As trainers, we often ask our clients to change their behavior in multiple ways. We tell them to carry a bait bag with them at all times. We ask them to attend to their dog’s body language and respond with precise timing to mark good behavior. We ask them to drop bad habits such as yelling at their dog and yanking on the leash. These are by no means easy tasks, particularly when combined with the stress and emotions that come with owning a dog with a behavior problem.
I am troubled when I hear stories of people who say they entered the dog business because they were tired of working with people. Much of what dog trainers do involves asking people to change their behavior and motivating them to train their dogs. One common theme I hear from training clients after the initial consultation is relief. Relief at not feeling judged, relief at not being criticized for owning a dog with a behavior problem, and relief at not being blamed for their dog’s behavior.
Coming from a counseling background, my heart breaks when I hear clients tell stories of feeling judged and being afraid to contact a trainer. The fact is, confrontation and judgment yields less successful training outcomes and poorer prognoses for dogs with common behavior problems. The good news is, thanks to research in counseling psychology, trainers have a pool of evidence-based techniques they can use to get the most out of consultations with their clients, as well as to facilitate the behavior change necessary for a client to meet her training goals.
Reflection: An effective way of helping a client express her feelings and let her know she is being understood is to use reflective responses. It is also a good way to ensure you are understanding the client correctly. To use this technique, reflect back to the client what you believe she has said, ask for verification, and encourage the client to elaborate on the topic.
Client: We take Fido to the dog park, but everyone stares at us when he starts to bark and jump on other people. We get incredibly frustrated and sometimes yell at him when he continues to misbehave.
Trainer: You encounter a lot of stress at the dog park, and it’s overwhelming.
Client: Yes, we really want some relief and we know Fido needs exercise.
Trainer: You want to be able to take Fido to the dog park and have it be enjoyable for him and for you.
Note in this example that the trainer didn’t latch on to the client’s statement that she yells at her dog when he gets overexcited. Doing so would have put the client on the defensive, and would have missed the overall theme: The client is incredibly overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do about her dog. Reflecting this sentiment back to the client helped her elaborate more, and feel understood in the process.
Open-Ended Questions: Questions form the basis of a trainer’s initial consultation with a client. They allow the trainer to understand the dog’s behavior and determine the client’s training goals. There are two different types of questions: closed and open. Closed questions are ones that clients can easily answer with “yes,” “no,” or other short responses. They typically do not move the interview along, and do not encourage a client to elaborate or give specific examples. Open-ended questions do the opposite – they require examples, keep the consultation process moving forward, and help the trainer identify a client’s needs and goals. Typical starter phrases for open ended questions include: “How,” “Tell me about…” and “What does it look like when…”
Trainer: Does your dog urinate in the house?
Trainer: How often?
Client: Two or three times a day.
Trainer: Do you see him have accidents?
Open-ended question example:
Trainer: You said over the phone that Fido has housetraining problems. Could you explain to me what those problems look like?
Client: Well, he urinates in the house several times per day, mostly when we’re not watching him. He will go outside when we take him for walks, so it’s not that he never gets it right. But we can take him inside after a long walk and within 30 minutes, he’ll have had an accident.
By asking one open-ended question, the trainer gets a much clearer picture of the dog’s behavior, and also has more angles to pursue. The trainer could then ask about whether the dog is being amply rewarded for his successful trips outside, as well as how much the client monitors the dog once he’s back in the house.
Pointing out discrepancies: Confrontation is uncomfortable. Often, direct confrontation does not yield an effective response from clients. It shuts down communication, puts up barriers, and puts people on the defensive. A much better approach is to point out discrepancies between what the client is saying and doing, and the client’s goals. Trainers cannot make clients change their behavior. By helping a client understand the gap between where they are and where they want to be, the trainer motivates the client and facilitates behavior change.
Client: I’m so frustrated with Fido. He chews everything in the house, and I know he’s doing it to get back at me for being at work all day. I don’t have time or want to exercise him, and I feel he’s going to wreck my house one day at a time.
Trainer: I hear how frustrated you are with Fido’s chewing – coming back to a chewed up house must be so frustrating. But I also hear that you’re not exercising him very much. As we talked about last week, exercise and enrichment are going to be critical to managing Fido’s chewing.
Client: That’s true, I guess I’m just so overwhelmed I don’t know where to start.
Trainer: Let’s figure out a way to get Fido the exercise he needs.
The trainer could have criticized the client for failing to follow through on the exercise homework. If the client is already overwhelmed, this likely would have exacerbated the problem. By pointing out discrepancies, the trainer opened up a pathway for more communication, and avoided the discomfort of directly criticizing the client.
Roll with resistance: Resistance is a normal, understandable behavior when people are faced with behavior change. Much of what dog trainers do is ask people to change their behavior and their schedule in order to train their dogs. Just as in dogs, human behavior change is not easy. Clients are likely going to protest, make excuses, and resist what we’re asking them to do. If we accept it, identify it, and change our approach, we have a chance of helping these clients come up with their own solutions and invite them to explore different ways of behaving in a non-confrontational manner. Lecturing, imposing rules, and telling clients what they “should” do creates resistance. Acknolwedging, emphasizing personal choice and letting the client feel in control will minimize it. If you encounter resistance, try a different approach. No amount of huffing and puffing with force a person to change.
Examples of how to roll with resistance:
How do you want to proceed?
Where should we go from here?
It’s OK if you don’t feel ready to commit to the training at this time.
Empathy: When a client feels understood, she is more likely to be open to suggestions, change her behavior, and communicate more openly. Trainers must see situations from the eyes of their clients, and let their clients know they understand. Alternatively, judgment will only increase resistance and decrease motivation.
For more resources on counseling techniques:
Motivational Interviewing: http://www.motivationalinterview.org
Motivational Interviewing Skills and Techniques: http://www.samhsa.gov/co-occurring/topics/training/skills.aspx
Five Basic Counseling Skills: http://www.ucdenver.edu/life/services/counseling-center/Documents/5-Basic-Counseling-Skills.pdf
What are basic counseling skills? http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/43335_02_Nelson_Jones_3e_Ch_02.pdf
– By Maureen Backman, MS