The Behavior Modification Journey Part 1: Are You Ready?

If you’ve heard us talk about behavior modification before, you’ve likely heard us refer to it as a “journey”. This isn’t to be cute or clever; it’s because we think that it’s the best word to describe the behavior modification process. The reason that we think that is because we want people to understand that a one-and-done session isn’t likely to work for serious or dangerous maladaptive behaviors. There will be ups and downs. Time, patience, and effort are a must. It’s truly a journey. 

What sparked this blog post is the people who understand that they need professional help but maybe aren’t ready for the journey. One of my favorite examples of this was a case where a family had originally reached out to me via Pet Harmony. We did one session right before the dog’s main caregiver was undergoing foot surgery and one more right after surgery, but it was clear that the family wasn’t ready for the journey at that time (and, rightly so during the healing process!) 

At the time, I was working for another company as well. Several months after we initially met– close to a year, I think– they had a session scheduled with me through the other company. I recognized the dog’s unique name and asked the receptionist to confirm that they were okay with seeing me and weren’t choosing to go through this company because we clashed on a personality-level. They chose to see me and we ended up having several more sessions and made significant progress with the dog’s behavior. 

I didn’t broach the topic of the failed start we’d gone through until the family did. A few sessions in, the mom sheepishly acknowledged that they weren’t ready to go through the process when they first contacted me and chose to go through the other company so she didn’t have to admit that failure to me. Through our unique turn of events, though, she was happy to have reconnected with me and they ended up being wonderful clients.

People regularly contact us who we know aren’t ready for the journey. There are some telltale phrases, like “We’ll try one session and see how it goes” or those who are price shopping to choose their consultant. There are others who go into their first session and don’t quite yet understand what it truly means to go through that behavior modification journey. There are others still who have more of an understanding but don’t have a lifestyle that would allow for it. Dog and new baby cases are not just hard from a liability standpoint, but also because new parents aren’t in a place where they can devote ample time to their pet’s behavior modification (again, rightly so). 

And all of that is okay. It’s okay to not yet be ready to go on that journey whether it’s due to not truly understanding what all is involved or because of a lifestyle that makes it difficult. Although Oso’s technically a behavior case, his needs seamlessly fit into our lifestyle and our needs and we knew all of that when we adopted him. I also wouldn’t be ready for a behavior modification journey involving other certain maladaptive behaviors. 

As I said, this post is for all those folks who understand they need help but maybe aren’t ready for that journey. And, as I hope I’ve made clear up to this point, this article is written without judgment. Like I said, I also wouldn’t be ready for some behavior modification journeys and I’d be a hypocrite if I judged those who currently find themselves in that situation. I simply want to provide some relief for those folks who aren’t yet ready to work with us or those who, like my past clients, find themselves in a failed start situation by outlining some of the common scenarios I see and offering advice. Let’s first start with people who haven’t yet tried a program. Next week we’ll dive into situations where someone has tried a program. 


I don’t even know what’s involved to know if I’m ready

I mentioned before that I see a lot of people who don’t truly understand what the behavior modification journey is like to know if they’re ready. It’s unfair to expect those folks to know what they’re getting themselves into if they don’t know what’s involved! A behavior modification process can be split into multiple components: management, modification, sometimes medication, and we like to add enrichment although it is also included in the other categories. 

Management means arranging your environment or modifying scenarios or situations so as to not elicit the unwanted behavior. For example, if you have a pet who’s counter surfing then don’t leave food on the counter. That’s a fairly easy example to implement (for some people) but there are other management recommendations that are not so simple, like completely separating pets who are fighting and not leaving pets with separation anxiety alone for longer than they’re capable. Management is thinking about how to keep the problem from happening in the first place and the more severe or dangerous the problem, the more restrictive the management plan becomes and it may mean giving up certain lifestyle choices in the interim or possibly for the lifetime of the animal. 

Modification means working through behavior modification techniques: training. Think about how long it took you to learn a new skill to proficiency or change a habit. It took months if not years, right? That’s because behavior modification and learning take time. Plan to be working on your modification plan and the same exercises for months in varying situations. 

Medication is just as it sounds. Some pets have a brain chemistry that could benefit from pharmaceutical help. I’m not a vet and therefore not legally qualified to discuss the topic much further, but it’s a common step when we’re working with pets who have a certain level of maladaptive behaviors. We need a brain that’s capable of learning before we can get very far.

Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs. It’s challenging to learn when our basic needs aren’t met. That means that in addition to working on modification techniques with our pets, we often need to look at the entirety of what we’re doing and tweak other activities like mental and physical exercise first. 

In addition to these categories, expect to communicate regularly with your consultant. They’ll want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly so that they can continue tweaking your plan accordingly. Each consultant is a little different with how they go about communicating in-between sessions so you may want to ask to make sure it matches your communication style.

Does this sound like a lot? I won’t lie; it is. There are a lot of factors to consider and a lot of angles that we need to attack in order to have lasting success. The nice part, though, is that your consultant should be tracking these different moving parts and condensing them into actionable steps for you to do and focus on when you’re ready to devote the energy to the journey.


I know I need help, but also know that I don’t have the time, money, or bandwidth to take on a behavior modification program

We’ve all been here at some point in time with something in our lives where we know what we should do but also know we’re simply not going to. If that’s you, then management is your best friend. Set up the environment and scenarios to prevent your pet from doing the unwanted behavior in the first place and to keep them and others safe. If you know your pet is uncomfortable with strangers, don’t take them to a family gathering. If you know your pet guards their food dish, stop sticking your hands in their bowl while they’re eating. Avoid situations that you know are problematic until you’re ready to get help. 

We do offer our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” mini-course which is perfect for people in this category. You’ll get the info you need to set up a management plan so that the behavior doesn’t worsen before seeing a professional. 


I need something that works right now to keep everyone safe

Just like above, management is what you should be focusing on. No behavior modification technique is going to work right away and provide you with long-lasting results without running the risk of massive side effects. Management is how you keep everyone safe by not putting your pet into situations where there are issues or having them around individuals that they have issues with. 


I don’t know how to find the right consultant

I mentioned earlier in this post that we can often tell when someone’s not ready to start the journey because they’re price shopping a lot of different companies. Unfortunately, because this field is completely unregulated (yep, tomorrow you [yes, you!] can start accepting money for working with aggressive animals based on what you currently know) that means there’s a very wide array in expertise and not all trainers and consultants are going to be right for your specific case. This is why I frequently hear people telling me, “We were using a trainer before and then we realized that we needed a behavior consultant.”

If you’re looking for someone to help with a specific problem, find someone who deals with that specific problem. Sure, here at Pet Harmony our team members could take cases for service dogs, tricks, and canine sports because we understand learning theory but we’d rather refer those cases to someone who knows the ins and outs better than we do and stick with what we do best, which is maladaptive behavior. There’s certainly something to be said for the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Find someone who primarily works with the types of issues you’re needing help with and who keeps current with their continuing education. 


Now what?

  • Do you recognize that you could use professional help but know you’re not ready to start the journey? Cut yourself some slack. As long as you’re able to manage the environment to keep everyone safe, relatively happy, and prevent the unwanted behavior from happening, it’s okay to tackle it when you’re in a better position to do so. 
  • Still not sure if you’re ready? Reach out to a consultant to get started. You can always let them know that you need a break before continuing if it turns out you’re not quite ready. Just be sure to communicate that with your consultant. 
  • Need help but not ready to commit to the journey? Check out our “Setting Yourself up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course. 
  • Is finding the right consultant what’s holding you back? We offer services worldwide; email us at [email protected] to schedule your first session. Otherwise, use the “Find a consultant” function on the IAABC website if you have a pet with maladaptive or problem behaviors. 


Happy training!


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