Julie Shaw

What is a veterinary technician? A technician is very similar to a human nurse. It is our role to assist licensed veterinarians in all that they do to help keep pets healthy. We work under their supervision to help monitor and treat patients, perform certain tests, educate clients, and assist in surgical and dental procedures.

Like veterinarians, technicians can also specialize in certain areas, such as radiology, dentistry, and anesthesiology. In my case, due to an abiding interest I had, I chose to specialize in behavior. I thought I could be of the most help to clients and their pets by helping them to overcome their behavioral problems as well as their medical ones. I have to say, the one thing I rarely experience in this field is boredom: You simply don’t know what the day will bring!

The qualities that someone in my job must have include an excellent sense of humor, almost photographic observational skills, and an ability to relax in the most unpredictable of situations. A sense of empathy for patients who are confused, frightened and trying to protect themselves—often while trying to hurt you—is also essential. But probably the most valuable skill is the ability to support and empathize with human clients who struggle daily to understand their emotionally distraught pets.

How I Got ‘Here’

I suspect my life experiences have shaped me for this job. Like my animal patients, I understand what it is like to be afraid. I have lived with unpredictability and danger in my life. I’ve suffered anxiety attacks and know the terror of wanting to run from something but not knowing what that ‘something’ is. I also understand pet owners. I know what it feels like to see someone you love suffer from the threat of unknown demons, and to not have a clue how to ease their fear and pain. You see, two of my human children suffer from mental illness. That has been difficult to watch but it has also honed my skills of observation and empathy.

The animal patients I meet in the course of my day as an animal behavior technician are afraid. They exist in a frightened, self-preservation mode, always looking for the dangers that they know are there. Usually these issues occur because of an organic chemical imbalance in their brains and/or life experiences that have been traumatic to them. It is important to focus on the words “traumatic to them.” If we want to help, we have to see the world through their eyes, not our own. For example, maybe that big green trash can that fell over as they walked by didn’t seem to be such a horrible experience to us, but when an animal is already fearful — and then an object they don’t understand “attacks” them — it  can seem very traumatic. When this happens, their human owners are often terrified that they’ve done something wrong to cause the problem. Most often, however, that is not the case. While there is almost always something we can teach these owners to do differently, it is unlikely that they “caused” the problem. These things just happen. It is a part of life. Our job, if you choose this field, is to simply try and get everyone happily beyond whatever that problem is.

Here’s a Real-Life Example

A big part of my job as an animal "psychiatric nurse" is to read between the lines. I need to be a really good detective and seek out clues that will help me understand the issue through the pet’s eyes. That usually means guiding the pet owner into giving me the information I need!

Let me give you an example of how this works. Recently, a pet owner sent me the following email:

My Norfolk Terrier used to like to chase large vehicles, with school buses being a favorite. I was able to break her of that habit, only to find that she now occasionally goes after a passing car while we are walking. The problem now is that I have no idea which cars are going to set her off, so I can’t “divert” her beforehand. She also seems to be more sensitive to vehicles when their lights are on. Our walk time is in the early morning, but with winter fast approaching, I fear this is going to be a problem. And even though she is leashed, I am afraid she might hurt herself with her frenzied behavior. 

OK. Well, as an animal behavior technician, I translated the above report into the following: This owner has a terrier that chases things, which is a common issue with these breeds. Terriers were born to chase, so when they are done pelting after one diversion, they simply find something else to chase!  But in order to try and help this owner and her dog, there are several questions I can ask that extend beyond simply identifying the “terrier-ness” of her dog.

For example, I want to know how the behavior of chasing buses was “broken” by the owner?  What exactly has she done to “fix” the problem so far? She says her dog now only “occasionally” goes after vehicles. Well, I want to know what “occasionally” means. Is this still a daily behavior? Weekly? And I also need to know what this behavior looks like and what the owner does when it occurs? The owner reports she now has “no idea” which vehicles will spark the behavior, but I am struck by the fact that the dog is sensitive to lights. Could this be a trigger?

The bottom line, as a veterinary technician who specializes in behavior, is that pieces of the puzzle are still missing. It’s my job to identify them and try to collect the answers in order to come up with a useful game plan. By determining exactly what the dog’s behavior is during the incidents, including what occurs just before and right after they happen, I can get an idea of what the dog’s emotional state is during these times. It’s important for me to know if the dog is afraid of the vehicles, or if she is chasing them for fun. Or, is it a combination of the two? I also need to know more about this dog’s general temperament — whether she is outgoing or timid and if her owner has any other concerns about her behavior.

By gaining the above information, I can begin to triage the situation and determine whether we are dealing with a possible behavioral or physical disorder (which would require assistance from a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist) or a learned behavior that can be “unlearned” with the assistance of a veterinary behavior technician or qualified trainer.

An animal behavior technician is a teacher, a nurse, a negotiator and an animal linguist all rolled into one. For me, it truly has been the career of a lifetime. Perhaps it might be for you as well!

Julie Shaw, RVT, was the Senior Animal Behavior Technician at the Purdue University Animal Behavior Clinic in West Lafayette, Indiana, for 13 years. She is a charter member of the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians and past president of the Academy of Behavior Technicians. Julie is a popular national and international speaker on companion animal behavior issues with a focus on using a team approach to preventing canine aggression. Currently, she and her coeditor Debbie Martin are finishing Companion Animal Behavior for Veterinary Technicians, which will be the first animal behavior text written expressly for technicians.