It's Not the Dogs, It's the People!
It is important that clients remain relaxed and focused as you take a history. To that end, minimize distractions as much as possible. Suggest letting the answering machine pick up calls. If the television is on, ask that it be turned off. If it looks as though your client might not be adept at redirecting young kids from being rowdy or interrupting, suggest they watch a video in another room, play a game or do homework while you chat. You could even bring along connect-the-dots pages or coloring sheets to keep them busy.
If kids are at an age where they can participate and answer questions, great. Let them stay. They might have valuable input and should be part of the training process if they are interested. Besides, every trainer has had that “kids say the darndest things” moment, where the child blurts out some key bit of information Mom or Dad never would have offered!
Some trainers prefer the dog be present during the history-taking process, as valuable information can be gleaned by observing interactions between dog and owner during this time. Another advantage is the opportunity to surreptitiously evaluate the dog’s behavior while he is presumably being ignored.
If the dog is too much of a distraction to you or the owner, have him elsewhere while you chat. Some trainers prefer this arrangement not only because it minimizes distractions, but because some owners feel inhibited talking about their dog’s problems with the dog present. Imagine you are taking a history on a dog who has bitten someone—an emotionally loaded issue for any owner. You might not get all the honest details if the dog is lying curled up at the owner’s feet, looking adorable.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Taking an effective history involves the art of listening. Pay attention as your client speaks. Do not let your attention wander— you might miss a crucial piece of information. Encourage clients to open up by showing that you are listening. Lean slightly forward and focus on the speaker, nodding your head and murmuring a soft, “Mmm-hmm” where appropriate. Do not interrupt! If the client mentions something you would like to question further or prompts you to think of a possible solution, jot it down so you can come back to it when the person has finished speaking.
It is extremely important not to appear judgmental when listening to clients. Even if you are appalled at what someone is saying, refrain from looking so, or worse, voicing your disapproval. If I have asked what someone has tried so far to stop a barking problem and the person replies, “He wears a shock collar twenty- four hours a day,” regardless of the fact that I do not use nor do I approve of shock collars, I will not jump down the person’s throat. Instead, I’ll say lightly, “I’ll make some suggestions later on about other methods that might be more productive” and move on.
No matter how atrocious a thing someone tells you (and we’ve all heard some truly awful things), you must put on a poker face. If the client feels you disapprove or dislike them, you are not likely to get truthful responses. I have had countless clients who, when asked where the dog sleeps, practically cringe as they answer, “On the bed?” It’s as though they expect to be reprimanded. They are so relieved when I laugh and tell them it’s okay, I’m not going to say the dog can’t sleep on the bed. (Of course, if there is a dominance-aggression issue or other reason the dog should not sleep on the bed I will say so.) To take a thorough history is to be on a fact-finding mission, nothing more. Remain neutral, alleviate apprehensions and help your clients to relax and open up.
Is That Your Final Answer?
Sometimes getting useful information requires a bit of detective work. Let’s say you have inquired about the dog’s reaction to other dogs on walks and the client has responded, “He just goes nuts.” Do you arch an eyebrow, mutter a meaningful “hmm” and scribble “Just goes nuts”? Of course not. You ask the client to define specifically what that means. “Goes nuts” could, after all, mean “wags his tail happily and tries to get to other dogs to play” to one person, while it means “lunges, snarls and tries to hurt other dogs” to another.
Don’t settle for generalities. “He gets plenty of exercise” could mean the dog spends his days alone in the yard, and the owner thinks the dog entertains himself by running around out there. At that point you might ask specifically what the owner does with the dog for exercise. Does the dog get taken for walks? If so, how often? For how long? At what pace? Do the walks tire the dog? Does anyone throw the ball for him? Does he play with other dogs? Do the kids spend time in the yard with him? You see where this is going. You can give much better recommendations if you have specific, accurate information with which to work.
Some questions should purposely be left open-ended. For example, rather than asking, “Did Rusty seem tense or afraid when the plumber walked in?” (Objection! Leading the witness!) say, “What was Rusty’s reaction when the plumber walked in?” If the answer is a generalization such as “He seemed scared,” probe further with other open-ended questions: “Can you describe what you mean by scared? What was Rusty doing that gave you that impression?” If the client still doesn’t give specifics, move to asking questions that require specific answers. You could ask whether Rusty barked, cowered, or had his hackles up; was he moving toward the door or away from it; did he cringe and/or lower his body; were his ears forward or back? Your client is not likely to know all the answers, as things happen quickly and the average person is not trained to observe the minutiae of canine body language and behavior. Still, these prompts should trigger answers that offer some helpful information.
Some questions should be specific and detailed from the beginning. For example, when asking about feeding, you might ask what brand of food the dog eats, how many times a day he’s fed, at what times he’s fed, where he eats, whether he finishes all the food that’s offered and whether the bowl is picked up afterward. Contrast the usefulness of those answers with simply learning the dog is fed dry kibble twice a day. What if the low- quality grains in that particular brand of food are affecting the dog’s behavior? What if he’s fed twice a day, doesn’t eat right away, and the food is left there? Since the food is always available, it is less valuable. This is all pertinent information that will affect how you proceed. For a sample general intake form, see my book So You Want to be a Dog Trainer.
Oh, and One More Thing...
Regardless of how thorough your questions have been, it is a good idea when wrapping up a subject to ask “Is there anything more you’d like me to know?” Incredibly helpful information can be uncovered this way. In fact, it might even contain the key to the dog’s behavior problem. Even though I have asked a number of specific feeding-related questions, the “anything more” question might elicit, “Well, if Mini doesn’t eat when I first put the food down, I add some gravy to it and if she still doesn’t eat, I give her a few pieces of boiled chicken.” This telling reply contains valuable information about the dog-owner relationship.
Although you have asked the “anything more” question at the close of each subject, it is a good idea to ask it again at the end of the entire history-taking process. Ask whether there is anything that has not been covered, that is important for you to know. Again, invaluable information can be obtained this way.
Now that you have taken a history and established rapport with your human trainee, let’s move on to some actual “human training” skills!