The technician's role in creating a behavior-centered veterinary practice (Proceedings)


A focus on pet behavior in the veterinary clinic is an excellent practice builder.

A focus on pet behavior in the veterinary clinic is an excellent practice builder. It can create a bond with both clients and their pets instantly. It can also mean additional chargeable services such as training classes, behavioral consultations and retailing of related products. Showing compassion and concern for behavior is part of the whole health of a pet. Educated clients are more likely to be successful pet owners and are less likely to re-home, relinquish to a shelter or-worse yet-euthanize their pet.

When a pet is lost due to a behavior problem, owners are less likely to add another to the household. A pet that has been properly adapted to enjoy the veterinary environment reduces stress during visits, helps keep staff safe and endears the client to the practice. Socialized and trained pets are a pleasure in both the veterinary environment and while at home with the client. Well behaved pets are valued members of the family, which means the client is more likely to spend more on veterinary care. Unruly pets tend to be isolated from the family and valued less. Health problems are more likely to go untreated or unnoticed. Clients are more likely to refer others to a behavior centered practice.

Veterinary technicians

Veterinary technicians can play a vital role is building a behavior-centered practice. In 2009 the National Association of Veterinary technicians in American recognized behavior as a specialty. Technicians looking to gain more information on behavior should join the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. For information on the process of becoming a Veterinary Technician Specialist-Behavior, visit the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians at This website also includes a recommended reading list that will serve as reference materials. Technicians can also gain knowledge by attending continuing education events such as the the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior conference.

Hands-on experience in training and behavior is an important focus for the veterinary technician. Enrolling in a training class with personally owned pet should be given consideration. An offer to volunteer as an assistant to a reputable dog obedience instructor or for an animal shelter is also recommended. Cat shelters should not be overlooked as training and enrichment is valuable and always welcome. Consider enrollment in a program such as Karen Pryor's Clicker Academy. Be thorough in your investigation of local and national training programs as this is an unregulated field.

Client and staff education

The ideal person to educate and coordinate the staff and the roles they will be performing is the veterinary behavior technician. This can be accomplished at staff meetings or after-hour seminars. The entire staff should develop good working knowledge of what will be discussed with the client. It will also give staff members the opportunity to review or develop behavioral resources. This ensures consistency of information given out by all staff members. It also promotes a team-orientated approach to behavior.

The behavior technician can put together packets of resources for the client. Many of these item are available free of charge from pet food companies. It also may be preferable for the behavior team to develop their own handouts providing the client with positive solutions for preventing problem behavior. These can be customized to include the hospital logo and contact information. Such handouts can also be used at promotional or community service events. Other pet care professionals in the community recommended by the hospital will gladly provide brochures and business cards to be included.             

Adapting puppies and kittens to the veterinary environment

A behavior technician should make sure extra time is scheduled at first puppy and kitten visits to make sure new patients are properly adapted to the veterinary environment. This is best done with a tasty treat that can be applied to the exam table and other items such as the scale, fed off a tongue depressor or extracted from a toy. Some suggestions for puppies are cheese in a can, meat based baby food or soft moist treats. With kittens I would suggest canned tuna or salmon. Peanut butter is no longer recommended due to the possibility of owners with peanut allergies. As the new pet enjoys the treat, a puppy/kitten massage should be taught to the client and demonstrated. This should mimic a physical exam but with less intensity.

Owners should be encouraged to practice this procedure at home for preventive health exercises and grooming. The treat can be applied nose level on a smooth surface such as a refrigerator if being performed single handed. Each time the massage is executed, it should be done so with increasing vigor until it is the normal intensity the pet will experience while the veterinarian performs a physical exam. It's always paired with a high value treat to keep the pet from wiggling and to teach the pet to enjoy mildly uncomfortable handing. Extra attention should be given to feet. Gently laying them in a prone position with mild restraint as well as a gentle hug and holding the vein should be included.


Preventive behavior advice for puppies and kittens

Information on preventive behavior should be included at first appointment. Veterinary behavior technicians should be well versed problem prevention in puppies and kittens.

Vital topics to cover both verbally and in handouts for puppies include:

  • Socialization - keeping in mind most critical period ends around 14-15 weeks

  • House training - a big concern to owners; accident logs are helpful

  • Crate training and preventing separation issues

  • Mouthing - especially prevalent in some breeds

  • Destructive chewing - consider having products available for purchase

  • Jumping - provide instruction on hardwiring the sit

  • Exercise - cooperative exercise that will enhance the training process

  • Adapting to other resident pets - both dogs and cats

  • This would also be the best time to direct the client to a reputable puppy training class, including one that may also be offered in-house. 

Kitten owners should receive information on the following:

  • Socialization - most sensitive period ending at 9 weeks

  • Litter box advice - location

  • How to adapt kittens to their carriers - important for them to enjoy the carrier

  • Toys and play - advice on what play behaviors might promote aggression

  • Scratching - preventing destruction of furniture

  • Enrichment - indoor vs. outdoor

  • Adapting to other resident pets - both dogs and cats

  • Kitten classes should also be discussed and are another consideration for an additional in-clinic service. Another consideration would be puppy and kitten party formats. These can be offered once monthly covering the above topics in lecture form to a group. New pets would also attend for an additional opportunity for socialization and adapting to the clinical environment.

