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Mom Was Right: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

A good friend of mine is about to bring home her very first dog. As you can imagine, I want to give her buckets of advice to help make this an awesome experience. I want to tell my friend everything I know, so that she can avoid all the mistakes anyone has ever made in the history of owning a dog.

I bet you guys can relate. If you’re involved in animal welfare or a pet-related business you’re probably doing a lot of knowledge dropping. From trying to explain the problem with puppy mills to trying to convince someone to leash their dog, we all want to get others to listen to us. It’s not easy!

It got me thinking: How can we share information with others in a way that’s truly helpful and well received? How do we keep the conversation going and create the right conditions for learning?

Over the years, I’ve picked up some tips that have helped me to get better at talking with others about stuff that I’m passionate about.

Here’s one thing I know for sure:

Being right is not enough. What good is being right if no one sticks around to listen?

How we give people information is as important as the information itself. Mom was right when she told us, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!”

These are the four nuggets that I try to keep in mind, so that I’m not just talking to my cats:

  1. Avoid Information Overload
  2. Personal Experience is King
  3. Help Them Save Face
  4. Small Steps Deserve Big Cheers

Avoid Information Overload

You can’t know too much, but you can say too much. – Calvin Coolidge

When sharing information, particularly with a newbie, we have a tendency to blast the pants off of them with information. One sure way to kill a learning buzz is to overwhelm someone. When I’m overloaded, I just shut down. Like a fainting goat.

Myotonic fainting goat

too. much. information. (source)

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn back when I was working at the shelter was that adopters can only take in so much information at once. I wanted to tell them EVERYTHING they might ever need to know right then, while I had them in my clutches sight. So I would start burying them in information: health and medical needs, behavior and training advice, favorite toys, treats, tools, books, what the dog’s poop looked like, and a brief history of how man domesticated the dog.

What they wanted was to get their hands on the dog in front of them and experience it for themselves. They could only absorb a tiny smidgen of what I was saying.

So, I learned to tell them just the most important information and then put a cork in it. This was excruciating. Cutting to the chase is not my strong suit (see: this blog). But I knew that if I wanted them to hear the really important bits, I had to cut back on what I said overall.

Avoid overloading your listener. They don’t need to know everything all at once. Try to let the newbies – whether they’re new dog owners or new to a challenging experience or an animal welfare issue –  get their footing before you slam them with everything you know.

Keep it simple, give them a few concrete actions steps, and send them home with stuff to read later. Patricia McConnell says so. If the situation allows for it, make yourself available for a follow up. The follow up is important because…

Personal Experience is King

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
― Will Rogers

I have to pee on the fence. So do many adopters, clients, advocates, and probably your uncle Larry too.

We learn by doing and we’re not the only ones. Remember learning to drive?  No matter how good the manual may be, it’s not the same as actually driving a car. Once you have some time behind a wheel, then the manual suddenly makes a whole lot more sense. Oh, you think as you hit your first patch of black ice, that’s what skidding feels like. Which way do I turn the wheel again?!

It helps to acknowledge this need for experience, so you can let go a little.

At the shelter I learned that people needed to experience living with the dog before they could truly make sense of the resources they’d received.

Before: it was me yammering at them while their brains were hijacked by shmoopy-faced dogs. What I was saying couldn’t compete and didn’t feel relevant in that moment.

After: they had experienced the shmoopy-faced dog taking a dump on their rug and it became real (and smelly). They could put what I had said about house-training into context. It was suddenly personal, relevant, and really believable!

Once I understood this need for experience, I did two things: I incorporated hands-on learning during the adoption counseling (ex: I would have them put the harness on the dog themselves to learn how it fit) and I made myself available for help after they brought the dog home.

Is that lady saying you need to crate train me? She's crazy. I'm perfect and I never poop.

Is that lady saying you need to crate train me? Don’t listen. She’s crazy. I’m perfect and I never poop.

Until we’ve experienced something for ourselves and figured out how it’s relevant to us personally, it’s tough for us to understand something new or believe it to be true. There’s a kinesthetic learner in all of us.

That’s why it’s such an a-ha moment when someone lives with a reactive dog for the first time. Suddenly, they understand everything anyone has ever yelled at them, like “my dog needs space!” because now they’re living the DINOS-dream for themselves. It wasn’t real until then. Personal experience is king.

I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t try to help others understand things in advance. Anyone who is a little further along in the journey should try to put down gutter bumpers to help newbies do the right thing and prevent anything truly bad or dangerous from happening. But we also have to accept that people need room to do some learning on their own. Which means that mistakes are inevitable…


Help them Save Face

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

When people make mistakes, your job (if you want them to learn anything) is to protect their dignity. Help them save face, so they’ll stay in the conversation.

