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

Pain Doesn’t Always Look Like Pain

 

Think back to a time when you have been in pain. 

Now let’s get more specific: think back to a time when you have been in pain and you’ve tried not to show it. There are lots of reasons to not outwardly show that you’re in pain. Maybe you don’t trust that people around you will be empathetic if you show pain. Maybe you have coworkers who accuse you of faking it to get sympathy. Maybe you feel pressure to perform, and demonstrating pain might get in the way or disqualify you somehow. Maybe you’ve been taught that demonstrating pain is dramatic or weak or shameful. There are lots of reasons that we don’t want to let others know that we’re in pain.

One more thought exercise: think about a time when you develop a growing awareness that you’re in pain. Maybe you’ve been excited about something, and only as the adrenaline fades do you start to realize that something hurts. Or maybe it’s a weird, new, amorphous kind of pain that doesn’t feel familiar and isn’t something you can easily identify. You don’t feel good, but you can’t really articulate what exactly doesn’t feel good–or even what it feels like, for that matter.

Ok, so by now you’ve probably started to realize that pain is complicated. Pain isn’t always obvious–to ourselves or to others. And pain can look and feel like a lot of different things.

 

Non-humans aren’t humans…

Want an added layer of complexity? (Don’t say no! Hear me out!) Now let’s imagine how exponentially more complicated communicating and identifying pain can be across species. Up until now, this entire conversation has been happening between two humans. At least, that’s my assumption. (Feel free to let me know if you’re from another planet or dimension!)

We know that non-human animals experience pain, but we don’t know how they think about their pain. We can’t ask them about their perception of what pain means to them. What we do know is that pain is extremely complicated in all species, and it isn’t always as obvious as we’d like it to be.

This means that you’re not a bad pet owner if you missed recognizing a pain response. You aren’t neglecting your pet! This stuff is just hard sometimes.

 

…But we share a lot of commonalities

So why am I talking about pain in a blog about behavior? Let’s revisit those thought exercises about the times you’ve been in pain. Does being in pain change your behavior? Do you avoid activities you’d otherwise enjoy? Are you quieter? Louder? Crankier? More anxious? Less patient? More quick to judge or criticize or snap at someone? Less interested in being touched?

Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

In many cases, when we see a change in behavior – especially (though not always) when that change is sudden and has no obvious explanation – it indicates that pain is the culprit. And you simply cannot out-train pain. So, in those situations, if we want to change the behavior, we have to identify and treat (or at least manage) the pain.

We cannot expect our pets to handle their pain more gracefully than we handle ours.

 

Subtle signs of pain

Here’s the tricky part: how can we identify pain in our pets when it isn’t obvious? It doesn’t always look like limping or crying. This is the part that can be super tricky, but here are some of the common signs that an animal might be experiencing pain:

Loss of appetite

If your otherwise snackalicious pet has suddenly decided to turn up their nose at food, pain might be the culprit. We don’t always want to eat a lot when we’re hurting, either.

Twitching skin

If you’ve ever watched horses’ skin twitch when a fly lands on them, you know what I’m talking about here. If your pet’s skin starts twitching but there aren’t any flies present, that might be a pain response.

Trembling muscles

It’s totally normal for muscles to tremble after long physical exertion or when an animal is cold or scared, but if their muscles are trembling even when they’re at rest, it could be a sign of pain.

Sudden orientation towards a body part

If your pet suddenly swings their head around and stares at a specific body part, they might be experiencing an acute, sharp pain in that part of their body.

Sudden orientation towards your hand when you touch them

If your pet is mostly fine when you touch them, but suddenly orients towards your hand when you touch a specific part of their body, that might be an ouchie spot for them. This is especially true if they growl, snap, or bite.

Compulsively licking a body part

When I use the word “compulsive” here, I mean “to the point of self-harm.” There are lots of animals who like to lick themselves for long periods as a part of their self-soothing wind-down, and that’s totally ok! But if they’re licking so much that they’re losing hair in that area or even starting to damage their skin, that might be a sign of pain. It’s not always skin allergies, either! For example, licking their paws can be a sign of compressed vertebrae damaging nerves and causing root signature neuropathies. Or licking their belly can be a sign of some kind of GI distress.

