While each client that comes to us gets a plan that is customized to the individual with the goal of meeting the needs of everyone involved, there are 3 major categories that provide a framework for how that plan is created. Today we’re going to discuss a fundamental category that often gets overlooked when trying to create long lasting behavior change: Coping Skills.
A large part of our job has been aimed at creating emotional change in the animals we work with. Many clients come to us with goals of helping their companions feel better about stimuli or social situations that are making them feel uneasy, but the behaviors they’re initially concerned with are symptoms of that emotional discomfort. We often talk about things like anxiety, stress, fear and even overstimulation as some of the “big feels” that are happening internally and fueling undesirable behaviors, and in order to help the behavior improve, we have to get to the root of the emotional struggle.
The longer we’ve worked in the behavior field, the more we’ve realized that for some animals or their humans, changing a negative emotional state to a positive one can be quite challenging purely because a lot of factors out of our control can affect behavior and well…life happens. Meaning stressors happen. Sometimes animals have multiple triggers or challenges.
Despite the fact that we always strive to work with them under their stress threshold, we can’t always predict every trigger or smaller event that might result in the learner becoming trigger-stacked or overwhelmed (click here to watch our vocabulary video on trigger stacking). We can’t always know when a novel dog may pop up around the corner while working with a dog-reactive dog. We can’t always know when a scary sound outside may trigger a noise sensitive cat. And if we can’t predict everything, understandably so, neither can our human clients reasonably be expected to do so.
All of this is why we find it so important to work towards emotional change from a variety of different angles. When humans want to help alleviate stress in their lives, they don’t go about it by trying to suddenly love everything that stresses them out. That’s simply not reasonable. Since we can’t love everything and everyone, and we can’t completely avoid stress, the healthy alternative is to learn coping skills for when stress does happen. If we don’t do this, we can really struggle to be well-adjusted and it will likely significantly impact our behavior.
As adults, we have the fortune of having a higher cognitive ability, which means we can think about what stresses us out and why, and break that down more thoughtfully. Even then, we can’t stop the stress from existing at all. Our companions live in the moment and can’t rationalize or deliberately compartmentalize the way that we can. Perception is as good as reality, which means if something is scary, stressful, or frustrating, it doesn’t matter if we think they should or shouldn’t feel that way.
But just because all of that is true, doesn’t mean that we can’t help our furry or feathered friends develop coping skills of their own. In fact, an animal learning to cope better with stress by making choices that are not only more appropriate, but allow them to experience emotional relief is one of the kindest things we can do for their behavioral health. Especially when you consider they have even less control over what happens to them in the grand scheme of things and agency plays a massive role in mental and emotional health.
If you want to learn more about how your companion can learn coping skills, reach out for a consultation so we can create a customized plan for success in your household.