In other words, try not to shame the shit out of them. If you do, you’ll lose them in a heartbeat.

Years ago I met my now-BFF while she was working in a Philly pet store that sold only very high quality food. The brand my family had fed my childhood dog (it rhymes with Defiance Riot, which is also the name of my imaginary hardcore band) wasn’t for sale. I mentioned that the food must have been OK, since we bought it from our vet.

My friend, who probably wanted to vomit all of her holistic health and nutrition knowledge at me, simply said, “Yeah, it’s not so great.” And she causally pointed to a book Food Pets Die For, if I was interested in learning more. The book was also her way of saying, it’s not just my opinion. Check out this expert.

Her super laid back brilliance allowed me to absorb this surprising new knowledge while maintaining my dignity. I was privately embarrassed that I knew so little about dog food. My friend, who wanted me to learn more, helped me to see where I had room to improve in such a generous way. She didn’t put me on the defensive. Instead, she opened the door a crack and gently suggested I take a look.

And I did, because I didn’t have to admit I was an idiot in order to do it.

So hard to do, isn’t it? I know. But we have to remember this isn’t about us showing off how much we know or how skilled or smart we are about a topic. It’s about helping someone else feel comfortable enough to check out what’s on the other side of the door.

Help others save face when they share something that you may not agree with or when they make a mistake.

If you blast them with negative information – telling them how wrong or dumb they are or how horrifyingly awful that product/trainer/idea is that they like – you’ll run the risk of shutting them down in embarrassment and shame. It doesn’t matter how right you are, if the person you were trying to reach has left the conversation because they hate they way you’ve made them feel.

I’m still learning how to do this, btw. It is hard.

side note: Have you guys heard about “spontaneous trait transference“? That’s the phenomenon where people spontaneously and unintentionally associate what you say about other people with you yourself. So if you’re talking about a certain dog trainer or co-worker’s negative qualities, guess what? The people listening are associating those negative qualities with you. It works in reverse too, thankfully.

Small Steps Deserve Big Cheers

“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.” Anatole France

So you’ve got someone who’s listening? Cool. Here’s my favorite way to keep people interested in learning: Be a cheerleader. Pom poms are optional, but kind of awesome.

Celebrate whatever it is that you want them to do more of – no matter how small – and build the foundation of a genuine and positive relationship with your adopters, clients, friends, and neighbors (maybe even your adversaries!). When people feel good, they stay engaged.

Don’t wait for them to get it all right before you start celebrating their accomplishments. Remember these words, spoken by the great sage Bill Murray in What About Bob?:  Baby steps.

Small steps deserve big cheers. Even if you’re dying for them to speed things up and get to the other side, keep rooting them on if they’re headed in the right direction (p.s. they may never get to the other side, so try to accept that not everyone will do things exactly as you do). They’ll appreciate your support and encouragement. It will make them feel good about themselves and their choices. And that will help them stay motivated to continue, even if things get more challenging. They may even allow you to continue on the journey with them.


“I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful.” – Bob

There’s tons more advice out there about how to effectively share what we know, but those are my guiding nuggets. The truth is that I still fail at all four of these steps all the time. But I’m always trying to improve, because every once in a while I really want to help someone learn something new or useful. I bet you do too.

So consider how you’re sharing what you know. If you don’t, you might get pegged as the Crazy Dog Lady. That’s an easy way for others to dismiss all the great stuff you have to share. And that would be a bummer for the dogs. They need you!

  1. Love the article. Thanks for the writing it.

    July 10, 2013
  2. faithtrustfosterpups #

    I will take this to heart in my talks with potential adopters for the rescue I volunteer with. Really good stuff, I love it!

    I also couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the phrase “living the DINOS-dream.” I sometimes feel I could liken it to a wacky action movie dream sequence with moments of calm interspersed, which transpires after eating too much pizza too close to bedtime…

    July 10, 2013
  3. Ian Dunbars website,, also has free ebooks that you can customize and send, or put on disc and give out for before & after getting a new pup or dog. I have the pdf saved with my business info on the front page to share with clients. Check it out.

    July 10, 2013
    • Thanks Susan! I did send her Dunbar’s free eBooks like you mentioned. And I also sent links to McConnell’s Puppy Primer and Yin’s Perfect Puppy in 7 Days. All good choices, if anyone’s in need of a puppy resource!

