The 14 Categories of Pet Enrichment

We focus a lot on dogs in our content, but we love working with ALL pet species. And, most of what we say for dogs, also applies to other species. For example, we’ve discussed an overview of dog enrichment categories in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and in this blog post. But those categories are actually applicable to other pet species, too! 

We recently commissioned the amazing Lili Chin (here’s Lili’s website and Instagram) to create an infographic for us illustrating that the 14 categories of enrichment are applicable to all species. Behold! 



Let’s dive into these 14 categories once more to showcase what they look like for other pet species! Plus, we showcased special pets from our lives so you’ll get to hear a little more about animals that have made a difference to the owners of Pet Harmony.


Quick Reminder: What is Pet Enrichment?

Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s physical, behavioral, and emotional needs to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. Essentially, it means meeting all of an animal’s needs. It’s the solution to how we can let dogs be dogs and cats be cats and parrots be parrots while navigating our very human society and households. 


Health & Veterinary Care

Meet Jessica, the rabbit. (Any Roger Rabbit fans out there?) I met Jessica while interning at an animal sanctuary; she was my project bunny. I taught her some cute tricks and she taught me a ton about working with other species and rabbits in general. While she was never officially part of my household, she made a big impact on my life so I jumped at the chance to include her in this project! 

Most people are familiar with taking their dogs to the vet for annual exams. Cat people know that they probably should, but the dread of having to get there sometimes pushes those appointments back (this is a behavior that can be trained, though!) But what we find isn’t as common is pet parents with exotic pets knowing that vets are out there to help those furry, feathered, and scaly friends, too. 

Exotic vets care for those small critters other than dogs and cats (though they frequently also see dogs and cats). For larger, farm-type pets you’ll want to find a large-animal vet. Finding a great exotic vet lets you care for your other pets’ medical needs just as well as you can a dog or cat. 



If you follow us on Instagram, you’ve probably met Griffey! He’s one of Ellen’s kiddos and the reason she fell in love with working with pets with separation anxiety. Griffey’s ears were the first thing Ellen and her partner saw when they were looking for a new pup, and I think Lili perfectly captured them! 

I think it’s easier to consider the hygiene of species that have similar features. For example, cats need a lot of the same grooming things that dogs do. They both have fur that needs to be kept mat-free. They both have nails that need to be kept trimmed. They both have ears that sometimes need to be cleaned. 

What’s a little harder to picture, in my opinion, is those species that have quite different features. Yes, birds have nails that need to be kept trimmed, but caring for feathers is different than fur! And, speaking of, Chinchilla fur needs dust instead of water to be kept clean. Reptiles may shed their skin and need enough moisture to do so. Rodents need items to chew to grind down their teeth. Be sure to research your particular pet species to find what their skin, coat, eyes, ears, nails, and teeth need! 



This little bun belongs to Emily: Harey Bundini. She talks about him in this podcast episode interviewing Peter Amelia about living in a multi-species household. Harey earned his name after the magician Harry Houdini who was a whiz at escaping any situation. Cute and mischievous all-in-one little leafy-greens-munching package!

Nutrition can be kind of a heated topic. So, we’ll keep this discussion at the level that we do in our book: there is no One True Diet. The exact same diet may not work for different individuals of the same species. 

This can be even more difficult for exotics because there’s often even less research than there is for cats and dogs. We recommend looking at the diet of their natural counterparts for inspiration, diving into species-specific communities, Facebook groups, and subreddits, and, of course, asking your exotics vet. 


Physical Exercise

If you’ve interacted with our content before, you likely know my pup, Oso. I only talk about him all of the time. He’s the four-legged love of my life, even when he’s in his Winter Oso form. His flirt pole days may be behind him now that he’s a senior, but running in the yard is still a favorite pastime of his! 

Once again, to determine the best course of action for our pet’s physical exercise we should be looking at their natural history. A good place to start is looking at how they obtain food. Cats are obligate carnivores and tend to stalk and pounce their fast-paced prey, but don’t do as much long-distance running. Whereas hedgehogs, who eat a lot of bugs, don’t necessarily need to be quick but they do travel several miles a day. 

A word to the wise: in addition to researching how your pet would get physical activity in the wild, also look into when they’re active. There’s nothing worse than learning that hedgehogs are nocturnal and will be running several miles on a squeaky wheel if your bedroom is the best place for them to live. 


Sensory Stimulation

This is one of Emily’s dogs: Brie. Or Tomato, as she’s often called. Brie is Emily’s semi-feral kiddo that she’s mentioned on the podcast a number of times, including in this episode about agency.

Like with most things in life, sensory stimulation is one of those categories where you can have too much of a good thing. We want to make sure that we’re not providing an understimulating or an overstimulating environment for our pets of any species. Just as in providing enrichment for dogs, we still need to think about how each species operates in the world and how they use their senses. For example, birds are very sensitive to respiratory irritants, so a diffuser that provides a soothing scent to us may not be so soothing to them. Rabbits are a prey species and likely won’t enjoy being able to see predators outside of the windows. 



This little scruffy girl is Laika; one of Ellen’s pups. And, yes, her hair is even wilder in real life than in this picture. Why are scruffy dogs just the cutest?

Safety refers to being physically out of harm’s way. The example that we often use for dogs is being safe near roadways and vehicles. That’s not as applicable to all species, especially those who have terrarium or aquarium setups. But that doesn’t mean that safety isn’t as important for them!

Aquariums and terrariums will have unique safety considerations, like water quality, substrate use, air quality, mold concerns, pokey wires, and the like. They’re essentially tiny versions of your house so we should treat them with the same level of care that we would our own living space. 



This was my cat growing up, Snow White (I named her when I was 6; don’t judge.) She was living under our neighbor’s deck and my mom spent the night coaxing her into our house with tuna. She lived with us for over a decade after that! Apparently, our house was better than the neighbor’s deck. 

Security refers to feeling like you’re out of harm’s way, whether or not you actually are. We talk a lot about security in relation to dogs who have anxiety-related behaviors, but this is also a huge category for our prey species. Being out in the open without a hiding space is scary for a prey species, even if there are no predators around! 

Knowing how your species likes to stay hidden is part of excelling in this category. For example, cats typically live in a vertical world. That’s why cat trees, window shelves, and the tops of refrigerators are so popular for them. However, we always need to pay attention to the individual animal in front of us first and foremost. I recently had a client who was working on their dog and cats feeling comfortable together in the same house. One of the cats got the memo that he lives in a vertical world and it was easy to figure out hiding spaces for him. The other cat, however, had a medical issue that made it difficult for her to jump. She preferred hiding spaces on the ground so we had to get creative as to how to give her hidey spots that the small dog couldn’t access. 


Species-typical behaviors

Meet Cah’ya, one of Emily’s birds. She is an Aru Eclectus parrot. In the wild, Eclectus hens don’t make their own nests, but instead, they find an existing nest and take it over. Cah’ya decided that cardboard boxes make great nests, and the leaves that Emily hangs around the bird room make great nesting material. So Cah’ya likes to chew up the leaves and then move all the leaf matter into her nest. And if that isn’t one of the most life-with-a-parrot stories I’ve ever heard I don’t know what is. 

Personally, I find this an interesting category when it comes to working with other species. Dogs are quite domesticated. Other species, not so much. My turtle is pretty much the same as the turtles I see in the local forest preserve. There’s some cool evidence coming out that cats, genetically speaking, are really not that different from their wild counterparts, and how much they’ve been domesticated is coming into question. 

