Empowering Veterinary Technicians to Further their Education and Careers while Enriching the Human-Animal Bond

There are now 11 areas in which veterinary technicians can specialize.  Paul Vernon for The HSUS

by Shannon Coyner, RVT, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP
May 21, 2015

“Sparky barks and growls when we pass other dogs on walks.”

“Peaches runs behind me and hides whenever my friends come to my house.”

“Whiskers is not using his litter box anymore.”

“Lady cries and destroys my house if I leave her alone!”

“Spot shakes every time we take him to the vet and refuses to walk in the door.”

Every day, clients come to veterinary hospitals with behavior concerns about their pets. These concerns are important to the veterinary hospital for many reasons:

  • The pets may have medical conditions creating their behavior problems
  • The pets may be experiencing extreme stress
  • The clients may rehome the pets
  • The clients may abuse the pets
  • In many cases, pets’ behavior problems can lead to broken human-animal bonds that could lead to euthanasia of the pets

These clients may come to you for help—but are you able to help them? General practices often avoid dealing with behavior concerns due to a lack of knowledge. In some cases, a practice may refer these case to a well-qualified trainer, but other practices may not have such a resource. In other instances, the behavior problem actually stems from a medical problem which should be evaluated by a medical professional. If you want to ensure your clients receive the best possible care, consider having a staff technician study companion animal behavior.

My Professional Journey toward Behavior Specialization

Many veterinary technicians, like myself, have graduated from a technician training program and further their careers by learning to specialize in an area of practice. This occurred over a period of years for me. Shortly after graduating from technician school, I began conducting after-hours “puppy kindergarten” classes in our hospital lobby. To prepare for these classes, I attended a weekend conference with Dr. Ian Dunbar, a well-known veterinary behaviorist and audited reputable puppy classes in my area.

Once I began teaching puppy classes, I wanted to learn even more about behavior. This desire led me to attend dog training classes and veterinary continuing education sessions such as those offered by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers Conference and the Western Veterinary Conference, which generally offers multiple behavior sessions among its program offerings. I also read many behavior books by Drs. Karen Overall, Sophia Yin, and Debra Horowitz, and others by Karen Pryor and Jean Donaldson. Since that time, many other behaviorists have written many new books and now offer videos and online learning opportunities.

By learning more about behavior, I was able to advance my career and contribute unique skills to the veterinary hospitals that employed me. My puppy classes provided a way for puppies to safely socialize, learn basic manners and get comfortable at the veterinary hospital. Puppy class graduates not only learned basic skills, they also grew to be adult dogs who loved coming to the hospital! A portion of the puppy class training even included lying on the exam table, having a “practice” physical examination and sitting on the scale.

Once puppy classes were established, I started helping clients with broader behavior concerns and provided education about preventing potential behavior problems. My hospital began offering behavior consultations during which I could educate clients on how to prevent problems behaviors in conjunction with training and lifestyle choices. As I furthered my education, I was able to help with a wider range of behavior concerns. I also realized how ill-equipped many general practice veterinary hospitals and technicians are to provide their clientele with helpful services aimed at resolving behavior-related problems.

As I followed my path of “self-learning,” I discovered a group of like-minded technicians. I became a member of and volunteered for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. This group was the bridge I was looking for to provide education-linked training with veterinary medicine, and I currently serve as the President-Elect for SVBT. SVBT is the professional stepping stone to becoming a Veterinary Technician Specialist in Behavior and a certified member of the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians, and that is the career goal I am currently pursuing.

What should technicians do if they are interested in behavior?

Technicians can help teach clients how to prevent pet behavior problems and help find solutions to existing inappropriate behaviors. From puppy socialization classes to educating clients on how to manage separation anxiety, a technician can help clients cultivate a strong human-animal bond with their companion animals and thus, help maintain client satisfaction. Technicians who invest in learning become great assets to their veterinary practices. Technicians who broaden their knowledge can provide a wider range of services to clients and help keep them invested in the hospital. These potential service offerings include:

  • Offering in-hospital puppy and kitten classes
  • Providing puppy and kitten socialization education
  • Educating clients about house training, basic training and behavior problem prevention
  • Helping clients choose the right pet BEFORE they adopt
  • Encouraging clients to bring new dogs and puppies to the hospital for fun “cookie visits”
  • Educating staff members on how to approach shy pets to prevent an increase in those pets’ fears
  • Educating clients about how to teach their pets basic skills in order to help prevent future problems

Where can technicians learn more about animal behavior?

Technology has made continuing education for veterinary professionals more accessible than ever. With relatively easy access to books, conferences and webinars, gaining behavior knowledge is readily available. A list of selected books that have been valuable behavior resources to me appears in Table 1 below.

Some organizational resources include:

Table 1: Recommended Booklist of Valuable Behavior Resources

Puppy Start Right by Dr. Kenneth Martin and Debbie Martin
Canine and Feline Behavior for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses by Julie Shaw and Debbie Martin
Perfect Puppy in 7 Days by Dr. Sophia Yin
How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves by Dr. Sophia Yin
Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. (a variety of books are available)
Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats Dr. Karen Overall
Dr. Nicholas Dodman (a variety of books are available)
Dr. Ian Dunbar (a variety of books are available)

Becoming a Veterinary Technician Specialist in Behavior

Animal training and behavior modification, originally rooted in pure theory or “old wives’ tales,” have evolved to become science-based methodologies. Technicians should understand more than simply basic training methods, and should also learn about animal body language, learning theory and basic psychology.

Becoming a Veterinary Technician Specialist in Behavior (VTS-Behavior) is one way a technician can learn more and earn credentials as a behavior specialist. This is a specialty designed for credentialed technicians that are interested in learning more about behavior. Technicians interested in this specialty learn about behavior via continuing education and by working directly with clients. After they have achieved the required number of hands-on hours, they can apply to take the specialty examination. Once they are approved to take the exam and pass it, they become a VTS-Behavior. For more details about the Behavior specialty, go to the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians»

Other Technician Specialties Available

Behavior is not the only specialty available to technicians. Technicians can currently specialize in eleven areas: Behavior, Dentistry, Anesthesia, Nutrition, Emergency/ Critical Care, Clinical Pathology, Internal Medicine, Zoological Medicine, Surgery, Clinical Practice and Equine Nursing, and the list has been growing and is likely to expand even further (see the current list of specialties and respective organizations in Table 2 below). For more details about veterinary technician specialties, go to the North American Veterinary Technician Association website»

Becoming a specialist helps empower technicians to further their professional education and their careers in areas of veterinary medicine about which they are passionate. In many cases, you do not need to work directly with a Veterinary Specialist in your field of interest, but specialist areas have varying requirements and the restrictions for particular specialties of interest should be closely examined.

Table 2: List of Veterinary Technician Specialties and Respective Academies

Anesthesia: Academy of Veterinary Technician Anesthetists
Behavior: Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians
Clinical Pathology: Academy of Veterinary Clinical Pathology Technicians
Clinical Practice: Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Clinical Practice
Dentistry: Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians
Emergency and Critical Care: Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians
Equine Nursing: Academy of Equine Veterinary Nursing Technicians
Internal Medicine: Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians
Nutrition: Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians
Surgery: Academy of Veterinary Surgical Technicians
Zoological Medicine: Academy of Veterinary Zoological Medicine Technicians

Shannon and Scout

Shannon Coyner, RVT is the founder-owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in central coastal California. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Ms. Coyner is a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She is currently serving as President-Elect for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. Shannon spent many years as the head dog trainer for PAWS for Healing, a pet-assisted therapy organization. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology (Zoology focus) from Sonoma State University.