Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror

I think one of the hardest parts of learning to read body language is the ability to see the wide array of signals present for varying degrees of a particular emotion. Oftentimes when I first meet with a new client I ask them to tell me if there’s anything else their pet is afraid of that they didn’t mention on their questionnaire. Usually, there’s a pause, and then some variation of:

“He doesn’t seem to like to like [insert scenario], but it’s not like his tail is tucked or anything.”

And that’s a great example that nervousness doesn’t look like terror. 

 

Degrees of Feelings

Now, we are going to avoid the entire topic of can our pets experience complex emotions like resentment and guilt and also the topic of how can we truly know the exact emotion another individual is feeling. Those are a whole can of worms requiring a lot more scientific study. For our purposes, I think we can all safely agree that our pets experience fear. 

There are many degrees and facets of fear, though. We can classify things like nervousness, anxiety, discomfort, and terror as fear. All are different degrees of the same emotion. And with those different degrees, we see different body language signals. 

 

Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror

I got the idea for this blog post a couple of months ago during a thunderstorm. Oso has come a long way when it comes to his sound sensitivities (though we still have some more work to do!) but that doesn’t mean he particularly enjoys thunderstorms. He just no longer shuts down during them. Now we see nervousness, instead of more intense fear. 

And it looks like this:

It’s subtle, right? The worried brow. Ears pulled slightly further back than normal. Stiffer body. Having to always be near us. Someone who didn’t know Oso and didn’t know his history would likely miss that this is nervous. A little bit of fear only merits a few, smaller stress signals in this case.

Compare that to when he’s relaxed:

Sprawled, loose body. Relaxed face and mouth. Ears normal for that position. Tail wherever it lands. Eyes would have been closed if I hadn’t woken him up. Hasn’t seen us for hours. 

When they’re side-by-side it’s easier to see but in the moment it’s easy to miss. 

 

What that means for you and your pet

Because there are different degrees of fear, we need to be able to see the subtler stress signals to know if our pet is nervous about something. And here’s why that matters: small stressors can add up. We call that “trigger stacking” in the dog training world and I wrote a whole post about that which you can check out here. In short, small stressors can exacerbate other behavior issues we’re working on. That’s one of the reasons I ask my clients to tell me about any other stressors in their pets’ lives that they haven’t already mentioned.

Not only can they exacerbate other issues, but they can also become bigger fears later on. I can’t tell you how many times folks come to me saying that their pet was only nervous around something for a while but it’s now escalated to barking, lunging, or biting. That’s a big deal when we’re talking about stressors like strangers. We need to monitor nervousness so that we can bring in a professional at the first sign of escalation. 

 

Now what?

Happy training!

Allie

Dog’s Behavior Got You Down? Try These 5 Things

If you’d prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

 

I’m gonna take a guess. 

If you’re here, you likely have a dog that has some… struggles. 

People come to us with a whole variety of challenges, and whatever their struggle, situation, or condition, it all boils down to the same 5 basic steps. 

So, if your dog’s behavior has you down, make sure you give these steps a shot. This is going to be a very brief overview. The application of these steps to your specific situation is much greater than what we can share in the span of a blog, but we cover all of this and more in our Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program

 

Management

Our goals for management: 

  1. How can I keep everyone safe?
  2. How can I avoid the stressful thing? 
  3. How can I make the behavior I don’t like less likely to happen? 

If your dog has a behavior that’s got you down, ask yourself these 3 questions. Management is extremely personal because each family lives in a different environment. A management plan for a dog who barks at people who walk in the upstairs apartment is different from a dog who snarls and growls when their family approaches the dog bowl. 

Your management will be adapting and evolving with changes in the environment. It should be sustainable, effective, and robust to help you, your family, and your pet follow through.

 

Two Way Communication 

We ask our dogs to listen to us often. In order to successfully help your dog navigate their struggles, you also need to know how to listen to them. This is where body language comes in. 

