Acknowledging the Kernel of Truth

Whether you’re an animal behavior professional working with clients or a knowledgeable pet parent who is talking to your friends and family about animals, we hear a lot of myths, explanatory fictions, and inaccurate descriptions of behavior. There’s a whole lot of misinformation out there about behavior in general and what we do for a living in particular, but if people knew what we know they wouldn’t need to hire us. So dealing with that misinformation is just a part of the job.

But here’s the thing we professionals have to remember: it might be the millionth time that we’ve had a conversation about what dominance is and is not, or reframing what clients perceive as stubbornness or demanding behavior or selective hearing, or helping clients to realize that walks aren’t the only – or even the best – way to provide their dogs with exercise–but for the client, this is all new information to them. And a lot of these beliefs carry a lot of emotional weight for that client. They can be carrying a lot of frustration, fear, shame, and exhaustion. Or, on the other hand, these beliefs can feel validating or affirming, or help them to feel like they have some control over their outcomes. 

So it’s important to tread lightly when helping our clients learn more accurate observational skills, perceptions, and definitions. If we want to develop a strong, trusting relationship with our clients where they feel safe enough to be vulnerable and honest with us, we shouldn’t come in hot with language policing, “well actually” statements, and blasting their dearly-held myths out of the water.

So what should we do instead? It depends!

 

Pick Your Battles

As a first step, if my client is saying something that isn’t accurate, I ask myself, “Does this matter in this moment? Will this get in the way of our progress at this point?” 

If the answer is no, I let it go. If I’m successful at building a long-term relationship with my client, we can address it later on down the road when the time is right.

If the answer is yes, the misinformation is going to impede our progress, then I’ll move on to the next step.

 

Acknowledge the Kernel of Truth

In almost every myth and misconception, there’s a little bit of truth. If something is just 100% completely absolutely wrong, it’s usually less believable. It’s that kernel of truth that makes myths, pseudoscience, and explanatory fictions so compelling. So we should eagerly point out the parts that they’ve gotten right. Acknowledge the things that are true.

Plus, it doesn’t feel very good when people just tell you straight up, “No. You’re wrong.” There might be times and places where that approach is necessary or appropriate, but when working with clients you’re not going to win them over by bluntly telling them they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or telling them that they’re using the wrong words to describe a behavior. Or that they’ve fallen for some pseudoscientific garbage.

So I always start by acknowledging that kernel of truth in what they’re saying. Then I follow that up with a reframe, as well as an explanation as to how that reframe will help them, meet their needs, and/or remove an obstacle for them. 

 

For example:

  • Instead of saying, “Well actually, dominance in dogs is a myth,” we might say, “You are absolutely right that dominance is a thing! Let’s talk about what it does and doesn’t look like in dogs so we can accurately identify when it’s occurring and when something else is going on. If something else is going on that is being misinterpreted as dominance, and we try to address it as dominance, we won’t be as effective.”
  • Instead of saying, “It’s not demand barking, it’s connection-seeking barking,” we might say, “Oof, I hear you! That frequent, loud demand barking is annoying and disruptive and uncomfortable for sure. Your experience is valid and you are a trooper for putting up with that! And you know what? That exhaustion and frustration you’re feeling is probably just as hard as the barking itself, right? So let’s reframe how we’re thinking about the barking to make it easier for you to empathize with your dog while you’re teaching them better ways to communicate.”
  • Instead of saying, “I know you like to walk your dog, but your dog clearly doesn’t like it, so you should stop taking them on walks,” we might say, “Aw, I love that you enjoy going out on walks with your dog! Let’s work together to find times and locations where you can walk with your dog in peace so that the two of you aren’t constantly having to worry about stressors. Then for the rest of the time, I bet we can find some other ways to provide that physical and mental exercise, sensory stimulation, and bonding time.”

By giving your learners validation, agreeing with the things they’re right about, and then working alongside them instead of creating a hierarchical power dynamic, you are demonstrating your ability to listen and learn in addition to teaching. And we can’t expect our students to learn if we’re not willing to do the same.

 

Now What?

What I’ve Learned About Enrichment Since Our Book Came Out

Books are great, don’t get me wrong, but one of the drawbacks about them is that they’re outdated as soon as they’re published. Because we’re in a constant state of learning, books are like a moment in time that gets frozen–a snapshot of what we knew and thought at the time of publication. They do not reflect what we know and do now.

That’s not to say that things are entirely different now than they were at the time of publication! Books still have a lot of value and convey a lot of important information. Our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, is still very much a reflection of our approach to behavior change. But we have certainly learned more and do better since it came out. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned and changed since we wrote it:

 

Species-Typical vs. Instinctual

When we wrote the book, we were passionate about walking the tightrope between scientific accuracy and accountability on the one hand, and accessibility and relatability on the other hand. This is harder than you might think! 

For example, we were trying to decide what to name the chapter discussing modal action patterns, and we ended up calling it “Instinctual Behaviors”. When our mentors were reading the manuscript and giving us feedback, one of them told me, “You know, ‘instinct’ is an outdated term, and we really don’t think about or talk about those behaviors in that way anymore.” 

