If only it were just about training the dogs! But of course it isn’t. Many other responsibilities, tasks, and details vie for a dog trainer’s attention. Client-based paperwork is not the least among them. Interview forms, write-ups or reports, homework sheets—dog trainers spend more time at their desks than people might think. I often work with my dog trainer clients to make the most of these tools while minimizing their impact on that most valuable of resources: time.
There are compelling arguments both for and against requiring clients to fill out questionnaires prior to a first appointment. It’s important to understand the implications so you can make the right decision for your business and clients.
Many trainers find that questionnaires decrease the feeling of walking into a new situation blind. It’s a way to gather more information about the dog, family, and training or behavioral issues before the initial consult, without having to spend additional time on the phone. This also means being able to prep more fully for the interview, and a somewhat lower likelihood of being surprised upon arrival with a problem you weren’t aware of or prepared for.
Some trainers cite screening for client compliance as reason for requiring questionnaires. The logic goes that if a potential client isn’t willing to answer a few pages of questions they’re not likely follow training directions and get their homework done.
Pre-consulting paperwork also creates a record of the dog’s issues in the client’s own words and hand. Should you ever need it, you can prove what was and was not accurately reported to you.
The biggest drawback to asking clients to fill out paperwork before they can see you is that it might result in their not seeing you. From a business perspective, you generally want access to your services to be as easy as possible. A questionnaire can act as a roadblock. By asking clients to jump through any hoop, however potentially beneficial, before they can gain your expertise may not serve your business, the client, or the dog. Should a client be put off by the request, or should they simply procrastinate or, like most people these days, be terribly busy, you stand to lose business. And the client and dog fail to get help.
It also does not necessarily follow that not completing a questionnaire indicates a lack of future training compliance. While it’s true that past behavior is generally a useful indicator of what to expect next, a logical case has not been made between filling out paperwork and doing one’s training homework. First, these are two different kinds of tasks.
Secondly, it is part of our job as trainers to create compliance—by inspiration, by designing training plans to fit our clients’ lifestyles, by creating results—and we can’t very well do that if we aren’t working with the client because they didn’t fill out paperwork. (Interestingly, there is not a correlation in the opposite direction, either. I don’t think we can make the claim that a willingness to fill out a questionnaire predicts good homework compliance.)
In short, you may actually be weeding out wonderful clients who just didn’t, for whatever reason, care to jump through the questionnaire hoop.
And while the information on a client questionnaire may give us more to prepare with, it cannot be considered fully reliable. It will still be necessary to undertake a client interview to flesh out answers and gain a full picture of the issues at hand. Given this, it may not be a true time saver for trainers, and may be a source of irritation to clients having to answer a question they’ve already written about.
So, should I use one?
That depends. If your business is thriving and you’ve got a waiting list, then maybe. A questionnaire in this case may help weed people out. It’s not that those who didn’t fill it out would have made poor clients. It’s just that you’re busy enough that losing some potential sales to the paperwork requirement is actually helpful.
If your caseload includes a lot of serious aggression cases, a questionnaire may provide extra liability and safety protection for you by providing a written record of what the client did and didn’t reveal to you, and you have additional information to use in deciding whether to take the case. Alternatively, however, you could have them sign off on your notes from the initial consult.
If you tend to be nervous about approaching new cases, and having the additional information from the questionnaire makes you feel more comfortable walking into the initial consult, it may be worth risking the downsides until you’ve built your confidence up. But no matter how well developed and detailed the questionnaire is you should still be ready for the unexpected. Clients don’t always prioritize, see, or understand things the same way we do so some surprises are inevitable.
The majority of trainers do not need to use a questionnaire and may be ill-served by asking clients to take additional steps before gaining access to training.
If you use one.
Short of the exceptions above, if you use a questionnaire make it optional rather than mandatory, to avoid losing a potential client’s business.
Keep it short, easy to fill out (use check boxes wherever feasible), and on topic. Avoid asking questions that are not useful for assessment or prognosis.
