Improving Dog Behaviour Outcomes with Client-Focused Training Approaches

Dog owners consulting a dog trainer
Picture of Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

Many people struggle with their dog’s behaviour and turn to dog trainers and behaviourist for help. However, despite their best intentions, owners often struggle to stick to a dog behaviour therapy program 1. This is a problem, because when we view the owner as the dog’s ‘therapists’ and the therapy is stopped to soon, the dog experiences poor welfare due to the behavioural issues and is at risk of relinquishment or, worse, euthanasia.

As dog behaviourists, we want to create the best outcomes for our clients and their dogs. Most of my clients are fantastic people who’ll do anything for their dog. But sometimes I have a client who has some resistance to what I’m recommending. They may say things like ‘I’ve already tried that, and it didn’t work’, or ‘I’m not sure if this will work for us’, or ‘I don’t have time for that’. Does this sound familiar to you to?

If you also hear this from your clients, you’ll probably develop a therapy plan for them considering their concerns and hesitations. You’ll get them started on a therapy programme that you both agreed on and you believe that all is good. But when you meet them during the next session, very little has happened. They’ll say they didn’t have the time, things got in the way, or they just forgot…

How does this make you feel? For me, it’s rather frustrating and I ask myself where things went wrong!

I’m wondering if there is something I can do about this. So, I delved into the literature (which is what I love doing anyway) to explore if there are ways that I can tweak my approach of working with owners. I’m specifically looking for effective client communication techniques for dog trainers. I also want to work on building trust with dog training clients, so that they’re more likely to follow through.

Today I’ll share with you what I have learned about getting owners to stick to the behavioural therapy plan that we design for them (or at least stick to it a little better).

A person trying to train their dog, but the dog won't listen and they're feeling frustrated. Image is AI generated - by DALL·E

Why is this so important? A study showed that up to 85% of dog parents report that their dog has one or more undesirable behaviour. In the UK alone, 440,000 of these dogs end up in shelters or are euthanized because their owners do not have the knowledge or the ability to help their dog.

Why do people struggle to stick to the therapy program?

Even when owners do look for help, the therapy may fail because adherence to the therapy tends to be low. There are several reasons why it’s difficult for dog parents to follow the therapy program:

First, it can be difficult to understand exactly why their dog is showing the particular behaviour and what is happening. Without this knowledge, it’s harder to understand why a behaviourists designs a particular therapy program and why it is important.

Second, behavioural modification takes time and effort. Reducing issues like noise phobias, stereotypic behaviours or separation anxiety takes weeks, if not months. Owners need to train their dogs several times a week and may have to adjust their daily routines and schedules to reduce their dogs stress levels.

Third, improvements can be slow and gradual and are not necessarily linear. Sometimes there’s a lot of progress, and then nothing seems to happen for a while. Many owners struggle to recognize small steps of improvement in their dog’s behaviour, because they’re so focused on solving the ‘big issue’. Yet, these small steps are an important sign that they’re moving in the right direction.

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Client-focused interview strategies for dog trainers

A recent scientific paper suggest that it may be easier for owners to follow a behavioural therapy plan when the behaviourist uses a client-centred approach rather than an authoritarian one (aka just do what I tell you) 2. If we can help owners in a compassionate yet effective way, more dogs will be able to stay in their current homes. This benefits everyone involved. The emotional toll of having a ‘problem’ dog is often high. Giving up a dog for adoption is an equally difficult process, where owners feel like they have failed their dogs.

The client-centred approach focuses on understanding client needs in dog training, communication, and collaboration. The idea is that when the therapy is developed with the owner rather than done to them, owners feel more in control of the therapy plan and are more motivated to follow-through. This already starts at the first consultation. When owners feel that the therapy plan is right for their dog, the behaviourist (or trainer) is supportive and there is agreement on what to include in the treatment plan, they are much more likely to comply with the therapy plan.

On the other hand, when owners feel judged for how they answered the behaviourist questions or for their general approach to dog training, or when they feel that the treatment contains aspects that they don’t agree with, they are much less likely to follow through on the therapy.  Empathy in dog trainer-client interactions is of critical importance here.

