What is Animal Behavior Consulting?

For the past few months I’ve been working towards my goal of becoming a cat behavior consultant. I’ve had business cards printed, I’ve hosted a cat education table, I’ve been accepted as a client by our local university’s law students, and I’m pursuing certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultant.

With regards to the latter, I won the Rebecca Park Scholarship which covers the cost of the Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice course from IAABC. I’ve just started this 12-week course, which will go a long way towards fulfilling the requirements for certification. The course has been described by IAABC as “a comprehensive overview of the many facets of animal behavior consulting for all species.” The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment.

Each week I’ll list the topics covered in the current module and pick one topic to summarize. One benefit of doing the latter is that I’ll help solidify in my own mind what I’ve learned. The other is that you as my readers will gain an understanding of what IAABC offers and of what animal behavior consultants do.

The first week of the course focused on common terminology that is important for all animal behavior consultants to know. We were assigned to read two handouts that defined our field. In addition, we were assigned a video to watch by Mary Burch on operant conditioning and a video by Evon Hekkla on Ethnology.

In this article, I’ll summarize a handout by Anne Withun. Prior to reading Withun’s definition of the field, I had wondered about the difference between a trainer and a behavior consultant. According to Withun, who is both a trainer and a consultant, a trainer teaches a skill to an animal while a consultant works with an animal to change its behavior. Withun noted that these specialties can overlap as trainers often help pet owners resolve serious problem behaviors, and consultants often use training principles to resolve behavior issues.

The rest of Withun’s handout explored ways to distinguish a consultant from a trainer. She listed two key identifiers:

  1. The type of issue being addressed by the consultant generally involves abnormal behavior.
  2. A consultant will address a problem using a structured approach, detailed record-keeping, and a strong relationship with the human client(s).

With regards to the second identifier, Withun said that consulting involves more paperwork and calls for more interpersonal skills than does training. Consultants take the following steps in resolving a case:

  1. Obtain detailed intake forms or questionnaires from the client and review them prior to the initial consult
  2. Provide initial consult by using the intake form and personal interviewing skills to gain a deep understanding of the animal’s background and current situation, and help the client set realistic goals and prioritize issues
  3. Develop a deep working relationship with the client
  4. Provide structured follow-up via a home visit, phone call or email, and a written behavior plan for the client and/or the client’s veterinarian
  5. Keep records both for liability reasons and to better serve the client by being able to refer to previous observations and recommendations, and charting results over time
  6. Refer to other professionals as appropriate, while continuing to take the lead with the client, uniting the efforts of all parties involved

As for interpersonal skills, consultants might need to deal with the client’s family dynamics. She said that consultants may need to address human beliefs (valid or not), fears, and even conflicts between family members. Consultants might even face the unenviable task of recommending that a pet be rehomed or euthanized.

They may even face the unenviable task of recommending that a pet be rehomed or euthanized.

At times, consultants might need to turn to other professionals. Withun said that consultants might need to consult with colleagues on a complex case, or they might refer cases to veterinarians or veterinary behaviorists when think medication may be warranted.

The second handout on animal behavior consulting described the tools of the trade. These include operant learning, classical conditioning, environmental management, and physical and psychological wellness. I’ll cover these topics in future articles.

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