Empathetic motivational interviewing in veterinary behavioral medicine: the W.A.R. exploration in understanding compliance, successes or failures in therapy. 

© Dr Joël Dehasse -  joel.dehasse@skynet.be
3 avenue du Cosmonaute, 1150 Brussels, Belgium



Studies in human psychotherapy have shown that empathetic counsellors have better results than not-empathetic experts (Miller, Rollnick). This finding can be applied to the veterinary behavioral consultation to increase the success rate of both the owners’ contentment and the animal’s welfare, the latter depending directly on the first. The author is applying this method with increased satisfaction. 


Empathy and W.A.R.

Empathy is defined here as a “skilful reflective listening that clarifies and amplifies the person’s own experiencing and meaning, without imposing the counsellor's own material” (Rogers). Miller and Rollnick have expanded this concept in Motivational Interviewing1, and I am borrowing a few key elements in their methodology (which is more a way of ‘being’ than a way of ‘doing’).

There are three key elements, which need to be present in owners and animals when considering (therapeutic) change: willingness, ability and readiness (W.A.R.).

The owner’s willingness to change depends on the balance of the costs and benefits of the status quo and of the change. His ability has to be evaluated and techniques co-created with him. His readiness level shows his priorities; he may want to implement strategies of change, but not immediately (maybe later as he may have more urgent things to carry out first).

The animal willingness can be provoked and increased if it perceives a positive outcome from change. Its abilities can be improved by teaching it new ways of managing situations. And its readiness depends also on priorities in its ethogram and in its instrumentalised strategies and on how the therapeutic system can motivate it to be ready.

To be skilled in a motivational consultation, the counsellor has to be W.A.R. to overlook his own agenda and desires, especially his righting reflex1. Counsellors have generally the tendency to right what they consider wrong, depending on their own vision of the world. Accurate therapeutic empathy may need the counsellor to be willing and ready to inhibit the righting reflex to be able to approach and accept the world as modelled by the system (consisting of people and animals) itself.

Beyond this way of being, there are a few communication techniques that help the counselor to dodge de-motivation (such as avoid arguing, criticizing, being in a hurry, and knowing better); there are also communication skills helping the counselor to increase motivation (such as express empathy, sustain personal efficacy, amplify the difference between costs and benefits).

Prochaska and DiClemente have summarized the motivation phases leading to change; I have linked them to states of W.A.R.

Phases of change and state of W.A.R.

Phase of change

State of W.A.R.




















 In behavioural medicine, general practitioners often meet people who are in the phase of precontemplation; the veterinarians are frustrated because they cannot implement solutions; the only thing they can do is to increase the willingness of the clients. Specialists meet people who are usually already in the contemplation phase, i.e. willing, but seldom able and ready, particularly after they become aware of the costs of change.  Only in the action phase will people implement the strategies of change and achieve lasting results. This is one explanation why suggested therapies either fail or succeed.  



To conclude, the author suggests that, paradoxically, in order to help people and animals, the counsellor has to keep his expertise half hidden, avoid trying to find immediate solutions, and let the solutions (strategies of change) be discovered by the therapeutic system itself as a whole (when it is W.A.R. to do so), with suggestions elegantly proposed here and there by the counsellor's expertise. 



  • Miller WR, Rollnick S. 2002 Motivational interviewing. The Guilford Press, New-York

  • Rogers CR. 1959 in Miller WR, Rollnick S, 2002, p. 7.

  • Prochaska JO, DiClemente CC. Transtheoretical therapy : toward a more integrative model of change. Psychotherapy: theory, research and practice, 19, 276-288. 


Dr Joël Dehasse - Behaviorist veterinarian