Dog Enrichment Categories Explained

We get asked all the time about what the “best dog enrichment activities” are or “what enrichment should I use with puppies” and the like. If you’ve been following us, you know that our answer is, “it depends on what your individual pet needs.” But, let’s face it, that’s not a really helpful answer sometimes. 

I find that when I explain the different categories of enrichment to folks, it’s often easier for them to identify what their pet needs. It’s hard to figure it out when you don’t even know what it entails! Now, there’s, of course, more to this story so we’ll come back to further identifying your pet’s needs next week, but for now, let’s focus on the enrichment categories. 

 (Disclosure: some of the links in this blog are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!)

 

What is animal enrichment?

If you’ve read any of our blog posts about enrichment you know that I have to start here! The definition of “enrichment” has become muddied as it’s become more mainstream. The definition that we use here at Pet Harmony is the original, historical definition: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s mental, physical, and emotional needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. When we think about enrichment as meeting all of an animal’s needs, that opens the doors for many more categories than folks often think of. 

 

The 14 categories of dog enrichment

These categories can be applicable to many species (in fact, we actually collated these from information about zoo enrichment and didn’t create them ourselves), but since we wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World let’s stick to canines for this post! Since there are a lot of categories, I’ll provide a brief definition, example, and idea for each (usually of something I do with my own dog). Next week we’ll get more into how to figure out which category(ies) you should focus on with your pet. 

 

Health/Veterinary

This one’s pretty straightforward; we’re talking about physical well-being. I think of this category as anything you would take your dog to the vet for. This can include things like pain management, disease prevention, and treating diseases and injuries. I want to stress that preventative care is just as important as care for diseases and injuries. I’ve talked about our foray into canine massage therapy as a form of pain management and prevention for my senior pup, Oso, and I think it’s a great idea for any pet who is okay with being touched all over. Here’s a post with him and his newest favorite person:

 

Hygiene

This one is obviously another physical well-being category, and I think about this one as anything a groomer would do. This can include cleaning ears, brushing fur, and brushing teeth. I’ve seen some folks put nail trims in this category and others put nail trims in the Health/Veterinary category. I don’t mind either way as long as they’re on your radar in some fashion! Grooming wipes are one of my favorite, go-to, easy hygiene recommendations. 

 

Diet/Nutrition

Another straightforward category that we humans are all too familiar with! Most folks think only about meals for this category, but I also add in treats and edible chewies here, too. That’s why treat preference tests are one of my favorite activities in this category. Check out how I do those below. 

 

Physical Exercise

This is a category that many folks think of when they think of “canine enrichment”. I think it’s great that it’s on a lot of people’s radars already! There are so many examples that can go into this category, but some of my favorites are fetch, tug, flirt pole, hikes, weight pulling, and running. Oso and I are currently working on strength-building and purposeful movement as part of this category so he maintains his muscle mass as he ages. The nice thing about that means we get to work on physical exercise inside the house which is a win-win depending on the weather!

Sensory Stimulation

The category is referring to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. While we can certainly have a pet who is understimulated in regards to their senses, oftentimes I found many who are overstimulated. There are too many sights or sounds or smells, etc. An example of this is a dog who is afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks. They would be much happier with a quieter environment at that moment! To help meet that dog’s needs, we may do something like sound masking where we play sounds or music to help drown out the offending booms. Enrichment isn’t always about more stimulation; it can be about less, too!

 

Safety

Safety means physically being out of harm’s way, regardless of how you feel about a situation. We’ve seen plenty of pets who feel safe in unsafe situations! This category can include things like removing poisonous chemicals or medications from your pet’s reach, planting safe plants in the yard, and keeping your pet on a leash while in a busy area. For Oso, this means having stairs to our bed so that he can safely get down without injuring his joints. 

 

Security

Security means feeling like you are safe, regardless of whether or not you are. This distinction is often the culprit behind many new pet parents telling me, “I don’t know why they’re afraid of me, I’ve never hurt them!” Safety and security are different. This category can include setting up safe spaces and working through fears at your pet’s pace. Oso has several safe spaces in our house and is always able to access them when he needs to. 

