I'll never forget my first "petiquette" nightmare. I'd invited five friends over for a dinner party, and as we stood in the kitchen chatting, my mutt, Artie, bobbed into the room, dragging his enormous stuffed dog. My friend David said something charming about how sweet Artie was. Then, silence. Everyone stared, mouths agape. Artie was... well... romancing... his stuffed dog. In the middle of my circle of dinner guests. With his typical goofy half-Rottweiler grin pasted across his face. "Oh, my," said David.
It took me a minute to disengage Artie from his amorous activities and heave the stuffed dog into a closet. It took 30 minutes for everyone to stop laughing. I made a mental note to never, ever leave that stuffed dog out when guests are over. Artie's romantic proclivities might not bother me, but my friends were invited simply for dinner – not dinner and a show.
I talked with several animal experts – Michael O'Sullivan, chairman and CEO of the Humane Society of Canada; Dr. Diane Frank, a veterinary behaviourist in Montreal; and Teresa Fulker, owner of Tree Tails Dog Walking and Pet Sitting in Toronto – for strategies that will help you navigate common petiquette dilemmas.
In your home
1. Your cat jumps up on the dinner table, to the horror of your mother-in-law.
It's best to put the cat on the floor. But the experts all agree that the house rules for your pet's conduct are your purview. If you don't mind Fluffy tap dancing through the dinner dishes, then it's OK. But do remember where those paws have been, says O'Sullivan. "I love my animals," he adds, "but I don't put my face in their food bowl, either."
Cats love high places, and tables often hold tasty tidbits. "If they've found fabulous food, then it's worth their while to go check it out regularly," says Frank. The key is to make these places unattractive. Double-sided sticky tape works. Hide cat treats in a cupboard. Creating an alternative perch that's acceptable to both of you can help, too.
Page 1 of 4 - read page two to find out what to do about pets on the furniture!
In your home
2. Your pet jumps up on the couch, wedges himself between your guests and gets comfy.
As long as Fido or Fluffy is being nice, what you do depends on your guests' reactions. If they shove over and let him put his head in their laps, let sleeping dogs lie (literally). If they're aghast, you have a couple of choices: banish the pet or, in the case of a dog, ask him to sit nicely on the floor.
If you choose to put your pet away, make sure it's in a room where he's comfortable, and there's food and water. If your cat is going into solitary, make sure there's also a litter box, and hide some tasty treats for him to find, says Frank. Having something fun and stimulating to do will alleviate boredom and keep anxiety at bay. For dogs, Fulker also suggests filling hollow hard rubber toys, such as Kongs, with frozen peanut butter. The dog will love the challenge of digging that delicious-smelling treat out of the centre.
Never tolerate a dog who's possessive of his spot. "If you know that your dog tends to growl when other people come in," says Frank, "don't put him in that situation." If Fido or Fluffy regularly take up residence on your couch with your blessing, you might want to leave a blanket in his spot so guests know not to sit there. The pet lives here, not your guests, says O'Sullivan.
3. Your sister feeds your pet something verboten – after you've asked her not to.
Most people feed pets treats out of a sense of love. Who doesn't like sneaking them a cookie, or 12? But pets can have food allergies and sensitivities just like humans, and cleaning up the mess can be dreadful. Be firm and describe the outcome of your sister's actions to her. "Or take a picture of the mess and show it to her and say, ‘This is what I'm talking about. Please don't do that again,'" says O'Sullivan.
If your sister simply won't listen, put your pet in a secure place where he can't be fed irritating tidbits. Or, adds O'Sullivan, give the offender a bag of approved treats to dole out.
4. A child visiting your house mistreats your pet while her parents look on, without saying a word.
Your job is to protect your animal, so remove the pet from the room ASAP. Delivering a lecture may not be advisable if the parents don't seem to get it.
Fulker encourages owners to be direct and give the child a lesson in properly greeting animals. "Children should never touch an animal without asking first," she says. The animal could snap, an involuntary protective reaction that's natural. And since young children's faces are at tooth level of a dog, they can be severely injured.
