Interview with Dr Peter Neville

Dr. Peter Neville is an animal Behaviourist.

Gill: Firstly may I thank you for giving us the time to share your knowledge. May we start by asking you how you first became involved with dogs?

Dr. Peter Neville: Really through my studies and postgraduate work in feline behaviour and welfare and later, in terms of handling dogs (especially fearful and aggressive and potentially rabid ones!) while running an animal welfare centre for a year in Greece. But my main interest in the early days was with cats, and I carried out various studies on small wild species in the wildlife parks of Kenya. As a result I was asked by various veterinarians on my return for advice with pet cat behaviour problems, and established a feline behaviour referral practice. This came after working for three years as a professional biologist, again studying cat behaviour and the behaviour of other mammals, including dogs from time to time, for the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. At this time I came to know the late great dog trainer and behaviourist John Fisher and other dog experts, exchanged information and experiences, and then set up joint behaviour referral practices for veterinarians. With the knowledge and hands-on skills that I learned from John and others, and their great help initially, my practices were soon able to expand to become both canine and feline referral practices. From that day, the emphasis of my behavioural work switched to dogs, to some extent due to the fact that the vast majority of referrals concern dog behaviour rather than cat behaviour. The real kick starts for my practices were when Bristol Veterinary School invited me to run regular behaviour referral clinics in the Dept of Medicine and when John Fisher, myself and others founded the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors in 1989.

Gill: If someone came to you asking for advice as to working in this field and learning, would you recommend a correspondence course, a residential course, working for a rescue society/local dog training club or something else to start them off?

Dr. Peter Neville: From the structured study point of view, I would recommend them to contact the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) on (44+)(0)1747 871258 or visit COAPE runs lots of independently accredited (by the UK National Open College Network)correspondence courses in feline and canine behaviour and a residential diploma in Practical Aspects of Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy and Training (DipCABT). From the practical experience point of view, I would advise anyone starting out to take up any post, voluntary or paid, that will provide them with the opportunity to handle and manage as wide a range of species as possible, but especially dogs and cats. Crucially they should also try to gain experience at a post that involves them coming into with contact with lots of pet owners. A good rescue centre is probably ideal, but really one should experience as many areas of pet management in society as possible, so helping out at a vet’s, at a dog training class, with a dog/cat breeder should all be experienced at some time.

Gill: If you have 2 or more dogs living in same home and interpack aggression starts, which is becoming a daily occurrence, how best should you handle this?

Dr. Peter Neville: Every case is different and it is unwise, and even potentially hazardous in any case involving aggression to describe any treatment approach without a complete history taking. Sorry for that rather curt reply, but there’s also the problem that it would take me a week to write this up properly! There’s now so much information that can be helpful with this type of problem and so many techniques available to the behaviourist to help, and it really just isn’t possible to give a helpful reply concerning treatment of most types of serious behaviour problem, which this is. These cases just aren’t that simple. I would always advise the owners to discuss the situation with their vet immediately and seek a referral to a proper animal behaviour therapist rather than give ‘quick-fire’ general information.

Gill: What is the most funniest case you have ever been asked for help with?

Dr. Peter Neville: The neutered male cat who was mounting the Dachshund bitch, much to her surprise. It turned out that the cat was an extremely good vet. I advised that the dog was checked out rather than the treat the cat. The dog had an ovarian tumour which had prompted some pheremonal changes and stimulated the cat! The dog was spayed, made a complete recovery and the cat lost interest thereafter. The thing I will never forget was the expression on the dog’s face as the cat leapt on her at every turn.

Gill: What would you suggest to an owner that has a dog with a good recall, apart from when other animals droppings are about, when it will then run off to eat them all.

Dr. Peter Neville: Again, every case is different and it is unwise, and even potentially hazardous in any case involving possible medical causes to behaviour problems (eg in this type of case: vitamin deficiencies, malabsorption problems, internal parasites) to describe any treatment approach without a veterinary examination. If no organic cause to the problem is found, or one is found that can be described, a referral to a proper animal behaviour therapist for an in-depth approach can then be made, with behavioural modification techniques complimenting medical or nutritional advice from the vet.

Gill: How would you go about introducing an adopted adult dog to a resident cat?

