November Training Challenge: “Yes, please!” vs. “No, thank you!”

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Happy November, everyone! 

As always, with the start of a new month, we have a new training challenge for you and your dog! (This also applies to different species, so if you have a bird, cat, turtle, or something else, you can also participate! You might just want to make a couple of adjustments.)

This month, the training challenge is to learn your dog’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”


If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that we really focus on learning body language and building observation skills in order to better support and navigate the world with your dog. Honestly, you won’t believe how much it will make a difference in your relationship with your dog. Communication is a two-way street, and as much as we expect our dog to learn our language, we need to learn theirs. 

This month, we are going to zoom in and talk about one small aspect of our communication with our dogs and that is the way we pet them. Humans are primates. We use our hands for everything, we hug and kiss and sometimes smother other beings. It’s the way that we show love and affection! 

But, when we look at other species that we might share our home with, that isn’t how they show love and affection. So, we need to bridge that gap. How do we do that? 


We learn our dog’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

Now, each dog is an individual, so it’s up to you to learn your dog’s language, but in general here are some examples of “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

*Only try this if your dog does not have a history of problems when touched (including, but not limited to, snarling, growling, shivering, cowering, snapping, or biting). If your dog does have problems when touched, then work directly with a qualified behavior professional like Pet Harmony to address your dog’s concerns. 


“Yes, please!” might look like your dog…  “No, thank you!” might look like your dog…
Moving closer Shifting their weight away
Pushing into your hand  Walking away
Nudging you Freezing
Putting your hand on them Whale eye 
Doing a well-practiced behavior  Turning their head away
Getting soft eyes Not moving closer
Giving you a big, silly smile Holding their breath
Melting Ignoring you
Giving you no choice in the matter Anything short of a “yes, please!”

How do we go about learning this? We spend some time interacting with and observing our dogs. 


So what does this look like?

Wait for a time when your dog is soliciting attention. 

Very gently, slowly, and softly, reach your hand out toward their shoulder. Stop about halfway to their body. This is how we ask “is this what you want?” 

Pause once you reach about halfway and observe your dog. 

What do you see? Do you see something on the “yes, please!” Or “no, thank you!” list? 

If you see a “yes, please!” continue moving your hand and make contact with your dog. Softly pet or scratch your dog. 

After 3 seconds, lift your hand away a few inches, and pause. Again, we are asking “is this what you want?” 

Observe what your dog does. They may be finished and give you a “no, thank you!”. If you see a “yes, please!” continue for another 3 seconds and repeat. You may find that your dog will adjust so that you can scratch or pet their favorite spot, like behind the ears, or on their chest. 

If, at any time, you get a “no, thank you”, remove your hand and give your dog 3 seconds. You can ask again. You may present your hand in a different way, like toward their chest, or their chin. Again, very gently, slowly, and softly, reach your hand out toward them. Stop about halfway to their body. This is how we ask “is this what you want?” 

Pause halfway and observe your dog. 

You may find that, while your dog was asking for attention, scratches might not be what they want! It might be to play or to go outside. And that’s okay! We respect their “no, thank you!” 


Let’s simplify it!

You ask your dog “Is this what you want?” – Offer your hand halfway to your dog and pause.

Does your dog say “yes, please”? Then pet your dog for 3 seconds, remove your hand, and repeat! 

Does your dog say “no, thank you”? Then pull your hand back, if your dog stays, you can ask again, but maybe change your offer. 

If they walk away, then you have a very clear answer! 


The beauty in communication

Over time, you might start to see patterns develop in your dog’s preferences! 

For example, Laika loves her left armpit to be scratched. 

Griffey likes to be rubbed on the top of his face. 

Laika prefers morning scritches (much more “yes, please!”) and Griffey finds certain lotions to be horribly offensive (much more “no, thank you!”, well, to be honest, I’m not sure that “no” is that subtle). 

When we know our dog’s preferences, we can better meet our dog’s needs. If they need some time and attention from us, we can give them the type of social interaction they prefer. 

And, when we develop this system of communication, our dogs learn how to ASK for social interaction in the way that they need. It’s a beautiful thing when our dogs can request for their needs to be met. 


Now what?

  • Practice seeing subtle signs of communication. This blog on body language (includes cats too!) provides resources to learn more about body language! 
  • Determine what your dog’s “yes, please!’ and “no, thank you!” looks like. How do they communicate? 
  • Practice the routine with your pet: “is this what you want?” → “yes, please!” or “no, thank you!” → respond accordingly. 
  • As you find out your dog’s preferences, we’d love to hear about it over on our pet parent Instagram @petharmonytraining! Tag us in your videos, pictures, or stories. We’ll be sharing some of our own as well!

