August 2021 Training Challenge: Teach A Trick

I love trick training.

I love how fun it is to see animals learning.  I love the relationship built between species. I love how cute the end results are. AND I love that the pup doesn’t always realize that this fun game we’re doing is actually functional for our lives.  

As I was thinking about this month’s training challenge (“Teach A Trick”), I mentally scrolled through the whole Rolodex of tricks I’ve seen and done with dogs, and I kept coming back to wanting to teach you something that can be adorable AND functional.

This summer, our household became a playground as we celebrated our human kiddo’s first birthday.  I had no idea we had so many cabinets, and to a toddler, behind that cabinet door lies a world of wonder that needs to be explored. Everything stores something and after a few minutes… all of those somethings are on the floor (stay tuned for a future Slick Tricks to teach your pup how to help you clean up toys).

So what did I do when I grew tired of constantly closing the half-opened cabinet to the pots and pans with my foot as my boy whisked me away by pointer fingers to his next exciting discovery? I said to myself, “Corinne! Opie is amazing and he knows how to close the cabinets!”

 

So let’s learn the trick that I like to call, “Can you get that for me?”

When teaching a trick, it’s important to consider all of the actions that your animal has to do in order to complete the task.  When we break the behaviors of the trick down and reward in tiny, manageable steps (“splitting”), we create clarity, increase confidence, and ensure success for our pups. 

In order for a dog to close a cabinet door, they need to know how to touch something with their paws or their nose.  First, we will teach “paw/high five/shake/fist bump”, then we will transfer this to the cabinet using a target.  My pup likes to touch with his paw, but feel free to replace the term “paw” with “nose” if you’d rather your dog close something with his/her snout.

Teaching this skill takes multiple training sessions, so make a note where your pup leaves off at the end of one session and start a step or two before that when you begin your next session. Practice each step until your dog is accurate 80-90% of the time. As always, keep training sessions short, positive, and fun. 

 

What you need for this trick:

  • Treats
  • Marker: an auditory cue that tells your dog “what you just did will bring the goodies” (i.e.- click, “yes”, “good”) 
  • Target: a visual tool to help with precision (i.e.- piece of painters tape)

 

Part 1: Teach “paw”

  1. Put a treat in a closed fist.
  2. Offer the fist to the pup.
  3. The curious pup may sniff/lick/explore. Wait the pup out.
  4. When your dog touches your hand with his paw, mark, then reward with the treat.

**Continue this step until your dog is consistently offering his paw **

  1. Start to offer your fist without the treat inside.  Mark and reward with the other hand when his paw makes contact. Repeat.
  2. Start to open your hand.  Mark and reward with the other hand when his paw makes contact with your open palm. Repeat.

**Congrats!  You just taught your pup “shake/fist/high five!”  Party time!  Name this whatever you want and continue using this cue for the next few steps (or stop here, get a high five from your pup, and bask in your training glory). For more info on adding a verbal cue, check out this video.**

 

Part 2: Transferring the touch

  1. Continue practicing “high five”, but now add a target on your palm. I like to use a piece of painter’s tape.  When your pup touches his paw to your target (the tape), mark and reward. Repeat.
  2. Start to move your hand (with the target on it) to different levels and angles (in front/side/below/higher/lower/behind/further).  Mark and reward each success.
  3. Move the target to the end of your fingers and repeat the above step.  Mark and reward.
  4. With the target at the end of your fingers, place your hand near/in front of a closed cabinet door, gradually getting closer to the door so that your hand is flat on the cabinet, palm facing out. Mark and reward each success.
  5. Gradually move the target from halfway on your fingers/halfway on door > to ¼ on your fingers/ ¾ on the door > 100% on the door.  Mark and reward each success.

*Congrats!  You successfully used a target to transfer the pup from touching your hand to touching the cabinet.  Now let’s add the new verbal cue “Can you get that for me?”.  For more info on switching cues, click here!

  1. Once your pup is consistently touching the target on the cabinet, practice doing it with the door open.  Mark and reward each time your pup touches the target, even if it does not close the door.  Gradually increase the criteria by waiting to mark until the door moves, and eventually, closes.  Your goal is to mark the moment you hear the door shut. *NOTE: if your dog has a history of sound sensitivities, consider laying a dish towel over the edge at the bottom of the cabinet to dampen the sound.
  2. Once your pup is responding to your cue and closing the door all the way, you can start to take the target off the cabinet and transfer it to other doors.

You did it!  Your kitchen will never look like that scene from The Sixth Sense again.  Have fun with this trick by making a little maze throughout your kitchen that your pup can clear.  It’s a very fun 15 secs for both the dog and the humans cheering him on!

 

Now what?

  • Have fun working with your pup on these tricks! Tricks are awesome because the necessity is so low.  Tricks are a great way to deepen your relationship, discover your pup’s motivators, and learn their signals for when they’ve hit their limits (and apply this knowledge to any behavior modification plans you are working on as well).
  • Share your pictures and videos of your pup helping you keep the house in order with our Facebook and Instagram pages! You can tag us @PetHarmonyTraining! We love seeing cute things!

You’re doing great!

Corinne

What Owning a Cat Teaches You About Agency

Why Cats?

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

“He never listens to me.”

“She only minds when she wants to.”

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

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

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

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

 

Cats Are a Lesson in Consent. (And Agency)

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

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

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

How do I give my pet a sense of Agency?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Now What?

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

The Intersection Between Health and Behavior

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Most people might be surprised to learn how often medical issues influence behavior issues. If you think about it from our perspective, though, it makes sense. When we’re sick or in pain, we might have less energy or, conversely, be more agitated. We don’t perform as well, and tasks that usually come easily to us feel like a slog. We might have less patience or a lower frustration tolerance. Likewise, if we’re anxious or depressed, we’re more likely to cry or shut down or lash out. When thinking about it from a human standpoint, it seems obvious that physical or mental illness changes our behavior. And yet, when it comes to our pets and their behavior issues, we usually jump straight to training without considering potential health factors. But if there is an underlying medical issue influencing the behavior, no amount of training is going to make that go away. Without acknowledging and addressing the root cause, we’ll just be spinning our wheels.

I practically grew up in the veterinary world. As a young girl I thought I wanted to go to vet school, so I was very excited when my 4H club took us on a field trip to tour the local vet school. While on the tour, our tour guide told us, “It’s not enough to get good grades if you want to get into veterinary school. You also have to have a lot of experience with animals.” I took that advice literally, and started volunteering in an animal shelter and a vet clinic when I was 11 years old. That was the beginning of a total of 23 years in veterinary settings in a variety of capacities. One of the reasons I became a behavior consultant was because I saw how deeply physical and mental health influences behavioral health – and vice versa – in seemingly limitless ways. And yet I still, more than three decades after I started, encounter new and surprising cases on a regular basis.

