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Interview with Toni Shelbourne

Toni Shelbourne is a prominent Tellington TTouch Companion Animal Practitioner and the author of The Truth about Wolves and Dogs: Dispelling the Myths of Dog Training. Toni worked with Guide Dogs for 11 years, and worked for the UK Wolf Conservation Trust for over 10 years as education officer, senior wolf handler and editor of Wolf Print. Visit Toni's website to find out more about her fascinating work.
The Truth about Wolves and Dogs is a delightfully illuminating book that describes in detail the similarities and differences between wolf and dog behavior. The stunning photographs clearly illustrate and explain the meanings of body language and facial expressions. This is a book that I highly recommend to my clients and students, and to everyone who feels a kinship with dogs - and with wolves.


LISA: Toni, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed about your work.

TONI: You're welcome

LISA: How did you come to be involved with working with dogs and wolves?

TONI: I've always loved animals. As a child our house was like a zoo. My dad was always bringing home waifs and strays. Oddly my teenage years were mostly spent in a drama club but once out of college my love of animals drew me back to wanting to have a career working with them. I was incredibly lucky to land a job with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Eleven years later, having just qualified as a Tellington TTouch Companion Animal Practitioner, guide dogs gave me a choice of moving with my department halfway across the country or taking redundancy. As I wanted to concentrate on the Tellington TTouch work I left GDBA in 2000. In March 2001 I had a strange phone call from someone who was involved with the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. I was invited to go and meet the socialised wolves and the rest as they say is history. I worked with the wolves for ten years, first as a volunteer but later on as their education officer. It was a very thought provoking decade. I still miss Roger Palmer (Founder of the Trust) and John Denness (one of the original senior wolf handlers), sadly both now passed away. They both taught me the difference between wolves and dogs.

LISA: What are your most memorable experiences of close contact with wolves?

TONI: Wow, too many to narrow down to a few sentences. Nursing sick and injured wolves has to be up there in my top ten. Wolves like Kenai and Alba who when in pain could have caused me so much damage as I treated them but stood quietly knowing I'd stop if it became too much. Working with wolves really hones your observational skills, as they react so much faster than dogs do to injustices or failure to listen to them. Dakota, the first wolf I ever did TTouch on, became a firm friend even if she was mischievous.

Film work was always interesting. I remember one early morning filming for a shot for the Pedigree Dogs Exposed' TV program. The wolves were on top of a mound howling. What you don't see is me lying on the ground behind them having called them in to place, got them howling, then dropping out of frame. Hand rearing cubs was stressful but so rewarding, but my favorite times were always just hanging out in the enclosures with them, laying next to them in the sun, soaking up the rays and the atmosphere thinking to myself, wow I'm in their world and they accept me.

LISA: Why do you think there has been such an enduring fascination with wolves? They seem to spark off primal responses for many people and have been the subjects of almost mythological levels of suspicion, fear and deep reverence.

TONI: I think we see so much of ourselves in them. There is also a theory that with the coming of the last ice age, man had to look to wolves to see what to eat and how to hunt. In ancient times we would have seen them often, possibly with them coming into settlements to scavenge out of the rubbish pits. The wolf was linked to the pagan religion as well. Whether Christianity severed our ties with the wolf, or wolves became intolerable to people once we took to farming, I don't know for sure, but they are awesome, powerful creatures. Their presence alone can inspire or terrify you depending on your point of view.

LISA: What are the closest similarities, and the most noticeable differences, between wolves and dogs?

TONI: If you watch a pack of wolves you will clearly see behaviors you will recognize. Like scraping and circling before bedding down. Wolves make what we call a scrap, a shallow pit in the ground to cozy down in. They generally ignore the weather and will happily sleep out in the open in the snow or rain. The scrap gives them some protection, their thick double layered coat does the rest, and the tail stops heat loss out of the nose. They can survive in incredibly cold temperatures but in the summer will remain cool by shedding the undercoat and a winter fat layer.

Confirmation wise the head shape is very different and the orbital angle puts their eye position in a different place and shape. Their brains are bigger than dogs and the problem solving agility is amazing, think collie then double it. Their intelligence is said to be that of a four year old. Eye colour is amber or gold. Wolves only breed once a year and always in the spring to make use of a food glut with the birth of young herbivores.

That's just a few that springs to mind but there are so many.

