I am not the most… disciplinary of pet people. I blame it on my scientist background. When it comes down to a disciplinary moment, at least fifty percent of the time, I just sit back and watch things play out instead of leaping in with a stern “NO!” and redirection. I like to see animals problem solve, even if that problem is: the new bag of dog cookies is up higher than I can reach by stretching, how can I get to that delicious bag, maybe if I stand on this chair here, and LEAP…. Or maybe I can scare a cat into running across the bookshelf and knocking it down….
I like to see things learn, is what it comes down to. And pets do learn! They learn from each other, they learn from other species, and they learn from watching us.
I have a kitten (though he turned two earlier this month) who I adopted from my vet clinic. Remy. He’s a little psycho, and was obviously feral before he was captured and cleaned up. As my friend Leigh says, “He didn’t know how to cat.” One of the little hiccups in this behavior earned him the nickname “Stinkpot” from the vet clinic, because he’d hit the litter box and then zip out, without covering his waste. This behavior continued when I brought him home. It continued until the day my older, bigger cat Dean followed him into the litterbox, and bitching the entire time, covered up the waste.
Now Remy covers up. He covers up OBSESSIVELY but cats can never do things the easy way. But hey, he learned his lesson. And often he runs over to Dean to whisker talk right after. I have to assume it’s the equivalent of a toddler reporting in to their parents that they went potty!
I have Ursula, the young dog (she is just shy of two years and she is a veritable sponge of learning.)
Sometimes she learns things I would prefer her not to learn, but that’s the way it goes.
My roommate found a muppet running loose on the street and brought it home for its own safety (a golden doodle pup about Ursula’s age, twice her size). Ursula was ENCHANTED, right up to the moment where the muppet leaped up on her hind legs, and smacked Ursula flat to the floor with both front legs. SMACK! FLAT DOG!
Ursula was stunned. What was that? She didn’t know dogs could do that??? They went on to play until the muppet’s owner was located.
Then, two days later, Ursula rose onto her hind legs and brought both forepaws down at once and SMACKED Dean into the floor. Ursula was thrilled! She did it right! Sadly, she’s been doing it ever since. SMACK goes the kitten. SMACK goes the other dog. SMACK goes Dean–though, showing his own learning, he’s learned to get out of the way. I do intervene when she attempts to smack down the elderly cat who is pretty much all bones and attitude.
And she learns from me. Not just the useful things like “sit”, “no teeth”, “drop the ball”, and “for god’s sake don’t eat that, drop it drop it now!” But things I never ever had any intention or concept that I could teach her.
As an example, I make my bed every morning (ADULTING!) and every morning I have to kick the dogs off so that I can get it tidy. This involves a lot of complaining and saying “Scoot!” and flipping the covers around. This is particularly complicated by the fact that I have a top layer that gets changed daily so the dog fur and dog detritus does not get into the actual bedding.
Lately, Ursula has been performing a strange behavior. One where she races into the bedroom, starts yanking on all the blankets, and making her strange little talky noises. She only does this when I’m there to watch her, and she always stops and grins at me after she’s gone mangling the top of my bed. It has finally dawned on me: the damn dog is mocking me. She’s doing the equivalent of saying “Haha, this is you! Look at me, I’m being the silly person! Wah wah wah toss the sheets around. Wah wah wah.”
It makes me wonder what else they learn from us that we don’t recognize right away.