Knowing what body language to look for, being able to see it on your dog in real-time, and being able to respond appropriately will help you and your dog create a fluent communication system. Once you and your dog are able to communicate, you’ll be better equipped to handle situations and work through struggles together. 

 

Meet Their Needs 

Again, this is going to be brief (I mean, there is already a whole book just on this topic!). Meeting your dog’s needs will let you pick that low-hanging fruit. Sometimes, big improvements can come from small changes. 

One client was able to get some peace and quiet by giving her dog a cooling mat and a fan. 

One client was able to save her furniture and baseboards by giving safe chewing opportunities 2 times a week. 

Sometimes, it can be this simple. Other times, we have more complex needs that will take more time to address, but once we tackle those small steps to get big wins, we can move on to some of the needs that might be more labor-intensive to fulfill. 

 

Learn New Skills 

You and your dog are both going to need to learn some new skills. Your standard basic manners aren’t going to help you navigate the world with a dog who is afraid of the postman, or can’t be home alone. When your dog is struggling, we often need to implement another set of skills… a unique set of skills… to help your dog. The foundation skills needed will be different depending on your dog’s struggles. 

So, before you jump into the deep end, you and your dog both need to know how to swim. 

 

Apply the New Skills 

You’ve implemented management, you’ve learned to read and respond to your dog’s body language, you’ve met your dog’s needs, and you’ve taken the time to learn new skills to help your dog in this world. Now you’re ready to start directly helping your dog overcome their challenges. Creating safe, comfortable, and controlled environments for your dog to practice those new skills in a way that they will be successful will help both you and your dog see progress toward your ultimate goal. 

 

Integrate New Information 

As you go through this process, you’re going to learn more about your dog. Your dog may surprise you as they progress, build new skills, gain new confidence, and refine their communication with you. Occasionally, circle back and make sure that your original plan is the best plan. You might find small adjustments that can lead to an even more efficient journey. 

 

Now What? 

  • If you found yourself asking, “but how do I…”, then check out our 12-week Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program: The step-by-step guide to creating a harmonious, fulfilling life for you and your dog with behavior problems, without sacrificing yourself. 

 

Why I Don’t Settle for “Fine”

If you’d prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

 

Let’s chat about fine. We’ve talked about “fine” before. We are likely going to talk about “fine” again. It’s a word that gets used a lot when we are talking about our pets. 

He’s fine with the vacuum. 

She’s fine with me touching her feet. 

They are fine with other dogs. 

Usually, when I hear people using the term “fine” they really mean “keeping it together”. Sometimes “fine” is the goal. When my partner and I hunkered down at home with our pups during Irma, we were extremely satisfied with “fine”. There are going to be infrequent situations where “fine” gets us through.

However, sometimes we settle for “fine” when we should be shooting for great. And “fine” really isn’t what we want, especially in behavior modification.

 

“This is fine”

I think at this point we’ve all heard the pop culture usage of “fine”. There is the “This is fine” comic:

Comic created by KC Green. Find more of KC’s work here

 

And to be honest, this comic applies to a lot of life. That’s one of the reasons it’s circulated on the internet for years. 

There’s the discussion of “fine” in The Italian Job and that fine really means “freaking out, insecure, neurotic and emotional.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my dogs to be “fine”. I want them to be good. I want them to navigate the world with anticipation of good things. I want my dog to be comfortable moving through space. 

“Fine” isn’t going to get your dog comfortable being alone. “Fine” isn’t going to help your dog bond with a new pet sitter. “Fine” isn’t going to teach your dog that it’s a good thing when you pick up their food bowl. 

 

Spot the Difference

Here are some examples where “fine” really won’t cut it, and what we are looking for instead. See if you can spot the differences in the situations!

 

So What Do You Want?

You want comfort. You want joy. You want positive anticipation. 

I want dog moms, dog dads, and dog paw-rents everywhere to say with confidence that their dog is thriving. 

I know that may sound like a big ask. 