Species-Typical Behaviors

This is just as it sounds: behaviors that a particular species performs. Dogs dig, chew, bark, shred, and destroy. Cats scratch, meow, purr, groom, and hunt. Birds preen, shred, vocalize, and nest. Often these are the behaviors that we’re not too enamored with from our pets; we are a different species with different species-typical behaviors, after all! But just because we don’t appreciate these behaviors doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow them to perform them. It just means having an appropriate outlet to do so. For example, Oso loves destroying things. That does not mean he’s allowed to destroy the furniture. It means that we have DIY destructible items (made out of literal garbage) that he can shred to his heart’s content. More information on that in this blog post about DIY destructible enrichment items. 

 

Foraging

Foraging means searching for and finding food. This is a species-typical behavior, but it’s one that all species perform! If you think about animals in the wild, much of their day is devoted to foraging. Our households are set up very differently than the wild which means we need to provide foraging opportunities for our pets. This can be things like find it, snuffle mats, and hiding food puzzles around the house. Oso is a big fan of the “find it” game which I outline in this video. 

 

Social Interaction

Dogs are social animals (which is not true for all species). That does not mean, however, that there are rigid rules about which species they are social with. I’ve met plenty of dogs who care a lot more about humans than their own species and I’ve met plenty of dogs who don’t care at all about humans and love hanging out with other dogs. So while many folks only think about dog-dog interactions in this category, like playgroups and doggy daycare, hanging out and playing with their humans also fits this bill! Some dogs are not huge fans of other dogs, and that’s perfectly fine! You can get plenty of snuggle time in, instead. 

 

Mental Exercise

Here’s another category that many people think of when they think, “dog enrichment activities”. Again, I’m glad to see this coming to the forefront! Mental exercise can include training, food puzzles, and even foraging (a two-for-one!) I love trick training for this because there are so many options and it’s just more fun for everyone in my experience. Oso helps demo some activities for my clients, which I don’t count as mental exercise for him. They’re usually things he knows how to do very well and don’t require a lot of thought. However, when it’s just the two of us we work on new training activities and I can tell that that is more tiring! Here’s a cute Halloween trick we’ve been working on. 

 

Independence

Independence refers to being able to feel comfortable on your own and also being able to make decisions on your own or not having to rely on others for everything. Obviously our pets can’t be 100% independent because our human world is designed for opposable thumbs and money, of which they have neither. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help them gain more independence! Being comfortable with exploring the environment, being comfortable with being left alone, and gaining life skills are all ways that we can foster independence. We’ve done all of this with Oso, but I see it so plainly when he’s exploring the backyard. He’s confident, comfortable, and making his own decisions and problem-solving. I love watching him out there! 

 

Environment

This is a big category that involves a whole bunch of things: living in a city vs. rural area, who they live with, temperature, and so much more. There’s often overlap with the Sensory Stimulation category, and that’s okay. We talk about enrichment categories as discrete units because that’s how human brains work, but the real world isn’t so black and white. It’s more like guidelines.

When we were buying a house, we had Oso’s environmental needs in mind. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we chose a dog whose environmental needs closely match our own. I need green and space to hang out and that’s also what he enjoys. We need a relatively quiet area and so does he. That might be an extreme example that we were able to do because we adopted Oso knowing that we were buying a house in the next few years, but there are certainly ways that you can set up your environment without moving or visiting places that work for your pet! Sniff spots can be a great option for folks who don’t have an off-leash area for their dogs. 

 

Calming

This category is one that much of the literature nestled within the Environment category and Emily and I chose to pull it out to highlight its importance for pet owners. Again, we often see overstimulated animals, and wanted to emphasize that rest and relaxation are just as important as mental and physical exercise! This can include safe spaces, relaxation protocols, massages, and anything else that induces a calm, relaxed state. We talk about that more in this podcast episode. For Oso, he uses shredding and chewing as calming activities (which are also species-typical activities, another two-for-one!) 

 

A note about agency

I can’t talk about the enrichment categories without mentioning agency: the ability to make decisions that result in desirable outcomes. Our pets need to willingly engage with activities for it to be considered enrichment (and we also need to see a change in behavior for it to truly count). Check out this blog post all about agency here and this one about when enrichment isn’t enriching here for more information on these topics. 

 

Now what?