“I know,” I replied, “But what’s the alternative? Calling it ‘Modal Action Patterns’? That’s going to feel overwhelming to a lot of people. I’d rather err on the side of accessibility over accuracy in this situation.”

Of course, not long after the book came out, I realized that we could have called the chapter “Species-typical Behaviors.” That would have been both accurate and accessible! It didn’t have to be one or the other.

 

Discussing the Nuances

In that same chapter, I had written about 9 pages discussing how and why the term “Modal Action Patterns” is an updated and more accurate replacement for “Fixed Action Patterns”, and the terms “Species-Typical” and “Breed-Typical” are likewise updated and more accurate replacements for “Species-Specific” and “Breed-Specific”. After reading back over that section, I realized the discussion was convoluted and felt esoteric and irrelevant to behavior professionals and pet parents. In a fit of panic, I deleted it all and decided against going into that level of detail.

Since then, I have learned much more succinct ways to discuss these topics, as well as why it matters. And it essentially boils down to this:

When we call things “fixed” or “specific”, it implies that these behaviors are permanent, universal to every individual within that breed or species, and can’t be changed. What we know now is that even innate behaviors have a wide degree of variability among individuals within a breed or species, some individuals won’t express them at all, and most relevant to us, innate behaviors can still be changed!

The notion that innate behaviors are “fixed” or “specific” leads people to think of enrichment in a more prescriptive way: “Because this is a German Shepherd, this dog will always exhibit this behavior and that can’t be changed, and they will always need this particular enrichment activity.”

Yes, we should be aware of species- and breed-typical behaviors, and we should learn about the modal action patterns of the species we work with, but we still must always meet the individual in front of us and learn from them what they need. We should also always work to help them be more behaviorally and emotionally healthy, even if the behavior they’re exhibiting is common within their breed or species.

 

We Got Some Things Wrong, and That’s Ok!

It’s hard to be a layperson who reads, interprets, and synthesizes research for other laypeople. Sometimes you’re going to get it wrong. And I did! There was one part of the book where I discussed a paper about Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and I overstated what the paper said. I attributed Sensory Processing Sensitivity to a single gene based on misreading some details in the paper. 

Fortunately for me, Dr. Jessica Hekman, a behavioral biologist and veterinary geneticist, reached out to let me know that I wasn’t speaking accurately about the topic. She was kind enough to meet with me and walk me through the paper to explain how I had gotten it wrong, and what was a more accurate way to talk about it. Essentially, it is this: some dogs, like some humans, do seem to experience Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and there does appear to be some genetic influence. But there are multiple contributing factors and we’re only just beginning to understand this phenomenon.

But that’s ok! Making mistakes is a part of the learning process, and one of the most common mistakes we humans make when we’re undereducated about a topic is to oversimplify it! So, it gave me an opportunity to learn more and do better, and as a result, Jessica and I have become friends and collaborators.

 

Natural History Is Still a Thing

For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that referring to an animal’s ethological context as “natural history” was outdated, so I avoided that phrase entirely in the book. Since then, I learned from my friend and mentor, Eddie Fernandez, who has devoted his life to enrichment-related research that, in fact, “natural history” is a wonderful and accessible way to talk about it! I use that term all the time now.

 

Clarity About Behavioral Diversity

When we were writing the book about enrichment, I’d read some articles about behavioral diversity and had a vague understanding of what it meant. I got the general concept that behavioral diversity is when animals perform a wide variety of species-typical behaviors, just like they would if they lived in their natural habitat. But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with the excellent and incomparable Ellen Yoakum, our teammate and co-owner of Pet Harmony, that she gave me a crystal clear definition: “Behavioral diversity is a measure of the number of behaviors that a species exhibits, as well as the frequency of those behaviors. It is thought that when behavioral diversity is high, we are meeting the needs of the animal, and when it is low that may be an indicator of possibly compromised welfare.”

 

Activity Budgets Are For Everyone!

Way back when I was first learning how to be a behavior consultant, one of my mentors at the time had given me the impression that activity budgets were complex academic things that laypeople like me shouldn’t be doing. Ever since then, I’ve avoided any discussion of them because I thought they were outside of my lane. 

But in the same conversation about behavioral diversity mentioned above, my lovely teammate Ellen taught me that activity budgets don’t have to be super complicated, and anyone can use them.

Activity budgets show us how much time is typically spent performing any given behavior, on average, for a species. They are incredibly helpful, because it gives us a baseline of what to expect from the animals in our care. If we see an animal performing a behavior outside of the typical range, we can pay attention to that as an indicator of potentially compromised welfare. On the other hand, what our society typically thinks of as insufficient or excessive may not actually align with the activity budget of that species, which gives us permission to ignore societal pressures and let an animal do the thing that aligns with their activity budget. In this regard, everyone who works or lives with animals can benefit from learning about and using activity budgets!

