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

The Physical Exercise Conundrum

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

 

I talk quite a bit about playing tug with Oso. It’s part of my go-to example of how we experimented with mental and physical exercise to combat the dreaded Winter Oso. But here’s what I don’t share as frequently: I can’t actually play tug with him. 

This is a prime example of “do what I say, not what I do”. I’ve talked for years to my clients about not creating an athlete that they can’t keep up with. But, usually, I’m talking about cardio. Somehow I didn’t generalize that statement to strength exercises when it came to my own dog. 

So here’s what happened. When we were in the midst of experimenting with Oso’s enrichment activities, my husband was the one who started playing tug with him. And our new routine meant that he was the one playing tug with Oso almost daily. I watched as the two joyfully battled it out: evenly matched. My husband is considerably stronger than I am, especially when it comes to grip strength. Months went by before there was a night that my husband couldn’t play with him and I had to step up to the plate. Which is when I learned that I couldn’t. Oso was now much stronger than I was. 

 

Exercise creates athletes

How do people become athletes? They exercise. They train. They push themselves to run the extra mile. Add the extra weight plate. And, if they keep gradually increasing distance, weight, or something of that nature they eventually enter the athlete echelon. That means that in order to get the same effects from exercise, they have to do more of it. A 3-mile walk to a marathon runner has a different effect than a 3-mile walk to someone who lives a more sedentary lifestyle. And that can happen with our pets, too. 

I usually see this play out in a few different ways. Because I live in the Midwest, I especially see this problem seasonally. When it warms up, folks will start running with their dogs. That’s all fine and well until we hit winter and it’s not possible or at least pleasant to run with your dog anymore. The human opts for a treadmill instead, but we often see a canine athlete who now can’t run and is bouncing off the walls. 

I also see this play out when folks are training for races. Many will include their dog in their training regimen, but then decrease that exercise when the race is over. But, again, we now have a canine athlete who isn’t getting enough physical exercise.

And, perhaps the most common scenario I see is the well-intentioned pet parent who is just trying to get their dog enough physical exercise. I think we’ve all heard the expression “a tired dog is a happy dog” and I’ve seen many folks unintentionally create athletes by following that line of thinking. More on that later.

 

Athletes are not inherently “bad”

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an inherently bad thing to have a canine athlete. There are many reasons to purposefully create one! The second part of that statement that I tell my clients is the important part: don’t create an athlete that you can’t keep up with

Oso being muscular isn’t a problem (he actually gets a lot of compliments from the vet for how well-muscled he is). But it could be a problem that I personally can’t play tug with him. Dogs who enjoy running and who can run for miles a day aren’t inherently a problem. But it is a problem if your dog needs to run miles a day and you live in a city or have to deal with cold winters that make running with your dog challenging. It’s the mismatch between the human needs and the canine needs that becomes the problem. 

 

So what do I do?

Our pets obviously do need physical exercise, so how do we walk that fine line of providing enough exercise but not creating an athlete that we can’t keep up with? Because the problem is the mismatch between the human and the pet’s needs, I can’t answer that for you. You know what your needs are better than I do. But to answer that question, I tell folks to ask themselves if they could do this activity every day for a year. 

Can you do this during all seasons? Can you do this on workdays and weekends? Can you do this if you get injured during your workout routine? And, if the answer is no, then we have two options:

  1. Reevaluate our physical exercise regimen as a whole
  2. Find alternatives to make this regimen sustainable

The reason we opt for tug with Oso is because it’s sustainable. It meets his physical activity needs as evidenced by the effects it has on his behavior and also we can play in the house, negating weather. We can play on workdays and weekends. But we can’t play if my husband is injured or sick (well, I can try but it doesn’t usually work as well). And so on those days, we have alternative options. They don’t work as well depending on the weather, but they get the job done well enough. 

 

Is a tired dog really a happy dog?

I mentioned this pervasive statement earlier, and I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on this. One reason that I see folks unintentionally creating athletes is because of this belief that a tired dog is a happy dog. And so well-intentioned pet parents will over-exercise their pet in hopes that that will solve a particular problem. 

In reality, a happy dog is one who has all of their needs met. Physical activity is just one of those needs. More often than not, when folks are having to over-exercise their dog it’s a sign that there’s room for improvement in our enrichment strategy for other needs- usually mental exercise or calming. When I see this happening with a client I instruct them to explore different types of activities beyond physical exercise, and that often provides them with the results that they were looking for that physical exercise was not providing. 

 

Now what?

