6 steps to better behavior


If your patients are known for their devilish behavior, find out how you can help your practice step up behavior services to change that

Miss Manners never worked in a veterinary practice. And if she had, it's likely she would have made the common mistake of misunderstanding the importance of behavior. You probably already know instinctively that pets that behave better are easier to examine and treat. They're also more likely to have forever homes—after all, behavior problems are a common reason pet owners relinquish their pets and the No. 1 reason pets are euthanized in the United States.

Boosting your behavior program also offers another important reward for team members: It's an area where you can make a difference, both by helping patients and by improving the practice's revenue. Consider these six steps that will put you and your boss on the path to a better approach to behavior.


1. Enrich your practice to comfort the patient's unique senses. For an animal with extensive sensory perception but a limited understanding of the associated scents, sounds, and touch of veterinary medicine, a veterinary visit can be a terrifying experience. Luckily there are many options to mitigate that potential trauma. Consider these ideas:

  • Mask visual stimuli by organizing the lobby to keep animals from directly observing each other. Use chair patterns to manage traffic flow and decorative room dividers, plants, magazine stands, or product displays to block the line of sight.

  • Use the patient's carrier as a hide box during the exam and trade it for a smaller cardboard hide box during hospitalization. Towels can also provide visual cover. You can also use commercially available products, such as those that offer a veil of material that forms a hood, attaches to the collar for stability, and covers the eyes to allow filtered vision. It does not blind the pet completely but limits visual stimuli, lessening stress.

  • Avoid offending sensitive noses. Refrain from placing animals on wet, odiferous, disinfectant-covered surfaces and take care to wipe or rinse alcohol from their fur after procedures.

  • Apply calming, species-specific pheromones to fabrics by spray and with room diffusers in patient areas.

  • Provide traction control. Apply washable rubber mats to prevent inciting a panic response on slippery surfaces such as scales, tables, and cage floors.

  • Use manufactured reusable hollow rubber food toys or disposable paper plates or pretzels to offer tasty treats as distractions during examination and treatment. Continue to use the food-stuffed toys as boredom busters during hospitalization.

  • Cushion patients in blankets or towels to provide comfort during handling and extended stays.

Enriching the patient's environment can also increase staff morale and improve client appreciation—after all, no one likes to see a patient in distress. A few tweaks to the facility's interior can promote wellness and lessen patient stress, amplifying your clinic's quality of care while effectively surpassing the competition.

This dog receives cheese during a nail trim as a distraction and also to create a positive emotional association with nail trims.

2. Handle patients to minimize their stress—not just get the job done today. Too often we're task-oriented, moving quickly through our daily lists. However, if we don't stop to consider what this patient is experiencing at the clinic right now, we may cause problems for the animal and add complications for every future veterinary visit.

To start, the reception team should monitor patients in the lobby and intervene if a patient becomes over-stimulated or fearful. You can minimize the actual time spent in the lobby by checking patients into and out of the appointment within the safe, lower-stress exam room. Use these tips to smooth pets' path through your practice:

  • Ask clients if their pets can have a treat. Then offer tasty tidbits throughout the visit to create a positive association between you, the facility, and the pet.

  • Avoid traumatic handling of the pet carrier or walking a leashed pet past potentially threatening animals.

  • Continue your effort to minimize patient stress in the exam and treatment rooms. Remember to use great care when you physically manipulate pets.

  • Prevent stress and fear. This is critical. When clients see their pets are less stressed during veterinary visits, they're more likely to come in for wellness visits. In addition, pets are more likely to receive thorough treatment and enjoy satisfying, on-time appointments, and less likely to injure team members during aggressive outbursts.

  • Combine low-stress handling techniques with environmental enrichment and market the practice as patient-focused. For example, don't dump the cat out of the carrier. Instead, take an extra minute to take off the top and examine the cat in the carrier. For shy cats, a towel should cover the pet's head during the exam to imitate hiding.

Think beyond dry dog biscuits and choose highly palatable foods, such as peanut butter, cheese or even braunschweiger to condition pets to enjoy veterinary visits. Pretzel rods are used instead of tongue depressors for safety.

Steps like this will honor your facility's commitment to patient comfort and careful care that promotes a pet's positive perception of the veterinarian. Your hospital will stand out from utilitarian practices and appeal to clients who want compassionate care for their four-legged family member.

3. Seek out continuing education for common pet behavior complaints. If you are confidently poised with the most recent scientific knowledge of animal behavior, then you can effectively answer client questions and offer whole health care in-house. Clients often complain about behavior problems, including vocalizing; poor manners, such as jumping up and stealing food; inappropriate elimination; destructive behavior; and anxiety during storms or loud noises.

Be certain when treating behavior concerns that you apply the same quality of care that you would for medical issues and avoid advising clients based solely on your opinions or that of lay culture. For example, a common lay culture opinion is that dogs misbehave because they are dominant and must be corrected by humans asserting themselves as alphas. Instead, seek education from national and state veterinary conferences, through online veterinary education services, and from dog training organizations to understand pet behavior.

