BARKS from the Guild November 2017

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The Need for Self-Care

Sheelah Gullion discusses the importance of managing compassion fatigue and burnout in pet professionals

s pet professionals, many of us have pets with issues, be they behavioral or medical. Some of us got into the business because of a pet with issues. We wanted to learn how to succeed with that pet and then we wanted to share what we learned. But our industry seems to be unique in that we work largely alone, with little or no support to speak of, using our skills and our emotions, and though the focus is almost always on the pet (dog trainer, dog walker, etc), it is the human who is the client. Richmond, British Columbia-based pet care professional, Erin Moore started a dog walking business several years ago. As her business grew, she found it increasingly difficult to take time off. Her clients loved the convenience of boarding their dogs with her when they went out of town and as time went on, she found that she didn’t want to disappoint them so she put off her own needs. She didn’t want to lose clients, after all. Over time, however, the workload began to weigh on her. She was not having as much fun doing her work as she used to. She began to resent her work and sometimes even her clients. Then something surprising happened to her. “I had a bad case with a German shepherd dog and after, I cried for three days,” said Moore. “It was then that I realized, ‘I can’t continue like this.’ I had become angry and resentful. I didn’t like my job anymore.” Moore was experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout, but she only realized it when she experienced it so strongly that she could no longer convince herself that it was anything else. According to compassion fatigue expert Charles Figley, compassion fatigue is defined as a state experienced by those who help others in distress. It is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper. In the pet professional industry, when we think of compassion fatigue we may be inclined to think more often of those working in animal shelters and pet rescues. However, when renowned and respected veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist and author, Dr. Sophia Yin committed suicide in 2014, it sent a ripple through not only the veterinary field but into the wider pet industry as well. By contrast, burnout is something anyone in any industry can experience. It is generally considered to be caused by difficult or onerous working conditions and can be alleviated by an adjustment in those working conditions. In September 2017, PPG hosted a webinar on compassion fatigue presented by Vanessa Rohlf, a Melbourne, Australia-based consultant and educator specializing in compassion fatigue and stress management within the animal industry. She considers burnout to be a component of compassion fatigue in many cases. 52

BARKS from the Guild/November 2017

Compassion fatigue may be defined as a state experienced by those who help others in distress and is experienced by many who work with animals

© Can Stock Photo Inc./brozova

“The way I conceptualize compassion fatigue is that it consists of both burnout and secondary trauma,” said Rohlf. “Secondary trauma is the stress you get from helping those who are suffering. It is quite rapid in onset and the symptoms mimic those that are associated with PTSD. Burnout, on the other hand, refers to mental, physical and emotional exhaustion from being exposed to chronic workplace stressors. Both are relevant to animal care professionals.” Moore’s case is probably a good example. She was taking every client that came her way and even after a day of dog walking, she was often boarding dogs at her home as well, so had little time to herself. Rohlf was a veterinary nurse who felt the effects of compassion fatigue first-hand from dealing with sick and dying pets and the humans who felt powerless to care for them. She didn’t know there was a name for what she encountered but when she began researching it for a psychology degree, she discovered a population of people who were grateful for the attention being paid to their suffering. What surprised her most of all was that it was not only pet owners and veterinary staff but pet professionals as well. “Sometimes, as pet professionals, you may be required to help not just the suffering animal but the suffering owner as well,” said Rohlf. “For example, if you're working with a companion animal that is experiencing anxiety, it's quite likely that the owner who brought the animal in to see you is also quite distressed. Stress can be contagious, especially if there are cases that we really identify with.” When it comes to compassion fatigue within the pet industry, shelter and rescue staff and volunteers experience perhaps more than their fair share, and Portland, Maine-based Jessica Dolce is a perfect example of this.