If a child is being rough when giving affection, show her how to do it gently. When my eight-year-old niece met my cat, she petted her backward, from tail to head, and was rewarded with a handful of claw marks. After Marissa's tears dried, and Cocoa's fur stopped standing on end, I showed her the right way to pet her. Marissa learned quickly, and today, at 17, is a gentle, loving companion to her own two felines.
Page 2 of 4 - read page three to find out about bringing pets to other people's houses.5. A friend asks you to keep your pet in another room when she comes over.
Some devoted pet owners feel that this is like asking someone to lock their kids in the basement during a tea party. You're well within your rights to flat-out refuse this request – nicely, of course. Then book a table at a local restaurant and catch up there instead.
You can also offer to help your friend face her fears, says O'Sullivan. Invite your friend to come over for as much time as she likes – 10 minutes is fine to start. Have her get settled, then invite your well-trained pooch into the room and sit a ways away. Gradually decrease the distance over time, and you may make a big difference in your friend's comfort level around pets. (Cats, while trainable, aren't usually willing to sit on command.)
Out and About
1. Your friend opens the door and her huge chocolate Lab lunges for you. "Don't worry, he's a real sweetie," she says, as he tackles you.
This is never acceptable, say all our experts. If you're the jumpee, ask the dog to sit and don't acknowledge him until he does. Completely ignore this dominant, attention-seeking behaviour, says Frank, and don't look at, touch or talk to him until he stops. He'll quickly learn that sitting politely, not bowling you over, will get him the affection he craves. You might also want to diplomatically tell the owner that this behaviour needs some work. Remind him or her of the dangers of an uncontrolled dog – he shouldn't be mowing down children or the elderly, who can be seriously hurt by a fall or scratchy claws.
2. You got the all-clear to bring your dog to your coworker's house for a visit, but the minute you get there, he lifts his leg against the couch.
Artie did this once, to my utter mortification. After I finished dying of embarrassment, I asked for some paper towels and furniture cleaner and got to work. That's the least you can do, say our experts.
Why is your dog doing this when he's house-trained at home? He's marking his territory, says Fulker. It's a natural tendency, especially for male dogs – and especially in a new place where other animals live. Say a sharp no and ask your dog to sit or stay, says Frank. Don't allow him to wander freely, in case he tries to mark again. Always be sure to clean up the mess your dog made or offer to pay.
Page 3 of 4 - read page four to learn how do deal with your neighbor's pets.
Over the fence
1. Your neighbour's dog barks and whines all day when he's home alone.
Dogs left alone bark for lots of reasons: loneliness, boredom or to defend their turf. A more worrisome cause is separation anxiety, which can cause the dog to panic and bark constantly, and even work himself into a frantic state. A veterinary behaviourist can diagnose the problem and come up with a treatment plan that works. "We have medication that can really help these animals," says Frank. Some people recommend crating. The theory is that dogs traditionally slept in dens, and the crate will soothe him. But that's often not the right solution. "I've seen animals injure themselves trying to get out of crates because they're totally panicked," says Frank. It's better to work with a veterinary behaviourist to treat the root of the problem than to risk making it worse.
If you're the one hearing the hullabaloo, leave a nice, non-accusatory note, says Fulker. Or offer to help if you can. O'Sullivan's wife walked their dog at midday and offered to take their neighbour's wailing dog along. It gave the lonely pooch something to look forward to and helped alleviate the problem.
2. A cat from down the street uses your flowerbeds as litter boxes.
This happens all the time in my neighbourhood, but there are so many outdoor cats that the mystery pooper is rarely unmasked. If you can identify the culprit, you might be tempted to deliver a baggie of excreta to the owner, but a nice note outlining the problem is a better bet. Odds are your neighbour probably won't be able to control her cat's toilet habits, though. Kitty's just following instincts.
Try some harmless folk remedies. Scatter citrus peels or cayenne pepper in the garden, grow scented plants like lavender, or fill your garden so there's no appealing dirt to scratch in. Motion-sensing sprinklers are another excellent, harmless deterrent. Remember that "deliberately putting out poison to harm an animal is a criminal-code offence," says O'Sullivan. Not to mention that it's just plain wrong.
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