5 Reasons Why Every Pet Needs an Enrichment Plan

If you’ve been following us for a while, you probably know that we think enrichment is a must. We still get a lot of questions, though, about if enrichment is right for you and your pet or if everyone needs an enrichment plan. My answer? Yes! Everyone should have an enrichment plan for their pet. Let’s get into 5 reasons why I think this is a must-have for every pet. 

 

Before we do that…

Let’s define enrichment real quickly for those of you who are new to us. We’re using the original definition of enrichment: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s mental, physical, and behavioral needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs. 

While the term has been watered down on its way to the pet-owning world, it really means so much more than entertainment and boredom busters! We get into the deep dive of all 14 categories of canine enrichment in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. But in the meantime, just trust that we’re talking about ALL needs here. 

Now on to the good stuff!

 

1. Meeting needs makes everything else easier. 

None of us can be the best version of ourselves when our needs are not met. If you are tired, or hungry, or scared, or bouncing off the walls with energy, you are not likely to be the best you that you can be. That’s true for our pets, too. 

That means that those basic manners you want them to learn are harder. Those coping skills you want them to have when you leave the house aren’t as effective. The household rules are harder to adhere to. Everything is just more difficult than it needs to be. 

Ken Ramirez and Emily had a great discussion about this in a recent podcast episode. In that episode, Ken discusses his primary and secondary reasons for training. Primary reasons include those that directly benefit the animal: cooperative care, mental stimulation, physical exercise, etc. Secondary reasons include things that we train for us humans: manners, sports, service work, police work, etc. Emily sums it up perfectly by saying, “when you are focusing on that primary reason, first, it makes the secondary training easier and more successful because you’re working with a physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy animal instead of one whose needs might not be met and has some deficits as a result.” 

So regardless of what goals you have for your pet- snuggle buddy, athlete, gentleman, trick dog, resilient, well-rounded, relaxed, service dog- focusing on enrichment first will help you get there smoother.

 

2. Meeting needs helps curb behavior problems.

Unmet needs can cause or exacerbate behavior problems, from anything like attention-seeking nuisance behaviors to aggression and anxiety. Again, we can’t be on our best behavior if our needs aren’t met! And while not every pet exhibits behavior issues, those are the pets we work with here at Pet Harmony so I had to include this as a reason for an enrichment plan. 

We bake this step into all of our clients’ plans- even if they’re not aware of it. It’s one of my favorite parts of the behavior modification journey (are you surprised?) The reason that I love this part is because you get to see what is actually a behavior issue and what is an enrichment issue. 

Often I’ll start my clients off with activities to help meet certain unmet needs and they’ll come back just a few weeks later with a noticeably different pet. Not a perfect pet, mind you, but one who is exhibiting fewer or less severe behavior issues. At that point, we get to focus on the behaviors that truly require behavior modification instead of having to focus on every single behavior they originally came to me with. An enrichment plan often helps you work smarter, not harder, on your pet’s behavior modification journey! 

 

3. Ensuring optimal quality of life. 

A good life is one where your needs are met. I know you’re here because you want to make sure you are providing your pet with the best possible care and life that they can have in your household. An enrichment plan can help you know that you are providing your pet with a great quality of life instead of always second-guessing and worrying that you’re not doing enough. It provides peace of mind for you and a great life for your pet. 

 

4. Getting the most out of your relationship. 

Something that never fails to bring a smile to my face is when clients tell me how focusing on their pet’s needs has helped to improve their relationship. By viewing unwanted behaviors through the lens of unmet needs, they’ve been able to shift their mindset in a way that not only improves their pet’s behavior but also improves their relationship! 

I know this is true for me. There are times when Oso does something I’d rather he not. Being a professional doesn’t make me immune to my dog annoying me! In those moments I try to take a step back and ask myself, “What does he get out of this? What need is this behavior meeting?” Essentially, I put myself in his paws for a moment. From there, I can find a more appropriate option for meeting that particular need and that makes whatever he’s doing less annoying and allows me to enjoy him more!

5. You already have one, whether you know it or not.

You already have an enrichment plan, even if you’re not thinking about it in that way or with those terms. You feed your pet. You provide them with shelter. You’ve taken them to the vet. Chances are that if you’re here you have also provided them with a comfy place to sleep, some sort of training, food puzzles, and other activities. All of those are to help meet your pet’s needs! 

If an enrichment plan sounds cumbersome or superfluous or extravagant, think again. You already have one by virtue of caring for your pet. So if you already have one, why not make it the best plan it can be? 

The way to make it the best plan it can be is to make it purposeful. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how being strategic with your enrichment plan helps to create a sustainable plan. When you have a clear vision of your goals and metrics for success you can lean into the things that work for you and your pet and scrap the things that don’t work. Again, it’s about working smarter, not harder.

 

What does an enrichment plan look like?

That may look different depending on where you are in this journey and what works for your household. It may look like a robust, well-fleshed-out plan like the kind we help folks create or you may be in the beginning stages of creating your pet’s plan or you may currently be at status quo with your pet’s plan until they get older or there’s an environmental change. That’s okay! The important thing is that it works for you and your pet and both of you are getting the intended results from your plan. 

Here’s an example of working through a robust plan: Part 1 & Part 2. 

 

Now what?

  • Take stock of what your plan already looks like; remember, you have one by sheer virtue that you’re caring for your pet! Do you need to focus on creating a purposeful plan first or are you working on fine-tuning?
  • Build in that strategy. Your enrichment plan doesn’t need to be about adding more, more, more. It needs to be sustainable for you while getting the results you (and your pet!) want. If you don’t know what your goals are yet, that’s the place to start. If you know your goals but don’t yet have metrics for success, that’s the place to start. If you have all that but don’t have a way to track those metrics, then that’s what you should focus on next! 
  • Do the thing! Focus on improving one thing at a time. 
  • Need a clearer path to building your plan? I get it; it takes a few more pages than what I can do in a blog post 😉 Check out our new Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook for help with building and implementing your plan. 
  • Professionals: are you ready to take enrichment to the next level for your clients? Our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class takes you on a deep dive to help use enrichment to its fullest potential to help your clients get better, faster results. Register here

Happy training!

Allie

Strategic Equals Sustainable

We’re all about sustainability here at Pet Harmony. And by that, I mean creating a behavior modification plan for helping your pet that is sustainable for you and your lifestyle (though we’re all about the environment, too!) We could create the greatest plan that’s ever existed, but if you’re not able to implement it, then it’s not the greatest plan. 

Most of our clients are quite busy. They have full-time jobs and kids and often other pets in addition to the pet they’re seeking help for. Their behavior modification plan simply can’t be yet another full-time job. And, even if they do have the time for that, we don’t want our clients to have to do that! 

That means that if we’re going to create a behavior modification plan that is sustainable, we need to focus on the activities that are going to give us the most bang for our buck. The ones that we can use and reuse in different situations. We need to know what’s working so we can do more of it and know what’s not working so we can do less of that. In other words, we need to be strategic. 

 

What does “strategic” look like?

It’s easy to say that we need to be strategic in our behavior modification plan, but what does that actually look like? How can we get the most progress for the least amount of effort? Here are three ways that we use strategy for sustainable change. 

 

Bang for your buck exercises

When I’m choosing which training exercises to give my clients, I’m always looking for the ones that can be used in a number of different ways or scenarios. I ask myself, “What’s the fewest number of exercises that I can teach that will still let us reach our goals?” As many of my clients know, one exercise can be used in a variety of ways! 

Let’s use “Find It” as an example (check out how I usually teach this here). I love this game because I can use it for so many different purposes. It’s great mental exercise, can be used for calming and de-stressing, can be used to teach that scary things aren’t so scary, to relocate a pet without touching them, and more! While we could choose different exercises for each of those goals, why would we when one can suffice?

