What breed is that client?


Ever wish pets could schedule their own appointments and bring themselves in for care? The key to stopping client-created stress is to see your clients for the different breeds they are—and adjust your approach accordingly.

It's been a busy day at the clinic, and now there's a growling rottweiler with a squinty left eye in Room 2. The only fair way to determine who'll take the history, of course, is to flip a coin, so your team member prepares to launch a nickel in the air.

Dr. Karen

The door swings open and in comes Mrs. Takeudown. She says Fluffy's worse than ever after those last meds. Plus she was overcharged on her bill, and no one has returned any of her phone calls today. She's really mad and is demanding to speak to someone.

Suddenly, the coin is snatched from mid-air and your team worker turns to you, "Please, please, let me help with the rottweiler, and I'll buy you lunch every day next week."

Given the choice between a growling client and a growling dog, wouldn't we all take the dog? After all, our work is animals—we know dogs. A crabby canine barely bumps our heart rate up, but an irate client can send us into panic mode. What are we supposed to do with this species, anyway? Pacify them? Intimidate them? Offer them a treat?

And it isn't just the grumpy ones who are difficult to understand. Clients are all so different. Some are cranky, like Mrs. Takeudown, while others might simply stare at you while you're trying to explain interesting things like heartworm preventive. Talkative folks can make taking a history feel more like running a marathon, while emotional people catch us off guard when they burst into tears over a wood tick welt or an accidental extra charge.

But hang on a second! Why do we expect all clients to be the same when we certainly don't expect all dog breeds to act alike? After all, none of us would get too excited if we were trimming a basset hound's nails and it started to howl. But if a golden did that, we'd wonder what was going on. And if an opinionated schnauzer came in for a low dose dex test, we'd think he was sick if he didn't bark all day. We don't fret about the differences among breeds; we expect them.

So now let's think outside the dog kennel. If we simply look at humans the way we look at dogs, we'll find that Homo sapiens actually come in different breeds, too. For instance, a Labrador client won't bat an eye if his dog shakes ear cleanser all over his shirt, but don't get any of that icky stuff near your bichon client. The terrier client will crowd in beside the doctor to see what goopy stuff is coming out of her cat's abscess, while the husky client will hold a hankie over her nose and look away. These things shouldn't surprise us; we've been dealing with different breeds all of our professional lives. So let's look at clients in a whole new light. Forget about what kind of pet they own for the moment—what kind of breed is the owner?

The Cavalier King Charles spaniel

Everyone loves this client breed. They're accepting, compliant, and intelligent. They think you're just the nicest, smartest team member, and they'll try to follow your instructions to the letter. If you tell this owner to clean his dog's ears, he'll ask, "How many times a day?" Tell her that her dog is 20 percent overweight, and she'll write down the exact amount of calories to feed daily. When you spend time with this client, the conversation is pleasant, the respect is evident, and you always leave the room with a smile.

When you're working with these clients, however, remember that they may be so compliant that they agree to just about everything. So ask a few questions to be sure you're on the same page. "Will it bother you if the doctor expresses Ruby's anal sacs here in the exam room, or would you prefer I take her to the treatment area?" "It sounds like you understand the importance of restricted exercise after orthopedic surgery, but with three small children and two other spaniels at home, we need to make sure this plan is realistic for your family." As always, clear communication is the backbone to great client relationships, so don't skimp in this area just because you have an easy, pleasant personality to work with.

The Labrador retriever

This client, albeit a bit less refined, is just as affable as the Cavalier. Friendly and enthusiastic, these folks greet you with a cheery, "Hello there!" This is the man that might guffaw when his dog tries to snap as you take him into the exam room, but then he'll quickly ask if you're OK. People with this personality mean no harm—they're just excited about everything in life.

The Labrador client really, truly wants to comply with all of your instructions, but man, oh man life is a crazy thing! "Sorry, but the wife left town and the kid got sick and I totally forgot to give Duke those pills." This might also be the woman who lets her springer off the leash in the waiting room because "Lady loves everybody." But she won't be at all offended when you quickly ask her to leash Lady back up. If you're having a really bad phlebotomy day and it takes you five tries to hit the vein on this client's dog, that's OK—life is good.

