Home Dog Is Your Dog Doing Something You Don’t Like? Do Your Own Intake Interview!

Is Your Dog Doing Something You Don’t Like? Do Your Own Intake Interview!

Is Your Dog Doing Something You Don’t Like? Do Your Own Intake Interview!


I’m not seeing clients anymore, beyond helping out an occasional friend, but a conversation with some colleagues got me thinking about the value of thinking through an issue with your dog as if you were your own client. I’ve used this technique before myself–writing out the “problem behavior,” deciding what behavior I do want in its place, and then working up a plan. Yet, when I ended up looking at some posts from 2016 this week, I realized how much this skeleton plan lacks. Going through the posts I wrote on doing good intakes, I realized how much depth there might be in being your own client, whether you have one family dog or are a Certified Applied Animal Behavior consultant. I’ve decided to repost these writings, while adding my thoughts about how it might apply to ourselves, when we need a little help dealing with that one thing (at least), that we REALLY wish our dogs would do. Or not do. [My current, additional comments are in italics.]

Here, to get us started, is the first post from December, 2016:

HOW TO DO AN INTAKE INTERVIEW:  I’ve thought about intake interviews every day since someone wrote, “Yes, please tell us what you asked clients during an intake interview.” I don’t know why this question speaks to me so much, but perhaps it is because of my interest in human psychology. I’ve always said that my two favorite species are people and dogs, and although there are times that the people part of that equation challenge my affection, I still am equally fascinated by the species at both ends of the leash.

That might be why I’ve found myself thinking not so much about what I asked clients, but how I asked it. Honestly, the bare bones facts that you need are pretty straight forward (I’ll list them next week in Part II), but I’m going to argue that HOW you ask the questions is the key to a good interview. Ah, yes, highly relevant here for ourselves as clients, yes? How do we talk about ourselves–as trainers, as owners–when our dog does something that’s not up to our expectations or desires? Me, often not as kindly as I would to a client.

Much of what I’m about to say is not a strategy that I carefully considered. It is just what I did, and in hindsight, I think that there were good reasons for it. Nor do I think it’s the perfect prescription for an intake interview; there are many roads to the top of the mountain. I am counting on the vast experience of our readers to add their wisdom and experience to this discussion. But here are some thoughts from me to get us started:

GREETING THE CLIENTS First impressions, right? Job one is to let people know you care about them. “Did you find the office without any trouble?” “Oh, such a long drive, can I get you some tea or coffee?” It seems so simple, but that doesn’t make it trivial. How many appointments have you had in which you were immediately asked to hand over your insurance card, or to give your birth date? How did that feel? What a difference it makes if someone first inquires about YOU! If we expect clients to listen to us and take our advice, we need them to feel like we’re on their side. Let them know that right away. First things first. What could be more important? And how kind are we being toward ourselves? Need a little tea? A kind word?

GREETING THE DOG Our next job, immediately after asking about the client, is to focus on the dog. No matter what the dog is doing, how you feel about Scandinavian Tree Hugger Hounds or Ethiopian Rough-legged Dachshunds, or if the dog looks like the bad guy in a B movie who is about to pull the trigger, you have GOT to let the owners know that you care as much about their dog as you do them. This is easy for most of us, because we wouldn’t be doing consults if we didn’t care about dogs, right?

The trick is to respect what the dog is telling you (as in “…for the love of heaven do not approach me right now…”) while making it clear to the clients that you truly care about their dog. This can be tricky. I can’t tell you how many clients I have had who said “Oh, he’s fine, go ahead and pet him” while the dog lip licked, and whale eyed and did everything he could to pretend he wasn’t in the room, begging me with every possible visual signal to stay away, at least for now. The fact is, you have to respect both needs: The dog for space, and the owner’s need to have you interact with their dog. I’ll say something good about the dog first thing, even if it’s “What a gorgeous tail Ripper has!” Then I’ll explain that Ripper is telling me he’s a bit nervous—see how he keeps turning his head away from me and his mouth is closed up tight?” Always appropriate, of course, no matter who the dog lives with. Respect is the name of the game in my opinion, I can’t think of any thing much more important. That doesn’t mean catering to our dogs–I meant no disrespect to Maggie last night when I said “Enough,” and pat, patted her head after her 1,287th attempt to get me to keep petting her after 30 minutes of doing it non-stop. (And Jim was still petting her from the other side.) Boundaries, right?

