What I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Studying Animal Body Language

Last week I wrote a post about the “freeze” option our pets have while over threshold and mentioned that it often gets written off as “fine”. You can read that article here if you haven’t yet. This week, I want to focus on a reaction that I often see when people first learn about this: the prelearning dip. 

Waaay at the beginning of the Pet Harmony blog, I talked about “prelearning dips”. You can read the full article here, but the Cliffs Notes version is that a “prelearning dip” happens when we receive new information that competes with information we previously had, so we reject the new stuff. It’s one of the reasons why providing facts, stats, and scientific studies in an internet argument doesn’t usually work in persuading the other person. We all go through these dips and sometimes we hang out in that dip for a while instead of reconciling the new information and updating our knowledge base. I know that I have!

Often, when I talk about the “freeze” option to clients I see them having a bit of a prelearning dip as this new information – that their pet is uncomfortable, stressed, and/or anxious – is incompatible with what they thought was happening– their pet being “fine”. That’s a really difficult piece of new information to reconcile. In a session, I’ll let my client work through that and ask me as many questions as they need to to reconcile instead of pushing them, but I wanted to take the time to talk to y’all about this particular situation more in-depth. And, more importantly, let you know that this is a normal part of the learning process. 

Prelearning dips & learning body language

I regularly give presentations about animal body language. After every presentation, there is at least one person – without fail – who is concerned about their pet displaying many of the stress signals that we discussed in the seminar. This happened so frequently that I included an entire slide in my updated presentation saying that, “not all stress is bad stress” to allay some of those fears and questions I was routinely getting. 

Good stress vs. bad stress is a topic for another day; the point of this anecdote is that there are a whole lot of feelings that come up when people first start studying animal body language. Guilt, anxiety, confusion, wonder, excitement: I’ve seen it all! And a very common occurrence is that of the prelearning dip. This happens because, for some people, I’ve inadvertently shattered their beliefs about their pet. They might think that their pet loves belly rubs but I challenged that by describing a “tap out” (pictured below).

This dog’s ears are held low and back against the head, mouth is tight, and body looks stiff. All signs that this is a tap out instead of a belly rub invitation!

They might think that their dog loves getting kissed on the top of the head, but I challenged that by putting all of the signals they see from their dog in that situation into the “distance-increasing” category. 

Dog kiss
This dog’s ears are super far back and low against the head, body stiff, mouth closed tightly, head turned away, and it looks like the tail might be tucked as well.

They might think that “freeze” is a sign of “fine”, but I challenged that by stepping on a mini soap box about how not-okay it is for animals to be shut down. 

Scared puppy
This dog’s ears are low and back against the head, tail down, body stiff, and slightly crouched. The weight distribution on the hind legs (leaning back) may be for balance instead of a stress signal.

The list goes on. 

The biggest thing that I want to tell folks who I see struggling to reconcile this new information with the information they previously had is: it’s okay. It’s okay to go through a pre-learning dip! We’ve all been there before and will be there again. It’s okay to take some time to sift through new information and noodle it over. It’s okay to reframe how we think about our pets based on this new information; they’re still the same individual they were before and we won’t love them any less. It’s okay. 

If you’re one of the majority of people who has or is struggling with a prelearning dip as you learn more about your pet’s body language, know that you’re not alone. It’s okay to learn new things and even learn that you were wrong about a certain aspect of your pet. We all do the best that we can with the information that we have in the moment; and when we learn better, we do better. The most important thing is to keep learning.

Now what?

  • Have you started studying your pet’s body language? If not, get on it! If everyone knew how their animal communicated we would live in a very different [and I think better] world. Here are some resources to help you (these are Amazon affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!)
  • Think through your learning journey in regards to animal body language. What’s something that you’ve learned from multiple reputable sources that you’re still hung up on? Why do you think you’re having a prelearning dip about that particular thing? What ideas do you currently have that have to change in order to reconcile the new information?
  • Talk to an expert about your prelearning dip. Tell them about the hangup you’re having and why you think you’re having it. Many times hangups happen because there are kernels of truth in mostly untrue ideas or statements; it’s hard to piece together what is and is not factual in those situations. An expert can help you do that more proficiently! 
  • If your prelearning dip is happening as a way to keep guilt at bay, you’re not alone. All of us at some point have been told to do something or train in a way that wasn’t LIMA-friendly towards our animals. And oftentimes, prelearning dips are a way for us to not have to deal with the emotions that come along with that. Remember, we all do the best that we can with the information that we have at hand. Let yourself feel those difficult things and then move on, knowing that you’re on the path to knowing better and doing better. 

Happy training!


Becoming Bilingual: Reading Your Pet’s Body Language



What if I told you that there’s a way to make your pet’s behavior more predictable? A way to better avoid unfortunate incidents? A way to communicate better with your non-human family members? There is! 

All of this becomes possible when we can proficiently read our pet’s body language. Our pets are communicating with us all of the time through their body language signals and behavior. I’d say that most of us can pick up on big emotional “tones” with our animals. For instance, most people would probably say the dog on the left is “happy” and the dog on the right is “not happy” without knowing the nuts and bolts of dog body language. 

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash


Likewise, “happy” cat on the left and “not happy” cat on the right. 

Photo by Ludemeula Fernandes on Unsplash  


However, if we just leave our understanding at this most basic level we’re missing most of the conversation. It’d be like only learning the tone of voice someone uses instead of learning words and sentences. Their raised voice might be anger or excitement; it can be hard to tell if we don’t know the words. Further study is needed to learn the nuances and subtle differences in communication, like the difference between these two dogs:

Photo by Anne Dudek on Unsplash Photo by Sakura on Unsplash


How can I learn my pet’s body language? 

There are three basic skills to being able to proficiently read your pet’s body language:

  1. Observation: being able to see the signals your pet is displaying
  2. Knowing the signals: knowing the “words” your pet is using
  3. Interpretation: understanding how they’re stringing the “words” into “sentences”

Observation is the first step; it doesn’t matter if you know the signals if you can’t see your pet using them! While there are a lot of jokes about observant vs. unobservant people, this too is a skill that can be learned like any other! Here are some tips for beefing up your observation skills:

  1. Play games! Activities like scavenger hunts, find the difference photos, and even Eye Spy games are great for sharpening your observational skills.
  2. Observe with all 5 senses. There’s an anxiety-reducing exercise that is great for building observational skills as well: acknowledge 5 things you see, 4 things you touch, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. This will come in handy when we get to the interpretation section. 
  3. Separate observation from interpretation by watching animals you know nothing about. So often we immediately jump to interpretation instead of simply observing what’s going on and taking it at face value. I find it’s easier for my students to do this when they practice watching videos of an animal they’re not familiar with first. 

After or alongside building observational skills we can start learning the body language signals. As with anything, there are some great resources and some inaccurate resources on the internet. Here are a few we recommend (check out our recommendations pages as well; we update frequently!):

This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are many species missing; email us at [email protected] if you’re looking for resources on a different species! Here are some tips to help you observe your pet’s signals:

  • Focus on one body part at a time. For an entire day solely focus on your pet’s ears and nothing else. The next day focus on your pet’s mouth, and so on. Become proficient reading one part then move on to the next. 
  • Video your pet. Watch and rewatch the video focusing on different body parts and signals. How many do you see when playing it frame by frame vs. at normal speed?
  • Practice! Learning another language takes time and practice, plain and simple. The only way to see more signals is to practice frequently. 

Interpreting body language signals is not always black and white. A yawn may be a stress signal one minute and related to sleep in another minute. This is where interpretation comes in. We must always remember, though, that our interpretation is just that. It’s not a 100% accurate fact. It’s our best guess as to what the animal is experiencing and we will not really be able to confirm our assumptions with our pets. As such, it’s important that we always make training and behavior modification decisions based on observable behaviors instead of our interpretations.

This step is the hardest because we can’t verify our answer to see if it’s right. This might be a step that you prefer to leave to a professional (which is a great call!) Here are some tips to help you become more proficient at interpreting your pet’s signals if you’d like to do so:

  • Stick to simple interpretations like comfortable vs. uncomfortable. The more involved your interpretation the more likely it is to be incorrect. 
  • Observe your pet’s entire body. Is their body language overall comfortable or uncomfortable? Are you seeing multiple stress signals in a row and/or simultaneously?
  • Watch for the cause and effect in your videos. What happens before and after your pet displays certain signals? Remember to observe with all of your senses. 
  • Watch videos of animals interacting together. One of the best ways to glean conversations in another language is to listen to native speakers! Again, watch for the cause and effect. 
  • Get a professional’s (or twos or threes) opinion. Professionals have simply watched a whole lot of animals and that helps build a mental database that we can reference against, so to speak. That doesn’t mean we don’t get it wrong too. We just have more experience observing different individuals. 

Now what?

  • Identify which step you should start with: observation, learning the signals, or interpretation. 
  • Build the habit into your day. Devote at least a few minutes each day to becoming fluent in your pet’s language. 
  • Try the above steps and do some research on your own. Get your friends and family involved so you can practice with them, too! 
  • Move on to the next phase when you feel confident in the one you’re currently on. 
  • Check out our Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics course for more info on canine body language.
  • Reach out to a professional for help. Pet Harmony routinely offers body language seminars in person and if you ask us nicely at [email protected] we’ll consider a webinar sooner rather than later for y’all 😉 

Happy training!


Podcast Episode 38: Transcript

#38 - Unlocking the Behavior Matrix: Part 2

[00:00:00] Emily:  There is so much more to physical, behavioral, and emotional health to affecting behavior change, to helping a learner be the best version of themselves than just operant consequences. There’s no, so much more to learning theory than that, and there’s so much more to behavior than just learning theory.

[00:00:17] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:37] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:39] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week, Emily and I skimmed the surface of how learning and behavior work. This week we’re coming back for part two, focusing specifically on positive reinforcement and what that means for the pets in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about what positive reinforcement is and isn’t, and why taking a prescriptive approach might be messing up your training, toxic positivity and trends, not moments. Let’s get started.

So, Emily, when you and I were talking about the implementation episodes for Dr. Susan Friedman’s episodes, we, decided that there were a lot of topics that we wanted to touch on in relation to how learning and behavior work, and we decided, We wanted to talk about all of those and also wanted to talk about positive reinforcement in general because it is a phrase that is used so frequently in especially the dog training communities.

And so, we have clients ask us all the time, are we positive reinforcement trainers or they, they’re looking for people that fit that bill, and the answer is hard because when you know things about learning and behavior, that’s, uh, kind of a weird question. And so, we really wanted to talk today about what it is, what it isn’t, why that’s a weird question, to help give more information for the folks who are looking for LIMA based trainers, which is ultimately I think what they’re asking for.

[00:02:34] Emily:  Yeah, I agree. Although I will say that the word LIMA can also be contentious, and there are a lot of people who use LIMA to mean, I’ll, I’ll be humane with animals until I get stuck and can’t figure out what to do, and then I’ll be as aversive as I need to, to get the job done. So, I, I wanna just acknowledge and recognize that there are a lot of people who don’t like the term LIMA because of the ways that it is frequently misused.

So, it’s really hard to, to come up with a really pithy way of describing what we’re talking about, but what we mean is ethical and humane training that is focused on giving the learner the most control and meeting all of the learner’s needs. And that’s way too long, so we frequently use LIMA as our, like shortcut, our he, heuristic for that whole big phrase.

Um, so I just wanted to clarify that for anybody listening who might have yucky feels about the, the term LIMA. But yes, people also misuse the term positive reinforcement all the time. It’s really common in the dog training world because we’ve got this kind of dog trainer-ized version of the behavior sciences out there, and everybody kind of repeats these, dog trainer-ized versions of things.

And so, we’ve got, we’ve created this echo chamber where we’ve all decided that the definition of positive reinforcement is happy, good, healthy things that animals love to do, appetitive. A lot of times we’re treating positive reinforcement as a synonym for appetitive, and um, and that can be really problematic because either people are trying to make it mean too much, right?

So, positive reinforcement isn’t a synonym for humane training. It doesn’t always mean that the learner has full control, and finds it appetitive and, um, is, is eagerly participating in the process, or people assume that positive reinforcement is happening when it isn’t.

So, being aware of our industry’s misunderstanding and misuse of this term helps us to be better professionals, or if you’re a pet parent, it helps you to be a better shopper, a better consumer when you’re looking to hire a professional. So, let’s define what positive reinforcement actually means. Positive reinforcement just means that in the presence of a certain antecedent, an event that happens in time when a behavior happens in response to that antecedent, the consequence that comes afterwards will strengthen the behavior in, in the future by being added to the learner’s environment. So positive is not good, it doesn’t mean good in this context, it means added to, like a plus sign. And reinforcement means, uh, making the behavior stronger or more reliable.

Those three components, the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence occur together. The antecedent happens, the specific behavior responds to that antecedent, the consequence that happens increases the behavior because it was added to the environment. That’s what that means. That’s what positive reinforcement is.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the learner has control over their outcomes or is enjoying what’s happening. For example, one of my favorite examples of this is actually something that happened to you, Allie, at the sanctuary where we both worked, where there was a fearful dog who was afraid of people and some of the caregivers had been training the dog to approach people to get food, and that sounds like great, right? If, if I just stopped there, it would be like, “Yeah, look at that! That’s a really good example of positive reinforcement resulting in good things.” However, the dog wasn’t actually comfortable approaching people. The dog was just approaching people for that food.

So, the cue to come to the person would happen, the dog would approach, the dog would get food as the consequence, and that behavior did increase because food was added, but the dog became increasingly uncomfortable to the point that she would bite people after she ate the food. And so, then Allie, who was, the kind of behavioral person in charge of that area of that part of the sanctuary, came into that enclosure, and did not know that that’s what the caregivers had been doing, and the dog approached her and bit her.

So, they had, through positive reinforcement, trained this dog to approach and bite people. And obviously that wasn’t their goal or intention, but that’s what happens when we assume that positive reinforcement is always a good thing for the learner, is that we sometimes get dogs who have really yucky feelings about what’s happening, but they’re doing the behavior anyway, and they’re not actually feeling good about it, and that discomfort can express itself as biting, right? So that’s a perfect example of how positive reinforcement does not always mean that the learner’s needs are being met, that they’re comfortable, happy, and enjoying the process.

[00:07:11] Allie: And I think the problem is that when people are talking about positive reinforcement, they’re often taking a prescriptive approach instead of a descriptive approach where they’re saying, “Well, I’m adding food, and therefore it should be positive reinforcement.” When we don’t actually get to know if that’s true without knowing if the behavior is increasing or decreasing in the future. And so, this prescriptive approach can blow up and, and can create situations where people think food doesn’t work, or positive reinforcement doesn’t work. Positive reinforcement is what it is. It doesn’t work or not work. It just is a phrase that explains a behavior phenomenon that is already happening. It’s the outcome.

[00:07:58] Emily:  So, it either happened or it didn’t.

[00:07:59] Allie: Right? There’s, there’s nothing works or not works about it. Um, and that’s, that’s not just true for positive reinforcement, that’s true for any of the, the behavioral contingencies that we’re talking about here. Uh, they’re, they’re just describing outcomes. And so, these labels can create unnecessary conflict, can create unnecessary self-limiting beliefs. It can create, uh, situations where people are arguing over things that are not actually happening or not actually true instead of trying to get to the root cause of what is actually happening and we’re wasting time and resources. And for our clients oftentimes money while we’re arguing about semantics, sometimes.

So, just like we talk about with enrichment, we needing to take a des descriptive approach and talk about what we’re actually seeing, and, and the outcomes. The same is true for the behavioral contingencies that we are using as well.

[00:08:59] Emily:  Yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite metaphors for this that I, that I use frequently when I’m talking to fellow professionals is that arguing about operant consequences and which consequence is the best, is kind of like arguing about which letters to use in a debate about masterful writing.

You have to learn the letters, know what they are, be able to identify them, see when they’re happening in order to spell, and you have to learn how to spell in order to read and write.

But when we’re talking about masterful writing, nobody’s arguing about which letters to use, right? It’s just we’re on a much broader scale than that, and that should be also true for discussing masterful training. When we’re talking about masterful training, I don’t think it’s particularly productive to be down on the level of the letters and arguing about which operant consequences are occurring because there is so much more to physical, behavioral, and emotional health to affecting behavior change, to helping a learner be the best version of themselves than just operant consequences. There’s no, so much more to learning theory than that, and there’s so much more to behavior than just learning theory.

So, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to be arguing about operant consequences. I think instead we need to be looking at behavior change through the lens of enrichment. And maybe I’m biased, but this is, this is why we talk about enrichment all the time because I believe this to my core, that if we focus instead on identifying what needs are unmet, and meeting those needs, and setting up an environment that promotes physical, behavioral, and emotional health for our learner, and helping them to perform species typical behaviors and safe, healthy, appropriate ways, and develop really healthy, strong, trusting relationships with the people and other animals in their lives, there’s so much more to that type of behavior change than just operant consequences. But if we did that, if that was our focus, every time we’re talking about behavior change, most of the time, the operant consequences that would be occurring as an outcome of how we were working on would actually be positive reinforcement.

But that wouldn’t be our goal, that would be a byproduct, right? The goal would be physical, behavioral, and emotional health so that the animal can be the best version of themselves, and positive or reinforcement would be happening in abundance along the way, but that wouldn’t be the focus of the conversation.

[00:11:30] Allie: So, let’s get into what this actually means. We’ve been kind of talking a little bit more high level here about positive reinforcement, and I know you and I could soapbox about this topic for many, many more minutes, but let’s get into what this actually means for people working with their pets.

[00:11:51] Emily:  Yeah, so I think our first takeaway is that positive reinforcement isn’t a guarantee of learner consent or control, or learner enjoyment. So, we have to pay attention to the whole learner and, and their entire environment, not just whether or not they’re doing behaviors that we want more often. That’s certainly a piece of the puzzle, but that’s not the whole puzzle.

So, that is the shift that we should take is instead of assuming that because positive reinforcement is happening, it good training is happening. We should be focusing on learner control and consent and whether or not we’re meeting their needs.

[00:12:27] Allie: And the next part of that is to pay attention to trends instead of moments. So frequently clients will say, “I did this thing, and my pet didn’t do X, they didn’t do the behavior. What do I do?” And my answer is, ” Try again?” It’s, and that sounds a little flippant, but truly my answer is, try again,

does that happen again or does it not? I, it’s hard to tell when we are looking at a very, very specific moment in time, it is so much easier to see what’s going on and to see that larger picture when we’re paying attention to trends and when we’re talking about is our animal enjoying this type of training? Are they providing consent? Trends are going to give us more information than a particular moment because learning isn’t linear. There are going to be moments where your learner isn’t having a great day. It happens to all of us. Maybe you’re, as the teacher or the trainer not having a great day and, and so there may be regressions, but if we are trending in the right direction, that’s more important than what happened in this one particular moment in time. And when I talk to clients about that, a lot of times I see a sigh of relief because there will be times where clients will tell me this situation happened. I reacted in a way that I’m not proud of.

And what I tell them is, you’re human and you reacted like a human, and were going to hopefully gain skills so that you can react in a different way later on in the future if this happens again. But it, are we still trending in the right direction? And if they say yes, we’re still trending in the right direct.

Okay, cool. We, when we know better, we do better. We’ll try to onboard skills so that we can react differently in the future, but it sounds like it was okay. It wasn’t the end of the world that you reacted in the way that you did. And so, I think it’s very freeing to pay attention to the trends and not the moments in, in learning.

[00:14:26] Emily:  I absolutely agree, and sidebar, when I was in physical therapy, my physical therapist would say very similar things to me about like how progress isn’t linear and that you’re going to make steps forward and then make steps back, and it’s important not to get discouraged because we’re looking at those trends.

So, it was nice to see that our profession isn’t the only one for whom that is true, right? That I think that’s just true of growth and change in general, regardless of what we’re talking about.

[00:14:52] Allie: And our third takeaway for today, one of the reasons that we often see people saying positive reinforcement doesn’t work, and y’all can’t see my air quotes as I’m saying that phrase, but I can’t say it without the air quotes. So, one of the reasons that we see people saying that is because they don’t actually have something that is reinforcing in that moment, and so there’s no reason for the behavior to continue.

We see this with situations where there’s a lot of distraction going on, and I think one of the things that gets people into trouble is thinking that because a reward works in one scenario, and is actually reinforcing in one scenario, that it would be reinforcing in another. And an example of this is asking for the same behavior in different situations where inside Oso, Oso would honestly do a behavior for a Cheerio or a piece of kibble, half a piece of kibble inside.

Let’s be real. It does not take a lot for his behavior inside to be reinforced. However, when we go outside, even into the backyard, I need to really up the ante. A cheerio or a piece of kibble is not going to actually be reinforcing in that moment, even though it’s food, I’m giving it to him, et cetera.

Again, positive reinforcement means that the behavior has to actually increase or stay the same in the future. It’s an outcome, not an action. So, to be able to, to see everything that we’re talking about, I invite you to teach a trick or use a known behavior that you don’t mind corrupting. So, don’t use your recalls here, don’t use a safety thing. Use a thing that doesn’t matter. For Oso, I would probably choose a head down or, I care about a lot of his behaviors because motion. I would probably choose a head down or maybe even a go to place behavior. I don’t use that super frequently. He, he has a lot of that installed without me having to have a cue for it. So, you’re going to teach a trick and identify the reinforcer for that behavior in three different scenarios, for example, inside, outside and with a distraction. Those would be the scenarios that I would use for Oso.

And you can see, does for example this same piece of food actually reinforce this behavior in all three of these scenarios, or does this toy reinforce the behavior in all three scenario? So, that’s a way that you can really see what we’re talking about of reward does not necessarily reinforce a behavior when we’re talking about it in, in the actual definition of the word.

[00:17:31] Emily:  And this is so important because in, even though I’m really glad that this positive reinforcement movement happened and it was definitely an approximation towards a profession that is based in science, ethics, and humane treatment of the learners, one of the, the unintended side effects of that is this kind of toxic positivity that happens where it’s like, ” Oh, You have to be positive reinforcement, anything other than like absolute like joy and being nice and warm fuzzies, um, is a violation of this philosophy.” And that is, that’s not realistic to life. People are allowed to be upset, people are allowed to have confusions, people are allowed to speak out against things that they don’t agree with, and, and even our learners are going to sometimes encounter unavoidable stressors and have moments where they don’t feel good.

And instead of just trying to wrap and bubble wrap and avoid that completely, we should teach them how to successfully navigate those stressful encounters, so that they can be the most empowered and healthy versions of themselves possible. So, here’s a good example of this in kind of human interactions that happened a couple of years ago.

I used to belong to this, uh, community of behavior professionals, and within that community it came out that a trainer was doing some really harmful stuff to dogs. And several other trainers in the area spoke out against the harm that they were doing. Then other trainers came to their defense and were saying, “I thought you believed in positive reinforcement. This isn’t very positive reinforcement about you.” But that has nothing to do with positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t mean nice all the time and objecting to any discussion of what is and isn’t ethical, and speaking out against harmful behavior, in the name of positive reinforcement is a really good example of that toxic positivity I was just talking about.

You can practice humane teaching and training, and you can also take a stand against harm. Those two things are not in opposition. There’s uh, something called a dialectic, which is, dialectic means two or more seemingly mutually incompatible truths that are simultaneously true. And being able to acknowledge these things that appear to be incompatible but aren’t actually incompatible. And the, the kind of kernel of truth in that, discussion that was happening in that community is that we shouldn’t fall for a logical fallacy called the bandwagon fallacy.

Which is that just because, um, it seems to be trendy to before or against something, we should all just jump on the bandwagon. So, that is true. And simultaneously it is also true that we do need to give each other space to express frustration, or sadness, or indignance at injustices that are occurring. And that doesn’t mean that it is in conflict with this notion of humane training, or LIMA, or positive reinforcement, or whatever label we give to what we do as a community.

[00:20:39] Allie: And that’s another topic that we could spend a very long amount of time talking about. Uh, that would be a great Pro Campus topic. Actually, we should add that as, as a session for Pro Campus.

[00:20:52] Emily:  That’s a good idea. Having a, a topic about like how to, first of all, make sure that what you’re opposing is true, and gather evidence first, and then how to oppose it without falling for the bandwagon fallacy.

[00:21:05] Allie: Yeah, I think that would be a great Pro Campus session.

So, mine is for the pet parent since yours was for professionals. We talked a little bit already that just because you think you are rewarding a behavior doesn’t mean it’s reinforcing the behavior. It doesn’t mean the behavior’s going to increase in the future. And so, I’ve seen this time and again when clients are trying to teach, especially recalls, I don’t know what it is about recalls that lends itself to this, but I see this all the time with recalls. And so, I had a client this was years ago, who was trying to teach a recall, and was patting the dog on the head before treating every time. I don’t think the client actually realized that they were doing it, uh, especially after we talked about it. I, I don’t think they realized what they were doing.

But this client was patting the dog on the head before treating every time. And you could see in the body language, the dog was not into that. The dog did not enjoy being patted on the head, and the dog stopped recalling. This dog, the dog stopped coming when called because, the consequence for coming was being patted on the head, which they did not enjoy.

So, they were like, why would I come to you when it means you’re going to pat me on the head? That’s gross. Even though there was food involved, and even though the dog enjoyed other forms of petting. It wasn’t like this was a dog that had massive handling sensitivity issues, or didn’t enjoy being petted in general, this dog did enjoy being petted, but didn’t enjoy being patted on the head in the way that the client was doing this after their recall.

And so, we had to talk through, ” Okay. I know that you think you are doing positive reinforcement. This behavior says otherwise the behavior is decreasing, and so you’re actually punishing the behavior.” By definition of punishment, means a behavior decreases over time. And so, we had to change up what we were doing. And like I said, I don’t think the client realized that they were patting the dog on the head, and so we removed that, we kept the treats, we retaught it, and, and the dog was able to come when called afterwards.

