Sue Alexander, CDBC on August 05, 2015
Behaviour consulting is a relatively new field in the world of animal behaviour. Behaviour consultants help animals in a very holistic way, taking into account the environment within which they live and learn, the people and other animals they interact with and the needs of their caretakers. If you are interested in the field of behaviour consulting, there are a number of skills and interests you will need to foster, as well as a drive to continue your education beyond the basics of training animals.
To begin with, it is important to understand that although an animal may need a behavioural intervention for one reason or another, the animal won’t be the one who contacts you for help! This may sound obvious but it brings with it an important implication; you will be working closely with a wide variety of people in the course of your work should you decide to become a behaviour consultant. If you don’t like helping people this may not be a good career move for you! People are going to be the ones you are working with for the most part. If you are looking for a career where you will work primarily with animals, you may want to explore other options such as pro-training (where you board and train hunting, police, movie or service dogs), horse training (where you become proficient in an equestrian discipline and bring up young horses to a level of proficiency where you can sell them to others for work, or where you can attract sponsors to pay you to compete) or even zookeeping (where you work hands on behind the scenes to train and enrich the lives of the animals in institutions). Although you need direct hands on training skills in the species that you work with, a more important aspect is understanding that you will be teaching, mentoring and supporting the people who live and work directly with the animals who need help. Behaviour consulting is a people centric career!
Behaviour consultants are very safety conscious people. We are often asked to go in and deal with animals who may be dangerous to ourselves or others, so we have to know how to set up the environment so that we can have productive consultations that are non confrontational both for the animal and the human. This means gaining an understanding of the different kinds of contact. As an example, full protected contact means that we work with the animal in such a way that we cannot get to the animal directly and nor can the animal get to us; we might work across a barrier with a food delivery system. Open contact is when we work with the animal without any barriers or safety equipment such as muzzles, leashes, harnesses, bits or bridles; we are able to completely interact with our animals and they with us. Often working safely is a puzzle that we have to figure out in the moment and the situation can change from minute to minute.
Behaviour consultants have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In the course of your career as a behaviour consultant there will be an awful lot of elephants in the room. People will want to talk about all aspects of their lives and sometimes the topics that are brought up have little to do with the reason you are there. You will know when your clients are having marital troubles, when they lose a family member, and when they are celebrating achievements, anniversaries and losses. Behaviour consulting is intimate work where you must be comfortable and adept at handling intimate information. If you have your own issues, you need to be prepared to deal with those before you reach out to help others.
If boundaries are difficult for you to establish and maintain, behaviour consulting may be difficult to carry out successfully. You will work closely and intimately with clients and this means they may share information with you that are not a part of your work. Clients may call for help when you have booked time off, or after your normal business hours. It is up to you to help clients to understand what you can and cannot help with, and when you are available to discuss their problems. How you choose to connect with people is another boundary you may need to consider; with so many ways to connect in today’s technologically advanced world, many clients may want to connect by text, Facebook, Twitter, email and phone as well as in person. Knowing what you do, how you do it, when you do it, and by what medium you will do it allows you to be clear with yourself and your clients about how you will relate with them.
When behaviour consultants don’t set good boundaries, we can run into issues of burn out and vicarious traumatisation. Sometimes in the course of our work we will see behaviour and the outcomes of behaviour that may deeply disturb us. Resilience is not always something you can pull up on a whim, and some of the work we do may disturb us. Being part of an organization such as the IAABC can help you to find a support network to help you to recharge when you do become overwhelmed, but you should be prepared to be overwhelmed from time to time, and plan for ways to buffer yourself through activities away from animal behaviour consulting. Engaging in hobbies that take you out of the world of animals and behaviour allow you to take much needed breaks when things get difficult. It is very easy to be a behaviour consultant who does nothing outside of their species of specialization, and that can contribute to early burnout.
Finally, behaviour consultants are lifelong learners. We are never done. As the field of animal behaviour consulting grows, so too grows the body of knowledge that we have to acquire to do our jobs well. You can expect to attend conferences, read journal articles and participate in courses for the rest of your career, and you may even contribute to the knowledge base that is available.
If you are an animal lover who loves people every bit as much as you love animals, if you are aware of the importance of keeping everyone safe including the animals you work with, and you have good boundaries and a great support system and you love to learn, behaviour consulting may be a great fit for you. Before committing, you may want to join an organization such as the IAABC as a supporting member for a year or two and find out if this is really the field for you. If it is, the world has just gained another supporter for healthy relationships between people, their animals and society!