Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Hey Catbosses (and dogs, too!). We wanted to share some of our signature tips for things to watch out for in your pets. These simple signs are HUGE when it comes to communicating with your pet and being able to recognize them when they come is key. We all know that since pets can't talk to us, they do communicate with their bodies. They are constantly telling us how they are feeling with their eyes, ears, tails, body positions and vocalizations. So that being said, its up to us to learn what they are saying or how they feel. Whether you have a kitten, adult cat, puppy or an adult dog these 5 body language signs happen daily.
These Five Signs are our CatBoss TV Signature Communication Signs and we use them to benefit our training techniques and enhance our handling skills every single daily. Soon you'll be able to, too, on your cats AND dogs! Yes, like we said above we use them on our dogs too.
Have you ever noticed your cat or dogs body language during stressful times? What are they doing? What have you noticed? If you haven’t noticed these five signs before, you will now. And they WILL benefit you greatly once you point them out and know how to use them for good.
Before we go into what they are I want to ask you a quick question about yourself. How do you deal with stress? Do you tend to shake things off? Do you go to a quiet place and don’t want to be bothered? Do you do yoga or get a massage to release tension? Do you bite peoples head off when they approach you at the wrong time? Have you ever noticed that when you get stressed, you may yawn a lot? Or do you just sigh and deal with things the best way you know how? You don’t have to answer that out loud, but just think about these things when it comes to your pets because they might be furry and cute but they really aren’t that much different than us.
1. Licking Lips. Our first body language tip we want to point out is licking lips. Have you ever noticed your pet lower their head or dart away when something is presented that they are uneasy about. Or maybe they stay put and face it. Have you noticed them licking their lips while something like this occurs? Now, this is different obviously if you have just given them a treat, what I'm referring to is when something scary happens to them and they are unsure or frightened by the situation. This is a telltale sign that your pet is frightened or uneasy about what is going on. Keep your eyes peeled for this sign so you can change their mindset. Here's how to do that:
Step 1: try to identify the “trigger” to what frightened them.
Step 2: IMMEDIATELY redirect them from the trigger. Remove them and/or distract them with a toy or treat or ask them for a SIMPLE behavior that they know.
Doing this gives them the opportunity to set them up to win and removes them mentally from the situation. Anytime something scary happens in front of my cats that they were not prepared for, I IMMEDIATELY praise them for NOT REACTING to the scary thing. They might lick their lips, but because I took action early in their lives to teach them scary things mean treats, they have been conditioned to not respond in a negative way. This is exactly the healthy response to stress that you want. The opposite of this would be running away in fear, tucking into a ball and retreating, or worse, biting or scratching you out of fear.
You might be thinking that it's too late for your cat if you haven't worked on any of this. No it's not! Now that you can recognize this sign, you can be proactive in stopping a worse reaction in its tracks. You can take the steps to rebuild your pets confidence with our tips and tricks. It's possible at any age!
With cats it is IMPERATIVE that you don’t allow them to run in fear. The run simply reinforces the fear.
So how do I stop it? You can start small by teaching your cat or dog to look at you or look at the thing that is upsetting them to earn a treat. You can also set your cat up in an easy situation that you can control. One way is to practice at home with noise desensitization. Is it the blender, door bell, vacuum, or dogs barking that sets them off? Identify the trigger aka what causes a fear response from your cat. I always recommend before setting up a practice session that your pet is hungry. Do not attempt this if you have no reinforcer. In other words the reward HAS to be more reinforcing than the run. You might want to employ a family member for this one. The blender, vacuum ,doorbell all work the same.
Step 1: Get your treats ready and put your pet on a harness and leash, if needed, to prevent the run.
Step 2: Start the noise at a distance. While you are in the other room with the cat or dog have another family turn on the blender (or whatever trigger you choose to use).
Step 3: Once the sound goes off IMMEDIATELY mark that moment with a ‘YES” and REWARD or click if you’re clicker training. You’ll want to trigger the sound for just a second.
Keep the session short and repeat this, each time rewarding your pet for not running away or reacting to it by licking their lips. Start short and gradually increase the noise for longer. End your practice session before the pet gets upset with the noise. Only work for about 5 minutes or less.
Next, with each successful session you will want to close in the distance between you and the blender or scary noise. Each session, if you can, get closer to the object, but always keep it short and positive. Before long, your cat will come running when the blender turns on for their favorite treats. The key is to be consistent. No matter what, your pet comes first so they get a reward first when the scary noise happens. BE PREPARED TO REWARD. Carry treats with you when you plan to vacuum, are expecting a delivery, or you plan on using the blender. Its up to you to set your animal up for success! ANTICIPATE, ANTICIPATE, ANTICIPATE!
