By Dave Goff
People talk to their plants all the time. It is generally accepted that talking to plants assists in the growth and well-being of the plants and can even be therapeutic for the plant care-taker as well. Less well known are the studies that show that what you say is just as important as saying anything at all. Positive reinforcements deliver even better results than general non-committal talking.
Why am I talking about plants? Take a moment and think about the animals around you, and how your speech affects them as well. Animals are very sensitive to sound, tone and stance when people are speaking around them and will often alter their behavior in response.
I would even take this a step further. I actually use the way I speak to my pets as a supplemental therapy. For example, my cat Goliath has always been afraid of my other cats and when he is on my lap I will say things like “Big healthy Goliath, he is so brave and gets along so well with Whirley.” Over time, this has slowly become a reality; Goliath will now face up to Whirley and stand his ground. He is still afraid and more time is needed but the situation is definitely improving.
The most important things to keep in mind are consistency, focus, positive statements and present tense.
- If you want your message to have an effect, repeat it often and combine it with positive reinforcement; petting, brushing giving treats, etc… This will associate good feelings with the message you are trying to convey. Repetition and consistency in message are key here.
- Keep your message focused. In the case of Goliath I am focusing on his ability to get along with one of our other cats right now. As I have seen progress in that area, I have recently started working on his ability to get along with our other cat. If I were to say “Goliath gets along with other cats” the message is more diffuse and won’t have as quick an effect. Also, leave out conditional phrases with “if” in them. Waiting for a condition to occur before a change is made means it may never happen.
- Keep your messages positive. It is always better to say “You are a good dog that knows what he should chew on” than it is to say “You are a good dog that will STOP chewing my furniture.” Generally we think in terms of things we don’t want our pets to do but it is important to turn the message around to the positive and focus on what we do want them to do, or even how we want them to be.
- Keep your message in the present tense. If I were to say “SOMEDAY, Goliath will be brave and get along with Whirley…” it would never happen. As they say, tomorrow is always a day away, and someday is even further away. Some people may feel that it seems like lying, but that doesn’t matter. You have to focus on what you want as if it already exists, including in the behavior and well-being of your animals.
- I add in a statement regarding “healthy” in my speech every time, such as “Big healthy Goliath.” There is simply no reason not to.
As a side note here, I always offer to people not to refer to their dog or cat as “bad.” In the heat of the moment it is difficult not to respond with “Bad dog!” when your pup has been destructive or misbehaves. But I believe it is important to remember that the action was bad, not the dog. Your dog is a good dog that did a bad thing. If you constantly refer to your dog or cat as a “bad dog” or “bad cat”, you will most assuredly end up with a bad dog or cat.
Again, positive speech can be useful as a supplemental therapy. I wouldn’t count on positive speech alone to fix any issue, behavioral or health related. Rather, view it as a supplement to other therapies and strategies that are already in use. For example, to help Goliath get along with his roommates, we use Phero-Soothe for Cats (there is also a dog version), Flower Essences and other environmental and behavioral strategies.