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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

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