A question, or topic, that comes up frequently when I meet with a new client who has a pet displaying aggression, anxiety, or fearful behavior is:
Will my pet grow out of this?
I would’ve gotten help sooner, but I thought that he’d grow out of it.
Will this get better as he gets older?
There are a lot of factors that contribute to an individual’s behavior, and age is one of them. However, it’s not usually the panacea that people are hoping for. The short answer is, if we’re talking about fear, anxiety, or aggression, then no. Your pet won’t grow out of it.
How age impacts behavior
As I said, age is one of the many factors that influence behavior. No one can deny that puppies and kittens act differently than adults. Energy levels change as animals age. Sexual maturity elicits new behaviors. Mental maturation makes activities requiring self control easier. And adolescents– aka teenagers– of any species tend to be trying (it’s not their fault; their brains are in a difficult developmental stage!)
Age does impact things like attention span and self control. Behaviors such as exuberant greetings and picking up everything they can find do tend to get better with age (and regular training). Attention-seeking behaviors that we find annoying can get better or sometimes worse with age (but learning history is a huge factor happening alongside aging). Tolerance often decreases with age. Age *does* impact behavior.
Why is the answer still “no”?
If age impacts behavior then why am I still saying that your pet won’t grow out of their aggression, anxiety, or fear? Well, the more-succinct answer is that these issues aren’t usually ones related to age. The times where age does play a role in those sorts of behaviors is during early fear periods (more info on those here) or as seniors, sadly often as sight and hearing diminish or as dementia takes hold. Essentially, when age is a factor in anxiety-related behaviors it’s when they’re quite young or quite old: not so much in between.
I tell clients to think of it this way: if we were able to grow out of anxiety-related behaviors we wouldn’t need therapists. We wouldn’t routinely see commercials for anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants. Many of us would experience the world a whole lot differently. Sadly, we simply don’t grow out of mental health issues. (Wouldn’t that be amazing if we did, though?)
What factors do contribute to these behaviors?
There are many factors that contribute to aggression, anxiety, and fear: brain chemistry, stress hormones while they’re in utero, early nutrition, socialization periods (which ends sooner than many think!), learning history, and more. It’s not purely genetic nor is it all in how you raise them. Behavior expression is fascinatingly and wonderfully complex, and scientists have just begun skimming the surface of how nature and nurture influence one another to form the behavior we see in front of us.
If my pet won’t grow out of these behaviors, what should I do?
My answer to this will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read our blog before; contact a qualified behavior professional to help you at the first sign of trouble. Behavior modification is not the same as basic manners training. It’s more complicated and it’s often counterintuitive from how we’ve been raised to think about learning and training. And, unfortunately, many things can exacerbate the behavior so that it’s worse by the time someone reaches out for help (which means the process takes longer). A qualified behavior professional can give you the tools to modify your pet’s behavior while keeping everyone safe and making sure it doesn’t get worse.
- Do you have a pet who’s exhibiting aggressive tendencies, fear, or anxiety? Email us at [email protected] to schedule an appointment with a qualified consultant.