We use that phrase a lot.
“Observe your pet.”
But, it can be helpful to better describe what we mean when we say to “observe your pet” because if we’re being honest, that’s a pretty nebulous statement.
When we talk about observation we’re talking about using your senses to gather information about your pet. Your pet is a dynamic individual with preferences, ways of communicating, ways of moving, and ways they engage with the world!
We can set up specific situations to learn more about our pets. Things like preference tests can be fantastic ways to learn your pet’s preferences. We can try different things to see how they respond in deliberate and intentional ways. But we can also take the time to engage our senses and learn about our pets as they navigate their day-to-day life.
And a side note: it’s important to tailor your observation practice to the skills you find most reliable and/or practical for yourself and your pet. Each relationship is unique, and what works for my pets and me, may not be the best place for you to focus. All humans have different faculties and perceptive ranges, and all pets are unique in the way that they express themselves (both based on learning history and physical morphology).
Without my corrective lenses, I cannot see the slight furrow of Griffey’s brow or the tightening of Laika’s eyes. Once my corrective lenses come off, I need to rely on very different indicators, like my dog’s ear positions (because, let’s be honest, their ears a huge), vocalizations, and their muscle tension.
So, let’s get into it!
What do you see?
We often use vision to collect a ton of information about the world. It is a sense that many people rely on to navigate their world and to get to know their pets.
I am able to see where my dogs choose to spend time, and then, I am able to use that information to help make them their perfect safe spaces. I guess I could also “feel” this by tripping over them or sitting on them, but that’s definitely not ideal!
I can see when they walk up the stairs a little slower or are moving a little differently and then I can touch base with our veterinarian. I can also listen to hear how their feet sound as they go up the stairs, or if they wore tags, how they jingle.
I can see their body language as the world moves around them and then I can help make adjustments to help them be more comfortable, like putting on sound masking or closing the blinds. I can also use their muscle tension if I have my hand on them. We spend a lot of time snuggling, so if I feel their muscles tighten, I can use that as information that they need some adjustments.
I can help give my dogs activities that promote rest and relaxation throughout the day by observing the changes in the way they spend their time. I can also hear rest and relaxation in the form of deep breathing and occasional snoring.
The amount of information we can gather through watching can be overwhelming so here are some prompts to get you started and some examples from my own pets:
Who does your pet choose to greet throughout the day?
What activities does your pet choose to engage in during the day?
What toy does your pet use the most often?
Where is your pet choosing to spend their time?
Does your pet spend more time in one spot than another?
Does your pet choose one bed over another?
How is your pet engaging with their toys?
How is your pet engaging with the enrichment opportunities you are providing?
How does your pet move?
Do you see changes in their coat or skin?
Do you see changes in the way that they move?
When do you see signs of stress?
When do you see signs of joy?
What do you hear?
The way our pet sounds can give us so much information about the way our pet is feeling, moving, or experiencing their world.
For example, I know that when I can hear my dog’s bellies making noises, Laika is going to be much more sensitive to space invasions, and Griffey is going to be much more restless.
I know the difference between Griffey’s “HOOMAN! OPEN DOOR” and Griffey’s “HEY, HOOMAN, WE IN TROUBLE!” and Griffey’s “HOOMAN! YAY!” barks. Laika has both a play growl and a “please, no” growl.
Here are some prompts to get you started:
How do your pet’s feet sound during different activities? When they are running, playing, or meandering?
Can you hear their nails tapping on the floor?
What do their different vocalizations sound like?
When do you hear growling?
When do you hear rapid, sharp barking?
When do you hear deep woofing?
How does your pet’s breathing sound? Can you hear any changes?
How much does your pet typically snore? Is that increasing?
Do you hear their stomach making noises?
Are you hearing anything abnormal, like coughing, sneezing, or that awful jump-out-of-bed-with-record-speed retching?
What do you feel?
In general, we’re a pretty handsy species, so it is really common for us to spend a lot of time touching our pets (unless they are not fans of it). You can use your normal petting, scritching, and snuggling routines (again, as long as your pet consents to this! You can check out petting consent tests here.) to learn a lot!
How tense are your pet’s muscles?
How does their breathing feel?
Can you feel their pulse?
How does their coat feel?
Do you feel any new lumps or bumps? Or have any known lumps and bumps changed?
How is their breathing or muscle tension changing?
How much tension is on the leash?
How close to them are you?
Can you feel what position they are in (sitting, lying, standing..)?
Do you tense up when you touch something specific?
Are they touching you (Laika greets us with an ever so gentle nose boop to the calf)?
What do you smell?
And this is the last one we are going to cover because, well, I’m not sure how the sense of taste would fit into all of this. Aside from trying the occasional dog treat, it isn’t a sense I engage much when it comes to my pets.
But smell can give you a lot of information, whether you want it or not. I’m sure we’ve all had the “Ew, what is that?” to turn around and see our dogs with the biggest, the silliest smile on their face.
So, again, here are some prompts to get you started:
How does your dog normally smell?
Do they smell different today?
Does their urine or feces have a different odor than normal?
Do they leave a trail of odor as they walk past?
Does their breath smell different than usual?
So, you’ve taken the time to observe your pet and utilize your senses to gain information, maybe even learn new things about them. Now what?
Get curious! You can start asking yourself why that is the way that it is. You can start to play with things to learn even more about your pet. Let’s look at an example:
We have two mats in our kitchen, one is Griffey’s actual mat that has traveled to many locations with us, and the other is a bath mat that sits in front of the dishwasher. Over time, we noticed that Griffey spends more time, and relaxes more deeply on the mat in front of the dishwasher. So the question became, why? Is it because the sound of the running dishwasher provides some relief? Is it because he prefers the bath mat to his dog mat? Is it because it is closer to the action? Or is it because the bath mat is on the heated floor? After testing different variations, we learned that it was in fact the heated floor.
And that helped us to craft a cozy nest for him so that we could get a little extra space when resting on the couch.
From all the things you observed, now you can ask more questions, and learn even more about your pet.
- Take the time to observe your pet. Use your sense to gather some new information about them! The prompts above are just to get you started!
- Get curious about something your pet does. Why is that your favorite toy? Why do you frequently pick that bed? You may be surprised at what matters to your pet!