Introducing Strangers into the Equation

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

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

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

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

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

And you know what I tell them? 

“Expect them to deviate from your instructions.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Give very clear instructions. 

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

 

Only give instructions you need to.

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

 

Remember, you have skills they don’t. 

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

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

 

Now What? 

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

Happy training,

Ellen

December 2021 Training Challenge: Manage One Trigger for Your Pet

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I can’t believe that it is already December! 

With the holidays continuing through the remainder of the year, we thought a management training challenge is in order! 

So this month, we challenge you to create a management plan for one of your pet’s triggers. 

When we are dealing with stress, anxiety, and/or fear any management we can put in place will help our pets. If you haven’t seen it already, make sure to check out this blog on trigger stacking. Allie talks about why management is so important for our pets, and how it can make a big difference. 

Remind me, what’s management? 

Great question! When we are talking about management, we ask: 

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

When we implement a management strategy, we are looking to avoid exposure to the stressful thing entirely. Sometimes, that’s not possible, and in those cases, we look to minimize exposure. 

The end of the year is a time when our pets could experience any number of triggers: 

  • New decorations
  • A higher volume of deliveries
  • More people coming to the house
  • More things for your pet to get into
  • Seasonal fireworks
  • Neighbors having company
  • Neighborhood or local celebrations 

If you know that something is stressful for your pet, start to build your management plan today! Don’t wait until the last minute, or both of you will be stressed. 

Now What? 

  • Identify a stressor for your pet. The first step to building a management plan is to know what you need to manage! 
  • Once you know what you are going to manage, ask yourself the following questions: 
    • How can I keep everyone safe?
    • How can I avoid the stressful thing? 
    • How can I make the behavior I don’t like less likely to happen? 
    • What would I prefer to happen instead? 
  • Implement your plan! Tag us @petharmonytraining to let us know how your management plan is going! 

Happy training,

Ellen

Invisible Fences: Expectation vs. Reality

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Cultural Fences

I lived in southern California for many of my formative years. There, almost everyone had a fenced backyard. If you had a dog, they were behind a fence in the backyard. When they weren’t, they were in the house or on a leash. I am certain there are people who let their dogs walk off-leash in California, but I didn’t see them often. I did see that if animals were roaming about, they were quickly picked up by animal control. In a crowded, suburban neighborhood near Los Angeles, there is not a ton of room for roaming dogs. 

When we moved to northern Utah, hardly any of our neighbors had fences. There is definitely an appeal to seeing rolling green lawns and pretty little gardens for blocks and blocks. Yet, there existed a problem: dogs. 

People in this new neighborhood still had dogs, but they let them out with little to no supervision. Without fences, they would of course wander off to poo, pee, and play in other peoples’ yards. There are many stories of friendly neighborhood dogs. There are also stories of damaged property, scared livestock, and dog bites.

This is why there are leash laws and “dog at large” laws. So most dog owners agree that their pet should definitely stay in their own yard. What they don’t always agree on, is how to do it.

Fencing Woes

There are, of course, many solutions. Each solution has its own benefits and drawbacks. Today, we will focus on “invisible” fences. This can refer to any number of devices connected to a collar on your dogs’ neck that use sound and/or electricity to keep your dog in your yard. Why might you choose this option over traditional fencing?

  • Your neighborhood has a certain aesthetic. Sometimes this is from the city level or a Homeowner’s Association. Fences may not be allowed, or only very specific or expensive fencing.
  • Your budget doesn’t include the expense of a fence.
  • Your dog is digging under, slipping through, or jumping over your fence.
  • Your property has boundaries that make a regular fence difficult. This might include extensive trees, rough terrain, or water features.
  • Your dog escapes through the gate when you open it.
  • You want your dog to be able to use both the front and back yard.

These are valid reasons. I can understand why you are considering it, if it seems to coincide with your needs.  

And, why not?

