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What About Agency in Training?

Earlier this month, we had a really great question enter our inbox:

I have a 1-yr-old Chow-Pitbull-Cattle Dog-Mastiff mix (Embark). We train nearly daily, with multiple short sessions, 2-4 minutes each. Sometimes he’s really into it, sometimes (and I’m sure partially due to a lack of clarity on my part–working on it) he’d rather flop over and do some maintenance and cleaning of the old undercarriage. I’d really love to teach him an “It’s your Choice” cue–tell him we can use this training session to work on whatever he wants. I honestly don’t care if he chooses to work on positions or heeling, or if he just wants to play a game of tug. He’s the most joyful dog I’ve ever met, he makes your typical lab look grumpy! I’d love to be an agent of even more joy for him and I’m also hoping to increase his engagement in training. So far everything I’ve done with this goal in mind has resulted in a session where he’s just trying to guess at what I want. I’d love to see him express what he wants. 

And really, there are two questions here that we get asked pretty frequently: 

  1. How can you increase agency in training sessions? 
  2. How can I help my dog communicate what they want or need?

These are both fantastic questions, and each deserves its own attention, so today, we’re going to be chatting about introducing agency into training, and stay tuned next month for the conversation of building a way for your pet to communicate their needs!

 

So, let’s start with what agency is. 

The concept of agency is a pretty big one, heck, there is a whole chapter dedicated to it in Canine Enrichment for the Real World. But in order to answer “how can I introduce agency in my training sessions?” we first need to know what agency is. Allie did a great job of diving into the topic in a past blog, Agency: What It Is & Why Your Pet Needs It and I highly recommend you check that full post before continuing here.

The short answer is agency is the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. Agency requires at least two desirable choices. Our favorite demonstration of this is Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or Death” skit. 

Cake or death does not meet the 2+ desirable choices and outcome criterion for agency, it’s a “yay or nay” situation, and what we want is “yay or yay”. 

 

The difference between “yay” and “nay”

If we are looking to provide our pet with 2 or more choices that result in desirable outcomes, that means, we need to know the difference between our pets saying “yay!” and our pets saying “nay!” 

Knowing the body language of the species of our pet can help us identify when we are getting that “yay” from them rather than the “nay!” We covered how to start identifying those in your pet in our November 2021 Training Challenge: “Yes, please!” vs. “No, thank you!”. Whether you are just starting to observe and communicate with your pet, or you are looking to hone your skills, it can be a great starting point.

Keep in mind, what is desirable is fluid, it can change with a number of factors. What is desirable one time, may not be desirable another!  Being able to observe your pet in real-time, and notice those “yays!” and “nays!” will help you assess whether your pet has agency during an activity. 

For example, Griffey LOVES playing with his flirt pole. He gets wiggly and does his joyful “woowoo!” when it comes out (yay!), but if I brought that out at 4:30 in the morning, he’d dive into his cave bed and grumble (nay!). 

Or for Laika, she gets so excited to go adventuring in the yard (yay!), unless it is raining, and then she’d really rather not (nay!). 

This is really a foundation for introducing agency into the equation.

 

Okay, so what next?

So, you have a solid idea of what agency is: 

Agency is the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome.

You can fill in the blanks: 

My pet’s “yay!” looks like:

My pet’s “nay!” looks like: 

Excellent! We can start looking at introducing agency into your training scenarios! 

 

Provide multiple ways to get the desirable thing.

If you are using chicken in your training because your dog loves chicken, well done! You’re using something of value to your dog. Now, consider the number of ways that your dog can get the chicken. Remember: agency is having the ability to make 2+ choices for a desirable outcome. The outcome can be the same thing, it doesn’t have to be a separate option, as long as it is desirable. 

This could look like this: 

Training with me gets chicken 

Using this puzzle feeder set to the side gets chicken 

Going to your mat gets chicken 

If our dog only gets chicken if they do what we ask, then they don’t have agency. It can really challenge our skills as a teacher if we open the number of opportunities up to our pet!

 

Provide multiple desirable options. 

You can let your pet pick the treats at the beginning of the session. Offer chicken (or a treat of your pet’s choosing) and cheese (another treat of your pet’s choosing) and see which one they opt for. (This post talks about doing a treat preference test with your pet!) Utilize that in your session for the day. You can even let them choose the exercise you work on with a little bit more intentionality! But that requires quite a bit more intentionality!

