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

Why I Stopped Asking My Dog to “Come”

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

 

We say we want to provide our dogs agency.  We say we want to give them options.  We say we want them to feel like they have a choice in the life they live.  So why do all the dog trainers and all the dog owners keep drilling away at recalls???  Why do we keep asking our dogs to come!??!?!?!

Because of safety (and probably many other very appropriate reasons as well).  

We can help manage situations, circumvent issues, and protect our pup if we can get that ever-so-sought-after “Rock Solid Recall.”  There are too many scenarios that may occur where it is in the best interest of our dogs, and of those around them, for the pups to run excitedly to our side when we say “come.”

How do we do it?  The age-old checklist

  • Prepare the environment for success
  • Reinforce/reward desired behaviors
  • Incrementally increase distractions, duration, distance, etc.

About a month ago I was filming some training sessions of myself with Opie and I noticed that he was not consistently coming to me when cued with “Opie, come!”.  Either something else in the environment was more rewarding (continuing to lay on the comfy couch, catching spare shreds of cheese dropping from my son’s hands, etc.), or I was making it too difficult for him (too far away, in a new environment, etc.).  Feeling the pressures of embarrassment from experiencing a failed recall while filming AND re-living it while watching my video, I reflected on this and I sadly realized that I don’t have a Rock Solid Recall.

 

Until I accidentally found out that I did.

Every time I said “Opie, Come!”, I wanted him to excitedly come by me; however, I wasn’t making it worth his while.  Some of the time, I did not reward him in proportion to the level of difficulty of actually coming.  Most of the time, I asked him to come when I really didn’t care if he did or didn’t come, I just wanted to give some lovin’–if he didn’t feel like it, I let it go because it wasn’t necessary and I don’t need to pet him if he doesn’t want the petting.

I wasn’t consistent with my expectations for his behavior after the cue, and I wasn’t consistent with my reinforcement of the cue “Opie, Come!”

But then, a glimmer of hope shone through my recall woes when I was assembling dinner.  I had a spare piece of fat that Opie just NEEDED to consume, so I said “Opie, do you want this?!” I heard his jingle jangle of tags tear down the hallway and he slid expectantly into home base.  Opie has a recall, it’s just not what I purposely trained.

I took a second to reflect on how I accidentally trained this.  To get the food, Opie needs to be next to me.  I consistently reinforce this by giving him what I have, why else would I say “do you want this?”  The value of the treat changes depending on what is on the chopping block, so I keep his interest piqued.  It’s the perfect combo to keep him excited and interested in moving his body close to mine.  I’ve started to proof this behavior so that I’m not only cuing it from the kitchen, and soon, I’ll be able to use it in the event I really need him to be by my side.

 

And as for “Come?” 

I still use it, it just makes too much sense in my human brain, but it’s not my recall word.  I now think of it more as an invitation for Opie to join me rather than a cue I can use for safety if I need it.

 

Now what?

  • Ask yourself, “Do I have a Rock Solid Recall?  Why is this important to me? Why would this be important to my dog?”  The answers will kick start your training plan.
  • Consider resetting your recall cue.  Start back with the basics to get a good reinforcement history going.  If you’re stuck, no worries, your friendly Pet Harmony Team is here to help.

Happy training,

Corinne

Help Your Dog Relax – Start With Yourself

Relaxation is a staple topic in many of my sessions with clients. Being able to take a load off, fill your cup, get true rest, and be able to self-regulate is a huge part of having mental, physical, and behavioral health. It’s so important that “calming” is its own category of needs in Canine Enrichment for the Real World and the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework

There are a ton of ways to help your dog learn relaxation skills (some of which will be linked below), but the focus of this blog isn’t centered on getting your dog the skills. This one talks about the human end of the leash, and what we can do to help them. 

 

Let me tell you a story, I promise there is a reason.

Years ago, I never put much weight on the idea that dogs “get our energy”, and that is a whole blog post of its own. That was, however, until we were looking to get Griffey a pet sitter. 

For those of you that don’t know me (Hi! I’m Ellen!), and my dog, Griffey, came into our family with lots of capital B, capital F, Big Feels. He was scared of other dogs, fearful of strangers, showed some Separation Related Problems, wasn’t potty trained, and got sick in the car. We had made a lot of progress on the separation skills, got him very well potty trained, was doing great in the car, building some relationships with people, but was still scared of other dogs, so he would be considered a “special care needs” dog. 