 

Charlie and his Sneaky Illness

Not too long ago, I worked with a client who had a 3 year old German Shepherd who was reactive to strangers and would sometimes guard food and objects from his owners. The client reported his behavior as unpredictable: sometimes he was reactive and sometimes he wasn’t; sometimes he would guard things from them and sometimes he wouldn’t. Usually, when a client tells me that their pet’s behavior is unpredictable, that means I have the opportunity to teach them how to better read their pet’s body language and how to observe changes in the environment that affect their pet’s behavior. But in Charlie’s case, as we worked together, and the clients honed their body language and observation skills, and Charlie learned some useful life skills, it became apparent that Charlie’s behavior was, in fact, being influenced by something beyond what we were observing.

I suggested that they take Charlie to their vet to rule out any medical issues. The vet did an exam and some basic wellness diagnostics, but didn’t find anything. She sent them home with an anti-anxiety medication, which did improve his behavior somewhat, for a while.

Over time, however, Charlie’s behavior got worse, even on the medication. And what made it even more difficult for the client was that they reported he was less food motivated–which had never been a problem for him before. He was overall more agitated, had difficulty resting, and no longer slept through the night. They tried exercising him more, but that didn’t seem to help at all. In fact, he resisted their attempts to take him out for walks.

Then something occurred to me. Charlie always looked to me like a smooth-coated German Shepherd. I never questioned it; I just assumed he was. So I asked the client if he was single-coated or double-coated? She seemed a little offended by the question, and said that they got Charlie from a reputable breeder who only bred double-coated dogs. I asked her if Charlie’s coat, then, had always been that thin? Her eyes widened, she looked at Charlie carefully, as if seeing him for the first time, then turned back to me, “You know, I never noticed before but… I think you’re right. Now that I’m thinking about it, he used to be really fluffy, and he isn’t anymore.”

There’s a disease called Schmidt’s Syndrome that is a combination of both hypothyroidism and Addison’s disease. It can be difficult to identify because each of those diseases have some opposite symptoms: hypothyroidism typically causes increased appetite; Addison’s typically causes decreased appetite. Hypothyroidism typically causes weight gain; Addison’s typically causes weight loss. But both diseases can cause hair loss and increased agitation and yet, paradoxically, also lethargy.

My dog Brie has Schmidt’s Syndrome. She became symptomatic around Charlie’s age. Hair loss and increased agitation were her first noticeable symptoms as well. I, too, didn’t notice the hair loss until it was significant, because when you look at a dog all day every day, you don’t notice gradual changes. She, also, didn’t gain weight. She, also, lost her appetite. Her vet, also, didn’t find anything significant in the standard wellness diagnostics for a dog her age.

It is both irresponsible and unethical for a non-veterinary behavior professional to give a medical diagnosis to a client, so I didn’t tell Charlie’s owners my suspicions. I did, however, give them a list of very specific symptoms to relay to their vet, along with very specific questions to ask. 

Because the client was able to give their vet more salient information, the vet was able to perform the right diagnostic tests. And sure enough, Charlie had Schmidt’s Syndrome. Within days of getting him on the appropriate medication, Charlie’s behavior started to improve. All the skills his owners had been teaching him suddenly fell into place. He didn’t just know how to do things; he was now able to do them. Life with Charlie became easier and more predictable.

 

What Did Charlie Teach Us?

Charlie’s journey made it clear to me that, even after three decades in the veterinary profession and over a decade of behavior consulting, some medical issues can still sneak up on us. They aren’t always obvious. Getting a clean bill of health from a vet doesn’t always mean the animal is actually healthy–and that also doesn’t mean that the vet was negligent or incompetent; a lot of illnesses can be tricky to find unless you know what you’re looking for. 

 

How Do You Know if You Should Be Looking Into a Medical Issue?

There are a lot of factors that lie beyond the scope of this blog, but the four most common signs to look for are:

  • Sudden change in behavior
      • If your pet’s behavior suddenly changes with no obvious inciting incident, it’s probably a medical issue.
  • Sensitivity around a particular body part
      • If your pet’s behavior issue(s) involve a particular part of their body (e.g. if your dog whips around and snaps at you every time you touch their hips), it’s probably a medical issue.
  • Cyclical behavior issues not based on routine changes
      • If the behavior issues crop up at a regular interval not related to your routine, it’s probably a medical issue.
  • Behavior issues that aren’t improving after training
    • If you’ve been working with a knowledgeable, science-based behavior professional who has taught you how to read body language, observe behavior in its environmental context, meet your pet’s needs, and teach them life skills to address their behavior issues, and your pet is still struggling, it’s probably a medical issue.

 

How Should I Talk To My Vet About My Pet’s Issues?

Obviously it’s difficult for us to tell you exactly what questions you should be asking your vet, since the list of medical issues that impact behavior is seemingly endless. However, as a general guideline it is helpful to be specific about what changes you have observed in your pet’s body and behavior. A vet can’t be as effective if a client comes in and says, “My dog is aggressive and my trainer says it’s probably a medical issue.” But if you can tell them exactly what changes you’re seeing, that will give them some clues as to where to look.

Here is a list of things to think about when talking with your vet:

  • Tell your vet about the specific behavior changes you’re seeing. Instead of making general comments like, “My dog is more aggressive,” or, “My dog is more fearful,” be specific about the behavior changes. For example:
    • My dog used to go on 2-mile hikes with me. Now she lays down and won’t walk again after just a quarter-mile.
    • Last month my dog started barking and growling at anyone who walks by. Before that he always ignored strangers.
    • Over the past year, my dog has been waking up in the middle of the night and pacing and whining. At first it was every so often. Now it happens every night.
  • If there’s a specific body part that seems to be affected, mention that. For example:
    • If your dog growls and snaps when you touch your dog’s ear, mention that.
    • If your dog’s coat quality or thickness changes, mention that.
    • If you notice they carry their tail differently than they used to, mention that.
  • Specify what cyclical changes you’re seeing. For example:
    • Every six weeks, my dog seems to forget everything she’s learned and we have to re-teach all the skills she’s learned. 
    • Every four to six weeks, my dog gets really irritable and will snap at us if we try to rub his belly for a few days. He normally loves belly rubs. 
    • Every summer my dog will bark and lunge at anyone who tries to pet him. The rest of the year anyone can pet him, but in the summer he doesn’t let anyone touch him.

Now What?

