The Human Side of Animal Behavior

 

The past couple of weeks I’ve been talking about warning signs, like growling. I’ve been talking about warning signs from the perspective of our pets and why we should be respectful– not punishing– of those body language signals. But one thing that I’ve left out of the previous posts is all of the human emotions that happen as a result of those particular behaviors. That’s what today’s post is for. 

When I meet a new client and they start telling me about their pet’s behavior, I often hear things like:

 

They’re really quite sweet. I just want everyone to see that, too.

They’re sweet 95% of the time. 

They’re a good pet, just scared.

I’ve been telling you all of the bad things about them. Let me tell you some good things, too. 

 

I chuckle internally when people tell me these things. I know that they’re trying to convince me to not judge their pet, or them, too harshly. That they don’t have a “bad” pet. But here’s the secret: I know that! We as humans are the ones who attach morals (I.E. good or bad) to certain behaviors. Our pets aren’t thinking about if something is right or wrong. They’re thinking about if a behavior works for them or not: what the outcome of that behavior is.

It’s a false dichotomy to say that someone is all good or all bad. Individuals, including our pets, live in a grey area. That’s why good pets can sometimes do bad things and why bad people can sometimes do good things. I don’t need to be convinced that a pet who’s biting is also sweet. My job is working with good pets who sometimes do bad things. 

 

The less-lighthearted part 

I try to keep our blog posts relatively lighthearted and optimistic. That style is what I enjoy writing and what I enjoy reading. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the less-lighthearted parts of human emotions in relation to pet behavior. 

The animal behavior consulting field is incredibly emotional. On a daily basis folks reach out to our team, often on the verge of tears, because they’re scared of their pet’s behavior. It’s easy for me to say in a post that all behavior just is and that we’re the ones who attach morals to them. The water muddies when those behaviors are at the expense of mental health (for both the pet and the human) and/or safety of others. There very much are “bad” behaviors– as deemed by our society– that result in the euthanasia of animals. 

Now, this post is not about the many sides of behavioral euthanasia. That’s an enormous discussion and one that I don’t currently have the bandwidth to write in a way that does the topic justice. One day I’ll tackle it, but not today. This post is specifically about human emotions, like:

 

I’m scared they’re going to hurt someone. 

I feel like a prisoner in my own house because of their behavior. 

It’s really difficult to live with this. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. 

It’s embarrassing when they’re reactive on walks. 

 

Embarrassment. Frustration. Helplessness. Shame. Defeat. Regret. Remorse. Fear. A whole lot of fear. There are a lot of really big emotions that come into play when you have a pet with maladaptive behaviors. And, yes, it’s our duty to help the animal we chose to bring into our home and we should be doing our best to meet their needs but that doesn’t negate the human element, either. 

Your feelings are also valid. 

I think the human side of animal behavior consulting is often swept to the side. We put such a large emphasis on animal emotional states and making sure they’re comfortable, but can sometimes forget to tell people that it’s okay to be feeling however they’re feeling about their pet’s behavior. Sometimes good pets do bad things and that’s scary. We’re allowed to be scared by that. But the good thing is that you don’t have to be alone. That’s what behavior consultants are for. 

 

Now what?

  • Have you stopped to truly take stock about how you’re feeling in relation to your pet’s behavior? Take a moment to do so. 
  • Are there certain aspects of your pet’s behavior that are taking a larger toll on you? Focus on tweaking your management plan for those behaviors so they’re less likely to happen (like putting up a baby gate around the front door to lessen the chances of door dashing.)
  • Not sure where to start? Check out our Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics course to take the first steps in your pet’s behavior modification plan.
  • Get help from a professional. You don’t need to do this alone. Our team works with people all over the world. Email us at [email protected] to schedule your first appointment.

Happy training!

Allie

More Warning Signs

 

In last week’s blog post I talked about why I like warning signs, like growling. Check it out here if you haven’t read it yet. This week, I wanted to address an adjacent topic that often comes up in client sessions in the form of:

Me: “What body language signals did you notice before the bite?”

Pet parent: “There were none! He didn’t growl or show his teeth.”

When I hear this, I usually make a mental note and simply continue with the next question I had planned. Later in the session, we talk about body language signals and I give an example of Oso’s stress signals. That’s usually where the lightbulb moment happens; there are more warning signals and stress signals than just growling or showing teeth. 

Just because you didn’t see teeth or hear growling doesn’t mean that the animal didn’t ask you to back off prior to a bite. There are a lot of ways in which animals communicate beyond those two signals. Some signals are intuitive- hackles (fur on the back) raised or tail tucked- but many are not– lip licks and stress yawns. There very well may have been signs that the animal was about to bite, but if we don’t know animal body language we won’t be able to respond appropriately. 

 

Other warning signs

Warning signs are a way for animals to say, “If you don’t stop what you’re doing and/or move away from me I may bite you.” Warning signs aside from growling or showing teeth (which are both not always warning signs!) can include:

  • Freezing
  • Posturing over an item (putting their body weight over it)
  • Corners of the mouth going forward
  • Muzzle punch (just as it sounds- punching something with their muzzle)

There are, of course, other signs besides these and there are many, many other signs of stress in general. Check out this blog post about learning body language for more resources.

 

What should I do if I see warning signs?

For those of you who read last week’s blog post, you know that the answer is to provide relief in the moment. Go away if they’re asking for you to go away. Communication is a good thing, even if we don’t like what’s being said, and is something that will keep us safe. You can then work with a behavior professional on changing the underlying reason why your pet is uncomfortable and thus showing warning signs. If you’re looking for immediate help, check out our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course. 

Remember: don’t punish warning signs. That’s how “bites out of nowhere” can actually happen. 

 

Now what?

  • Learn more about your pets’ body language. All species living in your house communicate through their body language– from you yourself to a dog or cat to my turtle, Zorro. Having a proficient understanding of body language is the first step to being able to work with pets who exhibit maladaptive behaviors. 
  • Keep a log, either written or in your head, of when you see what signals. What happened before? What happens immediately (I.E. within 3-5 seconds) after? Observe and adjust your environment accordingly to keep your pet feeling more comfortable. 
  • Contact a behavior professional to help you. It’s much easier to address something when it first starts happening, instead of waiting it out or seeing if they’ll grow out of it (if individuals grew out of fear and anxiety we wouldn’t have human therapists.) We offer immediate help through our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course in addition to remote consults for pet parents (and professionals!) worldwide. 

 

Happy training!

Allie