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This week’s blog is a little different. We usually are talking to parents of pets with behavior problems, but this week, I’m talking to someone else.
I’m talking to the friends, the partners, the family, the neighbors, the co-workers of pet parents who have pets with behavior problems.
Pet parents, you are still welcome to read this, and frankly, I hope you will. Because, I know what it’s like to love a pet with behavior issues, and I know how hard conversations around your pet’s behavior can be. I’m hoping this blog will help you as well.
Having a pet with behavior problems is a lot of things.
It is hard. It is isolating. It is exhausting. It is stressful. It impacts almost every aspect of your life. Having support from people in your life can make an incredible difference in the success of your plan. Even for behavior Sometimes, we need help. Sometimes, we need to be reminded we are more than our pet’s parent. Sometimes, we need a cheerleader. Sometimes, we just need to vent some steam. So often, when pet parents turn to their support systems, they find themselves bombarded with well-intentioned but still harmful or painful advice:
“You just need to…”
“You are causing…”
“They are never going to learn…”
“You’re coddling them…”
“I’m sure you are overreacting…”
And here’s the thing, I get it! You see someone you care about having a hard time. That’s difficult to sit with. Humans want to “fix” things. We want to make it better. And so often, when someone is being vulnerable or needs help, the only way we know how to respond is on how to “fix” it, even if we don’t know how to “fix” it.
Witnessing suffering, discomfort or difficulty is hard and makes us uncomfortable. We want it to go away, and usually, we’ve learned advice like that above makes it go away. But it only makes it go away for you, not the person you love.
But I am being supportive!
When I adopted Griffey, we came to realize he had lots of feels about lots of things. He was uncomfortable around strange dogs and people (running around, barking, pulling at the end of the leash…), if I left the room he would scream until I came back. He wouldn’t go to the bathroom in front of us. He didn’t know how to play. He didn’t know how to ask for what he needed. If we moved quickly or unpredictably, we would see him flinch and move away.
We were faced with a lot of things he needed help with. A lot about our life was going to have to change. And frankly, even with that fact, we were lucky. Both my partner and I are behavior professionals. We knew who to go to for what issues. From a procedure standpoint, we were pretty good. However, from a personal standpoint, a lot of the people close to us in our lives were the “well-intentioned” but still harmful folx. When we shared what was going on, and when we needed support, we got:
“You just need to…”
“You are causing…”
“He is never going to learn…”
“You’re coddling him…”
“Just come to dinner! He’ll be fine!”
“We really miss you…”
“Does he just run your life now?”
And you know how that made us feel? Unheard. Unsupported. Isolated. The people that we could turn to to help us with safe, slow introductions dwindled. We could kiss the idea of minimizing departures for our dog goodbye without friends to help. With each piece of well-intentioned advice, we saw our goals drift further and further away.
And for how hard it was for them to watch us struggle, for how hard it was for them to feel powerless to help, our conversation would end and the problem for them would go away. But my problems with my dog were still very real, very impactful, and each conversation would leave me feeling a little less empowered than before.
We were extremely lucky that we did have some incredible friends that were supportive throughout the process. They have been formally included on “Team Griffey” over the years.
So, how can I support the person I love?
That’s such a good question!
Again, watching someone you love struggle is hard. It’s so uncomfortable!! So what should you do instead? The folx of “Team Griffey” helped me realize the many forms that support can take:
Ask them to share their successes with you, so you can celebrate!
Your loved one is working hard. Really, really hard. It may not seem like it to you, but they are. So instead of minimizing their small successes, CELEBRATE THEM! That can look like cheerleading for them, sending them a nice note, checking in on them, bragging about their success to mutual friends, acknowledging their work and their job well done.
If your friend is able to go to the bathroom without their dog screaming, celebrate that.
If your loved one’s pet is able to look at a dog 100 yards away instead of lunging, barking, biting, celebrate that.
If your loved one’s pet was able to walk around the block instead of cowering at the leaf blowers, celebrate that.
If your loved one was able to touch their pet for the first time safely, celebrate that.
If your loved one is excited about something, celebrate that.
If you have the bandwidth to help, ask them if there is something you can do to help.
So often when we are working through a behavior modification plan, people might need help from people. They might need someone to sit with their pet to manage departures while they teach their pet to be comfortable alone. They might need a safe stranger to come and stand 50 yards away to work on stranger danger. They might need someone to pet sit their reactive dog at their house when they have an emergency come up. They may need someone who is handy to help them build some enrichment.
Now, we are all stretched a little thin sometimes, so if you can’t play an active role in the process, that’s okay! You don’t need to participate to be supportive. However, if you can, it can make a huge difference in your loved one’s life.
I am going to put a disclaimer here: all behavior modification plans should be under the supervision of a qualified behavior professional. If you are concerned for the safety of yourself, your loved one, or the pet in the capacity that you are requested to help, then you have every right to decline participation.
Ask them “are you looking for help or are you looking for someone to listen?”
Each person needs something different at different times. Like I mentioned before, sometimes, we need to blow off some steam. Sometimes, we just need a friend to say “that sounds really hard”. Ask your friend what they need. They can better tell you than I can. If they are looking for suggestions, see the next bullet.
Recognize that you aren’t a behavior professional.
Okay, maybe you are, and if that’s the case, move along. But, if you aren’t a behavior professional, avoid providing advice on a behavior problem, and refer to a qualified behavior professional.
Behavior problems can range from annoying to dangerous, and if you don’t know how to tell the difference, have the knowledge, experience, and education to work with a range of behavior problems, you can be doing much more harm than good by providing suggestions. I understand that it can feel like “no big deal”, and you just so desperately want to help your loved one with their struggles. But we don’t know what we don’t know, and good intentions alone won’t “fix” a behavior problem (although that would be awesome!).
Sometimes, the best way to support someone you love is to say “That sounds really frustrating, and I know you are looking for help, but I am unqualified to give you any suggestions. I can help you find a qualified professional if you’d like.”
The folx that celebrated Griffey’s success and the qualified folx that helped us develop our behavior modification plans are all part of Team Griffey. Every part of Team Griffey is equally critical to his progress. From Aunt Mono who provided pet care while we were out of town, to our families that rooted from the sidelines, to the veterinarians and behaviorists that helped us step by step along the path (yes, even professionals have professionals!), each person who joins Team Griffey brings value. You don’t have to have the solution to add value to the team.
- Do you love someone who loves a pet with behavior issues? Using the suggestions above, consider if there is a way you can better support your loved one. If there is, put that idea into action!
- If someone you love and their pet could use a professional behavior consultant on their team, our free Roadmap for Behavior Solutions workshop is a really great place to start. It will be 5 days of guidance from certified professionals to help your loved one get going on the right path.