We humans like our tidy little boxes, labels, and categorizations. It’s often the easiest and fastest route to help us make sense of a complex world in which we have to interpret information at a sometimes alarming rate. If we can make a quick assessment of something, many times it allows us to move on without too much deliberation. But oftentimes, when we are making quick assessments or categorizing things, an unfortunate side effect is that we also attach a judgment to what we are labeling or categorizing. From the human perspective, this probably makes a lot of sense. Afterall, we live in a world that teaches us from a very young age that certain types of behaviors are good or bad, naughty or nice, sweet or sassy. Even if very young humans can’t understand the meaning of the word morality, they certainly have morality drilled into them early on.
Let’s define morality
The Oxford dictionary defines morality as “principles concerning the destination between right and wrong or good or bad behavior.” Merriam-Webster dictionary provides us with the following definition: “concerned with or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior.” I think most people would agree that having a societal system that depends on people sharing a code of conduct is important to maintain order and safety for all people who share that society. In that sense, having an agreed upon code of morality can be a very good thing. But morality is definitely not a one size fits all kind of concept. Furthermore, using morality to categorize behavior can often cause more harm than good.
What the heck does this have to do with our pets?
If you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you are here because you have some type of relationship with companion animals. And you might be wondering what any of this philosophical talk about morality has to do with being a pet parent. I would say a whole lot. Because humans are primed from a young age to be experts at placing moral values on behavior. And our pets, like all living animals, behave. All-day, every day, while they draw breath and just like us, they behave. Is your pet sleeping? Sleeping is a behavior. Is your pet eating? Eating is a behavior. Is your pet chewing? Chewing is a behavior. So is jumping, chasing, sitting, resting, barking, pooping, mating, digging, growling, and licking. You get the idea. The behaviors your pet exhibits are them acting on their environments. If your pet is resting peacefully, this behavior might be because they are satiated, tired, and/or feeling safe and secure. Very few people have problems with the behavior of resting peacefully. It’s different however when a pet exhibits behaviors that we do not find enchanting or things we categorize as “problem behaviors.”
Why does it matter?
It matters because when we view behavior through the lens of morality, we sometimes stop there and don’t explore the where, whys, whats, and whens of behavior. If we think of a behavior as being either “good” or “bad” it can cause us to feel stuck and we may just look for quick ways to make the unwanted behavior stop. There is no curiosity in “good” or “bad.” There is mostly a judgment and that judgment is based on a human’s perspective of what “good” or “bad” consists of. Labels like “good” or “bad” don’t teach anything but they presume an awful lot. They presume that your pet, 1) has the capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong and 2) if they do, they live by the same set of moral conduct that humans do. Those are both big suppositions and put an awful lot of pressure on our pets.
It’s all just information
One of the laws of behavior is that all behavior has a function. The function of behavior can differ from one individual to another. I think the function of a behavior is so much more interesting when viewed as information. I think framing behavior as just information immediately provides us with the opportunity to look at behavior with a less negative lens and instead approach behaviors we would like to see more or less of as a puzzle to be solved as opposed to a problem to be judged. Judging can cause us to place blame whereas problem-solving helps us become more analytical and objective in our assessments.
Can we strip down the behavior to simply observing it without interpretation? Can we simply watch what happens before the behavior occurs and what outcome the behavior has for the one performing it? Instead of saying my dog is “bad” for grabbing food on the counter, or “good” because she comes when I call, can we assess the behavior in terms of outcomes? Can we teach our pets to display more of the behaviors we would like to see and give them appropriate outlets to display behaviors that are typical for their species? Can we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn more about why the behavior is occurring in the first place? Asking questions, remaining curious and open, and observing without judgment are all skills that can be mastered. Giving yourself permission to view your pet’s behavior as neither “good” behavior or “bad” behavior can change not only the way you view your pet but can also change the way you interact with them as well. Being good stewards of our pet’s physical and emotional well-being starts with understanding, empathy, and the ability to remain curious about who they are as a species and why they behave the way they do.
Here are some suggestions on how you can practice being an observer of your pet’s behavior:
- Keep a journal of your pet’s typical behavior on any given day
- Pay attention not only to your pet’s behavior but also take note of anything that is occurring environmentally before, during, and after the behavior happens
- Try to simply view your pet’s behavior as information without attaching a moral judgment or interpretation to the choices your pet is making
- Learn as much as you can about what species-typical behavior looks like for your pet’s species
- Learn how your pet communicates via their body language
- Contact a credentialed behavior consultant or trainer to help you gain knowledge and skills if you are feeling frustrated, uncertain, or stuck. Pet Harmony is ready to help you acquire the skills you need to help your relationship with the pets you share your life with!