The old song says that breaking up is hard to do. If you’ve ever had to part ways with a client, you know that it’s true. So true, in fact, that dog pros often wait far too long to let challenging clients go, choosing to live with ongoing stress rather than face the uncomfortable moment of truth. If you’re living with difficult clients (human or dog), here are some guidelines for knowing when to part ways—and how to do it.
Admitting the honeymoon is over.
Just as in a romantic relationship, you sometimes don’t know it’s a bad fit until the first argument or moment of crisis. Other times you can tell right from the first date. Either way, it’s often hard to do what we know needs doing. Conflict avoidance is a powerful force and can lead to all sorts of rationalizations. It’ll get better. I can live with this. It’s not that bad. I really like his dog. But even as we make the excuses we know it’s inevitable: This will end in tears.
Alright, that may be a bit dramatic. But the point is the same: It doesn’t pay to put off the break up. Here’s how to know when it’s time:
A client is causing you ongoing low-level stress or periods of intense stress. This can come in many forms. Repeatedly complaining about or questioning policies, or asking for exceptions or special treatment. Requiring an inordinate amount of time via email, text, or phone. Abusive treatment of you or staff. Longevity is key for your livelihood and ability to help the most dogs possible. And longevity requires enjoyment of the work. If a client is affecting your love of the job—or that of your employees—it’s time to recognize the relationship isn’t a good fit.
A dog is causing you or other dogs ongoing low-level stress or periods of intense stress. Sometimes it’s the canine client who’s the issue, rather than their human. This is particularly hard, as our instinct is to give dogs many second chances. Here’s a litmus test to know when it really is time to make the call: If, when a particular dog is not on the daycare floor or in a walking rotation, you notice that you, your staff, or the other dogs better enjoy their day, it’s time. No matter how much you want to help the dog in question, you are better served by taking care of yourself and your staff—and you are obligated to take care of the other dogs.
Non-compliance on health or behavior issues. Whether you’re a dog trainer, dog walker, or daycare operator, it’s important that clients respect your expertise by responding to requests regarding their dog’s physical and behavioral well being. Trainers, you can’t achieve successful case resolution without client compliance. Walkers and daycares, your job is to keep dogs safe and happy. A client who ignores a request to seek training or a suggestion for veterinary care is not an active partner in the relationship. In short, if clients impede your ability to do right by dogs, it’s time to call it quits.
It’s not you, it’s me.
It’s one thing to know the end has come, another to know how to make the break. Most of us in the R+ world tend toward conflict avoidance, and it never feels good to hurt another’s feelings or cause stress or disappointment. The trick, in most cases, is the well-worn “It’s not you, it’s me” strategy. While a love interest might see right through this ruse, done well it’s a bit easier to pull off with a client whose time has come. The idea is to focus on your or your business’ inability to fulfill the client’s or the dog’s needs, rather than the issues you’re having with either.
The key to delivering a good breakup speech is just the right mix of empathy and firmness. You want to be kind and gentle, but leave no mistake that the decision has been made. This is a breakup, not a separation—be sure not to leave the door open for any hopeful second chances. If you’re feeling nervous or unsure going into one of these conversations, write a script and practice it. You might even do some role play with a friend, co-worker, or partner at home.
Try a variation of one of these scripts:
I’ve put this conversation off a long time because I so love Charlie, but the truth is we’re just not the right fit for him. Charlie has so much exuberance and our [daycare or walking] group just isn’t the right mix of dogs to give him the best experience every day. Charlie needs some younger dogs ready to romp and play in his style. [Or: Charlie would get so much more from a dedicated dog walker who can provide him undivided attention and see that he gets the exercise he really needs.]
We’re going to miss him terribly, but I think he and you will both be much happier, particularly when you see the impact a higher level of exercise can have on behavior at home. So let’s set [a day two weeks out] as Charlie’s last day with us to give you some time to find a better situation for him. [Optional:] I’ve got a list of referrals for you here.
The first paragraph sets out the rationale. Note that the focus is on the business’ ability to meet the client’s and dog’s needs, not whether this was a difficult client situation or an issue with Charlie’s behavior. Notice also that the last paragraph leaves no room for misunderstanding—the decision has been made.
A note about referrals: It won’t be appropriate to provide a referral in all cases. For example, you won’t want to refer a dog you know to be inappropriate for daycare to another daycare, unless you think it’s a different enough setup to work for him. And don’t refer truly challenging clients to dog pro colleagues—that’s just bad karma. If you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable referring to, that’s fine. The dog is ultimately the client’s responsibility and it’s up to them to find appropriate care. Don’t let a lack of good referral sources in your area guilt you into keeping a dog or client who isn’t a good fit.
My job is to give you and Fido the best chance of reaching your training goals, and I’m concerned I’m not going to be able to do so. I can see you’re uncomfortable with [or don’t have time for] the approach [or instructions or homework or training plan, etc.] that I’m advocating, and without us being on the same page we’re not likely to see results. To give each client and dog my best effort I take a limited number of cases at a time. I’d so love to help you, but if I’m not the right fit for you and Spot, I would feel better giving this spot to someone I can truly make a difference for.
Quite often clients receiving this message will make a sudden U-turn, insisting that no, you really are the right trainer for them, and committing themselves to follow your lead. This is a good moment to consider an exception to the divorce-not-separation rule, as it’s not uncommon for these clients to become wonderful training partners. Why? Simple: With your confident statement you’ve gained their respect as a professional to be followed.
No, wait. It is you.
When you’re facing a breakup due to dangerous dog behavior, firm, compassionate honesty is the best policy. It’s not in the client’s or dog’s best interest to side-step serious issues. Here’s a sample script for care-giving services like walking and daycare:
This is a difficult conversation but I care very much about you and Lassie and want you both to be safe. I’m concerned about Lassie’s continued [or escalating] [aggression, biting, resource guarding, reactivity, etc.]. Given [the physical set up at our daycare, or the nature of group walks, or the high density area we walk in, etc.] I can’t be certain of avoiding the situations Lassie finds challenging. I’m worried about an incident resulting in a dangerous dog hearing, Lassie being separated from your home, and even your beautiful home at liability risk. I think it will be safer for you and for Lassie to [move to a company that provides individual walks, or stay home until training is completed, etc.].
Notice that even here, when we’re being very forthright about the issue at hand, the script still lays the breakup at the business’ feet by centering the decision to “fire” the dog around the inability to provide the right environment. This compassionate sleight-of-hand seeks to avoid a defensive stance that might keep the client from hearing the real message: This is a dangerous situation.
Trainers, to protect your own liability in situations where clients are not complying with safety management recommendations (and, hopefully, to get the client finally on board), it may be time for the equivalent of the relationship ultimatum:
This is a difficult conversation but I care very much about you and Lassie and want you both to be safe. I’m concerned about Lassie’s continued [or escalating] [aggression, biting, resource guarding, reactivity, etc.]. I’m worried about an incident resulting in a dangerous dog hearing, Lassie being separated from your home, and even your beautiful home at liability risk. Without a commitment from you to [have Lassie wear her muzzle outside the home, not allow Lassie and the grandchildren to interact, etc.] I am not willing to continue our training work together.
Just as when warning a significant other that her mother’s meddling or his refusal to pick up his dirty socks is about to reach the breaking point, be sure you mean it when you say it. If you aren’t willing to actually end services should a client not respond with positive action, you place yourself (and your client) in a worse position than before the conversation.
The rearview mirror.
The breakup moment is always hard, but just as when ending a romantic relationship that’s come up short, the view from the rearview mirror generally makes up for it. When facing one of these conversations (and yes, they should ideally be in-person conversations, though an emailed breakup is better than no breakup), visualize the relief that’s coming for yourself, any staff, and any other dogs you care for. Then dig deep, take a good breath, and set the client free.