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Wasp Training

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A few summers ago, my partner and I decided to do some container gardening. This involved filling a watering can at the faucet in the backyard to water the plants every day. One day, as the summer was really starting to heat up, I noticed that a ground wasp of some sort was loitering on the faucet.

I have always been afraid of wasps. Bees? Love ‘em. Spiders? They’re my friends. Cockroaches? Fascinating little buggers. But wasps? At the time, I didn’t understand why they existed and I was really scared of them.

I could feel myself starting to panic: Oh no! How am I going to get water now? Am I already too close? Is the wasp going to sting me?

But then, my behavior brain started to kick in. I recognized my panic and started to intentionally slow my breathing. I reminded myself what I already know about behavior in all species: All behavior has function. What is the wasp’s body language telling me? What need is the wasp trying to meet?

I stood still and focused on just observing the wasp’s behavior. The wasp seemed completely oblivious of me. I’m no wasp body language expert, but in general, the wasp looked fairly relaxed: their movements were slow and deliberate, the abdomen wasn’t lifted, and the wings were in a resting position. The longer I observed the wasp, the more clear their motivation became to me: they were trying to get water from the faucet.

Of course! This makes sense! The temperature was in the triple digits, and the closest body of water was the Great Salt Lake about 10 miles away. Finding water in this part of the world must be quite a challenge for little critters like wasps. The longer I watched this wasp trying, in vain, to drink water from the faucet, the more I could feel my fear being replaced by empathy.

I went inside the house, poured some water into a cup, then came back outside. I grabbed one of the extra terra cotta plant pot saucers lying around on our porch and poured the water into the saucer. Then I slowly, carefully approached the wasp and held the water-filled saucer a few inches away from the faucet.

Sure enough, the wasp flew from the faucet to the edge of the saucer and started drinking! I tentatively placed the saucer on the ground a few feet away from the faucet, then filled my watering can with water and went about the business of watering my plants.

The next day, when I went out to water the plants, a wasp was at the faucet again. I assumed it was the same wasp from the day before, and this time I knew exactly what to do. I filled the saucer with water again, gently placed it on the ground a few feet away, and went about my business as usual.

As the days went by, I noticed that the wasp seemed to be learning our routine. They started flying to the saucer before I got all the way up to the faucet, and then flying farther distances to get to the saucer. At some point, I decided to try just taking the glass of water directly to the saucer sitting on the ground where I normally left it to see if the wasp would fly directly to it. Sure enough, the wasp did.

Then, one day, the wasp saw me coming and flew straight to the saucer. I hadn’t even put water in it yet! I approached the saucer, poured the water in, and the wasp immediately started drinking. That became our routine for the rest of the summer: I’d bring water out to the saucer, the wasp would fly from the faucet to the saucer to drink water, and I could use the faucet without having to worry about getting into conflict with the wasp. 

Moreover, I felt really happy that I had been able to overcome my fear of the wasp by applying what I know about behavior to a species that I’ve always been afraid of. What I had initially viewed as a dangerous foe had since become my little wasp friend–a creature who had needs and for whom I was able to meet those needs. I realized that I had even started to look forward to seeing my wasp friend in what had become our daily ritual.

Then I wondered: does the wasp recognize me? Or is the wasp just making a connection between human figure approaches = water appears in saucer?

Several months later, I stumbled across an article explaining that both bees and wasps can recognize human faces. I thought back to my little ground wasp and felt some sense of satisfaction that my wasp friend did, in fact, recognize me. There’s something nice about being The Water Human as opposed to just being a faceless water harbinger.

The whole experience was really special to me because it reminded me of some general principles that I already knew but got to experience in a whole new way:

  • Overcoming fear starts with being aware of our fear response and processing it mindfully.
  • Knowledge, observation, and understanding dissipate fear and can allow us to replace fear with empathy.
  • If an animal is alive, they can learn.
  • We, as a species, tend to consistently underestimate the capabilities of non-humans, and research continues to prove us wrong.
  • Meeting needs, establishing communication, and building trust is the best way to prevent conflict, even with animals that are typically thought of as mindless violence machines. 🙂
  • That said, I feel it’s important to give this disclaimer because I can anticipate what I said above being taken to a dangerous extreme: in general, it’s not a good idea to try to make friends with wildlife–both for their safety and for ours. I wouldn’t advocate going around befriending every wasp you see, much less lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). I just so happened to have the fortunate opportunity to teach this wasp how to move away from my faucet because interacting with this particular animal was unavoidable. But please don’t try giving water bowls to your local bobcats because you read this article! Safety, as always, for both humans and non-humans, comes first.

Happy Training,

Emily

 

January 2022 Training Challenge – Creating SMART Goals

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Happy New Year, everyone! 

Goal setting is a common activity around the New Year, and so this month’s training challenge is to set SMART goals for yourself and your pet. 

SMART goals are…  

S – Specific 

M – Measurable 

A – Achievable 

R – Relevant 

T – Time bound 

You may already have a goal for your pet, and let’s be honest, I think we all do. But, let’s go through the framework and see if it’s the right goal for right now. 

 

Specific 

Narrow down your immediate goal. You’re always going to have your ultimate goal in the back of your mind, but let’s focus on something more concrete to start. 

Ask yourself 

  • What needs to be done? 
  • What are the steps to get there?
  • Who will be doing it? 
  • How will they do it? 
  • What do I need to complete this goal?  

So instead of “I’m going to tackle my dog’s separation anxiety”, it might look like “I’m going to learn what is required to tackle my dog’s separation anxiety”. 

Instead of “I’m going to socialize my dog with other dogs”, it might look like “I’m going to look at some resources about what good dog-dog body language looks like.”

Instead of “I’m going to get my dog to listen outside”, it might look like “I’m going to teach my dog to look toward my face.”

 

Measurable 

Tracking your progress has a number of benefits. How will you know if you are succeeding? How will you know if you need to try something else? 

What are some objective measures you can use? Is it time comfortably home alone? Is it the distance from a scary monster? Maybe the number of reactions a day? 

 

Achievable 

Make sure your goal is realistic and attainable. If you aren’t sure, a qualified behavior professional can help you (this one can be very tricky). Remember, we aren’t talking about your mega goals here (although, having those be realistic is also important!). What’s that next benchmark that you are working toward? 

For example, at the beginning of a separation anxiety-related behavior modification journey, it might be a realistic goal for your dog to be comfortable with you closing the bathroom door or taking out the trash, but is not realistic to have them be home alone during the 4th of July fireworks. 

For a dog that’s afraid of other dogs, it may be realistic for your dog to look at you when another dog is passing on the street, but integrating them safely into a daycare environment wouldn’t be realistic or attainable. 

For a dog who hates to have their nails trimmed, it could be a realistic and attainable goal to teach your dog to use scratchboard, but may not be realistic to shoot to do all 4 feet with a Dremel in one sitting. 

Consider, is this goal doable? Do you and your pet have the necessary skills and resources? If you don’t have the skills or resources, that points you toward another relevant goal that may need to take priority. 

 

Relevant 

Does this goal matter to you, and does it align with your other goals? Why is this your goal? Does it align with your other priorities? 

This can help you make sure that your goals are sustainable and help you to identify areas where you might look for alternatives. 

For example: “I need my dog to get along with other dogs because I can’t leave them alone.” You are absolutely right! While working on Separation Related Problems, it’s advised you avoid leaving your dog home alone. But, sometimes, there are other options that won’t drain your resources and align better with your future goals. If your dog needs someone home with them, it might be more realistic to “work to build a relationship with a reputable pet sitter” so that your dog can have some company while you take care of yourself, but you might also find less stress around traveling. 

 

Time-Bound 

Now this one can be a slippery slope. If you’ve ever asked “how long will it take for my dog to…” you likely got a “well, it depends” answer. And that’s true! There are too many factors for us to predict those bigger goals. 

However, creating some time parameters for your goal can also help to ensure you are biting off the right amount for your goals. If you are trying to build a habit, such as “I want to file my dog’s nails two times a week”, you are likely to want a longer time frame, such as a few months.

If your immediate goal is to watch two YouTube videos on dog body language, then a few months might not be the appropriate time frame. Maybe a week or two would be a better fit. 

That being said, we want to set realistic goals! If videos are not your preferred learning style, what might take me 20 minutes can take you a very different period of time. Setting goals you can achieve is important! 

 

Wins Along The Way

When we track only to our mega goal, like my dog can be home along comfortably for 4 hours, I can pick up my dog’s food bowl when they are finished eating, I can walk down the street without an explosion, I can make it through a Zoom call without interruption… we lose sight of all the wins along the way. 

When that happens, you may find yourself feeling like “nothing is working” and that “you’ll never get there”. When setting goals, we always have that big goal in mind, but the smaller goals are the ones that keep us in the game. 

Your goals should be realistic, doable, and concrete so that you can celebrate every step of your journey. 

 

Now What? 

  • Do you already have goals for the next year? Are they SMART? 
  • If not, see if you can make them SMART goals! Are they Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound? 
  • If you need an extra bit of accountability, share your SMART goals with us on Instagram @PetHarmonyTraining

Happy Training, 


Ellen

 

 

You Can Comfort Your Dog

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Soapbox time: 

You can comfort your dog.

It’s okay. 

You aren’t going to “reinforce” the fear. 

In fact, I encourage you to help your dog when they are afraid.

Sometimes things are scary. It’s a part of life. In fact, a really, really, important part of life. It’s part of what’s kept species surviving until this point. We all feel fear, and the way we all handle and cope with it is a little different. 

One of my favorite stories from my partner is a time when he was hiking in the Pacific Northwest. He hadn’t timed his descent very well, so he’s running down the mountain trying to beat the sun setting. He comes around a corner and comes face to face with a giant elk buck. 

Now, how do you think you’d respond? 

Me? I’d likely shriek. Maybe hit the deck in hysterics.
My partner? He put his fists up. Like he was about to fight. A GIANT ELK BUCK. 

Is this rational? ABSOLUTELY NOT. But, when we are afraid, we aren’t in the space to react rationally. We are looking for survival. P.S. he made it out safe and sound without having to punch a buck. 

Let’s be honest, had someone else been there, they wouldn’t be comforting Nathan. They would have been too busy reacting with their own survival instinct. 

So let’s use a different example. Maybe one of mine. Maybe one that should come with a…

CONTENT WARNING: SPIDERS 

Because… 

I’m afraid of spiders. I’ve been bit by spiders with unfortunate consequences one too many times to want them near me. I don’t trust them. I’ll side-eye them as I slink out of a room. Yes, I know. NOT ALL SPIDERS will bite and are harmful. Rationally, I GET THAT. Does it help? No. Not really. Do you know what else isn’t helpful when you’re scared of something? “Oh, you’re fine!”, “they don’t bite!”, “ buck up!”. 

When I lived in Florida, I really had to take some time to address my fear of spiders. They were everywhere. Especially since I worked outdoors. The first piece of advice I got was “check underneath things before you pick them up”. I felt neither safe nor secure. 

My basic training plan included: researching the heck out of the native spider species. Which ones were venomous, which ones made cool webs, how could I identify the different species? This helped me to know which ones were the ones to ‘RUN AWAY!!!” from, and also, provided safe, controlled exposure to the sight of spiders. 

Then, I learned neat facts about the different species. Could I find some cool tidbits of natural history, evolution, behavior that I could share with people when I saw them? I was trying to replace repulsion with appreciation. I still think fondly of the golden orb weavers and the spiny orb weavers

And you know what was really helpful? People being supportive. People validating my fears and encouraging my behavior change journey. 

 

Comfort can look like a lot of things.

For dogs, it can look like providing a barricade between the scary monster and your dog. It can look like providing them a way out. It can look like sitting and petting them. It can look like providing a safe space, or a lap to sit on. 

Comforting our dogs can help them recognize they are safe, and to feel secure in their environment. 

For us, it can look like humoring your friend when they start spouting facts about spider behavior in the middle of a walk. It can look like validating their fears. None of these things reinforced my fear. In fact, all those acts of “comfort” helped me progress and build a real, lasting appreciation for spiders.

Well, at least some spiders. It’s still a work in progress. 

 

Now what? 

  • Identify what your pup looks like when they need help. Are they barking and lunging? Running and shaking? Crying and pacing? 
  • How can you support your pet when they are struggling? Do they need a safe place to sit? Do they need a way to get away from the thing? 
  • If you worry that your pup’s fear or anxiety is impacting their quality of life, we are here to help you. We can support our pup when they are afraid, and turn the scary monster into the cookie monster. Contact us at [email protected]

Happy training!

Ellen

Combatting That Enrichment Guilt

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I see a lot of people asking for more ideas for enrichment for their pets, especially on social media platforms. More variety. More ways to entertain their pets. And my question is always:

“Is your pet displaying behaviors that lead you to believe that they’re bored or their needs aren’t being met as well as they could be?”

And the answer is often, “no”. 

My next question is, “Then why are you looking for more ideas if what you’re doing right now is what your pet needs?”

Silence. Quizzical brow. And, for some folks, finally the answer of, “Because I feel guilty not doing it. I think that I should be.”

Oh boy, I’ve been there before. The Enrichment Guilt. 

 

A reminder about what enrichment is, and isn’t

In our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, Emily and I adopted the practitioner-friendly definition of enrichment (so that it’s easier to put into practice!), which is: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s mental, physical, and behavioral needs to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

In short, enrichment is about meeting all of an animal’s needs. 

Fun games and toys and activities can be a part of that enrichment strategy, but only if they’re actually meeting the needs of the individual. And only the individual can tell us if that’s true through their behavior. We don’t get to decide what does or does not meet their needs. 

 

The enrichment guilt

Enrichment has become a hot topic in the last few years in the pet-owning world. And that’s fantastic! We love it! But with all of those Instagram-worthy pics comes guilt from others wondering if they’re doing enough for their pets. Wondering if their pets aren’t living their best lives because they don’t have a social media-ready enrichment strategy. 

I’m here to tell you that you can be released from your enrichment guilt. You do not need an Instagram-worthy enrichment strategy (unless you want to). You do not need to have a ton of variety or new activities or toys for your pet (unless they say otherwise through their behavior). You do not need to search high and low for brand new, never-heard-of-before strategies if your pet’s behavior is saying that their needs are being met. Do what works for you and your individual pet without comparing yourself to everyone else. 

 

But I still feel like I should do more…

I get it. Even with knowing all this I still look at Oso and feel like I should be doing more for him. Guilt doesn’t just dissipate that easily. If you’re struggling to get out of the enrichment guilt spiral, then focus on anticipating future needs. 

Here’s what that can look like. Oso is getting older. He’s 9 this year and this is the first year we’ve noticed him starting to feel his age. He’s a big dog and mobility issues are a big deal for someone his size. Plus, he has to go down a few steps to get outside regardless of the door we use and everyone in the house likes him being up on the furniture for snuggles. 

Instead of waiting for mobility issues to become a problem, we’re being proactive. We bought stairs and started to teach him how to use those to get up and off of the bed. We’ll be able to use those for the car, too. Next on the list is a sling, for the inevitable day that we have to help him up and down the stairs. After that will likely be cooperative care training for old-man procedures that the vet will help us pinpoint. 

