5 Reasons Why Enrichment Is Your Behavior Modification Plan

We work with families that are experiencing issues ranging from mild annoyances to struggles that are greatly impacting the quality of life for everyone in the home. And as a team, we utilize the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework to help us, our clients, and their pets to have a successful, sustainable behavior modification journey. 

When people hear that we utilize enrichment to address behavior challenges, they sometimes are a bit skeptical. Whether they are a pet parent looking for assistance, a pet professional looking to better help the families under their guidance, or someone who is both, it’s not uncommon for them to wonder… 

How do I incorporate enrichment into my behavior modification plan? 

If you’re working with, living with, or addressing behavior challenges, you may think you have your “behavior modification plan” and then your “enrichment plan”. 

But enrichment is all about meeting an animal’s needs, and that can look like a lot of different things. It isn’t an activity, it isn’t a toy or an object, it is the outcome of opportunities that our animal engages in. 

Sometimes you need to teach skills to help better meet an animal’s needs and sometimes you need to better meet an animal’s needs before they can effectively learn new skills. We can’t neatly separate the two, and as you make progress in one area, you will see changes and developments in others. With each sliver of progress, you’ll unlock new ways to adjust your plan.

Once you start measuring enrichment by the outcomes, not the activity, it opens up so many new opportunities for you and your learner. It adds depth, richness, and flexibility to your plan.

When the root, the very foundation of your plan is to change behavior through meeting your animal’s needs, then enrichment is your behavior modification plan, not supplemental.  

 

So, let’s look at some examples of why utilizing an enrichment framework is so important and celebrate some successes along the way!

 

Unmet needs can make teaching hard

If you are to look at what people often think of when they hear “behavior modification plans,” they are often focused on teaching a new skill or replacement behavior. The emphasis is on changing the behavior within the context that it occurs. 

And yes, when we work with clients, this may also be a goal that we have! However, when we don’t look at the full picture of what the animal needs, we may fail to address something that’s impeding learning, such as an underlying medical condition, chronic stress, the need for behavior medication support, or other unmet needs that make learning difficult. 

When we first start by making sure our animal is able to learn, that they receive any medical attention that is indicated, that they have the medication support to foster learning, that we’ve managed the environment and their stress, and/or identified any other roadblocks for them, then our teaching can really take hold. They can acquire new skills and learn to use them in new situations. We can teach them ways to better meet their own needs, and how to navigate the world more effectively. 

From the human side of things, it is not uncommon for families to come to us who have already been trying to teach their animal something for weeks, months, or years. To get no results, or very few results can be frustrating and demoralizing. Taking a step back and meeting needs to foster learning can catapult your progress in incredible ways.   

When we first started working together, Zena was barking at every little thing outside the house, through the windows, and in the backyard. Each little thing would send her into a tailspin that was difficult for her to recover from. The first step was to create an environment where Zena could learn, and as we discussed ways to decrease stress for the whole household, Zena’s person came up with the idea to use bubble wrap to cover the windows (without losing natural light!) and started utilizing sound masking to decrease auditory triggers. 

A week later we touched base, and those small adjustments led to improvements for everyone. Zena’s barking and reactivity decreased significantly, the rest of the house also had less stress, and Zena’s person saw that Zena was able to learn in ways she had never seen before. 

 

Meeting needs addresses the fuel, not just the flames

When we start by addressing unmet needs, then we are addressing the issue at the source. No fuel, no fire. 

And let’s talk about what happened next with Zena! Once Zena was in a place where she was able to learn effectively and efficiently, Zena’s person was then able to teach Zena what to do instead of running, screaming, spinning, and yelling at all the little triggers. Zena was using all her bluster and might to get the things to go away. A person passing outside? Bark and they go away. Dog barking outside? Bark and they go away. 

Zena needed space. She needed distance from the things and the only way she knew how to get it was to go on the offensive. So, we taught her how to get the distance in a way that didn’t disrupt the whole household, and frankly, was more effective! 

