With little or no awareness on the subject of the mental health of a dog behaviourist, any discussion around it is likely to find little credence among laypersons
In 2014, Sophia Yin, a world-renowned dog behaviourist and veterinarian, a pioneer of positive dog training methods and an inspiration in the dog training world, died by suicide. Yin was only 48 years old. Her tragic death sent ripples cross the pet care world.
Not only were we mourning the loss of a fantastic dog behaviourist, we had to also painfully acknowledge the grim mental health status of dog behaviourists, veterinarians and others in the pet care field. That was the same year I had started out as a dog trainer/behaviourist. Yin’s death came as a rude shock, a reality check, an alarm bell to tread carefully down this path.
Pet care professionals
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has only recently been prioritised in national healthcare agendas among developing countries. Specific and targetted mental health programming for key populations is largely missing. Most of the mental health data among pet care professionals comes from veterinarians in the global North. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), one in six veterinarians in the United States have contemplated suicide.i The AVMA also reports that male veterinarians were 2.1 times and female veterinarians were 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general US population.ii A survey among 1403 Canadian veterinarians, as recent as in 2020, revealed that 26.2 per cent of them reported suicidal tendencies in the past 12 months.iii This is more than twice of what the estimated prevalence among the general population is (estimates range from2.1% to 10%). Workplace stress, mounting student debts, having to euthanise the animals because the family cannot pay for treatment and stigma about poor mental health, are all contributing reasons for the higher rate of suicide in this group.
Apart from suicide, other mental health disorders commonly faced include depression, anxiety burnout and ‘compassion fatigue’.iv In a survey among 701 veterinarians in Alabama in 2012, 66 per cent reported being ‘clinically depressed’. Alarmingly, 32 per cent of them reported not seeking treatment for it. What these figures look like in today’s context of COVID-19 remains unknown.
Lack of data in India
Closer home, in India, we have no data on mental health among veterinarians, dog behaviourists, rescue workers, veterinary technicians or any other pet care professionals. Mental health is still a very nascent and misunderstood space in the country, battling various social and systemic pressures like stigma and the acute shortage of mental professions in the country despite the high prevalence of mental health disorders.vi There is, however, plenty of anecdotal evidence among us dog behaviourists on mental health burdens commonly faced.
Home environment vs pets
One of the challenges/occupational hazards of the dog training profession is how close we get to our clients. We enter their homes, we are aware of the different personalities within the household, the relationships between them. We all know that a calm and happy dog needs a calm and happy environment to live in. And so, ‘problem dogs’ come from ‘problematic environments’, and it’s in these environments, we often have to work in. As behaviourists, we are brought into challenging situations that go beyond assessing the behaviour of pet dogs alone. We rarely meet good, well-behaved, settled dogs. Seeing suffering, abuse, preventable behaviour issues every day, takes a huge toll.
Photo: Vartika Pande
A dog behaviourist colleague recounts one case in particular. Their client was an abusive individual, likely with schizophrenia, with a child, and a puppy. As a behaviourist entering the home, they were privy to emotional outbursts, signs of physical abuse on the partner, and a visibly disturbed child. How does one deal with this? After many frank conversations suggesting professional mental health care, perhaps even institutionalisation, my colleague felt they absolutely needed to distance themselves from the case. It was beginning to be detrimental to their own mental health. At the last contact, we know the dog has been re-homed, but are unaware of the status of the family members in the household.
In another example, this one of my own, I was called into a family with two French bulldogs. One of them, terrified of other dogs. Despite knowing that their older dog is terrified of the other dogs, the family brought home another dog. After a few dog fights within the very first week, they came to me to solve the aggression issue. My recommendation was to give up the second dog for one simple reason – it was highly traumatic for their first, older dog.
Their second dog, a young, healthy pedigree, would certainly find a home without other dogs to pick on. They refused to give up the second dog. A few months later, this second French bulldog was biting the humans in the home as well. On hearing this, I was absolutely livid, dangerously close to screaming at them over the phone. I was furious. So much trauma to humans and dogs could have been avoided. I refused to help them, choosing to refer them to other behaviourists instead. I had no empathy, no word of kindness and no patience to help this family. All I knew was anger. I was experiencing Compassion Fatigue, but I did not know at that time.
Frustration, helplessness, anger – they’re all part of the job. The profession may seem to be all about cute, cuddly dogs from the outside, but the reality of it has many dismal and gloomy aspects. Pet care professionals often deal with humans, their demands, emotions, expectations, a lot more than with dogs, and this is certainly true for dog behaviourists. Most of us are always prepared with a list of mental health professionals, lawyers, police contact to share with our clients as needed.
With over eight years in this profession, I have only heard of two (expensive) ways to deal with our own mental health – one is to ‘seek therapy’, and the other is to ‘take a break’. Access to good quality mental health care in India is limited and unequal.vii And taking a break leads to a direct loss of income. Neither are viable solutions in the long term.
The road ahead
It is a long road ahead to acknowledge and to achieve quality mental health services in India, but there are small signs of change coming our way. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations around mental health are becoming more mainstream. The country’s premier mental health research institution, NIMHANS, is conducting a mental health survey in six cities, the first in six years.viii Niti Aayog has recommended that mental health services be available at primary health clinics nationwide.xi
What we need first and foremost is good, rigorous mental health data among pet care professionals, this group being a key population of interest, to understand prevalence rates as well as the unique contributing factors to poor mental health. Second, colleges and courses that train pet care professionals should dedicate classroom time to mental health burdens that may be faced on the job. Third, we need mental health and social support systems from two avenues, from strong accessible governmental services, as well as from within the pet care community itself so we learn, support and grow as a field. The alarming mental health realities of pet care professionals is a problem we cannot ignore anymore.
i Kottke, C. (2021, May 26). Alarming suicide rates reflective of stresses felt by veterinarians (wisfarmer.com). Wisconsin State Farmer.
ii Tomasi, S.E., Fechter-Leggett, E.D., Edwards, N.T., Reddish, A.D., Crosby, A.E., & Nett, R.J. (2019). Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 254(1), 104-112. https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/254/1/javma.254.1.104.xml
iii Perret, J.L., Best, C.O., Coe, J.B., Greer, A.L., Khosa, D.K., & Jones-Bitton, A. (2020). Prevalence of mental health outcomes among Canadian veterinarians. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 256(3), 365-375. https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/256/3/javma.256.3.365.xml
iv Clay, A.R. (2020, June 11). Are you experiencing compassion fatigue? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/compassion-fatigue
v Skipper, G.E., & Williams, J.B. (2012). Failure to acknowledge high suicide risk among veterinarians. Journal of veterinary medical education, 39(1), 79-82. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22433743/
vi Sagar, R., Dandona, R., Gururaj, G., Dhaliwal, R.S., Singh, A., Ferrari, A., … & Dandona, L. (2020). The burden of mental disorders across the states of India: the Global Burden of Disease Study 1990–2017. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(2), 148-161. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(19)30475-4/fulltext
vii Yellowlees, P., & Chan, S. (2015). Mobile mental health care-an opportunity for India. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 142(4), 359. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4683818/
viii Chauhan, B. (2021, December 11). NIMHANS mental health survey in 6 cities. The New Indian Express. https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/karnataka/2021/dec/11/mental-health-survey-in-6-cities-2394278.html
ix Sharma. S. ( 2021, December 09). Depression in times of COVID: One in 10 adults suffer from mental health issues in India. India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/diu/ story/depression-in-times-of-covid-one-in-10-adults-suffer-from-mental-health-issues-in-india-1886014-2021-12-09