cat with a wobble–with hindsight I’m guessing it was cerebellar hypoplasia–who apparently didn’t like anyone, but for whatever reason this cat did like me and my boyfriend. So I was allowed to adopt the cat that was climbing on my shoulders and hanging upside down from my arm. He was a lovely cat, very playful and very friendly.
ALLISON: Your background is in psychology and writing. When did you decide to start working with animals? Why?
ZAZIE: I’ve always been interested in animals but although I used to sometimes supervise student projects on pets, it wasn’t the main focus of my research. But when I left academia I was very lucky to be able to do an MFA Creative Writing at UBC, and finally the time was right to get a dog. Actually, we got two dogs, and this was the first time I really paid any attention to dog training advice. What I noticed was that it was very hard to find good advice on how to train a dog. I mean, it was out there, but there was also–and still is–a lot of advice that is just not true and even downright dangerous. And at the same time, there’s really been an explosion of interest in researching the human-animal bond and canine cognition, so there’s a lot of fascinating material to write about. I think it can make a huge difference, not only to the animals and their welfare, but also to the people who care for them. Happy pets, happy people, as it were!
When I decided I wanted to learn more about the training side of things, I was very lucky to get a scholarship to the Academy for Dog Trainers. I graduated with honors in February 2016. One of the things I really like about the Academy is that it teaches you to be very efficient in your training, which makes all the difference when you are working with shelter animals. Right now I’m half-way through International Cat Care’s Certificate of Feline Behavior and really enjoying it. Everything is evidence-based and designed to be helpful to you in practice. Because dog training and so on is not regulated, I think it’s important to have the qualifications to show you know what you’re talking about.
The nice thing is that a lot of people are very interested to learn more about animals. I’m especially thrilled that Greystone will publish my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy because it will help get that information to a new audience. So for me it’s been a gradual transition–the psychology and writing are still there–but animals got added in more and more!
ALLISON: How have you grown as a pet owner due to your research into and training with animals?
ZAZIE: What a great question! I’m sure if I went back in time I would do some things differently. I certainly know a lot more about how to care for animals. One thing is that I didn’t used to know about food puzzles for dogs and cats, and that’s a great thing to provide. I know a lot more about socialization of young animals and how important it is to give them lots of positive experiences. And I think vet care is another change…. I used to take treats to the vet with me anyway, and I had taught previous cats to like the carrier but it wasn’t a very organized plan. It’s one thing knowing the theory and another thing knowing how best to put it into practice! But husbandry training is something that was included in the Academy for Dog Trainers curriculum, and I’ve since become Fear Free certified too. I think being able to help an animal feel more comfortable at the vet makes such a big difference. I feel sad for the times I used to take animals to the vet and just expect them to put up with it!
ALLISON: I first discovered you through the Companion Animal Psychology blog. How have you gained attention for it?
ZAZIE: When I look back at the last five years I am surprised how much the blog has grown. So I think one thing is simply being persistent and keeping going. I decided quite early on to try and stick to a schedule and post every week on a Wednesday morning. I don’t always manage it–sometimes life gets in the way, of course–but most of the time I have. It means regular readers always know when they can look and find something new on my blog.
I try really hard to be accurate in what I write. Sometimes it’s a challenge, especially when writing about research, because I have to pick which bits of the story to include otherwise it would become too long or the main points would get lost. Sometimes I’m able to write about research that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media, so I’m able to bring something new and I think that helps bring people to my blog. The other thing I think bloggers need to remember is that even when writing about a topic other people have covered, everyone brings something unique to it and so it’s still worth writing about. But it’s not just about imparting information, it’s also about showing people why it matters.
Of course, social media is a big part of it. On twitter and Facebook, I like to share a lot of content from other people too. Like I said before, there’s a lot of bad information about cats and dogs, so when I see something good I think it’s important to share. And whenever someone shares my posts–or buys one of my t-shirts that raise funds for my local shelter–it makes me happy to think there are so many people out there who care about animal welfare.
ALLISON: What is your favorite part about living in Canada?
ZAZIE: It’s hard to pick one thing as a favorite because there’s so much to love. But I would say nature, because Canada has so many beautiful places, including many I have yet to visit. I have lots of exploring to look forward to! There are so many forests and lakes and beaches that are just stunning. The wildlife is amazing–we have bobcat, cougar and black bears. And I love watching the hummingbirds! People here are very friendly too. I also like that Canada celebrates its diversity and this is a place where people from all over the world can feel at home.