Reduced range of motion

If your pet won’t raise their head above their shoulders, stop themselves before completing a full stretch, seem to walk and trot just fine but won’t break into a full run anymore, or otherwise don’t move their body to its fullest extent anymore–you guessed it, it could be pain.

And of course, as mentioned earlier, any sudden, inexplicable behavior change – especially an increase in avoidance and/or irritability – can in itself be an indication of pain.

 

So what do we do about it?

If you see any of these signals in your pet, the first step is to see your veterinarian. Be as specific as possible when describing what you’re seeing. Vets aren’t mind-readers, and there are a mountain of possibilities to sift through. So if you just say, “I think my pet is in pain,” that doesn’t give them a whole lot to go on. They can do a basic exam, but not a whole lot more than that. Telling them exactly what you’re seeing and when you’re seeing it lets them know what exactly they should be examining, and can help them to figure out what diagnostics to run.

 

Circling back is an option!

If your vet can’t find anything wrong, you can always get a second opinion, but also take care not to get too focused on the pain angle. We often see the pendulum swing from “Unaware That Pain Is A Possibility” to “Fixated On Pain As The Explanation”. 

A good behavior consultant will work with you even if your vet hasn’t been able to identify a medical cause for your pet’s behavior issues. In some cases, it isn’t physical pain after all, but a behavioral issue that manifests as pain. In other cases, as we work through enrichment and skill-building and systematically address some of the behavior issues, we’re able to better identify the medical component later on, and come back to the vet with more helpful information.

The important thing is to start by ruling out medical issues to the best of your and your vet’s abilities first, and if nothing comes from that, we can do the best we can with the information and resources we have to address the behavior issues in front of us. The thing about both physical and behavioral health is that it can be a journey, and that’s ok.

 

Now what? 

  • If you suspect that your pet is experiencing some pain, make an appointment with your vet to assess your pet. 
  • If you aren’t sure how to talk to your vet about what you’re seeing, check out this blog that helps you to organize and verbalize your observations, The Intersection Between Health and Behavior
  • If you are seeing some undesirable behavior and you don’t suspect pain, we’d love to join you and your pet on your behavior modification journey. You can get started here

Happy training,

Emily

What If I Told You It’s Not Good, Bad, Or Ugly

 

We humans like our tidy little boxes, labels, and categorizations. It’s often the easiest and fastest route to help us make sense of a complex world in which we have to interpret information at a sometimes alarming rate. If we can make a quick assessment of something, many times it allows us to move on without too much deliberation. But oftentimes, when we are making quick assessments or categorizing things, an unfortunate side effect is that we also attach a judgment to what we are labeling or categorizing. From the human perspective, this probably makes a lot of sense. Afterall, we live in a world that teaches us from a very young age that certain types of behaviors are good or bad, naughty or nice, sweet or sassy. Even if very young humans can’t understand the meaning of the word morality, they certainly have morality drilled into them early on. 

 

Let’s define morality

The Oxford dictionary defines morality as “principles concerning the destination between right and wrong or good or bad behavior.” Merriam-Webster dictionary provides us with the following definition: “concerned with or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior.” I think most people would agree that having a societal system that depends on people sharing a code of conduct is important to maintain order and safety for all people who share that society. In that sense, having an agreed upon code of morality can be a very good thing. But morality is definitely not a one size fits all kind of concept. Furthermore, using morality to categorize behavior can often cause more harm than good. 

 

What the heck does this have to do with our pets?

If you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you are here because you have some type of relationship with companion animals. And you might be wondering what any of this philosophical talk about morality has to do with being a pet parent. I would say a whole lot. Because humans are primed from a young age to be experts at placing moral values on behavior. And our pets, like all living animals, behave. All-day, every day, while they draw breath and just like us, they behave. Is your pet sleeping? Sleeping is a behavior. Is your pet eating? Eating is a behavior. Is your pet chewing? Chewing is a behavior. So is jumping, chasing, sitting, resting, barking, pooping, mating, digging, growling, and licking. You get the idea. The behaviors your pet exhibits are them acting on their environments. If your pet is resting peacefully, this behavior might be because they are satiated, tired, and/or feeling safe and secure. Very few people have problems with the behavior of resting peacefully. It’s different however when a pet exhibits behaviors that we do not find enchanting or things we categorize as “problem behaviors.” 

