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!


May 2022 Training Challenge – Getting in the Enrichment Habit

I’m gonna be calling out some people here right in the beginning. 

Raise your hand if you WANT TO DO THE THING, but something is standing in your way? 

And what do I mean by that? 

I want to give my dogs frozen food puzzles to lick once a day, but I can’t seem to do it. 

I want to spend 3 minutes training my dog, but I have only done it once in the last two weeks. 

I want to give my dog boxes with kibble in them to destroy, but it takes so much effort. 

I want to __________, but ___________. 

Yeah, friend. Me too. 

Building habits around our pet’s enrichment plan can be difficult in the constant churn of the rest of life. I have grandiose goals for my two dogs, but those goals often fall by the wayside as other fires appear on the horizon. 

If this sounds like you, then stick around, this training challenge is for you. 

This month, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what’s standing in the way of your best intentions. 

What is stopping you from turning your intentions and goals into sustainable habits? 

Oof, that seems like a big question, right? 

Don’t worry. 

We’ve helped thousands of families on their enrichment journey, and we’ve seen some of the common barriers among our clients. Check out these common barriers and the ways families have overcome them.


The “It Needs to be Perfect” Struggle 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“Well, I need to do all of these things before I can start.”

“I need to know all the things before I can start.” 

“If I can’t do it all, I can’t do any of it.” 

I think most of us have been there at some time in our lives. We want to do things “right”, so we put it off until we can feel like we are doing it “right.”

So, do you feel your inner perfectionist standing between you and your enrichment habit? 

You don’t have to know everything about everything for a stellar enrichment plan for your dog. That’s what behavior consultants are for, they can help you build your plan, leaving you to focus on execution. This doesn’t mean you can’t still learn *all the things*, but it does mean that you don’t have to do it with the cloud of pressure over your head! 

Separate the habit from the results. Integrating new routines into your life takes time, so sometimes, it’s helpful to say, “In order to benefit my pet, I need to do the thing. The first step, is getting the thing done”. Split the criteria for yourself. Start with doing the thing, and then add in those additional steps later. 

And remember, something is likely better than nothing, and you can start small. Start with one small step, and when you have that integrated into your routine, add something else. This is something else a qualified behavior consultant can help you with. Small steps are our specialty!


The “Too Many Choices” Paralysis

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“I don’t know what to do today?” 

“I can’t decide where to start!” 

“Should I be doing this or that?”

And then doing none of the things? Analysis paralysis is a real thing, and with the millions of enrichment options available, we see it seep in often. Where do I focus my attention? What if I make the wrong choice? What if there is a BETTER option? 

So, do you find the sheer number of options overwhelming and paralyzing? 

First off, you won’t know if there is a better option for your pet unless you try some stuff. Working with a professional can help narrow down your options, and direct your focus, but at the end of the day, I can tell you most, if not all dogs, benefit from opportunities to partake in sniffing. What I can’t tell you is what format or structure of sniffing is going to most benefit your dog. Does scatter feeding in the yard, tracking scents, sniffing through boxes and obstacle courses for food, or sniffaris provide you the best results? We need to do some trial and evaluation. And until we have that information, there is no bad option as long as it is safe, healthy, and appropriate. 

Looking at 10 options is likely too much, but looking at 3 can be manageable. So, narrow it down to three. If your dog’s enrichment program has some flexibility, and a sustainable, realistic and effective enrichment program should have some flexibility built-in, then toss all the options into a hat and pull three out to choose from. Or better yet, learn your pet’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you.” and ask them to pick for you! 


The “Chasing the Shiny” Burn Out 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“I’ll just add one more toy to my shopping cart.” 

“My dog is too fast!”

“I saw this incredible thing on Instagram…” 

This one is often tied with The “Too Many Choices” Paralysis and The “It Needs to be Perfect” Struggle. In an effort to have the best-darned enrichment plan, we are constantly searching the internet, listening to podcasts like Enrichment for the Real World, and looking for new enrichment options, and I see a couple of things happen here.

You may feel like your enrichment plan isn’t enough because other people are doing different things. You may not be using the results in your pet’s behavior to gauge its effectiveness, and because of that, you may get to a point where it doesn’t feel sustainable, or realistic anymore. Doing more, doing different, and doing new constantly is not feasible. 

So, do you feel the burnout creeping in and blocking your enrichment habit? 

Remember, enrichment isn’t about the activity. It’s about the results in the animal’s behavior. So, if you’re chasing the shiny because you think novelty and newness are necessary for an effective enrichment plan for your dog, I give you permission to slow down. Close your 95 internet tabs that are open with new enrichment ideas, and return to the basics and foundations. More is not always more when it comes to enrichment. When you provide an opportunity for your pet, do they engage with it? Does the activity help meet your pet’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways? If the answer is no, then it’s not helping your goals. 

Unless, you’re like me, and chasing the shiny is part of YOUR enrichment plan. Sometimes, that activity can be cup filling for the human, and if that sounds like you, then, by all means, keep your 95 browser tabs open, and continue to scroll Instagram. But, watch out for those times when Compare Leads to Despair, and if you feel that happening, circle back to my above point.  Does the activity help meet your pet’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways? Take a moment to be present with your pet. When the activity we partake in helps to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, slowing down to observe and appreciate our work is really important.


The “I Don’t Have the Bandwidth” Challenge 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“There’s no way I can do that every day?” 

“I don’t have the time to be able to _____.” 

“I’m so tired.” 

Yup. I feel all of that. We only have so much that we can give, and your oxygen mask needs to be on before you can help anyone else. 

So, do you feel like you can’t take on one more thing? 

Be kind to yourself. We all have 24 hours in a day, but we all have a different 24 hours. My partner is out of the house for 12 hours a day, and I work from home. What each of us can feasibly, sustainably, and reliably do for the dogs is different. If you have a bandwidth struggle, make sure you are taking care of yourself as best you can. (I’m going to plug a great self-care/self-enrichment resource here.)

And this is one where I really encourage you to work with a professional to strip down to the bare bones of what is necessary to meet your pet’s needs and your goals. You’ve got a certain amount of resources to share, so let’s make sure you are focusing on the things that will help you make the biggest impact. We can help you tweak small things that will make a big difference.

Meal prepping your frozen food puzzles for 2 weeks can make it more sustainable and more likely to happen. 

You can also prepare your dog’s food in boxes DIY destructibles if you store them in a pest-proof container and use them within a couple of weeks. 

It might be moving where your dog’s food is kept to make things easier for everyone. 

It might be putting up some window film so that your dog is able to rest throughout the day. 

Small changes can result in big wins. 


The “I Can’t Tell if it is Working” Fog

Do you find yourself saying things like…

“I think he likes ____.” 

“I guess it’s worth it.” 

“I don’t know if it made a difference.” 

To stick with an enrichment plan, you really need to see the wins. You need to see your pet’s behavior change. You need to observe the differences it is making, or else what is reinforcing you to continue doing the thing? 

So, are you not sure that your enrichment plan is working? 

Refresh your body language observing and interpreting skills! Through body language and observation, you’ll be able to see the changes better, or lack thereof, and can assess your plan with confidence. 

Keep a log of your pet’s behavior? What do you find undesirable? What behaviors do you find desirable? Are you seeing changes in either the undesirable behaviors or the desirable behaviors? Keeping a tally of your observations can help you be objective! You can see how Allie has done this with her nemesis, Winter Oso. 

If you aren’t seeing the desirable changes, make adjustments! Your enrichment plan was likely created with a goal in mind, so adjust to continue working toward that goal. 


Now what? 

  • There are a lot of reasons that can get in the way of building a sustainable enrichment habit. Identify some of the barriers that are getting in your way. Once you know what they are, or at least have an inkling, you can start knocking those barriers down! 
  • We’ve helped thousands of families not only create sustainable, effective enrichment plans for their pets but also troubleshoot barriers to creating long-lasting and effective habits. We’d love to help you, too! We see clients all over the world and can help with any behavior problem remotely. Click here to get started.

Happy training,


Podcast Episode 10: Transcript

#10 - Mike Shikashio:
Influencing the Industry
Through Empathy

[00:00:00] Mike: In some cases, when you address the underlying issue, lack of enrichment or lack of actually satisfying the dogs innate needs or underlying medical issues, you address the behavior. If we address the fuel behind the behavior, then there’s no motivation for that dog to do it in the context we’re trying to fix. So, sometimes we don’t have to look at addressing the ABCs at all in that particular environment sometimes it gets fixed by addressing that fuel.

[00:00:28] 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…

[00:00:42] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:44] 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 Michael Shikashio. Michael Shikashio, CDBC is the founder of aggressivedog.com and focuses on teaching other professionals from around the world on how to successfully work aggression cases.

He has a five term president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, IAABC, and is a full member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainer, APDT. Michael is sought after for his expert opinion by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Post. Fox News, The List TV, Baltimore Sun. Web MD. Women’s Health Magazine, Real Simple Magazine, Sirius XM Radio, the Chronicle of the Dog, and Steve Dale’s Pet World.

 He also hosts the popular podcast show the Bitey End of the Dog, where he chats with the foremost experts on dog aggression. He is a featured keynote speaker at conferences, universities, and seminars around the world and offers a variety of educational opportunities on the topic of canine aggression, including the Aggression in Dogs Master Course, and the annual Aggression in Dogs Conference

One of the things I love about what Mike is doing in the industry is focusing on empathy and compassion for all learners, including our human learners. We had the honor of speaking at his Aggression in Dogs Conference last year, and on the last day, the speakers were all remarking at how, without speaking to one another about this, or Mike: asking us to talk about it, all of our presentations discussed how to support the human side of the behavior modification journey and being compassionate and empathetic to our human clients. This is really a testament to what Mike: is trying to accomplish in the animal behavior consulting industry, and you’re going to hear a lot more of that in today’s episode. Fellow behavior professionals, you’re really going to dig this one.

In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Mike talk about important foundation questions when it comes to working with aggression cases, finding connections with parallel professionals, and kindness over competitions All right here it is. Today’s episode, Mike Shikashio Influencing the Industry Through Empathy.

[00:03:08] Emily: Okay, thank you for joining us. I’m going to have you say your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:03:15] Mike: Alright, I’m Mike Shikashio, him/his and my pets are Castana, who is a Chilean street dog, and Bernardo who’s a Chilean street cat.

[00:03:25] Emily: Oh, that’s adorable. I love that. I know a lot of street dogs. I don’t know that many street cats though, so that’s pretty cute. I’m sure there’s a story behind that.

[00:03:35] Mike: There’s a big story behind that, one is that I’m allergic to cats, and we have a mutual agreement in the house that he just can’t sit on my head while he’s, while I’m sleeping at night. And that all works out.

[00:03:46] Emily: Good, I love to hear that. Living with animals and sometimes a negotiation, right? So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.

[00:03:56] Mike: So, I’ve been in the dog world for about two decades now, and I started off with a lot of rescue, foster kind of stuff while I was working at a full-time job somewhere else. I always wanted to have a dog business of some kind, and I originally wanted to do like a dog daycare, but that quickly panned into dog behavior because I was like, “I’m going to open a dog daycare. I should probably learn a little bit about dog behavior.” And I started to learn about dog behavior. I’m like, “Forget the dog daycare stuff, this training stuff is way cooler.” Not that dog daycare is a bad thing, it’s just that, that’s what I was interested in. I started getting into the training and getting more of the behavior issues, as a lot of rescues will start to send you because if you’re fostering those dogs, they’re going to know you’re capable of handling those kinds of dogs after time goes along. And so, I started getting more aggression cases, nothing really severe at the time, but enough where I wanted to learn more about that.

And that’s where I took the deep dive into working with aggression cases, just because I loved that particular aspect of helping dogs. And I think the main reason was because I felt like I could help the most dogs if I could learn a lot about aggression because a good percentage of the dogs that I was seeing returned to rescue, or shelter, or surrendered, were because of some type of aggression issues.

So, I thought what better way to help these dogs then to try to learn as much as I could about aggression, and that’s how it turned into what I’m doing today is just focusing exclusively on aggression and trying to, um, spread the good word about how to help dogs that have aggression issues.

[00:05:18] Emily: We definitely have some parallels. I started in non-behavior aspects of animal welfare, and then because of my work in there ended up where I am. So, it sounds like we have some, parallels in our journeys. So, today our primary topic is going to be about enrichment and its relationship to how we think about and deal with aggression.

And, you know, there’s some side topics I’m hoping we get to along the way, but one of the things that Allie and I both really care about is helping listeners understand how these topics are applicable to them. So, talk to us a little bit about why people should care about our topic today and how it’s relevant to them.

[00:05:56] Mike: Yeah, so enrichment is kind of one of the, and I know we’re going to get to this topic in a little bit, but it’s as looking at all of the foundational aspects of behavior, and what can impact behavior. Enrichment for me with aggression is really important because a lot of the dogs are lacking enrichment because of the aggression and because of management.

So, in many cases, our clients are already doing things to manage the behavior, to prevent aggression from happening, but what happens is that that dog’s universe gets much smaller because we’re putting those management’s controls on the behavior and their environment, which in turn impacts the enrichment.

So, I’m often seeing that low level of enrichment, or lack of, sometimes entirely anything for the dog, and that of course impacts behavior. The two are tied together very closely. We can definitely get into other foundational aspects I look at, but I’ve learned to also focus on it much more so over the last few years than I did previously. Because I was focused much more on just the behavior, you know, just the ABCs, but I’ve learned to look at aggression through other lenses, and why other things are so important.

[00:07:02] Emily: Nice. I love that. Allie and I have a specific structure or approach to how we work through aggression cases, and it took us a while actually, to be able to articulate that process for other behavior professionals, precisely because it took us a while to realize that not everybody was viewing behavior through the lens of an enrichment framework.

 So, talk to us about your approach. How do you typically structure your behavior modification plans and how do you incorporate or consider enrichment as a part of that process?

[00:07:30] Mike: Yeah. So again, getting back to that, you know, in terms of what I look for for our foundational aspect, some of us might call it distant antecedents, or there’s all kinds of different terms out there, right? As far as what might be fueling a dog’s behavior, impacting the dog’s behavior, other than the direct triggers or antecedents in the environment.

And so, when I’m first talking to clients, that’s how I structure my framework, because I’ve found this nice flow that works for me in the intake part, or when I’m talking to clients that works out best, especially for aggression cases. So, what I usually do is the first part of my consult is just going through the basic information, get the dog’s name, age, and all that good stuff.

And then I start getting into things that are not likely to bring up much of an emotional response in the human, because I actually want to build some trust and rapport with that client before I get into those more emotional topics. So, I don’t talk about the bite history at all until a little later on the first, 10 15 minutes is just nice talk, ” What do you like to do to you with your dog?”

So, you get some enrichment answers there. What are some of the activities, what’s your daily routine look like? Because I want to get information the most important foundational aspects for me, of course, in aggression cases are the medical history, of course, because there’s a lot of underlying medical issues that can impact behavior. The enrichment history, so what is the dog receiving in terms of enrichment and exercise? The environments I’m also looking at, so what is the context in which it happens, the aggression happens? So, some of those foundational aspects, it’s going to start to help me paint a picture of what’s going on the case.

And then again, into the bite history, because by that time I’ve established a little trust. I’ve had a little conversation with that client and be able to kind of get a feel for how they like to disseminate information and give me the information, which is going to allow me to get more truthful information later on in the consult as well.

And so, I can, ask questions about the bike history and that’s often when sometimes the emotion starts to come into the case. And I’m able to navigate those conversations now because I’ve built a little bit of trust with that client. So, all of that gives me the information, which then allows me to craft the behavior change plan, right?

And behavior change plans in aggression cases always start with safety and management, right?

We always want to start with safety management because we need to prevent rehearsal of the behavior, but we also need to keep everybody and all the other animals safe if it’s an aggression case. So, we start with the safety and management and then we get into the behavior change strategies.

Those behavior change strategies are going to be based on the foundations. So, do I need to refer to a vet for the underlying medical issues? Do I need to suggest alternate enrichment activities or enrichment activities in general? And then we of course address the actual behavior in the context and the environment that happens, which is the ABCs of things.

I think that’s allowed me to take a lot of the noise air quotes here, a lot of the noise out of what can happen in aggression cases. Cause we get a ton of information, and it can be difficult to digest that and know what to put out there in front of the client or baby behavior consultants or trainers we might be mentoring.

Having that more simplified framework can be very helpful towards eliminating some of the confusion, and we can talk more about that as well. Like what questions you can ask and how to fine tune your intake process.

[00:10:39] Emily: Right. One of the things I love about what you were talking about is that you start with the client’s sense of comfort and safety. I think that’s a thing that is starting to become a more prominent discussion in our field, but historically has been really neglected, and we need to take an approach of, your client has to put on their oxygen mask first before they can put the oxygen mask on their pet. I love that you start your consultations with building that rapport, giving them a sense of safety and comfort, and getting to identify their needs and how best to meet their needs, before moving on to why they hired you.

So, that is just absolutely beautiful. I’d also love to hear your journey in learning how you articulate what you do. Was it as much of a journey for you as it was for Allie and me? You started teaching other professionals before Allie and I did, you have more experience with that than we do. So, I would love to hear your process of learning how to articulate that because we’re newbies compared to you when it comes to that aspect of it.

[00:11:44] Mike: Well, I’m still on that journey of learning how to articulate things well. I think it’s important to always be looking at that aspect in our work with our clients and with our students. Because the faster and more simplistic ways of saying things the just more efficient, you’re going to get in your consults.

So, one little thing I did when I was doing a lot of in home consult, is that either on the drive home or when I return, I’m going to take a look at my intake form, and I’m going to look at the questions I asked and I’m going to look at the information I got and I’m going to ask myself the question, “Do I need to really ask that for this particular case? Is it relevant?” Because what’s going to happen is you’re going to start identifying things in cases, let’s use an example, like a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs on walks, quote unquote leash reactivity type of case. And we’ve got a nice laid out intake form, and part of it’s like, where does your dog sleep at night or something like that as part of our intake form, just something we just routinely would ask in all of our cases and I’ll ask myself, “Why do I really need to know where the dog sleeps at night, if the issue is just solely happening outside?” I can eliminate that question the next time I have a similar case. And as you go along, you’ll start to create a system in your own mind about how to ask questions, which questions are relevant and which are important, so much that your intake form, or at least my intake form now is just big blocks of lines where I fill it out. I’m still old school the one thing I’m still using paper for is my intake forms just cause I just chicken scratch, and I have my own little shorthand I’ve developed over the years. You know, it’s just more efficient for me, but, uh, whether you’re on your notes or your computer or whatever it is, you can have sections for that.

So, in my intake form, I don’t have actual questions anymore, like where does your dog sleep? What kind of tools? I have sections, training, enrichment, medical history, environment. All of those things are just big blocks of just empty lines, where I fill out the questions or the answers to the questions I’m asking.

But the questions that I’m asking, I’ve learned over the years, are the ones that are going to be most relevant to that case. So, what used to take me 30 to 45 minutes of history taking, question asking what the client is now distilled down to maybe 10 or 20 minutes, and that buys me a lot more time to do more important things during the consult, such as the safety and management or implementing training recommendations.

That particular exercise has helped me become much more efficient and much better at articulating things for both my clients and my students, because it’s important to stay on topic and to stay relevant, especially in aggression cases, because you got, you have a short amount of time, 90 minutes to two hours most initial consults take. Most people are not going to have the attention span past that two hours, once you hit that certain mark, you still have to see that the pupils dilate a little, the eyes gloss over, you know, those little signs that, or the yawning, they just, they’re done.