By seeing and acknowledging that Zena needed space from the things she found stressful, we were able to teach Zena, not only how to get distance on her own, but how to get distance and relief at the same time through the Flight Cue. Now that Zena is well practiced in walking away and finding relief, she’s able to do it unprompted, and with other stressors in her life. While we are working on teaching her that she doesn’t need to be stressed about those things, she’s made incredible progress just by having the agency to move away from uncomfortable things, and without that skill, we couldn’t teach her that the mailman isn’t a threat to her very existence as efficiently and effectively.  

Comment reads: “Today I had some big wins and need to share with a group that gets it.

1) I took Zena out on a 15 ft leash near my houe and she sniffed a lot, checked in with me and kept to her leash length. We heard something scary and I did our flight cue and we both ran the other way and she was happy!

2) I had a tree guy in the back yard. I forgot he was there and let Zena out. She barked at him, I did the flight cue and she came to me with a few barks over her shoulder. Both of these activities would have been a DISASTER before I started this training. I am overjoyed and feel so proud of Zena!”

 

Meeting needs promotes sustainability

One of my favorite examples of this is Barty Boy Neutron, a well-intentioned cyclone of a pup who was running his family ragged. They were doing ALL THE THINGS with Barty Boy, trying to meet all his needs, and still, even after HOURS of activities, Bart would parkour all over the house every evening. 

They tried all sorts of physical activity, foraging, and mental stimulation. They were dedicated to giving Barty everything he needed, but what they were doing wasn’t sustainable, safe, or realistic in the long run. So, we dove a little deeper into what Bart might need. He was getting adequate exercise. He was getting lots of mental stimulation, and foraging opportunities. He was partaking in lots of dog-typical things like sniffing, chewing, and licking. 

One of the things his people did observe is that he ran hot. He would seek out cool spots in the house. So, his family crafted him the perfect cool place to help him self-regulate his temperature. Once he had a nice cool place to relax and settle, we saw giant improvements in his nightly routine, and his family was able to execute a sustainable routine to keep him happy, healthy, and safe. 

Comment reads: “The reason I started a “settle” cue was bc about a year ago, Ellen suggested that he might not know how to calm and/or cool himself down after some play. Being 60% English Bulldog, #bulldozerbart is veryyyy sensitive to the heat. More than I ever would’ve expected as never owning a bulldog myself. He was outside for about an hour, medium activity level and the outside temp is 68* with 15mph winds, NOT what you’d consider warm but here we are. We stated giving Bart a cool place to lay and I worked with teaching him to settle on it with my gudiance for the last year. I had set the fan and mat up earlier figuring he’d want it at some point but I’d have to help.

I just found him laying here after playingoutside, mnowing he normally would come in and bounce around and not be ready to settle without help.

TLDR: Bart put himself in the “settle spot” tonight after playing outside when he’d normally need guidance to the spot. My boy is growing up!”

 

Meeting needs helps the entire family, not just one individual

When we’re sharing our space with other living creatures, our lives become acutely intertwined. When one being is struggling, it can impact the entire family unit. Using the Enrichment Framework takes into account all the beings involved, including the humans and the other pets. 

In some instances, families that come to use are working on inter-household conflict, and whether that is dog-dog, dog-cat, dog-human, [insert species here]-[insert other species here], it is stressful for the entire family. Everyone in the home is walking on eggshells, and feeling secure in the place you’re supposed to feel safe can be difficult. 

That was the case for Rylee’s family. Rylee, the dalamation pictured below, had started growling, snarling, and lunging at the other dogs and cats in the household. Family time was no longer something that felt comfortable and cup filling, instead, it was riddled with stress and grief. 

By taking an approach to meet Rylee’s needs to help him engage with species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, his family was able to make incredible progress. Each step on their journey opened up new opportunities for them along the way. This involved working with their fantastic vets to meet his medical needs and that helped him to be in a place to learn. From there, we were able to teach him about his safety room, and with that progress, he was able to start communicating when things were just too much and he needed his safe space. 

By addressing Rylee’s needs, the rest of the family is able to feel safe and secure moving around their home. And I mean, come on, look at that smile!

 

Meeting needs helps you and your pet learn skills that will help for a lifetime

Our pets are living beings with needs that will change as they age and develop. What one dog needs at 6 months, won’t be the same at 6 years, and that’s just a part of life! 