But I see this happening so frequently with folks where people think they are doing positive reinforcement because they’re adding something that they think the animal should like, but in actuality, that’s not what’s happening. And again, this is where we get people saying positive reinforcement doesn’t work because they think that one thing is happening, but another thing entirely is happening.

Thus ends Part Two of Unlocking the Learning Matrix. Thank you for letting us geek out a little bit today. I know that the ins and outs and nitty gritty details of learning and behavior is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I know that for many of you, you enjoy the deep dive that, that we get into sometimes with this.

So, thank you for hanging out today with us. Today we talked about positive reinforcement, what that actually means and why taking a prescriptive approach will set your training back, that positive reinforcement isn’t a guarantee of consent or enjoyment, to pay attention to trends, not moments, and to practice your observation skills by identifying reinforcers for the same behavior in three different scenarios.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.


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Podcast Episode 37: Transcript

#37 - Unlocking the Behavior
Matrix: Part 1

[00:00:00] Allie: And it’s been amazing to see the explosive progress that this client has been able to make because she took that step back to really focus on those observation skills, and that was something that we’ve been talking about for a while. But sometimes it takes a moment for it to really click, and it takes hearing about something enough times to really understand what you are looking for, and what you’re working on, and all of that.

So, I, I love, I love seeing that and her being able to see her dog’s behavior for what it is, focusing on those overt behaviors. For her to be able to tell me, ” I see when she’s going to yell at dogs, and I can do something about it beforehand.” And understanding why she’s taking the action that she’s taking for that consequence and understanding that it’s about feelings instead of behaviors. I, she is making so much more progress, understanding those three topics that we dipped our toe into today.

Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:22] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:23] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Dr. Susan Friedman, and one of the topics we discussed was observation skills. This week we’re going to dive further into some learning foundations, how that applies to observation skills, and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. And because there’s like a lot of learning foundations, this is part one of a two parts episode.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about why we’re better together, why sometimes your dog barks at people and sometimes they don’t, and how to better predict your pet’s behavior.

[00:02:25] Emily:  The laws of the behavior sciences are universal, right? I mean, there’s obviously a lot of individual variety and variation, but yeah, we are all subject to the laws of behavior, just like we’re all subject to the laws of physics.

And I think that’s a really important thing for anybody who lives or works with non-humans to learn, because you can be more effective at meeting your learner’s needs, and including them in their own learning process, when you are an acute observer of behavior, when you really refine and hone those observational skills.

[00:03:00] Allie: Yeah, I am accused of wi, wizardry often because of that. And

I tell folks that it’s like unlocking the matrix. It’s like in the movie, when Neo sees all of that green coding and all of that green coding makes up everything within the world of the Matrix. I tell folks it’s like that because when you can see the laws of behavior in action, it’s like you can see the coding behind all of those actions, and all of those behaviors, and it’s so cool to see this.

And obviously, you know, in an enrichment podcast we’re going to talk about how this makes you more effective at meeting your learner’s needs because enrichment. But for our clients, what this typically means is that they’re able to predict their animal’s behavior better. So many of our clients come to us and say that their pet has unpredictable aggression or that their behavior is unpredictable and very seldomly is that actually true. There are usually precursors that we are able to identify that predict that behavior, and not only precursors in the environment that can predict that behavior, but also predictors in their body language as well.

And when that’s not true, that doesn’t mean that it’s unpredictable. It just means we haven’t been able to figure out what those precursors are yet. And sometimes we do get to figure that out, and sometimes we say, “Well, are close enough. We have enough information here that we can still keep everybody safe, and we can still work on the behavior and all of that good sort of stuff.”

[00:04:40] Emily:  The few times that I’ve been in a situation with the client where the behavior is legitimately unpredictable, it’s almost always either because the animal is just so chronically stressed that, they just go what we call zero to 60, is really just 59 to 60.

The animal’s just constantly operating at 59, so it doesn’t take much to push them over the threshold to 60. Or the other thing that could be happening is that those, behavioral responses have been punished in the past, or ignored, which ignoring is a type of punishment when it reduces behavior. And, uh, so the animal has just learned to, not communicate those things, and just skip straight to the end.

And in both of those cases, when you know that you still can predict when those behaviors are going to occur, and you can actually teach them how to bring those warning behaviors back into their repertoire. So, even in the times when behavior isn’t predictable. It, it’s almost always eventually predictable. And again, you have to have really good observational skills to be able to suss that out and help the animal get to that goal.

[00:05:49] Allie: I would add medical to that list of reasons as well. And again, with those observation skills, there have been times where, I’ve had a client who their pet has regressions that we can’t particularly figure out until they tell me, “Well, their stool was a bit softer that day too.” And then we started tracking soft stool or some other observable, physical thing with their animal and realized, oh, they probably have an upset stomach or some other medical thing going on that was affecting that behavior. So, I’ll add medical to that list of reasons why we can’t suss out as easily.

[00:06:31] Emily:  I am so proud of you and so grateful to you for that because after, like we’ve known each other for almost a decade, right? And after a decade of me harping on the intersection between medicine and behavior, this is a moment when you caught the ball that I, dropped and picked up that medical conversation. So, thank you for, for adding that cuz I, I, did totally forget to mention it, and it is super important.

[00:06:54] Allie: This is why we’re a team. So, for today’s implementation episode, we wanted to do something a little bit different. Normally y’all know that we say, okay, here’s the topic and here are the steps to go through with applying it. Really for today, we wanted to talk about behavior foundations, and learning foundations. Because it is half of what we do, and there’s no better time to talk about it than after listening to Dr. Susan Friedman. And they did talk about, quite a few of these topics, so today, instead of having, a kind of a step one, a step two, a step three, we have different areas that we want to just lightly touch on.

For those of you who are not science nerds like we are or, are afraid of terminology, it’s okay. We’re going to take it easy on you. And we just wanna talk about a few things that we talk about most frequently with our clients actually to help them with understanding their pet’s behavior.

So, let’s first talk about, Emily you know, the spiel, like the back of your hand, so I’m going to let you do our first takeaway about overt behavior, covert behavior, labels, all that.

[00:08:08] Emily:  My pleasure. This is something I learned from Dr. Friedman, so this is actually one of the things that that created that paradigm shift for me when I was first learning about behavior from them was this idea that we interpret behavior through our ideas about why a learner is behaving the way they are, instead of just looking at the behavior itself. That is a really important distinction. It was a huge aha moment for me when I was first starting out. So, when we say overt behaviors, what we mean by that is behaviors that we can see, measure, and assess.

So, think of them as action. Overt behaviors are actions that we can observe for ourselves.

When we talk about covert behaviors, what we’re talking about is internal behaviors, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions. We know that covert behaviors exist in all sentient beings, not just humans. And they’re very important, to say that we should become really good observers if overt behavior is not to say that covert behavior doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, but we can’t know what’s happening inside of another learner. We cannot see, measure or assess it.

And if you think about how accurate our assessments of other human’s covert behaviors are, uh, if you think about all of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that happen in two humans who speak the same language, same species, same language, that gives you an idea of how, how reliable our interpretations of covert behaviors are.

And if we’re that bad at it with other members of our own species who speak our own language, then we’re probably not great at it with other species. So, that’s why it’s important to base our decisions about behavior change and what we’re gonna do on the animal’s overt behaviors, what we can see, measure, and assess.

As opposed to making those decisions based on what we think their covert behaviors are. Because since we can’t see those behaviors, we can’t actually know what they are, we can’t actually know what’s going on inside. The reason that this is important is, uh, I mean, I, I don’t even, I don’t even know to that, that’s a thing to say because like, it’s just deeply important to everything that we do.

But an example of why this is such an important distinction, it’s because so often when we work with clients and they have a dog with a maladaptive behavior, a lot of times their interpretations of why that behavior is happening is because the dog is trying to dominate them, or the dog is mean, or the dog has rage syndrome, or something like that.

And if we try to base our behavior change decisions based on those stories, those narratives, then we’re gonna miss the mark of what’s actually going on with an animal, what they actually need, what they’re actually feeling. And so, when we teach clients how to read body language, and how to read those overt behaviors, over, and over, and over again, we hear clients say, ” It’s like a whole new world has opened up to me, and now I can see it everywhere. And now that I have learned how to see it, I can’t unsee it. I can see conversation happening in our neighbor’s dog. And it just, it’s an eye-opener.”

So, that’s the first step for our clients and for ourselves as learners is learning how to observe overt behaviors and separate those overt behaviors from our assumptions or our fictionalized narratives about why those behaviors are occuring.

[00:11:37] Allie: I think of it as overt are observable and covert are covered, is how I remember those things.

[00:11:44] Emily:  I love that. That’s fabulous.

[00:11:46] Allie: One of the things that helped me really understand this concept as well, was actually the book Crucial Conversations. Because in that book they talk about one of the first things to do when you find yourself having a difficult conversation with somebody is to take a step back and assess the story that you are telling yourself about that person, and knowing that whatever that story is is going to determine your actions, and behaviors, and thoughts, and all of that covert behavior that you have in relation to that person and in relation to that discussion.

How they talk about it in Crucial Conversations really helped solidify how I talk about that with my clients. My clients have a story about who their pet is, that may or may not be true, and only the pet knows if it’s true. We don’t get to know if that’s true or not, and changing that story can change how we behave around our pet.

[00:12:48] Emily:  Yes. That is such a powerful part of that book. Again, shout out to that book forever, and ever, and always because it is so helpful and that’s one of the things that I think is really relatable, and so it is definitely useful to use that as a device, mechanism to talk about with clients. I don’t know what the word I’m looking for is.

[00:13:08] Allie: I know what you mean, hopefully everyone else knows what you mean too. Overt and covert behaviors, labels, all of that, Dr. Susan Friedman teaches this, but also the book, Crucial Conversations talks quite a bit about this without using that terminology for those of you who are looking for something less terminology heavy, to learn more about this, since, like I said, we are just touching the very little tip. We’re not even dipping a toe. We’re just touching the water of all of these topics with our toe, and so if you want to learn more, those are places to go to for that.

Our second topic for today is ABCs. Now, this is something that Susan talked about in the previous episode, this is something where we are talking about this concept with our clients all of the time and borrowing this concept when we talk about behavior change, but we rarely actually use the terms antecedent and consequence. And for those of you not familiar with the ABCs, it stands for Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence, and it goes in that order just ABCs of the alphabet go in that order. But we rarely talk about it in that way. It’s kind of like enrichment in that we use Fight Club or Encanto rules of, we don’t talk about enrichment when we talk with our clients. We do the same thing with ABCs. It’s, it’s Fight club or Encanto rules for this as well.

So, when we are talking about this concept with our clients. We are talking about responses that an animal has to the environment that, I don’t know about you, Emily, I’ll be curious to hear how you talk about this, but with my clients, what I’m usually talking about in, in terms of antecedent is the picture that sets up the stage for the behavior to happen.

That if these factors all happen together, that sets the stage for that behavior to happen, and then on the consequence side of things, sometimes I’ll use the word consequence because that’s more common in our vernacular, that’s not as, as unknown as the word antecedent. But for consequences, I’m talking about what happened after the behavior happened, and do we see more of that behavior, or less of that behavior, so that we can make a decision about should we perhaps do something different after that behavior happened?

[00:15:32] Emily:  Yes, I, I speak about it pretty similarly with clients. I’m typically, in most cases, I’m wanting them to think about how the environment is influencing their pet and vice versa. So, what’s going on in the environment when your dog, or parrot, or whatever does the thing, and then what happens afterwards as a result of that behavior?

What’s going on in the environment as a response to that behavior? And how is that influencing the behavior? So, a lot of times I’ll talk about the ABCs more as like an environmental conversation, or an environmental response so that they’re thinking about that. And I often tell people, you are a part of your dog’s environment, or your pet’s environment, so you are a part of that as well, but you’re not the only part of that.

So, are you the one delivering the consequence, or is it the person walking past your front window? Or is it the ceiling fan creaking making noise overhead? Or is it the time of day the sunshine coming through the windows, right? So, those are kind of the, the ways that I talk about ABCs with clients, um, without actually using words like antecedents. Things like that that might be alienating to them.

[00:16:47] Allie: I love talking about it as, an environmental conversation. Is that what you said?

I love that I’m going to steal that from you. I think a really important thing that you talked about is that humans are a part of the environment and are not the only part of the environment. And so, there are so many times where I see people forgetting that concept. Where they don’t realize that they’re the one reinforcing a behavior that they don’t want to happen again.

We see this all the time with jumping, y’all. A dog will jump up and the human will for just a second, will ruffle them behind the ears, talk to them, and then say, “I’m not supposed to let you do this, and then push them off.”

[00:17:34] Emily:  Or even not that, even sometimes just the act of pushing them off, you know, a lot of dogs are like, any attention is good attention, right? So, even the act of pushing them off, or kneeing them in the chest, or whatever people are doing, if the behavior is still happening, it might be that what you think is stopping the behavior is actually maintaining the behavior.

[00:17:53] Allie: We see that one all the time, and then we see the opposite as well, where people forget that there are other things in the environment that could be maintaining or decreasing a behavior. And I see this with counters surfing a lot, where a person will say, “I yell at them after they get something off of the counter, why are they still doing it?”

And I was like, “Well, cuz ham from off the counter sounds way better than the, the mild yelling at that that is happening.” That’s why I talk about it as a picture because I tell folks it’s like you can take a snapshot of that entire environment, and every single thing in that environment that you see in that snapshot is fair game for being part of that antecedent picture. And things beyond that snapshot. It’s more like, a video clip, I guess because you have sounds, you have tactile, you have taste, you have all the senses that are there for you. But remembering that you are a part of the environment and that there are other things in the environment is something that we see a lot of people forgetting.

[00:19:01] Emily:  I think that also happens a lot with, uh, dogs barking at things going past the window where people are like, “I don’t know why my dog continues to do this, because I’ve offered corrections, or whatever, and the dog keeps doing it.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, because from the dog’s perspective, barking is highly effective. Because they bark, and then the, the people leave or the, or the delivery truck leaves. And as far as they’re concerned, their barking caused the thing to go away.”

You aren’t the only person delivering consequences and other consequences in the environment may be more relevant to your dog, or your pet, whatever species you’re working with, than what you are, are trying to make relevant to them.

[00:19:44] Allie: Absolutely. the other part about the, this antecedent picture that I wanted to mention is that this is often the reason why sometimes behaviors happen, or don’t happen.

I get this question a lot, especially with behaviors like aggression, or leash reactivity. I see it all the time with leash reactivity where clients will ask me, “Well, my dog barks sometimes at other dogs or at people but doesn’t bark all of the time at them. Why? Just why?” Uh, and again, it comes back to this predictability. They’re not able to predict their animal’s behavior because they’re not observing what is happening before the behavior takes place and what happens after the behavior takes place.

And so, to them it looks unpredictable, but for somebody who does have those observation skills, because we’re not special, anybody can do this. Anybody can learn this. For somebody who does have those observation skills, we can pretty accurately predict when there’s going to be an issue, and when there’s not going to be an issue.

[00:20:50] Emily:  And then I think the third takeaway that is really important, uh, one of the kind of building blocks of behavior that we talk about with clients, but don’t necessarily use the terminology with them, is the distinction between classical or respondent versus operant conditioning.

So, the way that I talk to clients about it, and Allie, you can tell me if it is different for you.

When I’m wanting them to focus on, classical or respondent conditioning, I’m talking to them about changing feelings. Now, to be clear, that is not the sum total of what classical conditioning is, but it’s the thing that is most frequently relevant to our clients, is changing the way their pet feels about something.

And so, if I’m teaching them some kind of classical conditioning procedure or some kind of counter conditioning procedure, I usually talk to ’em about it in terms of we’re doing this exercise to change the way they feel about X, Y, Z.

And then operant conditioning is when we’re teaching an action, a skill. And so, I talk about it with my clients as skill building to remind them that their pet isn’t bad, they just lack a skill, and that makes it suddenly really attainable. Because it’s not like, “How do I change the monster? My animal’s a monster. What can I do about that?”

It’s like, “Oh, they’re not a monster. They just need skills. We’re just, we’re just skill building. That’s it.” So, I make that distinction for my clients, and sometimes if it’s operant counter conditioning, I can say, ” We’re going to teach them a skill that changes the way they feel about, something.” But I don’t talk about it in terms of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and counter conditioning.

I just say, we’re doing this to change feelings. We’re doing this to build skills, or we’re teaching a skill to change feelings. So, we’re doing both.

[00:22:38] Allie: Here’s where you and I differ a little bit in that I do use the term counter conditioning, in a way that I name an activity. Like I would call a Relaxation Protocol, or Look at That, or Go to Place or whatever it is. It’s, that’s just the name of the activity is counter conditioning, and I do that because all of our resources currently say that. So, I, preempt them. I say, I’m using this term because all of your resources that I’m going to send say this, but it’s just a fancy way of saying scary thing predicts awesome thing and it becomes awesome. And, uh, so you and I differ a little bit on that, so that’s interesting.

[00:23:18] Emily:  It is true. I mean, there are times when I’ll say to a client, I’m gonna send you this training plan, “It’s gonna say like this big, long word, counter conditioning. Don’t, don’t worry about that. That’s just the big, fancy term for what we’re doing, which is changing feelings.” So I do sometimes give them a heads up that like, “You’re gonna read this training plan that has a big board on it, but just, just don’t worry about that, just look at the instructions cuz the instructions are what we just worked on, not that big of a deal.” Cuz I don’t, I don’t want to scare them with big $60 words.

[00:23:48] Allie: It’s like a hundred dollars word. It’s a, it’s an expensive word. Uh, so here’s an example of what we’re talking about.

I use the example of the ice cream truck. When I hear the ice cream truck, I have feelings that happen about that. I am excited when I hear the ice cream truck, and there are observable behaviors that I show based on those feelings. And when we’re talking about the ice cream truck in particular, those observable behaviors are I sit up straighter, my eyes get big, and then I look to wherever the sound is. There are observable behaviors that show you how I feel about the ice cream truck.

When we’re talking about pets, this can be something like, you get out the harness, and your dog is super excited, bouncing off the walls about the harness, or they go and hide.

Same thing, different feelings that I see depending on the animal. A common example is a cat running to you when they hear the can opener going.

[00:24:53] Emily:  Or for me, I realized that whenever I’m done working on something, and transitioning into, like free time. I apparently I sigh, and I go, “Okay.” So I’ll go, “Okay.” And the reason that I know that I do that is because now every time that I do that, Brie gets just inordinately excited. She just like leaps up out of the nest, and gets super wiggly, and starts tap dancing and goes to the office door, like, what are we doing now? I was like, oh, okay. So, me sighing and saying, okay, and like this long sigh, is, is Brie gets really excited because it predicts that we’re gonna do something fun.

[00:25:33] Allie: Yes, yes. Or on, on the flip side, dogs who have feelings about doorbells, because doorbells predict people entering their home, which they may not enjoy. With classical, we’re talking about feelings like that versus you don’t necessarily have feelings about going to a particular place, or sitting, or lying down, or things like that.

Perhaps there is, you can’t extract one of these things from the other, and so we’re talking about it in, in black and white terms when it’s, it’s really a whole host of gray area. That is what actually happens in reality. But, uh, it’s easier to talk about it in black and white terms. That’s what we’re talking about with that changing feelings versus getting a particular behavior.

And you need both to effectively work with maladaptive behaviors, and I use maladaptive behaviors because that’s what Emily and I work on, but I would say for training, just in general, you need both because both are going to happen. And so, you need to understand what’s happening when you see it.

[00:26:38] Emily:  Absolutely. And that goes back to why it’s so important to develop these really beautiful, finely tuned observational skills. Because when we understand these building blocks about learning, and we’re able to both see these details and know what they mean, what they portend, then we are better at both predicting the learner’s behavior, and then also helping them to become more behaviorally healthy. Which includes including them in their own learning process, and making them a part of that, and giving them a say in their learning experience. And all of that is built on this foundation of really good observational skills.

[00:27:20] Allie: Before we get into the stories that we have for today, let’s take a moment to talk about how to build those observation skills, because really the topics that we talked about today, like I said, we wanted to do something a little different. The topics that we talked about are all fine and well, and we talked about how that applies to what you’ve perhaps seen with your pet in your life.

But I want to talk about how to build those observation skills in case you haven’t seen these things with your pet, or if you are seeing some of these, but you want to make sure you’re not missing anything. So, let’s talk a moment about how to build your observation skills. I know we’ve talked about this topic many, many times in the past, but for good measure, one of the first things to do is to separate your feelings from your observations. We say time and again, see with your eyes not your ideas. Emily talked about overt and covert behaviors and being able to recognize those overt and covert behaviors and labels and all of that stuff that Emily was talking about.

Really means being able to separate how you feel about something or being able to detach yourself from the story that you have about this particular individual or situation. And that is what is going to allow you to actually observe with your eyes and see behavior for what it is. And you need to be able to see behavior for what it is first before you can actually work on the observation skills part of it.

So, that is the absolute first thing that you have to do is separate your feelings from your observations. That’s a little different for each person, so it’s harder to go into what exactly that looks like, but a lot of times that means some soul searching, and it means looking at first what that story actually is, and then why you are so attached to that story.

And this is true for all of us with many, many things in our lives. I was just telling Emily before we hit record that I had an epiphany that I had a feeling about a particular thing, and I didn’t realize that it was affecting my behavior, and the decisions that I was making. And so, tomorrow we get to suss out why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling.

Once you’re able to do that, then the thing I recommend to pretty much everyone is to watch videos. And now, if you are not a video taker yourself, good news. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a video of your own pet. I tell folks, go to YouTube and look up videos about insert species here, and just watch. You’ll get to see so much more from a video then you will in real time when you’re building your observation skills.

Even when you’re not building your observation skills, you still get so much more in video than you do in real time. It is, speaking from a consultant standpoint, it is much easier for a client to send me a video and for me to watch it through about 10 times than it is for me to see the thing happen in person, and have to recall every single detail. That’s a lot of work videos are way easier. So, watch a video, go to YouTube if you need to. Take a video of your own pet, whatever works for you, and just watch, and rewatch, and rewatch, and look for different things throughout that video.

[00:30:57] Emily:  I think one thing that can be really helpful with video watching as well is to actually slow it down, so I will actually put videos on half speed, and watch each individual animal, in all the way through, and then go back and watch the next animal all the way through and go back and watch the next animal all the way through.

And then I’ll watch it again at full speed to see how the entire interaction plays out. And that is a really important component of watching videos, is slowing it down because fluency is defined as speed plus accuracy, and you don’t really ever get that speed plus accuracy unless you work on accuracy first, and then build speed over time, right? So, watching videos slowdown is a life hack that I have learned is so helpful in terms of learning how to read that body language really accurately, and then as you do that over and over you, you get the speed comes naturally. You’re able to do it at full speed eventually in real time.

[00:31:56] Allie: That’s a great life hack. I love that. And so, once you’ve gone through it, and like Emily said, you’ve watched this individual and then you’ve watched that individual and so on. Watch the environment, watch for what happens in the environment. If there are people, watch the people, there is so much that you can get from a video.

Okay, that’s all I wanted to say about observation building.

[00:32:19] Emily:  So, my example of this for today, of why these observational skills are so important, is about a client that I am still working with, and I absolutely adore them, and the issue that they came to me for help with was their, one of their dogs, anytime the husband would leave the house, would attack the husband. And, and I said, “Okay, so what do you mean by attack?” And they, uh, showed me video and sure enough, this dog is growling, and stiff, and he’s jumping up, and he’s actually nipping at the husband, pulling on the husband’s clothes, sometimes making contact with the skin through the clothing.

So, I just saw that li little video clip of the actual behavior without anything before or afterwards, and they thought it might be a separation related problem behavior. And so, we kind of explored that. I asked them a lot of questions, it, it seemed like, okay, there, there might be something there, but this doesn’t present as a typical, uh, separation case.

So, I asked them to send me a full video, and I was talking, I was asking them about what they had tried in the past to work on this, behavior. And their previous trainer had taught them how to do Look at That, which is great, we, we love, Look at That.

And, so their, their previous trainer had taught them how to do look at that, but these observational skills and these little details are just so important. The devil is in the details. And so, what had happened in the implementation of Look at That is that the wife had inadvertently been clicking and treating whenever the dog would growl and lunge at the, the husband. And so, it wasn’t actually a separation issue, it was a behavior that had been shaped.

And I figured that out when they showed me this video, this full video. Of before, during, and after the husband leaving the house. And this dog is like showing all this, angsty kind of behaviors, really tense muscles, and, and forward commissure, and high tail, and growling, and, and jumping up and nipping at the husband.

And then when he was done, looking back at the wife with a loose derpy grin and these like forward ears, and wiggly tail, and then looking back at the husband, and all those like tense, distressed body language signals coming back, and he’s biting at the husband, and he stops and checks in with the wife. And so, the wife had inadvertently done a beautiful job of shaping this behavior of the dog, attacking her husband.

And that to me was such a good example of how these observational skills are so important because any of the training protocols that exist in the world, um, they’re great, but they have to be done well. If you give anybody any old training plan, if every training plan on the planet was just available on the internet, they wouldn’t probably be very effective a lot of the time because these little details of timing and observational skills are necessary to implement them well and effectively.

That to me is a really good example of why developing good observational skills is critical to both understanding what’s going on with your learner, and being able to teach them, help them become more behaviorally healthy. And in doing so, including them in their learning process and helping them to be a part of it and have a say in it.

[00:35:38] Allie: For my example, I have a client, who I’m still working with, but I don’t know, we just happen to choose current clients today. I have a client that I’m still working with and a few weeks ago when I met with, she came to me, and talk about observation, right?

Because when I had met with her in the previous session, she was pretty down. She was, uh, beating herself up, she wa, you know, she was just in the thick of that bog that sometimes is behavior modification. And when I met with her a few weeks ago, noticeably different demeanor from this client.