That could be wasted opportunity, because when do you usually give the most important information? It’s usually the last 10 minutes after you’ve gotten all the history, developed a plan, and now you’re giving them the information they need, and what if you run out of time or you’re hitting that spot where they’re just tired.

They’re mentally just not paying attention to you anymore. So, to be successful in terms of giving them the information that’s very relevant, I think it’s important to be very efficient and articulate things in that way.

So, uh, so that’s one little trick I learned, I also learned to use a lot of analogies. Like I love the analogy you just used, Emily about the face masks with air, the oxygen mask in the airplane. Such a great analogy, but a perfect one you can use with clients or something similar if we’re explaining a particular concept. That I find extremely helpful.

Over the years, I’ve also developed some canned responses. You hear the same questions over and over like, “Oh, I don’t know about muzzles. What do you think about muzzles?” And it just, if you have a canned response ready to go, then you don’t have to think about it much, and guess what happens also, you get to learn how to articulate it better and better each time based on all that information you’ve gotten the first 10 minutes of figuring out what kind of client you got in front of you.

And that’s sort of the art of it. The art of the consulting side is that in that first 10, 15 minutes, you’ve got to be knowing what questions to ask. You’ve gotta be developing a relationship with the client. You’ve gotta be determining what kind of client in terms of their learning style and how they might be giving you information, how they might be answering questions.

Are they maybe sugarcoating things or hiding things, and you’ve gotta be paying attention to the dog if you’re in person sometimes. So, there’s a lot going on and just that first 10, 15 minutes. So, it can be a little overwhelming at first, and that’s why I always recommend after the end of your console, go back and look at your notes or at least think about your conversations and ask yourself, “How could I have done that more efficiently, or I could have worded that better? Did something feel off, or maybe it didn’t seem like I communicated well with the client?” Think about that and just be like, how could I improve that? And that’s how you, I found helps me really streamline things, both with my students and my clients.

[00:16:27] Emily: I love that. What’s fascinating to me in speaking with you and other colleagues who have been consulting for a while is that all of us have identified the same kind of pitfalls in consulting. It’s remarkable to me, how many different ways people have found solutions or workarounds for those pitfalls.

So, I love learning your way of doing that. Of how you deal with that critical first 10 minutes and how you address that. When you realized this for yourself and had learned this system for yourself, all the things that you just talked about, streamlining your intake form, or your intake process, and establishing rapport and safety, identifying client needs and all of those things.

How long did it take you to learn how to articulate that when speaking to other professionals and teaching them how to consult? What was that process like for you?

[00:17:26] Mike: It’s been about 46 years, cause that’s how old I am now.

Yeah, it’s an ongoing process. I don’t think I understood the importance of it though, until I really started learning about just how important the human side is in aggression cases, shout out to Dr. Rise VanFleet and Human Half of Dog Training, when I read that. And she actually gave me the opportunity to review that book when, when she was working on it. So, I got a nice, I got an extra deep dive because I was helping her with some of the bullet points, and so I really got to learn sort of the ins and outs of that book, and it was so helpful to me because it was really eye opening in terms of what I need to be looking at, concentrating on because it’s so much of it is focused on the humans and aggression cases.

I mean, let’s face it, the vast majority of aggression cases, the success rests on the humans because of what they need to do. It’s much different than some other types of training. Because with aggression cases, it’s the humans that have to be watching the management, and the safety, and understanding their dog’s body language, and their dog’s needs, and all those things.

It’s not to say that other types of cases don’t also require that, but aggression cases especially are focused on those things. I would say in the last, maybe I think that book came out seven or eight years ago, I could be totally off on that. I’ve been focusing on it and heavily since then and watching all of those aspects and how much it can make a change in the success in our aggression cases, when we start to really focus on the human side of things.

[00:18:48] Emily: So, one of the things that I love that you touched on in, in your response to that was the importance of working with clients, when they’re dealing with a dog with aggression, that we have to really help them to find a way to work through it in a way that feels good to them, that is going to be successful for them.

And I want to kind of delve into that a little more deeply, because one of the most common questions that we get in our courses and in our webinars is this idea of how do you sell clients on enrichment, right? When they’re already feeling stressed, and they’re already overwhelmed, and they just want this really difficult thing that they’re struggling with to just go away. They want the pain to go away. How do you sell that, a sell that concept on clients? And one of the things that we tell people is that we don’t talk to clients about enrichment. We’re just focused on helping them to reach their goals, and the process by which we’re doing that is enrichment.

But in many cases, as you, as you know, aggression cases are made significantly worse by a plethora of unidentified and unmet needs. What is your process for helping clients to identify and meet those needs?

[00:20:02] Mike: Yeah, that’s such a great question because I can imagine that it is a tough sell to say something like, okay, here’s this enrichment concept, or this word that maybe you only heard a couple of times in your life and it’s somewhat foreign to, I think a lot of pet owners when they hear that, like, “What does that really mean? What is enrichment? Is it physical and mental? Is it playing with toys? What, what does that actually mean?” So, you, you first have to explain what that is to the client, so they understand what it means, but we also have to sell it to them and why it’s beneficial. So, what I do is I usually go back to and using a lot of human analogies again.

And so, I’ll use an example of what’s in, and I love to ask clients what they do for a living, because if I have a little bit of an idea of what they do, I do like to use analogies, and they’re like, “Okay. So, you’ve got a lot of stress at work. You’re working 50 hours a week, even if it’s from home or whatever. And you go week after week without having any time to go to the gym. You haven’t been able to watch your show because of the kids are up at night or the kids are home sick. You haven’t gone out on dinner on the weekends. You haven’t gone on vacation anywhere. How you feeling?” And you often get very classic response, you know, stressed, overworked, overwhelmed.

And I’ll say, “Well, that’s similar to what your dog might be experiencing because they are not getting any of that Netflix time, or getting the massage, or all those things that can be beneficial to them and think about how it might impact their behavior.” And so, I also will make sure I’m stressing that, cause humans have this nature of like, don’t fix it until it’s broken kind of thing, and enrichment is one of those things that it’s hard to see anything that’s broken. Because it’s not directly addressing the issue in this, in their mind, it’s not that quick fix or that quick, let me address this right away type of situation, and that can even happen with some trainers I’ve seen where they’re so focused on the ABC, sometimes you forget about the other things that are important. So, I, I do focus on saying, “Okay, in terms of solving things, we want to lower your dog’s stress levels, for instance. That’s, I think better, a better selling point, then we can increase your dog’s quality of life.

It sounds great. It’s beautiful on paper and it sounds wonderful, and it makes a nice quote on Facebook or something like that, but people aren’t going to say, you know, “I want the nicer tires for my car because it’s going to provide a smoother ride.” They want to know that their tires about fall off or explode because it’s bald and we need to fix that, and if you don’t, you run the risk of getting into an accident or off the road. So, you have to put a little bit of urgency into it, I think. And same thing with the medical issues, right? Sometimes, you have to sell them on it and explain why it’s a problem rather than something that’s going to supplement it in an anecdotal or ancillary way.

If we sell them more like a, an urgent, um, I don’t want to say emergency, but something that’s has some urgency to it, I think that that’s helpful for a lot of clients, because then they’re seeing that it is something that needs to be put in right away for the fix.

[00:22:57] Emily: Right, right. Yeah. Can you share with us any cases that you’ve had, whereby focusing on meeting needs, you saw significant improvement before you even got to a serious, more structured ABC type of training plan?

[00:23:11] Mike: Yeah. For me, what comes to mind is the breed specific needs. So, you have, clients that might adopt a dog, or acquire a dog that is a particular breed and they not, they don’t understand or didn’t do much research about the breed specific characteristics or behavior characteristics, and what we’ve purpose bred for in some of the breeds. Uh, let’s say we use like a herding breed, like a border collie or something. Well, most, most border collie owners either figure it out really quickly, or have done a little research ahead of time, but you get that. Well, let’s actually use cattle dogs because that one is not as common. some cats, some of my cattle dog clients, they are not, uh, they get the dog, but they don’t understand sort of the background.

And so, yes, like for instance, it’s been a few years now, but a few years ago, I had a cattle dog client that’s, was doing the usual nipping at heels as people were leaving or moving around the house. The exercise and enrichment was pretty much at a zero. They were looking for the sort of lapdog concepts, right?

So, think about how do you, how do you change that? Cause you’ve got a dog that needs a significant change and the amount of exercise and enrichment they’re getting, and you’ve got a cattle dog, young cattle dog at home doing some maladaptive behaviors. So, how do we fix that with that particular client?

So, that was a little bit of a tough sell at first. So, what I did a little bit of shaping in that one, I said, “Let’s see what your outside environment is. Cool. You’ve got this large backyard. Let’s use some games that are going to be easy for you, but that’s going to provide your dog some exercise.” So, we started with a flirt pole and teaching a basic, some level of stimulus control around that, and teaching with clients, just the basic part of that. Because this client was not the very active type, so not a lot of hiking.

And so, it wouldn’t make sense for me saying,” Well, you’ve got to take this dog hiking off leash for 10 miles a day. That’ll help.” It’s not realistic in that case, but the flirt pole was actually a lot of fun for this client, especially the, uh, the husband that really loved this, the kind of rough and tumble type of action.

But with some controls, you don’t want to just go wild with a flirt pole, but that made such a big change for this dog because now the dog had an outlet, the humans had an outlet, and they, they realized that this is going to be extremely helpful for the issue that they were having.

So, the dog was not a real, severe aggression case, and I wouldn’t even necessarily say it was aggressive behavior, but it was nipping and biting at the heels of people in the home, sometimes outside in the yard. And that completely replaced the behavior, the flirt pole behavior or enrichment, I should say, replace that because the dog now had an outlet. So, sometimes it’s a very easy fix that not, of course not all cases are like that, but that one rings to me. You know, it’s definitely breed specific behaviors, we have to pay attention to that enrichment aspect for sure.

[00:25:51] Emily: Yeah. I think one of the things that we found the most interesting in the, in the research that we were doing to write the book, was looking at how what are called modal action patterns, which for our listeners who aren’t familiar with that term, they’re innate, unlearned sequences of behavior. So, that they’re not individual behaviors, there’s a whole sequence of behaviors, and how influenced those can actually be. By not just breeding, although we certainly do breed certain aspects of a modal action pattern to be stronger or weaker based on what we want that dog to do, but also how influenced it can be by environmental arrangement and the consequences that they receive.

And that to us was just such an important moment. Just because your dog is a heeler doesn’t mean that you have to just live with a dog who’s going to have these like cheap shot, nipping behaviors. Yes, that is a result of a modal action pattern, but that doesn’t mean that you just have to live with it.

You can do stuff about it. You can do things to change or alleviate that behavior problem. So, I love your example with the heeler because that’s, that is a beautiful example of seeing a modal action pattern express itself in a way that we would expect it to express itself under those conditions, and we were able to change the conditions to change the behavior, even though it’s an innate behavior. So, thank you for that example. That is really beautiful.

[00:27:32] Mike: Sometimes we’re so concentrated on the ABCs, the environment, the context, and in some cases, when you address the underlying issue which, in that case, lack of enrichment or lack of actually satisfying the dogs innate needs or underlying medical issues in some cases, you address the behavior. So, you don’t always need to be looking at the environment in context. I focus of course heavily on that, looking at the contexts where it’s happening, but sometimes we don’t necessarily need to look at that particular antecedent. If we address the fuel behind the behavior, then there’s no motivation for that dog to do it in the context we’re trying to fix. Right? So, sometimes we don’t have to look at addressing the ABCs at all in that particular environment sometimes it gets fixed by addressing that fuel.

[00:28:20] Emily: Right. Exactly. One thing that we all have in common, you, Allie, and I is our collaborative approach to behavior change. I feel this is an important part of the enrichment process because sometimes the road to physical, behavioral, and emotional health, which is critical to behavioral diversity and performing species-typical behaviors in safe, healthy, and appropriate ways requires the help of people from multiple areas of expertise.

I can’t be my client’s veterinary behaviorist, and veterinary nutritionist, and dog walker. I can’t be all things for my client. So, how do you determine when to bring a parallel professional onto your client’s team, and what are those conversations with your clients look like?

[00:29:05] Mike: Yeah. Another great question because I think it’s helpful for clients to understand, and the one I use is the medical model, the human medical model, because most clients are going to understand that, and they understand sort of the nuances of communication between doctor’s offices and other ancillary practitioners.

So, I do the same. If they are kind of stuck in that, “Well, do I really need to do that? Or how’s that person gonna help me?” I’ll say, “Because I’m not a vet, or I’m not a physical rehab specialist, or any of those things, just like you see your general practitioner doctor or a specialist, you know, you see a heart surgeon or somebody that specializes in a particular area of medicine, it’s the same for training and behavior. The training field is still somewhat new compared to the medical field, but it’s starting to become like that, in that we’re seeing specialties.” And I’ll use an example of myself, be like, “If somebody asks me to train their dog for agility. I wouldn’t know where to start.” I don’t know the first thing about agility, and like nothing at all. And so, I would prefer, and I would bring somebody else in. If you asked me to train your dog agility, I would say, “Well, I know somebody that does, but I can’t help you at all on that.” And so, I’ll help the clients understand that there are going to be people that are going to be much better at understanding a particularly unique aspect, whether it’s a veterinary behaviorist, or veterinarian, or somebody that needs to work on rehab with the dogs got physical issues.

And once you do that, then they start to understand kind of where to go. I will also mention that, in order to have those conversations with our clients, we have, should have the resources ready to go for them because we could talk about and be like, “Oh, yeah, you should go see a veterinary behaviorist or you know this veterinarian.”

And that they’re going to ask you, “Well, okay, so who do you recommend and what if you don’t have anybody or you, or maybe that person’s booked out quite a bit in advance?” What I recommend for every trainer listening in any trainer, behavior consultants, or veterinarian, or really any anybody in this field that’s listening in right now is to find those, those connections ahead of time.

And there’s so many benefits to doing that. And obviously the number one benefit is you now have referral sources for your clients. You have somebody that you can refer to that you trust that you’ve already talked to, but guess what, you’re also building a connection with that person, who’s going to end up referring back to you for other things.

So, you’re building a referral source as well. You’re also furthering the growth of the industry, so you’re not only just doing it for your own needs, you are furthering the growth that the industry, you’re helping your fellow trainers out there, and you’re helping your fellow veterinarians out there, because what happens is this collaboration towards the information, which is vital right now to our industry, and the right information, the information that we really want to get out there about changing behavior.

And one of the only ways to do that is by establishing relationships and trust with our colleagues, whatever profession they’re in and because it’s not easy to do in other ways, right. We know that there’s, there’s other avenues we’ve tried that don’t always pay off, so sometimes it’s on the micro level. It could be just that one veterinarian or that one other trainer that specialized in something else that you reach out to you make that connection and they start to learn some things from you, and you learn some things from them. And that’s how information gets spread. I think in the most effective way.

Because it’s not just some short Facebook post or social media thing on TikTok. It is a lot more than that. So, I do recommend, it’s good to have all of those colleagues, if you don’t know somebody, cause the training world is lonely enough, reach out, just keep reaching out and be aware that some people are going to give you the cold shoulder or they’re going to be too busy or are they going to say no.

And that’s okay because there’s, trust me, there’s plenty of other folks out there that are willing to step up and to help and to form those connections.

[00:32:41] Emily: For sure. I think when I started out, I knew, like one veterinary behaviorist, I knew of two, but I only like had a relationship with one. And I had my go-to website for veterinary nutrition, and when I was in Austin, I knew like very few of the sports dog trainers or like the basic manners trainers that I would refer to, I had a short list and the longer I’ve been in this profession, the longer my referral lists have gotten for that very reason. Not everybody’s available, sometimes people aren’t comfortable taking on a case that you try to refer to them, sometimes people go on hiatus, and the longer our lists have become, the more impactful and helpful we can be to our clients.

And I absolutely agree with you. We’re seeing that right? Veterinary behaviorist are now booked out for months, which was not the case when I first started as a behavior consultant, more than a decade ago, but that’s because we have, normalized this concept of when your behavior consultant or your trainer recognizes that your dog has a need, that lies outside our area of expertise, we can refer to a veterinary behaviorist, and now they’re in a great deal of demand. So really, instead of looking at this, field competitively, like if I give this client away, I’m losing business, we should look at it as a rising tide lifts all boats. Because that’s exactly what we’re seeing.

[00:34:11] Mike: Yeah. I think you said a really important word there, it’s like, forget about that competition word right now, because there’s way more business to go around than anybody can handle. The entire industry is overwhelmed. If you’re not seeing a lot of business, there’s perhaps a reason for that.

It could be the location. It could be the advertising, or whatever. But I can tell you that it is, there is an overwhelming amount of business available out there. It’s really not about competition for me, it’s more about surviving right now. All the trainers, and consultants, veterinarians are just completely overbooked and overwhelmed, booked out for a couple of months at a time in some cases, or more. So, no need to worry about competition right now.

[00:34:50] Emily: For sure. I definitely agree with that. Another thing that we all agree on and care about is about meeting our client’s needs as well. Since it’s a vital part of the enrichment process, we already kind of touched on that a little bit, but again, one thing that I really admire and appreciate about you is how well you extend this concept, not just to your clients, but also to your behavior professional clients. We consistently hear about how kind and supportive your community is, and we certainly experienced that with you in the conference as well, which we recently participated in. So, we know from firsthand experience that safe and supportive communities don’t just happen on their own because we have our own communities that we’ve been building, they actually require careful, careful antecedent arrangement and thoughtful care and guidance to make sure that we’re maintaining a safe and supportive community. So, talk to us about how you foster nurturing environments, both in your conference, and in your masterclass community.

[00:35:55] Mike: Well, I appreciate the kind words about the reputation that the group holds. It’s, it’s really, it’s meaningful to me because I agree. I think the student group that I have is, one of the most wonderful, caring, kind groups that I’ve ever seen in any discussion, atmosphere. So, shout out to them, shout out to all the Aggression in Dogs Master Course students, and everybody else that participates in the conference as well, because they’re so kind, and wonderful with each other, and supportive as well.

 When I first started the course and the group, what I did was actually invites maybe a dozen or so people that I knew were also very kind and how they communicate with others because that kind of sets the tone. I think it’s really important. The tone that you set is the tone you’re gonna get.

So, if you set a tone of some arguments right away, or some typical Facebook sniping, and all that stuff that can happen, that’s how it’s going to end up. And it’s going to stay that way for a while unless you fix it. This is coming from experience from the old Yahoo group days and moderating lists and all of that.

So, I had some experience before, Facebook was even around and, it helped me realize that “Okay, in order to set an atmosphere, you’ve got to do it right away and you’ve got to do it by leading by example.” So, when you are having conversations as well, regardless of how difficult that conversation might be, or how, mean or nasty it’s how you reply. Because if you reply with kindness and empathy, regardless of what they say, they could say the nastiest, meanest thing to you, right? And you still want to reply with kindness and empathy. Now, if they continue. That’s one thing, but you’ll be surprised just how often that person changes their tune, because you often get supportive comments from the other folks that are in their groups that are also going to respond in a similar way.

And so, you’ll see maybe three or four comments come in like, “Wow, thank you for your opinion. I appreciate, you know, where you’re coming from. I can understand why you’re thinking, your thought process,” that whatever, however you want to respond. But it’s showing that you’re listening without criticizing what they’re saying.

If you see three or four comments coming like that, suddenly that person sometimes changes their tune. Like, “Oh, maybe I don’t have to be so defensive here. What I’m used to doing in other groups for making the same or similar statements, maybe I can be understood here.” And that’s how meaningful conversations can happen.

