Does Your Pet Have Mountain Lion Brain?

Have you ever said something like:

Treats won’t work if he’s barking.

Nothing works when he sees another dog!

She won’t pay attention to me when she’s like that. 

If you have, then this post is for you!

Before we get started and I explain what the heck “mountain lion brain” means, we first need to define one term: threshold. “Threshold” refers to that line in the sand where underneath the line your animal is “okay” and over the line they go into fight-or-flight mode. This is an overly simplistic view (for a more in-depth discussion as to types of thresholds check out this article) and there are more options over threshold than just fight or flight, but for our purposes in this post this definition will suffice. Essentially, under threshold can look like this:

Photo by Jamie Street

While over threshold can look like this:

Photo by Nick Bolton

Or this:

Or even this! (I mentioned there are more options than fight or flight; freeze is another option.) 

Photo by Mia Anderson

Understanding thresholds and what your particular animal’s body language looks like below and above threshold is imperative to successfully working with them, especially for those working on fear, anxiety, reactivity, and aggression. One of the reasons for this is that learning– or at least the type of learning that we typically think of with training– does not happen over threshold. This is another overly simplistic and inaccurate statement for the true science pros in the audience, but it’s true from the eyes of the average pet owner. This is why your dog won’t take treats or sit when he’s reactive. It’s why nothing works at that moment. 

I call this over-threshold state, “Mountain Lion Brain”. You have willingly come to this webpage and are hopefully comfortable and able to absorb the material. However, if you were being chased by a mountain lion and I ran up alongside you and asked if you’d like to learn about your pet’s behavior, the answer is no! You couldn’t possibly learn while you’re being chased by a mountain lion. You have “Mountain Lion Brain”.

That over-threshold state is not conducive to learning for you or your pet. Your pet is not stubborn, or stupid, or has selective hearing when they’re over threshold. When they’re experiencing “Mountain Lion Brain”, the fear/strong emotions center of their brain takes over and essentially shuts down the learning and reasoning parts of their brain (overly simplistic but you get the picture). They’re not learning because they can’t. 

Sometimes when I explain this, a client will ask me, “But he’s not actually in danger. Why does he still have “Mountain Lion Brain”?” A good question! Threats are not always physical and they’re not always “real” from an outsider’s perspective. For example, public speaking is one of the top fears of people across the world. There is no actual, physical threat in public speaking (unless maybe you’re a prominent and controversial figure). The threat is not “real” from an outsider’s perspective, however, can feel very real to the person who fears public speaking. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone else perceives the threat as “real” or valid; it only matters if the individual experiencing it perceives it as such. Fear doesn’t always make sense. 

What Should I do if my Pet is Experiencing “Mountain Lion Brain”?

The best answer is to remove the threat and/or your pet from that situation. A note: many pets will “redirect” their frustration or fear onto the closest being when they have “Mountain Lion Brain”. This is why many dogs bite their owners for grabbing their collars when they’re reactive. It’s safer to remove the threat instead of your pet. If that’s not possible, please do so with caution and by physically handling them the least amount possible. 

There’s no sense in trying to train if your pet is not going to be able to learn. Make a mental note of your pet’s body language leading up to threshold, what the involved triggers were, and anything else of consequence so that you can avoid those situations in the future. Your behavior consultant will be able to help you make a plan to work on behavior concerns under threshold, where both you and your pet will be safer and more successful. 

Now what?

  • Learn your pet’s body language approaching threshold. This step is so important that we give it to almost every client as one of their first homework tasks. This helps to make your pet’s behavior more predictable to you. 
  • Identify triggers based on your pet’s body language. Additionally, identify if your pet is able to learn, respond to you, and eat when you see certain signals. That lets you know how close they are to “Mountain Lion Brain” and gives you information as to whether this is a training moment or a management moment. 
  • Find management solutions to keep your pet under threshold. Get creative!
  • For additional help with body language, management, and other foundation skills, check out our Setting Yourself up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics course.
  • Contact your behavior consultant to help you with any of the above and to come up with a solution to working on your pet’s behavior concerns under threshold. If you aren’t yet working with a behavior consultant, contact us at [email protected] to work with someone from our team!

Happy training!

Allie

Why Doesn’t My Dog Respect Me?

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

A lot of clients over the years have come to us to help them with a laundry list of behavior issues, and on that list is something along these lines:

“My dog doesn’t respect me.”

“My dog respects my spouse a lot better than me.”

“My dog listens to me when it’s just the two of us, but as soon as other people are around they completely lose any respect for me.”

These concerns are completely understandable, especially when so many of the training recommendations on TV and the internet tell you how important it is for your dog to respect you, and how you can’t be a good leader if you don’t command your dog’s respect. That’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves and our dogs!

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

Dogs have no idea what respect even means.

 

So… what DOES respect even mean?

 

The tricky thing about expecting a dog to show us respect is that everyone involved has to know exactly what “showing respect” looks like. 

I had a conversation with some of my students in our mentorship program about respect a while back, and at the time, several of the students participating in the conversation had young children, ages 3-6. I asked them to ask their children what respect means and to film their responses. The videos were hilariously adorable. One child said, “Respect means… giving respect!” Another child, after a prolonged silence, whispered to her mom, “You say it!” Another said, “Respect is something grownups know.” 

So respect is a concept that even children have a hard time understanding, much less dogs. But to be honest, it isn’t really something that grownups know all that much better!

This social media post went viral for the very good reason that it beautifully illustrates how the definition of respect can be slippery even for adult humans:

 

So kids struggle to define respect, and adults struggle to define respect, but how do dictionaries define respect? Guess what: even dictionaries have multiple definitions!

 

Merriam-Webster’s definitions include:

  • An act of giving particular attention  
  • High or special regard
  • The quality or state of being esteemed

Oxford’s include:

  • a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements
  • due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others
  • admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements

 

Clearly, respect is a complex and nuanced social construct. If humans, of any age, struggle to define it for themselves, does it seem realistic to expect dogs to grasp the concept?

