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Bond With a Pet Trainer

An outside expert can meticulously answer many of the questions your clients pose and prepare pets to be willing participants in veterinary care.

Bond With a Pet Trainer
A pet trainer can teach an anxious veterinary patient “sit,” “stay” or “down.”

Clients have asked me almost every conceivable pet behavior question over the past 20 years, including some that I never envisioned. And while at the beginning of my career I was always willing to spend lots of extra time with clients during an appointment, I soon found that to be exhausting, unsustainable and, later as a hospital owner, an inefficient way to support a profitable practice.

While many of us have empowered veterinary nurses and other team members to answer some behavior questions, their time is equally invaluable, especially in the newer workflows of today’s small animal hospitals. Instead, one strategy to consider is to extend your practice’s reach by referring clients to and utilizing certified trainers who embrace the same core values that you do. While this won’t stop all behavior questions, it will help maximize time with the patient and help clients to achieve desired goals and meet expectations for their pet at home and at the veterinary office.

Enter the Trainer

One of the most common struggles in small animal practice happens when a patient’s behavior, typically triggered by something perceived as stressful or scary, prohibits the veterinary team from performing an exam, diagnostic test or treatment. The trigger could be routine, like using an otoscope to visualize the ear or performing an orthopedic exam on a painful or nervous patient.

Historically, veterinary teams have struggled with, restrained and forced patients into ongoing examinations, tests or therapies despite their obvious fearful or anxious body language. This does not need to continue. You have the perfect opportunity to build a relationship with a pet trainer aligned with the mission and values of your practice. This person can help establish what many in the industry refer to as cooperative care. The trainer works with a patient to not only handle normal husbandry procedures but also be an active participant in more complex experiences.

These experts will focus on things like target training, touch training, encouraging acceptance of a muzzle or collar, and getting patients to display “I’m ready” behaviors at the veterinary office. When the trainer, pet owner, patient and veterinarian are on the same page, the results of what we can do medically with a previously reactive patient are remarkable. This strategy builds tremendous trust and loyalty with a client and generates significant referrals.

A More Cooperative Patient

When the trainer-veterinarian relationship is established, the practitioner has someone to help with specific patient needs. This might mean:

  • Teaching pet owners to administer medications consistently and safely, such as oral drugs in a reactive cat, ear medications in a fearful dog or how to trim the nails on an arthritic older patient.
  • Teaching the patient behavior that supports treatments by the owner or veterinarian. A trainer taught a canine patient of mine to rise onto the hindlimbs on command so that the elderly owner in a wheelchair could treat a pyoderma on the ventral abdomen.

I’ve also worked with a trainer to establish a scheduled feeding regimen for a diabetic cat to improve insulin efficacy.

As veterinarians, our goals always include best medicine and owner compliance. Although most clients want to be part of the solution, their pets’ behaviors at home don’t always allow for it.

Get Off to a Good Start

Another benefit of having a strong and trusted relationship with nearby trainers is to provide the large proportion of first-time pet owners with a good foundation for at-home interactions with their cats and dogs. We know about the puppy explosion just by looking at the number of doggie diapers sold in 2020. According to Nielsen research, sales for the house-training accessory jumped by $24 million in 24 weeks. And it’s not just doggie diapers. Nielsen reported that dog leash sales increased by $44.6 million during the same period and pet toy sales by $243 million.

Pet owners of today look very different than those of a year ago. Most work remotely, are millennials or Generation Zers, consider their pets “fur babies,” and are not as lenient or forgiving when their pets display unwanted behaviors in a home that doubles as a place of work.

One of the most important positive outcomes of trainer-veterinarian relationships is the ability to delegate. Veterinarians and care teams sometimes are inundated with behavior questions that, while not always incredibly complicated, require significant time to answer. Time is one commodity most of us don’t have enough of.

Veterinary teams typically take a collective deep breath when they are running late on appointments, an emergency case is waiting or a client about to end the appointment has a last question that involves multiple layers of behavior scenarios. While some teams might choose to continue the client conversation, consider the alternative of referring the owner to a trainer within your network. This would allow you to spend more time on other patients and essential services. One way to reinforce a referral is to sell tools recommended by the trainer. Also, realize that your trusted trainer might be more current on training trends.

Although 2020 brought many hardships and obstacles, look at the tremendous opportunity it presented for our profession to be disrupted, be creative and reinvent ourselves. Creating a strong referral relationship with trainers can be an essential and financially efficient way to provide behavioral education and satisfy the needs of your patients and clients.

Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie L. Marks is an educator, consultant and practicing Chicago veterinarian. Dr. Marks is a leader within the Fear Free movement, was a member of the original Fear Free advisory board and is Fear Free Certified Elite. She passionately believes that all veterinarians should be committed to the physical and emotional health of their patients.


Cooperative care training is a creative way of using a dog’s normal behaviors to turn it into a willing veterinary participant. Rather than continually struggling with fearful, anxious or reactive patients during exams, consider referring the owners to a trainer for help with:

  • Techniques for cleaning and treating ears in chronic otitis cases.
  • Techniques for cooperative nail trims and foot soaks.
  • Teaching anxious patients “sit,” “stay” or “down.”
  • Teaching a chin-rest behavior so that the patient stands or remains still for procedures like blood draws.
  • Using a basket muzzle on reactive patients.
  • Techniques for receiving subcutaneous injections.
  • Teaching pets to open their mouth for medications.