It takes getting really good at reading your dog’s body language and skillfully creating an environment where your dog is comfortable. It means helping your dog to meet their needs. Both of you need some skills that will help your dog learn that scary monsters aren’t so scary (and maybe even AWESOME). And that can feel like a lot. 

But the second that it’s no longer a question of “I think my dog will be okay?” 

It’s a statement. 

“My dog is doing great.” 

Is incredibly freeing. 

 

Now What? 

 

“That’s Not Scary!”

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We don’t get to choose what a learner thinks is scary

My dog Maya is friendly, generally. She wants to meet other dogs, but she doesn’t always want to play and isn’t a good match for big groups. She will correct other dogs when she finds their behavior annoying and isn’t always quick to forgive, which is why she does best in a small group, where someone can monitor and help her. I would label her as dog-tolerant most days, and occasionally dog-selective when she’s tired or stressed. (To read up more about dog sociability, check out Allie’s blog about it.)

I was once walking her around my apartment complex. I had her on-leash, because THOSE ARE THE RULES, when she noticed a bunch of other dogs running around off-leash. I knew they would be there, so I had her on a long line, to prevent her from feeling trapped if a dog came up to see her. Several of the dogs came over to greet her, all play-bows and curved bodies. Maya reciprocated, whining with excitement. Then a mini-Aussie went to sniff her bum, and Maya flipped around excitedly to sniff the dog back. The mini-Aussie (let’s call her “Sadie”), was startled and began to trot away from Maya. Her head was down, nubby tail tucked, ears back, and the whites of her eyes showing. On top of that, she was actively avoiding Maya. I called Maya back, which she was too excited to respond to, so I used the leash to prevent her from continuing to chase the frightened dog.

“Oh, let her,” her mom said, referring to Maya’s rude greeting, “My dog needs to get used to it.”

“Maya can be a bit of a bully to shyer dogs, though, and I don’t want to encourage her.” I said, feeling sad for the little Aussie. “Plus, if I let Maya keep bothering Sadie, she can become more fearful, and feel like she needs to correct Maya, who may not take it well since she is on leash.”

“But I want her to play with other dogs,” she said.

What Sadie’s mom wanted was valid– It’s fun to have a friendly dog who likes being around other dogs and who you can take everywhere, but most dogs just aren’t that way.

By telling people her dog needed to just “get over it,” she was likely exposing her dog to lots and lots of situations in which she didn’t feel comfortable, and learning that people and other dogs don’t back off when she shows them how she feels. 

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone say something like that about their fearful or shy dog, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it sticks with me because it was SO obvious that her dog was afraid, and the answer was that she would just “get over it,” which is so, so, hurtful, and can often lead to other issues.

 

So, what’s your point?

My focus today is on fear in animals in general. Even if something is normal to us, even if something is COMPLETELY harmless, we cannot ignore it if our pet finds it absolutely horrifying. Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. Unless we essentially validate their fear, back off, and help them slowly get used to the “scary thing,” our animal is most likely going to continue to fear that thing. When fear isn’t properly addressed, it can lead to learned helplessness, reactivity, and even aggression.

Time after time, I see videos of animals on the internet, where people show off what their pet is seemingly illogically terrified of, by laughing as they panic about it over and over again. I’ll admit that I have sometimes laughed at these videos. It is humorous, from a human perspective, to see a cat lose its mind and panic after it turns around to see a cucumber placed behind it. But what I do not find amusing is that everyone else wants to  do the same thing to their cats. Scaring animals isn’t funny. Cats and small dogs are seen as unpredictable jerks because of people forcing them into uncomfortable situations, ignoring their stress signals, and attempting to FORCE them to see that what they find terrifying is anything but.

