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How and Why Animals Respond to Humans

Updated on February 21, 2017
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I have owned cats for over 50 years. Between them and their vets, I have learned a great deal about how they tick.

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Animals do not understand the language of humans.

Let’s get that out of the way first. What they do understand is the way you say things; the tone of your voice. For instance when you are mad and you yell. The animal hears the tone and instantly knows they had better move or else. But if you were to say the same words in a soft and kindly tone, your pet will think you are happy with them and are going to pet them or give them treats. The words are the same, but the way the animal reacts is not. The tone tells them the emotion.

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Body Language and Scent

Pets can easily understand the base of what you are saying by examining your body language. If you are shaking a finger at them in sharp angry movements, then you must be angry. If you curl up in a tight ball, then you must be troubled. If you smile and hold your hand out to them, then you must be happy and want to pet them.

Other clues for animals are your eyes, how you place your feet, and your smell. Yup, your smell (your scent) gives you away without you ever saying a word. Animals smell fear, joy, injury, anger, sadness, and comfort (just to name a few). That is how they know when you are sick and come to comfort you.

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But they know when you say ‘sit’ or ‘follow’, etc., how?

When animals are trained, they are rewarded for certain behaviors and not rewarded if they behave incorrectly. This means that at a certain noise from you the animal is supposed to do a certain thing. Once they do this thing, they get rewarded. It is not the word but the sound they hear. How do they do this, it is just like you can tell a drum from a guitar by the way they sound. You don’t need to see them to know what they are and that they are different. And, as with school work, practice makes perfect. You practice with your animal daily and they get the message. Before you ask, yes cats, skunks, ferrets, and even fish can be taught. Their learning curve is different, but your behavior when they do something ultimately teaches them how they should behave.

If your fish follows your hand along the aquarium wall, for instance, you get excited. Generally, the only time you approach the aquarium is to feed the fish, the fish connects this action with food. It is the repetition of that act that teaches the animal how to behave. Oh, and believe it or not, many cats can learn to take a bath or shower with you or even use the toilet instead of a litter box. Skunks (without their scent bag of course) will sit on your shoulder and/or walk with a leash. Repetition is the key.

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But they seem so smart.They know what they can and can’t do. Isn’t that why they hide when they have done something wrong?

Yes and no on that one. You see, when an animal does a certain thing, you react a certain way. So when a dog urinates on your favorite rug, he/she knows that you will be angry when you find it because you spent so much time house-training him/her. So, as soon as a pet does the deed, they head off to a hidden area to take a nap. That way you can’t see them for awhile. (Note: a vet trip may be in order should this occur more than once.)

Cats are a little bit different. Often accidents on the rug, or your bed, or your favorite chair for example, are generally signs that the cat is either sick or angry with you, especially if the cat is litter box trained (you might want to get that dirty litter box cleaned out). Cats don’t usually like to urinate or defecate where they sleep. However training one isn’t always easy to do and accidents will occur. Cats can immediately sense your dislike of that action and generally hide until you calm down. (Once again, if your cat persists with such behavior, please consult a vet.)

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How do they know when I am going out? My dog goes spastic when he knows I am going somewhere.

For one thing, the animal sees you doing certain things such as putting on a jacket or grabbing your car keys. These actions become habit. The animal associates these ‘habits’ with you going somewhere. Dogs get excited because they think you are taking them out for a drive. Cats hide because they think you are going to take them to the vet. Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule, so this might be different for your particular animal. I have seen cats enjoy rides in a car and dogs despise it. Be sure to give your pet, no matter what he is, the benefit of the doubt. They might surprise you.

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My animals get hair everywhere and they always know when I plan to clean it up. How?

First, many of us will use the vacuum to clean up the hair and most animals don’t like the loud noise, so they race off until the noise is done. But, I know that many of you (me included) just use dusters and/or sticky rollers most of the time because dragging out the vacuum is time consuming. The animals race off with that as well. Why? Because having to clean up the hair on your sofa or under your kitchen table is, well, an extra chore you wouldn’t have to do if you didn’t have animals. This makes it annoying at best. The animals can sense this and hide until you become calm after cleaning. Besides, you shoo them off of their favorite spot when you want to clean it. This is a dead give-away to them.

