Building Resilience Through Rapport with Recovery Markers
Summary: Behavior professionals and their clients can help animals recover more quickly after a stressful or startling event with intentionally trained “recovery markers.” These cues communicate to an animal that something they find unpleasant, like a medical procedure, is coming to an end. In this article, you’ll learn what a recovery marker is, how to train one, the difference between a recovery marker and “happy talk”, and why you should never use them to lie to an animal. The importance of processing time is also discussed.
Resilience, as applied to discussions of animal temperament, refers to an animal’s ability to recover and move on from a stressful or startling event. Many factors affect resilience, including the degree to which an event is stressful or threatening (nearly dropping a plate is different than nearly falling down the stairs); the animal’s age and life experience; as well as various other factors such as individual ability to manage stress. The question I present here is What might the veterinary or behavior team do to increase an individual animal’s ability to quickly recover and move on from singular events we cannot control or procedures that must be done for the animal’s immediate good? I make the case that conscious creation and use of what I’ll call a “recovery marker” may help.
My cat and I were presented with an unexpected stress-inducing situation recently. He had an abscess on his foot that needed twice-daily soaks in a skin disinfectant (chlorhexadine solution). He is a street rescue and has handling issues; when I first took him in, he enjoyed being petted but was wary of our faces getting close to each other. He would scream and urinate if restrained. Through careful behavior work, he now enjoys close contact and happily participates in his daily medical care, which involves insulin injections and ear pricks for blood glucose measurements. Dipping his foot in a liquid, though, was something we had not prepped for.
We brought to this situation three advantages: our relationship, based on offering choices; the trust we’d built; and a history of gentle cooperative care. I set up the scene to make it clear that I was going to do something unusual. (In working with clients, I have found that attempts to address novel, uncomfortable events with trickery are common. I strongly advise against this, for reasons I’ll explain later.) I diluted the solution with warm water and set it on a folded hand towel. In front of that, I set down a folded blanket. I sat cross-legged on the folded blanket with a towel stretched across my lap like a hammock (this was to help blot the excess solution from the paw and make my lap more inviting), and waited for the cat to come investigate. He came, I told him, “We’re going to dip your foot!,” and quickly dunked it. I set him down on my lap and immediately began a routine that informed him it was safe to relax — this is what I call a recovery marker. For this cat, it means I stroked him down his back with my fingernails and told him he was actually a terrible, stinky, smelly old cat, wasn’t he. I gave him little smooches on his head and repeated my exclamations about his smell. This worked: He had landed quite stiffly on my lap but then relaxed, settled, and began purring within about 5-10 seconds.
That evening, I set up the same conditions with the solution, towel, and blanket, and he appeared for his treatment again. So he did, twice daily, for the rest of the week. He never did like the foot dip! He would stiffen, and recoil his limbs, but recovery was swift (taking less than the initial 10 seconds, so he was almost purring the moment he landed on my lap). To judge by his continued cooperation, any trauma appears to have been minimal.
What I used in this case — again, building on the background of our respectful relationship — was a marker that told my cat when the hard part was over. I believe that such a signal may help companion animals avoid trauma and move on from experiences more quickly.
Why use a recovery marker
Imagine that you’re going to a party and your two closest friends are there already. The host welcomes you in, takes your coat, and leads you to the living room. A shock of adrenaline: Someone is pointing a gun at another person. In the middle of this horrifying scene, though, you see your two friends. One gives you a smile and a little wave; the other raises eyebrows in recognition and smiles. They clearly see what you do, but they are also clearly relaxed and unbothered. Your brain goes from “danger-escape” thoughts to rationalization — could those people be reenacting something, playing charades, rehearsing a scene of some sort? Your adrenaline ebbs away.
If no one you knew was in the room, you might eventually have realized the gun was not a threat, but your stress would be prolonged, and maybe you’d have escalated (screaming, running, trying to intervene). If a stranger had seen your alarm and given you a smile and wink, it might have derailed your escalation — we readily take signals from conspecifics. But nothing would be so immediately relieving as seeing relaxed and normal behavior in people you trust.
If we have a good relationship with our companion animal, and if we work to build trust, we may be able to help dissipate the animal’s alarm by using an analogue of a friend’s smile and wink: What we’re calling here a “recovery marker.”
What is a recovery marker?