At the time, we were living in Seattle and ready to start finding him pet care so that we could continue to travel. Through our incredible network, we were able to find a pet sitter that opened their home to reactive dogs. They had created a wonderful environment for dog reactive dogs. They wouldn’t go for walks, but they had options for in-home or in the yard exercise. The dogs would only be home alone a couple of hours a day and pets were welcomed into the home like they were one of the family. The pet sitter had incredible skills in terms of body language, observation, and training. It was the perfect setup for our needs, and the pet sitter required gradual exposure to them, their home, and the stays, which we were looking for. 

As you can probably imagine, I was a little stressed. I REALLY wanted this to go well. Traveling was something that was important for my partner and me to refill our cups and be our best selves, as well as get our continuing education via conferences. 

 

During our first visit…

We were all just going to hang out and chat while we saw if Griffey would be able to settle in their home while we were present and supporting him. As Griffey was milling around and exploring, the rest of us were sitting on the couches, chatting it up. He was being a busy bee, which isn’t surprising given all the new things to explore, smell, and experience. 

After about 20-30 minutes, he still wasn’t slowing down. 

The pet sitter looked at me and said, “You seem a little tense. How about you try to sit back, put your feet up, settle into the couch, take a deep breath, maybe yawn, and see what happens.” 

And I thought to myself, “I would rather die than put my feet on a stranger’s furniture, I absolutely cannot, but I will.” 

So, I did. I scooted back into the couch. I sat as I would at home, I took a big deep breath, forced a yawn, and tried to sink into the couch.

Griffey came back to the room and looked at me. 

He looked at my partner. 

He looked at the pet sitter. 

He looked back at me.  

He jumped on the couch, found a blanket, made a bed, laid down, let out a big sigh, and started to get droopy eyes. 

And I learned something, or maybe solidified something that day. 

 

We can get in the way of our dog relaxing. 

When working with families on teaching their dog(s) relaxation, I often get questions or statements like… 

“He’s staring so intently at me.” 

“He’s on his mat, but he doesn’t look relaxed. He’s still tense.” 

So often, when working on teaching a dog to relax, we as well-intentioned humans will fail to be relaxed. We will be focused. We will be staring. Our body language may indicate that activities are on the horizon. We may even hold our breath waiting for the dog to do the thing. 

And you know how a lot of dogs respond? By mirroring that back. You may see them laying very erect in a sphynx down, focused on their person, their breathing may be rhythmic, but very shallow. They might engage with you waiting for more information. 

If this sounds like you, turn toward yourself and see how you are holding yourself. 

Are your shoulders up to your ears? How much tension is in your back? How is your breathing? Are you staring? 

Try re-setting yourself. Take a deep breath. Shake it off. Drop your shoulders. Instead of staring at your dog, try looking out of your periphery, or watching your dog in a reflection. 

When I suggest these changes to families, they usually come back stunned at what a difference it makes in their dog’s ability to settle. 

You might be surprised what a difference it can make. 

 

Now What? 

Happy Training! 

Ellen

 

  

 

Want a Rock-Solid Come When Called?

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

One of the things we often have clients want to work on is having their dog come when called. It makes sense! There are going to be times when you need your dog to pay attention to you, when you may need to move away from some scary monster, or navigate around that awful smelling carcass on the beach. 

While a rock-solid come when called, or recall, can, and usually does, look effortless, behind that behavior is a vast history of practice. Like all things, it takes time, energy, effort, and consistency to get that lightning-fast return to you. 

And there are tons of games or exercises that you can do with your dog to help solidify this skill. I’ll link some of these exercises below. 

But first, I want to talk about one major mindset shift that has helped tons of pet parents go from feeling like their dog will never respond to building recall through their day-to-day life. 

 

Are you ready?

A recall isn’t about what you have right now. 

It’s about all the hundreds, thousands, or millions of times you’ve called your dog in the past. 

It’s about the history, the value, and the consequences of your dog coming to you. Recognizing, acknowledging, and shifting your mindset, can make a huge difference in building a solid recall each and every day. It’s not about concrete sessions, it’s about what coming to you predicts for your dog.

 

Think about something that always has your dog right by your side. 

