What To Do When the Best Defense Is a Good Offense

Much of aggressive behavior, including bites, is based in fear. And the goal of those behaviors is typically to increase the distance between the individual and whatever they perceive as a threat. Oftentimes, when I explain all of this to my clients, the next question I hear is:

“If they’re afraid, why do they approach someone and then bite them?”

That’s a valid question. If the goal is to increase distance, why would the animal then purposefully move closer? My answer? Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. 

 

The Best Defense is a Good Offense Mentality

There are plenty of people who have this mentality. A large part of the Rom-Com genre is based on it: “I’m going to break things off before I get hurt.” Often when we experience other people with this mentality, we can recognize that it’s coming from a place of past, negative experiences and hurt. But sometimes it’s harder to see how an animal got to that place. 

I’ve talked in previous posts that animals, including humans, have a few different ways to react when they’re stressed: fight, flight, freeze (we’re ignoring the other options). Most of our pets start off choosing flight or freeze when they’re very young. And if those behaviors work for them- i.e. they are able to reduce the threat- they typically continue choosing flight or freeze. Individuals do what works for them. 

The problem comes in when flight and freeze stop working; when they’re either not possible to perform or they don’t work to reduce the threat. When that happens, pets often resort to fight-type behaviors (i.e. aggression), which usually works pretty darn well to get threats to go away. And what they’re learning is that the best defense against threats is a good offense. It’s the only thing that works. 

 

Continuing the Cliched Sayings: The Road to Hell is Paved in Good Intentions

Sometimes this scenario happens because people don’t know what subtle stress signals to look for to know if their pet is uncomfortable or not in a particular situation. That often means that they’re not seeing flight and freeze behaviors for what they are and making sure their pet has an escape route or helping to remove a threat if an escape route isn’t possible.

For example, here’s a picture where a dog is displaying subtle stress signals, but I’m guessing the photographer doesn’t know what to look for when it comes to signs of discomfort. This is a scenario that could turn south very quickly, especially because one of the dog’s escape routes isn’t possible due to the wall (or furniture? It’s hard to tell what that is.)

I would say that perhaps just as frequently, though, teaching a “best defense is a good offense” mentality happens due to very well-intentioned people who are just trying to help their pet be more comfortable. They know that their pet is afraid but don’t necessarily know how to help their pet work through that. Common mistakes that I see here include:

  • Holding a small dog or cat to be pet by a person who makes them uncomfortable
  • Asking a pet to move closer to a person or animal who makes them uncomfortable using food or treats
  • Asking a dog who is uncomfortable with other dogs on a walk to sit and watch other dogs pass by closely without other forms of behavior modification
  • Continuing to try to harness a dog who is moving away from the harness
  • Continuing to pursue a pet who has stolen something and is running away with it whenever you approach (this can sometimes be a play behavior, and it can sometimes not be a play behavior)

See how easy it is to accidentally teach an animal that flight or freeze aren’t effective? The road to hell really is paved with good intentions. I’ve seen so many well-intentioned, loving, lovely people who have accidentally taught their pet that the best defense is a good offense because they were trying to help their pet. And, if this is you, I’ll tell you what I tell my clients: hindsight is 20/20. It’s really easy to beat ourselves up for making mistakes, but you didn’t know and you can’t beat yourself up for not knowing. Now that you know better, you can do better. All isn’t lost. 

What should I do if this is my pet?

If you have a pet who thinks that the best defense is a good offense, the first thing I always recommend is working with a behavior professional. As illustrated above, very common internet recommendations can make things a whole lot worse. A professional knows how to navigate these situations to keep everyone safe and to make sure that we’re truly helping the pet work through their fear. 