Write it for description instead of interpretation. Description—what the dog does and when he does it—is more useful than the client’s interpretation of what he’s doing or why. (A client’s perspective is important to know, but easy to get. They’re likely to share it on the phone, in the questionnaire, at the initial consult. What’s harder to garner is what is actually taking place.)
How you ask a question can be the difference between getting an answer like, “I think he was mad because I’d been away for three days” and “I took his pig’s ear and he bit my arm.” Clearly the second is of much more diagnostic use. To get descriptive answers ask questions like “What does your dog do when you…?” instead of open ended questions such as “What happened?” This is another place check boxes can be helpful.
Some trainers give clients post-consult reports, some do not. Some do so only after the initial consult, while others put a write-up together for each session. There are no hard and fast rules here, nothing professionally required. But here’s what we recommend:
Produce a short report after each initial consult. This is particularly important for aggression cases in order to have a written record of your assessment and recommendations. But it can also be helpful to you and the client for any kind of case. Clients can be easily overwhelmed by the information given them in a typical appointment. Having something to refer back to can help to reinforce the main ideas and keep them on track over the coming week.
In addition to liability protection, your reports can be used as a marketing tool. With your client’s permission, send a copy of each report to the client’s veterinarian along with a cover letter. Your reports can convey your professionalism and expertise better than any brochure or flier possibly could. I’ve seen many trainers gain new referral sources with professional reports—even vets adamantly committed to a different trainer or who refused to give any referrals at all. (Vet reports needn’t be limited to behavior cases—use them for obedience and manners work, too.)
Keep your reports short. Really short. No more than two pages, with plenty of white space. Clients are much more likely to read and use what you give them if it is not overwhelming. Veterinarians are much more likely to read it if it is brief. And you will spend much less time at your desk and thus more time marketing your business and seeing clients if you are not writing training novels.
Keep your reports to the basics—assessment of areas of concern, prognosis, management recommendations, and a basic outline of the training approach. This is absolutely not the place to lay out the training plan in step-by-step detail. Doing so can not only intimidate clients, but sometimes give them the impression they could maybe try it on their own—without you. This is not only bad for your bottom line, it sets the client and dog up to maintain the status quo they called you to change.
Write-ups after each session are a good idea in aggression cases in order to maintain a strong paper trail. For other situations, homework handouts will do the trick.
Having a written version of their homework after each session is helpful for most clients to refer back to. But there are also some pitfalls to avoid.
Keep homework write-ups short and to the point. One to two pages maximum, with plenty of white space. Use numbered lists, bullet points, and section titles to make the handout easy to read and use. Avoid the inclination to include essays on learning theory, training techniques, and so on—these sheets are for lay dog guardians, not fellow trainers. (It’s not that understanding basic learning and training principles isn’t important—just keep things brief, simple, and immediately applicable to the week’s goals.)
Whenever possible use pre-written, standard homework handouts to save yourself time. You can personalize standard templates for a particular client if need be, but stay away from writing up unique pieces for each client after each section—this is not sustainable for a thriving business.
Give clients only those handouts that pertain to the topics you covered. You may be tempted to share all the handouts in your repertoire, but don’t. Less is more when people are learning something new. Don’t overwhelm or distract clients with additional information when you want them to focus on their instructions for the week.
Brand, brand, brand.
Everything you hand clients should be branded with your business name, logo, and contact information. Visual consistency is key—all your written material should be easily recognizable as coming from your business. Use the same colors and fonts (and keep both to a minimum), and standardized layouts.
Use standard versions or templates for all your paperwork to work as efficiently as possible.
Less is more.
Avoid long versions of anything when a short version will do. Remember that most clients are not behavior and training junkies. They are typical, busy, stressed people who need help with something—in this case, training their dog. They are not looking to become professional trainers or gain a thorough understanding of learning theory and dog behavior. They just want some effective relief. Dole out the information you think is critical in small enough batches that they can take it in and act on it. This might be different for each person, and occasionally you’ll get a client who is hungry for every bit of reading material they can get their hands on, but for most people less truly is more.
There are no rules here—no governing body to tell you what paperwork you must use when. So think about your goals for clients, for your own time, and for your business. What paperwork best suits you, your business, and those who have called you for help?