In my line of work, I get asked everyday….”How can I stop?” It might be “How can I stop my dog barking?”, “How can I stop my cat scratching the furniture?” etc, etc.This is the way that many people approach owning an animal. They love to interact with their pet, give it a pat and watch it play. However when the pet does not fit into the idea they have of how a pet should behave, they want these behaviours to “stop”.
I think that life sends us pets and children to teach us lessons, and those of us prepared to learn these lessons will have happier relationships with our pets and our children. I think two of the best lessons that pets teach us, is compromise and tolerance.
Before I had children, I used to know everything about raising kids…. What parents should and shouldn’t do. When I saw that child having a tantrum, I would think that the parent had not been firm enough, or consistent enough. I was even blessed with a first child who never had a tantrum. She was an angel as a toddler, just reinforcing my thoughts on how this parenting thing works. Then my second child came along. She was a completely different personality – telling her what to do did not work. She is free-spirited, opinionated, but loving, interested in the world, and very fun. She would regularly be on the ground at 2, kicking and screaming with passers-by looking on and likely thinking that I needed parenting classes. Around this time I also started my further studies into how animals perceive the world, and how to correct problem behaviours in our pets. This came at an opportune time, as I was struggling at times getting daughter 2 to follow the rules we had used for daughter 1. What I have come to realize over time, with maturity and with better understanding of the ways to help problem pets, is that enforcing my set of rules on another being just does not work.
Just as successful adult relationships involve compromise and tolerance, so do successful relationships between owners and pets, and between parents and children. Today I met a client who is successfully transitioning a problem pet into his home, and he emphasized his unique attitude when discussing with me how they have “compromised” on many ideas they had held about owning this dog. The last dog used to live in the backyard and so he felt that this dog was going to live in the backyard too. However this dog was rescued at age 7, and there was no way of knowing the previous things that may have happened in this dogs life. When she first came home, she created havoc in the backyard – howling, scratching and being a complete nuisance. A common human reaction would have been to take this dog back to the rescue organization as she was not fitting into the expected ideas of how a dog should fit into their family. However this man took a different approach. At the recheck he said to me she was turning out to be the most beautiful, loving dog with the loveliest personality. I asked him how he was handling her behaviour. He said to me “Oh, well, we came to the conclusion we had to compromise with her. She was not happy in the backyard, but she is very comfortable inside. We wanted her to sleep in the backroom of the house with the door closed, but this scared her, so we again had to compromise. We have reached an ideal compromise, where she will stay on her dog bed in the backroom happily (as long as we don’t shut the door) and she only comes in on our bed for a cuddle around 6am. We get a good night’s sleep, and she is really happy. We wouldn’t trade her for the world.” The way he described their relationship as compromise really stood out, as very few people use this terminology when talking about their pets, although more should.
Over the years with daughter 2, I’ve had to learn to compromise. She is different to my eldest daughter (who will follow rules well). She will not let me choose her clothes, and I’ve had to compromise, letting her go out in public looking like a clown. The upside of this is now she can completely dress herself, do her own buttons and be ready in the mornings for preschool a long time before her older sister is dressed for school. Although I have to spend more time with her explaining and helping her understand consequences (which can feel more draining than just barking orders), the outcome is she is developing into a lovely little person who will not be bossed around and knows her own mind. She also wants to work with me getting things done around the house, cleaning and cooking, whereas firstborn girl does not show this same initiative.
In all situations, compromise and tolerance takes effort. At first it can be frustrating, but if used wisely, over time it will build a relationship of trust and two-way communication. It will allow a real friendship to form, and this applies to pets as well. I am not advocating letting a pet run your life, or giving in all the time. The above owner that I talked about did not give in and let the dog sleep on the bed all night. Instead he searched for a compromise where the dog could be happy and they could get sleep. I do not let my daughter do whatever she wants. However working together to reach a solution that everyone can live with is what solves most behaviour problems at home, and the same applies to pets.
I encourage all pet owners to look at the relationship they have with their pet. Rather than focusing on how to “stop” that behaviour you don’t like. Really examine whether you are just attempting to impose your rules or whether you are working towards a compromise, understanding the feelings and needs of your pet. Letting pets make some mistakes, tolerating this, and moving on to find a solution that works for all will build a happy and fulfilling owner-pet friendship.