 

Listening to the “nay”. 

There are going to be times your pet is going to give you the “no, thank you”. I thank my dog for each and every “nay” as it gives me more information. Recognizing the “nay” and still providing a desirable outcome is a fantastic way to turn the table from “do the thing I asked or else no chicken” to “do the thing I ask, or communicate your needs and get chicken.” 

If this is a topic you’d like to learn more about, I highly recommend Enrichment for the Real World Episode 21 –  Ken Ramirez: Comprehensive Care. Around the 30-minute mark, Emily and Ken talk about what listening to a pet’s “no” can do for our relationships and our training. 

 

Now What? 

  • If you’d like a more in-depth look at agency, check out Allie’s blog fully dedicated to agency. 
  • If you’re ready to start identifying what your pet’s “yay” or “nay” looks like, then I recommend starting here. 
  • If you are ready to start introducing more agency into your training sessions, then look at the list above and identify areas for improvement! Make one change at a time so you don’t overwhelm yourself! 
  • Make sure to join our mailing list so that you get notified when our blog for building communication with our pets comes out next month! 

Happy training,

Ellen

Why I Never Give My Dog People Food

Let me get right to the point.  I never give my dog people food. Why?  Because people food doesn’t actually exist.  There are consumables and poisons (and some fast foods in between).  If you’re asking if I give Opie some of the same food that my family also eats, then my answer is ABSOLUTELY! *Disclaimer- This blog is not intended to replace veterinary advice. Some of the foods that we eat can cause harm to our pups like chocolate, grapes, garlic, onions, pits of fruit, cooked bones etc. AND some dogs may have allergies just like us.*

 

So why am I making a point to tell you all of this?

Whenever I am working with a family I like to get a list going of the dog’s food preferences so that we can have a good idea of how to pair the value of the treat with the difficulty of the task.  Most families report that their dogs enjoy the crunch of a common dog treat but will come bounding for a bite of freeze-dried liver.  Sometimes when I’m giving suggestions for other foods to try like broccoli, carrots, cheese, ham, eggs, etc, I am confronted with a common answer:

“We don’t like to give our dog people food because we don’t want to encourage begging.”

This is a valid concern. Honestly, I don’t care if your dog begs or not, you get to decide your threshold on that; however, I can definitely empathize with the frustration of a dog staring/barking/pawing when you would like to eat in peace and isolation.   I don’t want my dog barking at me when I sit down at the table for dinner.  I don’t want my pup putting his paw up on my leg when I eat my ice cream on the couch.

But the food itself is not the problem. Dogs want to eat.  Dogs know that you’re eating food that they would also like to eat. You giving them that food doesn’t inherently create a desire for that food– their big beautiful noses already know that your steak is going to taste good–but the pattern of how they earn that food definitely reinforces whatever they did to get it. 

Dogs learn consequences through understanding sequences.  If you feed your dog consistently from the table, he’s going to learn that he gets fed when you sit down at the table.  If you give your pup finger licks of ice cream when you’re chilling on the couch, she’ll probably follow you to the couch and sit in front of you with those big puppy-dowg eyes every time you make a bowl.  In the same respect, if your dog chooses to lay down on his bed while you chop veggies and THEN you then toss a piece of that veggie in his bed, he is more likely to go to his bed when he sees you chopping veggies.

Behavior is shaped through reinforcement.  The value of reinforcement, the consistency of reinforcement, and the location/sequence prior to reinforcement all contribute to the likelihood and intensity of that behavior.  If your pup is begging for your food, it may not be solely because of that food but possibly because of their learning history.

 

Corinne’s Favorite Ways of Using “People” Food:

  • Instead of discarding broccoli stalks, freeze them (or keep raw) and give your pup a “broccoli bone” to gnaw on while you make dinner.  You could also use a whole carrot!
  • Set up a bed near the kitchen table and only toss scraps when they are laying down on it
  • Layer a Kong with plain yogurt, pumpkin, green beans, and peanut butter, and freeze it for a long-term dog project while you watch a movie.
  • Save the cut ends of green beans as tiny, crunchy training treats.

 

Now what?

  • Think about times when your dog begs. Consider what has happened in the past and ask yourself what you would rather they do instead.
  • Reflect on your own reasons for why you feed your dog what you feed them.  If they’re healthy and you’re both happy with how things are going, great, no need to change a thing!
  • If you’re interested in incorporating foods that you eat into your pup’s diet, talk with your vet for more information on how to keep your pup safe.

You’re doing great!

Corinne

Acknowledging the Kernel of Truth

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

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

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

So what should we do instead? It depends!

 

Pick Your Battles

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

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

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

 

Acknowledge the Kernel of Truth

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

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

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

 

For example:

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

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

 

Now What?

September 2022 Training Challenge: Teach Your Pet Something New Through Capturing

It’s September, y’all! That means it is time for our monthly training challenge! There are many ways that we can teach a behavior, but for this training challenge, we are going to focus on capturing! 

This month, we challenge you to practice your training skills by teaching your pet a new behavior through capturing!

This is the first segment in our series looking at different ways to teach our pets new behaviors, and for the sake of demonstration, I’m going to keep the behavior the same (go to a spot or bed), but stick around until the end of this blog post for suggestions of other behaviors that you can teach commonly through capturing!



First thing first, what is capturing? 

Capturing is waiting for your pet to do the desired action naturally and then rewarding them for doing so. Often, we find that a marker is helpful for capturing. 

In this video, Allie shows what capturing might look like if you were looking to teach your pet to put their head in a box: 

 

If our desired behavior is for our pet to put their head in the box, we might put the box down, and wait for our pet to investigate the bottom of the box.

For our example of going to a spot, like a bed, a perch, or a stool, then we would put the object down, wait until our pet moved to that spot, then use our marker, and then deliver something wonderful like a treat. 

Now, you may be thinking, isn’t that going to take all day!? And the answer is, yeah, sometimes it can. Both of my dogs have a long history of going to “that thing that is a different texture than the thing that you’re on” and snoozing in their beds behind me while I work, and still, without some additional consideration, it maybe awhile before they go to their beds.

I started a zoom recording to demonstrate what capturing might look like if you were waiting throughout the day for your pet to go to their spot. I sped this video up because, let’s be real, no one needs to see me typing for this long, but this took about 5-6 minutes for Laika to walk over to the bed and lie down.

 

One of the large complaints that we see with capturing is that it can be a little slow. But, if you’re more like me and patience is something you’re working on, there are some things that you can do to speed up the process. 

 

Observe your pet to know when the thing is more likely to happen

Once you know what you want to capture, consider the different factors that set the stage for that thing to happen. 

In order to successfully capture behavior, you really need to know when it is likely going to happen. Some things happen based on the time of day, during different activities, with different people, or in different situations. 

You may find that your dog is more likely to bow after they get up from a nap. Or they are more likely to get a toy when you first get home from work. Or they are more likely to smack their lips right after they eat. 

For my dogs, if I want to capture them going to their spot, I know it’s more likely when:

  1. I’m settled and resting. It is going to be a big ask for my dogs to go lie on their bed if I’m moving around the house doing things. We’ll work on that later! 
  2. They have a place that they gravitate toward. Laika would rather stand than lie on the tile. This would go MUCH slower without something cozy for her to lie on. 
  3. I’m working with their natural activity rhythm. Super early morning, mid-day, or after dark are times when they are more often going to their bed on their own accord. 
  4. There is a beautiful sun spot on the floor. 
  5. They’re tired.

 

Stack the deck in your favor

How you do this is going to be dependent on what factors you already identified and what you’re looking to capture! 

If your dog loves lying on hardwood and you get them the cushiest, most plush bed in the world, that’s not exactly stacking the deck in your favor. But, if your pet loves lying and sitting in the sun, then opening the blinds and putting their spot there can help you be prepared to mark and deliver your treat quickly and efficiently. 

When teaching various species to go to a spot, here are some things that might make it a little easier: 

  1. The spot needs to be somewhere you can see it. If you want to capture them doing it, you need to know they are doing it! 
  2. Make sure the spot is of reasonable size. If it’s too small, it can be easy to miss. You can always make it smaller later! 
  3. Make the spot easy to get to when you’re starting, putting it in the middle of the floor, or between you and the entry to the room you’re in can be helpful compared to a corner far away from you.

 

And some final tips for capturing: 

  1. Remember, when we are capturing, we are looking for something that we already see our pet doing. If it isn’t happening already, you can’t capture it! 
  2. Make sure treats are readily available where you will be doing the capturing. This is most effective when the time between your pet doing the thing and the reinforcer is 2-3 seconds. 
  3. You may find a marker helps the process, so if you don’t have a marker signal or cue already, check out this video
  4. Think about the things that your pet already does that you’d like to see more of. Those are excellent options for capturing. 

