I recently posted a series of Pet Care Tips on Social Media about how to approach a pet and set them at ease. It comes up a lot but I had a few interactions over the past month that made me think it was a good idea to share some of the things I have learned. So I am going to discuss:
• Why the “Slow Blink” is a useful tool for meeting a new cat or just communicating with your cat
• How to properly greet a new dog and why you should not try to pat his head
• How to approach birds, lizards, and other pets when you meet them and have to put your hand in their cage or terrarium.
As a Certified Professional Pet Sitter I have spent a lot of time in the last 10 years learning about best pet care practices, animal behaiour, and other tips and tricks. A few have really stood out to me as invaluable tools and it turns out not everybody knows. So, take these ideas and implement them in all your future pet interactions.
The “Slow Blink” and why it’s awesome
I think I first caught on about this useful tool from either from Jackson Galaxy (check out his YouTube channel) or a training session from Pet Sitters International by Marci Koski (felinebehaviorsolutions.com). Since then I have used it so much it has become a habit and I use it with my own gang. Ramses in particular always responds with his own blink. Ziggy may think I just have something in my eye. But, work-wise it is truly a game changer.
It is such an easy way to put a fearful cat at ease and I use it almost every time I meet a new cat client. If the cat responds with a blink then you are good to go. Sometimes it takes a few blinks. Sometimes that cat may still hide and need extra time but I just keep using the Slow Blink. It is not meant to be a staring contest, so you should not keep doing it till you ‘win’. I view it as a ‘hello, nice day today isn’t it?’ type of small talk interaction. It just lets the cat know that you have no ill intent and will be about your own business. So try the blink and if the cat keeps staring, give it another go and then move on if the cat still seems unsure. Try it next time and eventually you might just make a new best friend.
I read an article on sciencealert.com discussing a recent study about this “Slow Blink” technique.
This study recorded the cat owners using the technique as well as a second experiment where a stranger used it with the cat. And they did find that the cats were more likely to blink back and approach the people they did not know. And, while they could not conclusively figure out why it works it did show that the “Slow Blink” is a good way to build rapport.
Butt vs. Head Pat – How to properly greet a dog
I love dogs and the urge to pat a dog’s head is almost instinctual and unavoidable. Their head is soft and they are just so cute, it is a natural desire to put out your hand and give them a pat. A very common image that we have all seen over and over is a dog owner patting their dog on their had and saying ‘good dog’.
Unfortunately while a very highly trained dog used in movies and T.V. is going to do what their trainer asks of them, the regular dogs back at home laying by the couch are not convinced.
I really struggled when I first started my business because I wanted all dogs to love me as I instantly loved them. But, I learned early on that you should not stick out your hand (to avoid a bite) and to let the dog come to you. I have met many super-friendly dogs that have no fear of strangers. They tend to wiggle their whole bodies and their tail, and immediately treat you like their best friend.
Then there are other dogs who take a bit more time and this is where learning more about dog behaviour comes in super handy. I took a course in 2012 with Kathy Gibson of Custom Canine and learned so much about reading body language. When a dog is uncomfortable or stressed out by someone’s behaviour they will demonstrate what experts call ‘calming signals’. This includes lip-licking, yawning, freezing in place or turning away, raising a paw, and many more reactions. While most of these behaviours will occur in a variety of circumstances (we all yawn when we are tired as an example) the context is very critical. So, if for an example a dog is at the dog park and a new dog approaches one or both of them may move their body sideways, lick their lips, turn their head, maybe start sniffing something to avoid direct confrontation. These are all calming signals that the dogs use to avoid a bad interaction.
Do not pet your dog’s head
When you stick your hand out to pet a dog’s head they may perceive this as a threat or even just an unwanted interaction. So a better way to greet a new dog is to let them approach you instead of running at them like some nutty dog at the dog park. Once they approach you can try petting them under their chin on their neck or better yet a good butt scratch so you are well away from their mouth. Most dogs love the butt scratch and will wiggle their whole body and sometimes stomp their feet and wag their tail. It is my most valued tool in winning over a new dog client. Once the dog realizes how awesome you are you can incorporate a sneaky head pat in while massaging their neck and shoulders which dogs also seem to love. But I would leave that till later. Think of the head pat as a big huge hug for a loved one, it should be saved for those close relationships.
If you google “Calming signals dogs” and “Why you should not pet your dog’s head” you will find a bunch of great articles going into more detail.
How to approach a bird, lizard, or other more unusual pets
The main thing to keep in mind is that while dogs and cats have lived around humans for thousands of years many of the other types of pets we care for do not have the same type of connection and communication we are used to. So it is important to always research what your specific type of pet may need for care and the best way to interact with them.
As a general overall technique, I would suggest approaching all new pets and particularly cage or terrarium pets calmly with slow movements and use a low or quiet voice to talk to them.
Birds are definitely more vocal and can have very close bonds with their loved ones but until you get to know them it is still important to approach them slowly and calmly. Do not run over to a cage and wave and stick your fingers in, just respect their space and try to make them feel safe and comfortable with you. I have been known to sing the Love Boat theme song to birds when I am working around them. Luckily they do not judge my ability to sing!
Lizards are also not always sure what you are up to and some species are more chill or nervous than others. If you have to put your hand into their terrarium just move super slowly so that you do not startle them or make them feel like they have to defend themselves. This is particularly true for new pets or when visiting a pet as a pet sitter. They may have developed a bond with their owner but don’t know you yet.
Originally published January 22, 2021