Start by forming a team of one team member from each service area (reception, assistant, technician, veterinarian, and kennel attendant) to become educated in behavior. These team members can act as internal educators and cheerleaders as they transition the rest of the team toward new behavior management methodologies.

Providing behavior treatment for your patients and education for your clients helps strengthen the human-animal bond and keeps the pet happily at home. And it prevents loss of hospital income through pet relinquishment and euthanasia. Behavior-savvy veterinary hospitals may also become leaders in the field, enjoying referrals of patients other practices can't treat.

For a monthly dose of client-friendly behavior advice, read "Better behavior" from certified behavior consultant Steve Dale at dvm360.com/stevedale.

4. Offer behavior-based education for clients and the public. You may use in-clinic group seminars, online webinars, hospital newsletters, and local newspapers. Consider focusing on these key client interests:

  • Pets and pregnancy, pets and kids, and dog bite prevention

  • Prevention and management of fears: fear of the veterinarian, fear of the groomer, anxiety while left alone, and anxiety during storms and fireworks

  • Pet selection counseling

  • Introducing new pets to existing pets

These additional behavior education opportunities often bring in new clients as well as set the stage for current clients to better understand your facility's expanding emphasis on patient behavioral health.

5. Provide puppy and kitten classes. It's best to prevent behavior problems when possible. Treating concerns once they arise requires much more time and expense for the pet's guardian. And too often clients don't seek treatment until they're exasperated and suffering. Puppies and kittens are delicate. While vaccinations and deworming are integral tools of preventive health, behavior problems are the No. 1 reason pets lose their life in this country. Your behavior-focused clinic can set them up for lifelong success.

Maximize the ­success of your new ­behavior program by placing ­reminders where all team members can see.

The sensitive period for dogs is 4 to 16 weeks. And positively exposing puppies to all of the sights, sounds, surfaces, and smells of the new world as well as many different types of people is the best inoculation against future behavior problems. During supervised group play, puppies learn canine body language and appropriately interact with other dogs without fear or aggression.

The sensitive period for kittens is from 3 to 14 weeks. Clients are best served by their veterinary practice if they learn to understand the unique behavior needs of the feline species. Clients also learn that they can train their cat to willingly enter a carrier, accept grooming, and take medications—enabling better future care. Kittens in class learn how to interact with other kittens and develop bite and scratch inhibition. And socialized kittens will better interact with other cats as well as become more adaptable to life's stressors.

Puppies and kittens that attend socialization and training classes at the veterinary practice develop a pleasant association with the clinic and are less fearful. Plus, providing support for clients as they teach their pet appropriate elimination, scratching, chewing management, and basic manners is an invaluable service that forms an early critical bond that ties clients to the practice and keeps them coming back for behavior advice throughout their pets' lives.

6. Work with local behavior resources. Take the time to locate the most competent professionals who share your commitment to behavioral health. Your local behavior resources may include these experts:

  • Veterinary Technician Specialists in behavior. With the oversight of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, technicians began earning this designation in 2010. Recruiting a technician with a behavior specialization can provide immense opportunities to expand behavior services within your facility.

  • Applied animal behaviorists. These behavior professionals have a master's, doctorate, or DVM degree, along with certification by the Animal Behavior Society. Additionally, a veterinarian can become a diplomate. Animal behaviorists, with their extensive knowledge, are an important part of a behavior medicine team. There are many cases, such as aggression and multifaceted behavior problems, that a general practitioner will need to refer.

  • Dog trainers. Interview and choose these professionals for their proficiency in science-based positive reinforcement training techniques and their ability to teach others. Contract an agreement for them to offer manners training to your clients and possibly even behavior modification treatment within your facility.

  • Quality doggie daycare centers. These are another valuable resource, as they can provide outlets for socialization or comfort care for dogs with separation anxiety. Pet sitters can be an important referral, too, for puppies and senior dogs that need extra potty breaks to prevent inappropriate elimination. Some pet sitters even offer exercise programs that benefit energetic adolescents.

  • Groomers. Look for professionals who are well-versed in animal body language. If they focus on creating a low-stress environment for pets, they can be a great referral asset for dogs or cats undergoing behavior modification for fear of being handled or brushed.

Developing a wealth of behavior knowledge while creating alliances with other pet professionals positions your practice as a resource for pet owners.

Behavior medicine is a relatively new aspect of the veterinary field, but all team members can—and should—become involved in behavior health and work together to benefit the pet, the client, and the image and finances of the practice. Incorporating behavior medicine into your daily practice is the best path to fight the behavior battle.

Sherrie Yuschak, RVT, VTS (behavior), CPDT-KA, is president of the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. She is also the owner of Better Behavior Solutions and a clinical behavioral technician at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

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