 

Misunderstanding respect = misinterpreting behavior

 

But do definitions really even matter, anyway? Lots of people seem to get their dogs to respect them, so does it really matter whether the dog understands what respect means?

Actually, yes!

The problem with trying to command respect from a dog without really being able to define what that looks like is that lots of other things can then look like respect to us. In almost every single dog training video where a trainer points out a dog’s behavior as “respect”, something else is going on instead. And when we misinterpret our dog’s behavior, we are at a much greater risk of responding to that behavior inappropriately.

So what are some common misinterpretations? What’s going on instead?

  • One of the most frequent ways we see the word “respect” being misapplied to behavior is when the dog is actually exhibiting some kind of distress–typically fear. Fear is frequently misinterpreted as respect.
  • Another common situation in which the word “respect” is misapplied is when a dog is in a shut down state
  • In many cases someone might think that a dog is being disrespectful when they actually have mountain lion brain.
  • People also might think a dog is being disrespectful when really the behaviors they’re learning just haven’t been fully proofed yet!
  • And sometimes, people say a dog is being respectful when the dog is just really focused on the handler–which is a good thing! 

These are just some of the most common ways in which the notion of respect (or disrespect) gets in the way of accurately identifying what’s going on, but of course there are many, many others! So do you see now why worrying about commanding a dog’s respect isn’t a particularly useful way to approach training?

 

So what do YOU mean when you say your dog doesn’t respect you?

 

A far better way to solve the problems you’re experiencing in your relationship with your dog(s) is to ask yourself exactly what respect looks like to you. When you find yourself wishing that your dog showed you more respect, think about exactly what they’re doing, and exactly when they’re doing it. Like this:

When [describe the specific context], my dog [describe what your dog does].

For example:

I feel like my dog doesn’t respect me when [I call his name when he’s in the backyard] and my dog [ignores me completely].

Once you’ve identified exactly what you mean when you think your dog doesn’t respect you, you then have a clearer goal to aim for–which can make all the difference!

 

Now What?

 

  • Use the fill-in-the-blanket method above to identify exactly what your goals are.
  • Learn dog body language to more accurately identify what your dog is telling you.
  • If you need help clearly defining your goals or figuring out how to more successfully reach your goals, that’s what we’re here for! You can contact us at [email protected] to schedule an appointment.

Be well, 

Emily

 

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

 

Every now and then when speaking with a prospective or new client they’ll tell me:

 

“I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything already!”

 

I’ll ask them to describe to me what they’ve already tried. Often the list is quite long and I understand why they made the above statement. But, here’s the thing. We don’t know what we don’t know. And, even if we did try something, that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work without some troubleshooting. We shouldn’t let not knowing what a professional can do for us keep us from reaching out.

 

Everything to you is not everything to me

Think about a time when you started learning something new. In the beginning, it seemed pretty simple and straightforward, right? It seemed like you could easily master this new skill in no time. Then you took a deep dive into different aspects of this topic and realized that it’s not so simple and straightforward. There’s a lot of nuance. There are a lot of related topics that you probably needed to learn about in order to better hone your skill. The more you learned the more you realized how much there was to know.

Animal behavior is the same way. Just because you don’t know of another way to do something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just means that you don’t yet know how to do it. When people tell me they’ve tried “everything”, it really means that they’ve tried everything that they know to do or have researched. That doesn’t mean it’s everything that I know. Everything to you is not everything to me. 

 

Troubleshooting is key

Occasionally I get a new case where someone is already doing the exercise that I was planning to recommend to them, but they’re telling me that it’s not working very well. Do we immediately try a new exercise? No! I first ask them to show me what they’re doing (even in a remote session) or send me a video of them working on it if they’re not able to demo live. 

Watching them perform the exercise is often where that aha moment happens and I find myself saying, “That’s why it’s not working! It’s an [insert training mechanic here] problem.” As with most things, the devil’s in the details. Let’s take counterconditioning for example. Counterconditioning is a specific scientific term that essentially means associating a scary thing with an awesome thing in a way that scary predicts awesome so it can become awesome in and of itself. That’s a diluted definition and we’d actually need to see the scary thing become awesome for it to count, but you get the gist. 

Every now and then someone will tell me that they’re working on counterconditioning with their pet. However, when I ask them to demonstrate what they’re doing they are not actually counterconditioning. There are a lot of ways to do it incorrectly and there are only a few ways to apply it correctly. Once we tweak how they’re doing the exercise we’re able to make more progress with it. 

Perhaps the problem in implementation is not in their mechanics, but in their setup. Let’s say someone is implementing a counterconditioning exercise in a situation where their pet is too stressed to learn (hello, mountain lion brain!) While technically we can still do that and make progress, there are ways that we can change the setup to make it easier. Once again we can tweak how they’re doing the exercise so they’re able to make more progress with it. Even if someone’s tried “everything”, it doesn’t mean that troubleshooting isn’t necessary.

 

It hasn’t been long enough

One last note on “trying everything”. Many times when I hear this statement I see someone who’s tried a lot of different things for only a few days at a time. Think about how long it took you to learn something new or, better yet, to develop a new habit. It was a lot more than a few days. The same is true for our animals; change takes time and a whole lot of practice. Trying something for just a few days doesn’t count. 

 

Now what?

  • Do you find yourself not reaching out for professional help because you don’t know what they could recommend that you haven’t tried already? Reach out! Chances are that they know of something you haven’t seen before or can help you troubleshoot what you’re already doing. We offer services worldwide; email us at [email protected] to set up your first session. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

Shifting the Focus

“It’s not all about you.” How many times have you heard this statement? We could all probably be rich if we had a dollar every time we heard that phrase (okay, maybe not rich but could at least buy a new food puzzle for our pets). Well, I’m here to give you one more dollar; this time, in relation to our pets’ behavior. 

Others’ behavior often feels very much about us. It can feel like a slight, like retaliation or revenge, or purposefully trying to get our goat. But – here’s your dollar – your pets’ behavior isn’t about you. It’s about them. This isn’t to say that we don’t cause or influence certain behaviors to happen. It’s not to say that your relationship with your pet isn’t a factor in their behavior. It means that they’re behaving this way to meet their own needs first and foremost. 

