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When Kindness Hurts: The Importance of Self-Care for Behavior Professionals

by Anna Francesca Bradley

When I first delved into the world of animal behavior over 20 years ago, there was very little, if any, emphasis on looking after oneself. The focus (and rightly so) was on clients’ well-being and doing one’s utmost to help both animal and human, and very little thought was given to the individual professionals who were throwing everything, their heart and soul, into that journey. Thankfully, awareness has changed.

The Professional’s Role

When I first thought about becoming a behavior modification and training professional, I did so because I saw so many dogs whose emotional needs were not being met. In the vast majority of cases, dogs were crying out to be heard, screaming to communicate what they needed, but were overpowered by punitive methods and their “voices” were simply subdued. I also saw that many aspects of animal behavior and training were outdated—theories, principles, beliefs, tales passed down through families that were not helping dogs. Dogs were placed in totally incompatible environments; breed instincts were not considered when dogs’ characteristic traits were deemed “problematic”; and in general, owners and dogs were typically mismatched. Education, as well as “hands-on” work with these dogs, has become a vital part in what we as behavior consultants and trainers have had to get involved with in recent decades.

When the Role Begins to Grate

Let me start off by saying that I have never seen and will never see my role as a behavior professional as a “problem,” but I do think as the years have progressed, that role becomes heavier and more burdened, and such is the subject of this article—we as professionals take on more, and we do not have an infinite capacity to cope with what we are levied with.

Certainly, when you start out on your business journey, you will not normally have a huge caseload, and this allows you to manage each client more easily and also devote more time to each case that you take on. What clients frequently don’t appreciate is what happens behind the scenes, as it were—your time and research and liaising with fellow professionals or paraprofessionals regarding the clients’ and their dogs’ specific needs. I know that I frequently “ask around the subject,” particularly when I see an unusual presentation of a behavior, or even if I want to try a newer technique. Clients frequently do not realize that more happens beyond the one or two hours they spend with you. As the years progress and your client list builds, so does the brain load—I sometimes really feel I have a brain overload with cases! It can also be hard to keep track of exactly where you are and differentiate between each case clearly.

Professionals care! This is, of course, why we are so great at our jobs, but also it can really be a bind and impact our personal lives. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to say, “Keep work and personal life separate,” but it’s hard when you have a case that really touches you. For me, it could be a dog that I’m working with that I’m really struggling to find a workable technique for and I just cannot switch off from thinking about that, or it might someone who is facing the prospect of rehoming their dog, or maybe I’m concerned about the well-being of a certain partnership, or sadly, in rare situations, I might have a behavioral euthanasia case. I cannot help but “think and keep thinking,” and I’m like the proverbial “dog with a bone” until I can find a resolution to those tricky cases, and it does get in the way of life sometimes.

In a similar vein, in more recent times services have become more accessible, available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, and there is an expectation that they will or should be. I receive many calls, text messages and emails throughout the week and at unsociable hours. Some of these communications are quite urgent, even desperate, and compel you to respond right there and then—should you answer straight away and get involved in an email back and forth that might continue for 10 minutes or more while you’re in the middle of dinner with your family? 

The whole dog world is also evolving pretty quickly. Owners simply want to do a lot more sports and activities and pursue more interests with their dogs. This puts pressure on us to keep up! There is also a great explosion of social media input (some great, lots not so great) and again, we have to keep on top of that, too. There is pressure to keep adding more options to the services we already provide, know about topics our increasingly more educated owners know about (or put them right!) and also, I think, provide increasingly different behavioral help to dogs—I very rarely assisted with overseas rescue rehabilitation 10 years ago, and of course the effects of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns have been incredible within the United Kingdom.

Recognizing Emotional Fatigue

Last year, I headed to a place within myself where I was beginning to struggle a little with my ever-increasing case load, and from talking to fellow professionals, not just in my sphere, I realized this is an ever-increasing issue. Of course, as well as helping, assisting and absorbing other people’s issues, we have our own lives to contend with. Once we finish at work (if we ever do), we are then back at home resolving issues and continuing domestic chores and dealing with finances and family and so on. 