And once that you set the tone of kindness, right, from the start and empathy, right from the start. That’s what’s really been helpful for my group. I’m very fortunate to have only had to jump in maybe three or four times in the last two years on certain threads, but other than that, I don’t have a moderator.

There’s no moderation in the group. There’s no, nobody’s put on moderation. I’ve never had a block or kick anybody out. It’s all self-moderated. And again, I think a credit to the students of course, but it’s also how you set the tone.

[00:38:40] Emily: I, I love everything that you said, and I super agree with it. I think one of the things that I’ve had to navigate personally is, establishing boundaries, so that I have the spoons to do that in my communities. Because as you can imagine with the mentorship program, having dozens of people in it, and sometimes people have a lot of struggles with their learning journey, or what’s happening in their life and how it’s impacting them. And then Allie and I have multiple Facebook groups that we run, that kind of, being present for people when they’re having a hard time, it does take a toll on you. It does wear you out. And I found that I had no spoons left, or no grace left, to deal with people being confrontational or violating my boundaries in outside of those communities.

I found myself just being exhausted by conflict, that became conflict because I didn’t have the spoons to be empathetic. Because I was spending all my empathy in our communities where it mattered. That has been a huge lesson for me in self-care, and establishing boundaries, and not putting myself in a position, just like an aggressive dog, we wouldn’t take a dog who struggles with reactivity or aggression to other dogs, to a dog park, and then just expect them to cope over, and over, and over again, like that’s setting them up for failure.

And I realized that that was what was happening with me as well. I need to not put myself in those positions to, have those stressful interactions when I’m spending my spoons in these groups where setting that tone is critical, is so important. When I see other people doing it well, like you, I have to give you props for that because I know how challenging it is, and how much energy it can take to be empathetic in the face of people having big troubs, right? And how much I’ve had to modify my own environment to protect my own emotional health and give myself the space to rebuild those reserves after spending them in that way. But you’re absolutely right. It is so worth that learning journey, and it is so worth doing that labor to end up with these communities where people feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to ask hard questions, to ask questions that they’ve had a history of getting attacked for even bringing up.

 There’s nothing more rewarding than watching humans and non-humans, feel safe enough in a space that you’ve created to risk that kind of vulnerability.

[00:41:12] Mike: You said a really key word there too, it’s the learning journey. And it really is something that we as consultants in this field, or as trainers in this field have to learn as a skill, is communicating with our colleagues because it’s not easy. As you mentioned, it can take a lot of spoons. And so just going back to that, what I was talking about before with, it’s taking a moment, after a consult and thinking through that, and what could I have worded differently or said differently? You can apply that same concept, your conversations on social media, or in your groups, or with your colleagues, because what happens is you start to develop candid responses. So over time, as you know, you, if you’ve been in training long enough, you see the same arguments, whether it’s type of collars, or what kind of diet, and you start to see the same comments over and over, and, you know, the difference between training like dogs versus marine mammals and why you wouldn’t use certain tools or whatever, you see the same conversations over and over.

But the nice thing about seeing the same things over and over is that you start to develop canned responses. Like you will start to learn what response actually works best in that conversation to make sure it’s productive and meaningful, and to make sure that person feels heard that way you can continue in that productive dialogue.

So, I think it’s a skill that again, it’s I think if I was joking, my kid I’m like they should teach like social media conversations in school, just like they would teach financial literacy or things that they just don’t teach kids. I mean, yes, it’s the parent’s job, but I think it would be beneficial to learn it also as an actual thing, because you see just how much it can impact behavior online and just how detrimental it can be to trainers, especially because of what I said before. Dog trainers, we live in a lonely world. We don’t go to a workplace where we have 20, some of us do, but most of us are flying solo, and where we don’t have like a workplace, we get to sit at the water cooler or have lunch with people. You’re by yourself, most of your interaction is going to be online, and sometimes it can get really snarky and mean, and you can find yourself running out of spoons in those conversations.

So, I think, for our own survival as a profession, it’s very good to continue, learning those skills of how to communicate with each other in a respectful and kind ways.

[00:43:20] Emily: Yeah. Yeah. And one of the other things that I’ve had to learn is communicating when I don’t have the spoon. So, if somebody is really confrontational to me or violates a boundary and I’ve just spent all day spending all my spoons on other things I’ve learned to say, “I can’t talk to you about this right now. This is not a discussion I can have right now, either let’s drop it or come back to it later because this is not going to go well.” Right?

[00:43:42] Mike: Such a good point. It’s such a good point because what happens is if you don’t respond, especially if you have one of the group moderators or you’re kind of leading the group is going to think, “Well, Emily doesn’t care. She’s just, no response.” So, that’s such a great, addition to our conversation there that, hey, it’s okay to let people know, “Hey, I need a minute.” Pause the commenting on the thread if you need to, and say, “I’ll come back to this, but I needed a little time and I appreciate your understanding.” And that goes a long way again, helping others understand that, hey, you actually care, and you just need a moment for yourself and then you’ll come back to it.

[00:44:14] Emily: Right. Yeah, for sure. It’s such an important skill. Again, we were talking before we started recording about how you enter this profession, thinking here’s the skill set I need to learn about training or behavior consulting, and then you get into the profession, you’re like, “Oh, my God, there are all these other skillsets I have to learn now that I didn’t even know I had to learn.”

And this is a good example of that. Like, who knew that a critical part of behavior consulting was going to have to be learning how to communicate the level of spoons you have on social media. Like, that’s just not something that anybody would anticipate, right?

[00:44:46] Mike: I’m going to go play with puppies all day for a living.

[00:44:50] Emily: Exactly. That whole daycare thing sounding really appealing. I might be changing.

[00:44:54] Mike: Yeah. I don’t know what I was thinking.

[00:44:58] Emily: Yeah. Okay. So, what are our observable goals and actionable items that people can take away from this discussion?

[00:45:06] Mike: Yeah. I know we talked a lot about, kindness and empathy. I feel like those are almost becoming like cliche buzzwords for 2021, but it’s so important. Right?

I think we focus a lot on the human side of these cases and how to communicate effectively with them. So, I hope that focus continues where we’re all learning, how to talk to each other, how to be kind to each other in our consults and with our colleagues.

I think that’s a big takeaway from our discussion. Definitely. Because here’s the other thing, there’s not a lot of training for us as trainers and consultants on that aspect. So, the human consultant, there’s, there’s some, really great trainers out there that are also dual psychiatrists, psychologists backgrounds, like, Dr. Rise VanFleet, which I mentioned, Dr. Melanie Cerone. There’s some really great, educators out there that are doing that now, but I think we need a lot more of it in our field. I think it should be almost a mandatory aspect of what we learn as trainers, just as good as we get at learning how to use a marker signal.

We should be getting training on how to talk to clients, especially in aggression cases, because of all the emotion involves. Not only emotions, but the impact on society with regards to injuries, civil lawsuits, and all the things that can happen to the dogs after a dog bites, the reputation of the dog or their breeds, or there’s so many ramifications that can happen if we’re not having impactful, meaningful, successful conversations with our clients, that it just, when you think about it, how much sense does it make?

I mean, it makes perfect sense that we have to be really great with the humans as well. So, I hope that continues. I see it continuing. I at least I see like that shift, which is nice, but I think, if our, any of our, uh, human specialists that are listening in keep doing what you’re doing and keep sharing the information because we’re listening, and we want to learn more, we’re thirsty for more.

[00:46:55] Emily: Yeah, that, that became apparent when we were developing the mentorship program is how much emphasis we had to put on the human aspect of consulting in the mentorship program, because absolutely like you get into the profession, and you realize like “Wow. This is not just a piece of my job. This is like, critical to my job.” Learning from people like Dr. Cerone and Dr. VanFleet is really, really important. So, we allow our Pro Campus and Mentorship Program members to submit questions for our podcast’s guests, and I was wondering if I could ask you one of those questions now.

[00:47:31] Mike: Absolutely.

[00:47:32] Emily: Okay. The most popular question submitted was what are some of your favorite go-to enrichment strategies for some of the most common aggression issues you work with?

[00:47:43] Mike: My go-to strategies, tell them to go to Dogwise or Amazon and get the Canine Enrichment for the Real World book and read it. That’s my go-to strategy. Actually, it kind of is honestly, but, um, yeah. So, with aggression cases, the thing that happens is we have to look at safety and management. So, it’s different than a lot of the other types of cases where that’s the first thing I’m looking at is considering, because I could say, you know, go through some more walks, or go for some sniffaries but that has to be done in a way that’s also making sure we’re maintaining safety and management, preventing rehearsal of any kind of aggressive behavior, but also keeping the public or the person or other dogs, animals safe.

And I mean from bikes, because we have the dogs also feeling safe, and we want to make sure they feel safe and have agency, but really, we’ve got to look at that for us, because what we’ve talked about earlier is that a lot of that enrichment opportunity has significantly been diminished because of all that safety and management.

So, if we have a particular site, let’s use a couple of different types of cases, let’s say we’ve got a resource guarding case the dog guards, puzzle toys, or any kind of food items, so obviously we can’t say, “Okay, so we’re just going to do, to address the enrichment needs, we’re going to put more puzzle toys all over the place and just give it a good shot to have at it.”

We’re gonna increase the heck out of the enrichment. Hide Kong’s everywhere, and all that stuff. But that’s obviously not appropriate to that particular case. So, what I will do is make sure I have some alternative activity that also meets the client’s lifestyle, because we can’t recommend things that the client’s probably not going to do.

You know, something like go for a 10-mile hike again, off leash, let your dog sniff in a certain area. So, I try to have a kind of a list of things that I think I can recommend for that particular case. That’s going to be appropriate based on those safety and management. So, if it’s a resource starting case, I might say, how does your dog do on those walks? How does your dog do outside? Can your dog go, go outside on a long line in a wooded area where the dog would just go be a dog sniff around, enjoy life in that particular environment where there may not necessarily be resources? Can we implement something like nose work? Shout out to the, um, the nose work instructors, the National Association of Canine Scent Work.

I met a couple of their instructors when I was at, I was out in Lake Tahoe last year for the Wild Blue Dogs Camp, like really awesome fundraiser for cancer research in dogs. It wasn’t necessarily an aggression focused type of thing. I gave a little talk on aggression, but it was mostly just dogs having fun. And I got to hang out with the nose work instructors, I learned a lot of stuff and it is really cool, but it’s really cool to see just how much when the dogs get into it, how awesome that is for their dog, for their enrichment.

You’re tackling so many things at the same time when you’re doing that as well. That’s the nice thing, and it’s doable for most clients. So, I’ve been recommending that quite often lately, and of course meeting breed specific needs. So, if a dog that needs more exercise physical, then I’m going to look at things.

Do we need to stop those walks outside? And here’s the one thing, here’s the one thing that’s happened over the last decade or so, is it kind of tapered off a little bit, but I remember, you guys probably remember this too is 5, 6, 7 years ago. Everybody was so stuck on the walks because someone out there at one time said, exercise, discipline, affection, that little catch phrase really caught on. And unfortunately, the exercise in the show was mostly just walks, right?

Pack walks, walks, and things. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just like, that was the only thing in people’s minds. So, they were stuck on going for walks. And you’ve got all these dogs that have issues with other dogs or people on walks and then going out into the war zone of their neighborhood and practicing this undesirable behavior getting totally stressed out and they would go home with the client and be like, “Yeah, I know he’s tired. He’s painting his tongue hanging out. He’s so tired, his ears are like stuck to his head, and his he’s got wrinkles in his face. He must be tired. Right?”

And so, then you have to explain like, “Well, probably more stressful for your dog.” Go back to this human analogy. So, I’ll say it’s like stepping out into a war zone, your dog strapping up, when you put that harness on, you know, like it’s a bulletproof vest, go out there, and, and so that’s much more stressful.

So, sometimes we have to again go with, “It’s okay to stop the walks.” You have to give the client permission. That cognitive bias really sets in there. They’re stuck on those walks. So, they feel like, “w- what is Mike: talking about, you know, just stop the walks. Stop the walks? That’s, like exercise. It’s like the most important thing. That’s what I learned.” So. You have to approach it in a number of ways, you have to explain why it’s important to stop the walks, why would it be beneficial to do that? And then of course, suggest or recommend an alternative activity. Stop the walks, do some nose work in the backyard, backyard agilities and some backyard training, flirt pole, whatever it is, enrichment activities inside the home, all those things that, of course you guys talk about all the time. So, that’s really what I focus on first to answer the main question is we’ve got to make sure that it’s appropriate activity in that particular aggression case.

[00:52:41] Emily: Exactly. Exactly. I love that. We’re on the same page for sure. Okay, so we have a few questions that we ask all of our guests at the end of the interview, and so we’ll move through those now. Hopefully they’ll be fairly painless. Um, so the first is what is one thing you wish people knew about either this topic, your profession, or enrichment in general?

[00:53:04] Mike: Mm, I would say that I, you talking about just our colleagues or just the general public, that, just to clarify.

[00:53:13] Emily: We could say the general public.

[00:53:15] Mike: Oh, that’s a good one because I could be controversial, or I could be canned response, let me think about this one. I will do the controversial one because I used to do the opposite of this. Before, 10 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about help for aggression in dogs. There was some out there, but it was very limited. In the general public, I felt was on the side of you can’t really help these dogs, or there’s not, there’s limited options for these dogs. And so, I was really moving then towards you can help most of these dogs, a lot of these dogs, there’s, there’s options to help these dogs, whether it’s through management or through behavior change strategies, or a number of other options of course. And so, I was really focused on that, but now I’m finding myself having to move on the other side of the conversation, which is that you can’t help every dog out there, and that ruffles a lot of feathers sometimes. Because it’s very unique to the individual, and the individual situation, that doesn’t get talked about enough.

You have dogs that are owned by pet owners. Somebody owns the dog, or you have a dog in a shelter system, which is owned by the shelter technically, legally, but it’s, it’s a different type of case. And so, I see a lot of our arguments online, again, about dogs that are in like a shelter system, and they have a history of aggression.

That dog has a lot less options because it’s not owned by anybody. And the person that owns the dog has a lot more options because the dog is already owned by somebody. So, there’s more investment in that, from that particular person versus a dog in a shelter setting. I’m not saying the shelters don’t care about their dogs at all. I don’t want to make that false impression, but I think there’s a different type of scenario. And what happens in the conversations is that both of those dogs are exactly the same in terms of their options, which is not true at all. And when you also, when you start to look more at a micro level, you look at where the dog is or what the dog’s issues are.

Each dog is going to be completely unique. So, you can take the same dog with the same bite history, put it in two different homes, and the outcomes could be completely different depending on the resources available, and the management, and all those things. So, there are some dogs that despite not necessarily being dangerous in one home might be extremely dangerous in another home and that’s going to produce different outcomes.

So, we have to put a critical thought lens for sure on those cases. And when we’re looking at aggression. So, it’s not a black and white answer at all. And I’m unfortunately seeing that conversation shift in the other direction now where you can help all dogs, all dogs can be helped, and that’s unfortunately not true.

And it’s actually very risky to have that mindset. It’s risky, not only to the general public, but it’s risky to our profession, and to dogs in general. If we start adopting out lots of dangerous dogs, we’re in trouble, we’re going to be getting ourselves into trouble in the long run.

[00:56:03] Emily: I super agree with you, and I am happy to jump on that controversial bandwagon with you because the belief that the options are either if you don’t understand what’s wrong with the dog, kill it or save them all, and those are the only two options that is a false dichotomy, right? As you said, it is way more nuanced than that, and there are so many contributing factors. And I think a part of that too comes from specifically our culture, Western culture in general, our fear of an aversion to death and thinking that it is the worst possible outcome, that, that, death should be avoided at all costs, that’s not a healthy mindset. One of my favorite kind of mindset changing books that I ever read, “Stiff” by Mary Roach. She talks about our cultural perceptions of death compared to other cultures around the world and in history, and I feel like in order for people to be able to engage in a meaningful and productive way in the conversation about behavioral euthanasia, you should have to read that book, because in order to have that discussion, you have to first confront your own mindsets about your perceptions about death. And that’s really adult, I mean that we could just have a podcast episode about this topic.

[00:57:18] Mike: We totally could, and that’s such a, you know, it’s such an important point because it goes back to what we were talking about before is understanding that the human side of the equation here. That’s a really difficult conversation to have, especially if it’s your first time having it. So, I recommend again to all the trainers and consultants listening, practice that conversation ahead of time, know what you’re going to say, have some canned responses or at least some response ready to go.

So, it makes it a little less stressful for you, and a little more likely you’re going to communicate in the way you want to during that conversation. So, that’s should be part of our training as well, if we’re working cases where behavioral euthanasia might be the outcome of the case.

[00:57:55] Emily: For sure. We’re definitely on the same page about that, too. Of course, we shouldn’t just kill dogs because they’re exhibiting a behavior that we don’t understand or is scary. But also no, we can’t and shouldn’t save them all. So yeah, I definitely agree with that. All right, next question. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?

[00:58:17] Mike: I would like to see that this is a big topic that we could have a podcast about this too, I would, I definitely want to see the industry move forward in terms of professionalism and what I mean by that is regulation and licensing, and just generally more professionalism and kindness to each other. What I’m worried about happening is the outside world, looking at the training industry, but like, “What is going on over there with those people? They are constantly fighting with each other, and they’re posting all these, these wild videos on TikTok and all of this sniping, and like, why would I hire any of these?” So, that’s the problem I’m seeing is that it’s degrading the professionalism quite a bit.

Especially right now with the way social media is. Now, I’m not saying social media is a bad thing. There’s obviously lots of benefits to spreading good information, but unfortunately, we’re seeing that other side of it. And it spreads very quickly, the information now, and it’s very easy to see something spread like wildfire and all of a sudden, that’s the impression. If you think about other professions in the world, and you think about some, were you thinking of them at a professional level? Do you see them on social media, fighting with each other?

Not much of the time with the exception of some doctors in the whole vaccine situation right now, A lot of professions, you don’t see architects yelling at each other. Now, if you think of some air quotes, sleazy, or like, you know, professions, you might be like, kind of think about in your mind, like, oh, you’re that, that’s going to happen to dog trainers.

That’s going to happen to dog trainers if we’re not careful. So, I’m hoping to see us move a little bit more towards, if we want to continue making a good living at this, and to ensure we are a respected profession, have to move in that direction.

[01:00:00] Emily: I agree. I think one of the things that needs to be included in this conversation about regulation and licensing, is a focus on not just getting, you know, a license or getting letters at the end of your name, but actually being able to demonstrate knowledge and competency. Because one of the reasons there’s all these vitriolic arguments is because we’re all running around with little pieces of information, and a whole lot of cultural fog or, misunderstandings or misconceptions of topics.

So, I think one of the like significant differences is that even when you do see from other fields, somebody write a scathing article, disagreeing with studies or a colleague or whatever they’re doing it in this very academic way. Like it is really about the content, right? It’s about, and they’re, and they’re citing their sources.

They’re saying, “I don’t agree with this person’s assertion, and here’s why citation, citation, citation, citation.” Right. Whereas in the dog training world, it’s every opinion is treated as being equal. With no accountability for where you got that information, or assessing the validity of information, because we haven’t been taught how to have that kind of critical thought in assessing how we know what we know.

And therefore, we have no accountability in our arguments. We can just say that’s a bunch of hooey because I don’t believe that because look at my, all of my experience and, all of my cognitive biases that back up this experience, right? Or my perception of the experience and what it means. And that I think changes, a lot. For an example, I, for a hot minute, I was actually a history major when I was still trying to figure out what I was doing with my life.