Making Training Real – for Sessions and for Life

What is training your animal like every day? Is it always fun? Is it always a walk in the park? Or do you feel overwhelmed by the goal of achieving “perfect dog mom of the year?” Maybe your life is so hectic that it makes it hard to fit training in? Maybe there is something else that makes it hard for you to take the things you know you should do with your dog, and put it into practice. 

Like many of you, I have had pets my whole life. I had hamsters, gerbils, fish, mice, rats, cats, dogs, frogs, and probably more. But as a child, if I slipped up on something, or if I made a mistake, my parents would take care of it, and it didn’t usually bother me a lot. And when it did, I usually felt like it was not my fault entirely. Our dog didn’t receive training, and our yard remained unfenced because my parents wouldn’t pay for it. As a kid, there was really very little I could do about it. I just promised myself that when I was an adult, I’d do things right. 

Training Sessions

Then, you become an adult. And with Adulting, comes a lot more stuff you didn’t plan for. Like me, you may have had some mental or physical health issues become more prominent. We have jobs and significant others; maybe even children and church or club responsibilities. There are dishes to do, laundry to fold, and mouths to feed. So, sometimes, even training for five minutes a day can seem INSANELY overwhelming, especially if you are neurodivergent like me, and find caring for your OWN needs somewhat frustrating.

That is all terribly disheartening, I know. Please, give yourself some slack! You have done your homework! You are here, reading the Pet Harmony Blog, and doing the best you can with the knowledge you have. We’re all busy, and many times the thing stopping us from being truly efficient in helping ourselves and our dogs is making the time to do so. 

Break it Down

One of, if not THE most important part of any training plan is breaking things down into smaller chunks so that the learner can progress with as little stress as possible. So, if we’re talking about making daily training a realistic goal, and bringing training to real-life situations like Allie brought up in her past post, “Bridging the Gap Between Training Sessions and Real Life,” you need to TRAIN YOURSELF. That’s right. Sit down, and break the training plan into manageable chunks for yourself. Look at your goals, and don’t simply think about your pet; think about yourself. What parts of your training may not fit into your life the way you hope it might?

Is it hard to figure out when to practice your Flight cue with your reactive dog? What is preventing you from doing it? If it is time, think about your daily routine, or even your weekly schedule, and Think about times in your REAL life when you might need it, or when you will be reminded of it. 

For example, I should trim my pets’ nails once a week. Unfortunately, in the past, I really only thought about it when Maya stepped on my foot, or when Sylphrena (my cat) scratched Maya when trying to play. So… not as often as I should. What I realized is that I could set up another cue for myself. I decided that every time I saw Maya’s claws, I would try to remind myself to clip her nails. Every morning, I sit on the couch for a bit to drink some water and take my medicine, and Maya loves to sit next to me and snuggle while I wake up. So, I put the nail clippers and an old peanut butter jar full of treats next to the couch. Now, we play the bucket game a few times a week to get her nails done.


Ways to Shape Your Own Behavior:

Making training a regular part of your life can be tricky. Forming new habits is hard. So, there are a few things you can do to help it be easier:

  • Attach it to an existing behavior. For example, every day, you eat breakfast and feed your dog. If you do a bit of training with your dogs’ food or some tasty treats just BEFORE feeding them, then you will be more likely to remember.
  • Replace an existing habit with this new one. Let’s say you have a dog who barks, lunges, and is generally no fun to walk. You can make your training session happen when you used to walk your dog. You can make training more tiring with play as a reward. Tug, fetch, or a flirt pole can work as an option for many dogs. OR, you can break up the training session with play breaks! So you might do sit, down, reward; stay, walk away, come back, treat. Then, release your dog and run around with them, or play a game with them. Having play as a part of your training sessions can be a rewarding option for many dogs and owners. 

  • Set reminders on your phone, or on other devices you see frequently. Make sure you set them to go off at a time that you should have time to do it. 
  • Track your sessions. This is a way to reinforce your future self!! It can help you feel accomplished, and I don’t know about you, but when I feel good about something, I tend to do it more. You could go as far as to make a training journal, or just write a checkmark on your calendar for each day you did train.
  • Find a support system. Having someone to talk to about your goals helps to hold you accountable. You can find this with fellow dog owners, your trainer, supportive family members, or even online groups, like our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community on Facebook.
  • Finally, find a way to make treats easily accessible. The more accessible they are, the easier it will be to start training in any moment. Use old peanut butter jars, or buy reusable jars and stash them in convenient places: by the door for your house if you have an excitable greeter, By the back door if you want to work on things outside, or even stash a few in your pockets. (Caution, please make sure that you take all the treats out of your pockets and stash your dirty clothes in a place that your pup cannot easily access to prevent them from chewing holes in all the places your treats have been!)


Now What?

Once you make training more of a part of who you are every day, I find that most people have an easier time incorporating training into their lives in a less formal manner. For example, now that I have treats next to my bed, I can toss her treats during a thunderstorm, or when a visitor knocks on my door at an unexpected time. These are not planned training sessions, but if I hadn’t set myself up for success by planning and practicing for them, then it would never have happened. 

