A discovery: A month ago something surprising happened. I discovered I am a Scotch drinker. This was a shock, since I have been a devotee of wine for the past 30 years. I believe I switched from beer to wine circa 1986, around the time I could afford wine more sophisticated than Riunite Lambrusco.
Scotch: This Scotch discovery occurred when I was ready to make dinner and THERE WAS NO WINE. After some snooping around our basement bar, I found a dusty, unopened bottle of the McCallen 12-year-old Scotch that we had received as a gift. I gave it a try. Sublime! Smooth! Amazing! And, really, who the heck gave us a bottle of Scotch this nice?
I decided to educate myself about how Scotch is made. I have been to wineries too numerous to count and feel pretty well versed with wine making. At least I know that red grapes don’t yield red wine and white grapes don’t yield white wine! As for Scotch, I learned about the process of malting barley, fermentation, distilling, and then aging the Scotch in oak barrels to get that beautiful golden color. Then, I naturally looked into how vodka is made. How gin is made. How rum is made. At this point I had an epiphany.
Einstein! I immediately thought of Einstein, who had brilliant success as a very young theoretical physicist (E=MC2; general and special theories of relativity, etc.) but went on to spend the rest of his life searching unsuccessfully for his “unified field theory.” And the poor guy never found it. But here, I had just stumbled upon the unified theory of wine, beer, and spirits.
The unified theory of wine, beer, and spirits is... Yeast! Billions of dollars and countless national and regional identities and pride over the centuries and even millennia have revolved around this tiny microorganism. People have harnessed yeast to turn whatever sugar source they had on hand—grapes, grain, potatoes, honey, molasses—into ethyl alcohol! Something we humans discovered perhaps 9,000 years ago and will go to great lengths to obtain.
The “easy” part is the fermentation, e.g. our yeast friends simply eating up the sugar and producing alcohol as a byproduct, which is why for most of human history, choices were essentially wine or beer. Once the alcohol content gets too high, it kills the yeast and no more fermentation! I think there is a lesson in this.
We can make it stronger! As early as the 12th century, it was discovered that if you heated up wine, the alcohol would evaporate at a lower temperature than the water. You could take off this “alcohol steam” and cool it back down into liquid, which would have a much higher alcohol content. Three hundred years later, the practice was expanded to involve cheap grains rather than just expensive grapes, and distilled spirits mushroomed in popularity. However, there is a trick to getting just the right fraction of the distilled product. If you drink the wrong part of the distillate, you risk headaches at best, blindness or death at worst!
And this relates to animal behavior how? The unified theory! In my opinion, the unified theory of living happily with an animal companion is…….yeast! No, kidding. It is your relationship with the animal.
Relationship before training: Often, people focus too much on the idea of obedience, especially when their pet first enters the home. The most important thing you can do is to be compassionate and consistent, so that your pet begins to trust you and forge a bond. Once the bond is forged, THEN you can worry about formal training.
Communication: Certainly, simple training as a means of a shared vocabulary, is really helpful early on. Teaching a pet to “watch me” by holding a treat up to your eyes, and then rewarding with the treat as soon as eye contact is made, is a good way to create some communication. Likewise, teaching the “touch” cue, where you put a treat in your fist (the dog or cat should see this), hold out your fist, and when your pet touches it with his noise, you open your hand and offer the treat. Another technique is to have some bells taped to a container of treats. You can shake the container to ring the bells, and then toss a treat on the floor. Your dog or cat will learn that bells ringing = treat and begin to seek you out whenever the bells are rung. Even if you just say your dog or cat’s name and give a treat, you are creating a means of communication with your pet and creating a positive association with your presence.
The Perks of Relationship: Once you’ve created a strong relationship, effort must be placed in maintaining it and continuing to strengthen it. That relationship will give you special privileges with your pet that others will not have. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a weeklong educational session with the renowned Ken Ramirez at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He emphasized the importance of relationship between animal and trainer using the following example. Let’s say your work colleague invites you over to dinner. While you are there, you see your friend's spouse give your friend a big hug and a deep kiss as thanks for bringing home some milk and cleaning up the kitchen. Ahhh, you think. My colleague likes to be hugged and kissed!
Contexts of Relationships: The next day, you see your colleague and to thank her for the nice dinner, you give her a big hug and kiss on the lips. Do you think that your colleague will consider this to be a reward and look forward to inviting you to dinner again? Probably not, and that is because everything has to be viewed within the context of relationship. Many dogs and cats enjoy touch from their human family members. But, they do not enjoy all touch from all people at all times. The relationship between the animal and the person will determine how the pet feels during close physical contact. Another example may be that your dog loves to go for a walk (with you!) However, if a visitor comes into the house while you are not there and tries to leash up your dog, she may have some serious concerns and resist the walk or even become aggressive toward the visitor.
The Heart of the Matter: So, when you think about your pet’s behavior at any given time, think about how it relates to who is involved and how the relationship affects that behavior. Although this is best used to anticipate problems and avoid them, it can also help you understand your pet’s behavior when things don’t go as you expected. It is all about relationships and is the heart of my unified theory of happy pets.