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The Human Aspect


How Veterinary Hospital Assistant Students Learn Empathy

Today’s class was an emotional one. It was a day for celebrating success and looking back on lessons learned. It was the final class of the program for this group of students before they write their final exam, graduate, and head off into the fast-based world of animal health as Veterinary Hospital Assistants. The last seven weeks have been a remarkable journey not just for the students but the instructors as well, as Kari noted today in her emotional farewell and warm words of encouragement to the group.

The class began in silence however (well, at least the humans were silent…) as the students took a few minutes to sit and carefully observe dog interactions in the production studio. A flurry of barks, growls, jumping, running, and doggy facial expressions ensued as play began… It was fascinating to watch the variety of situations that popped up as the dog’s socialized, from different types of play behavior to assertions of dominance and submission. Even more fascinating was the students’ responses to what they had seen after the five minutes were up. Brad and Kari went around the room in a rapid fire question and answer period, and the students quickly and efficiently described all the behaviors they had seen, and even the significant under lying causes behind many of these behaviors. It was clear that their skills of observation have become very acute over the last six or seven weeks!!! Brad elaborated on this:

“There is a key two second window of observation when an owner enters a clinic with their pet. After that first two seconds, you might have five to ten more to fine tune your initial observation. You now all have the skills to make a crucial assessment of the situation in that first two seconds – and that is going to keep you safe and make you better able to do your job.”

After a few more observational exercises, the class went on to discuss the physical and emotional aspects of pet ownership:

  • Increased happiness
  • Improved cardiovascular health from greater physical activity
  • Companionship
  • The list goes on and on!

Kari stressed the importance of giving back to our pets in the same way that they support our health and wellness. A few great tips for this include:

  • Give your pet lots of exercise and expose them to different settings/people/other animals
  • Be sure your pet receives positive physical contact – proper petting/patting is a huge factor in pet emotional health … (For instance, cats like to be petted down the entire length of their body, from the top of their head all the way down to the tip of their tail!)
  • Play, play, play!!! Play engages pets not just physically but mentally. Try to provide as many different types of mental stimulation as you can – challenges like hiding their toys are a great way to keep them thinking!

Brad and Kari also passed on some great tips for calming down pets, which come in handy not just in the clinic but at home as well:

  • Make slow, small movements
  • Pet your dog or cat by applying gentle, comforting pressure to their coat
  • Match your tone of voice to the situation – if you want them to be calm, you need to calm down your energy as well, so speak slowly and quietly.

The class ended with some wonderful words of wisdom and encouragement from Kari, who has worked in mainstream and alternative health and wellness for both people and animals for over twenty years. “Don’t forget the human aspect,” Kari said, as she reminded the students that a crucial part of their job is extending understanding and empathy to their clients—and that being fully present, giving people their full attention, and making pet owners feel like they are important can be just as crucial to doing the job well as the way in which they manage animals in the clinic.

Overall, the last seven weeks in the Pet Psychology class with guest speaker Brad Pattison and Instructor Kari Lesick have been a wild ride. As the animal health industry continues to grow, Veterinary Hospital Assistants remain in high demand; and one thing is for sure:  this is one fun, fast-paced career path! If you love animals and enjoy working with people as well, you might just be a great candidate for VHA. Learn more about the program at  Be sure to read all our blogs about this class and find photos and videos on our Facebook page.