Preventing Behaviour Problems--Providing Advice for Clients
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
Linda Beer, BVSC, MACVSc (Animal Behaviour)
Sydney Animal Behaviour Service
Seaforth, NSW, Australia


A knowledge of behaviour is essential for every nurse and technician in the veterinary clinic. Each time you answer the phone, speak to a client, or answer questions at reception, you will be calling on your knowledge of what is normal behaviour and what is not. You will also be expected to know how to deal with common problems that new owners face with their pets.

When you do recognise the early signs of a problem developing, being able to give the correct advice can mean the difference between a successful outcome for the pet and the owners, or an uncertain future for the pet. Unfortunately statistics tell us that the most common reason for surrender of a pet, and the most common reason for euthanasia in young animals is behaviour problems.

Nurses in many clinics learn much of their behaviour knowledge 'on the job'. Very quickly you learn how to deal with fractious animals, how to adequately restrain an animal for the veterinarian, and you learn by listening to the advice given at the clinic.

Preventing Problems

A lot of wonderful work can be done in the area of preventing new owners from making mistakes with their pets. Getting in early and giving good behavioural advice can help owners get the full benefit from pet ownership and also set them up for success. You may want to consider offering a Pre-purchase Advice session for prospective owners. This way you may be able to prevent owners making the wrong choices in a pet. The more information the new owner has before getting that cute puppy or kitten, the better prepared they will be.

Another way to help in the prevention and early detection of problems is to consider assisting with the running of your clinic's Puppy Preschool or Kitten Kindy. If your clinic does not run these classes, you may consider asking why not, and if they would let you trial one.

Don't be afraid to go and observe other puppy/kitten classes to see how other practices and people run them. Remember, that a lot of off-lead play can be dangerous, especially if not tightly supervised. Although it might look like great fun, a puppy can leave puppy preschool with emotional baggage that may affect it its entire life, so it should not be something that you take on into lightly.

Some clinics also offer juvenile classes as well as puppy classes, so this is another area you could investigate. You may choose not to run classes if you do not feel that you have enough knowledge--this is fine. But consider who you then refer to. Just because a trainer takes the time to leave some business cards in your clinic does not make them a knowledgeable trainer. You should be looking for 'Pet Dog' classes where handlers are taught how to effectively manage their pet in the real world rather than classes that focus on competition type obedience. The methods of training should make use of a sound knowledge of learning theory, and utilise positive reinforcement training techniques.

Giving Advice to Clients

Giving advice, either over the phone or to clients will be part of your job. Every clinic has its own protocols and answers to commonly asked questions. Make sure the advice you are giving is up to date (remember we keep learning new things, so the advice given 10 years ago may now have changed!). Being able to give good sound behavioural advice about things like toilet training puppies, appropriate play and routines in kittens, ideas for problem prevention such as environmental enrichment and being able to answer simple questions about what is normal and what is not will be vital.

Listen to what the other staff members say. Most vet clinics are staffed by people who have had animals all their life. If you are not sure what to say to a client, ask a more senior staff member. Having said that, if you feel that the advice being given is incorrect, it may pay you to ask what the thinking is behind it. If you feel that the advise being given is dated, incorrect or better options are available, don't be afraid to research the area, or call someone with experience in the area. If may be that your entire clinic can benefit from some education in the area, and that your concern may lead to changes in the clinic's protocols.

Remember: Behavioural problems can have many different causes, and therefore many different treatments. Any advice that you give must work along the philosophy of 'Do No Harm'. If you have only chatted to a client for a few minutes over the phone it is unlikely that you will really have all of the information that you need about a problem. Booking the client in for a consultation is often the safest option, especially as many behaviour problems have an underlying medical cause!

If you are going to recommend something like a trainer, or boarding kennel, go and have a look at it yourself. Often vets recommend a particular establishment because it is the closest, or maybe the owner has left some business cards or brings them chocolate at Easter time. You want to be sure that the services they offer are something you could recommend without reservation.

