Do You Sabotage Your Pet’s  Behavior?

Do you sabotage you pet’s behavior? Most of us do at one time or another. But if we do it often enough when our animals misbehave, soon we may perceive any related beliefs that fuel the sabotage as true. If this mind-game works and the problem behavior goes away, the belief becomes more deeply entrenched.

But suppose the misbehavior returns or gets worse. That’s when we realize that resolving those misbehaviors also is a mind-game–if we’re lucky. On the downside, now we’re facing a more complex human-animal mind-game compared to the one we only played with ourselves.

The following are among the most common owner beliefs I’ve encountered over the years that sabotage problem animal behavior solutions. As you read them, you’ll notice that it’s possible  to succumb to more than one of these beliefs simultaneously.


Believing it’s the animal’s responsibility to stop the problem behavior to prove they love us.

Like us, our animals display the behaviors they do because doing so enables them to achieve the maximum amount of physical and behavioral stability using the least amount of energy at that time in that environment. Some of the worst companion animal behaviors from their people’s perspective—aggression, marking with stool and urine, destructive behaviors when left alone—also may occur because the animal cares so much about those people. Not because the animals are spiteful, mean, or stupid.

Given such potent motivation to continue displaying the problem behavior, anyone waiting for their animals to stop to prove their love may have a long and frustrating wait. On the other hand, if we believe it takes less energy to wait for the animal to solve the problem alone, then we may have trouble summoning the commitment to do our part to help our pets.

 Expecting fearful animals to protect us physically and emotionally.

This belief arises from the even more questionable belief that fearful animals want, let alone are capable of, providing such protective services to people. However, such services rightly belong to animals bred and selected for their physical and mental/emotional soundness, and extensively trained to fulfill those special human needs.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with believing your animal will protect you from life’s ups and downs… Provided you feel capable of fulfilling those needs yourself or can rely on another  person or well-behaved and well-trained confident animal in your household to fulfill them for you should the need arise. Granted tales of wimpy animals who miraculously saved their owner’s life periodically make the headlines. Sadly, the far greater number of wimpy owners who heroically summon the wherewithal to save their fearful animals—or to protect others from being bitten by their fearful animals—don’t rate media attention. That’s a shame. Those folks are the real heroes because they cared enough about their animals to overcome their own fears.

 Acting as if our pets perceive the world the same way we do even though we know this isn’t true.

A common human response to problem animal behavior involves attributing it to whatever we perceived or recalled from the event. But although something associated with her new neighbor clearing brush on the far side of the field may upset Griselda, chances are Ms. Minniver’s  little pug didn’t even see him. All Griselda saw from her position beside her owner was a jungle of grasses and weeds taller than she is. More likely the young pup growled at the tiny garter snake that startled her when it slithered through the tall weeds beside her. A tiny snake who moved so silently and smoothly that her owner didn’t even notice it.

The negative impact of attributing human sensory perception to our animals’ behavior can be enormous. Suppose Ms. Minniver decides something about her new neighbor caused her dog to growl protectively. Furthermore, she decides the growl indicates there’s something off about the man. Sure, he seemed nice enough when he introduced himself at the post office. But thanks to Griselda’s growl, Ms. Minniver concludes he looked shifty. Instead of seeing a hard-working neighbor tackling a nasty job, she scrutinizes his appearance–his dark hair, dirty shirt and work pants—looking for more  incriminating evidence.

The tragedy of this faulty belief is that it may take on a life of its own. Soon Ms. Minniver feels uneasy every time she sees her new neighbor. Then she generalizes that uneasiness to any man that reminds her of him for any reason. Griselda picks up on her owner’s fear via emotional contagion and begins growling at such men to protect herself and Ms. Minniver. This further reinforces the owner’s fears which further reinforces her dog’s. Then one day Griselda decides to initiate the response herself and attacks Ms. Minniver’s  favorite nephew when the dark-haired man young attempts to hug his aunt. The fact that Ms. Minniver emotionally trained her dog to profile and sometimes bite certain people never crosses the owner’s mind.

Failure to admit we’re afraid of our animals when we are.

One unintended consequences of hands-off training using treats or remote forms of punishment is the increased number of people who are afraid of their own animals. In dogs with serious behavioral problems, this belief often leads to a training war of attrition. First, fearful owners seek to wear down their dogs’ resistance to learning for food by offering “higher value” treats. They also may reward dogs who steal forbidden objects by offering them even yummier rewards. When that doesn’t work, they switch to punishment.

But not just any punishment. Often by then they’re so afraid of their animals or what their animals could do and so angry because their animals rejected their “all-positive” treats, they go straight to the heavy guns: shock collars of some sort. Not surprisingly, people who also believe it’s the animal’s responsibility to stop any problem behaviors to prove how much they love their owners seem to go through this progression faster.

The major problem with this belief takes us to denial. It’s impossible to solve a problem we’re so afraid of, we can’t acknowledge it exists. Relative to fear, that’s a shame because anyone who has never been afraid either is lying or has led an incredibly sheltered life. Fear serves a strong survival function. It’s how we respond to it that gets us into trouble with our animals.

Failure to do anything to address our fears to help our animals learn proper behavior.

Because so many serious behavior problems arise from the animal’s fear which the fearful owner unwittingly reinforces, dealing with our fears is the first step toward resolving the problem animal behavior.

Theoretically, this is simple. Wear protective clothing, use visualization,  get used to handling your animal via massage, and doing daily or weekly health-checks.

However, realistically this may be difficult for some people. “I’ve always been a fearful and anxious person. Plus I’d feel ridiculous wearing protective clothing,” says Ms. Minniver. “That’s just the way I am.” She similarly dismisses other suggestions. Put another way, Ms. Minniver considers the costs of making changes to help her dog too high. In that case, she may add the next sabotaging belief to her growing collection.

Trying every new training fad or gimmick that comes along in hopes it will magically solve our animals’ behavioral problems for us.

This includes an amazing array of treats, electronic devices, collars, leashes, harnesses, aversive- and calming-scented products, training techniques, special diets, tasty behavioral supplements, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, to name a few.  Many come with literature that feeds our desires for a quick fix. Few talk about possible negative side-effects. These include interactions with the animal’s anatomy or physiology that may make any behavioral problem worse. Or interactions between different forms of treatments that may complicate problem-solving too.

These might seem like rare occurrences, but they’re not as rare as you might think. It’s not uncommon for people who want their animals’ problem behaviors fixed with minimal effort on their parts to try more that one approach simultaneously. Or to quit one approach and add another if the previous one doesn’t work in a few days. As if throwing money at it will solve the problem.

Courtesy pixabay.coproblem.

This leads me to the mother of all saboteurs…


Impatiences solves nothing. Eliminating problem behaviors and replacing them with acceptable ones takes time. Just as it takes time for a serious injury or infection to heal, it takes time for the behavioral, bond, and brain changes necessary to properly correct problem behavior too. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can address the behavior in a meaningful way.

How many sabotaging beliefs lurk in your animal behavior problem-repair toolbox? 

Perhaps now is a good time to rummage around in there, keep the good ones, and get rid of those that sabotage your and your animal’s ability to resolve problem behaviors.

Leave a Reply