It’s easy to hop on Google and believe that you need a lot of different exercises to help your pet throughout their behavior modification journey. And while, yes, there are some cases where we need more tools in our training toolbelt, there are a whole lot of times where we don’t. We should lean into the exercises that work instead of always chasing the shiny new thing. And that leads us to…

 

Being an amateur scientist (it’s not as scary as it sounds!)

We can’t lean into the activities that are working if we don’t know what’s working and what’s not! Being strategic means being a bit of an amateur scientist. That might sound scary, but I promise that it doesn’t have to be! What this means is that we try one or two things at a time (preferably one but that can be hard!) and see the effect that activity has on your pet’s behavior. Once we know the effect that activity has, then we can decide if we should do more or less of it based on the results. Is the activity actually working as we intended it, or do we need to troubleshoot it or scrap it altogether? This is how we can make sure that we’re only doing things that are actually working, instead of doing a bunch of things that may or may not be yielding results. 

Sometimes it’s easy to see those effects, but oftentimes we need some sort of data tracking to better see results. Again, it’s not as scary as it sounds! We set many of our clients up on a simple numerical chart where all they have to do is write down a number or sometimes we help them integrate this tracking into daily habit apps they already use. Just like with the overall behavior modification plan, it has to be a system that you will actually use! 

The reason that we often use data tracking is because behavior change rarely flips on and off like a light switch. It’s more like a faucet where you see less of a certain behavior before it fades. It’s so much easier to keep track of frequency and intensity when it’s written down somewhere instead of keeping that all in your head. Plus, it’s easier for us as the consultant to help you when we can see all of that data! Check out our podcast episode on Data Tracking if you dig this topic

 

Operating within a proven framework 

This one’s a little harder to see from the client side of things, but having a framework that we operate in as the consultant helps to make things more sustainable for you in the long run. Operating within a framework (we use our Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework) helps us to move through your journey more systematically, knowing exactly where we are and what we’ve tried and haven’t tried. 

But more than that, it can help you work through behavior problems the way that we as professionals do. Here’s an example. I just graduated a client to as-needed sessions (congratulations team Seneca!) There are more goals that this family would like to accomplish with their pup and he’s a candidate for future, unavoidable regressions (aren’t we all?) We could absolutely have continued our regularly scheduled sessions.

But Seneca’s parents and I could confidently, cheerfully graduate this pup because they know how to operate within the same framework that I used to help them reach this benchmark. They know how to observe his behavior, what activities to try, how to measure progress, and how to troubleshoot when things don’t go as planned. 

And they were able to do that because I walked them through the same framework, in the same way, enough times that they can now do it themselves (even if they didn’t know that that was what was happening!) Plus, they know that I will always be here to support them if they need help in the future. That’s why we graduate to as-needed sessions. 

If I had thrown a bunch of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks or moved through their behavior modification plan in a different way with each new scenario, we would have had a different result. When your consultant models a strategic behavior modification journey it will be much easier for you to emulate it! And while I miss clients who have graduated, I’m always thrilled when they no longer need me. That’s my goal! 

 

Now what?

  • Take a look at your behavior modification journey and ask yourself if you could do what you’re doing every day for a year. If the answer is yes, awesome! Keep doing it! If the answer is no, identify which aspect is unsustainable in the long run. 
  • Once you’ve identified which aspects are untenable, ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it because you tried a bunch of different things at the same time and don’t actually know which is working and which isn’t? Is it because you have one activity for each individual scenario? Do you have an unsustainable management plan which is likely to be resolved once starting behavior modification? Dig deep to discover why your plan is unsustainable. If you’re working with a consultant, bring your concerns to them and they can help you figure out what the problem is and how to resolve it. 
  • Now that you know the problem, you can resolve it! If you don’t know what’s actually working, you can discontinue activities and test one at a time to see the effects (sometimes you don’t have to discontinue and can separate them enough). If you have a bunch of activities, see if you can tweak just one or two to work in multiple scenarios. If your pet is displaying any type of aggressive behavior I highly recommend you work with a professional for this part. And if you’re stuck here, a professional can help you regardless! You don’t have to have all the answers; that’s our job. 
  • Professionals (I know you check out our blog posts to use for your clients, too!): if you’re interested in learning more about our Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework and how we create sustainable plans for our clients, check out our FREE webinar: 3 Strategies to Uplevel Your Consulting Skills to Solve Behavior Challenges: happier pets, enthusiastic clients, and a more rewarding career using the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework. You won’t want to miss this!

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

The Common Mistake That Will Cost You

How many times have you made this mistake: you learn something new and go straight to the fun part. The harder part. How can you push this new skill? What else can you do with it? Aaaaand you conveniently skip right over mastering foundation skills before doing all that. 

Sound familiar? Yeah, for me too. I’ve learned many skills that I’ve had to go back and re-learn and master those foundations after the fact. Usually, I would do that after I get myself into trouble or a sticky situation by trying to perform a more advanced skill without having a solid foundation first. And it’s always been harder for me to re-learn and undo those bad habits than it would to have learned the foundation in the first place. 

For some aspects of my life, I’ve learned that lesson (it only takes a few times of trying to crochet without a pattern and undoing 3 hours of work before taking the hint); when I want to try something new I watch foundation videos to make sure I start off on the right foot. I ask the experts what skills I need to perfect before I can get to the fun part. I practice until those skills are comfortable before trying to push the boundaries. For other aspects of my life, I’m still in that stage of recognizing I should do that but thinking this time it will be different. (It never is.)

This seems to be a pretty common trait of human learning: pushing boundaries before we’re ready. I see it a lot with my clients, too, where they gloss over critical foundation skills to get to the fun part. Or, gloss over critical foundation skills to get to the part that they think they need. But, here’s the thing. There’s a whole lot more that goes into what you actually need to develop a skill than the skill itself. 

 

A Low-Stakes Example

A few Christmases ago, I wanted to crochet bookmarks for a few friends. I had seen a cute pattern on Pinterest for an animal with a long, flat body and a little 3D head that would pop up out of the top of the book. But, of course, I wanted to make everyone’s favorite animals for their bookmarks instead and there were no bookmark patterns for those. 

I had crocheted amigurumi (that’s the fancy term for 3D crochet projects) twice before and kind of knew what made it work. I decided to give it a go and make my own patterns. I already hinted at the result above: I crocheted for hours and unraveled my work several times. I knew how to make a sphere because I had a pattern for that, but what about an animal with a more pyramid-shaped head? What about an oval? I had completely overestimated my abilities because I didn’t actually have the foundation skills; I didn’t know truly why it worked the way it did and I didn’t know enough to be able to break the rules of the patterns I could find. 

It took me a lot longer and many more headaches to try to do something I “kind of knew” instead of learning the foundation skills first and then getting to the fun part. I did eventually figure it out, and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write down the pattern for some of these! It will take me a long time once again to figure it out because it was pure trial and error instead of tweaking known rules. 

 

 

What does this look like in relation to animal behavior?

There are two ways that I see this often come out in relation to pets that we work with:

  1. Humans trying to speed through their foundation skills, or skip them altogether
  2. Ignoring the foundation skills the animal needs

Let’s take a look at each of these.

 

Skipping the human skills

The first often looks similar to my crochet example. The human knows a bit about some of the foundation skills and is itching to get to the fun part, or the part that they think is relevant to their goals. They don’t realize how much more laborious (and in the case of aggressive animals, unsafe) they’re making it by trying to speed through their foundation skills. It’s like a tortoise and hare situation. 