And like, historians are actually salty AF. Like they like get into some knock down drag outs, but they are always doing it in this context of, ” None of us can know what’s happened, what happened in the past, but here’s why I believe what I believe, here’s the evidence that I have to offer.”

Humans are going to fight, or humans are going to argue. I agree with you that we should do less of it. I agree with you that we should have more empathy and kindness towards each other, but there’s no getting around disagreements. Academia is full of disagreement, that’s the foundation of science, is that the conversation in which we hash out what the data says anyway. But what’s different about it is that we are accountable for the claims that we make, and that just gets rid of a lot of that toxic mudslinging that happens.

So, I would love to see not just licensing, but specifically you have to prove that you took the time to learn things well, and that you know how to apply that knowledge in a practical way in order to get this license.

[01:02:53] Mike: I 100% I agree. I can tell you a story too. I won’t mention their name, this person is in academia and this person jumped into some of the dog training conversations because some of the work that this person is doing is with, wild dogs, but also with pet dogs and some of the research they’re doing now. This person jumped into some of the Facebook conversations and was trying to have critical conversations using the type of dialogue that people in academia use as you were mentioning, backing things up, which is a different tone and a different style of conversation. After I saw it and I kept seeing it happen in different threads, and I’m like, “Oh boy, this is not going to last long.” And literally that person after a couple of weeks was just like, ” I’m done, I’m done. I’m done trying to convince dog trainers or otherwise or prove what I’m doing. Even though I’ve been researching this for many, many years.” And has all of the degrees, multiple degrees, this person has in ethology, and neuroscience, behavior.

What we also risk happening is that we, we need the academics. We can need them, the people doing the research, to feed us that information, that’s very important to the work we do. And the last thing we want to do is get them upset. And they’re like, “You know what, I’m not going to share this with them.” Or, “I’m not even going to discuss it with them because they’re just, you know, they’re just going to argue with these really strange points or just criticize in a certain way.”

So, we gotta be careful in our conversations, be respectful to those outside of our industry as well, because it’s a great way to tear down bridges when a lot of us are trying to build those bridges, so that we can keep getting that important information fed to us.

[01:04:31] Emily: Okay. All right. So, moving on to our next question, what do you love about what you do?

[01:04:36] Mike: I love helping the people see something different in their dogs. Because a lot of the times you go in there, and they’re feeling sometimes bad about their dog, what their dog did, or their relationship’s been fractured a little bit. So, one of my favorite things to see is when they are seeing something that they missed in their dog before, that they are able to appreciate now in their dog. Whether it’s a way of understanding the aggression issue or just helping to reestablish that relationship.

That for me is the most rewarding thing because, going way back to when I was fostering, a lot of these dogs were surrendered without much conversation about it and, um, sort of, sometimes their own misunderstandings about the behavior. And so, when I can help shift their thinking or their thought process around what’s happening, and then they decide to work and the dog and keep the dog and it all ends up working out well, in some cases, that for me is the most rewarding thing because now the dog is in the home, staying in the home and the quality of life is improving for both the human and the animal. So that’s, that’s what I love what I do.

[01:05:39] Emily: Love that. And I also agree with you. It is wonderful to see clients see their pets in a completely different light. Right. I love that. What are you currently working on? If people want to work more with or learn from you? How can they do that?

[01:05:55] Mike: I am working on the Aggression in Dogs Conference for 2022. It’s going to be in Providence, Rhode Island, September 30th through October 2nd. So, that’s my sort of major-ish project for right now. I’m also during The Bitey End of the Dog podcast series, I am recording quite a few episodes in March and April.

I’m happy to be bringing in some newer folks that are new to the podcast slash speaker circuit, so hopefully we hear some new ideas and some, different names, and also bringing in some familiar names as well. So, I would say that those are two of the major things I’m focusing on. I also am hoping, once travel picks up again, start doing a little filming of street dogs around the world showcasing what behavior’s like in other countries for dogs. So, those are kind of the three major things this year for me, other than some other, you know, travel and speaking gigs and things like that, a couple of conferences, interspersed hopefully if they happen, with everything going on. And if they want to find me, I think that was the other question, aggressive dog.com. Everything’s on there, the podcast, the conference, all the courses, webinars pretty much.

And I, and I just launched a, an article section where I have some guest writers coming in. I haven’t written anything yet myself because I hate writing. I have some great things about science on there from Dr. Lana Kaiser. I have articles on reactivity on leash and, safety and management and all of these are all different trainers that came in and wrote different articles. That’s a work in progress, but aggressive dog.com is the easiest way to find them.

[01:07:21] Emily: That is exciting. Well, I have to say, I know we both probably were coming into this expecting to talk more about, uh, enrichment and how it relates to aggression, and we did a little bit, but I have loved the bent, this conversation has taken towards focusing more on the human side of things and how meeting human needs helps us to more effectively meet animal needs.

So, I really appreciate you, being willing to go on that little kind of rabbit trail with me, and we may need to have you come back so we can talk about some of those topics in a little more detail. Thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

[01:07:59] Mike: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

[01:08:01] Allie: What did I tell you about Mike’s vision of empathy and the animal behavior consulting industry? I love this movement that we’re seeing develop, and I’m excited to see it continue to grow and excited that experts like Mike are spearheading this. Next week, we will be talking about what will you do if things go sideways.

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.

Help Your Dog Relax – Start With Yourself

Relaxation is a staple topic in many of my sessions with clients. Being able to take a load off, fill your cup, get true rest, and be able to self-regulate is a huge part of having mental, physical, and behavioral health. It’s so important that “calming” is its own category of needs in Canine Enrichment for the Real World and the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

There are a ton of ways to help your dog learn relaxation skills (some of which will be linked below), but the focus of this blog isn’t centered on getting your dog the skills. This one talks about the human end of the leash, and what we can do to help them. 


Let me tell you a story, I promise there is a reason.

Years ago, I never put much weight on the idea that dogs “get our energy”, and that is a whole blog post of its own. That was, however, until we were looking to get Griffey a pet sitter. 

For those of you that don’t know me (Hi! I’m Ellen!), and my dog, Griffey, came into our family with lots of capital B, capital F, Big Feels. He was scared of other dogs, fearful of strangers, showed some Separation Related Problems, wasn’t potty trained, and got sick in the car. We had made a lot of progress on the separation skills, got him very well potty trained, was doing great in the car, building some relationships with people, but was still scared of other dogs, so he would be considered a “special care needs” dog. 

At the time, we were living in Seattle and ready to start finding him pet care so that we could continue to travel. Through our incredible network, we were able to find a pet sitter that opened their home to reactive dogs. They had created a wonderful environment for dog reactive dogs. They wouldn’t go for walks, but they had options for in-home or in the yard exercise. The dogs would only be home alone a couple of hours a day and pets were welcomed into the home like they were one of the family. The pet sitter had incredible skills in terms of body language, observation, and training. It was the perfect setup for our needs, and the pet sitter required gradual exposure to them, their home, and the stays, which we were looking for. 

As you can probably imagine, I was a little stressed. I REALLY wanted this to go well. Traveling was something that was important for my partner and me to refill our cups and be our best selves, as well as get our continuing education via conferences. 


During our first visit…

We were all just going to hang out and chat while we saw if Griffey would be able to settle in their home while we were present and supporting him. As Griffey was milling around and exploring, the rest of us were sitting on the couches, chatting it up. He was being a busy bee, which isn’t surprising given all the new things to explore, smell, and experience. 

After about 20-30 minutes, he still wasn’t slowing down. 

The pet sitter looked at me and said, “You seem a little tense. How about you try to sit back, put your feet up, settle into the couch, take a deep breath, maybe yawn, and see what happens.” 

And I thought to myself, “I would rather die than put my feet on a stranger’s furniture, I absolutely cannot, but I will.” 

So, I did. I scooted back into the couch. I sat as I would at home, I took a big deep breath, forced a yawn, and tried to sink into the couch.

Griffey came back to the room and looked at me. 

He looked at my partner. 

He looked at the pet sitter. 

He looked back at me.  

He jumped on the couch, found a blanket, made a bed, laid down, let out a big sigh, and started to get droopy eyes. 

And I learned something, or maybe solidified something that day. 


We can get in the way of our dog relaxing. 

When working with families on teaching their dog(s) relaxation, I often get questions or statements like… 

“He’s staring so intently at me.” 

“He’s on his mat, but he doesn’t look relaxed. He’s still tense.” 

So often, when working on teaching a dog to relax, we as well-intentioned humans will fail to be relaxed. We will be focused. We will be staring. Our body language may indicate that activities are on the horizon. We may even hold our breath waiting for the dog to do the thing. 

And you know how a lot of dogs respond? By mirroring that back. You may see them laying very erect in a sphynx down, focused on their person, their breathing may be rhythmic, but very shallow. They might engage with you waiting for more information. 

If this sounds like you, turn toward yourself and see how you are holding yourself. 

Are your shoulders up to your ears? How much tension is in your back? How is your breathing? Are you staring? 

Try re-setting yourself. Take a deep breath. Shake it off. Drop your shoulders. Instead of staring at your dog, try looking out of your periphery, or watching your dog in a reflection. 

When I suggest these changes to families, they usually come back stunned at what a difference it makes in their dog’s ability to settle. 

You might be surprised what a difference it can make. 


Now What? 

Happy Training! 





Podcast Episode 9: Transcript

#9 - Let The Animal
Be Themselves

[00:00:00] Allie: Instead of asking ourselves, how do we get rid of this behavior? We should be asking ourselves; how can I provide a more appropriate outlet for this particular behavior?

 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…

[00:00:31] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:32] 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 Helen Dishaw and one of the topics we discussed was letting animals be animals. This week we’re going to dive further into letting animals be themselves and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about, should we treat animals like mini- humans, dealing with those annoying species-typical behaviors, and what Emily’s rabbit and my turtle have in common. Let’s get started.

I think one of the reasons that we see certain behavior problems is because there’s been a shift in our culture, at least in the United States, I can’t speak to other countries since I don’t live there, but at least in US culture, there’s been a shift in how we treat animals, and a shift towards treating them sometimes like mini humans.

[00:01:37] Emily: For sure, and to be clear, that’s not always a bad thing. For example, animals are receiving better medical care because we’re thinking of them more as family members now than we have in the past. But it can also cause some serious dysfunction in how we view them and what our expectations are for their behavior

[00:01:56] Allie: Absolutely, as with everything else, there are pros and cons to those societal shifts, and one of the cons that we see is sometimes those expectations that you mentioned, where people expect their animals to essentially not be animals. I’m sure you’ve gotten the same thing, Emily, where you have someone who’s asking for your advice about their pet and the first thought is, but that’s what animals do. Whether it’s rabbits chewing furniture, or dogs barking, or cats scratching.

[00:02:25] Emily: Right. Like, do you remember that guy from the sanctuary where we both worked, who was super upset that his dog was tearing up toys?

[00:02:33] Allie: I do. It’s such a common concern folks have, too. And really that comes down to our society has shifted away from it being okay that animals act like animals, and we expect them to act like humans. And that’s just not realistic in many situations, and can lead to dysfunction in a household, and impair relationships that we have with our pets.

[00:02:54] Emily: Absolutely. And to be clear, we’re not saying that it’s okay for dogs to be aggressive, just because animals in the wild are aggressive, and we’re not saying that it’s okay to terrify our pets because animals in the wild are terrified sometimes. We’re not even saying that you should put up with your pet destroying your house because, “Oh, well, that’s what they do.” That kind of false dichotomy is super common. People think either, I let my dog be a dog and they destroy my entire life, or I have to control their behavior and they have to spend half of their day in a crate, and when they’re out of their crate, they have to strictly obey me. Those are my only two options. We’re here to say those are not the only two options. You can have a physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy pet who can live life to its fullest and be the doggiest dog they can be, or the cattiest cat or the birdiest bird. You get the picture. And also, you can have a safe, happy, intact home.

[00:03:57] Allie: One of the things that’s important about this mindset shift is that we’re so used to seeing behavior as good or bad. And we’re so used to being told that this species does this and that’s a bad thing or this thing, and that’s good. And so, we have this expectation of what a good dog or bird or cat looks like, but in reality, animals don’t understand morality, and morals have nothing to do with animal behavior. So, what we really need to look at is, what do we want in our home and how can we teach the animals in our care to live within the house rules while still giving them opportunities to be who they are. And that leads into our first takeaway of how to implement this concept with your pets at home. Taking morality out of our perception so that we can see our animal’s behavior clearly.

Clients ask us all the time, “Should I let my dog do X, Y, and Z?” And the answer is, “I don’t know.” Do you want them to, is it something that you enjoy? Is it something that works in your house? If yes, then let them do it. If no, then teach them something else to do. Instead, the first step in being able to implement this concept is to reframe how we think of behavior and take it at face value instead of attaching morals or character flaws to certain behaviors.

[00:05:19] Emily: And that brings us to our second takeaway. As Helen mentioned in last week’s episode, we can learn what is typical for a species by observing other members of that species in the wild. What do they do? About how much of their day is spent doing each of those activities? When and how much do they rest? And so forth.

Ethologists have already done a lot of that work for us by creating ethograms. So, we can also look at ethograms to give us a leg up. That said it’s a little trickier when we’re dealing with domesticated species like dogs, because there aren’t really any wild counterparts for dogs. Dogs have been domesticated for so long that there’s quite a bit of variety in how they behave based on their environment, their breeder breed mix, whether or not they’ve been raised around humans, et cetera.

So, the best way to know what a domesticated pet like a dog needs is to have a general understanding of their species’ activity budgets, but then also just observe your pet. What behaviors are they offering? What are they asking for? How do they play? What are their preferred activities? I’d even go so far as to say, how do they annoy you?

What behaviors do they do that feel like a nuisance to you? Because 99 times out of a hundred, those are just species-typical behaviors being performed in a counterproductive context. And that gives you a lot of information about the species-typical behaviors that they need to perform.

[00:06:56] Allie: And then finally, that allows us to take all of this information and apply it by finding ways to give our pets opportunities, to do the behaviors that they’re doing. Especially those annoying or nuisance behaviors, in more appropriate ways. This can look like giving dogs, DIY destructible toys on the floor to replace counter surfing or training cats to use a scratching post to replace destroying furniture.

Or as Helen was talking about teaching free flight to birds to replace stereotypic pacing in the cage or providing hidey holes for rats and other rodents to replace digging in the carpet. Instead of asking ourselves, how do we get rid of this behavior? We should be asking ourselves; how can I provide a more appropriate outlet for this particular behavior?

Emily, do you have an example of how you’ve provided a more appropriate outlet for a nuisance behavior?

[00:07:48] Emily: I do, actually. I have a lot of them, but the one that comes to mind is about my bunny, whose name is Bundini. And Bundini got his name because when I adopted him, I originally had tried to have him in a confined area and turns out, Bundini is not a fan of confinement. And he’s in fact, quite adept at getting out of confinement.

So, his full name is Harry Bundini. Get it? Hahaha So, yeah, so I had a little escape artist on my hands, and I realized once he actually escapes, he doesn’t do anything bad. He’s actually perfectly content to just hang out in the bird room. So, I thought, why not just let him stay in the bird? And he was great for several months, just hanging out, playing with his toys, eating food, foraging, like any good self-respecting rabbit. And then one day he discovered the baseboards. I had thought about rabbit proofing the baseboards, but because he hadn’t really showed any interest in them, I had kind of let it slide, and one day he was like, “I’m a chew on these baseboards now.”

And I was like, “Okay, no, nobody, you can’t do that.” So, I did end up having to get some acrylic to protect the baseboards, but, this gave me a lot of information about his chewing preferences, because he was ignoring the objects that I had provided for him to chew and selecting the baseboards instead, which told me that he has a very clear texture preference for that type of wood.

So, I got him really thin pieces of wood that are actually bird toys, but they were perfect because they very closely emulated the baseboards themselves. So, I’m managing the environment so he can’t chew on the baseboards, and I’m giving him very similar material that he can work on instead. And sure enough, that did the trick.

He never really tried to get at the baseboards again. He never tried to take the acrylic down. He’s just happy to chew on that wood. So, that’s a really good example of seeing a nuisance behavior, because it is a nuisance for him to destroy the baseboards. Right? But instead of trying to punish that behavior, I recognized that this was a species-typical behavior.

He was telling me what kind of textures he preferred to chew on, and I just gave him more appropriate outlets for that behavior and prevented access from the inappropriate outlets that he had selected for himself.

[00:10:27] Allie: And that reminds me, I have my own escape artist at home, and that is my red eared slider, Zorro. Red eared sliders are semi-aquatic turtles, for those of you who are not as familiar with reptiles. I mean, technically they’re terrapins, but whatever. I I’ve written a blog post on, this, which we can put in the show notes so y’all can see the pictures that go along with this story. Zorro is my red eared slider, and he is an escape artist as well. At some point in time, I think this was last year, he started really trying to escape from his tank, like this was a daily occurrence that was happening.

It was becoming a problem, and unfortunately, one of the problems with management is you have to like really mean your management. If you do it haphazardly or half-heartedly, then you can shape your animal to get out of the management situation that you’ve created. And that was, unfortunately, what I ended up doing. I was very half-hearted with my management strategies to keep him in his tank, and he figured out each of them, and that just made him better at escaping from his tank. So, that was definitely a trainer fail on my part with that. But his escaping behavior told me, okay, there is something that he is missing in this environment. And there’s a reason he’s escaping. It’s not just happening, because he feels like it, or to annoy me or whatever morals I could put on to that, even though it felt like that plenty of times. I recognized there was something that was missing here.

My answer was one that I don’t necessarily expect everybody to do, my answer was to build him in an entirely new enclosure. It took a few months to do this, but he now has a larger tank, and a big area surrounding it, and above it, like I said, we’ll put the blog in the show notes so y’all can see the pictures of what I’m talking about. It’s a little bit hard to describe. He has the ability to climb more in his current enclosure, which is something that I had seen in the past as something he did, climbing, and trying to get up stuff and falling because turtles are not graceful creatures. So, he has that opportunity more.

He has an opportunity to walk around on land, more in this enclosure than he did in the previous one. And in addition to the things in this enclosure that he was missing in the other, I also meant my management strategy this time. I thought through every single way that he could possibly escape out of this new enclosure, and I preemptively fixed those problems.

So, it took maybe a month or so for me to see him try to get out, he tried a couple of times, said, “No, that’s not going to work.” And he does not try anymore, which is fantastic. A lot of times when we’re talking about those nuisance behaviors, which is true in both, my story about Zorro and your story about Bundini, Emily, is it’s a combination of management, so they can’t do the behavior that we’re trying to decrease while also providing them a more appropriate outlet for the behaviors that they’re trying to perform.

[00:13:59] Emily: Yeah, and I think a really important sort of detail to add to both of our stories is that there’s a difference between a learned helplessness where they try all these different ways and they have a really aversive experiences as a result of that, so they stop trying anymore. In which case we would see an overall reduction in behavior by which I mean really, behavioral diversity, as opposed to what we’re describing, where, yes, we’re preventing access to the thing that they can’t interact with, or they can’t do for their own safety, but we’re not adding any aversive consequence to that. And we’re also providing other means for them to do the thing that they want to do. We’re honoring the function of that original nuisance behavior, and we’re allowing them to meet that function in another more appropriate and healthy way. And what we see in that case is not only an absence of any kind of stress behaviors, stress-related body language signals, but we’re also seeing quite a bit of behavioral diversity. They’re not behaving less; they’re behaving the same or more. They’re just behaving in ways that’s appropriate, and safe, and healthy, and delightful. It’s stuff that we take great joy in watching them do now that they’re not destroying our house.

