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Tech Talk: Interested in Animal Behavior?

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Becoming a veterinary behavior technician adds value to your credentials.

Veterinary technologists and technicians are invaluable members of any clinic staff. They perform a multitude of procedures under the supervision of licensed veterinarians and assist in the diagnosis and treatment of animal injuries and illnesses. Techs can also specialize in areas of particular interest, including (but not limited to) nutrition, dentistry, internal medicine, pharmacy, and a relatively new kid on the block (recognized in 2008 as an area of specialty) – animal behavior.

Behavior has long been the neglected stepchild of veterinary medicine. While many clients look to their veterinary professionals for behavioral advice, most veterinary schools and vet tech courses have been decidedly lacking in providing or requiring comprehensive courses about behavior.

A sampling of clinic behavior programs Here are just a few of the behavior programs and services you could offer your clinic as a VBT.

1. Pre-adoption counseling – Many behavior problems can be avoided by helping your clients select an animal companion – species and breed – that’s well-suited to their lifestyle. You can help them establish reasonable expectations, and set them up for success from the outset with appropriate management and training programs for their new family members.

2. Fun vet visits – One of the reasons so many dogs behave badly at your clinic is that every visit involves some degree of stress and pain: restraint, exams and manipulation, vaccinations, poking and prodding. If every stressful visit was offset by several fun visits, dogs could stay happy about going to the vet. Fun visits can be simple – for example, the owner drops by with her dog several times a week for a round of “feed treats and play”. Or they can be more formal, such as enrollment in a regular daycare program.

3. Clinic daycare – A well-run clinic daycare program can turn your canine clients into your biggest fans. Conditioning to routine handling practices can be included as part of the daycare package, or as add-ons for an additional fee. Look – it’s fun to hop up on the scale! Good stuff happens when you’re on the exam table! Paw-handling is a great game! Thermometers, stethoscopes and otoscopes make yummy treats appear!

4. Good manners training and behavior modification – While you’re at it, offer basic good manners training for your clients. Daycare staff can use positive reinforcement to teach dogs to sit, lie down, walk nicely on a leash, greet people politely, and come when called. You can also work with daycare dogs with identified behavioral challenges. And offer good manners classes, in which you teach clients how to use modern, positive reinforcement-based training methods to help their dogs become well-mannered canine citizens. This also strengthen the human-animal bond necessary to ensure lifelong loving homes.

5. Client homework – Your clients can do a lot with their pets at home to make clinic visits easier. Collect, create and offer handouts to help them help their pets develop a positive association with pawhandling in preparation for nail trims, ear-touching for ear exams, and more.

6. Behavior consults – Inevitably, your clinic will see animals that have significant behavioral issues, including everything from barking, digging and house soiling, to chewing, anxiety and aggression. With proper education and experience, you can help clients overcome many of these behavioral challenges, and salvage relationships that might otherwise end badly, with a pet being rehomed or even euthanized.

7. Staff training – A large and growing body of knowledge surrounds low-stress handling methods for veterinary practices. Share this information during staff in-service training sessions so clients benefit from the most up-to-date advice on humane handling and care for their animal companions.

8. Public seminars – Offer free monthly seminars to the general public on a variety of behavior and training topics for all species. This is a great way to disseminate accurate behavioral information to your community as well as attract new clients to your practice.

There are, of course, boarded veterinary behaviorists who are very knowledgeable on the subject, as well as non-boarded, well-educated veterinarians who specialize in behavior. However, far too many veterinarians doing their level best to answer client questions still rely on old-fashioned folklore or television show drama for their behavior and training knowledge. As a result, clients may receive well-intentioned but scientifically unsound, ineffective and sometimes dangerous advice. Fortunately, as the need for quality behavior professionals has become more evident, this unhappy state of affairs has begun to change.

As a vet tech, you can seize this opportunity to expand your knowledge base, and add to your market value, by becoming a certified veterinary behavior technician (VBT). This field is wide open, and a trained VBT is a tremendous asset to any veterinary practice.

MODERN SCIENCE-BASED TRAINING AND BEHAVIOR

Far removed from old-fashioned methods that focused on punishing an animal for purportedly willful misbehavior and alleged “dominance-seeking”, the field of modern, science-based training and behavior recognizes that animals offer unwanted behaviors for a variety of legitimate reasons:

1. They’re frightened and defensive

2. They’re stressed and anxious

3. They have not been taught or reinforced for desirable behaviors

4. They have been reinforced (deliberately or inadvertently) for undesirable behaviors.

The appropriate response to any of these is to:

• Manage the environment to prevent over-threshold exposure to fear and stress-causing stimuli

• Manage the environment to prevent reinforcement for unwanted behaviors

• Implement appropriate behavior modification protocols to change associations with and responses to fear and stress-causing stimuli

• Implement appropriate training programs to teach/reinforce desired behaviors.

