Kathryn Wrubel, Ph.D, Animal Behaviorist
March 1, 2011

Dr. Wrubel is an Animal Behaviorist at Massachusetts Veterinary Referral Hospital (Woburn) & Bulger Veterinary Hospital (North Andover).  She volunteers her services for the MSPCA at Nevins Farm.

1. Can you describe your typical day working as an animal behaviorist?

I see cats and dogs for behavior consultations that have severe aggression and anxiety issues.   I meet with owners and their pets at the two veterinary hospitals I work at and also do home visits.  I spend an hour or two (depending on the behavior issue) meeting the clients and their pets in-person and developing a plan to modify their pet’s behavior.  I do a lot of hands-on work with the pets I see while they are at the hospital, including handling aggressive dogs and teaching them good behavior around people and other dogs.  My clients get a detailed plan for their pet, and each consultation includes six weeks of follow-up to see how their pet is doing after our consultation. 

On a full day, I see four clients and their pets.  Owners may bring in other pets that live in the household if they are contributing to the behavior issue, so there may be several animals in the behavior room.  I give the animals toys to play with and treats to make them comfortable before I work with them. 

I also work on studies and write journal articles about animal behavior.  Right now, I am doing a study with a veterinarian that specializes in Chinese herbal medicine to investigate the effects of an herbal remedy on anxiety issues in dogs.

2. What are some examples of behaviors that you help treat in your patients?

Some of the issues I see include: aggression towards people and other animals, separation anxiety, noise phobias, house soiling, marking, generalized anxiety, situational anxiety (car rides, slippery floors, vet visits), new baby acclimations, furniture scratching, excessive vocalization, cognitive dysfunction, and compulsive behavior.  I do other things too, such as teaching cats to use human toilets and working with blind dogs to teach them how to go up and down stairs.  Most of my behavior consultations are for dogs that have bitten a person or another dog.  I mostly see cats for inappropriate elimination and aggression toward other cats or people in the household. 

I only use positive-based behavior modification and training methods (choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, yelling, and physical punishment are never recommended).  I often use “Gentle Leader” head collars when working with aggressive dogs (they go over the dog’s muzzle and behind the dog’s ears) for safety reasons and so I have better control of them.  I talk to a lot of owners about clicker training (also called click-and-treat training) to teach their pet good behavior.  This is the same type of training they use at Sea World, except they use a whistle and fish.  A clicking sound is made with a hand-held clicker when the pet is doing what you want and then they get a treat.  Most of my owners can teach their cats to sit within a few days with this method.

3. Have you found that there is a common cause of aggression or anxiety in animals?

Dogs have a sensitive period for socialization (3-12 weeks of age) and a cat’s sensitive period for socialization is 2-9 weeks of age.  During this time, they are like little sponges, and they learn to be comfortable with people, other animals, and the world.  If an animal is not exposed to a lot during this period (especially if they are raised in a cage, basement, garage, or they are from a puppy mill) they can have life-long anxiety issues if they don’t get treatment.  Aggression can also develop from inadequate socialization to people or other animals during this time.

4. Why does positive-based behavioral training work so well for animals?

Positive-based behavior modification and training methods build a bond and trust between an animal and the people working with them.  The animal is rewarded for good behavior and motivated to offer it.  If you punish an animal for misbehaving or hurt them, you will lose their trust and this can create conflict with you and possibly more behavior problems.  If you choke or shock a dog for showing aggression towards a person or another dog, you are teaching them that bad things happen when people or other dogs are around, and this can make them worse.

5. You describe yourself as more of a “pet psychologist” than a trainer. What makes you feel that way?

In a nutshell, I see a lot of well-trained dogs that bite people.  Training is definitely incorporated into what I do and some trainers do behavior consultations as well, so there isn’t always a clear line.

6. Why is it so important for animal guardians to be aware of their pets’ past experiences and genetics when it comes to understanding their pets’ behavior?

Once an owner understands their pet better (and why they are doing what they are doing) they are often more willing to do the work to resolve the situation. 

7. Why do you find it so important to make time to volunteer your services to local shelters, including the MSPCA?

More animals are euthanized for behavior issues than for all medical issues combined, and a lot of these animals end up in shelters.  Many behavior problems can be fixed and I want to give these pets another chance.

8. What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

I work with a lot of aggressive dogs, and this can get dangerous.  I have to make sure to come into work well-rested and to be on my toes.  I am never confrontational or aggressive towards the animals I work with, and they usually settle down once they learn that I won’t scare or hurt them, but some animals will still try to bite you.  Often fearful dogs wait to bite until you turn away from them, so you have be careful. 

9. Have there been any special patients who have made a lasting impact on you?

Any time I help to keep a pet in the home that was facing euthanasia when I met them is really rewarding.   

10. How did you become interested in animal behavior?

I have been around animals my whole life, and I can’t imagine my life without a pet or two.  I was always good at working with and training animals.  I started studying animal behavior in college. 

11. What kind of education or experience do you need for your job?

There are different kinds of animal behavior specialists.  Some types include: Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists that have Master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s in the animal behavior field, Veterinary Behaviorists that have veterinary degrees and then do a behavior residency, and Animal Behavior Consultants that are animal trainers that get a special behavior certification. 

I have a Bachelor’s degree in behavioral psychology from Eastern Michigan University and a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from the University of Texas at Austin.  I was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in the Animal Behavior Clinic for 2 years.    

12. What advice can you give to kids interested in a career in animal behavior?

I think that you can be what you want to be if you apply yourself, work hard, and most of all, believe in yourself.  Spend some time with people that do the job you are interested in and see if you like it.  Shadowing a person on their job is a great way to do this.  Animal behaviorists work with people as much as they work with animals, so you need to have good people skills, as well as being good at working with animals, to be successful at what I do.