When we take an approach to explore and meet our pet’s needs, we are taking an approach that will help us in the future. We are creating a more robust behavioral repertoire and a foundation that we can always return to if we hit a bump in the road. When we utilize an Enrichment Framework, we are building in checks and balances, we are taking a directed approach to behavior change that will help inform future decisions and adjustments.

And that brings us to Otis. Otis is a wonderful little pup that is learning that it is okay to be home alone. Otis’ person is working on teaching Otis skills to help him self-regulate, self-soothe, and to be safe and feel secure in their home. These are all things that directly translate to being able to be comfortable at home alone, but the exercises, activities, and skills that Team Otis is working on will do so much more than just that. They are building a strong relationship that can weather storms, Otis is learning predictable and safe patterns that will help him during life changes in the future, and they are building a system of communication that will help day in and day out.

Watching Otis breathe deeply while learning to spend time alone is a reminder that meeting an animal’s needs doesn’t always look like what you see on the internet. Sometimes, it takes information to know the true beauty and joy of what you’re seeing, and Team Otis is doing an incredible job. 

 

All of this and more is why we suggest meeting needs first.

The majority of the time, if you jump straight to the “problem”, you’re going to miss out on the low hanging fruit, you may be doing things that are going to be ineffective or inefficient, and you may dread the process. Working through an Enrichment Framework can help you take a directed approach where you know that you’re meeting your needs and your animal’s needs. 

Instead of thinking and treating enrichment as a supplement to your plan, center it in your plan, and your results might just surprise you.   

 

Now what:

 

Happy training, 

Ellen

August 2022 Training Challenge: Add Sustainability to Your Enrichment Plan

If you’ve been following us for a while, then you know that we put a hefty emphasis on sustainability for pet parents. 

When you have carefully crafted a plan that is designed to meet your animal’s physical, emotional, and behavioral needs, to enable them to engage in species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways, it is because you love and care about animals in your life. 

Unfortunately, the best plan won’t meet your animal’s needs if you can’t sustain it.

 

Sometimes, it goes a little something like this… 

You catch the enrichment bug!

You read all the things. Listen to all the podcasts. Start collecting ideas, making plans, buying tools and toys, and filling so much time with these activities and ideas of what you want your enrichment plan to be. 

And then something happens. 

Maybe you get an extra project at work and start putting in some overtime. 

Maybe you get injured or sick and need to focus on healing. 

Maybe you get tired from doing all the things. 

But, you still try to fit all those activities, ideas and plans into time, energy, or bandwidth that you no longer have.

And it’s just not sustainable. You can keep it up for a bit, but eventually, the execution falls apart, and if you’re already feeling that enrichment guilt, you may even feel crummy because you aren’t superhuman. 

But, you don’t need to be super human if you focus on creating a sustainable enrichment plan! Sustainability is key to the long-term success of an enrichment plan. It is important for your pet’s welfare and your welfare, and it is doable! 

 

Sustainability requires multiple plans

A single, rigid plan will fracture and crack under the weight and variability of everything else that people need to handle in their day-to-day life. 

A single plan means that you are creating something that can’t shift and integrate into the very natural changes that occur day to day, week to week, year to year. 

So, this month’s training challenge is to start exploring flexibility in your enrichment plan. Let’s start with 1 goal or activity, and build from there! 

Sidebar: The following suggestions are working under the assumption that you already have a first go at your enrichment plan in place. If you are just getting started, then I suggest you start here, with our step-by-step guide for crafting the first draft of your animal’s enrichment plan! 

 

So, what might this look like? 

In my house, and for my clients, I work to create a tier system based on effort for the pet parent. 

Now, an important note: effort is relative. What I might label “low effort” for me, might be “high effort” for you, and that’s okay! There are so many things that impact how we grade effort. Avoid comparing yourself to others! 

 

First, list your goal

For example, in my house, for Griffey and Laika: relaxation and rest while I’m at work.

 

Second, list the options you have available to you that meet that goal. This is where your previous “trial and eval” comes into play!