 

Why does it matter?

It matters because when we view behavior through the lens of morality, we sometimes stop there and don’t explore the where, whys, whats, and whens of behavior. If we think of a behavior as being either “good” or “bad” it can cause us to feel stuck and we may just look for quick ways to make the unwanted behavior stop. There is no curiosity in “good” or “bad.” There is mostly a judgment and that judgment is based on a human’s perspective of what “good” or “bad” consists of. Labels like “good” or “bad” don’t teach anything but they presume an awful lot. They presume that your pet, 1) has the capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong and 2)  if they do, they live by the same set of moral conduct that humans do. Those are both big suppositions and put an awful lot of pressure on our pets.  

 

It’s all just information

One of the laws of behavior is that all behavior has a function. The function of behavior can differ from one individual to another. I think the function of a behavior is so much more interesting when viewed as information. I think framing behavior as just information immediately provides us with the opportunity to look at behavior with a less negative lens and instead approach behaviors we would like to see more or less of as a puzzle to be solved as opposed to a problem to be judged. Judging can cause us to place blame whereas problem-solving helps us become more analytical and objective in our assessments. 

Can we strip down the behavior to simply observing it without interpretation? Can we simply watch what happens before the behavior occurs and what outcome the behavior has for the one performing it? Instead of saying my dog is “bad” for grabbing food on the counter, or “good” because she comes when I call, can we assess the behavior in terms of outcomes? Can we teach our pets to display more of the behaviors we would like to see and give them appropriate outlets to display behaviors that are typical for their species? Can we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn more about why the behavior is occurring in the first place? Asking questions, remaining curious and open, and observing without judgment are all skills that can be mastered. Giving yourself permission to view your pet’s behavior as neither “good” behavior or “bad” behavior can change not only the way you view your pet but can also change the way you interact with them as well. Being good stewards of our pet’s physical and emotional well-being starts with understanding, empathy, and the ability to remain curious about who they are as a species and why they behave the way they do. 

 

Now what?

Here are some suggestions on how you can practice being an observer of your pet’s behavior:

  • Keep a journal of your pet’s typical behavior on any given day
  • Pay attention not only to your pet’s behavior but also take note of anything that is occurring environmentally before, during, and after the behavior happens
  • Try to simply view your pet’s behavior as information without attaching a moral judgment or interpretation to the choices your pet is making 
  • Learn as much as you can about what species-typical behavior looks like for your pet’s species 
  • Learn how your pet communicates via their body language 
  • Contact a credentialed behavior consultant or trainer to help you gain knowledge and skills if you are feeling frustrated, uncertain, or stuck. Pet Harmony is ready to help you acquire the skills you need to help your relationship with the pets you share your life with! 

Happy training,

MaryKaye

Why I Stopped Asking My Dog to “Come”

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

 

We say we want to provide our dogs agency.  We say we want to give them options.  We say we want them to feel like they have a choice in the life they live.  So why do all the dog trainers and all the dog owners keep drilling away at recalls???  Why do we keep asking our dogs to come!??!?!?!

Because of safety (and probably many other very appropriate reasons as well).  

We can help manage situations, circumvent issues, and protect our pup if we can get that ever-so-sought-after “Rock Solid Recall.”  There are too many scenarios that may occur where it is in the best interest of our dogs, and of those around them, for the pups to run excitedly to our side when we say “come.”

How do we do it?  The age-old checklist

  • Prepare the environment for success
  • Reinforce/reward desired behaviors
  • Incrementally increase distractions, duration, distance, etc.

About a month ago I was filming some training sessions of myself with Opie and I noticed that he was not consistently coming to me when cued with “Opie, come!”.  Either something else in the environment was more rewarding (continuing to lay on the comfy couch, catching spare shreds of cheese dropping from my son’s hands, etc.), or I was making it too difficult for him (too far away, in a new environment, etc.).  Feeling the pressures of embarrassment from experiencing a failed recall while filming AND re-living it while watching my video, I reflected on this and I sadly realized that I don’t have a Rock Solid Recall.

 

Until I accidentally found out that I did.

