Flops, Treats, Purrs, and Pees: The Measurements of Daily Life with Pets

Trials, setbacks, and love are all part of our relationship with dogs and cats.

A tabby cat lies on top of a malamute puppy, snuggled in a check blanket. The measurements and love of life with pets.
Photo: Ermolaeva Olga 84/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD.

As I was driving home from the store today, I turned a corner and saw thunder clouds over home. “Poor Bodger,” I thought, before remembering that he isn’t here any more. 

For those that don’t know, Bodger was terrified of thunder, but he passed last year.

We don’t know yet if Pepper, my senior Shih Tzu, is frightened of thunder and lightning. Bodger was front of mind because I recently finished writing something about him and thunderstorms (you’ll have to wait a while to read it). I ended that piece by thinking about the progress we made with him over the years, slow but noticeable.

And that set me thinking about all the increments and measurements that go with having a dog or a cat.

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For Harley, my tabby cat, the most important measurement is his twice-daily dose of insulin to keep his diabetes under control. Along with that, we keep an eye on his food, his weight, his water consumption, and – sorry to mention the litter tray – the size of his pees.

Melina is easy. Not much we measure, except for her weight from time to time. Aside from that, everything is subjective: the vibrations of her purr, the speed with which she bombs around the house, the ack-ack-ack sound at hummingbirds outside the window.

Pepper was very overweight when he came to us and is making gradual progress towards what our vet thinks will be a good weight for him. So we weigh his food on the kitchen scales, count out his treats for the day, and stand on the scales with him once a week. 

I’d love to get going on some more training with him, but it can only be set against that limited number of treats. Everything has to be prioritized.

When doing operant conditioning, I use Jean Donaldson’s push-drop-stick rules. This involves counting each trial in sets of five, and using the outcome to determine whether you push to the next level in your plan, stick where you are, or drop back to an earlier stage. 

4 or 5 = push

3 = stick

0 to 2 = drop.

I love the efficiency of it and the way it keeps the dog engaged. But Pepper’s training sessions can’t happen in five goes all at once. 

Pepper the Shih Tzu looking happy on an evening walk. The measurements of life with pets.
Pepper. Photo: Zazie Todd

For example, from the day he arrived he had this habit, on seeing his leash, of flopping on his side and lying there like he’s dead. I don’t know why. Maybe he finds it stressful and previously learned this as a way to cope. Maybe in his former life he was sometimes rolled on his side like some aversive trainers do (incidentally, don’t do that). Maybe his previous guardian trained him to lie there on his side like that.

I don’t know, but putting a harness and leash on a dog who’s lying there pretending to be dead is not very convenient. It works much better when there’s some cooperation.

So one of his training tasks has been learning to sit for his harness to be put on. He’s making great progress, one trial at a time, and I have to keep track of the numbers throughout the day.

For example:

Morning walk – sits nicely for the harness. 1 for 1, and he’s earned a treat.

Lunchtime pee break – flops. 1 for 2 and no treat. Try again – sits nicely. 2 for 3 and another treat.

Afternoon walk/pee break – flops. 2 for 4 and no treat. At this point it could go either way, but on the next trial he sits nicely and earns another treat. 3 for 5, stick.

Pee break – time to start a new set of five and he gets off to a flying start. 1 for 1 and he gets his treat.

Evening walk – a flop, 1 for 2, followed by a sit, treat, and I have to remember I’m at 2 for 3 for tomorrow morning. 

Of course, with a bigger dog and more normal leeway with the treats we could do all those trials in a few minutes. But in Pepper’s case, weight loss is more important than me having to reach to the floor to do the harness, so we just do what’s needed to get the harness on and get him outside. And it’s not urgent, so that’s fine.

Every dog or cat learns at their own pace. Whether you are fitting tons of trials into a training session (like I would normally do), or fitting the training into real life like with Pepper, progress will come in fits and starts with some setbacks along the way. 

The setbacks can be depressing and sometimes hard for us to understand. It helps to see them as a normal part of our pet’s learning, or a learning experience for us (especially if we are new to training). 

It helps us to stick with the plan if we keep track, and celebrate the successes along the way. 

If Pepper flops on his side, it’s not a big setback and it’s kind of comic. But there certainly are times in training when a mishap can feel like a big deal. 

Despite the dark clouds I saw when driving, it did not thunder at home. And if it had, my husband was home to comfort Pepper. He would have offered treats as counter-conditioning if needed. But it wasn’t, so that means all of today’s treat ration can go into harness training. Maybe today will be the day he gets it.

These things I keep track of are important, but the subjective things have no less significance. They are the things of which memories are made and the moments that I treasure. The conversations with Melina, the way Harley cuddles up at night, and Pepper deciding how close he’d like to be on the sofa: these are the everyday measurements of which love is made.

What kinds of things do you measure or keep track of in relation to your pets?

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, winner of the Maxwell Medallion for best book (behaviour, health or general care) from the Dog Writers Association of America. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, and also writes a column for Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats.

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