Tolerance does not equal goodness
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
There are a lot of myths or lines of thinking that are pervasive in our society that behavior consultants and trainers would love to see go by the wayside. There is one that is particularly harmful that I would love to break down. It relates to associating an animal’s “goodness” with how much they’re willing to tolerate.
Imagine you are meeting your friend to hang out. When they greet you, they run up and dive bomb on top of you with their full weight. When they’re talking to you, they get right up in your space and grab your head by putting a hand on either side of your face forcing you to look at them while they say what they need to say. All throughout the visit they randomly jump on top of you while you sit on your couch, poke your cheeks, pull your hair, stick their fingers in your mouth, and try to grab your arm to physically drag you around. Not to mention stealing food from your plate and constantly grabbing your phone out of your hand.
Trust me, that felt as strange to write as it probably did to read. As bizarre as that interaction is, if it were someone you liked or loved, you’d let them do it without frustration or complaint….right?
My guess is that you’re thinking, “Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to sit through that and say nothing!” That line of thinking would be one million percent reasonable. Most people won’t even tolerate that kind of behavior towards them from their own children. The longer it goes on, the more likely they’d be to get agitated and tell them to stop, yell, or blow up.
Yet these exact kinds of behaviors are often allowed when it comes to our animal companions and the expectation is that they should not respond in any negative way.
So often in my time working with dogs, I’ve heard people tell me that their cat or dog is so tolerant of their kids jumping on them, pulling on their tail, or hauling them around and then they punctuate the statement with what a “good” cat or dog they are. There is an inherent problem within this line of thinking:
It suggests that if the animal had reacted poorly, they would be bad for doing so.
It acknowledges that not everyone would be so tolerant of this behavior or social interaction, thereby admitting that it isn’t easy to do.
Tolerance can change on a dime and for many reasons. So let’s break these down a bit further.
Why are animals who don’t speak our language so often expected to be more tolerant than we are? Imagine if telling someone that to stop jumping on top of you, pulling your hair, or hitting you translated into people thinking you’re a bad person. Obviously my point is that if an animal reacts to rude, pushy, or painful behavior directed at them, this doesn’t make them bad or less worthy of a home than an animal who suppresses the urge to respond.
If we have to point out that an animal is tolerant, it is often an unintentional admission that we are allowing something to happen to them that probably shouldn’t or that they are responding better than is common to something that is challenging for most. Let’s look at the definition of the word:
showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with. "we must be tolerant of others"
(of a plant, animal, or machine) able to endure specified conditions or treatment. "rye is reasonably tolerant of drought"
Yes they may be exceptionally tolerant, but they are sentient beings with rich emotional lives and oftentimes are considered a member of the family. We need to change the perspective and protect these creatures from having to tolerate things they shouldn’t be exposed to in the first place.
I hear so many people with this get defensive (especially in relation to how their children interact with the pet) and point out that their animal “doesn’t mind” or “shouldn't mind.” While in most cases I can easily beg to differ based on the subtle body language I’m seeing (lots of “cute” animal videos get ruined when you learn about what they’re really saying), the sentiment that the animal is unbothered doesn’t take into account that moods change, things can get old or frustrating over time, or that animals can have “off days” too. Perhaps your dog ran a little too hard today and their leg is a little sore but not enough to limp. You may not see it as the owner, but suddenly that weight on their leg went from pressure to pain. Maybe your cat is stressed about a subtle change in their environment. They’re doing well to cope until someone yanks their tail.
So often when an animal reacts in a way the average person is knowledgeable enough to see, it is by growling, snapping, or biting. When this happens, I see so many owners show just how intolerant they are as the owner. This behavior from their pets is frequently considered unacceptable regardless of their motivation and so many animals pay for it in quite serious ways. Imagine if you had your children taken away because you told them to stop engaging in rude behavior. As absurd and dramatic as this may come across, it isn’t an unreasonable analogy to make here. Many dogs and cats lose their homes and have their lives turned upside down for expressing themselves with what gets labeled as “aggressive” behavior, even if they should have never been put in a position to have to do so. Not everyone fits into this category but I’ve discovered that a lot of people don’t realize they are following this ideology: We expect them to tolerate everything, and we pride ourselves in tolerating nothing.
An animal is not inherently bad because they communicate (in the only way that they are capable of doing so) that they are uncomfortable. We are able to do so with our words but they don’t have that capability. Ensuring that they aren’t subjected to unnecessary discomfort, stress, or pain is and should be part of our commitment to caring for and meeting that animal’s needs.
The good news is that there are lots of healthy ways for adults and children alike to interact with their companions, while also making sure that they are feeling comfortable and secure. Ensuring that we are making the interaction pleasant for both sides will make for a much safer, healthier and happier life together with our pets. Consent petting, games filled with agency for both parties, and cooperative care training are all examples of appropriate ways to meet those needs.
We can really progress our relationships with the animals we share our lives together when we begin to empathize with their perspective.