When we bring our animal friends on visits — or our guests bring theirs — it can be very, very good. To further paraphrase the nursery rhyme, it can also be horrid.
Communication among the humans is key, but the gathering can mean more fun and less drama if we also communicate with the animals. Here are a few suggestions to try next time you hit the road or host:
1. Do ask, and do tell.
Even if you brought your dog the last time, ask your host if it’s OK this time. You never know whose allergic aunt might be there, too. It’s also good to clarify with your guests whether their Komodo dragon is coming.
Either way, let your pet know what is going on before and during the visit. Yes, you can — especially if you are willing to take a few minutes and a few deep breaths, quiet the mental chatter and to-do list, and focus on your beloved animal.
Tell your animal friend, either silently or out loud, where you’re going, how you’ll get there, for how long, and who will be there. As you do so, hold pictures in your mind of you and your animal in the car, the trip, your friend’s house, and the other animals and people who will be there. Picture the sun rising and setting however many nights you’ll be there. If your dog had a blast playing with your brother’s dog or kids last time, picture that, too.
Ask the animal what would make the visit easier and more fun for her. What pops into your head? The word “blanket”? The image of a well-worn chew toy? Bring them along. (You probably have what my honorary daughter calls an adult diaper bag of supplies for your pet. There’s room.)
Or say your cat’s space is about to be temporarily invaded by your cousin’s Chihuahua and three toddlers. Again, picture them arriving and let the cat know how many nights they’ll be there. Ask not only for his forbearance, but what he prefers — to be part of the gathering? To be safely ensconced in another room with water, food, and litter box? Again, observe the images and feelings that come up. Follow through on what you can.
2. Boundaries are OK. Really.
You are your pet’s hall monitor, caretaker, and advocate. On new turf or with new beings in the house, it’s all the more important to let him know what’s expected, and that he can count on you.
Say you’re at Cousin Ned’s house, and he has a no-fur-on-the-furniture rule. Your dog may be used to lounging freely on your sofa. While you’re at Ned’s, quietly tell your dog that he has to stay on the floor … and picture him contentedly lying there. (He’ll know the difference between Ned’s house and yours, even if he doesn’t like it.)
You are also the one who has to politely but firmly insist that Grandpa not feed fried chicken to your overweight cat, or that your niece stop pulling your dog’s ears. Now.
Since you know your animal best, you want to be the first to see signs of overwhelm — growling, retreating, hiding, and even nipping. These are warnings in even the most good-natured creature. Do everyone a favor and move your pet to a quiet place away from the stressors.
3. Set aside one-on-one time
Whether you and your pet are the visitors or the home team, there are likely some territorial tensions and jealousies mere humanity cannot grasp. Your pet is sharing your attention with other humans and animals. Being mindful of this can make a huge difference in not only the visit but your relationship.
Spend even a few minutes alone with your animal each day of the visit. You can toss a ball, offer a belly rub or some lap time, or just sit and let her know you are there for her and only her in that moment.
This is also a great time to check in about what each of you needs. You may sense that he needs a little more space from the kids. You can also gently remind him what’s expected. For example: If jumping up on people is a problem, picture him doing that and you immediately putting him in another room. Then follow through when it happens.
And if you are feeling sad or stressed, your pet already knows. Tell her you may be a little short on patience and you need a bit of extra care right now. She will almost certainly be happy to oblige.
For more information on keeping gatherings safe and happy for animals, check out this article from the American Veterinary Medical Association. It’s geared toward the winter holiday season, but just about all of it applies year-round.