What to Do: Three Secrets to Building Trust with Pets – By Dallas Kelley, KPA CTP
Anytime we interact with animals, we are teaching them something. This is an important thing to remember when we are working on building trust with our pets. Whether we are actively training, or just sitting in the same room with them, our pets are learning things about us every time they encounter us. So, if our pets are learning about us every time we interact with them, what are we teaching them? Are we teaching them that we are trustworthy? We most definitely can be! Here are three things that we can all do that will help build a trusting relationship between us and our pets.
Learn Their Language
Communication is key when building trust with anyone and the same goes for animals. But as with learning human languages, learning the language of animals can take some practice and dedication. When we take into account that different animal species have some differences in their “language”, then we come to the realization that we have much to learn. So, what can we do? Research and observation.
To help you out, here is a list of some of the things every pet owner and sitter should research and educate themselves on:
Calming Signals (used to deescalate tense situations): This could include winking, lip licking, moving or turning away…etc.
Basics of social dynamics of that species: Both cats and dogs lay on their backs for various reasons, including when they feel threatened? But did you know that they can have different reasons for doing so? If a dog feels threatened and lays on its back, it is most likely trying to deescalate the situation. However, cats who lay on their back when threatened do so because it gives them access to all four sets of claws so they can better defend themselves.
Signals that differ between species: If you live with dogs and cats, it is important to know that a straight upright tail in cats means a cat is calm and enjoying life. But in a dog, this means the dog is tense and on high alert. Though dogs and cats don’t get each other mixed up, mistakes can still be made when body language is misunderstood between species.
Know what is “calm” behavior and what is stress response: Know what an animal looks like when it is truly calm. Especially in horses and dogs, lack of movement does not always mean that the animal is calm. In many cases, lack of movement means the animal has “given up” and is now in an advanced state of stress and/or has developed “learned helplessness”.
Build “To Do” Lists
The next thing that is important is to make “To Do” lists. Now, I am not referring to the lists we make when we have things to get done. A “To Do” list is what I call the list of things I want the animal “to do”. When I am building trust, I want the animal to know what I want it to do, so that we can be on the same page, and the animal can learn to see me as a source of information and reinforcement, rather than a source of confusion and stress. When I am with an animal, I make a mental or physical note of the most important things I want to reinforce in that animal, and I make sure to reinforce those behaviors as often as I can, particularly when the animal offers the behaviors without being asked. Many times, my list includes behaviors such as the following:
Responding to its name
Coming when called
Giving me things or releasing objects when cued to do so
Laying down when I sit down (specifically helpful for dogs)
Telling me when they are uncomfortable with something (e.g., responding with calming signals rather than freezing)
Keep an Open Dialogue
The third thing that is important to building trust is to keep an open dialogue. If the animal expresses displeasure with something, this is a good thing! It is important to know what the animal likes and dislikes. That way we will know how to interact with the animal in a way that allows both of us to enjoy our time together and learn to trust. For example, as a trainer, a history of keeping an open dialogue helps during training as the animal knows that if it is not comfortable with something I ask it to do, it can tell me, and trust that I will work out a mutually beneficial solution or simplify the task.
What Pet Sitters Can Do
For pet sitters, these three “secrets” to building trust are great tools to have in your “awesome pet sitter” toolbox. The most important things pet sitters want to remember from this post are these: Take time to understand what the animal is saying, focus on what the animal should do and be willing to reinforce that behavior, and create a space where the animal can express its displeasure and know that the human will respond supportively and constructively. Through all of this, keep interaction positive. As one great horse trainer says, “Trust is earned, trust is fostered and cultivated, trust is not demanded, trust is built by a history of positive outcomes” (“Trustworthy” by Adele Shaw, The Willing Equine Blog). Once trust is built, it is much easier for all parties to enjoy interaction and have fun during their time together!