Pets

Meet Jo McGregor: New Zealand's very own Dr Doolittle

They say never work with children and animals. But TV vet Jo is living her best life surrounded by all of that furry chaos.

There's not many people working in New Zealand television who can say their job involves "a lot of poo but a lot of fun".

Yet that's it in a nutshell for Jo McGregor – an animal carer on TVNZ 2's weekday afternoon show Fanimals – and she wouldn't have it any other way.

Yes, the guests she's in charge of might cock their leg in many places ("they don't know the difference between fake lawn and real grass!") and she may have kittens climbing over her headset, but for the 46-year-old vet nurse, it's a dream role.

"I keep pinching myself," gushes Jo, who is responsible for the welfare of the show's regulars, including golden retriever Molson, and kittens Micro and Chip, plus all the other four-legged stars. "I've really got the best life right now."

You won't see her on screen, though – she's more likely to be standing behind the camera operators, using hand signals to encourage Molson to look the right way.

"There are certainly some hectic moments," laughs Jo. "Probably the craziest day was when there were 46 dogs inside the studio and I had to pick up more than 24 poos! Or when five llamas came on set and peed bucket-loads."

Crew members describe her as a "dog whisperer", with the mum-of-two agreeing she's always had an animal magnetism.

Hen-pecked as a five-year-old by bantam Henny Penny!
Hen-pecked as a five-year-old by bantam Henny Penny!

Case in point, while travelling through South America on her big OE, Jo earned the nickname "Dr Dolittle" from fellow travel buddies because she was the only one in the group to find stray dogs lying outside her tent each morning.

"Not all of them were foraging for food," she recalls.

"I think they just wanted cuddles and knew who to go to. Other foreigners would shoo them away, saying, 'Get away, you mangy animal.' But I'd pat them and get out my scissors to trim any matted hair to help them out."

Aged 10 with her uncle's rescue dogs.
Aged 10 with her uncle's rescue dogs.

Jo adds that she's always quick to read a dog's body language and watches for their cues to predict what they'll do next.

"I learn from them and try to interrupt their pattern of behaviour before they get into trouble," explains Jo, who has a degree in zoology and follows popular US dog trainer Emily Larlham.

"Emily teaches progressive reinforcement training, which always rewards the dog and sets them up to succeed, rather than waiting for them to stuff up and then growl at them.

"The biggest thing a dog can teach us is acceptance – they love us unconditionally. In fact, I find they're easier to talk to than humans sometimes," she laughs.

When Jo isn't in the TV studio, she spends the rest of the week working from home, training labradoodle therapy puppies for the Kiwi Pride Therapy Programme.

With Fanimals vet Stacey Tremain, host Jess Quilter and star pooch Molson.
With Fanimals vet Stacey Tremain, host Jess Quilter and star pooch Molson.

The Tauranga-bred hypoallergenic puppies offer support for New Zealanders who have a disability, or a behavioural or health issue, and would benefit from a canine companion.

"I've recently trained a therapy puppy called Juneau, who was going to a child with cystic fibrosis and needed a cuddle buddy for hospital visits," explains Jo.

"So I made sure to expose Juneau to various medical places to get her used to automatic sliding doors, lifts and the smell of a hospital's sterile environment, which a normal dog generally wouldn't experience.

"We also had a nebuliser cranked up in the house so the noise wouldn't frighten her and I used games to train her to find an inhaler."

Of course, the hardest part for Jo is saying an emotional goodbye to her fur-babies when they're around five months old.

"They're all amazingly calm dogs who are really intelligent and responsive to human voices, and they just want to please you," she tells.

Prior to the therapy dogs, Jo also helped train up a pointer cross puppy called Ryder to become an aviation security explosives detector dog.

"She's nine months old now and still fulfilling her training before becoming operational as it's so much more extensive for service dogs that are protecting our borders," tells Jo.

"I took Ryder behind the scenes at the airport, exposing her to the sights and smells of airside activity, encouraging her to run along a moving conveyor belt, and up and down the stairs to the planes.

"Her biggest challenge was going down the escalator, so we practised closer to home at the local mall, and would repetitively go up and down the escalator by the movie theatre. She figured out she'd get popcorn bits if she was lucky."

Jo's husband Jimmy – who's admittedly more of a cat person – and their children, Amy, 13, and son Tavish, 12, are a brilliant help with training too and are keen dog-walkers. With 10 animals living on their family property, there's never been any pressure to ask for new pets.

"We've certainly had a lot more visitors to the house, though, with the kids' school friends asking for playdates when you know all they really want to do is play with the puppies or 'celebrity' animals from TV," laughs Jo.

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