Compassion fatigue and burnout in animal trainers and behaviour consultants: When it’s not all puppies, rainbows and unicorns
19th February 2019
Working as an animal trainer or behaviour consultant can be a highly rewarding and satisfying occupation. It can also, at times, be extremely stressful. Compassion fatigue is a stress-related condition which affects professionals whose primary role is that of helping others and while many may think of compassion fatigue as a condition primarily affecting those in roles within the animal shelter environment or veterinary medicine, animal trainers and behaviour consultants are also at risk. Working with aggressive, fearful and anxious animals, exposure to cases where there are clear signs of suffering, neglect or abuse together with consoling stressed out and traumatised clients can all place these professionals at risk of compassion fatigue.
Trainers and consultants who own their own business also experience additional work pressures and demands. While running a business in what many people may consider a “dream job” can be extremely satisfying, it can also be exhausting and overwhelming. Faced with endless telephone inquiries, emails, social media requests for free advice, a never-ending to-do list of reports, invoices and booking sheets, as well as working with challenging animals and clients most of which is done in isolation can place even more demands on professionals at risk.
What is compassion fatigue?
The concept of compassion fatigue was first introduced in 1992 by Carla Joinson, who described the condition as a unique form of burnout affecting professional caregivers.
According to Beth Hudnall Stamm, compassion fatigue consists of two factors: secondary trauma and burnout. Secondary trauma can occur from helping those who have been directly exposed to trauma. Empathy is all about putting yourself in the shoes or paws of another and because of this ability, in some cases, animal care professionals can take on the trauma of those they work with. Trainers and behaviour consultants may be called in to look after traumatised and suffering animals, for example in cases of severe anxiety or aggression, and since many are working with people as well as animals some may also bear witness to owner suffering. Adding to this, there may be times when the needs of the animal conflict with the needs of their owners, and this can compound the stress experienced by trainers and behaviour consultants. Working with dogs and their owners, for example, after a dog bite incident may be particularly traumatic as can behavioural euthanasia cases or knowledge of clients who use harsh aversives.
Secondary trauma symptoms include the following: nightmares, intrusive thoughts or memories, feeling ‘on edge’, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. Individuals may also experience avoidance of reminders associated with a traumatic event and feelings of emotional numbness or detachment.
Burnout is the second component of compassion fatigue and tends to be associated with exposure to occupational stressors like long hours and large caseloads. Symptoms include feeling sad, overwhelmed, disconnected, feelings of ineffectiveness and cynicism. Some trainers and consultants may find themselves losing patience with the animals or people they work with or find that where they used to feel deep levels of empathy for their clients they find themselves feeling frustrated, angry, or impatient.
Management and prevention
If you notice any of these symptoms of compassion fatigue there is a lot that can be done.
The first step is becoming aware of the early signs of stress. Do you find you’re happy if a client cancels an appointment? Do you find yourself becoming irritable with the animals or people you work with? Are you having trouble sleeping? Do you find that you’re just not experiencing any pleasure in your life anymore? If you know your early warning signs of stress, you can take steps to manage compassion fatigue before it takes hold.
Next, engage in activities that energise and relax. If you want to maintain a rewarding and successful career in this area then remember it’s a marathon not a sprint and recovery time is essential. Take a walk, go for a run, meditate or take classes in something completely unrelated to animals. Whatever it is do it mindfully. For example, if you choose to go for a walk, notice the breeze, the feeling of the ground underneath your feet as you take a step and the smells in the air. Walking whilst reading and responding to emails would be the opposite of this. Make a commitment to yourself to engage in these activities. If you say to yourself “I’m too stressed or too tired to engage in self-care” that’s when these activities are even more important!
Boundaries are also important. As trainers and behaviour consultants, it’s vital to establish some boundaries between yourself and the owners or animals you look after. This may mean being firm on your work hours, the number of cases you see a day and acknowledging what you have control over and what you don’t. Boundaries can be difficult at times, especially if you have spent a lot of time with a particular animal or owner but remember walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (or paws) means exactly that, just one mile! The aim is not to be too distant that you are hardened and uncaring but also not involved to the point of being overwhelmed and consumed by the trauma and stresses of those you consult with because this will not serve you or those you work with either.
Lastly, connect with others. Social support is a terrific protector against all forms of stress. Connect with understanding friends and family as well as your peers. Workshops and conferences are excellent ways to get support from like-minded individuals and provide opportunities to share your challenges and, of course, celebrate your wins!
Dr Kate Mornement has consulted to pet owners experiencing behavioural difficulties with their pets through her business Pets Behaving Badly and has provided consulting services and professional development seminars and workshops for people who work with animals since 2004. She recognises the risks of compassion fatigue in this line of work and combats the condition in the following ways:
“I realise that I cannot control situations or other people. Rather I do my best to inform clients on the latest evidenced-based information and provide the best service possible. I listen to their problems, comfort them if they’re upset and offer my expertise but realise I’m not personally responsible for changing behaviour. I provide clients with the knowledge and understanding to do so. I’m very strict with boundaries on work days and hours. I don’t take calls outside these hours. I make sure I take time out every week to be present with my family. I take time for myself too – catching up with friends and walking the dog”.
In recognition of the challenges faced by animal trainers and behaviourists she also offers mentoring consultations. Mentoring can also be useful as a means of getting valuable advice on difficult cases, ensuring you maintain a professional outlook on cases and decreases feelings of isolation.
Working as an animal trainer or behaviour consultant can place you at risk of compassion fatigue and if you do recognise any of the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue it certainly doesn’t have to mean the end of your career. Noticing early warning signs, practicing self-care and fostering connections with others are vital ways to manage and prevent the condition.
For more information and support contact compassion fatigue educator and therapist Dr Vanessa Rohlf (M) +61 494322451 (E) firstname.lastname@example.org
Joinson, C. (1992). Coping with compassion fatigue. Nursing, 22, 116–120.