Animals Are Only Human, Too
by Martha Norwalk
Most of my life has been spent working with and learning from animals, almost twenty years as a veterinary technician and more than twenty years as a dog trainer. I am now an animal behavior therapist, primarily working with dogs and cats along with their human families, to help them solve behavioral and sometimes physical problems. From time to time I also see horses, pigs, rabbits, birds, fish and reptiles. It always amazes me how much we all still have to learn about these incredible animals we call our "pets." During my earlier years when I was being educated about animals, I was taught by most of my teachers that animals do not think or reason, that animals do not have the feelings or emotions that we humans do. The experts said it was a mistake for us to attribute our human feelings to our pets. I must admit that for years I tried to believe that nonsense. Unfortunately, many animal professionals as well as many regular folks still believe that. However, I now believe that nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has ever really bonded with an animal most likely will agree with me.
We know that our animals all have different personalities. Some are very smart. Some are really dumb. Most are in between these two extremes somewhere. They can be very shy or extremely aggressive. They can be happy, sad or depressed. They can get angry and spiteful. They grieve the losses of their human family members and animal companions. They often feel empathy for their people and animal friends. They can be jealous and possessive. Sometimes they hold grudges. They can become very frightened. Some animals steal things that don't belong to them. They can become paranoid, schizophrenic, neurotic and even psychotic. They can also be communicated with vocally, physically and even telepathically.
Sounds like I'm describing people, doesn't it? That's because if the truth be known, animals are not that much different than we humans. Animals have a soul vibration living inside their bodies just as we do. They are also spiritual beings. Most of the time they are better at it than we are. They do think and reason. They are capable of feeling all of the same emotions that we are.
They are also walking a spiritual path and they have their own agendas. They have very specific needs and desires that, in most cases, must be honored by their human caretakers if we are ever to get back to living in peace and harmony with each other.
This is not to imply that animals are exactly like humans. They are not. There are some differences. They're different because they have chosen animal suits to inhabit, not people suits, and there are different genetic patterns and DNA codings that come along with the body one lives in. Their programs and codings must be understood in order to understand the animal.
Generally speaking, dogs are programmed to be pack animals. They live in family groups. This is part of what makes them good human family companions. However, in the dog world separation does not come naturally. Pack most always have the company of their parents, aunts, uncles or siblings. Therefore, it is not unusual for a domestic dog to "flip its cookies" and destroy the house, or bark and cry all day when their humans go off to work. Humans must learn how to teach their dogs that separation is sometimes necessary and okay so that their dogs accept it without the common separation anxiety problems.
Because of the pack nature of dogs, they operate on a pecking order system. The leader of the pack is in charge and the rights of the other pack members are determined by where they fit into the pecking order. Most people know this about dogs but they do not know how to practically apply it in their homes. Dogs need to respect their owners as competent leaders. It is their security blanket. It helps them feel safe and consequently, emotionally and psychologically stable. Too many dogs, these days, think they are equal to or higher in the pecking order than their people. Not only are they spoiled brats and often bossy, they become very frustrated because they are not allowed to control everything as their assumed status should imply. In other words, they cannot force you to stay home, take them with you or give them your food. These dogs are often hyperactive, ill-mannered, un-housetrained, destructive and sometimes even abusive and aggressive to their owners or their owner's guests.
Most people do not know how to establish fair, non-abusive, respectable leadership with their dogs as it is not always done via basic obedience training. Obedience training is not bad. It can be a wonderful experience for both owner and dog and is sometimes necessary. However, it is not the way to establish leadership except in the specific training environment, and/or during training exercises. How many dog owners do you know who are actually "training their dogs" twenty-four hours a day? Besides that, really smart, spoiled dogs are often impossible to obedience train by their owners.
Even so, these dogs do not need to be dumped at the local animal shelter or killed. All that is required is more understanding and knowledge on the part of the owner. Respectable leadership, a big factor in resolving behavior problems, is established on a constant basis during daily interaction with the dog, in the home, where you spend most of your time. When you know what to do and how to do it, it's really not all that difficult and can even be fun.We are killing hundreds of animals every day in this country, simply because we do not understand them. Lots of people don't know that even serious behavior problems most often can be resolved and that help is available. Worse than that, some people don't care. They are unwilling to spend the money, time and effort necessary. The excuse most often used is, "It's only an animal. I can always get another one.
"How sad. It breaks my heart because almost everything we need to know is very simple and usually easy to do.