She was so much happier, she was smiling more, she was talking about her dog in a different way and she was telling me that the past few weeks all she had done was observe her dog. That was it. We had decided to take a step back, take a little bit of a breather, and just work on those observations and to see the, the look on this client’s face when she was talking about how much she learned about her dog during this time, that she took a step back from training to just observe and to learn who her dog really was.

It was just the best feeling for everybody. Everybody benefited from that, you know, I, I got to help my client, which was fantastic, and help her overcome some things that were really bothering her. And the client and the dog had such a better relationship for it. Now, uh, when this client gets a little bit bogged down, and is feeling stress or pressure, we take a moment and say, “Okay, let’s go back to our observation skills, and then we can move forward.”

And it’s been amazing to see the explosive progress that this client has been able to make because she took that step back to really focus on those observation skills, and that was something that we’ve been talking about for a while. But sometimes it takes a moment for it to really click and it takes hearing about something enough times to really understand what you are looking for, and what you’re working on and all of that.

So, I, I love, I love seeing that and her being able to see her dog’s behavior for what it is, focusing on those overt behaviors. For her to be able to tell me, ” I see when she’s going to yell at dogs, and I can do something about it beforehand.” And understanding why she’s taking the action that she’s taking for that consequence and understanding that it’s about feelings instead of behaviors. I, she is making so much more progress, understanding those three topics that we dipped our toe into today.

Today we talked about overt behaviors or observable, measurable behaviors, covert behaviors, your internal thoughts, feelings, motivations, intentions, et cetera, and why we need to separate the covert from the overt through our observations. we talked about the ABC’s, antecedent behavior, consequence, or environmental response is the easier way to think of that.

And we talked about classical versus operant conditioning or changing feelings versus getting a particular behavior. We also, we talked a lot today, we also talked about building observation skills, and how you need to first separate feelings from observations and then watch videos on halftime, is your life hack for today.

Next week we will be talking about Unlocking the Learning Matrix Part Two. If you liked today, you’ll like next week. I can’t guarantee behavior, but I come close to guaranteeing that.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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Results are not guaranteed because behavior, human, canine, or otherwise, are not guaranteeable.

Podcast Episode 36: Transcript

#36 - Dr. Susan Friedman:
Become a Better Animal Trainer

[00:00:00] Susan: Being able to observe carefully, that there are other ways to meet outcomes that include the learner in their own path. I don’t know how you can do that without observing well. And being again, we’re, you know, it is full circle. You and I always end up back in the origins places, because they are the underpinnings. This is the natural science, this is our gravity. Is that your outcomes are better when you are in conversation with the learner, when you are in dialogue, not monologue with the learner.

[00:00:29] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:49] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:50] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Dr. Susan Friedman. Susan G Friedman PhD is a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. Susan has co-authored chapters on behavior change in five veterinary texts, and their popular articles have been translated into 17 languages.

They teach seminars and courses on animal learning online, How Behavior Works: Living and Learning with Animals, with students from 60 countries so far. Susan also consults with zoos and animal organizations around the world. They were appointed to the F&Ws California Condor Recovery Team from 2002 to 2010, after which time the team was retired, due to the success of the birds in the wild.

They are the chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Committee of American Humane Association, AHA Film and TV Unit, and a member in good standing of ABAI, ABMA, IAATE, and IAABC. See behaviorworks.org and facebook.com/behaviorworks.

For those of you who have had the pleasure of hearing Susan talk before, you know that this is going to be a great episode full of nuggets that you can apply to your animal training, but also just to your life in general.

Susan walks the walk when it comes to implementing what they know about behavior to all facets of life. Plus, Susan has the best, most soothing voice. In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Susan talk about, learners are learners are learners, do you actually need to teach that behavior, and unnatural solutions for natural behaviors.

All right. Here it is. Today’s episode, Dr. Susan Friedman, Become a Better Animal Trainer.

[00:03:02] Emily:  Hey, everyone. Emily here. We wanted to provide a content warning for this episode because we do discuss some difficult topics such as ABA practices with human learners and the not so great history of the development of what least intrusive practices have looked like over the past few decades. So, this content warning is to empower you, our audience, with the knowledge you need to make healthy decisions about how and if you should consume this podcast content.

Please see the show notes for more specific timestamps.

All right, so I wanna start by asking you to tell us your name, pronouns, and pets.

[00:03:44] Susan: I am Susan Friedman pronouns, I’m a they/them proponent, although I’m not offended by she and her. And being a Star Trek fan where everybody was called, sir, really my whole life, I thought that made the most sense of all is to just take that out of the discriminations that we’re making.

And pets, I have quite a few. Uh, I have a new puppy Odie who’s a Cav-a-poo from a really lovely breeder and puppy raiser Liz Maslow, some of you may know her. And this little pup is a great example of what it’s like to have as much of the probabilities in your favor as as possible, both genetics and early learning history. My daughter has his brother in New York City, so comparing notes has been really enriching for both of us. And then we have a chocolate lab, uh, named Ray after Ray Coppinger, and a dear friend who’s passed on and was very influential in thinking about dogs in pet dogs in different ways. And, um, he hunts with my husband who’s a Nevada cowboy. So, that’s an interesting aspect to our lives. And, uh, then we have my old dad who passed away in 2015, we have his shih tzu named Athena. And so that’s sort of, um, an emotional lifeline to my father who lived with us for five years. And, uh, is also a very interesting experience to have, not the man, but the dog, and, um, we love them all dearly.

And then for better and worse, I have three parrots, and I say worse because I’ve come to have my consciousness raised about the wisdom of having parrots in a home, flighted animals in a living room, very demanding, and as a result trying to meet their needs, we have a summer aviary, which is mesh here in Utah, and then we have a winter aviary with a heater. So, it’s quite the luxe environments and still very inadequate, um, for their needs. But, um, we have Blizzie who is a cockatoo, and we have Mohali an African Grey, and we have Ricky who’s a Severe macaw and they, are all in various stages of plucking feathers sometimes and just other behaviors. That’s the main one, that keeps me running to figure out how to provide better for them.

And from that 25-year experience, cuz that’s how long we’ve had them, I’m comfortable in sharing the opinion that we shouldn’t be raising baby parrots for the companion pet trade. And if people are interested in having them, there are thousands of parrots who are in rescues and sanctuaries needing good adoptive homes. I work with The Gabriel Foundation, so it’s probably a good time on behalf of parrots to mention that, that the name of that organization.

And let’s see. I think that’s what we have for now. You never know what tomorrow may bring. I have two daughters. I would put them, I would put them in the pet category because in my teaching, I’ve, you know, I started out 20 years with human learners with special learning needs, special relative to the mainstream flat education, we provide. Students who learn, no matter what their teachers know or do versus those that learn only because of their stellar environments and stellar teachers. And, um, I’ve come to connect those dots that children are captive learners as well, right from the beginning. You know, we’re controlling every aspect of their lives. And of course, my work has been connecting the dots from children to non-human learners. And it’s very rare that I don’t see something of relevance from one view to the other in my work. So, I would add two daughters who are in their thirties, and who are magnificent people, big contributors, happy people, so we’re very grateful for that.

[00:07:50] Emily:  Yeah. I think maybe we should reframe the question and say family instead of pets. I agree with you that learners, are learners, are learners, and of course, there are differences across species. But yes, I have, I agree with, with your sentiment there. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.

[00:08:08] Susan: You know, I, I keep working on some kind of summary, interesting description, and I haven’t quite landed on that. How do you sum up a, a lifetime, to explain the path you’re on right now. But essentially, I was the, the third kid of three daughters in, the Bronx, and then the suburbs. And as the third child, at least in our family, I was just, I was allowed to grow like a weed.

I was completely uncontained by these parents who by the third child I think were kind of exhausted. And that was very important to my, my tendencies, my personality style was to be uncontained, I think right from the beginning, and then fortunately had parents who were supportive of that in their, in their fatigue, parental fatigue.

Loved animals, like so many of us, I mean, I was, we all have such a similar story around that, I was the kid who was crying over birds that blew out of the nest or bringing home stray kittens who weren’t really stray as it turns out, they just belonged to the neighbor down the street. And, um, and then crying, you know, for hours because I had to give it back, and so that interest was there. You know, who knows where those super early interests come from. Knowing about epi, epigenetics now, you know, it makes you wonder if that isn’t part of learning that’s been so far unaccounted for, rather than any genetic source. But loved animals, but always had a really hard time with authority.

So, once I got into the school system, I was in the principal’s office by kindergarten, which when, you know, given what we know now is just such a stunning failure. That a five-year-old would be tossed out of the out of the room. But I had a wonderful principal, and so of course that behavior that got me thrown out started to strengthen because it was not only escaped from the classroom, but it was positive reinforcement to be with this principal who gave me, kept me busy with the mimeograph machine. You’re probably, your, your listeners are probably too young for the mimeograph machine. I think that part of, of my style of behaving has been important in getting me where I am today. It made me a doubter, and a questioner and, um, comfortable when something doesn’t make sense to push back on it, although I’ve learned to push back politely to keep the conversation going. And then from there, you know, if we just, uh, hop into college. I was a psychology student, and I was very interested, and it was the first schooling that I did that I did well in was when I started learning about behavior. And when we got to the chapter on Skinner, you know, the bells rang, and the light turned on.

It just made so much sense to me. Um, and I was really drawn to it. And now I understand that part of the appeal of this science is that unlike other schools or, sub-departments in psychology, behavior analysis is a natural science. We take a natural science approach. So, we’re looking at the relationships between variables in the environment, and trying to make sense of it from a natural science, scientific method approach. And so, it’s available for everybody who looks to see these connections, like gravity is available to anybody who notices. Things keep going down, not up or sideways. And that just, I don’t know why, really appealed to me.

Um, so my first job was at a residential treatment center, and I worked in the units that, had boys that were labeled emotionally disturbed or behavior disordered. I think those are terms that are still used today. And the head of the school was Wells Hively, who was one of Skinner students at Harvard and his, yeah. And one of his, his, graduate student mate was, um, Ogden Lindsley, who some of you may know from his contribution to precision teaching and to taking data to make decisions. Not always just going with our gut, both of which can be fallible, but combined can be really great, for teachers and learners. So, I started right out of the gate with a really strong influencers and very deep information, and then went to graduate school in special ed and had some great mentors there.

Mainly my focus was research in that degree. And, um, then started teaching about, teaching children labeled learning disabled or behavior disordered in Boulder at the University of Colorado. Came back here after five years in Africa, um, with my husband’s work. He’s a, I say he’s a cowboy from Nevada, meaning really his attention is about grasslands, and moving cattle, which itself has many ethical dilemmas for us to consider. And, um, he, his work brought us to Africa for five years. It was typical story, supposed to be one year, then it was two, and then before you know, it, it was five. Um, with our two daughters who were 11 months old when we first went, and then I came home and had the second, brought the second back at seven days old, and um, left when the oldest was six years old and the youngest was three. That was an interesting transition from Africa to Utah.

And then I started teaching again and after 10 years of teaching, I started to get itchy feet. I felt like keeping the information in the ivory tower was not a passion for me. Generating more ivory tower people was not a passion for me, although it certainly has its place, particularly in research. So, I started to build Behavior Works, although I didn’t know I was building anything. I was just making moves, picking things up as the current in the river brought them to me. I’m much better at watching the current and picking something out than I am generating the current, and so I started writing for parrot magazines, the pop magazines that you find in, uh, PetSmart and Petco and so forth. And, uh, I remember when I, when I wrote about the first ABC to a parrot list, and I said, you know, maybe there’s another reason that the parrot is screaming loud decibels, long duration. Maybe it has to do with the consequences of screaming. And maybe if we look at the antecedent arrangement, we might find ways to enrich that parrot’s behavior in a day. So that screaming for potentially attention is not as reinforcing. And it was a list of over a thousand people and not one person responded. I just, I just tossed that into the wind, and into a parrot Yahoo list, and this was about 1997. And not a word, not a comment back. I’m sure they were thinking, “What the heck is this now, ABC?” you know?

But I kept writing in those magazines and explaining that we’re making, um, a big mistake by always looking inside the organism for explanations of why they do what they do. And that what’s inside in terms of genetics, and brain, and body certainly are pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. But the late breaking sister to the table is what the environment’s doing, and it is after all the environment that influences genes, and brains, and bodies. So, how we could have come up with an entire culture that is completely behavior blind to the influence on all systems of the environment. It, it, it’s astounding we’ve been as successful as we have, cutting out one of the strongest influencers over behavior, the environment, the interaction between the behaver and the environment. So, I, um, it just went from there. It was sort of the right person with information people were interested in at the right time. Slowly but surely, those sands started to shift so that people were more interested in hearing about this, and then other people were doing it too, you know, great things happen all over the world together, there’s never one inventor, right? Edison and Darwin are great, great examples of how there’s never one, you know, the other people are talking about the same stuff and inventing all over the world.

And then here we are. I was fortunate enough to meet you, and to influence you, and for you to influence me, and the other people who are helping you with this podcast. yeah, just kept teaching, and teaching, and teaching. So, high points were meeting Steve Martin from Natural Encounters to be able to learn from him and his birds. And then, uh, Clicker Expo was a high point. Getting to meet Ken Ramirez, and Kathy Sdao, and Michele Pouliot, so they were big influences for me. And, uh, yeah, we’re just this nice big community now.

[00:17:21] Emily:  Yeah, every time I, get discouraged about how much work there still is to do, I remember that you started, you know, the very, very baby beginnings of Behavior Works was 1997, which is the year that I graduated high school. And I’m like, that, that was not that long ago. And look how far we’ve come. So, I need to be more patient with the process because a lot has changed in a relatively short period of time.

[00:17:47] Susan: That’s right. I agree with that. When I think about what’s changed in the last 25 years, and now there’s an an influx of new revisions, as people start to, I don’t know what the metaphor would be, sort of tighten the threads on, um, the least intrusive principle, um, becomes a better guide for what we do, and we are asking questions like, “Gee, do you really need to use extinction to put a behavior on cue?” Or, “Do we really need to have so much presence in animals’ lives or might we turn over more of this to the environment we provide, and less one-to-one where the human is the highest point of every day?” That’s a very relevant question, especially for zoo animals. So, the fact that there’s these new, new winds every 10 or 20 years that help us refine even further, I can’t even imagine what we’re gonna be doing in 20 years, no less 50 years. So, it’s, it’s a very exciting planet to have landed on. I often say, on a bad day, you know, absorb this experience as well, because when they beam you back up to your planet for the report, you know, on Earth you’ll be able to say all of this really amazing, and rich information about how hard it is, but how fabulous it is, and how many failures we have, but how many successes we have. It’s, it’s an amazing thing to be here. if that doesn’t sound too strange.

[00:19:24] Emily:  It real. It really is. It really is. Life is interesting. I just finished watching a show called Station 11 on HBOMax.

[00:19:32] Susan: Yes, I’ve seen it. And I read the book, uhhuh.

[00:19:34] Emily:  Okay. I love it. It was, it filled my cup for sure. But I love that, like the message of the show is that even we have these like major setbacks and major tragedies and there’s still hope. There’s still progress, there’s still joy. And what moving forward looks like is different. We’re not trying to recapture something from the past. We’re inventing this new, there’s something new to move towards. It’s not just recovering what we lost.

And that was something that I was like, wow, that is so pertinent to our profession because in so many cases we’re working with animals who have experienced major traumas and we’re not trying to get back what we lost. But there is something that we can move towards that looks totally different. And through our work with these animals, we actually come up with something better. Like we become better at working with behaviorally healthy individuals, behaviorally healthy learners by learning from how to make, behaviorally unwell animals, uh, move forward and, and heal through that process. Right?

[00:20:38] Susan: It’s also, I’ll tell you, it’s also relevant to my stage in life as a 70-year-old seeing all these new and different things coming in. And the tendency is to want it the way it was, right? Well, when I was your age and when I was working with kids, and you know, we didn’t have cell phones and computer when I, when I, I remember when.

And so, what you’re saying really hits home, uh, because it’s about remembering that it isn’t reclaiming what I experienced. It’s about bouncing forward to keep bouncing forward. Um, so thank you for that. Yeah, that’s a great idea.

[00:21:17] Emily:  Uh, moving forward, speaking of moving forward, uh, I wanted to bring you on because of all of my mentors, you’ve really been my greatest teacher about how to have really good observational skills. As you know, this podcast is focused on enrichment, and in order to build a solid enrichment plan, you need to have solid observational skills.

So, I’d love it if you could share with our listeners some of your best takeaways for how to develop really solid observational skills.

[00:21:43] Susan: Yeah, I do think that, seeing what’s in front of you. With whatever modality you use to take in this information is a key to the castle. There are a few keys, but this is one of them. And of course coming up with, teaching children, or I was the trainer of trainers at the center. I would go into the classroom and I would watch, and take data on the relation between the environment and the behavior we were seeing, including the teacher as the environment and the other children at as the environment relative to the, to the kid I was watching. So, I’ve been, um, trained to look for information and to target what I’m looking for, behavior environment in co influence, um, for a very, very long time. I started in my, early twenties or 19, something like that.

And then, when I started working with animals, I didn’t have that skill because my skill was related to those micro face, facial expressions we were talking about. And, seeing where a hand was and whether it was balled up in a fist, so that could be interpreted as uncomfortable and, uh, where shoulders are and relative to ears and that sort of thing. And then what in the environment occasion, those responses.

When it came to looking at animals, I didn’t have that yet. And so, I had to really work to be able to learn new languages across the species. And I remember I was on the fortunate enough to be on the Condor recovery team and, um, that was very exciting for a behavior person to, to be in with those biologists and to have some influence. I will tell you; I never really came up with anything of great influence. I wouldn’t say. So that’s something I look back on and wonder, could I, could I have been more influential now, or were they not ready to have behavior environment be as influential as it as it has become? But that’s on one of the lists, one of my lists of, I wish to have done it better somehow, but I still haven’t figured out how yet. So, it sits there. Um, but I remember being at the LA Zoo, looking at the condors that they were, breeding and, and in the plan of putting the young condors back into the, in California condors, back into the environment, into the, uh, free world. And I stood behind Mike, uh, someone who had incredible gifts and skills with these condors.

And I said to him, he said, “Oh look, that one’s about to fly.” And I was, I said to him, “What, what did you see that allowed you to know that?” And most often what you get back from people is, ” Oh, I don’t know. I just, you know, I just, I’m good with animals, I’m good with California condors.” You know? as a behaviorist, I want to say, “Yeah, but what was your life experience that brought you to this?” You know, it’s interesting, um, intuition in behavior analysis, many of us call it our latent database. So, it’s still part of what we’ve learned, but it’s in the part of the brain where you’re not thinking. It’s in the non-conscious, automatic, fluid part of your brain, like the part of brain you use when you drive home. And don’t remember stopping at the stop sign. You know, you’re not problem solving the stop sign. You’re not even hearing your thoughts about it; you’re just doing it. That bigger part of your brain is, um, where he was and that’s what he was calling just his intuition.

But that was a good enough, from a science point of view. So, I kept scratching at those doors, and finally he would say things like, “Well, watch that left shoulder. Do you see it going up? And watch how he’s starting to move the two wings in a pumping action. Look how he’s coming down in his center of gravity. Watch those eyes. They’re going left and right. And so, they’re, he’s getting ready to take off.” And over the many querying, you know, standing behind great trainers, and saying, “Tell me how you knew that.” I was able to build up this database, if that doesn’t make it sound too unmedical. Data is very magical to me.

And I was able to then start generalizing across species because there is so much that we share, and that’s something that I’ve, I’ve noticed as well is our cultural stories are so much about celebrating how we’re different. Noah’s arc, the ultimate icon of diversity, two by two, the giraffes and the snails, but really what our interest is, or in addition to that, our interest is what makes us the same. Because we are using universal principles of behavior that we then custom fit not just to the species, but to the individual who may or may not be like their species general descriptions. Right?

So, we’re, we’re going down to an even smaller level of analysis. When I look at a tiger, I have some general ideas of what tiger body language is in general, but any particular tiger, or any particular dog, or parrot, or child, or colleague may use their body language in non-typical ways. And so, part of the skill is to be able to switch focus from your general ideas about what it is going to be to what it actually is, and then that’s not enough. You have to not only be able to observe it, to perceive it, but then you have to let it influence what you’re going to do next. And that’s been the add-on for me, maybe the last 10 years or so that I’ve realized that it’s not enough anymore to help people learn how to look by standing behind experts and saying, but what did you see? Then you have to open up really wide to let that information move you. So, we’re not doing things to animals or learners we’re doing things with, and it’s this dynamic exchange.

And so, just this year, Amy Schulz and I, who’s a behavior expert and does a lot of work with giraffes at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, she and I presented a paper at ABMA, the, um, zoo, Behavior Management for Zoo Association, calling it a dynamic training system, and our reinforcement less about schedules of reinforcement, continuous, intermittent from textbooks. We have a slide that, that cuts the cord from a textbook and says, that’s not really describing what we do when we train. If you’re following a schedule of reinforcement, that was very important because it taught us how behavior patterns are moved, are related to rates of reinforcement, but when you’re training, it’s this dynamic reinforcement system that doesn’t follow a schedule printed out on a paper. The animal may look uncomfortable, so you may up your rate of reinforcement, and then they may show you comfortable behavior, so you can reduce your rate of reinforcement. So that sort of broke through this idea that it’s not only enough to observe well and to interpret well, especially when you don’t have the verbal bridge.

But even when you do, because the verbal bridge is, you know, our best report, it may not be accurate either. but then you have to really open your chest, you know, open up wide to be able to let that move your behavior. It’s not a monologue anymore. In 25 years, we’ve come to this new place where we’re seeking out ways of having a dialogue with the learner and, and that’s that for me is the new high watermark of teaching.

[00:29:40] Emily:  I love that, and I think that it’s such a, an important point that we learn all of these things about the opera consequences, and the schedules of reinforcement, but we need to move the conversation forward and stop bickering over those things. I, the way I talk about it is like, you know, that’s like learning those things is like learning the letters of the alphabet. But when you’re talking about what constitutes great writing, you’re not arguing about which letters you’re using, right? So, you have to learn them.

[00:30:08] Susan: Magnificent metaphor. That is unbelievable. I will use it. I will cite you, that will help get people to your book. The main citing to get people to each other. That’s really great. That is really great.

[00:30:20] Emily:  Because it is, it’s about looking at the big picture and, and being able to have a conversation. That’s what good observational skills do for you is being able to be present in the conversation between you and I, I even hesitate saying you and your learner, because as you know, and you taught me, actually, you’re both the learners in that, in that in interaction, right?

You’re both simultaneously learning from and teaching each other, and so that is such an important component of, or no, it’s such a, an important outcome of good observational skills, right?

[00:30:54] Susan: Right. And when you say, um, we’re both learners, that’s another way of saying that you’ve allowed yourself to be influenced, right? It’s the same behavior, the same concept. When I say open yourself up to be influenced, to say that in short, is allow yourself to be learning as you’re teaching. It’s a, it’s about the dialogue. So that’s, that’s, yeah, really cool. That’s exactly how I see it as well.

[00:31:20] Emily: I just wanna take a moment to express so much gratitude to you because as you mentioned earlier, I did, I stumbled across you when I needed it most. And, and I, I have learned so much from you, and this has informed everything that I do. So, I’m really honored to have you on to have this discussion cuz it feels like full circle, like coming back to where I started

[00:31:42] Susan: Isn’t that fabulous? Yeah, you’re an influencer. You build something that helps change the world, and I feel that that warmth and gratitude to you as well. I remember you. I mean, it’s been a long relationship now, right? We’ve known each other for and, and interacted for a long time. You know, it’s really a beautiful thing. This community has provided us really well, and and we’ve provided well within it too, so we enjoy it.

[00:32:10] Emily: So, along the lines of, observation really being a component of having that conversation, and dynamic interaction. I wanna broach a sensitive topic now because I think it’s both really, really important, and also really relevant to this discussion. As you know, many people with autism are, are hurt and angry, and rightfully so about the ways in which Applied Behavior Analysis has been poorly applied, resulting in coercive and sometimes even abusive practices.

One of the mantras that I’ve seen coming out of this hurt and anger is, ” Don’t observe, include.” and I understand where that’s coming from because essentially what they’re saying is, stop treating us like lab rats and let us have a say in our own experience. And that’s absolutely correct and justified.

That said, one of the things that you do incredibly well and that I am learning from you, is providing your learners with lots of agency, which is giving learners control over their own outcomes. Which is exactly what the don’t observe, include mantras asking for, right? So, what I’ve learned from you is that you can’t actually give your learner agency if you don’t have really finely honed observational skills.

So, like we were talking about before, you have to observe, so that you can interpret, so that you can have that dynamic interaction, right? Um, and I experienced that from you as a teacher, that you are one of the first teachers that I had that really included me in my own learning process. And I felt like you were alongside me instead of in front of me. So, can you speak more to that? I would love to hear you dive a little deeper into that, aspect of, of how observation is a critical component of including the learner in their own learning process.

[00:33:47] Susan: Yeah. I think that, first of all, let me acknowledge, let me acknowledge the, I mean, I feel odd even saying, you know, acknowledges, though my acknowledgement would ever mean anything to anybody. You know, it’s my actions that will mean things. But when I hear the description from people who are now adults who have come through the early Applied Behavior Analysis programs of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and even, and even into the nineties. I, I wanna say, that I really hear you. My own experience confirms much of those descriptions, and at the same time to say that behavior analysis is not a monolith, it is not one single thing. It is applied in many different ways across many different appliers, like any, like any profession. But when I look back on my own work with the boys that I described earlier, there are things that we did, like timeout rooms, and, and stuff that I, I would not want to do now. And I will share with you, I had a very, I don’t know, it was an impactful experience for me.