How Making Yourself a Sundae Can Help You Train Your Dog

If it’s 8:30 pm, you better believe my mind is scrolling through the options of ice cream that are lurking in the back of my freezer.  Dinner > put toddler to bed > prepare for tomorrow > sit on couch > want ice cream–it’s a very predictable sequence for me.

But this post is not to talk about my obsession with the creamy deliciousness of this nighttime treat or my conditioned behaviors.  Today’s blog is to highlight the teeny tiny steps that need to occur in between identifying “I WANT TO EAT THAT ICE CREAM” and actually consuming it.  

All learners have to figure out what they need to do (behavior) to get to their end goal (goal + reward).  Often, we think of what the end behavior should look like (when my dog sits, he gets a cookie), but we forget that the end behavior has a bunch of tiny behaviors that need to take place on the way. To save you some frustration and your pup some confusion, let’s figure out why we should split instead of lump when training any behavior.


Splitting: breaking down the criteria of a learner’s behavior into smaller approximations to the end behavior

Lumping: assuming that the learner knows what behavior specifically helped them get to the end goal


If my end goal is to eat a sundae, let’s see the steps I would take to reach my reward.

  1. Go to freezer.
  2. Grab ice cream.
  3. Scoop ice cream into a bowl.
  4. Add toppings.
  5. Put ice cream back in freezer.
  6. Eat ice cream : P

You probably followed all of my steps with no confusion, right? Sure, you’ve gotten yourself a bowl of ice cream before so it makes sense.  But what about someone who has never gotten ice cream before? Someone who doesn’t know English?  Someone who doesn’t have the same physical abilities as you?

The roadmap to this behavior above is an example of lumping.  We’d reinforce (read: give treat) after each step along the way.  For someone who has a good understanding of english and has done these behaviors before, you could probably get them to the end goal with just these few instructions.

But for someone who is new to your house, language, physical demands, etc., you’d tell them to go to your freezer and they wouldn’t even know where to begin.  Let’s see what questions we can ask ourselves about these smaller goals. Your answers will help you to split these behaviors to create more opportunities for success.


1. Go to freezer.

“Where did I start? Did I feel like getting up?  How does my body have to move to get myself into a position to walk? Where is my freezer with ice cream (the garage)? Do I need to put slippers on to go into the garage? Is the path clear of baby toys as I make my way through the house or do I have to step over things? How heavy is the freezer door? Do I have both hands free?”

2. Grab ice cream.

“Where is the ice cream in the freezer? Are there more than one? Which do I want to eat? Is there anything in the way of grabbing the ice cream? Do I have enough hands to hold the door/move the vegetables/grab the ice cream?”

3. Scoop ice cream into a bowl.

“Wait, am I scooping ice cream in my garage by the freezer? Did I have to go back inside? Where are the bowls? Where is the ice cream scoop? Where are the spoons? Which hand should I use? Do I always use this hand? Why is the ice cream tub so cold and sticking to my fingers? Is there a towel around for me to hold this? Why is the ice cream so hard? Would it be better to soak the metal scoop in warm water? Should I just wait for the ice cream to soften? Should I have worked out my biceps today? Do I want to put anything on this ice cream–I’ve done it before and it tasted good so maybe I’ll do that again?”

4. Add toppings.

“What do I have in my cabinets? What do I feel like eating? Do I like all these textures? Does this make the ice cream taste better or is it more work than reward? Where are my toppings located? What ice cream to sprinkles ratio makes sense? Is my whipped cream still good? How long after the expiration date can I use these maraschino cherries? Should I just risk it? Yep, they smell fine.”

5. Put ice cream back in freezer.

“Do I have to do this now, or will it make it until I finish eating? Where are those slippers again? Where should I put this sundae while I go put the ice cream away so Opie doesn’t taste test for me?”

6. Eat ice cream : P

“Ugh, finally.” (*sits on the couch and turns on an episode of The Amazing Race from 2004 as Opie sits hopefully alongside*)


There are so many things that you have to have a handle on in order to achieve your goal.  Maybe you don’t normally have to go to the garage freezer for ice cream (learner confusion). Maybe you have thought about other ways that were easier that got you ice cream before (reinforcement history).  Maybe the set up of your house or your physical limitations make getting the ice cream more difficult (management of environment).  Maybe you just don’t think that ice cream is worth getting off the couch for (value of reward).  The same stuff happens in our dogs’ brains when they’re trying to learn something new.  They don’t exactly know what we want.  They try out other behaviors that have been rewarded in the past.  The environment is not set up for success. They do the things that are most valuable to them.  

When you’re feeling frustrated or stuck with a behavior that you are trying to train, just take a beat.  You aren’t a terrible trainer. Your pup is not stubborn, or disrespectful, or dumb.  The team just needs to reevaluate what is going on.  Ask yourself some guiding questions and see if the answers can help you split the behaviors into smaller, more successful chunks.  You’ll get it (or you’ll find someone to help you get it).