If your relationship with an animal is built on trust, it is easy to create markers that are associated with recovery. You may already have done this, by saying or doing special things when it’s time to relax and share a bonding activity. These are the “inside jokes” you may have with your companion animal — with my current dog, for example, I pretend I’m going to pinch his nose, or I ask him questions in a goofy voice, and this usually makes him dissolve with open-mouth heh-heh sounds (which Dr. Amy Cook I think rightly likens to laughter) and wiggle his body. With my previous dog, who was deaf, I would wiggle my fingers at him and “goose” him, which he found hilarious. For my cat, as I stated, I have a litany of short proclamations that always make him go up on his tippy-toes and raise his tail, if he’s standing, or bunt and lean into me, if he’s nearby. If he’s sleeping next to me in the bed, just a light kissy noise makes him start to purr. These are markers of camaraderie and bonding, as would be a ”recognition” lift of the eyebrows and smile when seeing a human friend, or a wink, or a little wave or half grin. In a human context, markers can be verbal as well, as when a higher-up at work may say, “I need to speak with you [uh-oh feelings start up] — nothing bad, I just need your quick opinion on something [whew]!”
I have successfully done something similar with patients in my work as a cardiology nurse for animals. Given the fleeting nature of the relationship, it wouldn’t be as effective as a routine established between a person and their companion animal, but I did feel it helped.
As the cardiologist and intern discussed the new canine patient’s history, I would sit on the floor (if it was safe to do so) and fiddle with my scrubs or look at my hands and wait for the dog to approach. Once they did (most dogs are inherently nosy!), I’d chat and bond with the dog until it was time for the echocardiogram. I’d stay with the dog’s head during low-stress restraint, and after we were done and the dog was back on the floor, I’d give a little cheer and clap (dialing down or up based on what I had observed of the dog’s temperament). This made most dogs wiggle and wag, so excited about whatever I was excited about, because now of course we were friends! If they came back for regular exams, as many of our patients did, this could be clocked in their memory as an event-end marker.
What isn’t a recovery marker?
In my veterinary career and in my behavior career, I do use “happy talk,” and that is something different than what I’ve outlined here. For the above example, while the dog is on the table I might tell her she’s the bravest Viszla (or whatever) we have ever seen! That her nose is the blackest and wettest, and even her aorta is cute! I would speak in a relaxed and upbeat tone; my aim was to convey that her new friend (me) does not feel alarmed about this odd circumstance. I actually have always talked to my patients, telling them what I am doing. I do tell them, too, when I have to do something they don’t like. I suspect dogs in particular are experts in human tone-of-voice interpretation and may appreciate having this metric when they find themselves in uncertain circumstances.
If my cat is concerned about someone vacuuming the hallway of my apartment building, I’ll say something like, “Oh, they are being so loud! Get outta here you noisy things!” in a playful voice. My goal is to acknowledge the situation while letting him hear through my tone that I’m not concerned about it.
I’ve found that happy chatter can help many animals who are socially comfortable and familiar with humans. Just as gray squirrels may listen to certain birds for information about the presence or location of predators, companion animals may take cues from us as well. One key to making happy talk useful is, again, to not be a trickster. I wouldn’t happy-chat my cat or dog during a painful orthopedic exam. I’d speak calmly to remind them I was there, but I wouldn’t giggle and joke, because my tone wouldn’t match their experience. If something happened and I was also scared (which they could tell through the smell of adrenaline), I’d speak in a steady voice if I could, but I wouldn’t try to bluff them.
I have seen more than one person happily cajole their fearful dog while shoveling them into an exam room. I do wonder whether this teaches the animal to disregard their human’s happy chatter as unreliable, and if the relationship is harmed. When I need to urgently move a frightened, reluctant animal, I say (calmly) something like “I’m sorry, buddy, we have to do this.” I don’t try to fake the animal out, because I don’t want to misspend the trust they may have in me.
How to use a recovery marker, and how not to
Markers like these are best used when we know the event is over. They are not best used for something like dog-dog leash reactivity, when another dog might be right around the corner, or for a prolonged/indefinite trigger like visitors to a home where the cat is fearful of strangers. And we don’t get to decide when a stressful event is over, actually — the animal decides. To illustrate: My young dog was once startled by a hydraulic noise from a passing truck. He stopped and looked. I briefly happy-chatted (to convey that I was not alarmed), agreeing that it was a big noisy truck. “Get out of here, noisy truck!” And I waited. When my dog had processed the experience (this took less than 10 seconds) and was able to look away, I asked him a bunch of silly questions and pretended to pinch his nose; he bounced and waggled, and we were on our way.