Showing Cats and Dogs
Whether it be CFA, AKC, agility sports, or at any large event you can take the necessary steps to set your animal up for success. If you have a kitten or puppy that is new to the show ring, I HIGHLY recommend getting them used to handling prior to the show, especially from other people. I also recommend NOT ENTERING THEM IN ALL THE RINGS for the first couple shows. Start slow and always end on a good note. New places mean new toys or their favorite treats. For show animals it is especially beneficial if they work for their meals throughout the day. Small portions when they have done a really good job. When you feed your animal their whole meal in their crate or pop up before a show, you will have a sleepy cat or dog that will not tolerate being held or manipulated on a full tummy. Or they simply won’t show off their personality as much because they are in a food coma. Its much better to have small meals just as they would if they were hunting outdoors.
I have heard the argument that if a cat is hungry going into a show ring that will increase the chance of them blowing up and I call CatBoss BS! Cats who are hungry purr and communicate with the owner in an affectionate way. Kittens purr to get their mom to feed them. The reason they are blowing up is because they have not been taught properly how to deal with a stranger handling them in a new environment. Starting your pets early is KEY. I cannot tell you how many cats I have seen in the show ring sit there with their legs tucked under their chest while they are LICKING THEIR LIPS. Often the owners don’t notice because they have never been taught to watch out for it. A few hours later that same cat who was licking their lips in several rings is now BLOWING up at a judge or the owner because they were pushed past the point of tolerance.
Which leads to the next very important CatBoss sign, sighing.
2. Sighing. An animal that can sigh in the presence of stress is dealing with it in a healthy way. When I bring a new pet into a new environment that is a bit stressful, one of the first things I am looking for is a sigh. Why? Because its a healthy release of stress. Think about how you let go of a stressful situation? Me personally, I sigh a lot. We actually sigh naturally several times with in a minute as a normal breathing technique, its healthy for our lungs. However, pets do not learn this from their mom, it's a natural occurrence. It is something we can condition in our pets, though, as a good thing to do when presented with a stressful situation. When I am working a fearful cat in a new place I often work the cat until I get a sigh. The sigh is a sign that the animal is giving up control of the situation. Recognizing this sign can be a total game changer. Its a quiet and subtle sign to notice but if you do catch it, the power of harnessing that can be exponential when getting an animal through a fearful situation!
Ultimately, we want the pets to have a healthy response to fear and not succumb to fear. After all, no-one likes that feeling. So you’re probably wondering when do pets learn how to sigh? That is all up to us. Whether the kitten or puppy is with a breeder or at a rescue group being raised, it is our responsibility to encourage that behavior. How many times have you seen kittens or puppies wrestling in a group and one feels a little frustrated with a bully. Pay close attention because the kitten or puppy that is being bullied will sit off to the side and sigh. That is a good thing. However, the bully in the group has not yet learned this. He or she hasn’t been corrected by a tired or overwhelmed mom that has several little ones to watch over. That is where we can step in and give the bully time to rest away from the rest of the group. Again, keep a close eye because when the bully has to go to a time out, the first thing he/she will do is sigh because they have lost control over the pack. A good mom will put the bully in his/her place but in terms of real life stress situations, when they leave their mom it is up to us to take over that role.
I can hear your question coming. How can I show my kitten or puppy to do this? It's definitely easier that you think. I will warn you though to be prepared if you have a head strung kitten or puppy on your hands. Ideally, kittens and puppies would learn this from their breeders at 4-6 weeks. Regardless of pets learning those handling skills at a young age, this should always be retaught in a new home. Believe me, they WILL test you at every turn. Once this little tip is applied, it can set your pet up for a lifetime of obedience and loyalty. You ultimately have to be THE BOSS! You set the boundaries and limitations - always.
So here is what I do when acquiring a new kitten or helping breeders with their kittens before they go home to their new owners. Like I said, be prepared to dedicate at least 30-40 minutes with this if you have a fighter on your hands. The idea is that you don’t have to get into a battle for the wills but sometimes you're not always that lucky.