  1. Have you noticed any of the signs that there might be a medical issue influencing your dog’s behavior? If so, schedule an appointment with your vet.
  2. Prepare your list of talking points in advance of your appointment so you can be well-prepared and won’t forget any important information. If you’re working with a behavior professional, ask them to help you with this.
  3. If you feel that your vet isn’t taking your concerns seriously, get a second opinion from a different vet.

A Behavior Consultant, A Montessori Teacher, and a Case Manager All Walk Into a Bar…

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A BEHAVIOR CONSULTANT, A MONTESSORI TEACHER, AND A CASE MANAGER ALL WALK INTO A BAR…

Ok, that didn’t really happen. But if a behavior consultant, a Montessori teacher, and a case manager did walk into a bar as the old joke goes, you would actually be looking at one person. And that person would be me. You see, prior to joining the wonderful team at Pet Harmony, I had a background as a case manager for a social service agency and then taught at a private Montessori school for close to two decades. My route to becoming a trainer/behavior consultant is circuitous and years in the making and a story for perhaps another time. Instead, this post is about the most perfect partnership between my past and present selves and how I hope that partnership will be beneficial to families with children and dogs.

You see, I recently had the honor of becoming a Family Paws Parent Educator. That means that I took continuing education coursework to become licensed to work with families with dogs and babies and/or young children. To me, it feels like a match made in heaven. I get to use my skill set as a trainer and behavior consultant AND my skill set of working with human learners too! Oh, what a gift it is when the two things you feel most professionally passionate about come together in the most delightful way! 

 

TWO-LEGGED? FOUR-LEGGED? LEARNING IS ALL THE SAME

I will never grow tired of watching learners learn. I don’t care if my learner has two legs or four. I marvel at the process every time I witness it and find it endlessly fascinating. It thrills me to see my learners acting on the environment and discovering that they can influence what happens next. Or when their foundational understanding of certain criteria becomes the building blocks for future, more complex learning. How exciting it is to see confidence grow and learning accelerate! Without becoming too hyperbolic about a thing, to be witness to the transformation your learner experiences as they become fluid in their understanding is incredibly rewarding. 

Having been immersed in all things dog for the past few years has sort of put my background in education (at least of the human variety) on the back burner. But completing the Family Paws curriculum reignited my passion for helping young children be successful in their learning environments too and so I’ve been quietly brainstorming about merging my passions in a way that would be advantageous to both kids and dogs. Like a flash, one day it came to me that I could help dogs by creating learning opportunities for children as they engage in making enrichment items for their four-legged best friend. And VOILA! An idea was born! 

BEFORE THE MEAT, HERE ARE SOME POTATOES

Before I share my first idea with you I thought it would be nice to provide some basic information about Montessori education since most of the ideas I will be sharing are inspired by the practical life area of a Montessori classroom. The following core principles are central to Montessori schools around the globe. Oh, and by the way, hold onto your hats folks because the parallels between the core principles of a Montessori education and what is universally understood about dog development and learning is pretty astonishing. Maria Montessori was ahead of her time and a maverick. Just saying. 

 

CORE MONTESSORI PRINCIPLES

  1. The Absorbent Mind – children are born ready to learn how to learn. I mean, yes of course they are. As are all species including the ones we share our homes with.
  2. The Sensitive Period – sensitive periods are developmental windows of opportunity during which the child can learn certain concepts more readily and naturally than at any other time of their lives. Hello, critical socialization period for puppies!
  3. Children will auto-educate themselves – and sometimes not in the way we want them to. Does this sound familiar to you dog owners as well? We know that many dogs, when left to their own devices, will certainly find self-employment by chewing on the remote control, digging in the garden, barking at all passers-by or any number of other behaviors owners don’t particularly appreciate. 
  4. Respect for the child – Don’t all living things deserve our respect including our beloved dogs?    

 

SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST

This one really speaks to me not only as a former Montessori teacher but as a dog behavior consultant as well: 

The Prepared Environment – Maria Montessori believed that children learn best in what she describes as a prepared environment. Great effort and intention are put into making sure the learning environment is organized in such a way that it supports children’s development and aids in their personal independence. Tables and chairs and shelves are sized so that the child can navigate the classroom independently. The carefully selected and designed Montessori materials are beautifully organized on shelves that set the child up for successful learning and exploration. Dr. Montessori held the conviction that in addition to the student and teacher, the environment is the “third teacher” in the classroom and thus should be prepared in a manner that captivates the child’s attention and maintains their focus. 

Every time I read this description of the prepared environment, all the dog trainer in me can think of is how closely the prepared environment mimics what behavior folks call the antecedent arrangement. In short, the antecedent arrangement describes how the environment that the animal is in has been set up, hopefully deliberately, but sometimes not, to determine which behavior the animal is most likely to execute. 

Just like in the case of children, the goal should be that the environment is set up in a way that allows our dogs to be successful learners. How cool is that?! If you would like to further your knowledge about Montessori Education just click the highlighted text. Likewise, if you would like to take a deeper dive into understanding antecedent arrangements, click the text and you will be diverted to a great article on the subject.

 

HERE COMES THE FUN STUFF!

Now that you have learned a bit more about the Montessori method, it is time to share my first idea with you. Remember, my goal is to use a Montessori-inspired approach to give your child the opportunity to learn and develop new skills while they are making enrichment items for your dog to enjoy. It is always a good idea to keep in mind that the item is only going to be enriching for your dog if your dog chooses to engage with or understands the enrichment activity. For more on creating an enrichment plan for your dog, read this: http://petharmonytraining.com/july-2021-training-challenge-evaluate-your-enrichment-plan/

I would also recommend that you set up the environment so that your child can focus on their task without the family dog trying to “help.” And what I really mean when I say “help” is sample the goods as they are being prepared. Perhaps another family member can take the dog for a walk or play a game of fetch in the backyard during prep time. 

Also, as with all things dogs and kids, parental supervision is a must. I absolutely love this product to help your child be safe and successful: Toddler Tower Step Stool. I only wish such a wonderful tool was available when my kids were younger. (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!)

One final recommendation. As the goal is ultimately for your dog to benefit from your child’s hard work, when it is time for your dog to engage with the prepared enrichment item, the child must not interrupt them. I would encourage your child to watch your dog enjoying their enrichment from a safe distance. The parent can reinforce the child’s hard work and kindness by pointing out how much the dog is enjoying the activity and perhaps capturing it on video to share with other family members later. What a wonderful thing indeed, for our children to learn the invaluable lesson that doing kind things for others, is truly a gift to oneself as well. 

 

READY, SET, GO!