But, in the meantime, while you’re waiting to work with a professional, I have two recommendations:

  • Management
  • If your pet is asking to move away (i.e. flight), you let them move away

Management

Management is definitely not a new topic to this blog. It means setting up the environment and/or situations to prevent the unwanted behavior from being able to happen. If your pet tries to bite people who come in the front door, put your pet in a bedroom or crate with the door safely secured before the doorbell rings. If your dog is sometimes uncomfortable with other dogs on leash, don’t introduce them to everyone on a walk. Management prevents our pets from practicing these fight-type behaviors and continuing to learn that they do in fact work. 

Flight

I mentioned at the very beginning of this post that the goal of aggressive behavior is often to increase the distance between the individual and the perceived threat. That’s also the goal behind flight; it just looks very different. 

If fight-type behaviors often happen as a result of learning that flight isn’t possible or doesn’t work, what if we taught them that it does work? That we will let them move away if they’re uncomfortable? That we will actively give them the ability to make a different choice? When done properly, most pets start to make that choice when they’re stressed instead. Stay tuned next week for why I think everyone should teach flight training to their pets. 

 

But shouldn’t I teach my pet that fight behaviors don’t work?

I get this question every now and then. And I get it. We don’t like those particular behaviors, so why should we keep telling our pets that those behaviors work? Here’s the problem with teaching that fight behaviors don’t work: there’s a really big chance of this backfiring. So much so that there’s actually a term for it: behavioral fallout. 

When we try to “stand our ground” when a dog growls, they often end up biting. When we “stand our ground” when they bite, they often end up biting harder. One of you is eventually going to back down, and it’s not going to be pretty for anyone involved. 

It is possible to suppress these behaviors through pain, fear, force, or intimidation, but trust me when I say that that doesn’t usually work in the long run. A lot of our clients come to us after having suppressed these behaviors for years (again, with the absolute best of intentions and often at the request of professionals using outdated training models) all for it to turn into a giant outburst, usually more severe than the previous behavior. 

We have more long-term success with a much lower chance of behavioral fallout if we teach our pets that, yes, those behaviors do work. Threats will go away if you ask them to. And also, you don’t need to ask them to because you can go away yourself or your human will intervene or they’re not that scary after all. 

I know this can be a hard concept to wrap your head around, so I have a whole separate blog post about why I like growling. Check it out here

 

Now what?

  • This one should come as no surprise to long-time readers: learn your pet’s body language and subtle stress signals regardless of whether they are a “best defense is a good offense” kiddo or not. Check out this blog post for some of our favorite dog and cat body language resources.
  • If this article is hitting close to home with your pet, make sure that your management strategy is up to snuff. Identify things that make your pet uncomfortable and come up with a game plan for how to avoid those stressors. Make sure to communicate your pet’s management strategy with everyone who is involved in their day-to-day care. 
  • Listen to what your pet is asking for and respond accordingly. Is your pet leaning away when someone tries to pet them? They’re asking to not be petted in that moment. Is your dog reacting at another dog on leash? Even though it doesn’t look like it, they’re still asking for space. If you don’t know for sure what your pet is asking, make sure you rope in a professional to help. Behaviors are not always as they seem at first glance!
  • And, if there’s a safety concern, I always recommend working with a behavior professional. Our team has clients all over the world and is ready to help you! Email us at [email protected] to get started.

Happy training!

Allie

4 Behavior Changes to Expect as the Weather Warms Up

 

A few Sundays ago it was one of the first nice, weekend days of the spring here in Illinois. And that meant that I had back-to-back clients who all of a sudden were having problems that they hadn’t had all winter. And, as you know, when I have the same conversation multiple times in a row I turn it into a blog post! 

 

Behavior Can Change with the Seasons

I’ve talked before about my arch-nemesis, Winter Oso, which is the name we give to Oso when he’s more annoying because he’s not getting as much exercise in the yard. And I know a lot of you have your own winter version of your pet. I certainly talk through this quite a bit with my IL clients!

But I haven’t talked much yet about behavior changes that happen when the weather starts warming up. Just like we see behavior changes when it gets cold, so too can we see changes when it gets warm. Let’s dive into a few of the most common behavior changes that we see when the weather warms up. 