So what does that mean for us as pet owners? It means that it’s usually a little easier to figure out species-typical behaviors from observing wild counterparts because behaviors haven’t been modified through selective breeding, and it also means that those behaviors are less flexible than a more domesticated species. Even though Cah’ya isn’t mating, she still makes nests. My turtle, Zorro, still needs to bask in light akin to the full spectrum of the sun, even though he lives inside the house. Perhaps one day, thousands of years from now, some turtles will adapt to living in fluorescent lighting. That day isn’t today. 

As I’ve mentioned before, knowing about the wild counterparts of the species you have is one of the best ways to determine species-typical behaviors. Learn the natural history. Observe that species in the wild if you can. Get curious about why they do the things they do!



This is Emily’s other dog, Copper. Copper was really timid and inexperienced when Emily’s partner Chuck first adopted him, and he showed physical signs of having been excessively confined. So Emily had to teach Copper how to use his nose to trail scents. Now, he’s an incredibly enthusiastic and adept forager.

All animals need food to survive. Even if you are providing them with the calories they need, they still have a need to search for and procure food. This is a species-typical behavior that’s so important that we decided to pull it out and make it its own category. Again, we’re going to be looking at the natural history of the species and how they would find food in the wild. 

In general, vegetarian species will spend a lot of their time grazing and moving over larger distances to find food. Omnivores and carnivores spend time hunting. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to release live mice for your cat to catch. We can simulate their hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle using wand toys or food puzzles. It just means that we need to provide foraging opportunities that mesh with their foraging needs in our human households. 


Social Interaction

Meet Lexi (left) & Betty Boop (right)! These were my horses growing up. Most trainers have stories about how they wish they knew then what they know now, and these are the two I’d go back and do things differently with. I would absolutely love to go back in time and clicker-train these two if I could! 

Horses are herd animals and like any herd animal, they need others of their species to hang out with! When you’re researching the natural history of your pet’s species, make sure you look at how they hang out with conspecifics in the wild. Are they more solitary animals? Herd animals? Form groups during mating season but otherwise hang out in pairs or alone? Not every pet wants a friend of the same species! And not every species knows that humans are okay right off the bat. Think like that species, not like a human.


Mental Stimulation

I wish I knew enough about training when I was younger to be able to train Snow White! Alas. I have had the opportunity to train many other cats, though, and even work with clients who have cats with maladaptive behaviors. 

Every species need mental stimulation. Any species can be trained. Mental stimulation can be achieved through training, foraging, problem-solving, and things like that! What’s going to be different between training different species is how quickly they respond, how much they can eat (and how they eat!), what other reinforcers you can use, and what they can physically perform. 



Now that Oso is a senior and is slowing down, this is often what he looks like on a day-to-day basis- happily snoozing on the couch! Snuggling up with him on the couch is one of my favorite things to do with him. 

When we talk about the calming category, we’re often talking about rest, relaxation, and sleep quality. That’s important for all species! Each species will have its own requirements for the proper amount of sleep and the time of day in which they typically rest and sleep. As I mentioned above, it’s helpful to know when your pet is expected to be most active. There’s a chance it will not be when you are! If you’re trying to play and interact with them during their nap time, chances are it’s not going to go as well as it could if it were a time they are more active. Everyone needs their sleep. 



I mentioned before that Griffey- unbeknownst to Ellen- had separation anxiety when he came into her life. Independence was not his forte! They’ve since worked hard on him feeling comfortable being apart from his humans, and the kong wobbler is one of his favorite independent foraging activities! 

Independence includes being comfortable being alone (within reason for their species’ needs), being comfortable exploring their environment, and learning life skills. All species can benefit from this. I think it’s easier for folks to think about comfort being alone and exploring their environment regardless of species, so let’s talk for a moment about life skills. 

For many species, life skills will be a lot about navigating having a human as a caregiver and each individual figuring out how to interact with one another. That could be how to be fed by a human, how to be handled, or even learning other skills through training. For example, I had rats for a couple of years- Melody & River. Each night I would give them free time outside of their cage to explore the house. But they needed to learn how to come back! So I taught them a recall for their favorite treats, just like I would a dog, so that they could explore their environment, have fun, and come back when they needed to. 



I’ve mentioned him before in this article, but finally here’s Zorro! He’s a Red-Eared Slider; they live partially in water and partially on land. That means he needs an aquarium with the proper aquatic environment and a land-type environment. I wrote a bit about his new setup in this blog post. 

Environment is a big category. It can include who they live with, rural vs. city living, sound levels, air quality, water quality, humidity, temperature, and more! Once again, knowing the natural history of the species will be helpful here. The biggest thing I want to mention is to always be questioning how we can improve the environment, especially for species that live in enclosures. It shouldn’t be enough for them to just get by; we should be creating the best darn enclosures we can! Question common practices to see if they’re really the best environment possible. 


Now what?

  • Get to researching the species you have! Learn their natural history, how their wild counterparts behave and spend their days, and join specialist groups to get more information. 
  • Choose one category that you think can be improved upon and make a change. We recommend changing just one thing at a time so you can see the true effect. 
  • We love seeing enrichment for all different species! Tag us with pics of your enrichment strategy on Facebook and Instagram @petharmonytraining 

Happy training,


3 Ways You May Be Self-Sabotaging Your Pet’s Behavior Progress

Human behavior can sometimes be funny. Often I find myself doing something and think to myself, “Why does this seem like a good idea?” or, “I know this won’t work, but I just have to try to make sure it won’t work.” Let’s face it. We’re not always logical. Well, maybe you are, but I know that I’m not! 

And I think one of the more interesting parts of the behavior modification journey for pets is how much their humans influence the process. We’ve talked about aspects of this before, like how your stress will impact their stress, how you can help to set up the environment for them to better succeed, and things like that. Things that directly affect behavior. But we haven’t talked as much about how we can inadvertently affect our progress. And while sometimes we can accidentally affect the process for the better, more people are interested in how they may be affecting it negatively, or self-sabotaging. 

So let’s get into 3 ways that I’ve seen clients accidentally hinder their own progress (and, let’s be real, ways that I’ve self-sabotaged my own progress in other aspects of my life).  And, of course, what to do about it!


Mistake #1: Seeing with your ideas

We’ve talked occasionally about the stories we tell ourselves about our pets and how that can influence our progress. We also discussed recently about focusing on the wrong problem and how that will also affect progress. A commonality that both of those topics share is the notion of “seeing with your ideas”. 

We have a saying here at Pet Harmony: see with your eyes, not your ideas. What we mean by this is that we need to keep an open mind when observing our pet’s behavior. When we hold too fast to our beliefs, we start to twist those observations into something that’s not entirely true. And it’s really hard to craft a proper behavior modification strategy off of something that’s not true. 

