Extending the Power of No into our Animal Relationships

Submitted by Lucy Martin

I’ve been thinking more about the power of No, in part because I just posted online Shirley Lynn’s interview with Rosie on CBC earlier this spring, which was about saying no. I encourage you to listen to it if you haven’t already.

In surfing the web a little, it appears this is an issue that people struggle with a lot – in the workplace, at home, with friends and in other relationships. So perhaps it’s not surprising to also experience this challenge with our animal companions, many of whom hold great significance in our lives and hearts. On the surface, you might be thinking that I am advocating for denying our animals of all the treats and treasures that we love to indulge them with. You can relax and read on because I too contribute my share to the billions of revenue generated by the pet industry.

So where or how then, do I think we need to exercise the power of no with our animals?

Firstly, no is about establishing boundaries or limits – what is desirable behaviour and what isn’t. While there are societal expectations about how animals are supposed to behave, at least in public areas, there is a great deal of variance in what individuals find acceptable (or at least tolerable) in private. For instance, I expect Rayna to lay down when people approach to greet us (a work in progress) in public spaces, but at home we are much less formal and primarily require four feet on the floor and no mouthing other people or Carlie.

It is tempting to believe that our animals understand ‘plain English’ and when we say no to something, they understand and will respond accordingly. If you are lucky, they might stop doing the behaviour but then what? Do they look at you and then return to the behaviour that you just interrupted, or perhaps choose an alternate behaviour that may be better or worse?

The flip side of no is yes. Yes is the desirable behaviour. How do we communicate our yeses? By sharing information in the form of training. Training doesn’t necessarily require a trainer and going to classes (although sometimes that can speed the process); training simply means teaching desired skills and behaviours in a way the animal understands, practising and refining those behaviours, and consistently enforcing and reinforcing them.

You might be thinking this is a lot of work and it’s true, communication is work. It’s hard enough with people who speak the same language and share a similar cultural understanding. Animals don’t share our language, mores or understanding of the world. Your goal is to instill behaviours and strategies that will help your animal know what to do when the environment changes – guests come for dinner, a neighbour stops to chat on the street, another cat walks across the lawn, etc. A quick word or cue can prompt the appropriate action without undue stress or anxiety for either of you. It can be very reassuring and a real confidence booster when you have prepared and practised what to do in unfamiliar situations – for both you and your animal.

So the power of no with our animal companions is about instilling a vocabulary and skill-set of what the right answers are – the yeses. The more information we can share about what is desirable within our relationship, the better things will be. Less stress and anxiety for both of us. Like all meaningful relationships, this requires clear communication, an understanding and commitment to what is desirable and right for both of us, as well as a gracious heart when one or both of us screws up.

To all the animals out there who share our lives and hearts, thank you for sticking with us. We promise to keep working at teaching you the yeses to make living in our human-centric world a little easier. And when we get it wrong, please be gracious with your no.

It has been said that our animals are our greatest teachers, and I think that’s true. Learning how to communicate our expectations and desires to another species is a worthy endeavour in its own right. But these lessons can also be extended into our human relationships where it is just as important to express our needs, desires and expectations.

If you are struggling with knowing and expressing what your nos and yeses are in your significant relationship, Shirley Lynn is here for you. Call or email today to set up an appointment and reclaim your power.