Material needed

  • Muffin tin
  • Colored balls
  • Construction paper that matches the color of the balls
  • Bowl of your dog’s kibble
  • Spoon

Parent set-up

The parent will need to cut small pieces of the construction paper and tape them to the top of each section of the muffin tin as demonstrated in the first photo. Parents will also need to gather all necessary supplies and make them easily accessible to the child. A large tray works well for this. (See photos below)

Child activity

The child will use the spoon and spoon a small portion of kibble into each separate section of the muffin tin. When the kibble has been spooned into the sections, the child can then match the colored ball to the section of the muffin tin that has the corresponding color paper. 

Skills for the child:

  • Practicing fine motor skills as they use the spoon to scoop up the kibble.
  • Hand-eye coordination as they transfer the kibble from the spoon into the muffin tin. 
  • Color matching and discrimination
  • Focus and concentration 

 

NOW WHAT? 

  • Follow us on Instagram for more upcoming ideas, photos, and tutorials on kids and canine enrichment activities.
  • We would love to see your photos of your kids preparing, or your dog enjoying, the enrichment that was made for him or her! Tag us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Read Canine Enrichment for the Real World for a deeper understanding of what canine enrichment is and how adding it to your dog’s daily routine can be a real game-changer for you and your dog. 

MaryKaye

July 2021 Training Challenge: Evaluate Your Enrichment Plan

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This month’s training challenge is about our favorite topic: enrichment. 

 

More specifically, evaluate your enrichment plan

 

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If you’ve spent 2 minutes putzing around our website or social media pages, you’ve likely gathered that “enrichment” is our jam.  If you’ve spent more than 2 minutes, it’s likely that it’s yours too.  You’re our people.

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed with all the good ideas and desires to implement enrichment, you are not alone.  When I started reflecting on what I needed to do to create the best life for my pup Opie, it was like a deluge of information that I loved kept overflowing my capacity to actually implement any of the ideas I had.  I was so excited with every new bit that I read that I wouldn’t finish one thought before running off with another. Nothing ever stuck. What I needed was a systematic, step-by-step approach to reflecting on the aspects of enrichment and working through the steps to achieve my goals.

Today we are going to break down the 4 questions that guide you in creating an enrichment plan to meet your pet’s needs.

When reflecting on how we can create rich, fulfilling lives for our pets, it always comes back to enrichment–meeting all of our animals’ needs. For more examples of enriching activities, check out Ellen’s blog post Enrichment Isn’t About The Activity. For an even deeper dive into what “enrichment” is and isn’t (and how we can implement it in our animals’ daily lives), check out Allie and Emily’s book Canine Enrichment for the Real World

Today’s blog is all about reflection.  We need to think about what behaviors we want to see for all of the aspects of enrichment and how we are setting our furry friends up for success. For the purpose of this blog post today, I am going to zero in on ONE aspect of enrichment, but to get an idea of the full scope for any animal, you can sign up for our free Enrichment Chart Guide here. This guide will help you identify where to start.

 

The 4 Questions To Ask Yourself When Creating An Enrichment Plan

Aspect of Enrichment Focus: Physical Exercise

 

Question 1: Is this need being met?

This question may seem like a simple yes or no, but dig a little deeper into your answer. For physical exercise, consider your animal’s size, energy abundance, disposition, instinctual behaviors, and (if applicable) species/breed typical activity.  Take for example: if you are noticing undesirable behaviors at 7 pm, does the amount of exercise in a day correlate to the frequency or intensity of that behavior? 

 

Question 2: Am I providing my animal with agency?

Much like humans enjoy feeling in control of our choices, so too do our pets. Providing multiple appropriate options for our pets results in more confident, resilient animals.  Pardon my double reference, but Allie and Emily’s book really dives deep into the legitimacy of this statement. It’s easy to assume that dogs want to go for walks, cats want to climb scratch poles, and horses want to gallop.  It may well be true that your pet is fulfilled by these exercise options, but what would they choose if they had the say?  Brainstorm a few options for your pet and let them choose their exercise for that day.

 

Question 3: What is the priority of addressing this aspect of enrichment?

As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to get over-excited and overwhelmed with the awesome ideas you read about giving your pet a better life.  I’m right there with you. Consider the importance that you place on each aspect of enrichment, review your Q1 & 2 answers, and give it a number from 1-10.  If physical exercise is not being met consistently, you may score it an 8; however, if physical exercise is being met, but you have not yet incorporated agency, you may score it a 5.  Address another aspect that has a higher number, enjoy the rewards of your work, and move along to the next goal.

 

Question 4: What is my plan of action?

Here’s where we get to it.  Oftentimes, when we feel overwhelmed it’s because we don’t know what our next steps are. It’s okay! Take a breath, and let’s break down what we do know.  Reflect on your knowledge, training, and expertise, and reach out to someone when you are stuck.  If your animal has limited mobility, but you are not qualified to assess what physical exercise is safe and appropriate, call your veterinarian.  If you only can think of taking the pup on a walk, pop on over to our Facebook page to get some new ideas. If your animal is reactive or fearful and struggles to get physical exercise, reach out to a behavior consultant.

 

I’ve worked with a pup who came to class jumping and lunging around barriers, unable to focus on his owners (and causing them the inability to focus on class), and passing notes at any opportunity.  Turns out, because of the family’s schedule, the dad leaves right from work to pick up the pup for training class, skipping his normal walk in order to make it in time for class.  With just a little stroll around the parking lot and a few rounds of “find it!”, the pup was eager (but not too!) and ready to focus in class.

People, we’re doing the best we can with what we have. The hardest thing for us pet parents to do is to toss out our preconceived notions about what we think our pet needs and rather observe what our animal is telling us.  Asking yourself these 4 questions to create an enrichment plan will help to streamline the process of providing your pet with what they deserve.

Some things may work, and others may be back to the drawing board.  Think less that your efforts are trial and error and more that it is trial and eval.  I know you’re excited and want to get started.  Take a breath, take a step, and enjoy observing what your animal is telling you.

To help organize your thoughts, sign up for our free Enrichment Chart Guide here.

 

Now what?

  • Ask yourself questions 1 & 2 to determine where there’s room for improvement. 
  • Assign priorities to those areas for growth and choose the one with the highest need.
  • Develop your plan of action (or work with us to help you!) and get started! We have plenty of ideas in our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues FB group, or if you need more personalized help you can work with our consultants
  • Share your training challenge results with us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram! We love hearing from you.

 

You’re doing great!

Corinne

What Gardening Can Teach Us About Behavior

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I’m a plant person. So, naturally, I was thinking about plants as we were readying a space to install raised beds last year. We have a shady backyard and while we chose the sunniest spot for the new beds, I was carefully monitoring how much sunlight it actually got so I knew which plants to put in. And that’s when I realized that there are some similarities between plants and animal behavior.

 

Environment matters

I mentioned that our backyard is shady so we didn’t have a choice to put our raised beds in an area with full sun (unless we wanted to chop down a tree, which we didn’t). That means that those beds house our veggies that need less sunlight: peas, salad greens, carrots, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. They’re loving it! Those plants are doing great and we’re getting to eat the rewards of that hard work. The environment is set up for those particular plants to thrive.

 

Definitely part shade! Fencing up to keep Oso from eating the veggies before we do.

 

But what would have happened if I had tried to put plants in those beds that required full sunlight? Some of them may survive, but they would never thrive. They would never do as well in partial light as they would in full sunlight. It wouldn’t matter how well I cared for them. It wouldn’t matter how much water they received or how much compost I added to their soil. They still would never thrive, no matter what I did. 

Environment matters. Each plant needs a particular type of environment in order to thrive. That’s true for our pets, too. Our pets may be okay in an array of different environments, but will likely only thrive and be the best they can be in certain ones.

We know this already for ourselves, whether consciously or not. When I think of this topic, I’m reminded of my professional wife and Pet Harmony co-owner, Emily. Emily and I met when we were working in southern Utah. She knew that she wasn’t a desert person even before moving there. She described to me that she had low-level stress all of the time by living in a desert and that she felt a sense of relief when she traveled somewhere greener. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I found myself experiencing that same relief when I would travel back to Illinois. I didn’t know I had low-level stress from living in a desert environment until I wasn’t in the desert anymore. 

It’s not that either of us did poorly living in the desert (well, Emily may say otherwise at times). But we would never be our best in that environment. It’s not the right living situation for us. The same can be true for our pets, too. A pet with sound sensitivity is going to have a harder time living in a city or living with certain kids. Dogs who come from a working line will do better in a household that loves doing things with their dogs and perhaps has more space. I’ve mentioned before that we adopted Oso as a behavior case. In our environment, he’s incredibly easy on a day-to-day basis. That wouldn’t be true in a different one, though (and was not true in several of his previous environments). Environment plays a role in behavior. 

 

What if my environment isn’t perfect for my pet?

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Uh oh. I know my environment isn’t the best for my pet. What do I do?”, you’re likely not alone. Many of the cases we see are situations in which that environment is simply not the best for that pet and that’s a large reason as to why they’re having problems. It wouldn’t be as hard in a different environment. 

One thing that we can do is management, and that can go a long way to improving the environment. For example, if we know our pet has a hard time with sounds and we live in the city then we can explore different sound masking options. Or, if we have a dog with leash reactivity to other dogs we could walk them in an industrial area where there isn’t likely to be other dogs. There are tweaks that we can make to improve our environment for our pets. 

This is also where behavior modification comes in. We can help our pets feel more comfortable in their environment and teach them skills that can help them interact with it. In some scenarios, these skills can help them be much closer to the best version of themselves; in others, it may only help make the situation okay instead of great. 

There are also several times where we’ve seen people choose the answer: change the environment. I did this with Oso when we moved back to Illinois. Our set-up in Utah was not ideal for him and we knew that when we brought him into our family. However, we also knew that we were moving in a few months and that we would be able to have a much better environment for him in Illinois. He’s one of the reasons we live in the house that we do today. I’ve seen other folks do the same when they’ve moved in the middle of their behavior modification journey and their pet’s behavior was a factor in their new location. Emily had a client who wasn’t planning on moving and then did so specifically for her dog! 

The question we get not infrequently when talking about changing the environment is about rehoming. That conversation is outside the scope of this particular post, but it is a viable option in some cases. Sometimes loving an individual means doing what is right for them, even if it’s hard for you. And sometimes what’s right is allowing a pet to be in an environment that’s set up for them to thrive even if you can’t be the one to provide it. 

 

Accepting our pets for who they are

Sometimes the issue is not necessarily the environment our pet lives in, but the environments we want them to be a part of. For example, a dog who’s afraid of kids might do quite well in their home environment which doesn’t have kids but it would be disastrous to take them to a family party in which there are a lot of kids running around. Or, a pet with generalized anxiety might do well with their day-to-day routine and home, but would likely not do as well traveling cross country in an RV with their family. We need to accept our pets for who they are and not put them into environments in which we know they won’t do well. We wouldn’t ask a plant to need less sunlight, would we? (Okay, I actually make that request of plants all the time and then they start dying so it’s not a successful request.)

 

Now what?

  • Evaluate your environment objectively. Try to keep emotion out of it as much as possible (I know it can be hard!) Is your environment perfect for your pet? If yes, great! If no, keep on reading. 
  • Consider how you can manage your environment to help make it closer to what your pet needs. Start implementing those management strategies!
  • Evaluate how those management strategies are going. Is it sufficient or do you need to go to the next step of teaching skills and modifying behavior? If it’s sufficient, great! If not, keep on reading. 
  • Work with a behavior consultant to determine which skills will help your pet and your particular situation. A professional will be able to get you results faster than if you were to go through it on your own. Email us at [email protected] if you need help or get started immediately with our Beginning Behavior Modification on-demand course! Even remotely we can still evaluate your environment; we’ve mastered the wobbly Zoom house tour without getting seasick!

 

Happy training!

Allie

Community Question: What Enrichment Can I Use for [Insert Your Issue Here]

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Over in the Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues group on Facebook (come join us!), some of our frequently asked questions are along the lines of: 

What enrichment can I use with a resource guarder? 

What enrichment can I use for separation anxiety? 

What enrichment can I use for dogs that steal? 

What enrichment can I use for [insert behavior problem here]?

Before we dive in, let’s review a couple of things. If you remember back to last week’s blog, enrichment isn’t about an activity or toy, it’s not what we do to or give to our pets. It’s about the changes in our pet’s observable and measurable behavior after the opportunity to engage with something that allows them to meet a need. 

The simple definition of enrichment is: meeting all of an animal’s needs. 

We can expand that to a full definition: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

 

Using Enrichment for Problems

The first step to goal-oriented enrichment is to list out the undesirable behaviors. Remember to use overt, observable, measurable behaviors. 

The second step is to list out the DESIRABLE behaviors. What do you want to happen instead? Remember to use overt, observable, measurable behaviors. 

