We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know


Every now and then when speaking with a prospective or new client they’ll tell me:


“I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything already!”


I’ll ask them to describe to me what they’ve already tried. Often the list is quite long and I understand why they made the above statement. But, here’s the thing. We don’t know what we don’t know. And, even if we did try something, that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work without some troubleshooting. We shouldn’t let not knowing what a professional can do for us keep us from reaching out.


Everything to you is not everything to me

Think about a time when you started learning something new. In the beginning, it seemed pretty simple and straightforward, right? It seemed like you could easily master this new skill in no time. Then you took a deep dive into different aspects of this topic and realized that it’s not so simple and straightforward. There’s a lot of nuance. There are a lot of related topics that you probably needed to learn about in order to better hone your skill. The more you learned the more you realized how much there was to know.

Animal behavior is the same way. Just because you don’t know of another way to do something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just means that you don’t yet know how to do it. When people tell me they’ve tried “everything”, it really means that they’ve tried everything that they know to do or have researched. That doesn’t mean it’s everything that I know. Everything to you is not everything to me. 


Troubleshooting is key

Occasionally I get a new case where someone is already doing the exercise that I was planning to recommend to them, but they’re telling me that it’s not working very well. Do we immediately try a new exercise? No! I first ask them to show me what they’re doing (even in a remote session) or send me a video of them working on it if they’re not able to demo live. 

Watching them perform the exercise is often where that aha moment happens and I find myself saying, “That’s why it’s not working! It’s an [insert training mechanic here] problem.” As with most things, the devil’s in the details. Let’s take counterconditioning for example. Counterconditioning is a specific scientific term that essentially means associating a scary thing with an awesome thing in a way that scary predicts awesome so it can become awesome in and of itself. That’s a diluted definition and we’d actually need to see the scary thing become awesome for it to count, but you get the gist. 

Every now and then someone will tell me that they’re working on counterconditioning with their pet. However, when I ask them to demonstrate what they’re doing they are not actually counterconditioning. There are a lot of ways to do it incorrectly and there are only a few ways to apply it correctly. Once we tweak how they’re doing the exercise we’re able to make more progress with it. 

Perhaps the problem in implementation is not in their mechanics, but in their setup. Let’s say someone is implementing a counterconditioning exercise in a situation where their pet is too stressed to learn (hello, mountain lion brain!) While technically we can still do that and make progress, there are ways that we can change the setup to make it easier. Once again we can tweak how they’re doing the exercise so they’re able to make more progress with it. Even if someone’s tried “everything”, it doesn’t mean that troubleshooting isn’t necessary.


It hasn’t been long enough

One last note on “trying everything”. Many times when I hear this statement I see someone who’s tried a lot of different things for only a few days at a time. Think about how long it took you to learn something new or, better yet, to develop a new habit. It was a lot more than a few days. The same is true for our animals; change takes time and a whole lot of practice. Trying something for just a few days doesn’t count. 


Now what?

  • Do you find yourself not reaching out for professional help because you don’t know what they could recommend that you haven’t tried already? Reach out! Chances are that they know of something you haven’t seen before or can help you troubleshoot what you’re already doing. We offer services worldwide; email us at [email protected] to set up your first session. 


Happy training!