Let’s narrow our focus a bit to look at the situations where I find myself having this conversation with clients. Common statements that start this discussion include:

He gets mad at me when I leave and pees out of spite. 

She’s protecting me whenever someone comes to the house. 

He won’t listen to me when he’s reactive; he’s stubborn.

Why is he doing this to me?

In each of these statements, the focus is on the human. What if we assumed it had nothing to do with the human? What if we put the focus on the animal? In that case, those statements could become:

This cat is anxious when left alone, and elimination can often happen due to fear or stress. 

This dog is afraid of strangers, and is protecting herself from a perceived threat.

This dog currently has “mountain lion brain” and can’t respond to you because the fear center of his brain has taken over everything else.

Your pet isn’t giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time. 

Okay, that last one I stole from a social media meme that was going around a while ago. If anyone knows who the original source is please let me know so I can give them credit! 

When we change the stories we tell ourselves about why our pets do what they do, it can be not only eye-opening, but also relieving. I wrote about that in this blog post last year. 

Behavior serves the individual who’s doing the behavior and all behavior serves a function (except arguably for stereotypic behavior, which is beyond the scope of this post). Behavior serves to meet needs, from physical to mental to behavioral needs. Reactivity and aggression serve to tell a threat to go away. A recently declawed cat eliminating outside of the box serves to relieve the pain litter often causes on sore paws. Not coming when called from the yard serves to prolong the fun they’re having. It’s about them, not about you.

Now what?

  • The next time you catch yourself thinking about your pet’s behavior with yourself as the focus, try reframing it and put your pet as the focus instead. What need could they be trying to meet?
  • Not sure what’s included in your pet’s needs? We go in-depth into those categories in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Join us in our Enrichment for the Real World Community group on Facebook for more free info, too!
  • Speak with a consultant if you need extra help shifting the focus of your pet’s behavior.

Happy training!

Allie

Why Do We Use Food in Training?

A common question when it comes to animal training is:

Why are we using food to train?

Do we have to use treats?

Can’t I just use praise or petting?

Let’s dive into why we use food in training and why it can be so beneficial to the learning process. Doing so requires knowing a little about the science behind it and a reminder that only the learner gets to decide what is actually reinforcing to him.

Types of reinforcers*

There are several different categories of reinforcers, but let’s just focus on primary and secondary reinforcers for now. Primary reinforcers are those things that are necessary for survival: food, water, shelter, etc. Because they’re necessary for survival, all individuals find these reinforcing in most situations. Secondary reinforcers are things that have been paired with primary reinforcers so that they too become reinforcing: toys (paired with play and fun), petting (paired with physical contact), etc. Because they must be learned, they are not inherently reinforcing to all individuals. 

As mentioned, food is a primary reinforcer because it’s necessary for survival. That’s why it’s so easy to use food in training; it’s [almost] always desirable! Whereas secondary reinforcers, which can be powerful training tools, need to be paired with a primary reinforcer first and in a way that makes them just as powerful. Essentially, we have to do extra training in order to make those things as successful. This is why toys may be reinforcing for one dog but not for another, whereas food is generally reinforcing for both. In short, primary reinforcers are more likely to actually be reinforcing without additional training and among those, food is usually the easiest to dispense. 

*Side note: there’s a problem with how I’m talking about reinforcers in sweeping generalizations in this section which goes back to only the learner decides what’s reinforcing. We have to actually observe the behavior to see if it’s increasing or decreasing to deem something as reinforcing in that context. It’s not enough to just apply a reinforcer and assume that it’s going to work in the way that we intended; observation is vital. Additionally, reinforcers are not always desirable (yeah, behavior is weird sometimes) and so these sweeping generalizations can get dicey. In short, know that there’s a lot more to the story above and that this is just meant to dip your toe into this topic as a pet parent.

Common concerns

When speaking with pet owners, I find that the concerns about using food vs. another type of reinforcer have less to do with the actual science and “why”, and more to do with one of the following concerns. 

“I’m worried about them gaining too much weight.”

I often hear something along the lines of, “He’s going to weigh 300 lbs at the end of this!” while speaking with clients about their pet’s behavior modification plan. While it’s said as a joke, it really is a way of voicing concern about weight gain. Others come right out and tell me that they’re worried about their pet gaining weight because of training. It can be a valid concern, especially for certain breeds.

If we’re working with a young, growing pet or a high-energy individual who hasn’t had weight concerns before, I tell my clients that while it’s something to keep in mind, we don’t necessarily have to be immediately concerned. Let’s start the behavior modification process and if we see some weight gain then let’s adapt accordingly. If we start to see problems or if it’s an individual or breed who is prone to weight gain, then we have some options:

  • Use smaller treats (I break small training treats in halves or quarters even for Oso)
  • Experiment with fruits and veggies for treats
  • Set aside some of their meals to use for training
  • If it’s a treat-heavy day then give them a little less during meal-time

“I’m worried they’ll get an upset stomach.”

There are many people who’ve experienced their pet having an upset stomach due to the type of treat or having too many treats. I often hear of pets throwing up or having diarrhea after hour-long training classes. Some pups will keep eating even if they’ve surpassed their limit! If this is something you’ve experienced, keep in mind that training sessions at home should never be that long. 

As trainers, we have to compromise in providing longer services (aka training sessions) because it logistically works better; we wouldn’t recommend actually training that long (which is why there needs to be so much down time where the pet isn’t working during those services). I generally start with training for 2-3 minutes, then take a break, then train for another few minutes. Many pets are done after 10-15 minutes of this repeating cycle. Some pets (*cough cough* puppies) need less training time than that whereas seasoned learners can go for longer. Short bursts of training can be quite effective. And, short sessions means you’re not plying them with food for an hour at a time, causing upset stomachs.