Now what?

  • Make yourself a bowl of ice cream (It’s for science.)
  • Identify a training trick/behavior you and your pup are struggling with.
  • Ask yourself questions to help break down the smaller steps that need to occur.
  • Reward consistently as the team experiences success.


You’re doing great!


Simple, but precise

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Animal training professions are unregulated, which means that anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a dog trainer. As a result, there is a wide variety of advice about animal training on the internet and in real life, and in many cases, unfortunately, dog trainers put more emphasis on marketing themselves than in learning about ethical, compassionate, science-based behavior change techniques.

One of the outcomes of this phenomenon is that there are a lot of highly effective marketing campaigns that sell people on how quick and easy their “system” is. If you have a dog with behavior issues that range from being a nuisance to being downright dangerous, who wouldn’t want a solution that is quick and easy and requires almost no effort on your part? Of course that sounds appealing. It’s a perfectly natural thing to want that.

The problem is that those quick fix techniques are the modern day equivalent of snake oil. They work by shutting down behaviors. It is, in fact, quick and easy to shut down a behavior in many cases. But shutting down behavior is problematic for many reasons. Although we don’t have the time in this article to go into those reasons in-depth, a quick summary boils down to this: shutting down behavior is like masking a symptom of disease rather than diagnosing and treating the disease itself. It’s like giving cough syrup to someone with lung cancer to make the cough go away instead of diagnosing and treating the cancer itself.

If we truly care about the animals in our care, we care about their physical, behavioral, and emotional health. Which means that we want to address the root cause of behavior issues, identify and meet their needs, and teach them life skills to help them navigate the world more safely and successfully. And because behavior is a complex interplay of multiple complex systems, that isn’t always a quick and easy process (although sometimes it can be!).

We can’t wish away the complexity of behavior, nor should we try.

That said, a good trainer or behavior consultant should do two things for their clients:

  1. Take the simplest approach possible.
  2. And when a simple approach isn’t possible, they should break the complexities down into a series of simple steps.

We often have clients tell us, “I can’t believe how simple this is!” And yes! In many cases we can break things down into small enough steps that each step feels very simple and doable for our clients.

But here’s the other catch: these steps are simple, yes, but they are also by necessity precise. In many cases people may try to implement a simple strategy, but it doesn’t work for them because of one tiny detail that makes a world of difference. I tell my clients all the time, “The devil’s in the details.” And it’s those little details that can trip us up.

Sometimes a client will tell us, “I followed the training plan 100%, but it’s not working.” We can hear the defensiveness in their voices. We can see that they think we think they’re lying and they haven’t really done the work. Or they’re thinking, “Have I been lied to? Does this method even work, really?” In reality, we believe them! It’s easy to follow a training plan almost entirely but miss a small detail that makes a big difference. And that’s just the reality of working with complex sentient beings!

So instead of trying to find someone who will give you the simplest, quickest solution possible, find someone who will help you fully navigate every aspect of your pet’s physical, behavioral, and emotional health in ways that feel simple and doable to you.


Now what?

  • If you find that the training plan you’ve been given is too overwhelming, let your consultant know. Don’t be afraid to ask them to break it down into smaller, simpler steps for you.
  • If what you’re trying isn’t working, work with your consultant to make sure there aren’t any details that may have fallen through the cracks.
  • If you are a current or aspiring behavior professional who wants to learn how to break complex behavioral journeys into simple, sustainable steps for your clients, we’ve developed the Pet Harmony Mentorship Program to empower our students to become competent, confident, compassionate behavior consultants. We welcome you to join us!

October 2021 Training Challenge: Train for Five Minutes A Day

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It’s time for our monthly training challenge! 

This month is focused on habit building. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it:

Incorporate 5 minutes of training every day

Now, that may sound like a breeze to some of you, and some of you might be thinking “there is no way.” 

Both of those responses are valid! Some folx do better with 5 consecutive minutes and checking that box off, and others, finding 5 minutes to dedicate at any given time is going to be a struggle. 

The good news is, whether you want to mark it in your calendar and check that box, or would prefer to fit it in where you can, we’ve got suggestions for you. 


But is that enough? 

This is a question we get a lot. When we have pet parents come to us, they are expecting HOURS of work a week. I can’t tell you the number of relieved sighs we get when they get instructions like “practice this for 1-2 minutes a day” or “count out 10 treats and do 10 repetitions”. 

More training doesn’t mean more results in most cases. Usually, it just leads to more frustration, more hard feelings, and more discouragement. 

As a general rule of thumb, one to two minutes is where we suggest pet parents start when both they and their pet are new to training. You can accomplish a lot in two minutes!


How am I going to remember? 