If you aren't willing to clean up hair, try a hairless animal. For information on hairless animals available for pets, contact your local vet, animal shelter or a web site such as this one with Dr. Karen Becker who is proactive and integrative when it comes to animals health and well-being.

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Poisonous plants

Many plants can be deadly for animals of any type. Before you bring plants into your home (or pets into a home full of plants) check to ensure the plant is not poisonous to the animal! Your vet would probably be your best informational source, or you can contact the Humane Society.

My pet eats my plants and then hides when I find it. How does he know?

Cats eat plants to maintain a healthy digestive system. Grass and certain other plants can help clear out hair balls and often stop the cat from vomiting on your favorite pair of shoes. Generally, maintaining a healthy variety of cat safe plants and allowing them to munch can help them to stay healthy. Many places offer containers that will specifically grow plants safe for cats.

Dogs will also eat plants, but their behavior has nothing to do with their digestion unless they are hungry. Most dogs eat plants during play. The pot moves and they toss and chase it around your living room. Keeping plants hung high can usually prevent this.

Outdoor animals have access to greens, so if your outside cat, or any pet that goes outside, is suddenly eating your plants you might want to take him/her to a vet. Also, if your pet goes after plants that he/she usually leaves alone this could be a warning sign that they may need a vet.

So why do they hide when they find you standing over your destroyed plants? Because you are angry and they can sense it and see it; hiding is their best option after that. I guess they think absence will lead to forgetfulness--and it usually does, right pet owners?

Why is it easier to train my dog than to train my cat?

Dogs generally learn because they want to please you, their master. Cats, on the other hand, have a mind of their own and believe your are the pet (at least that is how it feels right cat owners?). They also have very different personalities. Training a cat takes lots of patience. Not because they are stupid, but because they are not inclined to perform for you like a dog would. Is this bad? Not really, cats can do amazing things once they are trained.

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Other pets, such as gerbils, birds, lizards, skunks and snakes (just to name some of the more common ones) can learn tricks as well. All you have to do is learn their abilities and their likes and dislikes. For instance, a cat can't race a car (unless it is a lion, tiger, or leopard), but many dogs can run fast enough to catch up quite easily. Even the smaller breeds can run pretty fast. Your vet could be a great source for information on how to train your pet.

Here are some pictures of my own pets--yes I am a lover of cats.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Dusty, who lives with my son now.Tigger, who sadly passed away from cancer.Looking devious, yup that's Salty to a tee.Tiger, who belongs to my daughter.
Dusty, who lives with my son now.
Dusty, who lives with my son now. | Source
Tigger, who sadly passed away from cancer.
Tigger, who sadly passed away from cancer. | Source
Looking devious, yup that's Salty to a tee.
Looking devious, yup that's Salty to a tee. | Source
Tiger, who belongs to my daughter.
Tiger, who belongs to my daughter. | Source

So if I just give my pet a treat they will do what I want?

Not really, unless your pet is extremely adept in reading minds. You have to be patient and allow the animal to understand what you want them to do. For instance: if you give a dog treats, he will just eat the treats and look for more. But if you sit him down saying 'sit' and give him a treat when he does, you have taught him to sit on command (practice is, of course, essential to actually get the dog to always sit on command).

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Do you have a pet that you have trained?

If you have, be sure to leave a comment below telling us all about it.

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To round it all up in a neat package:

  • Animals do not know the human language.
  • Animals respond to tone and sound.
  • Animals respond to your scent: anger, happy, sad, hurt. etc.
  • Animals use a number of things to determine if they have done something wrong: smell, tone, body language, etc.
  • Most animals do not like your cleaning.
  • Check out what plants are safe for your particular animal because if the plants are there, the animal will most likely take a bite, or more.
  • Animals can tell if you are going to do a specific thing by the things you do prior. For instance, grabbing your keys will indicate you are going for a drive of some sort.
  • Ask your vet how best to train your particular pet.
  • Once you find what your pet can do, they can be trained with patience and repetition.
  • Remember, training a pet can be difficult, and in some cases, impossible. Don't feel bad if you can't train your particular pet because some simply do not want to be trained.

© 2017 Cheryl Simonds

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