It does seem like a good idea. You still get to see your neighbor, the HOA won’t come down on you, and your dog won’t escape from the yard anymore. You just set up the wiring and slap the collar on your dog, and now each time he tries to run out of the yard, it will give a warning tone. If he continues to try, it will give him a quick static shock. Will this effectively “punish” the behavior, so your dog will stay in your yard?

Well, if the static shock is painful enough, yes. It will not work if it doesn’t cause the dog discomfort. However, she may not enjoy her time outside as much as you’d hoped. Remember, dogs learn by association. So they don’t always learn what we hope from aversive experiences like a static shock.

Other things that may happen with an invisible fence:

  • Another animal or person may walk by. Your dog will run up to them, expecting to greet them, but instead feels an unpleasant shock around his neck. New people or animals become a predictor for discomfort. 
  • Your dog may become fearful of or reactive to strangers or other animals
  • Your dog may develop a phobia of sounds like the warning tone of the collar
  • If your dog gets excited or determined enough when a cat or another animal walks by, he may PUSH THROUGH the shock to chase it. With the excitement gone, he may not want to go back across the barrier to get shocked again. He may be stuck outside of the yard.
  • Other animals may go through the boundary of your invisible fence and your dog will be trapped inside it. This can result in anxiety or injury.
  • When the batteries on the collar go out, your dog may go back to going under, over, or through the fence. 
  • Most, if not all static shock collars come with a warning to not use them on animals younger than 6 months old, or below a certain weight. 

Many, if not all, of the consultants here at Pet Harmony have seen an animal affected by one or more of these drawbacks. 

Playful Puppy or Scared Dog?

In one of my former neighborhoods, a neighbor had a huge, open backyard. I would often walk by with my dogs and work on their loose leash walking. One day, there was suddenly a pointer puppy in their yard. He ran towards us cheerfully, with his bum wagging and his body curved. Then, suddenly, he stiffened, lifted a paw, and whined, backing away from an unseen barrier. He eventually ran and hid behind the house. I was able to see the effects of the invisible fence as time went on. A few months later, I could only walk by on the other side of the road. The now-adolescent puppy would rush the boundary, barking, growling, and snarling at me and my dog. He had learned that passersby meant that he would experience discomfort. His reactivity was his way of trying to control the situation. If he scared people away, then he didn’t get shocked.

A german shorthaired pointer rushes towards the camera

I also worked with a very timid chihuahua. Joey was leaving little urine marks all over his owner’s home and property. He would tremble at the sight of new people, and didn’t want to eat in the boarding facility I was working at. We started trying our regular confidence-building activities with clickers and treats. The moment he heard the “click” of the marker, he flinched, and ran to the end of his leash, pacing and panting heavily. Upon further digging with his pet parents, we found they had an invisible fence at home. The clicking sound predicted the shock of leaving the boundary. We were able to increase his confidence over time, but he is still afraid of that noise.

What Can I Do?

If you currently have or are thinking of using an underground or otherwise “invisible” fence, consider other options. You can try staying out with your dog while they are out. That way, you can reinforce desired behavior, and teach them alternatives to undesired behaviors. If your dog is still working on improving their recall, take your dog out on a long leash to let them stretch their legs or potty outside. Find local dog parks or daycares to let your dog run and play, if they are dog-friendly.  Enroll in a dog sport like barn hunt or agility. Work on improving your indoor enrichment activities; it may surprise you how effective indoor nose work or puzzle feeders can be in helping your dog to manage their energy better. If possible, install a physical fence. It will keep other animals out and, with supervision and training, will keep your dog in. 

An open field is not the only way to exercise your dog. You may be surprised at how little space you need to keep your dog healthy and happy.

A longhaired German Shepherd standing in a fenced yard. There is snow on the ground.
A physical fence is a great way to keep your dog safe.

There is only so much we can learn without experience. If you are experiencing guilt or if you are feeling angry about this post, that is okay. Take a step back, calm down, and know that we are here for you. You can only act on the knowledge you have, and you can only behave in ways that have been reinforced for you. We sometimes act on what seems to be a faster solution to our problems rather than what is best for our situation. That is human, that is normal. There may even be cases where none of the fallout is evident, and the animal may even seem to be thriving. It is important to remember that a quiet, still dog isn’t always a happy dog. This can be a sign of learned helplessness, and it is not a sign of a healthy animal. 

