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It isn't WHAT you say, but HOW you say it



I've be interested in animals and training for as long as I can remember. What really pushed me into this specialty of veterinary medicine, was my own dog, Nefarian. He was a Great Dane/Hound mix we got from a friend of a friend. He was abnormal from the beginning and he ultimately had an untimely passing due to our inability to manage his worsening behavior problems. That's the way it often is, though. You really become passionate about a topic because you have a personal experience. There's a lot I learned from that dog, but what I really want to focus on is how people talked to me regarding his behavior.


Around this time I was working in surgical specialty. So when this boy developed diarrhea, I had to take him to a local general practice. I forewarned them that he was reactive and we would need to be shuffled immediately into a room. I did my best to work on a settle behavior before the veterinarian actually came in. Despite my best efforts, he still tried to charge the door when it opened. He hadn't bitten anyone up to this point, but he was big and the display was probably terrifying.


I placed a cloth muzzle at the request of the vet. I covered his face with a towel so he couldn't seen. I gently held his face while the doctor did her examination. He grumbled and disapproved a bit, but he settled into his visit after that initial startle. Once we were finished, the doctor briefed me on what she wanted to do for his diarrhea. After that, she turned her attention to his reactivity. She started grilling me on what I was doing to help my dog. Was I worked with a trainer? What I doing this or that?


It wasn't WHAT she said to me, but more HOW she said it. There was so much judgement and blaming underlying her words. I've been in veterinary medicine a long time, but I went home and cried after this. I felt like such a failure. Clearly, it was my fault the dog wasn't better behaved. If only I tried harder. If only I was firmer. I wasn't fit to be his owner.



Fast forward to present day. I've been in behavior specialty for almost 10 years. I know now that none of this was my fault. I can now see clear warning signs, as early as 8 weeks old, that Nef had a problem. If he was in my care now, I would absolutely be able to work more effectively with him. At the end of the day though, he was poor genetics, was adopted out way too young, and we were all set up for failure. Every single one of the puppies from his litter has some behavior problem. 3 of them were euthanized before the age of 2 years old. But, I digress.


There are going to be young animals that come into the vet's office that area abnormal as soon as their feet hit the ground. We want to help these families to ensure the puppy or kitten in front of us can grow up to be as neurotypical as possible. The best way to do that is early intervention. The challenge we face is how do we talk to people effectively about our observations?



Start off by clearing away all judgement from your mind. Everyone is doing the best they can. Sometimes their best isn't up to our standards - I get it. But you don't know their story, homelife, and experiences. Wipe away your judgement. Be open and empathetic, no matter who is in front of you.


Next, make sure you are using a lot of "I" statements. It's very easy to say "Your dog looks anxious" or "your dog is really reactive." But these sounds like blaming statements. You may not mean them that way, but that's how most people will interpret them. Instead, we can say "I'm seeing a lot of fearful body language." You can even layer in some empathetic terms or phrases to help further block that sense of shaming: "I'm seeing a lot of fearful body language. That must be so tough for him."


After you've introduced the concept of fearful body language, you can further open the conversation by saying things like "Do you see a lot of this at home?" or "Have you noticed any challenges while out on walks?" In this context, we are using you-questions. We have to. We want to gain the owner's buy in.


At this point, the owner will likely do one of two things: 1.) Deny the problem or 2.) Break down and agree. Which result you get will determine your next steps.


Response #1 would be less than ideal. The owner doesn't recognize a problem or doesn't want to see that there is a problem. They say "no, he's totally fine at home" or "Yeah, a little, but I'm not worried about it." For this scenario, all you can do is open the door a little bit. They aren't open to your advice right now. In fact, offering advice at this stage is likely to alienated the family from you even more. You can gently provide some generic advice with your next statement: "Oh, I'm so glad. Let's keep working on that gentle exposure and socialization. Here's a great check list that you can use to guide the process." You can then send some resources on socialization and body language. I would also schedule their next follow up with you to make sure you can further track this puppy's progress. Education and open, honest communication is the best way to approach this.


Response #2, while sad, is what we really want. It's okay for the owner to feel frustrated and sad. Puppies are supposed to be this blank slate. We are supposed to raise them to be these wonderful, perfect dogs. That isn't what we always get, though. It's best to reassure families that they didn't cause this and it isn't their fault. You can then move on to talk about what options might be available. Start with a Force Free training, some Adaptil, and maybe some Anxitane.


As you follow up with people, make sure you are acknowledging their struggle. Affirmation is huge in this process. This IS hard. This IS sad... I'm so sorry you're going through this. Where are you really struggle and let's come up with some ways to work on it.


The final take away is going into these conversations with a mindset of "discovery." I want to understand. Help me to understand so that I can help you. No end of times, I'll be coaching veterinary professionals and they say their clients never agree to x, y, or z recommendation. "Have you asked them why...?"

"Well... no."


If you don't know WHY they don't want to pursue your recommendations, you can't help them troubleshoot. But again, it's not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it. With that mind set of discovery, you'll furrow your brow, look down a little then quietly ask, "why?" With a judgmental mindset, you'll cross your arms and forcefully say "why?"


At the end of the day we want to help people, not alienate them. Remember that you might have the best of intentions at heart, but you need to be aware of how your communication is being interpreted. It's so easy to set off the wrong chord and now you've lost that family and that pet forever. We're a team in this. To be a successful team, we all need to be on the same page. Focus on that mindset of discovery and you'll surely get there.



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