  • If you’re brand new to enrichment as a form of meeting needs, chances are you’re a little overwhelmed! Take the next few weeks to just focus on one category at a time and identify what you already are doing to help meet your pet’s needs in that category. You’re likely doing more enrichment than you realize! If you’ve been at this for a while do a quick scan to see if you need to update any information about your pet’s needs.
  • As you go through, chances are that you’ll find a category that you think has some room for improvement (or maybe multiple categories). Choose one that you’d like to focus on and identify one activity to try first. Being systematic about this makes it more sustainable. 
  • Incorporate that activity into your pet’s plan for a couple of weeks and see if it helps to improve their behavior or gets you closer to your goals! For example, Oso jumps up on the couch better after his massage appointments and that’s getting us closer to our goals of maintaining his mobility as he ages. If an activity is making anything work, obviously discontinue immediately. 
  • If you’re looking for more about how to do this with your pet, check out our Canine Enrichment for the Real World book for theory and activity ideas and our Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook for the nuts and bolts of how-to. Professionals: we have a course that teaches you how to implement this with your clients, too! You can find more information about our Enrichment Master Class here. 
  • We have plenty of free enrichment information over on our Instagram and Facebook @petharmonytraining. Follow us for more!

Happy training!

Allie

Playing the “Do You Wanna…” Game

Last month in the blog What About Agency in Training, we focused on increasing agency within training sessions, and mentioned that this month we were going talk about ways to help your pet communicate what they want or need. 

Our pets are communicating with us all the time. Through their body language, their behavior, through the ways that they interact with the world. Taking some time to simply observe what they do throughout the day, the way that they interact with things, and how they interact with you can give you a great insight into what they need and how they ask. 

 

For example, I know that my dogs need the opportunity to destroy things. 

How do I know this? 

Left to their own devices, they destroy things. 

The shreds of cardboard and toy carcasses scattered throughout the house tell me that is something that they want or need. 

 

 

I know that Laika wants to play fetch. 

How do I know this? 

She’s shoved the ball in my hand since she was 8 weeks old, and when I toss the ball, she continues to bring it back.

But sometimes, as she approaches me with her freshly retrieved ball, and I extend my hand for her to put the ball in, she’ll turn her head and push her should into it instead. 

When she does this, she’s asking for scratches. 

 

And Griffey needs and wants to play tug. 

How do I know this? 

From the day we brought him home, tug has been an activity that leads to a much more restful pup. Through consistent and predictable tug games, he can now place the tug toy in my hand to continue the game. 

 

 

Turn away and chew on it to help himself regulate.

 

 

Or run away and lie down when he’s finished with the activity. 

 

But sometimes, we aren’t sure what our pets want or need. When we go through the basic checklist, food, water, temperature, and attention, it just doesn’t appease the gremlins.

So, we play the “Do you wanna….” game. Because even though both of the humans are in professional animal care, sometimes even we are stumped. And I do think that it is important to let your pet ask for what they want or need sometimes. By letting them communicate with us, we are giving them control over their outcomes, and agency in getting their needs met. 

 

What does the “Do you wanna…” game look like?

Great question, I’d love to tell you.

We start each sentence with “Do you wanna…” and end it with something that we’ve already taught them. This can be an activity or an object, like “play” or “broccoli”. 

Here’s an example with Laika: 

 

“Do you wanna get your ball?” → sit = nope 

“Do you wanna come here?” → stare = nope 

“Do you wanna treat?” → stare that says “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” = nope 

“Do you wanna go outside?” → stare that chills your soul = nope 

“Do you wanna go downstairs?” – stretch in a play bow, tail wag = yes! 

We can go through the list of things we’ve taught them through our lives together, and when we get to the thing, they give us a wholehearted “YESSSSS!”

 

But my dog doesn’t know those things

Ours didn’t either! We always start by pairing the activity or object with the word we are going to use. 

That means when we teach our dogs something new for their “do you wanna…” game, we start by consistently and predictably pairing the word we are going to use, with the activity or object to follow. 

For example: 

“Go outside” → open door 

“Treat” → get and give treat 

“Downstairs” → go downstairs 

“Wubba” → offer wubba 

“Walk” → get leash

“Broccoli” → give broccoli 

“Brussel sprout” → give brussel sprout 

The options are endless! 

