Creating kinder, gentler experiences for pets!



- Adding Behavior Services -

Selecting Affiliate Trainer and Behaviorist

When delivering pet behavior services in a veterinary practice, one of the necessary steps is to develop a referral network. 

The first person to select is your recommended puppy class instructor. A member of your staff could be recruited to learn to provide this service, or you can hire outside. Try for every puppy under 5 months of age completing a well run puppy class. This will save time since the dog will be much easier for you to handle throughout its life, and the owner will be more bonded to the pet resulting higher quality care.

The second referral relationship should be with a canine obedience instructor. Ideally every dog would go through puppy class, then obedience, and get an AKC Canine Good Citizen certification. However many dogs are over 5 months when presented, and so are too old for puppy class. These dogs need obedience classes. 

Every dog will benefit from obedience training for several reasons. First, a well run obedience class gives the dog social experience with other dogs and people outside of the home environment. Second, learning a vocabulary gives the canine a job. And, it serves as a basis for canine-human communication.

For individuals who are not accredited, there is a hazy line between a trainer and a behaviorist. A rule of thumb is that a trainer works with “Command Response.”  This means the owner is taught to give a specific word (Come, Sit, Down, Stay, Heel, etc.) and the pet responds with a specific desired action. These are usually taught in groups, but can be done via individual training. 

 It is easy to imagine a dog who is perfectly trained with these commands, but still barks excessively, destroys the house, and digs up the garden.  The behaviorist studies the varied causes of undesirable behaviors, then develops a strategy that might include not only command response, but behavior modification techniques such as habituation, counter conditioning, and systematic desensitization. A veterinary behaviorist can also discern medical components and prescribe psychoactive medication when indicated.

Finding Candidates
As with any other referral person, the best approach is word of mouth. Ask a DVM colleague who they use. If this doesn’t work, you can see who advertises in the yellow pages for your area.  Notify your staff you are looking for a referral trainer and behaviorist, so that if an existing client makes a comment to a member of your staff, you can follow-up and get a client evaluation. Still another option is to call the local dog clubs, pet stores, rescue groups, or AKC show organizer to request a list of names.

For best results, set up a personal interview, or at least a phone interview with any person you plan to use as a referral for your clients. Ask the person to bring (or send) copies of any credentials that are pertinent. The highest credential is Board Certification by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Certification of the Animal Behavior Society.  Other academic credentials may also apply, including training in human psychology since there is significant terminology and basic concept overlap.

Other credentials that apply include continuing education such as behavior seminars provided or attended within the last several years. Related books or articles read or published give an indication of a person’s interest and school of thought, as does association memberships, including any leadership roles. If the person would be providing obedience training, you should ask about any obedience trials or titles obtained personally.

Personality and Interpersonal Skills
A referral person should be someone with whom you and your staff can easily communicate and relate. One way to determine this is to ask your top prospect to deliver a luncheon seminar to you and your staff.  If you find it difficult to understand and relate with this person, it is likely your clients will react similarly. Any information given by someone disliked is likely to be discounted, and the desired results will not materialize.

Compatible School of Thought
A luncheon seminar for your team is the first step in determining the behavioral philosophy of a potential trainer affiliate.  In addition to bringing a demo dog, consider asking the person to work with a pet from your kennel and demonstrate beginner concepts. During the demonstration in addition to technique, watch for relaxed body language around pets, and the animal’s response to the interaction. Look for positive, reward based methods.

Ask about what behavior products they recommend to obtain further insight to school of thought.  Electric shock collars have largely been replaced by citronella scent collars.  Spiked choke collars have essentially been replaced by head halters.  Look for a reward based focus instead of extensive use of collar corrections and punishments.  A good question is, “What is the most severe physical correction you have ever had to use?”  Another useful question is, “Please give an example of a case where you were not successful, and how you left the situation.”  Look for honesty, and a willingness to refer.

Ask for behavior handouts, or ask the person to review those you currently use.  If there is a difference in philosophy, ask more questions.  It may be time to part ways, or it might be time to challenge your own old habits to pursue approaches that make the most sense.  In either case, strive for some consensus on the bigger issues so clients are not confused.

Business Profile
Remember to ask for recommendations or letters of reference.  These letters might include current or former instructors, colleagues, breeders, or satisfied clients.   If there are other veterinarians who refer, ask how many veterinary referrals have been handled, and for any letters of recommendation from them.

One of the most important questions to ask is how long they have been in business providing this training or behavioral service.  If the business includes other trainers, inquire how many other trainers, and  ask about their qualifications.  This may be a benefit since it provides greater flexibility to your clients to have multiple people able to support your clients.  Other questions might include the approximate hours spent doing paid training per week, or the number of cases handled per month or year. 

In most cases, money does not exchange hands between the practice and a referral trainer or behaviorist.  Because of this there is no basis to require a standard of dress, language and behavior.  This makes it even more important that the person perform in a professional manner of their own accord. This person is an extension of your practice, and your reputation can be influenced positively or negatively.

Willingness to Collect Data
Depending on your interest in behavior, it may or may not make sense to collect data on individual cases.  However, it is recommended that some type of referral report be returned to the referring practitioner for inclusion in the medical record.  Ideally you would receive monthly or yearly reports on the number of referrals and types of problems referred from your practice.

Team Player
Is this person willing to give a luncheon hospital seminar two to four times each year for your staff?  Is this person willing to communicate with staff when they have problems or concerns?  Is this person willing to participate in the training of the hospital staff in other ways?

Inquire if this person’s behavioral practice includes any special interest or expertise.  For example, they might have a particular strength working with puppies, cats or treating aggressive animals.Depending on your clientele, the ability to speak a foreign language might be valuable.

This information will be important. What hours are available?  Is anyone available on nights and weekends? Do they often leave town for extended periods? How far will they travel?

Although sometimes uncomfortable, it is reasonable to ask the trainer or behaviorist about their fees. You don’t want your team or yourself to be surprised. Discover how they structure fees; per session, per pet, pet minute?  Do they charge for mileage or missed appointments.  onflicts of interest need not derail if an agreement can be made.  For example discuss and agree if behavior products or diets should be sold directly or flow through the practice.

Remember that the principal benefit to your business is keeping pets alive and bonding them to their pet parents through education. When improving relationships between people and pets, everyone wins.

...::::::: Copyright 2000-2009 Rolan Tripp, DVM :::::::...