Every time I said “Opie, Come!”, I wanted him to excitedly come by me; however, I wasn’t making it worth his while.  Some of the time, I did not reward him in proportion to the level of difficulty of actually coming.  Most of the time, I asked him to come when I really didn’t care if he did or didn’t come, I just wanted to give some lovin’–if he didn’t feel like it, I let it go because it wasn’t necessary and I don’t need to pet him if he doesn’t want the petting.

I wasn’t consistent with my expectations for his behavior after the cue, and I wasn’t consistent with my reinforcement of the cue “Opie, Come!”

But then, a glimmer of hope shone through my recall woes when I was assembling dinner.  I had a spare piece of fat that Opie just NEEDED to consume, so I said “Opie, do you want this?!” I heard his jingle jangle of tags tear down the hallway and he slid expectantly into home base.  Opie has a recall, it’s just not what I purposely trained.

I took a second to reflect on how I accidentally trained this.  To get the food, Opie needs to be next to me.  I consistently reinforce this by giving him what I have, why else would I say “do you want this?”  The value of the treat changes depending on what is on the chopping block, so I keep his interest piqued.  It’s the perfect combo to keep him excited and interested in moving his body close to mine.  I’ve started to proof this behavior so that I’m not only cuing it from the kitchen, and soon, I’ll be able to use it in the event I really need him to be by my side.

 

And as for “Come?” 

I still use it, it just makes too much sense in my human brain, but it’s not my recall word.  I now think of it more as an invitation for Opie to join me rather than a cue I can use for safety if I need it.

 

Now what?

  • Ask yourself, “Do I have a Rock Solid Recall?  Why is this important to me? Why would this be important to my dog?”  The answers will kick start your training plan.
  • Consider resetting your recall cue.  Start back with the basics to get a good reinforcement history going.  If you’re stuck, no worries, your friendly Pet Harmony Team is here to help.

Happy training,

Corinne

Want a Rock-Solid Come When Called?

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

One of the things we often have clients want to work on is having their dog come when called. It makes sense! There are going to be times when you need your dog to pay attention to you, when you may need to move away from some scary monster, or navigate around that awful smelling carcass on the beach. 

While a rock-solid come when called, or recall, can, and usually does, look effortless, behind that behavior is a vast history of practice. Like all things, it takes time, energy, effort, and consistency to get that lightning-fast return to you. 

And there are tons of games or exercises that you can do with your dog to help solidify this skill. I’ll link some of these exercises below. 

But first, I want to talk about one major mindset shift that has helped tons of pet parents go from feeling like their dog will never respond to building recall through their day-to-day life. 

 

Are you ready?

A recall isn’t about what you have right now. 

It’s about all the hundreds, thousands, or millions of times you’ve called your dog in the past. 

It’s about the history, the value, and the consequences of your dog coming to you. Recognizing, acknowledging, and shifting your mindset, can make a huge difference in building a solid recall each and every day. It’s not about concrete sessions, it’s about what coming to you predicts for your dog.

 

Think about something that always has your dog right by your side. 

Maybe the crinkling of a food bag. The sound of the cheese drawer pulling open. The sound of the door to the yard opening. The sound of their harness or leash being picked up. 

What happens when they hear or see that thing happening? How quickly do they come over? What does their body language look like? How reliably do they come over?

What happens once they get to you? Do they get a piece of treat? Do you give them access to something? Do you go for a ride or a walk? 

And from their perspective, is that a good or a bad thing? Looking at their body language, and observing their response will help you identify this! 

 

Now, think about the last 10 times you wanted your dog to come to you.

Why were you calling them over? Were they getting into something? Did you need them to come inside, so that you could start your zoom call? Were they chewing on something or digging in your garden? Was it just to say, “Hi!”? Was it to play a quick game of catch?

What happened once they came to you? Did you take something away? Did you close off access to the yard and/or their sunspot? Did you have to give them a bath? Did you get them a treat or a more appropriate toy to play with? Did you scratch them in their favorite spot?

When they came to you, from their perspective, was it a good thing or a bad thing? And this is a bit nuanced, we need to look at our dog’s body language to get an idea of how they feel about something. Does their body language tell you that they are STOKED about the thing, or were they bummed about the outcome? 

 

What does coming to you mean for your dog?

Take a moment and consider the number of times coming to you means delightful or wonderful things for your dog, and the number of times it’s somewhere between a bummer and terrible. 