This moment is a wonderful opportunity to start teaching owners how to read their dog, especially for subtle signals related to fear or anxiety. It’s also a fine time to exploit our tendency to be anthropomorphic. I had so many clients who were resistant to seeing their dog as fearful, but it helps when you couch the issue in human terms— “Would you want a hug from a stranger who was 10 feet tall before you even had a chance to get a good look at him?” But no matter what is going on, you have got to communicate to the owners that you don’t just love dogs in general, but that you are committed to getting to know and help their dog. Asking a list of questions about a dog’s medical history, diet and daily exercise isn’t going to do that. Whether you admire a dog’s tail or sit down on the floor and let him slobber all over you, make it clear to the owners (and the dog if you can) that you are establishing both a professional and a personal relationship. I don’t need to say here that “reading” dogs is probably the most important thing we can do for them. That doesn’t just mean being able to interpret their expressions and gestures, it means paying attention. Not as easy as it sounds, and not possible every second of every day for any of us. But, still . . .

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? People want to tell you about the problem as soon as you’ll let them. Why not, that’s what they are there for; that’s what has kept them up at night worrying themselves sick. And yet, so many intakes I’ve seen start with details that might be important when we are designing a treatment plan (age, diet, daily routine), but feel like diversions to the client. How do you feel when the nurse or PA sits you down in the doctor’s office and asks you a gazillion questions, while focused on her computer screen? Valued? Taken care of? Feeling the love?

I found early on that clients are desperate to tell you what’s wrong. That’s why it’s my first question. “Why are you here?” “What’s going on?” “How can I help you?” Pick your favorite phrase, but let them tell you what the behavior problem is before asking anything else. Otherwise, you are just frustrating them and losing an opportunity to communicate that you are on their side. Probably not a problem here if the dog lives in your house. You KNOW that Barney lunging at the door when visitors come is the reason you have sat down and put pencil to paper. Thus, you have a great advantage over a consultant or trainer!

BE PATIENT An answer to this question can take five seconds, or a half an hour. Usually it takes several minutes, because any answer needs clarification. “He’s aggressive to other dogs” leads, as you well know, to a discussion about what dogs, where, and what “aggressive” means. If there are two people in the room (or more), be sure to ask everyone, because they often have different experiences with the same dog (not to mention different perspectives). As a wife, friend, professional, as well as a dog owner trainer, I am ALWAYS patient, every second of every day. I am sure you knew that and expected nothing less from me. But then, you also probably expect honesty, so, uh, never mind.

KNOW YOUR ABCs Now is the time to thank behavior analysts like Dr. Susan Friedman, who remind us that the key to changing a behavior is to understand its Antecedent (some people call them “triggers”), the exact, actual Behavior, and the Consequences of the behavior. First, what happens right before the problem behavior occurs, or, what is the Antecedent event? I asked clients “If I promised you a $100 if you could get the dog to do X right now, what would you do?” That gives me a good idea of what triggers the behavior, which will be critical information when I was designing a treatment plan. This is a GREAT question to ask anyone who lives with a dog and wants to change a behavior. Ask it of yourself, because knowing the answer can be critical to success.

Next, what exactly is the Behavior that is problematic? As I noted earlier, it can take some time to get a good, detailed picture of what’s going on. “He goes crazy at the door” is only helpful if you know what “goes crazy” means. After several years, I learned that asking people to “be a video for me and describe exactly what I would be seeing when visitors come” is an effective way to get a good description. Of course, seeing it yourself as the visitor, or watching a video is much better than a verbal description, but you don’t always have that option. Be specific, be specific, be specific! It will help you as much as anyone else. EXACTLY what does your dog do that you want to change? Remember that behavior occurs in micr0-seconds, so if your dog “goes crazy at the door,” is it the rushing, the barking, the leaping that’s the problem, or the selling all of his toys to buy Bitcoin?