Dr. Peter Neville: Every case is different it depends on the dog and it depends on the cat and it depends on the people concerned! As before, it would be unwise of me to describe any specific treatment approach without a complete history taking and observation of the animals concerned. I would usually advise the owners to discuss the situation with their vet if they were worried and seek a referral to a proper animal behaviour therapist although in this case, a good cat-sensitive dog trainer could be more helpful. Basic principles however are: the dog should be restrained on a lead and perhaps a Gentle Leader head collar, and even muzzled in cases where he is known to be excitable with cats. As with all behaviour modification, there is little to be achieved by owners reacting to arousal during the first introductions. Instead the dog should be trained proactively away from the cat to respond to signals of non-reward and denial (e.g. by using dog training discs) and reward (reinforced) for calm behaviour (by being clicker trained). These signals can then be used to far better effect to manage the dog’s emotional state when he is introduced to the cat. It may help on first introductions to house either the cat of the dog in an indoor kennel for safety and in freer introductions later, the cat should be on, or able to escape to, a high surface out the dog’s jumping reach. The cat’s welfare in this is usually paramount, though in some cases of tough cats who hate dogs, the dog may also need careful protection!

Gill: Is it difficult and how does one go about becoming a member of the APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors)?

Dr. Peter Neville: The APBC makes various demands for membership entry – you will need both academic qualifications and practical skills and, in practice, excellence at one will not compensate for a lack in the other. For APBC membership you will need to hold a degree in a relevant subject such as veterinary medicine, biology or psychology, and have a certain level of experience in treating behaviour cases (though this may present some difficulty if vets only refer to APBC members in an applicant’s home area). You must also be prepared to adhere to a strict professional code of conduct and carry professional indemnity and third party liability insurance. Case histories concerning the treatment of behaviour cases of at least two species also need to be presented. You can get full current details of membership application requirements from the Secretary, APBC, PO Box 46, Worcester WR8 9YS England or via the website:

Gill: I know that you have written books on dog behaviour. How does one even start such a thing with a view to getting published?

Dr. Peter Neville: This is very difficult indeed – it takes a lot of time and research, and writing a book is a very different prospect to writing articles, for example. Most publishers like to see a properly structured plan for a book, an outline of content and intention behind it and one or two sample chapters. However, they get inundated with would-be proposals and reject the vast majority. Publishers these days also tend to rely on known authors, and expect authors, both new and established, to write books in specialist interest markets for a single fee rather than the old royalty agreements which used to make a good selling book much more worthwhile for an author. I’ve had two books in my head for the last three years, but can’t justify the time to write them compared against my other activities at the moment. So I guess they’ll have to wait until I retire.

Gill: What are the main behaviour/training problems you see in your job?

Dr. Peter Neville: The vast majority of cases concern canine aggression, either directed at people or other dogs, followed by separation related disorders. Feline case account for less than 10% of referrals, even for me as a cat specialist, but the commonest problem types are indoor marking and aggression problems between cats in a house.

Gill: What are your thoughts on human to dog hierarchy? Do you think dogs that are allowed to sleep on owners beds, get on furniture, eat before and owner food etc, can become an issue/problem?

Dr. Peter Neville: There is strictly no such thing – people are predominantly parent figures to their dogs, not pack leaders in hierchical arrangements and there is a wealth of science from evolutionary biologists such as Professor Ray Coppinger to substantiate that view. Social order is seasonally evident in wolves and other wild canids to ensure the success of reproduction, not for any ongoing political reasons. Therefore the so-called ‘dominance reduction programmes’ so beloved of many behaviourists, and which include such advice as getting dogs off beds, eating first etc as standard procedures without targetting the specific problems being faced by the owners are, to my mind, severely outdated and scientifically unsound. If the dog presents a problem on the furniture or on its owners’ beds, deny access and then train it and reward it intensively for going and enjoying being somewhere else. Standing in its bed etc and then rewarding it when it isn’t on the furniture won’t help it or its owners! This is huge issue and we spend a long time dismantling the rationale behind ‘dominance reduction programmes’ on the COAPE Diploma course (see – in fact, we ban students from using the word ‘dominance after the first stage as it is so open to misuse.

Gill: What is your opinion on neutering dogs and what age do you feel this should be done?

