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Issue: 73 - Jan 15, 2015
What is the Best Way To Change Behavior? New Environment
By: Dr. Sally J. Foote
Dr Sally Foote

Recently I listened to the radio program “What heroin addiction tells us about changing bad habits” by Alix Spiege NPR Morning Edition.   The topic was about how changing the environment was an important factor in changing daily behaviors.  This program focused on drug addiction in Vietnam soldiers during 1970’s and how they stayed off the heroin they had become addicted to in Vietnam.   The change in environment from Vietnam to home was a crucial factor in successfully keeping over 90% of addicts in recovery.  Wow.  Changing the environment had a huge impact on changing human behavior, especially a daily, habitual behavior.  I know how to change pet behavior, but getting humans to change is often the biggest frustration!  Practices are learning about low stress handling, and helping the pets to be less afraid but the change in staff actions and behavior is terribly slow.   I witness some staff using low stress and others too busy to try.   Perhaps there is something that can be changed in the clinic environment to prompt change in the staff behavior.   


What the program described was how a repeated behavior in an environment becomes part of being in that environment.  For example, if you smoke near the front door of your office building, going by that door causes you to take out a cigarette even if you had not thought about smoking before getting to that area.   The link between smoking and that door area is so strong you automatically pull out a cigarette - like a habit.  A dog that grabs food off the counter multiple times a day will automatically go up there even without food present or being hungry.   To break these habits a smoker may now need to go out a different door to prevent themselves from reaching for that cigarette.  For the counter cruising dog, you may block the dog's access to the counter that is now food free.  The environment has changed to help "break the habit".


So I started thinking of how to change the office environment to change staff handling behavior.  How would the environment of the exam room, waiting area, or treatment area need to change to have low stress handling and rewarding be a first choice rather than the exception? 

Passive changes; ones that would not require the staff to do much would be a first step.


1.   In your foyer or at the entry door, have a small treat jar or wall pocket on the wall with a sign that says “treat your pet now and later".  It is great to have one on the receptionist desk, but a second one put it in a place for the clients to do this will definitely have more pets getting rewards as they enter.   Unless you are doing a specific blood test, one small treat (remember they need to be the size of a cheerio for rewards) or 2 is not going to cause problems with the blood work.   A reward at the door area is what gets dogs to want to come in - with more dogs dragging their owners in not out, your staff should notice this improvement and then they will be offering more rewards.


2. Put a coffee table in the center of the open floor area where your waiting room chairs are.  This acts as a visual or body blocker to reduce dogs from pulling and barking at other dogs and cats in the waiting area.  Cats are often more calm because they see this barrier to keep dogs and other people away from them.   We did this just last year after redecorating the waiting area.  The staff noted that the big dogs were less rambunctious and when we needed to keep dogs separate it helped to show the clients where to stand.


3.  Hang the muzzles on a rack under the shelf with peanut butter, liver paste or a jar of baby food with the sign “Treat Mask" next to them.  Now you can easily load the treat mask with the reward to make wearing it fun.  Watch my youtube video "Muzzle for rewards” channel drsallyjfoote  


4.   Have 2 bath towels, 1 baby blanket and 1 pillow case out in every exam room for handling cats in a kinder way.   Put them on a counter or shelf where they are out in view.   Seeing them should prompt use, and if not put a card that says “kinder for cats" on the wall or counter where the staff will see it.


5. For the treatment area, put a clothes line with a nice piece of fabric in front of the cages or between exam tables, similar to what hospitals have around patient beds.  You want to make it easy to block off the sights and sounds of other animals or treatment that can upset the animal you are treating.
These are a few ideas that would not take much time or money to put into place.  The most effective way to change is to make it your practice standard.   Make a plan for training, using techniques and building on that knowledge just as you would adding any other veterinary service.  If your leadership style is not so direct, then some of the ideas above should help to get your staff going.


No matter what way you actually start to change, doing it is what matters most.  Try moving some furniture around, making a few signs and allowing the clients to do the rewarding.  You will see a difference, I guarantee it. 


Dr Sally J Foote