Observing what’s actually happening can be hard. It sometimes means that we see something that we didn’t want to be true, but is. It sometimes means that we have to reassess our beliefs about our pets or even the world around us. There are three things that I tell my clients who are struggling with observations to help them work through this:

  1. Remove emotion as much as possible. The time to observe your dog without emotion is not when they’re lunging at your toddler. Or when they’re screaming at a squirrel in a tree waking up your neighbors. The best times to observe are when you’re able to be objective. Video is a great way to do this! Or, what I do is pretend that I’m looking at a pet I’ve never met before. If I knew nothing about my dog, what would I think about his behavior? 
  2. Focus on the here and now. Sometimes seeing with your eyes is hard because it makes you realize mistakes you’ve made previously. I’ve had many clients tell me that they wish they knew what I was teaching them sooner, even for pets they’ve had in the past. I get it; I’ve been there, too. But when that happens, sometimes our brain decides that what we’re seeing can’t be true because it would be too painful to acknowledge that. In those moments, I remind my clients (and myself) that when we know better, we do better. Let’s focus on the here and now and how we can improve moving forward and to keep the past in the past. 
  3. Ask a professional. If you’re struggling to objectively observe your pet’s behavior, then ask a professional. It’s what we’re here for! Even professionals need to do this. Sometimes it’s just too hard to remain objective when you’re so close to the situation. 


Mistake #2: Not taking your own learning history into consideration

This one can be closely tied to the first mistake of seeing with your ideas. The behavior modification journey can be emotional. The experiences we’ve had leading up to this point can make it even more emotional. When we don’t take our own experiences into consideration, we can end up doing things that sabotage our progress without even realizing it. 

Here’s an example. Recently I was speaking with a client who is seeing me for intrahousehold aggression due to a new dog squabbling with one of the resident dogs. In our second session, he told me that the dogs are making improvements and that everyone’s stress levels seem to be down. Fantastic! He also told me that he felt like human emotions were getting in the way of them making even more progress. It was scary when their dogs were fighting and they’re rightfully worried about anyone getting hurt, either physically or emotionally. A very valid concern! 

Now, this client is quite in-tune with his emotions and it’s clear that this family has some metacognition skills that are not widely taught in our society. That meant that we were able to have a conversation about their experiences, how those experiences are impacting what they’re working on with their pups, and how we can work to help them feel more comfortable. It was a lovely conversation. 

I would say rarely, though, are folks able to articulate that precisely how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it, AND ask for help all in one go. It’s a skill that we all, including myself, can certainly learn more of from this particular client. We often need to resolve and heal our own things before we can be fully immersed in helping someone else- of any species.

As far as what to do if you find your own experiences preventing more progress, my best advice is to seek a professional who can help you with whatever it is you’re working through. There’s no shame in that! We often say that behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that’s true of our behavior as well. Sometimes the issues that we’re experiencing with our pets have nothing to do with the actual pet. 


Mistake #3: Stopping things that are working

I mentioned human behavior can be funny, yeah? Here’s one that I see all the time (and sometimes do myself) that I still can’t figure out why it happens! We stop doing things that are working. 

Now, when I phrase it that way it sounds silly, right? Why would someone stop doing something that’s getting them results? It happens all the time, though! We forget the effects or what it used to be like or want to see what our new baseline is or want to chase the new shiny thing that we just heard about. Whatever the reason, we stop doing something that’s working. 

I’ll use an example from my own life here. I’ve mentioned before that I have a chronic illness. It’s currently being managed with medication. Recently, I decided to stop one of those medications that a year ago I couldn’t praise highly enough for the effects it had. (Y’know, without talking to my doctor which is something you shouldn’t do.) There were some reasons that I won’t get into as to why I made that decision, but there was absolutely a part of me that wondered if I even needed it anymore. I was doing so well! I was in a different place than I used to be! I had new skills to fall back on! 

It took 2 weeks for me to remember why I was on it in the first place. My symptoms kept coming back one by one until I was down for the count like I used to be. Thankfully, I had told the people in my life about this experiment so they could be more objective observers of what was going on. I scheduled the next appointment I could with my doctor when they told me what exactly they were seeing that I was too close to see for myself. I admit that it was disheartening to learn that what was working was actually working. Humans are weird, remember? Go figure. 

I’ve seen some of my clients do the exact same thing- stopping medication that’s working- but without the part of telling someone to be on the lookout for regressions. That can be dangerous depending on the medication and the behavior issue, but it can also be disheartening like it was for me and my own health journey. And that can be made even worse by not realizing when regressions are being caused by stopping something that’s working, whether it’s medication or management, or a modification exercise. 

So what’s the answer here? Get a third-party observer. For me, it was the people around me who had years of experience observing my chronic health symptoms and knew what to report to me. For my clients, sometimes that’s me as their professional when it comes to management or a behavior modification exercise. If it’s related to medication then it’s their vet. If it’s something that’s not as dangerous or serious to be experimenting with, your third-party “observer” could even be a progress log that you’re keeping of your pet’s behavior. You just need something objective to go on. 


Humaning is Hard

As I wrap up this list and go back through it, I realized that all of these come down to one thing: being a human can be hard. Having human emotions can be hard. Having to make decisions that impact someone else’s life- regardless of species- can be hard. So the last thing that I want to say is, if you find yourself connecting with anything on this list, remember that you’re not alone. Be kind to yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. We’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge, information, and bandwidth that we have today. You got this. 


Now what?

  • If you find yourself connecting with any of the mistakes on this list, first give yourself some grace. You’re only human! And all of these are very human behaviors that we all experience at one point or another. 
  • Figure out what you need to focus on first. Is there something that’s getting in the way of taking any of the above advice? For example, it’s hard to see with your eyes, not your ideas, if you’re not yet skilled at observing animal behavior. Or, it can be difficult to seek help for a problem that you have an unpleasant history with, like a dog bite, and may need to work through that first. Start with those foundation skills first. 
  • Do the thing! Follow through with whatever the above advice is for what you’re experiencing. 
  • Set up fail-safes. Again, these are all very human behaviors that we all experience at one point or another. And that means that you’re not immune to them just because you know about them and are working on them. Take my medication example! I did a thing that I actively tell people not to do and then was surprised when what I knew would happen happened. My fail-safe was having other people hold me accountable and be my eyes for me. We all need something like that throughout the journey. 

Happy training!


That’s What Your Behavior Consultant is For

I’ve worked with a lot of different professionals in both my personal and professional life. Until recently, I thought that I needed to know what I wanted the professional to do for me before I hired them. I knew my problem (well, at least I thought I did). I researched solutions and knew what solution I wanted (well, at least I thought I did). Then I would find a professional who would perform the solution that I wanted for what I understood was the problem. 

See, I’ve always been taught that if I have a problem I need to also come up with a solution before asking for help. I don’t really know exactly where I learned that from- society, family, school, who knows- nor did I realize that I was behaving with that particular thought process. But, boy, did my behavior say that I thought that way. 

Until we were working with a professional and I didn’t have the answer. It was someone working on an aspect of business that was still fairly new to me and I hadn’t done my usual research-a-thing-to-death-before-deciding-I-needed-to-hire-a-professional thing. She was recommended by a trusted colleague and so I hired her without my usual research fanaticism. And that meant that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I couldn’t even feign an answer. 

Finally, after much deliberation, I went back to her and said, “I have a problem with this thing but I don’t have any suggestions on how to fix it.” Her response was exactly what I’ve apparently been needing to hear my whole life. She said, “I don’t expect you to have suggestions or solutions. That’s my job. You just need to tell me what you want fixed.”

Many months later, I still think of this interaction. It’s allowed me to work more cohesively with other professionals. I’m now able to say, “I have a problem and I’m coming to you with it so you can solve it since I can’t.” Honestly, it’s made my life a whole lot better.

