It can be overwhelming for clients to think about what might be relevant when talking with a trainer or consultant, especially in the first session. And despite those very long and detailed intake forms, probably every trainer or behavior consultant has had the experience of finding out a key piece of information much later than they would have preferred. Let’s talk about what to talk about!
We have to know the physical health of the animals we are working with, first and foremost. If there is any physical condition that your pet is experiencing, or that you even think they might be experiencing, please let your trainer or consultant know. Physical issues can drastically affect the behavioral intervention a trainer or consultant decides to use.
This might sound obvious, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Many clients will describe their pet’s behavior by saying something like “she’s just really stubborn and won’t walk” or “he’s a scaredy-cat” but that only tells me the client’s perception of the situation. It doesn’t tell me anything about what the animal is actually doing, and therefore what kind of intervention will be effective. When describing behavioral issues, trainers and consultants are going to want to know what the behavior looks like and sounds like. What is in the environment when the behavior happens? What happened before and after the behavior? What are the observable elements that make up the behavior? Motivation or personality qualities are not behavior, however, that is usually what clients will offer when asked about why they are seeing a trainer or consultant. It can be challenging to offer objective observations about your pet, but doing so will save you time and effort in the long run.
Weird and/or Funny Things
This is important! Often clients don’t want to bring up things that they’re unsure about, or things that they think are just quirks. For example, I had a client who I had seen for more than a month before he mentioned a “weird” thing that his dog did, which turned out to be resource guarding. It would have been much better for me to know that at the start. So even if you think it’s nothing, even if you think it’s just a funny thing your dog does, tell your trainer. It might be more important than you think.
It’s ok to be frustrated by your pet, and it’s important to let your trainer or consultant know where you are with this frustration. I know this is hard! I’ve found that many clients feel guilty for feeling frustrated by their pets. But it’s really important for your trainer or consultant to know what kind of bandwidth you have for working with your pet’s behavior. It can also be important to have your frustration validated, and we, of all people, can do that. We have been barked at, jumped on, peed on, scratched at, and had belongings destroyed, sometimes all before we leave for work. We get frustrated too.
Things You Don’t Want to Talk About
This is probably the most important thing that we want you to tell us: what you don’t want to tell us. This can include things that have happened in the past such as using aversives, or losing your temper. Maybe it was that day when you accidentally caught your dog’s tail in the door (important information if we’re trying to figure out why the dog won’t go through the door). Maybe it was a prior experience with a pet that has left scars, physical or emotional. I once had a client who had adopted a dog that was friendly, playful, and a complete delight to be around. While working with me, the client also started working with another trainer who was a friend of mine. Neither of us could figure out why the client was seeing both of us, and neither of us were seeing the “aggressive” behavior that the client kept referring to. Then the client disappeared. We found out that she had returned the dog to the shelter because it was acting “aggressively”. It turned out that the client had had a traumatic experience with another dog years ago, and anytime her newly adopted dog put her front paws on her, the client became terrified that the dog was going to attack. If either of us trainers had known that history, we would have had a much better chance of helping that client and keeping the dog out of the shelter. (Luckily, my trainer friend had ties to the shelter and was able to make sure that they knew the dog was not, in fact, dangerous.) In a different situation, I had a student in a puppy class who asked to speak to me privately after the first people-only class. She explained that she previously had a dog that had been attacked and killed while she was taking her out for a walk. The student was very worried that the play sessions during class were going to be really difficult for her, but she knew that it was important for her puppy’s socialization and development to play with other puppies. We worked together on a plan that allowed her puppy to participate in playtime while allowing the student to take care of her mental and emotional health. But we couldn’t have done that if the student didn’t let me know what she was dealing with.
In addition to talking about things you don’t want to talk about that happened in the past, it is also important to tell us things you don’t want to talk about that are occurring in the present. Maybe you keep taking your dog to the dog park even though you’ve talked with your trainer about how that is most likely setting your dog back. Maybe you still haven’t gotten window film for the windows or the white noise machine like you agreed to in the first session. If there is a part of the plan that you’re not doing, or part of the plan that you don’t like, tell us! We want you to succeed, and it’s our job to come up with a plan that is doable for YOU. Just because we recommend something doesn’t mean it’s the end-all solution for your particular situation. If you’re familiar with the book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, or have listened to Pet Harmony’s podcast, you’re probably familiar with the concept of taking a descriptive approach as opposed to a prescriptive approach to training animals. Same goes for working with people. If something is not working for you, tell us! Our job is to find solutions for individual situations.
At the end of the day, training is a team effort between trainer and client. Pet trainers and consultants simply cannot do their jobs without detailed, and yes, sometimes painful information from the client. The information you know and the feelings you are having are critical to developing strategies that will help you and your pet. So please, tell us the silly, the weird, the uncomfortable. Tell us you don’t like the window film. Tell us you don’t take the treat pouch on walks. Tell us about the dog you had to rehome and how you’re scared it will happen again. Tell us that your dog is licking their butt a lot. Tell us about the prong collar and the e-collar. Tell us that you grew up with a dog that loved people and now you have a dog that seems to hate people and that you’re sad and scared and confused. If you’re working with a reputable, qualified trainer, they will be compassionate, empathetic, and they will thank you. And then they’ll work with you to find the best solutions for you and your pet.
- Think about a behavior that you’d like to address. Without describing personality traits or motivations, describe the behavior in purely observable terms. I’ll start: my dog closes her mouth, her forehead wrinkles, her ears move back, she lowers towards the ground and slowly moves away when she is around unfamiliar men, sometimes with lip licking.
- If you need help from a behavior professional who is safe to tell all the awkward things to, we’d love to work with you! You can find our services here.