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Change Is Difficult – We Are Humans After All

Thinking About It
Dog trainers would do well to take the time thinking about ways to motivate their clients

As trainers we sometimes talk about owner compliance, or maybe more accurately – in some cases at least – the apparent lack of it. Part of our job as dog trainers is to find ways to motivate our clients to make changes to the lives of their dogs and often this means they also need to change the way they do things too. Change is hard and we humans need good reasons to initiate change, but nevertheless, to change the dog’s behavior, we need to change the owners’ behavior first.

I recently saw a client with a dog who showed signs of separation distress, and after the initial assessment we went through the ins and outs of a behavior modification process to help the dog remain calm when left alone. Separation distress is a challenging condition and the associated behavior change program requires a lot of patience and input from the owners. In some cases, the dog cannot be left alone at all until some behavior modification has been implemented successfully. Some cases also need medication, prescribed by a veterinarian.

In this particular case, I suggested trying the recommended behavior modification for two weeks, and if we did not see marked improvement consulting a veterinarian behaviorist to discuss medication. Because I was in contact with the dog’s owners on social media, I happened to see the same dog come up on another trainer’s page. Some trainers might know that sinking feeling when that happens, especially if the other trainer uses a different approach.

The reason I am mentioning this is that this experience made me think about why, as dog trainers, we sometimes have trouble initiating change with our human clients.

It might have to do with our main focus being the dog and the behavior modification that has to be done with the dog, rather than the behavior modification for the owner.

Despite being called dog trainers, we spend a lot of time talking to people and trying to change their way of doing things so maybe, in addition to our knowledge of dog behavior, we need to focus more on our communication skills with humans.

I discussed the case I mentioned with my counselor[1] and she recommended looking into “motivational interviewing.” She also pointed out that many people will go for “quick fix” if one is offered, and then asked how I was getting on with the exercises my physical therapist had given me? That brought the point home. Despite my best intentions my exercises were not really going very well, and I was looking into alternative options that promised a quicker result. It is human to do so. It also helped me to understand why my clients had sought a different approach that seemed easier and required less change from their side.

Instead of asking for “compliance” we might have to find ways for our clients to take ownership.

The goal of the behavior change program was for the dog to to feel calm when left alone
The goal of the behavior change program was for the dog to to feel calm when left alone

When clients call us for help with their dogs they have a problem and often some kind of crisis has brought it to a head. This might be the neighbors complaining about the barking, the dog has bitten another dog or person, or it took them two hours to get the dog back at the off leash area. They are aware that they need to change something but somehow they just cannot get it started. It can sometimes seem as though all our reasoning, logic, explaining the consequences or being “the expert” does not work.

This might be the crux. When we talk about owner compliance, we assume that the owner will comply with our recommendations and yet we may still not get the results we hoped for. We might be well meaning, but telling our clients what to do can also build resistance.

I started looking into motivational interviewing [2], and while I do not say we need to become experts, using some of its techniques might help our clients to get motivated for change.

In the case I described earlier, I probably “lost” my clients when I started explaining the process of desensitization and counterconditioning. My clients were most likely overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task, and might have concluded that the status quo might be easier to maintain after all than make the changes I was recommending.

Before embarking on the dog’s behavior change program, I could have discussed the benefits and costs of just “living with it” and the benefits and costs of embarking on this process. This would have helped the client to understand the situation better and would have emphasized the benefits of making the changes.

These particular clients cannot leave the house without being worried because the dog vocalizes, and the neighbors complain on a regular basis. This is highly stressful both for the dog and the owners. If the dog was able to happily spend some time on his own, the owner could have a social life again. It also shows that the cost of “living with it” is high and not terribly feasible in the long term.

I could have asked a scaling question, meaning that the client rates on a scale of one to 10 how important it is for them to change the behavior right now. This gives me an indication on how big the “burden of suffering” is, and depending on this, design a behavior modification program that matches their level of motivation for change. I also should have listened more to the ifs and buts. There was nothing wrong with giving advice but maybe I should have phrased it as a suggestion or encouragement rather than “expert advice” expecting instant compliance.

In the meantime, I have started changing my approach and have talked to the clients again, this time discussing the benefits and costs of “living with it” and how much it means to them to have a social life again. We also have engaged a veterinary behaviorist and I am hopeful that second time round we will be able to make better progress.

I am not expecting miracles, but changing my behavior has helped changing my clients’ behavior and has therefore helped making changes for the dog.

On a personal level, I have stopped talking about “owner compliance” but will expand my knowledge of motivational interviewing and change my approach to hopefully being more successful in helping my clients. But change is tough for me too, even if I see the benefits!

Embracing Change
Embracing change is a skill professionals need to take onboard, as well as their clients

[1] I find having regular sessions with a counselor is very helpful for debriefing and invaluable for my own well-being. Dog training can be a challenging job and burnout or compassion fatigue can part of it for some of us.

[2] The spirit of motivational interviewing can be translated into five central principles summarized by the acronym DEARS:

  • Develop discrepancy
  • Express empathy
  • Amplify ambivalence
  • Roll with resistance
  • Support self-efficacy
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