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Veterinarian Technician November 2009 (Vol 30, No 11)

A Blessing in Disguise

by Allyson Corcoran, Editorial Assistant

    Despite her years as a veterinary technician, Julie Shaw, RVT, did not always know how to communicate with dogs. The first time she used the clicker training method, she scared the dog away and threw the clicker down in frustration. However, determined to succeed, she did more research and picked up the clicker again. Soon, Julie was surprised to find the dog was trying to communicate with her. "The dog started talking back to me," Julie explains. "He started offering behaviors, hoping that I would click him. It was two-way communication and it opened up a whole new realm. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, these animals are incredibly smart. I have completely underestimated them.'"

    This communication breakthrough reignited Julie's passion for veterinary medicine, inspiring her to delve further into the world of animal behavior.

    An Unexpected Journey

    Julie did not try clicker training on a whim. After her son Dylan was born premature, Julie learned he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. "When I found out Dylan had cerebral palsy, I could not fix that," she says. "I could not cure it, and I felt helpless. What could I do? I thought, ’Let's get him a service dog.'"

    When Dylan was 2 years old, Julie contacted service dog organizations to find a dog for her son. After she was rejected by countless organizations that didn't think Dylan needed a service dog, Julie decided to train one herself. She diligently studied the art of clicker training, and almost 15 years later, she has successfully trained two wonderful service dogs—Faith and Hero—for Dylan.

    The Best Job in the World

    Julie's response to Dylan's unique situation eventually led Julie to her current position as senior animal behavior technologist in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine. While training Faith, Julie was in constant contact with behaviorists at the university and was particularly close with one of the technicians. When the technician decided to retire, she encouraged Julie to take her position. At the time, Julie was interested in behavior but wasn't sure she could leave private practice and all of the animals she helped on a daily basis. "It wasn't until a mentor of mine said, 'If you take the job, you'll be teaching the teachers,'" says Julie. "And that was all it took."

    Ten years later, Julie, who now teaches behavior techniques to clients, veterinary students, and veterinary technology students, is proud to say, "I have the best job in the world!"

    What Technicians Want

    When a behavior case is referred to their department, Julie, Purdue behavior professor Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD, and veterinary residents work together to develop a treatment plan. Julie explains that this is when she becomes an advocate for the client. "My job is to listen and say, ’This client has three young children, so the treatment plan is going to be very difficult for her to do,' and then we modify it," she explains. "I feel respected when I am able to give my opinion and it is valued. When I first started, Dr. Luescher turned to me and asked, ’What do you think?' I stood there completely stunned and thought, ’You want to know what I think? I love this place!'"

    Julie realizes that the respect she gets at work is exactly what technicians everywhere want. "We want to feel valued, respected, and appreciated."

    The Technician's Role

    After years in the behavior field, Julie has come to realize why behavior is important. Today, clients are more aware of behavior problems and training issues. Therefore, more clients want help and turn to their veterinarian, so clinics need to be prepared.

    Julie admits that the technician's role in behavioral treatment can be tricky because there is a fine line between preventive measures and a diagnosis. She emphasizes that communication between the veterinarian and the technician is the most important aspect of behavioral treatment. "I heard Dr. Luescher once say that without a technician, you can add an hour onto the treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of a behavior problem," explains Julie. "I have my role, and he has his role, and it is a team effort. Once veterinarians have made the diagnosis, ruled out health problems, and decided which medication to prescribe, they turn it over to the technician. The technicians are the eyes and the ears of the veterinarians when it comes to treating behavior problems."

    Life Outside of Private Practice

    Because Julie works in a university, she can focus on her interest in behavior. Currently, she is working on a textbook, Companion Animal Behavior for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses, which should be available in 2010 from Blackwell Publishing. In the book, Julie and her colleagues clearly define the role of the technician in treating animal behavioral issues. Julie is also involved with the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior, which advocates force-free training. At the academy, she is proud to have established the Faith Scholarship in honor of her son's first service dog. The scholarship, which is for veterinary technicians who are interested in behavior, covers almost half of the academy tuition. "By creating that scholarship in Faith's name, it feels like she's still here and still giving to the veterinary profession," Julie explains. "I'm really proud of that."

    Despite not working in private practice for years, Julie will always remember how exhausting the days were. "I never want to forget what it's like to be in practice," she says. "I would step out of bed at 5:00 am and think, ’I will not sit down again until 8:00 pm.' I remember eating while standing up, trying to keep track of the six CBCs I was running, and answering phone calls. Private practice technicians are absolutely amazing—just amazing."

    Watch and Learn

    If a technician is interested in learning more about behavior, Julie explains that many routes are available:

    1. Join the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. "It's where technicians in the same 'boat' can meet and learn about continuing education [CE], books to read, and how to start heading in that direction," Julie explains.

    2. Start freelancing. Julie suggests that experienced technicians can start making home behavior modification visits. After a veterinarian has made a diagnosis and formed a treatment plan, a technician can go to the client's home, apply the behavior modification techniques, and write a follow-up report for the veterinarian. "It is no different than when a diabetic animal comes in and the veterinarian says, 'Here's my treatment plan, now go do this,'" she says, If a technician's clinic does not handle a lot of behavior cases, Julie suggests that the technician freelance at other clinics in the area.

    3. Shadow a diplomate. Julie says it is beneficial for a technician to find a board-certified behaviorist in the area and shadow him or her on consultations.

    4. Apply to the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. After recording hours spent addressing animal behavior, technicians can apply to the academy to earn their specialization and further their studies in behavior.

    Pushing Forward

    In the future, Julie would like to see more technicians have access to CE about the proper way to conduct and present research, such as gathering case histories and writing retrospective studies. "Technicians are on the front line, and research is one thing we don't learn about in school," she says.

    Julie would also like to see more technician programs include behavior courses. She says that learning about behavior should not be a choice and that technicians should at least be taught the minimum, such as how animals think and learn, as well as how to handle animals in a nonstressful way. "I want a pediatrician who knows how to make my child more comfortable during an appointment, and I want him to care if my child is stressed," she explains. "I also want the same thing for my pet."

    To help technicians explore their interests, Julie hopes that internships will become a staple of the future. She would like to see programs that are similar to residencies for veterinarians. "We need to have technicians asking for it, and we need some funding," she says. "That's one of the things I'm very excited about. At my job, I want to have a technician intern that works beside me, teaches classes, and does everything I do."

    Julie also hopes to see more technicians specializing and the creation of more specialties.

    With all her hopes for the future, Julie is aware that she will not see changes in the blink of an eye. "Change doesn't happen quickly," she explains. "I've learned over the years that change is gradual. We need to appreciate the small wins. We need to push ourselves forward. Most important, we have to respect ourselves and what we can do."

    NEXT: Bonus Tech Tips (November 2009)

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