Those of us who work professionally with dogs need to be able to connect with the humans involved, too. After all, once your consultation session ends and you leave, the caretaker will be left alone to follow through on your recommendations and carry out the hands-on work with their dogs – even when you’re available by phone or email. So, a very important requirement alongside your behavioural knowledge is an understanding of, and empathy for, people. You don’t need a psychology degree (though that can be useful!), but you do need to foster emotional intelligence: the ability to recognise, relate to, and effectively respond to the feelings of others.
Consider the situation from your client’s perspective. He or she will no doubt be feeling vulnerable, and may possibly also be embarrassed or ashamed about not being able to help their dog. They may be under pressure from family members, friends, or members of the public, especially if their dog has reactivity issues. For many people it takes a great deal of courage to admit that help is needed, so our first response should be to applaud them for taking this important step, and to be as kind and caring towards the person as we are towards their dog.
What can obstruct a positive relationship?
Have you ever heard someone say “I work with dogs because I prefer them to people”? Sadly, I’ve heard this numerous times, and this attitude can seriously get in the way of the vital task of forming a healthy, supportive, successful relationship with a client. Whether the dog needing help is in a home or in rescue kennels there will be humans involved in his or her daily care, and you will need to bring those people on board and gain their trust and confidence in order for your behaviour programme to be effective.
Any hint that you are feeling critical or judgemental will immediately nip good relations in the bud and will poison any possibility of a harmonious working relationship. Your client may already be experiencing negative feedback, comments or opinions from others, and it’s not your job to add to their discomfort. It can help to take a “There but for the grace of Dog and education go I” because the majority of people are simply doing the best they can with the information they have – and a lot of scarily inaccurate views and myths are shared as information and even knowledge, especially on social media. If another professional has been involved before you were called in, avoid being critical of that person even if you don’t agree with the methods that were recommended or used.
If your client admits to having used aversive methods out of desperation or through listening to misguided advice, try not to wince too hard (I know, it’s difficult!) and instead let them know that you’ll be helping them discover more effective, compassionate methods that will increase the bonds of trust and affection between the client and dog.
But what if you don’t gel with your client? None of us are perfect, and everyone has good qualities. Look for those, find something you can relate to, and this could significantly change your feelings towards them. If you truly feel that you can’t work with that client, then it’s better for all that you refer them to another behaviourist.
What qualities can foster a good client-professional relationship?
It’s most likely that you’re working in this field because you love dogs and want them to have the best lives possible. This means that you’ll need to enjoy working with the people who are looking after the dogs. They have requested your help because they care about their dogs, are worried about them, and want life to be smoother for their dogs and themselves, and they need you to be on board with them.
Kindness, friendliness, approachability, and a willingness to get to the root of the issue and resolve it all set the scene for a positive and productive relationship. If they open the door to a friendly face when you arrive this can instantly help put clients at their ease. They may have been feeling anxious and nervous about the first visit because you’re an unknown quantity at that point, so if you greet them warmly that will help them feel more relaxed.
Be empathic. Let your client know that you feel for them, because it’s upsetting and can be deeply distressing for them to feel helpless, frustrated and lost where their dog is concerned. Empathy allows you to put yourself in your client’s position and communicate that you understand and care. In some cases, your input may be the last resort for your client, so if he or she feels you are on their side they’ll be more likely to open up to you and speak freely, openly and honestly. If someone feels they may be criticised they’re unlikely to tell the whole story, and you need all the information available that can be added to your assessment of the dog, the relationship between the dog, caretaker and the family or rescue volunteers, the environment, and the dog’s past history and any health issues.
Maintain soft eye contact. It can be disconcerting for a client to find your gaze roaming around rather than feeling you are focussed on them, and it can be intimidating to be stared at. Listen and observe. Active listening is very underrated. It can be tempting to start running through assessments and ideas in your head while your client is talking, but this will prevent you from fully taking in what they are saying and you may miss vital cues from body language and facial expressions if you’re not fully engaged. Wait until your client has finished speaking, and then do a short recap of what you have understood from this to ensure you truly do have the right information and you haven’t misunderstood anything. Once you have that, you can then enter into a discussion about what is going on and possible ways in which this can be worked with.
Ask questions and stay neutral. If your client seems to be hedging, it may be because they feel worried about being seen in a negative light. If so, you can reassure them that you are here to help.
Trust fosters trust. If you have lived or worked with a fearful dog you will know what a fragile flower trust is, and how easily it can be broken. It needs to be nurtured through gentleness, paying attention, being consistent, and making sure that nothing happens that could break that trust. Essentially, you need to prove repeatedly that you are worthy of trust, and part of this process involves trusting the dog – and your client. It’s much easier to trust when you feel trusted! So, your client will feel safe with you if you make it clear that you are ‘there’ for them and will do all you can to help them build a stronger relationship with their dog.
Questions to consider asking your client
What are you hoping for or expecting from the consultation? This gives you a clear picture of what the client wants, and it will enable you to tailor an appropriate behaviour plan. It can also indicate whether too much is expected at this point, and whether you need to ask your client to set the bar lower and take a step by step approach.
Where would you like to be with your dog in a month, and three months, and six months, in your relationship with your dog? This helps you to put together a plan that involves more than the immediate future.
What do you find hardest to deal with from your dog? This can give you a strong starting point for behaviour work, because the answer to this question will be the crux of the reason why you have been called in.
What do you love most about your dog? I prefer to ask this question last (though you may want to slip it in earlier), because the client has most likely been focussing on the dog’s issues up to this point, may be feeling negative or upset, and this question invites the client to think about the love and affection between them. It’s good for them to remind themselves, as well as you, that they share a special bond.
How to motivate clients
Be enthusiastic. There’s nothing more motivating for a client than to feel you’re totally rooting for them and that you’re going to make the process of bringing about change something that will be enjoyable for them and their dogs.
Explain your assessment and your proposed action plan in simple, straightforward terms. Break it down into easy to follow increments so that your client doesn’t feel overwhelmed or unable to follow through. A long to-do list can be daunting and may put a client off from doing anything once you’ve left, so keep it simple. Check that your client feels comfortable with the plan and, if you sense that something doesn’t make sense to them, or may be too much, then modify the plan until you both feel happy with it. You can add more later, once the preliminary work is effective, if you need to.
Avoid using too many scientific terms and acronyms unless the client is already familiar with them. These can be intimidating to someone who hasn’t encountered them before.
Use plenty of positive reinforcement for the humans as well as the dogs. Be encouraging and give praise where it’s due for even the smallest good results. In follow-ups, ask what is working and what improvements or regressions have been noticed.
Ask the client to keep a daily diary because often small improvements and breakthroughs can be easily missed. You could give out a short checklist or questionnaire for your client to complete each day.
Celebrate every milestone along the way with your client!