Griffey and Laika: 

  1. Scatter feeds 
  2. Non-frozen lick mats
  3. Frozen food toy 
  4. Shreddables/Destructables
  5. Play sessions with me 
  6. Play sessions with each other 
  7. Social time 
  8. Teaching relaxation 
  9. 40-minute walks in the morning 
  10. Teaching a new skill or working on one of our training goals 

 

Third, consider the effectiveness of the activity in helping you to achieve your goal and the amount of effort that activity takes for you. 

I tend to use 4 categories:

High effectiveness, high effort – very effective, see large improvement toward your goal but also takes more involvement from me 

High effectiveness, low effort – very effective, see large improvement toward your goal but takes little involvement from me 

Low effectiveness, high effort – somewhat effective, see some improvement toward your goal may need additional activities, but also takes more involvement from me 

Low effectiveness, low effort – somewhat effective, see some improvement toward your goal may need additional activities, but takes little involvement from me 

 

High Effectiveness, High Effort 

  1. 40-minute walks in the morning 
  2. Frozen food toys
  3. Teaching relaxation
  4. Shreddables/Destructables
High Effectiveness, Low Effort 

  1. Scatter feeding 
  2. Non-frozen lick mats
  3. Play sessions with each other 
  4. Play sessions with me 
Low Effectiveness, High Effort

  1. Teaching a new skill or working on one of our training goals 
Low Effectiveness, Low Effort

  1. Cuddle time 

 

Fourth, amend your current enrichment plan to include options for varying levels of effort. 

You can even adjust some of your activities to be more clear. For example, I may have 3 tiers for different activities: 

Scatter feeding:

 

Teaching a new skill or working on one of our training goals (recall): 

 

Fifth, start adjusting your daily routine for sustainability. 

Some days you’re going to have all the time, energy, and bandwidth. Some days, you won’t, and that’s okay! Here’s what two different days may look like in our house: 

“I can do anything!” day

  1. Stuff and prepare frozen food toys 
  2. Take each dog for an individual walk, scatter feeding breakfast, practice skills on a walk
  3. Mid-day cuddle session 
  4. Frozen food toys stuffed in boxes for dinner 
  5. A rousing evening play session 

“I’m so tired” day 

  1. Morning cuddle session 
  2. Lick option for breakfast  
  3. Spend time in the sun – practicing the flight cue 
  4. Mid-day cuddle session 
  5. Short tug game if needed  
  6. Dinner scatter fed 

 

Start from a point of success 

I gave a lot of examples from my house, but remember, just like with your pet, you want to start from a place of success. If you aren’t ready to look at an overarching goal like “increased relaxation”, then start with making 1 of your staple activities more sustainable. Let’s build you an enrichment plan that works on your best days and your harder days. 

 

Now What?

  1. If you haven’t started creating your pet’s enrichment plan already, then start here, with this step-by-step guide to help you go through the process!
  2. If you’re ready to start tackling sustainability, then narrow your focus to one thing, either one activity or one goal, and go through the exercise listed above! 
  3. If you’re a pet parent and find yourself overwhelmed by choice, then email us at [email protected]! Our consultants have helped hundreds of families create an enrichment plan that addresses each family’s goals, meets the human’s needs, and meets the pet’s needs.
  4. If you are a fellow behavior professional that is looking to increase engagement and sustainability for your clients, then make sure to join the waitlist for our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class! We spend a lot of time discussing sustainability for your clients!

Is Enrichment The Square or The Rectangle?

 

I’m sure most of us remember that math lesson that happens to very accurately describe a lot of unrelated topics:

A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square. 

Funnily enough, Emily just used this example in a recent blog post without knowing I was using the same example while writing this one. It really does describe a lot of topics!

Recently, Emily came across a Facebook post where someone was asking about enrichment activities for their dog. The group moderator tagged her to see if she had any suggestions. The poster thanked the moderator for the tag but mentioned that her dog did not have any behavior problems, so didn’t think that our enrichment framework could help. 

So the question became: does enrichment, and more specifically the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework, require behavior problems?

 

Here, enrichment is the rectangle. 

