THE POWER OF ROUTINE

Categories: Behavior & Training
Why aren’t we walking?!

Time was, it never rained in Northern California in August. Mostly, that is. Sure, the occasional sprinkle in summer, but as a routine, it “never happened.” Last week, as I anticipated the arrival of our friend, Bob, for our weekly morning walk I was executing the morning routine of preparing for our walk in a more than usually sporadic manner, putting leashes and harnesses on earlier than necessary and then wandering around the house in a daze doing weird little chores, biding time until the designated hour of 8:30 when Bob would park at the curb in front of our house, greet the dogs with some leftover mana such as salmon or steak and off we’d go around the block. The dogs were having a hard time discerning my next move and were frustrated in their attempts to convince me it was time to leave the house. Finally! We exited the door, walked from under the eves to the sidewalk and boom! A sudden downpour. What?! Back I walked to the covered porch to await Bob’s arrival and to try to decide whether or not to don rain gear. The dogs were horrified. WHAT, they wanted to know, is happening?!

Banjo learns a new routine. #actinglife

Dogs hate it when their routine is interrupted. Cats hate it even more. Humans actually hate it, too, we just try harder to hide our disappointment. (What do you mean Comcast is out?! How will I watch Hulu?! Another Murders Only in the Building just dropped!) To add insult to injury, the rain was coming down so uncharacteristically hard that I invited Bob in to have a cup of tea and wait it out. The dogs were absolutely aghast. What are you guys doing?!

In under 20 minutes the rain abated and we set out. Whew! Crisis averted. Bring on the walk and the treats, please. (Bob gives out treats mostly for free. With me they have to work for them: don’t bark at that other dog, leave the neighbor’s cat, the usual. And mostly with the double request of a “sit.”)

Those of you who have dogs that watch your every move – and I’m presuming that’s most of you – will recognize this story. No doubt, you have your own version. Some dogs will even “back chain” events that lead to activities they know and love. Our morning routine, like many, involves a potty break first thing, a pet meal, coffee and the morning catch up with news and email, showers etc and getting dressed. During the coffee, etc part of the morning our dogs chill (they’ve been out, they’ve eaten, time for another nap), but as soon as I put on pants, poof voilá they are on their feet and gearing up for a walk. It might be another half hour before we actually leave, but the pants are key and they know it. After the walk there’s some water, a cookie and more napping. If I violate the post walk cookie routine you can bet I hear from their union rep.

If it’s Thursday it must be yoga.

It’s amusing sure, but it’s also important to have a routine. Routines help us feel secure in the knowledge we know what’s coming next. The awful truth is, we don’t actually know what is coming next. Most days we get lucky when our routines hold up and statistically they do hold up (this is what keeps us from losing our grip). The attachment we have to routines is the same for our other animal companions. Any steward of livestock will say “ditto.” We’re all just a little more apt to remain calm if we think we know what’s happening next. There’s a reason the first line characters in horror and disaster movies utter is, “What’s happening?” Cue the ominous music.

I need a routine too!

Any purveyor of online profiles for adoption animals has seen these words, or words like them: Fluffy would like to live in a [adjective] home with a steady routine (sometimes characterized as “structure”) where loving hearts, etc. etc. Why do we say the bit about routine and structure? Because Fluffy, like many of us, has a little anxiety and looks for patterns in the behavior of those around her so that she might cue off the patterns. In the absence of recognizable signs Fluffy might get a little nutty with furniture or your shoes or the remote control, looking for ways to manage her anxious energy. Imagine an airplane full of people who have never flown before. One or two passengers, sure, but an entire plane full? There’s no telling how many call buttons would go off per minute. My husband tells a funny story about a flight he took once where he found himself intensely aware of the sounds and movements of the flight attendants. The seatbelt sign going off, the flight attendant moving down the aisle to the back, the sound of the drink cart rolling out. He found himself looking back to see if that really was the drink cart. Yes! The drink cart is visible. How much longer until the drink cart arrives at my row? So much anticipation. He realized he was having the same experience our dogs have around 5 o’clock. Did she close the computer? Did she stand up? She’s going downstairs! She’s washing her hands! Oh joy! Rapture! She’s preparing our dinner!

Mid morning Squirrel patrol

Most sentient animals recognize patterns. Just as the visual pattern of a herd can be significant to a predator, so too is the herd’s pattern of behavior, or routines. Understanding patterns or routines can keep animals safe, provide sustenance and help procreation and survival. That’s pretty much the experience our dogs and cats have: they are recognizing patterns. Let’s face it, they rely on us for everything, so understanding our routines helps them know how to behave and gives them confidence because they don’t need to worry about what’s next, how they will acquire a meal, get outside to evacuate or burn off excess energy.

If you find yourself dealing with some sketchy behavior in your pet population ask yourself what their experience is. Note when the behavior manifests. What, if anything, has changed for them? Has their routine been disrupted in any way? How can you alter the situation to provide them with surety? Many years ago we adopted a six year old Husky/Shepherd mix from a friend. He was a bit out of control as their lives and routines had changed with the advent of nine to five jobs and the addition of children to the family. We adopted him and immediately instituted routines around meals, exercise and training sessions. He never lost his rambunctious charm, but he did calm down and became more or less a model citizen. We exhausted him, yes (a tired dog is a good dog and an exhausted dog is even better – Trish King), but we also gave him the surety of knowing what’s happening in any given moment of his day. He didn’t have to wonder if there would be a walk this morning, when we would arrive home, when his next meal would be or when he might get outside to get in a good pee. He pretty much knew the answer to all those questions, so having a nap suddenly seemed like a good – and safe – idea.

Duggy and Riley living their best lives.

Speaking of which, it’s mid afternoon when our dogs are napping, so I need to sneak in the same before I come back to proof-read this, close the computer, stand up, go downstairs and…you know the drill.