Interview with Zazie Todd, Companion Animal Psychology Blog

“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!


Does Social Media Help Or Hurt Homeless Animals?

May 5, 2016: Milo needs your help! This 1 1/2 year-old dog needs a foster or adopter. His requirements are no kids, no dogs, and no cats. If we can find a home willing to work with him, we will provide a trainer to get him over his issues. This is an opportunity to save a dog’s life AND learn how to train. He is currently at a shelter and only has until this Thursday to find a place.—Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

miloMany of my friends and I often share pleas from animal rescuers. Unfortunately, we often never find out the results of our shares. Last spring I had a different experience. I directly contacted Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue with a list of rescue groups that might take Milo. When none of them wanted to take on a dog that had growled at a child, I proposed another alternative. I recommended an open-policy shelter with a high adoption rate. I knew it was a risk, because open-policy isn’t no-kill, but I thought this shelter would be able to give Milo the time he needed to find a new home. I was happy when my hunch was proven right: Milo found a new home within a month!

“Social media has changed the lives of thousands of animals,” wrote an associate editor for the website Mashable. One rescue group featured in the article credited its sheer existence due to Twitter. Why? Because social media played a role in getting out its adoption message out “minus the steep advertising costs”. Furthermore, a featured shelter noted that a homeless pet’s average stay is just 10 days –in part due to use of Instagram. Social media “gives followers a behind-the-scenes glimpse, encouraging them to donate or volunteer, as well as adopt.” There’s even a study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) that shows the influence of internet profiles. The results revealed that 82.5% of people who have adopted a cat said that Petfinder influenced their adoption. Ah, the power of social media!

August 21, 2016: Poor Shine has been overlooked. A friend forwarded my pictures to a family who travelled quite some distance yesterday to meet him. They were at the point of signing the adoption papers when his excitement bubbled over and he jumped at Dad too excitedly. The ACO could not let him go with them. He is so depressed in the kennel that he has chewed the end of his own tail off. He shows no aggression to people just desperate excitement. He needs a rescue by 9/1 or a difficult decision will be made for his quality of life.–Sarah Matula, HeARTS Speak

shineWhen I first began to read about the power of social media to save animals, I mostly collected anecdotes. There’s the story from Ireland of an animal lover who rescued a cat with extensive injuries, posted the details online, and within 24 hours collected enough to pay for the cat’s surgery. “This Irish-American lassie feels great pride at this show of Celtic hospitality and spirit for a sweet kitty in need. Cara surely would have died on that road without help.” Closer to home, there’s a story of a professor from New York who took a year to photograph homeless dogs and post their pictures online. At the time of the article’s writing, 56 of the 73 dogs were in foster care or adopted. There’s also my own anecdotal evidence. In the case of Shine, the dog from Connecticut whose story I learned about from an animal photographer, many bloggers reached out on the dog’s behalf to their friends on Facebook. An acquaintance of mine even offered to drive to Connecticut if a foster provider would step forward. In the end, thanks to Shine’s post being shared extensively online, Shine was adopted by a truck-driving couple. The photographer announced the exciting news in an update: “Sharing worked! A great couple with fantastic references adopted this boy today—he’s their new long haul buddy after they lost their previous beloved pit.”


tnr_catadtextAs I became sold on the power of social media to save animals, I also started to pay attention to how to effectively use social media. In 2015, a debate ensued between members of an online Trap-Neuter-Release Community. One lady had posted the first of these two photos accompanied by a bio written in all-caps, lamented that no one had shown interest, and asked for ideas. Some simply encouraged her to persevere, while others recommended that she rewrite the bio, and a few suggested she enhance the photo. Although I normally like to stay in the shadows, I finally added my two-cents worth. First, I reassured her that just because she hadn’t received any responses didn’t necessarily reflect a bad design. “Some of the most beautiful and moving posts I’ve seen have failed to generate immediate response. There are simply too many cats with too few homes.” But then I did concur that the all-caps heading had the effect of shouting at readers. In addition, I tweaked the bio and, as you can see from the before and after versions above, her photo.

