As a behavior consultant, there will likely come a time when it becomes obvious to you that a client is no longer the right fit to be working with you. This may be because of scheduling conflicts, cooperation of the owner, an irreconcilable difference in goals, or because you no longer consider it safe to work with the client. I have run into most of these types of hurdles at least once, but I consider it “firing the client” when I run into the final scenario: It’s no longer safe to continue, and the client and I can’t see eye to eye. This may be a safety concern for me, for the owners, or for the community at large. While I have formally fired clients a few times over the years, the following case was the first time.
Ernest was a gorgeous, eye-catching dog the size of a Labrador retriever, covered in spots like a spaniel, lanky like a Border collie with the fur and fluff to match, and with heart-stopping ice blue eyes that took in every move you made. He was Jenny’s first dog and meant the world to her. Unfortunately, he also bit people. I was called in after it began happening outside the home. By the time I met him, in addition to the biting, there were a host of other long-ignored behavior problems.
The intake form I received for Ernest detailed six separate bite incidents that the owner could remember. The worst had been to the rear end of a biker, and it had broken skin. Ernest had also bitten a child’s face, though without breaking skin. Other bites included ones to the owner’s mother and to the owner herself. There was no single common antecedent. In the different situations the people had been doing different things: moving fast, staring at him, moving a food dish with a foot, or startling him when he was sleeping. Given that only one bite, thus far, had broken skin, I agreed to work with him and sat down with Jenny to develop a behavior plan.
First steps and initial improvements
The first step was to set up a system of management strategies that would remove Ernest from the worst of the situations. This included crating him when there were children in the home, asking guests to alert him before moving around the house, and not allowing him off leash when outside the home. In addition to this we set up several training goals. Our primary training for outside the home would be teaching him to look at Jenny when confronted by the stimuli that most often caused him to go over threshold. When he went over threshold, he would bark, lunge, and sometimes even snap at the targets. The things in the neighborhood that evoked this behavior included buses, bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, particular people that made him uncomfortable, and Jenny’s upstairs neighbors. Our goal was essentially to turn each of these stimuli into an antecedent for “look at Jenny” and reinforce that with a treat. We also began working on “drop it” immediately so that Jenny would not need to take things away from him (this was an antecedent to two previous bites to her). I tasked Jenny with ordering a muzzle before our next session. Lastly, we set a goal to work on tolerating people moving on the couch when he was settled (but not asleep). Jenny was not open to him being disallowed from sitting on the furniture. After this initial consultation and discussion, Jenny opted to sign up for a package of sessions.
We worked together every other week for a few months and saw really nice improvements in Ernest’s ability to check in with Jenny, as well as with her comfort with walking him. He became comfortable wearing his muzzle on walks and in the house with some guests. His “drop it” became nearly immediate during training and he was always happy to see me when I came to work with him. However, his tolerance when pushed too far did not improve immensely. He snapped at Jenny one day, a month or so into training, when she dropped a chicken bone and bent to get it without thinking. He started showing more aggression toward the other dog in the house, a problem that hadn’t been even mentioned when we first started working together. This came to a head when he actually bit the other dog one day for getting too close to a bone. She was okay, but this was discouraging to the owner and to me. It also cemented my suspicion that he should not be at the dog park, something Jenny had been hesitant to remove from his life despite a series of questionable interactions. I reminded her again that he should not be off leash outside the house, anyway, due to his ongoing unpredictability around people.
After the initial set of four follow-up sessions, Jenny opted for four more. But at the same time as we were seeing improvements to his trained behaviors, I was beginning to get frustrated with the human client, Jenny. While she was dedicated to his training, as the weeks progressed, she continued to take him into situations that seemed much too difficult for him. This culminated in her taking him to the dog park with her other dog, but claiming it was okay, because she kept him on leash. Ernest spent the entire time he was there over-threshold and lunging at other dogs that approached. When her other dog returned, Ernest jumped on her and held her down. He did not bite her that time, but it was scary. Despite this, several weeks later Jenny repeated the same scenario.
As we entered the third month of training, Jenny also began to get less invested in the training between sessions. At the beginning, she was aware that, given the extent of Ernest’s issues, this would be a long road with an endpoint that would likely still involve a fair amount of management. Each week she again professed her commitment to him, but her training kept slipping. I found that to be a difficult juxtaposition to deal with from a professional standpoint and began to grow frustrated with her. I tried to break training goals and behaviors into smaller pieces to give her smaller tastes of success and help the training fit better into her life. But it just felt like no matter what I did, she still didn’t get to the training. Eventually we went on hold with the training for a little while because she got “too busy” and I was happy to move on to other clients. She had an outstanding session remaining, but we agreed that she could use that when she felt ready to start training again. Every so often she would send an email about “small concerns” but also how well things were going. The small concerns often involved aggressive displays toward the other dog in the home or snaps at dogs or people they ran into outside. I tried not to be alarmist but strongly encouraged her to be more careful with her management of high-value resources within the home (i.e., don’t have toys or bones on the floor) and reminded her that he could not be allowed to interact with people or dogs when out of the house.
Things really started to go south when she emailed me a couple months after I had last seen them asking how hard I thought it would be to integrate a new puppy into the household. There was one in rescue that she just had to bring home. I wrote a fairly strongly worded email back to her stating the extreme risk I thought she would be putting that puppy in, gently reminding her of how little time she already had for Ernest’s training, and suggesting she might not have time to train a puppy. Thankfully she did not bring home the dog. I was relieved at the outcome but continued to keep an uneasy eye on my inbox for emails from her.