Here are some of the foundation skills that humans need to work with their pet who has behavior issues:

  • Observation skills
  • Understanding of body language for that particular species
  • Ability to watch the environment and their pet at the same time
  • Ability to react to the pet’s body language within seconds
  • Timing for training exercises
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Ability to respond appropriately to behavior throughout the day, outside of only within a training session

The results are often very different if one of these skills is lacking. When I did in-person sessions my clients would joke about how well-behaved their pets were for me, like their pet was in the principal’s office on their best behavior. The truth was that I had mastered the above foundation skills, which made my results different. Once my clients were proficient in those skills they saw the same results. 

Sometimes we see folks skipping the foundation skills because they’re not as exciting (like I did in the above example). Sometimes, though, we see this happening because they don’t quite understand how those skills are relevant to their pet’s behavior modification plan. I get that too; it can be hard to conceptualize some of these concepts without seeing a real-time application. 

I see that a lot with learning body language. For those people who understand in theory why it’s important but have a hard time truly visualizing it, I often see a light bulb go off when I start to point out their pet’s body language signals in real-time and then predict what they’re about to do and what the human should do in response. It’s much easier to conceptualize when you see it being put to such a helpful use! If that describes your situation, be sure to ask your consultant to explain what a particular skill is used for and to demonstrate it. 

 

Skipping the pet skills

In this week’s podcast episode, Kathy Sdao talked about the importance of eating as the first behavior. It’s hard to train using food if we have a pet who doesn’t reliably eat treats! Often when I see folks skipping pet skills, it’s the skills like this that we don’t even think about teaching. The behaviors that we often take for granted, like eating, sleeping, relaxing, sniffing, and mobility. We’re focused too much on the end goal behavior and forget that there’s a whole host of mechanics- aka other behaviors- that make up that end goal. 

This is why here at Pet Harmony we focus on enrichment first when we meet with a new client. Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs and those needs provide the foundation on which the rest of the plan is built. For example, if we have a pet who has trouble sleeping they’re not going to learn and retain information very well. We’re going to work much harder to teach basic skills to that animal than to one who is well-rested. The same goes for a pet who has an upset stomach, or is wired with too much energy, or who doesn’t feel safe in the training environment. Meeting needs is the ultimate foundation. 

 

How do I make sure I don’t miss those foundation skills?

One of the best answers is to ask an expert. They should know what skills go into a particular exercise, from training mechanics to beyond. But if that’s not currently in your cards, think about the mechanics that go into a particular exercise or behavior with the determination of a toddler. 

 

For example:

Goal: I want my dog to calmly look at another dog and look back at me for a treat on a walk instead of barking.

To take a treat, they have to reliably eat in that environment. 

To reliably eat in that environment, they have to reliably eat that treat period. 

To reliably eat in that environment, they have to feel comfortable enough to be able to eat. 

To feel comfortable in that environment, they should have an escape route. 

To have an escape route that works, they need to have practiced the escape route ahead of time in an environment where they’re comfortable enough to learn a new skill. 

To practice the escape route, we need to identify an environment that they are comfortable in.

To identify an environment they are comfortable in, we need to be able to see signs of stress and signs of comfort. 

To see signs of stress, the dog needs to be comfortable at some point in time so we can see a difference between stress and comfortable. 

For the dog to be comfortable at some point, they need to be able to relax. 

 

See how many other behaviors go into that one end goal? And that’s just looking at one piece of that goal! We could do the same thing with the other behaviors included in that sentence: calmly looking at another dog, looking back at the handler, and the handler being able to dispense the treat. 

This is why asking an expert is easier; we’re more proficient at doing all of this. 

 

Now what?

  • Take a close look at a behavior or skill you’re trying to teach your pet. 
  • If you’re getting stuck, identify where you’re getting stuck. Then, consider all of the foundation skills and behaviors that make up your goal behavior. Is there one that could use some sprucing up?
  • Dive into that foundation skill and focus on applying it in easier situations. When that feels comfortable, then try applying it to the situation you’re stuck on. 
  • Is that situation getting less sticky? If so, great! Continue on that vein. If not, go back to the drawing board. 
  • If that all sounds like a heck of a lot of work, work with a professional. We work with clients all over the world. Check out our services here. 

Happy training!

Allie

 

Is Enrichment The Square or The Rectangle?

 

I’m sure most of us remember that math lesson that happens to very accurately describe a lot of unrelated topics:

A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square. 

Funnily enough, Emily just used this example in a recent blog post without knowing I was using the same example while writing this one. It really does describe a lot of topics!

Recently, Emily came across a Facebook post where someone was asking about enrichment activities for their dog. The group moderator tagged her to see if she had any suggestions. The poster thanked the moderator for the tag but mentioned that her dog did not have any behavior problems, so didn’t think that our enrichment framework could help. 

So the question became: does enrichment, and more specifically the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework, require behavior problems?

 

Here, enrichment is the rectangle. 

Behavior problems require enrichment, but enrichment doesn’t require behavior problems. In other words, our enrichment framework can be used for any animal, regardless of whether or not they exhibit maladaptive behaviors. However, if a pet does have behavior problems, we should absolutely work through those challenges using an enrichment framework. 

 

The answer lies in the definition

Remember that here at Pet Harmony we use the original definition of enrichment: it’s about meeting all of an animal’s physical, emotional, and behavioral needs to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

All animals have needs, ergo enrichment is for everyone! 

 

So why do we always talk about enrichment in relation to behavior problems?

Well, it’s kind of what we do. We’re behavior consultants who work with pets who have maladaptive behaviors- like anxiety, aggression, fear, and compulsions- and we do so using the understanding that we need to meet all of the animal’s needs in order to help them be the best version of themselves and to help our clients reach their goals in a more efficient way. We always talk about our enrichment framework in relation to behavior problems because that’s how we typically use it. 

In addition to that, we want to make it clear that enrichment isn’t superfluous. It isn’t an add-on or something to focus on only when an animal is bored. It’s an incredibly important element of behavior and by shining a light on how you can use an enrichment framework to solve behavior problems we hope we’re showing folks how important enrichment truly is. 

 

How would you go through the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework with a behaviorally-sound pet?

Glad you asked! Really, the process will look the same. The differences we’ll see between a behaviorally-sound animal and one with maladaptive behaviors are likely the categories of enrichment we focus on, the activities and how they’re implemented, and the goals. 

 

Take a look:

  1. List desirable & undesirable behaviors. Even if your pet doesn’t have maladaptive behaviors, there are still behaviors you’re hoping to see more of and less of. That could look like being more relaxed at the vet office, greater mobility for an aging pet, or just displaying a wider array of species-typical behaviors (aka behavioral diversity). Even with a perfectly behaved animal, we still want those behaviors to continue and will need to reevaluate our enrichment plan as they age and circumstances change to set the stage for those desired behaviors to continue. 
  2. Are needs being met? All individuals have needs. And needs come and go. We don’t eat one meal and then are satiated for the next several months. We don’t go on one run and that meets our physical activity needs for the next year. In addition to the cyclical nature of needs, including changes as an individual ages, they are also subject to environmental changes: things like moving, new household members, and things as inevitable as weather changes. All of that means that we need to keep an eye on our pet’s needs to make sure that we’re always doing the best we can for them, regardless of the situation. And for the household that already has an incredible enrichment plan? I recommend preparing for future, likely scenarios, like aging needs. 
  3. Are agency needs being met? Remember that agency means having some level of control over the outcomes in a situation. For folks who have pets not displaying maladaptive behaviors, this is often where we focus in their enrichment plan. How can we work on cooperative care? How can we create more two-way communication between humans and pets? Have we recently performed preference tests to see if any preferences have changed? 
  4. Narrow down your options. This part is exactly the same as working with a pet who has behavior issues. We still have goals; we still have current behaviors and behaviors we’d like to see more of or less of in the future. We still have a bunch of different ways to get from current point A to future point B and we’ll need to narrow down those options based on the resources we have at hand. Nothing new here. 
  5. Prioritize. This part is often a bit easier than working with some pets who have behavior issues. The pets we see at Pet Harmony often have several different maladaptive behaviors and it’s imperative that we prioritize what to work on first to keep our clients from burning out. That’s not always the case with folks who have a behaviorally-healthy pet, though we do sometimes still see folks trying to do too much due to enrichment guilt. Prioitization is just as important for those pet parents to ensure sustainable plans. 
  6. Develop your plan of action. This step is also the same as working with a pet who displays maladaptive behaviors. You still need to determine who is doing what, when, where, and how. 
  7. Implement and document. I think implementation goes without saying, so let’s focus on the documentation portion. I do still recommend some level of documentation or data tracking when implementing a new facet of your enrichment plan with a behaviorally-healthy pet. Often, though, we’re able to get away with it being simpler. For example, when I started monitoring how well massage therapy was helping Oso’s mobility, I was able to do that in my head using jumping on the couch as our litmus test. When we first started his massage therapy, I hadn’t seen him jump up on the couch in at least a few weeks, if not longer. He would step onto the couch instead. That made it easy to notice when he would jump because it had become a rare occurrence. As he continued having more sessions, I noticed an increase in how frequently he would jump so I could conclude that it was, in fact, having the intended result. In that situation, I was looking for a simple “yes this improves mobility” or “no this does not improve mobility” and I already had a history of observing and making a mental note of the particular behavior that became our litmus test. If I was looking at more specific details or for a behavior that I wasn’t habitually noticing, I would likely have written down the results. 
  8. Reassess, readdress, and do it again. We already talked about how needs are cyclical. They change with household changes, seasons, age, and more. That means our enrichment plan is never done. We always get to work on improving our pet’s quality of life. So even though you may go through this step slower with a behaviorally-healthy pet than with a pet who displays maladaptive behaviors, you’re still going to need to reassess, readdress, and do it again at some point. 

 

 Now what?

  • Ready to put this framework into action? Head over to https://petharmonytraining.com/enrichmentchart to get a free copy of our enrichment chart and a breakdown of these steps. Follow that free guide to help create your pet’s enrichment plan.
  • Need more examples and details of how to do this? Check out our new Canine Enrichment for the Real World Companion Workbook here. This is an affiliate link. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!
  • Get working on your pet’s enrichment plan! Share your results with us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram

Happy training!

Allie 

 

3 Enrichment Activity Myths Holding Your Pet Back

 

The more you learn about a particular topic the more you realize how little you know. It’s not just a cliched saying, it’s actually a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As humans, we want things to be cut and dried, black and white, good and evil. But it’s rarely as simple as all that. There are layers to everything, nuances that can drastically change outcomes. As a behavior consultant, I see that all the time: we tweak the timing of a training exercise by literal seconds and get very different results. 

Not understanding the nuances of a topic can impede desired outcomes. And while there are many enrichment myths that I see circulated that impact results, today, I want to focus on diving deeper: the nuances. 

Before we get into 3 enrichment activity myths holding you and your pet back, let’s get on the same page about what enrichment is. Y’know, in case you’re new to us here at Pet Harmony and Canine Enrichment for the Real World

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

In short: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs. It’s not about providing entertainment, though that can often be a side effect. It’s not about providing more novelty, though that can be an element. Enrichment is about meeting the needs of your pet so they can be the doggiest dog or cattiest cat or piggiest pig they can be. And, in turn, that improves their quality of life. (By the way, we didn’t come up with this. This definition comes from the father of zoo enrichment, Dr. Hal Markowitz, who put the topic on the map.) 

Now that we have the bonus myth out of the way (enrichment is about entertaining your animal), let’s get to it. 

 

Myth #1: All Activities Are Effective

We get asked all the time about what activities we recommend for [insert enrichment category]. What are our favorite mental exercises? Physical activities? What do we do to provide security? And our answer is usually the dog-trainer-favorite but definitely audience-despised answer of: it depends. 

The black and white myth here is that an activity, inherently, either is enrichment or is not. That the activity itself is imbued with a certain level of effectiveness. But here’s the nuance: the activity doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the effect that we see from the activity. The only thing that matters is the actual, observable result. Activities themselves are only tools to achieve results (yep, even in the case of you having fun with your pet. Fun is the result.) 

So why is our answer, “it depends”? Because our activity recommendations are based on the individual dog or pet, the humans and household, the desired results, the environment, and other factors. Sure, we have our go-to activities that tend to yield similar results in a variety of cases, but even those can require modifications or may not be appropriate for all animals. It’s not about the activity. It’s about the result you observe from that activity. 

 

The Solution: Data Tracking

I know, I know. Data tracking tends not to be a favorite topic. But, hear me out. It doesn’t have to be painful or intensive. It can be as simple as tally marks, adding numbers to a calendar, or clicking a button on a habit tracking app. Emily and I chat all about this in episode 15 of our Enrichment for the Real World Podcast (and be sure to check out the transcript if you prefer the blog format over podcast format!) 

The heart of this solution is that you observe the results and then make a decision about how effective an activity is for your individual animal. See with your eyes, not your ideas. 

 

Myth #2: If an activity isn’t effective, then it isn’t effective. 

Remember earlier in this post when I mentioned that sometimes as a consultant I’ll tweak the timing of an exercise by literally a few seconds and that yields drastically different results? Activity effectiveness isn’t all or nothing. There are little tweaks that can be made- like timing, location, treat type, and more- that can impact how effective an activity is. 

Let’s use an example for this one. During our first or second session, I asked a client to start playing the Find It game with her dog, Raina. I assumed that this game would help with Raina’s overall anxiety, would help her mom be able to lower her stress levels in stressful situations, or at least use it as a distraction if needed, and I wanted to use it as a tool to modify future behaviors. The next time I saw Raina’s mom, she told me that Raina hadn’t quite taken to the game as we had envisioned. She would only chase after the treats if she saw them being thrown instead of using her nose. It wasn’t currently effective based on the results we were hoping to see. 

Did that mean we scrapped that activity and tried something else immediately? No! I coached Raina’s mom through the exercise, making little tweaks, to get Raina searching for longer. After that step, we started expanding the search area, then moved on to new locations. Now, months later, Raina’s mom plays Find It with her regularly and it does now have the intended effect. 

Now, in this example, I felt it was worth it to troubleshoot this activity instead of scrapping it for another. Other times, I choose to scrap instead of troubleshooting. And other times still I will troubleshoot a little, decide that it’s not worth continuing down that path, and then scrap an activity for another. 

The point is that there are nuances to how we execute an activity. And those nuances can change the effectiveness of that activity. So while we need to focus on the results to decide if an activity will help us achieve our goals, we may also be able to alter those results. 

 

The Solution: Trial and Eval

One of our consultants, Corinne, came up with the phrase “trial and eval” and we’ve all loved it so much that it has become one of our catchphrases at Pet Harmony. If you try something that you think will work a certain way and it doesn’t, try it again, but tweak it a little. That could be tweaking your timing, including the time of day, where in the routine the activity happens, the location, or handler, or how the activity itself is executed. There are so many things to change. Some will affect the outcome; some won’t. That’s why it’s trial, and evaluate. 

Oh and that data tracking? Yeah, that will make trial and eval so much easier to keep track of the results so you actually remember what was effective and what wasn’t. 

