5 Questions to Ask to Find the Right Dog Behaviorist, Behavior Consultant, or Dog Trainer

It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: the animal training fields are unregulated. What this means is that there are no requirements in order to declare yourself a dog (or bird, horse, etc.) trainer or behavior consultant, start a business, and charge people money for your services. And while the term “behaviorist” is typically reserved for professionals who have a higher-level degree in one of the animal behavior fields, it’s colloquially not used that way which adds further confusion. 

As a result, this profession is a lot like the Wild West. There’s a wide variety of methodologies, ideologies, and levels and types of expertise, but little to no professional accountability. This can make it scary and overwhelming to find good help if you need it. So many behavior professionals out there! And most of them sound very impressive and persuasive! But how do you know? Who can you trust? Who is telling the truth, and who isn’t? Who is effective and who isn’t? This is particularly daunting if you’ve already been burned, and wasted time and money on services that weren’t helpful to you. It takes a lot of bravery and determination to venture back into the Wild West when you’ve already been burned by it.

Despite these uncertainties, there are tools available that can increase the likelihood of finding a professional who can help you and your pet(s) in an efficient and compassionate way. And, in my humble opinion, the best tool in that particular toolbox is one that might sound as daunting and overwhelming as finding the right behavior professional for you! Hopefully, though, you won’t feel that way by the time you’re done reading this article.

The tool I’m referring to is a crucial component of critical thinking skills called epistemology, but you really don’t need to remember that word if it’s off-putting to you. Another way to think of epistemology is “the theory of knowledge”. In other words: what do we actually know? And how do we know that what we know is true? How can we identify reliable, accurate information and distinguish it from misinformation and misleading half-truths?

By taking an epistemological approach to selecting an animal behavior professional, you don’t need to become a behavior expert yourself! You just need to learn how to ask yourself these five questions while looking for the right behavior professional for you:


Let’s break each of these questions down and talk about how they apply to finding the right behavior professional for you:


#1. Does the teacher have the qualifications they claim to have?

Because this is an unregulated profession that lacks a clear process for how and what to learn, what competencies to develop and demonstrate, and what kind of assessment process qualifies you to work as a professional within it, individuals and organizations within the field have come up with a seemingly endless list of letters that a person can put at the end of their name. It can make your head spin! Even people within the field struggle to keep track of them all.

But these letters don’t carry equal weight and validity, nor do the titles that go along with them.

Let’s take a look at the various types of titles that you might run across:


College degrees

There are a number of academic fields that can, at least in part, prepare someone for work as an animal trainer or behavior consultant. However, these degrees and their associated titles can be abused or misused in this profession.

For example, just because a person has a PhD at the end of their name doesn’t mean that their degree has anything to do with animal behavior, and therefore does not make them more or less qualified to work in this field. A person with a PhD in botany, for example, may be quite knowledgeable about botany. They may even be quite knowledgeable about animal behavior! But their PhD does not indicate competency in animal behavior.

The other side of that coin is where people give themselves misleading titles that indicate a formal education they do not possess. It is not uncommon to see on a dog trainer’s website that they claim to be a behaviorist, or an ethologist, or a psychologist, or any number of other, similar titles when in fact they have no formal education in any related field.

Action item: check their website to see what, specifically, their degree(s) are in.


Professional certifications

There are a few professional certifications available to animal trainers. These are created by certifying bodies (organizations) which have created a clear rubric for what competency looks like for each certification they offer. People have to go through some kind of assessment process (usually an exam, with or without submitting videos of their training, submitting a client log, submitting case studies and scenarios, or other demonstrations of competency) which is submitted and graded anonymously to prevent the examiner’s bias for or against the individual from influencing their assessment.

It is rare, but every once in a while you may encounter a trainer who claims to have a certification they don’t actually have, or will make up a certification altogether. For example, we once encountered a trainer who claimed to be a certified behavior consultant through Pet Harmony, even though this person had never been through any of our courses or programs–and even if they had, we don’t offer certifications of any kind!

Action item: Do a web search to find the organization that offers the certification. Because several professions may use the same letters, you will probably have to be somewhat specific in your search (e.g. “CDBC dog certification”). Then look at their directory to confirm that the professional you’re looking at is, indeed, listed.


Technical certifications

By far and away, these are the most abundant types of certifications available in this profession. Unlike professional certifications, any behavior professional can create a course or a program of some kind and then create a certification for it. They typically operate alone, therefore lack the professional consensus of a certifying body. These certifications are usually given upon completion of the course without requiring any kind of proof of competency. And even if there is some kind of exam, it typically lacks the anonymity of a professional certification assessment.

To be clear, I’m not saying that these certifications lack any value or merit whatsoever! But all they really indicate is that someone completed a course of some kind and therefore may have a higher degree of proficiency at the specific techniques taught in that course than someone who hasn’t completed it. These certifications really don’t indicate overall competency, efficacy, or ethical comportment.

Furthermore, these certifications are the easiest to abuse. It’s much harder to tell whether someone has actually completed the course associated with the certification. A trainer who has a whole string of these letters at the end of their name may be enthusiastic about learning lots of different techniques, or they may be using those letters to project an inflated sense of competency. Be especially wary of anyone who creates a certification and then uses their own letters at their end of their name. Self-certification is sketchy at best.

Action item 1: Don’t be dazzled by a string of letters. Remain neutral and curious.

Action item 2: If someone is self-certifying, proceed with caution.


