We’ve all been there—at a party, or in line at the grocery store, or at a child’s soccer game. Wherever it happens, you know how it goes. Someone asks you what you do. You tell them. Next thing you know you’re listening to their dog problems and being pumped for free advice. And it’s a funny thing—we often feel compelled to give it. Sometimes because we don’t know how to get out of doing so, sometimes because we love what we do and enjoy talking about it, and often because we care about dogs and want to see them get the help they need.
But it’s a losing proposition for all involved to give free advice. It cheats you out of business and devalues your professional knowledge and skill, it reduces the chance the dog owner will pursue the help he or she needs, and it doesn’t get the dog any real help. Advice given in a social situation is seldom followed—and you can’t offer the kind of detail and support that most cases require.
Setting boundaries for public and social spaces
Few people are aware of the level of education and experience a qualified trainer possesses, of the amount of information needed to diagnose a behavior, and of the degree of thought put into a behavior modification plan. As a result, they don’t feel shy about asking for quick-fix tips. The trick to handling these situations is to politely avoid giving too much free advice while creating the highest likelihood that they will actually seek your professional help.
Here is a strategy you can try:
3. Build Confidence
5. Tip (optional)
Step 1: Interrupt
Let’s say a woman begins her story, “My little dog Sandy barks so loud you’d think she was a German Shepherd, or even two dogs! Drives me crazy. She barks all day long. One time she even…”
This is a good time for step 1—the interruption. Allow the other person to tell just enough of the story to give you a hint of the problem, but don’t let them get going full swing. The more they invest in the story, the harder it will be for you to avoid their request for immediate answers and explanations. Intervene in a friendly and assertive manner, and try to be reinforcing to soften the interruption. “Sounds like Sandy is quite the character! Amazing how little dogs can have such big personalities.”
Step 2: Empathize
Immediately make it clear that you’ve heard their concern: “Barking, especially when it’s constant, can be so frustrating! It’s hard to hear yourself think!”
Step 3: Build Confidence
This is the time to elegantly let them know you’re an expert and that diagnosis and treatment is taken seriously in the world of professional dog training. “That kind of barking can be many things—demand barking, barrier frustration, alarm barking, separation anxiety…”
Step 4: Redirect
This is your opportunity to suggest your services, which also gently but clearly implies that you require payment for your expertise. “To know for sure what makes Sandy bark, I would need to do a complete diagnostic interview. Then I can work with you to design a treatment plan to best suit your needs. Here’s my card if you’d like to do that. You can also take a look at my website to learn a little more about what I do and to see my background and credentials. I’d be delighted to work with you and Sandy to see if we can’t create a nice, quiet house for you.”
If you’re really gung-ho and have a feeling they wouldn’t mind, you might ask for their contact information (but don’t scribble on the backs of receipts, carry around a small book for this) so you can follow up with them.
Step 5: Tip (Optional)
If you think it’s warranted, tip them by offering a management or training suggestion. An example for Sandy’s mom might be, “In the meantime, here’s one thing you can do that might help: Reward Sandy any time she’s not barking. If you notice the house is quiet, take a moment to give her a cookie or a belly rub. Let her know that you appreciate the peace.” Depending on the situation, your aim could be to offer a measure with immediate effect in order to build confidence in your ability to help. Other times you might present a management suggestion to diminish risk or to create some improvement in the life of either the owner or the dog.
Step 6: End
It’s important now to end the conversation. If you don’t, it’s likely the person will jump in to ask follow-up questions or tell you additional information or stories about their dog, which puts you right back in the hot seat. If you’re in a situation where you can walk away, do so. “It was really nice meeting you and hearing about Sandy. I hope you’ll let me know if I can be of help. Have a great day now!” If you’re trapped—in a line or waiting room, for example, change the subject. “By the way, do you happen to know what the weather is supposed to be like this weekend? I’ve been hearing all sorts of conflicting reports. I’m putting on a birthday party this weekend and not sure whether to plan it for inside or out in the garden. It’s for my little niece. If she had it her way, we’d…”
Additional advice on giving advice
Though the six steps are broken down for you here, in practice they run together and overlap. Try not to pause, as a determined dog storyteller always will look for a way back in. And practice makes perfect—though it may seem a little silly, try practicing this technique in the shower or while you’re driving. Recall a past situation where you were ambushed with a “A dog trainer! My dog…” story. Re-enact the scene in your head with these six steps. The more you train yourself to respond this way, the easier it’ll be next time you find yourself cornered at a dinner party.
Finally, be aware of the ethical and liability issues that sometimes lurk in these conversations. For example, if the situation described to you is potentially dangerous for the dog or other people, or if it sounds like the dog’s quality of life is threatened, you may feel compelled to have a longer discussion. But be careful—advice given in public or social contexts can never be as complete as you would want it to be, and you do not have a contract to help cover your liability. Center your advice in Step 5 (Tipping) around management suggestions to reduce any potential risk to the dog or humans. You may want to use Steps 2, 3, and 4 (Empathizing, Building Confidence, and Redirecting) to attempt to impress the seriousness of the situation upon them. Be firm but gentle, as some people may not be ready to hear the bad news. If they feel overwhelmed or perceive an attack they will be less likely to call you or another trainer for help. Ask for contact information so you can follow up and schedule a proper consultation.