How to Talk About…

In this regular column, we ask animal behavior consultants how they approach some of the most common challenges in working with clients.

This issue, we’re covering two subjects. Lisa Ackerman discusses her approach to working with a family where one or more members aren’t on board with the idea that their pet needs behavior modification, or they don’t agree with some part of your intervention plan, and Helen Prinold talks about when and how to raise the idea of returning a dog to the breeder.

A family that isn’t all on the same page?

Lisa Ackerman, Director, VCABS.

Returning an animal to the breeder

I always introduce this topic after laying out the broad strokes of what effective treatment would take (e.g. you would need to commit to not allowing your dog to greet visitors by running to the door and jumping on them…)

Then I move to talking about returns by saying that research has shown that having a lack of choice makes being a caregiver even harder. I don’t mention that this research has been done on humans looking after humans, just because I don’t want to get derailed by a debate on whether it applies to dogs — which I suspect it does. Here’s a link to the human research..

Then I mention that I need to take the best interests of everyone in the situation into account —including the people — and so it’s important we consider what will be the best in this situation.

I suggest that when they go home, even if they’re dead set against a return, that they sit down and seriously consider it as an option. I ask, “What would returning the animal mean in terms of your time, your finances, who you can have over to your house (if applicable), and what you can accomplish in your lives?” Usually I also say that behaviour issues can be just as difficult as adopting a dog who is very sick. I let them know that a return is a valid choice, and that I will support them if they decide to go with that option or if they decide to not make the return.

In some cases, I’m dealing with people who are really seeing a different dog than the one they thought they had met at the local shelter. In these cases I suggest that they get in touch with the shelter and ask if they can extend the period in which to make the adoption final (our local shelter gives a honeymoon period within which adopters can make a return for a refund).

I ask for feedback from clients at the next meeting.  In the vast majority of cases, I have clients who come back saying they are committed to the dog and program.  I do, though, notice a difference in attitudes towards the work and the dog.  From, “I guess I have to” to, “So now I’m going to.”  I think just having the relief of being able to make a choice has increased their sense of agency and ability to cope with a challenging situation.

— Helen Prinold, Dog Friendship


Enjoyed this? See past editions of How to Talk About column here.

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