Equine Practice Pointer: The Disobedient Client
By: Dr. Sarah Reagan
Instructor & Advisory Board Member at The American Council of Animal Naturopathy
There likely is not a single holistic health practitioner – dealing with humans or animals – that has not experienced “The Disobedient Client”. A discussion not long ago prompted my desire to write this. This is an all-too-common scenario, and for all of us animal health coaches it applies to all species:
A client contacts you about their animal that is having some problems; you quickly determine that the issues can largely be helped by transitioning to a species appropriate diet – as go most cases quite frankly. You spend plenty of time (that you likely aren’t even completely compensated for) providing valid information and research avenues about species appropriate diet, including what reactions the animal may have as the diet is changed and the body begins to detox, as well as how long the entire process may take.
The client may feed appropriately one or even a few days, then fall right back into the “old habits”; the animal’s condition begins to deteriorate (especially if the appropriate diet was fed just long enough to tell the body to begin letting go of toxins). The client consults with her conventional vet and a disease label is placed upon the latest “condition”; a drug – typically an antibiotic at the least – is given and the animal begins a downhill slide. The client informs you – the holistic health practitioner that just spent not only time but also emotional energy in trying to ultimately help the animal – that it is YOUR fault her animal now has “such-and-such disease”.
How do you resolve this kind of situation – and is there any valid way to resolve it? One rather common suggestion I’ve seen before is don’t be nice, let the client know “The Truth” – which basically translates into your telling the client it is all her (the client’s) fault, that you tried to explain things, and you wash your hands of the situation. You are essentially placing all the blame back into the client’s lap. This method toward resolution could certainly relieve your anxiety and irritation because you just absolved yourself of any responsibility – at least superficially. And that is exactly the path and attitude that at least some holistic health practitioners take.
This scenario of resolution effectively seals tight any door to further communication with that client; you have burned your bridge. But that does nothing to help advance any teaching of holistic health, and in fact it has the opposite effect. Don’t think for one minute that this client will not tell someone else who will tell someone else; and the story becomes bigger – and quite different – than it originally was.
I would like to suggest another scenario for resolution. One that has strength yet at the same time does not burn any bridge. It does not guarantee that your “truth” will never get twisted by the client into something unrecognizable, but you will gain something from it and grow in the process. You can still be firm with the client inasmuch as reiterating why the animal is sicker than he was, but you can also perform self-examination and offer to the client where YOU might have come up short. Let me relate my own experience by way of example. I had a client’s horse boarded here a while back. This was a lameness issue caused by drugs (long term antibiotics/steroid use); the mare had had shoes on almost her entire life and was in so-called “therapeutic” metal shoes (for the lameness) when she came here. Client was fully informed of the issues with trying to “heal” a foot with shoes on, that the shoes were suppressing any signs of lameness, and that the shoes would be pulled as soon as possible, which they were (with client’s consent); however client was not here to see her horse during the time immediately after pulling the shoes. I personally am very used to dealing with equine lameness issues and therefore am used to seeing lame horses. Given this mare’s history I fully expected to see a much more lame horse when her shoes were pulled. I conveyed my “joy” to the client at the mare’s condition, but I also reiterated yet again that a hoof healing process takes time (8-12 months after shoes are pulled). Client took mare back home within a couple of months following that. Client emailed me that night and said that both her and her husband just sat and cried at the mare’s “terrible” lameness, and of course she blamed me for “making” her mare worse than she was before. Do you see what happened here?
I could have said “I told you so!” and been within my “rights” given what I had been telling the client all along. But I had to realize that this client had never experienced lameness in the way I have – multiple times in multiple horses. The shoes masked the lameness – which I had told client that several times; however words did not lessen the shock of the visual. We humans have become so accustomed to hearing words without truly “seeing” their meaning. But I gained a very valuable lesson from this – essentially do not forget what it was like before I became knowledgeable in what I do. I failed inasmuch as I conveyed to the client something less than what she would see – and yes, I could have ascertained what she would see as I have “been there, done that” myself…but I had temporarily forgotten. In the end, I emailed the client firmly re-stating everything I had said before, but I also acknowledged my own shortcoming in the entire process and thanked her for the lesson learned. While I doubt this particular client will ever come back, I did not burn the bridge and instill in her a bad taste toward holistic care nor myself, even though I know she will never totally agree with my philosophy.
Let’s return to the first scenario – the client that refuses to feed the appropriate diet. Instead of completely sealing the door of communication shut with this client, try to find something – no matter how small – that you’ve learned from the contact. Then firmly and briefly re-state what you already said, then thank the client. I realize that last part is difficult to do especially when you’ve got someone blaming you for their animal being sick. Most clients react this way out of fear of the unknown and of not knowing, and we have to remember that once upon a time we were just as ignorant. This resolution may not give you an immediate, cathartic kind of relief, but then again do you really want to build a reputation of being a practitioner that “tells her clients off”? Closing a case with an attitude of gratitude will, however, establish you as a caring individual – and you will sleep better knowing you did everything you could for the animal as well as treated another human being with compassion.
We animal practitioners get a double “whammy” inasmuch as we have to address not just the animal’s condition, many times trying to interpret what the owner is saying without having benefit of seeing the animal in person; but we also “treat” the human client with therapeutic education as well. The latter part is the toughest part; if we could control the circumstances in which the animal lived, every case would be a piece of cake. Remember, we practitioners are teachers first and foremost. But also do not forget that the teacher should never stop learning, and every single case can bring you something to learn from both the human client as well as the animal – if you will only open yourself to see it.
There is a proverb – “Physician, Heal Thyself” (Luke 4:23). Most take the proverb to mean that the healer/practitioner should be physically healthy so as to provide a good outward example. While that is certainly true, it has a much deeper spiritual meaning as Hippocrates taught: the “physician” (in our case, animal health coaches) should also be mentally and emotionally healthy and stable. If we find ourselves harboring grudges and ill feelings toward these disobedient clients, trying to make the client feel guilty for not obeying us, then we need to tend to our own “health” first.