Scarier to me is when well-meaning trainers dismiss an animal’s fear. A puppy is cowering, snapping, and biting at other puppies in a playgroup. “It’s okay, he’ll get over it.” A dog is sent to daycare to overcome its fear of other dogs and absolutely REFUSES to go in the kennel, so it is forced in. (This case is especially maddening for me because that dog is less likely to make progress on its fear of other dogs if she is stressed to be in the crate in the first place. See Trigger-stacking.) Or what about the dog who is forced to walk around Petco when it is obviously absolutely TERRIFIED of the tile floor? It’s true that all of these situations are actually safe. But the safety of the animal, as opposed to its perceived security, are different. An animal who is safe (ie, won’t be injured or endangered) but doesn’t feel secure (freedom from care, anxiety, or doubt) can develop behavior issues. See this post about Safety vs. security.

The point is, you do not get to choose what your pet thinks is scary.

Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. It seems like because we KNOW the thing isn’t really scary, that the animal is just being silly or stubborn.

It is our responsibility to take care of our pets. And making an animal do something repeatedly that it is uncomfortable with is likely to make things worse, rather than better. Remember that forcing an animal to interact with a scary thing is likely going to force them into fight/flight/freeze mode, so if you’re restraining your pet, and running away is not an option, you have essentially given your pet two options, FIGHT or FREEZE. No one wants to get attacked by their own pet(fight,) and forcing your animal into the freeze response can also lead to learned helplessness. So, is it really fine? Spoiler: no, it isn’t. 

 

So What Should I do about it?

As I said, it’s natural to laugh when your cat is terrified of a sock he didn’t see there the last time he ran by you. So go ahead and laugh it off, but PLEASE don’t try to duplicate the experience to get a video of it or to entertain houseguests. Instead, let him run away, and later, try to help him see that new things aren’t scary.

This is a time-lapse video I made of a counter-conditioning session I did with my dog and cat and our hand-held vacuum. Do you see how my cat slowly becomes more comfortable around the vacuum? Do you see how my dog starts to stay by it, only going away when I toss away a treat? Do you also see the moment Sylphrena (the cat) decides that it’s too much and wanders off? 

The vacuum is not going to physically hurt my pets, but they do not feel secure around it. It makes strange noises and sucks up hair and smells, which make them feel comfortable. So even though the vacuum is harmless, I can still work to help them feel secure.

So I set up learning experiences and help them feel better by pairing the scary thing with things they like (freeze-dried liver treats). But you can’t be doing this all the time. You need to give your learner a break, or you might witness the results of your trigger-stacking. (The more your animal is exposed to stressors in a short period of time, the more likely he is to over-react to any other stressors in his life).

You may also want to think about your own expectations. Sure, it’s great to have a confident dog or cat who isn’t afraid of random things or doesn’t try to bite when we force them into a kennel but remember to work smarter, not harder. So give your pet regular opportunities to interact with novel things in a pleasant, non-threatening way.  Proper use of counter-conditioning and desensitization may take a long while, but it’s less likely to result in negative fallout.  

Animals can be afraid of weird things, but often if we just take some time to help them, animals can learn to tolerate, and sometimes even enjoy things they were once fearful of, just like us. So be compassionate of your cat’s fear of the vacuum and your dog’s fear of the crate. It’s easier to have patience with their learning process if we do.

 

Now What?

Happy Training,

Amy

November Training Challenge: “Yes, please!” vs. “No, thank you!”

If you’d prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

 

Happy November, everyone! 

As always, with the start of a new month, we have a new training challenge for you and your dog! (This also applies to different species, so if you have a bird, cat, turtle, or something else, you can also participate! You might just want to make a couple of adjustments.)


This month, the training challenge is to learn your dog’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

 

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that we really focus on learning body language and building observation skills in order to better support and navigate the world with your dog. Honestly, you won’t believe how much it will make a difference in your relationship with your dog. Communication is a two-way street, and as much as we expect our dog to learn our language, we need to learn theirs. 

This month, we are going to zoom in and talk about one small aspect of our communication with our dogs and that is the way we pet them. Humans are primates. We use our hands for everything, we hug and kiss and sometimes smother other beings. It’s the way that we show love and affection! 

But, when we look at other species that we might share our home with, that isn’t how they show love and affection. So, we need to bridge that gap. How do we do that? 