By the way: Please do not discount the importance of giving animals time to process things! When any of us is startled, we benefit tremendously by seeing what happens next. If a book falls off a shelf by itself, that’s weird! We look, we see no other books are moving or falling, and we can say, “That was odd,” and turn our attention away. I’ve observed that many animals, especially dogs being walked outside, hear the (metaphorical) book fall off the shelf without getting to see whether the other books are also moving. We’re dragging them, or putting food in their faces, and they miss the chance to learn that a book can fall off the shelf, and nothing relevant happens to them. Where we can intervene is to agree, “That was weird!” and help them move on.
The importance of processing time
The purpose of the recovery marker is to speed the animal’s bounce-back, not to distract them from the event. Our marker is more powerful if it is trustworthy, so using it in a situation full of triggers — a typical walk for a city dog who is reactive to men, a dinner party for a cat who is shy of strangers, or a thunderstorm for a dog who is noise-sensitive — runs the risk of weakening it. This is because a situation can easily arise where you’ve said “Whew! It’s over!” — but it’s not: some guy steps out from between two parked cars, or the cat hears the voices of strangers in the other room. We’re still left with plenty of opportunity to use recovery markers, though: vet visits (when the hard part is definitely over); training sessions the animal unexpectedly finds confusing or stressful; initial cooperative care/handling desensitization; recovery from bouts of temper from household members (even when not directed at the animal, these can be scary!); unexpected noises or encounters outside; unexpected corrections from other non-human household members.
Building a marker
I think many of us build markers automatically, and we can easily coach clients to do it. Lots of clients have silly things they do with their pets: little songs, dances, making jazz hands, pretending to sniff their ears — bonding games and in-jokes. By deliberately associating a few vocal and visual routines with bonding and joking around, we naturally create these markers. A marker should be distinct, not require any set up (no toys or other props) and minimal movement. When I adopted my dog late last year, I paid attention to what he found joyful or funny, and exaggerated these gestures or vocalizations to maximize effect. For cats and other species who may not pay as much attention to every little human gesture as dogs tend to do, I suggest having short routines that reliably lead into bonding activities. For example, if I get into bed and see the cat follow, I can start up saying, “I hope that stinky old cat isn’t coming up here! He’s too smelly!” and then of course he gets cuddles and scritches when he presents himself as usual.
I continually use routines in my home to give my animal companions information on good news for them. If I’m going to work on some training with the dog, I’ll do a quick soft happy-clap as I walk over to the treat bowl. When getting ready to take him for a walk, I’ll make a jaunty walk toward the door and tap the side of my leg. For the cat, I might turn to him and say, “Ooh let’s look for snacks!,” and hurry to the kitchen. In my experience, captive animals like housecats and dogs can benefit from signs that the household is peaceful and relaxed, and so I provide reminders of this throughout the day by way of these short routines.
Creation is different from building value, however. Recovery markers are most powerful when the animal knows they can rely on the judgment of the person using them, but some clients may have trouble maintaining a relationship based on trust and on offering choices. While a full discussion of such relationship-building is outside the scope of this article, I’ll say here that, in my experience, many clients need some coaching in keeping animals in their comfort zone. Human beings seem very prone to using size and strength to force behavior, rather than getting an animal’s consent, and are especially tough on dogs, who are often more reluctant to defend their bodily autonomy than cats are. (Dr. Karen Overall in the film Dogs, Cats, and Scapegoats, said: “If you think you need to dominate an animal, go home and try to dominate your cat, and after they’ve sewn you back together again … we’ll talk.”)1 Good communication can help clients identify more subtle signs of discomfort, and that knowledge can increase the value the clients put on consent behaviors. People want their animals to feel happy and safe! Even when training something simple, take time to point out both signs of disengagement, uncertainty, or conflict, as well as signs of engagement and enjoyment. I’ve had more than one client mention to me, days after such a mini-lesson, that they noticed signs of discomfort in other situations and were able to adjust the environment to make the animal more at ease. This is our whole goal! This is all part of a program of care that aims to reduce stress and increase joy.
In the vast array of social signals we give our companion animals, there is room for an “all clear” signal analogous to what we might get verbally from another person. We may be able to help them build resilience by reducing the amount of time they stay stuck on the feelings or thoughts initially triggered by the event. It’s all about the relationship — that’s what most behavior modification comes down to and this is no different. Build rapport, learn how your animal is speaking to you, and use the signals that bring them joy and relief.
Jess Erace, LVT, CPDT-KA, CTDI, is a Brooklyn-based veterinary nurse, trainer, and animal behavior nerd. Her clinical medical specialties include internal medicine and cardiology, and behavior interests include low-stress handling and cooperative care of dogs and cats; feline enrichment; and canine tricks and fitness.