“SO,” said my friend, describing a falling out between neighbours that had resulted in council involvement, “Mike and Cathy’s cat just sits on the fence and teases Joan’s dog, which barks all the time.”
Needless to say, the owners of the “naughty” cat were mightily fed up with the canine noise. Getting, in their terms, no satisfactory response from the dog’s owner, who simply blamed their pet for deliberate provocation, they sought the intervention of the authorities.
Relationships had now broken down completely with both sides feeling aggrieved that the opponents were not only behaving unreasonably but that their animal companion’s actions were similarly reprehensible.
Their own pets were unsurprisingly totally “innocent” in the matter. And what is so sad is that further questioning revealed the fact that the cat’s so-called teasing was its routine use of the boundary fence as a trail around its territory and a convenient walkway to and from home. In short, the cat was simply acting as cats do when going about their daily business.
When the dog had access to the garden, it naturally responded to the actions of another individual within sight of its home in the normal canine manner.
Matters were complicated by its owner’s insistence upon her right to allow her dog into her garden whenever she wanted to and to leave him out there however much noise he made.
After all, if next door’s cat didn’t “provoke him”, was her apparent thinking, he wouldn’t bark anyway. Stalemate was reached and everyone is unhappy.
We cannot at present predict what the outcome will be in this scenario. But it is a useful example of a common problem encountered in a whole range of behavioural challenges faced by pet owners, whether within a household or affecting a wider locality.
When difficulties arise, solutions are rarely going to be found if everyone involved insists upon ascribing to animals human motivations and assigning to them terms that only really have meaning when applied to the actions of people.
Doing so is confusing and, as in this case, it often means that no one really looks at, then describes, what the individual is actually doing, which is always an essential first step in resolving any difficulty connected with a pet’s behaviour or a problematic interaction between more than one animal.
Instead of correct interpretation of the behaviour, erroneous assumptions are made and their perpetuation often means that incomprehension is added to misunderstanding.
Hastily applied “labels” are often misleading. Therefore, the language we use when talking about our pets and our patients is critically important.
Cats, for example, are not being “spiteful” when they destroy our furniture by scratching it, although such territorial marking can easily seem to be exactly that.
Neither do pets “tell us off” by “giving us the cold shoulder” when we’ve been away – they just take time to re-establish ruptured bonds. Nor are they being “good” when they do what we want of them – their actions may certainly please us when they coincide with our desires, but if they don’t comply with our requests, they are definitely not “being bad”, although that is invariably what we say.
The chances are high that they are confused; we are not making ourselves as clear as we think with our house rules and verbal commands or what we are expecting of them is unrealistic and unfair or has no meaning in their species’ terms.
Worst of all in many ways, anxious body language or fearful actions – cringing and hiding, for instance – are frequently taken by owners as signs of guilt, so the dog must know he’s “done wrong” when, say, in the face of house soiling he remembers human anger on previous occasions and reacts in anticipation of a similar response.
This can happen even when another household pet is actually “the culprit” and consequently interpreting the evidence in this cockeyed way invariably means that nothing gets sorted out, while the animals suffer and owners continue to be distressed and disappointed.
And we ourselves are not immune. How many times have you heard a colleague refer to an animal as being “a nasty bit of work” or done so yourself after an aggressive encounter with a patient in the clinic or a pet outside it?
It’s a not unnatural emotional reaction, especially when we are all shaken up or if someone or something has been hurt as a result. However, such a glib response, whilst understandable, is not only unhelpful in perceiving the motivations underlying the aggressive individual’s actions and the factors contributing to them, it all too easily lets us off the hook of even trying to do so.
We all use shorthand all the time. In a range of situations, doing so saves effort and often simplifies matters. And it can seem unreasonably pedantic to bang on about precise wording or nag about labelling of other species’ behaviours with terms that can only properly be applied to human thought processes and actions. But it really does matter.
Most pet owners love their animal companions. We increasingly include them in our activities and treat them as one of the family, so it is often difficult to remember that they don’t necessarily think as we do or behave the same way in similar situations. Then, it’s all too easy when talking about what they do to slap a useful term on the behaviour, whether it’s an accurate description or not.
If the animal behaves in an acceptable manner and doesn’t bother anyone, this matters not a jot.
If, however, the behaviour is in some way problematic, doing so may well mean that it never gets accurately analysed, resolution is unlikely to be achieved and no one involved will be able to live in a happy community ever afterwards.
And when all is said and done, this surely is what we really want out of any pet-owner-neighbour relationship, which serves to emphasise the vital importance of ensuring that from the get-go we only ever assign a meaningful term to anything we actually see our animals doing.