Shifting the Focus

“It’s not all about you.” How many times have you heard this statement? We could all probably be rich if we had a dollar every time we heard that phrase (okay, maybe not rich but could at least buy a new food puzzle for our pets). Well, I’m here to give you one more dollar; this time, in relation to our pets’ behavior. 

Others’ behavior often feels very much about us. It can feel like a slight, like retaliation or revenge, or purposefully trying to get our goat. But – here’s your dollar – your pets’ behavior isn’t about you. It’s about them. This isn’t to say that we don’t cause or influence certain behaviors to happen. It’s not to say that your relationship with your pet isn’t a factor in their behavior. It means that they’re behaving this way to meet their own needs first and foremost. 

Let’s narrow our focus a bit to look at the situations where I find myself having this conversation with clients. Common statements that start this discussion include:

He gets mad at me when I leave and pees out of spite. 

She’s protecting me whenever someone comes to the house. 

He won’t listen to me when he’s reactive; he’s stubborn.

Why is he doing this to me?

In each of these statements, the focus is on the human. What if we assumed it had nothing to do with the human? What if we put the focus on the animal? In that case, those statements could become:

This cat is anxious when left alone, and elimination can often happen due to fear or stress. 

This dog is afraid of strangers, and is protecting herself from a perceived threat.

This dog currently has “mountain lion brain” and can’t respond to you because the fear center of his brain has taken over everything else.

Your pet isn’t giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time. 

Okay, that last one I stole from a social media meme that was going around a while ago. If anyone knows who the original source is please let me know so I can give them credit! 

When we change the stories we tell ourselves about why our pets do what they do, it can be not only eye-opening, but also relieving. I wrote about that in this blog post last year. 

Behavior serves the individual who’s doing the behavior and all behavior serves a function (except arguably for stereotypic behavior, which is beyond the scope of this post). Behavior serves to meet needs, from physical to mental to behavioral needs. Reactivity and aggression serve to tell a threat to go away. A recently declawed cat eliminating outside of the box serves to relieve the pain litter often causes on sore paws. Not coming when called from the yard serves to prolong the fun they’re having. It’s about them, not about you.

Now what?

  • The next time you catch yourself thinking about your pet’s behavior with yourself as the focus, try reframing it and put your pet as the focus instead. What need could they be trying to meet?
  • Not sure what’s included in your pet’s needs? We go in-depth into those categories in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Join us in our Enrichment for the Real World Community group on Facebook for more free info, too!
  • Speak with a consultant if you need extra help shifting the focus of your pet’s behavior.

Happy training!