One of the most common questions IAABC gets is about how to get started working with pets and their people. The truth is, there’s no set career path, and no single qualification that prepares you for this uniquely challenging, endlessly fascinating work. In this series, we’ll be talking to each of our IAABC division chairs about how they made their love of animals into their profession.
This issue, we talked to IAABC’s incoming Cat Division Chair about her journey to becoming a behavior consultant.
When did you decide to pursue behavior as a profession?
My career with animals really began in the veterinary profession and grew from there. As a high school student, I was interested in pursuing a career in nursing until I discovered veterinary technology and realized I could combine my two passions at the same time: nursing and working with animals. I graduated with my associate’s degree in veterinary technology and immediately began working full time as a technician in a small animal practice, where I am still employed today. After a few years, I really started to see the need for training and behavior professionals within the veterinary community. As veterinary professionals, we can help mend the body, but some people struggle with offering sound behavior advice. I recognized this as a niche that I could fill. I started creating handouts, teaching puppy classes, and educating and advocating for other staff members to practice fear-free and low-stress handling with all of our patients. At the same time, I was also teaching basic canine obedience classes at another training facility and volunteering in the behavior department at the local shelter with both dogs and cats. I then really became the go-to person for everything behavior at the veterinary practice!
How did you get started in your behavior education?
As I became busy with training classes and behavior advice at the hospital, I decided it was time to pursue a more formal education. I enrolled at Canisius College and was accepted into their Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation program. I completed my undergraduate studies two years later. My experience at Canisius was fantastic, and I took away so much information that I am still using today, such as the ABA skills I learned in my “Assessing Animals” class. Around the same time I was at Canisius, I finished logging my hours and cases and was able to sit for my exam to become certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. In addition to completing my undergrad, I also utilized continuing education and webinars offered through the Society for Veterinary Behavior Technicians.
How did you get started in developing practical skills?
Practice, practice, and so much more practice! I have, and still do, practiced and competed with my own dogs in a few different canine sports. To build my own skill set, I started to offer assistance in other classes, to other handlers, under the direction and supervision of the instructor. I was also able to get a lot of hands-on experience working with cats by volunteering in the behavior department at the shelter. Working with different species really helped to sharpen my skills and adapt to not only that species’ specific needs, but also to the individual’s specific needs within that species. Working across species can also be humbling! When I first started working and training more with cats I thought to myself “I can clicker train a dog, it should be just as easy with a cat!” But the first time I offered a target stick to a kitty at the shelter, she sniffed it and when I clicked and tossed a treat on the ground, kitty sniffed the treat, turned, and sauntered away from me. I eventually found the opportunity to play with a toy and access to foraging games to be a lot more motivating for this kitty than throwing a treat at her!
I also have an entire bookcase dedicated to training and behavior books in my office. I have read each of these books, cover to cover, some even multiple times! While reading or referencing a book isn’t necessarily hands-on learning, it really gives you a foundation for understanding concepts in training and behavior.
How did you know when you were ready to take on private clients?
When I completed my degree at Canisius, I really felt like I had the skill set and had built the network of support I needed from colleagues in both training and veterinary fields to start taking on private clients. I started with taking on problem behaviors that were not necessarily going to be long-term cases. For example, a dog who was doing well in my puppy or obedience class, but the owner wants to problem-solve excitable behavior when visitors come to the house. Or, clients at the vet hospital who have a hard time getting their cat into a carrier to bring them in to receive basic veterinary care. Soon existing clients began asking for my help with other problem behaviors, and or referring me to friends for their pet’s problem behaviors. “Buddy is doing great in puppy class, but can you help me with my other dog at home? He barks and pulls at other dogs when we take him for a walk” or,“My friend told me you work with cats, my two cats don’t get along, can you help?!” And so my cases began to expand from basic sessions of training and problem-solving to more advanced sessions covering counter conditioning, desensitization, and stricter management or alteration of the animal’s environment. After completing Michael Shikashio’s Aggression in Dogs mentorship through the IAABC, I really felt more confident and reassured that I had been “doing it right,” and I expanded my services after that.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
I wish I had known the extent to which I would begin taking on other people’s problems and that that was not my job to do. That I did not need to come home after a day of work, continue to think about the cases I had seen earlier in the day even after I finished writing them up, and lose sleep over them at night. In the last few months, I have been so much better about having empathy with my clients and their situations without feeling emotionally responsible for them. I am available to offer my services and support, but ultimately the effort in training that my clients want to pursue is their own responsibility, and the behavior of their pets is directly dependent upon that effort and responsibility. It is almost impossible not to create a bond with your clients and their pets, but I wish I had been a bit more prepared in the beginning that the success or failure of my clients to implement a training or behavior modification plan is not my success or failure. It’s their own.
Any particularly challenging times where you questioned your decision to pursue behavior as a career? What did you do to overcome them?
Yes, there have been times where I have questioned my career path. Sometimes it’s after working a difficult case, sometimes it’s after accommodating needier clients, sometimes it’s when I second guess my own knowledge and expertise, and often it’s when I have to pay my bills. (Ha!) But I always overcome them. Difficult cases are that much more satisfying when your client sees results. I can accommodate needier clients because they are compliant and you know they will remain clients for life. And I know to charge what I am worth, because I do possess knowledge and a skill set that I can pass on to my clients to help them and their pets.
What resources are available now that you wish you’d been able to take advantage of earlier in your career?
As a millennial, my generation has always been immersed in technology, and tech continues to play an integral role in my business today. I can’t really speak to resources “back in the day” because information has always been at my fingertips. The majority of my client communication is through email or text messaging, and I can send clients video clip examples of exercises we practiced at a training session. Clients can upload and send me video of the progress they are making with their dog or cat. I can take continuing education webinars online, or video chat with colleagues through my phone, laptop, or tablet. When keeping track of client and business information, I plug my numbers into an Excel program and hit the enter key. I really can’t imagine doing what I do on a day-to-day basis, without the aid of modern technology!
Read the rest of our ongoing Career Paths series here: