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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?

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

Pain Doesn’t Always Look Like Pain

 

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

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

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

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

 

Non-humans aren’t humans…

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

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

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

 

…But we share a lot of commonalities

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

Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

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

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

 

Subtle signs of pain

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

Loss of appetite

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

Twitching skin

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

Trembling muscles

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

Sudden orientation towards a body part

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

Sudden orientation towards your hand when you touch them

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

Compulsively licking a body part

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

Reduced range of motion

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

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

 

So what do we do about it?

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

 

Circling back is an option!

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

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

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

 

Now what? 

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

Happy training,

Emily

June 2022 Training Challenge: Track Your Pet’s Behavior for a Month

 

Happy June, y’all!

With Season 1 of Enrichment for the Real World coming to a close, we wanted to focus this training challenge on our final topic of the season, using data for enrichment!

Now, I know the idea of collecting data can be overwhelming, intimidating, and even seem unnecessary, but, as we work to create effective, efficient enrichment plans for the animals in our care, collecting some data can make a huge difference in doing that well without sacrificing ourselves.  

So, this month’s training challenge is to collect some data on the animal in your care! 

As Dr. Fernandez mentioned in this week’s podcast episode…

“Then the second part is test things and test things in a way that you can find some type of evidence. Because we’ve talked about the importance of being evidence-based, and that means any kind of data, any kind of data that you use, and as I like to say all the time, any data is better than no data.”

 

Data can look like a lot of things

When we are talking about data, we mean a range of information. We want what we are tracking to answer the questions or goals that we have. This could be a simple yes/no, a duration of something, a frequency of something, the intensity of the behavior, and more. 

 

Some tips to keep in mind

  1. Know your question or goal. Are you gathering baseline information, like the number of times you catch your dog licking their paws? Or are you trying to see if your routine changes are helping you to progress toward your goals? Are you trying to assess if your efforts are working? 
  2. Work at the level you WILL do, not necessarily the level you WANT to do. Some data is better than no data. Focus your efforts on something you can do, and make it easy for you to do the thing. It may be a piece of paper on your desk, a whiteboard in the kitchen, texting yourself every time something happens… Get creative, but make sure it is actually doable. You can always expand later! 
  3. Clearly identify what you are tracking. Look at overt behavior, observable changes, and things that you can measure rather than focusing on a feeling or vibe. 

 

So, what might this look like in a home?

Once you know your goal or question, then you can start doing some trial and eval! As I mentioned before, there are so many different things you can look at, but narrow it down to get the information that will help you assess your goals and plans. Here are 3 examples to get your creative juices flowing.

 

Griffey’s Skin Issues

With the onset of Spring came an onslaught of allergy issues for Griffey. We’ve been working diligently with our vet to come at it from a number of angles, and last week, we implemented 2 new treatment options: weekly medicated baths and a 3x daily topical treatment for lesions that were showing up. Our goals were to see improvement in skin and coat condition, overall comfort for Griffey, and quick healing of the lesions. To ensure that our treatment was effective, we have been tracking the number of variables through a piece of paper at my desk: 

  1. The number of times he can be redirected from licking vs not (will he do something else instead or not?)
  2. The number of lesions on his body 
  3. Amount of time spent itching and licking

Over 2 weeks of data collection, we have seen a drastic improvement. It is clear that these two interventions have improved his welfare (and ours!). The amount of extra effort that these activities take is worth it, and we can see we are on the right track. 

 

Brie and Copper Barking During Zoom

Somewhat recently, Emily moved to the good ol’ Pacific Northwest with her desert dogs. Both Brie and Copper were having a hard time adjusting to life in the cold, wet climate that Seattle is known for and they had become more restless and disruptive during her zoom meetings. So, in addition to their normal scatter feeding at mealtimes, she decided to do more intentional scent work during lunchtime.

The question Emily was looking to answer was, “How many times can the dogs rest all the way through a Zoom session?” With a simple system of Xs or checkmarks on a notepad, she was able to notate which Zoom sessions they rested through and which ones they were restless. She was able to see a clear correlation between doing daily scent work with them and how many times they could rest all the way through a Zoom session. Armed with that information, she was able to incorporate that change into her day-to-day life.

 

Working on Recall

Last year I worked with a client whose dog would chase and bark at wildlife in the yard. We were working to improve the dog’s come when called, and eventually, Flight Cueing away from the critters. 

In our first session, we discussed putting a pad of paper next to the back door and each day writing a tally:

  1. Each time you call her and she comes all the way back inside. 
  2. Each time you call her and she turns to look at you but doesn’t make it back inside. 
  3. Each time you call her and she doesn’t respond. 

Over our time together, we saw many more tallies in the “you call her and she comes all the way back inside” column compared to the “you call her and she doesn’t respond.” Eventually, we were able to adjust what we were tallying to include “times she comes in without being called.” Remember, you can always adjust in the future. 

 

Now What?

  1. Ask yourself, what’s a question or goal that you have for yourself and your animal? 
  2. Determine how can you collect information easily? Pen and paper? Whiteboard? Text/email? Spreadsheet?
  3. Decide what information would help you assess your progress toward your goal? If you’re trying to help your animal relax, then tracking the duration of rest may be helpful. If you are trying to reduce alert barking, then the frequency of barking might be helpful. 
  4. Do the thing! Keep track of your pet’s behavior and look for patterns and correlations. Sometimes, you’ll need to circle back and trial and eval something else, just like Allie did with Winter Oso

Happy Training, 

Ellen 

What If I Told You It’s Not Good, Bad, Or Ugly

 

We humans like our tidy little boxes, labels, and categorizations. It’s often the easiest and fastest route to help us make sense of a complex world in which we have to interpret information at a sometimes alarming rate. If we can make a quick assessment of something, many times it allows us to move on without too much deliberation. But oftentimes, when we are making quick assessments or categorizing things, an unfortunate side effect is that we also attach a judgment to what we are labeling or categorizing. From the human perspective, this probably makes a lot of sense. Afterall, we live in a world that teaches us from a very young age that certain types of behaviors are good or bad, naughty or nice, sweet or sassy. Even if very young humans can’t understand the meaning of the word morality, they certainly have morality drilled into them early on. 

 

Let’s define morality

The Oxford dictionary defines morality as “principles concerning the destination between right and wrong or good or bad behavior.” Merriam-Webster dictionary provides us with the following definition: “concerned with or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior.” I think most people would agree that having a societal system that depends on people sharing a code of conduct is important to maintain order and safety for all people who share that society. In that sense, having an agreed upon code of morality can be a very good thing. But morality is definitely not a one size fits all kind of concept. Furthermore, using morality to categorize behavior can often cause more harm than good. 

 

What the heck does this have to do with our pets?

If you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you are here because you have some type of relationship with companion animals. And you might be wondering what any of this philosophical talk about morality has to do with being a pet parent. I would say a whole lot. Because humans are primed from a young age to be experts at placing moral values on behavior. And our pets, like all living animals, behave. All-day, every day, while they draw breath and just like us, they behave. Is your pet sleeping? Sleeping is a behavior. Is your pet eating? Eating is a behavior. Is your pet chewing? Chewing is a behavior. So is jumping, chasing, sitting, resting, barking, pooping, mating, digging, growling, and licking. You get the idea. The behaviors your pet exhibits are them acting on their environments. If your pet is resting peacefully, this behavior might be because they are satiated, tired, and/or feeling safe and secure. Very few people have problems with the behavior of resting peacefully. It’s different however when a pet exhibits behaviors that we do not find enchanting or things we categorize as “problem behaviors.” 

 

Why does it matter?

It matters because when we view behavior through the lens of morality, we sometimes stop there and don’t explore the where, whys, whats, and whens of behavior. If we think of a behavior as being either “good” or “bad” it can cause us to feel stuck and we may just look for quick ways to make the unwanted behavior stop. There is no curiosity in “good” or “bad.” There is mostly a judgment and that judgment is based on a human’s perspective of what “good” or “bad” consists of. Labels like “good” or “bad” don’t teach anything but they presume an awful lot. They presume that your pet, 1) has the capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong and 2)  if they do, they live by the same set of moral conduct that humans do. Those are both big suppositions and put an awful lot of pressure on our pets.  

 

It’s all just information

One of the laws of behavior is that all behavior has a function. The function of behavior can differ from one individual to another. I think the function of a behavior is so much more interesting when viewed as information. I think framing behavior as just information immediately provides us with the opportunity to look at behavior with a less negative lens and instead approach behaviors we would like to see more or less of as a puzzle to be solved as opposed to a problem to be judged. Judging can cause us to place blame whereas problem-solving helps us become more analytical and objective in our assessments. 

Can we strip down the behavior to simply observing it without interpretation? Can we simply watch what happens before the behavior occurs and what outcome the behavior has for the one performing it? Instead of saying my dog is “bad” for grabbing food on the counter, or “good” because she comes when I call, can we assess the behavior in terms of outcomes? Can we teach our pets to display more of the behaviors we would like to see and give them appropriate outlets to display behaviors that are typical for their species? Can we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn more about why the behavior is occurring in the first place? Asking questions, remaining curious and open, and observing without judgment are all skills that can be mastered. Giving yourself permission to view your pet’s behavior as neither “good” behavior or “bad” behavior can change not only the way you view your pet but can also change the way you interact with them as well. Being good stewards of our pet’s physical and emotional well-being starts with understanding, empathy, and the ability to remain curious about who they are as a species and why they behave the way they do. 

 

Now what?

Here are some suggestions on how you can practice being an observer of your pet’s behavior:

  • Keep a journal of your pet’s typical behavior on any given day
  • Pay attention not only to your pet’s behavior but also take note of anything that is occurring environmentally before, during, and after the behavior happens
  • Try to simply view your pet’s behavior as information without attaching a moral judgment or interpretation to the choices your pet is making 
  • Learn as much as you can about what species-typical behavior looks like for your pet’s species 
  • Learn how your pet communicates via their body language 
  • Contact a credentialed behavior consultant or trainer to help you gain knowledge and skills if you are feeling frustrated, uncertain, or stuck. Pet Harmony is ready to help you acquire the skills you need to help your relationship with the pets you share your life with! 

Happy training,

MaryKaye

The Physical Exercise Conundrum

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

 

I talk quite a bit about playing tug with Oso. It’s part of my go-to example of how we experimented with mental and physical exercise to combat the dreaded Winter Oso. But here’s what I don’t share as frequently: I can’t actually play tug with him. 

This is a prime example of “do what I say, not what I do”. I’ve talked for years to my clients about not creating an athlete that they can’t keep up with. But, usually, I’m talking about cardio. Somehow I didn’t generalize that statement to strength exercises when it came to my own dog. 

So here’s what happened. When we were in the midst of experimenting with Oso’s enrichment activities, my husband was the one who started playing tug with him. And our new routine meant that he was the one playing tug with Oso almost daily. I watched as the two joyfully battled it out: evenly matched. My husband is considerably stronger than I am, especially when it comes to grip strength. Months went by before there was a night that my husband couldn’t play with him and I had to step up to the plate. Which is when I learned that I couldn’t. Oso was now much stronger than I was. 

 

Exercise creates athletes

How do people become athletes? They exercise. They train. They push themselves to run the extra mile. Add the extra weight plate. And, if they keep gradually increasing distance, weight, or something of that nature they eventually enter the athlete echelon. That means that in order to get the same effects from exercise, they have to do more of it. A 3-mile walk to a marathon runner has a different effect than a 3-mile walk to someone who lives a more sedentary lifestyle. And that can happen with our pets, too. 

I usually see this play out in a few different ways. Because I live in the Midwest, I especially see this problem seasonally. When it warms up, folks will start running with their dogs. That’s all fine and well until we hit winter and it’s not possible or at least pleasant to run with your dog anymore. The human opts for a treadmill instead, but we often see a canine athlete who now can’t run and is bouncing off the walls. 

I also see this play out when folks are training for races. Many will include their dog in their training regimen, but then decrease that exercise when the race is over. But, again, we now have a canine athlete who isn’t getting enough physical exercise.

And, perhaps the most common scenario I see is the well-intentioned pet parent who is just trying to get their dog enough physical exercise. I think we’ve all heard the expression “a tired dog is a happy dog” and I’ve seen many folks unintentionally create athletes by following that line of thinking. More on that later.

 

Athletes are not inherently “bad”

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an inherently bad thing to have a canine athlete. There are many reasons to purposefully create one! The second part of that statement that I tell my clients is the important part: don’t create an athlete that you can’t keep up with

Oso being muscular isn’t a problem (he actually gets a lot of compliments from the vet for how well-muscled he is). But it could be a problem that I personally can’t play tug with him. Dogs who enjoy running and who can run for miles a day aren’t inherently a problem. But it is a problem if your dog needs to run miles a day and you live in a city or have to deal with cold winters that make running with your dog challenging. It’s the mismatch between the human needs and the canine needs that becomes the problem. 

 

So what do I do?

Our pets obviously do need physical exercise, so how do we walk that fine line of providing enough exercise but not creating an athlete that we can’t keep up with? Because the problem is the mismatch between the human and the pet’s needs, I can’t answer that for you. You know what your needs are better than I do. But to answer that question, I tell folks to ask themselves if they could do this activity every day for a year. 

Can you do this during all seasons? Can you do this on workdays and weekends? Can you do this if you get injured during your workout routine? And, if the answer is no, then we have two options:

  1. Reevaluate our physical exercise regimen as a whole
  2. Find alternatives to make this regimen sustainable

The reason we opt for tug with Oso is because it’s sustainable. It meets his physical activity needs as evidenced by the effects it has on his behavior and also we can play in the house, negating weather. We can play on workdays and weekends. But we can’t play if my husband is injured or sick (well, I can try but it doesn’t usually work as well). And so on those days, we have alternative options. They don’t work as well depending on the weather, but they get the job done well enough. 

 

Is a tired dog really a happy dog?

I mentioned this pervasive statement earlier, and I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on this. One reason that I see folks unintentionally creating athletes is because of this belief that a tired dog is a happy dog. And so well-intentioned pet parents will over-exercise their pet in hopes that that will solve a particular problem. 

In reality, a happy dog is one who has all of their needs met. Physical activity is just one of those needs. More often than not, when folks are having to over-exercise their dog it’s a sign that there’s room for improvement in our enrichment strategy for other needs- usually mental exercise or calming. When I see this happening with a client I instruct them to explore different types of activities beyond physical exercise, and that often provides them with the results that they were looking for that physical exercise was not providing. 

 

Now what?

  • Observe the effects that physical activities have on your pet’s behavior. Remember, we need to see desired results for it to count as enrichment
  • Take a look at your pet’s physical exercise strategy. I talked a lot about dogs in this post, but this is applicable to all species! The first question I want you to answer is: is my pet’s physical exercise strategy actually having the intended effects I want it to have? If the answer is yes, great! Move on to the next question. If the answer is no, take a moment to reevaluate your pet’s enrichment strategy as a whole. Here’s a post showing what I did for Oso
  • The next question is: could you do this every day for a year? Essentially, is this strategy sustainable? If the answer is yes, awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing. If the answer is no, decide whether you need to rethink it entirely or if you want to simply add some activities to your toolbox to supplement when needed. 
  • If you need to supplement, it’s time to try some new activities or tweak the ones you currently have and observe the new effects!
  • Finally, tweak your physical exercise strategy as needed. 

Happy training!

Allie

Why I Stopped Asking My Dog to “Come”

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

 

We say we want to provide our dogs agency.  We say we want to give them options.  We say we want them to feel like they have a choice in the life they live.  So why do all the dog trainers and all the dog owners keep drilling away at recalls???  Why do we keep asking our dogs to come!??!?!?!

Because of safety (and probably many other very appropriate reasons as well).  

We can help manage situations, circumvent issues, and protect our pup if we can get that ever-so-sought-after “Rock Solid Recall.”  There are too many scenarios that may occur where it is in the best interest of our dogs, and of those around them, for the pups to run excitedly to our side when we say “come.”

How do we do it?  The age-old checklist

  • Prepare the environment for success
  • Reinforce/reward desired behaviors
  • Incrementally increase distractions, duration, distance, etc.

About a month ago I was filming some training sessions of myself with Opie and I noticed that he was not consistently coming to me when cued with “Opie, come!”.  Either something else in the environment was more rewarding (continuing to lay on the comfy couch, catching spare shreds of cheese dropping from my son’s hands, etc.), or I was making it too difficult for him (too far away, in a new environment, etc.).  Feeling the pressures of embarrassment from experiencing a failed recall while filming AND re-living it while watching my video, I reflected on this and I sadly realized that I don’t have a Rock Solid Recall.

 

Until I accidentally found out that I did.

Every time I said “Opie, Come!”, I wanted him to excitedly come by me; however, I wasn’t making it worth his while.  Some of the time, I did not reward him in proportion to the level of difficulty of actually coming.  Most of the time, I asked him to come when I really didn’t care if he did or didn’t come, I just wanted to give some lovin’–if he didn’t feel like it, I let it go because it wasn’t necessary and I don’t need to pet him if he doesn’t want the petting.

I wasn’t consistent with my expectations for his behavior after the cue, and I wasn’t consistent with my reinforcement of the cue “Opie, Come!”

But then, a glimmer of hope shone through my recall woes when I was assembling dinner.  I had a spare piece of fat that Opie just NEEDED to consume, so I said “Opie, do you want this?!” I heard his jingle jangle of tags tear down the hallway and he slid expectantly into home base.  Opie has a recall, it’s just not what I purposely trained.

I took a second to reflect on how I accidentally trained this.  To get the food, Opie needs to be next to me.  I consistently reinforce this by giving him what I have, why else would I say “do you want this?”  The value of the treat changes depending on what is on the chopping block, so I keep his interest piqued.  It’s the perfect combo to keep him excited and interested in moving his body close to mine.  I’ve started to proof this behavior so that I’m not only cuing it from the kitchen, and soon, I’ll be able to use it in the event I really need him to be by my side.

 

And as for “Come?” 

I still use it, it just makes too much sense in my human brain, but it’s not my recall word.  I now think of it more as an invitation for Opie to join me rather than a cue I can use for safety if I need it.

 

Now what?

  • Ask yourself, “Do I have a Rock Solid Recall?  Why is this important to me? Why would this be important to my dog?”  The answers will kick start your training plan.
  • Consider resetting your recall cue.  Start back with the basics to get a good reinforcement history going.  If you’re stuck, no worries, your friendly Pet Harmony Team is here to help.

Happy training,

Corinne

May 2022 Training Challenge – Getting in the Enrichment Habit

I’m gonna be calling out some people here right in the beginning. 

Raise your hand if you WANT TO DO THE THING, but something is standing in your way? 

And what do I mean by that? 

I want to give my dogs frozen food puzzles to lick once a day, but I can’t seem to do it. 

I want to spend 3 minutes training my dog, but I have only done it once in the last two weeks. 

I want to give my dog boxes with kibble in them to destroy, but it takes so much effort. 

I want to __________, but ___________. 

Yeah, friend. Me too. 

Building habits around our pet’s enrichment plan can be difficult in the constant churn of the rest of life. I have grandiose goals for my two dogs, but those goals often fall by the wayside as other fires appear on the horizon. 

If this sounds like you, then stick around, this training challenge is for you. 

This month, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what’s standing in the way of your best intentions. 

What is stopping you from turning your intentions and goals into sustainable habits? 

Oof, that seems like a big question, right? 

Don’t worry. 

We’ve helped thousands of families on their enrichment journey, and we’ve seen some of the common barriers among our clients. Check out these common barriers and the ways families have overcome them.

 

The “It Needs to be Perfect” Struggle 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“Well, I need to do all of these things before I can start.”

“I need to know all the things before I can start.” 

“If I can’t do it all, I can’t do any of it.” 

I think most of us have been there at some time in our lives. We want to do things “right”, so we put it off until we can feel like we are doing it “right.”

So, do you feel your inner perfectionist standing between you and your enrichment habit? 

You don’t have to know everything about everything for a stellar enrichment plan for your dog. That’s what behavior consultants are for, they can help you build your plan, leaving you to focus on execution. This doesn’t mean you can’t still learn *all the things*, but it does mean that you don’t have to do it with the cloud of pressure over your head! 

Separate the habit from the results. Integrating new routines into your life takes time, so sometimes, it’s helpful to say, “In order to benefit my pet, I need to do the thing. The first step, is getting the thing done”. Split the criteria for yourself. Start with doing the thing, and then add in those additional steps later. 

And remember, something is likely better than nothing, and you can start small. Start with one small step, and when you have that integrated into your routine, add something else. This is something else a qualified behavior consultant can help you with. Small steps are our specialty!

 

The “Too Many Choices” Paralysis

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“I don’t know what to do today?” 

“I can’t decide where to start!” 

“Should I be doing this or that?”

And then doing none of the things? Analysis paralysis is a real thing, and with the millions of enrichment options available, we see it seep in often. Where do I focus my attention? What if I make the wrong choice? What if there is a BETTER option? 

So, do you find the sheer number of options overwhelming and paralyzing? 

First off, you won’t know if there is a better option for your pet unless you try some stuff. Working with a professional can help narrow down your options, and direct your focus, but at the end of the day, I can tell you most, if not all dogs, benefit from opportunities to partake in sniffing. What I can’t tell you is what format or structure of sniffing is going to most benefit your dog. Does scatter feeding in the yard, tracking scents, sniffing through boxes and obstacle courses for food, or sniffaris provide you the best results? We need to do some trial and evaluation. And until we have that information, there is no bad option as long as it is safe, healthy, and appropriate. 

Looking at 10 options is likely too much, but looking at 3 can be manageable. So, narrow it down to three. If your dog’s enrichment program has some flexibility, and a sustainable, realistic and effective enrichment program should have some flexibility built-in, then toss all the options into a hat and pull three out to choose from. Or better yet, learn your pet’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you.” and ask them to pick for you! 

 

The “Chasing the Shiny” Burn Out 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“I’ll just add one more toy to my shopping cart.” 

“My dog is too fast!”

“I saw this incredible thing on Instagram…” 

This one is often tied with The “Too Many Choices” Paralysis and The “It Needs to be Perfect” Struggle. In an effort to have the best-darned enrichment plan, we are constantly searching the internet, listening to podcasts like Enrichment for the Real World, and looking for new enrichment options, and I see a couple of things happen here.

You may feel like your enrichment plan isn’t enough because other people are doing different things. You may not be using the results in your pet’s behavior to gauge its effectiveness, and because of that, you may get to a point where it doesn’t feel sustainable, or realistic anymore. Doing more, doing different, and doing new constantly is not feasible. 

So, do you feel the burnout creeping in and blocking your enrichment habit? 

Remember, enrichment isn’t about the activity. It’s about the results in the animal’s behavior. So, if you’re chasing the shiny because you think novelty and newness are necessary for an effective enrichment plan for your dog, I give you permission to slow down. Close your 95 internet tabs that are open with new enrichment ideas, and return to the basics and foundations. More is not always more when it comes to enrichment. When you provide an opportunity for your pet, do they engage with it? Does the activity help meet your pet’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways? If the answer is no, then it’s not helping your goals. 

Unless, you’re like me, and chasing the shiny is part of YOUR enrichment plan. Sometimes, that activity can be cup filling for the human, and if that sounds like you, then, by all means, keep your 95 browser tabs open, and continue to scroll Instagram. But, watch out for those times when Compare Leads to Despair, and if you feel that happening, circle back to my above point.  Does the activity help meet your pet’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways? Take a moment to be present with your pet. When the activity we partake in helps to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, slowing down to observe and appreciate our work is really important.

 

The “I Don’t Have the Bandwidth” Challenge 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“There’s no way I can do that every day?” 

“I don’t have the time to be able to _____.” 

“I’m so tired.” 

Yup. I feel all of that. We only have so much that we can give, and your oxygen mask needs to be on before you can help anyone else. 

So, do you feel like you can’t take on one more thing? 

Be kind to yourself. We all have 24 hours in a day, but we all have a different 24 hours. My partner is out of the house for 12 hours a day, and I work from home. What each of us can feasibly, sustainably, and reliably do for the dogs is different. If you have a bandwidth struggle, make sure you are taking care of yourself as best you can. (I’m going to plug a great self-care/self-enrichment resource here.)

And this is one where I really encourage you to work with a professional to strip down to the bare bones of what is necessary to meet your pet’s needs and your goals. You’ve got a certain amount of resources to share, so let’s make sure you are focusing on the things that will help you make the biggest impact. We can help you tweak small things that will make a big difference.

Meal prepping your frozen food puzzles for 2 weeks can make it more sustainable and more likely to happen. 

You can also prepare your dog’s food in boxes DIY destructibles if you store them in a pest-proof container and use them within a couple of weeks. 

It might be moving where your dog’s food is kept to make things easier for everyone. 

It might be putting up some window film so that your dog is able to rest throughout the day. 

Small changes can result in big wins. 

 

The “I Can’t Tell if it is Working” Fog

Do you find yourself saying things like…

“I think he likes ____.” 

“I guess it’s worth it.” 

“I don’t know if it made a difference.” 

To stick with an enrichment plan, you really need to see the wins. You need to see your pet’s behavior change. You need to observe the differences it is making, or else what is reinforcing you to continue doing the thing? 

So, are you not sure that your enrichment plan is working? 

Refresh your body language observing and interpreting skills! Through body language and observation, you’ll be able to see the changes better, or lack thereof, and can assess your plan with confidence. 

Keep a log of your pet’s behavior? What do you find undesirable? What behaviors do you find desirable? Are you seeing changes in either the undesirable behaviors or the desirable behaviors? Keeping a tally of your observations can help you be objective! You can see how Allie has done this with her nemesis, Winter Oso. 

If you aren’t seeing the desirable changes, make adjustments! Your enrichment plan was likely created with a goal in mind, so adjust to continue working toward that goal. 

 

Now what? 

  • There are a lot of reasons that can get in the way of building a sustainable enrichment habit. Identify some of the barriers that are getting in your way. Once you know what they are, or at least have an inkling, you can start knocking those barriers down! 
  • We’ve helped thousands of families not only create sustainable, effective enrichment plans for their pets but also troubleshoot barriers to creating long-lasting and effective habits. We’d love to help you, too! We see clients all over the world and can help with any behavior problem remotely. Click here to get started.

Happy training,

Ellen

Help Your Dog Relax – Start With Yourself

Relaxation is a staple topic in many of my sessions with clients. Being able to take a load off, fill your cup, get true rest, and be able to self-regulate is a huge part of having mental, physical, and behavioral health. It’s so important that “calming” is its own category of needs in Canine Enrichment for the Real World and the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

There are a ton of ways to help your dog learn relaxation skills (some of which will be linked below), but the focus of this blog isn’t centered on getting your dog the skills. This one talks about the human end of the leash, and what we can do to help them. 

