Last April, as part of the team of the new IAABC Español Division, we traveled from Chile to our first annual conference of the IAABC. We are Uli Grodeke, trainer and behavior consultant, Wen Bautista, dog lover, and Carmen Arroyo, veterinarian and dog trainer. Although the three of us came with very different levels of knowledge and training, we were all amazed by the quality of the presentations, the level of commitment that is given to the subject matter, and the warmth and generosity of the people we met.
After a long flight from Chile, our arrival to Boston was met with icy and wintry weather, despite it officially being spring. We even had the “gift” of spring snow, but it did not dampen our spirit or excitement!
We arrived a couple of days before the conference started, to help in whatever way was needed to prepare for the conference. Slowly the other participants began to arrive, and more and more names known only from photos and email correspondence became real people. How nice it was to put faces to names!
However, we also experienced a dilemma that Wednesday before the beginning of the conference when we read the program and saw the number of amazing topics that would be presented at the same time. Uli, when studying the final program of the conference, experienced some angst because she had to make the decision about which lectures to attend and which, unfortunately, to miss. The good thing is that the IAABC, being prepared for this, recorded several of the presentations and they would be made available later to all the members.
The conference started with a great gift: a day dedicated to the theme of Fear Free™. This program, created by Dr. Marty Becker and his daughter Mikkel, has made a huge impact in the U.S. It teaches about respectful and cooperative veterinary medicine, certifying its use not only to professionals such as veterinarians or trainers but also to facilities like veterinary hospitals or shelters. In the hands of this father and daughter team and several other renowned professionals, such as Dr. Julie Reck, Debby Martin, and Steve Dale, we were able to learn more about what the program entails. Its objective is to promote respectful treatment of animals and reduce levels of stress and fear through friendly environments and cooperative management. At a national level in the United States, Fear Free already has an extensive network of professionals and facilities that communicate with each other, including as a job placement agency. Looking at it from the Latin American perspective, we are light years away, but those of us dedicated to improving animal welfare must follow the example of this movement and catch up. Carmen, a veterinarian, made a good point: after seeing how a cat with a history of attacks on veterinary professionals allowed staff to draw blood without any restraint, there is no justification for not adopting this methodology.
The second day we began to go to different sessions: Fear Free, a business track, and presentations on both dogs and cats that were all held at the same time. As we did not know much about the speakers, we were guided by the titles of the talks more than anything.
Uli participated in the workshop “Building Your Business Your Way – Using what you’re good at to get what you want.” It turned out to be interactive and allowed one to evaluate their own business from the viewpoint of behavioral analysis: always defining the A’s, B’s, and C’s.
The presentations of the relationship between medical problems and behavioral problems, and the clinical cases of Chris Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC, turned out to be very interesting for Carmen and Uli. They both loved the professionalism and passion shown by this expert and were eager to see his talk the next day. The key concept presented in his talks was to consider the health of the animal when evaluating a behavior problem; it is a critical component of the evaluation that is sometimes overlooked or minimized by those who do not have medical training.
That second day ended with an invitation from IAABC for all participants to eat 1,200 (yes!) mini pastries and cupcakes while networking and talking about business ventures. It was a delicious ending—especially after receiving so much information!
We began the third day together, in the main meeting room with all the other attendees, to hear Dr. Pachel’s talk on how to gain the client’s commitment to the treatment plan for the behavioral problems of their pets. This talk was directed at how to involve the client, how to negotiate treatment options and realistically define expectations without losing the client in the process. The lecture was presented in a practical manner using case presentations from actual clients. After lunch, we went to separate tracks. Uli chose a very technical and scientific talk for dessert: “Nutrients and the Gut Microbiome Influences on Behavior” by Dr. Lore Haug. In this talk, the participants learned about the new studies of the communication between the brain and the intestine—just after having eaten! “We are what we eat”: does it sound familiar? Anxiety, depression, cancer, and other diseases seem to be affected to some extent by our intestinal flora and vice versa, indications that lead to the assumption that something similar may happen in other species as well.
Then, swimming in anatomical and nutritional terminology, Uli took a mental break with a basic horse training course with clickers. She was joined by Wen; this was a much more familiar topic for both, and they got to move around a bit practicing the target, clicker, and reinforcements with their table mates who pretended to be their horses.
