As many of you know, this year I have been continuing my studies onto the 2nd year of the COAPE diploma for behaviourists and trainers. Not only has this course been a fantastic continuation of the year 1 diploma, but there has also been a huge focus on the practical aspects of managing the way we work. One factor highlighted by Peter Neville, one of the founders of COAPE, in a lecture on our last weekend, was that many behaviourists are not charging for, or managing, their time appropriately and this puts the behaviourist, their clients and their pets at a disadvantage.
As with most of my fellow students and behaviourists, when I started out, I decided to follow the industry standard approach, because I assumed that this was the way I should work. The industry standard approach is usually a 2-3 hour consultation, followed by a massive behaviour report (mine are often around 8-9 pages long) which tends to cost in the region of £120 and really is written more for a fellow behaviourist or even a veterinarian to enjoy and understand, than the average pet owner. On the surface this may seem to be rather lucrative but when broken down this is not the case. Allowing 3 hours for a consultation, plus around 1 hour travel time and at least 2 hours report writing, this is only £20 an hour. That is without factoring in travel costs, insurance, the cost of my training (around £15,000) and business overheads such as admin, banking fees and the website. It is small wonder that I am considered by other business owning friends to be running a 'hobby business' and I must confess, that before Peter’s lecture, I was starting to wonder if this was ever going to be a real career.
Of course this is a matter for me and my finances, not my clients, but one of the most pertinent points in the lecture was to consider, finances aside, if this 'standard approach' really was helpful for our clients. And actually, my own personal experiences have lead me to feel, it really isn’t!
Last year, after a bit of a trying time, I found myself feeling quite low and so I attended 12 sessions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for low self esteem. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a common ‘ailment’ of stressed out entrepreneurs who tend to work alone for long hours and who can easily pay more attention to their failures than successes. Throughout my course I noted many parallels between the way my therapist worked with me and the way I work with my clients and I realized that I wanted to make some changes to the way I worked – but I wasn’t sure how and every day business carried on as before.
But that lecture made me start to think about this again, what if my therapist had simply spent 3 hours reviewing my history, to work out the underlying problems (quite a depressing experience!) then sent me an 8 page report on the reasons why I felt so low and an huge list of absolutely everything I needed to do in 3 months to feel better? Wouldn’t this just be like reading a self help book? Even with the odd follow up appointment, I'm not sure that I would have felt motivated, encouraged or supported to carry on. Instead, we agreed our priorities at the start of the course, then, at the end of each session, she gave me 'homework', small manageable things to work on that week. The next week she would check my progress and if I hadn't done what we needed to do, we would review why and see if there was anything we could do to make sure I did it the next week. We would then agree my next actions, so rather than feeling very 'passive' in the process, I would feel very involved and motivated to keep working on it. We even planned how I would manage my homework in everyday life. The course was a success as I started to feel positive again and I really enjoyed it, but towards the end I worried I would slip back into old habits without the weekly sessions, so we discussed this and over two more sessions we agreed a plan for ensuring this didn’t happen.
And so, over the past few weeks I have worked on a new process for our behaviour cases. More information on our approach for dogs can be found here and our approach for cats here, but the main changes are:
- All of our clients will firstly be asked to send us a questionnaire on their dog or cats behaviour and lifestyle. A lot of this information gathering formed part of the initial 2-3 hour consultation, so this saves time and means I can start to see areas that we may want to focus on initially.
- Our first one hour ‘meeting’ will be done over the phone, reducing the time it takes to start working together (sometimes it can take several weeks to find a mutually convenient 3 hour slot) and it means I can give the client immediate advice on safety concerns, ask them to stock up on training tools or supplies, or get them started on a written or video diary for us to analyse together. Seeing a pet’s problem behaviour is usually an essential part of the process, but this can cause undue stress, or they may be on ‘best behaviour for the behaviourist’, so video footage can enable me to see the problem without causing additional stress or variation in behaviour . This saves a great deal of time and expense to the client and also often helps clients see patterns that they hadn’t noticed before that can really help! The telephone appointment may also be the only help some clients need, sometimes a small change or adjustment can make a big enough difference that the behaviour is no longer an issue for the pet or owner.
- We then move to hourly home sessions - the first of which is followed by an email containing a short ‘EMRA’ assessment and notes on our goals and current actions, and all subsequent sessions include a short note and/or email of the actions we agreed. I am now asking clients to stay in touch via weekly email too, which gives them a set point to work towards and regular feedback rather than simply being left alone to get on with it. These sessions are aimed at helping both client and dog to learn, practice and progress skills that will really help them with the issue they are having and to help them both build confidence in themselves and each other – often when an owner is experiencing a pet with a behaviour problem, this confidence has taken a bit of a bash, which can really affect the dog/owner bond.
- The lengthy behaviour report as ‘standard’ is no more! Clients have the option to request and pay for this if they would like, but the reality is that this is often quite an academic exercise and report and not really of that much use to the client as they are bombarded with the mechanics, but not given step by step instructions. There is also the tendency to cherry pick the advice that most appeals to the client and disregard advice they don’t like or don’t quite understand (I do this too!)! This can be ineffective at best and at worst, backfire rather badly, so instead I would prefer to progress clients session by session in bite sized, achievable chunks and to adjust this as we need to suit client and dog.
- Lastly and usually only for more complex behaviour cases, we will move to behaviour modification, where we use the skills we’ve learned in the home sessions in real context. There is a tendency for both client and behaviourist to want to skip to this point and start here, but this is putting the cart before the horse!
As always, we only see cases on veterinary referral (more on why here), but I have now also written a form that can be sent or emailed directly to client’s vets to help speed things along for all.
I hope that our more ‘humanistic’ approach to behaviour therapy makes sense to both prospective clients and any vets looking to refer to me. Please do feel free to send any questions, suggestions or thoughts to me on this to firstname.lastname@example.org and to book my help with your Feisty Feline or Cautious Canine, simply fill in our request form! I look forward to working with you!