 

Additional tricks or skills to capture

If your dog already has going to their spot down, then here are some other commonly captured behaviors for you to try this month: 

  1. Sit and Down 
  2. Your dog licking their lips
  3. Putting their head down 
  4. Deep breaths 
  5. Sneezing 
  6. Yawns 
  7. Head turns 
  8. Bows 
  9. Looking at you 
  10. Picking up a toy 
  11. Ear twitches
  12. Sniffing 
  13. Vocalizations 
  14. 4 on the Floor 
  15. Calmness 
  16. Put your head in a box 
  17. Lying on their side 

 

Now What?

  1. Decide what you’re going to teach your dog through capturing! There are so many options when it comes to this, so you can be creative. Just make sure it’s something that your pet already does. 
  2. Consider whether or not there is something you can do to make the thing you are capturing more likely. More repetitions can make the learning process faster.
  3. Have fun with it! Once you get the hang of knowing what you’re looking for, observing your pet doing it, and delivering a reinforcer, you can do so much with your pet! 
  4. Let us know on Facebook or Instagram what you’re working on! We’d love to see your progress! 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Species-Typical vs. Instinctual

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

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

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

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

 

Discussing the Nuances

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Natural History Is Still a Thing

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

 

Clarity About Behavioral Diversity

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

 

Activity Budgets Are For Everyone!

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

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

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

 

There Are Multiple Enrichment Frameworks

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

 

We Still Decided to Make Our Own Enrichment Framework

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

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

 

Now What?

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

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

 

5 Reasons Why Enrichment Is Your Behavior Modification Plan

We work with families that are experiencing issues ranging from mild annoyances to struggles that are greatly impacting the quality of life for everyone in the home. And as a team, we utilize the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework to help us, our clients, and their pets to have a successful, sustainable behavior modification journey. 

When people hear that we utilize enrichment to address behavior challenges, they sometimes are a bit skeptical. Whether they are a pet parent looking for assistance, a pet professional looking to better help the families under their guidance, or someone who is both, it’s not uncommon for them to wonder… 

How do I incorporate enrichment into my behavior modification plan? 

If you’re working with, living with, or addressing behavior challenges, you may think you have your “behavior modification plan” and then your “enrichment plan”. 

But enrichment is all about meeting an animal’s needs, and that can look like a lot of different things. It isn’t an activity, it isn’t a toy or an object, it is the outcome of opportunities that our animal engages in. 

Sometimes you need to teach skills to help better meet an animal’s needs and sometimes you need to better meet an animal’s needs before they can effectively learn new skills. We can’t neatly separate the two, and as you make progress in one area, you will see changes and developments in others. With each sliver of progress, you’ll unlock new ways to adjust your plan.

Once you start measuring enrichment by the outcomes, not the activity, it opens up so many new opportunities for you and your learner. It adds depth, richness, and flexibility to your plan.

When the root, the very foundation of your plan is to change behavior through meeting your animal’s needs, then enrichment is your behavior modification plan, not supplemental.  

 

So, let’s look at some examples of why utilizing an enrichment framework is so important and celebrate some successes along the way!

 

Unmet needs can make teaching hard

If you are to look at what people often think of when they hear “behavior modification plans,” they are often focused on teaching a new skill or replacement behavior. The emphasis is on changing the behavior within the context that it occurs. 

And yes, when we work with clients, this may also be a goal that we have! However, when we don’t look at the full picture of what the animal needs, we may fail to address something that’s impeding learning, such as an underlying medical condition, chronic stress, the need for behavior medication support, or other unmet needs that make learning difficult. 

When we first start by making sure our animal is able to learn, that they receive any medical attention that is indicated, that they have the medication support to foster learning, that we’ve managed the environment and their stress, and/or identified any other roadblocks for them, then our teaching can really take hold. They can acquire new skills and learn to use them in new situations. We can teach them ways to better meet their own needs, and how to navigate the world more effectively. 

From the human side of things, it is not uncommon for families to come to us who have already been trying to teach their animal something for weeks, months, or years. To get no results, or very few results can be frustrating and demoralizing. Taking a step back and meeting needs to foster learning can catapult your progress in incredible ways.   