Be consistent (the word always means the same thing), and predictable (create a routine around each activity), and soon, you’ll be able to ask your pets “do you wanna… go outside?” 

If they say “no, thank you” continue down your list. If they say “yes, please” then outside you go! 

 

Now what? 

  • Pick 2 things to teach your pet and start teaching them THIS sound or gesture means THIS activity or object. Remember, 1 name, 1 meaning! 
  • Once you’ve taught them that THIS sound or gesture means THIS activity or object start playing the “Do you wanna…” game. If they say yes, then do the thing, if they say no, then move on! Keep in mind, the “no” is as important in this game as the “yes”. You aren’t trying to make every answer a “yes”!
  • Make sure to follow us on Facebook @Petharmonytraining and Instagram @petharmony training for more tips on finding harmony with your pet! 

Happy training,

Ellen

What About Agency in Training?

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, let’s start with what agency is. 

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

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

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

 

The difference between “yay” and “nay”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Okay, so what next?

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

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

You can fill in the blanks: 

My pet’s “yay!” looks like:

My pet’s “nay!” looks like: 

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

 

Provide multiple ways to get the desirable thing.

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

This could look like this: 

Training with me gets chicken 

Using this puzzle feeder set to the side gets chicken 

Going to your mat gets chicken 

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

 

Provide multiple desirable options. 

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

 

Listening to the “nay”. 

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

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

 

Now What? 

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

Happy training,

Ellen

Predictability, Choice, Control, Oh My!

 

Over the past few years, conversations in the animal training community about predictability, choice, control, and agency have become more common–which is a great thing! But these terms can be somewhat confusing, and if you’re new to these topics – especially concerning animal welfare – they may seem… you know… a little “why should I care about this?”

So let’s talk more about what these terms mean, how they relate to each other, and why they matter to anyone who lives and/or works with animals.

 

Choice and Control

Let’s start with agency and work backward from there. “Agency” means that an individual has control over their own outcomes.

In order for a learner to have control over their outcomes, they must have choices so they can select their desired outcome. So, choice is a necessary component of control, but control doesn’t necessarily happen as a result of every choice. For example, a dog in a playgroup who doesn’t want to play with other dogs can choose to either sit in front of the gate, or cower in a corner, or any number of other avoidant behaviors–but if the people running the playgroup don’t honor the dog’s request to leave through the gate when they sit there, the dog’s choice had no impact on their outcome. So think of control like squares and choice like rectangles: in the same way that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all control involves being able to make choices, but not all choices result in having control.

Another point about choice: “do it or else” isn’t really a choice. In order for a choice to be a choice, there must be two or more desirable outcomes. If the only options are carrot or stick, no emotionally and behaviorally healthy individual is going to choose the stick, which means it’s not really a choice. So it’s our job as caregivers to arrange the environment so that our learners have multiple desirable options at their disposal.

 

Predictability

Predictability is more distantly related to choice and control, in that it isn’t necessarily a part of the definition of agency, but it does play an important role in why all this stuff matters. Fortunately for us, predictability doesn’t mean that we have to have our days scheduled down to the 15-minute segments and we never waiver from the plan. That wouldn’t be sustainable for most of us! What a relief that ain’t it!

Think of predictability as reliable if-then contingencies. 

  • If mom calls me and I come to her, then good things will happen.
  • If I go to my relaxation station, then I will be safe.
  • If Fluffy gets fed, then I’ll get fed next.
  • If I eat my food at my station, then it will not be stolen by anyone else in the house.

Predictability gives individuals a sense of trust and security.

 

Ok, but…

So that’s all super neat, but why does it matter?

Well, from the animal’s point of view, it matters because individuals who have a robust amount of agency in their lives are typically physically, emotionally, and behaviorally healthier than individuals who don’t. Similarly, individuals who have a lot of predictability and reliability in their environment and relationships are typically more secure and trusting than those who don’t. Agency and predictability are fundamental components of good welfare.

And from the human’s point of view, pets are expensive, messy, and live heartbreakingly short lives (for the most part). And most animal-related jobs are both physically and emotionally taxing, pay only a fraction of human-oriented parallel professions, and aren’t particularly respected in the rest of society. The overwhelming majority of people who are willing to deal with all of that do so because they passionately love animals.

