I recently embarked – unintentionally – on a major house cleaning project.
I started one afternoon with just one task in mind: To clear out the grown kid’s bedroom and transform it into something else. It was a simple enough idea (ha!) and I was excited to get cracking.
But the tiny project turned into a full-blown gargantuan purging exercise that involved ALL the rooms in the house. I had to recruit my husband to help. He was thrilled.
What I thought would take a couple of days dragged into its fourth week before I realized what was happening. My house was a complete mess, and although I was ready to throw in the towel and just stuff everything back where it had been, I knew that the only real solution was to keep pushing forward.
A ton of surprises kept popping up. I was finding stuff I didn’t even know I had lost. I was even unearthing two copies of the same book, having bought the second because I had forgotten I had ever bought the first. No wonder I had so many bookshelves.
My husband and I made dozens of trips in our packed SUVs, taking boxes, furniture and industrial-sized garbage bags full of stuff to the recycling center or to our local charity organization, and yet… when we returned home and looked around, there was still more stuff.
So much more stuff.
It was the result of years of storing things to deal with them “later”. Of removing an item from a room I was cleaning, and just putting it in another room, on another shelf, in another drawer. Out of sight, out of mind.
I was playing Whack-a-Mole with items in my house for 12 years.
Solve one problem, another pops up
It struck me that this scenario looked a lot like the “quick fixes” dog owners look for when we want to change our dog’s behaviour. By focusing on just a single issue, we sometimes end up solving (or suppressing) one problematic behaviour only to discover that another problematic behaviour has popped up to replace it.
It’s like squeezing a balloon… the air disappears from one spot, only to collect in another.
“Fluffy’s not chewing our shoes anymore, but now he’s digging up the garden.”
“Rover stopped jumping up on us, but now he barks to get our attention.”
“I put PeeWee in the back bedroom so the neighbours would stop complaining about his barking, but now he’s chewing the door frame.”
The chewing, jumping, and barking in these three scenarios are clues that should lead us to the root of the problem. They are not the real problem. They are symptoms.
There’s a bigger picture
During my behaviour consultations with dog owners, the big picture starts to come into focus during our initial conversation. As I listen to my client, I begin to understand that there’s actually more going on than just the one behaviour they contacted me for.
I know that if I don’t address the whole picture, another problem behaviour will eventually pop up somewhere else.
The new problem behaviour might look nothing like the original one. The problems might not even appear to be related at all. But if we stand back and take in the whole scene, we can see how both issues stem from a common denominator.
So we need to dig deeper and pull everything out. We need to sort through the issues and connect the dots. Playing detective is an important first step in behaviour change.
All of this can take a lot more time than we anticipated. It can get tricky and messy, and it can feel daunting.
But that’s what truly resolving a problem is all about. It’s not instantaneous, and there is no magic wand. It may involve deconstructing months or years of habits and routines to get it all sorted before we begin to see the result we want.
In most cases, it’s best to work with a behaviour consultant who’s trained to guide you through exactly this kind of thing. They should be experienced enough to recognize the value of the big picture, and skilled enough to address each element of it.
The best way to get true, lasting behaviour change isn’t too far removed from a good house-cleaning: It requires pulling everything out into daylight. It takes patience, persistence, and organization, and it’s often best accomplished with the guidance and support of someone who knows how to navigate through the process.
And boy, the result sure is worth all the trouble.