Tough tasks can build trust

The pill you’re trying to give your outraged cat. The overdue hoof or nail trim. The drop-off at the boarding kennel.

The struggling, crying, kicking, flattened ears, and pleading eyes can leave us feeling incompetent. Or cruel.

My animal Reiki and animal communication practice is all about letting the animal choose, and of course that applies to the animals under my roof.

Yet there’s no escaping that some tasks aren’t optional.

“I’ve tried adding ‘because I said so’ to every command,” said Linda Lipp. “It works about as well on the dog as when my parents used it on me.”

Difficult tasks and events are opportunities to build our animals’ trust in us, our trust in the animals to learn and cope, and our trust in ourselves. From my experience and that of friends and clients, here are a few ways to do that.

Put your own leash on first

That’s a variation on the flight attendant’s instructions to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child with theirs. Get any help you need to give injections, clean ears, handle hooves, etc. with confidence. If you are calm and clear, your animal is much more likely to be.

Allison Wheaton, director of Summit Equestrian Center, tends a crew of some 20 horses, many of them rescues; along with barn cats, her canine assistants, and more. “Honestly, it seems everyone does better when I am calm and deliberate while being sensitive to their needs,” she said.

I would add: leave enough time to trim the nails, get the cat into the carrier, get to the clinic, or whatever else with time to spare. If you are rushed, they will feel it.

Keep the good in mind

While you’re calm and unrushed, tell the animal what’s happening and what’s in it for them. You can speak out loud or silently. In either case, hold an image or feeling of what will be better once it’s done. Shorter nails mean less chance of painful snags and infections. The dog will feel cooler and more comfortable after being groomed. The cat will be able to urinate without pain, and everyone in the household will feel less anxious, if she swallows that pill. The horse can comfortably stand and move about with his herdmates if he cooperates with the farrier.

If you are about to travel, picture your dog having fun with the sitter who loves him, or at the boarding kennel you’ve carefully chosen. Show him a picture of how happy and relaxed you all will be when you’re together again. If your grandchildren are visiting, reassure your cat that you’ll provide her a safe space away from the kids and daily one-on-one time with you. (Then follow through.)

Treat ’em right

Positive reinforcement helps the animal associate good things with what we want him or her to do.

Demi Thomas has found it helpful to integrate new and potentially challenging tasks such as nail trims into the animal’s routine until it’s not a big deal. Then she immediately rewards with high-value treats, toys, and “favorite itchy-spot pets.”

For example, her dog Tucker didn’t like having his feet touched when he was a pup. “So, if he wanted on the couch, I played with his feet. He’s 3 now and it’s no issue!”

Rebecca and Jeff Cameron’s dog, Stella, is even less of a fan.

“Out of sheer desperation one day, I held a paper plate smeared with peanut butter in front of her while Jeff clipped nails,” Rebecca said. “I feel like we took the low road with straight-up bribery, but we’re working on actual training so she’ll allow the trimming sans PB distraction.” Stella will still get a tasty treat once it’s done, she added.

Think partnership

As with the Let Animals Lead® animal Reiki method I practice, things can go much better when the animal is allowed some agency.

Duke, a rescued draft horse at Summit Equestrian, lives with post-traumatic stress. Having his feet worked on or handled in any way is a potentially dangerous trigger. Allison has worked with him extensively on this.

“Duke is willing to let me wash his legs as long as I use minimal restraints, when he has more participation and things are not being done to him,” she said. “Otherwise he can get nervous and tries to get away or squish me.”

Squishing — not good. Building trust and confidence — excellent.

Watch for a follow-up to all of this. Because of my pro bono work and the generosity of Fear Free®, I am getting certified through the Fear Free Shelter Program. Fear Free educates veterinary professionals, trainers, groomers, and others in animal care methods that reduce fear, anxiety, and stress. In the meantime, here — from the Fear Free Happy Homes Program — is a four-minute video on nail trims.

(Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay)

Helping your pet when schedules shift

Image by Moshe Harosh from Pixabay 

Going from summer break to “back to school” can be rough for pets any time, but especially as COVID-19 continues to affect how we live each day. Both big and little humans have been home more and longer, often with anxieties and frustrations. Our animal friends have been working to support and comfort. 

So when they find themselves alone for hours at a time, might some cats and dogs be glad of a break? Certainly.

Others, especially if they don’t understand what is happening, may be sad, anxious, or bored. You could be looking at a furniture-scratching, pillow-chewing, garbage-raiding, howling back-to-whatever-passes-as-normal.

What can you do to ease back-to-school, back-to-the-commute transitions for both of you? Here are some suggestions from the ASPCA and my own experience:

  • Give the animals a treat every time you leave the house so they associate your departure with something pleasant.
  • Stuff treats in a rubber toy such as a Kong to give them something to work on.
  • Leave a radio on low volume. I like NPR for its calm voices and classical music, but if there is a particular kind of music your animal companion is used to or seems to like, go with that. 
  • Tell them where you’re going and when you expect someone will be home.  They understand more than you think.
  • Touch base during the day. You don’t need a phone or WiFi. Calmly bring your animal to mind, silently tell him you love him, and remind him of when you (or someone else in the household) will be home. Again — they get it.
  • When you’re at home, remind the animal that even though things are changing and perhaps stressful, you are doing your best. Thank her for all she does to help you. 
  • Keep school backpacks and lunchboxes not just closed, but out of pets’ reach. Many animals are poisoned when they get into things like raisins, sugar-free gum, and inhalers. (For an accessible, authoritative guide to what is and is not poisonous to dogs and cats, I recommend the Vet Protect app developed by an experienced veterinarian. It’s available on iTunes and Google Play.)
  • If your dog or cat’s separation anxiety persists, consult your veterinarian for help and to rule out any physical causes. 
  • Provided your animal has a clean bill of health: As an animal communicator, I can also work with you to prepare pets for change, resolve behavior problems, and gain other important insights. All sessions are done remotely. Visit me at www.njcrowe.com to learn more.

Here’s to a season of learning, however it may evolve, with the animals in our lives.

Routines and rituals add spice to life

After being fed at 4 p.m. sharp (or preferably before), Lucy the black tortie settles into a chair to supervise my yoga practice. If I have the nerve to still be sitting in said chair, she sits and looks at me. Time to get moving.

Around 8:30, I can count on our younger cat to pace around pointedly until I follow her to the room where her bowls and litter box are kept. I give her a bedtime snack of three or four kibbles. We say our prayers and goodnight.

Our shepherd mix, whose anxiety casts the world as predictably unpredictable, knows she gets a dental treat at 7 p.m. If it’s not forthcoming by, say, 6:55, she will follow me around, panting, until she gets it.

Most of our animal friends expect certain things to happen at certain times with certain humans — comings, goings, feeding, walks, turnout, rides, bedtime. (Some animals I work with know when it’s time for my Reiki rounds, too!) Departures may be tolerated, but not especially welcomed.

According to this Brain Pickings article, routine contains everyday chaos while ritual imbues the mundane with the magical. With animals, I think those distinctions blur. Rescues in particular find magic in the most basic daily happenings. Over the last 15 months, they’ve dealt with disrupted routines along with us. Perhaps they’ve found magic in helping us develop new ways to contain our chaos.

Variety may be the spice of life, but routines and rituals add different spices — cinnamon, perhaps, or turmeric — to sustain us in an unsteady world. Like a good stretch, or bedtime prayers and purrs, they affirm that God is good and life, even in some small way, still makes sense.