Why am I telling you all of this? What on earth does this have to do with pet behavior consulting and training? Well, now that I’ve identified this trend in my own behavior, I’ve started seeing it with my clients, too. I see clients who have researched the bejeezus out of their pet’s behavior. They think they know what the problem is. They think they know what the solution they want is. Sometimes I agree with their assessment; sometimes I don’t. And sometimes, I see that this thought process is really getting in their own way of making progress. Just like it did (and sometimes still does) for me. So for all of you out there who are like me, this one’s for you.

How this can get in the way of progress

There are a few different ways that I see this particular human behavior get in the way of making progress on their pet’s behavior modification plan:

  1. Misidentifying the problem means researching the wrong solutions. Sometimes that means you have to unlearn the incorrect thing and then relearn the correct one. That takes extra time. 
  2. Solutions aren’t necessarily cut and dried when it comes to something complex like behavior change, which means the chances of coming up with the correct solution are slimmer for non-professionals. 
  3. Misidentifying why something works can cause someone to go for incorrect solutions for seemingly similar behaviors that are actually quite different. 
  4. Waiting longer than necessary to start working with or communicating problems with a professional. 

There are plenty more behaviors that I see getting in the way that appear to be along this same vein, but this list is sufficient for now. It’s kind of vague, though. So let me give you a real-world example that I see all the time. 

Fido barks. A lot. At everything! Fido’s body language is saying that he’s usually uncomfortable when he’s barking, but his pet parent, Jane, hasn’t learned how to read canine body language yet and so isn’t aware of that factor. Jane gets on the Google machine and searches “How do I get my dog to stop barking?” There are a whole bunch of articles that talk about how to decrease barking. Jane tries a few tactics, which either don’t work or seem to make the barking worse. What gives?! She’s now at her wit’s end and reaches out to a professional for help. 

After thorough history-taking, the professional identifies that Fido is barking because he’s uncomfortable. Jane hears this and tells the professional that she wants to help Fido feel more comfortable and teach him that the world isn’t so scary. They spend the rest of the session discussing how to help Fido feel more comfortable in the world and spend very little time talking about the barking that caused Jane to book the appointment in the first place. The professional does assure Jane, though, that Fido should bark less when he feels more comfortable. 


What you actually want is going to dictate what you should actually do

In the previous example with Jane and Fido, we see that Jane is actually more concerned about Fido feeling uncomfortable than she is about the barking. She cares more about him feeling confident and comfortable in the world than she does about stopping the barking. Especially if Fido feeling confident is going to naturally decrease the barking! 

That means the solutions the professional will provide for Jane are going to be about helping Fido’s comfort levels and will be less about the barking. Jane should have actually Googled how to help her dog feel more confident! But she wouldn’t have known that without a professional helping her through that discovery. 

On the flip side, let’s say Janet has the same problem with her dog, Fluffy. The only difference is that Janet isn’t as concerned about Fluffy feeling comfortable as she is about the barking after hearing the same thing from the professional. She really just wants the barking to stop. The solutions that Janet goes for will likely be different than Jane’s because they actually want different things. 


What you actually want is going to dictate what professional you should go with

It should come as no surprise to those of you who have interacted with us or our content before that here at Pet Harmony we care about the learning experience from both the human and the pet’s perspective. We want everyone- regardless of species- to feel confident, comfortable, and empowered through an empathetic learning journey. And that means we tend to attract the Janes of the world. Now, that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Janet or that she’s a bad person. It just means she’s not going to connect with our material in the same way that Jane will. And that’s okay! Maybe we’re not the right fit for Janet.  

When you’re searching for the right professional for you, you need to find someone who cares about the same things you do. If you want someone who is going to build your pet’s confidence you need a professional who cares about your pet’s mental health. If you want someone who is going to help keep your family safe you need a professional who cares about safety. 

So how do you do this? If they provide free content like a blog, podcast, or social media, then check out their content. You’re not necessarily looking for how to fix your problem; you’re looking for the things that the professional cares about. Are they talking about the things that you care about? Or are they talking about things that you don’t particularly care about? 

I personally think free content is a great window into what someone cares about, as someone who writes a lot of free content! I get to choose the topic and how I talk about it without thinking about engaging in a back-and-forth conversation, which means I’m more likely to share my beliefs unfettered. That’s not always an option, though, so talking with your next potential professional can be a great option, too!

If you’re already working with a professional, you likely already have some insight as to how they put their beliefs into action. If you’re vibing with how they’re responding to your case, awesome. If you have a feeling that something just isn’t quite gelling, start by talking to them about it. Sometimes it’s a miscommunication issue that can be solved. Sometimes they may just not be the right fit for you. 


When you find the right professional, you don’t need to come up with the solutions

When you’re working with a professional who values the same things that you do, you can trust them to come up with the best solution and that means you won’t have to do it yourself! It’s actually often better that way. Not only is it the reason you’re paying them and less work for you, but it sometimes means it’ll be easier for you to accept their solution. When we envision something going or working one way and then someone gives us another option, it takes a moment for us to get on board no matter how good that option is. Humans are just quirky that way!

The amazing thing about this is it frees you up to be more open about problems or issues you’re having. You no longer have to think about a solution before communicating with your professional! You get to just discuss with them and let them work their magic. 


Now what?

  • Are you someone who feels like you have to have a solution before you can come to a professional with the problem? Me too. Identifying and admitting this behavior is the first step. 
  • If that’s you, your next step is to make sure you’re working with the right professional. They’re going to be the person who has the same values as you! Actually, this step is important regardless of whether you find yourself having to have solutions before communicating problems! 
  • Then, discuss any issues you’re having with the professional. Be open to whatever solution they pose. It may be very different than what you would have come up with- and that’s a good thing! If you knew how to fix it you probably would have done so already. 

Happy training,


Why Does My Dog Bark So Much (& What To Do About It!)

My short, tongue-in-cheek answer to the question, “Why does my dog bark so much?” is that they’re a dog and that’s one of the ways they communicate. But that answer doesn’t usually help and doesn’t make for an interesting blog post. So let’s dive in a little further, shall we? Starting with a few fundamental pieces of information about barking that will help you figure out where to go from here.  


Barking is a form of canine communication

I already mentioned that barking is a form of communication. It’s a natural, normal, species-typical behavior for dogs. And while I know it can be frustrating, it’s not “bad” behavior, per se. I appreciate that my dog barks to tell me he wants to come inside or barks when someone approaches the front door. I was less enthused when he would bark and lunge at people, dogs, and loud/large vehicles that passed by us when I first adopted him. 

All of this is to say that barking in and of itself is not necessarily the problem. It’s simply a form of communication and sometimes can even be a symptom of the real problem. When clients come to me asking how they can get their dog to stop barking, I ask them to describe the situations in which they don’t like their dog barking, or want their dog to bark less. Then I ask them in what situations they do want their dog to bark. Most of the time they have at least one situation where they do want their dog to bark or at least where they don’t mind it. 

I bring this up first so you can keep that in mind as you read on about why dogs bark and what we can do about it. Sometimes the answer is- nothing! Let them be their doggy selves! And that’s okay. If both you and your dog (and neighbors within earshot) are happy and healthy then you don’t have to do anything.