 

Myth #3: All [insert species, breed, behavior challenges, etc.] need the same activities

I hope by now you know where I’m going with this. All individuals are individuals, and the effectiveness of an activity depends on a lot of factors, making it pretty challenging to make a blanket statement that all [insert whatever] need the same activities for optimal quality of life.

We especially get a lot of questions about enrichment activities for individual dog breeds, or breed types. What’s the best enrichment activity for a German Shepherd? What’s the best enrichment toy for pitties? What activities should I try with my Australian Cattle Dog or other herding breeds? 

My answer is still: it depends. Did your dog get the memo that they belong to a certain breed? Are they a Pekingese who knows in their very soul that they are destined for royalty? Or are they a Lab who doesn’t like retrieving? A Newfoundland who doesn’t like water? And that’s added on top of all of the questions that we ask for every individual: what behaviors do they show or not show? What’s your household like? Etc. At the end of the day, dogs are dogs, even if they have certain breed tendencies. Breed is only one factor, out of many, many factors to consider. 

Going further than this, I see a lot of people run into trouble when they assume that because their last pet of a certain breed liked a particular activity, that this new pet of the same breed will, too. I’ve seen quite a bit of heartbreak when people compare past and present pets like this. Check out our blog post, Compare Leads to Despair, from consultant MaryKaye here

While I wish it was as easy and black and white as saying, “All herding breeds need Treibball”, it’s not that simple. There are nuances. 

 

The Solution: Observing the Individual

The solution here is to observe the individual in front of you, without letting the stories you have about who they ought to be cloud your observations. I think one of the easiest ways to do this is to think of them as someone else’s pet, or of another breed. How would you interpret your observations if you had just met them? If you had no history with them? If someone was describing their behavior to you and left out what breed they are? If you remove the stories you have about who they are and why they behave a certain way, how does that change your observations? 

Once you’re able to observe the individual and truly see with your eyes and not your ideas, then you can more easily determine what activities to try and more easily observe the results of those activities. 

 

Now what?

  • Take a few days to observe your own behaviors and thoughts. What is the biggest enrichment activity myth that is holding you back? 
  • Once you’ve identified that myth, it’s time to get to work! Reread the solution and determine what your next step will be to bust that myth. 
  • Put that solution into action. Regardless of what you choose, I still recommend tracking your results to better see the difference. You can download a free copy of our enrichment chart with a step-by-step guide here
  • Share your results with us over in our Facebook group or on Instagram @petharmonytraining 

Happy training!

Allie

5 Reasons Your Pet Needs Flight Training

 

When we wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World, there were some topics that we knew people would ask us about. We expected the questions about agency and contrafreeloading. The question that we didn’t expect was:

So tell me more about this “flight training”.

And, sure enough, each time we present or post or write about flight training- even if it’s just a passing comment- we get a lot of questions about it. So, let’s dive into the most frequently asked questions we get about this topic. 

 

What is flight training?

First and foremost, folks ask, “what is it?” It’s really just what it sounds like: we’re teaching an animal to move away from something they find uncomfortable. Many people already know about the fight or flight response (we talk about fight, flight, freeze with our clients), and so we started calling this protocol “flight training” because it borrowed a term that many people were already familiar with. For the longest time, I actually called it, “flight training for lack of a better phrase.”

As I tell my clients- most of whom are seeing me for anxiety that manifests as aggressive or reactive-type behaviors- flight is way better than the alternative! It’s unrealistic to assume that we can teach an individual to be comfortable in every single situation that they will encounter for the rest of their lives. It’s much more reasonable to assume that we can teach them how to be comfortable in certain situations and then teach coping skills that can be used in others. When taught in a particular fashion, flight training becomes a coping skill that pets can use without human prompting. It takes a while to get to that stage, but it’s always amazing to see it when it happens! 

 

Why should I teach my pet flight?

You know that we specialize in maladaptive behaviors, behavior issues, problems, whatever you’d like to call them. That means that many of my top reasons for teaching a pet flight are centered around that. However, I do think that it’s a skill that all individuals- of all species- should know how to do. Some animals already do this on their own and we simply need to allow them to do so when it happens. The animals that I work with tend to need to be taught how to move away from stress. 

 

Here are my top 5 reasons that I teach flight to my clients’ pets:

 

1. The best individual to monitor stress is that individual 

Anxiety, stress, and fear are funny things and they’re highly individualized. Some people can’t even look at a picture of a spider and others keep them as pets. Some people go bungee jumping; my mom struggles to look over a second-story balcony for fear of heights. Humans think fireworks are fun. Birds die trying to flee from them. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more: you don’t get to choose what an individual is afraid of and not afraid of. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you or not. It only matters how they feel. And that means that the best individual to monitor stress is that individual.

Sometimes when we teach an animal flight, we learn that they’re actually uncomfortable about more things than we realized. I worked at a sanctuary where the staff used golf carts to move from one area to another. We had been working on an early variation of our flight training with a dog, Lee. One day his caregiver told me that a golf cart was passing them while out on a walk and Lee moved to the other side of her, which was his version of avoiding the scary thing. Once it had passed he resumed his normal walking pattern. We had no idea he was uncomfortable with golf carts passing until we gave him the ability to tell us. 

 

2. It’s way better than the alternative

I mentioned above that there are different stress responses: fight, flight, freeze (there are technically others that we’re going to ignore for now). The vast majority of clients who come to me do so after their pet starts “choosing” fight-type behaviors (choosing is in quotation marks because it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.) In those cases, the top priority is to reduce the fight-type behaviors. It’s a safety concern. 

When I’m working with those clients, I explain the stress responses and discuss why their pet is behaving the way they do. Both fight and flight have the same goal: to increase distance from the scary thing. So how about we teach them how to move away instead of aggress? Almost everyone enthusiastically agrees that flight is a much better alternative in those situations. 

 

3. Agency is good for, well, everything

Flight training allows for the choice to move away from a person, animal, object, or situation. Agency– the ability to make choices that result in desirable outcomes- is good for, well, just about everything. In particular, though, it’s really valuable when it comes to anxiety-based behaviors. If you are in an uncomfortable situation and can’t see a way out, your fear intensifies. If you are in an uncomfortable situation and know that you can leave it at any time, you’re likely to feel more comfortable and stick around longer. Flight training can help to alleviate some stress.

 

4. Having an out increases efficiency

My anecdotal experience is that teaching flight helps to make the behavior modification process more efficient. As I mentioned above, that increase in agency in stressful situations tends to decrease stress and help animals be able to learn better in stressful situations. I find that the clients who are dedicated to flight training tend to make quicker progress than those who are not as dedicated to teaching and implementing that skill. 

 

5. Knowing what to do when something goes wrong

The first part of a behavior modification plan is management: how do we set up the environment and interactions to prevent the unwanted behavior from happening in the first place? The problem is that management fails and sometimes it’s not possible to get a management plan that is 100% perfect in the first place. And that means that while we do need to be diligent about adhering to a management plan to decrease stress and unwanted behaviors, we also need to know what to do when management fails. We need a “get out of Dodge” behavior that has been practiced to the point where it can be used in a stressful situation. That’s the reason I usually teach my clients flight training before teaching them how to work in difficult situations. They need to be able to get out of a sticky situation first. 

 

How do I teach my pet flight?

There are a lot of similar protocols out there, so you’re welcome to choose whichever you like! Things like emergency u-turns, Treat ‘N’ Retreat, and the like are versions of this or incorporate elements of it. I prefer our protocol because it’s designed to be used as a life skill instead of only as a training skill but that preference doesn’t mean that other similar protocols are not effective!

The broad strokes of teaching flight include:

  1. Teach a flight cue in non-stressful situations
  2. Start using your flight cue to encourage your pet to move away from stressors
  3. When you see your pet asking or trying to move away on their own, let them do so and reward the heck out of it! 