Behavior problems require enrichment, but enrichment doesn’t require behavior problems. In other words, our enrichment framework can be used for any animal, regardless of whether or not they exhibit maladaptive behaviors. However, if a pet does have behavior problems, we should absolutely work through those challenges using an enrichment framework. 

 

The answer lies in the definition

Remember that here at Pet Harmony we use the original definition of enrichment: it’s about meeting all of an animal’s physical, emotional, and behavioral needs to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

All animals have needs, ergo enrichment is for everyone! 

 

So why do we always talk about enrichment in relation to behavior problems?

Well, it’s kind of what we do. We’re behavior consultants who work with pets who have maladaptive behaviors- like anxiety, aggression, fear, and compulsions- and we do so using the understanding that we need to meet all of the animal’s needs in order to help them be the best version of themselves and to help our clients reach their goals in a more efficient way. We always talk about our enrichment framework in relation to behavior problems because that’s how we typically use it. 

In addition to that, we want to make it clear that enrichment isn’t superfluous. It isn’t an add-on or something to focus on only when an animal is bored. It’s an incredibly important element of behavior and by shining a light on how you can use an enrichment framework to solve behavior problems we hope we’re showing folks how important enrichment truly is. 

 

How would you go through the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework with a behaviorally-sound pet?

Glad you asked! Really, the process will look the same. The differences we’ll see between a behaviorally-sound animal and one with maladaptive behaviors are likely the categories of enrichment we focus on, the activities and how they’re implemented, and the goals. 

 

Take a look:

  1. List desirable & undesirable behaviors. Even if your pet doesn’t have maladaptive behaviors, there are still behaviors you’re hoping to see more of and less of. That could look like being more relaxed at the vet office, greater mobility for an aging pet, or just displaying a wider array of species-typical behaviors (aka behavioral diversity). Even with a perfectly behaved animal, we still want those behaviors to continue and will need to reevaluate our enrichment plan as they age and circumstances change to set the stage for those desired behaviors to continue. 
  2. Are needs being met? All individuals have needs. And needs come and go. We don’t eat one meal and then are satiated for the next several months. We don’t go on one run and that meets our physical activity needs for the next year. In addition to the cyclical nature of needs, including changes as an individual ages, they are also subject to environmental changes: things like moving, new household members, and things as inevitable as weather changes. All of that means that we need to keep an eye on our pet’s needs to make sure that we’re always doing the best we can for them, regardless of the situation. And for the household that already has an incredible enrichment plan? I recommend preparing for future, likely scenarios, like aging needs. 
  3. Are agency needs being met? Remember that agency means having some level of control over the outcomes in a situation. For folks who have pets not displaying maladaptive behaviors, this is often where we focus in their enrichment plan. How can we work on cooperative care? How can we create more two-way communication between humans and pets? Have we recently performed preference tests to see if any preferences have changed? 
  4. Narrow down your options. This part is exactly the same as working with a pet who has behavior issues. We still have goals; we still have current behaviors and behaviors we’d like to see more of or less of in the future. We still have a bunch of different ways to get from current point A to future point B and we’ll need to narrow down those options based on the resources we have at hand. Nothing new here. 
  5. Prioritize. This part is often a bit easier than working with some pets who have behavior issues. The pets we see at Pet Harmony often have several different maladaptive behaviors and it’s imperative that we prioritize what to work on first to keep our clients from burning out. That’s not always the case with folks who have a behaviorally-healthy pet, though we do sometimes still see folks trying to do too much due to enrichment guilt. Prioitization is just as important for those pet parents to ensure sustainable plans. 
  6. Develop your plan of action. This step is also the same as working with a pet who displays maladaptive behaviors. You still need to determine who is doing what, when, where, and how. 
  7. Implement and document. I think implementation goes without saying, so let’s focus on the documentation portion. I do still recommend some level of documentation or data tracking when implementing a new facet of your enrichment plan with a behaviorally-healthy pet. Often, though, we’re able to get away with it being simpler. For example, when I started monitoring how well massage therapy was helping Oso’s mobility, I was able to do that in my head using jumping on the couch as our litmus test. When we first started his massage therapy, I hadn’t seen him jump up on the couch in at least a few weeks, if not longer. He would step onto the couch instead. That made it easy to notice when he would jump because it had become a rare occurrence. As he continued having more sessions, I noticed an increase in how frequently he would jump so I could conclude that it was, in fact, having the intended result. In that situation, I was looking for a simple “yes this improves mobility” or “no this does not improve mobility” and I already had a history of observing and making a mental note of the particular behavior that became our litmus test. If I was looking at more specific details or for a behavior that I wasn’t habitually noticing, I would likely have written down the results. 
  8. Reassess, readdress, and do it again. We already talked about how needs are cyclical. They change with household changes, seasons, age, and more. That means our enrichment plan is never done. We always get to work on improving our pet’s quality of life. So even though you may go through this step slower with a behaviorally-healthy pet than with a pet who displays maladaptive behaviors, you’re still going to need to reassess, readdress, and do it again at some point. 