 

There Are Multiple Enrichment Frameworks

When we were writing the book, we mentioned the S.P.I.D.E.R. Framework because we thought that it was the one and only standard for implementing enrichment programs. But I learned from my friend and colleague Nathan Andrews (who was our first podcast guest because he’s #lifegoals in terms of his understanding of and skill at implementing enrichment programs) that, in fact, there are many enrichment frameworks created for zoos, aviaries, and aquariums! We didn’t mean to snub them; we simply didn’t know about them.

 

We Still Decided to Make Our Own Enrichment Framework

Despite the existence of multiple enrichment frameworks, we still ended up making some adaptations to S.P.I.D.E.R. to make it more applicable to companion animals and their caregivers. After writing the book, we talked to a whole lot of people who felt overwhelmed by the notion of using an enrichment framework to effect behavior change, and got stuck on some of the elements of zoo-oriented frameworks that don’t translate easily to a home, shelter, or training facility environment. We learned that if we wanted to be effective at teaching people how to do enrichment, we needed to create a framework that spoke to their specific needs.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! I could probably write a whole other book and all the things we’ve learned since the book came out, but these are some of the really big ones. It’s a great reminder that reading books is important, but it’s also important to not stop there, but to keep learning and growing and keeping your knowledge up to date.

 

Now What?

  • If you’d like a short primer on the history of enrichment, its functional definition, and definitions of enrichment-related terms, you can listen to the introductory episode of our podcast.
  • If you’d like to read more updated information about enrichment and instructions for applicability from us, you can buy our new companion workbook.
  • If you’re an animal behavior professional and you’d like a more in-depth education about how to effect behavior change through an enrichment framework, you can check out our Enrichment Framework Masterclass.

Predictability, Choice, Control, Oh My!

 

Over the past few years, conversations in the animal training community about predictability, choice, control, and agency have become more common–which is a great thing! But these terms can be somewhat confusing, and if you’re new to these topics – especially concerning animal welfare – they may seem… you know… a little “why should I care about this?”

So let’s talk more about what these terms mean, how they relate to each other, and why they matter to anyone who lives and/or works with animals.

 

Choice and Control

Let’s start with agency and work backward from there. “Agency” means that an individual has control over their own outcomes.

In order for a learner to have control over their outcomes, they must have choices so they can select their desired outcome. So, choice is a necessary component of control, but control doesn’t necessarily happen as a result of every choice. For example, a dog in a playgroup who doesn’t want to play with other dogs can choose to either sit in front of the gate, or cower in a corner, or any number of other avoidant behaviors–but if the people running the playgroup don’t honor the dog’s request to leave through the gate when they sit there, the dog’s choice had no impact on their outcome. So think of control like squares and choice like rectangles: in the same way that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all control involves being able to make choices, but not all choices result in having control.

Another point about choice: “do it or else” isn’t really a choice. In order for a choice to be a choice, there must be two or more desirable outcomes. If the only options are carrot or stick, no emotionally and behaviorally healthy individual is going to choose the stick, which means it’s not really a choice. So it’s our job as caregivers to arrange the environment so that our learners have multiple desirable options at their disposal.

 

Predictability

Predictability is more distantly related to choice and control, in that it isn’t necessarily a part of the definition of agency, but it does play an important role in why all this stuff matters. Fortunately for us, predictability doesn’t mean that we have to have our days scheduled down to the 15-minute segments and we never waiver from the plan. That wouldn’t be sustainable for most of us! What a relief that ain’t it!

Think of predictability as reliable if-then contingencies. 

  • If mom calls me and I come to her, then good things will happen.
  • If I go to my relaxation station, then I will be safe.
  • If Fluffy gets fed, then I’ll get fed next.
  • If I eat my food at my station, then it will not be stolen by anyone else in the house.

Predictability gives individuals a sense of trust and security.

 

Ok, but…

So that’s all super neat, but why does it matter?

Well, from the animal’s point of view, it matters because individuals who have a robust amount of agency in their lives are typically physically, emotionally, and behaviorally healthier than individuals who don’t. Similarly, individuals who have a lot of predictability and reliability in their environment and relationships are typically more secure and trusting than those who don’t. Agency and predictability are fundamental components of good welfare.

And from the human’s point of view, pets are expensive, messy, and live heartbreakingly short lives (for the most part). And most animal-related jobs are both physically and emotionally taxing, pay only a fraction of human-oriented parallel professions, and aren’t particularly respected in the rest of society. The overwhelming majority of people who are willing to deal with all of that do so because they passionately love animals.

And that means we don’t only want the animals in our care to be physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy so they can be their best selves, we also want to have the best possible relationship with them–a relationship built on trust.

 

But relinquishing control is hard!

It can be scary to replace control with trust. We want to control the animals in our care because we’re afraid of what they’ll choose if we let them make choices. We want to control them because we’ve been taught since birth that that’s what we’re supposed to do. We want to control them because, yeah, being in control feels good! But time and time again, when we teach our clients and students how to give the animals in their care abundant choice, control, and predictability they tell us the same thing:

“I already loved my pet and had a good relationship with them, but I had no idea how much better it could be. I didn’t think a relationship like this was possible.”

 

Now What?