When we first started working together, Zena was barking at every little thing outside the house, through the windows, and in the backyard. Each little thing would send her into a tailspin that was difficult for her to recover from. The first step was to create an environment where Zena could learn, and as we discussed ways to decrease stress for the whole household, Zena’s person came up with the idea to use bubble wrap to cover the windows (without losing natural light!) and started utilizing sound masking to decrease auditory triggers. 

A week later we touched base, and those small adjustments led to improvements for everyone. Zena’s barking and reactivity decreased significantly, the rest of the house also had less stress, and Zena’s person saw that Zena was able to learn in ways she had never seen before. 

 

Meeting needs addresses the fuel, not just the flames

When we start by addressing unmet needs, then we are addressing the issue at the source. No fuel, no fire. 

And let’s talk about what happened next with Zena! Once Zena was in a place where she was able to learn effectively and efficiently, Zena’s person was then able to teach Zena what to do instead of running, screaming, spinning, and yelling at all the little triggers. Zena was using all her bluster and might to get the things to go away. A person passing outside? Bark and they go away. Dog barking outside? Bark and they go away. 

Zena needed space. She needed distance from the things and the only way she knew how to get it was to go on the offensive. So, we taught her how to get the distance in a way that didn’t disrupt the whole household, and frankly, was more effective! 

By seeing and acknowledging that Zena needed space from the things she found stressful, we were able to teach Zena, not only how to get distance on her own, but how to get distance and relief at the same time through the Flight Cue. Now that Zena is well practiced in walking away and finding relief, she’s able to do it unprompted, and with other stressors in her life. While we are working on teaching her that she doesn’t need to be stressed about those things, she’s made incredible progress just by having the agency to move away from uncomfortable things, and without that skill, we couldn’t teach her that the mailman isn’t a threat to her very existence as efficiently and effectively.  

Comment reads: “Today I had some big wins and need to share with a group that gets it.

1) I took Zena out on a 15 ft leash near my houe and she sniffed a lot, checked in with me and kept to her leash length. We heard something scary and I did our flight cue and we both ran the other way and she was happy!

2) I had a tree guy in the back yard. I forgot he was there and let Zena out. She barked at him, I did the flight cue and she came to me with a few barks over her shoulder. Both of these activities would have been a DISASTER before I started this training. I am overjoyed and feel so proud of Zena!”

 

Meeting needs promotes sustainability

One of my favorite examples of this is Barty Boy Neutron, a well-intentioned cyclone of a pup who was running his family ragged. They were doing ALL THE THINGS with Barty Boy, trying to meet all his needs, and still, even after HOURS of activities, Bart would parkour all over the house every evening. 

They tried all sorts of physical activity, foraging, and mental stimulation. They were dedicated to giving Barty everything he needed, but what they were doing wasn’t sustainable, safe, or realistic in the long run. So, we dove a little deeper into what Bart might need. He was getting adequate exercise. He was getting lots of mental stimulation, and foraging opportunities. He was partaking in lots of dog-typical things like sniffing, chewing, and licking. 

One of the things his people did observe is that he ran hot. He would seek out cool spots in the house. So, his family crafted him the perfect cool place to help him self-regulate his temperature. Once he had a nice cool place to relax and settle, we saw giant improvements in his nightly routine, and his family was able to execute a sustainable routine to keep him happy, healthy, and safe. 

Comment reads: “The reason I started a “settle” cue was bc about a year ago, Ellen suggested that he might not know how to calm and/or cool himself down after some play. Being 60% English Bulldog, #bulldozerbart is veryyyy sensitive to the heat. More than I ever would’ve expected as never owning a bulldog myself. He was outside for about an hour, medium activity level and the outside temp is 68* with 15mph winds, NOT what you’d consider warm but here we are. We stated giving Bart a cool place to lay and I worked with teaching him to settle on it with my gudiance for the last year. I had set the fan and mat up earlier figuring he’d want it at some point but I’d have to help.

I just found him laying here after playingoutside, mnowing he normally would come in and bounce around and not be ready to settle without help.

TLDR: Bart put himself in the “settle spot” tonight after playing outside when he’d normally need guidance to the spot. My boy is growing up!”

 

Meeting needs helps the entire family, not just one individual

When we’re sharing our space with other living creatures, our lives become acutely intertwined. When one being is struggling, it can impact the entire family unit. Using the Enrichment Framework takes into account all the beings involved, including the humans and the other pets. 