Professional memberships

The last type of title you might see at the end of someone’s name isn’t actually letters at all, but a series of numbers preceded by a pound sign. All that means is that they are sharing their membership number from a professional organization. Professional memberships require nothing more than paying a fee. That’s it. Not only do these numbers indicate literally nothing about an individual’s qualifications, this practice is almost always a ploy to project an inflated sense of competency. To the untrained eye, the more letters and numbers you have at the end of your name, the more impressive you are!

Action item: If someone is using their membership number as a title, proceed with extreme caution.


#2. Do they cite their sources?

As this profession grows and evolves, we are collectively developing more of an awareness of the behavior sciences and how they impact what we do. That is a good thing! And we are moving in the right direction! However, this budding interest in science means that we are still far from achieving scientific literacy, as a whole. As a result, it has become quite popular across methodologies to throw around scientific terminology and make confident assertions about what science says. This can be as alluring as it is confusing. If one trainer is using fancy words and confidently claiming that science says one thing, and another trainer is using equally fancy words and confidently claiming that science says something mutually exclusive, who do we believe? Is it all just a matter of opinion or perception? Or schools of thought?

We could devote our lives to investigating these questions, but fortunately you don’t need to become a professional philosopher to get some practical, nuts-and-bolts answers that can provide you with some guidance.

A good place to start is by simply asking the behavior professional to back their claims by citing their sources. That’s at least a first step towards gauging the reliability of the professional you’re considering hiring.

Action item: If a behavior professional is providing information that they claim is based in science, ask them to show you the literature supporting their claims. If they can’t or won’t, proceed with caution.


#3. Are their sources sound?

So let’s say you get those citations from the behavior professional you’ve been talking to. Now what?

Again, this is a deep well that we could dive into if we wanted to. There’s a reason that epistemology and related critical thinking skills are taught over multiple courses; there’s a whole lot of ground to cover! But again, you don’t have to become an expert to learn some basic red flags to look out for.


Scenario 1

If their claim is based in science but their source is a webpage, an opinion piece, a YouTube video, a popular book (that itself lacks rigorous citation) or really anything other than primary literature, that right there is a huge red flag. A scientific claim should have a scientific source.

Action item: Investigate what the citation actually leads to.


Scenario 2

If their citations are actual research papers, that’s great! And also, it’s worthwhile to see if those papers were published by a predatory journal. Publication in a predatory journal doesn’t immediately invalidate the paper, it just means that there was no peer review process, so the paper is more likely to have serious methodological flaws that wouldn’t pass the rigor of the peer review process.

To be clear, the peer review process is in itself flawed, and even highly regarded peer-reviewed papers can have methodological flaws. The scientific process is imperfect because it’s being performed by humans, and humans are imperfect. But the beauty of working within the scientific framework is that it is a transparent, accountable, and self-correcting process. Our goal isn’t to get a 100% guarantee; it is to reduce risk.

Action item: Investigate whether the citation was published in a reputable journal.


Scenario 3

If a professional is not making a claim based in science, we can still ask the question, “How do we know that this claim is true?” For example, if a trainer is claiming that they have 100% success with their clients, it wouldn’t make sense to ask them to cite a research paper proving that their claim is true. But we could ask them, “How are you making that assessment?”

If they say something like, “We follow up with our clients 1 month, 6 months, 1 year, and 5 years after they graduate from our program to see if the skills they have learned from us continue to serve them well and their pets continue to pass the welfare and quality of life metrics we have provided for them, and every single client has remained successful up to 5 years after graduation,” ok! That’s a pretty solid assessment on which to base the claim that they have 100% success! Let’s set aside the fact that a 100% success rate is highly improbable; if they were to have kept that level of documentation, it is more likely that their claim is accurate. Anything short of that, however, may indicate that the trainer either doesn’t know enough to really know how to make such assessments or is intentionally misleading people in their marketing.

Action item: Ask them, “How are you making that assessment?” in response to personal claims.


#4. Do they use precise language?

We at Pet Harmony have a mantra that we use to remind ourselves and our colleagues to exercise some intellectual humility: 

Undereducation overstates.

What we mean is that, the less we know about a topic, the more likely we are to make overstatements, broad generalizations, and confident assertions. We’re more likely to speak in absolutes like “always”, “never”, or give confident predictions about future events.

Conversely, the more we learn about a topic, the more cautious and precise we become in our language, our predictions, and our assertions. 

If someone is using grandiose language in their messaging, be wary. These are just a few examples of the kind of overstatements that you might encounter:

  • Claims to be the world’s best dog trainer
  • Claims to be revolutionizing the industry, or that they’re introducing something completely new and never before seen
  • Claims to have 100% success rate or offers a 100% guarantee
  • Claims to be fluent in multiple scientific disciplines despite a lack of any degrees in any of those disciplines
  • Claims that science has proven that their system works or is correct or is the best
  • Really, claims that science has “proven” anything

This one can be a little bit tricky, because SEO and marketing consultants often teach business owners to use grandiose language, and it can be admittedly difficult to find a balance between writing website copy that is accurate while still writing copy that is good for SEO. There are gray areas on our own website that made us all squeamish and ended up being a compromise between what was suggested and what we ideally would have preferred to say! But when in doubt, ask the behavior professional what they meant by those statements. If they stand behind the hyperbole and insist that yes, they really are the world’s best dog trainer, or yes, their system really is changing the whole industry, or yes, they really can predict your pet’s future behavior with perfect accuracy, that’s a red flag.

Action item: Identify hyperbole and ask for clarification.


#5. Are they receptive to questions and constructive feedback?

From my personal perspective, this last one is arguably the most important one. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re doing the best we can with the information and resources we have available to us at the time. I have made more mistakes, more overstatements, and been wrong more times than I can count. Many of those times have been very public. It happens to all of us. And! When I learn better, I correct my errors and change my behavior.

