How to work with an animal’s natural behaviour for a more effective result.
My stepfather likes to feed the birds in his garden. He puts out several bird feeders, sits on the lounge and watches them through the window. At 88 it is one of his great pleasures in life. However, whenever an ‘opportunistic’ squirrel appears he leaps up from his chair and bangs on the window to scare them away.
“Blooming squirrels” he said to me, “can’t you talk to them and tell them to stop eating the bird food?”
That is a great question! Yes, of course I could ask them. But my request for them to leave the bird food alone would be unlikely to yield a result. The squirrels are just doing what squirrels do naturally. Searching for food, especially nuts and seeds, and taking it back to their drey or burying it for winter.
I share this story with you because whenever we want to speak to an animal about its behaviour and especially when we hope to work with them to change that behaviour, we will have very little success if we are asking them to do something that goes against their natural instincts or their natural behaviour.
If we want a dog to stop barking or a cat to stop hunting we need to be collaborative with them in order to elicit a positive change. Dogs bark. Cats hunt. Once we recognise that they are only doing what comes naturally to them – what would have been their natural behaviour when they were still living wild – we can begin to work with this natural behaviour instead of trying to shut it down altogether.
So how do we work with them when we want them to change a behaviour that is causing distress, or negatively affecting the other beings that live with them or share their environment? There are a couple of places that we can begin.
The first is to look for a COMPROMISE. Begin by suggesting an alternative behaviour that still respects their natural instinct and is not asking them to stop being a dog, or a cat, or a squirrel!
If your dog barks every time someone comes to the door or walks down the street, you could ask that instead of barking many times, they only bark once. This request will need to be reinforced by some positive affirmation on your part – letting them know that you heard that bark, that they did well to alert you and that you are grateful for that bark, and then reminding them that they can stop now.
Similarly with a cat that hunts you can ask them to leave baby birds, baby rabbits or baby mice alone. Again acknowledging them for what a great hunter they are so that they feel affirmed and not ‘made wrong’. This will provide them with what they need, while you get something closer to what you want.
Another tool available to us is NEGOTIATION. Offering an alternative solution that still meets the animal’s needs while encouraging behaviour that causes less distress or has less impact on the animals and humans that share their environment.
In the case of the squirrels, I suggested to my stepfather that he might set up a squirrel feeder in the opposite corner of the garden, creating a negotiation opportunity. I could then to ask them to use that feeder and leave the bird food alone. “I’m not feeding the squirrels as well!” he exclaimed, putting an end to that particular idea!
If you are dealing with rodents or ants that are coming into the house, you could suggest an alternative place for them to be – perhaps outside in the garden, somewhere that they will still have shelter, warmth and food – and ask if they are willing to go along with that alternative. A friend of mine did this with great success with an infestation of ants in her kitchen – she explained to them that she couldn’t share her kitchen with them, and that they needed to move outside. She promised to provide them with food (sugar and water) on a regular basis, and the ants left.
Working with behavioural issues is a huge topic, and is probably going to be the one area that you are asked for help with more than any other. These simple ideas of remembering that the animal will always act true to its nature, and to work with it rather than against it, will help produce more successful results every time.
If you are interested in working in more specifically with animal behaviour, Jacqueline offers regular Mentoring Sessions exploring some of the topics covered in the Introductory trainings, including a session on Behavioural Issues. There will also be new ‘masterclass’ one-day online classes, one of which will focus entirely on Behavioural Issues. If you are interested in these, please contact Jacqueline direct.