Ask a veterinarian and chances are pretty good they will tell you the desire to become a veterinarian started at an early age.
Ask Dr. E’Lise Christensen and she will go a step further.
“I went to veterinary school to become a veterinary behaviorist,” Christensen said. “I had a long-term plan early in my life and always approached my education very specifically.”
Christensen not only has achieved her goal, but she has struck out on her own. The board certified specialist (American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) is the owner of Veterinary Behavior Vets of Colorado and Behavior Vets of New York City.
While pursuing her DVM (2002) at Iowa State University, Christensen sought out opportunities and cases where she could enhance her education in the area.
“Other veterinary behaviorists were very generous and allowed me to join them for cases,” she said. “I spent my summers and breaks going out and working with people in the field.”
She did externships throughout the country as well and eventually completed her residency at Cornell University. These experiences reinforced her view that many owners don’t know how to approach their pet’s behavioral issues. Instead they go to the internet, groomers, friends and family to seek answers – answers they don’t always have.
“Behavior disorders are chronic sources of suffering but with help, improvements can happen quickly in many cases," Christensen said. "We don't see families when they are joyful, we see them at a very traumatic point in their lives.
"They've often been struggling for months to years at our first meeting. Our goals are improvement within eight weeks and complete graduation from the service within six months."
After completing her residency, Christensen went to work for a multi-speciality hospital in New York City before striking out on her own with Behavior Vets of NYC.
At both the Colorado and New York locations, Christensen continued working with pet owners, educating them on pet behavior. In many cases, she is the last resort for owners.
“By the time owners come to us, things are pretty bad,” she said. “It’s a very difficult situation. When someone gets a pet, the last thing they expect to have a problem with are serious behavioral symptoms like biting people or jumping through windows when left home alone.
"Most of our clients have had animals before and didn't have any major issues. They thought they knew what they were doing.”
But the reality is many pets are relatively easy to manage. They will tolerate funky schedules, unpredictable punishers and inappropriate handling from owners.
"Our patients really struggle with things most families take for granted," Christensen said. "As a result, we spend a lot of time helping clients understand how animals learn, the difference between normal and abnormal behavior, and how to intervene without making the problem worse."
Christensen finds it alarming to see how many people, including veterinarians and staff, can't identify when an animal is telling a person to stop touching them. She says understanding that alone would save a lot of relationships.
"Many people still fall back on the inappropriate use of hitting, yelling, shocking, pinching or choking animals to stop behaviors, rather than fixing the underlying cause," she said. "The good news is, it isn't hard to read body language or learn to teach so an animal can learn.
"It just takes some coaching."
Christensen says while a majority of her patients are dogs and cats, she has seen rabbits, goats, hamsters, pigs and horses. Behavioral disorders can include both fear-related aggression, self-injurious behaviors, house soiling and many others.
With one office in the Denver suburbs and another in downtown Manhattan in New York City, Christensen says the behavior disorders can be different in the two locations. She has worked with aggressive dogs whose owners live in a high rise apartment building in New York and purposely take the stairs instead of the elevator so they won’t meet another person or dog.
“People will get up earlier or stay up late to work around the schedules of other people and dogs,” she said.
These and similar cases are examples where Christensen has to work as much with the owner as she does with the pet. And that can take a toll.
“I love what I do on a person-to-person basis, helping people know they can help change their pet’s behavior,” Christensen said. “Our clients are promised we will keep working with them until they tell us to stop. They are also promised that we will never push them to keep going if it doesn't feel right or safe for them.
“I know they truly love their animal because they came to us. Nobody has to consult with a veterinary behaviorist and many people can't or won't for a variety of reasons. Our clients take that leap. It's an honor to work with such dedicated families and a joy to watch our patients improve."
There are times when the owners do make the tough decision to remove an animal from their homes and Christensen can see the pain in their eyes.
She says it’s especially hard for clients who decide to euthanize due to a behavioral disorder.
“They are making a decision they thought they would never have to consider and may have judged others harshly for in the past," Christensen said. "They know they will be judged just as harshly by others if they end the life of their animal. We can help most animals feel better and we can help families improve management, but some animals will still pose a safety and liability risk to family members and the public.
"When that's the case, we are here to help families make the decision that's right for them."
Christensen and her team understand how difficult those decisions are.
“When a family comes to Behavior Vets, we like to say they are coming to a judgement free zone. Not only do we care for their pet, but a good portion of our job is caring for these families too.”