Last week I wrote not so much about what to ask in an intake interview, but how to ask it. I promised to add the what part this week. I will, but I also want to expand on some of the things I talked about last week. Specifically, what to do about one’s observations of the clients themselves. It’s all very fine to notice that the two owners aren’t talking to each other, or clearly disagree on how to handle the dog. But what do you do with that information? As usual, the following is meant to generate a discussion as much to provide information. But, I’ll start first, with…
WHAT TO ASK:
Obviously (and early on as noted last week), what is the problem behavior exactly? When exactly does it happen? What happens right afterward? When did it start?
What does success look like? (And I’d add, based on a great comment from last week, in what time frame?) Everyone on the same page here?
If there are several issues, which one is the most important to work on right away? (Note: Sometimes an owner would come in concerned about house training but not about the dog biting them. Needless to say, we’d have a conversation about priorities…)
General Background Questions about the Dog:
Who lives in the house? Other people, other dogs, cats, etc?
Social Interactions: Who is most involved with the dog? How does everyone get along?
What does your dog love? What is she good at? What does she know to do?
A Day in the Life: Describe her day from waking up to going to sleep at night.
When did you first get your dog? From where? What do you know about your dog’s life before you had her?
Diet: What does she eat? Not just for dinner, but for snacks, training? Who feeds her? Does she love her food?
Health: Any health problems? Medications? Who is your vet? Can I contact him or her if I think it would be helpful?
HOW TO RESPOND:
I wrote last week about the importance of observing the clients as much as the dog. Does the couple in your office ignore each other? Does one make it clear he or she doesn’t want to be there? Can the client not take his eyes off the dog?
It’s all well and good to make detailed observations, but what do you do with them? Of course, the only answer is “It Depends,” but I suspect that’s not very satisfying. Because there are so many possibilities, and it is impossible to go through them all, I thought a a case study might be helpful.
Let’s imagine: A married couple comes in with Mixie, an adult miniature poodle mix that was rescued after years in a puppy mill. They’ve had the dog for six months; she still isn’t house trained and pees and poops all over the house. If confined to a crate she defecates in it, and ends up covered in a smelly blanket of well, you know. Beth, we’ll call her, adores the dog and feels sorry for her, knowing what a terrible life she’d had before they got her. She is willing to do about anything to keep Mixie, but her husband, Stephen, is exhausted by the ongoing drama that is Mixie. He loves Beth and wants her to be happy, but coming home to a stinky, poop-covered dog has pushed him to his limits.
We have three clients here, right? The first, of course, is Mixie, who learned to eliminate where she sleeps and is just doing what she’s had to do all of her life. The second, is Beth, who desperately wants our help. But I’ll argue that right now, during the intake interview, the important client is Stephen. Unless we can bring Stephen on board, Mixie’s future looks grim. Or his marriage to Beth, take your pick. Here are some of the things I’d do to try to help. As usual, your feedback here will be invaluable.
- Acknowledge to Stephen how hard this is. Coming home to a shit-covered dog after a long day at work, day after day, is pretty awful. He’s not a bad person for losing patience here. I often add a story from my own life to make it clear that I empathize, in this case probably talking about Willie’s horrific diarrhea when he was a puppy, and how hard it was for me to deal with it day after day.
- Employ “mirroring,” in which one copies the posture and speech patterns of another. (I note that Wikipedia labels it as “unconscious,” but clearly that is not necessarily true. As soon as I would direct my attention to Stephen, I’d adopt his posture, his hand gestures and his vocal patterns. If he speaks slowly, so would I. If he gestures with his left hand, so would I. Every time I’ve done this I imagine that the person will see what I’m doing and be offended, but to my knowledge that has never happened once in all the years I’ve done it. (Or has it!? Any former clients going to burst my bubble?)
- Reinforce Stephen and Beth for coming in at all. I’d let Stephen know that he gets a million guy points for knowing what’s important to Beth. What a guy! Beth gets a million points for not giving up on Mixie. What good people they are!
