This article describes the similarities between animal behavior counseling and marriage and family counseling. Assuming that medically treatable problems have been eliminated, both types of counseling depend not only on the expertise of the clinicians involved but also their interpersonal skills. Although only one person/pet may have a problem, almost everyone in the family is affected. An understanding of how therapeutic change occurs is vital. Changing the behavior of a pet requires changing the emotional experience of not only the pet but also the owner. For example, a dog that has a negative experience in the veterinary clinic becomes fearful of visits to the clinic. With time, both the owner and dog develop emotional reactions to the visits. Second, obtaining information from clients is critical to diagnosing the problem, making change, and working with clients. The third area concerns difficulties in and barriers to therapy. In both animal and marital/family counseling, establishing credibility is important. Trust between the pet owner and behavior team needs to be established. When noncompliance, missed appointments, or lack of progress occurs, client concerns about perceptions by the staff about them as owners should be explored. The fourth area concerns the most common problems in both types of counseling: anxiety, abuse, and child/pet behavior problems. Three techniques used in marital and family counseling are helpful with animals: validating, normalizing, and interrupting. Validating lets clients know you "get it." An example is a statement such as, "If my dog reacted that way, I too would be concerned about being bitten." Normalizing reassures clients that they are not the only ones dealing with the problem and that it may be developmental-for example, explaining that it is normal for puppies to chew on things at certain ages. Finally, interrupting a client's story is sometimes necessary. Specific ways to interrupt politely include statements such as, "I'm sorry, but may I interrupt for a moment?" In general, marriage and family therapy topics can provide useful information for veterinary behavior teams.
COMMENTARY: Pets are considered highly valued family members by most pet owners. Management of behavior problems is more successful when all family members are involved in the process. This review addresses how the interpersonal skills and communication techniques of the veterinary practice team are just as crucial for success as they are for family therapists when managing behavior issues. The role of family dynamics on the success of behavior counseling in both human and veterinary behavior therapy settings is not surprising.
A look at the role of marriage and family therapy skills within the context of animal behavior therapy. Canino J, Shaw J, Beck AM. J VET BEHAV 2:15-22, 2007.