Barking works

When a behavior is continuing to happen, that means that it’s working for the individual performing it. Why bring this up? Because very frequently I hear, “My dog is barking for no reason.” The laws of behavior say that that can’t be true. Behavior happens for a reason.

Sometimes the reason becomes clear when we look at the consequences of that barking. Fido barks and the scary person moves further away. Fluffy barks and their favorite person moves closer. Rover barks and their person joins in the ruckus with them!

Other times it can be more difficult to figure out what your dog is getting out of barking. That could be because we’re not experiencing the consequences as our dog does (i.e. they have a different sensory experience than humans do), we’re not yet proficient in observing behavior objectively, or the consequence is something that they are experiencing internally (e.g. barking is fun!) Working with a professional who is proficient in observing behavior objectively can help with some of this, however, there will be times when we just can’t know what’s going on without being able to speak a human language with our dog. 

5 reasons why your dog is barking

Now that we know some fundamentals about barking- it’s a species-typical behavior used for communication and your dog is getting something out of it- we can look at some common reasons why dogs bark. 


1. Attention-seeking

Oftentimes dogs bark because we respond to it. Remember- it’s a behavior that works! And even negative attention can still be attention. Only the learner gets to decide what is reinforcing to them and for some dogs that can include being yelled at or asked to be quiet.  


2. Excitement

Joyful exclamations are not just for humans! Sometimes our dogs are so excited that they can’t contain themselves. 


3. Fear, anxiety, aggression, or a startle response

While these are all different, I lumped them together because they share the same common core issue: discomfort. Many dogs learn that the best way to get something scary or unsettling to go away is to tell it to do so. 


4. Medical conditions 

There are some medical and cognitive conditions that can increase vocalization and some dogs bark when they get injured. Physical discomfort, not just emotional discomfort, can lead to barking!


5. It’s fun, a habit, or some other reason we’ll never know for sure  

I put this as a catch-all category for when dogs bark and we don’t get to know the reason until we can teach them to speak a human language. Behavior is complex and sometimes we just have to accept that while we might not know the reason, we can still modify the behavior. 


How can I tell why my dog is barking?

While barking is a form of communication, it’s not the only one. Dogs primarily communicate through their body language and that body language will give you some insight into why your dog is behaving in a particular way. Here are some questions to think about when it comes to figuring out why your dog is barking:

  • What does their body language look like? Are they loose and wiggly or stiff and tense? Are there other stress signals?
  • What are they barking at?
  • What does their bark sound like? Low or high pitched? Fast or slow tempo? 
  • What usually happens after they bark in this particular way? Do you pay attention to them? Does something move closer or farther away? 

Remember to look for all of the communication signals- not just the vocalizations- in addition to what they’re getting out of the behavior! 


How can I teach my dog to bark less?

Get ready for the standard dog trainer answer that annoys pet parents: it depends. As we discussed, there are a lot of different reasons why a dog barks in the first place. The answer to how you can teach your dog to bark less is going to depend on why they’re doing it in the first place. For example, if you have a senior dog undergoing cognitive decline which is causing them to vocalize more, a dog trainer isn’t the answer. Your vet is. On the flip side, if your dog is barking aggressively at people who enter your home, your vet isn’t the answer. A behavior consultant who specializes in behavior issues is. 


Let’s look at the broad strokes of where to start with each of the above reasons:

  1. Attention-seeking: make sure you’re meeting your dog’s needs before they feel it necessary to tell you about them. Asking for attention isn’t a bad thing. I very much appreciate when my dog let’s me know he is having tummy trouble and needs to go out in the middle of the night! I don’t want to eliminate attention-seeking behavior entirely. I want it to happen in a way I find appropriate (aka I don’t find it annoying), and it’s much easier to do that when we have a successful enrichment strategy first. More information about that in this blog about meeting my Winter Oso’s needs.
  2. Excitement: provide appropriate energy outlets while teaching calming skills. Anyone who has spent some time with elementary school-aged children knows that being calm is a skill and one that takes quite a while to learn. Once again, it’s far easier to teach that skill when we’ve addressed our dog’s needs for an appropriate energy outlet when they’re excited. 
  3. Fear, anxiety, aggression, or a startle response: the first step here is management. By that I mean arrange the environment so as to prevent your dog from being exposed to the thing they’re barking at. Both you and your dog will get some relief! The second step here is to work with a professional who is skilled in working with pups with these particular issues. Anxiety and skill-building are different things, as any human with anxiety would tell you. Successfully and safely working through these issues to help your dog feel more comfortable and confident isn’t necessarily intuitive and can have a large margin for error if you’re not sure what to do. 
  4. Medical conditions: with any behavior, especially those that crop up suddenly, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian first. You may not know how medical concerns could impact a particular behavior, but your vet should! Check out this blog post about medical issues impacting behavior if you’re interested in learning more about this topic. 
  5. It’s fun, a habit, or some other reason we’ll never know for sure: this is another one where I recommend working with a behavior professional, if only because the answer is going to be so dependent on the situation that it’s difficult to provide a solution in a blog post.

Now what?

Happy training,


Navigating Difficult Conversations

Living with a difficult pet is, well, difficult. It can be an incredible experience but at the same time, it can be emotionally draining, exhausting, isolating, and frustrating. A large portion of our jobs as pet behavior consultants is to help our clients navigate through the ups and downs of this challenging journey, including their emotions and connections surrounding their pets. 

A topic that comes up fairly frequently is that of having difficult conversations with their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers about their pet. While this is a large, large topic that could be more deftly handled by a professional in the human mental health field, there are a few tips that I have for my clients that help them through these situations. 


What counts as a difficult conversation?

Let’s start at the beginning by defining our terms. What is a “difficult conversation”? These are discussions that have a lot of emotion involved and that means that they can be a little different for everyone, though there are some topics that almost always fall into this category. Topics like rehoming and safety for others, for instance. 

I think it’s easier for us to realize those difficult topics when they elicit fear or sadness. But I find that there are a lot of additional emotions that I discuss on a regular basis. Feelings like embarrassment, isolation, shame, and guilt. 

It can be embarrassing when a random stranger has the gall to give you unsolicited advice about your dog’s leash reactivity. It can be isolating when your friends and family disagree with what you’re choosing to do for your pet. Even questions that are asked innocently, like, “Why is your dog afraid of people?” can leave people feeling ashamed or guilty. The question then becomes: how do you navigate those difficult conversations?


Decide whether it’s worth it to engage

You don’t owe anyone outside of the situation anything. You do not owe a random stranger giving unsolicited advice (in-person or on the internet) a response. You don’t owe it to your friends and non-household family to explain the science and reasoning behind why you’re choosing the training methods you’re choosing. The only individuals you have to answer to are yourself, your pet, and anyone else involved in day-to-day care.

If it’s worth it to engage, then you can follow through with the conversation. If it’s not worth it to engage then you can end it there and move on your merry way. 

Releasing yourself from the societal obligation to engage can be liberating. This doesn’t mean you have to be rude, but you do need to be firm with your boundaries. I know, I know. Easier said than done. Listen, I’m a Midwestern person at heart and I completely understand how difficult it can be to navigate social niceties while also having boundaries about engagement in a conversation. More on that later. 


Rewrite the story in your head

(Disclosure: This is an affiliate link coming up. 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!)

