10th Feb 2021 @ 12:31 pm

Lanzarote Vet Jane Burke recalls a transformational friendship with the man whose ideas of pet behaviour and psychology revolutionised the lives and relationships of pets and owners.

I often think it is curious how life seems almost to travel in circles! I was boring someone recently with reminiscences about my friendship with Dr. Roger Mugford back in the early days of opening my own practise. The days when, as now, I lived and worked in the same building.

With all the energy of youth, I had such a magical time developing the first female small animal practice on the Fylde Coast. In fact, it was the first real small animal practice at all in that area as my competition consisted of men who had qualified before small animal veterinary surgery was taught in college and long before any continuing education had occurred, let alone become mandatory.

These guys didn’t like pet animals and worked with no equipment or staff, so it wasn’t hard for me to expand and succeed beyond any and all expectations. My mother was head receptionist (and the best in the business, as she had a genuine interest in my clients and their lives). My dad did all the paperwork and handled the money (as, even then, I was considered fiscally incompetent).

After a slow start, when I filled my time making chess sets, I was soon overwhelmingly busy. Living in the premises, I was able to watch and learn from hospitalised cases. To make extra money to cover our increasing staff wages and to constantly upgrade our facilities I was veterinary surgeon at the Blackpool greyhound track for several hours for four nights a week, and vet superintendent of the local quarantine kennels. I attended courses and organised courses on subjects ranging from veterinary dentistry to advanced aural ablation techniques. I was energetic and driven enough to pursue and enjoy continuing education in the incredibly rapid expansion of small animal veterinary knowledge and equipment.

By accident, I also stumbled into a friendship with the man who actually started the professional pet behaviour boom that developed after his incredibly simple idea of using a halter rather than a neck collar to control a boisterous dog. This alone enabled many isolated, frail and/or elderly people to walk their furry family again – walks that kept both owner and pet healthy and in touch with the outside world; Walks that gave them both a sense of freedom.

Roger´s quiet perspicuity, coupled with a real observational gift, also led him to the novel concept that consistently treating our canine companions as if they were the dominant animal in the household led to the majority of dominant aggressive problems.

In those days vets treated this behaviour with euthanasia. Indeed, statistics from Liverpool College demonstrated that, in the 70s, more young dogs were destroyed or dumped in dogs homes for behavioural problems than for medical reasons. However, animal behaviour was still a long way from being included in the veterinary curriculum. So when I randomly consulted this man about destructive problems in my own household, his amazingly straightforward thoughts on cause and solution forged a common bond and before long I opened a separate clinic for half day a week specifically for behavioural problems, often with his generous input and assistance.

We ran a weekend course that sold out. We tried to film an educational tape for the Royal College, but failed due to too much laughter (and possibly gin). Actually, much of our footage appeared in the college’s own educational tapes which were to follow.

But it was not all plain sailing! Then, as now, I attracted some silly, spiteful, invented complaints. In the early eighties, with no Facebook to spread malicious libel, my long-suffering elderly local veterinary competition repeatedly submitted claims about my imagined transgressions to the Royal Vet College.

They were mostly silly (eg; that I was running market stalls in disguise or pretending I was collecting for the RSPCA, or handing out business cards in the local town centre when all advertising was banned at that time). Some, however, were serious enough to deeply distress my parents (eg: I was only cutting and suturing the skin as my incision wounds were too small for me to have completed ovario-hysterectomy or joint surgery etc).  

Though no one suggested I had God-like skills to operate without anaesthesia, as my present trolls have claimed, their ultimate and final accusation was that I was bringing the profession into disrepute by running behavioural clinics with a man who had no veterinary qualifications! Very fortunately for me, Roger – though he did indeed not have a veterinary degree – was at that time adviser to the Queen herself about her corgis’ behavioural problems. As she was the ´Royal´ in the ´Royal Veterinary College´, her letter of appreciation saved the day! The College not only dismissed the case but warned every member in the Fylde Coast that any further complaint that could not be upheld would result in the complainer being struck off. So it all stopped.

At a distance of 40-plus years, my luck at meeting and being mentored by this man remains a random blessing I am most grateful for. He helped me with my own pack and enabled me to help many, many others. I am aware that the behavioural world he started has recently moved away from the simple notions of dogs being the wolves we live with, but largely only because they have developed new words and for the same problems and solutions.

Let´s wash and fill our pets bowls with clean water and raise a glass to safely reaching the other side of this Covid crisis with them.

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