How to Become a Veterinary Behavior Technician
How would you describe a veterinary technician? Perhaps Julie Shaw, RVT, Senior Animal Behavior Technologist at Purdue Animal Behavior Clinic, put it best: technicians are the eyes and ears of the veterinarian.
“Our job is to advocate for the animal and for the owner,” Shaw says.
One of the ways technicians advocate for the animal and pet owner is through behavior modification. They play a pivotal role in establishing, supporting, and strengthening the human-animal bond.
Should I Specialize in Animal Behavior?
When Julie Shaw entered the field of animal behavior in the early 1990’s, treating behavior problems was considered unusual.
“There was a stigma to it,” she says. “Comparable to the stigma in treating mental health issues in humans except worse because it was a pet.”
Shaw’s son had just been born with Cerebral Palsy and she needed to find a service dog to assist him. Shaw, who had worked in private practice for 16 years, decided to train the service dog herself.
So she got involved with Clicker Training, a method of teaching that uses positive reinforcement. An animal’s desired behavior is marked with a “clicker,” a device that makes a distinct sound which tells the animal when they’re doing something right.
“Positive-based training was considered a ‘fad,’” she says. “It was thought training an animal without punishment simply wasn't possible - which has been proven over and over and again to be incorrect.”
Shaw’s passion for animal behavior was born out of a series of circumstances that kept pushing her towards the field. “It’s not a fad,” she stresses. “It’s a communication technology.”
“I tell technicians if they look back at their careers, they’ll see a pull towards something,” she adds. “That’s where you need to specialize.”
What Skills Do I Need?
Being a Veterinary Behavior Technician requires many skills, but two, in particular, are vital for success. First, you must possess good observation skills, meaning you have to be able to objectively identify the behavior in the pet and the owner.
“People might say ‘That dog is mean,' when really the dog is frightened,” Julie Shaw says. “When an animal is aggressive, almost 100% of the time it’s because of fear.”
Empathy is another critical skill for technicians. The key to treating a behavior problem is to see the world through both the pet and pet owner’s eyes. Until then, it’s easy to make assumptions and label situations inaccurately.
“Once a pet is labeled ‘aggressive’ or attempting to ‘dominate’ their owners, a stigma is added and empathy is lost,” Shaw says.
“When you can place yourself in their position, the position of constantly fearing for safety, it changes how you interact with the animal. That animal is not trying to make your life more difficult, it is trying to save its own life from you,” she adds.
What Training is Required?
Because animal behavior as a discipline in veterinary medicine is extremely new, no special schooling is required. There is currently no set curriculum in animal behavior for veterinary technicians.
“The fact that it is not required curriculum appalls me,” Julie Shaw says. “It makes no sense. I think we’re putting our technicians in danger.”
In danger because technicians need to be better equipped with the correct tools and training to handle behavior modification. To help prepare technicians, Shaw suggests clinics offer veterinary behavior internships, in order to allow a technician to work side by side with others and gain experience in the field.
So where should you begin if you’re interested in specializing in veterinary behavior? Start by joining the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. The organization supports scientifically-based techniques of training, management, and behavior modification. Technicians can get answers to their behavior questions through discussions and continuing education.
Technicians can also become certified as a Veterinary Technician Specialist (VTS) in the field of behavior by applying to the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. Specialization through the AVBT can take anywhere from 2-5 years. Applicants interested must include their previous work experience in behavior, CE records, and case logs.
Another great learning opportunity is the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior. Founded in 2007, the 6-month program teaches students to be skilled trainers and teachers using force-free methods. Julie Shaw is a longtime faculty member of the academy, which has training centers throughout North America.
“The program teaches the intricate details of training,” she says. “Once you understand how animals learn, it changes everything.”
She estimates that about 400 students, both veterinarians and technicians, have graduated from the program.
Interested in animal behavior? Register for the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Foundations course and get a discount using the code VETLEARN.
The Role of the Veterinary Behavior Technician
Veterinary behavior technicians should be a central part of every clinic. “It’s no longer an option,” Julie Shaw says. “The clients are demanding it.”
Among the many roles technicians portray is acting as gatekeeper between the veterinarian and the client. “We can get on the phone and triage a situation in 10 minutes and decide whether it needs to go to the veterinarian or a possibly a trainer.”
That role will continue to grow in the coming years. Veterinarians will continue to be responsible for creating the treatment plan, managing medical issues, and prescribing medications, but the technician will be the one to assist the client and the trainer in carrying out the treatment plan, acting as a key communication person between the veterinarian and the trainer.
“Animal behavior and problem prevention should not be considered a ‘specialty,’ but all technicians must have an understanding of body language, non-stressful handling and problem prevention,” Shaw says.
Ultimately, however, it’s about how the client, veterinarian, and technician, work together toward one goal. “This is about the human animal bond. It’s about how we promote it and how we protect it,” she states.
Veterinary behavior technicians also offer numerous benefits to clients. They can offer advice and provide direction. “We provide pet selection counseling to guide owners in getting the right animal,” Shaw says.
They can also teach the client how to apply the behavior modification techniques. Other benefits include preventive care (puppy classes) and working with a qualified trainers to handle discipline issues.
What is the difference between a Veterinary Behavior Technician and a trainer?
Veterinarians evaluate patients, diagnose the problem, and prescribe the treatment plan. Technicians help the client carry out the treatment plan and teach the client how to apply the behavior modification technique. They may coordinate treatment with a qualified trainer, communicating frequently with the trainer to relay potential changes in the treatment plan.
While a trainer and veterinary technician share many responsibilities, there is a major distinction between the two. “We have the medical knowledge,” Julie Shaw says.
She also notes another distinction. Veterinary technicians take a more holistic approach. “We’re not just looking at the behavior; we’re looking at the whole animal,” she said.
Shaw points out that the key to success is clear communication between the veterinarian, veterinary technician, trainer and pet owner, with the technician acting as the point person. “The technician should be the communication team leader,” she says.
Words of Advice
Technicians interested in specializing in behavior should start with one thing: education.
First, read The Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way to Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Domestic Dogs by Jean Donaldson. The book teaches how to modify dogs’ normal and natural behavior, like barking, to adjust to human culture.
“That’s the number one thing to do,” she says. “It is still the book to begin with.”
Another great resource is Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor, which highlights the power of using positive reinforcement to change behavior in pets.
Shaw also suggests enrolling in the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior. “We are seeking outside grant money to make it more affordable,” she says. “We have to increase the ability for technicians to take the academy.”
Shaw is also working on a book of her own. The book, which should be published later this year, will provide technicians with training tools and communication techniques and will encourage all veterinary technology programs to include animal behavior in their program.
“The book is for veterinary technicians written by veterinary technicians,” she says.
The best advice, however, is to reflect on why you want to be a Veterinary Behavior Technician. Make sure the animal’s mental and emotional health is your top priority.
“It’s about making sure people want to have pets in their lives,” she says. “It’s about building that bond and strengthening that bond.”
All photos courtesy of the Karen Pryor Academy