I’ve thought about intake interviews every day since someone wrote, “Yes, please tell us what you asked clients during an intake interview.” I don’t know why this question speaks to me so much, but perhaps it is because of my interest in human psychology. I’ve always said that my two favorite species are people and dogs, and although there are times that the people part of that equation challenge my affection, I still am equally fascinated by the species at both ends of the leash.
That might be why I’ve found myself thinking not so much about what I asked clients, but how I asked it. Honestly, the bare bones facts that you need are pretty straight forward (I’ll list them next week in Part II), but I’m going to argue that HOW you ask the questions is the key to a good interview.
Much of what I’m about to say is not a strategy that I carefully considered. It is just what I did, and in hindsight, I think that there were good reasons for it. Nor do I think it’s the perfect prescription for an intake interview; there are many roads to the top of the mountain. I am counting on the vast experience of our readers to add their wisdom and experience to this discussion. But here are some thoughts from me to get us started:
GREETING THE CLIENTS First impressions, right? Job one is to let people know you care about them. “Did you find the office without any trouble?” “Oh, such a long drive, can I get you some tea or coffee?” It seems so simple, but that doesn’t make it trivial. How many appointments have you had in which you were immediately asked to hand over your insurance card, or to give your birthdate? How did that feel? What a difference it makes if someone first inquires about YOU! If we expect clients to listen to us and take our advice, we need them to feel like we’re on their side. Let them know that right away. First things first. What could be more important?
GREETING THE DOG Our next job, immediately after asking about the client, is to focus on the dog. No matter what the dog is doing, how you feel about Scandinavian Tree Hugger Hounds or Ethiopian Rough-legged Dachshunds, or if the dog looks like the bad guy in a B movie who is about to pull the trigger, you have GOT to let the owners know that you care as much about their dog as you do them. This is easy for most of us, because we wouldn’t be doing consults if we didn’t care about dogs, right?
The trick is to respect what the dog is telling you (as in “…for the love of heaven do not approach me right now…”) while making it clear to the clients that you truly care about their dog. This can be tricky. I can’t tell you how many clients I have had who said “Oh, he’s fine, go ahead and pet him” while the dog lip licked, and whale eyed and did everything he could to pretend he wasn’t in the room, begging me with every possible visual signal to stay away, at least for now. The fact is, you have to respect both needs: The dog for space, and the owner’s need to have you interact with their dog. I’ll say something good about the dog first thing, even if it’s “What a gorgeous tail Ripper has!” Then I’ll explain that Ripper is telling me he’s a bit nervous—see how he keeps turning his head away from me and his mouth is closed up tight?”
This moment is a wonderful opportunity to start teaching owners how to read their dog, especially for subtle signals related to fear or anxiety. It’s also a fine time to exploit our tendency to be anthropomorphic. I had so many clients who were resistant to seeing their dog as fearful, but it helps when you couch the issue in human terms— “Would you want a hug from a stranger who was 10 feet tall before you even had a chance to get a good look at him?” But no matter what is going on, you have got to communicate to the owners that you don’t just love dogs in general, but that you are committed to getting to know and help their dog. Asking a list of questions about a dog’s medical history, diet and daily exercise isn’t going to do that. Whether you admire a dog’s tail or sit down on the floor and let him slobber all over you, make it clear to the owners (and the dog if you can) that you are establishing both a professional and a personal relationship.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? People want to tell you about the problem as soon as you’ll let them. Why not, that’s why they are there for; that’s what has kept them up at night worrying themselves sick. And yet, so many intakes I’ve seen start with details that might be important when we are designing a treatment plan (age, diet, daily routine), but feel like diversions to the client. How do you feel when the nurse or PA sits you down in the doctor’s office and asks you a gazillion questions, while focused on her computer screen? Valued? Taken care of? Feeling the love?
I found early on that clients are desperate to tell you what’s wrong. That’s why it’s my first question. “Why are you here?” “What’s going on?” “How can I help you?” Pick your favorite phrase, but let them tell you what the behavior problem is before asking anything else. Otherwise, you are just frustrating them and losing an opportunity to communicate that you are on their side.
BE PATIENT An answer to this question can take five seconds, or a half an hour. Usually it takes several minutes, because any answer needs clarification. “He’s aggressive to other dogs” leads, as you well know, to a discussion about what dogs, where, and what “aggressive” means. If there are two people in the room (or more), be sure to ask everyone, because they often have different experiences with the same dog (not to mention different perspectives).
KNOW YOUR ABCs Now is the time to thank behavior analysts like Dr. Susan Friedman, who remind us that the key to changing a behavior is to understand its Antecedent (some people call them “triggers”), the exact, actual Behavior, and the Consequences of the behavior. First, what happens right before the problem behavior occurs, or, what is the Antecedent event? I asked clients “If I promised you a $100 if you could get the dog to do X right now, what would you do?” That gives me a good idea of what triggers the behavior, which will be critical information when I was designing a treatment plan.
Next, what exactly is the Behavior that is problematic? As I noted earlier, it can take some time to get a good, detailed picture of what’s going on. “He goes crazy at the door” is only helpful if you know what “goes crazy” means. After several years, I learned that asking people to “be a video for me and describe exactly what I would be seeing when visitors come” is an effective way to get a good description. Of course, seeing it yourself as the visitor, or watching a video is much better than a verbal description, but you don’t always have that option.
