Gaining the trust of an animal

Taffy-cat came to my house the long way around. Dropped off a shelter, picked up by a cat rescue organization, living in a less-than ideal  foster home, before finally moving in with me and Prince the other cat in May of 2009. A severe sinus infection, matted fur smelling of cat urine, and ear mites were just part of her problems. Taffy can be as sweet and cute as a caramel saltwater taffy, hence the name. She is definitely part hedgehog as well.

Last night, there was a major breakthrough in our relationship. She had cuddled up at my side a few times, come up to sleep in the bed maybe half a dozen times, and been a lap cat a couple of evenings at most in the last 18 months. Earlier that evening, I had accidentally stepped on her tail because she had sat down immediately behind me while I was working in the kitchen. To my surprise, she not only hopped up to inspect my bedtime reading, but proceeded to step on me to curl up on the small of my back for nighttime slumber.  I was thrilled, although somewhat impeded in falling asleep myself.

When I told my friends about this, they (jokingly) asked me to write a guideline on gaining the trust of an animal. It is very simple, really: lots of patience, sincerity, and a willingness to follow the animals’ cues.

Patience first. We humans are mostly very forthcoming and direct. If something interests us, we will approach it. This can really scare off an animal which is uncertain or intimidated by you in the first place. You can make the curiosity to work to your advantage as well, though, if you know that all vertebrates share our curiosity about new stuff to a certain extent. As Temple Grandin explains in her excellent book, Animals in Translation, an animal has to have two competing instincts to survive: fear to bolt away from danger, and curiosity to explore new resources for survival.

So, what you need to achieve is to tip the balance of fear and curiosity in your favor, toward curiosity. You have probably all seen this in action already. Who has not heard about or seen their own cat/dog  join  the one person visiting your house who professes to have no interest in pets? Here is the reason: this dis-interested person usually does not initiate eye contact with the animal nor any movement toward the animal, both of which can be perceived as threatening. Instead, ignoring the animal will allow it the safe space to come explore. Still no reaction from that human? Ok, go further. And soon enough you’ll have that cat on your lap or the dog settling down on your feet.

Here is an experiment you should do if you live in a rural area and know a farmer with cattle or horses who doesn’t mind you around. Wear neutral colors, enter the pasture away from the herd but close enough they will notice. Lay down on the ground. It will not take long before you have a herd of friendly but intensely curious beasts surrounding you, checking you out. I found it to work with playing a musical instrument as well (recorder and harp).

Sincerity. Pet dogs and cats as well as farm animals have adapted their brains over tens of thousands of years to living with humans. A dog can read our body language much better than his wild relatives. Your pet or farm animal may not have the same intelligence we have, but they are extremely smart being a dog/cat/cow/horse interacting with humans. You may feel totally ridiculous talking to your animal as if it were capable of understanding your words (I apologized to Taffy, explaining that I had not seen or heard her behind me when I stepped on her tail). And they don’t. Nonetheless, expressing yourself in words will automatically cause you to speak in body language as well. Tone of voice, eye movement, stance, even your smell will express your intent. This is language an animal can understand, or learn to understand. Along the same line, your animal will not respond kindly to the mixed signals you are subconsciously giving when you are not sincere in your intentions.

Obervation. My german sheperd Bosco could move his forehead in an amazing number of different configurations. After a while, I could just take a look at him to know if he was puzzled, curious, bored, annoyed, or grumpy. Yes, grumpy – Bosco could make a grumbling noise which was non-threatening but clearly expressed his displeasure with me. Pay attention what your animal is telling you. They have their individuality.

How did I put all this to work with Taffy? Each day, I make an point to greet her in the mornings and evenings.  Taffy-cat insists on good cat-manners, meaning she has to sniff my fingers as part of the greeting. After the greeting, I will check if she wants to get touched. My next task was to find out where she is most comfortable with touch (massage to top of head and middle of the back, or both). Slowly we have worked our way to neck-scratches and those typical cat back strikes where they stick up their behinds and put their shoulders down. I finally learned that unlike Prince, when Taffy “bites” it is not a hard bite, but a friendly nibble of affection. I am still getting comfortable with it; she senses my anxiety there too. I learned a lot about her by observing her habits. She likes hanging out with me in rooms with linoleum (kitchen or bathroom). She prefers male humans over females. Her cuddle time is on the stairs whenever I put on my shoes to go out.

It all works with turtles, too. Most turtles like chin scratches.  Initially, they will retreat their heads, but eventually stick them out as long as the turtleneck will go. Turtles like ther carapaces scratched and will start rocking back and forth to show their enjoyment. Each of my four tortoises had favorite tastes. One would eat the small yellow plums we call “Mirabelle”, preferably when they contained a worm. Another went for garden snails. The most adventurous one discovered a passion for blackberries so strong I one day found her stuck a foot up in the blackberry bushes she had climbed to reach the berries.

Even though these three principles to work with most animals, there are exceptions. There are too many animals out there who had really bad experiences with humans: abandonment, physical abuse, neglect. Sometimes, they can overcome and learn to trust again. Sometimes, there is just a situation we have to avoid (e.g. holding a belt). Sadly, there are animals whose souls have been broken so badly that nothing will ever heal it. I am glad Taffy found it in herself to overcome the scary circumstances she found herself in to enjoy the companionship with humans, as well as plenty of play-wrestling matches with the Prince.

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