      July 10, 2013
  4. ThePayferPack #

    Love this post!!!! I am always trying to find ways to better my interactions with pet people, and your sage advice is awesome!!! I will be keeping your 4 nuggets in mind with every customer I talk to 🙂

    July 10, 2013
    • Thank you and I hope the nuggets work a little communications-magic for you!

      July 10, 2013
  5. Terrific advice. One thing I’ve learned from my training in speech and theatre is it’s also the tone of voice you use.

    Yesterday I was trying to help someone in filling out a form, and while I can’t remember what he said the tone of his voice is still in my head. I will be reticent to interact with him again.

    July 10, 2013
    • So true! You remember how he made you feel most of all.

      Tone of voice, moderating your speech so it mimics the other person (ex. slow down and soften the volume, if they speak slowly and softly), eye contact, and open body language help too (uncross those arms)!

      p.s. I studied theater too. It IS helpful in everyday life!

      July 10, 2013
  6. I actually wished my dog came with a manual! :p because the shelter we got her from gave us such minimal advice! :p but reading your post now, maybe I understand more why they may just have left us to experience it for myself.

    July 10, 2013
    • That’s too bad! They still could have sent you home with a fat packet to read later!

      What I learned is that you can’t tell adopters every single thing you’d like to during the adoption counseling, but you can still send them home with lots of helpful stuff to read later and then you can follow up to help them troubleshoot. The hands-on experience part is very much complimented by the written materials ; )

      July 10, 2013
      • In their defence, they are a relatively new shelter and so probably short on man power. But it would help I think, at least serious adopters can get a leg up from there rather than get frustrated with energetic puppies and return them before the puppies are past their terrible twos. Agree it is a challenge to be discerning and cater the information to the specific individual so that they perceive it as useful for them though… some people are more receptive, some people may not be.

        July 10, 2013
  7. Another thing that helps is personalizing it. For instance, instead of saying to someone, “NEVER give your dog chicken bones. You’re going to KILL him!” say, “You know, when I was growing up, we gave our dog chicken bones too, but my vet told me they are really, really dangerous because they splinter. You CAN give him raw chicken necks and wings, but any cooked bones are apparently bad for them.” (little self-deprecating laugh) “It’s a wonder my poor dog lived past a year old with the stuff we gave him. I found this great website at XXXX and I was horrified at all the stuff we fed him that could have killed him!” It also helps to give a source other than yourself so you sound less like a know-it-all. “My vet told me” or “This dog trainer had a great idea…” or “I read on the AKC website..” (or Facebook page or whatever) As the post says, it’s really important to let people save face and not feel lectured. If you turn them off, they don’t hear a word.

    July 10, 2013
    • Great point! Sharing your own learning curve (and genuinely poking fun at yourself) helps to take the judgement out of the advice. Coming off as a know-it-all is a turn off for most listeners!

      July 10, 2013
  8. katwayp #

    Great post! I love reading your blog and your wisdom. It’s always more memorable when you include personal experiences/stories.

    July 10, 2013
  9. I LOVE your articles and writing style – always make me laugh, which makes me want to read more! Thank you for sharing your experiences and witty sense of humor – you rock!!

    July 10, 2013
  10. Sam Tatters #

    Brilliant post – thanks 🙂

    July 11, 2013
  11. Excellent advice – and I’ve forwarded the link to several friends of mine who are teachers – this advice would help with any information you want to pass on. thank you.

    July 11, 2013
    • I’m humbled that this may be helpful to teachers – one of the hardest jobs on the planet. Thanks Janine!

      July 12, 2013
  12. This resonated strongly with me. GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY of sharing overload. Thank you for sharing in such a positive way something I needed to hear. This was clear, cogent and concise. It is important to me to learn how to identify when people are ready for information, and part of that will be to let them “pee on the electric fence.” Thank you for your nonthreatening writing style, and thank you for all you are doing to help our DINOS.

    July 11, 2013
    • I’m GUILTY x 3 too! Thanks for reading and your kind feedback Nancy. I hope the blog is helpful for you, whenever you need it!

      July 12, 2013
  13. Reblogged this on That Animal Lady and commented:
    Great article! I’m reblogging it so that you all can benefit from her advice and also so that I never, ever forget it!

    July 11, 2013
  14. I think your advice applies to all sorts of situations, not just dogs. Thanks!

    July 11, 2013
  15. Reblogged this on Skyline Pet Care Austin and commented:
    This is such a great reminder for those of us that are heavily involved in pet rescue!

    July 11, 2013
    • Thank you for reblogging – I hope it helps all the hardworking pet rescue heroes out there!

