The Psychological Contract – A System of Beliefs That Needs to Be Articulated to Your Client

May 23, 2015 | Business & Consulting

Written by Niki Tudge Copyright 2015

When you embark on a consulting or training relationship you should first ensure you have a professional consulting contract with your client. As a professional working with animals there are multiple liability risks open to you. Most of these liabilities will stem from one of three areas. If, as a trainer, you are negligent and do not take reasonable measures to prevent a foreseeable injury from occurring during your contract period, then you are liable. You can also be found liable if you violate any public safety laws or you misrepresent your skills or knowledge to a client.

There are a few things you can do to limit your risk of liability as a professional. Firstly, ensure you have the correct insurance coverage with a reputable company that specializes in the fields of animal training and behavior. Secondly, always be careful when choosing your working locations and ensure they are safe from potential hazards. Thirdly, take into consideration the movement of the dogs you are going to see, i.e. how will they access and

Older mutt with puppy

Animal behavior and training professionals should ensure they have a professional consulting contract with their client before starting © Can Stock Photo

The formal contract is not the end of the professional-client contract story, however. Once you have established that your contract and liability waiver have been understood and signed, you must then consider the psychological contract. In short this summarizes the beliefs held by both trainer and student about what they expect from one another. It is an unwritten set of expectations that is constantly at play during the term of the formal contract. The interactions you have with your clients are a fundamental feature of the trainer-student relationship. Each role is a set of behavioral expectations that are often explicit and not defined in the business contract (Armstrong, 2003).

Armstrong states that the psychological contract is blurred at the edges, cannot be enforced by either party and is most often not written down. Yet this contract guides expectations, defines roles and helps interpret the relationship between the two parties. It creates emotions that form and control participants’ behavior (2003).

The essence of the psychological contract is a system of beliefs that needs to be articulated to the client. In the absence of a mutual understanding of this contract, one side of the equation is going to feel disappointed or let down at some point. This is one of the first things to take care of when embarking on a trainer–student relationship. Let us start by setting the scene.

  • My client has completed my online behavior consultation form which includes all the information I need to prepare for my first meeting safely and competently.
  • My contract terms have been communicated, shared and signed and I am in receipt of my first appointment payment.
  • I have handled my initial sales inquiry professionally and have formalized a consulting appointment.
  • I have attended the first consultation, conducted my functional assessment and developed a working hypothesis. I have a contingency statement describing what I believe, with a high rate of confidence, is eliciting the problematic behavior and/or maintaining it.
  • I am beginning to formulate in my mind which of the following two options to implement when going forward:
    1. A management plan
    2. A complete behavior change program
  • The family are still operating at novice level. They do not know what they do not know. They are unconsciously incompetent. All is well. They are feeling good. The expert is on site and their problems are going to be fixed.
  • Now it is time for real discussions and contract agreements. I call this our “creating shared meaning” session. How this goes and how effective I am will determine the successful outcome of our team efforts and is critical to the success of the training program. Not only does it remove any ambiguity surrounding the relationship and the future, but it also creates a due north for how you move forwards together as a team.


The following table shows the expectations of this contract for both trainer and client:

Psychological Contract – Client Point of View

Psychological Contract – Trainer Point of View

·       The trainer will treat them fairly, respectfully and consistently.·       They will obtain a clear understanding of the scope of the work, time investment and reliability of the trainer.·       They will understand how much involvement and influence they will have in the process.·       They will trust in the trainer to keep their word.

·       They will trust that the trainer will provide a safe working and learning environment.

·       They will understand role delineation between all parties.

·       The client will make an effort throughout the relationship.·       The client will be compliant.·       The client will be committed.·       The client will be loyal to the cause and to their pet during the program


What is discussed during this creating shared meaning session?

I am very open with my clients and highlight the need for complete transparency. I explain how I am going to share with them everything they need to know upfront so they can offer informed consent and agree to our plan of action. We are going to discuss each point and clarify anything misunderstood. We are going to put ourselves in a situation where, as from today, we operate as a team and make no assumptions about the journey we are embarking on. The points we discuss are:

  • My role versus their role – who has responsibility for training and caring for the pet and who is responsible for the training and care of the two-legged client.
  • What will be expected in terms of time commitment and effort from each member of the family and how we are going to make this fun and empowering.
  • What each session will look like, how the client will experience it, how the training sessions will move forward and each person’s role in these sessions.
  • The specifics of all management activities that will need to be incorporated into the family’s schedule.
  • The specifics of all relationship-building activities that will need to be incorporated into the family’s schedule.
  • The specifics of all exercise sessions that will need to be incorporated into the family’s schedule.
  • Specifically the time and energy that will be required to conduct homework, much of it integrated into existing schedules.
  • Safety concerns (if necessary). We make commitments regarding how things will be managed and whose role the specific management tasks are.
  • The training protocols, the philosophy and how things will work. We do not judge or criticize anything the client has previously embarked on. We are there to make progress and focus on the future not to assign blame for the past.
  • What is in it for each person – we begin to create a vision for change, a vision that each member of the family wants to help create.

Once you have created shared meaning and the psychological contract is in place, you must understand what is about to take place. You are going to implement change into many facets of your clients’ lives, not only for their pets but also for themselves and their family members. For this change to be successful each member of the family must desire, support and participate in the change. If you only succeed in simply building an awareness of the change required but do not generate a desire for family members to drive or participate in it, you will struggle to get a consensus of action. Taking the time to do this will start the process off on the right foot. In short you are not just a dog training professional and consultant, you are also a change agent of change


Armstrong. M. (2003). Human Resource Management Practice. Ninth Edition. British Library, London.