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

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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?”

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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

 

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?”

 

How I Whoopsied and What I’ve Learned

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I need to be honest.  We hit the rescue roulette jackpot when Opie came into our lives.  Don’t get me wrong, he was a 1-year old adolescent, and we still have the gnawed baseboards to prove it… but he’s lively, playful, a clear communicator, and cute to boot. He tells us when he’s uncomfortable and he brings us toys that he wants to destroy when we leave them out.  He’s a great pup with predictable behavior and predictable emotions and predictable values.

 

Or so we thought he was completely predictable.

Opie loves to unwrap presents.  He’s got the fervor of a toddler at a birthday party with the artistry of a ribbon dancer during his big number. It’s fun to watch and thus we have certainly reinforced the behavior with our praise of enjoyment.  It’s a behavior that we don’t mind seeing and have put cues on when he’s allowed to dig in and when he needs to leave it alone.  He knows to leave the presents alone under the tree and he gets invited to partake in the celebration of discovery when the time is right.

Until last Christmas.  Looking back, it’s completely clear and was 100% predictable, but in the moment it seemed like it happened out of nowhere–completely unexpected.  My family celebrates Christmas.  My immediate family (and their 2 small pups) were over at our house and we were sitting around opening presents in the front room. Opie was enjoying his job of shredding the opened wrapping and tissue paper near my adult brother while alternating with trying to help my brother take out the next sheet of tissue.  My mom’s younger pup was sniffing around and nosing into the presents as well and then the thingThe split freeze. My stomach flip. The not well-timed recall. The growl-whale eye-air snap combo… and ding ding ding, everyone to their corners, please.  

I felt terrible.  I felt guilt. I felt my heart pounding.  We did not expect the wrapping paper to be such a high value for Opie.  We did not expect there to be any issues between the two dogs because they have always gotten along before. We had never seen Opie resource guard anything. The whole scenario was a bit shocking for us.  Luckily, nothing serious happened, Opie had a well-placed air snap and Chloe heard the message loud and clear; however, it gave me the opportunity to reflect and evaluate what we could change to help our animals find success.

Environment factors that may have affected the behavior:

  • Masked people over at our house
  • 2 small dogs at the house who Opie needs to practice self control with
  • Less rest during the day
  • Exciting unwrapping game
  • More exciting unwrapping
  • More exciting unwrapping without a cue
  • Some exciting shredding prompts so he stops unwrapping the things he shouldn’t
  • More exciting shredding without a cue
  • EVERYONE IS UNWRAPPING THINGS [email protected]#[email protected]$#@#$%#@$%

When you list out the triggers that could have contributed to his eustress/distress it’s painfully obvious that he was hitting threshold long before the resource guarding; we should have sent our Opie Dog to his calming location with a delicious peanut butter-green bean-shredded cheese frozen project… but now we know better. We’ve seen more.  We’ve forgiven ourselves for missing the signs and we’ve created a plan for this year that combines management, relaxation, and prevention.  

Dogs are wonderful and they tell us a lot of things, but sometimes it can feel unexpected.  It can feel overwhelming and alarming for us, but usually, a little reflection from the dog’s perspective can help you see solutions for the future.

Oh, Opie Dog, don’t you worry, you’ll get your chance to wow us with your skills sans opposable thumbs… but just not when you’re turned up to 11.

 

Now what?

  • If your pup presents unexpected behavior, wonderful, you have a dog.
  • Think about all of the other things that happened over that day that may have contributed to that behavior.
  • Take note of what happened and brainstorm with your team how we can help the dog be successful in the future.

Happy Training,

Corinne

“That’s Not Scary!”

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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

Wasp Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Training,

Emily

 

Introducing Strangers into the Equation

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

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

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

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

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

And you know what I tell them? 

“Expect them to deviate from your instructions.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Give very clear instructions. 

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

 

Only give instructions you need to.

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

 

Remember, you have skills they don’t. 

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

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

 

Now What? 

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

Happy training,

Ellen

Spoilers: Creatures Love Spoilers

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