LISA: One quality that needs to be further developed in our relationships with dogs is respect for their essential natures. As you say in your book (and I also point out in The Heartbeat at Your Feet), we control all aspects of their lives - what and when they eat, exercise, play, have our company. How can dog-owners best redefine their relationships with their dogs, to ensure that these are equally mutually beneficial?

TONI: Listening would be a huge start. Acknowledging they have emotions would be another. Some many times I have watched dogs in fearful situations and the owners don't even seem to notice. These two things would help build trust and understanding between our two species. Once we understand that they feel emotions as strongly as we do and get the support they need, individual dogs would really start to blossom. Oh, and ban the dominance theory as well. It was disproved years ago!

LISA: A research study into domestication of dogs and wolves was carried out by a team led by Dr Kubinyi Enikö at Eötvos Löránd University in Hungary. This involved hand-rearing first dog pups, then wolf pups, from the age of 5 days, to determine whether their behavior would be the same as they developed. The study concluded that wolves cannot be bonded or socialized with humans in the same way as dogs are, as their wolf-nature overrides this. Did you find this to be true in your work with wolves?

TONI: Wolf and dog pups are basically the same in their development up to about six weeks of age, then wolves accelerate away at an enormous rate. If you want a socialized wolf, i.e. one that isn't frightened of humans then you have to start hand rearing from before their eye open at about ten days. After this they will always remain wary of humans. As they grow, dog puppies remain very puppyish even into adulthood; that's what we like about them. Wolf cubs become really independent at about seven months old. Wolf cubs can never be house trained, trusted with the family cat or sofa for that matter, they chew anything and everything. As for the bonding question, yes they can bond but it is very much more a mutual, equal relationship. They won't necessary come when you call them, unless they want to, they want to know what is in it for them if you ask them to do something but boy, can they be loyal. The wolves I worked with would recognize the sound of my car when I arrived and rush to the fence to greet me, howl when I left to get me to come back, greet me with full-on muzzle holds when they hadn't seen me for a while, and protect me from their boisterous siblings if they became too bouncy. The trust you can get from this mutual relationship is incredible. Do wolves need you like dogs? No, but they can be a great friend. Its just the relationship is equal, two sided, respectful. Trying to physically make a wolf do some thing they don't want too is pointless; they are much stronger than us. Use guile and you'll probably lose as well. But if they trusted me, we were able to do incredible things together.

LISA: The photographs in The Truth about Wolves and Dogs beautifully illustrate how we can interpret their body language and facial expressions. This is vital to our relationships with dogs, and enables us to quickly avert and defuse tension and anxiety. Would you say that this is the most important skill that we can develop in order to increase the bond of trust with our dogs?

TONI: Communication is key. Understand them and react accordingly and the relationship can only get better.

LISA: Changes in behavior can sometimes be due to a health issue or to pain. Which signs commonly point to this as a cause?

TONI: The one I see the most with dogs I work with is reluctance to being touched in an area. I also see coat changes, swirls or texture changes over an injury site. Behaviorally you could see a wide range of symptoms ranging from hyperactivity to hiding, attention seeking to avoidance, snapping or growling, depression, restlessness……. The list is endless.

LISA: You are a practitioner of Tellington TTouch and an advocate of complementary therapies as an adjunct to veterinary care. There's a great deal of very positive feedback recorded about the success of Tellington TTouch with dogs and other animals. You train keepers at Paradise Wildlife Park in this, so that they can use it on zoo animals. How did the wolves in your care respond to this?

TONI: All the wolves I have worked with over the years have loved the work. It can be very calming in stressful situations like vet exams etc. As for zoo animals, we mostly work with them if there is a health issue or a handling need i.e. the animal needs regular treatment. It can be very beneficial to both the animals and the staff.

LISA: What do you find most inspiring about dogs and wolves?

TONI: Their willingness to let us into their lives and interact with us at the deepest emotional level. They are brilliant teachers too. I learn so much just by watching.

LISA: What are you working on at the moment? Will there be another book?

TONI: I have a few things in the offing. Another book is a distinct possibility and I'm working with my publishers now on a proposal. I'm also hoping to make The Truth about Wolves & Dogs into a TV program. I'm in talks with a media company right now. I've always loved film work and am very comfortable in front of the camera, which takes us full circle back to my formative years in the theatre.

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