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.
I can’t tell you how interesting I’ve found the last couple of posts, particularly the part about handling the human end of the leash. I don’t train dogs, but the advice to approach frustrated, potentially difficult people from a place of compassion and generosity seems particularly relevant to a great many social and professional situations. When dealing with human anger and bitterness, it can be easy to forget how much power to soothe and sweeten can be found in a bit of kindness and a sincere attempt to listen. Thank you so much.
While I can’t add to the intake convo (never having been either behaviorist or client), I CAN identify with the ‘cold foot dance’. We don’t typically get more than a week or two of what I’d consider severe cold (single digits Fahrenheit and below), but during the worst, we go in small overlapping circles so as to stay within 5 minutes of the truck while I keep a sharp eye out for the dreaded fun-stopping foot freeze.
Not that I’m likely to miss it. Once it sets in, Sandy alternates her hopfoot almost every stride, and Otis has been known to try holding ALL his feet off the ground at once. (He can only manage three at a time… He sinks onto his hocks, lifts both back paws off the ground and then lifts one front paw at a time. I know it’s time to go in when I see that one.
I’m not sure this won’t open a can of worms, but I find that wearing a warm coat seems to extend the comfortable period for my very short coated Dane and elderly shepherd mix, even though they have no direct foot protection. I imagine that if it truly is working the way it seems to be, and isn’t just my imagination, the coats help their extremities just by keeping their core body and skin temperature up.
I’ve never been tempted to pursue dog boots- the woebegone reaction I’ve seen when one of the dogs has needed a bandage and foot cover convinces me that boots would be a much tougher sell than the horse- blanket style coats, which they made no objection to at all. And after all, it’s just a week or two a year that I’d even consider using them, so for us, bitter weather success can look like ten minutes frantic scurrying and a dive back into the truck 😉
I first went to meet our integrative/holistic vet (thanks to your good suggestions) when Olive had blown her CCL and had corresponding hip and behavior issues. I walked in with an armful of health records, x-rays, and documents. The vet looked at the pile and looked at me, and she asked one simple question: “How are you?” I burst into tears because it had been a long way to her (I had to leave a vet I trusted and truly cared for to find the help that I felt Olive needed), and I was both overwhelmed and relieved to be there. Over the years, she has worked with us on physical and mental rehab, specific joint issues, and overall health. She looks at the whole dog (and people) in front of her instead of a symptom in isolation. We all love her.
Our vet behaviorist also worked closely with our vet, and we all came up with a plan that worked for Olive and her people. There were things that Olive would not have tolerated and things I wasn’t comfortable doing (head halter as an example), and so we all worked together to craft an initial plan and then tweaked it as necessary.
Initially, I filled out a 4-page history and questionnaire (including some of the questions above and many more detailed ones) the vet behaviorist sent to me in advance, and I sent back a week or so ahead of the appointment so she had time to review and so we didn’t spend a lot of time in our first meeting going over each answer but the ones she felt were important or needed more explanation.
My vet and I joked that the vet behaviorist was the mayor of the village that it took to make Olive whole again.
Monika & Sam says
Having rescued a puppy mill survivor just 3 months ago myself, I wholeheartedly emphasize with Stephen, Beth & Mixie. Elsa will go outside, she just doesn’t know how to signal that she wants to go outside so I’e been zeroing on her behavior. Restless after a couple hour nap, yup, out we go and I’m rewarded for behavior I want to reinforce. Elsa gets loads of praise and some playtime when she comes in. Win-win for everyone. At least I hope so. ? Have I missed some clues by being distracted, absolutely, and totally my fault so I make a much more conscious effort to ‘read’ the dog and realize she’s still learning (like me). It seems to suggest that I’m fairly trainable. LOL
I do wish you would tell how to try to fix Mixie’s problem. It seems impossible. Did something work? How did it progress?
Perfect timing! We have an interview with a specialist today to help us with our rescue dog and this and your previous article has really helped us prepare well for the meeting. Many thanks.
Quick responses to Monika and Louise about training Mixie to go outside: More tomorrow, (sorry, slammed this afternoon), but quickly to Louise: I wouldn’t wait for my dog to tell me. I got Toots after she spent 7 years in a cage, and took her out every 10 minutes (yes, really) for three days, except for the wee hours of the night. Gradually I took her out every 15 minutes, then 25, etc etc. I never let her out of my sight, ever, for the first 3 months. Monika–more tomorrow. Maybe I should write a blog on it? Not sure I have one already, will look tomorrow!
Barb Stanek says
Thank you, Trish, for these posts. One of the traps that I think that dog trainers who help others can fall into is blindness to the humans. All of us have had clients who we perceive to be less than perfect owners. It can be an easy way out to blame the humans for their insensitivity (or whatever) and forget that our job is to help them. By helping the humans, we help the dogs.
You’ve beautifully reminded us of our responsibility to the dogs, yes, but also of our responsibility to the humans in the situation. Reading this posting felt like being at one of your seminars, which I miss. So thanks for a little winter vacation into the seminar room once again. Happy holidays to you and yours.
Trisha, thank you so much for your blog – even though this is my first reply ever I’ve been following it for many years and enjoyed every single one! Thank you for sharing all your knowledge and creating this wonderful environment where so many people share theirs too!