[00:15:23] Allie: Yes. I love watching Zorro climb and inevitably fall off of things, now that it’s not the edge of the tank that he’s falling off of.

[00:15:33] Emily: Yeah, for real, it’s just, it’s so much, it’s fun to see them be themselves when being themselves is not super destructive, or scary, or unsafe.

[00:15:42] Allie: Absolutely. So, today we have talked about letting your animal be an animal, and that does not mean giving them free rein to destroy your house and be a nuisance or put themselves into danger. That means observing their behavior without attaching morals to it, seeing what behaviors they already perform, and for undomesticated pets, you have the added bonus of being able to watch videos of their wild counterparts to see what behaviors they should naturally be performing, and then giving our pets outlets for these species, typical behaviors in ways that are more appropriate in our home environments.

Next week, we will be talking about influencing the industry through empathy with Mike Shikashio.

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.

Want a Rock-Solid Come When Called?

If you prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

One of the things we often have clients want to work on is having their dog come when called. It makes sense! There are going to be times when you need your dog to pay attention to you, when you may need to move away from some scary monster, or navigate around that awful smelling carcass on the beach. 

While a rock-solid come when called, or recall, can, and usually does, look effortless, behind that behavior is a vast history of practice. Like all things, it takes time, energy, effort, and consistency to get that lightning-fast return to you. 

And there are tons of games or exercises that you can do with your dog to help solidify this skill. I’ll link some of these exercises below. 

But first, I want to talk about one major mindset shift that has helped tons of pet parents go from feeling like their dog will never respond to building recall through their day-to-day life. 


Are you ready?

A recall isn’t about what you have right now. 

It’s about all the hundreds, thousands, or millions of times you’ve called your dog in the past. 

It’s about the history, the value, and the consequences of your dog coming to you. Recognizing, acknowledging, and shifting your mindset, can make a huge difference in building a solid recall each and every day. It’s not about concrete sessions, it’s about what coming to you predicts for your dog.


Think about something that always has your dog right by your side. 

Maybe the crinkling of a food bag. The sound of the cheese drawer pulling open. The sound of the door to the yard opening. The sound of their harness or leash being picked up. 

What happens when they hear or see that thing happening? How quickly do they come over? What does their body language look like? How reliably do they come over?

What happens once they get to you? Do they get a piece of treat? Do you give them access to something? Do you go for a ride or a walk? 

And from their perspective, is that a good or a bad thing? Looking at their body language, and observing their response will help you identify this! 


Now, think about the last 10 times you wanted your dog to come to you.

Why were you calling them over? Were they getting into something? Did you need them to come inside, so that you could start your zoom call? Were they chewing on something or digging in your garden? Was it just to say, “Hi!”? Was it to play a quick game of catch?

What happened once they came to you? Did you take something away? Did you close off access to the yard and/or their sunspot? Did you have to give them a bath? Did you get them a treat or a more appropriate toy to play with? Did you scratch them in their favorite spot?

When they came to you, from their perspective, was it a good thing or a bad thing? And this is a bit nuanced, we need to look at our dog’s body language to get an idea of how they feel about something. Does their body language tell you that they are STOKED about the thing, or were they bummed about the outcome? 


What does coming to you mean for your dog?

Take a moment and consider the number of times coming to you means delightful or wonderful things for your dog, and the number of times it’s somewhere between a bummer and terrible. 

If you’re taking stock and realizing that the scales are tipping toward bummer/terrible, that’s okay! Now that we know, we can do something about it! Let’s get your dog looking at you the way they look longingly at their treat container. 


Great, how do I do that?

  1. When your dog looks in your direction, comes over to you, asks for attention, otherwise images with you, make it worth their while! Give them access to their favorite things. Engaging with you isn’t the end of the fun, it’s the start of the fun! Maybe they come in from the backyard, you close the door and immediately take them outside to bask in the sun. Coming over to you means treats, toys, play, attention, scratches, whatever is your dog’s jam. 
  2. Avoid punishing them for coming when you ask. Don’t call them and follow that with something they dislike or hate. If your dog hates baths, don’t call them over and then put them in the tub. If your dog is loving their time outside, don’t call them in, shut the door and leave it at that. Trade them for their loss of access to the yard. In my house, they come inside, I shut the door, and they may get a tasty treat, a rousing playtime, scratches, or open blinds so there is sun access in the house too. 
  3. You can practice some recall games to help solidify that relationship. Here are some great resources to get you started: 
    1. Summit Dog Training’s Recall Youtube Playlist
    2. Kikopup’s “How to Train Your Dog to RELIABLY Come When Called” 
    3. Kathy Sdao’s Training a Reliable Recall Part 1 and Part 2



A recall isn’t about what you have available right now.

It’s about all the hundreds, thousands, or millions of times you’ve called your dog in the past. 

It’s about the history, the value, and the consequences of your dog coming to you. When the wonderful things vastly outweigh the not-so-great things, the scales are tipped in your favor. Your dog will look forward to interacting with you, and love to come to see what is in store. 


Now What? 

  • Start tipping the scales in your favor! When your dog looks in your direction, comes over to you, asks for attention, otherwise images with you, make it worth their while! Get creative with this, it doesn’t always have to be treats. Think about things that your dog asks for, works for, or might even get a little annoying about. 
  • Look for times that your dog coming to you might not be great for them. Can you change some things up to make it better for your dog? Instead of coming always meaning you’re leaving the park, sometimes it means you’re just saying “Hi, friend!”, giving a treat, tossing a ball, or sending them back to continue playing! 
  • Practice daily! Build this exercise into your day-to-day life. 
  • If you’d like more help crafting a rock-solid come when called, let us know! Fostering relationships, building two-way communication, and helping families fall in love with their pet again is our jam! Email us at [email protected]!


4 Behavior Changes to Expect as the Weather Warms Up


A few Sundays ago it was one of the first nice, weekend days of the spring here in Illinois. And that meant that I had back-to-back clients who all of a sudden were having problems that they hadn’t had all winter. And, as you know, when I have the same conversation multiple times in a row I turn it into a blog post! 


Behavior Can Change with the Seasons

I’ve talked before about my arch-nemesis, Winter Oso, which is the name we give to Oso when he’s more annoying because he’s not getting as much exercise in the yard. And I know a lot of you have your own winter version of your pet. I certainly talk through this quite a bit with my IL clients!

But I haven’t talked much yet about behavior changes that happen when the weather starts warming up. Just like we see behavior changes when it gets cold, so too can we see changes when it gets warm. Let’s dive into a few of the most common behavior changes that we see when the weather warms up. 


Difficulty Recalling

Recalls are the fancy term that dog trainers use to describe “coming when called”. I see this manifest in a few different ways. This could look like a dog who is more distracted in the yard and that’s why they’re not coming to you when you call. But oftentimes I see it look a little more subtle, where they’re out there sunning themselves and enjoying the day and just don’t respond to you when you ask them to come inside. That’s exactly what was happening with my clients a few weeks ago. 

Let me be honest here, I can’t blame them too much. After months of dreary midwest winter, I also spend as much time as possible outside when the weather starts to warm. I definitely have that in common with these pups. And truthfully, this is a behavior change that isn’t necessarily a “problem” behavior depending on your set-up and schedule. I work from home and we have a fenced-in yard that is quite secure and safe so I can let Oso hang out outside for as long as he likes those days. 

Where the problem comes in is if you have a kiddo who wants to be outside and you don’t have a safe set-up or a schedule that allows for the dalliance. In that case, we should be figuring out common ground with our pup (which may likely include spending a bit more time out there when it works with your schedule) and making sure that coming inside is super fun. One of the common things that we do as humans that comes back to bite us is asking our pet to come inside so we can leave the house for work or errands. Coming inside stops the fun! And when coming inside stops the fun, your pet is going to be less likely to come inside. 


Chasing critters

Many folks with dogs who chase critters get a respite in the winter months. But springtime means a surge of critter activity and that means we usually see an increase in chasing critters. Again, this isn’t necessarily a “problem” behavior. Chasing critters is a normal, species-typical behavior for dogs (and cats, and other species). We should be allowing our pets to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. What that looks like for Oso is that he gets to chase critters to his heart’s content in the yard. 

What I’ve deemed as “inappropriate” for that behavior is screaming at critters while chasing (yes. It’s a scream, not a bark.) or trying to chase everything while on leash. Chasing critters as a whole isn’t a problem, but doing it in those particular ways is. That means that we didn’t work on him not chasing critters at all, we only worked on him not screaming when he does it and he has a cue when on-leash that tells him when he’s allowed to chase the critter. 


Leash reactivity

Speaking of screaming and leashes… this time of year is always when we get a surge of folks who want help with their dog’s leash reactivity (barking, lunging, growling on leash to other dogs, people, vehicles, or anything, really). There are more people and other dogs out and about in the neighborhood and that makes management for leash reactivity much more difficult in the warmer months than it is in winter. 

Many people know to anticipate this when the weather warms up, but I find that folks who brought home pups in the winter may not expect this behavior change because their dog wasn’t really in situations before that would cause them to react. It’s not that the behavior suddenly started; it’s that the environment changed. 

This is one that we do label as a maladaptive behavior, or a “behavior issue”, because it’s stressful for both you and your dog. No one is likely having fun at that moment. Early spring tends to be a great time of year to start working on your pup’s leash reactivity because there are more opportunities to practice than in winter, but not usually as many overwhelming scenarios as we see in late spring and summer when it’s consistently nice and school’s out. 


Window reactivity

This one is really just another manifestation of the above issue. Usually, when we see a dog with leash reactivity, they’re also reactive through the windows when they see someone or something passing by the house. Warmer months typically bring more people going by your house and that usually means an increase in reactivity. 

We saw a huge uptick in requests for help with this behavior when the pandemic started in March/April 2020. Everyone was out walking their dogs more frequently than before and that meant a lot more passers-by! Oso’s reactivity at the window had a bit of a relapse during this time, too, but thankfully we had years of working on this behavior under our belt so we were able to nip it in the bud pretty quickly. 

While this one is also labeled as a maladaptive behavior, it can sometimes be easier to manage depending on your setup and where your house is located. But if you’re wanting to work on leash reactivity, I highly recommend also paying attention to this behavior. Trigger stacking is a thing, after all. 


Now what?

  • Simply observe your pet as the weather changes (even folks in temperate climates that don’t have as drastic of temperature changes will have other weather changes!) Do you see any behavior or body language changes with the changing season?
  • If you do see behavior changes, ask yourself if it’s actually a problem. Feel free to use the above if you’re seeing one of the behaviors that I mentioned!
  • If the behavior isn’t a problem or just requires a small tweak to routines, fantastic! If the behavior is a problem, we’re happy to help. We see clients all over the world and can help with any behavior problem remotely. Click here to get started. 

Happy training!


Podcast Episode 7: Transcript

#7 - Agency in Social Interactions

[00:00:00] Emily: And a library dog is going to react differently in a library-esque setting versus a party type setting and vice versa. That’s also true for the party dogs. So, opting into one situation does not mean that they’re going to opt into every situation.

[00:00:15] 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…

[00:00:34] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:35] 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 Mara Velez and one of the topics we discussed was agency in relation to dog-dog play. This week, we’re going to dive further into agency in relation to social interactions, not just dog-dog play and talk about implementation with the animals and your life.

In this implementation episode Emily and I talk about opting into social engagements, teaching disengagement, and how I’ve officially crossed into bougie pet parent territory. Let’s get to it.

 For those of you who are involved in the world of animal sheltering, you’ve likely seen that playgroups have been in the spotlight in the last several years. And like every trend that takes off, there are good things that come with that, and then some not so good things that come with that. One of the problems with trends is that a lot of the nuance, especially the nuance in regards to the benefits get lost in translation or exaggerated.

[00:01:46] Emily: That’s absolutely a problem with trends because we can get stuck in this false dichotomy. And there are several false dichotomies actually that happened around this topic. For example, there’s a widespread belief that either we get as many dogs out in a yard together as possible, or the dogs won’t get to go outside at all.

In fact, there are several other solutions for getting dogs out of their kennels. Another one is either we increase the dog social skills in playgroups, or they won’t develop good dog social skills, and there are actually many other options for that as well. And another common one, either we correct any sign of arousal or dogs will end up fighting. And again, those aren’t our only two options. If we teach staff and volunteers to be better observers of behavior and we give them more skills in their inventory, we’ve actually got lots of options available to us.

[00:02:43] Allie: The world does not operate in black or white. It operates in a gray space. And at the end of the day, “behavior is a study of one” as Dr. Susan Friedman says, and we have to keep that in mind when we’re looking at the efficacy of trendy activities with. And that includes enrichment by the way, enrichment is also a current trend. So, one of the things that we’ve seen in the United States for many years at this point with the invention of the dog park, is that people become really focused on their dog being able to interact with other dogs, and sometimes that means missing whether or not their dog actually enjoys interacting with other dogs and missing if that is actually a beneficial activity for them. And now that dog-dog interactions or playgroups, as they’re often called, are being seen as the next big thing in sheltering, we’re seeing that same missing piece. I know you and I, Emily, have seen a lot of dogs participating in playgroups who absolutely did not want to be there, and it was definitely not improving their quality of life or decreasing their stress levels.

[00:03:46] Emily: Ab-so-freaking-lutely, and this is where a prescriptive approach to enrichment is problematic. If we don’t have a behavioral goal that is taking an animals behavioral and emotional health into account, and is focused on meeting their needs, we are bound to miss the mark. So, instead of patting ourselves on the back for getting a bunch of dogs into a yard together without observing their experience in the yard or the impact of that experience on their behavior, after the fact, what would a descriptive approach look like?

It would look like observing the dog’s behavior to see if they are interested in playing with other dogs. Then seeing if they know how to play with other dogs. Then determining what our goals are based on that information. Then deciding how best to enrich the dog based on those goals. And then observing whether or not our strategies met those goals.

But you can’t do any of that, if you can’t observe whether the dog is opting in or out to begin with. And play, or else doesn’t really let them opt in and out.

[00:04:55] Allie: So, bringing this back to last week’s episode with Mara Velez agency is an absolutely crucial aspect of social interactions. We can’t make a sweeping generalization that all animals enjoy all forms of social interactions and will benefit from them. We are culturally conditioned to believe that all dogs are social butterflies, that they will love everyone, anywhere, at any time. But in reality, that kind of dog is kind of a unicorn. Dog sociability varies wildly, just like it does in humans. We can certainly improve social skills and there’s a small amount of flexibility in each dog sociability, but there’s a huge difference between a dog who wants to play but doesn’t have great social skills versus a dog who really just, isn’t all that interested in playing with other dogs. And that’s okay if they’re not that interested. And it’s important for us to recognize that and let them have a say in what their social interactions look like. And one of the things that we love about Shelter Playgroup Alliance is that agency is built into all aspects of their program.

Side note. I always feel like I have to add a disclaimer here that we help develop those initial protocols with SPA because I want to be transparent, but I don’t know about you, Emily, but I feel like I had such a small hand in it, and it’s grown so much beyond the input that you and I added, that I also don’t want it to make it seem like we had more to do with their success than we did.

[00:06:19] Emily: Oh, for sure. It was such a privilege to work alongside such an incredible group of colleagues, including obviously Mara, but also Kiem Sie and Marissa Martino, Lisa Mullinax, Ali Verba. So many amazing people. Even though we played a super minor role in that process.

[00:06:38] Allie: And here’s the thing, even though in last week’s episode with Mara we were specifically talking about dog playgroups in shelters, this is applicable to every pet because every pet is going to encounter some form of social interaction. It could be you feeding your turtle or a cat who sees another cat through the window, or your dog passing by another person or dog on a walk. All pets encounter some form of social interaction, and what we talk about with playgroups absolutely applies to other interactions with other species as well. Let’s take a look at how we can implement this concept of agency into social interactions with our pets. Emily, go ahead and kick us off.

[00:07:15] Emily: So, first of all, we need to be able to recognize what agency looks like in relation to social interactions. I think as we were discussing already, we’re looking at first of all, are they even interested to begin with? Are we seeing that they’re watching the other animals? Are we seeing that their body language looks like interest rather than avoidance?

There’s a difference between, ” I want to play with you, but I don’t know how.” versus a dog who’s just actively looking for an escape. That’s the first step. Let’s identify whether or not they’re even interested in interacting with their own species. Then the next step is, do they know how? So, we see dogs who are, quite adept at social skills, at greetings and offering play behaviors, communicating when they’re not happy about something that’s going on, communicating when they need to break, versus a dog who is interested in playing, but when another dog asks them to play, they’re like, “Oh my God, I only interact online. I’m not an IRL type of pupper doggo.”

We have assessed that they have interest, but do they have the skills yet to confidently try those interactions, or is that something that we need to foster? And in the process of that do they have opt-out options where they’re like, “This has been enough practice for today. I’m ready to take a break from this.” Because just like with humans, skill acquisition can sometimes be exhausting.

And then of course there’s also how much stamina do they have for play? Do they want to play for short bursts? Are they in for the long haul? Do they like playing with one other dog or two other dogs? Or are they in fact, a dog who likes a big old group of dogs? One of our Pro Campus members actually recently shared a great analogy about this, that there are library people, and there are party people, and neither of those are inherently bad or good. So, there’s also library dogs and party dogs, right?

And a library dog is going to react differently in a library-esque setting versus a party type setting and vice versa. That’s also true for the party dogs. So, opting into one situation does not mean that they’re going to opt into every situation.

[00:09:34] Allie: I’m a library person. I love that for what agency can look like in relation to social interactions and what we need to be including in that like, skills, and stamina, and everything. And I think one of the things that people don’t really realize when it comes to what agency looks like in social interactions is that it’s not always really over the top or exaggerated what opting in or out looks like. Opting out can be as simple as just moving away from an individual or putting yourself in a particular location in relation to another individual. It doesn’t have to be this really over the top aggression type behavior or distance increasing behavior.

Sometimes it’s subtle, so when we do see those things, the way to respond is to give the animal what they’re asking for. If they are saying that they want distance between them and another individual, we give them distance.

We see this a lot with leash reactivity where we have a dog who is uncomfortable with other dogs when they see them on leash, or maybe just at all times. And we see people who have the best of intentions, but don’t include that agency component into their behavior modification plans and are asking the animal to sit there and watch the scary thing and the animals, like, “Please get me out of this situation.” And so, it can be as simple as moving away, let’s cross the street, let’s go up an alleyway, whatever that needs to look like to increase distance in that moment.

In dog-dog playgroups we’ve seen numerous times where a dog has done and then goes and sits by the gate. The way to react to that is we remove them from the playgroup, and we let them leave. They’re very clearly asking to leave if they are sitting by the gate. When it comes to responding appropriately, when you do see an animal asking for certain things, give them what they’re asking for a lot of times, it is not that difficult to do that. Sometimes it is, but many times it’s not, and it’s just better all around for mental and emotional health.

[00:11:59] Emily: And I am sure that there are a lot of people listening to this going look, if I gave my dog what they were asking for, they would bully the entire playground. That is a super valid concern, and all that tells us is not that the dog needs more restriction necessarily, but that the dog needs more life skills. And there’s some amount of restriction that may go along with that. But it’s really important for us to teach dogs how to disengage appropriately as a part of their social skill sets. So, we’ve been talking a lot about library pets, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t also talk about those party pets, and sometimes the frat boy doggos need to learn how to slow their roll a little bit.