The third step is to look at the categories of needs and ask yourself, based on the undesirable behaviors listed, “Is this need being met?” What category do they likely fall into? The categories are: 

Health/Veterinary

Hygiene

Diet/Nutrition 

Physical Exercise

Sensory Stimulation

Safety

Security

Instinctual Behaviors/Species-Typical Behaviors 

Foraging

Social Interaction

Mental Exercise

Independence

Environment 

Calming

 

Now, let’s return to the original question. “What enrichment can I use for [insert your problem here]?”

And the very honest answer is, I can’t tell you. It’s going to be dependent on you, your dog, your situation. Without having a better understanding of your life, it is very hard (and unethical) for us to say “do XYZ activity for XYZ problem”. With different issues, we often see clusters of needs that aren’t being met, but HOW we meet each of those needs is entirely dependent on the individual. 

For example, all dogs need physical exercise, but Griffey, my 5-year-old forever puppy, and Laika, my 8-year-old dog need very different things. Griffey needs 2-3 bouts of very intense tug or flirt pole. Laika needs 15 minutes of low-key ball catching. All dogs need to participate in species-typical behaviors, but Griffey, my suspected hound mix, and Laika, my suspected terrier mix need very different things. Griffey needs the opportunity to sniff out food in the yard, meanwhile, Laika needs the opportunity to shred things for her food. 

So, because it would be unethical to tell you exactly what to do without knowing you, your dog, and your situation, let’s take a look at a few success stories where we addressed behavior concerns through the lens of enrichment. 

 

The One Where The Dog Couldn’t Sleep

Let’s kick it off talking about Truman. Truman was about a 65 pound, long-backed, low-riding pup. Every night around dusk, Truman would start pacing around the home crying and panting, he’d lay down, then get back up. He would spend the entire night shifting, getting up, moving around, crying. Neither he nor his people were able to get a good night’s rest. Truman’s folx needed sleep. The sleep deprivation was increasing their overall stress and impacting their welfare too. 

The undesirable behaviors: getting up throughout the night, crying/pacing/panting throughout the evening, overall restlessness. 

The desirable behaviors: able to rest in the evening, sleeping through the night. 

When we look at the categories of enrichment there were a couple of places that we thought might need improvement: physical exercise and health/vet. 

In order to achieve the desired behaviors, we took a multi-pronged approach. We got Truman in for a general vet exam to make sure that his health/veterinary needs were being met. 

While we were waiting for that appointment, we also tried adjusting his physical exercise routine. Truman’s people noticed that he had harder nights (louder whining, more frequent adjusting and moving…) on days he went to a full day of daycare. So, we tried reducing his time at daycare to half days, then down to a couple of hours a couple of times a week. We saw an improvement, but it still wasn’t the restful nights the family needed. 

With the information that the increased activity was making the situation worse, Truman’s vet found that Truman had a back injury and inflammation that was causing physical discomfort. Once Truman’s health/veterinary needs were met, and he received treatment for his injury, he was able to sleep through the night again. 

 

The One Where the Dog Wouldn’t Move

Pearl was a small 4-month-old terrier mix who was recently adopted to a new family. They noticed that Pearl wasn’t like their past puppies. She hardly moved, she flinched at movements and sounds, she cowered at the sight of other dogs. Pearl’s family wanted her to feel comfortable in her new environment, and to know that she was safe and secure 

The undesirable behaviors: cowering, flinching, staying stationary. 

The desirable behaviors: affiliative behaviors toward the family and dogs, walking around, sniffing, movement. 

Based on Pearl’s behavior, we suspected that there were a couple of areas that could use improvement: safety, security, and very specifically agency within these contexts. 

The first thing we did was create a safe space for Pearl. We gave her two or three options of things to lay on, a few different toys of a few different types. She needed the opportunity to make a choice between multiple desirable things. Only good things happened in Pearl’s safe space. That was her escape, that was her place where she could control the world, any time Pearl went to her safe space, it put a pause on anything that was happening. 

When Pearl came out of her safe space, she got even more options. Do you want to engage with us? Do you want to play with a toy? Do you want to go outside? Do you want to play with another puppy? Which puppy looks interesting to you? Pearl got to drive the boat, we were merely there to facilitate. 

By the end of a week, Pearl was eager to see her family (loose body, wagging tail, gaping smile), and was soliciting play from other puppies. 

 

The One Where the Dog Would Bite

Turner is a small, year and a half-ish, Heinz 57 kind of mix. His family adopted him when he was 10 weeks old and shortly after realized that he had no trouble telling them when he didn’t want something to happen, in the form of biting. This especially happened when they would pick him to go upstairs for the evening or to get out of the car. Turner’s bites escalated in severity until his dad needed stitches. Turner’s family wanted him and them to remain safe and were worried that he would start biting other people aside from them. 

The undesirable behaviors: biting, lip curling, growling

The desirable behaviors: getting out of the car safely, allowing to be picked up to go upstairs, predictable reactions to handling

Turner had already seen a veterinarian who ruled out medical concerns, so we needed to look at other categories of enrichment. Based on Turner’s behavior, we knew he needed help with independence and ultimately agency (which is not a category of enrichment, rather an umbrella category that is a necessary part of all of the categories). 

The first thing we did for Turner was to give him the agency to say “no” to being picked up by teaching his parents about his stress signals and how to respond to them. As his dad said in a follow-up session, “Just don’t pick him up!” Turner was immediately a much happier camper when we gave him the agency to say “no”. 

But that still didn’t change the fact that he’s a little guy living in a big world. How was he to get in the car, on the bed, and up the stairs? That’s where independence comes in. Turner’s parents got a ramp for the car and stairs for furniture he enjoyed sleeping on in the house. However, he didn’t know how to use them, so his family is teaching him how to use those tools to increase his choices in those situations. 

Turner’s journey isn’t quite over at the time of writing this blog post, but he and his family are enjoying living a much more harmonious, bite-free lifestyle. 

 

In each of these cases, the dogs had needs that weren’t being met. For Truman it was health/medical, for Pearl it was safety and security, for Turner it was independence. Without all of the necessary information, advice would miss the mark. Instead, by having all the necessary information, and by meeting each dog’s needs, we were able to make progress and find harmony within the family.

 

Now What? 

  • Do you have a dog with some behavior you’d like to change? List the undesirable behaviors, the desirable behaviors, and then look at the categories of enrichment and ask yourself “is this need being met?” Once you have an idea, you can start strategizing your activities to have the biggest impact on your pet’s behavior. 
  • To learn more about using enrichment effectively in behavior change plans, come join us for our free Roadmap for Behavior Solutions workshop!

Enrichment Isn’t About the Activity

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This month, we are spending quite a bit of time talking about overt vs. covert behaviors. We want to switch our language from constructs and covert assumptions to overt, measurable, observations. This is also true of our enrichment plan.  

