Reframing How we Think of our Pets

“He’s so stubborn.”

“She’s manipulating me.”

“He knows what he did is wrong but does it anyway.”

“She does that out of spite!” 

How many times have you heard someone say something like this about their pet? How many times have you said these yourself? We’ve all been there; it’s part of human nature to categorize things and develop stories to make sense of our experiences. But what if the stories we develop about our pets aren’t true? What if there’s another explanation to your pet’s behavior?

I met with a new client a couple months ago for their dog, Rosie, who had numerous behavior challenges including barking at the door, passersby, and while on leash. These clients had taken Rosie to a local veterinary behaviorist resident, Dr. Jokela, with Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants where they received her diagnosis and treatment plan. They were now ready to work with me to enact said plan. During our first session I asked them to tell me about their meeting with Dr. Jokela and Rosie’s mom said something that really stuck with me. It went along the lines of, “This whole time I thought Rosie was stubborn and defiant. We thought we weren’t being “alpha” enough. Now I know that she’s actually anxious and that’s why she does all of this. I wish I had known that sooner. I treat her so differently now that I know she has anxiety.”

Rosie’s mom isn’t alone. Clients tell me on a regular basis that they’ve changed how they approach their pet’s behavior because they understand it better, or differently. The story has changed. 

There’s a fantastic book called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler that does a great job of explaining how detrimental the stories we tell ourselves about someone else can be and how reframing our thinking improves communication (applicable to all species!) I love this passage from Crucial Conversations: “Stories provide our rationale for what’s going on. They’re our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what we see and hear. They’re theories we use to explain why, how, and what… If you want improved results from your crucial conversations, change the stories you tell yourself– even while you’re in the middle of the fray.”  

Stories are theories, not facts, and that means they’re not always right. They’re interpretations we make based on our observations and we base how we interact with others around these stories. For instance, if a dog who we think is aggressive bites someone it’s because it’s who she is. But if a dog who we think is sweet bites someone is because she was scared or provoked. The behavior in question is still the same but the second dog gets a lot more leeway because of our story of her. 

I say we owe all our pets some wiggle room on these interpretations. After all, wouldn’t we want those people who call us stubborn, or defiant, or stupid, or incompetant to give us the benefit of the doubt and explore other possibilities for their observations of us? I know I do. And, more to the point of behavior modification, we can’t make proper decisions based on something that isn’t true. It’d be like a doctor treating you for a disease you don’t have while your health continues to deteriorate. Decisions should be made on observations and facts, not stories, and for many people reframing how they think of their pets is the first step toward being able to make fact-based decisions. 

Rewriting these stories is a skill: one that can be learned and practiced. We need to take a step back from the situation when first learning how to do this. Emotions are a large component of these stories and it can be difficult to practice reframing our thinking when emotions are involved. We become quite attached to a story when we assume that a behavior has something to do with us. Practice thinking about the situation as if it were happening to someone else. Would you still feel as strongly as you do now if a friend were telling you about this scenario instead? If you were to play devil’s advocate to your friend, what would you say? 

Or, practice thinking about the situation as if it were an animal you know nothing about (like a rhinoceros)! Oftentimes the knowledge we have about an animal gets in the way of being open-minded about our interpretations. If you saw a rhinoceros doing the same thing, what stories would you create about it? What benefit does the rhino get from performing that behavior? Have you considered all 5 senses in the story you created? 

By reframing how we think of our pets we can become more understanding, empathetic, and patient. That in turn can change our interactions, improve our relationships, optimize our decision-making, and ultimately improve our pet’s behavior. All that just by changing the stories we tell ourselves about our pets. Talk about minimum effort for big rewards. 

Now what?

  • Practice the skill of reframing: choose one behavior your pet does. Consider your interpretation– the story– about this behavior and try to reframe it. Think of other reasons why your animal may be performing that behavior. It’s okay if you don’t know the real reason. We’re just practicing this skill. For example: Oso routinely steals our spot on the couch. Story A: He’s a jerk! Story B: It’s the warmest spot. Story C: It smells most like us. Story D: He likes being close enough to snuggle. Story E: He’s an evil dictator trying to take over the world one couch at a time. 
  • Get help with observing and reframing: contact a behavior consultant (like me!) to set up a session to help you develop the most likely story behind your pet’s behavior based on body language, observations, and the most up-to-date knowledge on species-typical behavior. There’s a lot that goes into accurate interpretations and it’s unreasonable to expect you to be able to do this alone! That’s why behavior consultants exist.