If your child was biting other kids at preschool, would you dump him or kill him? Of course not. You would get the necessary therapy for both of you and your child if you were unable to deal with the problem yourself. Why won't we do the same for our animal friends? Maybe when more people realize that animals are spiritual beings and God's children as we are, this will change. I hope so.
Cats are also wreaking lots of havoc in their human environments these days. The most common complaints I receive are failing to use the litterbox, owner or stranger directed aggression, not allowing their owners a peaceful night's sleep, and scratching the furniture. Again, all of these problems can be resolved. They relate to a lack of understanding, and knowing what to do on your part. But if one tries to apply canine theories to cats, they don't work.
Cats are programmed differently than dogs. They do not have the same social structure and are more independent by nature. I often explain to my clients that if you live with a dog, you must learn how to be a powerful, benevolent dictator. If you are living with a cat you must, more or less, learn to share your life with that cat and must honor their intelligence and ability to communicate. On the other hand, cats' behavior can be controlled. They can learn appropriate behavior and manners. One just has to go about it differently. Usually all behavior problems can be resolved if their human is willing to learn and grow in the process.
When I say that almost always our pets' behavior problems are resolvable, I am assuming that the human's expectations are reasonable. Unfortunately, in some cases they are not. Some dog owners expect absolute control and perfect behavior from their pets 100% of the time. This is not reasonable, especially when they are young and still learning. Human babies in most cases are not potty trained overnight. Neither are puppies. Let's face it, when we raise our children we take about eighteen years to teach them everything they need to know before we "cut them loose." It is a process we go through.
It is a faster process with dogs, but still a process and takes about 18 months with most dogs. It requires the know how, consistent effort, patience and a lot of love. It also involves a serious commitment for the lifetime of the dog. Six to twenty years depending on the breed.
Once the dogs are raised and educated, they have some basic needs that must be met to keep the peace. Like consistent, usually daily, aerobic exercise, functional activity and playful fun. Depending on the size and breed of the dog you choose and where you live, this may mean having to get off the couch and go out into the weather, even if it is raining, snowing or blowing. When these basic needs are not provided, even the best behaved dogs can go nuts.
Raising cats is usually much less work than raising dogs as Mom teaches them most of the important stuff, like litterbox use. Even so, some education is necessary with most cats. Examples are: what you climb on, what you can play with, what you can scratch on and what you can't. In my opinion, declawing is not an option to solve this one. I feel it is cruel and abusive and no way to treat a beloved friend and companion. If your cat is restricted to living indoors only, which is often necessary for their safety, especially in the city, your job requires a greater commitment. As with dogs, exercise, good fun and play, as well as providing natural vegetation to chew on and eat and fresh air and sunshine.
There is a pay off for the human here, both with dogs as well as cats. Exercising the dog is also healthy for the owner. Playing with the cat is also great fun for the owner. Both parties benefit in the long run.
When living with dogs and cats, please do your best to be reasonable about what you expect from them. It is okay to expect your dog or cat to let you eat your food in peace. They should not paw you, jump in your plate or steal your food. But if you get angry when they sit or lie at your feet, flashing those big "baby blues" in hopes of getting a handout, you are being unreasonable. It is reasonable to expect your cat not to scratch your furniture if you have provided an appropriate alternative. Small scratching posts are not appropriate alternatives. It is reasonable to expect your cat to stay off the kitchen counters when you are preparing food. It is reasonable to expect your cat to stay off the table when you are eating. It is okay to have some "off limit" areas.
But cats need to climb and get up high sometimes. It is safety and security for them as well as needed exercise. So if you expect them never to jump up on counters, tables and shelves, you are being unreasonable and may need to work on yourself instead of the cat. Sometimes the answer is learning to accept and love the natural behavior, or choose not to own the animal in the first place.
Many times I have to calm down dog owners because their dog has growled at, snapped at or bitten a human being or another animal. These owners often have been told to, or think they should kill the dog. Guess what? Dogs are naturally, depending on the circumstances, aggressive animals. Growling, snapping, biting and fighting are "normal" and socially acceptable behaviors in the dog world. That does not mean those behaviors are acceptable in our world, but it certainly doesn't mean the dog should be destroyed. Chances are the dog is doing its very best to communicate its fear in the only language it knows. Education for both owner and canine is all that is needed to change this behavior.
I truly believe that having domestic animals in our lives is a great gift and blessing. We are their stewards. We must learn to be more responsible, loving and grateful. If you have chosen to have animals and are having problems with them, please honor the commitment you made when you got them. Cough up the bucks, if necessary, to get the help and education you need to resolve the problem. Let's all lighten up out there and remember that our animal friends are only human too.