 So, we can have dogs who are a little overly friendly and need to chill a little bit. My favorite example of this is a dog named Wally at the sanctuary where Allie and I worked. He was this little, short stack, baby hippo, tank guy, he was just the cutest little, little baby hippo.

[00:13:11] Allie: Meatball.

[00:13:12] Emily: Meatball! That’s actually what he was for sure. but Wally loved all dogs. However, he had really terrible body language skills. He would come into the room over the top exuberantly friendly and the other dogs would be like, “Dude, you need to stop.” And he would take those corrections as you love me. You really love me. And then he would just escalate. He would get really excited when dogs would express irritation and he would escalate and then he would end up causing these fights, and then he would just look so hurt. Like, “Why did you come after me?” And so, we had to teach him how to recognize when other dogs aren’t super happy with what he was doing, and it was a process that we went through. It took some time, but he learned that when dogs exhibit these body language signals, that means I should disengage. I should go away, give them a break. And he did learn that fluently to the point that we didn’t need to prompt him anymore. We actually had a video of the first play date where he got it on his own without being prompted.

The other dog said, “You’re being a little bit extra, bro.” And he went, “Gasp! This is where,” I mean, you could see, like he kind of sat back a little bit, and his little eyes are wide, and his ears were high and forward, and you could see the wheels turning in his head. And he’s like, “This means that this dog is irritated with me. I’m going to take a break.” And he like backed, scooted back a little bit and waited for the other dog, and we were all so excited because that was the moment when he was really proving that fluency of like, “I can disengage when another dog asks me to.” And I’m gonna turn this story over to you, Allie, because he was actually your project dog. So, I think you have a better idea of his adoption story than I do, right?

[00:15:16] Allie: Absolutely. Before getting to that adoption story, I just wanted to mention that we tell this Wally story and people think that it’s really challenging to do something like that, and really, it’s just a lot of time and repetition, like everything else in training. It is managing it so he can make better decisions or not make bad decisions. And also reinforcing the behavior that we want to asking him to move away, reinforcing the heck out of it. It doesn’t have to be this really long convoluted process. It just takes time and repetition and consistency like anything else. I had the privilege to do Wally’s adoption introduction, and Wally’s adoption and introduction included a 11 month I think old Boston terrier, and that stereotypical 11 month old Boston Terrier, where like, just excited about life. And you’re like, man, where do I tap into that energy?

 During this introduction, this Boston terrier, legit was hanging off of Wally’s jowls in, in like a good way in like a “I’m so excited. I found my best friend way. Let me hang off your jowls to tell you how excited I am about meeting you.” And Wally just stood there, like, “Okay, this is fine.” And didn’t retaliate, didn’t escalate, didn’t be annoying back. Nothing happened. Dog is literally hanging off of his jowls and he’s like, “All right, this is fine.” It was like a proud parent moment.

[00:16:53] Emily: Watching him learn not to escalate like, “Oh, this dog has a little bit excited. I’m going to not match that energy. And I’m just gonna like slow my roll.” It’s just, yeah, definitely proud parent moment. Right? What an amazing demonstration of fluency.

[00:17:12] Allie: Absolutely, and he ended up doing fantastically in that home. So, skills can be taught is the moral of that story. One of my favorite stories of yours, Emily, and we talk about this when we talk about flight training, usually and teaching animals to move away from stressors, but you have a daycare story that is like the epitome of agency when it comes to social interactions.

[00:17:40] Emily: He’s definitely one of my favorite stories as well. So, I worked with a client who had an Australian shepherd and he loved other dog, but as is the case with many herding breeds, just a pretty intense kiddo and so in these playgroups and in daycare, he would be really excited and start escalating and it would continue escalating to the point of getting into fights, and then he started redirecting onto the daycare attendance. And so, he got kicked out of daycare and they were like, “You need to hire somebody to help you with this because he’s, he’s not okay in these groups anymore.” We’ve worked on several skills with him, but one of the most important skills that we focused on was disengaging, moving away, the technique that we used was the flight cue, where we teach them to move away, good things happen, we have a party, and then we go somewhere where they can self-regulate, decompress, complete their stress response cycle. It did not take him very long. It took him a few months to get to absolute fluency where he would do this on his own unprompted when he was feeling a little too intense.

He would move away from the thing that he was excited about and would go to his relaxation station and chill out. So, when the client demonstrated to the daycare that he had improved, they let him come back for a trial. So, he’s playing with these other dogs, it starts to escalate, and he jumps the seven-foot fence to put himself in timeout in the air lock.

 After he’s relaxed and feeling better, he jumps the fence back into the playgroup, and the daycare attendants were floored and they contacted his owner and they were like, “Did you teach him this?” She was like, “Well, we didn’t teach him to jump a fence.” Amazing that he was able to generalize the skill to a new place and figure out that the only place he could go to escape, the really high, intense stressors in his life, was to jump the fence and go into this little space that had no dogs.

He found the one place in the room that had no dogs and he put himself there. They sent her a video of it, and she told me about it, and it was again, a proud parent moment, right? Because, good for you for understanding the concept of moving away from a stressor and finding a safe space and being able to map that onto a different environment, that’s hashtag life goals, right?

[00:20:05] Allie: And not only good for the dog, but good for the daycare attendants for letting him do that, and recognizing that, that was his way of saying, “I need a break for a moment and not forcing him back into the situation and letting him have that agency.” I think that’s one of the hardest things for us as humans is to let them do it and not push it.

[00:20:31] Emily: Yeah, I always love seeing daycares that have spaces like that, where other dogs aren’t, don’t have access to for many reasons, safety, lots of reasons. But that was definitely the first time I had seen a dog utilize that space in that way, which you know, props to both the dog and the daycare.

[00:20:50] Allie: So, we’ve talked about a couple of examples with dog dog interactions, but as, we mentioned before, agency in social interactions is true when it’s cross species, and in a lot of different interactions. So, one last story that I wanted to, talk about today in relation to what agency and social interactions can look like is something that has recently happened in our lives.

 Oso now has a canine massage therapist, I don’t have a massage, well, let me rephrase. My husband is a massage therapist, so I guess I technically do, but it’s very much like the cobbler’s kids have no shoes here. I do not get massages frequently. Oso does now. I feel bougie saying that, but realistically, he’s a senior he’s 10 years old this year, and this is very much a preventative measure for him so that we can keep his mobility as, as long as possible, which, for those larger kiddos is a really big deal when they lose their mobility. It feels bougie, but there’s definitely a medical reason why we went that route.

 He is now done at the time of this recording two sessions with his massage therapist, and I was able to find like the absolute perfect person for him. Shout out to Katie with Physio Pet Massage. Y’all in Southern DuPage County in Illinois definitely check her out, she’s amazing. And, uh, one of the reasons I chose her is, is because she’s, is fear free certified and all of that good sort of stuff. We have worked so hard with Oso being able to opt out of things. Oso is one of those kiddos who, when I first met him, he had a lot of trouble with, being overstimulated, and making poor decisions when he was overstimulated. We’ve done a ton of work in the last six-ish years that we’ve had him of being able to opt out, go away, de-stress, and come back when you’re ready to participate again. And I saw all of our work come to fruition as we were working with his massage therapist. And she would be massaging him, and he’d say, “Oh, you know what? I really need to go and sniff your bag right now.” I told her if he gets up and goes away, just let him go. He will come back on his own, you don’t have to prompt him, you don’t have to ask him, just let him do his thing, and he will come back. And he did because we taught him that way of go away, come back when you’re ready to participate. It was so amazing to see those skills in use. As I was watching this, I was thinking that, for somebody who didn’t know that we had worked on that and didn’t know what opting out, looked like for him, it would look like he was distracted. It would look like he was bored. You know, we could attach a ton of more negative labels to that, like stubborn or whatever it is. And for me, I was thrilled to see him say, “Um, I need to go sniff your bag or your shoes by the door real quick. I, I can’t be here anymore” and leave and come back.

I mentioned before that opting out can be really subtle and I want everyone listening to look through perhaps a different lens when your pet is not participating in the way that you wanted them to or expected them to that maybe it’s not that they’re stubborn or bored or distracted or whatever we want to call them. Maybe this is them opting out and choosing something else for a moment so that they can decompress. If we let them do it, then they’re better off for it.

[00:24:35] Emily: I think that’s one of the recurring themes of our implementation sessions so far. If you haven’t really honed your body language skills, and you don’t know how to read all of the subtle nuanced body language signals, and have accurately identify and interpret what those signals mean, it’s really easy to misinterpret what’s going on with animals who are taking a break, or asking for a break, and think of that as a more negative behavior, or perceive it in a negative light.

When you learn how to read body language, really proficiently, it completely changes how you interpret what’s going on with their behavior, and it makes it easier for you to provide that agency because you can tell exactly what they’re asking for, and in many cases, we can figure out also why they’re asking for it.

[00:25:30] Allie: Absolutely. The why is, is a very good part to know about. All right. For today’s implementation episode, we talked about agency in relation to social interactions, and that could be dog-dog play groups like we were talking about with Mara, but that can be for all social interactions. We had talked about what agency can look like in relation to those interactions, how to respond appropriately, AKA let them do the thing, if it’s safe and you know, et cetera, et cetera. That disengagement can be taught.

Next week, we will be talking with Helen Dishaw about what we can learn from birds. I have to admit I’m not the biggest bird person. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching birds in the wild, I have bird feeders, I use the Audubon app to figure out who is making what silly little chirping noise. If you need a giggle, look up what nut hatches sound like. It’s ridiculous and adorable. But when it comes to working with birds, I have very little experience. So, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Helen’s interview. Y’all, I loved this interview so much. Helen was so lovely to talk to and I absolutely loved her insights from working with birds, and those insights are absolutely applicable to all species.

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 6: Transcript

#6: Mara Velez: Shelter
Enrichment & Playgroups

[00:00:00] Mara: The definition of enrichment, it doesn’t have enjoyment as part of the technical definition, but we’re adding that in. I am very strongly and emphatically adding that there needs to be enjoyment on the part of the animal.

[00:00:25] 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 podcast. The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Mara Velez. Mara Velez is the Executive Director of the Shelter Playgroup Alliance and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer prior to co-founding the Shelter Playgroup Alliance, Mara was a Behavior and Training Consultant for several years at Contra Costa Animal Services, CCASD, an open admission county shelter. At CCASD, she collaboratively designed, developed, and implemented behavior program structures, including a robust volunteer training program, the behavior evaluation and the canine enrichment and playgroup guidelines.

In addition to working with canines, Mara enjoys training other species because it expands her training and observation skills. She has worked with cats, rabbits wolves, foxes, guinea pigs, coyotes, buffalo, donkeys, goats, alpacas, chickens, parrots, corvids, and other birds, and a fish. Whew. That’s a lot.

Mara holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology and completed all of the coursework for a Doctorate in Education. She is also completed University of the Pacific Animal Shelter Management Program, and the Summer Shelter Institute. Mara has also completed KPA, LLA, and several other animal behavior and training related programs. Mara continually develops her skills and knowledge of canines by attending seminars and reading science-based canine literature. To date she has completed over 1400 hours of continuing education.

Y’all, I want to be Mara when I grow up. She is just so impressive and a force to be reckoned with, and I learned so much from her, not only about behavior, but also just about how to conduct myself in the world. In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Mara talk about Mara’s added layer of what should be involved in enrichment in addition to “healthy, safe, and appropriate”, not asking our dogs to have a coffee before going out to dinner, and if play is the only purpose of playgroups. All right, here it is. Today’s episode, shelter and enrichment and playgroups.

[00:02:55] Emily: Okay. please start us off by saying your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:03:02] Mara: My name is Mara Velez. My pronouns are she and her. And I have four pets at the moment. All of them are dogs, so I have Nala, who is now my oldest. She’s a three legged pit bull, shelter special. I have Ivy. Who is just younger than Nala. The two of them are actually a bonded pair. They spend all of their time together, they groom each other, and she is a shelter special chihuahua. And then, my next two dogs are also kind of close in age, but about 10 years younger than Nala and Ivy and that’s Pluto and Bruce Lee. So, Pluto he’s about an Ivy size, so it’s about, 10 pounds or so. As far as I can tell. A poodle, dachshund mix, but have not done DNA, I did do DNA on Nala, and I found out that I do in fact, have a show dog. It’s a very cool she’s pure bred, American pit bull terrier, which those two things together actually make me giggle because pure bred American pit bull terrier, it’s kind of like not a thing, but so I have a three-legged show dog, apparently. The other dog that I do have DNA on is Bruce Lee, who was, and you know, Kiem, it was Kiem’s mom’s dog.

She’s elderly, she got sick, went to the hospital, and so I took him in and that was years ago, so he’s mine now. So. He’s a Havanese Pekinese as far as the, as far as what the DNA results came back as.

[00:04:39] Emily: Super cute. I love that. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.

[00:04:46] Mara: Oh, gosh, Emily, where do you want me to begin?

[00:04:49] Emily: Where you born on…

[00:04:50] Allie: The beginning!

[00:04:53] Mara: I think I was born on a Tuesday. So, I grew up in Santa Cruz and left Santa Cruz when I was 18. Moved to San Francisco. I got my bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State, and then I decided I really liked going to college. A couple of years later, I was in, I was working in IT, actually at a bank. I was managing the, the infrastructure, so all of the routers and servers at the bank, and I decided that that was not the, that was not really the best job for me. So, we went to graduate school, the first time. So, I got my master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and then started in a path of doing training. So, human training primarily, and then, started working at a local college and then, continue to do training.

I still do. So, I’m actually, I’m a consultant for, training designs and interventions. But at that same time, when I went out as a consultant, I started volunteering at a local shelter, because like a lot of people I adopted a dog that had special behavioral needs. So, she was, she was my second dog as an adult.

I’d always grown up with dogs, but she was my second dog as an adult, and she was a puppy mill breeder for about four years, as best as we can tell. I mean, we all know that aging a dog is really challenging, but that was the best that we could figure out from the teeth that she had remaining. So, she was, boy resilient, but it, she really did teach me a lot.

I made a lot of mistakes with her, in terms of flooding, like things that I desperately try to avoid now. Didn’t use punishment with her because I, at that point in time, I don’t know how I knew better, but I knew better. But I was instructed by the rescue essentially to flood her. And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to do that.”

From my master’s degree, I certainly knew about, doing interventions for humans. So, using counterconditioning for people with panic disorders, for people with obsessive compulsive disorder. So, I knew about those strategies and then started buying all of the books and figured out how to do that with her.

So, she progressed quite a bit for her. I was able to have her off leash safely. It took many, many years and lots of long lines, but that is what got me into sheltering. I was like, “Well, I know there’s probably a lot of dogs like her. So, then I started at the, started volunteering at East Bay SPCA.

Then I did KPA. Then I started doing all of the things, lots of conferences, lots of education opportunities. And then, took a role as staff, part-time staff, cause I was still doing, and am still doing consulting, at Contra Costa Animal Services. So, that’s what kind of brought me to Shelter Playgroup Alliance, to founding it.

Because I was in the place of developing, an enrichment program. We, myself, and Shane Stannis, who was at Contra Costa Animal Services at the time, he hired me to help him redo volunteer training, rethink the behavior evaluation process, implement low stress handling techniques in shelter.

And so, we did all of that stuff. It took us several years. And then it was like, “Okay, well now that we have volunteers who were trained to do basic enrichment, now it’s pretty much the time that we can maybe think about doing playgroups because playgroups are an advanced behavioral skill to do them well.

We finally had volunteers who would gone through, probably about 20 hours or so of training with both Shane and myself. So, you know, behavior stuff, like how to do basic, basic behavior modification for non-dangerous, working with shy and fearful dogs, working through low-level resource guarding, working through some pretty safe dogs, but who were uncomfortable with handling. So, some desensitization and counter conditioning for handling. So, they had some basic stuff under their belt, so it was time to do something a little bit differently. And so, that brings me to the time that I met you both.

[00:09:29] Emily: Excellent. Thank you for that. It’s always interesting to hear how people got to where they were or where they are. So, I love hearing everybody’s story and I appreciate you sharing yours. So, today we’re going to be talking about shelter behavior, specifically playgroups and enrichment in the context of sheltering.

Talk to us a little bit about why people should care about our topic today and how it’s relevant to them.

[00:09:59] Mara: I can imagine that it, regardless of where you sit. So, if you’re a dog owner, you’re a trainer, if you work in a shelter, if you volunteer in a shelter, you work at a daycare, dogs will probably come into contact with other dogs. So, what our guidelines really are about is, I think of play as maybe kind of the sexy lure to get people, to read what we have, but we’re really talking about inter dog interactions and whether to proceed or not with an interaction between two or more dogs, and what are the dogs telling us about how they’re feeling about that interlocutor. Are they excited to go and talk to them and have, oh, a little have coffee? I use this analogy of coffee, lunch, dinner, and then going for a weekend in an Airbnb together. So, sometimes you have a love connection, and you could potentially co-house, right?

So, that’s that Airbnb, right? A lot of shelters to co-housing, but if you don’t have that love connection, you probably don’t want to have dinner right away, which would be a little bit more like, a longer term play session, but you may want to just like shake hands, walk away, or you may want to, you know, have a brief interaction and then walk away and you’re not interested in anything further, and that’s what I call lunch. When we’re working with dogs, knowing what good looks like in terms of multi dog interactions, I think it’s really important.

[00:11:28] Emily: Yes. I definitely agree with you. So, we kind of touched on the fact that we met through a Shelter Playgroup Alliance, but I want to give a little bit of backstory for our listeners.

 The way that we met is that I had written an article about shelter playgroups for the IAABC journal, and you and Lisa Mullinax reached out and were like, “Hey, we’re doing the Shelter Playgroup Summit, and we liked your article.” And I was like, “Cool. I know Lisa, I’ve heard about Mara through the grapevine. Let me look into this a little more.” And I just fell in love with what I heard and I was like, “Allie, oh my, God, we have to, we have to do this. We have to do this collaboration.” So, that’s how we met, and then we were there at the first summit when you were just starting to form the Shelter Playgroup Alliance.

But I would love to hear you talk more about how the Shelter Playgroup Alliance, which by the way, and moving forward in the interview, we’ll probably just call it SPA because that’s shorter. So, talk to us a little more about how spa came into existence and the process of creating and establishing it.

[00:12:39] Mara: Yeah, it’s really started with a conversation between myself, Kiem Sie who is our ops director and Lisa Mullinex when she was at the Sacramento SPCA. And I was at the time thinking about, “Okay, well, how am I going to write this playgroup protocol for Contra Costa?” And was just asking a bunch of people.

I read your article, I knew a lot of people who are positive reinforcement trainers who work in shelter, run playgroup, and they probably do it slightly differently, but still in alignment with LIMA, that Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive ethical standard that we all adhere to. That’s what had us go reaching out, and we had about 40, 45 people somewhere around there.

[00:13:26] Emily: A decent group.

[00:13:26] Mara: We were cramped in; it was a decent group. It was really a best practice sharing activity. And so that we could all just, you know, talk to each other about how we do things and inform each other’s work and collaborate. Then at the end of that, because I mean, as we know that there is an alternative that is nationwide, that does not adhere to the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive, in fact, it’s quite intrusive and quite aversive. And I had had experiences with dogs who came out of playgroups from there, even if we didn’t use aversives the lack of choice, the lack of management of the dogs, allowing them to work it out. Cause I was also taking on private clients. I would see a lot of those dogs on the other side.