The other factor behind this concern is for pets who have naturally sensitive stomachs. In that case, we should be speaking with the vet about what foods they can have and limiting the ingredients to what their stomach does well with. Sometimes we have to get creative when it comes to certain diets; a professional can help with that since it’s more specific to your individual pet’s needs.

“I don’t want them to become dependent on food.”

Cheeky response warning: I hate to break it to you, but if they’re alive then they’re dependent on food. We all need food to survive and that’s where the dependence comes from, not from using it in training. 

What I think people really mean when saying this is…

“Do I have to use food for training forever?”

It depends. It depends on if you’re talking about one specific behavior or when teaching new skills, your pet, and a few other things. If you’re talking about always using food while teaching new skills, I would say the answer is, “Sure, because it’s easier to do so.” You could absolutely beef up your other reinforcers so that they’re as effective as food is at teaching new behaviors, but the “work smarter not harder” response is to continue using food for teaching new skills.

If we’re talking about one specific behavior, then my answer is still, “It depends.” Oso has a few behaviors that I never treat him for; I use “real-life reinforcers” to maintain the behavior. For instance, he knows an “up” cue for jumping on the furniture or jumping into our laps. The reinforcement for doing those behaviors is proximity to us (which his behavior has said is reinforcing) and being on the comfy furniture. However, there are behaviors that I will always treat him for because they’re a matter of safety and they need to be super reliant, like coming when called. Real-life reinforcers aren’t enough to maintain that specific behavior for him in all situations. 

To break down that “it depends” into a more concrete answer: It depends on whether other things– like petting, praise, toys, etc.– are enough to maintain the behavior to the level you want/need it to be. If yes, great. You can maintain the behavior with other reinforcers. If no, then continue using food. 

“It’s difficult to have food on me all the time.”

If you’re one of those people, like me, who doesn’t enjoy having treats in their pockets then yes, this is true. (More power to those people who do it, though!) To get around this, I have treat jars set up around my house for easy training and recommend that folks keep a stocked treat pouch attached to their leash for easier access. 

“Food doesn’t always work.”

Even though it’s a primary reinforcer, there are reasons why food would not be reinforcing in certain situations. In more extreme cases, I’ve seen where punishment related to food has essentially made food itself scary. But the more common reasons are that we’re asking them to do something that’s not worth the food or that they’re not able to learn at that moment. 

Let’s use a human example to explore when food isn’t worth it. Say you’re doing one of your favorite activities and someone approaches you and tells you that you need to stop what you’re doing and do your taxes instead. Fat chance, right? Maybe they offer your $5 to switch tasks. Thanks but no thanks. Now let’s say they offer you $50,000 to stop what you’re doing and do your taxes right now instead. I don’t know about you, but I would jump on that opportunity.  If you were given $50,000 for switching from your favorite activity to doing your taxes enough times then you would readily make the switch because you have a reinforcement history for doing so with a reinforcer that’s worth it. 

Now, let’s apply that to an example that I mentioned earlier: I always use food as a reinforcer for Oso’s recalls. Oso is outside doing one of his favorite activities of hunting for rodents. I need him to come inside so that I can leave; he’ll be left alone with something to do but it’s definitely way less fun than hunting for rodents. I could offer him the Oso-equivalent of $5 for coming inside: a kibble. Or I could offer him the Oso-equivalent of $100 for coming inside: treats he loves. A kibble just isn’t worth it; it needs to be better than that. Oso now has a strong enough reinforcement history that I don’t necessarily need to give him the treat but because I want to keep it as a super reinforcing behavior I will continue to do so. 

The other reason why food might not work in that moment is because of stress, fear, or anxiety. Food isn’t reinforcing when you’re protecting yourself from a perceived threat. We’re just focused on living to eat another day at that moment. I wrote an article dedicated to this here, titled “Does Your Pet Have Mountain Lion Brain?

Now what?

  • If you’re hesitant to use food in training, which of the above reasons most resonates with you?
  • Take the time to read through and sit with that point. What concerns do you still have?
  • Speak with your behavior consultant or trainer about those concerns; they can help!
  • Get to training and make your own observations. What reinforcers build super strong behaviors in your pet? 

Happy training!

Allie

When Should We Be Concerned About “Fine”?

I’ll admit, I’ve had an issue with the word “fine” for longer than I’ve been involved in animal behavior. The reason for that is fairly perfectly summed up in this meme:

But I digress. Onto how this relates to animal behavior!

Something I hear frequently is:

“I don’t get it. He tries to bite people normally but is totally fine when they take him in the back at the vet clinic!”

When I hear this, I ask my client more questions about that scenario: what sort of body language do you see at the vet? Does your pet seem fearful or is he totally happy and excited to be there? It’s almost always the former. In that case, I have to break some bad news to my clients: their pet is not actually fine. 

A bit about thresholds

We’ve talked about thresholds before in our “Does Your Pet Have Mountain Lion Brain?” post. Essentially, it’s that line in the sand where under threshold your pet is okay and above threshold they’re in fight-or-flight mode (this is an overly simplified version; I recommend Eileen Anderson’s blog post to learn the nuances). However, our pets have more options than just fight or flight when they’re over threshold. Freeze is a third option. 

What does “Freeze” look like?

A quick note before we continue: there’s also a body language signal that we refer to as “freeze”. That type can be a bit different than the “freeze” option over threshold that we’re currently talking about. 

Over threshold, “freeze” looks like when a rabbit spots you crossing their path. They get very still, as if they’re saying, “If I don’t move then you can’t see me and won’t eat me!” This is true for our pets, too. Freeze looks like a stiff stillness. One of my favorite resources to help my clients understand this important distinction between “fine” and “freeze” is this video from Eileen Anderson (note: while shut down and freeze are technically different, the concepts are similar enough for our purposes at the pet parent level):

Thank you Eileen for letting me link to your video here!

As you can see, there are very subtle differences between “fine” and “freeze”. It’s easy to see why many people don’t spot what’s happening! 

Why is “Freeze” Not Fine?

