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Veterinarian Technician March 2010 (Vol 31, No 3)

Editorial: Empathy 101: My Apology to Jordan

by Julie K. Shaw, KPA-CTP, RVT, VTS (Behavior)

    Veterinary technicians often ask me, "What is the most important trait or skill that a behavior technician needs to work with fearful or aggressive animals?" Good observation skills, a calm demeanor, patience, and good owner communication skills are definitely on the list, but the most important quality is the ability to empathize. A patient named Jordan taught me this.

    Jordan started out as a fairly normal Labrador-something-or-other mix adolescent when I first saw him nearly 20 years ago in private practice. He often came in to be boarded, and part of our boarding examination included a nail trim. At first, Jordan simply wiggled for the nail trims, so we had a staff member hold his back end. However, Jordan grew into a 90+-lb handful, making his nail trims so difficult that the technicians would bribe each other to avoid this task. The routine pre–nail trim repartee went as follows: "I did it the last time. It's your turn!"

    "No way! I'll give you my chocolate cake if you'll do it."

    When Jordan's name appeared on the boarding schedule, we groaned and planned for the "circus" that he would create. By the time Jordan finally came to the hospital, we were completely "wired" and ready for a battle with the "mean nail trim dog." Some lucky soul was designated to distract Jordan from the front while numerous kennel assistants swept in from behind, and the person who drew the short straw quickly tackled his head. By the end of the trim, we were all sweating and usually covered in urine, which Jordan splashed around with his bushy tail. Not once did I take a moment to consider how Jordan felt about our attack.

    Empathy is the ability to emotionally put yourself in another's situation, and it directly depends on your ability to feel your own feelings and identify them. With this in mind, let's look at Jordan's nail trims through different eyes and see if we can feel what it might have been like for him.

    You're told that you're going to get to stay at a wonderful spa retreat. When you arrive, you become concerned when the staff requires you to undergo a full body examination. This invasion of your privacy upsets you, so you back away and politely ask the staff to stop. One staff member responds by distracting you while another staff member pins your arms to your side, forcing you to be examined. You scream and fight as hard as you can but cannot get away.

    The next time you're taken to the spa, you go in ready to punch the first person who comes near you. You clearly ask the staff to stay out of your personal space. This time, at least four people swoop down on you, causing you to be so terrified that you urinate.

    Take a moment to think about how terrified you would have to be to urinate on yourself. What could cause you to be so terrified? What you're feeling is empathy.

    Walk in your patients' paws. See the world through their eyes. Don't take their fear or aggression personally. Their goal isn't to hurt you, but to save themselves from you! The next time you or a coworker labels a patient "mean," think about Jordan and the terror he must have felt at the hands of people he should have been able to trust.

    Jordan: thank you for the lessons you taught me. I wish I could go back in time with my current knowledge and remove your fear. You never should have had the experience that you did.

    Downloadable PDF

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