So someone could fail all of the criteria above, but if you asked them about it, gave them constructive feedback, and offered them resources to learn and do better, and they were willing to learn and grow and change their behavior and do better, they could still end up being a great partner in helping you to achieve your goals. Demonstrating a willingness to exchange knowledge rather than insisting on being right and maintaining some kind of unidirectional power dynamic goes a long, long way in how effective they can be at helping you.

Action item: If you have any concerns about any red flags, talk to them about it! Observe how they respond. 


In summary…

At the end of the day, remember that these are just guidelines to help you mitigate risk and increase the chances of choosing a behavior professional who will be effective at helping you to reach your goals in a way that meets both your and your pet’s needs. There are no guarantees. There could, hypothetically, be someone who fails all of the above criteria but still ends up being great for you. Conversely, just because someone passes all of the above criteria with flying colors doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be a good fit for you. These are techniques to help you gauge how reliable someone’s information is–no more, no less. It may still take you a few tries to find the right behavior professional for you, just like it sometimes takes a few tries to find the right doctor or the right therapist or the right personal trainer. Keep at it! You and your pet deserve to enjoy success and find harmony within your home.


Now what?

Happy training, 


January 2023 Training Challenge: Identify Where the Sunk Cost Fallacy Might be Bogging You Down

Alright, if you’ve been following us for any amount of time, you’ll know that we like to start by defining our terms. When you read the title of this blog post, you may have thought to yourself, “What’s the sunk cost fallacy?” So let’s define it! The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency we have to stick with something that isn’t serving us well because we’ve already invested time, money, effort, or any other resource into it. Think of the old adage, “in for a penny, in for a pound”, and that’s pretty much what we’re talking about here.

This happens to humans a lot. It happens to me a lot. It’s hard to walk away from something that you’ve put a lot of yourself into. It can also be hard to walk away from something that you put a lot of money into but didn’t get what you felt was your money’s worth of use out of. It can also be hard to walk away from a relationship that you put a lot of emotional investment into but for any number of reasons is no longer healthy for you.


There are just so dang many reasons it can be hard to let go.

And to be fair, sometimes we shouldn’t let go! Just because something is hard or temporarily unpleasant doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t good for us. Sometimes it’s important to see something through. 

For example, if we’re tracking progress and seeing that what we’re doing is working, it’s just taking longer than we had originally hoped, it might be in our best interest to stay the course. 

Another example: if we feel that a course or service is a waste of our money because we think we already know everything being taught, but we can’t answer basic questions about our progress in the course, it may be that we skimmed the surface and made some assumptions, but need to dive deeper in order to benefit from our investment. 

And another example: if we’re creating something new and we’re making a lot of mistakes and sacrifices along the way, and that process is really scary and uncomfortable, but the potential outcome is worth all of that pain? Stick with it!


This is why it’s important to examine the thing we’ve invested in and ask ourselves some important questions:

  • What was my goal when I originally invested in this?
  • What is my goal currently? 
  • Does this investment have a high probability of helping me to attain my goal?
  • Is it doing so in a way that is healthy and sustainable?
  • Is there a way to stay with my investment and make it more healthy and sustainable?
  • How am I making these assessments? Do I have evidence or am I basing my answers on my feelings?


If we conclude from our assessment that the course, service, relationship, mindset, or whatever else we’ve invested in isn’t serving a good purpose in our life, we need to let it go and move on. Life is hard enough without carrying a lot of unnecessary baggage.

This is especially important if we’re already feeling overwhelmed and overburdened. Because of my own tendency to overcommit myself, I periodically have to pause, step back, and do an inventory of everything that I’ve currently invested in to determine what I can let go of and what I need to see through to the end. After these sessions, my life feels much more doable.

That doesn’t mean these inventories are easy! Letting go of something you’ve invested in can give us some big feels. I can’t speak for you, but for me, when I find myself clinging to something that I know I need to let go of, it’s because of this narrative that happens in my head: “You’re wasting even more [time/ money/ emotion/ insert resource here] than you already have! You’ve got to stop being so wasteful! If you walk away from this now, you might as well have just set that [resource] on fire!” What helps me in those situations is to change my mindset. Dropping sandbags when you’re drowning isn’t wasteful, it’s lifesaving. 

Plus, those investments weren’t a total waste. If we allow ourselves to learn from the situation, we do get something valuable out of them. Try some of these on for size:

“I learned that I already have a good handle on this aspect of my profession, so I can feel good about my current knowledge and skills in that area.”

“I learned that this isn’t where I need to focus my energies, and that my niche is actually in another direction.”

“I learned that my path has diverged from that person’s, and while I enjoyed the time when our paths ran together, it’s time for us to explore different paths.”

“I learned that this training approach is not for me or my pet, so I am free to explore something else.”

“I learned that there’s an entirely different way to view the world and think about how I move through it.”

The more we practice letting things go that no longer serve us, the easier it is to do, and the better we get at it. And the better we are at keeping our resources and investments streamlined, the more free we will be to grow, improve, and really enjoy the things that benefit us the most.

And that’s a price worth paying.


Now what?

  • Whether you’re a pet parent or a pet professional, we all fall trap to the sunk cost fallacy. As we move into the new year, take stock of the last year.
    • Pet parents, is your enrichment plan serving you and your pet, or is there something that is bogging you down? Step into the new year committed to sustainability.
    • Pet professionals, is your business serving you? Do you feel satisfied and confident through your processes with your clients, or do you often find yourself caught in the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” loop? Our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Class is geared toward helping professionals find the structure and systems that serve them, and in turn, their clients, and their pets. The next round starts on January 18th, so register now. 

