Creating Frames for Behaviour Change

Photo by  Martin Reisch  on  Unsplash

Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

Being able to create a shared frame with a client may be the single greatest indicator of our ability to assist a family and their dog. Let us explain.

As a species, we expend a lot of time and effort interacting with people who cannot hear us. Hello, Internet. If the frame with which the other person sees the world is alien to the one we are using, then we won't be able to effectively communicate, even if we want the same thing or use the same words. 


"In these two models children are not required to take responsibility for themselves or for others. No amount of discussion about treats being reinforcers and clicker training being science-based will help. In the Strict Father Metaphor treats are not just a sign of weakness, they are immoral."

- Alexandra Kurland, You Don't Understand Me (PDF)


We see this playing out every day in the dog training world. How many of us have felt challenged and pulled out the AVSAB position statement on punishment hoping that it would sway a family member?  Or how many times have we tried to respond to the "treats as bribes" question?

Nine times out of ten, our arguments do nothing but entrench the other individual in their opposing viewpoint.

Frames define how we find value in the world. They provide for our status and role in society as well as define the processes by which to achieve safety and reward. To challenge someone's frame is to challenge their identity, their safety, their path to success, and even their status in the community. Which is why we speak of frames as having defences. They cannot be undermined by such flimsy things as facts, studies or expert opinions.

Frames aren't bad things, necessarily. Our frames work to shield us from things that would cause us pain (loss of status, identity and value in the world) and create a world view where all of our behaviours, irrational or otherwise, make sense.

Lakoff is one of the sources we would recommend for exploring frames and metaphor and how they fundamentally wire our brains from a very early age.

But to get to the gist of the matter, Alexandra Kurland has a great piece that explains Lakoff's work from the perspective of a force-free horse trainer and the polarization we saw in the last US election.


"Not surprisingly, the approach you tend to favor as an adult grows out of your very early family experiences. As these other examples have shown, your first experiences in life created metaphoric links in your brain. Long before you were ever aware of national governments, you were aware of the authority of your parents."

"In the Strict Father model the father is the head of the family."

"The [father] is the legitimate authority and his authority is
not to be challenged. . . Obedience to the [father] is seen as
correct behavior in the [child]. It is upheld through a system of reward and punishment. Bad behavior from the [father] is always punished and good behavior is rewarded.


Kurland's piece is worth reading because it lays out the challenges so many of us trainers face when we enter a household that uses a frame very distinct from our own.

So many of us in the force-free training world are using a "nurturing parent" frame and so many of our frustrating client interactions are the result of our meeting someone with a "strict father" frame. The sad part is that we often want the same things - safety and security for our loved ones, but we both use different means to achieve these goals, and struggle to effectively communicate with each other.


Creating a Shared Frame

So how do we go about creating a shared frame?

As dog coaches, we have an easy entry point: we can use our shared love for the client's furry friend. They clearly care or they wouldn't have reached out to us. But that's not to say they won't find what we say, and how we say it, total mumbo-jumbo. 

As silly as it sounds, creating a shared frame starts with a simple conviction to humanize our clients. And while we certainly haven't mastered this skill, we were surprised at how quickly we were able to create stronger relationships, not to mention the results we are seeing with each client. It creates a cascade of reinforcers that motivates us to continue.

Here are some things we do to help ensure we are building a third frame.

  • Ask our client about the issues they are having, as one would expect. But once we get a sense of their concerns, we move on to a few key questions:
    • What relationship goals do you have for you and your dog?
    • Take us back to when you first got <dog's name>. What were your hopes? Why was getting a dog important for you and your family?
    • What does an ideal day look like for you and your dog?
  • Use tools and an approach that help us humanize the person in front of us:
    • Session sheets and handouts that clearly identify the stressors for the human, not just the dog.
    • Measure our program's progress against their relationship goals.
  • Pay close attention to the language and metaphors that they are using.
  • Honour our client's limits.

Explore stories of the little furry friend first arriving. Why did they first decide to bring a dog into their home? Logical reasons are fine, but we want to know what their dreams were and what an ideal day looks and feels like. The time we spend uncovering these details is time spent building a common frame.

Keep digging until we can actually feel empathy for the people sitting across from us. That's when we know we have a shared frame.

Start paying closer attention to the language they use. Language and metaphor define the edges of their frame and give us clues on where we can build a shared frame. They allow us to speak a more common language and build trust.

And last, but not least, always honour your client's limits, even if it makes the protocol and program you are recommending more challenging than normal. We once had a client that took a few weeks before they were comfortable initiating a key procedure. In the past, we would have pushed. Instead, we built inroads and became allies until such time as we could all practice the behaviour modification protocol with joy.

We know we are in the third frame when our behaviour begins to change:

  • We find ourselves pausing to take a breath before reacting to a statement or question that previously would have caused us distress or to rant. This gives us time to remember that they are doing the best they can to help their dog.
  • We frame what we say within the context of our client's stressors and goals. The language we use has become more fluid.
  • We spend a lot more time giving positive feedback and encouragement to the client.
  • We let some of our higher-priority things go while we work on the behaviours that are more pressing for our client and their shared relationship with their furry friend.
  • We stop always trying to be right and stay focused on why we are there.

Tenuous New Ground

Our efforts at Wildflower to create a shared frame with our clients is challenged weekly. That lovely new training client that waits until we are about to walk out the door before lifting up a shock collar to ask if they should use this thing that their neighbour gave them. Or someone that continues to ask about dominance and their need to be seen as the alpha of the pack.

Creating a shared frame is not about stepping away from our values. It is just the opposite. It is creating a space where we are able to listen and understand the other. And from there, become someone they can safely ask questions of. And if we do it well, we can reach them with our answers because we understand where we are aligned.

The woman who asked about the shock collar surprised us and so we began to lecture until we remembered our frame and that we both adore her little dude. And we could feel and relate to her stress and desperation. Being evicted was not an option for her. And so we can be kind and understand what she is really asking. We can answer with compassion and offer her a follow-up sooner than we had previously agreed, while commending her for not using the shock collar and for asking us about it.

There will be clients that aren’t right and that we need to walk away from. It’s happened and it will happen again. These are the hardest because these are people who clearly love their dog but come from a very different world of command and control, punishment and obedience. The fact that they are reaching out to us shows that they are looking for another way in at least one area of their life. And we hate to fail them. We will do a lot to find common ground for a conversation, but our values will never budge.

One quick aside. We can't enter a shared frame without being willing to learn and change, ourselves. This may be the scariest part of this work. We expect our clients to be open to learning, but upon reflection, we had to ask if we were using a double standard. There were certainly times that we expected from them what we often weren't willing to grant. 

So is all this work to create a shared frame worth it?

We measure the impact of our behaviour modification program with a survey of five baseline questions. Clients that participate are surveyed the day after our first session, at two weeks, a month, three months and nine months.

Creating shared frames with our clients has been the single greatest thing we have ever implemented. Participation, which we define as practicing the protocols we recommend, has skyrocketed, as has our clients' confidence in themselves and their dogs. And not surprisingly, their dog’s issues are improving across the board. And from the business point of view, our Net Promoter Score has climbed over 10 points and is now in the 90s. 

Even the very first time we tried, we left the household and actually gave each other a high five. It was one of the most positive and reinforcing sessions we had ever had. 

Changing our frame has also led to us to change the protocols we use, but more on that at a later date.