Finally, what is the Consequence of the behavior, or what happens immediately afterward? Does the dog achieve an increase in distance between it and another dog if she barks aggressively on the street? Does growling by a nervous dog result in a withdrawn hand? In other words, what is reinforcing the behavior? Something is, or by definition, it wouldn’t be happening, right?
In addition to getting clear on the ABCs, I’ve found it essential to get a good chronological history of the problem. You can ask when it first started and work up to the present, but I’ve found it most useful to start with the most recent incident and work backward. That way you can discuss what is fresh in the client’s mind, and work your way back in time. Working back one incident at a time also seems to help jump start people’s memories, and often I’d have clients say “Oh! Wait! I forgot… do you remember that Ripper was attacked at the dog park the week before he began growling there?”
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE? This question is as important as the ones above. It is also one that often surprises the client. I don’t need to tell this group that you can’t stop X behavior without deciding on what you want to replace it with. But it is exactly what many dog owners haven’t yet thought about. “I just want him to stop X!” they say, without having pictured what they’d like the dog to do. This is one of my favorite parts of the interview, because it is where you can begin to provide a path to what will make both the owners and the dog happy.
OBSERVATIONS OF THE CLIENTS This is another critical part of the interview. While you’re talking to the client(s), what is happening? If it’s a couple, how are they seated? Are they facing away from each other and never look at each other’s faces? Is the single owner in your office unable to keep his hands off her dog? Does one spouse continually tell the dog to stop exploring the office, lie down and stay put? All of this should have a significant impact on how to talk to the owner(s) and what kind of treatment plan you suggest. (I’ll talk about that more next week.)
OBSERVATIONS OF THE DOG Wait? Isn’t this about the dog? Have I forgotten the dog? Nope, honest. While all this talking is going on I’m watching the dog. If it is safe, (as in, I’m not about to be mutilated), I ask the owner to let the dog off leash as soon as the door to my office is closed. You can learn so much a about a dog, and his relationship with his owner if you give him the freedom to make his own choices. Does he avoid me? Fine, that provides a lot of information. Sniff the carpet obsessively for 10 minutes? That’s useful too. The only exception, of course, is if my internal red flags start waving, and I think the dog needs to be restrained for my own safety. That didn’t happen very often, because I’m pretty darned good at avoiding a confrontation with a dog, but when it did I didn’t hesitate to say something like: “Ripper and I don’t seem to be comfortable with each other. Would you put his leash back on for now? That way Ripper can relax while we can focus on talking.” Notice there’s no blame going around—just a simple request that will allow me to focus on something besides my own tender flesh.
Of course, if the dog enters the lobby with a tense mouth and body, and goes out of his way to look directly at my face with eyes as hard as obsidian, I’m not going to suggest that the dog comes off leash right away once we enter my office. Not until he begins to soften, and also not until the owner is comfortable letting the dog off. If the owner says “I’d rather keep him on leash,” we absolutely must respect that, even if the dog is a melted puddle of Christmas carmel and is begging us to pet his belly. Our job is to make the owner comfortable, not to impress him or her.
BE FUNNY IF YOU CAN I say that in all seriousness. I can’t emphasize enough how nervous people are when they come to talk to you the first time. The more relaxed they are, the more they will remember, the more honest they’ll be, and the more open they will be to taking your suggestions. However, if you can’t channel your inner stand up comedian, don’t try to fake it. Your clients will see through that in a microsecond. However, you could say “This is when I want to say something funny to lighten things up, but I’m never gonna be able to quit my day job to be a comedian. I can’t even remember any good jokes. But I do care deeply about helping you and Ripper, and I have some ideas for you that might help a lot.” Mission accomplished. You HAVE lightened things up, and just increased the empathy quotient in the room up to high.
Didn’t I write a post recently titled “Less is More?” Uh, yeah, that was me. And here I am, going on and on… And yet, there is still so much I want to say. I’ve decided to continue this until next week, when I’ll write about the next phase of the interview, including my list of background questions, working with the dog, and talking to the clients about a treatment plan.
Jump in! I would love to hear from you regarding your experiences from either side, whether client or consultant. I know that your comments will help us all do a better job, and look forward to reading them.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We spent a lovely weekend at a friend’s log cabin north of Port Washington. We left the BC’s with a farm sitter (thank you Heather!) and took Tootsie with us. I thought it would be nice for Toots to have some time just us three, but in hind sight I think her traveling days are over. We don’t know how old she is, definitely well over 12, and she seems so much more fragile to me than when we got her 5.5 years ago. Hardest on her was our time by the fireplace in the cabin. Jim and I loved it, but I had to build her a cave made of pillows so that she could sleep beside me on the couch (nothing else would do, she is very much a momma’s girl), but be out of sight of the fire.
However, here are two dogs who thought the snow was just great. Willie and Maggie played tug in the snow until their sides were heaving. The photo below isn’t as sharp as I’d like, but I love the flow of it.
I love how beautiful it is with fresh snow on the ground. And thank heavens for the blanket of snow–it’s going to be well under zero degrees Farenheit in a few days, and my poor bulbs had begun to sprout during our ridiculously warm November. Their tender shoots are right below the ground’s surface, so I’m glad there is some insulation to protect them. Here the snow decorates one of the huge white oak trees up the hill. So beautiful!