Because his current needs are met well on a day-to-day basis, we’re focusing on what he’ll need in the future and preparing for it now. And that assuages the enrichment guilt that I feel while making sure that I’m still being productive and working smarter, not harder. 

 

Now what?

  • If you’re on the hunt for new activities for your pet, ask yourself if it’s because you’re actually seeing behavior that suggests your pet is bored or needs tweaks to their enrichment plan or if it’s for you. 
  • If it’s for you, dig deeper into why you’re looking for new activities. Is it because of enrichment guilt?
  • If so, I release you from your enrichment guilt! Did it work? If yes, awesome. If not, then consider your pet’s future needs and start preparing for them. 
  • Professionals: if you’re ready to take your enrichment game with your clients to the next level, be sure to join our waitlist for our upcoming Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification MasterClass: https://petharmonytraining.com/enrichmentframework 

Happy training!

Allie

Introducing Strangers into the Equation

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We help a lot of families and their pets with a variety of different behavior problems. We help families with resource guarding, stranger danger, dog-dog reactivity, leash reactivity, separation anxiety, noise phobia, body handling issues, aggression, anxiety, fear, and more. 

Each behavior issue brings its own suite of struggles for the families. Each one can impact the entire family as they work through the training plan and move toward harmony with their pet. It’s hard, and those struggles are real, valid, and very impactful.

However, there is a unique difficulty when you need people outside of your home to be involved in your pet’s plan. 

For people working on stranger danger, (with the help of a qualified behavior professional) families might come to a point where another living creature will be involved, and that’s hard. That is going to add in another level of unpredictability, which is nerve-wracking and stressful. 

I often have clients ask something along the lines of “how do I get the person to follow my instructions?” 

And you know what I tell them? 

“Expect them to deviate from your instructions.”

It stinks. We may have well-meaning family and friends that want to help us and our dog. They may be all in, but here’s the thing. People are funny. They are SPECTACULAR at doing the exact opposite of what you tell them to do. It’s like when you tell someone not to think of a pink elephant; it’s the only thing they can think of.

Show of hands, who just thought of a pink elephant…

Anyone with a reactive dog that has told someone to “ignore” their dog knows exactly what I’m talking about. 

So, if you can expect that people will do the opposite of what we ask, how can you prepare?  

*Please remember to work with a qualified behavior professional to fully address your pet’s problem behaviors. If your dog is fearful, uncomfortable, or dangerous around strangers, you should not be introducing them without the oversight of a qualified behavior professional.*

 

Be very, very particular about who you ask to help. 

If you have to provide this person feedback, will they get defensive? Do they try to follow directions? Remember, you are the one that will go home and continue to live with this pet. You are the one that might feel disheartened if things don’t go as planned. Set yourself up for success too. You have every right to tell people “no, you can’t meet my dog”. 

 

Instead of asking, “how can I get the person to…” ask yourself “how can I set my dog up for success when someone…” 

This might be a subtle shift, but it can make a HUGE difference. Expect people who are around your dog to want to look at your dog, EVEN IF you ask them to look away. Instead of harping and hounding, consider how you can get them to look at you instead. This might look like me putting myself between the two and body blocking, it might involve drawing their attention to something else like the weather (a lot of people will look up if you look up and mention something). 

If I’d see someone about to invade Griffey’s space, I’d call him over to me. People can get defensive with you saying “my dog doesn’t like to be touched, please don’t”, but when I’d call Griffey over and “practice recall”, the tone would shift to people being so impressed with his come-when-called behavior. 

If someone doesn’t follow instructions, what’s your plan to help your dog regardless? 

 

Give very clear instructions. 

When we were first introducing people to Griffey, we knew that “ignore my dog” wouldn’t work. Instead, we gave instructions like “stand by the light post and stare at the lake”. The more concrete your instructions, the easier they will be to follow. “Cross your arms” or “put your hands in your pockets” can be much more effective than “don’t reach for him”. 

 

Only give instructions you need to.

Often, these people haven’t gone through the same struggles you have. Filter the information to the most important pieces. It will help them retain the information and follow your instructions. Instead of providing them with ALL the scenarios, provide them with the things they absolutely need to know. 

 

Remember, you have skills they don’t. 

Think about how much you’ve learned about body language, thresholds, management… since you started this journey with your dog. It’s highly likely the people helping don’t have those same skills. And that’s okay! 

They can still be helpful, but just like we want to have reasonable expectations of our dogs, we want to have reasonable expectations of the people who are helping us. It’s not their responsibility to read your dog’s stress level and body language. 

 

Now What? 

  • If your dog shows signs of fear, anxiety, discomfort, or aggression around people, work with a qualified behavior professional to build a plan to help your pet navigate around people. We are here to help. Email us at [email protected]
  • Determine how you can help your dog be successful, even if someone struggles to follow your instructions. 
  • Discuss with your behavior professional the skills you might utilize or the instructions you might give before the situation arises. 

Happy training,

Ellen

Spoilers: Creatures Love Spoilers

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Predictability is a hot topic within welfare. It’s important for everyone. You. Me. Our pets. Our ability to predict and react accordingly is critical for us to successfully navigate this wild world. People are able to enjoy stories and media more if they know the ending. When given the opportunity to sample items, people are more likely to participate in activities.