At this point when I’m talking to my clients, they often ask me if this is really a big deal. Their pet is not actively aggressing, nor running away, and the clinic staff is able to do what they need to do for the health of their pet. Why is that not okay? The answer is dependent on who you ask. 

From the human point of view, everything is okay. We’re able to perform the tasks we needed to to keep the pet physically healthy and we were able to do so safely. It’s a win-win for the humans! From the pet point of view, however, it’s definitely not a win-win. They’re still scared and over threshold, which can feed into other aspects of life. For instance, a client recently told me that her dog had major regressions in all of her anxiety-related behaviors, including light/shadow chasing, reactivity, and aggression, after she came back from a tooth extraction, even though there were no negative reports from the clinic. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum; many seemingly unrelated things do impact one another. 

Experiencing these traumatic (again, from the point of view of the pet and not the human) and unavoidable events can lead to learned helplessness. This is a state where an individual has learned that nothing they do affects their outcome so they choose not to do anything when put into stressful situations. I mentioned the vet clinic, but I also see this happening at groomers and even at dog parks and doggy daycares. 

There’s a whole host of negative mental and physical side effects from learned helplessness, from disrupted sleeping patterns to increased anxiety-related behaviors. We talk a ton about this in our book in the Agency chapter if you’re interested in this topic. In short, “freeze” is definitely not okay from the point of view of the pet’s mental and behavioral health. 

What can I do?

The good news is that your pet will tell you when they’re uncomfortable and, in most situations, we can advocate for them! The above video excellently showcases different dogs in this shut down state but it’s up to us to learn our own pet’s body language to know what it looks like for them. 

When you see your pet entering that zone, take a moment to assess the environment and situation. What is your pet responding to? I’ve been using a vet visit as an example but this can happen in other situations, too. For instance, when I first adopted Oso he would choose “freeze” during thunderstorms. How can you manage the environment in that moment to alleviate your pet’s stress? 

And, of course this wouldn’t be a training and behavior blog without recommending training! When you know what is making your pet uncomfortable you can work on helping your pet feel more comfortable in those situations. Above I stated that when I first adopted Oso he would freeze during thunderstorms; that’s because we worked through that fear using counterconditioning and he is no longer as frightened of them. There’s no reason for him to freeze because it’s not that scary. That is the true win-win. 

Now what?

  • Continue learning your dog’s body language and stress signals. Here are a couple books to help you with that (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!)
  • When you see your pet choosing “freeze”, assess the environment and situation to determine what the triggers are. Make a note of those. 
  • Work with your behavior consultant to determine the best course of action for working through your pet’s fears. While it’s possible to do this on your own, your behavior consultant should help you do this in the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive way so that you don’t have unintended consequences down the road. 
  • Work through your pet’s behavior modification plan and see those true win-wins roll in!

Happy training!

Allie

7 Tips for Working with Your Leash Reactive Dog

Does your dog look like this when they see another dog, human, car, runner, skateboarder, or something else when they’re on leash?

If so, you’re not alone! Leash reactivity is a common canine issue in the United States; it’s one of the maladaptive behaviors that I see and work with most. 

In this article, I’m defining “leash reactivity” as: a set of agonistic-looking behaviors, such as barking, lunging, and/or growling, when a dog sees an external trigger while on leash. I often hear new clients describing this behavior like:

He goes crazy when he sees another dog. 

I have trouble controlling her when joggers go past us on the trail. 

He’s leash aggressive. 

All of those typically fall under what I would define as “leash reactivity”. 

Why is my dog leash reactive?

There are a lot of factors that go into an individual’s behavior; we’ll get into all of those in a future blog post. For now, you’ll just need to trust me that this is usually a fear/stress/anxiety-related behavior. The best defense is a good offense. Yes, even if your dog plays great with dogs off-leash or at daycare, leash reactivity can still be a fear-related behavior! 

Every now and then I see a case where it’s excitement-based, but it’s far less than people typically think. And, it’s important to note that excitement can turn into frustration which can turn into anxiety. Speak with the behavior consultant working on your case to learn more about the factors involved in your individual dog’s behavior.

Tips for working with your leash reactive dog

  1. Manage. The more your dog practices his reactivity the better he’s going to get at it. The first step to working with reactivity is building a solid management plan to prevent your dog from practicing the unwanted behavior; this also lowers his stress levels. Management can look like: discontinuing walking in general and getting exercise in a fenced-in yard, walking during quiet times and in quieter locations, and crossing the street when you do see a trigger. It’s difficult to make expedient progress without a solid management plan. 
  2. Learn your dog’s body language. New clients are often amazed that I can tell them their dog is about to react before it actually happens. It’s not magic; it’s body language! When that happens, I explain to them everything that I saw that told me what was about to happen and teach them how to see all of that too. In no time they’re able to predict their dog’s reactivity outbursts just as well as I can! When you know your dog’s body language inside and out you can better predict their behavior and make more effective management and training decisions more quickly. This component quite frequently makes the difference between dogs who make a little bit of progress and dogs who make a lot of progress. 
  3. Distance is your best friend. Our goal is to keep our dogs under threshold and away from mountain lion brain so that we can teach them new skills when they’re capable of learning. There are a few ways to do this, but increasing the distance between your dog and the trigger when you see their body language signals escalating is one of the simplest. Subdivisions rudely are not constructed to provide great training spaces; you may need to go outside your regular walking areas to get the distance you need at the beginning of the process. I like giant parking lots and parks. 
  4. Practice before going on a walk. Behavior modification is a hard process for both you and your dog. You’re both learners in this! I rarely see clients perform spectacularly when they go for a walk and employ a new technique immediately after learning it. It’s like taking the test right after you attended the class with no study time in between. And, to add to that, working on leash reactivity while on a walk is hard regardless of your skill level. It takes a long time to master watching your dog and your environment at the same time, get the mechanics between handling your dog, leash, and treats, and you have triggers popping up unexpectedly. Start practicing your behavior modification techniques in the house, yard, or car (again, parking lots are great!)  so you can get the mechanics down first. Start implementing techniques on a walk only when you feel completely comfortable and confident in easier scenarios. Your behavior consultant can help you come up with ways to practice in easier scenarios before the big test. 
  5. Watch your leash length. Have you ever heard that your stress travels down the leash to your dog? One of the unconscious ways that we do that is by tightening the leash when we see a trigger, especially before our dog sees it. Your dog can associate the leash tightening with the trigger and make them even more reactive. I know it’s hard, but keep that leash the length you normally have it at (unless you have a retractable leash, which I don’t recommend using for a leash reactive dog) and cross the street instead of walking your dog nearer to the trigger on a tight leash. If you find it difficult to break this habit then have someone walk with you to help hold you accountable. 
  6. Work slowly and purposefully. I see the following mistake happen frequently: the dog is doing great across the street so the person decides to practice on the same side of the street. It rarely goes well. There’s a whole lot of distance between the opposite side of the street and the same side! I recommend decreasing distance only a foot or two at a time. When the dog (and you) has mastered that distance then decrease by another foot or two. Slow and steady wins the race; pushing rarely goes well in the long run. 
  7. Respect your dog’s requests by teaching a “flight cue”. Your dog has a few options when he is put into a scary situation; the most common we think about are “fight” or “flight”. The goal of these is the same: put distance between yourself and the scary thing. The first option involves telling the scary thing to go away whereas the second involves you choosing to move away yourself. We like the second option way more! But that means we need to respect that option and allow our dogs to move away when they ask to do so. I like to teach dogs that they have this option– even on leash– by teaching them a “flight cue” that means we’re moving away. We can then expand that by building a dialogue between the dog and handler so the handler can respect any dog-initiated flight requests when they happen. 

