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Alumni

A life of loving animals

July 2, 2012
by Paul Miller

Foundation of animal behavior science begins at CSU

Suzanne Hetts and Coral, a purebred Irish setter named after Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer band.<br /><em>Main-page photo:</em> Suzanne, her husband, Dan Estep, and Coral. For CSU alumna Suzanne Hetts, falling in love at five years of age with a miniature dachshund named Kris Kringle just about guaranteed a long career with animals. A bit later in her life, and armed with three CSU degrees, Hetts founded Animal Behavior Associates, a consulting practice that has been successful for 30 years.

Following an undergraduate degree in medical technology and microbiology in 1973, she completed a master’s program in wildlife biology, then was drawn back to medicine and animals and worked as a medical technologist from 1978-81 at CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

During that time, she attended a class in animal behavior and knew that was the field for her. She co-founded the pet-loss program at the VTH (now part of the Argus Center) and finished her Ph.D. in zoology in 1989. During her graduate studies, she started Animal Behavior Associates with her major professor, Philip Lehner, a CSU biology professor (now retired), and has since been thriving in the business with her husband, Dan Estep.

“My academic experiences gave me the foundation to understand the science of animal behavior and how animals learn,” Hetts says.

Behavioral consultation at work

Hetts was invited to talk on-air about dog behavior after Channel 9 news anchor Kyle Dyer was bitten by a dog in February.

“The people at Channel 9 were really shaken by the incident,” Hetts says. “They were a great group of people who really wanted to do the right thing all the way around. We talked about ways to approach and interact with unfamiliar dogs so that we don’t appear intimidating to the dog and to keep ourselves safe. There were a lot of signs that the dog that bit Dyer was not comfortable in that situation, but the dog didn’t give any clear warning signs that he was going to bite, so that was a problem.

“We discussed how most people miss signs of stress and anxiety in their pets. You really have to watch closely and know what you’re seeing.”

Hetts’ experience working as a behaviorist at the VTH after graduate school – and later at the Denver Dumb Friends League, a large-animal shelter, and for the past 20 years full time with ABA – has given her the breadth and depth of knowledge to help people and their pets to live happily together. Such deep experience also has shown her how unregulated the field of pet behavior and training is.

“Anybody can call themselves an expert in behavior and fill pet owners’ heads with all kinds of misinformation and bad things to do to dogs,” she says. “There are two protected titles – one is the certified applied animal behaviorist, which is what I am, and veterinary behaviorist. Outside of that, anybody can use any terms they like, so it’s very difficult for the pet-owning public to discriminate between someone who is completely self-taught, not grounded in science, and is spreading misinformation as compared to someone who is academically trained.”

Hetts recommends that pet owners carefully research trainers and behavior consultants and ask questions to be sure they’re certified and have scientific training.

Downloadable guidelines to help pet owners