The final straw
There were two things that finally brought me to the point where I felt the need to formally fire this client and cease all future communication with her. The first was when Ernest finally inflicted a severe bite on another dog. She decided to bring both dogs to the park and let them both off leash. Ernest chased down another similarly sized dog and bit it so severely on its back right haunch and belly that it required surgery and hundreds of stitches. The dog survived, and Jenny felt bad. But there was again this total disconnect between feeling just awful and not accepting that she had taken a dangerous dog into a situation in which she knew he was likely to bite. She seemed unwilling to admit that she had allowed this to happen. I was livid. I called her at this point and discussed her options, including euthanasia. I did not believe Ernest could stay in her home with her other dog, who he had continued to bully, or be rehomed safely or ethically. The client was not willing to do this. I decided to follow up in writing to make sure I was clear of any liability for this dog’s behavior, and before I could finish that letter, she let me know that her boyfriend would be moving in with her, and his five-year-old daughter would be living with them part time. She wanted to know if I could come do some training with the boyfriend so that Ernest could be safe around the little girl.
For me, this combination made it impossible to work further with this client. The lack of responsibility she had habitually taken for her dog’s behavior, the lack of regard she had shown for other people’s and dogs’ safety, and now being willing to put a small child in that type of risk was beyond words. In retrospect, I actually wonder how I let it go on this long. I think that now I would have fired this client earlier for perpetual noncompliance while owning a dangerous dog. But maybe not. Hindsight is difficult. Until he ravaged the dog at the park, the level of his bites had not been more severe than a 3 on Dunbar’s bite scale. I do know it taught me a lot about the risks I’m willing to be party to and the ones I am not.
In the end, I wonder if Ernest had stayed in her home, what my duty would have been to that child. Would I have had to report the risk to child protective services? Would I have had to figure out how to contact the mother (the parents were still in the midst of the divorce) to let her know the risk? I’m glad I did not have to do anything, as it didn’t come to this, but I felt I had some kind of duty; I was nearly 100% sure the child would have been bitten within the first week of sharing the house. Either way, at that point, I finished the letter to the client letting her know I would no longer be working with her in any capacity and outlining the risk that Ernest would continue to pose to her other dog, Jenny herself, her boyfriend, and particularly to the child. That the level of bite he had inflicted indicated he should never be allowed outside the house without a muzzle on and should be kept in a crate in a locked room when anyone other than herself was home. I refunded the final session to clear any potential business obligation I had to her. And, following the advice of more experienced consultants, I sent the letter via certified mail to ensure she had gotten it and that there was a paper trail.
Through her dog walker I learned that she did not euthanize Ernest. The dog walker managed to find a connection to a farm (yes, an actual farm) in upstate New York that took dangerous dogs and kept them in kennels with time out in their large green space daily. I still question the quality of life such a lifestyle provides to a dog who had a strong human connection, but in the eyes of the client it was a more palatable alternative to euthanasia.
My decision-making process
In summary, for this client, the factors that led me to fire her were:
- A severe bite to another dog that required hospitalization and hundreds of stitches.
- That a dog with this bite history was living with another dog who he perpetually bullied and to whom I felt he posed a significant life-threatening risk.
- The addition of a child to the home of a dog with a significant bite history to both humans and dogs, and a history of aggression toward children.
- Perpetual non-cooperation of the client with regards to management and training leading to a lack of trust in her ability to manage him even in the best of scenarios.
When I write it all out like that, it looks like there was an obvious need to leave this case and this client. But as a fairly new behavior consultant (I had been seeing behavior clients for about two years) it was complicated and evolved slowly. Each time I forgave the client for not doing something and figured I needed to do more to support her. I think that part of the problem we face as professionals is knowing what we should be able to accomplish and what we need to put back on the client as their part of the “deal.”
When I thought about walking away, there were many things that held up that decision.
- Self-doubt: The feeling of “Why can’t I fix this?” Once I’d accepted it wasn’t actually my fault and it wasn’t my dog, I was able to make the call.
- Professional reputation: What would my professional colleagues think of me? I should not have worried about this. It is not our responsibility to fix every dog. And knowing a professional is able to weigh the risks, take a good look at the safety issues involved, and determine whether a client’s behavior up to that point has validated continuing to invest in the dog and person is important.
- Business reputation: Two years in, I was still building my Yelp reviews, Google reviews, and community referral base. What if the client went online and bashed me? Before I fired this client, I thought long and hard about how I would respond if she were to denounce me and my abilities online.
Now, many years later and after having fired a few more clients, many of those doubts no longer plague me. I still question my own abilities (which I think is healthy) and always consult with other professionals before making the call to fire a client. But I don’t worry that consulting with them will indicate weakness or inability on my part. I know that it will simply add perspective. I was lucky in that the clients have never taken to the internet to bad mouth me. I mostly chalk this up to following through during the case, doing the best work I can, and then being very explicit about why I will not be working with them any longer. Firing a client is hard, but I believe a necessary skill for a behavior consultant. Not every client is going to be an ideal fit and, even if they are, the conclusion of the case may not be one where you all agree on the only foreseeable outcome. While we like to write about the cases that end well and showcase our talents as professionals, I think that reflecting on why cases don’t always work out is important. We aren’t miracle workers and we should be able acknowledge and discuss these tougher, less rewarding cases together.
Adria Karlsson, MAT, EdS, is an Applied Behavior Analyst and Certified Dog and Cat Behavior Consultant working out of Cambridge, MA. Her company, Dog Willing and Purrfectly Able, offers dog and cat consulting to local clientele. While her main focus professionally is on dogs and cats, she finds the behavior of any species of animal, particularly humans, endlessly fascinating. She’s also working as Education Coordinator for the IAABC, where she spends time connecting with interesting people across the animal consulting and care world and developing courses for animal professionals.