In some instances, families that come to use are working on inter-household conflict, and whether that is dog-dog, dog-cat, dog-human, [insert species here]-[insert other species here], it is stressful for the entire family. Everyone in the home is walking on eggshells, and feeling secure in the place you’re supposed to feel safe can be difficult. 

That was the case for Rylee’s family. Rylee, the dalamation pictured below, had started growling, snarling, and lunging at the other dogs and cats in the household. Family time was no longer something that felt comfortable and cup filling, instead, it was riddled with stress and grief. 

By taking an approach to meet Rylee’s needs to help him engage with species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, his family was able to make incredible progress. Each step on their journey opened up new opportunities for them along the way. This involved working with their fantastic vets to meet his medical needs and that helped him to be in a place to learn. From there, we were able to teach him about his safety room, and with that progress, he was able to start communicating when things were just too much and he needed his safe space. 

By addressing Rylee’s needs, the rest of the family is able to feel safe and secure moving around their home. And I mean, come on, look at that smile!

 

Meeting needs helps you and your pet learn skills that will help for a lifetime

Our pets are living beings with needs that will change as they age and develop. What one dog needs at 6 months, won’t be the same at 6 years, and that’s just a part of life! 

When we take an approach to explore and meet our pet’s needs, we are taking an approach that will help us in the future. We are creating a more robust behavioral repertoire and a foundation that we can always return to if we hit a bump in the road. When we utilize an Enrichment Framework, we are building in checks and balances, we are taking a directed approach to behavior change that will help inform future decisions and adjustments.

And that brings us to Otis. Otis is a wonderful little pup that is learning that it is okay to be home alone. Otis’ person is working on teaching Otis skills to help him self-regulate, self-soothe, and to be safe and feel secure in their home. These are all things that directly translate to being able to be comfortable at home alone, but the exercises, activities, and skills that Team Otis is working on will do so much more than just that. They are building a strong relationship that can weather storms, Otis is learning predictable and safe patterns that will help him during life changes in the future, and they are building a system of communication that will help day in and day out.

Watching Otis breathe deeply while learning to spend time alone is a reminder that meeting an animal’s needs doesn’t always look like what you see on the internet. Sometimes, it takes information to know the true beauty and joy of what you’re seeing, and Team Otis is doing an incredible job. 

 

All of this and more is why we suggest meeting needs first.

The majority of the time, if you jump straight to the “problem”, you’re going to miss out on the low hanging fruit, you may be doing things that are going to be ineffective or inefficient, and you may dread the process. Working through an Enrichment Framework can help you take a directed approach where you know that you’re meeting your needs and your animal’s needs. 

Instead of thinking and treating enrichment as a supplement to your plan, center it in your plan, and your results might just surprise you.   

 

Now what:

 

Happy training, 

Ellen

August 2022 Training Challenge: Add Sustainability to Your Enrichment Plan

If you’ve been following us for a while, then you know that we put a hefty emphasis on sustainability for pet parents. 

When you have carefully crafted a plan that is designed to meet your animal’s physical, emotional, and behavioral needs, to enable them to engage in species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, it is because you love and care about animals in your life. 

Unfortunately, the best plan won’t meet your animal’s needs if you can’t sustain it.

 

Sometimes, it goes a little something like this… 

You catch the enrichment bug!

You read all the things. Listen to all the podcasts. Start collecting ideas, making plans, buying tools and toys, and filling so much time with these activities and ideas of what you want your enrichment plan to be. 

And then something happens. 

Maybe you get an extra project at work and start putting in some overtime. 

Maybe you get injured or sick and need to focus on healing. 

Maybe you get tired from doing all the things. 

But, you still try to fit all those activities, ideas and plans into time, energy, or bandwidth that you no longer have.

And it’s just not sustainable. You can keep it up for a bit, but eventually, the execution falls apart, and if you’re already feeling that enrichment guilt, you may even feel crummy because you aren’t superhuman. 

But, you don’t need to be super human if you focus on creating a sustainable enrichment plan! Sustainability is key to the long-term success of an enrichment plan. It is important for your pet’s welfare and your welfare, and it is doable! 

 

Sustainability requires multiple plans

A single, rigid plan will fracture and crack under the weight and variability of everything else that people need to handle in their day-to-day life. 

