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CHRISTMAS has arrived. We are celebrating the birth of Christ, but in addition, it’s a time for celebrating human relationships. Families meet up, exchange gifts and feast together. It’s a time of traditions: each household develops its own way of doing things, and it’s often the same each year. My own family has developed its own pattern: from choosing a Christmas tree in mid-December, to putting up household decorations, to going for a walk together on Christmas Eve to the sequence of events on Christmas Day.
Each event happens in a set way, and woe betide anyone who tries to change it now. “But we always do that!” or “But we never do that” are the predictable responses to any attempt to alter the routine.
This is a characteristic that unifies all sentient beings - humans and animals. We are all creatures of habit. We like to have regular routines, whether daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly.
The daily routines are the easiest. We wake up, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast and head out into the world. Most of the physical activities involved are automatic. Our bodies go through these daily movements without us even thinking about it. If you don’t believe me, try tweaking your fridge door so that the hinge is on the opposite side (all fridges allow you to do this very easily). If you normally open the fridge door from left to right, change it so that the door opens from right to left. You’ll be shocked to discover that it takes you a couple of weeks to adjust to this change: until your subconscious mind has adapted, you’ll find yourself trying to open the fridge the wrong way. This is a simple exercise that emphasises the degree of automation that’s involved with most of our activities. It means that while our bodies are automatically going through the shower/dress/breakfast routine, our minds can get on with thinking about the day ahead. If we had to consciously think about every minor detail of our day, we’d be far less efficient.
Animals have a similar type of automatic routine. My own pets each have their own habits. The three cats have learned what time we wake up and make breakfast: as I step into the kitchen at 6.15am, I can hear the cat flap swing as our ginger cat Spin comes indoors. And as the cat food is served, the other two cats emerge: they weren’t far away, because they too know the routine.
The dogs are equally focussed on the daily schedule: they sleep peacefully until 7am, when it’s time for the morning walk. The cue for them is the rattle of the car keys: the two animals seem to suddenly wake up, rushing around in circles, full of anticipation and agitation. They dash to the car, leaping into the back, knowing that they will be driven to the open fields where they can run freely. And after the walk, they run around to the back of the house, where they know they will be given breakfast. Like us, I am sure that they do not consciously think about these actions: this is what happens every day, and they do it without needing to think about it.
The dogs also have a memory for weekly routines. They know that I take the bin out every Wednesday night: it’s the only time that they don’t get excited when I put my coat on, because they realise that on that occasion, it does not mean a walk for them. They also remember Sundays, when every week, after a family dinner, I take the dogs for a half hour walk as I accompany a visiting uncle back home. Again, the dogs will be snoozing calmly in their beds until the cue, which is the moment when Uncle D puts his coat on. They leap up, ears perked, ready to go out. On the rare occasion when Uncle D is heading somewhere else, and the usual walk does not happen, you can sense their disappointment as their ears flatten down, and they slink sadly back to bed. A shorter walk, later in the evening, is not as much fun as the walk with Uncle D.
The “habit” memory doesn’t extend past a week for my pets. I know that on the first Thursday of each month, I regularly skip their early morning walk because of a monthly social gathering. The dogs never remember this: they are always lined up, ready for their usual walk.
The dogs and cats certainly don’t have a memory for oncea-year events like Christmas. To them, it’s just another day. They don’t understand Christmas presents, which doesn’t stop 80% of pet owners buying them a gift. Pets don’t know that a special dinner is cooked on Christmas Day, which doesn’t stop people from spoiling them with a bowlful of seasonal goodies.
If you really want to make your pets happy this Christmas, make it just like a normal day for them. Dogs and cats love their daily routines, so if you want to spoil them, give them exactly what they want. Feed your cats at the same time as usual. Take your dogs for the regular morning walk, Give your pets their usual dinner: if you must, add no more than 10% of their meal as treats from your own dinner plate. Avoid giving them anything that may adversely affect them: they may enjoy the moment of scoffing platefuls of turkey skin or delicious chocolate, but when they fall ill later, that moment of pleasure will definitely not have been worth it.
May you - and your pets - all have a lovely Christmas celebration this year.
Dogs sleep peacefully until it’s time for their daily walk