Riff Raff and Izzy have a snooze

Happy New Year!

Working with animals is both easier and more difficult than working with people, mostly depending on how you feel about people. But, that is another story. Animals are wonderful because they are always thrilled to see you, despite the fact you only walked into the living room and back, and their idea of a good time is often just being with you. However, their non-verbal communication style can make medical and behavior problem solving quite difficult.

From time to time we get tremendously puzzling behavior cases from our public clients. Granted, we are only looking at a slice of a dog or cat’s life filtered through their guardian’s interpretation of what might be happening in their world. Which is very challenging. Why is one woman’s cattle dog perfectly fine in certain environments and then seemingly out of the blue starts attacking her person’s feet? But, only in the kitchen. Why is another man’s pit bull happily zooming around the lawn and then for no apparent reason body slams his person hard enough to knock him down? Why does a cat hide for hours on end and then suddenly presents himself when all is thought lost? Why does my cat Riff Raff ask for attention and then bite my hand when I happen to look away for a second?

In Riff Raff’s case, I know it is because he isn’t ready for the petting to stop. We have discussed his biting in the past, and we have agreed that biting is NOT the best way to communicate. Riff Raff prefers rather long petting sessions with special attention paid to the neck area under the collar. However, from time to time, it appears I am not upholding my end of the deal. So, lacking verbal skills, Riff Raff gives a quick, light nip to remind me that I broke faith. In other words, Riff Raff’s “emotional cup” isn’t full. Emotional Cup? Really? Yup, really.

There are many things that contribute to an animal’s emotional wellbeing. If these requirements aren’t met, minor behavior issues suddenly become major and strange new behaviors crop up. Exercise should be an obvious necessity. However, each individual has different needs. Many dogs who only receive a 30-minute leashed spin around the hood aren’t really receiving enough exercise. However, I would venture to guess that a large percentage of dogs don’t even receive that minimal level of exercise. A dog who is left in the back yard might seem to get plenty of exercise running up and down the fence line, except he is either practicing chasing cars, exercising his territorial “rights” or fence fighting. Our fence runner might be better served with more social time with his human pack. These examples are obvious.

However, some cases truly aren’t obvious and as trainers and consultants we have to dig a little deeper to help our clients. How much choice and control does the dog have over his life? Too much or too little? Both can cause issues. Does the cat have spaces of his own? Yes, but are they high enough? Are they sufficiently out of the way of our crazy children and wild dogs, yet still part of the group? I wonder how many cat behavior problems can be instantly solved by having clean litter in a sufficient number of litter boxes and lots of vertical and high spaces? Take a look at the “A Dog’s Emotional Cup” graphic, which works remarkably well for cats too as the concepts are rather basic. There is a lot to consider and it might even seem rather overwhelming. I won’t say it is easy, but examine a new concept each week and you may just get to know your best buddies a bit better. The more observant you are and the better you “know” your animal, the more naturally you understand your cat or dogs’ needs and adjust unconsciously.

Well-adjusted cats are social, but aren’t pack animals. Therefore, their communication style can be a little less obvious to read than a dogs. However, if you pay attention, and spend a little bit of extra time learning to read your cat’s body language (see Lilli Chin’s delightful Cat Language sketches), your cat too will share his secrets.

I have three dogs and two cats all of whom not only tolerate each other, but actually LIKE each other. Easy peasy, right? However, the dogs are much better at getting their needs met than are the cats. For starters, my dogs have the benefit of coming to work with me, which is a huge personal advantage. At work they get to see other people and dogs, sometimes are enlisted to help with demonstrations or teaching shelter dogs or I might even slip a little training in. However, for the most part they are just hanging out. But, they are with me so their pack/social needs are met. On top of that, outside of work they still get their exercise (physical stimulation), training (mental stimulation) and enrichment (something to chew or hunt).

Magenta takes front and center

It is more difficult to keep the cats’ emotional cup full as they don’t have the advantage of coming to work or going on walks. Riff Raff, as you may have gathered, isn’t shy about externally expressing his needs. He will shoulder a dog out of the way to get his cuddle time, he lines up in the dog area at mealtime and he always manages a place in the bed at night. He also has no problem jumping on my keyboard until I stop and notice him. (Of course this reinforces the dreaded keyboard jumping behavior). Moving on. Sometimes I don’t meet his need for petting, which is when I tend to receive the disciplinary nips. However, his sister Magenta is more reserved and much less inclined to demand food or attention. Therefore, I have to make an extra effort to meet her needs. And, I tend to fail more often with her. As a result, she and I have the least robust relationship and tend to be frustrated with each other. When I see this:   I know that Magenta’s emotional cup isn’t full and realize I haven’t been paying attention.

So, here is to paying attention in 2022! And, don’t forget, people have emotional cups as well! Take care of yourself so you can better fill the cups of your furry buddy.