I went, you know, I haven’t worked in Special Ed for 25 years, working with non-human learners now has ex, exceeded my experience with people. I went to teach at a school for children with autism, and other learning needs, to be a speaker about my animal work, at a conference. And when I went into the school, the children were coming in at the beginning of the day. And there was a big reception desk, a long reception counter, and I was on one side of it with another Behavior Analyst, Shahla Ali, whose work in ethics is profound. So, you might want to check her out. Shahla Ali Rosales you’ll be able to find her on the internet. And, the other speakers were kind of milling around, and she and I were hanging out on the end of the desk watching, observing these children come in. And one boy came in, maybe he was about five years old, and I noticed that he, they locked the door.

So again, I’m just highlighting all the things, good, observing, you know, keeping your mouth closed for a minute, which is not always easy for me. And just watching things unfold. And he threw, you know, a, a temper tantrum for lack of a better label for it. He did not want to be in that building, and his mom was on the other side going back into the car to drive away. They locked the door, and he was just clawing, and slamming, and fighting, and it was heartbreaking to see how much energy and behavior he was putting into getting out. And I turned to Shahla and I said, “Are we still doing this? Because you would never do this to a lion. You would never do this to a koala. And I would never have done this to my child.”

And it reminded me also of the early days in my writing when I was really shut out by the lay experts of the day. You’ll remember in the companion parrot world, one of them said about my work in disagreement, “Well, you would never let your child decide whether to take a bath or not. And you would never let a child decide whether to go to school or not.”

And when I got to the point in my career where I could write a veterinary chapter, my first chapter, that was my conclusions was some people may think that it’s right to prevent behavors from behaving and to not help them, um, and to not hear them, and see them, and be influenced. But, but in fact, I wouldn’t force my child to go to school. I’d ask, “What’s going on at school that makes it an aversive place to be?” And why do they not wanna take a bath?

So, you see, this is the changing of the guard, as we talked about in the beginning. This is the changing from generation to generation. I would no sooner force a kid, or an animal to do something they didn’t wanna do, barring a lifesaving maneuver, than I would, you know, wear my pants on my head. It’s just no longer in me. It is not my culture. It’s not the way I see the world anymore. With force and coercion first. With this notion that it’s better for the kid, or the animal in the long run to force them.

So, one thing that I would say is, I look back on some of the things that I did in my career working with autistic kids or behavior disordered children, all those labels, you know, you know that I don’t like those descriptors anyway. But these are the kids who would not succeed without the really the best teaching we’ve got. You know, and that’s the label I prefer. The rest. The rest of the kids learn under terrible circumstances and seem to be okay. But, these kids that I’m describing, don’t do well, just thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you know, asked to claw their way to the side and dangle there for six hours a day. There are things, when I look back, I wouldn’t do, but it was not some of the abuses that I’m aware of now. And that I was even aware of then. That being able to observe carefully, that there are other ways to meet outcomes that include the learner in their own path. I, I don’t know how you can do that without observing well. And being again, we’re, you know, it is full circle. You and I always end up back in the origins places because they are the underpinnings. This is the natural science, this is our gravity. Is that your outcomes are better when you are in conversation with the learner, when you are in dialogue, not monologue with the learner.

So, I know that I’ve kind of rambled around your question, because what you bring to me in that question is an opportunity for me to, to say yes. Those early years were, were not what we know now, but, but I will say, and I even hate the word, but you know, it feels hot. It burns me when I say, but I will say that we didn’t know what we know now. You know? I was also scuffing my puppy 30 years ago, and doing the Monks of New Sketes alpha roll. Thinking that I was doing not only the right thing, but the best that we knew at that time. So, from my vantage point, but with careful respect to the people who actually experienced those abuses, one element to contribute, and then it’s either picked up or it’s not, is that we really didn’t know what we know now. And had we known what we know now, I don’t know about some people, will always be abusers, but the mainstay of behavior analysis would’ve been doing and are doing what we know now. So, we think of having kids sit at desks with, you know, thousands of discreet trial training for a raisin and, um, not letting them get up, or forcing them to bring the plate to the sink. Or not only does that challenge our ethical stance, which is now clearly the least intrusive, effective method, but what is least intrusive has wildly changed to include the learner. I don’t think that, I, I think that observation skills are super important because to have that dialogue, you’ve gotta see who’s in front of you.

[00:41:17] Emily: I think one of the things that I also want to acknowledge is that, like you said, the field in general knows more now than it did and does better now than it did. And also, there are still people who are doing some pretty terrible things because of different a, you know, a lack of access to, really good mentors, and teachers within their profession.

And the reason I bring that up is because I had a conversation recently with a behaviorist in our field. I normally prefer to cite my sources, but in this case, I wanna be sensitive to the fact that she was talking about her child. So, I don’t want to, out that. But she was saying that her, her child was telling her that a lot of the, the training was focused on, getting people with autism to stop stimming because it’s not socially acceptable to stim. And he was saying, it’s not a problem for us. Why are you, it doesn’t matter what, what teaching style you use, the teaching goal is messed up because it’s not a problem for us, so it shouldn’t be a problem. You should learn to accommodate your learner.

And I thought that was such a beautiful and insightful comment from a person with autism to say like, this is, this is the conversation that this is part of this observational skills is, not just observing the behavior that’s happening and the impact of the environment, but observing the relevance of our, of our goals, and are those goals actually even, correct? Are they even helpful? Are they healthy, are they beneficial? And I see so many parallels between that and, and working with non-human learners as well. So, much of dog training and bird training. It’s like, why do they need to learn that? It’s, it’s not helping them, it’s not working towards their physical, behavioral, and emotional health.

And so, that is part of that conversation is, when you teach in the way that you have taught me to teach, being able to observe means also being able to say, is this even a goal? Is this healthy for us, right?

[00:43:10] Susan: Huge. Emily. This is a huge concept. I mean, we could talk really all day so productively about this because it runs through all of our work, and all of our interactions. This is how I ended up in the principal’s office. Why did I need to do the snail shape another time? I had done this nail shape to fluency, and of course the reason why the teacher had me do it was it kept me busy, and then they were able to walk around the room and help others who weren’t fluent in their snail shape. But I was done. Why? And that why does, why does the learner need to know this or do this?

And even if you have a great reason, because the notion I think we can open up to, to remember back in time how little was known. I mean, those discreet trials and the hands down to stim, and stuff that was in comparison to the generation before that, that would’ve tied the kid down, or put ’em in the attic their whole life. So, if we want to, we don’t have to, but it is of interest to me to take even a longer view of where those goals came from, were the hope that you could give children a repertoire that would make them have a, a more mainstream life. That was in a time where being in a mainstream was the ultimate. For my mother, the ultimate was, was producing three children who would be in the mainstream. The fact that the mainstream changed, I have no aprons in the house, no pearls, and I’m certainly not meeting my husband at the door with a martini after taking care of the children, and cooking dinner, right?

So, everything is always moving, and I never, I don’t hold the value that people shouldn’t be angry. And I mean, I’m angry about many, many things and they’re righteous angers. But I can say for me, from my point of view, I can remember the previous generation. And when you come from that generation’s force and coercion, to my parents, so your grandparents’ generation, that turned down that dial, at least mine did, and then my generation that turned it further down, but missed a lot of things that we look at now and say, “How could you have missed that if the stimming behavior is not a problem for the individual, why would that be a goal?” Especially given the amount of time, and energy, it is effortful to change those behaviors, if in fact you ever do. What, we need a very good rationale for why that would be important.

Times have changed, but I will say, cuz I think it’s so, there’s so many facets to this conversation. It would be easy to shortchange it in just one talk, is that times have changed. We know better now, but part of the reason why we know better, or we’re moving in that ongoing, always improving direction, part of the impetus of those changes is the righteous anger. So, I never want to forget that without the righteous anger that I read about, and hear about, and the information it holds for us. About what it was like to be in those situations, and so forth. That is our, our best source of change. So, you know, I grew up in the age, you know, sitting on the White House, long singing We shall Overcome. It is the dissidence that has an impetus to move us forward. It’s not the only way, it’s not the only impetus, but it’s a critical one. So, that’s why I’ve always invited, you know, PETA to the table conceptually. We never want to sit at a table where all we have is our own reflection, or we would not only be back in the trying to reduce stimming, we would be back in locking kids in the attic. So, that’s very important too. So, where anyone falls on this picture, or where, where they lie, and how they feel, you know, I think we have to be open to the full range. And I’m just expressing where I am today, and to have that information, you know, we didn’t have that information from autistic people in the past, and our, all our goals were about nor normalcy. Look how in our, in our culture now we’re, we’re cracking out of that restriction about what normal needs to be.

I remind people that we didn’t know what we know now, and that each person will experience that effect in their lives. That they look back and think, how could I have missed this? That, that’s just a very natural part of growing. But at the same time, this information is very precious because it’s part of the impetus we need for change. If we don’t get that feedback, what would be the reason for changing what we do?

[00:47:56] Emily: I think it’s really important, and much appreciated that you don’t tone police people and that you give them the space to have and express those emotions. Because I see that happening so much with people who are pushing for change in general, everywhere. I think that tone policing happens, like you’re, you’re not, you’re not going to be as effective as if you’re angry. And that’s simply not true, as you pointed out. Where I think it’s the most painful for me is when I see the positive reinforcement community, people saying, “You can’t feel anger because that’s not positive reinforcement.”

And, and that is like, let’s not, that’s not, that’s not what positive reinforcement means. It’s not meant to suppress people’s emotions and, and silence their anger, valid, like you said, righteous anger. So, I appreciate you taking the time to, to say that because it’s so important to say, ” We hear you, and your anger is valid, and your anger is going to continue to propel us forward, and in making better changes, and, and moving forward.” So, thank you for that.

[00:49:02] Susan: It’s interesting to hear you say that people will say, if you are committed to a positive reinforcement style of interaction with the world, that that means that you don’t feel anger. That that’s, um, maybe a new one for me. So, I’ll, I’ll give that more thought. I’m not, for me, that’s clearly crossed wires. I don’t, I don’t spend a lot of time being angry as you know, but I mean, to not be angry when you feel anger. I would, I guess it’s what you do with it, you know?

So, you observe the feelings that we call anger. And this is one of the cool things about understanding emotions from a behavior analysis point of view, is that rather than thinking of it as just something going on inside you, that when you feel those emotions, that you then look outward to the environment, and ask what’s going on that is, that is setting those emotions in play? And then use your behavior, your superpower, to change the environment to move them. So, there’s a lot of problems with anger, if it is suppressed, but also if all you do is feel angry. Anger is an emotion that I assume has evolved to spur action. And so, that’s how I think about those negative feeling emotions is, what’s my action? You know, why am I feeling this? What am I gonna do?

So, I think that’s an important thing to consider too. I mean, sometimes people stay angry because they’re reinforced for it. I, last year I actually yelled at my online class students because somebody said, “Oh, I, I feel like such an imposter. I’m so confused.” And I watched that go by the chat board, and, um, people kind of rallied and said, “Oh, don’t feel, don’t feel like an imposter. Don’t feel confused. Don’t worry. It was hard for me too when I was new.” And um, then the next class that came through again, the person said it again, and everybody piled on petting, and making her feel better. And after the fourth or fifth time, I finally said, “Hey, we do hard things all the time. Doing hard stuff is part of what we have to do. And when you reinforce those utterances of, “oh, oh, oh.” What do you, is that really what you wanna do? Yeah. What’s going on here?” So, it was so funny cuz I’ve never yelled at an online class before, but there’s where I felt a little bit of flare of temper, just saying, um, ” What are we reinforcing?”

And so, sometimes when I see someone who is in constant anger and without action, I have to observe carefully to see is the lack of action because they’re being blocked from action, which then our job is to help open doors to action, or is it because it’s reinforcing in their community? And that’s something that I’m observing all the time as well. You know, and people say they have the imposter syndrome, and everybody piles on to tell them how great they are.

I usually type in, ” Just think for a minute, what’s reinforcing about that? Is there anything reinforcing about that?” It’s kind of a shocking curve ball, but I ask myself the same question as well.

[00:52:08] Emily:  Yeah. My response to a lot of people tell me they have imposter syndrome. And a lot of people ask how Allie and I have done everything that we’ve done, and, and they say, “Well, you know, I couldn’t because I have imposter syndrome.” And, and my response to that is, ” We all have imposter syndrome and it depends on what you do with it. Right?” Like for me, when I have that feeling of imposter syndrome, that’s the signal that I should learn more about the thing that I’m doing.

[00:52:33] Susan: Bravo. That’s my answer too. I say to people, you feel like an imposter cuz you are an imposter. What the hell are you doing working with aggressive dog behavior? That dog’s going to eat the baby. Go get a mentor. And that’s one of the things of course that distinguishes you. Is that, you kept yourself in an active learner role at the same time you’ve been the teacher to others.

I guess it’s what you were saying to me before, but it really comes clear to me now. You just never stop being both at one, maybe we could replace the phrase imposter syndrome with humble. Oh, you mean like you might not feel like you know everything? Well, we all feel that way. Now, what are you gonna do about it?

That’s right. I’m a, I’m a little bit of a hard ass on this stuff. Because the people who say it are often really new in the field, and I’m, some days I’m like exhausted with how much information I’m holding. You know, it’s heavy after all of these decades of learning, and I wanna say, just go learn.

[00:53:33] Emily:  So, Neil Gaiman told a story about, he was at a party, and, and Neil Armstrong was at the party, and he’s like, “I don’t know why I was invited to this thing, look at all these people that are so incredibly accomplished, like, why am I here?” And he was like, “If Neil Armstrong can feel imposter syndrome, then we all can, right?” So, I, I see, I, I recognize what you’re saying about how we see that a lot in, um, new people, but I think everybody feels that to an extent, but there’s a difference between seeking comfort and reassurance, or just seeking knowledge. Right? So, we all feel that way. And then what do you do about it? And it’s the same thing with anger too, right?

But it’s a little, that’s a little bit off topic, but I think it’s, um, a kind of a natural progression of this conversation of, being really good observers of behavior to include the learner, and to have a productive goal in mind, right? And so that we don’t get stuck in whatever we’re in.

[00:54:26] Susan: Whatever you do, just keep moving. That’s what one of my main phrases from raising my teenage daughters. You know, go to college, don’t go to college. Whatever you do, just keep moving. Don’t get stuck. Yeah. I just wanna throw in before you, so deftly change us back to the topics that you wanted to talk about. The reason why I think that I push back on the imposter syndrome thing and the idea that we all feel it, we do, I think we do. I think experts do feel it when they’re in new settings and so forth, and so that’s a very important share.

But imposter syndrome is a construct. It’s a label. It doesn’t exist in any tangible form. And so, I actually went to the internet and said, “Okay, what, what do clinical psychologists mean by this phrase?” And I wonder how many people have sought that information out? Or are they just grabbing the common vernacular, meaning of the two terms together, and then using it to describe what they do? Imposter syndrome is not when you’re new to a profession, and you feel insecure, you feel worried that you don’t have enough experience to do well. Which if you’re new, you probably don’t, without a mentor, but it’s when you are highly accomplished, and you feel insecure about your abilities.

So, I think that’s an important thing to remind people is that this has a technical meaning. And if you’re not highly accomplished, and we can describe what that is. You know, at least several years in the field, with some accomplishments and some failures to learn from, and you know, then it’s not the right term. If the right term is, I’m feeling unprepared, given my level of experience and education to do this case, many times I say, “Well, I agree. So, who’s your mentor? Who’s your supervisor?” And that’s a big problem because we don’t have enough mentors at this stage in our profession.

[00:56:18] Emily:  I know, that’s why I started the mentorship program,

[00:56:21] Susan: Fantastic.

[00:56:22] Emily:  Because it’s a fair point. I mean, we were looking at, you know, there’s a lot of different training academies, and some of them touch on behavior consulting to a greater or lesser degree, but none of them, I mean, they’re focused on training, rightfully so.

It’s not a criticism of these programs, right? There are no programs that focus on behavior consulting as a parallel profession to training, but they are two separate things. And there wasn’t, a program like that didn’t exist, and so my response to my anger about that was to create a program because it didn’t exist.

[00:56:58] Susan: Cool. And where would we find that program? Now you get to plug.

[00:57:03] Emily:  Well, this is on our website, pet harmony training.com, but also, we’re here for you, not me, but my, but my point is that yes, that is, th, this is very salient to the conversation that we’re having now of getting mentorship. And also, what do you do with uncomfortable feelings? They’re not bad just because they’re uncomfortable and, and we shouldn’t suppress them. And this idea of positive reinforcement training, being incompatible with negative feelings is just not true.

[00:57:31] Susan: I don’t even get the connection. That’s how far from that I am.

[00:57:34] Emily:  Yeah, I’ve seen people just like shaming other people for being angry, rightfully angry about things and saying, “I thought you believed in positive reinforcement.” And it’s like what? Those two things are have nothing to do with each other. What are you talking about?

[00:57:46] Susan: I hear it now. It’s that if I am like emoting, yelling, feeling high emotions, high arousal, negative value in my, my world, now understanding that emotions are tracking the contingency, the environmental experience that I’m having now.

And somebody says to me, “Stop shouting. I thought you were into positive reinforcement.” I mean, I guess what they’re saying is that you should be catching me being good, and ignoring what you think I’m doing that’s not good? Or talking about what you think is not good that I’m doing in a less punishing way? So would we, if we replace the word anger with the action of punishment, and people said, “Don’t. Stop punishing me, I thought you were into positive reinforcement. Let’s talk about this.” Maybe they would get further in our language. But you’re right, it’s not about suppressing emotions, and it’s important that we observe the emotions and, that we ask, what in the environment is setting that emotion in play?

Rather than only looking inward to get an explanation for why we’re feeling that way. I would say that the new information is our feelings, our tracking the experience we’re having, and by connecting the two, we’re able to then act on the environment to change the feelings.

[00:59:11] Emily:  Yeah, I would agree with that, I think, there, yes. There’s, um, there’s that fine line to walk of when you’re angry, you don’t take it out on a person, but saying, because I am angry, and I’m speaking out against something. and it’s not directed at any person. It’s just talking about an issue at large.

And I’m saying myself, because I wanna make sure that I’m not, um, putting this on somebody else, right? So, this is, I’m not referring to any specific incidents, I’m just bringing it into myself. So I’m, I’m holding myself accountable, not other people, but, the, the right thing to do in that situation where someone is, taking a stand about something, and, and it having valid anger about it, instead of telling them, don’t punish people, and now if they were, if somebody is attacking a person drive, if I was yelling at you, Susan, about something that you did, then that’s where that punishment conversation would be maybe relevant. Like, okay, how can we, how can we set this up differently? But if somebody is angry about something that is an, an injustice, right? Shaming them and saying they’re not, you know, using positive reinforcement is, uh, is not the most productive.

[01:00:18] Susan: It’s not even. It’s as far, I mean, I’ll cons, I’ll continue to think about it, but it doesn’t strike me as even relevant. So yeah, I mean, emotions also are behavior, and part of our, behavioral evolutionary history. And so, I think we need to ask what function do they serve? And when we have an answer to that, you know, which is I think that they are, the first flag out that says something’s wrong, and then we learn what to do about it. I guess if someone said that to me when they saw me being angry about an issue, you know, I would feel incredibly shut down and blocked. So, we have to talk more about this and think of good ways to respond.

[01:01:00] Emily:  Yeah, I would love that. We can, we can have a follow up conversation later about this. Okay, so let’s move on. we’re gonna just move into the outro because we’ve had a rich conversation and also, we need to be mindful of time. What is one thing you wish people knew about either this topic, your profession, or enrichment? to choose.

[01:01:22] Susan: You know, for me, they’re all so closely related that I can, I can even imagine an answer that just nets all of those, um, prompts. I think that the, the new edge for me and for the people that I’m working with is not about, enrichment as an item, as a thing you put into an enclosure, or into a bird room, or aviary. That the new goal is now to create environments, and behavior analysts have always been big environmental engineers, at our best, that’s what we should be doing, is to create environments that encourage, that facilitate varied behavior, diverse behavior for diverse reinforcers. So, if we understand that we’re all behaving for an outcome for reinforcers, or to escape a verse of stimuli, that’s what behavior evolved to do. To give us the power to not only be influenced by the environment, but to move the environment. So, it’s a, by by definition, it’s an empowerment to be able to move the environment with our behavior. What are we moving it for? We’re moving it for diverse reinforcers, and that requires a diverse behavioral repertoire. So, now when I look at an environment for a kid, for my puppy, for zoo animals, I’m scanning with my observation skills. In what way does this environment facilitate diverse behaviors for diverse reinforcers? And that if we did that, I think we would cover all of the things that you mentioned. And that’s what I would like people to take on board. Is observing environments and then creating with our actions environments that do that.

And you describe to me your bird room, you know, where you’re addressing sound reinforcers, and activity reinforcers, and dismantle reinforcers. You know, these are diverse reinforcers that require a wide range of behaviors within the biology of the animal. And I, I, I do think less about what’s in the natural environment versus in captivity in human care. I think more about where we are here, how can the natural ethology of the animal, their natural history inform us? But we also have to be mindful that they’re in the environment they’re in now, and we could do all sorts of things that we wouldn’t see in a giraffe’s natural environment that would still produce diverse um, behaviors using all of their senses, all of their adaptations for a wide variety of outcomes. If we could focus on that, I think we would have quite a different. set of goals for our training and our consulting work.

[01:04:16] Emily:  That’s one of my takeaways that I want people to think about is, when we’re constructing an enrichment plan, and we’re looking at the environment, the role that it plays in that enrichment plan, a lot of times you have to think about unnatural solutions to elicit natural behaviors.

My bird throwing a cat food can across the floor that’s an unnatural uh, solution. Eclectic parrots aren’t throwing cat food cans around the wild, but it is eliciting a natural behavior. And that’s sometimes I think hard. People get really stuck on the natural thing sometimes, and they’re looking just for natural objects, and that’s not a criticism. I love that people are thinking about that, but sometimes we have to look to things like food puzzles and cat food cans, to get the job done right.

[01:04:59] Susan: Right. It really, it really pushes us to consider the construct natural behavior. You know, what, what does it mean? And I think that a misunderstanding from my point of view that people hold, when you think that behavior is inside the organism, instead of in the exchange between their biology and the environment. Then you think they have a repertoire inside them, and enrichment is about triggering those things inside to come outside. That’s not my view, or I would say not a learning science view of natural behavior. Natural behavior is any behavior that can be displayed by an animal, and what we’re trying to do is give them purpose. So, they may, we may have enrichment environments, enriched environments, environments rich with varied stimuli that elicit natural behaviors. But we also may be evoking unnatural behaviors, like a dog sitting to get food. That is an unnatural relation between consummatory behavior and sitting, because they don’t sit in the wild, right? They stalk, they hunt, they procure. So, I’m not even sure if we couldn’t do well to expand this concept of an enriched environment should elicit natural behavior.

 It should elicit and evoke diverse behavior, whether we see that behavior because it’s been learned in the wild, or because it’s been learned in human care. So, what we think of as natural behavior. Is that a lack of learning? I don’t think so. I think it’s the result of selection by reinforcers in the savannah.

[01:06:48] Emily:  I love that so much.

[01:06:49] Susan: Is a little bit of a different angle, but it’s sort of where I’m at these days.

[01:06:53] Emily: It’s lighting me up because that is a beautiful way to articulate what I was trying to articulate. So, thank you for that. I, I’m definitely going to take that, and of course, cite you.

[01:07:05] Susan: Oh no.

[01:07:06] Emily:  Uh,

[01:07:06] Susan: Good.

[01:07:08] Emily:  Next question. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?

[01:07:12] Susan: Yeah. You know, that is such a hard question. I guess I would love to see a redefinition of the idea of an expert, and that, like you said, that we value our experts by how much they’ve learned, and moved, and changed what they do and teach that. We don’t consider experts, people who hold a union card, and that that never changes. Because I think that our audiences, and our clients have a lot of power over what we do, by what they reinforce, and if they’re looking for people who are never changing, that encourages us to stay fixed in what we know and what we do.

But if our clients and audiences value us for being learners as well, and don’t lose confidence in us, or in one another, then we’ll all be, you know, eating information, practicing all the time. And so, yeah, maybe that, maybe that boils down to, um, being less judgmental as a reaction. And if we’re going to be judgmental, have that be more of a considered response.

I’m not afraid of judgment, it’s that knee jerk reaction that is, um, fractionalizing our, in our, our community. Why is it reinforcing that we are broken into small pieces all the time? How is it possible to be respectful colleagues, but hold different points of view? Those are, those are the kinds of things I think that I most care about in terms of thinking of our community of influencers.

[01:08:51] Emily: I love that. I think the, one of the reasons that I talk so much about critical thinking skills is because it’s hard for people to, to separate disagreement from violating boundaries, or from ad hom attacks, and, or from just directness, like not even a criticism. And so, it’s difficult for people to have those conversations without understanding where to draw a line, or where, where, where do we say, this is just a learner who’s in their learning process, and where do we say this is not okay and it needs to stop? And that can be very difficult if you’re not able to distinguish between disagreement, boundary violation, ad hominem attacks.

[01:09:30] Susan: It’s huge. Are you writing about this? Because I think it would be really valuable. You are a big thinker, and a great analyst. You call it critical thinker, I call it an analyst. And your ability to break, your ability, your actions to break apart these, um, very complex issues that we all suffer, I think is a really big contribution for you to make more of because I think that’s really important.

And I’m always asking as a behavior analyst, what is reinforcing about this fight. I don’t get it. Why is it reinforcing to say Susan Friedman said this? Ha ha. And I don’t, I just don’t get it. And I don’t do it. You know, on a bad day I might privately melt down, but I would always judge it as a bad day, and misbehavior, you know, it would not be something I’m proud of. Yeah. So, I hope you’ll write more about the, some of the ideas that we’ve talked about.

[01:10:27] Emily:  There are resources in the works.

