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

 

This One is for the Littles

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

 

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

 

The Reason for This Post

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

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

 

It All Started When…

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

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

 

The Out of the Blue

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

 

Would You Do That to a St. Bernard?

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

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

 

Unlabeling Our Littles

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

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

 

Giving Our Littles Agency

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

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

 

Now What?

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

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

Happy training,

MaryKaye

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

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

 

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!

What Owning a Cat Teaches You About Agency

Why Cats?

I love cats. Cats are regal, majestic creatures. They defy the laws of science by filling any container they curl up into. They purr, and rub on you, and curl up on your lap to snuggle. I have had cats from the time I was small. I cannot remember meeting a cat I didn’t like, though I’m sure I have. 

I once saw a meme that made me laugh out loud. It said:
“What if the Internet is filled with cats because dog people go outside?”


So, if you’re here on our website, then you are obviously a cat person. 

 

While that may not be true, it is true that if you follow Pet Harmony, you probably care a lot about your pet. You might have a pet whose behavior puzzles you. You may feel frustrated by the behaviors your animal is displaying. I promise to relate my experience with cats to dogs- and to other species, as well.

Cats get a bad reputation. I have heard many people describe cats as jerks. They’re not loyal like dogs. They make their own decisions. They never consider what you need. They’re independent, and they don’t really need us. Cats are lazy and prefer humans to dote on them like the feline gods they are!           

After getting my first two dogs, and becoming a dog trainer, I’ve met many people and dogs. Often, people are happy with their dogs, only wanting to prevent future problems with a new dog. Just as often, however, I’ve run into people who are frustrated with their dog’s behaviors. Since I have been a dog trainer for quite a few years now, I’ve noticed a trend among people unhappy with their dogs. They tell me:

“He never listens to me.”

“She only minds when she wants to.”

“He won’t stop getting on the counter!”

“She nips at me when I try to make her do things.”

I understand those feelings. I know it is frustrating to think you got a man’s best friend, just to find they won’t listen to you, destroy your house, steal your food, or even hurt you. Those feelings are totally and completely valid. When I hear these things, what I understand from it is basically this:

Their dog is acting like a cat. Well, a stereotypical one, anyhow.

 

Cats Are a Lesson in Consent. (And Agency)

What I mean when I say that their dog is acting like a cat is really that their dog has opinions. Their dog has things they like and things they dislike. Their dog likes some things better than listening, especially if they don’t understand why they should listen. Dogs are very social creatures. They descend from creatures that worked together to bring down large prey. Wild felines, however, are usually pretty solitary. What that means is though both wild canids and wild felines are individuals with wants and needs, our concept of “dog-ness” includes a certain level of “clinginess” and working for its “master” (which is a strange use of words we can get into another time). We expect dogs to appease us. However, our society’s concept of “cat-ness” is usually aloof and independent.

What a cat really needs, as well as any pet, is agency and consent. Agency is the ability to have control over certain outcomes in your life. This can usually come in the form of choices given to an individual. Consent is the ability to assent to or approve of something, especially something that is happening to oneself. Each of these creates a sense of freedom in the animal. Trapped animals lash out, bite, and scratch. An animal that is given agency will feel more secure, and less likely to lash out. 

Why Agency? Check out Allie’s excellent post about it, here, or read about it in Emily and Allie’s book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World.

How do I give my pet a sense of Agency?

Give them choices. That doesn’t mean that you open every door and window and take out any safety measure for your pet. It means you offer them choices that don’t endanger your pet or anyone in your home. If your cat (or dog) doesn’t like to be out when new people are over, make them a safe place to hide away from people until they leave. They may surprise you and come to observe the new person. Don’t pick them up and force them to interact. This is removing their ability to control the situation and thus limiting their choices. If you let them choose when, how, and if they want to interact, don’t be surprised if you find they are more willing to come out in the future. Conversely, if you force them to interact with someone, they may become more reclusive in the future.

When we brought home my cat, Sylphrena, she was 6 months old. My husband and daughter had limited experiences with cats, and were upset that she didn’t want to be held by them, but would (often) allow me to hold her. At first, I wasn’t sure why. After watching the way they held her, I realized why. My daughter and husband would often hold her tighter if she struggled to get away. This would result in a teenage kitty tantrum: scratches, bites, and occasionally growling. Obviously, she didn’t like it, but they couldn’t understand why she would let me hold her.

When an animal allows me to pick them up, I give them the choice to leave, by pulling my hands away, while still on level with the animal. If the animal runs away, so be it. Should they choose to stay, I try petting them and see if they settle down to snuggle. Then I can put my arms back around them. If they start to struggle again, I let them go. In this circumstance, I am both giving my pet choices, and allowing them to consent to being held (or not).

Allowing Sylphrena to feel safe by giving her the choice to leave really built her relationship with me. She knew I would let her go if she wanted, and knew she had agency if I tried to hold her. She wasn’t trapped.

 I taught my family how to help her feel secure and safe by allowing her to make the choice whether she wanted to stay (or not), and over time she has become more trusting of my husband and daughter.

 

There are little things you can do every day to give your pet agency and let them consent:

  • Petting consent tests (for any species)
  • Making different textures and types of chews and toys available (for many animals)
  • Sensory areas with pet-safe plants and textures your pet loves. (I will likely be making another blog specifically about this after I make one for my pets!)
  • Allowing your pet the choice to move away from other people or animals (do not force them to say hello!)
  • Making different textures available to scratch on for kitties
  • Having multiple litter boxes available in different areas for your cat (you can even provide different litter options to see what they prefer)

Many times, if we just look at what our pet is telling us with their body language, we can see what they really need or want– and if we can safely provide them with the agency to do that thing, we can improve their quality of life– and, in most cases, our own as well. Because a content and healthy creature doesn’t feel the need to lash out.

 

Now What?

  • Learn more about your pet’s species-specific body language, so you can tell if they like something or not.
  • Find one way to allow your pet more agency in their life
  • Research and prepare your home with appropriate furniture or enclosure requirements unique to your pet 
  • If you’re not sure where to start, try our free Facebook group, Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community.
  • If you now want to own a kitty, or are just looking for another, check out this article on how to prepare your home for a new kitty!

Here’s an excerpt:

Bringing home a cat is an exciting time for the family. They provide laughter, companionship, and can even teach little ones about responsibility. However, preparing your home for a kitty can bring about some uncertainties and renovations to ensure your cat is well taken care of and comfortable in your home.

To help you get started, Redfin reached out to 14 cat experts, from Seattle, WA to Ottawa, ON, including us. Here is our best advice on how to prepare your home for a kitty. Check out How to Prepare Your Home for a Kitty: 14 Tips from the Pros.