A single plan means that you are creating something that can’t shift and integrate into the very natural changes that occur day to day, week to week, year to year. 

So, this month’s training challenge is to start exploring flexibility in your enrichment plan. Let’s start with 1 goal or activity, and build from there! 

Sidebar: The following suggestions are working under the assumption that you already have a first go at your enrichment plan in place. If you are just getting started, then I suggest you start here, with our step-by-step guide for crafting the first draft of your animal’s enrichment plan! 

 

So, what might this look like? 

In my house, and for my clients, I work to create a tier system based on effort for the pet parent. 

Now, an important note: effort is relative. What I might label “low effort” for me, might be “high effort” for you, and that’s okay! There are so many things that impact how we grade effort. Avoid comparing yourself to others! 

 

First, list your goal

For example, in my house, for Griffey and Laika: relaxation and rest while I’m at work.

 

Second, list the options you have available to you that meet that goal. This is where your previous “trial and eval” comes into play!

Griffey and Laika: 

  1. Scatter feeds 
  2. Non-frozen lick mats
  3. Frozen food toy 
  4. Shreddables/Destructables
  5. Play sessions with me 
  6. Play sessions with each other 
  7. Social time 
  8. Teaching relaxation 
  9. 40-minute walks in the morning 
  10. Teaching a new skill or working on one of our training goals 

 

Third, consider the effectiveness of the activity in helping you to achieve your goal and the amount of effort that activity takes for you. 

I tend to use 4 categories:

High effectiveness, high effort – very effective, see large improvement toward your goal but also takes more involvement from me 

High effectiveness, low effort – very effective, see large improvement toward your goal but takes little involvement from me 

Low effectiveness, high effort – somewhat effective, see some improvement toward your goal may need additional activities, but also takes more involvement from me 

Low effectiveness, low effort – somewhat effective, see some improvement toward your goal may need additional activities, but takes little involvement from me 

 

High Effectiveness, High Effort 

  1. 40-minute walks in the morning 
  2. Frozen food toys
  3. Teaching relaxation
  4. Shreddables/Destructables
High Effectiveness, Low Effort 

  1. Scatter feeding 
  2. Non-frozen lick mats
  3. Play sessions with each other 
  4. Play sessions with me 
Low Effectiveness, High Effort

  1. Teaching a new skill or working on one of our training goals 
Low Effectiveness, Low Effort

  1. Cuddle time 

 

Fourth, amend your current enrichment plan to include options for varying levels of effort. 

You can even adjust some of your activities to be more clear. For example, I may have 3 tiers for different activities: 

Scatter feeding:

 

Teaching a new skill or working on one of our training goals (recall): 

 

Fifth, start adjusting your daily routine for sustainability. 

Some days you’re going to have all the time, energy, and bandwidth. Some days, you won’t, and that’s okay! Here’s what two different days may look like in our house: 

“I can do anything!” day

  1. Stuff and prepare frozen food toys 
  2. Take each dog for an individual walk, scatter feeding breakfast, practice skills on a walk
  3. Mid-day cuddle session 
  4. Frozen food toys stuffed in boxes for dinner 
  5. A rousing evening play session 

“I’m so tired” day 

  1. Morning cuddle session 
  2. Lick option for breakfast  
  3. Spend time in the sun – practicing the flight cue 
  4. Mid-day cuddle session 
  5. Short tug game if needed  
  6. Dinner scatter fed 

 

Start from a point of success 

I gave a lot of examples from my house, but remember, just like with your pet, you want to start from a place of success. If you aren’t ready to look at an overarching goal like “increased relaxation”, then start with making 1 of your staple activities more sustainable. Let’s build you an enrichment plan that works on your best days and your harder days. 

 

Now What?

  1. If you haven’t started creating your pet’s enrichment plan already, then start here, with this step-by-step guide to help you go through the process!
  2. If you’re ready to start tackling sustainability, then narrow your focus to one thing, either one activity or one goal, and go through the exercise listed above! 
  3. If you’re a pet parent and find yourself overwhelmed by choice, then email us at [email protected]! Our consultants have helped hundreds of families create an enrichment plan that addresses each family’s goals, meets the human’s needs, and meets the pet’s needs.
  4. If you are a fellow behavior professional that is looking to increase engagement and sustainability for your clients, then make sure to join the waitlist for our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class! We spend a lot of time discussing sustainability for your clients!

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