Pain Doesn’t Always Look Like Pain


Think back to a time when you have been in pain. 

Now let’s get more specific: think back to a time when you have been in pain and you’ve tried not to show it. There are lots of reasons to not outwardly show that you’re in pain. Maybe you don’t trust that people around you will be empathetic if you show pain. Maybe you have coworkers who accuse you of faking it to get sympathy. Maybe you feel pressure to perform, and demonstrating pain might get in the way or disqualify you somehow. Maybe you’ve been taught that demonstrating pain is dramatic or weak or shameful. There are lots of reasons that we don’t want to let others know that we’re in pain.

One more thought exercise: think about a time when you develop a growing awareness that you’re in pain. Maybe you’ve been excited about something, and only as the adrenaline fades do you start to realize that something hurts. Or maybe it’s a weird, new, amorphous kind of pain that doesn’t feel familiar and isn’t something you can easily identify. You don’t feel good, but you can’t really articulate what exactly doesn’t feel good–or even what it feels like, for that matter.

Ok, so by now you’ve probably started to realize that pain is complicated. Pain isn’t always obvious–to ourselves or to others. And pain can look and feel like a lot of different things.


Non-humans aren’t humans…

Want an added layer of complexity? (Don’t say no! Hear me out!) Now let’s imagine how exponentially more complicated communicating and identifying pain can be across species. Up until now, this entire conversation has been happening between two humans. At least, that’s my assumption. (Feel free to let me know if you’re from another planet or dimension!)

We know that non-human animals experience pain, but we don’t know how they think about their pain. We can’t ask them about their perception of what pain means to them. What we do know is that pain is extremely complicated in all species, and it isn’t always as obvious as we’d like it to be.

This means that you’re not a bad pet owner if you missed recognizing a pain response. You aren’t neglecting your pet! This stuff is just hard sometimes.


…But we share a lot of commonalities

So why am I talking about pain in a blog about behavior? Let’s revisit those thought exercises about the times you’ve been in pain. Does being in pain change your behavior? Do you avoid activities you’d otherwise enjoy? Are you quieter? Louder? Crankier? More anxious? Less patient? More quick to judge or criticize or snap at someone? Less interested in being touched?

Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

In many cases, when we see a change in behavior – especially (though not always) when that change is sudden and has no obvious explanation – it indicates that pain is the culprit. And you simply cannot out-train pain. So, in those situations, if we want to change the behavior, we have to identify and treat (or at least manage) the pain.

We cannot expect our pets to handle their pain more gracefully than we handle ours.


Subtle signs of pain

Here’s the tricky part: how can we identify pain in our pets when it isn’t obvious? It doesn’t always look like limping or crying. This is the part that can be super tricky, but here are some of the common signs that an animal might be experiencing pain:

Loss of appetite

If your otherwise snackalicious pet has suddenly decided to turn up their nose at food, pain might be the culprit. We don’t always want to eat a lot when we’re hurting, either.

Twitching skin

If you’ve ever watched horses’ skin twitch when a fly lands on them, you know what I’m talking about here. If your pet’s skin starts twitching but there aren’t any flies present, that might be a pain response.

Trembling muscles

It’s totally normal for muscles to tremble after long physical exertion or when an animal is cold or scared, but if their muscles are trembling even when they’re at rest, it could be a sign of pain.

Sudden orientation towards a body part

If your pet suddenly swings their head around and stares at a specific body part, they might be experiencing an acute, sharp pain in that part of their body.

Sudden orientation towards your hand when you touch them

If your pet is mostly fine when you touch them, but suddenly orients towards your hand when you touch a specific part of their body, that might be an ouchie spot for them. This is especially true if they growl, snap, or bite.

Compulsively licking a body part

When I use the word “compulsive” here, I mean “to the point of self-harm.” There are lots of animals who like to lick themselves for long periods as a part of their self-soothing wind-down, and that’s totally ok! But if they’re licking so much that they’re losing hair in that area or even starting to damage their skin, that might be a sign of pain. It’s not always skin allergies, either! For example, licking their paws can be a sign of compressed vertebrae damaging nerves and causing root signature neuropathies. Or licking their belly can be a sign of some kind of GI distress.

Reduced range of motion

If your pet won’t raise their head above their shoulders, stop themselves before completing a full stretch, seem to walk and trot just fine but won’t break into a full run anymore, or otherwise don’t move their body to its fullest extent anymore–you guessed it, it could be pain.

And of course, as mentioned earlier, any sudden, inexplicable behavior change – especially an increase in avoidance and/or irritability – can in itself be an indication of pain.


So what do we do about it?

If you see any of these signals in your pet, the first step is to see your veterinarian. Be as specific as possible when describing what you’re seeing. Vets aren’t mind-readers, and there are a mountain of possibilities to sift through. So if you just say, “I think my pet is in pain,” that doesn’t give them a whole lot to go on. They can do a basic exam, but not a whole lot more than that. Telling them exactly what you’re seeing and when you’re seeing it lets them know what exactly they should be examining, and can help them to figure out what diagnostics to run.


Circling back is an option!

If your vet can’t find anything wrong, you can always get a second opinion, but also take care not to get too focused on the pain angle. We often see the pendulum swing from “Unaware That Pain Is A Possibility” to “Fixated On Pain As The Explanation”. 