 

We learn our dog’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

Now, each dog is an individual, so it’s up to you to learn your dog’s language, but in general here are some examples of “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

*Only try this if your dog does not have a history of problems when touched (including, but not limited to, snarling, growling, shivering, cowering, snapping, or biting). If your dog does have problems when touched, then work directly with a qualified behavior professional like Pet Harmony to address your dog’s concerns. 

 

“Yes, please!” might look like your dog…  “No, thank you!” might look like your dog…
Moving closer Shifting their weight away
Pushing into your hand  Walking away
Nudging you Freezing
Putting your hand on them Whale eye 
Doing a well-practiced behavior  Turning their head away
Getting soft eyes Not moving closer
Giving you a big, silly smile Holding their breath
Melting Ignoring you
Giving you no choice in the matter Anything short of a “yes, please!”

How do we go about learning this? We spend some time interacting with and observing our dogs. 

 

So what does this look like?

Wait for a time when your dog is soliciting attention. 

Very gently, slowly, and softly, reach your hand out toward their shoulder. Stop about halfway to their body. This is how we ask “is this what you want?” 

Pause once you reach about halfway and observe your dog. 

What do you see? Do you see something on the “yes, please!” Or “no, thank you!” list? 

If you see a “yes, please!” continue moving your hand and make contact with your dog. Softly pet or scratch your dog. 

After 3 seconds, lift your hand away a few inches, and pause. Again, we are asking “is this what you want?” 

Observe what your dog does. They may be finished and give you a “no, thank you!”. If you see a “yes, please!” continue for another 3 seconds and repeat. You may find that your dog will adjust so that you can scratch or pet their favorite spot, like behind the ears, or on their chest. 

If, at any time, you get a “no, thank you”, remove your hand and give your dog 3 seconds. You can ask again. You may present your hand in a different way, like toward their chest, or their chin. Again, very gently, slowly, and softly, reach your hand out toward them. Stop about halfway to their body. This is how we ask “is this what you want?” 

Pause halfway and observe your dog. 

You may find that, while your dog was asking for attention, scratches might not be what they want! It might be to play or to go outside. And that’s okay! We respect their “no, thank you!” 

 

Let’s simplify it!

You ask your dog “Is this what you want?” – Offer your hand halfway to your dog and pause.

Does your dog say “yes, please”? Then pet your dog for 3 seconds, remove your hand, and repeat! 

Does your dog say “no, thank you”? Then pull your hand back, if your dog stays, you can ask again, but maybe change your offer. 

If they walk away, then you have a very clear answer! 

 

The beauty in communication

Over time, you might start to see patterns develop in your dog’s preferences! 

For example, Laika loves her left armpit to be scratched. 

Griffey likes to be rubbed on the top of his face. 

Laika prefers morning scritches (much more “yes, please!”) and Griffey finds certain lotions to be horribly offensive (much more “no, thank you!”, well, to be honest, I’m not sure that “no” is that subtle). 

When we know our dog’s preferences, we can better meet our dog’s needs. If they need some time and attention from us, we can give them the type of social interaction they prefer. 

And, when we develop this system of communication, our dogs learn how to ASK for social interaction in the way that they need. It’s a beautiful thing when our dogs can request for their needs to be met. 

 

Now what?

  • Practice seeing subtle signs of communication. This blog on body language (includes cats too!) provides resources to learn more about body language! 
  • Determine what your dog’s “yes, please!’ and “no, thank you!” looks like. How do they communicate? 
  • Practice the routine with your pet: “is this what you want?” → “yes, please!” or “no, thank you!” → respond accordingly. 
  • As you find out your dog’s preferences, we’d love to hear about it over on our pet parent Instagram @petharmonytraining! Tag us in your videos, pictures, or stories. We’ll be sharing some of our own as well!

Is Your Pet’s Behavior Unpredictable?

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Let’s talk about a phrase that I hear from folks regularly:

 

My pet’s behavior is unpredictable. 