Giving advice can also help with clinic income if you also stock some of the equipment or toys that you are likely to recommend. Head collars, walking harnesses, treats, and environmental enrichment type toys are things that you could happily stock in the clinic. By having them right there, you can also make sure they are fitted and used properly, and that people leave knowing exactly what they should be doing with them, rather than recommending them and then letting people find them at a pet store, or getting the wrong size or wrong item for their pet.

Basic Problem Solving

Some nurses really enjoy behaviour and like to offer a basic behavioural service to their clients. This is a one-on-one type service where you can make a big difference. It also can help free up the vets time by having the client spend time with you rather than with them.

You can offer things such as fitting and demonstrating how to use head collars or other pieces of equipment to assist in getting a dog to walk nicely for its owner. Helping the owner with other at-home problems such as digging, chewing, over-exuberance for dogs, and scratching, toileting problems, and appropriate play for cats can be very rewarding.

To offer these services you need to have a fair bit of experience in the fitting and use of various forms of equipment as well as a good understanding of learning theory and behaviour modification. You also need to be able to recognise the difference between a training problem and a true behaviour problem and not be afraid to refer when necessary. It is certainly not for you to be recommending medication for behaviour problems, and you do not want to persist with training when the problem is actually behavioural and your advice is actually making things worse.

This can be a great service to offer, as it not only leads to happier clients, it leads to a happy boss! The recommendations you make can lead to further sales (equipment, training treats, toys etc) and can certainly make a difference in the lives of the animals that you help.

It is important though to come to an agreement about charging for your time and knowledge. Many clinics offer this sort of service as a freebie, and do not value the knowledge and input that the nurse has. Others charge a 'nurse consult' which goes some way to acknowledge the time and effort that you have put in. Either way, you need to be happy about the service that you are offering.

Managing the Animals' Behaviour within the Clinic

Arousal is certainly a problem within any clinic waiting area. Anticipation, owner concern and the sights, smells and noises of the veterinary clinic will all affect how an animal feels. The longer they have to wait, the more aroused they may be. Add to this that they may have to wait with another animal that is aroused or behaving inappropriately, and you can understand the stress will only get worse.

Being able to manage your waiting area, and give good advice about keeping visiting pets calm will go a long way to making your patients more manageable, both on this visit and for future visits.

Consider having an alternate to waiting in the waiting room. Maybe there is a safe outdoor area they can wait in, or even the car park area. This gives you an option when you have one patient who is barking or is over-excited, and you need to calm them down. Many clinics will put a patient into a spare consult room or into the prep/surgery area to move them out of the waiting room. This can be especially helpful for situations such as an owner having to wait until the vet is free for something very upsetting such as euthanasia.

So Where Can I Go To Learn More??

Offering some behaviour services in the clinic is a great opportunity for nurses, but many feel daunted or that they do not have the knowledge to do it safely. Some just want to offer more, and enjoy learning and challenging themselves.

A good place to start is to get reading. There are more and more behaviour books available. There may even be some in your clinic library. Different topics are covered in different books, but some suggestions are:

Great for Basics

 The Perfect Puppy and Good Dog Behaviour, by Gwen Bailey

 Training Your Cat, by Dr Kersti Seksel

A Little More Technical

 Handbook of Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat, Landsberg, Hunthausen and Ackerman

 Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Small Animals, K Overall

Within Australia, if you are thinking of running puppy classes, a great idea is to enroll in the Delta Society-run Instructors training course. This is a certificate IV in dog behaviour and training and is competency-based--meaning you will have to run classes to complete the course. It provides an excellent understanding of learning and behaviour basics, course/class design, teaching, and other important issues such as OH&S. The course runs over 15 months and is mostly distance education, with two one-week intensives held in Dookie Victoria. More information can be found at the Delta

Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Linda Beer, BVSC, MACVSc (Animal Behaviour)
Victoria, Australia

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