This exuberant client breed is a lot of fun to work with, but keep a few things in mind. These folks are intelligent, but there are a lot of flowers in life to smell so don't waste their time. If the doctor suspects their dog has Lyme disease, don't dribble details about procedures and tests all over them. "Just treat him the same way you'd treat your dog," they'll say as they check their watch for the third time.

Make strong eye contact with your Labrador clients. Remember, you're trying to squeeze your way into a brain full of ringing cell phones and two-page shopping lists. Smile. Tell them what needs to be done. Then, as you're waving them out the door, go enter that follow-up call into the computer. These clients will happily wander along the trail the doctor recommends, but they may need a friendly whistle now and then to help keep them on track.

The Jack Russell terrier

Fearless. Loud. Athletic. Feisty. These are all terms that come to mind when we contemplate this client breed. This is the owner that wants you to demonstrate how to express anal sacs so that she can do it at home and will be gung-ho on giving her cat with kidney problems subcutaneous fluids after one demonstration. This is also the man who has gone online and read ad nauseam about NSAIDs, so make sure you're ready to explain why the doctor chose one over the other.

Terrier clients question charges on their bill. They insist that their dog be first on the day's surgery agenda. They point out that your nametag is askew.

People with this personality make wonderful owners, but you must adjust the way you handle them compared to other client breeds. This client, unlike the Labrador, wants the low-down on the different Lyme disease tests available and also wants to know exactly how much the ALT increased over the Chem6 done on their dog three months ago. Beware, if you have to use the term "idiopathic" with these owners, it'll make no sense to them. "Surely," they'll insist, "there must be a way for a competent technician to ferret out the cause in the test results."

Know your facts. Have a plan. These owners want to consider everything from the vaccine manufacturer to the kind of gas you use for anesthesia. And—for heaven's sake—don't put the terrier client's blood work results at the bottom of your callback pile. They'll call 15 times by noon if you do.

The Irish setter

"Omigosh! Omigosh! Is this the Animal Hospital? Help me! My dog was itching and I gave him one of my allergy pills and now he's having a seizure! He's drooling. He's gagging. Omigosh, I've killed my dog! Wait! Wait a minute. Are you still on the line? OK, I think he's better. His tongue is moving, and he's opening his mouth. Yuck, I think there's something in his mouth; let me see if I can get it out. Oh, gag me! He has a dead mouse in his mouth. Aack! I have to bring him in so you can wash his mouth out with soap. I don't know whether I'm going to faint or throw up. Tell the doctor I'll be right over."

We've all dealt with the Irish setter client: those people that leap first and look second. Everything's a big deal, from the yelp their dog makes when it's vaccinated to the tiny accidental nick it received at the groomers. These clients are excitable and beyond, emotions sashaying all over the waiting area and exam room.

"Don't you just think she's one of the cutest Yorkies you've ever seen? We just love her, and she's so smart! My, that's a big needle. What do you mean she has gum disease? How did that happen? Oh, I feel just terrible that I haven't taken care of my baby girl. Was it because she stayed at the kennel last week? Oh, I'll never forgive myself if her teeth fall out because of me."

Interacting with these clients is like riding the roller coaster at the theme park. Up, down, and loop-the-loop. One of the most important things you can do with the Irish setter client is to remain calm. Talk slowly. Smile. Be reassuring. These owners are wonderful people, but they're so busy emoting that they sometimes forget to breathe.

This isn't a client that you can afford to rush through a history or checkout with. You may lose their business if you are too curt or seem condescending. Take a few extra minutes and assure them that a lipoma isn't cancerous, that wood ticks don't specifically seek out humans at night, and that their overweight dog will still like them even if they put it on a diet. Remember, if these clients like the way you interact with them, they'll gush about your practice to everyone they know.

The Akita

Aloof and introverted, this client breed is definitely a difficult one for many team members to relate to, especially if you enjoy two-way conversation. These folks just won't accept a single treat you offer them, no matter how hard you try. For example, "Your dog is cute." "Your child seems smart." "This leash is cool." They'll just gaze at you—quietly and patiently—and wait for you to quit talking, lead them into the exam room, take the history, and get the doctor.

Akita clients will take their own counsel on everything from vaccines to vitamins, and they have no time for canine dogma without proof. Just the facts, ma'am. Pleasant but reserved, these owners prefer their information in bullets. This is what's wrong. This is why it happened. This is what we're going to do. Thank you and goodbye.