 

Difficulty Recalling

Recalls are the fancy term that dog trainers use to describe “coming when called”. I see this manifest in a few different ways. This could look like a dog who is more distracted in the yard and that’s why they’re not coming to you when you call. But oftentimes I see it look a little more subtle, where they’re out there sunning themselves and enjoying the day and just don’t respond to you when you ask them to come inside. That’s exactly what was happening with my clients a few weeks ago. 

Let me be honest here, I can’t blame them too much. After months of dreary midwest winter, I also spend as much time as possible outside when the weather starts to warm. I definitely have that in common with these pups. And truthfully, this is a behavior change that isn’t necessarily a “problem” behavior depending on your set-up and schedule. I work from home and we have a fenced-in yard that is quite secure and safe so I can let Oso hang out outside for as long as he likes those days. 

Where the problem comes in is if you have a kiddo who wants to be outside and you don’t have a safe set-up or a schedule that allows for the dalliance. In that case, we should be figuring out common ground with our pup (which may likely include spending a bit more time out there when it works with your schedule) and making sure that coming inside is super fun. One of the common things that we do as humans that comes back to bite us is asking our pet to come inside so we can leave the house for work or errands. Coming inside stops the fun! And when coming inside stops the fun, your pet is going to be less likely to come inside. 

 

Chasing critters

Many folks with dogs who chase critters get a respite in the winter months. But springtime means a surge of critter activity and that means we usually see an increase in chasing critters. Again, this isn’t necessarily a “problem” behavior. Chasing critters is a normal, species-typical behavior for dogs (and cats, and other species). We should be allowing our pets to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. What that looks like for Oso is that he gets to chase critters to his heart’s content in the yard. 

What I’ve deemed as “inappropriate” for that behavior is screaming at critters while chasing (yes. It’s a scream, not a bark.) or trying to chase everything while on leash. Chasing critters as a whole isn’t a problem, but doing it in those particular ways is. That means that we didn’t work on him not chasing critters at all, we only worked on him not screaming when he does it and he has a cue when on-leash that tells him when he’s allowed to chase the critter. 

 

Leash reactivity

Speaking of screaming and leashes… this time of year is always when we get a surge of folks who want help with their dog’s leash reactivity (barking, lunging, growling on leash to other dogs, people, vehicles, or anything, really). There are more people and other dogs out and about in the neighborhood and that makes management for leash reactivity much more difficult in the warmer months than it is in winter. 

Many people know to anticipate this when the weather warms up, but I find that folks who brought home pups in the winter may not expect this behavior change because their dog wasn’t really in situations before that would cause them to react. It’s not that the behavior suddenly started; it’s that the environment changed. 

This is one that we do label as a maladaptive behavior, or a “behavior issue”, because it’s stressful for both you and your dog. No one is likely having fun at that moment. Early spring tends to be a great time of year to start working on your pup’s leash reactivity because there are more opportunities to practice than in winter, but not usually as many overwhelming scenarios as we see in late spring and summer when it’s consistently nice and school’s out. 

 

Window reactivity

This one is really just another manifestation of the above issue. Usually, when we see a dog with leash reactivity, they’re also reactive through the windows when they see someone or something passing by the house. Warmer months typically bring more people going by your house and that usually means an increase in reactivity. 

We saw a huge uptick in requests for help with this behavior when the pandemic started in March/April 2020. Everyone was out walking their dogs more frequently than before and that meant a lot more passers-by! Oso’s reactivity at the window had a bit of a relapse during this time, too, but thankfully we had years of working on this behavior under our belt so we were able to nip it in the bud pretty quickly. 

While this one is also labeled as a maladaptive behavior, it can sometimes be easier to manage depending on your setup and where your house is located. But if you’re wanting to work on leash reactivity, I highly recommend also paying attention to this behavior. Trigger stacking is a thing, after all. 

 

Now what?