Now What?

 

Measuring Success in Behavior Journeys

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I tried to walk my dog today.

Because Griffey has some leash reactivity, we have a fairly strict management plan for him. If we are not out of the house before 7:30, we don’t walk that day. We meet his needs in other ways. 

Walks after 7:30 aren’t fun. For anyone. He’s scared. I’m frustrated and annoyed. Both of us are hypervigilant. Neither of us starts the day off by melting the stress away and feeling empowered. It bleeds into and makes the rest of our day harder. 

So, we manage it. Sometimes, even with management, stuff happens. 

 

And stuff happened today.

I saw a biker coming down the opposite side of the cross street as we entered a 6-way interchange. Even if the biker turned in our general direction, they SHOULD have been on the opposite side of a garden median. I brought Griffey as far away from the street as possible to get him the distance he would need. 

And it would have been fine. Except the biker decided to ride against traffic and get within 6 feet of us. 

To share my internal dialogue would be… colorful. With so much space, with me clearly trying to get more distance (no other reason someone would duck behind garbage cans), why would you ride ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET!? 

Either way, it happened. I started to beat myself up. Helloooooooo, shame spiral! But then I looked at Griffey and realized Griffey was okay. 

Sure, he still had a lunging, barking, screaming fit when the biker got too close, which we work very hard to avoid. Frankly, my internal fit was significantly worse than his external reaction.

But he recovered. In record time. By the time the biker was across the street, Griffey was looking back at me, his muscles had relaxed, he was bounding next to me like a little deer. He was ready to continue on our adventure. He rebounded. He rebounded faster than I did. 

Was it ideal? Absolutely not. Will I use this information to try to inform my decisions in the future? Yes. I don’t want it to happen again. My goal is still to prevent over threshold events entirely. But it reminded me that in our behavior change journeys, success can be measured in a number of ways. Not only a reaction – no reaction dichotomy. 

 

There are multiple measures of success

Griffey being comfortable in his environment has always been the primary goal. But comfort looks different in different places. In Florida, it was the escape from the heat and fire ants. In Washington, it was finding locations that didn’t aggravate his allergies. In California, it’s finding adequate space from the plethora of scary monsters. 

3 years ago, had we been in this situation, I would have had to pick Griffey up and walk him home. This event would have brought him to and kept him over his threshold for hours. The dog that barked behind the fence on our way home would have been yet another threat to our very existence, and we would have lost it all over again. 

Instead, he was ready to continue, his body got loose, he was able to eat and respond to well-practiced cues. The dog behind the fence got little more than a chuff before continuing on our way. 

3 years ago, for the rest of the day, every little sound outside the house would have been the end of the world. He would have been hyper-vigilant. Tense. Unable to settle. 

Instead, we made it home, and he was able to settle in the sun with a frozen kong. He’s now curled up asleep in his cave. Even with the delivery person ringing the doorbell, he has been able to relax and settle. He was able to “flight” back inside when the neighbor’s dog barked across the street. 

There is more than one metric for success in every behavior change journey. I lost sight of that. 

 

Now what?

  • What are some other ways you can measure success in your journey? Does your dog settle more? Do they look to you for help? Do they tell you “no” when they aren’t ready? What are some ways you see improvement outside of your primary goal?
  • Having a hard, disheartening day? Take a minute to look at some happy time pictures or videos you have of your dog. 
  • If you aren’t sure what success looks like for your journey, we’d love to help! Work with one of our behavior consultants to make sure you are seeing progress toward your goals! 

Happy training!

Ellen

5 Benefits of Muzzle Training You Might Not Know About

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I love muzzles. I think they are great. I heard Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Chris Pachel refer to them as a portable baby gate on Drinking From The Toilet and I thought that was so clever. 

