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Optimism & Empathy in Training: How changing your perspective brings more success.

I got into this job because I love animals, and I also have a love of psychology and behavior. It was the perfect marriage of passions for me. While working in this field requires me to understand animals, this job is mostly about people. Thankfully, I like people pretty well too! The true work is in helping humans better understand and communicate more effectively with their companions, so I’ve picked up a few things about human behavior and what influences success in relation to animals. 

One of the first things I have to begin doing is dismantling misconceptions about the companion’s motivation, stripping away harmful labels that have been assigned through good intentions, and changing the way the human overall looks at their current concerns. This important aspect to my job is what helps everything that happens after or in tandem with this change of perception go as smoothly as it can. 

It’s important that guardians understand that their dog doesn’t defecate on the carpet and destroy their window seat pillows when they leave because of spite, but instead because of stress. That that “guilty” look is not likely one of guilt, but the body language of a nervous dog who is trying to de-escalate the conflict they’re perceiving. That their cat doesn’t choose to sit on the lap of that one guest who doesn’t like cats out of malice or antagonistic motivation, but because that guest adds the least amount of social pressure, making them the most comfortable and inviting human to be around. That their dog isn’t lacking intelligence to learn, but the reinforcement, confidence or comfort to do so. These are all important distinctions, because if we chalk undesirable behavior or lack of progress up to incorrect motivations or emotions, we aren’t likely to effectively get to the root of the hurdle in our way to successful behavior change. 

Many of the misconceptions that exist can breed resentment or a sense of conflict, which is also a major roadblock to progress. The best way to get people where they’re looking to go, is to get them on the same team with their animals. One of the ways I try to make this easier is to tell my clients to trade out the labels or descriptors they use in their head when talking about their companion. It takes effort at first, because we have some ingrained habits ourselves and in this case are battling some serious frustration. It also seems too simple to be truly effective, but with practice it begins to reprogram that problematic perception. Here are some examples:

Instead of, “My dog is being stubborn” say “My dog is struggling”. (See our blog post on stubborn dogs)

“My dog didn't (insert a desirable behavior here)” to “My dog is still learning”

Not only is this change in how we frame a tough moment much more true, but it helps change our frustration into empathy, which makes us more patient, and more likely to respond in a productive way or have the ability to problem solve. With these changes to our emotions, our animals will be much more receptive to us as well.

Another thing that I instruct my clients to do is to keep track of their progress and wins. It might feel a little silly, but it can drastically alter how you feel about getting to your goals. Not only do I like starting off each of our sessions with hearing what successes they had since we last spoke, but I sometimes have them write down sessions or moments in their day that went well. It's easy to focus on what's left to do or what needs improvement, but focusing solely on this without a conscience effort to acknowledge what is going right can make you lose perspective. It’s great to be able to see how far you’ve come! Celebrating small steps is the key to going the distance, whether it's something you or your animal are learning.

Clients who are more optimistic about their outcomes with training, generally have better outcomes and that is no accident. Animals can feed off our emotional states, and dealing with a stressed out or frustrated human can make learning for the companion much more challenging. It can become a vicious cycle. This means that in addition to the tactics I’ve already mentioned about reframing how you view your experiences or your pet's intentions, giving yourself breaks when things aren’t going well, and being kind to yourself as well while on your own learning journey will go a long way in improving your quality of life together. 

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