Now what?

  • Go through the above tips again. What is the one category that you want to focus on? Where do you either need the most help or do you think with a little tweaking it can be an easy win for you? Write it down. 
  • Next, write down how you’re going to improve within that category. Your behavior consultant can help you here! This could include watching videos on YouTube to better see dog body language as it happens, videoing your own dog and yourself to see if you tighten your leash, or scouting out some additional areas to work in!
  • Schedule your tasks for improvement in your calendar. Aim for 5 minutes per day. 
  • Get to work! If what you’re working on seems too difficult then break it into even smaller pieces. Again, your behavior consultant can help you with this. 
  • If you’re not already working with a behavior consultant I highly recommend it. It’s hard to learn a brand new set of skills by yourself without guidance. A behavior consultant can set you on the right path and help you troubleshoot when things don’t work as expected. 
  • Join us for our upcoming FREE workshop: Roadmap to Behavior Solutions. Information and registration here

Happy training! 

Allie

Walk This Way

 

If memory serves me correctly from my youth, it was somewhat a rarity to see dogs out on leashed walks with their pet parents. There were plenty of dogs in my neighborhood, including our next-door neighbor’s Airedale Terriers, Jo Jo the Boxer a few houses down, and every other assortment of breeds combined, milling about in fenced-in backyards but I truly do not recall any of them being taken on walks in the neighborhood. My family’s own small menagerie of beloved dogs were often found hanging out in our backyard with us and the neighborhood kids, sometimes joining in the frivolity, sometimes lying in a sun-soaked spot as far away from the action as space allowed. I am not sharing these memories with a sense of nostalgia for better days gone by but more with a sense of curiosity about the difference I notice now.
In the neighborhood where I have lived for the past 25 years, you can barely go a block without seeing at least one dog being walked by their pet parent. It is far more likely that you will see dozens of walking pairs. For the most part, it seems most of the dogs and their human counterparts are enjoying the companionship of a walk shared together. I know I certainly enjoy taking strolls in the neighborhood with my dog, Fonzy, his nose choosing where and when we turn depending on the scents he picks up along the way. And I think this is a really great thing. Until it isn’t.

 

Whatever can you mean?

Urban and suburban strolls are great for dogs who love going on them. Walks can provide wonderful opportunities for them to safely explore novel environments. Walks can provide not only physical exercise but undeniably they provide mental exercise too if we allow our dogs plenty of chances to stop and sniff (shameless plug for letting your dog stop and smell all of the things on your walks, now and forever!) However, this presumes that you share your life with a dog who, 1) enjoys seeing other people that aren’t you while out and about, 2) enjoys seeing (not even approaching or greeting, just seeing) other leashed dogs when out and about, and 3) doesn’t have great big feelings about……..I’m just going to say “stuff” because the category of things that a dog can have big feelings about is as varied and immense as the category of things humans have big feelings about too.

 

Big feelings, small world

If you are the pet parent of a dog with big feelings about one, two, or many things, it can be hugely challenging to find a safe space to walk them where those big feels don’t come roaring to the surface if your dog is exposed to the big feeling’s trigger. This situation is not as uncommon as some folks might think. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I would say that one of the biggest reasons clients hire a Pet Harmony consultant is because their dog is exhibiting leash reactivity, which broadly speaking, is when a dog barks, lunges, growls, or snaps at other dogs or people while on leash. So what is a diligent dog parent to do? We know it can be stressful, oftentimes embarrassing, and sometimes downright hazardous to continue to walk dogs who have leash reactivity. But as a dog parent, you want to do your due diligence and provide your dog with opportunities to get exercise and allow them prospects to engage with the world. That’s what good dog parents do, right?

 

Walks aren’t a panacea

First of all, let me say that there are many, many ways to be a good steward of your dog’s physical and emotional health and while walking them on leash can be a great activity for some dogs, it isn’t a panacea for meeting all of your dog’s needs. In some cases it might actually do more harm than good. If you live in an urban environment and you have a dog who has sound sensitivity, is worried about fast-moving objects, or does not like being in close proximity to other dogs or people, a walk will not be an enjoyed experience but more likely an experience for your dog to either shut down or rehearse behaviors you would rather she didn’t. This can leave you feeling defeated, worried, and wondering if you are making your dog’s world just a little too small by excluding those treasured walks. This is where troubleshooting the problem is really helpful. If your dog does have leash reactivity, you don’t necessarily have to completely cut out walks (though it is completely ok to find other activities to enjoy while you work with a behavior professional on modifying the behavior.)