And that means we don’t only want the animals in our care to be physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy so they can be their best selves, we also want to have the best possible relationship with them–a relationship built on trust.

 

But relinquishing control is hard!

It can be scary to replace control with trust. We want to control the animals in our care because we’re afraid of what they’ll choose if we let them make choices. We want to control them because we’ve been taught since birth that that’s what we’re supposed to do. We want to control them because, yeah, being in control feels good! But time and time again, when we teach our clients and students how to give the animals in their care abundant choice, control, and predictability they tell us the same thing:

“I already loved my pet and had a good relationship with them, but I had no idea how much better it could be. I didn’t think a relationship like this was possible.”

 

Now What?

What To Do When the Best Defense Is a Good Offense

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

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

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

 

The Best Defense is a Good Offense Mentality

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should I do if this is my pet?

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

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

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

Management

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

Flight

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Now what?

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

Happy training!

Allie

Sniffari or Sorry, Can’t Party?

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

 

Why are we taking our dogs on a walk? Physical exercise? Mental stimulation?  Because we think we should? Side note: I once read an article on heart.org about all these wild health benefits that dog owners have. . . it didn’t directly link the scientific studies that contributed to these claims, but it’s enough reasoning for me to feel good about sharing our lives with these furry family members.

This blog is about walks, but it starts a bit further down the walking journey.  Your pup already (read: usually) walks on a loose leash.  Your dog finds value in being by your side.  Your dog isn’t insisting on having a conversation with the neighbor dog crossing the street.  For more tips on working with leash reactivity, check out this blog by Allie.

This blog is specifically all about the sniffing aspect of walks.  You’ve read enough of our blogs (and maybe even Allie and Emily’s book Canine Enrichment For The Real World) to realize that allowing our pups to sniff is beneficial on so many levels; however, it can be one of the hardest competing reinforcers when working on walking.  One of the longest conversations I have with families who are working on loose leash walking is sparked by the question: “What is the point of your walk?”  Once we unpack the answer for that, it makes training (and expectations) a whole lot clearer.

My family is a walking family.  We’ll take two-a-day, maybe more.  It’s our favorite way to exercise our dog because we enjoy getting out of the house, and Opie took to the activity with very little reactivity (but a lot of pulling for the first year). Once we decreased the pulling, there was just one more thing that left me more frustrated by the end of the walk than when we started.  The incessant sniffing.  And pausing.  And more sniffing.  And shoving his nose into the dirt as he repeatedly clears his airways.  We like to think that before we got him, Opie was this heroic Search and Rescue dog and he’s just reliving his glory days on the force.  That works with calming me down sometimes, but certainly not always.  I remember one midwestern winter walk when I broke down in tears because I was so cold and tired and my fingers hurt and I didn’t feel like waiting for his sniffing to stop. I honestly screamed to the heavens “come onnnnn whyyyyyy.”  It wasn’t my finest moment, but we’ve moved on.

So something needed to change.  I needed to reflect on why we were going on walks, what benefits I wanted Opie to experience, and why a walk suited us better than other exercise.  After a bit of reflection, I realized that we can come to a happy medium with Opie’s sniffing desires.  I want Opie to get as much sniffing as he can, but I needed a cue to let him know that we need to get moving and wonderful things still await us ahead. I trained a countdown cue that I now use when he’s starting to sniff too long for my schedule.
Before going on a walk with Opie, I find I get the most enjoyment out of the walk when I know what my expectations are.  I’ll do a quick check on how I’m feeling, what Opie’s day has been/will be like, and I set out knowing if today is going to be a “sniff to your heart’s content” or an “andiamo regazzi, we gotta get a move on.”  This way, before we even close the garage door, I’m prepared for the training that needs to happen and can communicate with my pup accordingly.

There are so many types of walks, some may be for exercise, some for relaxation, some for mental stimulation, and some just to… complete a bodily transaction.  The type of walk may change based on the path you take through the neighborhood that day, the people/creatures that are out, the time of day, the time you have, the weather, etc.

