Euphemisms can be fun. In our household, an “opportunity to succeed” is the term for when the parrot needs a potty break. That’s about once every ten minutes. Not to get too graphic, but if she’s sitting with you and you’re wearing something labeled “dry clean only,” don’t startle her. Aside from her role as catalyst of many wardrobe changes, some due to flinging food or snagging with her nails, she’s a delightful companion. Part of it is her sweet nature. Part of it is that we’ve set up her environment in a way that makes it easy to live with her. This is where pet training can teach us a lot about habit formation.
I’ve always been described as “good with animals.” My husband is more like Dr. Doolittle. When we got married, our pets got married, too, in their own way. The 18-year-old Noelle and 8-year-old Spike treat each other much as you’d expect a human teenage girl with a decade-younger little brother to treat each other. They share food and toys, they try to get each other into trouble, they annoy each other sometimes, they ignore each other most of the time, and occasionally we catch them being affectionate when they think nobody is looking. He licks her on the beak and she touches his snout and makes smooch sounds.
Why does this work? Why can our ¾-lb bird climb on our vigilant 21-lb terrier, with her terrible scratchy talons, and not get bit or shaken to death? How have they managed to live together for 7 years without injuring each other? That’s a story in itself. The keys are that we respect their natures and their biological needs, that we create a living environment that makes it easy for them, and that we’ve introduced changes very gradually. We supervised them extremely closely. We didn’t leave them alone in a room together for years. Plenty of dogs and parrots bite, ruin furniture, bark or scream monotonously, and are aggressive toward humans and other animals. Ours are nice because we set them up to be nice. We give them that “opportunity to succeed.”
What does this have to do with humans?
First, when we want to change our habits, it helps to do at least a bit of research in psychology. We have to understand what tends to work for our breed and what tends not to work. Going back to the pet training example, birds are flock animals and dogs are pack animals. They both have an inherent need to understand where they fit in the “pecking order” and who is the alpha of the group. (NB: a human, not a pet!) We established very firmly, when he was only 10 weeks old, that Spike is “gamma dog” and he has to let the bird boss him around. She bribes him with food rewards, reinforcing the relationship. When we want to change our habits, we need to know how habits work, and we also need to pay attention to our social surroundings. Is there someone in the pack who is going to throw us treats? Are someone else’s rules influencing our behavior?
The physical home environment is paramount, both for habit change and for pet training. We have clearly defined areas where our pets are allowed to relax and be themselves. They each have a private sleep area (crate for him, cage for her). She has plenty of things she is allowed to use for her biological need to chew. They have their own toys, their own food, and their own water bowls, although sometimes she drinks out of his. He has a special blanket and a couch he’s allowed to sit on. This helps assuage his hurt feelings due to being banned from our bed. In the human parts of the house, we have designated areas for our stuff and our activities. I set up the medicine cabinet so that just glancing at what is in there reminds me to floss at night and put on sunblock in the morning. I set up the fridge so that the vegetables are at eye level. We keep our desks, table, and kitchen counters clear so they’re always ready to use for their intended purpose. Keeping the house clutter-free also makes it easier to do housework; research shows a cluttered house takes 40% longer to clean. That’s a big deal when you have as many loose feathers, dog hairs, shredded bits of plywood, and muddy paw prints coming through as we do.
A schedule is helpful. Getting enough rest is a big deal for all of us. Noelle beeps if she’s under her cover too late in the morning. Then she starts imitating the travel alarm clock. Then she starts imitating the backup alarm of a garbage truck. At this point, the dog starts howling, rather than simply running out of the room. Next, they both get louder. Birds need about 12 hours of sleep a night, and a sleep-deprived bird is a crabby, biting sort of a bird. Mealtimes are the other major one. If any member of the house is eating, the other three expect to get a bite also. It makes life easier when we all eat together. If there is any single thing that makes habit change easier, it is letting the schedule pull you through the day. The important thing is to move from one activity to another without pausing to decide whether to do it or not. Do one thing, then the next thing, then the next thing. Stop to think and make decisions later in the day or evening, when most of the mandatory activities of the day are done.