Finally, what is the Consequence of the behavior, or what happens immediately afterward? Does the dog achieve an increase in distance between it and another dog if she barks aggressively on the street? Does growling by a nervous dog result in a withdrawn hand? In other words, what is reinforcing the behavior? Something is, or by definition, it wouldn’t be happening, right? Yup, don’t skip this part. It sounds so simple but it’s often not what you think. Try video taping too, you might be amazed at what you’ll learn.

In addition to getting clear on the ABCs, I’ve found it essential to get a good chronological history of the problem. You can ask when it first started and work up to the present, but I’ve found it most useful to start with the most recent incident and work backward. That way you can discuss what is fresh in the client’s mind, and work your way back in time. Working back one incident at a time also seems to help jump start people’s memories, and often I’d have clients say “Oh! Wait! I forgot… do you remember that Ripper was attacked at the dog park the week before he began growling there?” This could be hugely important to any dog lover. Maybe not so much the crazy at the door scenario, but what about that dog who was fine on walks but is now growling at any dog she sees? Finding the beginning of such a problem can lead to finding the solution. 

WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE? This question is as important as the ones above. It is also one that often surprises the client. I don’t need to tell this group that you can’t stop X behavior without deciding on what you want to replace it with. But it is exactly what many dog owners haven’t yet thought about. “I just want him to stop X!” they say, without having pictured what they’d like the dog to do. This is one of my favorite parts of the interview, because it is where you can begin to provide a path to what will make both the owners and the dog happy. What I didn’t say in the original post is that this idea behavior needs to be not just what the person wants, but what the dog is able to do. I had a client who wanted their five-month old puppy to stay, for hours, on a tiny towel placed on the living room rug. I suggested a stuffed dog. (I really did, but as kindly as I was able. I also never saw her again, so apparently I wasn’t kind enough. Fail.)

OBSERVATIONS OF THE CLIENTS This is another critical part of the interview. While you’re talking to the client(s), what is happening? If it’s a couple, how are they seated? Are they facing away from each other and never look at each other’s faces? Is the single owner in your office unable to keep her hands off her dog? Does one spouse continually tell the dog to stop exploring the office, lie down and stay put? All of this should have a significant impact on how to talk to the owner(s) and what kind of treatment plan you suggest. Oh, this is huge! If you and the dog live with anyone else, you don’t get to go through this without everyone living in the same house. And I mean it about being observant! It’s easy to make assumptions about people who live with you, and not give them the same amount of attention and focus as we would a stranger. Totally understandable, but not helpful, right? Does your spouse/partner/room mate look away when you describe the behavior you’re going for? Uh huh, pay as much attention to that as your dog, it matters.

OBSERVATIONS OF THE DOG Wait? Isn’t this about the dog? Have I forgotten the dog? Nope, honest. While all this talking is going on I’m watching the dog. If it is safe, (as in, I’m not about to be mutilated), I ask the owner to let the dog off leash as soon as the door to my office is closed. You can learn so much a about a dog, and his relationship with his owner if you give him the freedom to make his own choices. Does he avoid me? Fine, that provides a lot of information. Sniff the carpet obsessively for 10 minutes? That’s useful too. The only exception, of course, is if my internal red flags start waving, and I think the dog needs to be restrained for my own safety. That didn’t happen very often, because I’m pretty darned good at avoiding a confrontation with a dog, but when it did I didn’t hesitate to say something like: “Ripper and I don’t seem to be comfortable with each other. Would you put his leash back on for now? That way Ripper can relax while we can focus on talking.” Notice there’s no blame going around—just a simple request that will allow me to focus on something besides my own tender flesh

Of course, if the dog enters the lobby with a tense mouth and body, and goes out of his way to look directly at my face with eyes as hard as obsidian, I’m not going to suggest that the dog comes off leash right away once we enter my office. Not until he begins to soften, and also not until the owner is comfortable letting the dog off. If the owner says “I’d rather keep him on leash,” we absolutely must respect that, even if the dog is a melted puddle of Christmas caramel and is begging us to pet his belly. Our job is to make the owner comfortable, not to impress him or her. Again, observations are everything, no matter the context. If you have any doubt, or the issue is serious, do what you can to video tape the behavior and your responses. I’ve seen tongue flicks in my dogs I never noticed in real time. Don’t beat yourself up about this, there’s not a brain around that can take in everything, all the time. Just know the limitations of any of us, and do what you can to overcome them.