 

Typically when I hear this it’s coming from folks who have a pet who is biting and they’re describing the bites as unpredictable. And phrasing their pet’s behavior in this way tells me a lot about what’s going on with the human end of this relationship. It usually signals to me that the humans are frightened of their pet and their behavior and what that could mean for the future. 

It also often tells me that they’re frustrated; they’ve been trying to figure their pet out to no avail and have finally hit the breaking point in which they’ve decided they need professional help. This phrase tells me a lot about where the humans are in the behavior modification journey and for that, I’m grateful to hear it.

It doesn’t, however, tell me a lot about the pet’s behavior. And the simple reason for that is: behavior is predictable. Really the only times that it’s truly unpredictable is when there is some sort of serious mental or physical illness going on and that’s not very common. (And, in reality, there’s still a lot of nuance of how predictable that behavior is, and that’s way beyond the scope of this article.) That’s so uncommon that I’m not even going to go into what could cause that to avoid the whole I-Googled-my-symptoms-and-now-I-definitely-think-I’m-dying-from-a-rare-disease syndrome. We’ve all been there; let’s not go there now. 

So, if behavior is predictable, why do I hear from folks on a weekly basis that their pet’s behavior is unpredictable? There are two reasons that I frequently encounter why it might seem like an animal’s behavior is unpredictable:

  • We can’t see it coming
  • We haven’t yet figured out the triggers

 

We can’t see it coming

This category refers to being able to read your pet’s body language. I (and the rest of the Pet Harmony team) always start off by talking about body language with a new client. While there are some body language signals that are intuitive (e.g. pretty much everyone knows a tucked tail means a fearful dog), there are a lot of signals that are not intuitive and we wouldn’t expect folks to know them without studying body language (e.g. stress yawns, lip licks, not all tail wags are friendly for dogs and a cat’s “tail wag” is definitely not friendly). “Unpredictable” often just means that they haven’t yet learned their pet’s body language and way of communicating. 

This is one of my favorite lightbulb moments to see in my clients. I typically start describing Oso’s body language signals in certain situations, and I can see that lightbulb happen: “Ohhhhh there probably are signals and I’m just not seeing them.” We don’t know what we don’t know and we can’t see a particular behavior coming if we don’t know what to look for! Learning body language helps your pet’s behavior appear more predictable. 

Now, there are times where we truly don’t get a lot of signals, and that could be for a few different reasons. It could be that they’re experiencing stress a lot of the time and so it’s easy to look like they’re going from 0 to 60, even though it’s really 59 to 60 (hello, trigger stacking). It could also be that the pet has been punished in the past for exhibiting warning signs and we’ve taught them to not communicate with us. More information about why I love warning signs here. If you suspect that either of these is the case for your pet, start working with a professional asap. 

 

We haven’t yet figured out the triggers

There could be a few reasons why we haven’t yet figured out the triggers:

  • Humans and animals experience the world differently
  • We’re thinking too much like a human
  • There are triggers that others can’t perceive
  • Trigger stacking

 

Humans and animals experience the world differently

Humans can see a rich tapestry of colors, but birds can see UV colors. Dogs can smell cadavers underwater. Cats have one of the broadest hearing ranges recorded among mammals. A 30-pound dog might seem small to you, but to a Chihuahua it’s big. 

Different species experience the world differently, and that means your pet may be encountering a trigger that you don’t experience. And while that might make your pet’s behavior seem unpredictable, your pet is still responding predictably to a real stimulus in the environment. Being able to read your pet’s body language allows us to bridge the gap when we can’t or don’t experience the world in the same way. 

The other way that I see this manifest is in what our brains filter out throughout the day. If I’m waiting for a package to be delivered I will hear the brakes on the truck from further away. If I’m not expecting a package I might not even notice that they’ve stopped next door. We filter out stimuli that aren’t relevant to us all of the time and that’s true for all species. But what’s relevant to each individual is different. If you have a pet who has big feelings about the delivery truck you better believe they will hear the truck from further away! You may be experiencing the same stimuli that your pet is but are filtering it out instead. 

