We like when our pets are predictable. Heck, we like when everything in our world is predictable! I think that’s why aside from the overarching “why does my pet do that?” question, I get asked, “why does my pet do that in relation to X scenario?” question most frequently.
Here’s what I mean:
Why does my dog listen to my husband and not me?
Why does my dog only sit for me?
Why will my cat only play with me?
Why does my dog bite only one person in the family?
Why does my bird only bite me?
While there are many more factors that can change behavior than just the humans involved, let’s focus there for today, starting with why our pets might behave differently in different scenarios in the first place.
Why animals behave differently in different situations
There are a lot of factors that set the stage for a particular behavior to occur, including age, genetics, learning history, environment, and more. If you change one factor then you’ve set up the stage differently, meaning that the behavior might be different than in another situation. Here’s a human example just in time for Halloween:
I have never barricaded myself in my house and nailed boards to my windows.
If we change one factor- in this case, the environment is now a zombie apocalypse- there’s a very good chance that my barricading behavior will change and that I will indeed nail boards to my windows. A change in environment, whether it’s the external environment around us or an animal’s internal environment (e.g. stress, pain, etc.), is very often a cause for a change in behavior.
Okay, that might be kind of a silly example though the premise is solid. Let’s look at one that is a little more realistic: resource guarding a credit card. While humans call it “being careful” or “protecting yourself”, we can just as easily call our behavior surrounding keeping our credit card numbers private resource guarding. Here are four different scenarios in which my behavior would change:
If my husband asked me for my credit card, I would say, “Sure, it’s in the usual place. Use the green one.” I wouldn’t check to make sure that he used the correct one and I likely wouldn’t check to make sure he put it back until I went to use it myself.
If a store clerk asked me for my credit card during checkout, I would hand it to them, watch them perform the transaction, and expect to get my card back immediately after. I would likely even double-check that my card is in my wallet after they’ve handed it back. While I would willingly hand my card over in this situation, it’s definitely with a more watchful eye than in the previous scenario.
If a stranger stopped me on the street and asked for my credit card, the answer would be no and I would walk away.
If a store clerk asked me for my credit card as soon as I entered the store when I was not checking out, the answer would also be no and I would likely leave the store.
The relationship that I have with the person matters, as does the context in which the behavior is occurring.
While it’s nicer to think about relationships in the emotional sense, in this case, they’re a part of that “learning history” component. I have a learning history that says that my husband won’t steal from me. I have a learning history that a store clerk will ask me for my card during checkout and they will return it after the transaction is completed. My past experiences are influencing my behavior in all of these situations.
Now that we know some of the reasons why a pet may behave differently in different situations, let’s take a look at that first scenario listed all the way at the beginning of this post: why does a pet listen to one person and not another?
Why does my dog listen to my husband and not me?
Whether you have a dog, cat, bird, chinchilla, or something else at home, chances are that your pet responds to one person more than another in your household. When this happens, typically it’s due to a difference in learning histories with those individuals.
Here’s an example using the behavior of getting off of the couch when asked.
Scenario A: Jordan asks Rover to get off of the couch, and when he does, they give him a treat. Stevie asks Rover to get off of the couch, and when he does, they say “good boy” and move on. After several months, Stevie notices that Rover gets off the couch when Jordan asks but not when they ask.
What’s going on? It pays better to get off the couch for Jordan than it does for Stevie.
Scenario B: Jordan asks Rover to get off of the couch. If Rover doesn’t get off the couch, Jordan asks again in the same way or tries to distract him to get off the couch. Stevie asks Rover to get off the couch. If Rover doesn’t get off the couch, Stevie will yell and drag Rover off the couch by the collar. After a few weeks, Jordan notices that Rover gets off the couch when Stevie asks but not when they ask.
What’s going on? It’s scary not to listen to Stevie but it’s neither scary nor beneficial to listen to Jordan.
Scenario C: Jordan asks Rover to get off the couch. If Rover doesn’t get off the couch, Jordan asks again in the same way or tries to distract him to get off the couch. Stevie asks Rover to get off the couch. If Rover doesn’t get off the couch, Stevie will yell and drag Rover off the couch by the collar. After a few weeks, Stevie notices that Rover is growling at them whenever they approach the couch but Rover doesn’t growl at Jordan.
What’s going on? It’s scary when Stevie is near the couch so Rover is telling them to go away, but it’s not scary for Jordan to be near the couch.
Learning history plays a big part in how your pet responds to you in general, but it can also be a big reason why they respond differently to different people in the household. My dog, Oso, can do all of his tricks for me, but can’t do all of them for my husband. There’s no secret as to why: I taught him all of those behaviors and regularly practice and reinforce them whereas my husband doesn’t. If he were to start training Oso as much as I do Oso would respond in the same way to him as he does to me.
That’s the great thing about learning histories; they can be changed. You don’t have to be resigned that your pet listens to your partner more than you. We can change what we’re doing to change the results!
How can I use this to better train my pet?
There are a few things that I recommend when I see this phenomenon happening with my clients:
- Identify the difference in how you and the other person have reacted in the past, how you currently react, and anything else that’s different. Sometimes we see really big differences like one person will physically remove the dog from the couch whereas the other takes a hands-off approach. Sometimes we see quite small differences that have a big impact, like using different treats.
- If it’s difficult to identify the differences, get an outsider’s perspective. Sometimes that means calling in a professional like our team, but sometimes folks can easily step into that perspective by watching videos of themselves and their household members interacting with the pet. I recommend this step even if you already have identified some differences because there may be more that you haven’t noticed before!
- If one person is getting better results with a pet, figure out what they specifically are doing and why it’s working.
- If you’re okay with why those techniques are working, everyone can start emulating them! If you’re not okay with why those techniques are working (for example, if one person is relying on fear, frustration, or intimidation without knowing it), then develop a plan of action for what could be more effective moving forward.
- Get cracking! Figure out a behavior that you want to work on. These are often the things you make the other person do because “they do it better” or “it works better when you do it.”
- Use the above steps to develop your game plan.
- Start working on your plan of action! Remember, behavior change takes time. And my timeline is often in months, not days. If you’re trending in the right direction then you’re doing something right.