Human behavior can sometimes be funny. Often I find myself doing something and think to myself, “Why does this seem like a good idea?” or, “I know this won’t work, but I just have to try to make sure it won’t work.” Let’s face it. We’re not always logical. Well, maybe you are, but I know that I’m not!
And I think one of the more interesting parts of the behavior modification journey for pets is how much their humans influence the process. We’ve talked about aspects of this before, like how your stress will impact their stress, how you can help to set up the environment for them to better succeed, and things like that. Things that directly affect behavior. But we haven’t talked as much about how we can inadvertently affect our progress. And while sometimes we can accidentally affect the process for the better, more people are interested in how they may be affecting it negatively, or self-sabotaging.
So let’s get into 3 ways that I’ve seen clients accidentally hinder their own progress (and, let’s be real, ways that I’ve self-sabotaged my own progress in other aspects of my life). And, of course, what to do about it!
Mistake #1: Seeing with your ideas
We’ve talked occasionally about the stories we tell ourselves about our pets and how that can influence our progress. We also discussed recently about focusing on the wrong problem and how that will also affect progress. A commonality that both of those topics share is the notion of “seeing with your ideas”.
We have a saying here at Pet Harmony: see with your eyes, not your ideas. What we mean by this is that we need to keep an open mind when observing our pet’s behavior. When we hold too fast to our beliefs, we start to twist those observations into something that’s not entirely true. And it’s really hard to craft a proper behavior modification strategy off of something that’s not true.
Observing what’s actually happening can be hard. It sometimes means that we see something that we didn’t want to be true, but is. It sometimes means that we have to reassess our beliefs about our pets or even the world around us. There are three things that I tell my clients who are struggling with observations to help them work through this:
- Remove emotion as much as possible. The time to observe your dog without emotion is not when they’re lunging at your toddler. Or when they’re screaming at a squirrel in a tree waking up your neighbors. The best times to observe are when you’re able to be objective. Video is a great way to do this! Or, what I do is pretend that I’m looking at a pet I’ve never met before. If I knew nothing about my dog, what would I think about his behavior?
- Focus on the here and now. Sometimes seeing with your eyes is hard because it makes you realize mistakes you’ve made previously. I’ve had many clients tell me that they wish they knew what I was teaching them sooner, even for pets they’ve had in the past. I get it; I’ve been there, too. But when that happens, sometimes our brain decides that what we’re seeing can’t be true because it would be too painful to acknowledge that. In those moments, I remind my clients (and myself) that when we know better, we do better. Let’s focus on the here and now and how we can improve moving forward and to keep the past in the past.
- Ask a professional. If you’re struggling to objectively observe your pet’s behavior, then ask a professional. It’s what we’re here for! Even professionals need to do this. Sometimes it’s just too hard to remain objective when you’re so close to the situation.
Mistake #2: Not taking your own learning history into consideration
This one can be closely tied to the first mistake of seeing with your ideas. The behavior modification journey can be emotional. The experiences we’ve had leading up to this point can make it even more emotional. When we don’t take our own experiences into consideration, we can end up doing things that sabotage our progress without even realizing it.
Here’s an example. Recently I was speaking with a client who is seeing me for intrahousehold aggression due to a new dog squabbling with one of the resident dogs. In our second session, he told me that the dogs are making improvements and that everyone’s stress levels seem to be down. Fantastic! He also told me that he felt like human emotions were getting in the way of them making even more progress. It was scary when their dogs were fighting and they’re rightfully worried about anyone getting hurt, either physically or emotionally. A very valid concern!
Now, this client is quite in-tune with his emotions and it’s clear that this family has some metacognition skills that are not widely taught in our society. That meant that we were able to have a conversation about their experiences, how those experiences are impacting what they’re working on with their pups, and how we can work to help them feel more comfortable. It was a lovely conversation.