If you’re taking stock and realizing that the scales are tipping toward bummer/terrible, that’s okay! Now that we know, we can do something about it! Let’s get your dog looking at you the way they look longingly at their treat container. 

 

Great, how do I do that?

  1. When your dog looks in your direction, comes over to you, asks for attention, otherwise images with you, make it worth their while! Give them access to their favorite things. Engaging with you isn’t the end of the fun, it’s the start of the fun! Maybe they come in from the backyard, you close the door and immediately take them outside to bask in the sun. Coming over to you means treats, toys, play, attention, scratches, whatever is your dog’s jam. 
  2. Avoid punishing them for coming when you ask. Don’t call them and follow that with something they dislike or hate. If your dog hates baths, don’t call them over and then put them in the tub. If your dog is loving their time outside, don’t call them in, shut the door and leave it at that. Trade them for their loss of access to the yard. In my house, they come inside, I shut the door, and they may get a tasty treat, a rousing playtime, scratches, or open blinds so there is sun access in the house too. 
  3. You can practice some recall games to help solidify that relationship. Here are some great resources to get you started: 
    1. Summit Dog Training’s Recall Youtube Playlist
    2. Kikopup’s “How to Train Your Dog to RELIABLY Come When Called” 
    3. Kathy Sdao’s Training a Reliable Recall Part 1 and Part 2

 

Remember…

A recall isn’t about what you have available right now.

It’s about all the hundreds, thousands, or millions of times you’ve called your dog in the past. 

It’s about the history, the value, and the consequences of your dog coming to you. When the wonderful things vastly outweigh the not-so-great things, the scales are tipped in your favor. Your dog will look forward to interacting with you, and love to come to see what is in store. 

 

Now What? 

  • Start tipping the scales in your favor! When your dog looks in your direction, comes over to you, asks for attention, otherwise images with you, make it worth their while! Get creative with this, it doesn’t always have to be treats. Think about things that your dog asks for, works for, or might even get a little annoying about. 
  • Look for times that your dog coming to you might not be great for them. Can you change some things up to make it better for your dog? Instead of coming always meaning you’re leaving the park, sometimes it means you’re just saying “Hi, friend!”, giving a treat, tossing a ball, or sending them back to continue playing! 
  • Practice daily! Build this exercise into your day-to-day life. 
  • If you’d like more help crafting a rock-solid come when called, let us know! Fostering relationships, building two-way communication, and helping families fall in love with their pet again is our jam! Email us at [email protected]!

 

4 Behavior Changes to Expect as the Weather Warms Up

 

A few Sundays ago it was one of the first nice, weekend days of the spring here in Illinois. And that meant that I had back-to-back clients who all of a sudden were having problems that they hadn’t had all winter. And, as you know, when I have the same conversation multiple times in a row I turn it into a blog post! 

 

Behavior Can Change with the Seasons

I’ve talked before about my arch-nemesis, Winter Oso, which is the name we give to Oso when he’s more annoying because he’s not getting as much exercise in the yard. And I know a lot of you have your own winter version of your pet. I certainly talk through this quite a bit with my IL clients!

But I haven’t talked much yet about behavior changes that happen when the weather starts warming up. Just like we see behavior changes when it gets cold, so too can we see changes when it gets warm. Let’s dive into a few of the most common behavior changes that we see when the weather warms up. 

 

Difficulty Recalling

Recalls are the fancy term that dog trainers use to describe “coming when called”. I see this manifest in a few different ways. This could look like a dog who is more distracted in the yard and that’s why they’re not coming to you when you call. But oftentimes I see it look a little more subtle, where they’re out there sunning themselves and enjoying the day and just don’t respond to you when you ask them to come inside. That’s exactly what was happening with my clients a few weeks ago. 

Let me be honest here, I can’t blame them too much. After months of dreary midwest winter, I also spend as much time as possible outside when the weather starts to warm. I definitely have that in common with these pups. And truthfully, this is a behavior change that isn’t necessarily a “problem” behavior depending on your set-up and schedule. I work from home and we have a fenced-in yard that is quite secure and safe so I can let Oso hang out outside for as long as he likes those days. 

