Acceptance, Expectations, and Loss When You Have a Pet with Behavior Problems

Getting a new pet is such an exciting time! We often have a whole bunch of hopes and dreams for the life to come – long walks with a new dog around the neighborhood, a pup who loves our kids, a kitty ready to cuddle up, a new furry family member who will integrate nicely into our lives. Of course, we all have these hopes and dreams But real life isn’t a fantasy. Everyday life with our pets is messier and more complicated.

Having a pet with behavior problems like aggression, reactivity, and/or separation anxiety can really shake up those hopes and dreams. Sometimes they crumble right before our eyes.

Through my work and research with pet owners I’ve found that having a pet with behavior problems involves accepting the pet for who they are in real life, and then adapting our hopes and dreams to what they need from us (and can realistically give to us). And, I would add, also honoring the loss of the dreams we had about our future with this pet.

This process also involves re-choosing whether we can provide our pet with what they need moving forward, now that we understand their needs better. Addressing a behavior problem like aggression or separation anxiety is a whole different ball game than what we might have signed up for initially.

I would encourage us all to reserve judgment when someone decides they can’t take that on, because it really is a huge thing to care for a pet with behavioral special needs (just ask anyone who has lived the experience). And when we can find a home for our pet that can help them in the ways they truly need, it can make all the difference for the pet as well.

The emotional experience of rehoming or euthanasia for behavioral reasons deserves further attention, so we’ll be looking at that in future posts.

For now, let’s follow the story of a pet owner who finds out that their pet has a behavior problem. Imagine that you, as an owner, meet with your veterinary behaviorist or other qualified behavior professional, and learn that your pet is dealing with a behavior problem which is going to require you to adjust your life with this pet.

Here are some tips for how to recalibrate in order to better understand who your pet is, what they may need from you, and how to honor your own feelings in the process:

 1. Acceptance

Understanding our pet’s behavior problem and how to help our pets (which your behavior professional can assist you with) can help us accept our pet for who they really are. Acceptance allows us to re-calibrate and say, “Okay little guy, this is who you are, I get it now.   I’m going to learn how to do best by you to help you feel as safe and secure as possible and we’ll figure this out together.”

2. Expectations

It can help to identify the expectations, hopes, and dreams that you initially had for your pet. Then to talk with your pet professional about which of these dreams you might have to let go of for now, or long term, or which could still be worked towards (maybe with some adaptations). For example, maybe you had dreams of letting your dog run free on the dog beach every day. But maybe that isn’t going to be a possibility. Eventually, if they have one doggy friend that they play well with, they can run free in a private backyard. And that can be your new dream to work towards.

3. Loss

I think loss is the thing that we sometimes forget about when we are thinking about adjusting our expectations and accepting our pet for who they are. It is a loss to give up the dreams of what we thought life would be like with our pet. It isn’t a one time “loss moment” of “I accept my pet, I feel the loss of what I won’t have, moving on.” I’ve heard it described more like waves that can come and go throughout the days, months, years with our pet. The twang when we see a dog that can play with a child and know that our dog can’t do that, and the little bit of sadness we feel if that was one of our initial hopes. The way we sigh when we can go to our friend’s house and their pet can be out to say hello to everyone, where we have to have ours behind closed doors when guests are over. Even the envy we feel when we see another owner and dog walking and they don’t feel the need to cross the street when they see another dog coming. A way of honoring the loss might be something like acknowledging to yourself, “I do wish my pet could do _______” , then allowing yourself to feel what you feel, and then re-grounding yourself in a positive “but even though he/she can’t, I really love ___________ about him/her.”

Living with a pet with behavior problems often means letting go of some dreams and welcoming in new ones. It’s a process. What has helped you to adjust your expectations about having a pet with behavior problems?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit

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