A good behavior consultant will work with you even if your vet hasn’t been able to identify a medical cause for your pet’s behavior issues. In some cases, it isn’t physical pain after all, but a behavioral issue that manifests as pain. In other cases, as we work through enrichment and skill-building and systematically address some of the behavior issues, we’re able to better identify the medical component later on, and come back to the vet with more helpful information.

The important thing is to start by ruling out medical issues to the best of your and your vet’s abilities first, and if nothing comes from that, we can do the best we can with the information and resources we have to address the behavior issues in front of us. The thing about both physical and behavioral health is that it can be a journey, and that’s ok.


Now what? 

  • If you suspect that your pet is experiencing some pain, make an appointment with your vet to assess your pet. 
  • If you aren’t sure how to talk to your vet about what you’re seeing, check out this blog that helps you to organize and verbalize your observations, The Intersection Between Health and Behavior
  • If you are seeing some undesirable behavior and you don’t suspect pain, we’d love to join you and your pet on your behavior modification journey. You can get started here

Happy training,


Wasp Training

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


A few summers ago, my partner and I decided to do some container gardening. This involved filling a watering can at the faucet in the backyard to water the plants every day. One day, as the summer was really starting to heat up, I noticed that a ground wasp of some sort was loitering on the faucet.

I have always been afraid of wasps. Bees? Love ‘em. Spiders? They’re my friends. Cockroaches? Fascinating little buggers. But wasps? At the time, I didn’t understand why they existed and I was really scared of them.

I could feel myself starting to panic: Oh no! How am I going to get water now? Am I already too close? Is the wasp going to sting me?

But then, my behavior brain started to kick in. I recognized my panic and started to intentionally slow my breathing. I reminded myself what I already know about behavior in all species: All behavior has function. What is the wasp’s body language telling me? What need is the wasp trying to meet?

I stood still and focused on just observing the wasp’s behavior. The wasp seemed completely oblivious of me. I’m no wasp body language expert, but in general, the wasp looked fairly relaxed: their movements were slow and deliberate, the abdomen wasn’t lifted, and the wings were in a resting position. The longer I observed the wasp, the more clear their motivation became to me: they were trying to get water from the faucet.

Of course! This makes sense! The temperature was in the triple digits, and the closest body of water was the Great Salt Lake about 10 miles away. Finding water in this part of the world must be quite a challenge for little critters like wasps. The longer I watched this wasp trying, in vain, to drink water from the faucet, the more I could feel my fear being replaced by empathy.

I went inside the house, poured some water into a cup, then came back outside. I grabbed one of the extra terra cotta plant pot saucers lying around on our porch and poured the water into the saucer. Then I slowly, carefully approached the wasp and held the water-filled saucer a few inches away from the faucet.

Sure enough, the wasp flew from the faucet to the edge of the saucer and started drinking! I tentatively placed the saucer on the ground a few feet away from the faucet, then filled my watering can with water and went about the business of watering my plants.

The next day, when I went out to water the plants, a wasp was at the faucet again. I assumed it was the same wasp from the day before, and this time I knew exactly what to do. I filled the saucer with water again, gently placed it on the ground a few feet away, and went about my business as usual.

As the days went by, I noticed that the wasp seemed to be learning our routine. They started flying to the saucer before I got all the way up to the faucet, and then flying farther distances to get to the saucer. At some point, I decided to try just taking the glass of water directly to the saucer sitting on the ground where I normally left it to see if the wasp would fly directly to it. Sure enough, the wasp did.

Then, one day, the wasp saw me coming and flew straight to the saucer. I hadn’t even put water in it yet! I approached the saucer, poured the water in, and the wasp immediately started drinking. That became our routine for the rest of the summer: I’d bring water out to the saucer, the wasp would fly from the faucet to the saucer to drink water, and I could use the faucet without having to worry about getting into conflict with the wasp. 

Moreover, I felt really happy that I had been able to overcome my fear of the wasp by applying what I know about behavior to a species that I’ve always been afraid of. What I had initially viewed as a dangerous foe had since become my little wasp friend–a creature who had needs and for whom I was able to meet those needs. I realized that I had even started to look forward to seeing my wasp friend in what had become our daily ritual.

Then I wondered: does the wasp recognize me? Or is the wasp just making a connection between human figure approaches = water appears in saucer?

Several months later, I stumbled across an article explaining that both bees and wasps can recognize human faces. I thought back to my little ground wasp and felt some sense of satisfaction that my wasp friend did, in fact, recognize me. There’s something nice about being The Water Human as opposed to just being a faceless water harbinger.

The whole experience was really special to me because it reminded me of some general principles that I already knew but got to experience in a whole new way:

  • Overcoming fear starts with being aware of our fear response and processing it mindfully.
  • Knowledge, observation, and understanding dissipate fear and can allow us to replace fear with empathy.
  • If an animal is alive, they can learn.
  • We, as a species, tend to consistently underestimate the capabilities of non-humans, and research continues to prove us wrong.
  • Meeting needs, establishing communication, and building trust is the best way to prevent conflict, even with animals that are typically thought of as mindless violence machines. 🙂
  • That said, I feel it’s important to give this disclaimer because I can anticipate what I said above being taken to a dangerous extreme: in general, it’s not a good idea to try to make friends with wildlife–both for their safety and for ours. I wouldn’t advocate going around befriending every wasp you see, much less lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). I just so happened to have the fortunate opportunity to teach this wasp how to move away from my faucet because interacting with this particular animal was unavoidable. But please don’t try giving water bowls to your local bobcats because you read this article! Safety, as always, for both humans and non-humans, comes first.