 

What is enrichment?

The simple definition of enrichment is: meeting all of an animal’s needs. 

We can expand that to a full definition: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. 

When we see pets with behavior problems, both nuisance behaviors, and maladaptive behaviors, we always look to see if their needs are being met. Enrichment isn’t an activity we do or a thing we give to our animals. It is in the opportunity and ability for the animal to meet their needs, and we measure that through the behavioral changes we see as a result. We cannot say an activity is “enriching” if we don’t see a change in their overall overt and observable behavior. 

Enrichment isn’t measured by: 

They played with the item or not 

They spent 20 minutes on dinner instead of 5 minutes 

They “liked it”

They “had fun”

Enrichment can be measured by: 

Changes in their overall behavior (my dog barks at sounds outside 50% less on days after we take a 45-minute sniff stroll)

Decrease in undesired behavior and/or increases in the desired behavior (my dog doesn’t mouth me at night when we play tug in the middle of the day and/or my dog rests more at night when we play tug in the middle of the day)

Now, I’m not saying this to be a party pooper. If you want to do activities with your dog because they are having fun (what does their body language tell you?), and you are having fun, then do it! 

Activities can be fun!  

But they may not be enriching. 

 

And you may be wondering, does this really matter?

Yes, for a couple of reasons. 

When I’m implementing an enrichment plan to help with pet behavior issues, I want to do things that are really enriching, not just occupying my dog. I want to objectively know that I’m meeting their needs in a way that works for both of us and will support our progress on a behavior change program. Let’s look at an example. 

Griffey reacts (barks, cries, whines, runs away, runs towards) sounds outside. We have two separate activities we do on a relatively regular basis: sniffing for meals in the yard, and frozen food puzzles. When we do sniffing for meals in the yard, Griffey reacts to 50% less of the sounds that happen outside, AND he reacts for a shorter duration. When we do frozen food puzzles, there is no observable difference in his response to sounds outside. One of these things is enriching, one of these things is an activity. 

We all have 24 hours in the day, but we don’t have the same 24 hours. Someone that commutes and someone that works from home has different capabilities throughout the day. Someone with a dishwasher and someone who has to hand wash dishes have different amounts of effort to clean toys. Living with a dog with behavior problems is stressful enough. My goal for my clients is that their enrichment plan provides them relief, not just more work. I don’t want time, energy, effort, and money invested in places where it isn’t objectively going to help progress our behavior modification program. 

Circling back to those two activities we do in my house: sniffing for meals out in the yard, and frozen food toys. To sniff food out in the yard, I take a couple of handfuls of kibble and toss it around. The effort from me is almost nothing. After sniffing for meals in the yard, Griffey reacts to 50% less of the sounds that happen outside, AND he reacts for a shorter duration. This means that my effort (incredibly low) gets me a great return.  Now let’s look at those frozen food toys. It takes time to stuff them, I lose a lot of freezer space, I have to expend time, effort, and energy to separate and monitor the dogs, I don’t have a dishwasher, so I have to wash all of them by hand and air dry, and I have invested a lot of money and storage into keeping all of them. The effort for me on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high) is probably about a 7. That’s a lot of effort to not see an objective difference in his response to sounds outside. 

Being able to prioritize and build a sustainable enrichment plan is critical. If we continue to do things that aren’t meeting our dog’s needs AND create work for us, we are going to burn out. That’s time we could spend doing something meaningful. 

For Griffey, I know that the frozen food toys are an activity. Whether he gets them or not, there is no difference in his overt behavior. This means, that they are optional. On the flip side, sniffing for meals in the yard has a very large positive impact on his overt behavior. This is a staple in our routine. When things get busy, it’s incredibly helpful to know what is going to get you the best return on your investment. 

 

Now, does that mean I skip frozen food toys all together? 

Definitely not! They are an excellent management activity for me. If I need my dogs quiet for a while, or I need some space, or I need to clean the house in peace, then I pull out a frozen food toy. It keeps them occupied while I’m able to do my stuff. It’s just incredibly helpful to know that when I’m busy, tired, or just not up for it, I can skip them and my dogs won’t be impacted. Plus, it’s fun for me to watch them get all excited (prancing, galloping, hopping, windmill tails, “woowoo” bark, big dog smiles). It brings me joy, and that’s important too. 

Enrichment is a necessary part of the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions, so let’s make sure our efforts are enriching. 

 

Now what? 

  • If you don’t know where to start, you can sign up for our free Enrichment Chart Guide here. This guide will help you identify which of your dog’s needs might not be met (currently!), and where to start. 
  • If you’d like to learn more about how enrichment fits into the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions, sign up to join our upcoming free workshop.  Learn more about our free Roadmap for Behavior Solutions here!
  • If you already have an enrichment plan in place, look at the lasting impact it has on your dog’s overt behavior throughout the day. Days where you do XYZ activity, do you see an increase or decrease in measurable behavior?

 

Agency: What It Is & Why Your Pet Needs It

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A few weeks ago there was a discussion in our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community Facebook group where I realized that I’ve never actually written a post about agency itself. Sure, I’ve included this topic in other posts but I’ve never devoted an entire post to this topic alone. It’s about time that changed! So this week is solely devoted to a topic that I don’t think gets near enough attention in the pet community: agency.

 

What is agency?

Agency is the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. One of the important factors here is that agency requires at least two desirable choices. A “cake or death” decision a la Eddie Izzard doesn’t fly. 

 

Doesn’t meet the 2+ desirable choices criterion

 

A pet example of a choice that fits the criteria would be the choice to sleep on comfy bed A or on comfy bed B. An example of a choice that doesn’t fit the criteria would be come when I call or get shocked. Make no mistake, though, it’s entirely possible to use food coercively as well. Such as, you can have delicious treats but only if you approach a person you find scary. Those examples don’t have at least two great choices to choose from. 

 

Why agency is important

There are so many reasons why agency is important that it would take me an entire book chapter to explain them all 😉 The short answer is it’s helpful in:

  • Combating learned helplessness
  • Creating resilience
  • Improving behavioral health
  • Improving quality of life (I don’t have research to back this bullet point up since “quality of life” is pretty subjective, but I think it’s safe to say that this is likely true from an anecdotal capacity and if we look at all the other things agency does for an individual.)

On a more practical note, having agency can be huge when it comes to how an individual reacts in certain situations. Here’s the example I use with my clients to illustrate this point:

Say that you’re at an educational wildlife event. The presenter is holding a snake. You hang out at the back of the room, fearful to move closer. The presenter continues talking about the snake they’re holding and offers for anyone to touch the snake who would like to do so. By the end of the presentation you’ve made your way to the front of the room and touch the snake. This was not a scary experience because you had full control over whether or not you put your hand on the snake. 