This one comes from the book Crucial Conversations and is one of my favorite tips from that resource A lot of times crucial, or difficult conversations arise because we’re guessing at the covert behaviors- internal thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions- of the other person. Spoiler: we’re not super accurate when it comes to guessing covert behaviors of other individuals (heck, sometimes I have a hard time identifying my own!) 

Let’s go back to that random stranger scenario. When strangers give me unsolicited advice, I tend to use some not-nice language surrounding their covert behaviors. I know that’s true for many other people, too. But what if they were giving you advice because they wished someone had told them sooner that they could do something about their own difficult dog? Or perhaps they’re an extroverted dog behavior enthusiast who can’t help but try to connect with anyone who they think will want to chat about canine behavior. Now, I still likely wouldn’t choose to engage in these situations since that type of interaction is not usually worth it for me personally, but it does help to make me feel better about it after the fact. 

Let’s now look at a situation in which you might want to (or feel obligated to) engage: the well-meaning friend or family member who just doesn’t get it. You’ve decided to do something about your pet’s behavior, taken that scary leap, and are excited about working with the professional you’ve chosen, and then someone takes the wind out of your sail by questioning your decisions. I get it. We’ve all been there at one point or another. Even well-meaning people can make us feel pretty crappy. 

It can be really hard to rewrite the story in your head when it comes to someone you know well and have a history with. So instead of trying to come up with other covert behaviors that make me feel better about the interaction, I usually opt for getting curious. Why do they feel the way that they do? What have they experienced that makes them say that? For me, approaching it as a sort of outside observer helps me to arrange the pieces more logically, and then decide if what they’re saying holds water or what the grain of truth is in what they’re saying. That reasoning may not work for you, but a lot of folks have told me that asking questions and getting curious helps them for a bunch of different reasons! 


Assume that a professional you’re working with has navigated similar situations before

I wanted to mention one particular rewrite that I talk a lot about with my clients. I get a lot of similar questions about how they should navigate working with other professionals, like groomers and vets, with their pets displaying maladaptive behaviors. My answer is usually just to recommend they talk to the professional and ask them what their protocol is. 

I can’t tell you the number of times someone has described to me how difficult it is to bring their dog to the vet because they’re reactive in the lobby and when I ask if they’ve asked the clinic if they can wait in the car until they’re ready to be seen the client has said, “I never even thought to ask that!” Most of the clinics I’ve worked with have that as an already-established protocol; you just need to ask! I know from the pet parent perspective that it can seem like your pet is the only one displaying behaviors like this, but trust me when I say that pet professionals in any field have seen all sorts of behaviors on a regular basis. 


Come up with go-to responses

I have to have a lot of difficult conversations as a behavior professional and one of the most helpful tips I have is to have go-to base responses that you can tailor to fit the situation. This helps me save some cognitive load and bandwidth so I can serve all of my clients with the same level of empathy and compassion by just focusing on the nuances instead of having to come up with the base response each time. You don’t need to be a professional to steal this trick! 

If you notice that you are encountering the same questions or situations over and over, those are the ones to create go-to responses for. This can be something like when someone asks to pet your dog saying, “Not today, they’re having a bad hair day.” Or, “Thanks for asking, but they can be uncomfortable with strangers.” 

I have this with Oso’s monthly massages. When some of our friends and family first heard that Oso was getting massaged monthly when we do not do the same for ourselves, we got some incredulous “okay-crazy-dog-lady” looks. My go-to response is that it’s really helping him and we’re seeing an increase in mobility. I say it almost the same way each time but I can modify it to fit in with the situation or who I’m talking to. Usually, that discontinues the incredulous look and it makes me feel better because I know it’s the right thing for him whether or not they agree. I don’t owe them anything, after all. 


And practice them with your consultant! 

Okay, remember I said I’m from the Midwest and I completely understand how hard it is to forego some of those saccharine social niceties? Now we’re here at what to do about that. You’ve got your go-to base responses that you can tailor to fit whoever you’re talking to, now you just need practice! 

This is something that we sometimes will do with our clients who need an extra little boost but we’ve done quite a bit of this with our professional clients in our Enrichment Master Class in the past. It can be really helpful to practice saying those responses in a safe environment where you get to workshop what it sounds like. That way you can feel confident when the moment comes!


Now what?

  • Think through situations in which you’ve encountered difficult conversations surrounding your pet. What’s the common theme? How did it make you feel? Why did you feel that way?
  • Identify the situations in which you are willing to engage and those in which you aren’t. 
  • Think through and practice how you’re going to decline to engage in those conversations. Then, think through and practice how you’re going to engage in those conversations. Start coming up with your go-to base responses.
  • Professionals: if you’re looking for help on how to do this with your clients there’s still one more day to join our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class!


Happy training,


Creating an Enrichment Plan for a Senior Dog

A question that we get frequently asked is:

My dog doesn’t have any behavior issues! How can I implement your enrichment framework?

That’s a great question, and my answer is usually in the form of talking about what I do for Oso, my senior dog. Now, Oso was a behavior case when I adopted him but he’s at the point where those behaviors are either resolved or managed. Any lingering behavior issues are those that are increasing with age, like sensitivity to weather (common in aging dogs). 

So, let’s take a look at some tips to implement our enrichment framework for senior pets, and I’ll use Oso as my example of how I do this in my own life. 


List desirable and undesirable behaviors: Consider future problems

Step 1 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework is to list desirable and undesirable behaviors. This is often the first hurdle for folks when it comes to creating a plan for their aging pet because they’re only thinking about behavior issues like counter surfing, digging, chewing, aggression, anxiety, or fear. 

But the truth is, aging begets problems in other ways; it’s one of the cruel facts of life. When folks ask me what they should focus on in their enrichment plan for their senior pet, I ask them to consider what they imagine will become a problem in the future. If you know your pet has horrible teeth, talking to your vet about a soft-food diet now might be an easier transition. 

For a dog expected to have vision loss as they age, you may want to consider setting up the environment and situations so they can get through everything without their sight. Loss of hearing is another common aging concern and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen regret that they didn’t teach their dog hand signals in addition to verbal cues. For others, it may be getting them comfortable with the vet knowing they’ll need to go more frequently, or starting to look into therapies like cold laser or canine rehabilitation.  

For Oso, my 90-lb dog with funky hips in a house that requires him to go down at least 2 stairs to get outside, mobility is the problem I know we’re going to be up against as he gets older. We’ve been preliminarily working on that for years in the form of supplements and have ramped up efforts as we notice more signs of aging. He now has monthly massages and routine exercises to help with his mobility. And we can’t forget his stairs that let him get down from the bed safely!


Making sure needs are met: Look at the pet in front of you right now

Steps 2 & 3 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework are to make sure your pet’s needs are being met and that they have agency. I go over the 14 enrichment categories in this blog post and the importance of agency- being able to make choices that result in desirable outcomes- in this blog post. 

Our needs change as we age, and that’s true for our pets, too! I discussed above some of the changes in the veterinary/medical category, but there will also be behavior changes. Typically your pet will need less physical exercise, and most prefer a quieter environment and often less spirited social interaction. When we think about the broad strokes of how human children and adults differ, there can be a lot of similarities with our pets throughout their life stages. 

This is another area that I often find people struggling with when it comes to developing an enrichment plan for their senior pet. They often are thinking about- and sometimes lamenting- what their pet used to need or do. I get it; there are things that I miss about Oso’s youth. But holding on to that doesn’t help him right now and no amount of lamentation is going to bring that back. So, onward we forge! 

