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PROFILE: Falls native an expert on pet behavior

By Caitlin Murray
Niagara Gazette
July 18, 2008 09:23 pm

— Last week was a busy week for Terry Curtis. The Niagara Falls native was staying in Key West, Fla. at the Hemingway House, the former home of Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, working with its famous six- and seven-toed cats. From there, she had to hop on a plane for New York City to appear on NBC’s Today Show and talk with Meredith Viera about pet phobias.

“It’s still pretty surreal,” Curtis said. “Last week was a pretty incredible week. ... It was really one of those ‘take pause’ kind of moments.”

Curtis has been making a name for herself as an expert of animal behavior — a still relatively new but growing area of veterinary science.

Though the recognition is nice, Curtis just wants to help people understand animal behavior better, she said.

“My goal has always been to educate people and let them know there are things that can be done so their pet can stay a member of the family,” she said. “To reach that level (of recognition) is very exciting because I think this message can reach people — when they’re having problems with their pets, they don’t have to euthanize them.”

Curtis graduated from LaSalle Senior High School and went onto Keuka College where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. But it wasn’t until 13 years later, she got into animal behavior.

After working for ExxonMobil Chemical, she eventually decided to go to veterinary school and graduated from the University of Florida and received a master’s degree from the University of Georgia, one of only a handful of schools that offered programs in animal behavior.

Now, she has become an expert in the field, helping pet owners deal with problems from phobias to aggression.

Animal phobias, she said, are complicated to understand. A phobia of storms, for example, can have a number of factors: The sound of thunder, flash of lightening, wind and rain or changes in barometric pressure.

Curtis, who now lives in Florida, dealt with one client whose dog jumped out of a glass window because it was so scared of a storm, she said.

Curtis, who now lives in Florida, dealt with one client whose dog jumped out of a glass window because it was so scared of a storm, she said.

“It really seems they want to be out of their own skin,” Curtis said. “If they’re inside, they want to be outside. If they’re outside, they want to be inside. It’s really about getting to the point where they’ll be comfortable — where they can even begin to learn that storms are OK.”

Medication can be a short-term solution, Curtis said. Exposing a dog to the sound of thunder through CDs and gradually increasing the volume and duration can help reduce its fear level. Special wraps that reduce a dog’s sensitivity to static charges built up by storms can help too.

Some fears in pets can border on unusual: The sound of rustling leaves, the sound of a toilet paper roll — or everything.

“Some dogs are afraid of everything,” she said. “The owner comes home from the store with a bag and the dog is completely petrified. Or the dog is OK with a box that’s there, but if you move it, they become petrified.”

Training, she said, can teach dogs manners, but in response to phobia-induced behaviors, training will only increase anxiety. Some animals act aggressive when they feel scared, not because they are violent, and it’s the fear that needs to be addressed, she added.

But it’s getting easier for pet owners to get help with pet behavior. There are now more than 40 board-certified animal behavior programs around the country, compared to just a handful when Curtis started out.

And if the feedback Curtis gets from friends and family is any indication, the growth in animal behavior studies is a good thing. It’s hard to go to a party without someone having a pet quirk of their own to ask Curtis about.

“People always ask questions,” she said with a laugh. “Everyone always has a problem or a relative they say should see me. They say ‘Oh, my dog does this.’ It’s tough because I want to help everybody and you can’t always give a five minute answer.”