BE FUNNY IF YOU CAN I say that in all seriousness. I can’t emphasize enough how nervous people are when they come to talk to you the first time. The more relaxed they are, the more they will remember, the more honest they’ll be, and the more open they will be to taking your suggestions. However, if you can’t channel your inner stand up comedian, don’t try to fake it. Your clients will see through that in a microsecond. However, you could say “This is when I want to say something funny to lighten things up, but I’m never gonna be able to quit my day job to be a comedian. I can’t even remember any good jokes. But I do care deeply about helping you and Ripper, and I have some ideas for you that might help a lot.” Mission accomplished. You HAVE lightened things up, and just increased the empathy quotient in the room up to high. Yes, yes, yes, to all of us! This is especially important for all of us because we can be sooo hard on ourselves. The expectations of how a good dog owner/companion should behave have sky rocketed, and not always in any one’s favor (including the dogs). I’ve talked to people smothered in guilt who tried to save a cancerous dog by seeing 8 vets, spent tens of thousands of dollars, and still felt horrible they couldn’t save their dog from the inevitable. I talk to people all the time who are SOOO hard on themselves for not being perfect trainers, or feeding the absolutely perfect food (there is no such thing), or having a dog who doesn’t behave like Lassie in a movie. So your dogs jumps up on visitors because they love them so much? If the visitors don’t care, (I don’t), why should you? (And if someone wobbly or who does care comes over, there’s always that leash by the door, or the crate in the back room.) Laughing at ourselves, and our dogs, might be the most important part of this whole post. We are human. We are occasionally brilliant, reliably inconsistent, often unclear, usually well-motivated, and most often doing the best we can with the skills we have, at the time we need them. Be your own best friend for a moment, and be as kind to yourself as you would your dearest friend. On a good day.

By the way, in 2016 I wrote a follow-up post, Intake Interviews, Part II, with more details about the questions I asked. Check it out if you want more.

Okay your turn! Whether you see clients, or see your one dog lasering his eyes at you because you almost forgot his dinner, jump in here with your own thoughts and observations. We’ll all learn from it, and appreciate your time.

[One last note: I mistakenly erased a lovely comment after the post about Therapy Dogs, which included a link to the “spoon theory.” Links to the theory are fine (ie, those of us with lupus, or, chronic fatigue, for example, only get so many spoons to give away every day. When you’re out, you’re not “tired.” You’re out. If that was your comment, my apologies and thanks for weighing in!]




MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It is glorious here. Sixties to seventies, blue sky high pressure, a riot of flowers, and a jewelry store of colorful birds. Here are some native Columbine blooming in front of Iris buds:


Behind those flowers are the Mystery Woods, so called because we rarely ventured there for years, when it was a jungle of honeysuckle and buckthorn. We’ve gotten rid of those, and are working on encouraging more native plants. We’ve succeeded with the Garlic Mustard, but Dame’s Rocket is another thing altogether. But some native plants are coming in; I’ll take photos of them when they start to bloom.

I have a nasty cold right now, $%#!@%$#%, but Jim and I got to the newly redesigned International Crane Foundation before it kicked in. Cranes are some of the world’s most amazing birds, and 10 of the 15 species are endangered. The ICF works in 50 countries around the world to protect the cranes, and their habitat, which is as good for people as it is for cranes.

Here is Omega, a male Whooping Crane, one of our native cranes, in a large, natural enclosure:


I rather liked him performing a grooming ballet:

This next photo is of a Wattled Crane, tending to an “egg,” that is more likely a rock. For some species, the staff take the egg(s) to ensure that it hatches and is healthy.

Here’s a welcome visitor to the crabapple blossoms. The yard is literally buzzing. Love it.

[Maggie and Skip would like you to know that they ARE NOT PLEASED that there are no photos of them this time. Skip is learning to carry the camera for Trisha, who keeps FORGETTING TO TAKE IT WITH HER UP THE HILL FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, like she JUST DID, and Maggie is perfecting the muzzle bump once they all get up the hill to take photos of her working the sheep. Ahem. Promises, promises.


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