Have you ever had a rude server in a restaurant and thought to yourself, “well, she must be having a bad day”? Or maybe you have a pushy coworker and find yourself thinking, “clearly his parents never taught him any manners. I bet he’s an only child.” Humans tend to love telling stories to explain behavior. It’s hard not to. When we encounter a behavior we have trouble understanding, it’s fairly natural for our brains to invent a story that might explain why someone would act that way.
Of course, we like to tell stories about our animals too. “My dog pees on the carpet while I’m at work because he’s mad at me for leaving him home alone.” Ever heard that one before? Or how about this one: “My cat is afraid of men so she must’ve been abused by a man in the past.” Or maybe: “My horse balks at the halter because he’s lazy and doesn’t want to be exercised.”
The thing is, all of these stories could theoretically be true, but until we are able to read the minds of animals, we can never know for sure. There are a million other possible stories that could explain these behaviors and, even more important to keep in mind, all of them are being filtered through a human lens. Your dog urinating in the house because he’s angry at you seems like a logical explanation from a human perspective, but does it actually track with what we know about dog behavior and emotion? It’s completely possible that your cat is afraid of men because of past abuse, but it could also be that your cat hides from the men in your house because of the way they approach her or because of their scent or their gait or any other number of factors that could cause fearful behavior for any number of reasons.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with theorizing about why your pet behaves the way they do and doing so doesn’t make you a bad pet parent. It’s pretty natural to wonder about animal behavior and stories can even help us to connect to our pets. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these stories are just that: stories. They could be true or not, but we can never really know if our guesses actually line up with the internal experience of an animal.
For this reason, it usually isn’t productive to base a training plan on a story you have about your pet’s behavior. For example: “Maybe if I give Fluffy extra love and treats before I go to work, he won’t be mad at me for leaving and won’t pee on the carpet.” Or, maybe Fluffy is a small breed dog that can’t hold his bladder that long. Or, maybe he’s gotten older and can no longer hold it like he used to or perhaps he has some sort of medical condition that causes him to “go” on the floor while you’re gone. You might be setting your pet up for failure by basing a training plan on an assumption you’ve made without any way of knowing if it’s true or not.
The point is, while stories about our pets can be harmless, they can also cause us to get lost in the impossible game of trying to guess what’s going on in an animal’s head–and this can cause extra frustration when your pet is behaving in a way you don’t like. It’s easy (and understandable!) to feel upset or even betrayed by your pet in these instances, especially when you feel like they’re doing it to spite you or because you think they should know it’s wrong.
But there’s good news: you can change the stories you have around your animal and doing so can help you “fall in like” with your pet again.
So how do we change the story?
- Read up about your pet’s species-typical behaviors and enrichment needs. This can help you contextualize why your pet does what they do and make it easier to keep frustration at a minimum when they perform a natural behavior in a way you don’t like. It’s much harder to be upset with your cat for clawing up the furniture when you understand this is a natural and necessary behavior for their species. Once you know that, you could provide a more appropriate outlet for this behavior by putting more scratching posts around the house; that way you’re setting your pet up for success instead of feeling hurt or disappointed when they exhibit a natural, species-typical behavior.
- Keep an eye out for times when your pet is doing things you actually like. Humans have a tendency to fixate on negative experiences and interactions; it actually takes some work to get our brains to give equal weight to positive things. “Practicing gratitude” is something of a pop-psychology buzzword these days but this strategy can actually be really effective in bolstering our relationships with our pets. I’m willing to wager that no matter how much your pet drives you nuts, there are plenty of times throughout the day when they’re doing something that delights you–but it can be hard to notice those moments when you’re feeling frustrated or upset with them.
To combat this, you might try setting alarms throughout the day (maybe every hour, as an example) and see what your pet is doing when the alarm goes off. If their behavior in the moment is something you enjoy or appreciate (even and especially if they’re “doing nothing”), take note of that mentally and give them a little love or even a few treats for good behavior. It never hurts! You could even make a list of all the things your pet does that you love so you can refer to this list when times are tough.
- Be mindful of the stories you create. When you find yourself coming up with stories about your pet’s behavior, stop and consider a few things: is this story based on things that can be observed, or is it based on your best guess of what’s going on in your pet’s brain? Are you assigning human characteristics or thought patterns to animal behavior? And if so, is this causing you to assume the worst about your pet based on your perception of their behavior through a human lens? Lastly, consider how this story makes you feel. Does it make you feel angry? Hurt? Disappointed? When you find yourself having a negative reaction to a story, I invite you to consider step 4:
- Become curious about your pet’s behavior. Before you jump to conclusions or get your feelings hurt, take a step back, take a deep breath, and get curious about the behaviors that make you want to run out of the house screaming. Step out of the role of pet parent and into the role of behavior sleuth. Put your own emotions aside for the time being and consider that every behavior has a function; your pet behaves the way they do for a reason and it’s probably not because they’re mad at you.
Animals don’t have concepts of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” the way humans do. From their perspective, a behavior either works to get something they need or it doesn’t. Your job as pet parent/sleuth is to figure out what your pet is getting out of the behavior that drives you crazy. Consider the behavior from all angles and ask yourself questions like: what prompts them to behave this way? What happens as a result of the behavior? Could it be happening because of a medical condition or some other unmet need? Even if you can’t get to the bottom of the issue by yourself, reframing your perception of nuisance behaviors in this way can help you emotionally distance yourself from the problem and start to repair your relationship with your pet.
- Extend compassion to your pet–and to yourself. You can show compassion to your pet by reminding yourself that you love them even when they frustrate you–and that you do them a disservice by assuming they see and react to the world the way you do. Remind yourself that they are not a human being and they have no concept that what they’re doing is “wrong” or “bad.”
It’s equally important to show compassion to yourself when you’re struggling with your pet. You are not a bad pet parent for feeling frustrated or upset with your animal. Be patient with yourself when these feelings pop up and allow yourself to be curious about why you’re having the reaction you’re having. Discuss how you feel with your trainer if you have one, or maybe a fellow pet parent–because, let’s face it, almost everyone who lives or works with animals has experienced being frustrated with them at one point or another.
Human-animal relationships take work and effort just like any other. For the month of February, we’re encouraging pet parents to “fall in like” with their pet again. As part of this process, I invite you to examine the assumptions you have about your pet and consider if these stories are actually serving your relationship–or just getting in the way.
- Did any of the things above seem relatable? Take some time to learn more about your pet, watch out for the things you like, be mindful of the stories, be curious and compassionate. Sometimes our pets will do things we don’t like, and that’s okay!
- We’re here to support you and your pet as you navigate this world together. Our behavior consultants are here to help you build communication with your pet, and plan to meet both your and your pet’s needs. Check out our services here. As a bonus, anyone who books a package in the month of February will also receive our on-demand course, Beginning Behavior Modification!