  • Observe the effects that physical activities have on your pet’s behavior. Remember, we need to see desired results for it to count as enrichment
  • Take a look at your pet’s physical exercise strategy. I talked a lot about dogs in this post, but this is applicable to all species! The first question I want you to answer is: is my pet’s physical exercise strategy actually having the intended effects I want it to have? If the answer is yes, great! Move on to the next question. If the answer is no, take a moment to reevaluate your pet’s enrichment strategy as a whole. Here’s a post showing what I did for Oso
  • The next question is: could you do this every day for a year? Essentially, is this strategy sustainable? If the answer is yes, awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing. If the answer is no, decide whether you need to rethink it entirely or if you want to simply add some activities to your toolbox to supplement when needed. 
  • If you need to supplement, it’s time to try some new activities or tweak the ones you currently have and observe the new effects!
  • Finally, tweak your physical exercise strategy as needed. 

Happy training!

Allie

May 2022 Training Challenge – Getting in the Enrichment Habit

I’m gonna be calling out some people here right in the beginning. 

Raise your hand if you WANT TO DO THE THING, but something is standing in your way? 

And what do I mean by that? 

I want to give my dogs frozen food puzzles to lick once a day, but I can’t seem to do it. 

I want to spend 3 minutes training my dog, but I have only done it once in the last two weeks. 

I want to give my dog boxes with kibble in them to destroy, but it takes so much effort. 

I want to __________, but ___________. 

Yeah, friend. Me too. 

Building habits around our pet’s enrichment plan can be difficult in the constant churn of the rest of life. I have grandiose goals for my two dogs, but those goals often fall by the wayside as other fires appear on the horizon. 

If this sounds like you, then stick around, this training challenge is for you. 

This month, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what’s standing in the way of your best intentions. 

What is stopping you from turning your intentions and goals into sustainable habits? 

Oof, that seems like a big question, right? 

Don’t worry. 

We’ve helped thousands of families on their enrichment journey, and we’ve seen some of the common barriers among our clients. Check out these common barriers and the ways families have overcome them.

 

The “It Needs to be Perfect” Struggle 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“Well, I need to do all of these things before I can start.”

“I need to know all the things before I can start.” 

“If I can’t do it all, I can’t do any of it.” 

I think most of us have been there at some time in our lives. We want to do things “right”, so we put it off until we can feel like we are doing it “right.”

So, do you feel your inner perfectionist standing between you and your enrichment habit? 

You don’t have to know everything about everything for a stellar enrichment plan for your dog. That’s what behavior consultants are for, they can help you build your plan, leaving you to focus on execution. This doesn’t mean you can’t still learn *all the things*, but it does mean that you don’t have to do it with the cloud of pressure over your head! 

Separate the habit from the results. Integrating new routines into your life takes time, so sometimes, it’s helpful to say, “In order to benefit my pet, I need to do the thing. The first step, is getting the thing done”. Split the criteria for yourself. Start with doing the thing, and then add in those additional steps later. 

And remember, something is likely better than nothing, and you can start small. Start with one small step, and when you have that integrated into your routine, add something else. This is something else a qualified behavior consultant can help you with. Small steps are our specialty!

 

The “Too Many Choices” Paralysis

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“I don’t know what to do today?” 

“I can’t decide where to start!” 

“Should I be doing this or that?”

And then doing none of the things? Analysis paralysis is a real thing, and with the millions of enrichment options available, we see it seep in often. Where do I focus my attention? What if I make the wrong choice? What if there is a BETTER option? 

So, do you find the sheer number of options overwhelming and paralyzing? 

First off, you won’t know if there is a better option for your pet unless you try some stuff. Working with a professional can help narrow down your options, and direct your focus, but at the end of the day, I can tell you most, if not all dogs, benefit from opportunities to partake in sniffing. What I can’t tell you is what format or structure of sniffing is going to most benefit your dog. Does scatter feeding in the yard, tracking scents, sniffing through boxes and obstacle courses for food, or sniffaris provide you the best results? We need to do some trial and evaluation. And until we have that information, there is no bad option as long as it is safe, healthy, and appropriate. 

Looking at 10 options is likely too much, but looking at 3 can be manageable. So, narrow it down to three. If your dog’s enrichment program has some flexibility, and a sustainable, realistic and effective enrichment program should have some flexibility built-in, then toss all the options into a hat and pull three out to choose from. Or better yet, learn your pet’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you.” and ask them to pick for you! 