Muzzles, at least here in the United States, tend to carry a lot of stigma. It’s so unfortunate, because they are as important as a harness or a leash. Over the past few years, thanks to diligent dog trainers, and the wonderful community the Muzzle Up! Project built, we have made a ton of progress. You can find gorgeous custom made muzzles that will allow your pup to reap the benefits of a muzzle in comfort AND style. Trainers, like the wonderful team at Summit Dog Training, have paved the way to help clients navigate the stigma of their dog wearing a muzzle

You can find lots of great articles on the benefits of wearing muzzles, like this one from Synergy Behavior Solutions.

Now, enough fluff.

Hot Take: All dogs should be muzzle trained.  

Now, as I type this, I can feel the flinching, the gasps, the defensiveness that my prior statement will cause. But bear with me. I don’t use words like “all” and “should” lightly. Muzzle training can really improve your dog’s welfare and help us to meet their needs. 

 

I want to focus on 5 benefits of muzzle training you may not know about.

 

1. It is great mental exercise for our pup… and us.

Muzzle training puts our pup’s brain to work! When I say “muzzle training”, I don’t mean, buy a muzzle, strap it on my dog, and ABRA CADABRA! Dog is muzzle trained. 

Muzzle training, when done correctly, is a slow, beautiful process. It involves teaching our dogs to be active, engaged participants within the procedure. When we are moving through the training plan, we are looking for happy body language from our pups. And by “happy” I mean, loose, wiggly, body language, with quick responses and engagement (see Griffey’s “happy” here!). In my dogs, it’s the same body language as when I pull out dinner or get home. We want the sight of the muzzle to work like the world’s BEST recall. 

Because we are working so hard to keep the muzzle meaning “all good things”, we are also going to work our brains. Watching our pup’s body language, modifying our training, and tracking our progress is going to give us a mental work out too.

2. Relationship Building

We are so careful to make muzzle training fun for our pup, which means our pup is having fun with us. We strive to be predictable, so we don’t push or surprise our pup with too much too soon. It’s an excellent way to bolster our relationship with our dog. Having a fun activity to do together is super important. It’s 3-5 minutes of your day where you and your dog get to connect, work cooperatively, and enjoy each other.

As you progress through the training protocol, you can start to pair the muzzle with other fun stuff like sniff strolls or even foraging enrichment opportunities. You can also start using the “shove my muzzle into things” behavior for other fun tricks. We do sock muzzles in our house.

3. It’s a great way to hone your skills.

Want to practice your training mechanics? Muzzle training is the way to go. Being able to read our dog’s body language is critical when we are trying to condition a positive association with something. My goal is that with the muzzle in my lap, my dog will insert his nose, and remain in the muzzle while I clasp it behind his head.

Muzzle training is really about letting your dog control the session. Imagine sitting still on the couch and letting your pup do the work. Do you know where you would start? How would you progress? Do you know how to proof a behavior (video part 1 and part 2)? Have you ever taught a start button procedure? When we let our dog do the work, we get to park on the couch and focus on our own skills: reading your dog’s body language, your timing, your treat delivery, how you are raising criteria, and your ability to provide your dog agency.

4. It’s a great opportunity to practice providing your dog agency

I bet you can guess my next sentence by now. Muzzle training is about our dog being in control of their outcomes. It is the perfect situation to practice providing your dog with complete control over their outcomes. This is a great exercise for teaching your dog to say “no, thank you”, and for you to practice listening.

5. You, and your dog, will be so relieved.

Training, conditioning and practicing wearing a muzzle can create a wonderful sense of relief if and/or when we need to use them.

I remember a DVM (I wish I could remember who it was!) that shared a story during a muzzle training seminar I attended. They had a dog come in with something fairly catastrophic, I think it was a broken leg. It was a dog everyone knew. By all measures, this dog was “not a bite risk”. Except for this moment. The dog was in pain, people were trying to help, but he didn’t know that. For safety reasons, the dog needed to be muzzled. 