I actually just did an interview with Marissa Martino for her podcast, talking about critical thinking skills, I made a little infographic on epistemology for people, we discuss it in the Mentorship Program, in Pro Campus, our professional membership group, we have critical thinking skills sessions. I’m working on it, and also we have a, a larger course that we’re working towards.

[01:10:51] Susan: Good. I’m so glad to hear it.

[01:10:52] Emily:  I think it’s, it’s, I think it’s important to help people navigate the sticky stuff.

[01:10:56] Susan: Absolutely. I mean, philosophically important. North Star finding important.

[01:11:02] Emily:  Continuing on, what do you love about what you do?

[01:11:06] Susan: I love influencing, and I love learning. I mean, there’s nothing, many, many of your listeners who know me will know that I have dinner every weekend with my mentor, Carl Cheney who’s a profoundly important, old time behavior analyst. What a lucky mentor to have right in my own town. And every single dinner, I, I, I stop, my eyes pop outta my head, my jaw falls to the floor, and my husband just hands me a pencil, and a napkin, and I start writing. You know, I, I love to know. And then I love to use that knowledge with influence. So, the two make a very happy life when you love to learn, and you love to teach. What could be better?

[01:11:48] Emily:  Yeah, I agree. having control over your outcomes is cup filling.

[01:11:56] Susan: So, what do I love most? Controlling my outcomes. That would be the perfect answer. How do we control our outcomes? By being a good learner and a good teacher.

[01:12:04] Emily:  Yeah. Uh, what are you currently working on? If people want to work more with, or learn from you, where can they find you?

[01:12:11] Susan: I’m, I’m currently, well, I’m always working on my own knowledge and skills, so that is not meant to be, you know, a kind of Pollyanna comment, I am always track tracking the trail of information that I hear here and there and digging up the research to support it, and or to refute it. You know, I’m always swimming around in, in research, and I’m trying to think of what, what am I working on specifically now in terms of writing? Um, I’m hoping to update my online course slides, so that they’re not in comic sans font anymore. Have we gotten past the comic sans? My daughters tell me we have.

But I’m not working on any specific writing, just all the things that I, that I’m always doing. And then, um, your, the next part of your question was, oh, where can you find me? well, there’s two fun sources. I’m not a big marketer, by any means it’s taken me the 25 years just to get comfortable, where I’m at. But the Facebook page is something that I, I’m quite happy with because it’s light and fun, but it always carries information, in a nugget somewhere in that page.

So go to Behavior Works Facebook and scroll and just see all the incredible content. None of it is my content really. It’s my writing about other people’s great experiences. So that might be fun for people to learn about behavior through this video and paragraph on the Facebook page. And then behavior works.org. there’s everything on that website is available to you to download, and to use to reprint, to put on the back of a t-shirt. There’s nothing on the website behavior works.org that you can’t download, and have, and use. And if there’s anything that you wanna edit for your particular scenario, just email me and, and we can make sure that the edits are in line with my original intent or hope for that piece of information.

[01:14:08] Emily:  Wonderful. Thank you.

[01:14:09] Allie: As always, I learned so much from listening to Dr. Friedman. Susan is a lifelong learner and so open with their learning journey. Many people consider kind at odds with critical, but I think Susan demonstrates beautifully how you can keep a critical eye to your actions and to always strive for improvement while being kind and compassionate in teaching. Next week we will be talking about unlocking the behavior matrix part one.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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How Do I Know What My Dog Needs?

Last week I discussed the 14 enrichment categories that we outlined in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Now, sometimes when people see that list they can just take it and run with it. But I’d say more often than not, the next question I get is:

“That’s all fine and well, but how do I know what my dog needs?”

An excellent question– especially since we advocate looking at each pet as an individual! Taking a descriptive approach to enrichment means identifying what the individual in front of you needs: not what their littermates or your other pet or a previous pet needed. Our go-to, short answer is to look at what their behavior is telling you. Let’s expand on that a little more, shall we?


How to tell what your dog is saying

We talk a lot about body language in this blog and that’s because it’s the way to tell what your dog is saying! Are they scared? Excited? Cautious? They will tell you with their body language. 

That can be helpful for some of the enrichment categories, especially the “security” category. Becoming proficient at reading your pet’s body language will help you determine how secure your pet is feeling. But there are other categories where observing the overall behavior of your pet may at times be more helpful.

This is because behavior serves a function– a purpose. While our society often thinks of behavior as random and unpredictable, it’s really not. All individuals of all species are beholden to the laws of the behavior sciences and that means that behavior serves a function. When it stops serving a function it stops happening (kinda like how if you stop getting paid to go to work you stop working for that company.) 

When we view behavior through that lens it’s easier to see those different enrichment categories come to life through your pet’s behavior. Is your dog chewing on the furniture? Puppies often do this while teething, but adult dogs will do this to fulfill that species-typical need for chewing. Is your cat scratching the furniture? Again, scratching fulfills a species-typical need in cats. Counter-surfing is a form of foraging. Jumping up on guests is a social behavior, and may indicate a lack of self-regulation or calming skills. 

So when we say to look at their behavior to determine their needs, we mean that your pet is already fulfilling a lot of their own needs; you may just not appreciate the way in which they’re doing it. Observe what your pet is already doing and start thinking about what function- or need- that behavior could be serving. 


Once you can identify how they’re already fulfilling their own needs, that’s when we can create a plan to meet those needs in a way that we prefer. For example, I prefer Oso to play “find it” with me instead of counter surf. It’s all about striking the balance between what’s appropriate living in our human society, what we as humans can reasonably provide and need ourselves, and what our pets need!

Okay, I know that I’m making something that takes years of practice seem easy. “Just observe your pet’s behavior!” Yeah, I get it. It’s not so easy when you don’t have as much practice doing this as a professional does. Let’s make it even easier. 


The Enrichment Checklist (aka Are You Meeting Your Dog’s Needs Checklist)

When we wrote our Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook, we wanted to clearly spell out the process that we use when creating enrichment plans. That included creating resources to help folks do what we do even if they didn’t have as much experience with animal behavior. Thus, the “are you meeting your dog’s needs” checklist was born!

To create this checklist, Emily and I went through each category of enrichment and identified the observable behaviors we look for to determine if a need is met or not. For example, does the amount of physical activity appreciably reduce fidgeting and other boredom-based behaviors? Does your dog know how to track and/or trail scents? Are they able to self-entertain? 

The checklist itself is longer than what we can reasonably include in this post, so if you’re interested in seeing the whole thing you can find blank copies of the worksheets we include in the workbook here and the Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook itself outlines how to use all of those worksheets.


What does my dog need daily? 

Sometimes when folks see that checklist I see the panic spiral start and they ask, “Do I have to do all of this every day?” Nope! (Unless your pet’s behavior says otherwise.) I don’t walk Oso every day. We don’t train every day. We don’t even play “find it” every day. His behavior says that a few times a week is all he needs of those things to meet his needs. 

The same is true for me, too. I don’t need to go to the gym every day (that would actually be to my detriment sometimes.) I don’t need to chat with my friends daily to know they support me and if I eat a less-than-healthy diet one day, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, we all need to eat, and drink water, and sleep every day. But beyond that, there’s little that absolutely has to be done each and every single day. Again, your pet’s behavior will tell you what’s true for them. 


Now what?

Happy training!


Podcast Episode 30: Transcript

#30 - Naomi Rotenberg:
Creating Harmonious Dog & Cat Households

[00:00:00] Naomi: The thing that blows people’s minds a little bit, is that when we’re talking about enrichment, we’re talking about species-typical behaviors, which also includes conflict resolution-based behaviors.

[00:00:14] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:32] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:33] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

 Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Naomi Rotenberg. Naomi Rotenberg, she her, is the owner of Praiseworthy Pets and focuses on the cat dog inner species, relationship.

She helps pet clients all over the world enjoy a household where the cats and dogs coexist safely and peacefully. She also provides coaching for other pet professionals who want another pair of eyes on their cat dog cases.

Naomi is a Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner, and received her Master’s in Animal Behavior and Conservation from Hunter College. She is also a licensed Family Paws Parent Educator because in addition to cats and dogs, she likes human kids, too. She hosts her own podcast, It’s Training Cats and Dogs where she interviews other pet professionals about how they use their expertise to manage their own multi-species households.

She also answers cat dog related questions from her listeners. Naomi loves to bust myths about cats and dogs living together bringing awareness to the fact that a cat dog problem can’t always be resolved by just training the dog to leave the cat alone. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two human children, and two old, cranky, furry dudes, Rio, the domestic short hair, and Ori the mini–American Eskimo dog who have been coexisting since 2013.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Naomi for a few years through our Pro Campus program, and I just love every time that I get to talk with her. One of my favorite things about her is that she doesn’t accept the status quo and is constantly looking for ways to improve what she does and the industry as a whole.

In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Naomi talk about why a down stay is probably not the answer when your dog is chasing your cat, how to meet seemingly incompatible needs of dogs and cats in the same household, and when herding dogs have cats. All right, here it is, today’s episode, Naomi Rotenberg creating Harmonious Dog and Cat Households.

[00:03:04] Emily: All right. So, let’s get started by telling us your name, pronouns and pets.

[00:03:10] Naomi: So, my name is Naomi Rotenberg my pronouns are she her, and I have two pets. One is Ori he is a mini–American Eskimo dog, white fluffy thing. And he was actually the second acquisition, but I always start with him because he’s just the problem child. And he was adopted from a shelter in Brooklyn, and with a totally unknown history, he was dropped off at the shelter overnight in a duffle bag. And so, he was underweight, under socialized. So, he was like, baby trainer me, who said “Yay. Let’s do a project and, that’s fun.” Living in Brooklyn with a highly reactive, scaredy dog, that was great. He’s much happier now that I live in Philadelphia in the like suburban environment.

And he came to us about a year after I adopted Rio, who is a domestic short hair. He’s like a, he’s gray with some pretty cool swirls, like a, he looks like a diluted tuxedo kind of dude. He’s very distinguished and handsome and he knows it. And he was my companion when I was living by myself for a year in New Haven and I was like super depressed, and he was my emotional support cat.

Um, but interestingly, he was, my emotional support cat, but he wasn’t really. He was in a lot of pain, it turns out, because all of his teeth were rotten. The vet missed that when they did like his initial intake at the shelter, and then they had said, he’s vetted, so you don’t need to take him for another year.

And year goes by. And they’re like, “Oh, all his teeth are rotten.” So, they took out 11 teeth and he was like, “I’m so pleased. Yay. I’m happy. I’m cuddly.” It turns out he has like a degenerative teeth thing where his teeth just rot over the course of his life. So, he’s had a couple of surgeries since then.

The moral of the story is, when your animal is in pain, they’re cranky. They don’t wanna be pet. They don’t wanna meet new people. And so, we learned that about him. So he is, they’re both old men now. They’ve been with me about 10 and 11 years. So, a little less than that. So, they’re just hanging out here with me sleeping, which is their, most of their behavior repertoire at this point is just chilling out.

[00:05:31] Emily: I love your message that like, “Hey, let’s consider medical when something doesn’t seem right.” Because I feel like that’s something I harp on a lot as you probably know, and so it’s just good, for other people to say it

I like that a lot.

[00:05:45] Naomi: Ori has luxating patellas in his back knees, so I’m sure that the, some of the reactivity is just based on some pain as well. He’s but it. It’s a whole thing about do you get surgery that may or may not work for this small dog who is not exceedingly active anyway.

Right? So, like all of this stuff, you do have to consider it, but they’re pretty happy right now. So, status quo is the way we’re gonna do it. Cuz at this point it he’s been living it with it for a really long time.

[00:06:12] Emily: You have to balance, the ROI of something really invasive like that. Like what’s gonna be better over the long term for this individual. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.

[00:06:23] Naomi: We can go as far back as my childhood in which I was obsessed with dogs but was not allowed to get one. For various reasons, my dad was bit by a dog when he was a kid, he was highly allergic to a lot of animals, and my parents both worked more than full time. And so they were like, hardcore, no, we can’t add responsibility that we probably would end up having to work on ourselves because when you have young children and they say, they’re gonna take care of their dog.

Sometimes they don’t. So anyway, but I, being the studious overachiever that I have always been was like, “I’m gonna go to the library, and I’m gonna memorize all of the dog books, and memorize all the breeds, and watch all the dog shows.” And like all the things that I could without actually having an animal.

So that kind of preceded a lot of like how I got into the profession because I’ve always been academic. And I started out, I graduated from college with a developmental cognitive science degree. So, I was gonna be doing like basic science working with kids and how they develop concepts and knowledge.

And that’s super cool, but I quickly realized that was not where my heart lay. But I had this like deep, psychological knowledge that had to go somewhere, and I was so used to academia. So, when I was like in that limbo time where you’re, whenever those times come where you’re like floating in the wind, that’s when everything magically coalesces.

But I had to pay my rent, and so I worked at a doggy daycare cuz I was like, “I like animals. What most am I gonna do for, you know, four months once I quit my program?” And objectively, not a good job in terms of the way we were treated. And the number of dogs, like the ratio of humans and all the hours, whatever the moral of the story is at the end of that stint, I still loved the dogs and I was still interested in learning about what they were, how they were behaving.

And so, I said, great. If I can still love the core of this, even though the experience was negative, I know I’ve got something. At that time, my then husband um, we had like, just got married. We moved to New York because of his, he was starting his residency, he’s a physician. And so, I was like, “What am I gonna do? I don’t know what I’m doing.” So, I applied, because again, I didn’t know what else to do school was my life. I applied to do the Master’s in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter. And while I was doing that, because again, I’m not, I can’t just do one thing, I apprentice with a small company, shout out to Amanda Gagnon in the Upper West Side where I was like the first apprentice that they took on.

And so, I kind of, was the guinea pig on that, but was ended up working basically fulltime with them, doing in-home private sessions back in the day. No, it wasn’t that long ago. It was like a decade ago, right? We went into people’s houses and like day training was a big new thing.

That’s where we’re at timeline of the development of the pet training world. So, we were doing, I was doing a lot of day training stuff, really trying to bridge the gap between the stuff I knew in my brain box, and then stuff that I was learning how to do with my body. And that’s backwards from a lot of other trainers where they’ve grown up basically training dogs or training whatever animals they had, and then learned the theory on top of it.

And so, I think it’s interesting that, that was slightly off path. Off your typical path. And so, the question is how did I get to cats and dogs? We were a small company, and I was the only person in the company who had any cat experience at all. I had one but I also was volunteering in shelters and blah blah.

And so, whenever there was a cat in the home, even if it wasn’t like the reason that we were called, I was very much like I will take this case if it was within my ability. And I really just liked it from the beginning. I didn’t have, this idea of I’m gonna niche down for this. But as I moved, when we moved to Philadelphia, and I created my own company.

And just like you do when you’re a baby trainer, you take every case, you’re like, I need money. I need whatever comes to me, I mean, unless I was like grossly under qualified for it, then I would refer out. But I was just like, my brain was spread way too thin. I was coming up with like training plans, ad hoc.

I had a young child. I couldn’t do it anymore. So, I said, I need to niche down to something. What do I really enjoy doing? And what are the most common cases that I get called for? So, I did a spreadsheet cuz I’m like that. And of course, you’re gonna laugh because what I ended up choosing was not, by far not the niche that I get the called the most.

Like I usually got called for leash reactivity, but everyone else does that. And I’m like, I don’t wanna do that, like everyone else. And also, it’s really, that’s just difficult work when you’re in a city and the outcomes can be hit or miss. And so all the way down at the end of the list, where it said, you know, I’d gotten like over the last year, I’d gotten called for three cat dog cases.

I was like, “that!”

Potentially poor business decision, but it’s the best thing, because I’ve really been able to come up with frameworks that work for my clients. It works for me in terms of how I’m able to run my business. Like I work completely online, and even before Covid I was doing all of my cat cases online because, even more so with dogs when, than with dogs, when a person comes in their house, their behavior changes.

Like cats, I mean, you could come into their house, and you don’t see them the whole time. That’s not very useful for me, and so I was relying a lot on zoom and video, even before you, the world ended. And it was pretty easy for me to transition to everything, just being online. I really just went all in.

I was like, “I love doing these cases. No one else is doing this. It’s really important.” All the people that were coming to me were saying, there’s not enough information about like, it’s all just fix the dog, let the cat be, fix the dog. And that’s not working for me. So, all of my clients are people who have not all of them, but the majority of my clients are people who are really dedicated to their animals.

They’ve already done a lot of training with their dogs, and they’ve reached a plateau, or they’ve gotten nowhere. And they’re frustrated because they don’t know another way to attack these cases. Then I say, “Great. Like I have many different ways to do this. It’s not just teach the dog a down-stay and let the cat just wander around.”

So, it’s been really fulfilling for me to realize that there, there is a need for this. It doesn’t come out of the woodwork as easily as leash activity or like human based, directed aggression from a dog. But it’s, the people are starting to realize that like their need is real. And that there are some resources for them.

So here I am, 2022 Cat Dog. That’s my life.

[00:13:41] Emily: And I think even though your niche is uncommon, right? which is great. It’s great that you offer this, I think that your trajectory is really relatable to a lot of people because it’s such a, our profession is such an, a like nebulous thing that most of us have some weird circuitous journey that some combination of like passion for animals, trying things and being like, that’s not for me.

And then like accidentally stumbling on the thing. That’s like our passion. So, I feel like the trajectory is super relatable for a lot of people. It certainly is for me. So, I get, I, it’s just delightful to hear how you got to where you are. And I’m super glad that you’re here because as we discussed cat dog cohabitation is just not something that a lot of behavior professionals deal with and it can be a super stressful living situation for everyone involved.

 And I don’t know if you’re anything like me, you love what you do, but you’re also passionate about prevention.

I love my clients, I love the big successes, and also, I’m kind of like, wouldn’t it be amazing if you had gotten help four years ago before this was such a big issue instead of having to come to me where you are now.

I would love to hear what recommendations you have for preventing conflict between dogs and cats instead of ending up where most of your clients end up.

[00:15:07] Naomi: Yeah. So, this is actually near and dear to my heart, because I do have services based on like how far your animals are from coexistence. Like, if that’s the like end goal, you know, I have a program for people with animals that are completely far apart because there’s a safety issue potentially, right?

And it goes all the way to we’re almost there, but there’s a little bit of tift. And then, I said I can’t forget the people who don’t have the animal yet. It’s gonna be not that many, but there are such wonderful people who are like, “I’m thinking of getting a new house pet of another species. How can I prepare effectively?”

And so, yes, I have very specific things that I like to explain to people of how they can at least try to set themselves up for success. So, the first one is going to be to look at the temperaments of your resident animals, right? If you have an animal that is scared of their own shadow and any change in their life is gonna be extremely stressful for them, then this may or may not be the best idea. You can work through it with a very systematic introductory process.

And it, they might actually end up benefiting from having another animal in the house later on, but it will definitely be a much more precarious journey. And then if you have an animal, who’s whatever. Things happen. Cool. Especially if they’re that animal has had experience with the other species in their past importantly, that is not diagnostic.

So people are like, “Oh, he was good with cats in his foster home, and so it’ll be great.” I’m like each cat is different. Each dog cat interaction is different. So I have so many clients who have multiple cats and the dog’s relationship with each cat is completely different, even though they’re in the same house.

So, previous experience with the other species is a good thing to know, but it is not necessarily like, “This is gonna be no problem.” But if you know that he’s wanted to eat every cat that he’s ever seen, right? Red flag.

Another thing to think about is your resident animals, age, and energy level. If you have an older cat who does not want to be bothered, prefers to spend a lot of time resting and maybe has some occasional bouts of energy. You don’t want to necessarily get a puppy, because that’s annoying to the cat. You might say, I would like to investigate maybe getting an older dog, not necessarily a senior dog, but an older dog who, you know a little bit more about their personality, you know, that they’re gonna be more laid back and not necessarily bother the cat as much as a puppy, who’s just like “WEEEEEE!” Everything is fun. And especially if the cat does not like the puppy, then there’s a very easy reinforcement history that could be made and not a great one for a puppy who discovers that a cat does not wanna be close to them, and they don’t know what to do with themselves, and they try some stuff, and it backfires with the chase, and then everyone is sad.

 You wanna think about those things as well. And if the answer is, “Look, it’s not really gonna be fair for my resident animals.” Then I am the first to say, “I don’t want, I don’t wanna see you as a client later on. Like I would rather you say, this is not the right time, or I’m going to keep looking for another animal that is going to be much more likely to be a good fit. So, that would be my first recommendation. Take your time, if you can, obviously different, things happen. But if you can, get as much information about the animal that you’re going to bring in as possible and try to make sure that they’re gonna be compatible. Again, can’t tell the future.

But as much as you can think it, they’re gonna be compatible with the true personality of your resident animals and don’t like sugar coat it. Don’t be like my animals, on their best day are totally fine. No, look at their worst day . And look at the average is gonna be the best way to decide that’s my first way to prevent conflict.

The next thing that I recommend is. So, we haven’t even talked about like changing behavior at all, because, if we’re going with the Humane hierarchy, the best thing is to then look at the environment, to see if we can use that to facilitate appropriate behaviors around each other. So, the next thing is gonna be for you to prep your space to make it the most likely that the animals are going to choose behaviors that are appropriate when they do come in contact.

And that also requires you to look at two main things. One is where can the animals be when they don’t wanna be near each other? And where are they going to be when they are near each other, that they can be safe, and also, behave in a prosocial way. So, let’s split those two things. The first thing is gonna be making sure that there is at least one safe space in your house for each of the animals.

And everyone thinks about the cat room, they don’t think about the dog area. And so, even if your dog is like, “I really wanna see the cat all the time!” Right? Like you don’t say that dog doesn’t need a safe space. Like they actually really do in that case. We want them to be not hyper aroused all the time.

We wanna say there is a space for you over here. I’m gonna reinforce you a lot for hanging out there, chilling out. Making sure that you know that that’s available for you so that they’re not constantly just up all the time. Cuz when they do see the cat, that’s not gonna go well. So, don’t forget about your dog.

Safe space is going to be not only a part for safety, like in barriers, but also, I like to think of it as like psychological safety. So, um, you wanna make sure that they are comfortable in those safe spaces and importantly that they’re comfortable in there on their own. Because if we’re doing, starting with true separation, which you usually should there are very few situations in which I say the animals should have, can have contact from each other from day one.

They’re gonna be in their safe spaces for at least some time each day by themselves. Or if it’s, there are bonded cats, then the cats can hang out together or whatever. But so many issues arise when the resident animal has never been confined, and then all of a sudden this other animal comes in now they have this magical, safe room, which like, there’s a bunch of toys in there and their food, and everything’s great, theoretically, but they’re like, ” What happened? Too many changes at once. And that thing that came in that made that happen. I don’t like that thing.”

So, if we can spread out the prep for using that safe space as much as possible. So, that’s a, a split that we can do to prepare, right? So, the let’s just say the cats used to have full reign of the house, but you know that if a dog comes in, the dog is gonna be in the living area during the day, and then the cats will have free reign of the house at night.

Let’s just say. So, make that happen, like dress rehearsals so they don’t have to be confined to that room all day, every day for two weeks before the dog comes, but make sure that they spend some time in there, and then increase the amount of time so that the routine doesn’t significantly change when the dog shows up. You’ll decrease stress a lot that way.

And then the other side of it, right? Like, Okay, they have their safe spaces separately, but like, they will have to come in contact with each other. We’re gonna be putting them together strategically so that they form positive associations with each other and all of that, we can call that setups.

Once everyone’s decompressed separately, you need to think ahead, like, where are those interactions gonna happen in your house? How can you keep everybody safe and under threshold, if possible? It might not even be that they can see each other at first. So, like you’re stereotypical like, they get fed on each side of a closed door, so that they can smell each other. That’s sometimes a good place to start. But it could just be that you can have a semi occluded visual, right? So, like, if there’s a baby gate with a cloth over it, rather than a full door, so you can split between between have absolutely no visual contact to having full visual contact, because some animals are really sensitive to, for example, stares from a cat, the dog’s gonna go ape because the cat is looking at them.

So, these are things that you kind of want to prep ahead of time for like contingency plans. We would like to start with everyone on both sides of a baby gate, as far away as possible and see what happens if they can look and look away. Look, and look away. Everyone’s just doing their own thing.

That’s let’s call it the thing that everyone tries at the beginning. But if, and when that doesn’t work, what are we going to do to make it easier to go back a few steps? So, you’re not beating your head against the wall of trying to do this setup where everyone is just not happy. That is the second thing, prep your space, both for the safe spaces for each animal, and also how you’re going to eventually have them come together and prep the routine for the animals as well.

So that’s my second thing.

I have more, I have one more. You can tell that I’ve thought about this very heavily. Because yes, I do. Prevention is great. And I would love to have all of my clients come and they’re like, things are almost perfect, but I just want like a few tweaks. There are certain parts of the day that are sticky, and I can help them with that.

It’s so much less stressful for them. It’s much less like life or death also. And so, I feel like there’s a lot of ways that you can get there. Anyway, by preparing appropriately. And the last thing is going to be actually teaching like appropriate coping skills to the animals separately. And I often start with this during my programs for people who have not been able to do this preemptively.

What I’m looking for is can this animal stay calm when something happens in the environment? It doesn’t have to be the cat, but just something, right? So, like, if your dog is an adolescent and they can’t cope with sudden environmental contrast in a way that is not going to trigger, which other animal is in the room. Then we need to work on that as a skill separately from the cat. You also want to, if you’re gonna provide your cats with a lot of up spaces, which I do recommend not all cats naturally take to those up spaces. So, you might need to actively reinforce them for exploring the environment in that way, and like feeding them up there, have them following a wand way to get up there so that you’ve prepared this , you’ve done a fire drill a bunch of times so that if they are stressed by the dog, they’re not, this is not the first time that they’ve decided that they need to jump up onto this cat tree at this particular time. Those types of skills are very important to teach each of the animals. And there’s a million different ways to do those things.