Meanwhile, Carmen attended the talks in the Parrot Division. Stephanie Edlund, director of this division, came from Sweden to explain about her work techniques used to reduce fear and unrest in birds during work or daily life. It is so interesting to learn about working with other species! And not only because of the value there is to learn about the management and training of species that we usually do not work with, but also because of what it can bring to us when working with the species to which we dedicate ourselves.
Then, the surprise, we had an unexpected presentation via video conference with the renowned Dr. Susan Friedman. The title was “The Rat Is Never Wrong,” and she spoke about learning without errors, a concept that has been discussed since the time of Thorndyke, but that however, we tend to forget and minimize.
At the end of the day, we went to Genetics and Cocktails to be part of the legendary interactive presentation of geneticist Dr. Elinor Karlsson, PhD, director, Vertebrate Genomics, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and director of the MuttMix project.
According to her, conversations about genetics are better supported with a drink in the hand! Her presentation included both theory and practice in a game, by giving out “gene” tokens that one inherits. At the end of the experiment, a considerable portion of the participants die after having inherited some lethal recessive gene—but what does that matter when there is a cocktail in between…?
On Sunday, the last day of the conference, the decisions were still difficult for our group. Trish McMillan and Michael Shikashio presented their seminar on aggression management in dogs. Only a few months before, we had the good fortune to attend this presentation in Santiago, which made the selection process a bit easier.
Again we lost Carmen to the Parrot Division, a group of charming, welcoming, very professional bird behavior consultants with a high level of knowledge. Visionaries are those who are dedicated to improving the quality of life of these animals in homes and shelters, despite the lack of scientific studies. There is not much material available about body language in birds, so their projects, presented during the conference, were so important. Stephanie Edlund talked about environmental enrichment and its correct use as a tool for specific and verifiable purposes, and to present the wonderful results of behavioral modification in her clients with feathers, in zoos, houses, and animal parks.
Pam Clark clarified the myths about, and gave possible solutions for, birds that mutilate their plumage. To close this wonderful series of presentations, and with a little free time on their hands, the group of specialists decided to open the dialogue with attendees in a kind of roundtable and openly discuss doubts, issues, and problems related to parrots.
Uli took off from this group and ran to the next room to listen to Karen Deeds talk about the prevention of behavior problems in puppies and juvenile dogs. She did not want to miss this talk for any reason since it is the subject that she is focusing on currently to achieve a cultural change in Chile (puppy socialization is literally in its infancy there). She was delighted with the talk and found details that she will used in her future classes and counseling.
The conference closed with a group workshop for all, called “No Mud, No Lotus.” Jessica Dolce talked about compassion fatigue, which can be observed so often in professions related to animal welfare. The message, left by this speaker with her closing talk, was that we, the ones who work with people and their pets, love this job enough to be willing to deal with the problems that come with it; in other words, without the mud, the lotus flower cannot bloom.
In Carmen’s words: “For me, this conference could be summed up in one word: community. A community that seeks to share, learn, grow and that does not exclude, but includes and supports those who are being integrated. It was a totally enriching experience that not only filled me with knowledge and fundamentals but also gives a desire to contribute to this movement in pursuit of a change.”
“This spirit was also shown every night, after the sessions, in the hotel bar, where behavior consultants met with veterinarians, shelter staff, exotic animal trainers and others from the U.S., Australia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, England, etc. to relax and get to know each other, regardless of differences in knowledge. I really had a great time, and I felt very comfortable among so many people who share my passion for animals,” says Uli.
Wen says: “What caught my attention, besides the number of people we had in the first general session, was the commitment of all attendees to improve, on the one hand, the experience of our furry or feathery friends and on the other, to show and implement a plan for the owners to know, for sure, that we can get rid of fear. Knowing and seeing examples of many dogs, cats, goats, horses, and birds that no longer experience archaic treatments, to open their mouths and shove in a pill. Is it magic? No. It is to give control to these beings that we have chosen as company and give them a choice. The idea of giving them control and choices has opened my eyes. The visit to the veterinarian does not have to be torturous; we can give them tools and open channels of communication that before were nonexistent. It seems like magic, but more than magic it is collaboration. This is only the beginning, and it gives me hope and allows me to dream that we will change for the better.”
Translated by Joann Rechtine. Read the original Spanish article on our IAABC Journal en Español site.