Your relationship with your pet is such a huge factor in your day to day interactions and just general enjoyment of your pet. A good relationship is built (or broken) based on these transactions—just like your bank account!
You can think of any relationship as a bank account, actually. Positive interactions are like deposits, while negative interactions are withdrawals. We never want to overdraw our relationship accounts, otherwise we risk losing the connection we have with that friend (or pet). Instead, we can try to direct our actions toward making deposits in our accounts so that when we do need to make a big, unavoidable withdrawal (like a scary vet or groomer visit), our pet recovers more quickly and still trusts us in the end.
A positive balance will not only improve your daily life with your pet (and family, friends, and acquaintances), it can also improve your training.
Check Your Balance
There’s nothing special or complicated you need to do here. Just think about all the things you ask your pet to do. Do they do it willingly? Do they delay? Do they avoid you? Do they show you body language like tucked tails, dipped heads, etc. that show you they don’t like it?
If you see a lot of this when you ask your pet for something, your balance might be low or even in the red!
But don’t worry. We can fix it!
First, let’s talk about interactions that take funds out of your relationship account. These are things we should try to avoid, mitigate, or limit to the best of our abilities.
Things We Can Avoid
- Physical coercion/force
- Yelling/Screaming at the pet
- Rough handling
Do you have to punish your pet? Nope! If you’re training, there are plenty of effective methods that don’t involve punishment. And if your pet has done something you don’t like? Well, unless they’re doing it in front of you and you punish it correctly right that instant, it’s unlikely they’ll connect your punishment with what they did (plus, you can probably simply redirect them to an appropriate behavior instead).
Sometimes, we do lose patience with our pets and might yell or push them away or even put them in time out, but those instances should be very rare or practically non-existent in order to promote a good relationship with our pet.
Tip: If you’re angry and frustrated with your pet, very calmly and gently put them in a safe containment area (gated room, crate, cage, etc.) with a long-lasting treat, and then go out of sight and hearing to have a tantrum if you want. It’s perfectly acceptable to separate yourself from your pet until you can calm down, as long as you don’t leave your pet feeling fearful or anxious when you do it.
Things We Can Mitigate or Limit
- Vet visits
- Travel (riding in a car, etc.)
- Exposing them to situations they aren’t ready for
- Confusion (asking for a sit and then shooing them from the room or yelling at them, etc.)
- Anything else that makes your pet feel afraid or confused
Sometimes, we have to make our pets do things they don’t like, such as visiting the vet or groomer, or even just riding in the car. These are all necessary things most of the time, so while we can’t avoid them (avoiding doesn’t help these anyway!), we can mitigate them or make them easier for our pets. These are usually events we can plan for, so we can work on them in the meantime.
We can practice body handling at home with lots of treats to make it fun and enjoyable. We can have pretend exams at home with plenty of rewards, and we can also do fun visits to the vet or groomer where the pet receives treats and then goes home!
We can also distract our pets during these unpleasant tasks—smear some peanut butter on a lickable toy like a Lickimat or even on the refrigerator if we’re at home.
Limiting things like situations they’re not prepared for and confusing or worrisome events can also protect our relationships, and improve our training outcomes if it’s something we’re working on.
Tip: Things that need to be limited or made easier are good things to work on with a trainer!
You can never have too many deposits in your relationship account! Try a mix of things that range in difficulty. You don’t have to do complicated or time-consuming things every day, just try them every once in a while! Building a positive balance is incredibly easy, so don’t let working on it overwhelm you.
- Feed your pet healthy food every day
- Provide fresh water daily
- Try a rotation of enrichment activities and mental exercises
- Play with your pet (tug, fetch, hide and seek, etc)
- Interact with your pet in a way they enjoy (grooming, playing, just hanging out, etc.)
- Train your pet with positive, reward-based training
- Provide comfortable resting places
- Rotate toys to keep them new and exciting
- Talk to your pet calmly or sweetly (baby talk!)
- And more!
Essentially, any positive interaction between you and your pet can build your relationship!
Don’t be afraid to try something to see how your pet feels about it, but be sure to take any past interactions into account. For example, if your dog was attacked or bullied at the dog park, taking them to a dog park won’t be a positive interaction for them. It’s actually a withdrawal!
The same goes for petting or cuddling—if your pet doesn’t like it or is typically standoffish, don’t worry about adding something like that to your list. Accepting them for who they are is also a deposit. Plus, there are plenty of other things to try!
You’ll notice several of these are things you’re likely doing for your pet anyway—feeding, watering, playing, etc. Those are basically free, automatic deposits!
With a little planning and preparation, you can make other deposits automatic. Try:
- Filling food toys for the week ahead of time
- Block out some time in your schedule to play, train, groom, or hang out
- Prep your tiny training treats ahead of time (or buy some!)
- Divide your pet’s toys among several baskets and label them so you can rotate them easily
Positive Training Supercharges Your Deposits
You can have 20 to 50 (or more depending on how fast you two are!) positive interactions with your pet in a single 2—5 minute positive reinforcement session! Imagine what your account would look like if you do that in addition to the other things you plan just once or twice a day.
Maintaining Your Balance
Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson conducted studies on couples back in the ‘70s and discovered what’s now known as “The Magic Relationship Ratio.” It basically says that for every negative interaction in a stable relationship, there were typically five positive ones.
While those studies were of people in romantic relationships, that ratio is still something we can strive to emulate in our relationships with our pets, family, friends, and acquaintances. Making those deposits will give us a head start!
There are definitely times when you’ll be forced to make a withdrawal—emergency vet visits or at home health-related problems (like pulling out thorns or splinters), grooming emergencies (like broken toe nails or matted fur), and even just surprise interactions like being barked or lunged at by another dog while out for a walk can happen any time. If we are diligent about building our accounts, these instances won’t bankrupt our relationship and can even give us a foundation to rebuild on!