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  • Drew Webster

Dogs Open Doors... to compassion

Animal training professionals are extremely empathetic to the struggles of non-human animals when they are called in to improve behavior outcomes. But too often, I hear professionals complain about the humans involved in the equation, how they are "stupid, lazy, stubborn, misguided, demanding, high maintenance, not getting it"… and the list goes on and on. All of these unhelpful labels which don’t actually teach us anything about the human behavior (sound familiar?). I’m baffled when professionals who work hard to understand the complex and dynamic factors that contribute to animals having a challenging behavior, fail to bring the same lens to the human behavior element of the behavior change equation. I want to suggest bringing a focused effort to have compassion and understanding for the people involved in the human-animal relationship is the key to achieving the lasting and meaningful change you are hoping to create for the animal.


Let's examine the way behavior analysis understand the implementation of compassion focused interventions with human patients and learn that these professionals report seeing a higher adherence to behavior programs in the patients they see, improvements to the quality of the patient-provider relationship, and overall improved outcomes. So, this becomes a perfect models for animal behavior consultants and trainers to adopt from a purely logistical point of view.

I will hear from animal professionals that a client did not “do what they said” or did not follow the recommended treatment plan. I hear this from my behavior and training colleagues as well as my veterinarian friends. Why are animal professionals having such a difficult time getting their clients to onboard the treatment plans?


Let’s see if we can provide a blue print for improving overall compliance while finding a path that leads everyone to their individual and collective goals. First let’s examine the behavioral concept of perspective taking.


As you prepare for your consultation or interview, ask yourself if you have an agenda going into the session? Be open and honest with yourself and be willing to not achieve your original agenda or at least make it a secondary goal to becoming more compassionate and understanding your clients’ perspective and goals.




Behavioral Assessment Strategy: Remove distractions when providing the interview. It’s never good to try to map out a complex behavior program if you are at the end of your session, if you are tight on time, or need to get to the next appointment. If time is tight, use what is left to schedule a focused time to talk and recap what your learned and map out your strategy. Technology may be integrated for videoing, note taking or information sharing but if you use devices when you are with your clients it is essential to connect in real life (I.R.L). Also make sure if you are asking a client to use a communication system, social media platform or any form of technology that your client is willing and comfortable using these platforms. While you may be an expert in reading non-verbal animal body language you need to be conscious of your own communication skills during sessions. Teach your client what you are watching for, to be mindful of timing and measuring behaviors so you can track and show progress or make changes if you are not seeing improvements as you move through your plan.


Practice active and empathic listening. Pay attention with a degree of curiosity and openness, don’t just explain everything you know. Even if your client is misinformed about the species, breed, behavior, motivation, etc. You are the expert, allow them time to talk and then explain missteps in a non-judgmental way. Asking open-ended questions allows them to express emotion and lets you see behind the curtain. Stay focused and steady if they say something which you find difficult to hear. They may tell you something that is diametrically opposed to your views, knowledge or ethical framework. You will do better to understand why they arrived at that conclusion or behavior change strategy rather than to refuse and refute what they have told you. Remember, you didn’t always have the knowledge and skills you know possess. Keep in mind, no one loves this animal or wants to help the animal more than your client, even if they are using humor, sarcasm or frustration to describe the animal’s behavior. Become their alley and help them to be on board with your plan, don’t force it.


If you really have an issue working with a client, be prepared to refer them out or to step away. In the long term it will cause you and your business more harm to try to make them into a good fit for your approach then to lose them as a client. The energy you spend trying to convert them would be better spent finding the right client for your approach. Avoid any tactic that leads you or your client to blame and shame.


Use language that is accessible and easily understandable to your audience. Don’t try to impress or talk down to your client. Be sympathetic and approachable to help them feel empowered on this journey.


Explain your assessment, either while you are on site or through a recap of the session. Explaining the results of your assessment is important, how it brought you to your plan and how confident you feel in the approach so it is not mysterious or revealed over time. Also tell them when working with animals it’s important to have a plan and behavior goal but that you are willing to make changes as they come. Flexibility in your behavior plan is key!


If you are a business owner, it’s OK to take pride in your business but remember why you began training animals. If you got into the business to help people and animals, make that a focus or foundation of your business goals and mission statement. If you are so focused on building a successful brand or increase your business you might lose sight of what got you into this work in the first place. Take time, remember that each situations is unique, and try not to create a cookie cutter model that all your clients are advised to follow.


Involving the client. Don’t make yourself indispensable. Some clients might think they are unable to do what you do, your goal should be to empower them and share your abilities. There should be a gradual release of responsibility of the training plan to actually make behavior change sustainable in the long term. Try to always have these teaching elements covered: Explain it, Show it, Coach it. I love video work for this, you can do a short 3-5 minute video with the animal which the client can re-watch as many times as they need to.


Be Authentic. I love books, videos, conferences and podcasts. I love learning from other professionals in my industry but make sure you make your plans your own. Your human and non-human animals will know if you are being in-authentic, don’t try to be someone else. I love quotes, referring literature, adding links and professional resources for my clients to explore. But, not all my clients want to read a couple hundred-page book about what dog’s perceive through the world of smell, still they love hearing me describe the concepts I loved from the book.


Checking in with yourself. You are often going to be the rock for people on this journey, giving them hope and direction is key. Make sure that you are measuring your progress and asking objective questions about your plan. Does anything about it feel uncomfortable, or is it simply not working? It’s OK to pull up and say you want to try something different.


Make more selective choices. So many professionals work hard to become busy, but busy isn’t always going to help you achieve your professional goals. Schedule these check in times into your schedule so you can remind yourself what matters in times when you are the busiest. You will not be any use to your clients if you burn yourself out. You are also more likely to make costly mistakes if you are exhausted, stressed, not nourishing yourself or just going to fast. Find out what is essential to your own happiness and well-being. You are good at creating behavior plans, so make one for yourself while you are busy helping others, schedule time to take breaks, slow down, do self-check ins and practice self-kindness during your working hours.


Creating lasting changes is all about improving the relationship dynamics. Make sure your behavior strategy plans are authentic, ethical and most of all compassionate to achieve long term success and satisfaction from your work.

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