For these steps of the Enrichment Framework, the best advice I can give you is to focus on the pet in front of you right now. Not the pet you had 10 years ago, last year, or even last month. Who are they right now and what do they need right now? I’ve adopted the mindset that I get to constantly learn new things about Oso and am delighted to see who he’s going to be. That helps to take some of the sting out of watching him lose his youth. 


Narrow down options & prioritize: Seek advice from your pet’s team

Steps 4 & 5 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework are to narrow down your options and prioritize activities. I’ve talked quite a bit about how you might need a whole team of people to help a pet who is displaying behavior problems. I find that this is also true for senior pets. 

We’ve added more and more people to Oso’s team as he’s gotten older and I ask their advice to help me narrow down options for meeting his needs and what to prioritize. I recognize that there are nuances about the aging process that I’m not an expert in, but I can find someone who is! 

Here’s an example. In recent months I’ve noticed Oso displaying increased fear during windy days. It’s not uncommon for senior pets to develop increased anxiety to weather-related patterns (joint swelling is a thing for them, too!) Even though it’s typical, that doesn’t mean I’m okay with him being uncomfortable. Plus, him having to be under my desk on windy days isn’t great for me, either. 

I talked to Oso’s team about his new behavior. Knowing that I have a hard time being my own behavior consultant, I spoke with the Pet Harmony team about what I was seeing and got their feedback on my plan to move forward. I spoke with his vet and massage therapist. Each person had a slightly different perspective: a different element that mattered most to them. And that helped me to narrow down our options and prioritize what we would try first, second, and third in a way that was healthiest for Oso. 


Develop plan of action: Make sure it’s sustainable for you

Step 6 of the Enrichment Framework is to develop your plan of action. This is the who, what, when, and where of your decisions. I work with a lot of people who choose to put their pet’s needs and comforts first. Heck, I am one of those people! So I say this as much for myself as I do for you. 

When you look at your plan of action- how frequently you’re doing these activities, how much money you’re spending, how much time it takes- I want you to give yourself some grace to implement your plan in a sustainable way that allows you to also live your best life. For me, sustainability looks like asking myself the hard question, “Could I do this for the rest of Oso’s life?” 

Here’s an example. We recently rearranged our bedroom and loved the new layout. Well, the humans loved the new design. Oso: not so much. He decided there wasn’t enough space to be able to use his stairs (fair; he’s a long dog and we have small rooms). Although I was bummed, I figured out how I was going to decorate our room in stages so that I could change it to the new layout after Oso is no longer with us. His being able to sleep with us is something I absolutely do not want to give up for him or us and it was an annoying but ultimately easy decision. 

Compare that to the amount of money we’re eventually going to have to spend on physical therapy for him. There will come a point where our budget is simply not going to allow us to follow through with a recommendation that a specialist gives us (I’m assuming.) And while that will be a hard pill to swallow and I’ll likely write about all of those feelings in a future blog post (hopefully several years down the road), I know it will be the right decision for us in terms of sustainability. 

There will be elements you’re okay with doing for a couple of years but not longer. There will be activities that are just not tenable to do at all and others that are no-brainers. No one can make those decisions but you. Your quality of life is as important as theirs. I give you permission to create a plan that takes your sustainability into consideration. 


Implement & document: Ask your pet’s team what to look for

We’re finally here at the fun part: Step 7 Implement & Document. This is really no different than implementing an enrichment plan for a younger pet. My tip here, though, is to once again lean on your pet’s team and ask them what you should be documenting.

Again, there will be a lot of elements and nuances of your aging pet and you simply can’t be an expert in everything. That’s where that team comes in. I’ve asked Oso’s massage therapist what subtle signs I should look for to determine how well he’s moving. That’s something that I’m able to track in my head at the moment because she can also tell how he’s doing when massaging him. There’s someone else monitoring his mobility aside from me, there are several ways for us to notice this, and it’s evaluated monthly like clockwork.

In contrast, while discussing trialing pain medication his vet recently mentioned that it would be okay to give him a certain medication every now and then. I asked her how frequently that could be and what would happen if it was given more frequently. The result will simply be more frequent monitoring of his bloodwork. Makes sense! But because I’m the only one tracking it and the result does change our plan quite a bit due to safety concerns, you better believe I’m tracking this one on a calendar. I’m not willing to leave this element up to memory. 


Reassess, readdress, and do it again: evaluate frequently

The final step of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework is to Reassess, Readdress, and Do It Again. AKA: go through steps 1-7 again based on the information you just documented. When I work with folks who have puppies or adolescents, they often remark that just when they figure something out, their pet changes! This can be true for seniors, too. I evaluate Oso’s enrichment plan much more frequently now than I did a few years ago. 

The question that I get here is, “How do I know when to reevaluate Oso’s enrichment plan?” Well, the short answer is that I monitor his behavior and when I see a new pattern emerge that’s when I evaluate his plan. I know that’s a hard answer because it’s not black and white. If you’re someone who needs a more concrete answer, then I recommend evaluating quarterly. It’s common to see changes with changing weather (for all ages, not just seniors) and so you’ll catch those changes if you’re evaluating quarterly. If you’re seeing noticeable changes more frequently then examine more frequently. 


Now what?

  • Start at the beginning! Even if you don’t have a senior pet these tips can be applied. 
  • Plan first, do later. I know planning isn’t necessarily the fun part, but Steps 1-6 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework are how you work smarter, not harder. Strategic equals sustainable! Take some time to really develop your plan, but don’t get so attached to it that you’ll have a hard time changing it later. 
  • Do the thing! How long you implement will be determined by what you’re trialing. Diet changes can take a few months to see the full effect whereas a change in mental exercise can sometimes be seen in just a few days. 
  • Share your findings (or just cute pics of your senior pets) with us on social media @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram
  • Professionals- if you’re interested in how to do all of this with your clients, join us for our FREE webinar: How to Use an Enrichment Framework to Solve Behavior Challenges: 3 Strategies to Uplevel Your Consulting Skills for Happier Pets, Happier Clients, & a Better Career. You don’t want to miss this!


Happy training,


5 Free, Low-Cost, or DIY Enrichment Ideas for Dogs

If you’ve followed us for any amount of time, you know how much I love my dog, Oso. Chances are you’ve probably heard me call him the four-legged love of my life.

But as much as I love him, I don’t want to spend my entire paycheck on him. The good news is that I don’t have to in order to meet his needs! We do a lot of free, low-cost, and DIY enrichment options in my household. So today I want to share with you 5 ways that I meet Oso’s needs without spending a lot of money. 


DIY Destructible Dog Toys

I talk about these toys with my clients all the time and it’s something that I see excite folks over and over again. Destroying stuff is a species-typical behavior for dogs and while some haven’t gotten that memo, Oso definitely did. He loves destroying things! Destuffing and shredding stuffed toys is his jam. And while I occasionally raid the clearance bin at the pet store to find cheap stuffed toys for him to destroy, I typically opt for making my own out of literal garbage. When I tell clients that their dogs can do their doggy thing of destroying stuff in a safe, cheap way they are all for it. 

Looking to make your own? Check out this blog post about DIY destructible dog toys which includes a video of me making toys for Oso. 