Where the problem comes in is if you have a kiddo who wants to be outside and you don’t have a safe set-up or a schedule that allows for the dalliance. In that case, we should be figuring out common ground with our pup (which may likely include spending a bit more time out there when it works with your schedule) and making sure that coming inside is super fun. One of the common things that we do as humans that comes back to bite us is asking our pet to come inside so we can leave the house for work or errands. Coming inside stops the fun! And when coming inside stops the fun, your pet is going to be less likely to come inside. 

 

Chasing critters

Many folks with dogs who chase critters get a respite in the winter months. But springtime means a surge of critter activity and that means we usually see an increase in chasing critters. Again, this isn’t necessarily a “problem” behavior. Chasing critters is a normal, species-typical behavior for dogs (and cats, and other species). We should be allowing our pets to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. What that looks like for Oso is that he gets to chase critters to his heart’s content in the yard. 

What I’ve deemed as “inappropriate” for that behavior is screaming at critters while chasing (yes. It’s a scream, not a bark.) or trying to chase everything while on leash. Chasing critters as a whole isn’t a problem, but doing it in those particular ways is. That means that we didn’t work on him not chasing critters at all, we only worked on him not screaming when he does it and he has a cue when on-leash that tells him when he’s allowed to chase the critter. 

 

Leash reactivity

Speaking of screaming and leashes… this time of year is always when we get a surge of folks who want help with their dog’s leash reactivity (barking, lunging, growling on leash to other dogs, people, vehicles, or anything, really). There are more people and other dogs out and about in the neighborhood and that makes management for leash reactivity much more difficult in the warmer months than it is in winter. 

Many people know to anticipate this when the weather warms up, but I find that folks who brought home pups in the winter may not expect this behavior change because their dog wasn’t really in situations before that would cause them to react. It’s not that the behavior suddenly started; it’s that the environment changed. 

This is one that we do label as a maladaptive behavior, or a “behavior issue”, because it’s stressful for both you and your dog. No one is likely having fun at that moment. Early spring tends to be a great time of year to start working on your pup’s leash reactivity because there are more opportunities to practice than in winter, but not usually as many overwhelming scenarios as we see in late spring and summer when it’s consistently nice and school’s out. 

 

Window reactivity

This one is really just another manifestation of the above issue. Usually, when we see a dog with leash reactivity, they’re also reactive through the windows when they see someone or something passing by the house. Warmer months typically bring more people going by your house and that usually means an increase in reactivity. 

We saw a huge uptick in requests for help with this behavior when the pandemic started in March/April 2020. Everyone was out walking their dogs more frequently than before and that meant a lot more passers-by! Oso’s reactivity at the window had a bit of a relapse during this time, too, but thankfully we had years of working on this behavior under our belt so we were able to nip it in the bud pretty quickly. 

While this one is also labeled as a maladaptive behavior, it can sometimes be easier to manage depending on your setup and where your house is located. But if you’re wanting to work on leash reactivity, I highly recommend also paying attention to this behavior. Trigger stacking is a thing, after all. 

 

Now what?

  • Simply observe your pet as the weather changes (even folks in temperate climates that don’t have as drastic of temperature changes will have other weather changes!) Do you see any behavior or body language changes with the changing season?
  • If you do see behavior changes, ask yourself if it’s actually a problem. Feel free to use the above if you’re seeing one of the behaviors that I mentioned!
  • If the behavior isn’t a problem or just requires a small tweak to routines, fantastic! If the behavior is a problem, we’re happy to help. We see clients all over the world and can help with any behavior problem remotely. Click here to get started. 

Happy training!

Allie

Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror

I think one of the hardest parts of learning to read body language is the ability to see the wide array of signals present for varying degrees of a particular emotion. Oftentimes when I first meet with a new client I ask them to tell me if there’s anything else their pet is afraid of that they didn’t mention on their questionnaire. Usually, there’s a pause, and then some variation of:

“He doesn’t seem to like to like [insert scenario], but it’s not like his tail is tucked or anything.”

And that’s a great example that nervousness doesn’t look like terror. 

 

Degrees of Feelings

Now, we are going to avoid the entire topic of can our pets experience complex emotions like resentment and guilt and also the topic of how can we truly know the exact emotion another individual is feeling. Those are a whole can of worms requiring a lot more scientific study. For our purposes, I think we can all safely agree that our pets experience fear. 

There are many degrees and facets of fear, though. We can classify things like nervousness, anxiety, discomfort, and terror as fear. All are different degrees of the same emotion. And with those different degrees, we see different body language signals. 