The fascinating thing about living with animals is that they have their own interior agendas. The dog has developed a thing lately of jumping up around 9:30 PM, standing on his hind legs to sniff at his leash, and barking at us and the front door. That’s not walking time, but for some reason, he feels this sudden interest in the leash and the door. It’s interesting to see when either of them decides to play with toys, stretch, or ask for attention. They definitely never let us forget munch time. What they don’t do is worry the way humans do. As far as we know, they spend zero time wondering what other people or animals think of them, stewing over old grudges, or browbeating themselves for their flaws. Noelle picks her nose with her toe and Spike licks his nether regions. They both have pretty high self-esteem. Whenever she sees her reflection in the mirror, she leans forward to kiss herself. When we call him “good boy” he actually believes it.
One of the things about training pets is that we have rules. They can only understand what we want from them if we’re very clear about what exactly we want, if we communicate it in a way they can understand, and if we’re really, really, really consistent. It doesn’t help when Mother has one set of rules and Dad has a conflicting set of rules. We don’t steal food off someone else’s plate. We don’t grab people with our face. We don’t jump up. When we misbehave, we are instantly corrected and removed. There is a constant expectation that we will behave in certain ways, which are positively reinforced with affection and soothing words. We know what can be expected of us, given our inherent tendencies, and most of the time, we’re allowed to do what comes naturally.
Pets lack the skills to survive in the wild. Our dog is a 20th-century breed, and he may even lack the physical ability to survive in the wild. It’s our job to look after them. We have to take care not to overfeed them or give them inappropriate foods, because they don’t know how to say no. They can’t read health articles or have a conversation with their vet about fatty liver disease. They aren’t moral agents; in a very real way, they can’t make decisions. (We have to remember this when the bird chews foam from the underside of the ottoman, and the dog keeps digging up my basil seedlings). We read that fat people have fat pets. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, so we have to watch our tendency to be “feeders” and find amusement in giving our animals lots of yummy treats. We also have to recognize our tendency to give ourselves lots of yummy treats. Caring for them has almost all of the same requirements as caring for ourselves. As they’ve both put on extra grams (or pounds) and we’ve been chewed out by the vet, the solution has been to switch to “weight management” chow and measure scoops of food at each meal. Same for us.
When we don’t want our animals to chew something up, we keep it out of reach. When we catch them doing something dangerous, we rush to their rescue and then make sure the dangerous thing can’t happen again. When they do something naughty, we correct them, as many times as it takes. We feed them what is healthy for them and restrict things they shouldn’t have. (Avocado could kill her; a lot of things are toxic for him, like raisins or tomatoes). We set them up so that they follow a natural rhythm of life every day, with plenty of time for rest, play, grooming, exercise, and affection. They enjoy simple things much more than we do, and that helps us feel like shower time or shoelaces are more interesting than we would otherwise notice.
We have a lot to learn from animals. They never overthink anything. They both fulfill their complete agenda every day, from grooming to napping to shredding things to exercising, whether that means chasing one’s tail or hanging upside down and face-punching a bell. They seem reasonably satisfied to eat the same number of calories every day. They both place a high priority on cuddle time. They don’t keep clutter, they don’t over-pack, they don’t berate themselves for lacking willpower or motivation, they’re ready to go when it’s time to go somewhere. They have no body image issues, even though her wings are trimmed and his tail was docked in puppyhood. They both walk around shamelessly naked. They are utterly perfect, each in their own way, a clearly recognizable African Gray Parrot and a classic American Rat Terrier. They lead successful lives.
Perhaps it’s from training pets that I have developed a comfort level with using behavioral psychology on myself. It’s pretty easy and straightforward for me to adopt new habits. I recognize that I have an innate drive to do both positive and negative things, and that I have to incentivize the right impulses and repress the undesired ones. I can’t let my parrot destroy people’s earrings, I can’t let my dog chase the mailman, and I can’t let myself do things like procrastinating on my taxes. I have to respect my biological needs for sleep, water, and appropriate foods, because if I treated my pets as badly as I might treat myself, I’d be cited for animal abuse. I don’t expect my critters to learn new tricks on the first attempt, and I teach myself to do new things the same way: patiently, slowly, incrementally. The best trick I could ever learn is to love the way they do, fully and unconditionally.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.