  • Simply observe your pet as the weather changes (even folks in temperate climates that don’t have as drastic of temperature changes will have other weather changes!) Do you see any behavior or body language changes with the changing season?
  • If you do see behavior changes, ask yourself if it’s actually a problem. Feel free to use the above if you’re seeing one of the behaviors that I mentioned!
  • If the behavior isn’t a problem or just requires a small tweak to routines, fantastic! If the behavior is a problem, we’re happy to help. We see clients all over the world and can help with any behavior problem remotely. Click here to get started. 

Happy training!

Allie

Walk This Way

 

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

 

Whatever can you mean?

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

 

Big feelings, small world

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

 

Walks aren’t a panacea

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

 

Here comes the helpful part

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

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

 

Now What?

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

Happy training,

MaryKaye

Dog’s Behavior Got You Down? Try These 5 Things

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

 

I’m gonna take a guess. 

If you’re here, you likely have a dog that has some… struggles. 

People come to us with a whole variety of challenges, and whatever their struggle, situation, or condition, it all boils down to the same 5 basic steps. 

So, if your dog’s behavior has you down, make sure you give these steps a shot. This is going to be a very brief overview. The application of these steps to your specific situation is much greater than what we can share in the span of a blog, but we cover all of this and more in our Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program

 

Management

Our goals for management: 

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

If your dog has a behavior that’s got you down, ask yourself these 3 questions. Management is extremely personal because each family lives in a different environment. A management plan for a dog who barks at people who walk in the upstairs apartment is different from a dog who snarls and growls when their family approaches the dog bowl. 

Your management will be adapting and evolving with changes in the environment. It should be sustainable, effective, and robust to help you, your family, and your pet follow through.

 

Two Way Communication 

We ask our dogs to listen to us often. In order to successfully help your dog navigate their struggles, you also need to know how to listen to them. This is where body language comes in. 

Knowing what body language to look for, being able to see it on your dog in real-time, and being able to respond appropriately will help you and your dog create a fluent communication system. Once you and your dog are able to communicate, you’ll be better equipped to handle situations and work through struggles together. 

 

Meet Their Needs 

Again, this is going to be brief (I mean, there is already a whole book just on this topic!). Meeting your dog’s needs will let you pick that low-hanging fruit. Sometimes, big improvements can come from small changes. 

One client was able to get some peace and quiet by giving her dog a cooling mat and a fan. 

One client was able to save her furniture and baseboards by giving safe chewing opportunities 2 times a week. 

Sometimes, it can be this simple. Other times, we have more complex needs that will take more time to address, but once we tackle those small steps to get big wins, we can move on to some of the needs that might be more labor-intensive to fulfill. 

 

Learn New Skills 

You and your dog are both going to need to learn some new skills. Your standard basic manners aren’t going to help you navigate the world with a dog who is afraid of the postman, or can’t be home alone. When your dog is struggling, we often need to implement another set of skills… a unique set of skills… to help your dog. The foundation skills needed will be different depending on your dog’s struggles. 

So, before you jump into the deep end, you and your dog both need to know how to swim. 

 

Apply the New Skills 

You’ve implemented management, you’ve learned to read and respond to your dog’s body language, you’ve met your dog’s needs, and you’ve taken the time to learn new skills to help your dog in this world. Now you’re ready to start directly helping your dog overcome their challenges. Creating safe, comfortable, and controlled environments for your dog to practice those new skills in a way that they will be successful will help both you and your dog see progress toward your ultimate goal. 

 

Integrate New Information 

As you go through this process, you’re going to learn more about your dog. Your dog may surprise you as they progress, build new skills, gain new confidence, and refine their communication with you. Occasionally, circle back and make sure that your original plan is the best plan. You might find small adjustments that can lead to an even more efficient journey. 

 

Now What? 

  • If you found yourself asking, “but how do I…”, then check out our 12-week Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Program: The step-by-step guide to creating a harmonious, fulfilling life for you and your dog with behavior problems, without sacrificing yourself. 

 

Introducing Strangers into the Equation

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

 

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

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

 

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