Watch a room light up when someone starts a round of Bohemian Rhapsody or the “Manha Manha” song from The Muppets. You HAVE to join in! That feeling when your GPS gives you an accurate travel time? It’s fantastic. 

On the flip side, a lack of predictability, especially over things we find aversive, can send us into a tailspin of deleterious effects including frustration, learned helplessness, aggression, and medical problems. You can see this in this short video (content warning for some colorful language!). The person in the video is filled with frustration at the unclear criteria. Have you been stuck in traffic watching your travel time creep up? It’s a terrible feeling. 

 

What does this mean for our pets?

When we first make a new addition to our home, overhaul our schedule, move residence, or experience some sort of other life change, there is a growing period. Things are less predictable. Tensions are usually running high. We face so many new situations where we ask “if I do X, what happens next?”. One of the things we can do for our pets (and ourselves) is to assess how we provide routine and predictability.

This doesn’t mean regiment every waking moment: 7:00 wake up, 8:00 breakfast, 9:00 flirt pole. I’m a big fan of creating honest signals of what comes next in a smaller context. When someone starts a sentence with “Ellen…” I know I need to pay attention. When I see a yellow traffic light, I know I need to slow down. Little things like this free up so much brain space. 

We can provide our pets with similar signals throughout the day! Consider smaller routines you can provide. Some of which are initiated by you, some are initiated by our pets and each has its own benefits. 

 

When X happens, Y will happen.

If you read Allie’s blog post on agency, she mentioned, while we strive for high levels of agency, “Agency doesn’t mean that your pet has full authority to do whatever they want.” Creating clear communication and predictability in the environment can really help create a more harmonious cohabitation with our pets. 

Clear indicators can provide information for our pets so they know what is expected of them and what options are on the table. 

When I put my headset on, I’m unavailable. When I take my headset off and sit on the ground, I’m available to play with my dogs. 

When I walk quietly toward the closet, it’s not for treats. When I say “wanna get a  cookie?” and walk toward the closet, my dogs are going to get a treat.

These dichotomies have helped my dogs to relax. Instead of being hypervigilant of my behavior, wondering when they are going to adventure with me or I’m gonna go get them a chew, I make it very clear through repetition that they don’t need to attend to me during these times. I’ll let you know when you need to know.

 

When I do X, you do Y and I will do Z.

Sounds a bit like training, right? It sure is! Sometimes we want to shake things up, and other times, I want the consequence to be incredibly predictable and clear to my dog. 

When I open the back door, if you go potty outside, I’ll give you a treat. 

When I ask “do you want to cuddle”, if you come over, I’ll give you scratches. 

When I get your harness, if you jump on the bed, I’ll get you suited up. 

I think most people have a lot of these built into their day-to-day. If you see some uncertainty, see if you can tighten it up. If you pick up the harness, and your dog runs between you and the door repeatedly with excitement, start picking up the harness and walking directly to a predetermined spot. By harnessing at the same place each time, your dog will start meeting you at that spot. 

 

When you do A, I will do B.

These are routines initiated by my dogs. I saw something they offered and made the choice to tie that offering to a predictable result. 

When you bring me a wubba, I will play tug. 

When you stand by the back door, I will open it. 

When you are trying to run away from something, I will run with you. 

When you paw at the blanket, I will cover you up. 

When you growl, I will give you space.

What I find really special here is that it allows my dogs to initiate what they need. By building a predictable pattern that I will do THIS when you do THAT, my dogs can be an active agent in communicating and meeting their needs. 

Having these small routines in place gives you something to fall back on during times of chaos. 

 

Now what?

  • Think about your normal(ish) day. What are some things you are going to do? Wake up, take the dog out, feed the dog, get ready for the day, some sort of enrichment for your pup, answer email, check on your garden… Can you provide more predictability within a routine?
  • Take a list of things your pup offers, and decide how you can predictably respond. When you do X, I will do Y. Can you help your pup tell you what they might need?
  • If you already have some routines established, take it one step further, can you provide your pup with more agency
  • Send us pictures and videos of you working on your routines  @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram!

Happy training,

Ellen

 

December 2021 Training Challenge: Manage One Trigger for Your Pet

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I can’t believe that it is already December! 

With the holidays continuing through the remainder of the year, we thought a management training challenge is in order! 

So this month, we challenge you to create a management plan for one of your pet’s triggers. 

When we are dealing with stress, anxiety, and/or fear any management we can put in place will help our pets. If you haven’t seen it already, make sure to check out this blog on trigger stacking. Allie talks about why management is so important for our pets, and how it can make a big difference. 

Remind me, what’s management? 

Great question! When we are talking about management, we ask: 

  1. How can I keep everyone safe?
  2. How can I avoid the stressful thing? 
  3. How can I make the behavior I don’t like less likely to happen? 
  4. What would I prefer to happen instead? 

When we implement a management strategy, we are looking to avoid exposure to the stressful thing entirely. Sometimes, that’s not possible, and in those cases, we look to minimize exposure. 