 

 Now what?

  • Ready to put this framework into action? Head over to https://petharmonytraining.com/enrichmentchart to get a free copy of our enrichment chart and a breakdown of these steps. Follow that free guide to help create your pet’s enrichment plan.
  • Need more examples and details of how to do this? Check out our new Canine Enrichment for the Real World Companion Workbook here. 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!
  • Get working on your pet’s enrichment plan! Share your results with us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram

Happy training!

Allie 

 

3 Enrichment Activity Myths Holding Your Pet Back

 

The more you learn about a particular topic the more you realize how little you know. It’s not just a cliched saying, it’s actually a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As humans, we want things to be cut and dried, black and white, good and evil. But it’s rarely as simple as all that. There are layers to everything, nuances that can drastically change outcomes. As a behavior consultant, I see that all the time: we tweak the timing of a training exercise by literal seconds and get very different results. 

Not understanding the nuances of a topic can impede desired outcomes. And while there are many enrichment myths that I see circulated that impact results, today, I want to focus on diving deeper: the nuances. 

Before we get into 3 enrichment activity myths holding you and your pet back, let’s get on the same page about what enrichment is. Y’know, in case you’re new to us here at Pet Harmony and Canine Enrichment for the Real World

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

In short: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs. It’s not about providing entertainment, though that can often be a side effect. It’s not about providing more novelty, though that can be an element. Enrichment is about meeting the needs of your pet so they can be the doggiest dog or cattiest cat or piggiest pig they can be. And, in turn, that improves their quality of life. (By the way, we didn’t come up with this. This definition comes from the father of zoo enrichment, Dr. Hal Markowitz, who put the topic on the map.) 

Now that we have the bonus myth out of the way (enrichment is about entertaining your animal), let’s get to it. 

 

Myth #1: All Activities Are Effective

We get asked all the time about what activities we recommend for [insert enrichment category]. What are our favorite mental exercises? Physical activities? What do we do to provide security? And our answer is usually the dog-trainer-favorite but definitely audience-despised answer of: it depends. 

The black and white myth here is that an activity, inherently, either is enrichment or is not. That the activity itself is imbued with a certain level of effectiveness. But here’s the nuance: the activity doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the effect that we see from the activity. The only thing that matters is the actual, observable result. Activities themselves are only tools to achieve results (yep, even in the case of you having fun with your pet. Fun is the result.) 

So why is our answer, “it depends”? Because our activity recommendations are based on the individual dog or pet, the humans and household, the desired results, the environment, and other factors. Sure, we have our go-to activities that tend to yield similar results in a variety of cases, but even those can require modifications or may not be appropriate for all animals. It’s not about the activity. It’s about the result you observe from that activity. 

 

The Solution: Data Tracking

I know, I know. Data tracking tends not to be a favorite topic. But, hear me out. It doesn’t have to be painful or intensive. It can be as simple as tally marks, adding numbers to a calendar, or clicking a button on a habit tracking app. Emily and I chat all about this in episode 15 of our Enrichment for the Real World Podcast (and be sure to check out the transcript if you prefer the blog format over podcast format!) 

The heart of this solution is that you observe the results and then make a decision about how effective an activity is for your individual animal. See with your eyes, not your ideas. 