 

Let me tell you a story, I promise there is a reason.

Years ago, I never put much weight on the idea that dogs “get our energy”, and that is a whole blog post of its own. That was, however, until we were looking to get Griffey a pet sitter. 

For those of you that don’t know me (Hi! I’m Ellen!), and my dog, Griffey, came into our family with lots of capital B, capital F, Big Feels. He was scared of other dogs, fearful of strangers, showed some Separation Related Problems, wasn’t potty trained, and got sick in the car. We had made a lot of progress on the separation skills, got him very well potty trained, was doing great in the car, building some relationships with people, but was still scared of other dogs, so he would be considered a “special care needs” dog. 

At the time, we were living in Seattle and ready to start finding him pet care so that we could continue to travel. Through our incredible network, we were able to find a pet sitter that opened their home to reactive dogs. They had created a wonderful environment for dog reactive dogs. They wouldn’t go for walks, but they had options for in-home or in the yard exercise. The dogs would only be home alone a couple of hours a day and pets were welcomed into the home like they were one of the family. The pet sitter had incredible skills in terms of body language, observation, and training. It was the perfect setup for our needs, and the pet sitter required gradual exposure to them, their home, and the stays, which we were looking for. 

As you can probably imagine, I was a little stressed. I REALLY wanted this to go well. Traveling was something that was important for my partner and me to refill our cups and be our best selves, as well as get our continuing education via conferences. 

 

During our first visit…

We were all just going to hang out and chat while we saw if Griffey would be able to settle in their home while we were present and supporting him. As Griffey was milling around and exploring, the rest of us were sitting on the couches, chatting it up. He was being a busy bee, which isn’t surprising given all the new things to explore, smell, and experience. 

After about 20-30 minutes, he still wasn’t slowing down. 

The pet sitter looked at me and said, “You seem a little tense. How about you try to sit back, put your feet up, settle into the couch, take a deep breath, maybe yawn, and see what happens.” 

And I thought to myself, “I would rather die than put my feet on a stranger’s furniture, I absolutely cannot, but I will.” 

So, I did. I scooted back into the couch. I sat as I would at home, I took a big deep breath, forced a yawn, and tried to sink into the couch.

Griffey came back to the room and looked at me. 

He looked at my partner. 

He looked at the pet sitter. 

He looked back at me.  

He jumped on the couch, found a blanket, made a bed, laid down, let out a big sigh, and started to get droopy eyes. 

And I learned something, or maybe solidified something that day. 

 

We can get in the way of our dog relaxing. 

When working with families on teaching their dog(s) relaxation, I often get questions or statements like… 

“He’s staring so intently at me.” 

“He’s on his mat, but he doesn’t look relaxed. He’s still tense.” 

So often, when working on teaching a dog to relax, we as well-intentioned humans will fail to be relaxed. We will be focused. We will be staring. Our body language may indicate that activities are on the horizon. We may even hold our breath waiting for the dog to do the thing. 

And you know how a lot of dogs respond? By mirroring that back. You may see them laying very erect in a sphynx down, focused on their person, their breathing may be rhythmic, but very shallow. They might engage with you waiting for more information. 

If this sounds like you, turn toward yourself and see how you are holding yourself. 

Are your shoulders up to your ears? How much tension is in your back? How is your breathing? Are you staring? 

Try re-setting yourself. Take a deep breath. Shake it off. Drop your shoulders. Instead of staring at your dog, try looking out of your periphery, or watching your dog in a reflection. 

When I suggest these changes to families, they usually come back stunned at what a difference it makes in their dog’s ability to settle. 

You might be surprised what a difference it can make. 

 

Now What? 

Happy Training! 

Ellen