Tips for Veterinarians Delivering Pet Training Advice

September 14, 2016
American Veterinarian Editorial Staff

​E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB, veterinary behaviorist at Veterinary Behavior Consultations of Colorado & New York City, discusses different tips for veterinarians delivering pet training advice.

E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB, veterinary behaviorist at Veterinary Behavior Consultations of Colorado & New York City, discusses different tips for veterinarians delivering pet training advice.

Interview Transcript (slightly modified for readability)

“If you have [pets with] behavior concerns coming in your door, the number one thing [that] you should be thinking about is, ‘how can I make it so that this animal doesn’t perform this behavior anymore for now, while I work to change the underlying motivation of the behavior or facilitate an appropriate referral?’

For instance, if a dog is jumping up on people when they come in, unless a dog is growling, snarling, snapping, or biting, that’s probably not a case that needs a veterinary behaviorist, but it is still a reason that the client might send the dog back to the shelter or back to the breeder. It is certainly a risk to the human-animal bond. One way to [deal with] this is to say, ‘You know what? Whenever anybody is coming to the house, put your dog in the backyard or in the kitchen until they get in. When they’re seated, then you can let your dog out.’ Another option would be to, every time the doorbell rings, give your dog a Kong toy with some peanut butter in it, and even hold it, because the dog's going to want to go to the door but they’ll be motivated to eat the peanut butter instead of jumping.

There are a lot of easy ways to work on jumping, like turn your back when the dog jumps up. But you may not have the time to counsel owners about ‘okay, but also as soon as the dog’s four feet are on the floor, turn back around, because that’s the reinforcer for that dog at the moment.' If you’re in a pinch, either don’t allow the animal into the trigger situation or change the trigger situation somewhat, so that the dog is able to perform a behavior that everybody enjoys.

Another tip is, be very cautious, if ever, to recommend a punishment-based technique in a dog or a cat. First of all, if you punish a cat, for sure, you definitely [have a] high risk of creating an extremely fearful animal, or an animal that will hiss, snap (literally), bite, launch up in the owner’s face, and you just recommended that. We don’t want that; that leaves you in a bad position and also negatively impacts the human-animal bond.

The same is true for dogs. Even though punishers like yelling, kicking, kneeing in the chest, pinching the toes, et cetera, can be helpful for some behavior problems, that doesn’t mean that they’re ethical or appropriate. There are plenty of really great behaviorally healthy ways to impact those behaviors, that don’t take long. For you, as a clinician, you don’t need to know anything about that; all [that] you need to know is an appropriate referral. If you can talk to your technicians and get a technician really excited about behavior, [then] that person can set up separate training appointments, if they’re interested, and a lot of techs are. Or you can make some good connections with positive reinforcement trainers in your area. If you don’t know of any, call a veterinary behaviorist and see if they have any recommendations for your area, because that person is maybe more skilled or has more understanding of those people than you might as a clinician, and they can help you. That way, you’re reaching out to the help [that] you need right off the bat, instead of spinning around the internet or trying to track down these trainers on your own.

Another tip is: allow no trainers to put cards in your clinic, ever, unless you have interviewed that trainer and are very comfortable with their methodology. Remember, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Position Statement strongly recommends that punishment not be part of the training plan; that includes shock collars, citronella collars, invisible fences, and everything in between. You want to make sure that when you have a card out, and that implicit referral is present for your clients, you are meeting the standard of what the College of Veterinary Behaviorists and other people who know a lot about behavior, feel is appropriate methodology that is safe for your clients and their animals. You can’t do that if your receptionists constantly allow random 'trainers' to put their stuff down. Some trainers are amazing but I have to tell you, I’ve been doing training in animals since I was 16, [and] amazing, intelligent, trainers are wonderful, worth their weight in gold, but they are rare because anybody can be a dog trainer [and] anybody can call themselves a behaviorist. Take control of the information [that] your clients are receiving in your exam room and your reception area and only put out information that is appropriate.”