The end of the year is a time when our pets could experience any number of triggers: 

  • New decorations
  • A higher volume of deliveries
  • More people coming to the house
  • More things for your pet to get into
  • Seasonal fireworks
  • Neighbors having company
  • Neighborhood or local celebrations 

If you know that something is stressful for your pet, start to build your management plan today! Don’t wait until the last minute, or both of you will be stressed. 

Now What? 

  • Identify a stressor for your pet. The first step to building a management plan is to know what you need to manage! 
  • Once you know what you are going to manage, ask yourself the following questions: 
    • How can I keep everyone safe?
    • How can I avoid the stressful thing? 
    • How can I make the behavior I don’t like less likely to happen? 
    • What would I prefer to happen instead? 
  • Implement your plan! Tag us @petharmonytraining to let us know how your management plan is going! 

Happy training,

Ellen

Remember to Enjoy Your Dog

When you have a dog with behavior problems, it is very easy to get caught up in the struggles. 

But, as the year comes to a close, we invite you to take a deep breath and remember all the good your dog has to offer. I know it’s hard sometimes, I’ve been there. 

Taking a moment to practice gratitude can help keep you going. 

When I used to run group classes, I used to ask folx to introduce themselves and their dogs, to share their goals for the class, and to tell me one thing they really liked about their dog. 

Whenever I would state the prompt, I could feel the entire room stiffen. 

Everyone would be worried about what they were going to say. I could see the looks on their faces that said “but my dog’s a jerk, that’s why I’m here” or the panic “that I can’t think of anything I like!” They were trying to come up with something exceptional.

And, look, I get it. I’ve been in their shoes. So, I always started us off. I’m not going to put someone on the spot without a little bit of vulnerability. So my introduction would be something like: 

“Hi, I’m Ellen… general get to know me, my goals for this class… and I have two dogs. Griffey is my kiddo that keeps me on my toes, and something I really like about him is that he always has very consistent poops… or his ears are bigger than his face… or my absolute favorite, every time he tries to counter surf, he toots loud enough I can hear it in the other room. We call it his alarm. Something I love about Laika, my wonderful little lady, is that she has a look that embodies the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” phrase.”

And boy, when I shared those, I could feel the tension in the room melt away. Because you don’t have to think of some amazing accomplishment. There are many things you can appreciate about your dog. 

 

Now what? 

  • Think about some things you appreciate about your dog. When you look at them and smile or laugh, remember that. 
  • Join us over on our pet parent instagram. We’d love to learn what you appreciate about your dog. Tag us @petharmonytraning!
  • Know that this post is not intended to lead anyone to feel guilt or shame. If you read this and struggle to find the good (and believe me, I’ve been there), we want to help you enjoy your dog again. Contact us at [email protected] 

Happy training,

Ellen

Treats for Nothing?!

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

 

I’m going to say something that is going to sound strange. Making your pet sit is probably not helping their anxiety-related behaviors. Making them hand target, look at you, or anything like that is also probably not directly helping their anxiety-related behaviors. What will help is going to feel weird, because it’s going to feel like they’re getting treats for nothing. 

 

Wait… what?

Learning can take different forms. Two that we talk most frequently about are:

  • Cause and effect (operant conditioning)
  • Associative (classical conditioning)

Cause and effect (operant) learning looks like:

  • This cat has a history of getting treats for sitting, so they’re more likely to sit in the future.
  • This person has a history of getting hurt if they put their hand on the hot stove, so they’re less likely to put their hand on the hot stove in the future. 
  • This dog has a history of being petted (something they don’t enjoy) when they sit on the chair, so they are less likely to sit on the chair in the future. 

Past consequences dictate future responses in similar situations. It’s most of what the average person thinks “dog training” looks like. 

Cause and effect learning is great for teaching particular behaviors or skills. But it’s not as great at changing an emotional state. For that, we should look at associative learning. 

Associative (classical) learning looks like:

  • The ice cream truck song plays and you are immediately happy because it signals ice cream is coming (or at least that’s true for me)
  • The cat who comes running when they hear the can opener
  • The dog who gets excited when you pull out their leash
  • The pit in your stomach when you see an email from the IRS and don’t know what it says

Notice how all of the above are emotions. And when it comes to anxiety-related behaviors, including fear and aggression, we want to teach an emotion because realistically the problem is an emotion (like fear). Now, it’s true that cause and effect learning and associative learning aren’t truly separate; they’re happening together. But, we can still rely more heavily on one than another in a particular situation. And that’s why sit, touch, and watch me- while helpful for a lot of things and great relationship-builders- are probably not helping directly with anxiety-related behavior. 

 

Disclaimers. 

Alright. I took an INCREDIBLY simplified approach to an INCREDIBLY complicated subject. A subject that people get Ph.D.s in. I do not have a Ph.D., and even if I did there’s no way to distill everything about how individuals learn into a blog post meant for the average pet parent (or any blog post, for that matter). So, the disclaimer is that it’s way more complicated than what I’ve just laid out using layman terms instead of accurate terminology.

 

But, can basic cues help?

Yes… Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum and a lot is dependent on what the problem behavior is. I see quite a number of clients who have dogs who bite them (the owners) in various situations. For those folks, I often start them off with sit, attention, and hand targeting. It’s a great way to build relationships, build positive associations, and establish yourself as the “super fun treat person”. And that can help with some of those problem behaviors because of the role the relationship plays in them. It doesn’t address the trigger directly per se but can help with other factors that are involved. 