Excellent question! This is going to depend on the person! Here are some of the ways my clients have remembered:

  • Put it on your calendar 
  • Add it to an already existing routine
  • Put treats next to the kettle or microwave and practice while they run 
  • Create a tracker so you can mark it off 
  • Find an accountability buddy! 


What if I’m overwhelmed by 5 minutes? 

You know, I’m not going to lie. There are days where 5 minutes feels like too much. And for those days, I encourage my clients to try some of the following: 

  • Take 5 treats and practice 5 times 
  • Put treats in places so you can catch them doing the good thing
  • Turn to yourself with kindness and compassion! Some days are hard, and that’s okay. Put your oxygen mask on first. 


Now, we thought we’d do this blog a little differently… 

This month, the whole Pet Harmony team is contributing. We thought since we are all different people, with different situations, and different routines, it might help you to see how six different families make training an everyday thing: 



Like Ellen, a lot of Oso’s training happens as a part of our regular day-to-day routine. Coming inside, especially when the neighbor dogs are barking? Treats! I happen to be sitting with him on the couch when the delivery person is coming to the door? Treats for not yelling at the person! Sitting politely outside of the kitchen while we’re cooking? Veggie scraps! For the activities that can’t be as easily incorporated (like filing his nails), I’ll often squeeze that in when I have a couple of minutes and have a timer set in some fashion, whether it’s how long it takes something to heat up in the microwave or the duration of a song. Knowing that it’s only going to be a few minutes makes me more likely to do it because it seems less daunting than having to spend a half-hour on training. 



I practice “place” with both my cat and dog before giving them their food. I do play sessions daily with my cat and dog. I let them decide which toy or play they want to participate in, unless I am not feeling well, and then I usually default to “find it” with both animals. Other things I do regularly with them are counter-conditioning to nail trims and other activities that they don’t love that need to be done. But by far my favorite way to spend time training is with trick training. My cat knows how to sit and high-five, and she is learning down and spin. Even reptiles and fish can learn to perform tricks, and this is an excellent way to bond with your pet and is a great source of mental enrichment if done in a way the learner enjoys!



The amount of our formal daily training ebbs and flows with the seasons.  Opie and I do a lot in the winter and summer, but less in the spring and fall.  With school starting back up and me teaching all day, I get behind on the silly tricks and games that take some thought, but we are always learning together.  I love to use real-life reinforcers to learn with my pup.  During our walks, we will practice walking “close” when a bunny or squirrel or activating dog is in the area.  To reinforce this behavior,  he is rewarded by flocking the tree, doing a sprint with me, or REALLY sniffing that light post that the activated dog just left a voicemail on.  When our toddler is eating dinner, Opie practices self-control and “leave it” as delicious food rains from the heavens. Opie is rewarded for this behavior by getting to be our vacuum cleaner when we say “clean up after Walt”.  For me, daily training is all about finding the teachable moments. I try to use Opie’s impulses to guide me to understand what he wants to do–what would truly be rewarding for him.  Once I know what’s reinforcing, then I can ask for behaviors I want to see and use the real-life reinforcers to back me up.



Some days we incorporate a more formal “training session” (see last week’s blog), but mostly, I focus on catching my dogs when they are doing things I like in their day-to-day routine. For me, I have a couple of things that I look out for so that I can make sure I’m still helping my dogs practice things that are important to me! I have treats stationed by the back door, so every time my dogs come in, they get a treat. I will spontaneously call them from random places to practice coming when called. And, because I don’t want barking to become a way they ask for attention, I practice polite ways of requesting attention. For Griffey, it’s every time he brings me his wubba. For Laika, it’s every time she comes into my office and bows. For our more formal goals (fitness training, husbandry…) I try to carve out about 30 minutes 3-5 times a week to make progress on those goals. 



After an animal has been fully incorporated into my home and has all the skills they need to thrive in our environment, I do very little structured training. Instead, I use real-life opportunities to practice skills. For example, if someone knocks on our door and the dogs bark, that’s an opportunity to practice quieting down. When they’re outside playing or chasing wildlife, that’s an opportunity to practice recall. If they’re all worked up after a rousing play session and I need to get on a Zoom session with a student or client, that’s an opportunity to practice unwinding at their relaxation station. When new people come to the house, that’s an opportunity to practice Look At That, the Flight Cue, and/or Find It (depending on the circumstance). Every mealtime is an opportunity to practice their scent trailing skills through scatter feeding. Every nail trim is an opportunity to practice their start button behaviors. In every interaction like this, I ask myself, “What is it I want them to learn from this experience?” Then I make reinforcement available for those desirable behaviors.



