Are You Allowing Your Pet to Use What You Taught Them?

I scheduled all of my 2020 blog topics at the end of last year. I have a giant list (that keeps growing!) of topics either from questions I get in sessions with clients or questions that folks are asking me to write about. Sure, there are weeks that I go off-course where either I have absolutely no desire to talk about that topic at the moment or where there’s a topic that becomes more pressing than what I had planned (like the post about how Covid is impacting pet behavior.) Then there are weeks where it’s like the stars align and the topic I planned for is absolutely the one. This is one of those weeks. 

On my calendar I simply wrote “Plugger asking to play find it” and expanded briefly in my running list. As I saw this topic looming in the distance, I had no idea what I wanted to say about that anymore. It didn’t seem as interesting or as important as it did when I chose it last year. Then yesterday I had a professional consultation with a local trainer to discuss the flight cue and flight training. I found myself essentially verbalizing exactly why Plugger’s story was so important and interesting to me. 

When we teach our pets appropriate coping skills, we need to provide ample opportunity for them to perform them. 

We need to listen to what they’re saying. We need to give them agency. We need to trust them and trust in what we’ve taught them. Training is a two-way conversation and we get in our own way when we forget that. 

Plugger Asking to Play “Find It”

I worked with Plugger and his mom on a variety of things, but the one that sticks out the most revolves around the vacuum cleaner. This wasn’t a regular fearful barking at the vacuum behavior. Plugger would chase the lights cast on the walls from the vacuum. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with light chasing, this is a compulsive and serious maladaptive behavior where pets will stare at, chase, try to catch, etc. lights and/or shadows. It’s often caused by playing with a laser pointer (though not in Plugger’s case) and can become so serious that it diminishes quality of life for an animal. It’s truly not a cute behavior for pets to chase lights and shadows; if your pet does this please seek professional help. And just say “no” to laser pointers!

Plugger’s mom already knew that his light chasing was a problem for both his behavioral health and for her trying to vacuum. She would usually put him in the fenced-in yard when she needed to vacuum, but it wasn’t an entirely sustainable solution in the winter. Was there another option?

I often start dogs exhibiting compulsive behaviors with a “Find It” game for many reasons that go beyond the scope of this post. Plugger already knew how to play the game so we practiced bringing the vacuum out and playing Find It with it off, then doing the same when it was on. I asked her to continue working on it for her homework.

Our next session, Plugger’s mom was so excited to tell me about the progress Plugger made with the vacuum. She brought the vacuum out and turned it on. Plugger’s nose went to the ground before the treats came out. He looked at the lights, then me, then the ground, then me again. Apparently I was supposed to be tossing treats! I did so and Plugger was able to play Find It instead of light chasing. A huge win, indeed. 

Now, I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I wanted to talk about coping skills. What I mean by “coping skills” is some sort of appropriate behavior that an individual can perform that decreases stress and behaviors that we assume come from a place of stress. There’s some anthropomorphism in this thought process, for sure. There are some things that the hardcore behavior folks reading this will likely slap me on the hand for. There are, of course, the laws of behavior science that explain his behavior as well, without attributing it to coping skills (like teaching an alternative behavior). But, y’all, to go out on an anecdotal, anthropomorphic limb: this behavior looked different. It really looked like Plugger was saying, “The lights are here and I usually chase them but Find It is better so please play that with me instead.”

Plugger is not alone

If this were the only story I had, I’d probably tuck it away as a neat thing that happened that can be explained as something else. But it’s not the only story I have where it appears that we can teach our pets more appropriate coping skills. The flight cue is where a majority of those stories come from. 

One of the things that I frequently find happening when we teach a flight cue (go away from the stressor) is that pets seem to internalize it and ask to go away or choose to go away on their own. They’ve learned that going away is better than staying there and getting overly stressed. Yes, the laws of behavior are at work as they always are (release from pressure is reinforcing in these cases). But can we also not call this set of behaviors coping skills? 

I collect new stories on this weekly. There was the shepherd who was sitting, participating in his behavior modification session to start feeling comfortable with other dogs walking down the sidewalk. He suddenly got up and started walking in the other direction. I instructed his handler to follow him. He hung out around 15’ away from where we’d been training for a few minutes. Then as quickly as he’d gotten up the first time, he got up and walked right back to the training spot and sat down. It was as if he needed a quick break and then was ready to get back to it. 

There was the Aussie mix who started trying to cross the street or head up people’s driveways when a scary person approached. There’s my dog, Oso, who instead of peeing on his favorite bush as he always did chose to go on the other side of me to be further away from another dog. There was the mixed breed dog who would put herself in the laundry room and barked until the gate was closed behind her when she’d had enough of the young boys in the house. The list keeps growing.

Teaching is only half of the equation

Teaching these behaviors that I’m calling “coping skills” is typically not terribly difficult. They’re taught like any other behaviors and follow the laws of behavior just like everything else. But teaching is only half of the equation. Implementation is the other half, and I find that people have a far harder time with that part because it requires the conversation to be a two-way street– a notion that’s sorely lacking in regular animal training conversations. 

For any of those stories I mentioned above, what would have happened if the animal wasn’t able to perform their new skills? What if I didn’t play find it with Plugger? He’d start chasing lights. What if the handler didn’t follow the Shepherd? What if the Aussie mix wasn’t able to cross the street or head up the driveway? What if Oso was forced to walk only on one side of me instead of switching to the other? They’d all likely start barking and lunging at the approaching trigger. What if the mixed breed dog didn’t have access to the laundry room? She’d start snapping at the boys. 

All of those success stories required the human to be listening to and responding appropriately to what their pet was saying so that their pet had the opportunity to perform the more desirable behavior. Each person had to watch the body language, the behavior, and not only teach their pet other choices but also allow them to choose them.

I could speculate why I think this is a difficult ask for many pet parents. It requires giving up some level of control to our pets in stressful situations. It requires acknowledging that behavior isn’t random and always has a function, whether we know what the function is or not. It requires adept observational skills that we’re rarely taught in a formal capacity. 

It’s not enough to just teach our pets skills. We need to be able to use them in context. And, arguably more importantly, we need to give our pets the ability to perform those skills on their own. We need to trust in our training.

Now what?

  • Does your pet have a reaction to stressful situations that could be improved upon? Do their coping skills need some help? First think about the situation, then think about an appropriate behavior that you’d rather they do instead that allows them to alleviate stress (not confronting the trigger). We recommend speaking with a professional if you don’t have experience with this. 
  • Teach the skill in training sessions.
  • Implement the skill in gradually increasing more stressful but planned situations. 
  • When you encounter one of those situations naturally, watch your pet’s body language and behavior. Are they trying to perform the skill you taught them? Give them the opportunity to do so if they don’t already have the opportunity!
  • This is a more nuanced training skill and one where consulting with a professional can be massively beneficial. Email us at [email protected] to schedule an appointment. 
  • We’ve gotten a TON of requests for how to teach flight cues and flight training this past week. Emily and I are working on a course for this that will come out in the next few months. Join our email list and keep an eye in our social media platforms for more info!

Happy training!