Teaching a Kitten How to be Held and Sigh. First, simply play with your kitten with a wand toy to wear them out. Next, pick up your kitten for just a few seconds and pet them, love on them, and let them down. Each time you pick them up, increase the time they are held and always end on a good note with a session of toys or treats. Basically they are learning from a young age that when I am handled, good things come. When you start to increase the time they are being held make sure that nothing is distracting them and causing them to want to get down. Go to a quiet place. I often rock my cats too while being held. It's very comforting to them. I hold the kitten in a comfortable position in my arms. This can also be done on the kittens back if they are old enough. I don’t often recommend that. With the kitten in your arms, increase the time they are being held and if they get fussy DO NOT LET THEM DOWN. Reposition the cat back to where you had them held. With a really fussy kitten you will have to do that several times. The idea is that you are looking for the kitten to settle down before letting them down on the ground. And of course this is where you are looking for the SIGH. Pay close attention. It is so subtle and can be missed. It can be common that I have to gently scruff and hold a kitten in place. This is NO DIFFERENT that what the mom would do, except now they are learning to be held by a human. The goal is to work on many short positive sessions so that fussiness doesn’t happen, but if it does, be prepared to stay in the battle. Its VERY IMPORTANT that if you catch the sigh you mark it with “Yes” and let them down and reward with a toy or get a treat.
Once you have recognized the sigh and rewarded it, let them down. However each time you should be able to increase the time you are holding your animal and when they sigh and are comfortable just them hang out in your lap or arms. ALWAYS END ON A GOOD NOTE! This tool in invaluable when teaching your animals proper handling skills. This can continue through the life of your pet, anytime you see them sigh in a stressful situation or in public new place BE QUICK TO REWARD AND SAY GOOD JOB! NICE WORK! BE POSITIVE ALWAYS! Being the parent isn’t always easy, but you are setting your pet up for success in the long run! Be strong Catboss!
3. The Shake. The sigh goes hand in hand with the next tip and that is “THE SHAKE”. The shake is the most visible of all of the body language clues they are giving us. The shake looks the same as a wet dog shaking off. Cats and dogs do this when they shake off the stress. It's so important that when you spot this action you mark it the moment it happens and say “Good Shake” and reward with a toy or treat. This will encourage your pet to let go of stress easily. This one is my favorite and the pets pick it up so quickly! When you mark and reward this you are building up your pets confidence in new scenarios and it builds their confidence in you. They need to know that you've got their back and there is nothing to be fearful of. So keep an eye out for this signal. You will be surprised how many times pets do it in a day. They will shake off after something scary happens, if they chewed something up and think they are in trouble, experience something new etc. Just keep your eyes peeled and be ready to reward. It can exponentially speed things up when getting over a fearful situation. Its really fun to spot these things that you weren’t looking for before! Think of it as game for you to become a better trainer and pet owner!
4. The Yawn. Next up is “THE YAWN”. Look out for this one, especially in dogs. Cats do it to, but it's not as common. Be mindful of the situation that your pet is in when they are yawning. I have noticed so many dogs when they come to the studio for a photography session that they immediately yawn. I usually pet them and say “good work”. Yawning can be a sign of uncertainty, but it is usually followed up with a shake. Again, it's a way you can encourage your pet when they are working through a tough situation. Same with cats. Be ready to reward and pet them when they yawn if they are in a new situation.
The yawn is also a pattern you will want to play close attention to. If you are in the middle of a training session and your animal just isn’t connecting the dots, be aware. They will likely start to yawn out of frustration. In this instance, you will want to go back to a simple behavior that they can win on and end the session on a positive note. This sign is your way out before things get ugly for you and your pet. So pay attention to the yawn sign. It will save you a lot of grief and your pet from shutting down on you.
5. The Stretch. Finally the last sign your pet is working out some uncertainty or confusion with what is going on is “The Stretch”. Who likes to do yoga? What is yoga good for? Releasing tension right? It's the same for our pets, especially in cats. The stretch is an easy one to spot in both cats and dogs. When animals first come out to do a training session, you will often see them stretch. It's not the same stretch as if they were just coming out of a crate, though. The stretch is more common with cats. Cats often stretch or appear to walk away like they are confused or uninterested in what you are doing. It's quite the opposite. The cat is trying to work out what is being asked of him/her. lf they walk away and stretch, what you were asking might have been too complicated, just like with the yawn sign above. So be aware. Keep your sessions short and positive - always. Keep an eye out for the stretch signal and encourage your cat during that time. Tell them good work for stretching out to release confusion or uncertainty.
Know that your cat may also try to rub on you when they are confused or trying to work out their frustration. It's a way they are trying to control the situation and make you their friend by marking you. It's quite charming, but unless I am trying to capture the “rub” command, I do not let the cat rub on me during a session. I simply move out of the way. Ideally, I like to keep the cat focused on what they are doing. Keep the session moving if you can by encouraging your cat, but if not, its ok to end the session and try again later.
I hope this article is a game changer for you and your training! These are invaluable tips that we use daily and we want you to be armed with when raising and training your cats (and dogs) to be the best they can be! Let us know if you spot these signals and signs in your pets and how it has helped you become a better trainer and pet owner.