Because both types of learning are happening together, we do get some good feelings by working on basic cues, too. For that reason, I’ll often incorporate basic manners training into situations in which there’s not necessarily a discrete trigger at the root of the anxiety (after thorough investigation to make sure that that’s actually true). This can happen quite a bit for kiddos who are diagnosed with generalized anxiety by a vet or Veterinary Behaviorist. Going through a well-known, fast-paced basic manners repertoire can help build confidence in some of those situations where it doesn’t make as much sense to use other techniques. 

And, finally, basic cues build skills and we can incorporate those skills into our behavior modification plan. So, all in all, yes, basic manners and even tricks can help. However, notice that everything above was talking about helping indirectly. At no point did I say that it would address the actual trigger causing the behavior. So while they do help, basic cues alone are likely not going to get you where you want to be as efficiently or effectively. 

 

Redefining “nothing”

We have a hard time being okay with giving our pets treats for nothing. It’s so ingrained in our culture that “rewards” should only happen for doing something. But, we also have a hard time recognizing behaviors that we like when we see them. So if you’re having a hard time being okay with the thought of giving your pet treats for nothing, let’s redefine nothing. 

Behavior is always happening. Always! Even when they’re sleeping, the behavior is just that: sleeping. The problem we run into is that we often think of behavior as something quite active, like jumping or barking. But sitting quietly on their bed is just as much of a behavior as the others and one that we tend to like a lot more. 

Instead of saying that they’re doing nothing, look at what they are doing. Perhaps they’re quiet. Or sitting politely. Or calmly lying down. Are those behaviors not worthy of a reward? If you want those behaviors to happen more often, then your answer should be a resounding yes! 

 

Tying it all together

Okay. So we have different types of learning and we have a different way of seeing the behaviors we like. How does this all tie together? 

Associative learning often looks like “treats for nothing”. In reality, it’s a nuanced and slightly complex method with the treats happening at just the right moment to change those underlying emotions so we can actually address the trigger. And if we do it correctly, it’s going to look like treats for nothing. It’s going to look very boring. And it’s going to be more effective than having them sit or hand target or look at you. 

Not only does associative learning sometimes look like treats for nothing, but sometimes cause and effect learning does, too. This often happens when we’re working on duration. Let’s say that we’re working on duration in the crate for a dog or cat. When I’m working through this skill with folks, I start by prompting them when to treat. And that often is just when their pet is looking up at them from the crate, waiting for more treats. Sometimes I’m met with the question, but they’re not doing anything; why am I treating now? My response? They’re staying in the crate– and that’s the behavior we want! 

 

Now what?

  • How good are you at noticing when your pet is performing behaviors that you like? This could be being quiet, sitting politely, calmly lying down, or anything of the sort. Be honest: do you notice your pet when they’re doing things you like or mostly just when they’re doing things you don’t like?
  • If you struggle with noticing your pet’s desirable behaviors (and we’ve all been there!), make a point to notice your pet throughout the day. Set an alarm on your phone if you have to. The first step is to just notice what they’re doing. 
  • Treat your pet for behaviors you like throughout the day, like sitting, being quiet, and lying down. 
  • Ask your behavior consultant how you can build positive associations with triggers for your pet. We only recommend doing this with a professional, because the devil’s in the details here, and doing this the wrong way can lead to undesirable consequences. 

Happy training!

Allie

This One is for the Littles

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

 

Can we talk for just a few minutes about the littles? For those of you into children’s literature, I’m not talking about a diminutive sized mouse named Stuart. I’m talking about dogs who, due to decades upon decades of selective breeding by us human folk, come in small to sometimes tiny packages. I’m thinking of breeds such as Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Pugs, Malteses, Dachshunds, and Yorkies among many other breeds, as well as any combination thereof. Usually, these pups weigh in under 20 pounds although many are significantly smaller than that. 

 

The Reason for This Post

Lately, I’ve been providing an abundance of behavior consultations to families with smaller-sized dogs exhibiting bigger-sized behavior concerns. These dogs’ owners contacted Pet Harmony for help with concerns about their small dogs who were snarling, growling, snapping, and in some cases, biting family members or guests in situations where the dog was most likely feeling uncomfortable but the family didn’t realize it. There was never any doubt in my mind about whether these families love their dogs but there had been a breakdown in the relationship due to the dog making behavioral choices that were upsetting and sometimes frightening to the owners. 

The owners were confused as to why their beloved pets were growling or snapping at them or delivering bites when they were just trying to show their dog love, affection, or pampering and care. The unwanted behaviors were oftentimes occurring when the owners were hugging or kissing their dog, or when they were trying to pick up their dog to embrace them or carry them around or move them from one place to another.  I’m not judging the owners for wanting to do this with their dogs. I mean, who could look at the face of a Shih Tzu or a French Bulldog and not want to give them love and affection when their faces are so very smoochable? I understand these feelings all too well as I am the proud pet parent of a small floof myself. But kissing and hugging and touching and embracing are all decidedly human ways of expressing affection and although some dogs can learn to enjoy it, many are simply tolerating it at best. It is this lack of understanding communication styles between two completely different species that can cause problems to come bubbling to the surface and take owners by surprise. 

