What is a Veterinary Behaviorist?
A veterinary behaviorist is first and foremost a veterinarian. They have graduated from an accredited veterinary school and passed the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) or equivalent, as well as the licensing examination in the state in which they practice or hold licenses. To maintain their veterinary license in each state, they are required to attend annual Continuing Education (CE) in the field of veterinary medicine. A board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) has completed an approved Residency or Specialty Training Program (three to five years in duration) in the field of Veterinary Behavior Medicine, has published a peer-reviewed paper, submitted and passed three case reports and passed the two-day certifying board examination. Veterinary behaviorists are qualified to diagnose and treat behavior problems, including performing physical exams, diagnostic testing, and prescribing medication.

Is it a medical condition or a behavior problem?
Often medical problems will manifest themselves as behavior problems or have a behavioral component. Only a licensed veterinarian has the training and legal capability to determine if an underlying medical condition is contributing to a behavior problem. However, when appropriate diagnostics have ruled out medical conditions, a veterinary behaviorist can work with your family veterinarian in determining a behavior modification plan to suit your needs. In some cases, both medical and behavioral problems co-exist making integrated veterinary care essential, something which only a veterinary behaviorist can provide.

When is it a training problem or a behavior problem?
There are many nuisance behaviors that are a matter of appropriate training: jumping up on guests, pulling on the leash, certain forms of barking, or a lack of general obedience. However, aggression is not just a training problem. It is a diagnosis with an underlying motivation, often anxiety or fear, pain, or lack of appropriate social skills. Because aggression is due to underlying motivations and emotions, training will rarely help alleviate the aggressive behavior. Only a qualified veterinary behaviorist can determine what the underlying motivation may be, provide a diagnosis and appropriate behavior modification, and suggest or prescribe medication to assist with management. There are some aspects of behavior modification that will involve teaching new tasks to facilitate your pet learning how to cope with distressing situations in the proper manner. We will work with you to understand how animals learn and teach your pet new responses tailored to the problem that your pet displays. If you desire additional assistance with training other tasks, we will be happy to work with you or refer you to a trainer in the area who has the experience and uses the appropriate techniques to help with the management needed for your pet’s specific behavior problem.

I have already been to a trainer and they were no help. How will seeing a veterinary behaviorist be any different?
In many training situations treatment has been punishment based focusing on getting the pet to “stop” the unwanted behavior rather than teach new appropriate behaviors. Some trainers may suggest employing harsh punishment and inhumane techniques, such as electric shock, strong leash corrections and physical reprimands which can exacerbate the anxiety or fear that are likely underlying the unwanted behavior. These are never used by the Behavior Medicine Division of the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia. We assess your pet’s physical and behavioral health, provide a diagnosis, and recommend a treatment plan and a rationale for why certain tasks have been requested and training aids utilized. We help you understand that your pet is picking the behavior because they believe it is necessary in that situation. We focus on teaching the pet new behaviors, changing how they “feel” about the situation so that they can learn to respond differently. Unfortunately, too often owners have spent time and money trying to train away a behavior problem that needed to be addressed medically or through determining the basis for the manifestation of the behavior or both.

Don’t you need to see my pet’s behavior in order to understand it?
This question is asked frequently in conjunction with the question as to why I do not make house calls. It is also often asked when owners are concerned about bringing their aggressive dog/cat to me as they are so fearful of the pet’s behavior that they do not want to witness again. The answer to the question is—No, I do not need to see the behavior in order to understand and treat it. Part of our initial consultation is a detailed history in which you will be asked to describe the body language of your pet under certain circumstances and the circumstances surrounding each episode of the behavior. Although pictures and video are nice, they are not vital and we would NEVER want you to put your pet, yourself, or others in danger to elicit the behavior. You are coming to me to stop the unwanted behavior, so why would I want you to continue allowing your pet to practice this behavior?

Be pro-active about your pet’s behavioral health and seek the advice of a veterinary behaviorist before it becomes a “last resort”.