Happy Training,



Simple, but precise

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Animal training professions are unregulated, which means that anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a dog trainer. As a result, there is a wide variety of advice about animal training on the internet and in real life, and in many cases, unfortunately, dog trainers put more emphasis on marketing themselves than in learning about ethical, compassionate, science-based behavior change techniques.

One of the outcomes of this phenomenon is that there are a lot of highly effective marketing campaigns that sell people on how quick and easy their “system” is. If you have a dog with behavior issues that range from being a nuisance to being downright dangerous, who wouldn’t want a solution that is quick and easy and requires almost no effort on your part? Of course that sounds appealing. It’s a perfectly natural thing to want that.

The problem is that those quick fix techniques are the modern day equivalent of snake oil. They work by shutting down behaviors. It is, in fact, quick and easy to shut down a behavior in many cases. But shutting down behavior is problematic for many reasons. Although we don’t have the time in this article to go into those reasons in-depth, a quick summary boils down to this: shutting down behavior is like masking a symptom of disease rather than diagnosing and treating the disease itself. It’s like giving cough syrup to someone with lung cancer to make the cough go away instead of diagnosing and treating the cancer itself.

If we truly care about the animals in our care, we care about their physical, behavioral, and emotional health. Which means that we want to address the root cause of behavior issues, identify and meet their needs, and teach them life skills to help them navigate the world more safely and successfully. And because behavior is a complex interplay of multiple complex systems, that isn’t always a quick and easy process (although sometimes it can be!).

We can’t wish away the complexity of behavior, nor should we try.

That said, a good trainer or behavior consultant should do two things for their clients:

  1. Take the simplest approach possible.
  2. And when a simple approach isn’t possible, they should break the complexities down into a series of simple steps.

We often have clients tell us, “I can’t believe how simple this is!” And yes! In many cases we can break things down into small enough steps that each step feels very simple and doable for our clients.

But here’s the other catch: these steps are simple, yes, but they are also by necessity precise. In many cases people may try to implement a simple strategy, but it doesn’t work for them because of one tiny detail that makes a world of difference. I tell my clients all the time, “The devil’s in the details.” And it’s those little details that can trip us up.

Sometimes a client will tell us, “I followed the training plan 100%, but it’s not working.” We can hear the defensiveness in their voices. We can see that they think we think they’re lying and they haven’t really done the work. Or they’re thinking, “Have I been lied to? Does this method even work, really?” In reality, we believe them! It’s easy to follow a training plan almost entirely but miss a small detail that makes a big difference. And that’s just the reality of working with complex sentient beings!

So instead of trying to find someone who will give you the simplest, quickest solution possible, find someone who will help you fully navigate every aspect of your pet’s physical, behavioral, and emotional health in ways that feel simple and doable to you.


Now what?

  • If you find that the training plan you’ve been given is too overwhelming, let your consultant know. Don’t be afraid to ask them to break it down into smaller, simpler steps for you.
  • If what you’re trying isn’t working, work with your consultant to make sure there aren’t any details that may have fallen through the cracks.
  • If you are a current or aspiring behavior professional who wants to learn how to break complex behavioral journeys into simple, sustainable steps for your clients, we’ve developed the Pet Harmony Mentorship Program to empower our students to become competent, confident, compassionate behavior consultants. We welcome you to join us!

The Intersection Between Health and Behavior

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Most people might be surprised to learn how often medical issues influence behavior issues. If you think about it from our perspective, though, it makes sense. When we’re sick or in pain, we might have less energy or, conversely, be more agitated. We don’t perform as well, and tasks that usually come easily to us feel like a slog. We might have less patience or a lower frustration tolerance. Likewise, if we’re anxious or depressed, we’re more likely to cry or shut down or lash out. When thinking about it from a human standpoint, it seems obvious that physical or mental illness changes our behavior. And yet, when it comes to our pets and their behavior issues, we usually jump straight to training without considering potential health factors. But if there is an underlying medical issue influencing the behavior, no amount of training is going to make that go away. Without acknowledging and addressing the root cause, we’ll just be spinning our wheels.

I practically grew up in the veterinary world. As a young girl I thought I wanted to go to vet school, so I was very excited when my 4H club took us on a field trip to tour the local vet school. While on the tour, our tour guide told us, “It’s not enough to get good grades if you want to get into veterinary school. You also have to have a lot of experience with animals.” I took that advice literally, and started volunteering in an animal shelter and a vet clinic when I was 11 years old. That was the beginning of a total of 23 years in veterinary settings in a variety of capacities. One of the reasons I became a behavior consultant was because I saw how deeply physical and mental health influences behavioral health – and vice versa – in seemingly limitless ways. And yet I still, more than three decades after I started, encounter new and surprising cases on a regular basis.


Charlie and his Sneaky Illness

Not too long ago, I worked with a client who had a 3 year old German Shepherd who was reactive to strangers and would sometimes guard food and objects from his owners. The client reported his behavior as unpredictable: sometimes he was reactive and sometimes he wasn’t; sometimes he would guard things from them and sometimes he wouldn’t. Usually, when a client tells me that their pet’s behavior is unpredictable, that means I have the opportunity to teach them how to better read their pet’s body language and how to observe changes in the environment that affect their pet’s behavior. But in Charlie’s case, as we worked together, and the clients honed their body language and observation skills, and Charlie learned some useful life skills, it became apparent that Charlie’s behavior was, in fact, being influenced by something beyond what we were observing.

I suggested that they take Charlie to their vet to rule out any medical issues. The vet did an exam and some basic wellness diagnostics, but didn’t find anything. She sent them home with an anti-anxiety medication, which did improve his behavior somewhat, for a while.

