In our capacity as “the ultimate cognitive animal” our brains are always trying to assign the meaning or interpret events as caused or belonging to a pattern. Yet, we eventually have to face the reality that our meanings and frames are only one way it could have been interpreted; only one of a myriad of possibilities.
As animal trainers, we can’t always control the way our animals behave, no matter how hard we try. But we can control how we interpret it.
Our cultural model often promotes an interpretation of our animals undesirable behaviors as the result of the animal’s deficiencies. It is a bad animal, it is mean, it is stupid. “Poor thing! It can’t help itself,” is another way to interpret a bad behavior, that is equally unkind, suggesting that the animal is irredeemable. These types of interpretations do not lead to a productive stance. They foster passivity and complacency in the trainer. The logical outcome is to replace the animal with a smarter one. It leads to a sad unending cycle of training failures.
To be professional, we must learn to frame the occurrence of undesirable behavior as either our own deficiencies or an opportunity to teach the animal appropriate behaviors. There is nothing so indicative of a professional attitude as accepting responsibility for all behavior change – whether is is past, present, or future behavior. The animal is almost a peripheral issue in this paradigm. The trainer simply asks, “Did I install the behavior correctly? Is the behavior reliable?” The animal becomes the medium and the focus is the relationship between the trainer and the behavior.
Conscious control of our interpretation of events is a SUPER-POWER that perhaps only humans have. It applies not only to understanding animals, but to the whole of our lives. We must constantly struggle to think, feel, and act rationally and not fall into the trap of not owning our personal power to influence our world.
Trainers should constantly strive to think more clearly about their situations. Let’s try an exercise. Consider a time when your animal offered an annoying behavior. Brainstorm at least four alternative perspectives on the problem behavior. What alternative interpretations reflects the most personal power on you? Maybe you can follow that one! Make choosing the most realistic but empowering frame into a habit.
Make an interpretive statement about the annoying behavior that reflects your empowered constructive attitude; where is the opportunity for both you and the animal in this behavior? Challenge yourself to illuminate the most positive side of this challenging situation. Visualize the dark cloud drifting away as you realize that this is actually something you can work on. Then get to work on making the change you want to see.
Your subjective reality is anchored in your core beliefs, values, past life experiences, expectations and many other factors. It’s rare to escape the cultural fantasies you have been operating in for most of your life. No one, even within those constraints of culture, has the same set of experiences and expectations. Against this backdrop, your interactions with animals have created a unique subjective lens that only you sit behind. You organize and interpret your world accordingly, which triggers automatic thoughts, culturally-limited interpretations, and strong emotions. It is extremely hard for the rational mind to maintain control of itself. Never forget how hard it is… for everyone.
When your expectations contain “should” statements, there is an opportunity to find distortions on your lens. Let’s take our incident of annoying behavior and write it down as accurately as possible. Then ask the following questions and after each initial answer follow the answers down the rabbit hole by asking yourself “why?” five-times (or until it gets absurd) after you get the initial answer.
- How should an untrained animal normally behave in this situation?
- How should an trained animal behave in this situation?
- What should the trainer be doing in this particular situation?
- How is the training supposed to work?
- How should the animal behave towards you?
Then, like an archaeologist in your own mind, sift through the results to try to discover the underlying beliefs that inform your perspective. Is there an apparent weak point that you can’t really justify? Notice it, but no need to punish yourself for it. It’s where you can (and will) grow.
Now let’s ask some more constructive questions.
- What was actually under your control?
- Does this animal present a special challenge to you as a trainer?
What went right?
- What was positive in the situation in the animal’s experience?
- How are we closer to the training goal than we were?
- What is apparent about current deficiencies in this animal’s training?
- How is the training plan failing to set the animal up for success?
- What would be the optimal way to supply the animal with a better response?
- What could you do better?
Make constructive thinking into a habit. Hold on to this new perspective despite your lazy mind wanting to lapse back to taking the easy habitual way out. This is quite difficult, It’s like being on a diet or trying to acquire a new habit. Every time your mind tries to blame the animal, consistently remind yourself of your power and responsibility as a trainer. With consistency, and before long, it will be your habit.