I have my own methods, but there’s a lot of different protocols for teaching relaxation. There’s a lot of different protocols for teaching moving away from things that are scary to you. There’s a lot of different ways to, you know, use targeting, to move a cat around a space. But that’s the general gist of basically what’s, what behaviors do you want to the animals to be able to do around each other?

So, that you’re basically simulating appropriate behavior, even if it’s cued at the beginning and then it should become muscle memory. So those are the three main pillars of what you can do to prepare and set yourself up for success for if you’re bringing a new animal in.

[00:27:15] Emily: I loved everything about that. I know you could see me like grinning and cheering you on because all of that is so important to think about and to pay attention to, and I loved how thorough you were in your explanations.

And also, I would like to say for listeners the devils and the details and if you take this information that Naomi gave and it’s not working out for you, it’s not because it doesn’t work. It’s because the professionals exist for a reason. . And by all means, try this preventative stuff and you may still need to get somebody to help you.

Naomi was saying we, wouldn’t it be nice if clients have this information, tried to implement them it themselves, and then just came to us and were like, we need help tweaking this because there’s something that we’re missing. So, I always wanna, I’m always like disclaimer, because it’s important to talk about this stuff, so people can think in these terms and try these things and also be aware that in some cases it does require a professional to help you successfully implement plans like that. Putting that out there.

And I think one of the things that I wanna kind of circle back to is when you were talking about how it’s important for the chase-er which is typically the dog, although I’ve had a couple cases where it was the cat, right? But it’s also important for the chaser to have a safe space, I really think that’s important because I think a lot of people assume that just because an animal is in a heightened state because of excitement or happiness, therefore there can’t be a component of anxiety or distress. And that’s absolutely not true.

A lot of times that excitement can be a coping mechanism, or it can even create distress. Imagine being super, super excited for a sustained period of time. That would be exhausting and become distressing. I love that you really put an emphasis on that, and I just wanted to further emphasize it because just, because something is exciting doesn’t mean it’s also like stressful, right.

So yeah, giving them that place to retreat and rest and kind of self-regulate is such an important component of these protocols.

[00:29:38] Naomi: Yeah, and if you want your dog to be able to relax in the presence of your cat, they have to be able to relax as a skill like outside of your cat being there. So, they need environmental cues to do that are very helpful to have.

[00:29:54] Emily: Yeah. I think that’s something that we talk about a lot is a lot of people don’t think about teaching relaxation or self-regulation as a skill, but it’s absolutely a skill that can be learned and should be taught. And the time to teach that is not in the thick of when the animal really needs it. The time to teach it is before that. When they’re not in the throes of, heightened, you know, excitement or anxiety. When the chips are down, we can call on a skill they already have, instead of trying to teach them a new skill in that moment. So yeah, super important stuff that has wide applicability and also applicability in this very specific context as well.

[00:30:35] Naomi: It’s not a new framework, this is a riff on what any good behavior modification plan should include. As much as much prep as you can of space, and skills, and contingency plans before you try to get to the meat of actually like tinkering with certain behaviors.

[00:30:56] Emily: Absolutely. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re just recycling things that already exist, or I wouldn’t even say recycling, we’re harnessing reality.

Okay. So, I think one of the reasons that many behavior professionals shy away from these cases is because we’re dealing with some seemingly incompatible needs and species-typical behaviors.

Like we just talked about the, the one animal may be really prone to investigation and meeting new, new critters, new friends, and another one may be more of an introvert and, “Hey, I don’t wanna, I’m not really new friends. I’ve got enough friends. Thank you.” And so, that can present a challenge, and then on top of that, there’s this added layer of complication because a lot of miscommunication can happen between dogs and cats. Because they have some similar body language signals that mean like diametrically opposite things, right? When a dog offers one signal, it means something very different than when the cat offers it. So, those things can make these situations really difficult. Can you talk in a general way obviously about how you meet those seemingly incompatible needs in your client’s homes?

[00:32:08] Naomi: Yeah, so you’re right. It’s one of the best examples that I can think of that kind of everyone can picture is a dog wants to play with the cat. And the cat does not wanna play with the dog. And so, if the cat does not have the opportunity to flee, they will most often flop on their back or side and do like a swipey with the paw. And for a dog, that’s like self-handicap let’s play. Those same behaviors, right? It’s not exactly the same, but it looks pretty close. And if they’re like this is a cat, this is not a dog, I know this is not a dog, but it looks similar, like they’re gonna map those two things on to each other and the dog already wants to play.

So, they’re like sweet, and the, their behavior is going to become more intense, which the cat is basically saying, what are you doing? I was telling you to back off. So, hopefully you can all picture that interaction. It’s very stereotypical, and what I tried to say to my clients and how I present this is that there is a dog cat translation dictionary that has one entry and two very different definitions.

And we basically like, that’s not how language works. Like one, one word theoretically should mean one thing. It doesn’t, often like we have homophones, and homonyms, and all those things that you learned in elementary school. But one thing should lead to one behavior, right? Like, well, A cue, right?

A cue, “sit” always means put your butt on the ground. Put your butt on the ground can have a different cue, but it doesn’t really work the other way around. So, we need to basically retool the animal’s brain to say, “Oh, when that animal does that behavior, it doesn’t mean what I think it should mean. It means this other thing.”

And so, you say, “Great, Naomi. That’s fantastic. Theoretically, I would love to teach, sit my animals down, and read them their, the other animals dictionary and show them all of the charts and say okay like clearly that picture, not that picture, right?” Oh, wouldn’t it be nice.

But the way I tend to recommend that people start this process is by using known cues for the animal who is misunderstanding. So, in the case that I was talking about I would have make sure that my dog has a really good whiplash turn A La Leslie, McDevitt, a recall, some kind of hand target. Something to move away from the thing that they are very heavily invested in.

And when I see that cat, at the very latest, do the flop and swipe, I’m calling that dog immediately. And I am trying to redirect that play energy onto a different play opportunity. You can use food, you can use attention, but if he really wants to play, then like giving that dog, the opportunity to play with you is at least like an okay consolation prize for most dogs.

And so, we’re looking at like the functional reinforcer to be transmitted from what they thought they were gonna get from the cat. They thought they were gonna get reinforced by play and they’re not. So, we need to transfer that over. And the more you do that, the more you basically teach that dog that the cat doing that behavior is a cue to move away.

Then you’ve basically just done a cue transfer you basically said that thing actually means this other thing, come away, come to me. I wanna, you wanna play great. I’ll play with you. And that becomes muscle memory so that you don’t as often have to use your cues, they will start to self-regulate.

Now the important thing that people tend to say happens if they do this exactly how I said is they say the dog will start to bother the cat in order to get you, to call them away, to get the cookie or to get you to play. And that is a very real thing, like that’s the like redirection is a wonderful tool, but it needs to be used in a very specific way.

And you, so you want to make sure that you are a calling your dog away from random stuff. So, it’s not like the only time they get those, that behavior, and that type of reinforcement is from like when they bother the cat. But you also wanna be making sure that like you’re recalling that dog away from the cat way before.

Way before they’ve gotten to the point where there’s a flop, and a hiss, and a swipe, right? That’s, that is like what I call a big behavior. Like no one in the world is gonna miss that cat is upset. Okay. Some people might, very few even untutored in body language are gonna see that cat is not upset.

But we wanna make sure that we are not only teaching the animal in this case, the dog that the flop, swipe, hiss means move away. But also, all of the smaller behaviors that happen right before that also mean, I don’t want you to hang out with me, including stiffening. Even like getting small, some cats get smaller, some cats get bigger.

Some of them like back away a little bit. And then they say, I don’t have time for this. And then they flop. And some cats have learned that the defense is a good offense, and they might just start taking steps forward to the dog. Also, another signal that the dog might say, “Yay that’s fun, let’s play.”

But we wanna teach the dog that all of those things mean move away from the cat. And so, it’s theoretically, relatively easy. In practice, difficult. Because you have to be the observer of body language and have cues on board that are fluent enough for each of the animals to be able to kind of micromanage the interaction at least at the beginning.

So, that’s how you rewrite the dictionary for each animal. And importantly, you need to be supervising in order to be able to do the micromanaging. If you hear a hiss from the other side of the house and you call the dog, yes, you’ve probably prevented escalation of even more conflict, but you’ve missed an opportunity to do that more subtle type of teaching that you really want to be able to make them actually enjoy being with each other, coexisting, that they actually understand each other.

It’s different to say, I live with my roommate and we don’t fight every day versus I live with my roommate and it’s, and we’re good roommates. Like we enjoy spending time with each other. It’s there’s one you would prefer. The more subtle interaction and non miscommunications that you have, you know, will help you move towards your ultimate goal of actually enjoying spending time with each other.

[00:39:10] Emily: Exactly. I love Susan Friedman’s saying, if you listen to their whispers, they never have to scream. And I, and I share that with clients all the time, because I think that is our goal, right? The more often they have to scream, the more likely they’re going to just skip to screaming. And the more often we can set up the environment so that we and the dog listen to their whispers, or in this cases where the cat is the antagonist, right? The animal who’s moving towards the other one, the more that they learned to listen to the whispers, we’re preventing that animal from having to rehearse screaming. And I think that’s such an important analogy to, for clients to bear in mind when they’re working through this, because yeah.

Sometimes screams happen. Management fails, we live in an imperfect world sometimes, things happen. But if that is the vast minority of the interactions between those animals and most of the time a whisper is effective, that animal will offer whispers first, more reliably. And that’s really what we’re talking about is can they just have a civil conversation instead of, all-out war.

[00:40:20] Naomi: Yeah. And you don’t always have to like, have cookies on you, or be having a play session, if they, if you just see some subtle communication where like the cat stiffens a little bit, and the dog pauses. Instead of continuing to move forward, you say, good job, dog. Excellent. Just some like casual praise often will be helpful in your day-to-day life.

But you’re looking for those micro kind of pause, thought processes of what did that mean instead of just running headlong into like very large behaviors. And so, yeah. It takes a lot of brain power and observation from you as the human, but again, the more, it just comes into play, you’ll see your animals not having to have that long think before they decide what to do. It’s just ” Oh, she doesn’t wanna hang out right now. I’m gonna go over here.”

[00:41:13] Emily: Yeah, I think I love that you acknowledge that it does take a lot of brain power on the part of the clients, because I think that’s one of the biggest concerns, on one hand, I don’t really want people just like adopting difficult animals because they want experience on the other hand, I think it would be really awesome if every behavior consultant had to live in these situations before they gave other people advice about them, because it feels totally different living with it day in and day out.

Then it does hypothetically talking about what you need to do. And so giving clients that acknowledgement and grace is so important to say, this does take a lot of brain power. That’s why management is a thing. So, that you don’t have to expend this brain power all day, every day, you can separate the animals and not have to think about it.

But that is such an important acknowledgement. It’s yeah, it is difficult to live with this, and yes, the only way we’re gonna build that muscle memory is through time and repetition. And yes, that can be exhausting. I hear you; I believe you. And here’s how we’re gonna make this sustainable for you so that you can stick around for the long haul, right?

[00:42:25] Naomi: Yeah. Yeah. And I’ve structured my program specifically around that because when you have, when you’re just working on one problem animal, that’s exhausting enough when you are living with inside conflict all the time, like you said, at the beginning, it is so stressful just at baseline before you even are trying to do anything that like tiny steps is where it needs to be and not large changes.

I was gonna say at the beginning, but really ever. So, like all of the things like the setups that we talk about, I always say, let’s do that during meal times. Or like when you know that everyone’s chill. You don’t need to add extra training sessions into your day because it’s not, like you said, it’s not sustainable.

We need to be as thoughtful about the client’s experience as possible. Just by the nature of the types of cases that it is. There is no, there, there is no break. So, you need to be mindful of that. Definitely.

[00:43:20] Emily: Yeah, for sure. So, can you share with us some of your most memorable success stories?

[00:43:25] Naomi: Yeah. I was thinking about this. There’s a few and I tried to pick out some that are like, slightly different from each other because, whenever you work a similar type of case often there’s, I would say paradigms or like type, buckets of types of cases that they tend to fall in. One is the herding dog that has a cat.

And I get a lot of shepherd type calls where it’s is this herding? Is this prey drive? What is happening? And the cat either goes in one of two ways, like we were talking about the cat, says I’m out and they book it, make acting more like prey. And so, there’s this reinforcement cycle for everybody. Or the cat says not today, Satan, and they start to like actively antagonize the dog and the dog is just working on instinct and they’re like, “What is happening? That thing is not supposed to come towards me. That is wrong.” Then they like their brain short circuits and then they get stressed. And anyway, the moral of the story is that one of these cases I had a guy who had a aussie shepherd. And he was moving in with his fiancé who has two very energetic and nosy, pushy cats.

Like they were not the type to go hang out by themselves and sleep all day, like they had needs and they were gonna tell you about it. And they were smart, and they went into cabinets, and they were jumping on things and all of the things. So, at the beginning, the dog had no idea what to do with him.

He was like over aroused to the point of just constant fixation. And so, they called me when he had broken through baby gates. He couldn’t sleep because he was in the bedroom with them when they were sleeping and he was just staring at the door and the cats were like, “Let us in. We’ve never slept apart from our mom. We love her very much.” And so, they’re making a racket outside. They’re causing all this issues. It was one of those, like when the humans can’t sleep, trigger stacking all over the place. So what ended up happening was, we actually, because the cats were not scared of the dog, it was very helpful because the dog, basically we needed to help him habituate to the fact that the cats were there.

So, in this case, like total separation from behind a door was counterproductive. It was actually stressing him out much more, and so we kept him on leash, moving around the apartment, getting reinforced for any type of relaxation that he offered, any type of disengagement from the cats, but because the cats were also trainable.

All cats are trainable, but like they already knew some behaviors, like we were moving the cats around the space strategically. We were setting up mealtimes where the dog was behind a gate. He could see them, but he was also on leash so he couldn’t break through the gate and the cats were being trained at the same time because they loved to do that.

So, they ended up um, I have a picture. I don’t know if you guys do, I have a picture of, one of the cats like sleeping right next to the dog, and the other one is like on the cat tree, like looking like I wanna be there too. So, it was really, it really worked out really well. And then they got a puppy, so we were like, great, this has gone really well. And then they got a puppy, a leonberger puppy. Thank God. Because he was basically like do, do, do, do, right. So, we started from the beginning of leave your sisters, away. And he was just such a big dude that like the inertia of trying to chase, just like wasn’t in his behavioral repertoire.

So, like, it was very easy for us to teach him from the beginning of what are the appropriate behaviors around him? And the cats were very confused because he was puppy like, but he was as large as the shepherd basically. But they figured it out pretty quickly. So, all of the, the base kind of foundation work that we had done previously worked out well, and we didn’t have to go against any breed tendencies with the puppy. So, that worked out great.

Another one that came to mind, actually, I’m, we’re still in progress with this. So, we have a dog who, she’s a project dog in a lot of ways. They often are, it’s very rare that like, I, I do work with other trainers cause I’m like, I’ll do the cat dog stuff, but if you’re working on reactivity outside or whatever, let’s make sure we’re all on a team, that’s, y’all’s thing.

I wanna make sure that we’re not butting heads with how we’re teaching things, but so she’s working on other stuff, and she has a history of compulsion-based training. So, the dog has, a place behavior and she will stay there no matter what. But she’s by no means relaxed when she’s doing that.

And so, we had to kind of retrain that behavior to try to get some offered relaxation from her. So, that was a big thing because when the cat and the dog were separated, there’s this little air vent in the house, by the way, the house set up is extremely important in these cases. Like the world of the outcomes can be determined by the setup of the house.

So, I actually focus on that a lot at the beginning of my programs, but this house in particular has a little air vent in between where the cat’s room was and where the dog’s room was. And so the dog would literally put her nose at the air vent and just it was like a point like, she’s not a pointer.

But she was just like, I’m stuck here. There is a cat over there. Which was scary because we didn’t know what she would do if she got to the cat. So we’ve done a lot of just can you behave when that air vent is open? Can you do things that are not put your nose on the air vent um, so that we could move on to setups where the cat is in, in view.

So, we are currently at still heavily orchestrated setups. However, the reason I bring this up as a success is because while we are still like really working on them, there was a management slip. That happened. So, they have been completely separated this whole time, and there was one time when a dog walker came in and accidentally left the door open between the animals. And my client has a whatever it’s called.

Like a pet cam, it only starts taking video when there’s movement that it detects. And so, she came home, and she saw that the cat was in the living room. The cat is not supposed to be in the living room. We were worried that the dog was going to like was in danger of eating the cat.

Like we, this, we had no idea what was gonna happen. Cat’s just chilling in the living room. And the dog is like nowhere to be seen. On the footage. She comes up to her mom when, you know, greeting totally normally. But when we looked back at the footage, we had no idea where the dog went. We couldn’t find her.

It turns out that she had just decided to like put herself in the kitchen, and the cat was just walking around. We don’t know because she wasn’t on camera, like how stressed the dog was. She might have been extremely stressed and I wish that I had that on camera, so I knew what kinds of setups we could do that would be able to work on that.

But big success, no one got eaten, no one got hurt. Cat was demonstrating that she is confident enough to move around the space, and the dog has chosen to move away from her. So that’s a lot of different, skills that they displayed in that so that we can say, okay, we might be able to work faster in our setups.

We might be able to adjust what we’re doing so that we don’t have to be as careful. Because this magical this magical management fail ended up being good.

Last thing that one that I can think of is the flipper, flip side, where we were talking about the cats being the pushy one. So, let’s think there’s a couple. One I actually gave a case study yesterday about that. But there’s another one where we have a cat who is so food motivated that he will like swipe at your hand, if you have like a treat, you know, a treat pouch he’s like that typical, like dog that you think like they’re gonna mug the tree pouch.

They’re gonna SW, like swipe the treat outta your hand, but it’s this fluffy cat. And then there’s a doodle puppy who is an exuberant doodle puppy. So, you can imagine this cat, no fear. He’s like, I’m gonna run into any situation. And the dog says “wee!” And the cat is not trying to play with the dog.

The cat is, has his own agenda. And so, there’s conflict there because he’s like, “What’s happening with this, curly nugget thing that’s in my house now and trying to bother me?” So, the first thing we ended up doing with this, besides for separation, but they could still see each other that’s important.

Cuz this is a puppy, so we still like, we wanted to get things moving quicker so that we didn’t have to take longer because he’s too old to learn the appropriate skills. But we worked really hard on the cat relaxing around food so that we could then do our normal, like you eat first, you eat second, let’s do some hanging out in the same space.

Like all those positive associations that you might do, like fairly early on in a training program. Like they were not possible with these animals. So, once he realized that he could sit back and the food would come to him, everything changed. And he is actually, he, the cat is like one of the champion of my like relaxation protocols.

Like he’s in a lot of the demo videos because he’s just, ” I will, I know that marker, “good” means food is coming to me, and I will just sit here on my throne waiting.” And his mom just sent me a video of him, he has a chair at the, he has a chair at the table where he just sits there because that’s been so highly reinforced for him that he’s like, “There’s food around. I’m just gonna sit here and just wait. Wait to see if something appears.” I love it so much. I know that his mom is gonna be listening to this podcast episode. So, shout out. He’s, he’s one of the funniest cats that I’ve ever worked with. But you could see how even within this framework of like this niche of cat dog stuff, there’s so many different personalities, there’s so many different variables that kind of go into each other. That it’s always really fun for me. It’s never the same day in and day out. And I love all my clients who are making such great progress.

[00:54:21] Emily: Yeah. That’s the great thing about being a behavior consultant is even if you’ve been doing it for a very long time, and have seen thousands of clients, every pet is new, every client’s new, every environment is new. It never gets old. Right? So, why should people care about our topic today? How is it relevant to them?

[00:54:38] Naomi: Number one, I know that there are a lot of households that have both cats and dogs. I tried to find statistics on this because relevant to my world. There, I couldn’t find any, they, we know how many households in the us have dogs, we know how many have cats. I’m so sure that there is a big ven diagram in that area in the middle. But those people are much less likely to realize that a, there might be a problem with their animals, even though they’re quote unquote fine. And so, part of what I wanna explain to people is that like you should, if you have a dog and a cat, I want you to look at their behavior to see if they’re actually enjoying cohabitating versus just like avoiding each other. So, there are a lot of cats, mostly who, when the dog comes in, their behavioral repertoire drops down to almost zero. They just say, “Okay well, I’m the safest in the bedroom. I’m just gonna hang out there all day.” Whereas before they used to walk around, hang out with the family they used to play a lot more.

You might also see like the cat when the dog is out, says “Wee! I can like do things now.” Yes, those animals are fine. There’s no like safety issue. They’re living together without major conflict, but I would venture to say that’s actually, they’re not the roommates that we were talking about before that are actually able to do their own thing.

Even if it’s not together. Like they don’t have to cuddle on the couch. But they need to be able to do cat things and do dog things that they would normally do. Um, they don’t feel stinted or worried by the presence of the other animal. So, that’s my first thing is if you’re listening to this, and you have cats and dogs just do a check. Not trying to be like, “Your animals are not happy. Like, “Everything is terrible.” But it’s to raise awareness of there’s more nuance to it than just quote unquote fighting like cats and dogs. Like it doesn’t have to be knocked down, drag out for there to be something to work on with them. And there’s also the really important thing of a, you can train cats and you should work on both sides of the relationship.

Like I said, kind of at the beginning, a lot of dog trainers are not really familiar with cats. Their ethology, their behavioral repertoire, and so they just say “I know what to do with the dog. So, let’s train the dog and like that should get us to a point where we’re happy and everyone is fine. No one’s gonna get eaten.” But so much more progress can be made. If you think of the relationship from both sides and you work on satisfying the needs of each of the animals and teaching them the appropriate coping skills that they need from a holistic perspective. And so, if you’ve been working on with your dog a lot, and you’ve reached a plateau where it’s like, you can tell your dog to not chase the cat. But you don’t feel like he’s actually relaxed around the cat, or anything like that, and the cat is still acting, showing some stress signals, there is a lot that you can do there to make more progress than that. So, it’s basically just you need to care about this because even if you only have dogs, it’s nice to think about the nuance of ways that you can use, like the structure of behavior modification plan to think about if you wanna get any other kind of animal, if you wanna have a kid, right?

All of these things are the same to help integrate. If you’re moving in with someone, whatever. If you’re, if your animal needs to get along with any other being in the house, like you can use some of these tips and structure as well.

[00:58:15] Emily: It’s the difference between surviving and thriving. Ye, yes. The animals might survive, but are their needs being met? Are they living an enriched life? Are they able to safely perform species-typical behaviors, all that stuff. Yeah. I love that.

 So, we let Pro Campus and Mentorship Program members submit questions for our guests, and the most popular question we got was, “In your experience, what are some common mistakes owners make within their dog cat household that can lead to a less amicable relationship between the animals?”

[00:58:46] Naomi: Hmmmmm, mistakes. The first one that comes to mind is just letting them work it out. If they just fight it out at the best outcome would be that survival thing where you’re in a very like negative reinforcement contingency of just avoiding each other, and conflict avoidance is not a pleasant way to live.

And so, I would say that the best way to work on things is to actively come up with a plan to bring them together in a strategic way. But on the flip side, I’ve mentioned this about a puppy, if there aren’t a lot of red flags, people tend to be overly cautious.

It’s possible to be over cautious as well, where you are either, you have a young animal who would do much better to learn relatively quickly how to live around the other animal, and if they’re prevented from experiencing that, then they won’t have those skills, and you’ve made your life harder.

But also, if you are not seeing like safety, you don’t have safety concerns, you might be able to go slightly faster than you might think. And really just focusing on the behaviors that the animals are exhibiting and again, reinforcing the appropriate ones that they’re already offering. A lot of people are thinking so much about prevention that they forget about just looking for,

Basically, like in a Smart 50 kind of way. Like if the animals are around each other and yes, there’s still some management, perhaps, maybe your dog is on leash, or your cat is up in a cat tree and they’re just doing their own thing. What can I reinforce that they’re already offering, than just to keep them separated cuz it’s you don’t know what to do otherwise. Two sides of the same coin that people make the mistake

[01:00:43] Emily: So, we finished every interview with a set of kind of the same questions. And the first one is what is one thing you wish people knew about either this topic, your profession, or enrichment in general?

[01:00:54] Naomi: Okay, the thing that blows people’s minds a little bit, is that when we’re talking about enrichment, we’re talking about species-typical behaviors, which also includes conflict resolution-based behaviors. Those coping skills to practice kind of like the, just like how play is basically a mini fight same thing with practicing navigating kind of tense, social situations.

And so, when I tell my clients that not every interaction between their cats and their dogs needs to be completely hunky dory and totally happy all the time. It’s all about how they learn to read each other and to let them practice those slight communication things where like, ” I’m not happy.”

 That’s part of their behavioral repertoire that is enrichment. We aren’t gonna put them in those situations on purpose, but when they happen, we are not gonna say, “Oh gosh, that was horrible. We’re never letting that happen again.” That’s a learning opportunity. And it’s also an enrichment experience, an enriching experience by definition, right? That is a, it is a species-typical behavior and how they navigate their social experience.

[01:02:15] Emily: Yeah. I love that one, and also by the way, no one on the show has said that yet. So, I think it’s great for you to bring that up because uh, if you watch wild animal behavior, there’s a lot of diplomacy that happens in their interactions, and that diplomacy is not innate. It is learned like adults teach, I don’t know about every species on the planet, but in most species, adults are teaching their young how, like what, what are the social etiquette of their species? And so, I think you’re absolutely right that like we have to give them opportunities to practice and learn, or I should say we have to give them opportunities to learn and practice diplomacy.

So, I love that response. The next question is what is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?

