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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.
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.
- 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.
- There’s still time to register for our free 5 Tips for Addressing Your Dog’s Behavior Problems webinar starting at 7:30 pm Central tonight!