 

Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror

I got the idea for this blog post a couple of months ago during a thunderstorm. Oso has come a long way when it comes to his sound sensitivities (though we still have some more work to do!) but that doesn’t mean he particularly enjoys thunderstorms. He just no longer shuts down during them. Now we see nervousness, instead of more intense fear. 

And it looks like this:

It’s subtle, right? The worried brow. Ears pulled slightly further back than normal. Stiffer body. Having to always be near us. Someone who didn’t know Oso and didn’t know his history would likely miss that this is nervous. A little bit of fear only merits a few, smaller stress signals in this case.

Compare that to when he’s relaxed:

Sprawled, loose body. Relaxed face and mouth. Ears normal for that position. Tail wherever it lands. Eyes would have been closed if I hadn’t woken him up. Hasn’t seen us for hours. 

When they’re side-by-side it’s easier to see but in the moment it’s easy to miss. 

 

What that means for you and your pet

Because there are different degrees of fear, we need to be able to see the subtler stress signals to know if our pet is nervous about something. And here’s why that matters: small stressors can add up. We call that “trigger stacking” in the dog training world and I wrote a whole post about that which you can check out here. In short, small stressors can exacerbate other behavior issues we’re working on. That’s one of the reasons I ask my clients to tell me about any other stressors in their pets’ lives that they haven’t already mentioned.

Not only can they exacerbate other issues, but they can also become bigger fears later on. I can’t tell you how many times folks come to me saying that their pet was only nervous around something for a while but it’s now escalated to barking, lunging, or biting. That’s a big deal when we’re talking about stressors like strangers. We need to monitor nervousness so that we can bring in a professional at the first sign of escalation. 

 

Now what?

Happy training!

Allie

Dog’s Behavior Got You Down? Try These 5 Things

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

 

I’m gonna take a guess. 

If you’re here, you likely have a dog that has some… struggles. 

People come to us with a whole variety of challenges, and whatever their struggle, situation, or condition, it all boils down to the same 5 basic steps. 

So, if your dog’s behavior has you down, make sure you give these steps a shot. This is going to be a very brief overview. The application of these steps to your specific situation is much greater than what we can share in the span of a blog, but we cover all of this and more in our Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program

 

Management

Our goals for management: 

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

If your dog has a behavior that’s got you down, ask yourself these 3 questions. Management is extremely personal because each family lives in a different environment. A management plan for a dog who barks at people who walk in the upstairs apartment is different from a dog who snarls and growls when their family approaches the dog bowl. 

Your management will be adapting and evolving with changes in the environment. It should be sustainable, effective, and robust to help you, your family, and your pet follow through.

 

Two Way Communication 

We ask our dogs to listen to us often. In order to successfully help your dog navigate their struggles, you also need to know how to listen to them. This is where body language comes in. 

Knowing what body language to look for, being able to see it on your dog in real-time, and being able to respond appropriately will help you and your dog create a fluent communication system. Once you and your dog are able to communicate, you’ll be better equipped to handle situations and work through struggles together. 

 

Meet Their Needs 

Again, this is going to be brief (I mean, there is already a whole book just on this topic!). Meeting your dog’s needs will let you pick that low-hanging fruit. Sometimes, big improvements can come from small changes. 

One client was able to get some peace and quiet by giving her dog a cooling mat and a fan. 

One client was able to save her furniture and baseboards by giving safe chewing opportunities 2 times a week. 

Sometimes, it can be this simple. Other times, we have more complex needs that will take more time to address, but once we tackle those small steps to get big wins, we can move on to some of the needs that might be more labor-intensive to fulfill. 

 

Learn New Skills 

You and your dog are both going to need to learn some new skills. Your standard basic manners aren’t going to help you navigate the world with a dog who is afraid of the postman, or can’t be home alone. When your dog is struggling, we often need to implement another set of skills… a unique set of skills… to help your dog. The foundation skills needed will be different depending on your dog’s struggles. 

So, before you jump into the deep end, you and your dog both need to know how to swim. 