Now, while you are the one who typically gets to decide what type of walk it will be, remember, most of the time, these walks are for our dogs.  The walks should always be something that completes their stress cycle, not something that gets them more worked up.  It should be something that satisfies their needs, not something that we force them into.  It should be something that allows them to do doggy things like sniff and explore. In any case, before you head out, make sure you get in the right mindset about if the walk is going to be a sniffari, or a sorry-can’t-party.

Now what?

  • Reevaluate what you want your walks to look like before you go for each walk.
  • Note the ways we communicate to our pups if they can go on a Sniffari (sniff to your heart’s content) or if time is tight and it has to be a Sorry, Can’t Party (gotta keep it moving).
  • Ask yourself– Why are we going on walks?  What benefits does my dog get out of the walk? How can we reinforce our pups for choosing to move forward when we need to get moving instead of sniffing that tapestry of scents?

You’re doing great!
Corinne

All About the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

If you’ve been following us, you know that enrichment is our jam. We wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World, have enrichment courses, and imbue it into everything that we do at Pet Harmony.

And, just so we’re on the same page, the way I’m defining enrichment is:

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

That’s a mouthful, so we often just say that enrichment means meeting all of an individual’s needs.

One of the facets of enrichment that we’ve been talking about a lot is our Enrichment Framework. This framework is how we systematically meet individuals’ needs to affect behavior change. And while we originally intended the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework to be a way for us to better communicate with other professionals how we do this, it can be applicable to the everyday pet parent as well! 

 

Let’s dive in to see how this framework works and how you can use it with your pet.

 

The Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

Enrichment frameworks are nothing new. They help animal caregivers be more strategic with the limited resources they have and that makes an enrichment plan more sustainable in the long run. Our framework is a modified version of one called the SPIDER Protocol that many zoos use. Our goal was to make something more friendly for the average pet household. Here are the steps we came up with:

  1. List desirable and undesirable behaviors. We need to know where we are and where we want to be to make sure we’re on the right path! This list includes current undesirable behaviors that your pet is exhibiting and current and future desirable behaviors. 
  2. Are needs being met? In our book, we outline 14 categories of enrichment needs, from health and veterinary care to mental exercise to foraging to calming. This step is also about surveying where we currently are.
  3. Are agency needs being met? Agency means having the ability to make choices that result in desired outcomes. All individuals need to have some control over their lives, and that includes our pets! This step is the final one in surveying where we are by taking stock of how much agency the pet has within each of the 14 enrichment categories. 
  4. Narrow down your options. Now that we have an idea of where we are and where we want to be, we will have an idea of what categories we want to improve in to help us get there. For example, if we have a dog bouncing off the walls in the evening we can look into physical and mental exercise options to see if that affects that particular behavior. While there are a ton of options and ideas out there, not everyone is going to be right for you, your pet, and your household. We need to narrow it down to what’s possible for this particular scenario.
  5. Prioritize activities. Some options will be simple and some will be more time-consuming. Prioritize activities that give you a lot of bang for your buck by choosing simple, easy-to-implement activities that address multiple needs.
  6. Develop a plan of action. This is the who, what, when, where, and for how long. Planning these details ahead of time helps you more easily enact the plan without letting things fall through the cracks.
  7. Implement and document. Finally, we’re ready to do the things! But if we’re going to be as strategic (and therefore sustainable) as possible, we want to be objectively observing and perhaps even documenting the results to make sure that we’re on the right track. More about that in Emily’s blog post: When Enrichment Isn’t Enriching
  8. Reassess, readdress, and do it again. Needs don’t just go away after being met one time. It’d be amazing if we could sleep once and never sleep again! Alas, the world doesn’t work that way. We will always need to reassess, readdress, and do this framework over again to address any changes- desirable or undesirable- that we see in our pets.

 

Um. This seems like a lot of work. 

Remember how I said that we originally created this for professionals? That means that this framework is more involved because we as professionals need it to be this in-depth. And, realistically, the Pet Harmony team typically does the above steps in their head when working with a client so it can be a lot less work than it seems. 

So let’s break this down into something salient for the everyday pet parent…

 

What this looks like for the pet parent

What this looks like is going to depend on whether or not you’re working with a consultant who uses this or a similar framework. For example, if you’re working with a Pet Harmony consultant you don’t have to worry about any of this. They’ll bake it all into your behavior modification plan for you! 