Over time, however, Charlie’s behavior got worse, even on the medication. And what made it even more difficult for the client was that they reported he was less food motivated–which had never been a problem for him before. He was overall more agitated, had difficulty resting, and no longer slept through the night. They tried exercising him more, but that didn’t seem to help at all. In fact, he resisted their attempts to take him out for walks.

Then something occurred to me. Charlie always looked to me like a smooth-coated German Shepherd. I never questioned it; I just assumed he was. So I asked the client if he was single-coated or double-coated? She seemed a little offended by the question, and said that they got Charlie from a reputable breeder who only bred double-coated dogs. I asked her if Charlie’s coat, then, had always been that thin? Her eyes widened, she looked at Charlie carefully, as if seeing him for the first time, then turned back to me, “You know, I never noticed before but… I think you’re right. Now that I’m thinking about it, he used to be really fluffy, and he isn’t anymore.”

There’s a disease called Schmidt’s Syndrome that is a combination of both hypothyroidism and Addison’s disease. It can be difficult to identify because each of those diseases have some opposite symptoms: hypothyroidism typically causes increased appetite; Addison’s typically causes decreased appetite. Hypothyroidism typically causes weight gain; Addison’s typically causes weight loss. But both diseases can cause hair loss and increased agitation and yet, paradoxically, also lethargy.

My dog Brie has Schmidt’s Syndrome. She became symptomatic around Charlie’s age. Hair loss and increased agitation were her first noticeable symptoms as well. I, too, didn’t notice the hair loss until it was significant, because when you look at a dog all day every day, you don’t notice gradual changes. She, also, didn’t gain weight. She, also, lost her appetite. Her vet, also, didn’t find anything significant in the standard wellness diagnostics for a dog her age.

It is both irresponsible and unethical for a non-veterinary behavior professional to give a medical diagnosis to a client, so I didn’t tell Charlie’s owners my suspicions. I did, however, give them a list of very specific symptoms to relay to their vet, along with very specific questions to ask. 

Because the client was able to give their vet more salient information, the vet was able to perform the right diagnostic tests. And sure enough, Charlie had Schmidt’s Syndrome. Within days of getting him on the appropriate medication, Charlie’s behavior started to improve. All the skills his owners had been teaching him suddenly fell into place. He didn’t just know how to do things; he was now able to do them. Life with Charlie became easier and more predictable.


What Did Charlie Teach Us?

Charlie’s journey made it clear to me that, even after three decades in the veterinary profession and over a decade of behavior consulting, some medical issues can still sneak up on us. They aren’t always obvious. Getting a clean bill of health from a vet doesn’t always mean the animal is actually healthy–and that also doesn’t mean that the vet was negligent or incompetent; a lot of illnesses can be tricky to find unless you know what you’re looking for. 


How Do You Know if You Should Be Looking Into a Medical Issue?

There are a lot of factors that lie beyond the scope of this blog, but the four most common signs to look for are:

  • Sudden change in behavior
      • If your pet’s behavior suddenly changes with no obvious inciting incident, it’s probably a medical issue.
  • Sensitivity around a particular body part
      • If your pet’s behavior issue(s) involve a particular part of their body (e.g. if your dog whips around and snaps at you every time you touch their hips), it’s probably a medical issue.
  • Cyclical behavior issues not based on routine changes
      • If the behavior issues crop up at a regular interval not related to your routine, it’s probably a medical issue.
  • Behavior issues that aren’t improving after training
    • If you’ve been working with a knowledgeable, science-based behavior professional who has taught you how to read body language, observe behavior in its environmental context, meet your pet’s needs, and teach them life skills to address their behavior issues, and your pet is still struggling, it’s probably a medical issue.


How Should I Talk To My Vet About My Pet’s Issues?

Obviously it’s difficult for us to tell you exactly what questions you should be asking your vet, since the list of medical issues that impact behavior is seemingly endless. However, as a general guideline it is helpful to be specific about what changes you have observed in your pet’s body and behavior. A vet can’t be as effective if a client comes in and says, “My dog is aggressive and my trainer says it’s probably a medical issue.” But if you can tell them exactly what changes you’re seeing, that will give them some clues as to where to look.

Here is a list of things to think about when talking with your vet:

  • Tell your vet about the specific behavior changes you’re seeing. Instead of making general comments like, “My dog is more aggressive,” or, “My dog is more fearful,” be specific about the behavior changes. For example:
    • My dog used to go on 2-mile hikes with me. Now she lays down and won’t walk again after just a quarter-mile.
    • Last month my dog started barking and growling at anyone who walks by. Before that he always ignored strangers.
    • Over the past year, my dog has been waking up in the middle of the night and pacing and whining. At first it was every so often. Now it happens every night.
  • If there’s a specific body part that seems to be affected, mention that. For example:
    • If your dog growls and snaps when you touch your dog’s ear, mention that.
    • If your dog’s coat quality or thickness changes, mention that.
    • If you notice they carry their tail differently than they used to, mention that.
  • Specify what cyclical changes you’re seeing. For example:
    • Every six weeks, my dog seems to forget everything she’s learned and we have to re-teach all the skills she’s learned. 
    • Every four to six weeks, my dog gets really irritable and will snap at us if we try to rub his belly for a few days. He normally loves belly rubs. 
    • Every summer my dog will bark and lunge at anyone who tries to pet him. The rest of the year anyone can pet him, but in the summer he doesn’t let anyone touch him.

Now What?