Now, let’s say you’re having a picnic. You’re sitting and chatting with your friends when you put your hand down– right on top of a snake. Chances are you’re not okay with this scenario, even though it’s the exact same behavior– hand on snake– as above. You may scream, run away, or perform some other fight or flight behavior. The difference between these scenarios is that you didn’t have the choice to touch the snake in the picnic but did in the presentation. 

We seem to see this with our pets, too. I often see reactive dogs who are far less reactive when they’re able to move away from the scary thing than when they’re made to sit there and watch it. Or dogs with separation anxiety who display fewer stress-related behaviors or less intense stress-related behaviors when they’re given more space to move about in the house (though, confinement anxiety is also a thing). While we can’t necessarily ask our pets in these situations if it’s agency that’s truly causing the change in behavior, we see it consistently enough that it’s a valid hypothesis. 

 

How can I provide more choices in my pet’s life?

There are so many ways to do this and we have a lot of examples in our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Here are some easy options:

  • Multiple sleeping areas to choose from
  • Being able to choose where they go and what they sniff on a walk
  • Food preference tests
  • Toy preference tests

Here are couple that are more involved but also allow for even more agency in situations where it really counts:

  • Cooperative care & start button behaviors for medical and grooming procedures
  • Being able to choose whether or not they move closer to a stressor– without luring with food

 

But… what if they make poor choices?

Agency doesn’t mean that your pet has full authority to do whatever they want. If you have a pet who bites people coming into the house they still need to be managed to ensure they don’t bite people coming into the house. We should not diminish safety to increase choice. 

Agency means providing choices that don’t compromise safety, physical health, mental or behavioral health, or enable them to practice unwanted behaviors. That sometimes means that our pets may not have multiple choices in a situation. When that happens we can acknowledge that and work on training a skill that allows our pet to have choices in future similar situations. For example, a dog who doesn’t have a rock solid recall (come when called) shouldn’t be off-leash even though being off-leash allows for more agency. Instead of resigning to that, we can work on training a rock solid recall for future use. 

 

Now what?

  • Assess the choices your pet currently has. Don’t be critical or hard on yourself; we’re simply assessing to see where we have room for improvement. 
  • In those areas where you find your pet doesn’t have agency, ask yourself why that is. Is it to mitigate safety concerns? Is it to mitigate unwanted behaviors? Or, are there situations where you’re not quite sure or because it’s what someone once recommended or you think it’s what you should be doing? Keep probing until you find those answers. 
  • If you’re newer to agency and thinking about your pet’s choices, choose one of those easier situations to increase your pet’s desirable choices. 
  • If this is something that you’ve been working on or thinking about for a while, you may want to consider one of the more involved options. Cooperative care is a great place to start for almost everyone. 
  • If you’re interested in learning more about agency and how to incorporate it into your pet’s life, check out our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and be sure to join us in our Facebook group.

 

Happy training!

Allie

September 2020 Training Challenge

This month’s training challenge was also the September challenge from last year. Apparently September just reminds me of food puzzles! This month’s challenge is:

Teach your pet how to use a new food puzzle

As I mentioned in the beginning of the year (and throughout the other challenges), this year’s training challenges are dedicated to our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Each month focuses on a different category of enrichment. This month’s focus is “Mental Exercise”. 

To effectively meet the mental exercise component, make sure that your new puzzle is challenging enough for your pet to employ their problem solving skills but not so challenging that they get frustrated and give up. There’s often a fine line between the two and that’s often why we need to teach our pets how to use their new toy.

From “They Won’t Do It” to “They Love It”

While foraging (searching for food) is a natural behavior for all species, food puzzles aren’t natural. There are no food puzzles growing in the wild so that the ancient dog or cat ancestor learned how to use them and pass that knowledge down to future generations. This is why we frequently need to teach our pets how to use a particular puzzle, especially if they haven’t used one before. 

Check out our video below on how to teach your pet to use a food puzzle:

And here are some tips that I shared in last year’s blog post:

Here are some tips for teaching your pet a new food puzzle:

  • Choose a puzzle with your pet’s preferences in mind. Our pets have preferences just like we do. For instance, Oso is a rough-and-tumble kind of dude. He’s great at the puzzles that he can knock over and roll around with his nose. He doesn’t mind the noise those make though he does prefer to use them on carpeted areas. I know that if I give him a new puzzle he can roll around I don’t need to show him how to to it. However, he’s not as adept at the intricate food puzzles that require a lot of small motions and steps. His way of solving those is dropping them on the floor so they break open (which, while a valid way to solve the puzzle is also expensive to buy replacements.) If I give him a more complicated puzzle I’ll have to teach him first before he can use it without breaking it. 
  • Choose a puzzle with your pet’s experience in mind. Giving a challenging food puzzle to a novice dog is likely to lead to frustration. On the other hand, giving a simple food puzzle to an experienced dog is not going to provide much of a challenge. Think about how much experience your dog has with food puzzles and choose a new one accordingly. 
  • Work up to the most challenging setting. Many puzzles have ways to make them more or less difficult. Instead of starting with the most difficult setting we should work our way up to it by first starting on the easiest, then easy-medium, medium, medium-hard, and finally the hardest setting. This allows our pet to master each setting and build a history of getting food from the puzzle. That history will help them keep at it for longer when it becomes more challenging. 
  • Show them how but try not to do it for them. It was once thought that only primates could learn through watching others but we now know that our pets can do this too! We can encourage them to use their new puzzle by showing them how to get the treats out a few times. Be careful though not to do it every time for them. Some learn that the best way to get the food out is to let the human do it! While that’s a clever solution in using their resources it doesn’t necessarily meet the goal we’re hoping to achieve by introducing a new puzzle. Show them how a few times then let them at it. 
  • Use a higher-value food. Higher-value food helps build more motivation in almost all training scenarios: this is no different! Up the ante when they’re first learning and save the kibble for when they’ve got the hang of it. 

What food puzzle should I try?

Here are some of our favorite store bought options for dogs (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. 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!):

Here are some of our favorite store bought options for cats (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. 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!): 

Small dogs and cats can often choose between these lists, too!

Don’t forget DIY!

Food puzzles don’t need to break the bank. There are a lot of simple, cheap, DIY options like these:

Now what?

  • Buy and/or make your new puzzle!
  • Teach your pet how to use their new toy, if needed. 
  • Share videos of your pets having fun and using their brains with us on Facebook or Instagram: @petharmonytraining

Happy training!

Allie