 

We’re thinking too much like a human

The way that I typically see this one unfold is when folks are thinking about the trigger in terms of how they feel about it instead of how their pet feels about it. For example, I see this a lot when the issue surrounds handling sensitivity or being touched or pet. Contrary to popular belief, our pets do not instinctively enjoy being touched by humans, and certainly not by all humans in all ways. That would be like us enjoying any random person touching us– even just gently on the shoulder– on the street. No thank you. Personal bubbles exist for a reason.

However, when we’re thinking about it through our human lens, we assume that because we have a good relationship with our pets or because they live in our household, that they should also enjoy us touching them at all times. We let our ideas cloud our observations. 

We underestimate how much our ideas can cloud our observations. I not infrequently have people tell me in the same breath that their pet’s behavior is unpredictable and also that it usually happens in x situations. (And, to be fair, I’ve also said things like this! I’m not immune to this phenomenon!) They tell me what the trigger is but because they can’t understand or believe that that’s the problem, they can’t see it for what it is. We need to observe objectively, without letting the stories or ideas we have about our pets get in the way. 

The other way that I see this manifesting is in a difference of details. For example, we understand that a person is a person whether they’re sitting or jogging. It’s the same person so they should elicit the same reaction. Right? However, a pet with stranger danger will tell you that there’s a big difference between a person sitting, standing, walking, and jogging, and they’ll likely tell you by having a different reaction in those different situations even if it’s the same person. Sometimes our human logic and reasoning get in the way of observation as well. 

 

There are triggers that others can’t perceive

We already talked about how different species experience the world differently, but individuals within the same species also have different experiences. And what’s going on with us internally does play a role in our behavior. One of the best examples of this is pain. Yes, we can sometimes see when someone else is in pain. We can see limping or favoring a particular limb. We can hear when someone cries out. But pain isn’t always so obvious, especially when it comes to animals. 

Our pets are typically wonderful at hiding how much pain they’re in. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not experiencing it or that it’s not impacting their behavior. There may be internal reasons for acting or reacting in a certain way that we’re not privy to. This is why behavior consultants so frequently recommend folks start with a vet visit first. We can’t train away a medical problem. 

Just as with the first category, being able to read body language helps to bridge this gap. In addition to body language, being able to objectively observe our pets’ behavior over a course of time and recognize subtle changes can help us with this category as well, especially if we’re talking about pain-related behaviors. It’s important to note that behavior modification plans still need to be based on observation of body language and behavior, instead of trying to psychoanalyze our pets. More about that here

 

Trigger stacking

Last week I talked about trigger stacking: when a bunch of smaller stressors or triggers add up to create a bigger reaction than if just one of them happened. A lot of times when folks label behavior as unpredictable, it’s because sometimes there’s a problem and sometimes there isn’t in the exact same situation. Often, the culprit is trigger stacking (when it’s not one of the above reasons). I talk all about this phenomenon here, so I won’t spend much more time other than to say that once you uncover how trigger stacking affects your pet, their behavior becomes much more predictable. 

 

Now what?

  • Have you found yourself thinking that your pet’s behavior is unpredictable? Take a moment and think about all of the scenarios in which you see that behavior. What are the commonalities? What happens before the behavior happens that sets the stage?
    • Be sure to think about those commonalities from different perspectives; don’t think like a human! 
    • Make sure your ideas about your pet aren’t clouding your judgment. Sometimes I find it helps to think about the exact same behavior but as if another pet who I don’t know is performing them. Do your observations change if you think about it in that way?
  • Learn your pet’s body language. Behavior is so much more predictable when we can see it coming.
  • Manage undesirable behaviors by avoiding situations in which the undesirable behavior happens. One of the perks of being able to see your pet’s behavior predictably means being able to better manage it!
  • Being able to see your pet’s behavior is one thing, but being able to address it is another. We always recommend seeking professional help for pets with aggression, anxiety, fear, and the like. 

 

Happy training!

Allie