Letter to Veterinary Medicine: Behavior should be strongly considered in curriculum for veterinary students
Dear Dr. Miller,
Thank you for the lovely tribute to Bill Campbell and his contribution to the knowledge base of behavior problems in dogs in the December 2014 issue of Veterinary Medicine (Mind Over Miller: A tribute to a pioneer in canine behavior). The teaching of veterinary behavior to students and graduates has come a long way since the 1950s. Most major veterinary conferences offer continuing education sessions in behavior, which are often standing room only. These conferences do provide invaluable information to the attendees, equipping them with the knowledge to, as you rightly stated, “optimally handle patients, to teach the owners, and to enhance the image of our profession from the standpoint of competence, finesse, and humaneness.”
While behavior in veterinary medicine has come a long way, unfortunately it has not come far enough. In your tribute, you stated “I am so glad that most of our veterinary schools are now offering students training in animal behavior,” which would imply that over 50% of our veterinary schools offer some form of behavior training to students. Did you know that of the 30 veterinary schools on the mainland U.S., only 12 have a board-certified behaviorist on staff? Also, the same number of schools offer an introductory behavior course although only a few have it as part of the required curriculum. Those numbers tell us that less than half of our veterinary schools offer training in behavior at all. Considering that behavior problems lead to euthanasia and relinquishment to shelters at staggering numbers and can directly affect patient care in the hospital, veterinary students today are still left unprepared to prevent, diagnose and manage these cases in practice.
You also mention that “[you are] grateful that there is now board certification in animal behavior for graduates who seek to specialize in that discipline.” While this is definitely a move in the right direction, the majority of these graduates pursuing board certification are in private practice, since most veterinary schools do not have a behaviorist on staff or do not allocate enough funding to support a behavior teaching program or residency. Currently, there are 22 of the American College of Veterinary Behavior Residents in a non-conforming program, which means they are not associated with a college of veterinary medicine, and seven residents in a traditional residency program.
For those unfamiliar with what a non-conforming residency entails, it is an extremely difficult program to complete. Veterinarians that choose to pursue a non-conforming residency must attend classes, conferences, and workshops, and spend time in other specialty areas (such as laboratory animal medicine, zoological medicine and large animal medicine to name a few) in addition to seeing approximately 450 behavior cases and completing publishable research, which may or may not be funded by an outside source. To support their non-conforming residency many must work another full-time job in order to pay a mentor to supervise them through their case loads. This makes a non-conforming residency exceptionally challenging for someone to pursue board certification in veterinary behavior medicine.
You mentioned the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior in your article. This group is actually not a liaison between its members and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists but rather a separate entity of veterinarians who have a special interest in behavior and would like to know more, PhDs conducting behavioral research, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. Many diplomates and residents of the American College of Veterinary Behavior are members of this society, and student chapter clubs are present in many of the veterinary schools. The goal is to have an active behavior club in every veterinary school and a collection of speakers for these students.
Behavior should be considered a core curriculum topic, but raising awareness in our veterinary schools can be an uphill battle. Teaching and understanding modern, scientifically proven methods of behavior modification and learning theory is critical for all and their staff members. Knowing how to address misconceptions, misunderstandings and outdated information available to clients is key to this process. Once equipped with this knowledge, veterinarians will have the opportunity to further enhance the human animal bond, improve animal welfare, and ultimately save patient's lives.
We are thrilled that you understand and share our passion for the field of veterinary behavior. It is the hope of all of us in this field that, through our efforts and education of both the public and within the veterinary profession, we will ultimately raise enough awareness and support to establish comprehensive veterinary behavior curriculums at all veterinary schools.