ALLISON: There are particular animal welfare themes that are important to you. When did you develop those passions? Why?
ZAZIE: When I went to get my first cat, I went to a rescue, so even back then I wanted to help homeless animals. I should add that not all of my pets have come from shelters though. But because my background is in Psychology, and so much of that is relevant to the human-animal relationship, that’s somewhere where I thought I could make a difference. I’ve become really interested in the dog training side of things and I think it’s such a shame when people are given incorrect information. For example a lot of people still believe that you shouldn’t let your dog on the settee or on your bed, and they’ve heard this from TV or the internet. Of course I understand that some people don’t want to, but there are people who would like to cuddle on the couch with their dog but don’t because they have been told it would make the dog ‘dominant’. Or they do let their dog on the settee but then they feel guilty because they think they aren’t supposed to and it might be bad for the dog. That’s something that can stop you from getting the most out of your relationship with your dog, when really it’s up to you if you would like to or not.
One of the reasons I am so interested in enrichment is because of the different circumstances for cats here. When I lived in England, my cats could go outside during the daytime and they would spend a lot of time in the garden or nearby. Here that’s not possible because there are a lot of coyotes, so it just wouldn’t be safe. I think it can be a bit boring for a cat being indoors all the time. A lot of people have indoor cats here and so it’s even more important to make sure cats have what they need (in terms of scratching posts and cat trees etc.) and have food toys and playtime.
ALLISON: You volunteer at a shelter. What have you learned about increasing adoptions?
ZAZIE: As a volunteer I work directly with the animals, so I’m not personally involved in the adoption side of things. But one of the things I think is important is to have descriptions which are accurate, which means highlighting the positive things about the animal as well as any issues that potential adopters may have to deal with. It’s easy to say a dog jumps up and will need to learn some manners and then forget to mention that this is a very friendly dog–and that’s an important thing to know! Also the photos matter, because so many people are looking online to see which animals are available. I interviewed Dr. Christy Hoffman recently and asked her about her research on increasing adoptions, and she mentioned that for cats it can help to have a toy in the photo. But if you put a toy in every cat’s photo, then it’s no longer helping to differentiate that particular cat from the others. So you should include the toy in photos of the cats that you think need a bit of extra help getting adopted.
ALLISON: We have a shared passion of increasing awareness of the importance of enrich the lives of cats. Tell me of a time you have helped a cat owner.
ZAZIE: We do! And I always enjoy your blog posts. Recently, I have been spending time with some fearful cats. They are actually very friendly cats when they know you, but they are afraid of new people. So at first I completely ignored them except to put small treats in places where I thought they might feel safe coming to get them. Then they started to approach me, but I knew that if I reached out to them they would duck away from my hand or even run away because they were still nervous. I didn’t want them to have that experience so I just let them come to me on their own terms. Then I started putting my hand out and they could decide whether to come and rub on my hand or not. Now they are used to me and we are good friends and they like to be petted. But that’s only because I made sure they felt safe at each stage.
ALLISON: As part of Companion Animal Psychology blog, you also started a book club. What inspired you to create it?
ZAZIE: I have been in book clubs before that mostly read fiction and I really enjoyed it. Actually I also did some research on book clubs once. That was back in England and I ran several book clubs for a study I was doing. Anyway, I had been thinking for a while that it would be nice to have an animal book club, but the thing that made me actually set it up was reading The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. I really liked it and wanted to be able to discuss it with other people. So I made that the first choice for the book club! But now the members get to choose the books, which is only fair. It’s a chance to read some really interesting books about animals and discuss them with like-minded people. I was a bit amazed at how many people wanted to join!
ALLISON: When not trying to change the lives of animals, how do you spend your time?
ZAZIE: I like going for walks, with or without my dog. I like to read fiction as well as non-fiction and right now A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is at the top of my book pile. And I like spending time in my garden. I am always behind on the weeding so my garden is a bit overgrown but I enjoy being outside and all the birds and butterflies that we get. I don’t travel so much as I used to but, bearing in mind that this part of the world is somewhere I always used to like to come on vacation, I don’t think that matters!