 

Myth #2: If an activity isn’t effective, then it isn’t effective. 

Remember earlier in this post when I mentioned that sometimes as a consultant I’ll tweak the timing of an exercise by literally a few seconds and that yields drastically different results? Activity effectiveness isn’t all or nothing. There are little tweaks that can be made- like timing, location, treat type, and more- that can impact how effective an activity is. 

Let’s use an example for this one. During our first or second session, I asked a client to start playing the Find It game with her dog, Raina. I assumed that this game would help with Raina’s overall anxiety, would help her mom be able to lower her stress levels in stressful situations, or at least use it as a distraction if needed, and I wanted to use it as a tool to modify future behaviors. The next time I saw Raina’s mom, she told me that Raina hadn’t quite taken to the game as we had envisioned. She would only chase after the treats if she saw them being thrown instead of using her nose. It wasn’t currently effective based on the results we were hoping to see. 

Did that mean we scrapped that activity and tried something else immediately? No! I coached Raina’s mom through the exercise, making little tweaks, to get Raina searching for longer. After that step, we started expanding the search area, then moved on to new locations. Now, months later, Raina’s mom plays Find It with her regularly and it does now have the intended effect. 

Now, in this example, I felt it was worth it to troubleshoot this activity instead of scrapping it for another. Other times, I choose to scrap instead of troubleshooting. And other times still I will troubleshoot a little, decide that it’s not worth continuing down that path, and then scrap an activity for another. 

The point is that there are nuances to how we execute an activity. And those nuances can change the effectiveness of that activity. So while we need to focus on the results to decide if an activity will help us achieve our goals, we may also be able to alter those results. 

 

The Solution: Trial and Eval

One of our consultants, Corinne, came up with the phrase “trial and eval” and we’ve all loved it so much that it has become one of our catchphrases at Pet Harmony. If you try something that you think will work a certain way and it doesn’t, try it again, but tweak it a little. That could be tweaking your timing, including the time of day, where in the routine the activity happens, the location, or handler, or how the activity itself is executed. There are so many things to change. Some will affect the outcome; some won’t. That’s why it’s trial, and evaluate. 

Oh and that data tracking? Yeah, that will make trial and eval so much easier to keep track of the results so you actually remember what was effective and what wasn’t. 

 

Myth #3: All [insert species, breed, behavior challenges, etc.] need the same activities

I hope by now you know where I’m going with this. All individuals are individuals, and the effectiveness of an activity depends on a lot of factors, making it pretty challenging to make a blanket statement that all [insert whatever] need the same activities for optimal quality of life.

We especially get a lot of questions about enrichment activities for individual dog breeds, or breed types. What’s the best enrichment activity for a German Shepherd? What’s the best enrichment toy for pitties? What activities should I try with my Australian Cattle Dog or other herding breeds? 

My answer is still: it depends. Did your dog get the memo that they belong to a certain breed? Are they a Pekingese who knows in their very soul that they are destined for royalty? Or are they a Lab who doesn’t like retrieving? A Newfoundland who doesn’t like water? And that’s added on top of all of the questions that we ask for every individual: what behaviors do they show or not show? What’s your household like? Etc. At the end of the day, dogs are dogs, even if they have certain breed tendencies. Breed is only one factor, out of many, many factors to consider. 

Going further than this, I see a lot of people run into trouble when they assume that because their last pet of a certain breed liked a particular activity, that this new pet of the same breed will, too. I’ve seen quite a bit of heartbreak when people compare past and present pets like this. Check out our blog post, Compare Leads to Despair, from consultant MaryKaye here

While I wish it was as easy and black and white as saying, “All herding breeds need Treibball”, it’s not that simple. There are nuances. 

 

The Solution: Observing the Individual

The solution here is to observe the individual in front of you, without letting the stories you have about who they ought to be cloud your observations. I think one of the easiest ways to do this is to think of them as someone else’s pet, or of another breed. How would you interpret your observations if you had just met them? If you had no history with them? If someone was describing their behavior to you and left out what breed they are? If you remove the stories you have about who they are and why they behave a certain way, how does that change your observations? 