My dog is now almost 14 years old so daily training is never a super formal thing for us. Like everyone else on the Pet Harmony team, I look for reinforceable moments and capitalize on those. The one thing I do work on daily with Fonzy is being able to walk past other dogs without him having a yelling contest at or with them. I ALWAYS bring treats with me when we are out for our daily walks so that I can proactively reinforce the behaviors that are not “yelling” at the other dog. If he simply looks at the other dog, small pieces of hotdog happen. If he walks past and ignores more hotdog. If he chooses to go sniff in the grass instead of bark, magical hotdogs suddenly appear on the ground for him to sniff out and find too! He has a history of leash reactivity and these maintenance reinforcers make a huge difference in his behavior. He now mostly thinks that other dogs make hotdogs appear and he is all about that! 


No One Right Answer

As with so many things, there isn’t just one way to incorporate training into your day-to-day routine. Each of us has been adjusting our routines for years, so trial and eval different options for your family! Finding what works for you and your pets is what is important!

Now What? 

  • Determine how you are going to incorporate training into your everyday routine! Do you need to check it off a list? Do you need treats somewhere out in the open to remind you to do it? Set yourself up for success, whatever that may look like! 
  • Trial and eval over the next month. If something isn’t working for you, try something new!
  • Join us in the Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community Facebook Group and over on Instagram @PetHarmonyTraining! We’d love to know how you plan to train every day!

6 Things I Bring to Every Training Session

In my experience, most people have a very concrete idea of what it means to “train” an animal. Usually, when people say they are going to go “train their dog” they are thinking in terms of concrete sessions. Our pets are always learning, but when starting a new behavior, or using an old behavior in a new context, setting up a controlled training setup can be SUPER helpful. 

So, when I’m heading out to train my dogs, what are the things I ALWAYS have with me?


I know what my goal behavior LOOKS like. 

If I say “I want Griffey to touch the target”, that can look like a lot of things. What is the target? A body part or an object? Is it vertical or horizontal? What part of Griffey should make contact with the target? His paw, nose, feet, belly, bum? 

Instead of “touch the target”, I might say, “I want Griffey to place his two front feet on this stool” or “I want Griffey to press his chin into my flat hand with my palm turned toward the sky” or “I want Griffey to make contact with his nose on my closed fist”. 

If you’ve never trained something before, or visualization is difficult, look up pictures and videos of your desired result. You can start to match to sample! When I started doing fitness training with my dogs, I spent a lot of time looking at videos of dogs with good form and skill so I knew how my desired goal looked. 

The more specific we can be with our goals, the easier it will be to help guide our dog toward the right answer. 


I know how I will teach it. 

I’ve watched some videos or been instructed by an expert and I have an idea of what I want my end result to look like, now I figure out how I’m likely to get there. If Griffey is putting his two front feet on something, I’m going to start with something flat on the ground or slightly elevated. If Griffey is going to put his chin on something, I’m going to start with the thing under his chin. 

Without any of this prep work, if I call Griffey over, and expect him to “figure it out” we are both going to get frustrated. I’m going to be annoyed because “IT IS SO OBVIOUS!!!” and he is going to be frustrated that I’m just standing there teasing him with the setup that usually means COOKIE! 

So, minimize distractions, have your dog relatively close to you. How can you make the right answer the easiest answer? If I want Griffey to step on a sticky note, I might start with a full letter-sized sheet of paper and gradually rip pieces off to make it smaller. If I want Griffey to touch his nose to my fist, I’m going to start right next to his nose instead of 6 feet away. 

I think in terms of flow charts, if this, then this, then this… If that helps you, give it a go!


My treat pouch. 

I’ve spent years finding the treat pouch that works best for me. I need something I can easily close in case I kneel down (no mugging!). My hand needs to be able to fit seamlessly inside when it’s open. I prefer a waist strap to a shoulder strap. I like pouches that can also double as a purse since I tend to wear clothes marketed to the part of the demographic that apparently doesn’t need pockets. I tend to run with my pups on walks, so things need to be secured while jogging. 

Fumbling for treats, running out, trying to carry stuff in your hands is going to make training feel clunky, uncomfortable, and hard to maintain, so it’s worth finding something that really WORKS for you. 


Treats of adequate value for the task at hand.

Is this a $5 behavior or a $100 behavior? If I try to pull out the good stuff, those $100 for fitness training with Griffey, he’s a mess. He’s so excited that he can’t focus. Fitness training is kibble training. Now, if I’m asking for something harder, then the goods come out. Cheese, chicken, leftover steak are all $100 bills that I can use when I’m asking for harder things like coming when called when there is a squirrel taunting him in the backyard. 


The right mind space.

This one is a big one. Before I start a session, I check in with myself. If I’m trying to teach something new to me and to him, it’s not a wise choice to continue if I’m crabby. My perception of the session is going to be garbage and the shame spiral is right around the corner. There are things I can do on autopilot at this point, but if the cognitive load is going to be great, I’ll save it for a day when I have the resources to spend. 


A training partner that is saying “HELL YES!” 