[01:03:03] Naomi: I would love to see dog trainers who are not as savvy about cats, not take cat dog cases as often, if they’re not sure what to do. So, to have a more team-like approach to make sure that they’re not missing a large part of a training plan that could be really crucial to the prognosis and success of those animals learning to live together.

And it’s not like shameless plug, I, you need to call me. It’s more just like in general, we, as a profession need to be more open to saying, “I don’t know this very well, and someone else should please help me.” And also, for us to not be competitive and say, “Yes, I will help you.” And really be more collaborative.

[01:03:59] Emily: Yeah, I love that. Yeah. I’m yes. All of us should learn how to stay in our lane and collaborate. I love that because it is a collaborative profession. All right. Next question. What do you love about what you do?

[01:04:11] Naomi: I love the creativity of it. Outside of cat dog, like how I navigate the cases, I’m also very in my business, I like to be creative and do things slightly differently than, what I’d call like your typical session, go into someone’s house type of thing. Um, and so, I’m always like tinkering, tinkering with things.

And that’s my creative outlet, so I’m always trying to figure out like, how do I make my training programs better for my clients? How do I split something more appropriately? How do I get them to their outcome? How do I support them? And so, that’s a really fun thing for me outside of the actual behavior stuff, which I find absolutely fascinating.

Obviously, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think that, but I think if it was just that I would be unfulfilled, I don’t like necessarily all the aspects of being a business owner, but that creative aspect and the ability to pivot when necessary, super fun for me.

[01:05:12] Emily: Yeah, owning a business, definitely keeps you on your toes for sure.

Next question. What are you currently working on? If people want to work more with or learn from you, where can they find you?

[01:05:23] Naomi: So, number one, I also have a podcast which is called It’s Training Cats and Dogs, because puns are amazing. Y’all can listen to that in which so I do some kind of coaching calls on there too. So, you can hear how I walk people through some of the common questions that people have. I’m also on Instagram at Praiseworthy Pets.

I love to talk with people in the DMs there, and I have my private training programs, which are all online, but they also have a group component. I have the Cat and Dog Coexistence Club, which is one of my favorite things, because going through this type of training and kind of long-term project can be really isolating.

And so many of my clients have said, I love knowing that there are other people going through similar stuff we can learn from each other. And we can see the people who are like slightly ahead of us and have some kind of hope that things are gonna get better. Um, so that’s a really important component of the programs that I offer, and I would not go back to just doing private. I think it’s so important to have that collaborative aspect. So, if you’re interested in those things, let me know and put my website down there as well, just general information

[01:06:45] Emily: Of course. All right, thank you so much for joining us, Naomi, it has been such a pleasure talking with you and listening to your process and how you approach your cases. Obviously, we all adore you. I really appreciate you showing up today and having a conversation with me.

[01:07:02] Naomi: Thank you so much for having me, I feel honored to be a part of the seasons panel, and I really appreciate you and think you guys are awesome.

[01:07:10] Emily: The feeling is mutual.

[01:07:11] Allie: I hope you loved this interview as much as I did. Naomi is so much on the same page as us when it comes to enrichment being about meeting everyone’s needs. For her cases, that’s the human, the dog, and cat. I think that even if you don’t have a multi-species household, everyone can take a note for how to meet seemingly incompatible needs for all individuals from Naomi. Next week we will be talking about creating sustainable management.


Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

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Podcast Episode 28: Transcript

#28 - Dr. Jessica Hekman:
Does Dog Breed Affect Behavior?

[00:00:00] Jessica: We thought this was one of the, the biggest, most important pieces of information from the paper, was that dogs are individuals and just because there’s something that’s more common in a particular breed doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the case for your dog, even if your dog is a member of that breed.

[00:00:16] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:35] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:36] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

 Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Dr. Jessica Hekman. Jessica is a veterinary researcher who is fascinated by dog behavior. After 11 years working as a computer programmer, she decided to go back to school to research the causes of behavior problems and dogs. She received her veterinary degree in 2012 from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Massachusetts, where she also received a master’s degree for her work on stress behaviors and hospitalized dogs.

After graduation, she completed a yearlong internship specializing in shelter medicine at the University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program. She received her PhD in genetics at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne, studying a group of foxes, also known as the Siberian Silver Foxes, which have been bred over many generations to be friendly to humans.

She has worked at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a computational biologist, studying the genetics of behavior in pet dogs through the Darwin’s Arc Project and the Working Dogs Project. Today she runs the Functional Dog Collaborative, a nonprofit group, which supports ethical breeding of healthy and behaviorally solid dogs.

She also frequently teaches online classes and webinars about canine genetics and behavior. Jessica lives in Raymond, New Hampshire with her husband and three dogs. Jessica has an amazing gift, which I’m sure she’s actually spent years honing and refining, of taking really complex topics and distilling them into digestible tidbits of information that the average non-sciencey person can understand, and she does so with so much humility.

She’s a great example that experts are comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Jessica talk about under education overstates, especially when it comes to super complex topics like nature and nurture, breed specific enrichment, and why it may not be as important as you think it is, the nebulousness of science and why pseudoscience is attractive, and Emily and Jessica’s thoughts about solutions for decreasing animal overpopulation.

All right. Here it is. Today’s episode, Dr. Jessica Hekman: Breed and Behavior.

[00:03:12] Emily: Okay. So,, let’s get started by telling us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:03:19] Jessica: I am Jessica Hekman, she, her. I have four pets, a human husband whose name is Chris. And I acquired him about 15 years ago through a friend and I have three dogs. My eldest is Jenny, who is a 35-pound-ish, fluffy spitzy mixed breed. Very sweet, but very shy of strangers, and I got her from a shelter. And then my middle child is Dashel. He is a purebred English shepherd, who I got from a lovely breeder. He’s five now. And he is very handsome and very smart. And then my youngest child is Fitz, a border collie. Fitz and I have had a rough ride. He’s been with us for not quite two and a half years. He’s a lot better than he was so those are my three. My four, sorry, my four.

[00:04:12] Emily: Your four, I was about to say, I appreciate that you adopted your husband from a friend. I like it. I like it. All right. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.

[00:04:21] Jessica: Yeah, I was just talking with my father a couple days ago and he said you’ve done so many things. Like I’ve had this life of doing a zillion different things. I studied medieval studies in college, and then I graduated in 95 when they were hiring warm bodies off the street to do computer stuff.

And I was interested in computers. So, I was a, I was an online publishing, a computer programmer for 12 or 13 years. And then I was getting really into dogs. I got my first dog Jack, a really wonderful golden retriever. Shortly after I got my first house. Cause I, got the needed a, a property before I could have a dog, got the dog, got into, I had rescued him, I got it from a rescue group.

And so, I started working with a, another rescue group and getting really interested in dogs and I decided I was ready for a career change. So, I decided to go back to school and become a veterinarian. And I had to do all my basic sciences first. That was a good time. Chemistry will haunt me to this day. And so, I went to veterinary school and come to find out there’s not a whole lot of really learning about sort of dog behavior and body language and all the stuff that I was interested in veterinary school was gonna be a veterinary behaviorist, but realized I was not that interested in fixing broken dogs.

I was really interested in figuring out why they broke in the first place. I did a master’s degree as part of my veterinary degree. I took an extra year to do that, and I, midway through that realized that I loved research. So, I knew I was gonna do a PhD afterwards, but I also knew you couldn’t do a PhD and then go back and do an internship.

And I was also really passionate about shelter medicine. So, before the PhD, I did a shelter medicine internship at the University of Florida, learned so much about population management. Got to actually be in some deep south shelters, which was really fascinating. And learned a lot about interacting with people.

A lot of shelter medicine is about, “we know the best way for you to run your shelter. So, we’re gonna come in and tell you how to do that.” And how that doesn’t always go over so well. And there’s, you really need to build a relationship with someone before you start telling them what to do, come to find out. That I did a PhD studying behavioral genetics of two populations of foxes that had been bred to be either very tame or very aggressive. And after that, I was really ready to be working with pet dogs. And luckily the Darwin’s Arc project was just starting up at the time. And so, I was there for, I wanna say. It was four, four and a half, five years, not quite five years. And helped them with doing that research, which was a dream job.

Started teaching at Virginia tech teaching in their online animal behavior and welfare program and started teaching online a lot about how dog brains work and founded the Functional Dog Collaborative, which is what I am full-time on now.

Sort of trying to get Functional Dog Collaborative off its feet, get it funded, make it be a force for change in the world. We are trying to, uh, build a new culture of dog breeding. Breeding dogs to, with a really not just the primary goal, but the primary goal, and then no impediments to breeding a dog to really do its job really well, whatever that job may be, but there is a real deficit of, people breeding dogs to be really good pets with no other goals aside from that. And that is where I am.

[00:07:34] Emily: I love that. First of all, I love your journey. Because I also had a pretty circuitous journey to getting where I am. So, yes, I identify with that, but also I love how you’re, as you went through your process, you are refining your goals, and now you’re at this place where you’re doing this really important and interesting research, because that is a trend we’re seeing, right?

I think all of us you know, really care about, not killing animals and shelters for space and making sure that good pet animals get adopted out, but also the side effect of the no-kill movement is that there’s a lot more dogs out in the world that aren’t really great pets and are really hard for pet owners to live with.

And there’s a dearth of people who are putting out really behaviorally sound dogs. So, there needs to be a balance between those two realities. So, I love that you are working towards that. That is that’s really important work.

So, I’m gonna start this interview by telling a story about you actually, because one of the things that we tell our students in the Mentorship Program and the members in Pro Campus is that under education overstate, and this is kind of a big deal because the animal behavior professionals, you know, all of them, dog trainers, behavior consultants, we rely on the work of a lot of different researchers from a lot of different fields.

So, an occupational hazard for us is that because we’re undereducated about the fields we borrow from, we are particularly at risk for making overstatements. And it’s super important for us to learn how to receive corrections and feedback from researchers, acknowledge our overstatements when they happen, and refine what we do and say as a result.

So, this happened with us where in the process of researching our book Allie and I didn’t yet know how to be really organized in collecting and collating our research. And we tried to do a good job of really reading carefully and, and understanding what was going on. But we’re not researchers ourself and we weren’t as organized as we are now for sure.

And so, I made an error in interpreting a paper that, that we cited in our book. And then in Mike Shikashio’s podcast, I had made a comment like, we were talking about sensory processing sensitivity, and I said, you know, it’s just a gene that does this and you emailed me and were like, “So about that, just a gene thing. Where’d you get that information?” I sent you the study and you were like, “Yeah, let’s talk about this because that’s not actually what the study says.” And you were super kind about getting on zoom with me and going through it with me and helping me to refine my understanding and interpretation of what the paper actually said.

And that was really helpful. And I have taken measures to correct the misinformation I had put out at any opportunity. Since we’re here and having a conversation for the podcast, can you help me to publicly correct my error now by explaining for everybody what you explained to me?

[00:10:36] Jessica: As I recall, the paper didn’t find a particular gene associated with that. I think what it found was that, was a biological significance to it. So, some, one of the questions people would have when talking about processing sensitivity would be, is this just something that’s a hundred percent due to environment? Something happens to you when you’re very young and as a result, you have heightened processing sensitivity or is there a genetic root to it?

And we would certainly expect that if there was a genetic root there would also be environmental influence, but is there genetic root and my recollection is that the paper basically said, yeah, there is, they were able to find some heritability, some genetic root to it which is interesting and exciting, right?

It means that it’s something that we could breed down the risk of. Um, but that’s different from actually identifying which gene or probably multiple genes are in control of that risk level.

[00:11:33] Emily: So, I think that’s a type of overstatement that my profession is prone towards is oversimplifying genetics and saying there’s a gene for aggression or a gene for fear or a gene for, whatever. And what I’m learning from you and others is that there’s a whole constellation of genes that contribute.

I think Steven Lindsay was the one who termed the biological substrate, or maybe it wasn’t him who coined the term, but he at least used it. And I like thinking of it in that way, this like biological substrate, that it’s a lot more complicated than like, is there a gene or not?

Okay, let’s break down the term biological substrate. A substrate can be defined as the materials that make up a surface that organisms live on or interact with. For example, our most common substrates include hardwood floors, carpet, grass, concrete, asphalt, and dirt. Biological substrate refers to a substrate that is in itself composed of living organisms and is perhaps even an entire ecosystem unto itself.

Soil is a good example of a biological substrate because it’s made up of lots of living things. In the context of genetics and behavioral biology, biological substrate is a metaphor for how genes affect behavior. There isn’t a single gene that causes any given behavior. Instead, an entire constellation of genes create a kind of soil that creates ideal conditions for behavioral trait or tendency to occur.

I’m seeing that overstatement happening a lot as well, that like if a dog, had a bad experience with a man, then all of their children are going to be afraid of men type of thing. Can you speak to that over statement as well?

[00:13:21] Jessica: Yeah. So, epigenetics, I can’t blame the dog community for overstating it in a way because the popular press got so excited about some early epigenetic studies that showed some very cool things, but then the popular press just focused on this tiny little part of what epigenetics is, and that was all they wanted to talk about.

[00:13:42] Emily: Epigenetics is defined as the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code. A really oversimplified analogy would be to think of genes as having light switches and the environment can turn the light on or off. Of course, it’s more complex than that, but the general idea is that lived experience can change how the genes are expressed.

[00:14:09] Jessica: And so that’s all, anybody understands about it. I’m just trying to think how to give a good overview. So, what the popular press focuses on is that concept that a parent can pass down information to their offspring by this recoding, not of the actual letters of the DNA, but of information that sort of stuck onto the DNA and that the parent can pass that down to the offspring. And so, that if the parent has an experience, the offspring will behave as if they had that experience. And it’s something that we, it’s a very cool idea, and it’s also something that we all resonate with because we have these dogs who grow up, fearful and were like, where did it come from? Well, maybe mom had an experience that I wasn’t able to see, and she passed that on. Here’s one way of thinking about how very rare it is to pass on any information between generations in this way. Is that if you, if you think about it the DNA that gets passed from parent to child is a single cell. So, all of the information that would have to be passed on would have to be collapsed down into that single strand, double strand, but that single bit of DNA. And the way epigenetics works is it tells different cells how to behave. So, as you’re growing up and you have different experiences yeah, there is this encoding that gets put on top of your DNA and it tells certain cells in the brain how to behave and certain cells in the liver how to behave. The most important thing that it does is as your cells start dividing from, you know, where you start out being a single cell and then your two cells and then your four cells, and as cells start turning into brain cells and skin cells and liver cells, they all have the same DNA. So, they, how do they know which genes are the brain genes and which genes are the liver genes, epigenetics, like the most important thing of what epigenetics does is say, you’re this kind of cell. That is really the heart of the importance of it.

It’s a way that your cells encode information about the experiences that you’ve had throughout your life, so that as you’re growing up, your liver understands that you’re gonna be getting a lot of food or not very much food, and so that it knows how to be prepared to function for that. And your brain knows if you are living in a very scary environment or not very scary environment, and it knows how to be prepared, how to deal with that.

Does Information actually get passed from parent to child through that route? A tiny little bit? Yes. We have done some studies where we do see that happens. But for the most part, we know when it is time for the parent to hand their DNA to the child, there’s machinery in the cell that wipes all of the epigenetic information clean, and then after conception, it’s all wiped, clean. So, by default, we know that all of that information is cleared out and not passed on. We don’t actually know how some of it seems to manage to escape that because we have a few very exceptional cases where some information passed on, but it’s something we don’t understand very well yet.

We do understand quite well, some really cool things about epigenetics. There’s these really neat studies, Michael Meaney studies rats about mothering behavior, where we can see um, and he’s mapped out just beautifully, mother rats behavior towards the pups and how she licks and grooms them and allows them to nurse tightly correlates with specific gen genetic markers in a specific part of their brain, and that correlates with some specific machinery, how much of it is made. So, there’s the turning the gene on or off. It’s not an on, off switch, it’s a volume control. So, it can turn up the volume control on how much of this machinery is made. And that in turn that machinery interacts with the stress response and that interaction with the stress response affects pup’s behavior into adulthood. That is so cool. And that is one of the things that we know about epigenetics. I love epigenetics. I think it’s one of the neatest things and something I would love to have a job actually studying someday.

But the information passing from parent to child doesn’t tend to happen through epigenetics very often at all. It does happen in lots of other ways. The egg, and then the embryo, and the fetus is inside the mother. The placenta is actually a very active organ, so we of think of the placenta as just this thing that attaches the baby to the mom. But it’s actually very actively almost making decisions, to anthropomorphize a bit about, oh, here’s some information coming in the mother’s blood, it is information about nutrition.

It is actual nutrition. It is stress hormones, and it makes decisions about what it’s gonna filter and what it’s gonna pass through to the babies. So, all of that information then is coming from the mom and just being in the utuerus, baby is learning in air quotes, learning a lot about what kind of world to expect.

So, if you, if you have a mom who’s been going through a really scary, hard time, like she’s a stray and on the streets while she’s pregnant. That is a time period when her baby’s epigenetics probably are getting encoded. Not because they were passed through directly from mom, but because her placenta is allowing stress hormones through to say, “Hey, be prepared. It’s a very scary world. And so, as you’re growing set up these epigenetics to remind your body to be prepared for scary situations.” And that’s mom passes information on in her milk, she passes information on through her maternal behavior, there’s some really cool studies documenting that as I said in rats, but also in dogs. So,me interesting studies also about humans. All of that is setting epigenetic information. Other behavior, certainly puppies are able to learn just by watching their mother. So, There’s all kinds of ways that parents pass on information to their offspring, but epigenetics, we would call it transgenerational, epigenetics, where the DNA is set before conception, that is not a major one. It’s a very minor one, and one that I wouldn’t be that concerned about for a dog that I was owning or breeding.

[00:19:55] Emily: That is fascinating. And thank you so much for summarizing an incredibly complex topic for us in a way that was easy to understand, cause that is a gift that not everybody with your level of education has. Thank you for being a kind and clear educator. I so appreciate how you interact with my profession, because if more people in your position spoke with us the way you do, I think people would maybe be less defensive about getting feedback.

Thank you so much for all of that.

[00:20:28] Jessica: That’s very kind.

[00:20:28] Emily: It’s also true. So, I think this is where I’m leading us with these questions. This is an enrichment focused podcast, and this is where I really care about this stuff a lot. Is how our lay people understanding of genetics impacts how we view and implement enrichment.

And one of the things that I’ve been seeing that a little bit concerns me, I think concern is maybe too strong of a word, but I definitely want to make sure that we’re all moving in a right direction, it’s become trendy to talk about breed -specific enrichment.

And as you know, in our book we really place an emphasis on taking a descriptive approach to enrichment where we’re looking at the animal in front of us, figuring out what their needs are and working to meet their needs. And what I’m seeing coming from this belief about breed-specific enrichment is that it’s lending itself to a more prescriptive approach,

“Because I have a border collie, therefore I need to do treiball.” Or “Because I have a bulldog, therefore I need to play tug.” Where I’m seeing that be problematic is some of the trainers are implementing things that aren’t actually appropriate for the animal or meeting their needs because they have this belief like, because X breed therefore, Y enrichment.”

 As you are well aware because of the recent paper that you published and all of the hubbub surrounding it, people have really strong emotional attachments to their beliefs about breeds. And so, this is kind of a tricky subject to navigate. So, I would really love to hear you talk about the role that breed can and should play when considering an enrichment plan.

And what’s a more accurate way for behavior professionals to think about breed when they’re considering an enrichment plan, like how much does breed actually impact behavior in that way?

[00:22:14] Jessica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, what we looked at in that paper was we asked people a specific set of questions about their dog’s behavior. And then we looked at how much, those questions differed by breed. We looked at a whole lot of other things as well, by the way which tend to get forgotten, but that was the, that was the big takeaway for a lot of people from the paper. We did not ask; I can’t think of any questions that we asked that were specific about enrichment. Some of them could be like we asked about whether the dog liked toys and liked retrieving things. So, yeah, so let’s use retrieving as a really great example then. I don’t remember what percent of Labrador retrievers came out.

So, so the question was basically true false, we make it a true false statement. So, the statement was along the lines of “my dog enjoys chasing after objects and picking them up in his mouth” or something like that. This is basically retrieving. Um, it may have had us a bit about bringing them back or it may not. And then people could say strongly agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree. And so, we had this, zero to four, one to five ranking how much a dog’s behavior was described by that particular statement. I forget what percent of Labrador retrievers came out, strongly agree on liking to chase balls or liking to get in water was another one. And was high as you would expect, um, because we do expect Labrador retrievers to enjoy retrieving and enjoy getting in water, but it was not a hundred percent of them by any means. I wanna say it was for them, it was on the order of 80%.

And then, you know, there was some that the owners were sort ah, maybe, and somewhere they were like, not really. And some, it was like, no, my dog definitely doesn’t like this. And that was one of the strongest signals that we had for those kinds of enrichment questions of which, again, we had very few because the paper was not about enrichment.

So, what I took away from that was. Labrador retrievers are more likely to enjoy retrieving than other breeds. Certainly, other breeds, they have large percentages of dogs who enjoy retrieving as well. Including breeds that weren’t bred to retrieve like German shepherds but not a hundred percent of Labrador retrievers enjoy retrieving. And gosh, I guess you could go a lot of different ways with that.

I mean, you, you could try to argue that the people whose dogs didn’t enjoy retrieving, but they were labs, maybe the people just hadn’t tried hard enough or hadn’t done it right. The way I take it, and a lot of the rest of the paper, I think corroborates, this is that dogs are individuals.

We thought this was one of the, the biggest, most important pieces of information from the paper, was that dogs are individuals and just because there’s something that’s more common in a particular breed doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the case for your dog, even if your dog is a member of that breed.

The paper showed that while we are very, very good at, fixing morphology in breeds by which fixing, I mean that a hundred percent of the dogs in that breed are that way or within a particular set range. By morphology, you know, I mean shape, and size, and coat type, and coat color we’re very good at that.

Particularly the things that are controlled by very few genes like coat color, right? So, we’re very good at saying there’s only gonna be these coat colors or these coat lengths in this breed. And for the most part, that then will be true that, you know, you’re not gonna find a long-haired Labrador retriever, but when it comes to behavior, we are not capable probably no one as capable of entirely fixing behavioral traits within a breed.

And that is just due to the nature of the genetics of behavior, which is that first of all, there are a whole lot of genes that affect behavior. We have found very few of them in the human research. Um, the genes that we found affect very small percentages of the whole amount of variation in behavior, less than 1% per gene often, much less. And there’s actually, there’s an ongoing debate even about how many genes affect behavior, hundreds, thousands? There’s probably about 20,000 genes in, uh, dog and human DNA. I feel like I’ve even read an argument that sort of maybe all of them have some effect to some amount. So, there’s a really large number of genes.

So, fixing that genetically where each gene is set, with the allele in the direction that you want to go, increasing the particular behavior would be astronomically, difficult to begin with, but then behavior is also very much controlled by environment. It’s, environment is so complex. Um, I mean, I was talking earlier about how your environment starts at conception with your mother’s intrauterine environment and all the information that your mother gives you. Stuff that happens when you are in the nest with the other puppies. So, are you the smallest and you get bullied and you learned that it’s hard to get the food, because the bigger puppy is always shoving you out of the way? Or are you the big puppy and learning other things learning that all you need to do is, is try and you’ll get whatever you want?

[00:27:01] Emily: Alleles are different versions of the same gene that are found at the same place on the chromosome Alleles occur through mutation. So, for example, if a parrot species is typically green, but it has a mutation that makes certain individuals of that species blue or yellow, instead, that’s because there are alleles for green, blue, or yellow coloration of the feather.

[00:27:25] Jessica: There’s been fascinating studies in humans where they would look at identical twins. And you’d think a pair of identical twins living in the same household, so they share the genetics, they share the household that they’re living in, and so you would say, “Oh, they share the same environment, but they end up having somewhat different personalities.”

And if you know, any identical twins you’ll know that this is true, they can often have very different personalities. Turns out that you know, one of the big parts of your environment is the friends that you make. And identical twins may have different friends and that’s a big part of your environment. Um, and again, just like I said, puppies play off of each other. Identical twins can play off of each other and you know, one ends up being the confident one and the other one learns that the first one is gonna take care of them, and so that can affect their personalities.

All kinds of stuff. I had a fascinating experience in veterinary school, a friend who was pregnant with twins, I don’t remember whether they ended up being genetically identical or not, but she said she knew them apart, even in the uterus that one of them always moved towards the ultrasound probe, and one of them moved away from the ultrasound probe. She knew, which was which when they came out of birth order and that, that echoed their personalities going forward. So, their personalities were already developing in the uterus, and presumably partly as a response to this this environmental stimulus of the ultrasound probe, which maybe one of them felt differently cuz they were in different positions who knows?

So yeah, so environment is a very big deal as well, and that is definitely one of the reasons that we definitely cannot ever truly fix a behavior in a breed. We can certainly increase the uh, what geneticists like to call risk. If it’s a good thing that we don’t, you know, you, you don’t always call it a risk, but that we can increase the likelihood that a dog will like something particularly like retrieving.

And we have successfully done that in, in breeds. But that doesn’t mean that all dogs are going to, so I hundred percent agree that it makes sense to look at the dog in front of you. Describe what I assume, what you mean by descriptive is you’re looking at what the dog actually enjoys and provide them with that. If you have a dog that you don’t know well, or if there’s something that you haven’t tried, so if you had a purebred, Labrador retriever, and for some reason, you’d never tried throwing a ball for them, you might use your knowledge of the breed to try it and see if they liked it. If they don’t like it, I’d move on.

[00:29:55] Emily: That’s exactly what we are trying to get people to, to pay attention to is instead of just thinking, because lab ergo fetch see what the dog is offering, and then yes, try things based on what you know about the breed. So, you brought something up that I wanna kind of circle back to, and that is morphology and how it can sometimes be easier to breed for, or not sometimes it just is easier to breed for morphology than for behavior. What do you feel about the resurgence lately of this idea that you can predict behavior based on morphology?