More and more articles are cropping up these days about the right and wrong ways to use social media. A few commonly-agreed wrong ways are:

  • Responding to a post if you can’t help. Why? Because doing so just adds clutters.
  • Sharing a post from miles away. Why? Because most adopters won’t drive the distance.
  • Writing overly dramatic posts. Why? Because while such posts may spur people to action, they can also make people feel hopeless to the point that they stop following shelters and/or rescue groups
  • Emphasizing restrictions such as “No children or other pets”. Why? Because people may draw the wrong conclusions. For instance, does the animal require a child-free and pet-free home because it’s easily frightened, or because it’s aggressive?
  • Combining adoption counseling (“Probably a feral cat and not well-socialized”?) with marketing. Why? Animal Farm Foundation has written an entire article on the topic. They contend that the mistake is equivalent to a resume which lists all your flaws.

A few commonly-agreed right ways are:

  • Share to the right audience.
  • Update: Mother Nature Network says that by sharing positive news, people will see how groups are finding forever homes for homeless pets. “This just may inspire them to look for ways they can help too.”
  • Use everyday language in your marketing.
  • See this as opportunity to make the right match.
  • Draw attention to a homeless pet by telling a story. Best Friends Animal Society offers this example: ‘BIG baby Burley! All muscles and cropped ears, but he’s a lap dog if you give him the chance. He’s all about the love and cuddling, and isn’t liking living in a kennel at all and prefers to snooze on a pillow up in the office. He’s ready to be in someone’s warm home, and he’s going to protest that fact until someone adopts this handsome boy.”
  • Turn the good into bad. How? HeARTS Speak recommends that when addressing any disadvantages, try writing as though you’re discussing your own beloved pet’s issues, and offers this example: “A little on the chubby side? More to love! Senior? Time to retire and reflect on a life of achievements. Uncomfortable with being handled? Parties best with the grown-ups.” Best Friends Animal Society elaborates by saying that if one needs to list a restriction, be gentle about it, and offers this example: “Joe is such a goofy bundle of energy, he might be a little too much for small children.”
  • Include relevant contact information.

To return to the study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) about the influence of internet profiles, the researchers also discovered that cats with Petfinder profiles averaging more than one click per day typically waited only nine days for a new home, but cats with profiles averaging less than one click per day typically waited 23 days. This suggests that as the importance of having a good photo or teaser for an animal’s profile. Specifically, the presence of toys in a photo were discovered to have an impact. “Shelters may benefit from including toys in photographs of cats who may otherwise be overlooked, while refraining from including toys in photographs of cats of a popular age or color. Placing a toy in a photograph of an older cat or a solid-black cat may be useful for drawing attention to that cat’s profile.”

July 31, 2016 Can anyone help cats in Ohio? My husband and I were on our return from vacation and saw three feral cats when we stayed at a hotel there. There are at least three cats. A black cat bolted from behind a garbage bin and under a truck. A white and black cat hid at the end of the row of rooms where we stayed. A third brown-patched cat slept outside of a hotel room. I’m guessing that they’re used to people. When we arrived at night, two of the cats were visible and made no attempts to leave. I’m also guessing the hotel isn’t bothered by them. There was a bowl of food outside one of the rooms. However, at least one cat needs medical help. It was stiff, thin, and injured. I don’t live anywhere near them, but hope someone in Ohio can intervene. PM if you need further details. Thank you!

ohiocatsFor those of us who are novices, we’re more than likely still going to stumble about in our use of social media. When my husband and I saw feral cats who needed help, I did almost all the wrong things. Instead what I had going for me is the determination to find help. I kept asking questions until I found a lady who stepped forward.

ohiocats_moonbeamDespite my mistakes, all cats in question received alteration and vaccinations. One even found a home! Since my initial contact with Terri Guidera, I have received updates telling me that the cats are okay and are being cared for by residents.

Anyone who is truly passionate about saving animals would do well to do their research. The use of social media to bring the plight of homeless animals out of the shadows has been around long enough now that there’s even an entire website, Animal Rescue Marketing, dedicated to the topic. In addition, Maddie’s Fund hosts dozens of resources about best practices. We owe it to animals to make our efforts count.

Editor’s Note: Please watch for follow-up interviews with Sarah Matula and Terri Guidera