If you’re DIYing this (no shame in that!), then here’s what it can look like:

  • Learn more about the different species-specific needs your pet has. I, of course, suggest our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, but there are other resources out there, too!
  • List desirable and undesirable behaviors. We still need to know where we are and where we’re going. 
  • Of those undesirable behaviors, which are typical of the species? Dogs bark, dig, chew, and forage for food. Cats scratch. Parrots shred. If the undesirable behavior is a normal species-typical behavior, then search for alternatives that allow them to perform it in a more appropriate way. Or, are there skills that they could learn in a particular category that would help? For example, most people add extra physical exercise for dogs who have trouble settling when a lot of time they need to learn the skill of relaxing instead. If the undesirable behavior involves fear, aggression, and/or anxiety we will always recommend working with a qualified behavior professional. 
  • Experiment with one new activity at a time and observe your pet’s behavior during and after the exercise. Is the activity actually having the intended effect? If yes, fantastic! If no, tweak the details like who, what, when, where, and for how long to see if it works better that way. 
  • Go back to your list of desirable and undesirable behaviors to see how you’re doing. Do you need to do some more experimenting? If yes, do this process again. If you achieved your goals, celebrate and know that you’ll have to do this again for changes in your pet’s age, health, and environment. 

That seems a lot more reasonable as a pet parent, huh?

 

Now what?

  • If you’re interested in all things enrichment, make sure to join us in our companion Facebook group, and 
  • If you are a professional looking to incorporate an enrichment framework into your consulting, our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class is the complete A-Z course for force-free behavior consultants, from “how the heck do I implement this” to “how did I ever live without this?”

 

“That’s Not Scary!”

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

We don’t get to choose what a learner thinks is scary

My dog Maya is friendly, generally. She wants to meet other dogs, but she doesn’t always want to play and isn’t a good match for big groups. She will correct other dogs when she finds their behavior annoying and isn’t always quick to forgive, which is why she does best in a small group, where someone can monitor and help her. I would label her as dog-tolerant most days, and occasionally dog-selective when she’s tired or stressed. (To read up more about dog sociability, check out Allie’s blog about it.)

I was once walking her around my apartment complex. I had her on-leash, because THOSE ARE THE RULES, when she noticed a bunch of other dogs running around off-leash. I knew they would be there, so I had her on a long line, to prevent her from feeling trapped if a dog came up to see her. Several of the dogs came over to greet her, all play-bows and curved bodies. Maya reciprocated, whining with excitement. Then a mini-Aussie went to sniff her bum, and Maya flipped around excitedly to sniff the dog back. The mini-Aussie (let’s call her “Sadie”), was startled and began to trot away from Maya. Her head was down, nubby tail tucked, ears back, and the whites of her eyes showing. On top of that, she was actively avoiding Maya. I called Maya back, which she was too excited to respond to, so I used the leash to prevent her from continuing to chase the frightened dog.

“Oh, let her,” her mom said, referring to Maya’s rude greeting, “My dog needs to get used to it.”

“Maya can be a bit of a bully to shyer dogs, though, and I don’t want to encourage her.” I said, feeling sad for the little Aussie. “Plus, if I let Maya keep bothering Sadie, she can become more fearful, and feel like she needs to correct Maya, who may not take it well since she is on leash.”

“But I want her to play with other dogs,” she said.

What Sadie’s mom wanted was valid– It’s fun to have a friendly dog who likes being around other dogs and who you can take everywhere, but most dogs just aren’t that way.

By telling people her dog needed to just “get over it,” she was likely exposing her dog to lots and lots of situations in which she didn’t feel comfortable, and learning that people and other dogs don’t back off when she shows them how she feels. 

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone say something like that about their fearful or shy dog, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it sticks with me because it was SO obvious that her dog was afraid, and the answer was that she would just “get over it,” which is so, so, hurtful, and can often lead to other issues.

 

So, what’s your point?

My focus today is on fear in animals in general. Even if something is normal to us, even if something is COMPLETELY harmless, we cannot ignore it if our pet finds it absolutely horrifying. Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. Unless we essentially validate their fear, back off, and help them slowly get used to the “scary thing,” our animal is most likely going to continue to fear that thing. When fear isn’t properly addressed, it can lead to learned helplessness, reactivity, and even aggression.