Community relations

First puppy and kitten appointments are also times to make referrals to other pet care professions to provide the client with additional support. Invite dog trainers, groomers, daycare operators and boarding kennels to come into your clinic to present at a staff meeting. Tour their facilities, interview them and ask for client references. These relations can be just as important as what's happening in the clinic. Most of the time these professionals are seeing the pets more frequently and can be an excellent source of information. Veterinary clinics may choose to offer some of these additional services, and the veterinary behavior technician would be an excellent person to coordinate them.             

What to look for in a dog trainer

Ask for a brief bio and certifications of the dog trainer prior to recommending him or her to the client.

You want an instructor who is knowledgeable in animal behavior and learning theory. Observe the class and be sure they give a clear explanation of lessons and offer well written supportive handouts and/or a training manual. Excellent people skills is a must. Years of experience may not be an accurate indication of a good obedience instructor. Look for an instructor that allows you to observe a class in session and make sure it's a successful, low stress learning experience for owners and dogs. A class that employs humane methods with both dogs and handlers is a must. You want to look for a reasonable instructor/assistant-to-dog team ratio, and avoid recommending classes with more than eight dogs in them. Ask current and past participants about their experiences in the program.

Off-leash playtime should be well supervised with separate areas to keep smaller puppies safe if necessary. Timid puppies and adult dogs should not be overwhelmed, and children should be under control. Overly fearful or aggressive dogs should not be included in a group training environment.

Behavior wellness exam

A behavior wellness exam is an opportunity to check up on a pet's behavioral health and answer any related questions a client may have. This can either be offered in conjunction with a physical exam or as a separate event. Pet owners often don't think of veterinary staff as being knowledgeable on behavior. Owners may also be embarrassed to bring up concerns to their veterinarian. Staff members are the ideal professionals to address these concerns, as many times physical problems may be masquerading a behavioral problem and vice versa. A behavior checklist should be created by veterinarians and technicians. There should be lists that include common behavior problems. This checklist should become part of the pet's permanent file. This will prompt staff members to update the pet's behavior throughout its life when it visits the practice. Although information on the pet's behavior should be addressed at every appointment, the most critical times to focus on it are during puppy and kitten appointments and with adolescent dogs and senior pets.

Adolescent behavior health

Adolescence is the most trying time in pet ownership. Although dogs may appear fully grown physically, they are not yet socially mature. There is often no physical reason for a veterinary visit. Pets have been neutered and vaccination protocols completed by 6 months of age. By scheduling a behavior wellness exam, technicians can provide an opportunity for the client to learn about this stage. They can share their knowledge on what is normal and what might be more concerning. Adolescence is the most common time for relinquishment at shelters, meaning loss of a client. Veterinary behavior technicians should be well versed on common adolescent behavior problems, training issues and management techniques.

They should be prepared to give the client verbal support, hands-on demonstrations and resources. Community support is most important during this stage. Consideration should be given in a monthly presentation for adolescent dog owners. In this case the client's dogs would not participate but demos on clicker training with a personally owned pet can be very effective. Clinics may also want to invite a dog trainer in for this purpose.

Geriatric behavioral exam

An important time for practices to include a behavioral exam is when a pet becomes a senior. This timing is going to vary greatly between species as well as individual breeds of dogs. When veterinary staff sees signs of a pet becoming aged, they should always question the owners about behavioral changes. It's extra important in this stage of a pet's life to ask about behavioral changes, as there is no other time when physical and behavioral problems are more closely linked together. It can also be a time when an owner's bond is the greatest with his or her pet.


Behavior modification for the difficult patient

Problem behaviors such as fearfulness relative to the veterinary environment can also be modified. The veterinary behavior technician should have an understanding of counter conditioning and desensitization and how to execute them in relation to the type of handling these pets will be receiving. Clicker training can also be helpful. This is time well spent for the patent with chronic illness to lower their stress and prevent injury to staff. Techniques for adapting pets to basket muzzles/gentle leader head collars should also be employed.

Behavior consultations

Veterinary practices interested in working with established behavior problems in pets need to form a relationship with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Having a veterinarian within the practice interested in treating problem behavior is also important. Technicians cannot diagnose or recommend a treatment plan without a veterinarian but can provide other vital roles. The duties of the veterinary behavior technician in relation to behavior consultations include:

  • Triaging phone calls involving behavioral concerns

  • Creating forms, documents and client handouts

  • Scheduling and confirming appointments

  • Taking history

  • Organizing the consultation room, making sure all resources are available

  • Observing and accessing the pet's behavior

  • Hands-on demonstrations such as clicker training

  • Fitting head collars, basket muzzles and any other recommended equipment

  • Video taping

  • Assisting with additional medical procedures

  • Creating a behavior report based on the veterinarian's recommendations

  • Creating/executing a day training program to assist the client with hands on training and behavior modification

  • Providing a plan of care and any other communication to the client's dog trainer

  • Follow up reports via phone and/or email

  • Grief counseling
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