The vet pulled out the muzzle, and immediately saw the dog relax. The muzzle was well conditioned and well trained. This pup’s hooman put in the work to teach the muzzle before it was needed, and now everyone, the dog, the hooman, and the vet staff were able to feel more safe and secure EVEN during a traumatic incident. 

6. And one more benefit for good measure: the end result of muzzle training is a dog who can comfortably, cooperatively, wear a muzzle.

We have a saying in animal care that “all things with a mouth can bite”. This includes our dogs. All dogs. We do our darndest to keep them safe, prevent any bad things from happening, but we can’t control everything. Training, conditioning and practicing wearing a muzzle can, not only prevent additional aversives during times of distress, but also provide comfort like in the dog mentioned above. It allows for our dog to “wear a muzzle” (opt in) instead of “being muzzled” (having something done to them).

That’s a very important distinction.

 

Remember when I said “all dogs should be muzzle trained”? 

You should do “Whatever works for you, your family, your situation and keeps the animal and others happy, safe, and physically, mentally, and behaviorally healthy.” (see our blog on getting rid of “should”)

Muzzle training can accomplish all these things and more. The return on investment for muzzle training is so high, that I really do think it’s worth it for everyone. 

 

Now What?

  • If I’ve convinced you to embark on a muzzle training journey, you’re going to need a muzzle! (Disclosure: the muzzle links 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!) We usually recommend the Baskerville Ultra as a good starting muzzle or the Leather Bros for dogs with longer faces. 
  • If you have a muzzle, but don’t know where to start, check out the muzzle training plan from The Muzzle Up! Project.
  • If you have done some muzzle training with your dog, share a video or picture of your dog on our Facebook, or tag us @PetHarmony on instagram! We want to see those happy pups!
  • If you are considering muzzle training because you have a safety concern, I suggest seeking professional behavior consultant support. We offer services worldwide! Email us at [email protected] to schedule your first consultation

Future-Time Planning for Pandemic Puppies

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If you read our blog a couple weeks ago, we discussed what we mean by “socialization”. Socialization is using controlled positive exposure during the critical socialization period to help our pup learn what is safe in the world. It’s providing our pups the opportunity to safely (their body language will tell you if they are feeling safe) interact with the environment.

One of our goals when creating a socialization plan is to help our pups navigate the world in the future. We are working super hard to create positive experiences around a variety of things so that in six months, a year, three years from now, a pirate walking down the street is no big deal. 

If you do a quick Google search for “Puppy Socialization Checklist” you’ll get tons of hits with some general umbrella topics: 

  • People
  • Animals
  • Objects
  • Locations
  • Smells
  • Activities 
  • Sounds
  • Surfaces

There are some *mostly* universal experiences in dog’s lives: they will encounter people of different shapes and sizes, they will encounter different breeds of dogs and some other species of animals, they will need to navigate different substrates, they will need medical attention, to ride in a vehicle, hear thunder or fireworks, experience different weather types.

Collating these different lists you’ll start to see some patterns in what we’d like our pups to safely and positively experience during their socialization period and beyond. This gives us a really excellent starting point. 

The downside to these lists? A lot of them were created in a pre-pandemic time. These were very robust 18 months ago. They are still incredibly helpful, but there is more that we need to consider these days. Our socialization plan is looking at the future, so we need to consider all the activities that aren’t a part of our daily life now, but will be in the Future-Time. 

Consider what you want your future to include when it’s safe and how that might impact your dog:

  • Do you work outside of the home? How is your pup alone?
  • Do you plan on using dog daycare? How is your pup around strange dogs?
  • Do you have company regularly? How is your pup with people at the door?
  • Do you attend or host a lot of cookouts? How is your pup with strangers?
  • Do you intend to take your dog to the coffee shop with you? How is your pup on leash?
  • Do you travel? How is your pup at new locations for boarding?
  • Do you have an annual Halloween party? How is your pup around doorbells and costumes?