If you would like help with teaching your pet flight, our consultants are here for you and offer remote services worldwide. Behavior professionals: we have a Flight Training Course designed to teach you how to teach your clients how to do flight training. This course is incredibly focused on teaching clients; trust me when I say that only professionals will want to take this. 

 

Now what?

  • Watch your pet to see if they already move away in uncomfortable situations. If they do, fantastic! Make sure that you let them do so when they want to. One of the ways that flight behaviors turn to fight behaviors is to remove flight as an option. Again, flight is a way better alternative and something that I personally celebrate. 
  • If your pet does not move away in uncomfortable situations, start working on teaching flight. Again, our consultants are here to help (the devil’s in the details, after all!)
  • Behavior professionals: if you’re looking for how to teach your clients how to do flight training, you’re in luck! Our Flight Training Course is now available for sale. Check it out here

Happy training!

Allie

What To Do When the Best Defense Is a Good Offense

Much of aggressive behavior, including bites, is based in fear. And the goal of those behaviors is typically to increase the distance between the individual and whatever they perceive as a threat. Oftentimes, when I explain all of this to my clients, the next question I hear is:

“If they’re afraid, why do they approach someone and then bite them?”

That’s a valid question. If the goal is to increase distance, why would the animal then purposefully move closer? My answer? Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. 

 

The Best Defense is a Good Offense Mentality

There are plenty of people who have this mentality. A large part of the Rom-Com genre is based on it: “I’m going to break things off before I get hurt.” Often when we experience other people with this mentality, we can recognize that it’s coming from a place of past, negative experiences and hurt. But sometimes it’s harder to see how an animal got to that place. 

I’ve talked in previous posts that animals, including humans, have a few different ways to react when they’re stressed: fight, flight, freeze (we’re ignoring the other options). Most of our pets start off choosing flight or freeze when they’re very young. And if those behaviors work for them- i.e. they are able to reduce the threat- they typically continue choosing flight or freeze. Individuals do what works for them. 

The problem comes in when flight and freeze stop working; when they’re either not possible to perform or they don’t work to reduce the threat. When that happens, pets often resort to fight-type behaviors (i.e. aggression), which usually works pretty darn well to get threats to go away. And what they’re learning is that the best defense against threats is a good offense. It’s the only thing that works. 

 

Continuing the Cliched Sayings: The Road to Hell is Paved in Good Intentions

Sometimes this scenario happens because people don’t know what subtle stress signals to look for to know if their pet is uncomfortable or not in a particular situation. That often means that they’re not seeing flight and freeze behaviors for what they are and making sure their pet has an escape route or helping to remove a threat if an escape route isn’t possible.

For example, here’s a picture where a dog is displaying subtle stress signals, but I’m guessing the photographer doesn’t know what to look for when it comes to signs of discomfort. This is a scenario that could turn south very quickly, especially because one of the dog’s escape routes isn’t possible due to the wall (or furniture? It’s hard to tell what that is.)

I would say that perhaps just as frequently, though, teaching a “best defense is a good offense” mentality happens due to very well-intentioned people who are just trying to help their pet be more comfortable. They know that their pet is afraid but don’t necessarily know how to help their pet work through that. Common mistakes that I see here include:

  • Holding a small dog or cat to be pet by a person who makes them uncomfortable
  • Asking a pet to move closer to a person or animal who makes them uncomfortable using food or treats
  • Asking a dog who is uncomfortable with other dogs on a walk to sit and watch other dogs pass by closely without other forms of behavior modification
  • Continuing to try to harness a dog who is moving away from the harness
  • Continuing to pursue a pet who has stolen something and is running away with it whenever you approach (this can sometimes be a play behavior, and it can sometimes not be a play behavior)

See how easy it is to accidentally teach an animal that flight or freeze aren’t effective? The road to hell really is paved with good intentions. I’ve seen so many well-intentioned, loving, lovely people who have accidentally taught their pet that the best defense is a good offense because they were trying to help their pet. And, if this is you, I’ll tell you what I tell my clients: hindsight is 20/20. It’s really easy to beat ourselves up for making mistakes, but you didn’t know and you can’t beat yourself up for not knowing. Now that you know better, you can do better. All isn’t lost. 

What should I do if this is my pet?

If you have a pet who thinks that the best defense is a good offense, the first thing I always recommend is working with a behavior professional. As illustrated above, very common internet recommendations can make things a whole lot worse. A professional knows how to navigate these situations to keep everyone safe and to make sure that we’re truly helping the pet work through their fear. 

But, in the meantime, while you’re waiting to work with a professional, I have two recommendations:

  • Management
  • If your pet is asking to move away (i.e. flight), you let them move away

Management

Management is definitely not a new topic to this blog. It means setting up the environment and/or situations to prevent the unwanted behavior from being able to happen. If your pet tries to bite people who come in the front door, put your pet in a bedroom or crate with the door safely secured before the doorbell rings. If your dog is sometimes uncomfortable with other dogs on leash, don’t introduce them to everyone on a walk. Management prevents our pets from practicing these fight-type behaviors and continuing to learn that they do in fact work. 

Flight

I mentioned at the very beginning of this post that the goal of aggressive behavior is often to increase the distance between the individual and the perceived threat. That’s also the goal behind flight; it just looks very different. 

If fight-type behaviors often happen as a result of learning that flight isn’t possible or doesn’t work, what if we taught them that it does work? That we will let them move away if they’re uncomfortable? That we will actively give them the ability to make a different choice? When done properly, most pets start to make that choice when they’re stressed instead. Stay tuned next week for why I think everyone should teach flight training to their pets. 

 

But shouldn’t I teach my pet that fight behaviors don’t work?

I get this question every now and then. And I get it. We don’t like those particular behaviors, so why should we keep telling our pets that those behaviors work? Here’s the problem with teaching that fight behaviors don’t work: there’s a really big chance of this backfiring. So much so that there’s actually a term for it: behavioral fallout. 

When we try to “stand our ground” when a dog growls, they often end up biting. When we “stand our ground” when they bite, they often end up biting harder. One of you is eventually going to back down, and it’s not going to be pretty for anyone involved. 

It is possible to suppress these behaviors through pain, fear, force, or intimidation, but trust me when I say that that doesn’t usually work in the long run. A lot of our clients come to us after having suppressed these behaviors for years (again, with the absolute best of intentions and often at the request of professionals using outdated training models) all for it to turn into a giant outburst, usually more severe than the previous behavior. 

We have more long-term success with a much lower chance of behavioral fallout if we teach our pets that, yes, those behaviors do work. Threats will go away if you ask them to. And also, you don’t need to ask them to because you can go away yourself or your human will intervene or they’re not that scary after all. 

I know this can be a hard concept to wrap your head around, so I have a whole separate blog post about why I like growling. Check it out here

 

Now what?

  • This one should come as no surprise to long-time readers: learn your pet’s body language and subtle stress signals regardless of whether they are a “best defense is a good offense” kiddo or not. Check out this blog post for some of our favorite dog and cat body language resources.
  • If this article is hitting close to home with your pet, make sure that your management strategy is up to snuff. Identify things that make your pet uncomfortable and come up with a game plan for how to avoid those stressors. Make sure to communicate your pet’s management strategy with everyone who is involved in their day-to-day care. 
  • Listen to what your pet is asking for and respond accordingly. Is your pet leaning away when someone tries to pet them? They’re asking to not be petted in that moment. Is your dog reacting at another dog on leash? Even though it doesn’t look like it, they’re still asking for space. If you don’t know for sure what your pet is asking, make sure you rope in a professional to help. Behaviors are not always as they seem at first glance!
  • And, if there’s a safety concern, I always recommend working with a behavior professional. Our team has clients all over the world and is ready to help you! Email us at [email protected] to get started.

