“What” and “Why”

Last night I shared a quote by Sue Ailsby, from her free The Sue Ailsby Collection which can be found on her website. The quote generated a lot more response than I had anticipated when I posted it, so i’d like to take a closer look!

“WHY is not nearly as important as WHAT. Teach yourself to see what the dog is doing rather than worrying about why he does it.” – Sue Ailsby.

what and why
Wilbur is barking. Does he want to play, or increase the distance of something, or is he just being obnoxious?

I think the primary reason this struck a nerve with some followers is that the “WHY” in the context of this quote was misinterpreted. It’s referring to the “why” of what the animal is thinking, not the antecedent to the behaviour. If we use a puppy having an accident indoors as an example, we can change the “what” by giving our puppy more opportunity to go outside, and rewarding toileting on the grass. In days gone by people would get caught up in the “why” – he was teaching you a lesson for leaving him alone so long, he knew it was wrong but did it anyway, etc. Thinking this way tends to make us mad, which makes us more likely to respond impulsively by yelling, rubbing their nose in it, or smacking their bottom.

The only thoughts we can ever truly know are our own. We can ask our human friends what they are thinking, and often we can trust that they will respond truthfully, but we can’t ask the same question of our pets.

We need to look at what our pets are doing, and how we can best meet their physical, mental, and social needs to create a happy and well-balanced pet. By focusing on what they are doing we can get valuable information about how well we are doing, and what we could do better. We can learn the difference between relaxed body language and fearful body language, and address either appropriately, but we’re still measuring behaviour and not thoughts.

If we get caught up making assumptions about our pets thoughts, we are stepping onto a slippery slope. The science of behaviour change and modification looks at “what” the animal is doing (what we can observe) and how we can effect that by changing what happens prior (antecedents) or after (consequences) the target behaviour. We can also use the tools of behaviour modification to help our pets respond appropriately to different stimuli, through desensitization and counter-conditioning, but even then we are measuring what the pet is doing, not why.


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