 

Here comes the helpful part

When it comes to finding safe places to walk with your dog, you will want to take a number of things into account. First, there isn’t a one size fits all approach when it comes to finding a safe walking area. You will need to take several things into consideration including your personal dog, what his triggers are, and how much space he needs to stay below threshold (read more about that here.) When you are determining which choice will work best for you and your dog, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. How much exposure will your dog have to his or her triggers? If your dog is great with seeing other dogs on leash, doesn’t typically seem to notice people either, but loses her mind when a skateboard passes by then going to a park where there is a skateboard park would not be a great option. If your dog is fine with seeing other dogs, people, and skateboards but has a very strong prey drive towards little critters freely roaming the Earth (yes, squirrels, I’m talking to you) then walking your dog in a densely forested area would not be optimal.
  2. How much space does the area provide to move away from a trigger if you see one? Forest preserves are great for avoiding other dogs or people especially during the week and at certain times of the day. But what would happen if you did see a dog and person approaching or following closely behind you on the same path? Most forest preserve paths are fairly narrow so the opportunity to use a flight cue to turn around or simply stepping off the path to let the other dog pass might not give your dog the space he comfortably needs to remain under threshold.
  3. How populated is the area at the time you are most likely to go? This might take a bit of preplanned reconnaissance on your part to determine the likelihood of other folks and dogs having the same great idea during the same time period. If you live near an open field and own a long line, taking your dog for a relaxing sniffy walk can be a wonderful shared experience and a great way to get in some recall practice at the same time. Knowing ahead of time that the field is unpopulated at the time you go can make it more pleasant for you and your dog.
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  4. How secure is the area? Perhaps you have a dog-loving friend, neighbor or family member with a lovely, fenced-in yard or you found what seems to be a great location using Sniffspot and it is ready for you and your dog to use it for some off-leash fun. Great! Here are a couple of things to consider before you go. First, is the fenced area safely secured with no holes or gaps in fencing? Second, is the yard on a busy corner with a lot of pedestrian traffic? If yes, then you might want to check with the homeowner if there are times of the day when fewer people or dogs will be passing by.

 

Now What?

  • Having helped countless clients with leash reactivity, our Pet Harmony consultants truly understand the challenges you face when it comes to reducing your dog’s exposure to their triggers while at the same time, trying to find solutions for meeting your dog’s needs. And in case you need to hear it, it is ok to find other solutions to meeting your dog’s needs that don’t include going for walks while you are working on the behavior component with a qualified professional. It is also ok to problem solve and get creative about how to safely walk your reactive dog to minimize their potential exposure to stressors. Knowing your dog, knowing their triggers, and knowing how to choose wisely (or not choose at all) can help keep everyone safe.
  • If you are looking for a way to meet your dog’s needs read this: Canine Enrichment for the Real World by Allie Bender and Emily Strong (two of Pet Harmony’s finest!)
  • If you are looking for a qualified professional to help you and your leash reactive dog, Pet Harmony is there for you! Get started here, no matter where you live in the world.

Happy training,

MaryKaye

Measuring Success in Behavior Journeys

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

 

I tried to walk my dog today.

Because Griffey has some leash reactivity, we have a fairly strict management plan for him. If we are not out of the house before 7:30, we don’t walk that day. We meet his needs in other ways. 

Walks after 7:30 aren’t fun. For anyone. He’s scared. I’m frustrated and annoyed. Both of us are hypervigilant. Neither of us starts the day off by melting the stress away and feeling empowered. It bleeds into and makes the rest of our day harder. 

So, we manage it. Sometimes, even with management, stuff happens. 

 

And stuff happened today.

I saw a biker coming down the opposite side of the cross street as we entered a 6-way interchange. Even if the biker turned in our general direction, they SHOULD have been on the opposite side of a garden median. I brought Griffey as far away from the street as possible to get him the distance he would need. 

And it would have been fine. Except the biker decided to ride against traffic and get within 6 feet of us. 

To share my internal dialogue would be… colorful. With so much space, with me clearly trying to get more distance (no other reason someone would duck behind garbage cans), why would you ride ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET!? 

Either way, it happened. I started to beat myself up. Helloooooooo, shame spiral! But then I looked at Griffey and realized Griffey was okay. 

Sure, he still had a lunging, barking, screaming fit when the biker got too close, which we work very hard to avoid. Frankly, my internal fit was significantly worse than his external reaction.

But he recovered. In record time. By the time the biker was across the street, Griffey was looking back at me, his muscles had relaxed, he was bounding next to me like a little deer. He was ready to continue on our adventure. He rebounded. He rebounded faster than I did. 

Was it ideal? Absolutely not. Will I use this information to try to inform my decisions in the future? Yes. I don’t want it to happen again. My goal is still to prevent over threshold events entirely. But it reminded me that in our behavior change journeys, success can be measured in a number of ways. Not only a reaction – no reaction dichotomy. 

 

There are multiple measures of success

Griffey being comfortable in his environment has always been the primary goal. But comfort looks different in different places. In Florida, it was the escape from the heat and fire ants. In Washington, it was finding locations that didn’t aggravate his allergies. In California, it’s finding adequate space from the plethora of scary monsters. 

3 years ago, had we been in this situation, I would have had to pick Griffey up and walk him home. This event would have brought him to and kept him over his threshold for hours. The dog that barked behind the fence on our way home would have been yet another threat to our very existence, and we would have lost it all over again. 

Instead, he was ready to continue, his body got loose, he was able to eat and respond to well-practiced cues. The dog behind the fence got little more than a chuff before continuing on our way. 

3 years ago, for the rest of the day, every little sound outside the house would have been the end of the world. He would have been hyper-vigilant. Tense. Unable to settle. 

Instead, we made it home, and he was able to settle in the sun with a frozen kong. He’s now curled up asleep in his cave. Even with the delivery person ringing the doorbell, he has been able to relax and settle. He was able to “flight” back inside when the neighbor’s dog barked across the street. 