 

Apply the New Skills 

You’ve implemented management, you’ve learned to read and respond to your dog’s body language, you’ve met your dog’s needs, and you’ve taken the time to learn new skills to help your dog in this world. Now you’re ready to start directly helping your dog overcome their challenges. Creating safe, comfortable, and controlled environments for your dog to practice those new skills in a way that they will be successful will help both you and your dog see progress toward your ultimate goal. 

 

Integrate New Information 

As you go through this process, you’re going to learn more about your dog. Your dog may surprise you as they progress, build new skills, gain new confidence, and refine their communication with you. Occasionally, circle back and make sure that your original plan is the best plan. You might find small adjustments that can lead to an even more efficient journey. 

 

Now What? 

  • If you found yourself asking, “but how do I…”, then check out our 12-week Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program: The step-by-step guide to creating a harmonious, fulfilling life for you and your dog with behavior problems, without sacrificing yourself. 

 

“Where Did I Go Wrong?”

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

 

If you have a dog with behavior problems, you may have asked yourself “where did I go wrong?”

This is a thought that many of our clients share, and it’s a big, scary question. The internet is rife with things you “have to do” and a million things that you “did wrong”, and my guess, if you are here, you’ve already been down that rabbit hole. 

But here’s what I want all my clients to know… 

Yes. There are always ways we can improve and things we can do better. But there are also numerous factors outside of your immediate control. So, let’s briefly chat about some of those factors and if you stick with me to the end, I’ll give you some suggestions of what to do next, because your situation is not a lost cause, it’s not all doom and gloom, and our lives with our dogs aren’t all about the past, there is the future too. 

 

Genetics

The nature or nurture debate has been around for ages, and as we are learning more, we are realizing, it isn’t nature OR nurture, it’s nature AND nurture. Genetics plays a role in your dog’s lifelong behavior, but as we adjust the environment our dog lives in, and provide them with the opportunity to learn new skills, your dog may be able to learn to thrive in an environment that used to provide a challenge. 

 

Prenatal Environment

As we learn more about the impact of stress and trauma on the body, we’ve learned that the prenatal environment can have a lasting impact on puppies. Stress on mom can impact the puppy’s future behavior and the way they interact with the world.

 

Early Socialization

You’ve likely heard of “critical periods” and “socialization periods”. These are present in many species of animals, and dogs are no different. During different developmental stages, pups’ brains are best equipped to learn different skills, from safety and security around novel objects to dog-dog interpersonal skills. Both having negative experiences, or having no experiences during these developmental periods can lead to increased fear, anxiety, frustration, and/or reactivity as the dog becomes an adult.

 

Learning History and Past Experiences

As long as an animal is alive, it is learning. They are learning what is safe and what is not. They are learning how to navigate the world. They are learning how to get the things they want and avoid things they don’t like. Yes, single situations can have profound effects on future behavior, like an off-leash dog chasing yours, or a serious illness and a young dog. But, long-practiced histories can also make a difference! As you embark on a behavior change journey with your dog, you’re going to learn more. You’re going to gain new skills and knowledge, and you might want to look back on yourself and be critical. But, keep in mind, we are all doing the best we can with the information we have.

 

Okay, you’re still here.

If you read all that, you might be thinking “I’m doomed! What else is there!?”

The point of this isn’t to have you feeling down in the dumps. It’s to help you leave the past in the past, and turn to face the future. 

I’ve got some good news. We can always improve our situation. Behavior is not set in stone. It is complex and complicated, but it’s also malleable and when we change the environment, we can change behavior. The Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program was created to help pet parents like you do just that. Through 5 tried and true steps, you can help your dog address their struggles: 

  1. Implement an effective, sustainable management plan
  2. Build two-way communication 
  3. Identify and meet your dog’s individual needs
  4. Learn foundation and life skills 
  5. Apply your new skills 

If you’re ready to build a future for you and your dog, come join us on this journey. We’re here to support you every step of the way. Register for our free webinar Living With a Behaviorally Challenging Dog: 3 Tips for Families Who Have “Never Had a Dog Like This Before” for 3 tips pulled directly from the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program to help your dog be their best self. 

 

Now What? 

  • Be kind to yourself. Living with a behaviorally challenging dog isn’t easy. 
  • Look for support from your friends and family and from a qualified behavior professional. 
  • Come join us for our free webinar Living With a Behaviorally Challenging Dog: 3 Tips for Families Who Have “Never Had a Dog Like This Before”. Register here