Find It in the Grass

Snuffle mats are great, but they can sometimes be pricy. While we do have one at home and use it, we also use grass as nature’s snuffle mat. When the weather is warmer I’ll often throw part of his dinner kibble in the grass as a Find It game that takes extra brain power. He gets to forage, perform a species-typical behavior (sniffing), and gets mental stimulation all in one activity!


Opportunistic safe spaces

We get a lot of questions about non-food enrichment for dogs, so I wanted to make sure I included something in today’s list. While we often talk about setting up safe spaces using crates or comfy beds, they don’t have to be expensive. Oso has several safe spaces in our house. Some of those are dog beds we placed in areas that he was naturally gravitating towards. Others, though, were completely free for us! 

Oso prefers being in small spaces when he’s uncomfortable. Unfortunately for him, he’s a 90-lb dog and we have a small house. A crate that size just doesn’t work in our home. Fortunately for him, he was able to find his own safe spaces that meet his requirements of being in a confined space and also being near me or my partner. 


DIY Scratchboard

Nail trims can be a sore subject for many pet parents and professionals are not immune. Oso was not a fan of nail trims, so we opted to use a scratchboard to file his front nails instead. This provided us with a lot of wins: agency and the ability to consent to this procedure, easier for me than training for nail clippers, and cheaper than having a veterinary or grooming professional do them! I made his scratchboard out of a piece of plexiglass, sandpaper, and duct tape. When the sandpaper wears down I simply replace it. 

Below is a video of how I taught Oso to use a scratchboard to file his nails. 


Shaping for mental exercise

We talked about shaping as a method of getting a new behavior a few months ago in this blog post about different ways to get behavior. Essentially, shaping is capturing the baby steps towards an end goal behavior. I think of it like a staircase where the behavior you want is at the top of the stairs and you have to go through each step to get there. 

One of the reasons I love shaping is that it’s a great option for mental exercise for many pets. Solving a new problem requires more brain power than performing a tried and true trick! While there are plenty of fun shaping toys out there, I usually opt for something lying around my house. Even our cute Halloween trick that I recently shared was shaped with a Halloween bucket I had lying around.

Sometimes I’ll use an empty bin, a bottle, or one of Oso’s preexisting things like toys or beds. I always make sure to use an item that I don’t mind him interacting with after we’re done training or that I can safely put away until next time. has a lot of great ideas for behaviors and tricks to shape if you’re stuck!


Now what?

  • Is there an enrichment category or activity that you don’t do as frequently because it can be expensive? That’s the best place to start if you’re thinking about switching out costly activities for free, low-cost, or DIY options. 
  • Think through how you can meet your pet’s needs in that enrichment category in a cheaper way. The internet has a ton of ideas, though make sure you’re taking a descriptive instead of a prescriptive approach when experimenting with new activities. 
  • Start experimenting with those new activities to see how well they meet your pet’s needs! We should see the animal willingly participating in the activity AND move the needle closer to our goal behaviors. 

Happy training!


Meeting Everyone’s Needs During the Holidays

Holidays can be a magical time, but they can also be a… stressful time. There can be a whole lot of obligation, negotiating, and compromising during this time of year– and that’s just between the humans! When you add in a pet with behavior issues this task can go from daunting to seemingly impossible. 

One of the topics I discuss most frequently at this time of year with my clients is how to navigate the holiday season in a way that meets their pets’ needs, while also meeting their needs. Our Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework is all about meeting the needs of everyone involved- regardless of species- after all! Below are some of the most common topics I find myself discussing with clients to help them keep the peace.


Your pet does not need to attend your holiday party

There. I said it. You can absolutely still host a holiday party but one of the easiest ways to meet everyone’s needs during the holiday is to have your pet not be there. If you have a pet exhibiting stress, fear, or aggression around people, they don’t want to attend your holiday party. And, as I tell my clients, you probably don’t want them there either! It’s a lot to ask of anyone to manage their pet and host a successful holiday shindig at the same time. I know I would struggle with juggling those two things. 

There are several ways to make this happen depending on what makes the most sense for your pet, household, and situation. For some folks, this is as easy as keeping the party on the main level and their pet on a different level of the house. If you have a ranch house as I do, your pet can hang out in a bedroom or office space that people won’t be entering. For some of my clients, this strategy means their pet going over to someone else’s house or being boarded for the day. 


Ex-pens are your best friend

Exercise pens are like playpens made for dogs. But I more frequently use them to keep dogs out or away from something than keep them in! Christmas trees with presents under them can be asking for trouble. If you’re worried about how to keep your holiday traditions alive while also keeping your pet away from decorations, ex-pens are a great solution. Will it look as aesthetically pleasing as it would without the pen? I won’t lie to you- no. Will it save you a lot of headaches and possible heartache? Yes. To me, the tradeoff is worth it.


You can find exercise pens here!

(Disclosure: the muzzle links 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!) 


Holiday traditions can be very… human

Obviously, humans created human holiday traditions. What I mean by this is that we can’t expect our pets of different species to care about holiday traditions and react in the same way as we would a human. Unrealistic expectations can lead to conflict. 

Here’s an example. Every year for Christmas we get Oso a new jolly ball. He runs around the yard with it for about 2 minutes and then proceeds to start destroying it. If a human started immediately destroying their gift, I would be disheartened. In this situation, I have to remember that Oso is a dog, who doesn’t understand Christmas or gift-giving, and that destroying stuff is the way that he enjoys interacting with toys. 

From an animal’s perspective, putting costumes on can be weird and uncomfortable. Sitting next to a stranger with a big hat and beard while someone takes your picture is weird. Bringing a tree inside the house that you’re not allowed to pee on when you’re allowed to pee on every other tree is weird! Humans have weird rules and behaviors, especially around the holidays. 

If all of this brings you joy, go for it! However, keep in mind that your pet has a different perspective and may not want to share in all of your traditions. We have a holiday bow tie collar for Oso so he can look dapper (which brings me joy) but also not make him uncomfortable. 



‘Tis the Season for Flexible Thinking 

These are just a few examples that I talk through with my clients around this time of year, but of course, there are many more situations that can arise during the holidays! My best recommendation is to remain flexible in your thinking when it comes to meeting both your and your pet’s needs. We can get into trouble when we develop false dichotomies: either we have to do it this one particular way or we can’t do it at all. It’s either Plan A or Plan B. In reality, there are usually Plans C, D, E, F, and G out there which will get us closer to what we’re looking for. I find that much of my job as an animal behavior consultant is developing all of those different options with my clients!


Now what?

  • Is there a part of the holiday season that you’re dreading in relation to your pet? Something that worries you or makes you tense? Let’s start there. 
  • The first question to ask is: what are my options? Again, there’s probably more out there than just Plan A or Plan B! There are a lot of management options, like ex-pens, in addition to different ways to approach a situation. Once you know your options, it’s much easier to think through what the best one is. (If you’re struggling here, this is where a professional can help!)
  • Go through your options to determine which will best meet your needs while also meeting your pet’s needs. Remember to look through this from multiple perspectives, not just the human one. 
  • Talk to everyone who needs to be involved in the plan so you feel 100% comfortable enacting it. Again, a professional can help with the details here and I especially recommend working with a behavior professional if you’re worried about any type of aggressive behavior. 

Happy training & happy holidays!


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!


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. 



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:



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. 



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 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 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 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 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! 



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. 



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!