Once you’re able to observe the individual and truly see with your eyes and not your ideas, then you can more easily determine what activities to try and more easily observe the results of those activities. 

 

Now what?

  • Take a few days to observe your own behaviors and thoughts. What is the biggest enrichment activity myth that is holding you back? 
  • Once you’ve identified that myth, it’s time to get to work! Reread the solution and determine what your next step will be to bust that myth. 
  • Put that solution into action. Regardless of what you choose, I still recommend tracking your results to better see the difference. You can download a free copy of our enrichment chart with a step-by-step guide here
  • Share your results with us over in our Facebook group or on Instagram @petharmonytraining 

Happy training!

Allie

July 2022 Training Challenge: Explore Variety Through a Cardboard Box

Happy July, y’all!

This month’s training challenge is inspired by one of our more frequently asked questions about enrichment.

What are some new enrichment things I can do for my pet? 

We’ve all been there, right? 

Scrolling through all the Instagram-worthy activities, looking at the plans professionals have developed for their own dogs and pets, thinking, “I really need to do more.”

Or watching your pet master your current offerings, so it feels like you need that next thing. Something that use to be exciting and fun has lost its spark (for you or your pet), so you’re looking for that excitement again.

And don’t get it twisted, I’m guilty of this as well! We have an obscene number of puzzle, foraging, and mental exercise toys for our dogs, but it’s a hobby for us, but not an expectation of an effective enrichment program. Because novelty isn’t always the answer. 

Novelty isn’t a requirement. Is novelty a part of an effective enrichment plan? Sure. Maybe. For some creatures, but for all creatures? Definitely not. 

 

And that leads me to this month’s training challenge: 

Explore a variety of new ways to use a cardboard box (or you can broaden it to your recycling) in your enrichment plan. 

I’ve worked with many species and cardboard boxes have been a staple in nearly all of their enrichment plans. They are versatile, regularly accessible, and downright effective. They are so useful that even Nathan Andrews talked about them in Episode 2 of Enrichment for the Real World!

You can use them as a foraging opportunity, to promote sniffing or shredding, to give the animal something to hide or rest in, to destroy, to obscure the environment, and more. 

As you embark on this month’s challenge, here is some inspiration and food for thought: 

  1. You can vary what is in the cardboard box, you can add your pet’s regular diet, treats, chews, frozen lickables, toys… the sky is the limit! Engagement with the box can lead to a variety of outcomes for your pet! 
  2. You may need to start with something easy, like a few pieces of food in a shallow, open box. That’s okay! Meet your animal where they are! 
  3. You can roll a box, put a box in a box, put things under a box, stuff the box with paper or leaves… get creative! If you’re looking for the next new thing to keep you entertained, flex those creativity muscles and see what you can come up with for yourself! Vary the way that you present the box.
  4. You can teach your pet to interact with the box, like with 101 Things to do With a Box, or use the box to teach a new trick.

In our household, we most often use boxes for “shreddables,” “destructables,” and foraging. When left to their own devices, complete and total destruction ranks high on preferred activities for our dogs. So, here are some examples of what that might look like to get you started! 

 

 

Remember…

Enrichment is measured by its outcomes, not the activity.  Let your pet’s behavior tell you what they need. It’s incredible what you can do with something as simple as a cardboard box (or recycling in general). If you find yourself looking for something novel, ask yourself, are you really looking for variety, increased difficulty, or complexity? You can achieve all of those things without needing something new, you just need to be a little creative! 

Shreddables are nothing new to Griffey, and yet, it is still an incredibly effective activity for increased rest and relaxation throughout the day.

 

Now What? 

  • Observe your pet, and identify a behavior or two you’d like to approach with a cardboard box. Does your dog dig? Can you come up with a way to use a cardboard box or recycling to give them an appropriate way to dig? Does your pet destroy things? Maybe try some destructible to give them an appropriate way to destroy. 
  • Explore ways to add variety to your plan with a cardboard box, or other recycling! 
  • Follow us over on Instagram @petharmonytraining for more cardboard box and enrichment ideas! 

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