 

The “Chasing the Shiny” Burn Out 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“I’ll just add one more toy to my shopping cart.” 

“My dog is too fast!”

“I saw this incredible thing on Instagram…” 

This one is often tied with The “Too Many Choices” Paralysis and The “It Needs to be Perfect” Struggle. In an effort to have the best-darned enrichment plan, we are constantly searching the internet, listening to podcasts like Enrichment for the Real World, and looking for new enrichment options, and I see a couple of things happen here.

You may feel like your enrichment plan isn’t enough because other people are doing different things. You may not be using the results in your pet’s behavior to gauge its effectiveness, and because of that, you may get to a point where it doesn’t feel sustainable, or realistic anymore. Doing more, doing different, and doing new constantly is not feasible. 

So, do you feel the burnout creeping in and blocking your enrichment habit? 

Remember, enrichment isn’t about the activity. It’s about the results in the animal’s behavior. So, if you’re chasing the shiny because you think novelty and newness are necessary for an effective enrichment plan for your dog, I give you permission to slow down. Close your 95 internet tabs that are open with new enrichment ideas, and return to the basics and foundations. More is not always more when it comes to enrichment. When you provide an opportunity for your pet, do they engage with it? Does the activity help meet your pet’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways? If the answer is no, then it’s not helping your goals. 

Unless, you’re like me, and chasing the shiny is part of YOUR enrichment plan. Sometimes, that activity can be cup filling for the human, and if that sounds like you, then, by all means, keep your 95 browser tabs open, and continue to scroll Instagram. But, watch out for those times when Compare Leads to Despair, and if you feel that happening, circle back to my above point.  Does the activity help meet your pet’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways? Take a moment to be present with your pet. When the activity we partake in helps to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, slowing down to observe and appreciate our work is really important.

 

The “I Don’t Have the Bandwidth” Challenge 

Do you find yourself saying things like… 

“There’s no way I can do that every day?” 

“I don’t have the time to be able to _____.” 

“I’m so tired.” 

Yup. I feel all of that. We only have so much that we can give, and your oxygen mask needs to be on before you can help anyone else. 

So, do you feel like you can’t take on one more thing? 

Be kind to yourself. We all have 24 hours in a day, but we all have a different 24 hours. My partner is out of the house for 12 hours a day, and I work from home. What each of us can feasibly, sustainably, and reliably do for the dogs is different. If you have a bandwidth struggle, make sure you are taking care of yourself as best you can. (I’m going to plug a great self-care/self-enrichment resource here.)

And this is one where I really encourage you to work with a professional to strip down to the bare bones of what is necessary to meet your pet’s needs and your goals. You’ve got a certain amount of resources to share, so let’s make sure you are focusing on the things that will help you make the biggest impact. We can help you tweak small things that will make a big difference.

Meal prepping your frozen food puzzles for 2 weeks can make it more sustainable and more likely to happen. 

You can also prepare your dog’s food in boxes DIY destructibles if you store them in a pest-proof container and use them within a couple of weeks. 

It might be moving where your dog’s food is kept to make things easier for everyone. 

It might be putting up some window film so that your dog is able to rest throughout the day. 

Small changes can result in big wins. 

 

The “I Can’t Tell if it is Working” Fog

Do you find yourself saying things like…

“I think he likes ____.” 

“I guess it’s worth it.” 

“I don’t know if it made a difference.” 

To stick with an enrichment plan, you really need to see the wins. You need to see your pet’s behavior change. You need to observe the differences it is making, or else what is reinforcing you to continue doing the thing? 

So, are you not sure that your enrichment plan is working? 

Refresh your body language observing and interpreting skills! Through body language and observation, you’ll be able to see the changes better, or lack thereof, and can assess your plan with confidence. 

Keep a log of your pet’s behavior? What do you find undesirable? What behaviors do you find desirable? Are you seeing changes in either the undesirable behaviors or the desirable behaviors? Keeping a tally of your observations can help you be objective! You can see how Allie has done this with her nemesis, Winter Oso. 

If you aren’t seeing the desirable changes, make adjustments! Your enrichment plan was likely created with a goal in mind, so adjust to continue working toward that goal. 

 

Now what? 

  • There are a lot of reasons that can get in the way of building a sustainable enrichment habit. Identify some of the barriers that are getting in your way. Once you know what they are, or at least have an inkling, you can start knocking those barriers down! 
  • We’ve helped thousands of families not only create sustainable, effective enrichment plans for their pets but also troubleshoot barriers to creating long-lasting and effective habits. We’d love to help you, too! We see clients all over the world and can help with any behavior problem remotely. Click here to get started.

Happy training,

Ellen

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

Sniffari or Sorry, Can’t Party?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now what?

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

You’re doing great!
Corinne

Feline Enrichment for the Real World

What is Enrichment?

At Pet Harmony, we talk about enrichment all the time, but if you’re a new cat owner, or just recently joining us, we need to define enrichment. It’s more than just Kongs and toys. Enrichment, as described in episode one of our all-new podcast, is “meeting all of an animal’s needs in order for them to be physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy enough to perform species-typical behaviors in safe, healthy, and appropriate ways.” Go listen to Episode 1 of Enrichment for the Real World for more on that!

So, like canine enrichment, feline (cat) enrichment needs to be specific to them. Just because something works for a dog, doesn’t mean it will work for a cat — and just because a certain activity helps one cat, doesn’t mean it will work for another. We need to provide cat-specific enrichment to have a healthy cat. When our cat is healthy, our relationship with them is so much better.

Typical Feline Behavior

Anytime I am trying to figure out what species-typical behaviors are, it is important to research the species. When we know what an animal usually does, we can give them ways to meet those needs that don’t compromise their physical, emotional, and behavioral health — or our own.

A brown tabby cat high-fives its parent.

Here are some behaviors cats typically perform:

  • Dig around in loose substrate in order to urinate and defecate.
  • Bury or hide their urine and feces in said substrate
  • Groom or “bathe” themselves
  • Scratch on things
  • Jump and climb
  • Hang out in elevated spaces
  • Hideout in small spaces
  • Eat multiple small meals in a day
  • Follow a hunting cycle of stalk, pounce, eat, groom, sleep
  • Bat small objects with their paws, sometimes causing them to fall

Notice that I said these are some things cats typically do. Not all cats do all these things, and I also didn’t list all the things cats do. These are just some very interesting areas that can become problematic for your home if your cat doesn’t have an outlet.

How Do I Provide Enrichment for a Cat, and Why Does it Help?

If your cat is performing a species-typical behavior in a way we don’t like, we can offer activities we do like. Even if they seem unrelated, they may still reduce stress as well as behaviors we don’t like.
Here are four easy enrichment ideas to try with your cat:

  • Provide multiple, desirable elevated spaces for your cats, and train them to use them. Buy or make a tall cat tree, or install cat-friendly shelves. If they weren’t in your house, elevated spaces available to them outside are: the tops of cars, roofs of houses, fence lines, trees, and rocks. Small, three-foot-tall scratching posts with beds attached do not make good elevated spaces for cats.

A brown and grey cat tree nearly touches the ceiling in my house. It is near a window for prime sun bathing and birdwatching opportunities.

    • Why? Access to high spaces has been proven to reduce stress-related behaviors in cats. It also gives them somewhere to run to that small children or dogs cannot reach. Providing these spaces and training your cat to use them will also make them less likely to use your furniture to get up high and knockdown cups, vases, or other valuable objects. (Be sure to provide appropriate elevated spaces in places your cat commonly goes onto undesirable surfaces — give them a spot in the kitchen where it is okay for them to watch you cook, for example.)
  • Simulate hunting through play. Cats are ambush hunters. That means that they hide, stalk, pounce, and attack their prey. Unlike dogs, who are opportunists by nature, wild felines rely on hunting to survive. Eating dry kibble from a bowl just doesn’t cut it for most cats! Try lots of different toys to see which ones they fancy. Make the toy act like prey: sometimes it is slow, sometimes it is quick… sometimes it hides… sometimes it hops! The more it moves like a little bird or mouse, the more likely your cat is to love it. Most cats love a good teaser toy, like the ones pictured below. Or, if they are like my cats, they may also appreciate a good game of fetch. Be sure to put out meaty treats for them to eat when they finish playing. I like to use freeze-dried raw treats like PureBites. I just drop them into their bowls or on their cat tree at the end of a play session.

    • Why? When their little hunter instincts aren’t being used in play, they might be used on ankles, hands, and other pets in the household. Being given appropriate outlets for their hunting instincts can notably decrease aggression in cats.
  • Provide multiple scratching surfaces throughout the house. There are many types of scratching surfaces available for your cats. There’s cardboard, jute, and carpet, to name a few. Cats like to scratch in areas they like — in the living room, in the bedroom, etc. Try providing different types in the areas they like to scratch most. If your cat has a positive reaction to catnip, you may choose to use it to attract them to the scratchers. You can also drop a favorite treat each time a cat uses an appropriate surface. Some cats like scratching vertically, some like scratching horizontally. Try both. A common deterrent for cats using their provided scratching posts is when the post moves when they scratch it. So make sure the scratcher you’ve provided is tall enough for them to stretch and scratch, and heavy or secure enough that it won’t wobble too much.

