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How to modify client's behavior

One question that pops up at presentations  is how do you get the client to actually follow through with a behavior referral?  How do you get your client to follow through and make that appointment?  If I knew complete answer, I would be the wisest woman around!  Unfortunately there is not  one, simple answer.  From my experience  these are a some  suggestions to help you help your client's change their behavior.

If a client has  complained about a behavior problem, it is a big deal to them.  The behavior, no matter what it is, is affecting the human in some way that it is interfering in their life.  Ask them how significant this effect is - is the human losing sleep, spending time and money cleaning up messes or repairing damage, or is someone getting injured and in pain?  How does the owner feel about the behavior?  Seriously - I have had some clients say "The biting was not a problem until he bit me".   If someone is not that bothered by the pet's  behavior, then it is not likely they will change their behaviors .   It may have been that one incident and they just don't want that one incident to happen again.  For these clients you become the broken record with the message of - "It won't get better on its own.  There is no bandage approach to this.  There can be some simple solutions, but your pet can't do it without your help".   Your staff can support these statements as well.   So focus on helping the owner identify what they really want to stop or be different.  Get specifics here.    If there is a spouse or others in the home, get the same input from them.   You may be surprised at the differing levels of motivation in the household members.  

Often there is a feeling of "I know my pet, so I should know what will get it to behave better".  All the advice of trainers, the internet, TV shows and books are not working, so your frustrated  client asks for help.   Identify with your client what they are feeling about the situation without judging them.  Assure them that they are doing the best that they knew how and that they are a good owner to ask for help.   Point out that the lack of a diagnosis(es) has hampered getting any better behavior much like not having a medical diagnosis hurts treatment.  The sooner a behavior consult is done, the sooner this frustration can decrease.

Owners step up to making a consult appointment when people or housemate pets are getting hurt.  At this point people want change to happen NOW, so they will often make the appointment.    Do they want to wait for the big event to happen which will mean a worse prognosis, taking  more time and money to treat? Ask them.   The broken record statement " Time makes it worse, not better.    It's not a training problem, otherwise training would work.   If it happened once, it will happen again."  can get some clients to make that  behavior consult.   

Lastly, I find that clients are afraid of what they  think they will hear.  I have had clients break down in tears at the beginning of an appointment saying this consult is their last hope.  That they are so anxious thinking of possibly needing to euthanize their pet, or rehome thier pet it is literally making them sick.  I think there is a fear that they will have to change how they love their pet,  play and  interact with their pet and it will not be as fun or  as it has been.  I have heard people say they did not want to reduce the reactivity in their dog because it would take the "spark" out of them.  Behavior modification and meds don't dumb down a pet, and the changes the owner has to make can strengthen the bond with the pet.  Tell your clients  that fun, love and play are all a part of improving the behavior.  There may be substitutions with new ways to play, love and have fun with the pet.  I tell my behavior consult clients that I do not judge them, or reprimand them for past methods.  We are here today to move forward, to be aware of what to do and what not to do  for better behavior.

Using words that influence people to agree with you can also help.  In an article I recently read  the words "because, now, imagine, please and thank you" interspersed in your statements can influence people to do what you suggest.    So statements such as " Sparky's teeth will continued to be damaged because he is using his teeth as a way to get out of the crate.  If we don't figure out how to stop this behavior now, he will have serious teeth problems for the rest of his life."   can move someone to see the urgency of the problem.

Changing the owner's behavior is often the most difficult thing to  do.  It is the key to better pet behavior and will frustrate many of your staff.  Getting an understanding of your client's motivations can help.  Realize that you are not responsible for changing the owner.  They are responsible for their behavior - making that appointment.  Our duty is make a referral or   have an accurate behavior diagnosis, complete behavior/medical plan and follow up support.   

Sally J Foote, DVM  CFBC-IAABC
Okaw Veterinary Clinic Tuscola IL
drsally@drsallyjfoote.com

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