I would say rarely, though, are folks able to articulate that precisely how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it, AND ask for help all in one go. It’s a skill that we all, including myself, can certainly learn more of from this particular client. We often need to resolve and heal our own things before we can be fully immersed in helping someone else- of any species.
As far as what to do if you find your own experiences preventing more progress, my best advice is to seek a professional who can help you with whatever it is you’re working through. There’s no shame in that! We often say that behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that’s true of our behavior as well. Sometimes the issues that we’re experiencing with our pets have nothing to do with the actual pet.
Mistake #3: Stopping things that are working
I mentioned human behavior can be funny, yeah? Here’s one that I see all the time (and sometimes do myself) that I still can’t figure out why it happens! We stop doing things that are working.
Now, when I phrase it that way it sounds silly, right? Why would someone stop doing something that’s getting them results? It happens all the time, though! We forget the effects or what it used to be like or want to see what our new baseline is or want to chase the new shiny thing that we just heard about. Whatever the reason, we stop doing something that’s working.
I’ll use an example from my own life here. I’ve mentioned before that I have a chronic illness. It’s currently being managed with medication. Recently, I decided to stop one of those medications that a year ago I couldn’t praise highly enough for the effects it had. (Y’know, without talking to my doctor which is something you shouldn’t do.) There were some reasons that I won’t get into as to why I made that decision, but there was absolutely a part of me that wondered if I even needed it anymore. I was doing so well! I was in a different place than I used to be! I had new skills to fall back on!
It took 2 weeks for me to remember why I was on it in the first place. My symptoms kept coming back one by one until I was down for the count like I used to be. Thankfully, I had told the people in my life about this experiment so they could be more objective observers of what was going on. I scheduled the next appointment I could with my doctor when they told me what exactly they were seeing that I was too close to see for myself. I admit that it was disheartening to learn that what was working was actually working. Humans are weird, remember? Go figure.
I’ve seen some of my clients do the exact same thing- stopping medication that’s working- but without the part of telling someone to be on the lookout for regressions. That can be dangerous depending on the medication and the behavior issue, but it can also be disheartening like it was for me and my own health journey. And that can be made even worse by not realizing when regressions are being caused by stopping something that’s working, whether it’s medication or management, or a modification exercise.
So what’s the answer here? Get a third-party observer. For me, it was the people around me who had years of experience observing my chronic health symptoms and knew what to report to me. For my clients, sometimes that’s me as their professional when it comes to management or a behavior modification exercise. If it’s related to medication then it’s their vet. If it’s something that’s not as dangerous or serious to be experimenting with, your third-party “observer” could even be a progress log that you’re keeping of your pet’s behavior. You just need something objective to go on.
Humaning is Hard
As I wrap up this list and go back through it, I realized that all of these come down to one thing: being a human can be hard. Having human emotions can be hard. Having to make decisions that impact someone else’s life- regardless of species- can be hard. So the last thing that I want to say is, if you find yourself connecting with anything on this list, remember that you’re not alone. Be kind to yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. We’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge, information, and bandwidth that we have today. You got this.
- If you find yourself connecting with any of the mistakes on this list, first give yourself some grace. You’re only human! And all of these are very human behaviors that we all experience at one point or another.
- Figure out what you need to focus on first. Is there something that’s getting in the way of taking any of the above advice? For example, it’s hard to see with your eyes, not your ideas, if you’re not yet skilled at observing animal behavior. Or, it can be difficult to seek help for a problem that you have an unpleasant history with, like a dog bite, and may need to work through that first. Start with those foundation skills first.
- Do the thing! Follow through with whatever the above advice is for what you’re experiencing.
- Set up fail-safes. Again, these are all very human behaviors that we all experience at one point or another. And that means that you’re not immune to them just because you know about them and are working on them. Take my medication example! I did a thing that I actively tell people not to do and then was surprised when what I knew would happen happened. My fail-safe was having other people hold me accountable and be my eyes for me. We all need something like that throughout the journey.