Behavior Odyssey, Part 3

Welcome back! Thanks for joining us on our Behavior Odyssey!

Last month we learned that in order to change any behavior, you must be clear and consistent, as well as having a trusting relationship with your pets.

But … how do you create trust?  It’s really quite simple if you think about it.  How do you know if you can trust someone?  Think about someone you trust completely.  What brings that trust to the relationship?  It’s the same for dogs and cats.  They trust when they are confident that you are ALWAYS kind, ALWAYS caring, and ALWAYS have their best interests in mind.  (For people, we often think “they have our back”.) The consistency of the “ALWAYS” is what creates trust in animals.

Sadly, because of this, hard-won trust can be shattered in a moment of frustration or anger.  Because we cannot use our spoken language to explain our missteps to our pets, we  often move back again to the beginning of the process to once again regain trust.  So, when it comes to behavior modification, it’s time to step up and be the grown-up!  Be the person your dog or cat can trust and from whom they know that they can get helpful information.  Demonstrate self-control. Get outside assistance to help you jump over any difficult hurdles in training.  Adjust your expectations.  Slow down.  Reassess the clarity of your communication.  Remember, only you can control you.  Your pet will follow your good examples by offering behaviors for evaluation.  Reward the ones you love and want, and let the others go (unless they are dangerous).  This approach encourages your dog or cat to try new behaviors as part of a shared communication – something that cannot happen without trust.

This is where positive reinforcement training (counterconditioning) becomes a winning technique.  Imagine this.  You are walking hand in hand with your friend.  Suddenly she yanks your hand back, throwing you off balance.  You are forced to stop to regain your balance and you look at your friend with a quizzical glance.  She says something to you in Lithuanian and starts walking again.  Not long into the walk, she yanks back again.  Again, off balance, you stop and again the Lithuanian words come forth.  Is any learning happening in this example?  What’s happening to the trust?

If, instead, you were walking with your friend and she said (in English, not Lithuanian), ”I’d prefer you not pull on my hand, but walk with me instead.  There are some jagged rocks over there.”  This shows kindness and caring.  What’s happening to trust in this case?  This is where the positive reinforcement works so well with our pets.  The reward given at the moment of walking well on leash builds the bond and better communicates expectations.

It is important to realize that Positive Reinforcement training is not bribery.  But we’ll get to that in our next installment.

One other important aspect of trust is expectations.  My guess is that in the exercise above where you thought of someone you trust, part of that trust came from knowing what is expected of you in the relationship.  In my case, I think of my mother, whom I trusted literally with my life.  I knew she was rock solid in the kindness, caring, and best interests “department.”  But, I also knew what she expected of me in every moment and every interaction.  When I showed integrity and service in my actions, I fulfilled her expectations.  It was a win-win!

So, how do expectations apply to our furry family members?  The first step is understanding that clear expectations and finding a way to communicate those expectations is key to success.  (This applies to children as well, all you parents out there!)  Set your expectations.  Express them clearly in a way your pet can understand, then be consistent in rewarding ONLY the behaviors which meet your expectations.

-Dr. Shari