Working from a Distance: Online and Remote Consults
My animal training and behavior clients are often surprised to hear that I’ll be working with them from my home in Puerto Rico. At first this might seem like a complicated proposition. However, the more I’ve worked remotely the easier, smoother, and more comfortable it has become.
Often there might be folks online looking for training help close to their location who were only able to locate trainers who use outdated aversive methods. Or, in other cases the only qualified behavior and training professionals were too far away to commute to. As I began to find myself working at first via phone consults, then with video conferencing, I started to look for guidance from successful remote-working models in other fields.
A brief history of tele-medicine
Remote tele-health consults have been around since the 2000s. In the field of psychology and psychiatry, for example, videoconferencing is used “for patients residing in underserved areas to access psychiatric services. It offers a wide range of services to the patients and providers, such as consultation between the psychiatrists, educational clinical programs, diagnosis and assessment, medication therapy management, and routine follow-up meetings.”
This remote approach has been shown to be effective. Reviews of the literature (by Hilty et al. in 2013 and by Yellowlees et al. in 2015) confirm that tele-psychiatry was as effective as in-person psychiatric consultations for diagnostic assessment. It is described as being “at least as good for the treatment of disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and may be better than in-person treatment in some groups of patients, notably children, veterans and individuals with agoraphobia.”
Given the evidence of remote consultation’s effectiveness and the ease of connecting online, it is not surprising that pet behavior consultations would start to incorporate practices from human tele-health. While we are dealing with animals and people, working to help the human half of the team to better understand how to communicate more effectively can certainly be accomplished via online consults.
My experiences with remote consults
I have personally been working remotely for several years. I started chatting on the phone, then moved to FaceTime and Skype, and ultimately began working via a platform called Zoom with video calls. In fact, my experience working remotely on separation anxiety cases, teaching guardians with special needs animals, and also helping clients with general behavior modification and training cases led to the creation of a separate business that I own with my husband.
We recognized the successes across other fields and those that I was personally having via remote consults and decided to extrapolate out the model to create a platform where clients and qualified professional trainers could connect. This was where the idea for Pet Trainer HQ (PTHQ) was born—from a desire to facilitate smooth, easy connections between appropriate, positive reinforcement-based trainers/behavior consultants and people needing help with their pets’ behaviors!
Requirements for setting up remote consultations
When considering remote work, the list of tools needed to make things function with ease isn’t complicated. The following are the key pieces to have in place to work remotely with clients:
• A reliable internet connection (and/or back up internet connection)
• A clean and quiet space for your work
• A laptop computer with built-in camera (and/or an external camera)
• A video platform (such as FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom)
• A way to book appointments (email, calendar app, etc.)
• A payment system (like PayPal, Venmo, or Square)
When constructing the PTHQ platform, one functionality that we wanted to offer was the ability to allow clients to seamlessly select, pay for, schedule, and then interact with trainers. This aimed to remove any of the individual complications of the various components.
Once you have the above points organized, just what might a consult look like? At the appointed time, you log on to your videoconferencing platform. It’s important to think about the backdrop for your video. A plain wall or space without a lot of distractions is a good idea.
Lighting for the space is key as well. You might want to test out your space and available natural and electric lights at different times of the day. Be sure that you aren’t cast in a big shadow, and be certain that there aren’t any glares from mirrors or pictures in your frame.
Think about the sound quality as well. You may decide to use headphones; if so, you should practice with them ahead of time to be sure you can appropriately adjust the volume, hear well, and wear them comfortably. Also, you want to think about making sure that you have a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted.
As a trainer, sometimes you might want to have a demo dog lying nearby on a dog bed at the ready to show what the behavior that you are describing might look like. Having a treat pouch, clicker, and/or other props (food puzzles, muzzles, etc.) handy that you can use as needed will help to create a smooth flow to your appointment.
Some online platforms allow you to share your desktop, thus being able to show your client videos or photos of relevant information. We have found this to be a useful feature.
You also should have your consult notes either on a pad of paper or second computer/tablet so that you are ready with questions and to record information as necessary.
After my online consults, I like to follow up with an email recapping our discussion. I often provide resources and/or written follow-up instructions. This allows the client to be able to focus without having to worry too much about taking notes or keeping track of everything we are chatting about.
Perceived road blocks and advantages
Sometimes new clients are hesitant about how remote training might work. They may have concerns about your not being physically present with their dog and about just how you might be able to solve a behavioral issue if you don’t see it firsthand. It’s important to clarify that with any problematic behavior our goal is to avoid additional rehearsals. Therefore, even if you were right there with the dog, you would try to avoid putting the animal in a situation where they would practice the unwanted behavior.
