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Roger Mugford is the founding father of British pet psychology; Mugford is in demand as more people want pets but lack the skills to look after their wellbeing; The world market for pet accessories and products is projected to reach $17.2bn by 2015. 10.7m dogs in the US – or up to 17 per cent – suffer from separation anxiety.

August 15, 2013 4:57 pm

Bad dogs and the Englishman who calls them to heel

By Emma Jacobs

Creature comfort: Roger Mugford is in demand as more people want pets but lack the skills to look after their wellbeing

Bella is panting with happiness. The epitome of exuberance. But she has one weakness: sheep and wildfowl. She cannot stop herself sinking her teeth into them. Last month, on a summer stroll at Hampton Court, the royal palace once inhabited by Henry VIII, she grabbed a swan by its wing, chasing it into the river Thames, filmed by a boatful of tourists.

Consequently Bella, a cross bet­ween a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Rhodesian ridgeback, is a source of joy and stress to her owner Mark Reeves. His favourite pastime – country walks – is no longer relaxing because he is on constant alert for sheep or deer. After all, a farmer is allowed to kill a dog that worries livestock.That is why he is here in Roger Mugford’s consulting room in Surrey, in the southeast of England. For £250 a session, Mr Reeves hopes Mr Mugford, a pet psychologist, will cure 18-month-old Bella of her animal-chasing ways. He has already been to another pet psychologist who told him to keep Bella indoors with the curtains closed. Two days was as much as the pair could manage.

The expense is worth it, Mr Reeves insists, if it saves him from ending up in court because Bella has savaged a sheep. Proposals are being considered by the UK government that could see owners of dangerous dogs jailed for years or for life if their pet mauls or kills someone. While Bella is unlikely to attack a human, the plans have made Mr Reeves – a medical consultant who works from home – anxious that his dog will be classed as dangerous.

Mr Mugford, avuncular, mischievous (he calls dogs “sons of bitches” for the shock value) and a bit bonkers, wearing a crumpled shirt and scruffy chinos, is considered the founding father of British pet psychology. Using a mix of rewards and aversion techniques, he has seen more than 50,000 animals, including the Queen’s corgis that savaged Princess Beatrice’s terrier so badly that it almost lost an ear.

Customers fly in from all over Europe. The 67-year-old also acts as an expert witness, defending dogs facing euthanasia under the Dangerous Dogs Act, and once saving Princess Anne’s bull terrier from death after it at­tacked two children.

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After taking notes on Bella’s background (Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, given up by elderly owners who could no longer look after her), he quizzes Mr Reeves on her eating habits, ticking him off for feeding her dog food (“they’re all rubbish”) instead of raw meat. Unlike some pets he sees (needy, over-attached cats, aggressive dogs, horses petrified of cows), Bella, he pronounces, is “well-balanced”. She just enjoys the chase. If Bella had lived in America or France, says Mr Mugford, she might have been prescribed antidepressants. In those countries, he says breezily, “every dog has a syndrome . . . like ‘excess predatory syndrome’.”

Packing treats in his pocket, Mr Mugford fixes a training collar around Bella’s neck that scares her by emitting an odourless, harmless spray if she leaps on a sheep, before heading out to face the animals on his farm and the swans and geese that populate a nearby stretch of river. Each time Bella approaches the livestock or wildfowl, Mr Mugford presses a remote button that releases a short sharp burst of the spray hanging from the dog’s neck, and she turns on her heels. “I want her to be afraid of sheep, I want her to be scared that sheep are dangerous,” says Mr Mugford. Will that not damage her psychic balance? “This is the most courageous, least nervous dog on the plan­et. This dog has all balls, hasn’t she?”

Dog days

● The world market for pet accessories and products is projected to reach $17.2bn by 2015, says Global Industry Analysts.

● According to Eli Lilly, the drug company, 10.7m dogs in the US – or up to 17 per cent – suffer from separation anxiety. It says 73 per cent of dogs receiving its antidepressant Reconcile showed improvement in their separation anxiety-related behaviour within eight weeks.

● India has traditionally had one of the world’s lowest rates of dog ownership: four for every 1,000 people. But that is changing. According to Euromonitor International, the total number of dogs increased by 58 per cent between 2007 and 2012. Switzerland’s dog population slumped 10 per cent over the same period.

Dog, owner and Mr Mugford seem happy with the morning’s work. Bella cautiously trots rather than races towards the animals. She still has much work to do under Mr Reeves’s stewardship. The worst kind of clients, says Mr Mugford, want everything to be fixed in a session and are too lazy to continue the training themselves.

Raised in Devon, Mr Mugford drop­ped his West Country accent because he wanted to “be taken seriously in business and academia, so learned to talk posh”. His father was keen he did not take over the family farm because of the “economic pressures”. After a PhD, which examined animal behaviour to understand human aggression, he became a specialist in human-animal interaction at Mars, which owns pet-food brands including Pedigree and Kitekat. Intrigued by the problems of pet owners but hampered by the constraints of working for a big company, he decided in 1979 to start his Company of Animals training and behaviour centre.

While fees are high, they are not enough to afford the kind of lifestyle that Mr Mugford has (his house is on the market for £1.25m). The real money comes from a business that makes products such as a Halti head collar – which has paid for his three children’s private school education – or the aerosol he used on Bella. Turnover is £10m a year and the products are distributed to more than 50 countries, including to China which, due to its burgeoning middle class and one-child policy, is increasingly lavishing love and money on pets.

He points to the “anxiety bag”, a tightfitting sheath that works like a swaddle for pets. “When you hug a child when he’s upset, [it] stimulates all sorts of endorphin-related pressure points. If [animals are] pressed then they calm down.”

He holds up a bright green plastic plate with what looks like fat bits of plastic grass sticking out. It is an “interactive feeder” because, apparently, dogs and cats get bored when eating. Can they not go and do something else if ennui sets in? “It’s engaging with their natural instinct for [foraging for] food.” It also doubles up as a diet aid. “Dogs eat far too much too quickly so this makes it really hard work for a dog to eat its food, and a cat has to use its paw and lift one piece of kibble at a time.”

Is all this paraphernalia really necessary? “A wicked thing to suggest,” he grins. Is pet psychology a sign that the developed world is spoiled? “We have lost the skill-base to deal with animals because we’ve taken people from the country and plonked them in cities. And people are not very practical . . . [and] want to have dogs that they are peculiarly unsuited to,” says Mr Mugford. “People imagine that I’ll be having dogs sitting on the couch . . . I’m not like that. It’s very pragmatic, very hands-on.”

Mr Mugford had assumed the arrival of social media would mean people’s int­erest in pets dwindled. It hasn’t. “People need real, tangible, touchable relationships as never before. The transience of human relationships, [the] breakdown of family structure . . . seems to have [made] the permanence and the relatively uncritical relationship a pet has with its owner more necessary and more attractive.”

People skills, not animal ones, are what makes Mr Mugford good at his job, he insists. He is frequently contacted by people in soulless jobs in the City who want a more meaningful career – there is a woman in his office today who hopes to leave a bank’s debt desk. “A lot of people migrate to do my kind of work because they don’t form good human relationships and they hate people. Just like a good psychotherapist, you’ve got to project and live inside the skin of your client. I can be with [a] working-class lad and . . . snobby people in Bayswater.”

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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