Carlos and Barkleah learn to play nice


Human friendships grow as trust develops. Secrets shared, and painful life lessons, no longer hidden. Conversations stop sounding like those fairy tale Christmas letters. But how can our pets develop trust? What sparks natural enemies, dog, cat, and bird, to accept each other? How unbending are their natural instincts for preservation? Our home has become a laboratory for that question.

Funny how differently pets define play. Cats, full of energy, find solo play rewarding. A cat will entertain himself for hours with a ball, a rubber band, or with his own tail. A dog, on the other hand, prefers to play in packs or with their owners. Their need for social contact is clearly definitive.

Learned behaviors around play became a conduit for trust between our cat and dog. 

Carlos, a Maine Coon cat, is content to bat his giant paw under a closed-door to gain entry and quietly finds enjoyment and adventure after the humans crawl into bed. He often leaves evidence of his mischief all over the house. During the day, he will never challenge a house-rule. But after dark, he explores forbidden places, as table tops and counters call to his curious nature.

Barkleah, our Toy Fox Terrier and a pack animal, needs his people for food, approval, and companionship. He requires play with others. Rarely will he entertain himself for any length of time.

Dogs have a request for play recognized by all dog breeds. This distinctive behavior is called a play-bow. The dog will lower his head by stretching his front legs out on the floor, while his hind quarters remain standing. The other dog will respond in kind. Next begins the stare-off. Nose to nose, this staring contest continues until one of the two dogs looks away. Then a game of play explodes.

When Barkleah introduced Carlos to the play-bow, Carlos sat staring at Barkleah as if thinking “How dumb.” Barkleah remained in position, awaiting the stare-off. Carlos, desired action, took his huge front paw, and whacked Barkleah on top of his head. You could almost hear Barkleah. “Hey, Cat. No fair.”

Then the Chase began. Problem was, both Carlos and Barkleah prefer to be the one chased. They both leap forward, poised to run, waiting for the other to follow. Finally, Carlos, taller and stronger than Barkleah, began the chase. As they ran around the sofa, Barkleah seemed to smile. That is, until Carlos stopped running sat down, and whacked Barkleah on top of his head again. Dizzy from the blow, Barkleah raced to the safety of a human. Game over. The score was: Carlos-1, Barkleah-0.

Their trust began to grow in their play. Although engaged in games with different rules, somehow, they managed to honor each other with little injury. Barkleah now recognizes that the giant paw is to be avoided—whacking hurts. Barkleah also learned that Carlos’s playful cat–biting is dangerous. And if Carlos says the game is over, it’s over, indeed.

Carlos, on the other hand, has learned that if Barkleah is sleeping in the bed with Mommy and Daddy, never disturb him. This rule is in effect day or night. Once disturbed by a Carlos invitation to play, a thump on the head or a peek in the covers, Barkleah turns into a growling grizzly bear, with threats to punch Carlos in the nose.  Game over.

Taking time to learn about each other’s differences, accepting them without judging, and continuing to play, our pets have learned to trust. It seems so simple. Could we humans learn from our pets?


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