 

It All Started When…

Much of the time, an owner will report that the snarling, snapping, growling, or biting behavior started out of nowhere. They will tell me that their dog “FiFi” always enjoyed or never had a problem with:

  • Being carried around or moved from place to place
  • Being hugged or kissed
  • Being physically restrained
  • Being touched, petted, or groomed
  • Being dressed in totes adorbs outfits
  • Being placed in someone’s lap

 

The Out of the Blue

And suddenly, out of nowhere, tiny “FiFi” started to bite mom, dad, the kids, or visitors to the home. Truthfully though, the behavior most likely didn’t come from out of the blue at all. The more likely explanation is that “FiFi” had been desperately trying to communicate her discomfort with all of the things listed above and the owners didn’t understand her way of saying it. And because they didn’t understand yet, she escalated to biting, which is a behavior that gets the attention of almost all humans, even when delivered by a dog with a smaller-sized mouth. 

 

Would You Do That to a St. Bernard?

Why is it that things we would never dream of doing to a dog weighing 80 plus pounds, are somehow perfectly acceptable to do to dogs who weigh only 10? Our little dogs often are asked to tolerate us doing so much more “stuff” to them simply because of their size and simply because we can. Can you imagine anyone swooping in to pick up their St. Bernard and whisking them off to another room even if they physically could?  What if the St. Bernard was to emit a warning growl as the person came swooping in?  Would they still proceed anyway? I imagine that growl would give most people pause about whether or not what they are doing is truly necessary. And yet, so often when small dogs emit a growl, people don’t take it seriously. Instead, they either continue to do what they were doing or they punish the dog for using the warning system nature provided. 

In some cases (hello social media, I’m talking to you) you’ll actually see people not only laugh at but actually encourage the little dog to exhibit behaviors that are deemed “aggressive.” All for the sake of some views, shares, and likes. Those types of posts make me cringe the most because they perpetuate the myth that small dogs are inherently laughable and that doing “stuff” to them to elicit a response is not only acceptable but all in good fun. That in turn maintains the misguided labels people use to describe small dogs who are only behaving in certain ways because they have learned that is the only thing that works. 

 

Unlabeling Our Littles

Aside from height and weight there really are not that many differences between the littles and the bigs (or the mediums for that matter.) They still have the same need to express species-typical behaviors such as sniffing, chewing, digging, and scavenging or foraging for food. They still have the same needs for social interactions, safety and security, health and hygiene, as well as the more obvious need for food, water, and shelter. And yet, so many times little dogs are given labels such as yappy or spoiled, or stereotyped as having “little dog syndrome” or a “Napoleon complex.” I say rubbish to all of that. 

One of the laws of behavior is that behavior works. We all behave in our environments to get more of what we desire or less of something we wish to avoid. The weight or height of a dog doesn’t change that fact. The super “yappy” Yorkie is barking for a reason. The tiny chihuahua with the Napoleon complex? There is a reason for that behavior too and it hasn’t so much to do with the dog’s size but with the dog’s inability to have a say about things that are either being done to or around it. 

 

Giving Our Littles Agency

In their book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define agency as “the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome.” (pg 27) This holds true for not only primates and canids but all of the animal kingdom. In the case of our small dogs, it is very easy to forget that they have the same need for agency as much as their larger counterparts do. Allowing all dogs, the small, the big, and the in-between, to have some say in what is being done to them or with them has a huge impact on their mental well-being.

 I think this is particularly true for small dogs as we have a tendency to treat them like portable playthings instead of individuals with their own need to express behavior in a way that works for them. If a little dog is growling at or biting their person when they are being lifted into the air or they snap at a family member when the family member is playing dress-up with them, then that is a signal from the dog that some help is needed to make them feel more comfortable. Like all dogs, I think the greatest gift we can give to our small dogs is to learn about who they are as a species and adapt our interactions with them to reflect that we genuinely get who they are and care enough to modify our behavior to make our relationship with them be the best it can be. It isn’t just on the dog. It’s on us too. 

 

Now What?

If  you want to help your little dog feel safe and secure and comfortable in your home but are not sure where to start, here are some actionable items to think about implementing: 

  • Learn all that you can about canine body language, paying especially close attention to signals that dogs exhibit when they are worried or stressed about something in their environment. 
  • Teach your dog how to say “yes” to things like grooming, dressing them up, or husbandry procedures.
  • Conduct a consent test to make sure your dog is enjoying a petting session. 
  • Teach your dog that being picked up will predict something yummy like a small piece of hotdog, cheese, or boiled chicken.
  • Use a verbal cue or a hand signal to let your little know that they are about to be lifted. I use “1, 2, 3, Up” for my dog. It warms my heart to see him sort of launch himself up when I say the “up” part because he knows what to expect each time. Other cues that can work for lifting are “up, up and away,” “super dog,” or “take off.” 
  • And finally, ask yourself if what you are doing to your little dog is really necessary and if the answer is no, find an activity you can enjoy doing together like scent work or trick training. You might be amazed at just how smart, athletic, and eager your little learner is! 

Happy training,

MaryKaye