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Empathy, patience and 'people skills' needed

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01 December 2011, at 12:00am

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI discusses the qualities needed by both veterinary surgeons and behaviour counsellors, including the need for non-judgemental attitudes, if consultations are to succeed

“REALLY your job is dealing with owners,” commented a delegate during a break at a recent behaviour meeting. Never a truer statement was made. The most common reason for arranging a behaviour consultation can be summed up in a single word: “desperation”. Statements like “There is nothing left to try” and “We’re at the end of our tether” frequently appear in pre-consultation questionnaires, leaving little doubt about the terminal nature of these situations. Admittedly some clients say We want him/her to be happy” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t also reached crisis point. It should never be assumed, however, that clients whose patience has finally frazzled will not do their damndest to consistently and effectively implement a behaviour programme once diagnosis is made, all contributing factors identified and potential remedial measures agreed. More often than not they will work their socks off. They have so much to lose and few, if any, owners are going to set aside time and pay fees (the excess if insured) unless they care about their pets and want to make a success of their relationship. But by the time we see them, they are in a bit of a state to say the least. They are stressed, upset, frustrated and often, as clearly articulated, “at breaking point”. Many also feel complete failures and are embarrassed because other people seem to do so well at this petowning lark. So yes, this being a “make or break” situation, tremendous patience plus sensitive handling is absolutely essential – and that’s before we come to the troubled and troublesome dog, cat, rabbit or parrot! 

Listening non-judgmentally is crucial

This highlights one of the essential skills of counselling, whatever the species it aims to help. Empathy is, of course, hugely important, but without the ability to listen to whatever is said, no matter how infuriating or distressing, in a totally non-judgmental manner, no amount of knowledge or range of other skills will count. Often people make mistakes and animals pay the price, but that’s life. And unless we can accept this without any negative comment – in modern parlance perhaps “get over it and move on” – we are no good to anyone. This can be challenging. Not uncommonly, in the welfare interests of the animals one might feel inclined to bang heads together but if that becomes obvious our chances of helping at all may well evaporate completely. So no matter how unrealistic, unfair or just plain stupid people have been, we simply must maintain an attitude of unconditional positive regard. We are, after all, quite possibly the one remaining advocate an  animal has or the single ally of the only household member who still values the pet and wants to carry on with it. 

Enlisting the support of disenchanted owners is challenging but necessary

It’s never easy trying to win everyone over – an essential requirement if a programme to resolve the problems is to have any chance of success. It may well stretch almost to breaking point one’s hard-learned skills, powers of active listening and ability to charm, smile and keep silent in the face of immense provocation. Maturity and a wealth of life experiences can be helpful but “people skills” are definitely needed if we are to be any use to the animals we want to help. And without doubt, we must like people. After all, despite their apparent culpability in messing up their pets or failing to act well when life does that for them, people are the essential conduit through which we  can effect change. Without them on board, no matter how well-qualified and highlymotivated to do a good job we are, we remain essentially useless. Our aims will remain unfulfilled and the animals we are dedicated to serve will struggle on with compromised welfare in unsatisfactory conditions. OK it’s hard, but as counsellors we know it must be done – anyway, who said life was easy?

First opinion vets bear an awesome responsibility

Before we get there, however, we do sometimes have a problem.
Responsible companion animal behaviourists work only on veterinary referral, and as veterinarians we would never see a behaviour case without the first opinion colleague’s full knowledge and consent. Therefore, what happens initially is crucially important. What if someone who has struggled with it for years finally plucks up the courage to raise their pet’s behavioural issue only to meet with disapproval or, worse still, clearly stated blame? They may be able to stand their ground and insist they get help, but what if they are not? Quite possibly the first and last chance for us collectively to help this animal is lost. They may soldier on with compromised lifestyles and relationships until Fate intervenes but they may also now throw in the towel and simply give up their pet. 

An effective collective effort is needed

Clearly then, despite the supreme effort and strength of character often needed, for first opinion vets bland expressions and non- judgemental attitudes are also the order of the day. It is never appropriate to tell owners “it is their fault”, as boldly stated on a
clinical history I recently saw. It may be true, and saying so may momentarily make us feel better, but it could also sabotage our one chance to reach out to people who are swiftly reaching the  bottom of the slippery slope that ends in relinquishment or
euthanasia. In this context, therefore, whatever our role, dealing sensitively and well with people is not an optional extra. Rather, it is an essential requirement without which none of us is going to be an effective advocate for the troubled animals under our care.