When humans understand what animals are trying to tell them, it can lead to improved outcomes with behavioral issues
Pet owners with animals that exhibit behavior issues want to know why it is happening, who to blame, and what to blame. Behavioral issues can stem from multiple sources that could also be combined, like nature and nurture. These issues can sometimes be as simple as the pet having a bad day or not being in the mood for a walk.
But how do we tell the bad days from the days when something is behaviorally wrong with the patient? Clinical behaviorist Terry Curtis, DVM, MS, DACVB, explained how clients can pick up cues from pets to try and get a little better understanding of what is happening with their pet below the surface, during her lecture at the North American Veterinary Community’s 2023 Veterinary Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Florida.1
Clients who have dogs and those who have cats have different concepts of how pets should act at home and with their owners. Curtis disclosed to attendees that although the 2 animals learn the same way, the expectations are what separates the animals in a behavioral sense.
"In general, dogs have to behave more than cats do all of these commands that they have to learn and follow with cat's expectations are whatever, you know, you come if you want to, I don't expect you to sit or fetch. So, it's not that they can't learn. It's just that our expectations of them are totally different," explained Curtis.
Curtis shared the expectation differences between cats and dogs because, with her patients, clients will sometimes want to correct natural behavior. She gave an example of a dog who has no issues while at home, but once the owner takes that dog somewhere where it can be exposed to cats or other dogs it can begin to show unacceptable behavior to the parent.
How do you help clients, and pets, succeed? According to Curtis, talking and communicating with pets is just like speaking to someone who does not speak the same language as you.
Curtis said, "You can be the smartest person that there is, but [if] you're in a situation where you can't communicate even your most basic needs without Google Translate or some other book that can help you, you really would be at a disadvantage. Trying to communicate something to someone who doesn't speak your language. How easy is that or how difficult it really is?’
Putting this point into perspective, she noted the scenario of a dog barking, and the pet owner just saying, ‘shh’. However, she said, the dog is barking for a reason and may be trying to get the owner’s attention. The dog may bark to express an emotion such as fear or anxiety. “Telling it to ‘shut up’ isn't validating what the dog is trying to express,” said Curtis.
Considering the language barrier, clients need to watch the mannerisms and body language of their pets to ascertain what these animals want or what is making them uncomfortable. Curtis showed attendees a photo of a dog with his ears back and his stance low to the ground. She said that, with this body language, the dog is communicating with the humans around her the best way she can.
Curtis explained that for the client to understand their pet's behavior, they need to understand that they do not show love the same way that humans do. Although some pet owners see hugging and petting their dog's head as signs of love, it can be interpreted as a very threatening move for some dogs. As time goes on, pets can learn that petting, hugging, and even kissing are good things, but that does not mean every dog and cat will feel that way.
"Many dogs do not want to be petted on their head. It can be a very threatening signal and can be uncomfortable for a lot of dogs. In general, when you're looking at what a dog is saying to give an idea of how they feel and what their emotional state is, at the moment, looking at the ears really is the place to start. Ears up and forward, face and body lose, really tells you that the dog is comfortable, is relaxed, is ready to engage," explained Curtis.
"Same thing with cats, you can kind of tell a cat is loosey-goosey and ready to interact. Anxious dogs have ears back, face and body tense. Now, a dog with their ears back can be excited. Anxiety…comes from uncertainty and fear. But it does also come from excitement. You have to take a look at the context," she concluded.
T Curtis. Learning and communication-the keys to everything when it comes to behavior. Presented at: Veterinary Meeting & Expo; Orlando, Florida. January 14-18, 2023.