Living with a difficult pet is, well, difficult. It can be an incredible experience but at the same time, it can be emotionally draining, exhausting, isolating, and frustrating. A large portion of our jobs as pet behavior consultants is to help our clients navigate through the ups and downs of this challenging journey, including their emotions and connections surrounding their pets.
A topic that comes up fairly frequently is that of having difficult conversations with their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers about their pet. While this is a large, large topic that could be more deftly handled by a professional in the human mental health field, there are a few tips that I have for my clients that help them through these situations.
What counts as a difficult conversation?
Let’s start at the beginning by defining our terms. What is a “difficult conversation”? These are discussions that have a lot of emotion involved and that means that they can be a little different for everyone, though there are some topics that almost always fall into this category. Topics like rehoming and safety for others, for instance.
I think it’s easier for us to realize those difficult topics when they elicit fear or sadness. But I find that there are a lot of additional emotions that I discuss on a regular basis. Feelings like embarrassment, isolation, shame, and guilt.
It can be embarrassing when a random stranger has the gall to give you unsolicited advice about your dog’s leash reactivity. It can be isolating when your friends and family disagree with what you’re choosing to do for your pet. Even questions that are asked innocently, like, “Why is your dog afraid of people?” can leave people feeling ashamed or guilty. The question then becomes: how do you navigate those difficult conversations?
Decide whether it’s worth it to engage
You don’t owe anyone outside of the situation anything. You do not owe a random stranger giving unsolicited advice (in-person or on the internet) a response. You don’t owe it to your friends and non-household family to explain the science and reasoning behind why you’re choosing the training methods you’re choosing. The only individuals you have to answer to are yourself, your pet, and anyone else involved in day-to-day care.
If it’s worth it to engage, then you can follow through with the conversation. If it’s not worth it to engage then you can end it there and move on your merry way.
Releasing yourself from the societal obligation to engage can be liberating. This doesn’t mean you have to be rude, but you do need to be firm with your boundaries. I know, I know. Easier said than done. Listen, I’m a Midwestern person at heart and I completely understand how difficult it can be to navigate social niceties while also having boundaries about engagement in a conversation. More on that later.
Rewrite the story in your head
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This one comes from the book Crucial Conversations and is one of my favorite tips from that resource A lot of times crucial, or difficult conversations arise because we’re guessing at the covert behaviors- internal thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions- of the other person. Spoiler: we’re not super accurate when it comes to guessing covert behaviors of other individuals (heck, sometimes I have a hard time identifying my own!)
Let’s go back to that random stranger scenario. When strangers give me unsolicited advice, I tend to use some not-nice language surrounding their covert behaviors. I know that’s true for many other people, too. But what if they were giving you advice because they wished someone had told them sooner that they could do something about their own difficult dog? Or perhaps they’re an extroverted dog behavior enthusiast who can’t help but try to connect with anyone who they think will want to chat about canine behavior. Now, I still likely wouldn’t choose to engage in these situations since that type of interaction is not usually worth it for me personally, but it does help to make me feel better about it after the fact.
Let’s now look at a situation in which you might want to (or feel obligated to) engage: the well-meaning friend or family member who just doesn’t get it. You’ve decided to do something about your pet’s behavior, taken that scary leap, and are excited about working with the professional you’ve chosen, and then someone takes the wind out of your sail by questioning your decisions. I get it. We’ve all been there at one point or another. Even well-meaning people can make us feel pretty crappy.
It can be really hard to rewrite the story in your head when it comes to someone you know well and have a history with. So instead of trying to come up with other covert behaviors that make me feel better about the interaction, I usually opt for getting curious. Why do they feel the way that they do? What have they experienced that makes them say that? For me, approaching it as a sort of outside observer helps me to arrange the pieces more logically, and then decide if what they’re saying holds water or what the grain of truth is in what they’re saying. That reasoning may not work for you, but a lot of folks have told me that asking questions and getting curious helps them for a bunch of different reasons!
Assume that a professional you’re working with has navigated similar situations before
I wanted to mention one particular rewrite that I talk a lot about with my clients. I get a lot of similar questions about how they should navigate working with other professionals, like groomers and vets, with their pets displaying maladaptive behaviors. My answer is usually just to recommend they talk to the professional and ask them what their protocol is.
I can’t tell you the number of times someone has described to me how difficult it is to bring their dog to the vet because they’re reactive in the lobby and when I ask if they’ve asked the clinic if they can wait in the car until they’re ready to be seen the client has said, “I never even thought to ask that!” Most of the clinics I’ve worked with have that as an already-established protocol; you just need to ask! I know from the pet parent perspective that it can seem like your pet is the only one displaying behaviors like this, but trust me when I say that pet professionals in any field have seen all sorts of behaviors on a regular basis.
Come up with go-to responses
I have to have a lot of difficult conversations as a behavior professional and one of the most helpful tips I have is to have go-to base responses that you can tailor to fit the situation. This helps me save some cognitive load and bandwidth so I can serve all of my clients with the same level of empathy and compassion by just focusing on the nuances instead of having to come up with the base response each time. You don’t need to be a professional to steal this trick!
If you notice that you are encountering the same questions or situations over and over, those are the ones to create go-to responses for. This can be something like when someone asks to pet your dog saying, “Not today, they’re having a bad hair day.” Or, “Thanks for asking, but they can be uncomfortable with strangers.”
I have this with Oso’s monthly massages. When some of our friends and family first heard that Oso was getting massaged monthly when we do not do the same for ourselves, we got some incredulous “okay-crazy-dog-lady” looks. My go-to response is that it’s really helping him and we’re seeing an increase in mobility. I say it almost the same way each time but I can modify it to fit in with the situation or who I’m talking to. Usually, that discontinues the incredulous look and it makes me feel better because I know it’s the right thing for him whether or not they agree. I don’t owe them anything, after all.
And practice them with your consultant!
Okay, remember I said I’m from the Midwest and I completely understand how hard it is to forego some of those saccharine social niceties? Now we’re here at what to do about that. You’ve got your go-to base responses that you can tailor to fit whoever you’re talking to, now you just need practice!
This is something that we sometimes will do with our clients who need an extra little boost but we’ve done quite a bit of this with our professional clients in our Enrichment Master Class in the past. It can be really helpful to practice saying those responses in a safe environment where you get to workshop what it sounds like. That way you can feel confident when the moment comes!
- Think through situations in which you’ve encountered difficult conversations surrounding your pet. What’s the common theme? How did it make you feel? Why did you feel that way?
- Identify the situations in which you are willing to engage and those in which you aren’t.
- Think through and practice how you’re going to decline to engage in those conversations. Then, think through and practice how you’re going to engage in those conversations. Start coming up with your go-to base responses.
- Professionals: if you’re looking for help on how to do this with your clients there’s still one more day to join our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class!