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InFocus

TV programmes unexpectedly informative

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI finds parallels between behaviour counselling and a series on the box on an unrelated topic

LIKE a lot of apparently rather
“woolly” subjects to the uninitiated,
behaviour counselling might appear
a rather easy option. Far from it. It
is just as intellectually challenging,
emotionally draining, tiresome and
rewarding as any other
aspect of veterinary
practice.

In fact it requires
all the same skills plus
a number of others. In
addition to a relevant
background,
experience and good
current understanding
of the behaviour of
the species under
discussion, they
include a liking and
respect for people and
pets; an approachable,
empathetic manner;
good observational
skills – what is not
actually said being as
important as what is clearly articulated;
sensitive handling techniques – these
are usually troubled pets and distressed
clients; and the ability to educate,
enthuse, empower and support owners,
while taking care to engender realistic
expectations.

Behaviour programmes are usually
life-long and require significant
commitment – cure being a difficult
word in this context; replication of the
circumstances that gave rise to the
problems and backwards we slip, all too
easily.

As a result, patience and good
communication skills are essential. And
anyone without these, plus time, should
carefully consider whether they can do
an adequate, let alone a good, job.

Not only must we extract
information – usually lots of it – and
gather evidence, but it is generally
essential to change owners’ perceptions
of their pets’ behaviour. These are
usually struggling animals, not the bad
little humans those affected by the
behaviour have often come to regard
them as being.

Critical approach inevitably
undermines trust

Once attitudes have changed, enlisting
the sympathy and support of carers on
the pet’s behalf is a crucially important aspect of any successfully implemented
behaviour programme, which in turn
must be appropriate in all respects,
practical, feasible and above all realistic.

There is rarely anything simple,
quick and easy about resolving problem behaviours that are often
the result of a
combination of
inappropriate choice of
pet or pets, owners’
unrealistic
expectations, poor
environments that fail
to cater adequately for
the physical and
behavioural needs of
the species involved
and/or ill-informed
management.

But of course, no
word of criticism must
ever escape the
counsellor’s lips.
Unconditional positive regard, and bags of it,
is the order of the day – and the weeks, months, even years that follow.
When things go well, there really is
no more satisfying professional activity.

Sadly, however, even the most caring,
committed, well-intentioned and
motivated owners with the nicest pets
and easiest problems can require hours
of support and reassurance.

And, as with any other area of life,
nothing, no matter how apparently
straightforward, is ever guaranteed.
Disappointment always lurks around
the corner.

Different topics may have similar
themes

It may seem fanciful to suggest that
anyone tempted towards this field of
professional endeavour, or who just
wants a better idea of the process and
skills required to conduct a behaviour
consultation, might benefit from
watching a television programme on an
unrelated topic.

But in my opinion, Country House
Rescue
seen recently on an independent
channel really fits the bill. Ruth Watson,
the presenter, is a successful and
wealthy (as a result of her own efforts,
it appears) hotel proprietor with a
history of turning round the fortunes
of crumbling, country properties,
renovating, revamping and re-launching
them as thriving hostelries.

Underpinning the programme are
Ruth’s attempts to help people who
own similarly vulnerable, decrepit large
houses. For one reason or another, they
are all struggling to survive financially
while around them their bricks and
mortar disintegrate due to the
combined actions of neglect, weather,
insects and fungi.

Some of these properties have been
inherited – expectedly or not; others
bought on a whim by people who have
sold their homes and sunk their life
savings into a dream that has rapidly
become a nightmare.

In the same way pets with problem
behaviours may be inherited; a carefully
considered choice – which, of course,
does not always equate with sensible –
or acquired on the spur of the
moment.

Like many of the animal
companions presented to behaviour
counsellors, these vast homes are well-
loved, and as a result those involved
with both pets and properties are
incredibly reluctant to give them up.

Programmes must be viable

Naturally, the difficulty in both
scenarios comes from the fact that the
problems seem overwhelming to those
struggling to cope with them.

The people, pet or “palace” owners,
come from varying backgrounds. Some
clients are experienced owners with
good handling skills and the knowledge
to get their charges’ husbandry more or
less right, others get by on a wing and a
prayer and their pets pay the price.

So too the participants in this
programme. A proportion have the
background and experience needed for
their sensible proposed “turnaround”
plans and the energy, enthusiasm and
relevant skills to make a success out of
the B & B, self-catering or activity
holidays, workshop accommodation,
photo or film shoots they propose as
the answer to their problems.

They just require guidance,
confirmation and support. Others
simply do not. Their ideas are generally
inappropriate, inadequate, outdated, and
unrealistic and they themselves are
lacking the necessary abilities for the
task.

They need a complete rethink and alternative plan of action, but they are
often floundering in just the same way
as many of the clients behaviour
counsellors encounter daily.

Enter Ruth to demonstrate just how
difficult it can be to sit and listen to
several members of a family advancing
different views of where they are, and
why; where they want to get to; and the
best way to get there – just so in our
field.

Different household members often
have differing perspectives, views on
appropriate management and
significantly disparate levels of
commitment, both to the process and
the pet or pets.

Watching the programme it’s all
there, and throughout Ruth Watson
listens, reflects back what is said,
attempts to reconcile differences and
accurately identify not only the
underlying problems but the best and
most realistic way forward.

Experience and non-judgemental
attitudes can make all the
difference

Using her own knowledge, and
referring to the experiences of others in
similar circumstances, she helps the
country pile owners come up with
viable plans and then not uncommonly
knocks herself out getting everyone
“singing from the same hymn sheet”.

And throughout, this admirable
woman remains calm, polite, tactful,
and no matter how difficult people are
being, or frankly bonkers their ideas
seem, Ruth fairly oozes unconditional,
positive regard, sometimes in situations
where it seems pretty obvious she’d like
to simply bash their heads together.

This really is a wonderful
demonstration of what our sort of
counselling involves, how difficult it
sometimes is and fortunately on many
occasions just how rich the rewards can
be.

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