Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Helping Your Pet Adjust to Change

Change... Sometimes we look forward to it; sometimes we dread it. But some change is inevitable. The trick is how to integrate change into our lives in the most positive way possible. If it's hard, if it hurts, that's a big order; maybe, you say, an impossible order. We'll save the most difficult-situation-you-can-imagine type of change for another day. Most of us live in the realm of "typical changes most of us encounter at some point." How do we help our pets, who often thrive on routine, cope with change?

Coping with change begins before change is on the horizon. Change (i.e. stress, which can be positive or negative) is easier to deal with when we've already established a foundation of daily activity that gives our pet security and happiness. Good food, enough exercise and attention, an appropriate place to spend time while we are away (i.e., adequate cage space and toys for a bird or kong-type toys and a view out a window for a dog). Weekly habits and activities —going through the drive-through bank and getting a treat (dog), dancing and singing to CDs (parrot), being brushed, playing with an interactive toy (dog/cat)—act as a frame that encircles the being of your pet and gives boundaries and structure to its daily life. When a pet has this structure and feels loved and secure, it is easier to adapt to change.

Recently, my two dogs, Tyler (a 6-year-old Pekingese) and Jackie (a 4-year-old Chihuahua), and my parrot Gracie (a 10-year-old Maximillian Pionus) were asked to adjust to change when I married Mark Williams and we moved into his home with his dog Farley (a 4-year-old whippet/beagle mix). This move involved many changes from our pets' point of view: sharing "mom" and "dad" with another human being, perhaps, the most significant. In the case of my dogs, it also meant moving from a house with a tiny fenced yard and an often noisy downtown neighborhood to a villa where several friendly dogs also walk around the pretty circular street of our neighborhood, a more enclosed area. I mention this because in our former home Tyler could often hear other dogs, but seldom saw them (they were in fenced in backyards as well). He definitely seems happier and less threatened (Pekes are very territorial) in this quieter place.

There was also the presence of another dog to adjust to or, in Farley's case, two more dogs coming into her home. She had never had to adjust to a woman being around. For Tyler and Jackie, different smells, different places to potty, a new walking routine, and a new sleeping routine (a large crate rather than in bed with me).

I'm happy to say that all three dogs have adjusted really well, as has Gracie. The changes were positive ones, but still, when change starts an animal doesn't necessarily know all is going to be well. How can we help them face the unknown?

Mark and I found the following points good to remember in helping our pets cope with transition:

1) Identify what makes your pet happiest and be sure to keep doing these things. Each of our pets has one or more favorite activities, and we made sure they still got to do these things as often as possible. The repeat of these activities, albeit in a different location and with additional participants around, was important:

  • For Tyler this meant his favorite pink stuffed bird toy and his basket of other toys. Also, it meant being allowed to sit (properly like a little "guy") at the table when we eat. I know this sounds odd, but we are older, there are no kids at home any longer and we like it. Tyler sits on his hind legs and puts his two front paws daintily on the edge of the table, his back a perfect ruler, and watches us while we eat and talk, knowing he, and the other two dogs, will get a small treat when we are done.

  • For Farley this has meant maintaining "cookie time." Farley gets a large flat rawhide after dinner. That is her joy in life. The other dogs have accepted that this is her thing. They do not need it (Tyler would fight over his and Jackie at 6 lbs doesn't need a lot of rawhide in her tummy). We've decided that fair is not the same as equal and we opt for fair, which is letting Farley keep her tradition. For Farley, this also means "riding in the car with Dad when he goes grocery shopping" (when weather permits). The other dogs join her in this activity, and, being a friendly dog, she is happy to have them along.

  • For Jackie, her favorite activity is sitting next to either Mark or I in the chair and being "right there." Also, snuggling under the blanket at nap time. So, when an afternoon nap is taken, all the dogs are allowed on the bed and Jackie is allowed to be the one to snuggle under the blanket.

  • For Gracie, our parrot, shower time is important to her. I have a shower perch that I use for her and once or twice a week she joins me in the shower.

  • Walks are also important to Tyler and high-energy Farley and we have maintained this for all the dogs.

In addition to keeping these traditions, we've added new activites, so -- from our pets point of view -- we are sure that the change of moving and marriage has been, at the end of the day, a positive experience.

1) Farley no longer has to stay home alone while Dad works. She always has someone here now to play with her and to take her out throughout the day. Also, being a friendly dog, she likes having other dogs in the house. I give credit to Farley's open-heartedness, more than anything, for easing the transition for Tyler and Jackie.

2) Tyler, like the "little boy" that he is, loves having a "daddy." He sits by Mark while he writes, accompanies him and Farley to the store, sits on the porch with him, and takes a position near Farley during TV time. Tyler has also joined Farley at Drummond Island chasing squirrels. And, while there, we found out that Tyler loves the water and loves to swim!

3) Jackie has benefited by having another person to hold her. That is all that matters to her. Being a little dog, she has been slowest to accept sharing me and Mark with Farley. But every day she opens her heart a bit more and they are becoming friends.

There is so much more going on in the activity of a family than there was in a single-person home, and the pets benefit from this as well. Their lives are more interesting. It may not be that way for other singles, but I am a person who spends a lot of the day sitting at the computer writing, and this can't be too much fun for dogs. Now, they have more to do. They have a more interesting neighborhood to take their walks in. They lost a fenced back yard, but gained a screened porch. Gracie went from a room with other parrots (three of our parrots were rescued parrots that homes have been found for) to being right in the center of family life with her cage in the large space that is dining room/living room/kitchen. She loves it.

I thought my dogs would miss our former home, but it seemed that once I said "I do," they said "We do too!" and never really wanted to return to their old home. When I took them with me one time at the end of the moving process, they viewed the house, it seemed to me, about as I did: Well, this was a nice old house, it looks familar, but it's not home any longer. Thanks for the memories—let's go home!

There have been a few bumps. I had tried to adopt an older dog earlier in the year, and this resulted in a serious dog bite for me and three fights for Tyler. But Jackie seemed to suffer the most enduring fear aggression from that experience. I think that's why it's taken longer for her to warm up to Farley. Farley is a talkative dog, and Jackie just can't figure out what that barking means. Also, Jackie personifies that dog-lovers T-shirt that says, "If it was once mine, it's mine. If I like it, it's mine. If it is yours, it's mine!"

If you are facing change, such as a move, the addition of a child or spouse, a change in job hours, an illness or operation that might limit your activities, spend some time identifying the most important habits/routines in the life of your pet so that you can do your best to keep that frame (structure) around their being (existence). There should be about five:

1) When and what does he eat?

2) What is his favorite playtime activity? What is his favorite toy?

3) Who are his favorite people and/or animal friends? Keep them visiting if possible. If not, set up positive situations with new friends.

4) What is his exercise routine? How does he get his energy out?

5) What is his favorite bonding-time or quiet-time routine (i.e. brushing, napping on the bed, sitting on your lap when you watch TV, taking a shower/bath in the case of a bird)?

By establishing a good foundation, noting what makes your pet happy, and then keeping those important things on-going in the midst of change, your pet will continue to be a happy member of your family.

Carpe Diem!

Janice Marie Phelps, Author of "Open Your Heart with Pets"

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