Brown kitten scratches on black scratching post.

    • Why? Well, scratching is a stress reliever for cats, just like chewing is for dogs. Not providing them with this outlet is likely to get your furniture and carpets ruined — or, if we have punished scratching too severely, the stress may come up as other undesirable behaviors, like urine marking or increased aggression.
  • Provide foraging opportunities for your cat, especially just before bed. You can use fancy cat puzzles like the one pictured below, or you can simply provide cat-friendly food or treats and place them around their space at different levels and in hidey holes. Cats will use their keen senses to hunt out and find the treats. It takes some time for some cats to get used to it, and we can help you shape this behavior in your cats.

A grey tabby cat uses her nose, paws, and brain to get her favorite treats from a treat puzzle.

    • Why? Sniffing out food and eating small meals are both excellent ways to tire out a young cat and reduce stress in all ages. You will probably sleep better when your cats get to hunt out some especially tasty goodies just before bed, and it is another way to help them gain confidence with their cat furniture.

There are, of course, tons of other ideas to try with your cats. I haven’t even touched on many categories of enrichment. These four tips address many feline-typical needs, and I’ve found them to significantly decrease behaviors we might find annoying in our feline companions.

Now What?

  • Try doing one of these things for your cat — just dropping a few tasty treats on an unused cat tree or rearranging the top of the bookcase to be cat friendly can go a long way!
  • Don’t go too over the top. Introducing too many of these things at once won’t just stress you out — it may also stress your kitty! Try one thing at a time, and use trial and eval to figure out which things work for your cat. And don’t be afraid to return or donate toys that your cat doesn’t like.
  • Work with a qualified Behavior Consultant if you need help with your kitty. These things might help, but we can also hone a plan specific to your cat! If you’re ready for a professional, you can work with us here.
  • Join our free Facebook group, “Enrichment for the Real World

Happy Training,
Amy

Walk This Way

 

If memory serves me correctly from my youth, it was somewhat a rarity to see dogs out on leashed walks with their pet parents. There were plenty of dogs in my neighborhood, including our next-door neighbor’s Airedale Terriers, Jo Jo the Boxer a few houses down, and every other assortment of breeds combined, milling about in fenced-in backyards but I truly do not recall any of them being taken on walks in the neighborhood. My family’s own small menagerie of beloved dogs were often found hanging out in our backyard with us and the neighborhood kids, sometimes joining in the frivolity, sometimes lying in a sun-soaked spot as far away from the action as space allowed. I am not sharing these memories with a sense of nostalgia for better days gone by but more with a sense of curiosity about the difference I notice now.
In the neighborhood where I have lived for the past 25 years, you can barely go a block without seeing at least one dog being walked by their pet parent. It is far more likely that you will see dozens of walking pairs. For the most part, it seems most of the dogs and their human counterparts are enjoying the companionship of a walk shared together. I know I certainly enjoy taking strolls in the neighborhood with my dog, Fonzy, his nose choosing where and when we turn depending on the scents he picks up along the way. And I think this is a really great thing. Until it isn’t.

 

Whatever can you mean?

Urban and suburban strolls are great for dogs who love going on them. Walks can provide wonderful opportunities for them to safely explore novel environments. Walks can provide not only physical exercise but undeniably they provide mental exercise too if we allow our dogs plenty of chances to stop and sniff (shameless plug for letting your dog stop and smell all of the things on your walks, now and forever!) However, this presumes that you share your life with a dog who, 1) enjoys seeing other people that aren’t you while out and about, 2) enjoys seeing (not even approaching or greeting, just seeing) other leashed dogs when out and about, and 3) doesn’t have great big feelings about……..I’m just going to say “stuff” because the category of things that a dog can have big feelings about is as varied and immense as the category of things humans have big feelings about too.

