Did I cause my pet’s behavior problems?

Starting the behavior modification process for a family member of any species is often emotional. I see new clients racked with guilt, shame, embarrassment, regret, and hopelessness during their first consultation. There’s a phrase that I hear fairly regularly that no matter how long I’ve been consulting for it still breaks my heart:

Did I cause this?

Oof. Right in the gut. The cousins to this phrase include: 

But I’ve had him since he was a puppy. 

I know I didn’t socialize him enough… 

I thought the problem would go away on its own. 

Is it my fault? 

The hard thing as a professional is that the answer is often… yes. There are a lot of things that we do as humans that do contribute to our pets’ behavior problems. Things like training collars (choke, prong, e-collars, bark collars, etc.), alpha rolls, taking food bowls away (even to just return them), and yelling do contribute to behavior problems. In many cases we have decades of studies that show the fallout that happens from using certain training methods. And that fact leaves a lot of us, myself and many other professionals included, with a whole lot of guilt when we first learn it (or experience a prelearning dip). 

But here’s the thing. We can only do the best we can with the knowledge that we have at that moment. Read that again. Memorize it. Cross stitch it onto a pillow and rest your head on it each night because it’s a lesson that we all need to learn. The truth is that yes, maybe you did do something that contributed to your pet’s behavior problems but my guess is that it was done with love and a lack of information instead of malice. You were trying to do what you knew to be right at that moment. 

We need to forgive ourselves for not having enough information or accurate information in the past. Hindsight is 20/20, after all, and now that we know better we can do better. So take a deep breath, accept your mistakes, forgive yourself, and be excited knowing that you’re going to do better in the future. 

Now what?

  • Take a moment. Just pause and allow yourself to feel everything you’re feeling. 
  • Take a deep breath and let go. Let go of your guilt, shame, embarrassment, and regret. Forgive yourself. Do this as many times as you need until you truly do forgive yourself. 
  • Consider why you were doing the things you now know you shouldn’t. What did you get out of it? What purpose did it serve? What did you like about that result?
  • Talk to a professional to help figure out how to meet the above need or purpose in a more appropriate way. Did you like the control a prong collar gave? Try a Freedom Harness. Did yelling stop your dog from barking momentarily? Teach a recall, “enough”, “indoor voices”, “get a toy”, or some other behavior. We’re limited by what we can think of or have seen; a professional can help you come up with solutions that you haven’t thought of!

Happy training,


2 thoughts on “Did I cause my pet’s behavior problems?

  1. Thank you for this post, Allie. Thanks to you and Emily, I learned that there is a moment when we give ourselves total permission to move on because we learn we did, indeed, make decisions with the best of intentions. The journey of recognition, forgiveness, and new beginnings is a beautiful experience for me and Bodie. #feelinggrateful

    1. It is indeed a beautiful journey! I’m so glad that you’re getting to go through that with Bodie. He’s lucky to have you!

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