How to talk about….

Everyone has different strengths in how they communicate with clients, and one way to approach a situation won’t work for everyone. In our “How to Talk About…” series, IAABC members talk about the strategies they use to approach tricky situations in their behavior work — offering a diverse array of perspectives so you can add more to your behavior consulting toolbox!

This issue’s topic is, how to address situations where it’s not possible to create a consistent environment for behavior work. The two scenarios reflect situations many of you will be familiar with in your work with in-home clients or in shelters.

Scenario 1: “You arrive at a client’s home at a time that works for both partners schedule. The initial consult goes well. Training sessions go well too, for about 3 weeks. On the 4th week, you notice that one family member is quite animal savvy and follows through with lesson plans, but other members do not. How will you address getting all members on the same page?”

“I tend to do a lot of the discussion about whether someone in the family is the primary person working with the dog at the first session, sharing how consistency makes it easier in the long run for everyone and I check for buy-in at that point. Each session, I give everybody a “turn” when demonstrating a new skill. This helps me make adjustments to suit the person and makes sure they can actually do the skill.

The next week, I ask every person involved to give a demonstration of how their work went and make sure to reinforce effort. If someone says they were busy or didn’t have time, I tell them “I get it” and suggest they take a few minutes now to just refresh the dog on what that person wants today. If one person is critical of others in the group, I drop in gently when no one else is listening to them that I’ll take care of working with the other people as well as the dog so that they can relax and not have to feel responsible for that as well as their own learning.

Early on, if mistakes happen that a critical person might feel compelled to jump in on, I make sure to say loudly that mistakes are exactly why I have an enamel pin on my desk that says “REAL, NOT PERFECT” and I expect people to make mistakes when we’re working hard to learn a new way of being with the dog. I find I get a quick laugh and a look of relief from everyone involved! I also make sure to point out whenever I make my own mistakes” — Helen Prinold

“I would try to make the training more fun (reinforcing) for the family members who are less invested) in the process. Maybe they don’t value the behaviors being taught, or would like to work on something else, instead. I’d try to find a reason for them to be more engaged and incorporate that in the sessions” — Laura Lewis Devine Hills

“This scenario is so common, even when it comes to medical care of pets. I handle it this way: I accept that not all family members will be on the same page. Not all family members are motivated in the same way, so if I try to spend time and energy focusing on this, it is just a lesson in frustration. I write in my report about the imbalance, and what the less motivated person is doing right as well as the more motivated person, and suggest the more motivated person drop other home duties since they are providing more of the training/ behavior modification work. I also write out that the animal is going to learn more slowly, have more relapse and be less responsive to the less involved family member. This is that family member’s choice. In the end, less motivated people may never step up but they are often the ones who are okay with the problem behavior, so it may not be a problem. The more motivated family member is supported in letting go of other responsibilities, which is just the family trade off. This often helps to reduce resentment and for some families is the way to get everyone on board. Everyone is held accountable to their actions and inaction” – Sally Foote, DVM

“I’d try to add games into the plan that all family members could play at the same time e.g. hide and seek, or ping pong for recalls; relays between people for loose leash walking, etc” — Sara Mac

“I’d figure out if all family members need to be on the same page and involved actively in the dogs training, and if all family members want to be actively involved in training the dog. For some families and dogs, having one family member engaged and dedicated to the training process works just fine. Is being the sole person training their dog, creating a safety issue, or bothering the family member? I’d assess why other family members aren’t involved, or what their goals for the dog/relationship are. If there are safety concerns, then work to figure out the LIMA way for the less involved family member to successfully implement safety protocols with the dog, and then let the primary family member do the active interventions.

Sometimes family members will take a less involved stance if another family member is being excessively critical or controlling of their efforts, or if they feel the dog is responding better/making faster progress with the other family member. If that is the case, model positive reinforcement for human interactions, and potentially gently point out that we are all learning and every learner has their strengths and challenges, that through focused practice we can progress, and that we want learning to be an empowering experience for everyone involved dog and human.

It can also be helpful to set up some protocols and “rules” of engagement for family members when working with the dog, such as when person A is holding the leash, person B is to patiently sit quietly (if that is a struggle initially for person B, be sure to positively reinforce their efforts as you also now work with person A and the dog). Or when person A is done training and the dog is to now work with person B, there is a consistent verbal phrase said so the dog over time is able to transition focus more consistently and know where reinforcement will come from” — Katrin Andberg Hawkins

Scenario 2:
“You provide volunteer training services at a local shelter. You love going and are having success with giving dogs skills to make more attractive for adoption. You notice one key staff member that does not enforce a very important skill which is “not rewarding” dogs by petting if they jump on you. In fact, this encourages the dogs to jump on him/her for hugs and love. What would be your approach to having all staff follow the protocol you have set up for the shelter?”

“I would empathize with the employee allowing the dog to jump, and try to help them see what behaviors would most likely help him get adopted (I.e., approach and sit when greeting people). Then I would show the employee how to capture those behaviors and practice them with other people, so the dog would likely do the behavior with others, too. Hopefully getting the employee to buy into the process of helping make the dog more adoptable will change the employee’s motivation” — Laura Lewis Devine Hills

“The employee obviously likes the jumping up and cuddling. I’d recommend they teach the dog a “paws up” behaviour. They can use that trick for jump and cuddle time, but reward paws on the floor the rest of the time” — Sara Mac

“When I see someone not interacting the best way I literally step in and demonstrate the right way, and point out how they are making a behavior problem that can cost a dog it’s life. 48% of dogs in shelters are between six months and three years old. and most of their problem behaviors stem from impulsive jumping up, mouthing or overactive play. Also, I’d point out that this person has a responsibility in their role to follow the plan, even if they do not think it important. Like a medical plan, you must give the medication for healing even if you do not like giving meds! I find too many shelters are not leading the volunteer staff like an employee — they should fire the volunteer or employee if they do not follow the behavior plan. Lives depend on it” — Sally Foote DVM

“I’d ask the staff member to train “paws up” and “paws off,” ensuring both behaviors are under stimulus control. Other staff can continue to positively reinforce a sit or paws on the floor for greetings” — Kimm Hunt

If you’re an IAABC member and you’d like to contribute to the next issue’s “How to Talk About,” keep a look out for the thread on the IAABC Member Forum