Some days, my dogs just aren’t into it. There are a ton of factors that can play into that, and we will talk about those in a different blog. It’s okay that sometimes they don’t want to. Some days, I pull out my fitness equipment, Laika looks at me, looks at the station, and goes back to bed. Let’s be honest, I feel that way too some days. In the event they aren’t ready to rock and roll, we do something else. Would they rather do trick training, or practice relaxing outside while things happen in the world? OR, maybe today, we scrap that whole plan and it is foraging enrichment day. 


Training sessions are a brilliant way to facilitate communication and bolster our relationship with our pets. It’s great mental enrichment for both of us. But, as I said earlier, our pets are always learning, so make sure to check out next week’s blog. Sometimes, if you are anything like me, setting up for a “training session” is just too much. Next week, we are going to share some tips and tricks to make teaching and learning a smooth sailing activity for both you and your pet. 


Now What? 

  • Think about something you’d love to teach your pet! Start with something that doesn’t carry any baggage, like a spin, a bow, or one of our Slick Tricks! If you are looking for inspiration, check out Kikopup’s YouTube channel. She’s got an incredible collection of videos around fun tricks and life skills that give you videos so you can see what the behavior LOOKS like, and helps you figure out how to train as well. 
  • If you are ready to tackle a behavior that is bringing stress to you, your household, or your dog, come join us for the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program. This program provides the Roadmap you need to tackle behaviors from frustrating to frightening. 


5 Tips for Travelling with Dogs

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Originally, I had a different topic planned for this week, but when life throws you lemons, try to make lemonade! 

This last week, my partner and I found out that we suddenly had to drive from the Bay Area to Seattle for some family stuff. Both our dogs were coming with us, and as such, we needed to prepare not only our stuff, but also their stuff. 

Traveling with a big feels dog can be very different from traveling with an “easy” dog. I’ve done both, and when Griffey was added to our family, there was a lot more that we had to consider when we were road-tripping. 

So, since I’ve done the work, made the mistakes, and adjusted my plans, I thought I would share 5 tips to make your journey just a little bit smoother. 


1. Know your dog’s essentials 

I always start with the essentials first. What are the things your dog needs daily? Create a list! I suggest writing this all down and keeping a copy with your pet’s records. You can refer back to it for future trips, or even keep a “go bag” packed and ready. Since I live in a place where evacuations happen, I keep all these things collected in one place ready to go at a moment’s notice.  This is specific to each dog, so my list won’t be your list, but here is my list to get you started: 

  1. Enough kibble for both dogs, plus some. 
  2. A bowl for water and we have one of these fancy things
  3. A basic pet first aid kit
  4. Both dog’s harness
  5. Both dog’s standard leash
  6. Poop bags
  7. A ball for Laika and a wubba for Griffey
  8. Digital copies of my dog’s records
  9. Daily medication and supplements
  10. Both dog’s muzzles


2. Pack the things that will set you up for success

The essentials are the things I want ready to go at a moment’s notice. The items in this list go beyond the essentials. As you think about what’s in store for your trip, think about “what if…” situations. What are some of the things that will make everything easier? For Griffey, we have certain medications on hand in the event that we need them. We bring each dog’s safe space (a blanket of Laika’s and a bed of Griffey’s), a variety of treats of different values, treat pouches, long lines, empty frozen food puzzles, other food puzzles, bones, canned dog food, stuff to bathe your dog (if necessary), crates. Remember, each dog’s list will be personalized. What’s my dog’s “extra” maybe your dog’s “essential”. 


3. Know your management plan before you leave 

Don’t draft your management plan on the fly, adjust your management plan on the fly. 

Ask yourself 

  1. How will I keep everyone safe?
  2. How will I decrease stress?
  3. How will I prevent unwanted behavior?

This can include new environmental concerns (foxtails, rattlesnakes, fire ants, among so many others), as well as things you already know your dog struggles with. When we are in places with foxtails, we need to make sure our dogs are foxtail free. When we travelled places with fire ants, we tried to stay away from mounds when the dogs were going to the bathroom. 

How will you keep your dog from distracting you while you are driving? 

If your dog has a hard time around strangers, how are you going to manage their exposure? 

If your dog is reactive on the leash toward other dogs, how are you going to manage their exposure? 

What elements of your current management routine can you bring with you, and which ones do you need to adjust? 

What type of housing will you be utilizing?


4. Discuss your plan with the rest of the family BEFORE you are stressed

Don’t wait until you are in the thick of it to create or communicate your plans to the other people on the trip. Travelling can be stressful, and it’s even more stressful when you have your big feels dog with you. 

Here are some of the conversations my partner and I had to get you started: 

What are we going to do at rest stops? 

Can we predict any situations that might be more than our dogs can handle? 

How are we going to help our dogs decompress? 

How are we going to meet their needs on the road? 

What are we going to do in states where you don’t pump your own gas? 