Even if you are not in the same location, you can successfully teach pet guardians via TAG Teach methods (teaching with acoustical guidance) without needing to physically interact with their animal. In fact, I find it a good lesson for trainers to not be able to easily “grasp the leash.” Instead, the distance helps finesse your communication skills, as you to need to find appropriate ways to instruct clients regarding movement and approximations without touching the dog (or bird, cat, etc.).
For example, if a client continues to “park” their hand in their treat pouch, I might say, “Pretend that you have a sticker on the outside of your pants on the thigh.” Then each time the client’s hand hangs out in the pouch I can just remind them, “Put your hand on your sticker!”
Additionally, some animals that are fearful may be more relaxed with a remote work environment. Working online allows you to see and hear the animal, but it avoids the potential for flooding if a fearful animal is exposed at close proximity to a new person. In addition, clients may choose to use headphones to further minimize any disruption to the environment for the animal.
People might also worry about their comfort with the technology. The platforms (PTHQ, Zoom) available often allow you to send a link to clients ahead of time via email. This means that from the client’s end there is no need to download or install any programs or apps ahead of time. Depending on the platform, too, there are often simple tips and tricks available, such as a default mute setting making it so clients can’t hear you, which you can easily walk them through switching off.
Often with a new video call it’s recommended that you have a phone number as well so that you can walk clients through any initial set-up details during the first interaction.
On the trainer side, you can do some practice online sessions with people familiar with using this type of set-up to aid in gaining confidence with the process. I find that in most cases, with a few rehearsals, things go very smoothly.
Examples of successes
Three examples of working on mechanical skills and behaviors remotely that I’ve has success with include dogs who were inappropriately jumping, nipping and mouthing, and dogs suffering from separation anxiety.
In these cases, I began with a behavior consult where we had a back-and-forth dialogue about the issues, expectations, and environment. We then moved on to clarifying how positive reinforcement works and began learning the mechanics behind marking and reinforcing incompatible or alternative behaviors. In the cases of jumping and mouthing, we discussed using a high rate of reinforcement and marked/reinforced behaviors that we wanted to see repeated.
Working online I can easily remind clients when to click at the start while they get the hang of the timing. Or, again, I can provide them with a TAG point such as “Click for four paws on floor!”
To maintain our connection, I share an online Google document log to stay in touch between online appointments. This allows me to document exchanges and progress.
Finally, my separation anxiety cases are always conducted remotely. In the case of SA, for me to be present would change the dynamics of the situation. This is contrary to our goal, which is to teach the dog to feel comfortable while alone.
Sometimes there are additional cameras involved, and I’ve talked clients through setting up and connecting various devices for additional angles. Our setup documentation is online as well and allows for an easy dialogue.
Recently I finished a multi-month package with a client whom I’ve never met in person. He originally contacted me about his dog, who he was not able to leave at home alone due to excessive howling, barking, pacing, and panting. George is now able to comfortably remain in his house by himself for up to six hours.
Another client reached out to me some time ago after adopting a 2-year-old deaf dog. This was her first dog, and she was concerned about excessive mouthing, jumping, and growling. Working with this client to facilitate her understanding of canine body language, the use of a visual marker, and an appropriate rate of reinforcement increased her communication success and decreased the unwanted behaviors. I hope to someday pass through her town so that I might meet her pup in real life!
Now that I’ve been working remotely for a number of years I believe that, as our world shrinks, this is a viable method to bring modern, positive reinforcement training and behavioral consulting to clients globally. I look forward to continued online connections and to helping animals and their families to successfully learn together and modify behaviors for happy households!
Terrie Hayward, MEd, CDBC, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, is a certified professional animal trainer and the owner of PAW-Positive Animal Wellness, and co-founder of Pet Trainer HQ.Terrie works with families and their animal companions, presents workshops, travels, and consults focusing on positive reinforcement interactions and modifying behavior through applications in behavior analysis. She specializes in working with deaf dogs and with dogs suffering from separation anxiety. She is the author of “A Deaf Dog Joins the Family: Training, Education, and Communication for a Smooth Transition” and is co-author of the new book“Grooming Without Stress: Safer, Quicker, Happier,” as well as Your 10 Minute a Day Dog. Terrie has written behavior and training articles for The Bark Magazine, Grooming Business, Pet Business, Deaf Dogs Rock, and the Karen Pryor Academy. For more information and articles visit her website, positiveanimalwellness.com, or her Facebook page.