Wasp Training

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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,

Emily

 

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, 

Emily

 

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]

-Emily