Dr. Peter Neville: From a population control point of view and to reduce the huge numbers of dogs born simply to spend their days in rescue centres or be destroyed, I feel it is vital that all crossbreeds and pedigree pet dogs not to be used for breeding should be neutered just before they become fertile, not afterwards. From a simple management point of view, neutering certainly makes females and some males easier to manage. It can also prevent or reduce the scale of some behaviour problems in males, and occasionally females too. However, some nervousness, incompetence and insecurity problems in male dogs (and some tom cats too) occur, I believe, simply because the very hormone that is designed to enable them to learn how to be brave and confident, and to learn how to compete is removed by castration before it has had a chance to affect their behaviour. So nervous or socially incompetent males may be best left to mature until the age of 2-3 years before seeing whether the surgery is worthwhile from any behavioural point of view. Some bitches which are already socially competitive, perhaps as a result of the hormonal influences of having lain between two male foetuses in their mother’s womb, may also become even more competitive after spaying and so it may be wiser not to spay young assertive bitches until any problems have been addressed.

Gill: What are your favourite dog books/authors and can you tell us why they are your favourites?

Dr. Peter Neville: ‘Man Meets Dog’ by Konrad Lorenz was such a ground breaker in understanding how man and dog click from an emotional point of view should be read by everyone who works with or loves dogs! I’m also very fond of re-reading all the books written by my great friend, the late John Fisher, to recall his influence and understanding of dogs. Best of all of them, and especially when things sometimes seem to get a bit too serious about dogs, I like to read John’s ‘Diary of a ‘Dotty Dog’ Doctor’ to hear him once again in my mind telling again all those hilarious stories that I heard him tell when we lectured together around the world. ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ by Karen Pryor is also a must, as is anything written by Professor Ray Coppinger.

Gill: Do you feel that neutering can help some behaviour problems, if so what please?

Dr. Peter Neville: Yes, but again this is a huge area where the individual characteristics of each case need to be addressed, rather than spaying or castration being advised as a standard procedure in the hope that it might improve a problem. Sexual hormones and their removal must be considered from the point of view of their impact on the dog’s emotionality, and the link between their action and a dog’s problem behaviour far more carefully considered than is usually the case. In most cases, neutering will do no harm behaviourally (with the exceptions outlined above perhaps), but it won’t always produce the intended benefits. In my experience, castration may help most in cases where a young adult male dog is specifically aggressive towards all other male dogs (ie is highly socially competitive) and is successful with his aggression, but is contrastingly friendly and flirtatious with females. But even with this type of problem, the effect of the surgery will depend on how ‘well’ he has already learned to compete and how long he has been successful as a fighter.

Gill: Do you think diet influences behaviour, especially in what seems hyperactive dogs?

Dr. Peter Neville: Yes. Diet affects behaviour both in its absence in terms of hunger motivating searching, activity and competitive behaviour for food resources, and extreme hunger in malnutrition causing lethargy. The mechanical effects of timing and frequency of feeding, and the effects of full and empty stomachs on mood and activity levels are known to everyone, canine and human! The impact of specific nutrients on behaviour also is beginning to be far better understood – the influences of blood glucose levels on mood and behaviour are well known, for example. The effect of the availability, catalysis and uptake of particular amino acids from the blood into the brain on neurotransmitter availability and activity, and how this influences mood and learning ability, is also now well established. Some fascinating pioneering work was carried out in this area with dogs by my COAPE colleague Val Strong for her MSc and, as a result, nutritional considerations now form a vital part of our approach to treating many canine behaviour problems, particularly those where the dog is frustrated with its social or environmental circumstances. This not necessarily the same as ‘hyperactivity’ which has a clinical definition and is often misdiagnosed in dogs which are difficult to control or simply excitable.

Gill: Any tips or words of wisdom in selecting a puppy or older dog that is right for you?

Dr. Peter Neville: Spend a lot of time finding a good breeder or competent rescue facility. If you are inexperienced or likely to allow your heart rule your head when it comes to making the choice from a litter or line of kennels, then ask someone who is experienced, such as a good trainer, vet, behaviourist, breeder etc to come with you to help you temper your heart with their head.

Gill: On behalf of everyone we would like to thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. If you have any workshops, books, videos, web page you would like to add please list below for people to visit and buy.

Dr. Peter Neville: personal website – books, videos, training products, diary etc. all about the Gentle Leader head collar for dogs, order facilities, nationwide Gentle Leader trainers list etc. education courses – correspondence, diploma etc in canine and feline behaviour and behaviour therapy