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Getting to know… Hannah Miell

Animal Behaviourist Hannah Miell gives us an insight into her extensive knowledge of training and working with rescue dogs.

What initially drew you to become a professional dog behaviourist? Was there a specific moment or experience that ignited your passion for this line of work?

I have always wanted to work with animals, I grew up with cats and desperately wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling. Initially, I thought the veterinary profession was the only option. However, I became aware at around 10 years old that there were such things as Animal Behaviourists. These highly-qualified professionals focus on why animals do the things they do, help people understand their pets better and support them to work on problem behaviours. Following my degree, I practised privately for a few years, and I became increasingly interested in helping rescue pets, I wanted to work at the heart of the issue and help pets go out to their new homes in a better place than when they came in. RSPCA Little Valley work with pets who are in greatest need and may have experienced challenging conditions and/or neglect, this brings me even closer to the pets that need my support most.

Can you walk us through a typical day in your role at the animal shelter? What are some of the main tasks you undertake to ensure the well-being and rehabilitation of the dogs under your care?

My day consists of checking in with the team to see how the dogs are getting on, if there are any changes that I need to be aware of, especially if I have not been at the shelter the previous day. I spend time with the dogs that need the greatest behavioural intervention, training and coaching the team to work on the dog’s behaviour to get them ready for adoption. I complete admin tasks such as writing behavioural plans for the dogs, something every one of our dogs has to help maintain and develop them whilst they are in our care. I may need to speak to our adopters to give them information about a dog they are interested in or speak to someone who has rehomed a dog from us to give them post-homing support. I might need to go with one of our dogs to the vets and help support them through their veterinary check. I also go out to potential adopters’ homes with our dogs to help them settle smoothly into their new home.

Dogs come from various backgrounds and experiences before arriving at the shelter. How do you approach understanding and addressing their individual behavioural needs?

Our team carefully and thoroughly assess every dog that comes into our care. It is my job to be aware of each of our dogs’ history and assessments so I can use my knowledge and expertise to create a behaviour and training plan tailored to that individual dog. Once this is in place it helps the team to work with the dog as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can ultimately find them a new home. I believe every dog can be enriched by having behaviour and training intervention, whether it is loose lead walking, developing impulse control or rehab to improve a dog’s response to dogs and people, all these things help develop the relationship and communication between people and the dog. When things get challenging, we work together as a team discussing the options and considering everyone’s ideas to find solutions.

How do you work with other staff members, such as veterinary surgeons and volunteers, to provide holistic care for the dogs and promote their successful adoption?

Team work, communication and honesty! Everyone’s input and thoughts are really useful when reviewing a dog’s case, we are all here for the same reason and even when there is a difference in opinion, the most important thing to remember is that we all want to find the best solution for the dogs.

Could you share some strategies or techniques you employ to establish a connection with dogs, especially those who may have experienced trauma or neglect?

Treating the dog as an individual and going at their pace, reading their body language and finding what motivates them all help to build a great relationship with a dog. A common training technique that we use with all dogs is ‘reflex to name’ which is where we say the dog’s name and pair it with something tasty, this helps to encourage the dog to check in with us and will prepare them for recall training.

Adopting a dog is a significant decision for individuals and families. How do you assess the compatibility between a potential adopter and a dog, ensuring a successful and lasting match?

Our incredible dog team are responsible for the matching of people and dogs. If I am involved with a dog’s matching and introductions it is likely because there are some more specific needs for that particular dog. When considering compatibility, I like to make sure that everyone’s needs are going to be met, that the adopters are clear about the dog’s behaviour and the input they will require. I ensure that the adopters have a chance to meet me and that they understand I will be there to support them with their dog. We may spend time with the dog at the adopter’s home to see how they cope in the new environment or we may go for walks with adopters to demonstrate training and management techniques. All of these things are to help make that transition between leaving the kennel environment and living in their new home as smooth as possible for everyone.

The work you do can be emotionally demanding at times. How do you personally cope with the challenges and the highs and lows of your job?

I like to have a close relationship with the people I work with, we can then support each other when things are tricky and celebrate our successes. I love to review a dog’s case and see if there are any particular lessons we could learn from them or any specific training we did that worked well that other dogs might benefit from; this way all our dogs leave a kind of legacy to help even more dogs in the future. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the dogs go to their new homes and receiving updates on how they are doing. So much of the behaviour we see from dogs in the kennel environment is due to stress, it is wonderful to see the dogs flourishing in their new life.

What are some misconceptions that people often have about dog behaviour and training?

Dominance, ‘A wagging tail means the dog is happy’ and ‘Training and behaviour is all about treats and bribing the dog’.

I love talking about behaviour and training so I enjoy explaining what these things really mean and how they can apply this knowledge in the future. I don’t focus on who’s right/wrong as this only alienates people further and it is important to realise that the people I get to speak to love dogs as much as me, so I like to focus on our common ground. I pick my battles as some people have strong opinions, and it isn’t helpful to get bogged down in semantics. I focus on what I want from them and how to do it, whilst highlighting how the dog is feeling about it.

Can you share a memorable success story of a dog whose behaviour you were able to rehabilitate during their time at the shelter?

Kipper the 3 year-old, male, Staffordshire Bull Terrier Cross came in to us as a bouncy, ball of energy. He appeared to have had little training and found the stress of kennel life so impacting that all he could do on his walks was to repeatedly cling to our legs and hump. With careful handling, consistent training from the team and time, this behaviour has stopped and he can now walk well on a lead. He is hopefully going to his new forever home very soon.

Finally, looking towards the future, what do you envision as the biggest opportunities and challenges in the field of dog behaviour and welfare, both within shelters like RSPCA Little Valley and beyond?

We have some new members of our dog team. As they become more and more skilled, I think RSPCA Little Valley will become even better at rehabilitating complex dogs and even quicker at getting dogs into their new homes.

As the cost of living crisis continues to affect pet owners, they are having to make some heartbreakingly difficult decisions in regards to their pets. Sadly we are likely to see even more pets come into our care as a result.

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