 

Big feelings, small world

If you are the pet parent of a dog with big feelings about one, two, or many things, it can be hugely challenging to find a safe space to walk them where those big feels don’t come roaring to the surface if your dog is exposed to the big feeling’s trigger. This situation is not as uncommon as some folks might think. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I would say that one of the biggest reasons clients hire a Pet Harmony consultant is because their dog is exhibiting leash reactivity, which broadly speaking, is when a dog barks, lunges, growls, or snaps at other dogs or people while on leash. So what is a diligent dog parent to do? We know it can be stressful, oftentimes embarrassing, and sometimes downright hazardous to continue to walk dogs who have leash reactivity. But as a dog parent, you want to do your due diligence and provide your dog with opportunities to get exercise and allow them prospects to engage with the world. That’s what good dog parents do, right?

 

Walks aren’t a panacea

First of all, let me say that there are many, many ways to be a good steward of your dog’s physical and emotional health and while walking them on leash can be a great activity for some dogs, it isn’t a panacea for meeting all of your dog’s needs. In some cases it might actually do more harm than good. If you live in an urban environment and you have a dog who has sound sensitivity, is worried about fast-moving objects, or does not like being in close proximity to other dogs or people, a walk will not be an enjoyed experience but more likely an experience for your dog to either shut down or rehearse behaviors you would rather she didn’t. This can leave you feeling defeated, worried, and wondering if you are making your dog’s world just a little too small by excluding those treasured walks. This is where troubleshooting the problem is really helpful. If your dog does have leash reactivity, you don’t necessarily have to completely cut out walks (though it is completely ok to find other activities to enjoy while you work with a behavior professional on modifying the behavior.)

 

Here comes the helpful part

When it comes to finding safe places to walk with your dog, you will want to take a number of things into account. First, there isn’t a one size fits all approach when it comes to finding a safe walking area. You will need to take several things into consideration including your personal dog, what his triggers are, and how much space he needs to stay below threshold (read more about that here.) When you are determining which choice will work best for you and your dog, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. How much exposure will your dog have to his or her triggers? If your dog is great with seeing other dogs on leash, doesn’t typically seem to notice people either, but loses her mind when a skateboard passes by then going to a park where there is a skateboard park would not be a great option. If your dog is fine with seeing other dogs, people, and skateboards but has a very strong prey drive towards little critters freely roaming the Earth (yes, squirrels, I’m talking to you) then walking your dog in a densely forested area would not be optimal.
  2. How much space does the area provide to move away from a trigger if you see one? Forest preserves are great for avoiding other dogs or people especially during the week and at certain times of the day. But what would happen if you did see a dog and person approaching or following closely behind you on the same path? Most forest preserve paths are fairly narrow so the opportunity to use a flight cue to turn around or simply stepping off the path to let the other dog pass might not give your dog the space he comfortably needs to remain under threshold.
  3. How populated is the area at the time you are most likely to go? This might take a bit of preplanned reconnaissance on your part to determine the likelihood of other folks and dogs having the same great idea during the same time period. If you live near an open field and own a long line, taking your dog for a relaxing sniffy walk can be a wonderful shared experience and a great way to get in some recall practice at the same time. Knowing ahead of time that the field is unpopulated at the time you go can make it more pleasant for you and your dog.
    1. We like this long line. This is an affiliate link. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!
  4. How secure is the area? Perhaps you have a dog-loving friend, neighbor or family member with a lovely, fenced-in yard or you found what seems to be a great location using Sniffspot and it is ready for you and your dog to use it for some off-leash fun. Great! Here are a couple of things to consider before you go. First, is the fenced area safely secured with no holes or gaps in fencing? Second, is the yard on a busy corner with a lot of pedestrian traffic? If yes, then you might want to check with the homeowner if there are times of the day when fewer people or dogs will be passing by.

 

Now What?

  • Having helped countless clients with leash reactivity, our Pet Harmony consultants truly understand the challenges you face when it comes to reducing your dog’s exposure to their triggers while at the same time, trying to find solutions for meeting your dog’s needs. And in case you need to hear it, it is ok to find other solutions to meeting your dog’s needs that don’t include going for walks while you are working on the behavior component with a qualified professional. It is also ok to problem solve and get creative about how to safely walk your reactive dog to minimize their potential exposure to stressors. Knowing your dog, knowing their triggers, and knowing how to choose wisely (or not choose at all) can help keep everyone safe.
  • If you are looking for a way to meet your dog’s needs read this: Canine Enrichment for the Real World by Allie Bender and Emily Strong (two of Pet Harmony’s finest!)
  • If you are looking for a qualified professional to help you and your leash reactive dog, Pet Harmony is there for you! Get started here, no matter where you live in the world.

Happy training,

MaryKaye

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. 

 

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?”