Happy training!

Allie

Is Your Pet’s Behavior Unpredictable?

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

 

Let’s talk about a phrase that I hear from folks regularly:

 

My pet’s behavior is unpredictable. 

 

Typically when I hear this it’s coming from folks who have a pet who is biting and they’re describing the bites as unpredictable. And phrasing their pet’s behavior in this way tells me a lot about what’s going on with the human end of this relationship. It usually signals to me that the humans are frightened of their pet and their behavior and what that could mean for the future. 

It also often tells me that they’re frustrated; they’ve been trying to figure their pet out to no avail and have finally hit the breaking point in which they’ve decided they need professional help. This phrase tells me a lot about where the humans are in the behavior modification journey and for that, I’m grateful to hear it.

It doesn’t, however, tell me a lot about the pet’s behavior. And the simple reason for that is: behavior is predictable. Really the only times that it’s truly unpredictable is when there is some sort of serious mental or physical illness going on and that’s not very common. (And, in reality, there’s still a lot of nuance of how predictable that behavior is, and that’s way beyond the scope of this article.) That’s so uncommon that I’m not even going to go into what could cause that to avoid the whole I-Googled-my-symptoms-and-now-I-definitely-think-I’m-dying-from-a-rare-disease syndrome. We’ve all been there; let’s not go there now. 

So, if behavior is predictable, why do I hear from folks on a weekly basis that their pet’s behavior is unpredictable? There are two reasons that I frequently encounter why it might seem like an animal’s behavior is unpredictable:

  • We can’t see it coming
  • We haven’t yet figured out the triggers

 

We can’t see it coming

This category refers to being able to read your pet’s body language. I (and the rest of the Pet Harmony team) always start off by talking about body language with a new client. While there are some body language signals that are intuitive (e.g. pretty much everyone knows a tucked tail means a fearful dog), there are a lot of signals that are not intuitive and we wouldn’t expect folks to know them without studying body language (e.g. stress yawns, lip licks, not all tail wags are friendly for dogs and a cat’s “tail wag” is definitely not friendly). “Unpredictable” often just means that they haven’t yet learned their pet’s body language and way of communicating. 

This is one of my favorite lightbulb moments to see in my clients. I typically start describing Oso’s body language signals in certain situations, and I can see that lightbulb happen: “Ohhhhh there probably are signals and I’m just not seeing them.” We don’t know what we don’t know and we can’t see a particular behavior coming if we don’t know what to look for! Learning body language helps your pet’s behavior appear more predictable. 

Now, there are times where we truly don’t get a lot of signals, and that could be for a few different reasons. It could be that they’re experiencing stress a lot of the time and so it’s easy to look like they’re going from 0 to 60, even though it’s really 59 to 60 (hello, trigger stacking). It could also be that the pet has been punished in the past for exhibiting warning signs and we’ve taught them to not communicate with us. More information about why I love warning signs here. If you suspect that either of these is the case for your pet, start working with a professional asap. 

 

We haven’t yet figured out the triggers

There could be a few reasons why we haven’t yet figured out the triggers:

  • Humans and animals experience the world differently
  • We’re thinking too much like a human
  • There are triggers that others can’t perceive
  • Trigger stacking

 

Humans and animals experience the world differently

Humans can see a rich tapestry of colors, but birds can see UV colors. Dogs can smell cadavers underwater. Cats have one of the broadest hearing ranges recorded among mammals. A 30-pound dog might seem small to you, but to a Chihuahua it’s big. 

Different species experience the world differently, and that means your pet may be encountering a trigger that you don’t experience. And while that might make your pet’s behavior seem unpredictable, your pet is still responding predictably to a real stimulus in the environment. Being able to read your pet’s body language allows us to bridge the gap when we can’t or don’t experience the world in the same way. 

The other way that I see this manifest is in what our brains filter out throughout the day. If I’m waiting for a package to be delivered I will hear the brakes on the truck from further away. If I’m not expecting a package I might not even notice that they’ve stopped next door. We filter out stimuli that aren’t relevant to us all of the time and that’s true for all species. But what’s relevant to each individual is different. If you have a pet who has big feelings about the delivery truck you better believe they will hear the truck from further away! You may be experiencing the same stimuli that your pet is but are filtering it out instead. 

 

We’re thinking too much like a human

The way that I typically see this one unfold is when folks are thinking about the trigger in terms of how they feel about it instead of how their pet feels about it. For example, I see this a lot when the issue surrounds handling sensitivity or being touched or pet. Contrary to popular belief, our pets do not instinctively enjoy being touched by humans, and certainly not by all humans in all ways. That would be like us enjoying any random person touching us– even just gently on the shoulder– on the street. No thank you. Personal bubbles exist for a reason.

However, when we’re thinking about it through our human lens, we assume that because we have a good relationship with our pets or because they live in our household, that they should also enjoy us touching them at all times. We let our ideas cloud our observations. 

We underestimate how much our ideas can cloud our observations. I not infrequently have people tell me in the same breath that their pet’s behavior is unpredictable and also that it usually happens in x situations. (And, to be fair, I’ve also said things like this! I’m not immune to this phenomenon!) They tell me what the trigger is but because they can’t understand or believe that that’s the problem, they can’t see it for what it is. We need to observe objectively, without letting the stories or ideas we have about our pets get in the way. 

The other way that I see this manifesting is in a difference of details. For example, we understand that a person is a person whether they’re sitting or jogging. It’s the same person so they should elicit the same reaction. Right? However, a pet with stranger danger will tell you that there’s a big difference between a person sitting, standing, walking, and jogging, and they’ll likely tell you by having a different reaction in those different situations even if it’s the same person. Sometimes our human logic and reasoning get in the way of observation as well. 

 

There are triggers that others can’t perceive

We already talked about how different species experience the world differently, but individuals within the same species also have different experiences. And what’s going on with us internally does play a role in our behavior. One of the best examples of this is pain. Yes, we can sometimes see when someone else is in pain. We can see limping or favoring a particular limb. We can hear when someone cries out. But pain isn’t always so obvious, especially when it comes to animals. 

Our pets are typically wonderful at hiding how much pain they’re in. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not experiencing it or that it’s not impacting their behavior. There may be internal reasons for acting or reacting in a certain way that we’re not privy to. This is why behavior consultants so frequently recommend folks start with a vet visit first. We can’t train away a medical problem. 

Just as with the first category, being able to read body language helps to bridge this gap. In addition to body language, being able to objectively observe our pets’ behavior over a course of time and recognize subtle changes can help us with this category as well, especially if we’re talking about pain-related behaviors. It’s important to note that behavior modification plans still need to be based on observation of body language and behavior, instead of trying to psychoanalyze our pets. More about that here

 

Trigger stacking

Last week I talked about trigger stacking: when a bunch of smaller stressors or triggers add up to create a bigger reaction than if just one of them happened. A lot of times when folks label behavior as unpredictable, it’s because sometimes there’s a problem and sometimes there isn’t in the exact same situation. Often, the culprit is trigger stacking (when it’s not one of the above reasons). I talk all about this phenomenon here, so I won’t spend much more time other than to say that once you uncover how trigger stacking affects your pet, their behavior becomes much more predictable. 

 

Now what?