In short, today’s science-based training emphasizes the value of programs that focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors rather than suppressing unwanted behaviors or coercing behavior through the use of force, intimidation or pain. An educated behavior professional recognizes that old-fashioned force-based methods carry a high risk of behavioral baggage such as fear, avoidance and aggression.

Armed with the knowledge and experience a good behavior program will provide, you’ll be able to help clients identify and appropriately address behavior problems and, equally important, prevent them from occurring in the first place. You will also be able to influence your clinic’s practices and move toward the low-stress handling methods advocated by the late veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin, who was a champion of improving levels of behavioral knowledge in veterinary settings. You can develop programs for your employer’s clinic that will provide additional revenue streams while helping to ensure behaviorally healthy patients.

Low-stress handling example: nail trimming

Many clients bring their dogs to the veterinarian for the simple husbandry procedure of nail-trimming, either because they aren’t comfortable doing it themselves, or because the dog resists the procedure. It’s common practice (although not universal) for clinic staff to muzzle and forcibly restrain dogs in order to get the trimming done with minimal risk to humans. But it’s not necessary.

Rarely is nail-trimming an emergency procedure. If your clinic is already committed to promoting a behaviorally-thoughtful environment, clients and staff are likely to be open to a new approach to nail trimming. Here are some alternatives to forcible restraint:

1. Voluntary compliance: Some dogs aren’t as stressed about the trimming itself as they are about the restraint. A percentage of your canine clients will be surprisingly compliant about the procedure if you simply have them lie on the exam table (or the floor, if the table is stressful for them). With front paws extended forward in the normal “down” position, toenails are accessible and the dog’s paws don’t need to be restrained in order to clip the claws. You can then use a treat to encourage the dog to rock onto one hip, making the hind paw nails accessible for trimming – again, without restraint.

2. Counter conditioning: Of course, other dogs do find the actual clipping procedure very aversive. You can provide your clients with a written counter conditioning protocol designed to give their dogs a positive association with clippers and the clipping procedure. Alternatively or additionally, offer the behavior modification as an additional service, for a fee.

3. Canine emory board: You can easily construct a doggie nail file by affixing self-adhesive sandpaper-like stair tread material to a wooden board. Show your clients how to reinforce the dog for scratching at this board (thus filing his own nails), or provide the training yourself as an additional service, for a fee.

GETTING STARTED

Up for the challenge? According to VetTechEDU, once you have obtained your degree and passed the licensing exam qualifying you as a veterinary technician or technologist, you should acquire additional education to excel in your VBT specialty. While no special education or certification is required in order to work professionally in animal behavior, credentialing in this field gives you more credibility and increases your value (read “bigger paycheck”) and effectiveness. Many veterinary facilities show preference for a VBT who is certified; it’s a confirmation that you have an advanced level of expertise in your field.

Both the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (SVBT) and the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) can guide you in your search for proper education.

The Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (AVBT) offers a program that takes two to five years for certification. In order to become certified through AVBT, you will need to show proof of graduation from an accredited vet tech program, and have at least 4,000 hours or three years of experience as a vet tech, with behavioral experience that also includes clinical and research experience. Another requirement for certification is documented proof of 40 hours of continuing education, as well as 50 case logs, in the behavior field. Five of those cases need to be detailed from diagnosis through treatment solutions. You also need two letters of recommendation from veterinary professionals, and should be a member in good standing with the NAVTA and SVBT. These two organizations offer reading lists that can help you prepare for the certification exam.

The North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) holds an annual conference with an excellent behavior track, as do several regional veterinary conferences. Vet techs are always welcome and well-represented at these events.

For additional credibility and credentialing, consider taking the exam to be a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and/or a Certified Behavior Consultant, Canine, through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. These certifications each require you to sit for a written exam, and provide documentation of 300 hours’ experience and a supporting statement from a CCPDT certificant or a veterinarian.

Once you are certified, countless opportunities are available to you, from working in veterinary clinics, to zoos and animal parks, laboratories and more. Because there’s a shortage of trained, certified behavior professionals, there will be a demand for your services as a VBT. You could be on the verge of an exciting new step in your career as a vet tech. Are you ready?


Resources
Here are some websites that can provide you with additional educational resources and information on becoming a VBT:
Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians, avbt.net
Certification Council for Professional Dog trainers, ccpdt.org
National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, navta.net
North American Veterinary Community, navc.com
Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians, svbt.org
VetTechEDU, vettechedu.com
Western Veterinary Conference, wvc.org

Pat Miller is a Certified Behavior Consultant, Canine (KA), Certified Professional Dog Trainer (KA) and past president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (US). She offers group good manners classes, private training and behavior modification services, dog training workshops and trainer academies at her Peaceable Paws 80-acre training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (peaceablepaws.com). Pat has authored six books on dog behavior and training: The Power of Positive Dog Training, Positive Perspectives, Positive Perspectives 2, Play With Your Dog, Do-Over Dogs, and How to Foster Dogs. She is on the Board of Directors for the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.