Before you put your reputation on the line, think twice about taking on behavioral cases: the dog’s life and relationship with the owner could be at stake.
No matter how simple the case may appear, there is usually no quick, easy solution to most behavior problems. Owners typically do not seek help until they are frustrated, concerned and at their wits end. They may have exhausted all other avenues – nothing has worked. You get the call! You might be the dog’s last chance.
Knowing this should not put pressure on you to take the case; however one of the universally recognized principles in professional practices is that it is difficult to know what you do not know.
Consider a self-evaluation: “Can I adequately handle the case?” “Am I ready?” Some things to think about:
Knowledge? Evaluate how much time you have spent educating yourself through readings, attending lectures and mentoring under the experts. A few quick reads and attending a seminar here and there is not sufficient.
Communication? When you take on behavior cases, you become a translator or go-between for two different species who desire to live harmoniously together. Can you be effective? You will need to find a common ground so they could tell each other their needs, desires and limitations. To effectively execute this both dog and owner must find you trustworthy. You will be asked questions far beyond the arena of dog training. Can you clearly identify the scope of your role?
Competence? Are you prepared to take a history, knowing exactly what questions to ask to help determine what may be causing the problem? Prepare a detailed history sheet, including a liability waiver, and make sure you have adequate liability insurance. Plan on developing a systematic way of extrapolating information from the client without making them feel unworthy. Can you get information without the client becoming defensive? Are you fully familiar with the possible triggers that might be involved in the particular case? Can you be well-balanced in your thinking and sustain a professional relationship with the client, regardless of how you feel? These owners are counting on success, no matter how difficult the problem/case may be. The wrong advice can backfire, causing the owner to be upset and making you legally liable as a result.
Ethical Beliefs? There are two important considerations here:
Do you understand the difference between punishment, discipline and abuse?
There are various forms of punishment that are non-aversive and effective. On the other hand, there may be times when positive punishment is necessary. If this is your choice, are you fully familiar with the limitations, risks and benefits of using punishment to effectively implement a treatment program in a humane and effective manner? You must be familiar with what influences the effectiveness of the consequence or it can cause more harm than good.
Success? Can you resolve the problem and make recommendations that will help treat the underlying cause as opposed to treating the symptoms? If a client called regarding housesoiling, is a crate always recommended as your first option? What if the soiling was as a result of separation anxiety and the owners took your advice only to find a bloody dog when they returned?
Honesty? What if the situation becomes/is much more then you had anticipated? Can you be honest? Can you be truthful and fair to dog and owner? You will receive more respect by being honest then by misleading the client about your abilities. Let the client know you cannot go beyond your scope of practice while assuring them that you will continue to provide them good services by directing them to someone with “different specialties.” You can teach the value of training while providing support and education.
Dr. Suzanne Hetts’ book, "Pet Behavior Protocols – What to Say; What to Do; When to Refer," is a “must have” for anyone interested in expanding upon the self-evaluation when starting out and furthering their education in behavior problems.