So how do you handle a breed like this, especially if the client right before was an Irish setter? Well, just change gears, the same way you would to accommodate the dog. First of all, you'll stop gushing and gabbing, because you've seen that this client doesn't respond particularly well to that style. Remember, shyness is easy to misinterpret as indifference. Ask pleasant questions to make sure the client understands everything the doctor went over in the exam.

Once again, entering follow-up calls in the computer is important with this breed of client because they may not initiate opportunities for human interaction like other breeds. It's also important to remember that these clients' reticent personality doesn't mean they lack affection for their pets—often, it's quite the opposite. Some of the strongest human-animal bonds form when owners feel more comfortable with their pets than they do with other people.

The papillon

The papillon client is sensitive and shy. You'll notice that making eye contact with these folks can be difficult, and getting a history is tougher than extracting cemented-in carnassial teeth. Papillon clients will turn down a blood test if they think it'll hurt their pet to obtain it. They'll decline a dental prophylaxis because they hate to have their dog anesthetized. It'll bother them—a lot—if Princess bleeds from an injection site or because you cut the nail too short.

This client breed may also be agreeable just to avoid confrontation. "Have you been giving the medication twice a day?"


"Hmm, there are quite a few pills left. Are you sure you weren't giving it only once a day?"

"Oh, yes. It was only once a day."

When dealing with papillon owners, don't attempt to bulldoze them into any tests or procedures. If you do, they'll run screaming from the room. Instead, take your time and explain procedures to them. Talk to them about the beauty of post-operative pain medication and the advantage of exchanging a short annoyance (needle poke) for lots of pertinent information (geriatric profile).

Be honest and up-front with them about procedures and charges but help them to put it in perspective. "I know how you feel. I hated to go under general anesthesia last year to have my appendix out; but it was causing a problem, and I had to do it. This torn ligament in Tuffy's joint's really bothering him, and he'll feel so much better after having surgery to stabilize that knee." This client responds best to gentle handling and a calm manner.

The American pit bull

Mr. Grumble calls, and he wants antibiotics for Buster's skin. He doesn't want to come in for an exam because it's the exact same thing as last year. Mrs. Fussby is at the desk, and she wants to know why you're charging her for a full exam when she was just in a month ago. And Mr. Belligerent is bringing Charlie in this afternoon, and he knows you can schedule him in. He expects your team to fix the lameness once and for all.

The pit bull client can focus on a problem like no other pet owner and won't easily release any of his or her own self-conceived ideas to embrace one of yours or the doctors'. Also, when you're talking to these folks, you may find yourself attempting to grab the conversation leash and pull it back to the problem at hand. "So even though you suspect that your cousin intentionally poisoned Pickles after he urinated on her coat, Pickles was vomiting before that night, right? The doctor would like do some tests to check for other problems, is that OK?"

Pleasant when appeased, but pugnacious when opposed, pit bull clients will walk all over any person that'll let them. They often walk into the hospital absolutely, positively sure they know what's wrong with their pet, but since they need your doctor's signature on the prescription authorization, here they are.

Pit bull clients aren't necessarily offensive; they just know what they want and are determined to get it. One thing about strong personalities, however, is that the harder you push against them, the harder they push back. Instead of flat-out telling them they're wrong, explain that their theory might be correct but the doctor feels another very likely possibility is Diagnosis X. Help them see the wisdom in ruling out other causes for their pets' problems. Stay professional and polite, and you'll help steer these clients so they're a positive part of the practice.

Variety is the spice of life

These are just a few of the many different client breeds that you might take a history from or check out after an exam. If you learn to recognize what breed you're working with, you can simply adjust your style to assure a positive interaction with that particular personality. And, although there's no doubt that we'll always be most comfortable with clients that have the same breed characteristics as ourselves, it's important to remember that every breed has redeeming qualities.

So off you go; the Labrador client just arrived with her three cats, and your terrier client's on the phone about his puppy's lab results. Have fun and remember—variety is the spice of life!

Dr. Karen Wheeler is a writer and associate practitioner at Companion Animal Hospital in Eagan, Minn. Please send questions or comments to: firstline@advanstar.com

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