  • Have you found yourself thinking that your pet’s behavior is unpredictable? Take a moment and think about all of the scenarios in which you see that behavior. What are the commonalities? What happens before the behavior happens that sets the stage?
    • Be sure to think about those commonalities from different perspectives; don’t think like a human! 
    • Make sure your ideas about your pet aren’t clouding your judgment. Sometimes I find it helps to think about the exact same behavior but as if another pet who I don’t know is performing them. Do your observations change if you think about it in that way?
  • Learn your pet’s body language. Behavior is so much more predictable when we can see it coming.
  • Manage undesirable behaviors by avoiding situations in which the undesirable behavior happens. One of the perks of being able to see your pet’s behavior predictably means being able to better manage it!
  • Being able to see your pet’s behavior is one thing, but being able to address it is another. We always recommend seeking professional help for pets with aggression, anxiety, fear, and the like. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

What You Need to Know About Trigger Stacking

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I talk about trigger stacking a lot. It’s in my typical first-session spiel for new clients, I talk about it frequently in follow-up sessions, and I even use the term to describe my own emotional state. So, what the heck is it?

Trigger stacking refers to that phenomenon when a bunch of smaller stressors or triggers stack or add on top of each other to produce a different reaction than if just one of them happened. 

 

Some examples

We’ve all had those days where nothing goes right. You forgot to set your alarm the night before and wake up late. Then your car has trouble starting. Then you hit every single red light on the way to work. By the time you finally make it, you’re close to bubbling over. And then someone makes an innocuous observation that they beat you to work today. You explode. 

That’s trigger stacking. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s not that the innocuous observation was so stressful that it alone elicited the explosion. It was because, after everything that happened before it, that little bit of stress was enough to push you over the edge. Had it been a normal, relatively stress-free morning and your coworker just happened to have arrived before you and made the same remark, it likely wouldn’t have elicited an explosion. 

We all experience this phenomenon, so let’s take a peek at what that looks like for a dog who’s reactive to other dogs. They go outside in the yard in the morning and see a dog a few doors down. A little bit of stress. They come inside and the neighbor dog can be heard through the window. A little bit more stress. We go to work and they watch– and react at– dogs walking past the window all day. More stress. We come home from work and take them out for a walk and even though we’re trying to avoid other dogs and keep a healthy distance, every dog they see still results in blusterous reactivity. They were stressed before the walk even began. We didn’t stand a chance. 

Or, last week Ellen talked about managing stranger danger behaviors. Trigger stacking for stranger danger pets could look like a party instead of having one guest over. Or having one or two people at a time but one right after another the whole day. There are a lot of slightly different scenarios that can elicit trigger stacking, but it boils down to several triggers in a relatively short amount of time. 

 

Why is this important?

Stress impacts behavior. We have only to look at our daily lives to see how much stress impacts and affects behavior. Heck, this last year was one giant lesson showcasing how stress affects behavior in different ways and in different individuals. And even though it might seem like our pets are living stress-free lives, they aren’t. They experience stress, too, and it affects how they behave. 

We at Pet Harmony wouldn’t have jobs if stress didn’t affect behavior. It’s the culprit behind maladaptive behaviors, including aggression, fear, and anxiety. And, when we recognize the role that stress plays in those behaviors, we can address those behaviors much more effectively. 

Here is a great YouTube video by Donna Hill that gets into trigger stacking and stress hormones.

 

It’s not just within a few minutes

It takes stress hormones a while to leave the body. The actual amount of time changes depending on the species and the particular hormone. Some last for a few minutes, others hours, and some last for a few days, and chronic stress impacts the amount of time as well. It’s much more complicated than what we can get into here (and I’m certainly not an expert in physiology!), but the short of it is that stressful events can impact behavior for days after. This means that we can see the effects of trigger stacking culminating over longer periods of time than just a few minutes. What happened this morning can impact the afternoon can impact the evening. 

 

What can we do about trigger stacking?

For those of you who have followed us for a while, the answer should come as no surprise: management! Management is one of the best ways that we can mitigate the effects of stress and trigger stacking (there are others, too, that we won’t get into here.)

Management means setting up the environment so that your pet is less likely to experience stressors or triggers or avoiding them when we can’t arrange the environment. This looks like getting physical exercise in the backyard instead of going on walks in a dog-filled neighborhood. This looks like putting your pet away when the repair person comes. This looks like not picking up a pet who tries to bite you when they get picked up. 

We’re often asked about management being a band-aid. It is! But a necessary band-aid. Not having management would be like not dressing a wound after surgery. Is the bandage fixing the wound? No. Is it preventing it from getting worse and having other ancillary problems? You bet. Let’s not knock management just because it’s a band-aid. It’s still a necessary and integral part of a behavior modification plan, especially when you take into consideration that brains under stress do not learn well. If we want the training and behavior modification techniques we’re using to work, we need a brain that can learn it. And that means management. 

 

Now what?

  • Take a look at your pet’s stressors. Do you see multiple stressors happening throughout the day? If so, you probably have some trigger stacking on your hands. 
  • If you’re not sure if trigger stacking is at play, keep a log of your pet’s triggers and behaviors. It’s much easier to see trends this way. 
  • After identifying triggers, take a look at your management plan. If you don’t have one, make one. If you do have one, take an objective look at what you’re doing well and if there are areas for improvement. 
  • Want more information about how stress impacts behavior? Join us for our free 5 Tips for Addressing Your Dog’s Problem Behaviors webinar tonight!

 

Happy training!

Allie

You Have to Practice Before the Test

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When I’m giving a client a new activity, I always tell them to practice first in scenarios where they’ll be more successful. For example, practicing loose leash walking or the flight cue inside. Or Look at That or a greeting strangers protocol with faux triggers or people they know. Every now and then, someone will come back to me with:

 

I tried what you said to do and it didn’t work.

 

After some sleuthing, we sometimes find that the problem is that they tried to use it in a more difficult situation before they or their pet were ready. That happens to all of us (myself included!) at some point! But, if we go straight to testing without practicing, we usually fail the test. 

 

Practice makes perfect

This cliche applies to behavior modification: practice makes perfect. Well, as close to perfect as we can expect from a living, breathing individual with free will. The situations in which we want to use our pet’s skills are usually higher stress situations, either due to excitement or distress. I liken this to a “test”, where you’re expected to perform skills you’ve been learning in a higher stress situation. But the only way to do well in that type of situation is to practice a lot in easier scenarios that gradually build in difficulty. 

Imagine we plucked someone off the street, told them the basics of brain surgery, and then asked them to perform brain surgery on someone. Show of hands of who’d like that person to operate on them? That’s a hell no from me! I want someone who’s gone through school, practiced on cadavers, and has operated on a bunch of people before me. I want someone who’s practiced. 

Teaching our pets something once or twice and then asking them to perform it in a high-stress situation is like asking someone we’ve plucked off the street to perform brain surgery. It’s just not going to go well. And, if through luck it does, it’s not going to be predictably replicable. We need to practice in easier situations that gradually build in difficulty in order for them to succeed. 

 

What do easier situations look like?

This will be different depending on the skill or maladaptive behavior we’re talking about and where the pet is in their learning journey. In general, easier situations can look like something as simple as you and your pet training in your living room without anyone else around or it can look like a watered-down version of the situation you’re working up to. You have a lot of options when it comes to an easier situation. In general, choose a scenario where you’re pretty sure your pet will be successful. 

Keep in mind that “easier” is subjective, and is based on current skills. Calculus is easy for someone with a Ph.D. in math but it’s hard for a 3rd grader. Staying still is hard for a puppy but is easy for a service dog. The goal is to practice in situations that gradually increase in difficulty but for each step to still be easy for your pet’s current skill level.

 

Now what?

  • Determine what an easier situation looks like for a skill you’re trying to teach. 
  • Start practicing! If your pet is doing well, keep practicing. If they’re not doing well in that situation, that means it’s currently too difficult for them. Go back to the drawing board to figure out what would be easier for them and try again. 

 

Happy training!

Allie