The Initial Consultation
Owning a dog with separation anxiety is an emotional rollercoaster. Mixed in with the love and adoration owners feel for their dog, there are moments where they cry over the suffering they witness, moments where they scream in anger at their dog for destroying grandma’s beloved antique settee, and moments where they feel they are horrible human beings for considering giving up their beloved pet. It is gut-wrenching stuff and emotionally draining for both dog and owners. Having sat through more sessions with tearful owners than I can count, I can tell you this happens as a rule, not an exception.
At the initial consult, allow enough time listening to your clients’ tales of woe. Being a counselor and support person for the owners is an essential part of treating separation anxiety. Owners are usually miserable from the nonstop conflict between their anger about what’s happening to their lives and their deep empathy for their dog. Glossing over their feelings and trying to jump right in and start a plan can backfire. Listen to them and make sure they feel heard. (Detailed information on client screening and selection can be found in Chapter 15.)
Because separation anxiety is such an emotionally charged topic, owners get caught up relating the many stories and examples of their dog’s behavior to you, pouring out their frustration and feelings of hopelessness. This will lead to either a very long consult or one where you leave with only half the information you need. Questionnaires are invaluable in keeping you and the client on track during the initial consult. You want to get all the information needed to assess the dog correctly, and having the questionnaire with you allows you to gently push the client along so you can get through the consult and move on to giving management and treatment options.
In my opinion, it’s important to fill out the questionnaire at the initial consult, not in advance. Many trainers ask clients to answer lengthy questionnaires in advance of the consult. I don’t think this is the right way to go for a couple of reasons. First of all, it can delay your consult, and you need to start working with your clients right away. Second, you need to review the questions with your clients in person as it usually gives you more reliable information. And lastly, many clients resent having spent considerable time filling out a questionnaire you’re going to review together anyway.
For a sample initial consult questionnaire, see Appendix #2. Looking at it, you may think you don’t need all that information right away—or ever, depending on the severity of the case—but further into your program, the information could well prove crucial. Pick and choose your questions as needed and understand that those that are the most important deal with the dog’s symptoms and the client’s ability to suspend absences. The goal is to accurately assess the problem so you can get an idea about where to begin your protocol. Does the dog show symptoms the moment the front door is shut or well before? What does the dog’s body language look like once the owners leave versus when they are home? You need to know this to accurately assess stress signals. Is the dog stressed at all times, even when the owner is present?
Initial consultation results
The initial consult is a fact-gathering session and by the end of it you should be familiar with the dog’s symptoms and understand the severity level of the problem. This is also the time when you ask the owners to commit to at least the next four weeks of working with you and agreeing to suspend absences with the dog. You will also want to get the owners ready to proceed by coordinating schedules and getting a management routine in place by reviewing options like daycare, dog walkers or sitters. If you think a veterinary consultation about medication is necessary, now is also the time to broach this subject. As mentioned in the medication section, if the dog isn’t able to settle even when the owner is home, medication can help give some relief. For some dogs in the mild-to-moderate category, you may not know yet whether medication will be necessary. In such a case, it’s prudent to wait and assess this after you have worked the program for a few weeks. Typically in this initial consult, if time permits, I like to audition the Treat & Train (and other interactive feeding toys) in the event any or all will be useful tools for the specific protocol you develop for the dog.
By the next time you meet (likely online, but in-person if the clients need help with the mechanics of training), you are ready to start training in earnest.
Spend time at your initial consult reviewing all of the dog’s symptoms and the owner’s concerns. Remember this is a fact-finding session and the time to set up your goals for the coming weeks, not a major training session.