Canine Behavior Counselor
How do you get a gig hanging around with dogs all day? We asked Victoria Wells, Senior Manager of Behavior and Training at the ASPCA. She told us what it’s like to be a dog behaviorist—and what you need to know to get a job like hers.
How did you get your job and what kind of training did you need to do it? What did you do before you joined the ASPCA?
It was quite by accident I ended up working in animal behavior. I had been in design for many years and became bored in that career. I have always been a musician, playing in various bands, and needed a job to support my music career after I quit my design job.
I applied for a job at the ASPCA when I saw an opening for an adoptions counselor. Almost immediately after I started at the ASPCA I applied for an animal behavior apprenticeship program. I was hired as a behavior counselor in the ASPCA's Behavior department right after I completed the behavior apprenticeship program.
How did you get involved in helping animals, and why did you decide to focus on behavior?
I have always loved animals but never imagined I would work with them as a career. I volunteered at an animal shelter in Florida and was really fascinated at how quickly you could train a dog to do certain things. The reason I decided to work in behavior was because I wanted to help animals feel better about the world and people—especially if people had treated them poorly in the past.
What do you do every day at work?
I have a group of dogs I work with every day who were either abused or neglected. When they arrive, I put them through some tests to learn about their general personality and find out if they have any behavior problems we need to help them overcome.
Sometimes dogs are very shy when they have been neglected or abused, and sometimes they become defensive and will bark at people they are scared of. I work with these dogs everyday to get them ready to go to a loving home.
What's the best part of your job?
I love working with the dogs on a daily basis—we become really good friends. I love to see a dog who had been formerly mistreated being adopted into a loving home—something that they have never experienced before. Sometimes I cry when the dogs I have worked with get adopted because I am so happy for them.
What's one of the hardest parts of your job?
It is really difficult to see a dog come in that has been starved or abused. Sometimes dogs come in so weak they can't even lift their heads. You never get used to witnessing the results of animal abuse.
Which dog has been the most memorable?
The biggest turnaround in a dog I worked with was a dog named Wylie. He was a completely blind German Shepherd who spent his entire life living under a truck in an empty lot. When I first attempted to take him out of his kennel, he shook, cowered and drooled. It was obvious he had no loving interactions with people during his life.
One day, I saw him lift his head off the ground and perk his ears up when he heard a dog bark, so I brought a puppy in to meet him, thinking maybe he would perk up. He did! He would sniff the puppy and follow him around by scent. Of the course after a few weeks he became very social when he was around puppies and started to really love humans. The confident puppy showed him people were not so bad.
Wylie was eventually adopted to a lovely family with two other dogs. He is very happy now!
Do you have any advice for kids who want to follow in your footsteps?
- Volunteer in a shelter—it will provide you with a lot of experience.
- Ask your local certified dog trainer if you can observe group classes.
- Go to school for animal behavior.
Remember: It is a tough job physically, so it’s not for couch potatoes. The dogs I work with are mostly Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and other large breeds. Also, to do this job, you must love both dogs and people. The dogs don't rent their own apartments once they leave our shelter! We have to match the right dog to the right family. This means talking to a lot of humans.
Do you have any pets of your own?
It's funny, I deal with these huge, rowdy dogs all day and I go home to my 12-year-old one-eyed Shih Tzu, Babe. She is the love of my life. She was abused when she was tiny and lost an eye. She is spoiled now.