The problem with rehabilitating behaviour problems

Quality of life is significantly impacted when living with a pet with ongoing behaviour problems. For both – human and animal. Photo via iStock

Separation anxiety, isolation distress, noise phobia, aggressive reactivity, submissive urination, skittishness, destructiveness, neurotic fixations. This is not a complete list of behaviour problems people experience with their pets but it names some of the common ones I have been asked to help with as a Trust Technique practitioner. More often than not, I am contacted as a last resort, after a long list of previous attempts to fix the problem has not yielded lasting success. From trainers to vets to behaviourists to animal communicators to family and friends’ advice.

Animals and humans share feelings. This affective connection is utilised when practicing the Trust Technique. Animal-human interactions are often prompted by reacting to each other’s inner states. This interplay can be joyful and pleasant, mutually beneficial and deepening your relationship. But what if your dog’s behaviour elicits dismay, anxiety, embarrassment, annoyance or fear in you? Or, likewise, your behaviour brings out apprehension, worry, agitation, frenzy or unease in your animal? Usually, this kicks off an escalating feedback loop of negative reactions between you two.

Escalating feedback loop of negative reactions.

So far, I am talking about in-the-moment interactions. But often it is enough for you to just think about a stressful situation and your pet already reacts. Let me give you an example.

One morning when daycare puppy Pali was dropped off his human told me about her struggle with him sometimes when leaving his sight. He whines and barks. This behaviour really stresses her, feeling trapped in a Pali-controlled world, also feeling helpless and a bit hopeless. As she was talking to me, Pali who had been excited to go see the other dogs, started to scream and howl and pulling towards his human, clearly reacting to the remembered situation. It was easy for me to interrupt this by calling him in a cheerful tone and taking him inside where he was his happy self as always.

I wanted to make sure his human fully appreciated what had just happened there. I messaged her to give me a call when she had a minute and when she did, I could hear in her voice that she was worried, perhaps imagining that Pali had been upset this whole time. Although she had learned and was using the Trust Technique with Pali, it was still a fairly new for them. When I pointed out what had transpired that morning she was flabbergasted yet also immediately recognised and acknowledged the truth of it.

In such a moment, people often start feeling guilty, blaming themselves for their dog’s behaviour, feeling awful and self-critical. Though perhaps a typical human reaction, it’s not helpful at all. The value of seeing the sensitive connection between ourselves and our animals is so that we can be mindful and change for the better any haywire interactions we experience with them. Becoming aware of our part in the struggles with our pet empowers us to behave differently. The Trust Technique opens a new door for us. Once we’ve stepped through it, what seemed impossible before suddenly can be achieved. Animals’ difficult behaviours that seemed unstoppable and irreversible in the past can improve, change and heal.

Behaviour modification usually revolves around ‘fixing the problem’, be that with various training models or medication. The Trust Technique approaches the change from the inside out. The problem is fixed as a by-product of helping our pets and ourselves find peace. This requires an openness to switch perspective from ‘changing unwanted behaviour’ to changing our pet’s inner state. The latter brings with it an automatic change in behaviour. If, for example, a dog feels anxious in a certain situation this inner state of nervous tension cues behaviours that are completely different from behaviours that arise from feeling safe and at peace in that same situation. This doesn’t happen by flipping a switch, of course, but rather by facilitating a process.

There is no switch. Rehabilitation is a process.

Peace and unpeace can’t exist at the same time. Before being able to experience calm, we need to let go that which is worrying and upsetting. Through acknowledgement and acceptance, we arrive at peace.

The biggest problem when rehabilitating a behaviour problem is not the severity of it, nor how long it has been going on, or the age or breed of the animal. The biggest problem is: your expectations!

No form of rehabilitation – be that physical or mental health recovery – ever is a smooth sailing
from point A to point B.

Why are your expectations such a problem? Here’s a scientific tidbit: Nervous systems ‘talk’ to each other. This is called neuroception. In other words: We share feelings. They are contagious! Other nervous systems (like the ones inside our pets) pick up on them.

Thoughts (expectations, for example), and therefore feelings, will always arise. It’s part of the human condition. If met with resistance they are only strengthened. Here’s a little exercise to experience this phenomenon: Try not to think.

Were you able not to think? Take note of not only your thoughts but also how feelings arise as you try not to think.

We can’t stop thoughts from bubbling up. We can, however, choose whether or not to engage. If we don’t, we simple accept the thought, it moves on, we remain at peace. If we do engage with it we are now thinking. It’s as if we have jumped on a train that is taking us through a landscape that provokes all sorts of feelings (likes and dislikes, memories), not to mention the other passengers on that train!

Scientists have been able to demonstrate that emotions have unique frequencies (measured in Hz). Gratitude, acceptance and love are examples of higher vibrational states, pity, regret and fear vibrate at lower frequencies. This is not about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings. Just like you can’t stop thoughts, you can’t stop feelings from arising. If you witness something shocking or something delightful, there will be an immediate inner emotional response (cued by how you judge the situation [shocking or delightful]).

What happens next, however, fully is in your hands: Are you entertaining this thought/feeling? Fuelling it via a story you compose and embellish? So, that’s why your expectations can be such a problem. Or, are you stepping into mindfulness, the path that leads to stillness, calm and peace?

It can be a vulnerable time, the beginnings of making the Trust Technique part of your life so that it can all change for the better. The first consultation with me ends almost always with an uplifting feeling, hope is tangible – either for the first time ever or for the first time in a long time. People feel clarity and are motivated and start practicing and applying what they have learned with their animal. And then comes the day when something ‘goes wrong’ or the animal ‘has a relapse’ … and doubts arise. Is this really working? I am not able to do this right! My animal just doesn’t get it. Etc.

All these thoughts create feelings … anxiety, frustration, hopelessness. And we are broadcasting them loudly to our animal. And now we are in the escalating feedback loop of negative reaction I mentioned above. What now???

Own it with kindness! Acknowledge and accept what is happening: You thought your dog’s rehabilitation would follow the trajectory of steady upwards and onwards. When it did not, you let your thoughts run rampant. There is a German saying that goes, ‘Hinfallen, aufstehen, Krone richten, weitergehen,’ which translates to, ‘Fall down, get up, adjust your crown/tiara, carry on.’ Let that be your mantra.

Photo via iStock

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