From Now-Time to Future-Time

You’ve started considering what you’d like your future to have in store for you and your pup. Start training now! Start building a plan that will help you bridge the gap between their pandemic experiences and your Future-Time goals. Splice and dice so that you have bite sized activities to work through. 

One of my Future-Time goals? Returning to in person conferences. It is part of the year that both my partner and I really enjoy. Both our pups are well out of the window of socialization and we still have some work to do! We moved to a new area last year, so we are starting from scratch. 

What will we need? Past experiences have told us that Griffey does better when someone cares for him in our home. That means, we need:

  • To find an option for in-home pet care that is experienced with dogs that have some reactivity.
  • To find someone with appropriate experience and qualifications.
  • To find someone who uses LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) approaches to care. 
  • To budget for, and set up safe, comfortable  meet and greets for relationship building.
  • To create a list of what the person may need to be successful (diet information, enrichment information, vet information, health information, medication schedules…)

What if my pup is older? 

That’s okay! You can teach an old(er) dog new tricks! Take stock of your Future-Time goals. Look at what your pup has and hasn’t experienced. Observe your pup and let them tell you where they are and are not comfortable. We can build a plan to address both you and your dog’s needs at any age!

Now What?

  • Create a list of things you expect to change in your future life. Start brainstorming for the future you. Remember to consider the practical (work/school schedule…), and then things that bring you joy (cookouts/camping…). 
  • Think about ways to help your pup to positively experience things related to that change. Can you practice any of the things you identified safely? Get creative! This can be a fun activity for the whole family. If you love Halloween, see if you can find some silly costumes on a local Buy Nothing group. If you love company coming over, have your family role play a stranger coming over. 
  • If you are bringing home a young puppy, I highly recommend the Pandemic Puppy Raising Support Group on Facebook. They have a great amount of resources to help you adjust your socialization plan to pandemic times!
  • If your pup is a little older, you are seeing maladaptive behaviors, or you’d like someone to help guide your focus  join us on Thursday, February 18th at 5:00pmPST for our Pandemic Puppies Webinar. We will be discussing some excellent starting points for building the bridge between Now-Time and Future-Time.

– Ellen

 

How I Accidentally Taught My Turtle to Escape

I talk about my dog, Oso, all of the time but he’s not the only critter in our household. I’ve mentioned my turtle, Zorro, a couple of times throughout the course of this blog but today I want to devote an entire post to him. Specifically, I want to talk about a trainer/owner failure: how I accidentally taught him to escape from his tank. 

 

My management failure

A year or two ago I changed Zorro’s setup by building a platform that sat on top of his tank to allow for more water in it. As soon as it was installed, I questioned whether or not he would be able to escape from his new setup. However, instead of doing something preemptively about that, I decided to take the “wait and see” approach. 

 

 

This was mistake number one. Zorro tries to escape whatever enclosure he’s in. This has been true of every enclosure I’ve put him in in the last 12 years I’ve had him. I knew he would try to escape this new setup and I knew that it was more possible than it was with his previous setup. Yet, I still took the wait and see approach, even though I knew better. 

Sure enough, it took only a few days for him to start trying to climb out. Luckily, his tank is in my office so I was right there to put him back in. It quickly became clear that I would need to actually have some management solution in place to keep him safe. Instead of developing a great management solution, though, I put up a half-assed management solution. Again, I questioned whether or not it would be effective. 

 

 

This was mistake number two. Instead of putting a great management solution in place that I knew was going to be effective, I opted for the easiest solution I could think of and I still questioned whether or not it would be effective. Of course that didn’t work and he was able to climb out of his tank. What this did was teach him that if he just pushes the barrier a little harder, then it will work. 

Since that didn’t work I reinforced it a little more. I knew it still wasn’t perfect, but it should’ve been much harder for him to escape. However, because I previously [accidentally] taught him that if he pushes against the barrier harder then he’ll be able to escape, he was now able to get out of this more difficult setup, too. Mistake number two came back to bite me and provide mistake number three. 

