For eight years, I worked remotely from a home office for organizations that were in different time zones. Perhaps that is why virtual consultations came so naturally to me. However, if you are not used to spending 30 to 40 hours a week online, the concept may be somewhat daunting. My goal herein is to provide some guidance to get you thinking about if and how you might add virtual consults to your list of behavioral services, which can be appropriate for any species, from dog to cat, from horse to parrot, and from pig to bunny.
Perhaps the most important question to ask is why bother considering virtual consult services? Of course, there are many cases that are not at all conducive to virtual consults, ones where you must be in the home, or working hands-on with the animal and directly interacting with the family. For example, working with a leash-reactive dog is not necessarily suited to virtual consults. Additionally, virtual consults will not likely be the only service you offer. However, they can serve as a nice supplement.
On the other hand, I find there are many cases where not being in the room can actually be beneficial to the session. For example, shy, skittish pets who hide when visitors are around will benefit from your absence. Virtual consults also work well for quick follow-ups or refresher sessions. Also, let us not forget the pet owners who live in an area where there is no professional who specializes in the species they need assistance with. Finally, virtual consultations are a great option for colleagues working on cases they are struggling with who need outside input from a more experienced professional.
Virtual consultation service options can include phone, email, live video, or pre-recorded video sessions. Which service options you offer will be dependent partly on your comfort and skill and partly on your client base’s comfort and skill. If you serve mostly millennials, you can probably be much more technically inclined. For example, these clients will likely enjoy live-streaming apps that record sessions to the cloud, for you and them to discuss together. If you serve mostly older baby boomers or their parents, you may want to have more low-tech options, such a telephone consults with video recorded by a family member. I personally like to offer something in between, as that is what best suits my client base.
The other main factors in determining what service options you offer are the type of behaviors you are treating, the severity of the case, and the level of the client’s skill. If a case is not something I feel is appropriate for virtual sessions—for example, aggression toward first-time dog owners, especially with a bite history—I will try to refer. If that is not an option, I may offer a virtual session for management options and make it very clear to the client that we are working on management only. However, other cases, such as litterbox avoidance, can work quite well with virtual consults all the way through to the resolution of the issue.
I personally do not offer email or phone consultations, as they tend to require extensive written details and/or video clips, which I find take too much of my time. For example, a full video tour of the home and yard can result in a very long video. I primarily offer live video consultations, as I like to see the client’s face when I am explaining things to them, and I like to have the option of watching the pet in action and guiding training. In this article, I will be focusing primarily on video consults.
First and foremost, it is critical that you become familiar with whatever software you plan to use. There are a variety of free and paid options out there, but personally, I like Skype. It is free, has been around for a while, and most of my client base can figure it out. Further, I find Skype to be compatible with most hardware and operating systems; it has its limitations, but for the most part is reliable and widely available. Whatever you choose, learn it inside and out so you can verbally walk a client through various troubleshooting steps. You may also want to look into recording services, so you can record your consultations for you or your client to review later.
Whatever technology you plan to use, you will want to become very comfortable with all of it. If you have limited experience, I recommend setting up meetings with friends or family, or even free “test” consults with clients. If a client needs tech help, you may want to consider offering a free dry run to troubleshoot any issues.
Preparing your client
As behavior professionals, we all know that a key component of stress reduction is knowing what to expect! We also know the worst time to try to learn how to perform a skill is in the midst of the situation that requires it. The same is true for your human clients. It is important that your client is well informed and prepared ahead of your virtual consult.
You may want to consider whether you will need the client to “show” you around the house or follow the pet. Let them know if they should be prepared to take their webcam along for a walk, so they can let you know if this is even an option, and figure out if there are parts of the home where wi-fi does not work.
I recommend providing your clients with a clear, succinct, instructional handout or video ahead of the consultation. The instructions should very clearly outline various details of the session, including but not limited to:
- Who will call whom
- Step-by-step instructions for making a call
- What will happen in the case of technology malfunction
- A back-up plan
Gathering background information
With in-person clients, a completed history ahead of time is optional. In virtual sessions, however, I make a history form mandatory so that I can be as prepared as possible. I review the history and make note of what areas require additional details or information. All of us know all too well that clients can take the time constraints of a session off the rails! I find this to be even more true in a remote session. Additionally, some clients may send video of the behavior ahead of time to review.
How you gather your background information is entirely up to you. You can email the form, use online file sharing software such as DropBox or Google Docs, or you can create an online form. If you create your own history form to email, be sure the document formatting does not get all wonky when opening in another software version or operating system. You will also want to clearly instruct the client on how to get the details back to you. I personally use Jotform, a free web service that lets me create forms clients can fill out and submit online, so I have access to them in case I forget a file. No emailing of documents is involved, and it is minimal work for clients.
Conducting the session
When the virtual session begins, the biggest issue you may encounter (besides technical glitches) is running over time. Virtual sessions by nature tend to require more lengthy discussion, so I try to lay out the timeline from the start of the session. I let clients know the planned start, wrap-up, and stop times for the session. I tell them ahead that I may interrupt them if we start getting off track, let them know the time we will need to begin wrapping it up, and also inform them of any overage charges if they decide to extend the session. I always communicate if the session can go over, or if my next appointment is too tight to allow it. You don’t want to end a session mid-conversation!
I have a printed timeline I keep next to my computer to help me stay on track. If my schedule does not allow an extended session, I always let them know. For example, I may say “If we end up going over time today, there will be an $X per minute charge.” OR “I have an appointment immediately after ours, so I will need to wrap up by X o’clock and am not able to extend the session.” Set the ground rules from the start, and stick to them.
I always allow 15 minutes at the end of the session for housekeeping. This is when I schedule any follow-ups and collect payment. I try to collect payment during the session, rather than having them pay me later, because we are both thinking about it. That way, I do not have to remember to track it down later in case either of us forgets. Also, the best time to secure a follow-up is when you are in direct contact with the client. This is when they are most invested, so it’s wise to schedule the next session then, rather than having them let you know later. As I would during an in-person session, I remind the client I will be sending a written summary of our session as well as instructions for follow-up or questions.
There is no one right way to conduct virtual consultation services, but I hope this information answered some of your questions and got you thinking about this option. Over time, you will modify the process to suit your needs and services. You may find virtual consultations are not for you, or you may find it is a wonderful way to round out your services and income.
Katenna Jones, ScM, ACAAB, CCBC, CDBC, CPDT-KA, has been working professionally with cats and dogs since 2000. She has served as a behaviorist for the American Humane Association, contracts with the ASPCA Behavior Team during hoarding, fight and cruelty cases, and has extensive experience working with both cats and dogs in shelter and private home settings. Katenna offers private behavior consulting and professional development services through her business Jones Animal Behavior.