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Talking behavior with clients


Every behavior patient is different, so understanding what works best for pets and clients through communication can help treat these issues



Clients know what to expect medically when it comes to having a dog, for the most part. They know that they need their vaccinations, spayed or neutered, periodic bloodwork, flea and tick prevention, and more, especially depending on the breed that the family adopted. However, no clients wanted their current dog to have a playmate only to find the dogs cannot stand each other and must be separated in the house or a cat who constantly is urinating outside of the litter box.

During her lecture “Communication Breakdown? How To Communicate Effectively With Clients and Patients” at the Veterinary Meeting & Expo conference in Orlando, Florida, Terry Curtis, DVM, MS, DACVB, aimed to help attendees better talk to clients about behavior and treat the issues.

Managing client expectations

Curtis told attendees that there are common things that she hears when clients come to her for help saying something along the lines of they have never had an experience like this with a pet before. The client coming into owning the pet had an expectation that is not being met or is not what they expected, creating a stressful situation for them, and a pet who is sick. Curtis explained that this is what she tells attendees with this mindset.

“We're dealing with owners expectations of what they thought they were going to have, when they got that cat or dog from a breeder, the humane society, a friend, [or] wherever they got it from there. [They think] we're going to have this, and they got that. What are you going to do?

“[Pet parents will say] I've had dogs all my life, but never one like [this one]. This is where I say do you have a brother or sister? And they go Yeah, like, are they anything like you? No, no, no. Then why would this dog be like all the other dogs,” Curtis said.

Analogies are a powerful tool that teams can use to discuss and manage client expectations and treatments. Not every analogy will work or fit with cases, but connecting to your parents this way can help them better understand what is happening with their pet and then move into finding solutions that work for everyone.

One size does NOT fit all

When treating behavioral issues, there will be times when one patient responds to treatment, and it works as it should and then it is used on a different patient with the same issue and it is unsuccessful. This can be frustrating for everyone, including the veterinary team, but it is important to have a plan B, plan C, and plan D. There are not that many veterinary behaviorists out there so learning how to treat behavior in a space where there are none available can be crucial to a veterinary clinic. Treating behavior is thinking on the fly and figuring out what works best for what patient.

“I can give you a fish or I can teach you how to fish. We're at that place where you gotta get a fish and have to learn how to fish, and you can. I think that is the most important thing to realize is that you can do something. So, the goal here is to make you feel comfortable with having a few simple concepts in your head that you feel comfortable implementing in a variety of situations. One of the most important things that kind of hit me after I don't know how many years I'm doing this is dog behavior happens for a reason. So not random stuff,” she continued.

Triggers for pets can also become predictable over time such as the sound of them grabbing their keys or putting on certain shoes. Treating these behavioral issues also means that pet owners and teams need to identify the trigger for the pet. Curtis used the example of a dog that will bark at other dogs while they are on a walk. For this issue, she suggested maybe walking the pet at an uncommon hour or utilizing the backyard as a way to get enrichment and the outside time they need away from others.

If these options are not available for the patient, or they are not working for their pet, Curtis said that positive reinforcement when the trigger is happening is another way to combat this issue. If the dog goes on a walk and just wants to constantly bark and try to go after others, when on a walk and there is a dog, give the pet a treat.

“If I have a dog that's barking, because it's expressing an emotion, and I give it a treat, I'm not rewarding the behavior. [The] dog isn't asking anything of me, it’s expressing an emotion. By giving it a treat, I'm changing why the dog feels it needs to bark in the first place. So whether it's predictably bad, from their perspective, or unpredictable from their perspective doesn't matter. I'm going to turn it into something predictably good…I don't need a relaxed dog in the presence of a trigger to give it a treat. I need them to learn that there's no reason for the reactive behavior,” explained Curtis.


For Curtis, relating to the patient is key to helping the treatment. She provides clients with examples and analogies that they resonate with and can then move forward with the treatment plans they came up with. Reminding clients that it is okay when things fail because every pet, like siblings, may just need a different strategy, but you are a team and in this together.

“These cases are emotional. You're dealing with owners who have committed. We love the human-animal bond,” Curtis said.


T Curtis. Communication Breakdown? How To Communicate Effectively With Clients and Patients. Presented at: VMX 2024; January 13-17; Orlando, FL.

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