Time after time, I see videos of animals on the internet, where people show off what their pet is seemingly illogically terrified of, by laughing as they panic about it over and over again. I’ll admit that I have sometimes laughed at these videos. It is humorous, from a human perspective, to see a cat lose its mind and panic after it turns around to see a cucumber placed behind it. But what I do not find amusing is that everyone else wants to  do the same thing to their cats. Scaring animals isn’t funny. Cats and small dogs are seen as unpredictable jerks because of people forcing them into uncomfortable situations, ignoring their stress signals, and attempting to FORCE them to see that what they find terrifying is anything but.

Scarier to me is when well-meaning trainers dismiss an animal’s fear. A puppy is cowering, snapping, and biting at other puppies in a playgroup. “It’s okay, he’ll get over it.” A dog is sent to daycare to overcome its fear of other dogs and absolutely REFUSES to go in the kennel, so it is forced in. (This case is especially maddening for me because that dog is less likely to make progress on its fear of other dogs if she is stressed to be in the crate in the first place. See Trigger-stacking.) Or what about the dog who is forced to walk around Petco when it is obviously absolutely TERRIFIED of the tile floor? It’s true that all of these situations are actually safe. But the safety of the animal, as opposed to its perceived security, are different. An animal who is safe (ie, won’t be injured or endangered) but doesn’t feel secure (freedom from care, anxiety, or doubt) can develop behavior issues. See this post about Safety vs. security.

The point is, you do not get to choose what your pet thinks is scary.

Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. It seems like because we KNOW the thing isn’t really scary, that the animal is just being silly or stubborn.

It is our responsibility to take care of our pets. And making an animal do something repeatedly that it is uncomfortable with is likely to make things worse, rather than better. Remember that forcing an animal to interact with a scary thing is likely going to force them into fight/flight/freeze mode, so if you’re restraining your pet, and running away is not an option, you have essentially given your pet two options, FIGHT or FREEZE. No one wants to get attacked by their own pet(fight,) and forcing your animal into the freeze response can also lead to learned helplessness. So, is it really fine? Spoiler: no, it isn’t. 

 

So What Should I do about it?

As I said, it’s natural to laugh when your cat is terrified of a sock he didn’t see there the last time he ran by you. So go ahead and laugh it off, but PLEASE don’t try to duplicate the experience to get a video of it or to entertain houseguests. Instead, let him run away, and later, try to help him see that new things aren’t scary.

This is a time-lapse video I made of a counter-conditioning session I did with my dog and cat and our hand-held vacuum. Do you see how my cat slowly becomes more comfortable around the vacuum? Do you see how my dog starts to stay by it, only going away when I toss away a treat? Do you also see the moment Sylphrena (the cat) decides that it’s too much and wanders off? 

The vacuum is not going to physically hurt my pets, but they do not feel secure around it. It makes strange noises and sucks up hair and smells, which make them feel comfortable. So even though the vacuum is harmless, I can still work to help them feel secure.

So I set up learning experiences and help them feel better by pairing the scary thing with things they like (freeze-dried liver treats). But you can’t be doing this all the time. You need to give your learner a break, or you might witness the results of your trigger-stacking. (The more your animal is exposed to stressors in a short period of time, the more likely he is to over-react to any other stressors in his life).

You may also want to think about your own expectations. Sure, it’s great to have a confident dog or cat who isn’t afraid of random things or doesn’t try to bite when we force them into a kennel but remember to work smarter, not harder. So give your pet regular opportunities to interact with novel things in a pleasant, non-threatening way.  Proper use of counter-conditioning and desensitization may take a long while, but it’s less likely to result in negative fallout.  

Animals can be afraid of weird things, but often if we just take some time to help them, animals can learn to tolerate, and sometimes even enjoy things they were once fearful of, just like us. So be compassionate of your cat’s fear of the vacuum and your dog’s fear of the crate. It’s easier to have patience with their learning process if we do.

 

Now What?

Happy Training,

Amy

You Can Comfort Your Dog

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

 

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

Spoilers: Creatures Love Spoilers

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

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