Animal behaviour counselling: bringing about positive change

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Caroline Clark

Why did you want to be an animal behaviour counsellor?

During my nursing career, I became interested in the behaviour of animals. Because of this interest, vets would pass behaviour cases my way. Like most nurses, it was important for me to ensure I was giving the right advice, so I felt inspired to learn more.

What was your route in?

My first formal training in companion animal behaviour was a modular course offered by the BVNA, designed in conjunction with Anne McBride from the University of Southampton. On completion, I knew I wanted to learn more and applied to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling at the University of Southampton.

I became a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) and a registered clinical animal behaviourist with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC).

What does your job entail?

I only take veterinary referrals, so I spend a lot of time liaising with vets and nurses in the first instance. I then contact the client to arrange to see his or her pet and ask him or her to complete a questionnaire so I get some background beforehand. I then spend around two-and-a-half hours with the client – taking a history and observing the animal’s behaviour, so I can make a full assessment of the problem.

Another large part of my workload includes running CPD courses for the whole veterinary team. I also write accredited online courses for pet professionals (including canine health and welfare, and canine first aid) and am in the process of developing an online behaviour course for RVNs.

What skills do you need to be an animal behaviour counsellor?

A range of skills are important. I have a professional teaching qualification, as educating owners is an essential part of the process. I studied human psychology on the University of Southampton course, which has proved extremely useful.

Obviously, a good sound knowledge of animal learning theory underpins most of what I do, and keeping my skills up to date is important.

As well as having formal training at a reputable institution, being able to communicate with people is very important. While it isn’t necessary to be an RVN, I think it really does help. Pain, medical conditions and certain medications can be responsible for changes in behaviour, and VNs are well placed to pick these up.

How do animals benefit from behaviour counselling?

Once I have carried out an assessment and identified the motivation for the problem, I create a specific behaviour modification plan for the patient.

When owners understand how the problem has developed, they tend to have more empathy for their pet. Following a plan and having a consistent approach helps with learning and enhances the human-animal bond.

How did you go about setting up your business?

I am the sole proprietor of my own business: Pet Education and Training. I was working as a part-time lecturer and freelance clinical coach/nurse educator in a busy first opinion veterinary hospital while studying. After qualifying in 2006, I began taking veterinary referrals. However, I officially launched the business in 2014. At the same time, I started developing the online courses and hosting CPD events.

How does your business/job fit into the vet sector?

I get a lot of veterinary referrals and enquiries through my own website, as well as via my APBC and ABTC listings. Over the years, I’ve built up good relationships with practices that refer to me and am always happy to give them advice on some cases.

I meet a lot of vets and VNs via my courses, and after this, they often contact me to ask for guidance on specific cases, and again, I am happy to help with some basic questions they may have about animal behaviour. I advertise my courses via Vet Times CPD and social media.

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Do you have any tips for someone wanting to become an animal behaviour counsellor?

Go for it. Lots of CPD courses are available to get you started and you can cut your teeth on in-house clinics as long as you start with basic problems. Puppy parties are a great place to start, where you can begin to identify problems and help clients recognise canine communication.

Having a good relationship with a suitably qualified behaviour counsellor helps, too. Look on the APBC website for ones in your area. Once you know this is a career you want to pursue, make sure you enrol on a reputable course with tutors who know their stuff.

What is the best and worst aspects of being an animal behaviour counsellor?

Potentially, it means you can help save a pet’s life. Sometimes the pet-owner relationship has been damaged and helping restore this is another great aspect of my job. However, client compliance can be difficult. Often, owners want a quick fix, so it is important to ensure owners know they will have to put work in.

Can you describe a typical day?

Typically, my day comprises of responding to emails and dealing with admin. I usually limit myself to one consultation a day. I also write behaviour modification plans and liaise with referring vets. I support students on my online courses and run CPD events, so designing and delivering courses is a significant part of my routine. I write blogs and articles, and work as a clinical coach one day a week.

What has been the highlight so far?

Every case is fulfilling, but being able to help species that tend not to get referred often is always a thrill. Owners tend to think behaviourists only work with dogs and cats, but that is not always the case.

Parrot cases tend to stick in my mind – just because they are such intelligent birds and great characters. In 2015, I worked with elephants in Africa that had been traumatised (usually at the hands of humans), and that was incredibly special and memorable.

What happens if a patient is beyond help?

Some cases cannot be “cured”, but a high proportion can be managed to a degree. It’s sometimes a question of whether the owner is able or willing to modify the environment. A couple of cases resulted in the rehoming of dogs, due to bitch-to-bitch aggression, for example, because that is a very challenging problem and sometimes it cannot be resolved.

You have appeared on TV in Embarrassing Pets – can you tell us about that?

I appeared as the “animal expert” in the Channel 4 show last autumn. We filmed it during the really hot summer, so it was a challenge keeping all the animals cool. It took me a while to get used to the cameras, but I settled down and actually quite enjoyed it. I have also been involved with a show called Homes from Hell, airing this summer on Channel 4, which explains why animals and humans react and respond in certain situations.

Any other key messages for our readers?

Being behaviour aware is an important aspect of vet nursing. So even if you don’t specialise, having some knowledge of animal behaviour really helps you be the best you can be and enhances patient welfare on a day-to-day basis.

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