[00:30:30] Jessica: I had missed that there was a resurgence of that from my perspective, that sort of always been going on, do you wanna tell me a little bit about what you’re seeing? Cause I’m curious.

[00:30:37] Emily: It’s kind of becoming popular this idea that like you can measure a dog’s skull and then predict their behavior based on the size of their skull or how, how big their head is relative to their body or just things like that. And so, I was curious to hear your take on that.

[00:30:53] Jessica: Yeah, I had entirely missed that that was going on. So, I have seen no evidence that you can measure the size of someone’s skull and predict their behavior. That is something people used to like to do with humans about a hundred years ago or a bit more. But it’s been discredited. Certainly, there is the fact that we are able to fix morphology and breeds a bit more, and so there’s correlations, right? So, a dog with a head of a particular shape, let me do that from the other direction, actually. A dog of a particular breed is both likely to have ahead of a particular shape and likely to have particular behavior. Again, not for sure, but there would be a correlation there between the behavior and the head shape, but that correlation is due to the breed. It’s not due the head shape, controlling the behavior, if that makes sense.

I like to explain it, sometimes about how, when I would be walking my dog Dash in the woods when he was younger and fresher, he would run away and I wouldn’t see him for a couple minutes, but he had a GPS collar, and so after he’d been gone for a, a certain amount of time, I would reach for my pocket to turn on the GPS, to see where he was. And inevitably, just as I was reaching for my pocket, he would come back. So, the correlation is between me reaching for my pocket and the dog coming back. That doesn’t mean that me reaching for my pocket caused the dog to come back.

But there is a real causative relationship there, and the causative relationship is how long he’s been gone. He tended to only stay gone for a certain amount of time. I tended to only tolerate a certain amount of time before I reach for my pocket. So, when you’re looking at two things that are correlated like that, it can be really interesting to ask, is there a third thing that is the actual causation that is controlling both of those two?

So, in the case of something like head shape and behavior, I would argue that in a lot of cases, there is this third thing which is breed, which is correlated both with head shape and with particular, you know, elevated risks or likelihoods of particular behaviors. And that, that’s what you’re seeing in a mixed breed dog, I would think that’s just out the window. In a mixed breed dog, I wouldn’t expect head shape to correlate with behavior very much at all. And again, I would just refer people to the scientific literature that has not shown any correlation there that I’m aware of.

If certainly if someone knows of a paper let me know. There, there was one interesting paper, a couple years back where they looked at the shape and size of different brain regions in dogs of different breeds. And they found that there were shape and size of brain regions in dogs of different breeds. However, those dogs, again, because they were different breeds had different skull shapes and the shape of your skull very much affects the shape of your brain. Um, you can look at radiographs or MRIs of dogs with very flat faces compared to dogs with very long faces, and you can see that the shape of what the brain fits into changes, and that is gonna change how your brain grows into and what shape it grows into. And so, that again is what I would. say those differences were probably explained by.

[00:33:57] Emily: Yeah, that’s really interesting, and also it just sounds like another instance of overstatement, right? Like, this is what we’re, as lay people trying to understand the research that we are learning from, we can confuse things. Thank you for that clarification. It’s really interesting.

[00:34:14] Jessica: Can I say something about overstatement actually, which is that as I’ve been teaching. So, I’ve been teaching this class at Virginia Tech. It’s actually, so it’s people who wanna get a master’s degree in animal behavior and welfare, it’s a great program. I teach a class about behavioral biology.

So, I talk about all this kind of stuff. And one of the things that I hear from my student. That I wasn’t really prepared for is they keep saying, “Wait, we don’t understand this?” So, I’ll be explaining something and I’ll, say, “So, here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t know. What we don’t know is huge.” And people and their students are just constantly coming back with I thought this was understood. I thought we knew exactly the effects that testosterone had on behavior. I thought that we knew exactly the effects that genetics had on this particular trait. And they’re just very surprised. To learn the nebulousness of science, of how there’s, the way scientific studies work is that we learn these very specific pieces of information based on how the study was designed. And as scientists we can’t extrapolate that much wider, and so the world of scientific knowledge is these pieces of information, which then they start to come together and we start to be able to make larger conclusions, but there’s large areas, very particularly of behavioral biology, of understanding the biology of behavior. Behavior’s hard and there’s large chunks of it where we just don’t know. And I think that is something that, that science education, at least in the US but I think probably in a lot of other countries, doesn’t do a good job of preparing people for the unknowns.

You go through high school science, and it is very much, we know this, and we know this, and we know this and a lot of oversimplification so that you can really, be able to clearly answer questions on your multiple-choice test about genetics, But it’s not so good at, we don’t really know, we have some idea, there’s some link between testosterone and aggression. What does it actually mean? Can you, neuter a dog and decrease its aggression? Um, probably not. That seems surprising why? Uh, well We have some ideas, but we don’t really know. Um, just all of, of that, big cloudy, murky like, uh, we kind of, but we don’t really, people aren’t taught that about science and, but that’s the reality of where we are.

[00:36:29] Emily: Thank you for bringing that up. I super agree with that, and it’s really understandable, right? Because we want cer, certainty is comforting, right? Being able to say this is definitely the case, it’s just a very comforting position. And it’s why uh, pseudoscience is so attractive. One of the defining differences between science and pseudoscience is that science has academic humility, and it’s conservative, and limited in its claims, whereas pseudoscience tends to make these broad generalizations. And that’s really attractive to us because we find comfort in that certainty, being able to say, neutering dogs makes them less aggressive because testosterone makes dogs aggressive. That there’s, it’s an easy thing to understand, and then there’s something very easy that you can do about it. And so, it’s really alluring. And I think that what you just said is really important and we need to keep saying it over and over again is science is not about having absolute answers. Science is about asking more questions. And that’s maybe less comforting, but it’s also more honest and accurate.

And I appreciate you helping us to understand that and remind us of that.

Okay. So, the most popular question from Pro Campus, we already talked about a little bit but I think there’s a little bit of a different spin on what they were asking. And also by the time this airs it, this will be a few months old.

It’s probably old news by the time people get this, but right now uh, your paper just recently came out. It’s still fresh. There’s a whole lot of conversation around it. So, people in Pro Campus and the Mentorship Program wanted to know what are the main takeaways from that paper that we behave professionals need to know, think about and incorporate into our practice.

[00:38:14] Jessica: Yeah. I mean, well, as you said, we’ve been talking a lot about how dogs are individuals and to me that’s really what it is that when someone comes to you and says, I have a dog of this particular breed with this particular problem, you’re gonna be starting to set your expectations about the dog based on the breed before you meet the dog.

And I think that’s reasonable, honestly. You’re gonna sort of have this broad idea of this aggression is more likely to be territorial or it’s more likely to be resource guarding, or it’s more likely to be fear based. But you have to not decide before you meet the dog. You have to really look at the dog and you have to try to, to, to keep, um, your assumptions based on the breed fluid and such that you can change them when you actually meet the dog. There’s, there’s been a lot of press coverage that has said that breed has no influence on dog behavior, and I firmly believe that’s not what the paper says.

It does show that breed has a larger influence on behavior than sex or age or size. It definitely, the influence that breed has on behavior varies by the particular trait that you look at, and so for some traits, it was up to 25% of the variability was based on breed and for some traits the breed didn’t have any effect at all. Those numbers are not surprising for someone who studies the genetics of behavior. That lot of people go into this sort of thinking that breed is gonna be a really massive effect on behavior. But pretty much, nothing is a really massive effect on behavior. You could say that environment is a massive effect on behavior, but I’ve said so many times that environment is actually lots of little things and that we shouldn’t think of it as just a single thing. Behavior is an incredibly complex, no one thing has a overwhelming effect on it.

For something to have even a sort of 25% of, of variation is pretty impressive actually. But just remember how complex behavior is, how many things affect it and how every dog really is an individual. We’re not just saying that it’s really true yeah.

[00:40:10] Emily: All right, so I have a few questions that I ask everybody at the end. So, we’re going to launch into those now. What is one thing you wish people knew about this topic, your profession, or enrichment your choice?

[00:40:22] Jessica: I mean, we’ve covered the two big things that I would say.

The whole idea that epigenetics is passed on trans-generationally. It bugs me, I’m not sure how important it is. Like how much of a, an effect it has on how someone manages their dog. But it’s, it’s a really strong belief in the dog community and I’ve been sort of trying to get the word out there.

It’s, you know, it’s like peeing in the ocean, but, uh, we talked about that a lot. And then the other one is that. Dogs are individuals. That’s probably much more important that people really understand that and that they can’t judge a dog entirely based on its breed. But we’ve talked a lot about that as well. I think we have it covered.

[00:41:03] Emily: Next question. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?

[00:41:07] Jessica: So, let me define my field first. and I will say that my field right now is working through the Functional Dog Collaborative working with, helping people breed dogs to better fit into the homes or the jobs that they’re placed into with obviously an emphasis on pet dog homes, because that’s where there’s a real crying need right now. And I think there’s so many places, so many ways that can change. I was at a summit recently with a lot of people in animal welfare, talking about how most people get their dogs, and we realized that there’s the two ways that, people have been historically told is the right way to get a dog.

And one is from shelters, and one is from a very competent qualified breeder. And right now, it has become incredibly difficult for the average person or even the dog geek to identify which breeders are really good breeders. And we realized at this conference that there’s this massive, we started referring to it as the black hole because we feel like we have no information about it, of people buying dogs off the internet. And, um, there are some very good breeders on the internet and there are high volume, low animal welfare breeders who are straight up actively lying about the kinds of conditions that they keep their dogs in, how much socialization they’re doing with their puppies, whether they’re health testing and it can be really hard for the average person to tell them apart. So, that’s one thing I’d like to see change.

And the other part of that is that those really good breeders who are doing a great job, there are not enough of them to provide the replacements for the dogs who die of natural causes every year or unnatural causes. So, if you look at, there’s about 80 million dogs in the us right now, sorry for this to be US centric, but it’s where I have the numbers for. And roughly 10% of them die a year. If you assume a dog lives about 10 years. And in order to keep that number stable, although the number is slowly growing, um, in order to keep that number even stable, there need to be 8 million puppies born into, into, to, born or, or imported into the country every year. And there are to my mind, there’s certainly not enough puppies being born in shelters. There’s puppies that are born elsewhere and move through shelters, but there’s not enough being born in shelters to, to provide those replacements nor should there be. And there’s also, I don’t believe that there’s anywhere near enough really competent, good humane breeders, doing a great job of thinking about genetics, which is important. In early socialization, which is important. And finding the right home, which is important. Telling people no, and sending them to a different breed if you know their particular dogs, aren’t gonna be a good fit, also important. There are not enough of those people, and so how can we make more? And we happen to have a lot of social structures in place that make it very challenging for people to move into that role. And actually particularly people of color, BIPOC have, there’s a lot of barriers for them to move into that role as well. So, it’s, we’re sort of in this tangle where we really want to produce a large number of good dogs that make good pets every year. And is set up to make that hard. So, that is what I would really like to see change. Hope I can help be a part of that change, um, but there’s a lot of other smart minds thinking about this too, so I’m hopeful. We’ll figure it out

[00:44:36] Emily: I love that. I think it’s a really important message. I have the privilege of having both come from a background of working with a lot of breeders and also having spent 30 plus years in shelters and rescue. The more far more common scenario within animal welfare is people are either in the breeding circle or they’re in the shelter circle, and there’s, fewer people who have the kind of overlap that I do. And I think one of the things that’s hard for the people on the shelter side, the people on the shelter side, just see overpopulation and abandonment. And so, it’s really easy to adopt that don’t breed or buy while others die rhetoric.

And I think what’s hard for them to understand is that ethical, responsible breeders actually would help alleviate that population because those breeders have a contract with the people who adopt their puppies. That if at any point you can’t keep the dog, you bring the dog back to me. And so,, those breeders are acting as their own rescue group, and if there were more of those breeders out there and fewer dogs being bred and puppy mills or on the street, in the back in backyards or whatever, it would also help the shelter population because there would be more dogs who, first of all, wouldn’t be rehomed as easily because there’s been more thought and care put into placement, but secondly would be going back to the breeder instead of ending up in the shelter.

You know, it’s a really complicated, multifaceted issue and I understand both sides of it and the pain that both sides experience, but really the best solution is working together in that balance between responsible breeding and responsible sheltering. It’s not as cut and dried as adopt don’t shop.


[00:46:19] Jessica: No, I totally agree. I totally agree. And a lot of the, a lot of the pain that people are feeling in shelters right now, I think is from long stay dogs. And so, you have, shelters that are full, but a large part, the reason it’s hard to move through the dogs that are moving through is that there’s a lot of these longer stay dogs that are very hard to adopt out because of behavioral problems.

And, you know, we talked about at the beginning of this podcast interview that about how my perspective has changed as I’ve been of feeling my way through. And I feel like I’ve been moving back to a more and more place for keeping dogs out of shelters. So, to me right now, the best way to keep a dog out of a shelter is to give it good genetics, a good early start, and those two things together mean that even if it ends up in the wrong home, and even if the breeder doesn’t take it back and it ends up in a shelter, it’ll be a good, solid, resilient dog that will be easy to place. And I love this idea of shelters being places for just help dogs find new homes and for dogs to not be hard to place, not get stuck there, but the shelter to, to facilitate them moving from one home to another. That’s what they should be.

[00:47:21] Emily: And I think that’s, what we can work towards. Yeah. I love that. Thank you. All right. The next question is, what do you love about what you do?

[00:47:29] Jessica: I love learning things. So, I love learning about genetics, but I also love right now interacting with so many fantastic breeders and learning about what they do, how hard it is to produce a really solid litter of puppies, and all the work that they go through to do it. I’ve also been having a lot of fascinating conversations, you just mentioned how it’s important for the animal welfare side, the sheltering side and the breeder side to work together. And so, some of the work that I’ve been doing lately has been trying to build bridges there and learning about what’s going on in animal sheltering. How different it is now from when I did my shelter med as an internship 10 years ago. What’s, what’s happening in the shelters as they respond to COVID and the, all the changes in, in the world with difficulties in the supply chain, the veterinary shortage, people being out of work, people going back to work, all of that, and how that affects fluidity of shelter populations, the length of stay, um, all that kind of stuff is fascinating.

So that’s what I love about what I do.

[00:48:34] Emily: I love that about what you do too. That’s awesome. So, what are you currently working on? If people want to work more with or learn from you, where can they find you?

[00:48:42] Jessica: Yeah. So, two places if you want to get on my mailing list for when I do webinars and things like that, go to dogzombie.com and there’s a mailing list sign up there. That is the best way to follow me personally, if you’re interested in all this stuff that I’ve been talking about, making dogs better and building bridges, you know, making a new kind of dog breeding culture. The Functional Dog Collaborative is the place to go for that. So, there’s a website, functionalbreeding.org, and that will point you to all the other stuff. There’s a lot of stuff on the website actually for a lot of content there, but you can also go to the Facebook groups. The website will point you there. It’s a big Facebook group, very active there’s a lot going on. So, come check that out. And then I am struggling to get the podcast going again. So, there’s, I would say there’s about 20 episodes of The Functional Breeding Podcast, again, the Functional Breeding website will point you there. Some great stuff in the past, I had a concussion was, had trouble doing those kinds of computery things. Um, Since I’ve been coming back from that, I have one new podcast episode and I’m right now in the middle of scheduling, recording for the next episode, but it’s gonna be a group conversation. And so, getting everybody on the same page has been taking a couple minutes, but um, that is where I would recommend people go to find out more about me.

[00:50:02] Emily: Excellent.

All right. Thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a fascinating and informative conversation, and I really appreciate the work you do and how you show up for both your profession and mine. So, I really appreciate you joining us today. Thanks so much.

[00:50:18] Jessica: Thank you. It was really fun to talk with you and thank you for having me on.

[00:50:21] Allie: I love the turn this episode went into talking about animal homelessness and overpopulation, which is the animal welfare issue that brought me into this field in the first place. And I love that Jessica is trying to bridge the gap between shelters and responsible breeders, and I’m just so excited to see where her work continues to go from here. Next week we’ll be talking about breed typical enrichment.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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Results are not guaranteed because behavior, human, canine, or otherwise, are not guaranteeable.

Playing the “Do You Wanna…” Game

Last month in the blog What About Agency in Training, we focused on increasing agency within training sessions, and mentioned that this month we were going talk about ways to help your pet communicate what they want or need. 

Our pets are communicating with us all the time. Through their body language, their behavior, through the ways that they interact with the world. Taking some time to simply observe what they do throughout the day, the way that they interact with things, and how they interact with you can give you a great insight into what they need and how they ask. 


For example, I know that my dogs need the opportunity to destroy things. 

How do I know this? 

Left to their own devices, they destroy things. 

The shreds of cardboard and toy carcasses scattered throughout the house tell me that is something that they want or need. 



I know that Laika wants to play fetch. 

How do I know this? 

She’s shoved the ball in my hand since she was 8 weeks old, and when I toss the ball, she continues to bring it back.

But sometimes, as she approaches me with her freshly retrieved ball, and I extend my hand for her to put the ball in, she’ll turn her head and push her should into it instead. 

When she does this, she’s asking for scratches. 


And Griffey needs and wants to play tug. 

How do I know this? 

From the day we brought him home, tug has been an activity that leads to a much more restful pup. Through consistent and predictable tug games, he can now place the tug toy in my hand to continue the game. 



Turn away and chew on it to help himself regulate.



Or run away and lie down when he’s finished with the activity. 


But sometimes, we aren’t sure what our pets want or need. When we go through the basic checklist, food, water, temperature, and attention, it just doesn’t appease the gremlins.

So, we play the “Do you wanna….” game. Because even though both of the humans are in professional animal care, sometimes even we are stumped. And I do think that it is important to let your pet ask for what they want or need sometimes. By letting them communicate with us, we are giving them control over their outcomes, and agency in getting their needs met. 


What does the “Do you wanna…” game look like?

Great question, I’d love to tell you.

We start each sentence with “Do you wanna…” and end it with something that we’ve already taught them. This can be an activity or an object, like “play” or “broccoli”. 

Here’s an example with Laika: 


“Do you wanna get your ball?” → sit = nope 

“Do you wanna come here?” → stare = nope 

“Do you wanna treat?” → stare that says “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” = nope 

“Do you wanna go outside?” → stare that chills your soul = nope 

“Do you wanna go downstairs?” – stretch in a play bow, tail wag = yes! 

We can go through the list of things we’ve taught them through our lives together, and when we get to the thing, they give us a wholehearted “YESSSSS!”


But my dog doesn’t know those things

Ours didn’t either! We always start by pairing the activity or object with the word we are going to use. 

That means when we teach our dogs something new for their “do you wanna…” game, we start by consistently and predictably pairing the word we are going to use, with the activity or object to follow. 

For example: 

“Go outside” → open door 

“Treat” → get and give treat 

“Downstairs” → go downstairs 

“Wubba” → offer wubba 

“Walk” → get leash

“Broccoli” → give broccoli 

“Brussel sprout” → give brussel sprout 

The options are endless! 

Be consistent (the word always means the same thing), and predictable (create a routine around each activity), and soon, you’ll be able to ask your pets “do you wanna… go outside?” 

If they say “no, thank you” continue down your list. If they say “yes, please” then outside you go! 


Now what? 

  • Pick 2 things to teach your pet and start teaching them THIS sound or gesture means THIS activity or object. Remember, 1 name, 1 meaning! 
  • Once you’ve taught them that THIS sound or gesture means THIS activity or object start playing the “Do you wanna…” game. If they say yes, then do the thing, if they say no, then move on! Keep in mind, the “no” is as important in this game as the “yes”. You aren’t trying to make every answer a “yes”!
  • Make sure to follow us on Facebook @Petharmonytraining and Instagram @petharmony training for more tips on finding harmony with your pet! 

Happy training,


How Leash Reactivity Taught my Dog Flight

As a dog professional, I want to share a little secret with you. My dog is not perfect. Nor do I expect him to be, because, spoiler alert, neither am I. My dog has some traits that are less than desirable. He is sometimes more vocal than I would like. He is not shy about asking for yummies to be handed to him from the dinner table (thanks, husband for teaching him that neat trick.) He is, shall we say, an enthusiastic greeter when folks walk in the door. All of these “habits” work for him. He has been rehearsing some of the behaviors for years and years. Hello, enthusiastic greetings. He has been rehearsing others for less time. Hello, begging at the dinner table. The common thread that maintains all of these behaviors is his learning history that when he performs x, y, or z behavior, a consequence will very reliably follow. Sometimes it’s someone’s attention, sometimes it’s a tasty dinner morsel. There is really no mystery or magic to it. 

As his guardian, I have to decide which behaviors are tolerable to me and which ones aren’t. If I decide that a behavior is tolerable, well that’s pretty easy. Life marches on. However, if a behavior is intolerable, then I need to get to work and decide on a course of action that is going to help both of us. Again, no mystery or magic. Just good old-fashioned strategizing, implementation, monitoring, adjusting, and then, (and here is sometimes the hardest part of all), reliably maintaining the new replacement or alternate behavior. Because I’m human and sometimes I get sloppy. Or I am feeling lazy. And sometimes, I just don’t want to have to think about it. I just want…………a break. 


Can you please just stop yelling? 

So, here is the most undesirable behavior my dog used to exhibit that I found intolerable: he used to yell at all of the dogs he saw on our walks. All………of………them. Loudly and with gusto. This inability to see other dogs while on leash (for some dogs it’s people or cars, or bikes, etc.) without telling them off is commonly referred to as leash reactivity. Typically, telling other dogs off looks like lunging at the end of the leash, barking, growling, snapping, and I would assume in my dog’s case, landing a bite if we were close enough (which I made sure of never being.) 

This behavior was intolerable to me because it was not safe, it was not peaceful, and quite honestly, it was embarrassing. I mean to tell you, I got some looks. Actually, I got a lot of looks. It wasn’t my dog’s fault. He had been aggressed by an off-leash dog and so he thought he wasn’t safe. And just like his begging at the dinner table works, the dogs that he barked at always moved away from him because, rightfully so, people would always turn away from the snarling and snapping dog at the end of my leash. My dog’s behavior was being reinforced because it afforded him the distance he needed (other dog moving away) to feel safe. And even though the behavior felt intolerable to me, it served an important function for my dog. I knew I needed to help him find a more appropriate and peaceful way to keep the function of the behavior (increase in distance) that would also help maintain my sanity while I was helping him learn that other dogs on leash were nothing to be worried about. So, I did the only thing any reasonable dog parent would do. I taught him how to take flight. 


Fly Dog, Fly

Ok, I didn’t really teach my dog to fly in the traditional sense of what it means to aerodynamically launch into the atmosphere and soar amongst the clouds. But I did teach him a new skill set that included choosing flight as an option as opposed to “fight”  when he saw another dog on our walks. The flight that he was taught meant that he didn’t need to yell at dogs to get them to move away because he could choose to move away himself. He would have the agency to gain the distance away from other dogs that he desired in a more socially acceptable way. That was a Big Win for both of us! Because instead of dreading our walks I could now focus on teaching my dog that the sight of other dogs was actually a predictor of something great instead of the predictor of something awful. 

This training took place a few years ago and I am happy to report that my dog has exponentially improved on our walks. He rarely ever needs to yell anymore. He mostly ignores other dogs on our walks. Every once in a while he will still have an explosion but there are almost always very valid reasons. Usually, it is when the other dog is being a little too intense with their body language or the dog appears around a blind corner and startles us both. There are not a lot of things I can do to control either one of those unfortunate situations but what I can do is give my dog his flight cue and away we walk in a different direction with fluidity and confidence. He gains the distance he desires and I have the peace I desire. Another win! 

Flight training isn’t anything new under the sun (very little is when it comes to how learning and behavior works.) But it is a fairly simple thing to teach and more importantly to maintain. Because if you go back to my first paragraph, you will remember that I said a learned alternative or replacement behavior requires maintenance or it can be extinguished from our pets’ behavioral repertoire. And we can see a resurgence of the old, undesired behavior. I also admitted that I can sometimes be sloppy, lazy, or just want a break as a trainer. The good news is that my dog’s flight cue is so firmly ingrained in both my dog’s and my muscle memory, that I don’t really have to think about a thing and neither does he. Think of how you’ve reliably trained your dog to sit in a variety of situations. It’s kind of like that, only the desired outcome has bigger stakes. If my dog can continue to move away from his stressors without a scene, then our walks are more frequent and more enjoyable for us both. And that, my friends, is what it is all about. Enjoying time together and building a stronger relationship that benefits us both. 


Now What? 

  • If you’d like to learn more about Flight Training in general, check out Episode 16 – Flight Training Mini-Sode of the Enrichment for the Real World podcast
  • If you have a dog with leash reactivity one of the skills to focus on is learning canine body language. I know we might sound like a broken record at Pet Harmony because we state the importance of this so often, but really all successful behavior modification starts and ends with being fluid in “reading dog.” I often tell my clients that the greatest skill set I can teach them has nothing to do with mechanics, timing, or the delivery of reinforcement. It is sharpening their observation skills and learning how their dog (and the species as a whole) communicates. 
  • Be patient with your dog and kind to yourself. Even though you might be on the receiving end of some judgemental and disdainful looks from other folks, I assure you that leash reactivity most often comes from a place of fear on your dog’s part. Teaching your dog that they are safe is paramount to improvement. 
  • If walks are too hard for you and your dog right now, Canine Enrichment for the Real World has a whole lot of information on ways to help your dog be the best they can be. You can also join our enrichment-focused Facebook group:  Enrichment for the Real World  
  • Hiring a behavior professional to help you and your dog learn to “take flight” and feel safe can be a really great way to help you and your dog navigate walks in a more relaxing and enjoyable way for you both. Reach out to Pet Harmony if you need help with leash reactivity or any other troubling behavior. We are here to help in any way we can! 

Happy training,