A few days ago I wrote a post on how to handle signs of impending trouble if you see it in someone else’s dog (Please Believe Me, Trouble Brewing!) I asked for comments from other pro’s on how they handle this situation, and from owners on how they would like it handled. The comments sent in response have been so helpful and interesting I thought this topic deserved another post.
Here is an admittedly brief summary of how readers responded (see the original post for their complete comments and suggestions):
PLEASE TELL US! Several people wrote in with sad stories of clear problems that trainers or vets never mentioned when the dog was younger. Many people wished that someone had said something to them sooner. The trick is how and when you say it (read on!)
KINDNESS Oh please please please remember how fragile and vulnerable we are about our dogs. Expressing empathy and concern goes a long way toward having any comment you might make about someone’s dog be heard.
OFFER SOLUTIONS I cringed reading comments about trainers who said things like “You need to get your dog under control!” and kept walking. Isn’t that, uh, what we trainers are for? Don’t people come to us to learn how to do that? The comments made it crystal clear how unhelpful it is for someone to tell you that you have a problem, and then offer no solution–what good is it to know that you have a serious problem if the person who brings it up offers no help or potential solutions? This might be a brief discussion, an appointment, or a referral to other resources, but “Boy do you have a problem!”–without any help attached is, in my mind, nothing less than an act of indirect aggression.
GET PERSONAL It helps tremendously to bring up a similar situation or dog that you yourself have had. I didn’t mention this in my first post, but I realized while reading the comments that I do it all the time. It helps people see that the “problem” is not their fault, that these things happen to experienced trainers, and that there are solutions/potentials for the future that someone can guide you through.
PROVE IT & BE SPECIFIC It’s not enough to say “Boy are you going to have trouble with that dog!” Carefully explain exactly what it is that you are seeing that needs to be attended to and why someone should listen to what you have to say. (“Do you see how the corners of her mouth are retracted while she’s barking at me, and she is actually backing up as she does so? Those are often signs of fear in young dogs, and after 20 + years in the business I’ve seen so many fearful puppies become adult dogs who get into trouble when visitors come. The good news is that this is almost always a treatable problem. I have a dog right now who was just like that when he was an adolescent, and I had visitors throw treats for him every time they came over. Now he is ….” etc etc etc.)
DON’T EXAGGERATE I like the the suggestion of presenting the “best and worst case” scenario. This is an important way to be realistic, and avoid people from dismissing what you have to say. “It may turn out just fine, but I’ve seen so many dogs like this who ended up in trouble… why gamble with a dog who might be that “one in a million” dog that you talk to your grandchildren about!” It’s a tricky line, I admit–saying enough to get someone’s attention, without overstating the issue such that you lose them completely. But, then, isn’t life often about walking on those thin lines between helpful and tiresome?
CUSTOMIZE If this is a client, it is critical to customize your advice. Every case is different, and cookie-cutter solutions to even common problems often don’t work. Every client needs to feel special, because they are. Every case is different, because it is. People desperately need to feel they’ve been listened to, and that your advice is truly something that can work for them. I often start out by saying “Ideally, we’d do X and Y, but then, there’s real life (and your spouse and five kids to acknowledge).” I always ask if they think my suggestions could work for them, and pay lots of attention to body language that says one thing, and a verbal response that says another.
UNDERSTAND THAT CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING This is especially for non-trainers, because most trainers are well aware that a dog can behave one way in one context and another way in a different setting. A word to the wise: I can not tell you how many times I’ve heard clients complain that their vets won’t listen to them about their behavioral problem because the dog is so good in the clinic. Dogs can behave one way to one person, and be a different dog to someone else. They can be docile and loving at the vet clinic and a terror at home. Etc Etc. If people tell you they have a problem, then they have a problem. It may be a slightly different one than they perceive it to be, but if it’s a problem to your client, then it’s a problem. That said, kukos and body wags to all the veterinarians and vet techs out there who work so hard to educate their clients and work to prevent behavioral problems. All behaviorists and trainers send our appreciation (and our sympathy). It’s tough sometimes. Thus, the next point:
ACCEPT OUR LIMITS No matter how good any trainer, vet, behaviorist or friend, there are times that people simply aren’t going to listen to us. In many cases, it is natural to dismiss something the first time you hear it. (Don’t you do that yourself sometimes?) It’s not until the second or third time that we are ready to hear what’s being said. That’s one reason why maintaining a relationship can be so important, as well as finding a way to stay involved if it is appropriate.
And sometimes, no matter what, we’re just not going to get the response we want. We need to let it go. This isn’t easy for people who spend at least part of their lives learning how to influence and manage the behavior of another (!), but it’s a critical skill that we all need to nurture. Let it go. It’s okay. As James Herriot quoted his mentor in “All Creatures Great and Small,” “Don’t worry son, you can’t kill ‘em all.” And we can’t save ‘em all, either. Neither can vets or physicians. Let it go. Breath. Move on.
One of the ways we all do that is focus on our own animals. And so, . . .
. . . Meanwhile, back at the farm: It is still absurdly warm here, in the 50′s most days, low 30′s at night. Two years ago we had well over foot of snow by now. Does that mean I’m all caught up on the “preparing for winter chores?” Not even close. (All of you who live in warm climates might want to smile now.) There are still hoses to flush and put away, water heaters in stock tanks to check, roses to mulch, and garages to clean out. And the food! Oh my my my. This time of year there is food piling up around us like a nutritious, tasty tsunami. I have a winter share at my local CSA (Vermont Valley Community Farm), and now have enough potatoes and carrots to feed small armies. In addition, I gleaned the fields and now have 12 packages of “extra” broccoli in the freezer. This weekend I’ll be out hacking down left over brussel sprout trees, slicing the tiny cabbage-like morsels off of the stalk and then freezing them after a brief trip into boiling water.
But there’s a ram to get to my friend’s (Redford having done his job at my farm), new gates to buy for the new pens inside the barn that Jim is building, and a meditation retreat on Sunday. Oooooh, I love weekends at home!
Here’s some broccoli, cleaned and trimmed, waiting to be processed for freezing. It’s a little more mature than what you’d want to buy in a store, but it’s still yummy and nutritious.
And here’s my Lassie girl, all 15 years and 11 months of her, bringing back the dilapidated disc. It’s not a great photo, a little fuzzy, but then, it’s my old Lassie girl and I’m an absolute sop over pictures of her. especially when she’s being active and playful.