So, after they got adopted, if they didn’t get returned or even before they got returned, their behavior was awful after they left. And that can be largely attributed to the way the playgroups were run. So, I wanted to avoid that and I was like, “Okay, so what can we do to avoid this, like crazy approach, even if you’re not using spray bottles and shake cans and such in order to manage playgroups.”

So, that’s really what we were looking to document. And so, we had, about half of those people, about 20 people, including yourself and Allie who contributed to the guidelines. So, it was quite an undertaking. And then once we had the guidelines written, that took about nine months to have everybody in groups and do read rounds, and just to make sure that it was all edited and had more or less single voice so that it wasn’t like reading different chapters from a book. You guys have gone through the editing process of your book, so, you know, how that, how that goes.

So, once that happened, then I was just like, “Well, then I guess we need to form a nonprofit.” the rest of it, wasn’t like, “I am going to start a nonprofit and this is what we’re going to do.” It was sort of like, okay, “Well the logical next step to to getting these guidelines out there, so how can we make sure that folks understand how to use them, get their questions answered?” You know, have appropriate training in behavior. What about those small, rural shelters who do not have a behavior team? I mean, for folks who have a behavior team, they can pick them up and do them on their own. They don’t need any help from any one of us, except for maybe like, ” There’s this weird video, can you look at it? And help me assess it. I just want another set of eyes.” Like, that level, but they’re not having a hard time implementing the guidelines, but your smaller shelters who don’t have it they do need help and support. The formation of SPA as a nonprofit entity was really born out of, “Well, how do we support shelters in doing this particular thing?”

And I’ve gotten a lot of shelters who, they wanted an alternative to the aversives, they wanted it alternative to the large play groups, it wasn’t working for them, there were too many fights, they were using fear-free shelter for the rest of their shelter, but then they were doing this thing that was like totally out of alignment with the values of fear-free. That’s where we’ve gotten a lot of folks reaching out to us and saying, “Hey, we want to do it a different way, and we’d like to adopt that guidelines. So, in a lot of ways, there was, I think a lot of pent-up demand for this type of enrichment, as a single prong in a multi-pronged enrichment program, which is…

[00:17:07] Emily: Exactly…

[00:17:08] Mara: The play part.

[00:17:10] Emily: Right, and we’ll definitely talk about that a little bit more, but I wanted to kind of, address something that you said that really resonates with me, and one of the things that we bond over, and one of the reasons we get along so well, is that all of us, Allie, you and me our response to seeing things that aren’t working, that cause problems that cause pain points is to do something about it.

And we jump in, we’re like, “Let’s do something about it.” And then we’re like, “Oh, okay. So, like I made a snowball, but like now I have to roll it down a hill and it’s like this, now it’s this huge thing.” Right? So like these projects that we start they’re just like, “Let’s respond to this pain point.” And then they end up snowballing into these really huge projects that we didn’t really envision or anticipate when we started out. Right?

What I’ve come to learn from our shared experience with this process is that it has led us in really empowering directions and helped us to actually like deepen our understanding for these processes that we’re going through, and that, I mean, we definitely have a shared pain point there because Allie and I, and our work with shelters experienced the same thing. That we love that shelters want to get dogs out of the kennels and want to give them opportunities to play.

And we honor the intentions behind that practice and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see people do things because they’re wanting to help dogs and it invertedly causing more harm to the dogs and their staff by how they’re doing what they’re doing. That was what really appealed to me.

It was a compassionate approach to addressing a pain point, which is, ” Let us empower you with knowledge and skills, so that you can do the thing that you want to do but do it in a way that protects both the dogs and the people involved in this scenario.” So, I really loved that, and I appreciate you taking on the brunt this, what has become a massive project.

 Who knew we were building seven foot snow men when we…

[00:19:15] Mara: Picked up that snowball?

[00:19:18] Emily: Right, exactly. I wanted to talk about another thing that you mentioned, which is that playgroups are just a single prong in a multi-pronged approach to an enrichment program. So, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about play as a part of enrichment or an aspect of enrichment. Since we know that the purpose of enrichment is to empower animals, to perform species-typical behaviors in safe, healthy, inappropriate ways. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like with regard to play groups and shelters and dog daycares? In other words, what are behavioral goals in playgroups? What are we looking for in healthy play and what are metrics for successful playgroups? And then later on after we broached that topic, I want to talk about playgroups in the bigger context of an enrichment program in shelters, right?

[00:20:06] Mara: Yep. And I just want to touch on something that you said just a second, and then I’ll transition to answering that question, which was the pain point.

And it really, really is, and was for many shelters. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I’m so relieved not to have to do X, Y, and Z.” That relief, we know that relief, that negative reinforcement contingency, right, is very powerful and driving behavior and that these folks thought that they had to do it that way.

 Knowing that they no longer have to do it that way and feel a tremendous amount of relief, I think just speaks volumes as to doing things the right way and the right way by dogs. So, that does bring us to that play as part of enrichment question. What good looks like in terms of playgroups and shelters and daycares is that there is enjoyment.

When we think about the definition of enrichment, it doesn’t have enjoyment as part of the technical definition, but we’re adding that in. I am very strongly and emphatically adding that there needs to be enjoyment on the part of the animal. That they don’t get frustrated, they don’t feel fear, they don’t feel stress, they don’t feel anxiety. So, that FAS plus F measure that we look at in all the Fear Free stuff that I think has become a lot of our own nomenclature, avoiding FAS plus F that when dogs are interacting with each other, they don’t feel that.

[00:21:37] Emily: Can you quickly define SAF plus F for listeners who aren’t familiar with that nomenclature?

[00:21:44] Mara: Yeah. The first F is fear. The whole constellation of behaviors that might indicate that a dog is feeling fearful. So wide eyes, tuck tail, rounded back, muscular tension, ears back and tense. Maybe wrinkling of the forehead, commissure tense, and maybe a higher respiration rate, probably high cardiovascular rate.

So, that’s fear. And then anxiety. So, quite often when we see our dogs feeling anxiety, we can see it in a couple of different ways. But I think the one that we see the most is what we call jumpy-mouthy. I think usually anxiety is at play. So, you sometimes get a lot of pacing, the mouth is open, the commercial has pulled back into a V, the ears might be to the side, you might see some forehead wrinkling, still a lot of tension in the body though. So, that anxiety is, I think really hard for folks to really recognize as anxiety. They probably see…

[00:22:40] Emily: Absolutely…

[00:22:40] Mara: It as just like, “Oh, your, you know, super energetic.”

 And then stress. So, we see a lot of stress signals, displacement. So, low, lower level stress signals are things like displacement, like sniffing the ground, any sort of avoidance of another dog, mild like sniffing around, or really active avoidance where they’re like going and hiding under tables or, or running away.

So, I don’t want to see any of that. And I definitely don’t want to see dogs getting frustrated. That they’re trying, they’re kind of saying, “Hey, play with me, play with me, play with me.” So, even if they’re like super social, they have good play skills, but the other dog who was in the yard with them, doesn’t want to, that’s going to build frustration.

So, if we have a dog who was actively avoiding, and a dog, who’s like, “I’m so excited to play here. I’ve been in care for three weeks and I do this every day.” We don’t want to see any of that frustration building because none of that is what we really want to see, which is healthy play. What is healthy play?

So, that means that both of the dog’s bodies are loose, their musculature is loose, their tails are wagging at neutral, their eyes are soft, their forehead is smooth, their ears are nice and relaxed, and they’re taking breaks. So, they’re not so highly aroused that they just keep on playing over, and over, and over again, and starting to engage in repetitive activities. That they’re taking breaks, they’re shifting the types of behaviors that they’re engaging in. It’s really important for dogs regardless of the setting. So, whether in the home in, you know, whatever location, daycare, shelter that they are engaging in play as an enjoyable activity.

And a lot of the things that I see labeled as play is actually, and this is not a technical term, but what I label as negotiation. So, it’s two dogs who were communicating with each other and they may be using a lot of conflict reduction signals, but they’re not actually really liking the conversation with that other dog.

[00:24:49] Emily: Yeah, like there, it’s almost like more like waving a white flag, than it is actually seeking play, which I think is a super important distinction to make. In the mentorship program, we spend a lot of time in the first unit talking about Burghardt’s Five Criteria for Play, for me, arguably, the most important criteria on is that in order for play to even occur, that the individual has to be free from stressors either acute or chronic.

Those two things are mutually incompatible, right? Being stressed about an interaction and using play as you call it, a negotiation, is not the same thing as actual play, because by definition it can’t be play if the interaction is stressful. I totally agree with you, that is a critical point to make that often gets missed.

When I mentioned the five criteria of play here, I was referring to Burghardt’s Five Criteria for Play. They are as follows. Number one, play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed. For example, when dogs growl, chase and tackle each other in play, they’re not actually trying to complete a predatory sequence like they would, if they were hunting. Number two play is spontaneous, voluntary and or pleasurable and is likely done for its own sake. Number three, play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious. Number four, play is repeated, but not in exactly the same way every time as our more serious behaviors. Another way to think of this is that play movements are inefficient. Number five, play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

[00:26:40] Mara: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that it gets missed, because as I mentioned earlier, I see play as an advanced skill on the part of the handler, like managing play and recognizing when play is occurring is an advanced skill on the part of the humans who were involved. And so, that means that you need to read body language really fluently.

So, with speed and accuracy, and if you don’t know body language very, very well, you’re not going to see the difference between a stressed dog or an anxious dog and a dog who is actually super happy, you know, high arousal, positive valance, as opposed to high arousal negative valance, which is anxiety.

Right? You know, it takes a lot, I’m sure that you and Allie have looked at thousands of hours of video of dogs behaving in lots of different ways. And you do the, probably the same thing that I do, is you look at it frame, by frame, by frame because things move so quickly and have spent a lot of time, you know, looking at all of the different books, and where you see like, you know, a weird behavior, “Okay. Well, where is this in the ethogram, and in which book is that? Because that’s sort of weird.” So, like you guys have worked in shelters for a long time and one of the benefit of working in shelters, is that you see a lot of behavior. A lot that maybe is not okay, it’s maladaptive. But you get to see a lot of it.

And so, you gain that fluency over time, but you also have to be really open to saying, “Huh? Is that really what I thought I saw?” And going back and questioning and looking at it with other people and not believing your own stuff.

[00:28:33] Emily: Yeah. I mean, both Allie and I got into a habit at the sanctuary where we worked together, how we, how we met from that experience, we got into a habit of filming all of our playgroups, because as you know, what happens when you have fluency in reading body language is that you’ll see something, and you may have kind of a gut feeling about it, but you can’t articulate in the moment why you have that feeling.

So, it’s really important to be able to go back to that video and watch it more slowly and multiple times, and” then you can articulate, “Oh, here’s why I had that gut feeling.” Or you get to say, “Oh, my gut feeling was wrong. I can see now why I thought that, but here’s what was actually going on when I have the chance to look at the greater context of this interaction.”

So yeah, absolutely filming those playgroups or play dates and dog interactions is really important because we need to have that opportunity to go back and reassess what we saw and that actually does build fluency in the future or improve fluency in the future. I want to quickly, before we continue correct something that I said earlier, when I said that stress isn’t compatible with play.

You talked about the difference between a positive valence and a negative valence. There is stress involved in play, but it’s eustress, a good stress, and what I should have said is there’s no distress isn’t compatible with play. So, I just wanted to clarify that for listeners, because I want to make sure that I speak clearly when we’re talking about stress and in these playgroup interactions.

[00:30:06] Mara: Yeah. I will say that when we usually use the term stress from a colloquial point of view that we usually are talking about distress as opposed to eustress. But on, in a technical way. But yes, thank you for correcting that on the technical level, because we do try to be precise in our language.

[00:30:25] Emily: Yes. Especially when we’re talking about technical things like interpreting body language. Back to your original topic, which we kind of got a little bit sidetracked there. I’m hearing from you that we need to build fluency in the learners in reading body language and knowing how to respond to the body language.

And we want to make sure that the dogs are actually choosing play and that their arousal is eustress or positive emotions. And that, that is different from the kind of negotiation tactics that you described. So, what are we looking for, what do we consider our metrics for determining whether or not an interaction has been successful?

[00:31:08] Mara: So, a couple of things that I would love for folks to measure is the number of breaks that the dogs take. If there’s…

[00:31:16] Emily: Oh, yeah.

[00:31:16] Mara: Lots of break taking, then that’s a good interaction, and that the interaction doesn’t go on for too long, without a long break. Most of the time, in good play, so referring back to our definition of good, is that previous definition of healthy, so good and healthy, I’m going to use interchangeably, that the dogs play for maybe a couple of minutes with lots of breaks in between, and then go take a longer break, and maybe they’ll so maybe three or four minutes, go sniff around and do other things, and then maybe they will come back to it. I find that most of the sustained interactions are not healthy play. Those are not two dogs that are enjoying each other. It’s often one who does not have very good play skills. It does not have very good inter dog skills, but is maybe highly affiliative with other dogs, really interested, but doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.

And I’ve met these people in my life and those stress, those interactions are super stressful. They’re like asking you question, then ask you another question, they ask you another question, ask you another question, you’re like answer, answer, answer, but you turn your head to the side, you give them a little bit of a shoulder. Maybe you’re sitting at a dinner table, and you can’t actually leave. it’s something like that. So, when I think about the, the metrics and I want to see that when they leave for a bit of a break, that they’re coming back and quote, unquote, consenting to another round. That they’re seeking out to that other dog for further interaction, as opposed to like, “Hey, no stop, please stop, please. Please. Can you stop now? No, I really don’t like that at all. Can we do this instead? Because if we do this, then maybe all want to continue to interact with you.” So, I see those conversations happening a lot with stuff that people are looking at as play, but I’m like, “yeah… there’s Not going to be blood, but that’s not our criteria.”

[00:33:24] Emily: That’s a detail that often times gets missed, right? If the point of playgroups is play, then why isn’t that our focus, why isn’t that our goal, as opposed to just like, they’re interacting, like, okay, they’re interacting, but that’s not. How, how is that adding value? How is that empowering them to perform species, typical behaviors and safe, healthy, inappropriate ways? And the answer is it isn’t right. Interaction for its own sake is not enrichment. Play is enrichment. Now that said, I know that we all love Dr. Lindsay Mehrkam, and one of the things that I loved about the research, her own research that she talked about at the 2019 SPA conference was that dogs can benefit from play groups in other ways that doesn’t necessarily include play.

In other words, just because dogs aren’t playing doesn’t mean that they aren’t being enriched in other ways, and that is definitely true, and something, I think we all take into consideration. Can you tell us what some of those other benefits are and what we should look for to determine whether a dog who isn’t playing in a playgroup is still getting some of those other benefits?

[00:34:35] Mara: So, what she found in her research was really that dogs who engaged in small playgroups that use positive reinforcement had better welfare outcomes. So, she had a number of different measures for welfare and a couple of the ones that she has not yet published her, her paper, I think it’s still in peer review.

So, hopefully it’ll be coming out soon to a theater near you. But, until then, I’m going to have to rely a bit on my fuzzy memory, um, so I’m not going to get all of them, but the few that really made a difference to me, that were salient enough for me to remember was that the dogs were front of kennel, so they were not usually going to the back of the kennel, and they were engaging in what we would consider a maybe affiliative or approach, approach behaviors toward people. Isn’t that what we want all of our dogs to do? So, the dogs that were not in the small, positive reinforcement playgroups who were in the large play groups, where there was the use of punishment, there was a diminishment of their welfare. So, they were often back of kennel, and not surprisingly, if somebody is using a squirt bottle on you, you’re probably not going to engage in a lot of pro-social behaviors. I mean, if every time I walk up to you, Emily, and you’re like squirt, squirt in my face, I’m probably not going to approach you.

[00:36:04] Emily: That’s weird.

[00:36:06] Mara: Isn’t it? We don’t know how that works. Do we? But wait, we do,

[00:36:09] Emily: Allie and I worked with the dog who’s favorite thing in the world was to get sprayed in the face and we trained him to wear a muzzle voluntarily. Like we actually got in trouble, and we had to like explain and show videos to prove that he actually loved it because we used spraying him in the face as the reinforcer for putting his face in the muzzle. But he’s an outlier for sure, like most, most animals, and I think there’s a difference between that, like the hose, the, the sensation of a hose, as opposed to like a little spray bottle squirt and little single things.

But I had to give a shout out to Filmore because he’s my favorite example of only the learner decides what is reinforcing and punishing or appetitive and aversive, right?

[00:36:49] Mara: Yeah, absolutely. No, we had one dog who thought that the Pet Corrector was awesome, so definitely a reinforcer. So, when we’re trying to apply punishment and we’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t work.” Not that you and I are trying to apply punishment, but yeah, absolutely. Yeah. There are the, so he’s really a parrot is what you’re saying.

[00:37:11] Emily: Yes. He likes, he likes his baths

[00:37:14] Mara: Yeah. So, we definitely have the “when I do fun things in your around, then I begin to trust people a little bit more if I hadn’t trusted them before.” And it certainly doesn’t diminish the trust with people, which is really part of, not just for playgroup, but the use of positive reinforcement with consequences that are truly reinforcing for the animal.

So, we do our preference tests as much as we can with what, with the resources that we have, but never assuming that whatever we’re holding is actually going to be reinforcing. Because sometimes it can be what we consider high value. which, may be just be high quality, but it doesn’t necessarily have a reinforcement aspect for the animal.

 The things that I really took away from, from Lindsay’s work, because she had a control group where the dogs also had good welfare outcomes, they just did, just in quotes, did other types of enrichment. So, unless a dog is really enjoying playgroup that they’re actually getting enriched from it, we really would be better served, just doing all sorts of other stuff, which is like doing an enrichment yard. Which is something that I learned from you guys, like how much, how you could actually create a really robust enrichment yard as an alternative, and that still can really improve welfare. That playgroup and welfare are not necessarily the things that are connected, but enrichment and welfare are.

[00:38:50] Emily: Right. the reason I brought up Dr. Mehrkam’s study and her talk at that conference, was because the videos that she showed were very like videos that we have ourselves filmed, where there are some dogs who aren’t showing a lot of distress, they’re also not showing a lot of interest in the other dogs, but they’re kind of trotting around sniffing and exploring, and so we’re seeing that they’re getting physical exercise, and mental exercise, sensory stimulation. And so, when we go back to our kennels, we’re feeling more relaxed and we’re able to offer the affiliative front of kennel behaviors that is so important for adoptability and just a sign of welfare.

And I think that that was a really important point to bring up because when shelters do have limited staff or volunteers and they have limited time or resources if they can get a group of dogs out who don’t need to play with each other, but can co-exist in a space and a parallel play kind of way, and the dogs are still doing those exploratory behaviors, they are still getting benefit from something like an enrichment yard, as opposed to enforced interaction, which we erroneously call play. And I think that that is why I really loved what she was saying, is that it doesn’t have to be play, and you don’t have to feel like you failed as a shelter staff member, if you take dogs out and they choose not to play with each other, but they’re still doing other things that are enriching for them. And that to me was such an important takeaway.

[00:40:20] Mara: Yeah. And as long as they are calm and relaxed in the environment that they are enjoying their time. So, you had asked about the behavioral goals for playgroup, and I’ll just put playgroup in quotes there, but what are my behavioral goals for inter dog interactions. And that is that you can ignore another dog. You walk by you can ignore them because what are the behavioral expectations that adopters will have? That they can take their dog for a walk, and they don’t have to meet every single other dog if they don’t have the time.