- Explain to both owners why Mixie is doing what she’s doing. Be anthropomorphic… explain what she is doing in human terms: “We look for a visual signal to know where to potty, right? A sign that says “Restrooms,” then “Men,” then a round white thing or trough where we know it’s okay to go. Dogs learn to search for a smell, not a visual signal. They try early on as puppies to move away from where they sleep to potty, but if they can’t go anywhere, like a dog in a tiny cage in a puppy mill, then they learn to go where they sleep, which is where the smell is. It’s like having a Restroom sign tacked over your bed, and a bowl underneath the covers. No wonder she’s mixed up!
- Be optimistic and realistic at the same time. Stephen is not going to believe you, after six months of trying, if you make it sound like it’s going to be simple to turn things around. In cases like this, I’d say that we absolutely can make Mixie better. Dogs are hard wired to avoid soiling their dens, just like we are, and we can tap into that. However, can we turn Mixie into a dog who is 100% house trained no matter what the circumstances? Possibly not. This is when I’d have a discussion of what success is acceptable… would one accident a week be okay? A month?
- Here’s what treatment would look like… can you imagine doing this? I won’t go into detail about how to treat this problem (which you probably all already know anyway), because the point here is to be sure that both Beth and Stephen really can imagine doing what you suggest. This is another time to be eagle-eyed about visual signals from them related to their reactions your suggestions. Has Stephen dropped eye contact once you go over the steps in the treatment plan? Or is he engaged and looking at you, Beth and Mixie? Is Beth looking like she is empowered now that she has some idea what to do?
- Follow up. This is the kind of case I’d want to do follow up on after just a few days. A phone call (always better than an email for picking up on subtleties) on day 3 or 4 is critical, because if something isn’t going well after 6 months of trying, a visit to you and working on a new treatment plan, who wouldn’t be ready to give up? But we know that Mixie can be better, right? And we know that it’s going to take stamina, which we are going to have to inspire if they are feeling depleted. This couple could use or energy right now, and they are going to need it especially in the first few days of treatment when they are working hard but not yet being able to imagine the future.
Add in what I’ve missed! (I’ll find something right after I hit “publish”. How about a case study from you? Either your own dog or one you saw as a client. I’m all ears…
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well, no need to dream of a white Christmas here. We got another 7 inches or so this week, and now the thermostat has plummeted to three below at the moment (Farenheit, -19 Celsius). And breezy, so the wind chill makes it feel much colder. I’m so glad we got more snow so that all the tender underground shoots, which started to grow prematurely during our balmy November, will have some insulation.
Tootsie goes out to potty only in this weather, and is happy to run back into the house when she’s done. The Border Collies, on the other hand, appear to be almost oblivious. Except for their paws. The conversation, as I imagine it, goes something like this:
“YAY! THIS IS GREAT! (Willie always talks in capital letters.) PAW IS COLD, WHO CARES, I’LL JUST PICK IT UP. I CAN RUN ON THREE LEGS. I DON’T CARE, THROW IT AGAIN!”
Maggie: “No, no, throw it for me, not Willie”. Oh. My paw is burning. Oh wait, I can run on three legs. Oh. Another paw. No problem, I can run on two paws, see? I’m fine! Throw it again. Now, please. Now!”
Of course, I do worry about frost bitten paws, so I don’t leave them out for long once they start lifting up their paws. Here are the two BCs playing fetch with “snow appropriate toys” recently purchased. (These toys tend to stay on top of the snow… toys lost in snow create their own kind of game, but aren’t always found by any of the three of us. It’s a biological miracle how some toys can disappear under the snow!
You might think this is a nice photo of Willie fetching me a toy, but look closely and you’ll see Maggie behind him, trying to get a hold of a second toy.
This next photo is my favorite of the batch. Willie continues to run to me while Maggie does a deep dive into the snow.
Here’s what Maggie was diving for. A bit thick for the mouth of a smaller dog, but Willie likes it unless it’s covered in frozen saliva. Then we switch to our other favorite snow toy, Kong’s Classic Flyer. It’s light and tends to float on top of the snow.
Here’s to a playful week for all of you! By the way, I’m taking the week off between Christmas and New Year’s. I’ll post some photos on the 26th, but plan to be off line from December 24th to January 2nd as much as possible. I wish you all a peaceful and loving holiday.