For me, I simply felt quite numb. I described my weeks as if I was rolling around in a wash cycle. Everything was the same—Monday came and I would carry out more or less the same tasks until it was Friday, weekend off, and then it was Monday again and the same cycle would continue, around and around and around. Essentially life was stale—I wasn’t putting in my very best performance and I needed to self-evaluate.

Stop, Rethink, Re-evaluate

When I reached this critical point, it was very much a “recheck” moment where I ran through some essential steps that were pivotal to clear my mind and reinvigorate how I was thinking.


Okay, I know this is said a lot but it’s so important. Talking to others about how you’re feeling cannot be underestimated. This could be individuals within membership organizations (there might even be a designated individual), members of your family or trusted friends. Talking about the issues really does lighten the load a little and makes problems more tangible and a little easier to tackle.

Take a Break

Sometimes you need to just stop and take a break. If you have the luxury of being able to delegate tasks or service options to other staff members, then maybe that’s a workaround, but not everyone has that in their locker. If not, it can certainly help to just sign yourself off for a few days to either take stock of the emotions you’re feeling, catch up on work that’s overloading you or simply immerse yourself in non-work stuff for a little while as a “head-clearing” and refreshing exercise. Take a short break and stop that “wash-spin” cycle.

Make Changes to Your Business

Businesses nowadays run many helpful services and options for clients, but some may not work as well as others. During my period of self-reflection, I took time to delve into what was working and what wasn’t really helping clients as well as it should or that I’d hoped. For instance, for some time my clients were asking for a virtual option for pre-class puppy visits. I have now added this service and much prefer it over in-person visits, as it cuts out the driving time and allows me to add in more sessions per day.

Thinking about tracking that client list, it really pays to get a hold of your computer system and know it well. Investing in a great system that can store client data confidentially and include dogs’ details, all your notes, log case files and handle invoicing is a massive long-term time-saving investment and saves hours of trawling to find notes and client histories and check payments.

Clearly setting business hours is an absolute must. Having clear boundaries as to when communications will be answered also gains you more client respect—you will not be expected to answer calls late at night or answer a text when a question pops into someone’s head early morning. Likewise, I personally like to have a limit on how many private clients I take on at any one time. Too many at once means that it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. I always inform clients that I have a wait time for new intakes and the vast majority are more than happy to wait.

Kickstart the Enthusiasm

That sense of feeling “grey” and unmotivated can really be demoralizing. Throwing yourself into courses, webinars and discussion groups can be a great help to get the neurons firing and reinvigorate critical thinking and your love for your field. 

As caring professionals, unfortunately at some stage I think we will all succumb in some way to emotional fatigue. If you care enough to become a behavior or training professional with all the responsibilities it includes, how can you not? Caring about the animals and the people who look after them, what happens to them, whether they are carrying out what you’ve suggested, whether they’ve had a good week, hoping what you’ve suggested will work, worrying what will happen if it doesn’t work and what the heck you’ll try next is just “in” you if you care. Being mindful of yourself, however, and how you are feeling is not only important for you, but also for the people and animals you are looking after. If you don’t take care of you, you cannot take care of them.

About the Author

Anna Francesca Bradley, MSc, BSc (hons), is an IAABC certified and ABTC accredited animal behaviorist. Anna owns and runs Perfect Pawz! Training and Behaviour Practice, a multi award-winning training and behavior referral practice in the United Kingdom. The emphasis of Perfect Pawz! Training and Behaviour Practice is client education—utilizing scientific and contemporary principles and techniques to help dog owners understand that kindness and positive, force-free methods rule, and that dogs (and their owners) learn and behavior improves when they are relaxed and happy and things are fun! Anna’s keen interests are the behavioral rehabilitation of rescue dogs (she has worked extensively with those rehomed from overseas), the successful integration of new puppies into families, and the behavioral welfare of dogs from middle to older age. Away from the “work zone,” Anna has a passion for the Labrador retriever breed and shows her own dogs at the highest competitive level.

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