Resolve common behavior problems by offering training advice to clients

Resolve common behavior problems by offering training advice to clients

Jun 01, 2002

The most common reasons pets will be lost from the average veterinary practice involve concerns about the pet's behavior: the pet either is exhibiting behaviors that the clients consider problematic or the pet's behaviors are not matching the clients' expectations. Humane concerns, aside, pets that are lost from practices because of behavioral concerns cost each practice more than $20,000 per year in lost income. If the practice sells toys, supplies, leashes and training services the financial losses are more substantial. How can we end the epidemic of unwanted, problematic pets and address the attendant humane concerns involved in euthanasia and re-homing? We can either educate clients before they obtain a pet, or afterward when problems arise, but the best choice is probably some combination of these.

Educating clients before they get a pet Every time one of your clients asks your advice about their next pet or about training, you have a chance to save a life and build your practice. These questions, like others involving behavior, are often sloughed off as either so obvious that they do not warrant an in-depth discussion, or they are considered too time-consuming to warrant allocation of additional effort. Both approaches are hugely in error. While it is true that it is difficult to give behavioral advice within a standard 20-minute office visit, it's important to remember that most clients will understand and appreciate this constraint if provided with an alternative. Alternatives can include the following:

1. Have your receptionist schedule a 30-minute appointment to discuss the issue. This appointment can be the first or last appointment of the day, or scheduled at a time when you will not feel rushed. You will need to think about these cases. You can charge either an introductory fee or by the hour. If you are concerned about fees, consider that the clients are really subsidizing your continuing education, so you may feel that you can charge less - at first - while you build behavioral services into your practice. If the fee schedule, justifications and options are made clear in advance, clients will understand your reasoning and will come to see the value of such "wellness" services. In fact, you may wish to post a fee schedule for informational consultations and routine procedures or give each client a handout that explains the behavioral and other "wellness" services and costs. Many clients are unfamiliar with the costs of modern veterinary medicine, know nothing about salaries, and are uncomfortable about discussing finances, anyway. Providing a handout that charts your services and time costs, and those of your staff (associate veterinarians or those who may have a special interest in a specific discipline like behavior, nurses, certified dog trainers), both anticipate and respect the clients' concerns, and leads to clear communication.

2. Train your staff to answer common and routine questions that clients ask. Start to keep a list of all questions regarding behavior posed by clients and create a Q & A sheet. If correctly trained, your staff can answer all questions about training and pre-purchase counseling, and the clients can schedule an appointment with them. Such appointments can either be gratis, as part of the overall educational service provided by a full-service practice (in which case your other fees will have to address the $35-45/hour your certified or registered technician is costing you in salary and full benefits, should you provide benefits), or the service can be offered at an hourly fee different than that for a veterinarian. If you choose the latter, you are obligated to ensure that your staff has the requisite training. Such training can be obtained through continuing education opportunities provided by veterinary associations, technicians' training programs, and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT).

3. In your waiting room you can provide a loose-leaf book containing entries provided by clients who have the types of pets or breeds in which your inquiring client has an interest. Clients who are willing to act as 'guides' or 'advocates' for the novice can provide terrific information that will be useful to the prospective owner. You can structure this information which may include photos of the pets, the story of how the 'advocate' obtained their pet, reasons why they chose the type or breed, the 'advocate's' personal estimates of time required for exercise and grooming based on their own pets' needs, and other practical management tips that can only be provided by someone who actually lives with an Australian Shepherd, to pick a random example. If the 'guide' or 'advocate' client is willing, they can provide their telephone number or e-mail address and help mentor the new owner through the adoption and family-integration process. Written and signed disclaimers can prevent any liability that could accrue to you or to your clients.

4. You can provide your clients with a library that can be offset in a section of your waiting room. Included in this library should be a series of breed books, a series of popular - but humane - training and management books, a series of newsletters that would have broad appeal for clients (e.g., The APDT newsletter, The Whole Dog Journal), a loose-leaf bound set of copies of articles, handouts, CE notes, that you, personally, have found useful, organized by topic, and a set of handouts that you are comfortable with distributing to and discussing with the client. You can either write these handouts yourself or use handouts available from other published or internet sources. One cautionary note: please make sure that what you are distributing is not a copyright infringement. If the handout is written by someone other than you, you can put your name and practice information on it if and only if:

  1. The material is not copyright protected;
  2. You make it clear that your role is distribution, only and that you did not write the material, and;
  3. The source and the author(s) are all fully acknowledged and clearly presented. Many newsletters that have copywritten articles will send you these same articles in handout form for a reasonable fee, and you have complied with all legal and ethical concerns.
  4. Videos or posters illustrating types of animals used as pets and information about their maintenance requirements can be displayed in the waiting room. If the practitioner has photogenic patients and responsible clients in his or her practice, the clients can help make such posters using their own pets, including testimonials about their own questions, difficulties and experiences.
  5. You can, either alone or in collaboration with other veterinarians in the area, host pet open houses. If you do this during National Pet Week, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) will help provide materials. Open houses can be conducted in schools, in shelters, in shopping malls with the help of a shelter, or in your practices, but for all venues the emphasis must be on education. A more instantaneously gratifying type of open house can be a virtual one that provides 'on-demand' viewing. Slide shows or videos can be kept ready to be shown when a client asks your advice. With or without an accompanying handout, these presentations can be run by the clients and used as needed.
  6. Make up your own handout on how people should choose pets - or trainers - and place it in your waiting room with a sign that tells clients that they can take copies for friends. If you include your name and practice information, you will build a clientele of caring clients who will address their pets' behavioral concerns.

If you comply with this advice you will minimize the change that a pet is recycled because of unreasonable expectations.