 

 

This situation was 100% my fault. I knew Zorro’s past behavior; I knew he’d try to escape this setup and I knew that it was likely possible. Even with all of that knowledge, I still chose to take my chances and feign surprise when what I knew would happen actually happened because it was easier for me to do it that way. I didn’t have to put in the extra effort or forethought by taking the “wait and see” approach. And, because I didn’t do what I should have done the first or even the second time, I taught Zorro to try harder and how to escape more successfully.

The way that I taught him to try harder is through something called “shaping”. Shaping means reinforcing gradual approximations– or baby steps– towards an end goal behavior. This is the technique frequently used for teaching really cool tricks. Below is a quick video example of shaping:

 

 

How I used shaping here [albeit without trying] was by setting up gradually more challenging situations for him to succeed at escaping. If I had put a more rigorous management solution in place after the first time Zorro tried to escape, he would have failed and learned that it doesn’t work to try harder. However, because I set up an only slightly more difficult approach he did learn that pushing harder worked and was able to use that knowledge later for the next only slightly more difficult approach. 

 

 

The right way

This past summer I finally started building the dream enclosure I’ve been thinking about for Zorro for a while. And this time, I decided to do it right when it came to him escaping. When thinking through the design for his enclosure, I took into account all of the ways I could possibly think of for him to escape. I knew I wanted a plexiglass barrier surrounding it for aesthetic reasons, but decided to make the barrier taller so it wouldn’t be possible for him to reach the top and pull himself up and out. Anything that’s tall enough for him to climb on to then climb out is against a wall. We anchored the back walls so he can’t move the barrier off and slip under. 

When the top and barrier finally went up and he was able to move around, we reassessed our management strategy to make sure what we assumed and expected to happen were accurate. While watching him and testing the barrier for ourselves, we decided there might be one more possible way for escape: if he pushed it hard enough could he break the adhesive holding the sides together or bow out the plexiglass enough to slip out? Instead of taking our chances, we grabbed a few brackets so that even if he pushed he wouldn’t be able to bow or break the sides. We’re a few weeks in and he’s tried to escape as he always does. This time, though, he’s been unsuccessful and his attempts are dwindling. 

 

Still some work to do but it’s now functional!

 

How does this relate? A dog counter surfing example

The reason I wanted to tell this story is because I often see pet parents go through this same process of taking a half-hearted approach to management and inadvertently shaping their pet to be better at foiling those management attempts.

One behavior that I frequently see this happening with is counter surfing. Dogs are opportunistic scavengers. They are made to search for food and eat it when opportunity strikes. It’s what they do. Even though we know that, many people still opt for the “wait and see” approach when bringing home a new dog, just like I did at first with Zorro’s new platform. The “wait and see” approach here is to leave food out on the counter (even if it’s in a bag) and leave the dog unattended in the room. 

When that doesn’t work, many people will opt for pushing the food back on the counter so it’s harder to access but will still leave them unattended with the food on the counter. This is the part where we inadvertently train our dogs that if they try harder, they can still access the food. 

When that doesn’t work some people opt for the sink but will continue to leave them unattended. Again, we usually end up inadvertently shaping our dogs that they can still access the food if they try harder.

A more solid management solution to start with instead is to leave no food on the counters when the dog is unattended and if you do need to leave the kitchen while you’re cooking (when it’s difficult to put food away) to then keep the dog out of the kitchen using baby gates, doors, etc. It’s much harder to counter surf when you’re not in the kitchen when food is on the counters. 

 

Now what?

  • Think through your pet’s current behavior and learning history. Is there a behavior you’ve been trying to manage but are instead inadvertently shaping your pet to foil your attempts? 
  • Think about a management solution that would make it so your pet couldn’t perform that behavior. Chances are you may have already heard of the management solution but maybe thought it was too cumbersome (like I did with Zorro’s platform!) Is there a way to make it less cumbersome or easier to enact?
  • Enact your management solution and start breathing easier!
  • If you’re having trouble coming up with a management solution, email us at [email protected] to schedule a session or check out our Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics course. 

 

Happy training!

Allie