  1. Have you noticed any of the signs that there might be a medical issue influencing your dog’s behavior? If so, schedule an appointment with your vet.
  2. Prepare your list of talking points in advance of your appointment so you can be well-prepared and won’t forget any important information. If you’re working with a behavior professional, ask them to help you with this.
  3. If you feel that your vet isn’t taking your concerns seriously, get a second opinion from a different vet.

Why Doesn’t My Dog Respect Me?

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

“My dog doesn’t respect me.”

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

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

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

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

Dogs have no idea what respect even means.


So… what DOES respect even mean?


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

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

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

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


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


Merriam-Webster’s definitions include:

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

Oxford’s include:

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


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


Misunderstanding respect = misinterpreting behavior


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

Actually, yes!

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

For example:

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

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


Now What?


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

Be well, 



When is Enrichment Not Enriching?

When Allie and I first started writing our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, we had a conversation with Dogwise about what exactly the book would cover. When we submitted the outline, our publisher’s comment was, “This is a lot more comprehensive than I imagined!” And, yes. That’s precisely the point.

The thing about the pet-owning community is that we want to learn more about the animals in our care, and we often do so by passing information around, rather than learning about these topics in a more formal, structured way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but community-shared information doesn’t come without its risks: namely, that we end up playing a game of Telephone, and as information gets shared it gets watered down and misinterpreted, until no one is really sure what’s true, what’s false, and what’s somewhere in between the two.

The topic of enrichment has not been immune to this game of Telephone. Most folks in the pet community don’t realize that enrichment started in zoos, and that the concept was created to improve the welfare of captive wild animals. As such, what zoos, aviaries, and aquariums mean by enrichment is often significantly different than what pet owners and dog trainers mean. For zoos etc., enrichment is the means by which they ensure that the animals in their care are physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy. When the pet-owning community talks about enrichment, they generally talk about it in terms of keeping pets occupied, making their life more interesting, or giving them things to do—keeping them busy, in other words. Which, to be clear, is certainly an important aspect of enrichment! But by no means the whole picture.

During the process of writing the book, I spent a solid three months trying to get in touch with people from the zoo and dog training world who had been in this profession in the 70s and 80s, trying to figure out when and how the concept of enrichment made its way from zoos into the pet community—to no avail. No one could tell me how it happened, or when. It just… kind of… did. So it’s no wonder that much got lost in translation!

So our goal for the book was to bridge the gap between enrichment as it was originally intended, and as zoos etc. currently use it, and how the pet-owning community thinks of it. We want pet owners, behavior professionals, shelter workers, veterinarians, and anyone else in the pet community to have access to the same information that zookeepers have. We want the people in our community, which we love so much, to be empowered by more and better information.

And here’s the reason this matters so much: our community has a strong tendency to approach problems prescriptively. We look at a situation – whether it’s a specific behavior issue or just a general, overall welfare issue – and we say to ourselves, “I’m going to use positive reinforcement,” or, “I’m going to give this animal more enrichment,” or, “I’m going to provide foraging.” Those are all fabulous goals! The problem is that we tend to get stuck at the stage of our intentions, without paying much attention to whether or not our outcomes match our intentions. We often keep doing something because we believe that we’re achieving our intended goal without actually measuring whether or not we truly are. This often leads to us doing a whole lot of work without seeing a whole lot of improvement. Which can be frustrating and demoralizing.

But enrichment isn’t what we do or the things we give them; enrichment is what happens as a result of what we do and the things we give them. Toys aren’t enrichment. Playgroups aren’t enrichment. Nose work classes aren’t enrichment. All of those things have the potential to make enrichment possible, but enrichment itself doesn’t happen until the animal chooses to engage with those things, and as a result of that engagement, is able to meet one or more of their own needs. We can only know if enrichment has happened after the fact.

This approach to enrichment is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. When we learn how to take a descriptive approach to enrichment, it looks like this instead: “This dog loves to spend time with other dogs but is not currently getting enough play opportunities. So I am going to take him to some playgroups to see if playing with dogs in that setting will meet that need. Oh yes! Look! It does! Look at him having fun playing with those dogs. Wonderful. For this dog, at this stage in his life, playgroups are a good form of social interaction enrichment.” Or, “This dog is destroying my furniture when I leave her at home alone. This tells me she needs more opportunities to chew, tear, and shred appropriate objects rather than my sofa. I’m going to give her some foraging toys that have to be chewed, torn, and shredded in order to access the food. Oh look! Now that she has these toys to keep her occupied during the day she’s no longer destroying my stuff. For this dog, at this stage in her life, destructible foraging toys are a good form of foraging enrichment.”

Being able to take this descriptive, goal-oriented approach to enrichment requires an understanding of what our pet’s needs truly are. It requires learning a bit more about their species – their body language, common motivators, and species-typical behaviors – and it also requires carefully observing the individual animal in front of us to see what behaviors they’re offering, what needs they have, and how we can best meet those needs. It requires learning to see with our eyes, rather than our ideas. And all of that is very doable! We’re here to help you do exactly that.

Want to dive deeper into this topic with us? Want to learn about how taking a descriptive approach to enrichment can improve your relationship with your pet? Here are some upcoming resources which will be available soon:

  • I’m a guest on the FDSA podcast, talking about this very subject, on March 14th. The link is here.
  • I’m also doing a webinar, “Using Enrichment to Improve Your Relationship With Your Dog”, for FDSA on March 19th. The link to purchase the webinar is here.
  • Allie and I are guest authors in Books, Barks, and Banter from March 16-31st, and we’ll be going through our book one chapter at a time to discuss it in more depth with whoever wants to join us. The link to that group is here.
  • And of course, as always, if you want to chat with me directly or want information about any of the services I provide, you can always email me at [email protected]