Being predictable

Mummacat bit me on Tuesday night. She’s not an affectionate cat & she hates being picked up. We have an understanding: she lives here and I feed her. Unless it’s night time and she decides to come to bed, then it’s all head-butts, kneading, and purring up a storm. We’re BFFs at bed time. So this was weird. I was patting her, she was purring and sitting loaf-style next to me. And she bit me, hard, on the arm.

Mummacat at bed time

It seemed like a pain response. After a pause she jumped off the bed, and sat at the window with her tail swooshing away (unhappy). I monitored her. Once she had calmed down, I checked for painful areas. She did not react again and seemed ok, but chose to sleep in the spare room the rest of the night.

With hindsight, I now believe it was more a startle response. That night, our usual routine was different. I think if I had been more predictable, the bite would not have happened.

It was only the Saturday before in puppy class I was giving my usual spiel about being predictable in handling exercises to help acclimate puppy for things like grooming & vet visits. And only 2 weeks ago I mentioned “more predictable is less stressful” in my Preventing Separation Anxiety blog. And a week before that an old blog on Behaviour Chains came up in my Facebook memories. It’s funny how a theme sometimes emerges.

Dogs (and cats) think in pictures & patterns. Sometimes those patterns become behaviour chains we don’t like, or we purposefully create to build something specific. And we can use this to our advantage for everyday living.

We are verbal beings, and I bet you already talk to your pets! Consider how you can be purposeful in this to help your predictability.

Label everything

I am a big fan of labelling not just behaviours but also experiences. I label early to build associations from the start, which allows me to make things more “conversational” later. I usually use plain language that comes naturally to me, which helps me remember, especially in times of high stress.

This comes in especially handy for things we already know might be unpleasant, like going to the vet or having flea treatment put on. Labels act like cues, so you can let your pet know what’s happening and support them through it.

Seriously, both Winston & Roxy are not fans of the large vial of cold, runny, alcohol-smelling stuff that goes on the back of their necks. I used to ambush them while sleeping just to get it over with. This broke their trust in me and soon stopped working when they even became suspicious of pats! Now I make it obvious, use my label to warn them, and we get it done with minimal fuss. They tolerate the moments of unpleasant stuff to get the good stuff.

Mummacat & Mooshman are both not affectionate cats. I worked on this a lot by labelling pats and making my movements uniform. We got to the point where uniform movements were no longer required as the label predicts the touch. I didn’t use it on Tuesday, and with other elements also different that night, it was apparently just too much for Mummacat.

Think about the everyday language you already use with your pets. What can you focus on to turn into labels that help make you predictable?


There is always a caution or two. The answer to everything in animal behaviour is “it depends”, as they are sentient beings, so we need to apply this stuff to our individual situations.

  1. Labels like cues still need to be unique to avoid confusion. Some dogs will be fine and understand the difference/context, but particularly if the thing you are labelling is unpleasant consider using something different.
  2. If the thing you’re labelling is unpleasant or already has a bad association that causes a stress response, build to the end behaviour/experience gently to help adjust the emotional response. Be fair and set your dog up to succeed, always.
  3. Some animals are more conversational than others. Consider this in what labels you use and how you use them. I use largely the same labels for everyone, but do find Winston like short clear words, Roxy prefers entire phrases, Mummacat hates chatter, and Mooshman likes a bit of baby talk.
  4. Labelling stuff does not replace having a good routine. A good routine is still important to underpin everything (we are creatures of habit too). It just also needs to be flexible in case you need to change something – and labels help you do that with minimal or at least reduced stress.

If you’re having trouble, please reach out for help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *