How Do I Know What My Dog Needs?

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

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

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

 

How to tell what your dog is saying

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

What does my dog need daily? 

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

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

 

Now what?

Happy training!

Allie

Dog Enrichment Categories Explained

We get asked all the time about what the “best dog enrichment activities” are or “what enrichment should I use with puppies” and the like. If you’ve been following us, you know that our answer is, “it depends on what your individual pet needs.” But, let’s face it, that’s not a really helpful answer sometimes. 

I find that when I explain the different categories of enrichment to folks, it’s often easier for them to identify what their pet needs. It’s hard to figure it out when you don’t even know what it entails! Now, there’s, of course, more to this story so we’ll come back to further identifying your pet’s needs next week, but for now, let’s focus on the enrichment categories. 

 (Disclosure: some of the links in this blog are 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!)

 

What is animal enrichment?

If you’ve read any of our blog posts about enrichment you know that I have to start here! The definition of “enrichment” has become muddied as it’s become more mainstream. The definition that we use here at Pet Harmony is the original, historical definition: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s mental, physical, and emotional needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. When we think about enrichment as meeting all of an animal’s needs, that opens the doors for many more categories than folks often think of. 

 

The 14 categories of dog enrichment

These categories can be applicable to many species (in fact, we actually collated these from information about zoo enrichment and didn’t create them ourselves), but since we wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World let’s stick to canines for this post! Since there are a lot of categories, I’ll provide a brief definition, example, and idea for each (usually of something I do with my own dog). Next week we’ll get more into how to figure out which category(ies) you should focus on with your pet. 

 

Health/Veterinary

This one’s pretty straightforward; we’re talking about physical well-being. I think of this category as anything you would take your dog to the vet for. This can include things like pain management, disease prevention, and treating diseases and injuries. I want to stress that preventative care is just as important as care for diseases and injuries. I’ve talked about our foray into canine massage therapy as a form of pain management and prevention for my senior pup, Oso, and I think it’s a great idea for any pet who is okay with being touched all over. Here’s a post with him and his newest favorite person:

 

Hygiene

This one is obviously another physical well-being category, and I think about this one as anything a groomer would do. This can include cleaning ears, brushing fur, and brushing teeth. I’ve seen some folks put nail trims in this category and others put nail trims in the Health/Veterinary category. I don’t mind either way as long as they’re on your radar in some fashion! Grooming wipes are one of my favorite, go-to, easy hygiene recommendations. 

 

Diet/Nutrition

Another straightforward category that we humans are all too familiar with! Most folks think only about meals for this category, but I also add in treats and edible chewies here, too. That’s why treat preference tests are one of my favorite activities in this category. Check out how I do those below. 

 

Physical Exercise

This is a category that many folks think of when they think of “canine enrichment”. I think it’s great that it’s on a lot of people’s radars already! There are so many examples that can go into this category, but some of my favorites are fetch, tug, flirt pole, hikes, weight pulling, and running. Oso and I are currently working on strength-building and purposeful movement as part of this category so he maintains his muscle mass as he ages. The nice thing about that means we get to work on physical exercise inside the house which is a win-win depending on the weather!

Sensory Stimulation

The category is referring to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. While we can certainly have a pet who is understimulated in regards to their senses, oftentimes I found many who are overstimulated. There are too many sights or sounds or smells, etc. An example of this is a dog who is afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks. They would be much happier with a quieter environment at that moment! To help meet that dog’s needs, we may do something like sound masking where we play sounds or music to help drown out the offending booms. Enrichment isn’t always about more stimulation; it can be about less, too!

 

Safety

Safety means physically being out of harm’s way, regardless of how you feel about a situation. We’ve seen plenty of pets who feel safe in unsafe situations! This category can include things like removing poisonous chemicals or medications from your pet’s reach, planting safe plants in the yard, and keeping your pet on a leash while in a busy area. For Oso, this means having stairs to our bed so that he can safely get down without injuring his joints. 

 

Security

Security means feeling like you are safe, regardless of whether or not you are. This distinction is often the culprit behind many new pet parents telling me, “I don’t know why they’re afraid of me, I’ve never hurt them!” Safety and security are different. This category can include setting up safe spaces and working through fears at your pet’s pace. Oso has several safe spaces in our house and is always able to access them when he needs to. 

Species-Typical Behaviors

This is just as it sounds: behaviors that a particular species performs. Dogs dig, chew, bark, shred, and destroy. Cats scratch, meow, purr, groom, and hunt. Birds preen, shred, vocalize, and nest. Often these are the behaviors that we’re not too enamored with from our pets; we are a different species with different species-typical behaviors, after all! But just because we don’t appreciate these behaviors doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow them to perform them. It just means having an appropriate outlet to do so. For example, Oso loves destroying things. That does not mean he’s allowed to destroy the furniture. It means that we have DIY destructible items (made out of literal garbage) that he can shred to his heart’s content. More information on that in this blog post about DIY destructible enrichment items. 

 

Foraging

Foraging means searching for and finding food. This is a species-typical behavior, but it’s one that all species perform! If you think about animals in the wild, much of their day is devoted to foraging. Our households are set up very differently than the wild which means we need to provide foraging opportunities for our pets. This can be things like find it, snuffle mats, and hiding food puzzles around the house. Oso is a big fan of the “find it” game which I outline in this video. 

 

Social Interaction

Dogs are social animals (which is not true for all species). That does not mean, however, that there are rigid rules about which species they are social with. I’ve met plenty of dogs who care a lot more about humans than their own species and I’ve met plenty of dogs who don’t care at all about humans and love hanging out with other dogs. So while many folks only think about dog-dog interactions in this category, like playgroups and doggy daycare, hanging out and playing with their humans also fits this bill! Some dogs are not huge fans of other dogs, and that’s perfectly fine! You can get plenty of snuggle time in, instead. 

 

Mental Exercise

Here’s another category that many people think of when they think, “dog enrichment activities”. Again, I’m glad to see this coming to the forefront! Mental exercise can include training, food puzzles, and even foraging (a two-for-one!) I love trick training for this because there are so many options and it’s just more fun for everyone in my experience. Oso helps demo some activities for my clients, which I don’t count as mental exercise for him. They’re usually things he knows how to do very well and don’t require a lot of thought. However, when it’s just the two of us we work on new training activities and I can tell that that is more tiring! Here’s a cute Halloween trick we’ve been working on. 

 

Independence

Independence refers to being able to feel comfortable on your own and also being able to make decisions on your own or not having to rely on others for everything. Obviously our pets can’t be 100% independent because our human world is designed for opposable thumbs and money, of which they have neither. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help them gain more independence! Being comfortable with exploring the environment, being comfortable with being left alone, and gaining life skills are all ways that we can foster independence. We’ve done all of this with Oso, but I see it so plainly when he’s exploring the backyard. He’s confident, comfortable, and making his own decisions and problem-solving. I love watching him out there! 

 

Environment

This is a big category that involves a whole bunch of things: living in a city vs. rural area, who they live with, temperature, and so much more. There’s often overlap with the Sensory Stimulation category, and that’s okay. We talk about enrichment categories as discrete units because that’s how human brains work, but the real world isn’t so black and white. It’s more like guidelines.

When we were buying a house, we had Oso’s environmental needs in mind. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we chose a dog whose environmental needs closely match our own. I need green and space to hang out and that’s also what he enjoys. We need a relatively quiet area and so does he. That might be an extreme example that we were able to do because we adopted Oso knowing that we were buying a house in the next few years, but there are certainly ways that you can set up your environment without moving or visiting places that work for your pet! Sniff spots can be a great option for folks who don’t have an off-leash area for their dogs. 

 

Calming

This category is one that much of the literature nestled within the Environment category and Emily and I chose to pull it out to highlight its importance for pet owners. Again, we often see overstimulated animals, and wanted to emphasize that rest and relaxation are just as important as mental and physical exercise! This can include safe spaces, relaxation protocols, massages, and anything else that induces a calm, relaxed state. We talk about that more in this podcast episode. For Oso, he uses shredding and chewing as calming activities (which are also species-typical activities, another two-for-one!) 

 

A note about agency

I can’t talk about the enrichment categories without mentioning agency: the ability to make decisions that result in desirable outcomes. Our pets need to willingly engage with activities for it to be considered enrichment (and we also need to see a change in behavior for it to truly count). Check out this blog post all about agency here and this one about when enrichment isn’t enriching here for more information on these topics. 

 

Now what?

  • If you’re brand new to enrichment as a form of meeting needs, chances are you’re a little overwhelmed! Take the next few weeks to just focus on one category at a time and identify what you already are doing to help meet your pet’s needs in that category. You’re likely doing more enrichment than you realize! If you’ve been at this for a while do a quick scan to see if you need to update any information about your pet’s needs.
  • As you go through, chances are that you’ll find a category that you think has some room for improvement (or maybe multiple categories). Choose one that you’d like to focus on and identify one activity to try first. Being systematic about this makes it more sustainable. 
  • Incorporate that activity into your pet’s plan for a couple of weeks and see if it helps to improve their behavior or gets you closer to your goals! For example, Oso jumps up on the couch better after his massage appointments and that’s getting us closer to our goals of maintaining his mobility as he ages. If an activity is making anything work, obviously discontinue immediately. 
  • If you’re looking for more about how to do this with your pet, check out our Canine Enrichment for the Real World book for theory and activity ideas and our Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook for the nuts and bolts of how-to. Professionals: we have a course that teaches you how to implement this with your clients, too! You can find more information about our Enrichment Master Class here. 
  • We have plenty of free enrichment information over on our Instagram and Facebook @petharmonytraining. Follow us for more!

Happy training!

Allie

7 Fun Halloween Activities for Dogs

Holidays are best spent with the ones you love, and for many of you out there, that means your dog (or cat, or bird, or turtle). So if you’re looking for some fun things to do with your dog this Halloween, look no further! 

A note: yes, we’re the enrichment ladies. But notice that I’m talking about “Halloween activities”, not necessarily “Halloween enrichment”. Enrichment is about meeting your pet’s needs to encourage them to perform species-typical behavior and achieve desired behavioral results. While some of these activities may fit that bill for certain individuals, I doubt that all will be for all individuals. This post is really just talking about activities you can do for the purpose of fun instead of for the purpose of meeting needs. More information about this is in this blog post about When Enrichment Isn’t Enriching. 

1. Leaf pile hide-and-seek.

All you need for this one is a pile of leaves, some treats, and your dog! Sprinkle some treats in a safe leaf pile and let your dog go to town sniffing and searching for them. This is one activity that may very well prove to be an enrichment activity for your dog as it has the potential to fulfill the foraging, species-typical needs, and mental exercise enrichment categories.

2. Bobbing for toys.

A twist on the classic bobbing for apples. Fill a small container with water, put some floating toys or treats in it, and let your dog fish them out! Bonus points for dogs who already know how to get a specific toy and asking them to grab one in particular. 

3. Preference test different Halloween treats.

One of the best parts of Halloween as a kid was all of the different types of candy. It was like a neighborhood-wide candy preference test to determine your favorites. We can do the same for our dogs! Pick up some of those fun Halloween treats at your local pet store and go to town with a treat preference test! Check out the video below for how to do a treat preference test. 

4. Treat for looking at Halloween decorations.

I always wonder what dogs think about decorations at this time of year. Some of them must be pretty scary, no matter how well-adjusted they are! We can help make decorations less scary by treating our pups for looking at- but not necessarily approaching- Halloween decorations. If they want to investigate they can as long as you’re sure that the decoration isn’t going to move and startle them. 

5. Doorbell as a “place” cue.

Teaching your dog to go hang out on their bed when the doorbell rings is a useful behavior in general, but it’s especially useful during Halloween! Check out the video below for how to teach a new cue for a known behavior. 

6. Trick-or-treat trick.

This trick involves asking your pet to pick up a plastic pumpkin (in Oso’s case, a cat face) like they’re going trick-or-treating. You can teach this trick like you would any pick-up-and-hold behavior!

7. Play dead trick.

A classic trick that will have your dog rising from the grave! This is a two-part trick: 1) lie down 2) flop over on your side. Oso’s cue is “bang bang”. The first “bang” signals the down and the second signals flopping over. 

 

Now what?

  • Choose an activity that sounds like fun for both you and your dog and get started!
  • We’d love to see your Halloween activities. Tag us @petharmonytraining on Facebook or Instagram with what you’re working on!

 

Happy training!

Allie

The Physical Exercise Conundrum

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

 

I talk quite a bit about playing tug with Oso. It’s part of my go-to example of how we experimented with mental and physical exercise to combat the dreaded Winter Oso. But here’s what I don’t share as frequently: I can’t actually play tug with him. 

This is a prime example of “do what I say, not what I do”. I’ve talked for years to my clients about not creating an athlete that they can’t keep up with. But, usually, I’m talking about cardio. Somehow I didn’t generalize that statement to strength exercises when it came to my own dog. 

So here’s what happened. When we were in the midst of experimenting with Oso’s enrichment activities, my husband was the one who started playing tug with him. And our new routine meant that he was the one playing tug with Oso almost daily. I watched as the two joyfully battled it out: evenly matched. My husband is considerably stronger than I am, especially when it comes to grip strength. Months went by before there was a night that my husband couldn’t play with him and I had to step up to the plate. Which is when I learned that I couldn’t. Oso was now much stronger than I was. 

 

Exercise creates athletes

How do people become athletes? They exercise. They train. They push themselves to run the extra mile. Add the extra weight plate. And, if they keep gradually increasing distance, weight, or something of that nature they eventually enter the athlete echelon. That means that in order to get the same effects from exercise, they have to do more of it. A 3-mile walk to a marathon runner has a different effect than a 3-mile walk to someone who lives a more sedentary lifestyle. And that can happen with our pets, too. 

I usually see this play out in a few different ways. Because I live in the Midwest, I especially see this problem seasonally. When it warms up, folks will start running with their dogs. That’s all fine and well until we hit winter and it’s not possible or at least pleasant to run with your dog anymore. The human opts for a treadmill instead, but we often see a canine athlete who now can’t run and is bouncing off the walls. 

I also see this play out when folks are training for races. Many will include their dog in their training regimen, but then decrease that exercise when the race is over. But, again, we now have a canine athlete who isn’t getting enough physical exercise.

And, perhaps the most common scenario I see is the well-intentioned pet parent who is just trying to get their dog enough physical exercise. I think we’ve all heard the expression “a tired dog is a happy dog” and I’ve seen many folks unintentionally create athletes by following that line of thinking. More on that later.

 

Athletes are not inherently “bad”

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an inherently bad thing to have a canine athlete. There are many reasons to purposefully create one! The second part of that statement that I tell my clients is the important part: don’t create an athlete that you can’t keep up with

Oso being muscular isn’t a problem (he actually gets a lot of compliments from the vet for how well-muscled he is). But it could be a problem that I personally can’t play tug with him. Dogs who enjoy running and who can run for miles a day aren’t inherently a problem. But it is a problem if your dog needs to run miles a day and you live in a city or have to deal with cold winters that make running with your dog challenging. It’s the mismatch between the human needs and the canine needs that becomes the problem. 

 

So what do I do?

Our pets obviously do need physical exercise, so how do we walk that fine line of providing enough exercise but not creating an athlete that we can’t keep up with? Because the problem is the mismatch between the human and the pet’s needs, I can’t answer that for you. You know what your needs are better than I do. But to answer that question, I tell folks to ask themselves if they could do this activity every day for a year. 

Can you do this during all seasons? Can you do this on workdays and weekends? Can you do this if you get injured during your workout routine? And, if the answer is no, then we have two options:

  1. Reevaluate our physical exercise regimen as a whole
  2. Find alternatives to make this regimen sustainable

The reason we opt for tug with Oso is because it’s sustainable. It meets his physical activity needs as evidenced by the effects it has on his behavior and also we can play in the house, negating weather. We can play on workdays and weekends. But we can’t play if my husband is injured or sick (well, I can try but it doesn’t usually work as well). And so on those days, we have alternative options. They don’t work as well depending on the weather, but they get the job done well enough. 

 

Is a tired dog really a happy dog?

I mentioned this pervasive statement earlier, and I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on this. One reason that I see folks unintentionally creating athletes is because of this belief that a tired dog is a happy dog. And so well-intentioned pet parents will over-exercise their pet in hopes that that will solve a particular problem. 

In reality, a happy dog is one who has all of their needs met. Physical activity is just one of those needs. More often than not, when folks are having to over-exercise their dog it’s a sign that there’s room for improvement in our enrichment strategy for other needs- usually mental exercise or calming. When I see this happening with a client I instruct them to explore different types of activities beyond physical exercise, and that often provides them with the results that they were looking for that physical exercise was not providing. 

 

Now what?

  • Observe the effects that physical activities have on your pet’s behavior. Remember, we need to see desired results for it to count as enrichment
  • Take a look at your pet’s physical exercise strategy. I talked a lot about dogs in this post, but this is applicable to all species! The first question I want you to answer is: is my pet’s physical exercise strategy actually having the intended effects I want it to have? If the answer is yes, great! Move on to the next question. If the answer is no, take a moment to reevaluate your pet’s enrichment strategy as a whole. Here’s a post showing what I did for Oso
  • The next question is: could you do this every day for a year? Essentially, is this strategy sustainable? If the answer is yes, awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing. If the answer is no, decide whether you need to rethink it entirely or if you want to simply add some activities to your toolbox to supplement when needed. 
  • If you need to supplement, it’s time to try some new activities or tweak the ones you currently have and observe the new effects!
  • Finally, tweak your physical exercise strategy as needed. 

Happy training!

Allie

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!

Allie

Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror

I think one of the hardest parts of learning to read body language is the ability to see the wide array of signals present for varying degrees of a particular emotion. Oftentimes when I first meet with a new client I ask them to tell me if there’s anything else their pet is afraid of that they didn’t mention on their questionnaire. Usually, there’s a pause, and then some variation of:

“He doesn’t seem to like to like [insert scenario], but it’s not like his tail is tucked or anything.”

And that’s a great example that nervousness doesn’t look like terror. 

 

Degrees of Feelings

Now, we are going to avoid the entire topic of can our pets experience complex emotions like resentment and guilt and also the topic of how can we truly know the exact emotion another individual is feeling. Those are a whole can of worms requiring a lot more scientific study. For our purposes, I think we can all safely agree that our pets experience fear. 

There are many degrees and facets of fear, though. We can classify things like nervousness, anxiety, discomfort, and terror as fear. All are different degrees of the same emotion. And with those different degrees, we see different body language signals. 

 

Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror

I got the idea for this blog post a couple of months ago during a thunderstorm. Oso has come a long way when it comes to his sound sensitivities (though we still have some more work to do!) but that doesn’t mean he particularly enjoys thunderstorms. He just no longer shuts down during them. Now we see nervousness, instead of more intense fear. 

And it looks like this:

It’s subtle, right? The worried brow. Ears pulled slightly further back than normal. Stiffer body. Having to always be near us. Someone who didn’t know Oso and didn’t know his history would likely miss that this is nervous. A little bit of fear only merits a few, smaller stress signals in this case.

Compare that to when he’s relaxed:

Sprawled, loose body. Relaxed face and mouth. Ears normal for that position. Tail wherever it lands. Eyes would have been closed if I hadn’t woken him up. Hasn’t seen us for hours. 

When they’re side-by-side it’s easier to see but in the moment it’s easy to miss. 

 

What that means for you and your pet

Because there are different degrees of fear, we need to be able to see the subtler stress signals to know if our pet is nervous about something. And here’s why that matters: small stressors can add up. We call that “trigger stacking” in the dog training world and I wrote a whole post about that which you can check out here. In short, small stressors can exacerbate other behavior issues we’re working on. That’s one of the reasons I ask my clients to tell me about any other stressors in their pets’ lives that they haven’t already mentioned.

Not only can they exacerbate other issues, but they can also become bigger fears later on. I can’t tell you how many times folks come to me saying that their pet was only nervous around something for a while but it’s now escalated to barking, lunging, or biting. That’s a big deal when we’re talking about stressors like strangers. We need to monitor nervousness so that we can bring in a professional at the first sign of escalation. 

 

Now what?

Happy training!

Allie

All About the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

If you’ve been following us, you know that enrichment is our jam. We wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World, have enrichment courses, and imbue it into everything that we do at Pet Harmony.

And, just so we’re on the same page, the way I’m defining enrichment is:

Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s physical, mental, and emotional needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways.

That’s a mouthful, so we often just say that enrichment means meeting all of an individual’s needs.

One of the facets of enrichment that we’ve been talking about a lot is our Enrichment Framework. This framework is how we systematically meet individuals’ needs to affect behavior change. And while we originally intended the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework to be a way for us to better communicate with other professionals how we do this, it can be applicable to the everyday pet parent as well! 

 

Let’s dive in to see how this framework works and how you can use it with your pet.

 

The Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

Enrichment frameworks are nothing new. They help animal caregivers be more strategic with the limited resources they have and that makes an enrichment plan more sustainable in the long run. Our framework is a modified version of one called the SPIDER Protocol that many zoos use. Our goal was to make something more friendly for the average pet household. Here are the steps we came up with:

  1. List desirable and undesirable behaviors. We need to know where we are and where we want to be to make sure we’re on the right path! This list includes current undesirable behaviors that your pet is exhibiting and current and future desirable behaviors. 
  2. Are needs being met? In our book, we outline 14 categories of enrichment needs, from health and veterinary care to mental exercise to foraging to calming. This step is also about surveying where we currently are.
  3. Are agency needs being met? Agency means having the ability to make choices that result in desired outcomes. All individuals need to have some control over their lives, and that includes our pets! This step is the final one in surveying where we are by taking stock of how much agency the pet has within each of the 14 enrichment categories. 
  4. Narrow down your options. Now that we have an idea of where we are and where we want to be, we will have an idea of what categories we want to improve in to help us get there. For example, if we have a dog bouncing off the walls in the evening we can look into physical and mental exercise options to see if that affects that particular behavior. While there are a ton of options and ideas out there, not everyone is going to be right for you, your pet, and your household. We need to narrow it down to what’s possible for this particular scenario.
  5. Prioritize activities. Some options will be simple and some will be more time-consuming. Prioritize activities that give you a lot of bang for your buck by choosing simple, easy-to-implement activities that address multiple needs.
  6. Develop a plan of action. This is the who, what, when, where, and for how long. Planning these details ahead of time helps you more easily enact the plan without letting things fall through the cracks.
  7. Implement and document. Finally, we’re ready to do the things! But if we’re going to be as strategic (and therefore sustainable) as possible, we want to be objectively observing and perhaps even documenting the results to make sure that we’re on the right track. More about that in Emily’s blog post: When Enrichment Isn’t Enriching
  8. Reassess, readdress, and do it again. Needs don’t just go away after being met one time. It’d be amazing if we could sleep once and never sleep again! Alas, the world doesn’t work that way. We will always need to reassess, readdress, and do this framework over again to address any changes- desirable or undesirable- that we see in our pets.

 

Um. This seems like a lot of work. 

Remember how I said that we originally created this for professionals? That means that this framework is more involved because we as professionals need it to be this in-depth. And, realistically, the Pet Harmony team typically does the above steps in their head when working with a client so it can be a lot less work than it seems. 

So let’s break this down into something salient for the everyday pet parent…

 

What this looks like for the pet parent

What this looks like is going to depend on whether or not you’re working with a consultant who uses this or a similar framework. For example, if you’re working with a Pet Harmony consultant you don’t have to worry about any of this. They’ll bake it all into your behavior modification plan for you! 

If you’re DIYing this (no shame in that!), then here’s what it can look like:

  • Learn more about the different species-specific needs your pet has. I, of course, suggest our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, but there are other resources out there, too!
  • List desirable and undesirable behaviors. We still need to know where we are and where we’re going. 
  • Of those undesirable behaviors, which are typical of the species? Dogs bark, dig, chew, and forage for food. Cats scratch. Parrots shred. If the undesirable behavior is a normal species-typical behavior, then search for alternatives that allow them to perform it in a more appropriate way. Or, are there skills that they could learn in a particular category that would help? For example, most people add extra physical exercise for dogs who have trouble settling when a lot of time they need to learn the skill of relaxing instead. If the undesirable behavior involves fear, aggression, and/or anxiety we will always recommend working with a qualified behavior professional. 
  • Experiment with one new activity at a time and observe your pet’s behavior during and after the exercise. Is the activity actually having the intended effect? If yes, fantastic! If no, tweak the details like who, what, when, where, and for how long to see if it works better that way. 
  • Go back to your list of desirable and undesirable behaviors to see how you’re doing. Do you need to do some more experimenting? If yes, do this process again. If you achieved your goals, celebrate and know that you’ll have to do this again for changes in your pet’s age, health, and environment. 

That seems a lot more reasonable as a pet parent, huh?

 

Now what?

  • If you’re interested in all things enrichment, make sure to join us in our companion Facebook group, and 
  • If you are a professional looking to incorporate an enrichment framework into your consulting, our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class is the complete A-Z course for force-free behavior consultants, from “how the heck do I implement this” to “how did I ever live without this?”

 

Combatting That Enrichment Guilt

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

 

I see a lot of people asking for more ideas for enrichment for their pets, especially on social media platforms. More variety. More ways to entertain their pets. And my question is always:

“Is your pet displaying behaviors that lead you to believe that they’re bored or their needs aren’t being met as well as they could be?”

And the answer is often, “no”. 

My next question is, “Then why are you looking for more ideas if what you’re doing right now is what your pet needs?”

Silence. Quizzical brow. And, for some folks, finally the answer of, “Because I feel guilty not doing it. I think that I should be.”

Oh boy, I’ve been there before. The Enrichment Guilt. 

 

A reminder about what enrichment is, and isn’t

In our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, Emily and I adopted the practitioner-friendly definition of enrichment (so that it’s easier to put into practice!), which is: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s mental, physical, and behavioral needs to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

In short, enrichment is about meeting all of an animal’s needs. 

Fun games and toys and activities can be a part of that enrichment strategy, but only if they’re actually meeting the needs of the individual. And only the individual can tell us if that’s true through their behavior. We don’t get to decide what does or does not meet their needs. 

 

The enrichment guilt

Enrichment has become a hot topic in the last few years in the pet-owning world. And that’s fantastic! We love it! But with all of those Instagram-worthy pics comes guilt from others wondering if they’re doing enough for their pets. Wondering if their pets aren’t living their best lives because they don’t have a social media-ready enrichment strategy. 

I’m here to tell you that you can be released from your enrichment guilt. You do not need an Instagram-worthy enrichment strategy (unless you want to). You do not need to have a ton of variety or new activities or toys for your pet (unless they say otherwise through their behavior). You do not need to search high and low for brand new, never-heard-of-before strategies if your pet’s behavior is saying that their needs are being met. Do what works for you and your individual pet without comparing yourself to everyone else. 

 

But I still feel like I should do more…

I get it. Even with knowing all this I still look at Oso and feel like I should be doing more for him. Guilt doesn’t just dissipate that easily. If you’re struggling to get out of the enrichment guilt spiral, then focus on anticipating future needs. 

Here’s what that can look like. Oso is getting older. He’s 9 this year and this is the first year we’ve noticed him starting to feel his age. He’s a big dog and mobility issues are a big deal for someone his size. Plus, he has to go down a few steps to get outside regardless of the door we use and everyone in the house likes him being up on the furniture for snuggles. 

Instead of waiting for mobility issues to become a problem, we’re being proactive. We bought stairs and started to teach him how to use those to get up and off of the bed. We’ll be able to use those for the car, too. Next on the list is a sling, for the inevitable day that we have to help him up and down the stairs. After that will likely be cooperative care training for old-man procedures that the vet will help us pinpoint. 

Because his current needs are met well on a day-to-day basis, we’re focusing on what he’ll need in the future and preparing for it now. And that assuages the enrichment guilt that I feel while making sure that I’m still being productive and working smarter, not harder. 

 

Now what?

  • If you’re on the hunt for new activities for your pet, ask yourself if it’s because you’re actually seeing behavior that suggests your pet is bored or needs tweaks to their enrichment plan or if it’s for you. 
  • If it’s for you, dig deeper into why you’re looking for new activities. Is it because of enrichment guilt?
  • If so, I release you from your enrichment guilt! Did it work? If yes, awesome. If not, then consider your pet’s future needs and start preparing for them. 
  • Professionals: if you’re ready to take your enrichment game with your clients to the next level, be sure to join our waitlist for our upcoming Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification MasterClass: https://petharmonytraining.com/enrichmentframework 

Happy training!

Allie

Treats for Nothing?!

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

 

I’m going to say something that is going to sound strange. Making your pet sit is probably not helping their anxiety-related behaviors. Making them hand target, look at you, or anything like that is also probably not directly helping their anxiety-related behaviors. What will help is going to feel weird, because it’s going to feel like they’re getting treats for nothing. 

 

Wait… what?

Learning can take different forms. Two that we talk most frequently about are:

  • Cause and effect (operant conditioning)
  • Associative (classical conditioning)

Cause and effect (operant) learning looks like:

  • This cat has a history of getting treats for sitting, so they’re more likely to sit in the future.
  • This person has a history of getting hurt if they put their hand on the hot stove, so they’re less likely to put their hand on the hot stove in the future. 
  • This dog has a history of being petted (something they don’t enjoy) when they sit on the chair, so they are less likely to sit on the chair in the future. 

Past consequences dictate future responses in similar situations. It’s most of what the average person thinks “dog training” looks like. 

Cause and effect learning is great for teaching particular behaviors or skills. But it’s not as great at changing an emotional state. For that, we should look at associative learning. 

Associative (classical) learning looks like:

  • The ice cream truck song plays and you are immediately happy because it signals ice cream is coming (or at least that’s true for me)
  • The cat who comes running when they hear the can opener
  • The dog who gets excited when you pull out their leash
  • The pit in your stomach when you see an email from the IRS and don’t know what it says

Notice how all of the above are emotions. And when it comes to anxiety-related behaviors, including fear and aggression, we want to teach an emotion because realistically the problem is an emotion (like fear). Now, it’s true that cause and effect learning and associative learning aren’t truly separate; they’re happening together. But, we can still rely more heavily on one than another in a particular situation. And that’s why sit, touch, and watch me- while helpful for a lot of things and great relationship-builders- are probably not helping directly with anxiety-related behavior. 

 

Disclaimers. 

Alright. I took an INCREDIBLY simplified approach to an INCREDIBLY complicated subject. A subject that people get Ph.D.s in. I do not have a Ph.D., and even if I did there’s no way to distill everything about how individuals learn into a blog post meant for the average pet parent (or any blog post, for that matter). So, the disclaimer is that it’s way more complicated than what I’ve just laid out using layman terms instead of accurate terminology.

 

But, can basic cues help?

Yes… Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum and a lot is dependent on what the problem behavior is. I see quite a number of clients who have dogs who bite them (the owners) in various situations. For those folks, I often start them off with sit, attention, and hand targeting. It’s a great way to build relationships, build positive associations, and establish yourself as the “super fun treat person”. And that can help with some of those problem behaviors because of the role the relationship plays in them. It doesn’t address the trigger directly per se but can help with other factors that are involved. 

Because both types of learning are happening together, we do get some good feelings by working on basic cues, too. For that reason, I’ll often incorporate basic manners training into situations in which there’s not necessarily a discrete trigger at the root of the anxiety (after thorough investigation to make sure that that’s actually true). This can happen quite a bit for kiddos who are diagnosed with generalized anxiety by a vet or Veterinary Behaviorist. Going through a well-known, fast-paced basic manners repertoire can help build confidence in some of those situations where it doesn’t make as much sense to use other techniques. 

And, finally, basic cues build skills and we can incorporate those skills into our behavior modification plan. So, all in all, yes, basic manners and even tricks can help. However, notice that everything above was talking about helping indirectly. At no point did I say that it would address the actual trigger causing the behavior. So while they do help, basic cues alone are likely not going to get you where you want to be as efficiently or effectively. 

 

Redefining “nothing”

We have a hard time being okay with giving our pets treats for nothing. It’s so ingrained in our culture that “rewards” should only happen for doing something. But, we also have a hard time recognizing behaviors that we like when we see them. So if you’re having a hard time being okay with the thought of giving your pet treats for nothing, let’s redefine nothing. 

Behavior is always happening. Always! Even when they’re sleeping, the behavior is just that: sleeping. The problem we run into is that we often think of behavior as something quite active, like jumping or barking. But sitting quietly on their bed is just as much of a behavior as the others and one that we tend to like a lot more. 

Instead of saying that they’re doing nothing, look at what they are doing. Perhaps they’re quiet. Or sitting politely. Or calmly lying down. Are those behaviors not worthy of a reward? If you want those behaviors to happen more often, then your answer should be a resounding yes! 

 

Tying it all together

Okay. So we have different types of learning and we have a different way of seeing the behaviors we like. How does this all tie together? 

Associative learning often looks like “treats for nothing”. In reality, it’s a nuanced and slightly complex method with the treats happening at just the right moment to change those underlying emotions so we can actually address the trigger. And if we do it correctly, it’s going to look like treats for nothing. It’s going to look very boring. And it’s going to be more effective than having them sit or hand target or look at you. 

Not only does associative learning sometimes look like treats for nothing, but sometimes cause and effect learning does, too. This often happens when we’re working on duration. Let’s say that we’re working on duration in the crate for a dog or cat. When I’m working through this skill with folks, I start by prompting them when to treat. And that often is just when their pet is looking up at them from the crate, waiting for more treats. Sometimes I’m met with the question, but they’re not doing anything; why am I treating now? My response? They’re staying in the crate– and that’s the behavior we want! 

 

Now what?

  • How good are you at noticing when your pet is performing behaviors that you like? This could be being quiet, sitting politely, calmly lying down, or anything of the sort. Be honest: do you notice your pet when they’re doing things you like or mostly just when they’re doing things you don’t like?
  • If you struggle with noticing your pet’s desirable behaviors (and we’ve all been there!), make a point to notice your pet throughout the day. Set an alarm on your phone if you have to. The first step is to just notice what they’re doing. 
  • Treat your pet for behaviors you like throughout the day, like sitting, being quiet, and lying down. 
  • Ask your behavior consultant how you can build positive associations with triggers for your pet. We only recommend doing this with a professional, because the devil’s in the details here, and doing this the wrong way can lead to undesirable consequences. 

Happy training!

Allie