And when they do meet that other dog, that they’re nice and polite. That’s really it. So, when we think about using inter dog interactions for and increasing adoptability of our dogs, or maintaining good social skills, or creating good social skills, building a behavioral repertoire for the constellation of behaviors that we would call good social skills, which is like, a second at the butt a second at the nose, not jumping over the other dog. Right? And then saying, “Hey, would you like to engage in this play?” And if the other dog says, “No, thank you,” uses any cutoff cues, then your, the dog responds and says, “Oh, okay, next time.” I mean, that’s really what we’d want to see in terms of polite greetings. So, if dogs are able to do that and when the other dog says, “No, I’d really rather sniff this thing over here, there was, you know, a rat who peed over there overnight. And I’d like to sniff the urine. That’s my enrichment today.” You know, we want to give it to them and not have the other dog, you know, kind of punking on him in order to get them to play. So, that’s why we spend a lot of time in the SPA educational program, thinking about behavior modification, strategies for dogs.

I’m using all of the three letter acronyms that we have in our toolbox, the BAT, LAT, CAT, rat and under different conditions, we might pull some of those out or, mix and match get a, buy one, get one during a training session.

I really want to see low arousal, positive valance interactions between dogs. Those are the behavioral goals that I don’t want to see, regardless of context.

[00:42:31] Emily: I want to shift tracks just a little bit. In one of our first conversations, I had mentioned some of the differences between how Allie and I ran playgroups with the populations of dogs that we worked with at the time, which we were both just coming from a sanctuary with over 400 dogs, and it was an extremely high stress environment, and most of those dogs had significant maladaptive behaviors, which is why they were there. And so, we were working with a very different population, than the population that you worked with at the time, probably still work with. And so, I asked if you thought what we were doing was okay. It was different from what you were doing with your population, and when I asked you, you said something to me, like, “we both operate within the LIMA framework, we just have different levels of risk aversion.”

And that really struck me as first of all, a very diplomatic and inclusive way to talk about different styles. But secondly, a succinct way to kind of get the message across that it isn’t as simple as the right way in quotation marks versus the wrong way in quotation marks that there’s a whole spectrum of approaches with a wide range of them being ethical, compassionate, and prioritizing the dog’s experiences.

So, what are some of the main differences between a less risk averse approach that still lies within the LIMA Code of Ethics, like what Allie and I were doing at that sanctuary versus approaches that fall outside of LIMA?

[00:43:58] Mara: And that’s that really does get to the heart of why we did not put together a protocol.

So, a protocol, meaning something that has a, if A then B, if C then D, very stepwise approach, because that doesn’t really work very well in terms of behavior, which is fluid changes. And toward a guidelines approach, which means that depending on the dogs that are in your care, depending on your handlers ability, who you have as your handling partner or partners, you may make different decisions, and as long as you’re not doing certain things, which I’ll comment on in a moment, and you were doing other things, so you’re providing the dogs with choice, you’re not flooding them, you’re not forcing any interactions, you are managing arousal in a way where that dog is engaging or can engage in some sort of healthy behaviors.

So there, it’s not tipping over to eustress, I’m, I’m sorry, it’s not tipping over to distress, it’s staying in eustress. So, there can be lots of different ways to do that. Is it, you know, leash on or off? Is it using a recall cue? Is it using a squeaker? Is it using a pig board? Is it using more gentle guidance with a with a leash?

You know, there’s lots of different ways that you can accomplish that goal, and I often use the metaphor of a mountain. You know, there’s not one path up the mountain. You have lots of different paths up the mountain, but there are certain things that you’re not going to do.

So, you’re not going to use any aversives. You’re not going to yell, scream, hit, kick, throw things at any of the dogs. If a dog is, has shifted from feeling okay to not okay, you’re removing them from the environment and providing them with something else. If we have a moment that does not go well but it’s not the preponderance of the time, but you’re you intervene.

You, they, you see that the dog’s arousal goes down. If we’re taking a hugely risk adverse approach, we might not introduce them again. But if you have a reason to believe that that those, those two dogs can be okay in the next 10 minutes of that interaction or the next day then that’s a little bit more risk tolerant, but it’s still LIMA, right?

So, you’re not forcing any interaction. So those are the two things that that I really kind of hold the line on is that the dog needs to opt into the activity, we’re managing arousal. And those, that’s really it.

[00:46:37] Emily: Yeah, I think that’s a really good distinction to make, and the reason I’m kind of giggling is because. I was thinking about the criticism that we have both received, that we are positive reinforcement extremists. And the reason I giggle about that is because we’re, we’re, I mean, first of all, the whole concept of the quadrants is a very dog trainer-ized understanding of a behavior analysis, right?

But I mean, the thing is we are aware of and do observe that outcomes are either positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement or positive or negative punishment. And we even talked earlier about how what we’re doing, providing relief for both the humans in the situation, and the dogs in the situation is negative reinforcement.

And that’s not a bad thing. It’s not a dirty little secret at all. Well, we say we’re positive reinforcement trainers, but we actually use negative reinforcement, right? There’s a huge ethical and emotional difference between intentionally applying aversives and then only offering relief when the learner does what we want them to do, versus acknowledging that the aversive exists in the environment and empowering the learner with the means to obtain their own relief.

Right? And I think Eileen. Anderson wrote a really beautiful article on the difference between social mediation and naturally occurring consequences with relation to negative reinforcement that I highly recommend anybody read. If you’re interested in this topic, because that to me is such a huge component.

The reason that we don’t want to add aversives isn’t because we think aversives are bad and all our animals should just live in a like bubble wrapped and never experienced the world, it’s because if we want them to have skills, we’re not focused on correcting mistakes, we’re focused on teaching them skills, which includes teaching them how to obtain their own relief. Teaching them how to use negative reinforcement to their advantage. So, I just had to put that out there because the whole idea that we’re avoiding aversives in playgroups is some kind of extremist stance is completely missing the point and the bigger picture, we’re not just looking at behavior from this very limited scope of the quadrants.

We’re looking at it from an enrichment standpoint, which is, are we empowering these learners to perform species-typical behaviors in safe, healthy, and appropriate ways, and nowhere in that process, does that include correcting them for mistakes when we’re the ones who set them up to make mistakes, and we haven’t given them information about what to do instead. So, just had to put that out there.

[00:49:26] Mara: Yeah. And I do want to pull that thread a little bit, Emily, because I think that this is really important. We often see, and I do this little activity in the in the educational program and I call it “Play, Not Play.” And putting anything in a, in a strict binary is just like, that’s not how the world, world works, but I use it just as a teaching tool of like, “Okay, so this interaction was not entirely perfect. There were moments that that dog felt uncomfortable, and they took themselves away. And then they decided to re-engage and that is, totally leave fine, the rest of their engagement.”

So, if we’re in like 30% of those behaviors where like, “I’m not quite so comfortable,” or “Hey, can we do this instead?” That’s totally fine. As long as 70 or the preponderance of the interaction is really positive, and that we see as the interaction continues, that it becomes more and more positive over time.

That they have communicated and negotiated well enough to come to a place where both of the animals are comfortable. And they say, “Yes, I don’t like that particular thing, but I do like that.” “Oh, great.” Then, you know, that’s where they’re using positive reinforcement plays that contingency with each other and they’re responding to that contingency. “Oh, I do that. And then I get to continue the interaction. Awesome. I will do that thing.”

So, there’s negative reinforcement in that all the time. And one of the things that we really should be teaching our animals is when they get a little bit, and this is part of that process of managing arousal and where I want folks to call those dogs out of play when they start to get a little bit over aroused is because I want that to be an internal contingency that they’re like, “Hey, I feel a little bit aroused. This is a time that I go take a break,” and we can absolutely train that. You have a beautiful way of communicating that, “Oh, I’m a little uncomfortable. I can remove myself from this.” And that is the use of negative reinforcement that is built through lots of positive reinforcement as well.

Right? So, you’re building that behavioral repertoire of, “I feel uncomfortable. I can bail on this.” And when that dog removes themselves from uncomfortable interaction, then it’s incumbent on us to say, “Oh, you removed yourself. Hey, let me gain control of that other dog. So, they don’t pursue you, so you can continue that relief. Maybe you’re communicating that you’re done for the day.” And recognizing that that is, that is skill building. That’s life skill building. But it doesn’t have to be all it’s nothing, no part of life has all rainbows and butterflies,

[00:52:08] Emily: Right? I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s both impossible and unhealthy to expect that nothing bad will ever happen. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be the Harbinger’s of the bad things that happen. Instead, we need to be the people who teach them how to navigate the bad things and have successfully gone through or overcome those bad things. We need to be their advocates, not the, the aversives in their life. There’s enough of that in real life. Especially for animals in shelters, that’s just the reality of their environment. No matter how good the shelter is. Right? So, what are our observable goals and actionable items people can take away from this discussion?

[00:52:53] Mara: Well, they could both sign up for your guys’s program and sign up for the SPA educational program by going to either one of our websites.

For folks to, to want to run playgroups, I’d say first, make sure that your enrichment house is in order. That all of the other forms of enrichment are really well deployed, that you’re documenting how well they’re working, and then you’re training your volunteers or staff in body language so that they can also add playgroups.

And the reason why I say that the rest of the enrichment house needs to be in order is that you know, a lot of the shelters that I go to only a small percentage of the population is actually like good for play. that the dogs want to play, that they have the skills to do it well, and that you don’t need to do too much behavior modification.

And I think that those populations over time are getting smaller and smaller as the population of dogs who were in shelter is shifting toward more of a behavior modification type population where we really need good behavior folks in shelter in order to attempt behavior modification within the shelter environment, which we know doesn’t really work all that well.

But there are some things that we can, some things that we can modify in the shelter environment and some things we can start and test whether that dog will be respond, will respond to intervention, or if we need to take another route, and then providing a lot of support posted option for, for adopters, which I know is something that’s really important to both of you.

[00:54:37] Emily: Yes. Yes, it is very much so. Okay. Thank you so much. So, we give out the members of our Pro Campus Community and our Mentorship Program Community, the opportunity to submit questions for our podcast guests, and so I was hoping that we could ask you some of those questions now.

[00:55:00] Mara: Of course, of course.

[00:55:02] Emily: Excellent. So, I’m going to ask the most popular question that was submitted by our Pro Campus and Mentorship Program members now. And, then the rest of them will be just for the members they’ll have access separately. So, the most popular question was actually it’s a multi-part question because it was asked in a few different ways, but I picked this one because it seemed to be the most popular theme among the questions that were submitted.

And the theme is assessing dog’s sociability in playgroups. So, part one of this is have you found a concise, nonjudgmental way to teach people that there’s a wide range of healthy or typical sociability in dogs that not all dogs are dogs, social or dog tolerant, and therefore aren’t suitable for playgroups, so forcing those dogs into playgroups is just flooding them.

[00:55:57] Mara: I don’t know if it’s concise, but I start with not all of us are social enough to be put into an apartment without escape from another person, and so finding a really good match because you’re essentially getting you essentially marrying off these two dogs. So, you want to know that there’s going to be a love connection.

 It’s not necessarily that that dog is sociable or not sociable with other dogs in general, because we haven’t tested them with the entire population of all other dogs in the United States, or in the Metro area, or in a city, or in a town. So, could we give them a sociability score? We could say that there are certainly dogs who, will stalk and kill another dog.

We’d probably say that they’re not social, but in the absence of real overt aggression toward another dog, are they interested enough to be placed into a multi dog home? I’d want to just test it with those particular dogs that they’ll go home with, because just because you’re in a relationship with somebody doesn’t mean that you want to be in a relationship with everybody. So, that’s the best that I can come up with, and I don’t use play groups to do that actually.

[00:57:13] Emily: Okay, so that was actually part three of the question. So, I’ll skip to part three, which was, how do you use playgroups to assess dog’s sociability? And the answer is you don’t, right?

[00:57:26] Mara: Yeah.

[00:57:26] Emily: Then we’ll turn part two into part three, which is some dogs do seem to need a few minutes to assess and adjust and by letting them do so they eventually enjoy being in playgroups. When you’re first meeting a dog at a shelter, how do you differentiate between dogs who just need a few minutes to adjust versus dogs who really aren’t suitable for play groups?

[00:57:48] Mara: So, we start off hopefully eh, the setup permitting in protect a contact. So, I want to see at least some amount of social signaling between that other dog and not a ton of active avoidance.

I mean, if they are just like turning their back or walking away and just saying, “Really, I want nothing of it.” Then I’m probably not going to put them into that into that context, and I’m going to assume that it’s just that other dog and that it’s not all other dogs. So, you’re singing this theme of individual differences and a preference test of there’s lots of different dogs in the environment, and then I would probably send that dog off to enrichment yard. But if they’re doing some amount of social signaling and they’re like blinking, there’s a little bit of a wag, but they’re a little uncertain, so they’re engaging in some displacement behaviors, I would probably keep those dogs on or I would, keep the dogs on leash, and then give them lots of opportunities to train with somebody.

And maybe that session is, with the two dogs, is two people just doing some training with those dogs side-by-side, as a little bit of a warmup. Great things happen when you’re around another dog and no bad things will happen to you, you’re not going to be forced to interact with other, with that other dog. So, that’s a really important thing for me. Not the protective bubble wrap, but a reasonable amount of bubble wrap around that dog.

With the population of dogs that we have that come into the shelter, we have some features that we can probably, you know, use a a broad paintbrush to say that they probably don’t have a lot of experiences with lots of other people and lots of other dogs.

They probably don’t have a lot of training that are positive reinforcement training that they’ve engaged in, in the past. So, they don’t have a whole lot of behavioral, a large suite of a behavioral repertoire. Certainly not like the dogs that are in our care right at home. Those dogs have wide and varied behavioral repertoires because we’ve done a lot of training with them. We’ve done a lot of enrichment. We’ve taught them lots of things, and we’ve protected them from getting into sticky situations. Or if they do, we help them get out of it pretty quickly. So, if a dog is a little worried or slow to warm for an interaction, I’m just going to assume you haven’t seen much of this.

Yeah. It’s going to take you a little while. Well, here’s what I can do for. We can do a little bit, you look at that other dog, you get a treat, you look at that other dog, you get a treat, you sit over here, you look at me, you get a treat. I’m going to try to keep my rate of reinforcement high. But then also if they, you know, keep on looking over and they’re like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, maybe I’d like to go and greet that other dog.” So, they’re looking at them with soft eyes. They’re sort of, you know, look over and a little bit of soft body, then I would, you know, communicate with that other handler, “Hey, do you want to try a greet?” An on leash greet, we’re not going to drop leashes for this particular interaction. Unless we see something really good.

[01:00:50] Emily: Excellent. Thank you. All right. So, a few closing questions. First, what is one thing you wish people knew about either this topic, your profession, or enrichment in general? Your choice.

[01:01:03] Mara: I have to choose one?

[01:01:05] Emily: I mean, I guess you don’t have to.

[01:01:07] Mara: What I wish that people knew about enrichment in general is that there is no such thing as breed specific enrichment.

We have species-typical enrichment, and a whole lot of even species-typical enrichment are enrichment strategies that we can use across lots of different species as long, like across lots of different types of mammals, across lots of different types of birds. You just adjust it for stuff. So, there’s lots of things that you can apply, once you have identified what those species-typical behaviors are across lots of different types of animals. So, you don’t have to totally reinvent the wheel. If I know about how to do enrichment with a dog, I could probably figure out a lot of stuff about how to do enrichment with parrots, if I just learn a little bit about parrots. There’s probably some crossover there.

[01:01:59] Emily: Absolutely. I think that’s a whole can of worms that maybe we should invite you back later to just talk about misconceptions and enrichments, because that, that is a gold mine of things that we could discuss. Okay. The next thing is, what is the one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?

[01:02:17] Mara: I would really love to see, and this is my current thing, and I think that this might be your current thing to, much more critical analysis. And this is just, I would really like to see us be able to engage in conversations where we pick stuff apart and really try to get under the hood and understand what is true and what is not true about any particular thing and where there’s overlap and where the science connects. So, I’ll just give one, a one quick example.

So, if we look at the difference between LAT and BAT. How much difference is there really, once we start looking under the hood, and thinking about, “Well, what are the principles that are at play? Well, we’re using counter conditioning and then we’re using an operant behavior.” So, we’re teaching an operant behavior and then we’re using it in the context of counterconditioning. Great.

Same, same one of them, you walk away the other, you kind of, you know, continue to look or walk through it or something like that, but the type of operant behaviors are a little bit different, but really are they that different? Come on now.

[01:03:29] Emily: Right. I think the beautiful thing about having a variety of protocols that are all doing the same thing, is that you get to apply the approach that feels the most comfortable or the most natural to the individual client.

And that’s definitely why I advocate people learning all the protocols instead of getting campy with just one, because the more ways, the more paths up the mountain, you’re familiar with the better of a guide you’re going to be for your client. Which is the best path up the mountain for that specific client?

[01:03:57] Mara: Yeah. And the condition. So, there are certain times when you’re going to be able, only gonna be able to do that because you don’t have an exit, or you don’t have this, or you don’t have that. So, there are lots of times, where the more that you understand what’s under the hood, then you can say, “Oh, for this particular client, who’s in a wheelchair not going to work.”

We’re not going to be able to do that thing, but could we do CAT, and could we do LAT? Absolutely. For somebody who is not as mobile. Right? There’s lots of different reasons to get under the hood, but also have those conversations, and not necessarily, not take it personally.

[01:04:33] Emily: Right. Exactly. What are you currently working on? If people want to work more with you or learn from you, how can they do that?

[01:04:40] Mara: Currently, we’re in the last stages of birthing our risk assessment tool for shelters. So, there will be an educational component with that, which will be deployed through the through the SPA educational platform.

What’s currently in the SPA educational platform are behaviors that are related to running playgroups. So, we don’t have the whole, the full ethogram covered for dogs. But when we start to look at risk assessment, then we need to do a lot more training on other types of behaviors that may not be quite as common.

At least we hope not, because we’re going to be assessing our aggression. You know, what does, what does it look like for a dog who is going to stalk and kill another dog? What are we looking at when there is zero sociability towards humans, and how not okay that is, and how do you assess that? And how is that different than a dog who was just fearful of people? So, they’re not approaching, but they’re giving off social signals from a distance. Whereas a dog who is like has zero affiliation and may actually be risky to place. Their behavior looks a lot different. So, that’s going to be something that I’m working with Dot Baisly, Fernando Diaz, Amanda Kowalski, and Marissa Martino on. We’ve been working on that for about a year now,

[01:06:02] Emily: What a stellar group of human beings.

[01:06:05] Mara: It’s getting close. They are good. Good people.

[01:06:08] Emily: So excited about that. Well, thank you so much for your time and taking the time to chat with us about this. We’ll definitely have you back on to talk about some other stuff, but I appreciate you being here, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.

[01:06:22] Mara: Okay. Thanks, Emily. Thanks, Allie.

[01:06:24] Allie: Okay, how good was that episode? If you have not checked out the Shelter Playgroup Alliance guidelines, I absolutely recommend it. It’s free to download and is full of so much information that can be applicable to everyone with a dog. I recommend it to my clients all the time, who aren’t working in shelters, check out the link to their website in the show notes. I can’t say enough. Good things about the work SPA is doing.

If you liked today’s episode, check out the Shelter Playgroup Alliance 2022 Conference held virtually and in person at the Waterfront Hotel in Oakland, California, June 10th through the 12th, the link to the conference is shelterdogplay dot org forward slash 2022 hyphen conference, and of course will be listed in our show notes. We hope to see you there.

Next week. We’ll be talking about introducing agency and social interactions.

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 behavior 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 Pixebay.


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