5. Keep a list of pain points while you go

Things may not be perfect, and that’s okay! Sometimes we need to trial and eval. So, while you are going through your trip, keep a list of pain points you want to address later. It can be small things like “ration out their daily food in separate containers” to “work on being comfortable in the crate while I go into the gas station”.

While you are in the middle of your trip, both learning and teaching may be difficult, so keep a list of things to work on in the future. When you’ve both had a chance to decompress, return to the routine, and are ready to gain new skills. 


Now what? 

  • Create your dog’s travel list. I suggest writing down both the essentials and the things that will help you navigate more smoothly. In some situations, all you may have room for is the bare necessities, so know what those are beforehand. 
  • Develop your management plan before you leave, and discuss it with everyone involved. When tensions are high, sleep is low, and space is limited, those same conversations might feel much higher stake than on the couch in your living room. 
  • If you already have some things you want to work on in preparation, come join us for the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions free workshop happening next month. We will discuss more ideas that will help you and your dog navigate this wild world together!

Is Your Pet’s Behavior Unpredictable?

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


My pet’s behavior is unpredictable. 


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

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

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

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

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


We can’t see it coming

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

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

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


We haven’t yet figured out the triggers

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

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


Humans and animals experience the world differently

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

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

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


We’re thinking too much like a human

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

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

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

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


There are triggers that others can’t perceive

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

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

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


Trigger stacking

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


Now what?

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


Happy training!


What You Need to Know About Trigger Stacking

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

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


Some examples

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

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

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

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


Why is this important?

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

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

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


It’s not just within a few minutes

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


What can we do about trigger stacking?

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

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

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


Now what?

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


Happy training!


September Training Challenge: Management Plans for Visitors

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It’s already September, and that means it’s time for our monthly training challenge! 

As we head into fall, and the holiday season, now is the time to start planning for visitors. As we’ve mentioned before, you need to practice before the test. That means, start building or adjusting your management plan this month, before the onslaught of trick-or-treaters or holiday guests


Management Plans

Let’s start off by clarifying what I mean by “management plan”. When I refer to your management plan, I mean how you are: 

  1. Keeping everyone safe 
  2. Preventing unwanted behaviors 

In a successful management plan, we are striving to do both of these things for our pets (and ourselves!). There are other elements that come into play, but start here!

If you read that list and thought, “I have no idea. What is this person talking about?”, don’t worry. Follow along below to start your management plan! 


Start Here

The first step in preventing unwanted behaviors is to identify the unwanted behaviors. So ask yourself, “what does my dog do around visitors that I find undesirable?”

Do they: 

  • Run around screaming 
  • Door dash 
  • Jump on or mouth the visitors
  • Lunge/bark/bite at the visitors  
  • Refuse to come to you
  • Insert your list here

Create your list of undesirable behaviors. Once we know what you want to change, then we can start to build and implement a management strategy.


Next Step

For each undesirable behavior, ask yourself these 2 questions: 

  1. Is everyone safe? 
  2. Can I prevent this behavior entirely?

Let’s look at some fictitious examples, shall we? 

My dog starts running around and screaming as soon as the doorbell rings

  • Is everyone safe? Yes. Well, minus my eardrums.
  • Can I prevent this behavior entirely? Yes. Disconnect doorbell, or have visitors text/call when they arrive. 

My dog runs out the door each time it opens

  • Is everyone safe? Definitely not. We live on a busy street.
  • Can I prevent this behavior entirely? Yes. Two or more barriers between my dog and the outside world will prevent them from getting to the street. I also won’t have to worry about visitors accidentally letting my dog out. 

My dog runs out the door each time it opens

  • Is everyone safe? Definitely not. We live on a busy street.
  • Can I prevent this behavior entirely? Yes. Two or more barriers between my dog and the outside world will prevent them from getting to the street. I also won’t have to worry about visitors accidentally letting my dog out. 


And then…

Implementation! Start putting your management plan into place ASAP. The sooner you and your dog can practice the plan, the better you will be before the night of the test. If you or your dog will need additional skills to make your management plan work, then start teaching and practicing those now! 


But I Don’t Know How To Manage This Problem!

I have some good news, we can help. Management can be very personal, and while the goal may be very broad, there are a ton of ways to meet a goal. Our behavior consultants can help you not only make a management plan for your pup, but we can also help you take it a step further! If you want to go from complete chaos around your company to know how to navigate visitors, we’d love to help


Now What?

  • Whether you are assessing your current management plan or building one from scratch, start by asking yourself “what are the concrete, observable behaviors I don’t like?”
  • Once you have your list, start building your plan to keep everyone safe and prevent unwanted behaviors. 
  • If you’d like help building or adjusting your dog’s management plan to meet both your needs and theirs, let us know. We’d love to help you
  • Check out our upcoming free webinar 5 Tips for Addressing Your Dog’s Problem Behaviors… No Matter the Problem! You might find some management inspiration during it!