      July 12, 2013
  16. Great advice. I fully admit that I come across as a “know-it-all” more often than I’d like – I’m not proud of it, but hey, it happens. These are great tips to keep in mind for everyday life 🙂

    July 11, 2013
    • Hey, it happens to me too (that’s why I think I’m “qualified” to write a blog like this – pretty know-it-all of me huh?). All we can do is keep trying! Thanks for reading Marie Anne : )

      July 12, 2013
  17. I LOVE to give advice, but sometimes I forget that I learned what I know because I made mistakes. Letting go and realizing that people are going to make mistakes when they get a dog is the hardest thing for me to do because I always go to the worst place and think their mistakes will harm the dog or they won’t be responsible enough (or even realize what they are doing is wrong) to figure out how to fix things. Your advice is great, and I will keep it in mind before I just give all the advice and info stored in my head in one run on sentence.

    July 11, 2013
    • I fear the worst too and sometimes it does happen. But I’ve also learned that the bad stuff happens even when I do everything in my power to prevent it. I force myself to remember that those experiences are generally in the minority and those folks are the outliers. If we can adjust our overall approach so that it’s geared towards effectively reaching the majority, then we’ll help the most dogs. It’s not easy! p.s. you know me in real life so you know I can’t shut up. Obviously I’m working on taking my own advice ; )

      July 12, 2013
  18. This was excellent advice. I am guilty of talking too much, so your first nugget in particular I will take to heart. I love the way you put this helpful information over. Well done and thank you.

    July 11, 2013
    • Thanks Julie – we’re guilty of the same thing, so we’ll both have to keep Nugget #1 in mind ; )

      July 12, 2013
  19. Great post! I, too, am often guilty of sharing overload. While I’m a novice dog trainer — just recently completed the Animal Behavior College course — I have a lot to learn about training people to train their dogs. I love reading your blog posts — among others — because they’re chock full of great information, shared in a fun, easy-to-understand, non-confrontational manner. While at my age I’m not so sure that I want the hassle of either starting my own business OR going back to work for someone else, I do love dogs and want to be able to help others with their own dogs. And I love learning more about helping my own dogs with their needs.

    July 11, 2013
    • Thanks for the kind feedback SNG and congrats on completing the ABC course! I think one of the hardest times in our lives to be an effective educator is when we’ve just learned something new. I have a tendency to get really gung-ho and preachy at that stage, because I’ve just had my mind blown by what I’ve recently learned. I want everyone to know what I now know, but I forget that I had my own learning curve too. Good luck with your new clients – I hope the blog is useful to you in your work!

      July 12, 2013
  20. annoyingknowitall #

    Where have you been the last 50 years of my life? I’ve been doing everything wrong, forever. Great advice for all kinds of situations. thanks for a great and helpful post

    July 11, 2013
    • I’ve been annoying everyone as a know-it-all in real life, instead of online ; )
      Thanks for reading!

      July 12, 2013
  21. Wonderful article. Great while i’m getting prepped for an upcoming class. This has helped me to “cut the fat” off some of the info I will be teaching. Thank you!!

    July 11, 2013
    • I like “cut the fat” Brandi – That’s what I feel like when I’m editing a blog. This post was originally twice as long as the final post. Effective teachers and writers know how to edit themselves! Thank you!

      July 12, 2013
  22. Your mom’s so right! Loved this post of yours and i learnt something today. Thanks!

    July 12, 2013
    • Hooray for smart moms who teach us new stuff! Thanks for reading!

      July 12, 2013
  23. Dontsayfurbabies #

    Good article. However, I guess the claim “personal experience is king” is true unless, of course, its about dog food, then you must ignore your experience and listen to self-proclaimed “expert” Ann Martin. Huh?
    I’m confused by this. Why the exception for what you feed? This is a bizarre double-standard.

    July 12, 2013
    • I’m confused by your comment, but I’ll try to answer the best I can…

      Years ago I didn’t know anything about dog nutrition or commercial dog food. Then I was introduced to the topic in a brief, non-judgmental manner (#1 and #3 on the list). I did some personal research (through various sources), so that I could understand the subject better. Over time, my personal experience (#2) was that some dogs can survive a long time eating crappy food (my childhood dog), but many dogs thrive on a higher quality diet. I’ll never know if a diet change would have made a difference for my childhood dog’s health or longevity, as he had passed away by then. So my personal experience, from that point onward, backed up the information I was politely given.

      July 12, 2013
  24. Such great advice. I am an offensive information overloader. I admit it. I might just print this off and tape it to my mirror (or better yet, fridge) so I am forced to live it!

    July 13, 2013

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