Dog owners consulting a dog trainer

It’s also interesting to note that in this (small) study, it made no difference if the first consultation was done face-to-face or remotely. Therefore, it seems that online consultations are just as effective as face-to-face consultations when the client is the focus. An advantage of online consultations is that clients can get help from a behaviourist that suits their beliefs and attitudes, even if none are available in their local area.

When owners were asked what they considered the most important aspects of working with a behaviourists, their answers centred around these four main themes:

Critical aspects of working with dog behaviourists

In this study, it became clear that a mismatch in training methods between the owner and the behaviourist led to low compliance 2. Perhaps this is not surprising. If the owner values their dog’s welfare and emotional state, and the behaviourist recommends aversive and punitive training methods, the owner is unlikely to follow through.

I don’t want to discuss training methods in this article, but I firmly stand behind animal-friendly and reward-based training methods. There is plenty of evidence that reward-based training is as effective, or even more effective, than punishment-based training, without putting the dog’s welfare at risk 3. It sometimes takes a mindset shift to understand this. But we can teach in a compassionate, understanding and non-judgemental way!

Giving dog owners more control over the therapy

Finally, it is critical to listen to the owners wishes and concerns. We should also be flexible and change our approach if the owner feels uncomfortable with any of the methods. This way, the owner feels heard and in control. To increase the feeling of control, we could, for example, offer the owners a range of enrichment options and let them choose which ones they like most.

Funnily, control is exactly what we want for the dogs we’re working with. But we can only achieve great results when the owner feels the same!

Behaviourists that are confrontational during the consultation have the lowest compliance. No surprises here! Noone wants to feel judged or misunderstood. So even when you feel that owners don’t approach their dog’s behavioural problems in the right way, it’s best not to be too harsh on them. We are all susceptible to confirmation bias and we often see only the things that already match our beliefs! If beliefs are challenged inappropriately, they tend to become stronger. This will not help the dog at all.

The dog behaviour professional pyramid demonstrates the fundamental principles of the client-centered approach for behaviour consultations, shown in Figure 1.

Brown dog outside
Chart explaining client-centered interviewing
Figure 1. The Canine Professional’s Pyramid. Adapted from Daniels et al., 2023 (see reference number 2 for full details).

Nudging in dog training

So how should we deal with this? Too be honest, I’m on a steep learning curve myself here and I feel I need a human psychology degree…. But I do have some suggestions. Rather than being confrontational, it may be better to take a ‘nudging’ approach to changing owner attitudes, beliefs and behaviour 4. ‘Nudging’ means gently steering owners towards better choices without taking away their freedom to choose.

Here are some examples of nudging: if the healthiest foods are placed right at eye level in a caferia, you’re more likely to pick them. This method doesn’t ban other foods but makes the healthier options easier to see and choose. You’re gently encouraged to choose the healthier option, but nothing happens if you don’t!

Here’s an example of nudging in dog training: You may start a dog training class by giving owners some high-value treats and a clicker, along with simple instructions on how to use them. Then you simply demonstrate how quickly and effectively dogs respond to treats and praise. This way, no one feels judged or shamed into reward-based training. You can expand on this if you see your clients over multiple sessions.

You can also incorporate education on basic dog behaviour, training and welfare principles, without judging their current training methods. After all, everyone tries to do the best with the knowledge and experience they have.

Woman walking dog on beach

Not too much at once

On a final note, it’s important not to overwhelm clients with too much information and too many changes all at once. In a previous study it was shown that five or more simultaneous interventions reduced client compliance 5.

I personally never work with single consultations. Instead, I offer packages with multiple consultations so that we can make small changes over time. This way, we can also discuss progress and make tweaks where necessary. This meets the owners wishes for individuality and flexibility.

In conclusion, increasing therapy compliance among dog owners can be achieved by designing effective behaviour modification programmes, developing strong communication techniques and building trust between behavioural therapist and dog owners. This client-centred approach to dog behaviour can improve the success of behavioural therapy, contributing to better well-being for both dog and owner!

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Dr Else Verbeek en witte hond