These last two blogs where really interesting to read as I am working as a vet (mainly with dairy cows though, my dog is only my hobby) and even though there is much less time for talking, getting owners to tell a complete history and comply to a treatment plan is such a similar challenge, yet so important. For compliance with a chosen treatment plan, I was wondering if you usually give the owners a written note as well (including set goals, etc), or if you only discuss it during the interview? Working also with animal science students, who often help me coding cow behavior, I can’t count the numbers of misunderstandings even though all of us were really focused when we were setting things up. I would imagine that Mixie’s owners have a hard time remembering all details when they are back home, and think that having some written reminders of the plan is usually helpful to them?
I am so thankful that my Blue Heeler lady, who I only adopted half a year ago, never made much trouble with house soiling even though she never lived in a house before, but in the barn. I’m not sure if she ever had to potty in her crate/room there, but I followed your advise of letting her out frequently and praising her for pottying in the right spot and it worked beautifully !
Jann Becker says
We’re planning to get a new dog after Christmas. (We’ll never replace Andy, but we do have an opening.) This post reinforces what I’ve been thinking: we can certainly bond with a shelter dog, but we just wouldn’t do well with a puppy mill or abuse survivor. I can do the in-out-in-out part, but a crateful of poop? Repeatedly? I admire the people who can work with dogs like that, but I know I’m not one of them.
I know I am off-topic here but I just wanted to thank you! I just found your books and your idea off treating the ball like a hot potato when playing fetch has helped soo much! In a couple a throws my dog started dropping the ball on his own (which has been a huge struggle to get him to do it) and he doesnt lose interest that quickly! We played fetch for almost 3 hours today! He is very thankful that you finally explained to his dumbdumb human how this game is properly played! Thanks a lot!
If the dog is amenable to it, one way to remind yourself never to let the dog out of sight is to clip a leash to the dog and attach it to yourself while in the house. Of course if the dog hates this, it’s counter-productive.
I can relate to the frozen paw thing. Maddie was ok to anything above about 14 F. Below that her paw would freeze and she would stand, looking sad, with one paw in the air until we thawed it out for her (or carried her, which she loved).
Jack, on the other hand, seems ok to about 0F unless he walks over treated roads first. And when HIS paw freezes, instead of stopping for help he limps along and literally shoots dirty looks at his own foot. “Stupid paw, what is WRONG with you!” or something very similar.
(Maddie also always talked in capital letters too. And very short sentences. 🙂 Jack talks like a college professor).
And this is totally off-topic, but my all-time favorite imagined dog conversation happened when I was getting the dogs ready to take to the boarding kennel for our vacation.
Jack’s part was something like: “I believe Mom’s getting ready for a trip. She’s packing all our things. She’s got our food. She’s got our treats. She’s got our toys. I am almost certain we are going to doggy camp! YES, here’s my car harness! Perfect! Now, open the door to the garage. Open the car door please and I will hop in. I’ll shuffle over just so. You clip the belt, and now I lay down. I do love trips! So exciting!”
Maddie: “I’M IN THE GARAGE!! THERE’S SOME MULCH!! I’M LICKING A SHOVEL!”
Bless her sweet heart.
I am not in a consulting profession, but I found this and the last blog very interesting as they clarified steps that can be applied to may situations involving problem resolution. If I’m dealing with a situation that requires attention to all parties (humans and/or other species) it is so difficult for me to remember to be warm and understanding to the humans, even though I agree and know it gets much better results. Guess that’s why you guys are the pros!
Rebecca Rice says
I’m curious, having read these posts, about what you do with “problem clients”, the ones that you can tell are just not going to do what you are asking, or have unrealistic expectations. In the Mixie example, what if Stephen says that he wants the problem fixed in two weeks, or else the dog has to go, and he won’t budge on that? Or the client dealing with a dog-reactive dog, who is either unwilling or unable to keep the dog separated from other dogs (for example, someone living in an open floor plan loft with multiple dogs)? Or someone who doesn’t believe in that “new age positive reinforcement hoohaw”, and insists on using dominance-based methods on a fearful dog? Do you continue to work with them, refer them to someone else, talk to them about rehoming the dog, or something else?
To Rebecca, re what to do about clients who simply won’t take your advice. Ah, I wish I had a magic answer. Tear your hair out? Eat more chocolate? Seriously, this is a problem for anyone who gives advice in any field, but it does take on weight when you know the problem might be life and death. In answer to your last questions–refer? continue to work with? advise rehoming: Yes, yes and yes. As usual, it depends. If I honestly think there is simply nothing I can do, I’ll say that and refer to someone else. One person said she was sure her dog would kill me if she let him go in my office (dogs weighed over 100 lbs and based on the look on his face, I believed her), I told her I wouldn’t charge her for the consult when it was clear she actually loved having the power of owning a profoundly dangerous dog. People who insist on the use of force were my favorite to work with, because you can easily show them how positive reinforcement enhances their power, rather than the opposite. I did talk about rehoming to a large number of clients–so many dogs were round pegs in square holes, and worked hard to help people understand that being responsible sometimes meant finding a place that a dog could thrive in. Anyone else care to jump in here?