Tis the season when parents think about putting a pet under the family Christmas tree.
For animal behaviourist and trainer Victoria Morris: “Often, we can get caught up in the excitement of getting a pet that we sometimes forget to be realistic. A pet is not only for Christmas but is your companion and dear family member for a very long time.”
With over 20 years’ experience, Victoria, who is based just outside Monaco, always knew she wanted to work with animals. “As a child, I was mesmerised when travelling if there were animals there, for example at Dolphin Quest in Honolulu, I stood there for hours just watching and observing the trainers. I would ask them lots of questions and was decided from the age of 12 that my career path would be with animals.”
From that moment on, researched the field of Animal Behaviour, Animal Behaviour Management and Training and worked hard to build her career starting with jobs in zoos and aquaria, working with Humboldt penguins, Harbour seals, snakes, guillemots, Patagonian sea lions, Moluccan cockatoos, pelicans and Bottlenose dolphins.
She launched her Pet Behaviour and Training Consultancy in 2005 in the UK and has been working closely with vets and other professionals in the field since, including with the Animal Care College in Ascot. She says transferring her business to France was a natural decision. “Having already had experience living a European lifestyle in Spain from an early age, I understood and really came to appreciate all the lovely aspects to everyday life that brings. Also, my parents were living in France.”
She admits, “Working in this part of the world is quite different to that of my consulting in Essex years ago when I had my consultancy there. Many of the pets I work with here have very different lives and routines. Many owners travel with their pets frequently, so I am often helping owners to train and desensitise their pets to travel including air travel, car and boat travel.”
Working with a team within a household who care for her clients’ pets is normal. “As a result, consistency is very important in terms of training and behavioural treatment, so this takes a very specific approach in order to successfully attain. Essentially what I do is very bespoke and requires tailoring my programs to my clients and pets needs according to their individual routines and situations.”
In addition to looking after the mental and physical well-being of the pets in terms of behaviour, Victoria – who has published articles in Dogs Monthly and been on radio – is also involved in making sure all veterinary care for her clients’ pets is provided and up-to-date so both owner and pet are ready to travel.
“There are certain veterinary treatments that are specific to areas my clients travel to and here in France, so I advise on this from my knowledge so far and from the great veterinary professionals I work with. I am also often engaged in travelling with my clients’ pets and bringing them to my clients who may have travelled ahead of time so I can be occupied with their safe travel and look after any behavioural needs.”
Victoria is often involved in helping owners choose the correct pet for them. “I will help them prepare for a pet’s arrival to the home – having the correct beds, bowls and training aids – so we can start in the best possible way, therefore decreasing any potential stress that pet may experience but also getting training routines established early on and making sure the pet concerned adapts well to its new home.”
In some cases, Victoria, who has a Combined Honours Degree in Animal Behaviour from Anglia Ruskin University, can recommend breeders and will also accompany clients to visit their chosen breeders or in some cases rescue homes or people who may be looking for adoptive homes for their pets. “I have a wonderful team of professionals I work with in various different fields from osteopathy, general veterinary care, hydrotherapy, massage etc and work with the best quality groomers, eye specialists and skin specialists and work on referral from these specialists.”
Victoria takes her responsibility as an animal trainer/pet behaviour counsellor seriously and is dedicated to continuing her professional education. She is a member of the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants and subscribes to many pet behaviour journals, such as the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (which she is also a member) and is an accredited member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in the UK whereby she abides by a strict set code of ethics. “I do not use choke chains, half choke chains, prong collars or any anti bark systems – systems based around aversive stimulus – that are available and employed by other ‘trainers or professionals’ as these are ethically questionable and are ineffective.”
Her clients are offered a high-end service with attention to detail. “I provide one-to-one behavioural consultations at my client’s home, dog training tours/residential training, group classes in obedience, agility, dog dancing, Pet Aid Training – training pets to aid owners with limited mobility, Dog Training Days and Group Dog Training Holidays.
Working with a wide variety of breeds, she assures, “Yes, all breeds can be trained but the trainer does need to be aware of the breeds genetic predisposition and to be aware of that breeds specific needs, however many people do use this as a limiting factor. What I mean by this is that people have a preconception that certain breeds are a certain way, and it becomes a self for-filling prophecy and no effort is made to shape good behaviour to avoid those unwanted behaviours.”
“Many people come to me with issues with fear-based behaviour, house soiling issues, aggression, separation anxiety, stereotyped behaviour and general handling and obedience issues.” Not all behavioural problems can be completely solved. “You can’t give someone a guarantee. It depends very much on the effort and dedication of an owner to commit to working with a behavioural problem, as well as several other factors including how conditioned and ingrained unwanted behaviour has become, the individual pet itself, its behavioural history, the severity of the behavioural problem and how effectively behaviour can be managed. Having said this, with appropriate training and management huge improvements can be attained with behavioural issues and problems and many of these issues can be solved.”
She has witnessed the many emotions that come up for an owner during the process of behavioural treatment. “It’s not always easy for an owner to work with a behavioural problem that they are experiencing with a pet. There are many family dynamics and couple dynamics involved, as well as the individual psychology of an owner which means as a pet behaviour counsellor you need to have good skills with people, you need to be able to listen and really understand what is going on in a household.
“It often means people must admit where the management of their pet may be going wrong and how they are contributing to problems, how their responses to certain situations and behaviours are increasing the rate of undesirable behaviour. I have to be there to support my clients and am very dedicated to being there for them and their pets.”
She states the most common mistake clients can make is to anthropomorphise their pet. “They love their pets but sometimes too much, they forget to create boundaries and nurture discipline which pets need to feel psychologically secure. Enrichment and socialisation is also very much underestimated in terms of its positive effect on behaviour management.”
Victoria works on referral from veterinary surgeons and from recommendation treating a wide range of behavioural problems and training issues. “I work with dog aggression, separation anxiety, house soiling issues and much more. I also work with veterinary professionals and groomers when there are issues with handling. I work with both clients and their pets to desensitise their pet to handling/veterinary procedures, therefore decreasing stress for both owner, pet and veterinary professional/groomer etc. This is something that my experience working with marine mammals and exotic animals has well prepared me for and given me great experience in, as this is an extremely important part of animal husbandry.”
As a trainer, she says you never stop learning and experience provides you with so much. “You have to have a presence with the animal you are working with, you have to understand an animal, its environment, its history, its diet and genetic predispositions but patience and kindness is of paramount importance which is why I abide by a strict code of ethics.
Many people think that training marine mammals is very different to that of training a dog but the methods of training are the same applied according to that animal’s physical abilities and the modern training approaches employed with companion animals today originated in many cases with marine mammal training and the training of exotic species.”
Beyond dogs, Victoria has worked with Moluccan cockatoos, macaws, bottlenose dolphins, Patagonian sea lions, harbour seals, Burmese pythons, Humboldt penguins, pelicans, dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and goats. “People are now realising they can clicker train their cat, rabbit and horse and the wonderful benefits of doing so.”