There is more than one metric for success in every behavior change journey. I lost sight of that. 

 

Now what?

  • What are some other ways you can measure success in your journey? Does your dog settle more? Do they look to you for help? Do they tell you “no” when they aren’t ready? What are some ways you see improvement outside of your primary goal?
  • Having a hard, disheartening day? Take a minute to look at some happy time pictures or videos you have of your dog. 
  • If you aren’t sure what success looks like for your journey, we’d love to help! Work with one of our behavior consultants to make sure you are seeing progress toward your goals! 

Happy training!

Ellen

Leash Reactivity Practice… in a Parking Lot?

Leash reactivity (I.E. barking, lunging, growling on leash when seeing another person, dog, car, etc.) is one of the maladaptive behaviors that I help clients with the most. It’s a pervasive issue in our country. When I’m in the beginning stages of working with a client and their leash reactive dog, I often hear myself saying, “the exercises that we’ll do are fairly simple; it’s the implementation that’s difficult.” And, because of that, I almost never have them start out by using those exercises on a walk. Here’s why.

You have to crawl before you can walk.

Have you ever had that dream where you show up for a test but you’ve never attended the class? How did you feel in that dream? Scared? Frustrated? Destined to fail?

Teaching your dog a new behavior modification exercise on a walk is like having them take a test when they’ve never attended the class. We’re expecting them to not only use a brand new skill, but learn a brand new skill, in an incredibly difficult environment when they may or may not be ready and capable of learning. Doing this often leads to frustration on both the human and the canine ends. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but by and large it’s not as effective or efficient to start out training in this difficult scenario. Slow and steady wins the race.

Your dog isn’t the only learner.

 As I tell many of my clients, “If you already knew this you wouldn’t need me.” We often add this pressure onto ourselves that we need to know everything and be instantly good at something. We don’t give ourselves the same grace during our learning process that we would to a child. That pressure can lead us to throw ourselves into situations that we’re not ready for. 

I usually find that it takes longer for the human to learn how to do the behavior modification techniques than it does the dog. Though, to be fair, the human usually has more to remember, implement, and sometimes unlearn than the dog does! Plus, ask any teacher: you need to know way more about a subject when you teach it vs. when you’re using it. And if you’re training your dog then you are teaching. 

For this reason, I like to move at the pace of whoever is at the earliest step in that particular learning process– regardless of species. For example, I will sometimes do consultations for new adopters who’ve adopted a dog that I or a team I know has worked with in a shelter. I know the dog has been taught a particular exercise and now it’s a matter of teaching their new family how to do it too. We’ll need to work at the human’s pace, as they’re at an earlier step in that particular process than the dog is. 

Conversely, take someone who has worked with a leash reactive dog before. They’re adept at doing the exercises from working with a previous dog and just need help transferring those skills to a new one. In this case we’ll need to work at the dog’s pace. 

Most frequently, however, I have cases where both the human and the dog are new to leash reactivity exercises. We’ll need to play these by ear and examine skill levels at each step to ensure that all parties are ready to move onto the next task. Each individual moves at their own pace, and that is perfectly okay. 

Real-life situations have a lot more variables

Even when both dog and handler have a solid foundation built of their leash reactivity exercises in easier, low-stakes situations, taking those skills straight to a neighborhood walk can still be challenging. There are a lot of variables on a walk and you’re likely to encounter extra-challenging situations, like people popping up from behind corners or exiting their houses, multiple triggers coming from different directions at the same time, barking dogs in yards (especially if they’re on an electric fence and you don’t know if they’re going to stop or go through it), general trigger stacking throughout the experience, and more. It’s much easier to continue working on those skills and exercises in increasingly difficult situations and work your way up to implementing those skills on a walk instead of jumping straight to a neighborhood walk. 

Your neighborhood wasn’t designed for leash reactive dogs.

Neighborhood planners don’t keep leash reactive dogs in mind in their design plans and it shows! I always tell clients that distance is their best friend when working with a leash reactive dog; if their dog starts reacting then move away from the trigger until they stop. I frequently hear some protest to that statement in the beginning, along the lines of, “I can be 4 houses down and he’s still barking!” Both statements are true. There’s a distance that exists where your dog will not be reactive towards a trigger and it’s farther than 4 houses away. Your neighborhood planner wasn’t thinking about leash reactivity. 

I find that in many cases we can’t start off immediately working in the neighborhood partially because we can’t get the proper distance. Across the street or 4 houses down doesn’t cut it. That’s where parking lots can come in. Specifically, I like using those giant strip mall parking lots that big name pet stores often have (at least in my area!) Park and work in the very back of the lot and you’ll get the distance you need, a more steady stream of triggers to practice with, and fewer surprises as usually people will park near the store and go only from their car into the store and back. (Note: large parks can also get you the distance you need but because people walk more sporadically and erratically in parks I still prefer parking lots.)

What if I have to walk my dog?

Up until this point, I’ve made a big and sometimes untrue assumption: you don’t need to walk your dog. There are many cases I see where this assumption is true. The family has a fenced-in yard that the dog will potty in and we can replace walks with other mental and physical activity while we’re working on the reactivity. In the suburbs that is often the case. However, there are absolutely situations where the family does not have a fenced-in yard that the dog will potty in or doesn’t have a yard at all and an indoor potty space isn’t a viable option. These are more challenging because we can’t avoid walks but we’re also not ready to practice on walks. In these cases we’ll heavily increase the management on walks to avoid triggers as much as possible until we’re ready for this scenario. 

Now what?

  • Are you someone who’s struggling with working on your dog’s leash reactivity while on a neighborhood walk? Take a few steps back (figuratively) and find an easier scenario to practice in. Your behavior consultant can help you with this!
  • Not sure how to work on leash reactivity? Join us for our FREE Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Workshop next week (8/16/21-8/20/21) to take the first step towards your behavior modification journey. Sign up here: http://petharmonytraining.com/roadmap-workshop/

Happy training!

Allie