Maybe the crinkling of a food bag. The sound of the cheese drawer pulling open. The sound of the door to the yard opening. The sound of their harness or leash being picked up. 

What happens when they hear or see that thing happening? How quickly do they come over? What does their body language look like? How reliably do they come over?

What happens once they get to you? Do they get a piece of treat? Do you give them access to something? Do you go for a ride or a walk? 

And from their perspective, is that a good or a bad thing? Looking at their body language, and observing their response will help you identify this! 

 

Now, think about the last 10 times you wanted your dog to come to you.

Why were you calling them over? Were they getting into something? Did you need them to come inside, so that you could start your zoom call? Were they chewing on something or digging in your garden? Was it just to say, “Hi!”? Was it to play a quick game of catch?

What happened once they came to you? Did you take something away? Did you close off access to the yard and/or their sunspot? Did you have to give them a bath? Did you get them a treat or a more appropriate toy to play with? Did you scratch them in their favorite spot?

When they came to you, from their perspective, was it a good thing or a bad thing? And this is a bit nuanced, we need to look at our dog’s body language to get an idea of how they feel about something. Does their body language tell you that they are STOKED about the thing, or were they bummed about the outcome? 

 

What does coming to you mean for your dog?

Take a moment and consider the number of times coming to you means delightful or wonderful things for your dog, and the number of times it’s somewhere between a bummer and terrible. 

If you’re taking stock and realizing that the scales are tipping toward bummer/terrible, that’s okay! Now that we know, we can do something about it! Let’s get your dog looking at you the way they look longingly at their treat container. 

 

Great, how do I do that?

  1. When your dog looks in your direction, comes over to you, asks for attention, otherwise images with you, make it worth their while! Give them access to their favorite things. Engaging with you isn’t the end of the fun, it’s the start of the fun! Maybe they come in from the backyard, you close the door and immediately take them outside to bask in the sun. Coming over to you means treats, toys, play, attention, scratches, whatever is your dog’s jam. 
  2. Avoid punishing them for coming when you ask. Don’t call them and follow that with something they dislike or hate. If your dog hates baths, don’t call them over and then put them in the tub. If your dog is loving their time outside, don’t call them in, shut the door and leave it at that. Trade them for their loss of access to the yard. In my house, they come inside, I shut the door, and they may get a tasty treat, a rousing playtime, scratches, or open blinds so there is sun access in the house too. 
  3. You can practice some recall games to help solidify that relationship. Here are some great resources to get you started: 
    1. Summit Dog Training’s Recall Youtube Playlist
    2. Kikopup’s “How to Train Your Dog to RELIABLY Come When Called” 
    3. Kathy Sdao’s Training a Reliable Recall Part 1 and Part 2

 

Remember…

A recall isn’t about what you have available right now.

It’s about all the hundreds, thousands, or millions of times you’ve called your dog in the past. 

It’s about the history, the value, and the consequences of your dog coming to you. When the wonderful things vastly outweigh the not-so-great things, the scales are tipped in your favor. Your dog will look forward to interacting with you, and love to come to see what is in store. 

 

Now What? 

  • Start tipping the scales in your favor! When your dog looks in your direction, comes over to you, asks for attention, otherwise images with you, make it worth their while! Get creative with this, it doesn’t always have to be treats. Think about things that your dog asks for, works for, or might even get a little annoying about. 
  • Look for times that your dog coming to you might not be great for them. Can you change some things up to make it better for your dog? Instead of coming always meaning you’re leaving the park, sometimes it means you’re just saying “Hi, friend!”, giving a treat, tossing a ball, or sending them back to continue playing! 
  • Practice daily! Build this exercise into your day-to-day life. 
  • If you’d like more help crafting a rock-solid come when called, let us know! Fostering relationships, building two-way communication, and helping families fall in love with their pet again is our jam! Email us at [email protected]!

 

4 Behavior Changes to Expect as the Weather Warms Up

 

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

 

Behavior Can Change with the Seasons

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

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

 

Difficulty Recalling

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

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

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

 

Chasing critters

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

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

 

Leash reactivity

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

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

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

 

Window reactivity

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

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

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

 

Now what?

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

Happy training!

Allie

Sniffari or Sorry, Can’t Party?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now what?

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

You’re doing great!
Corinne

Feline Enrichment for the Real World

What is Enrichment?

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

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

Typical Feline Behavior

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

A brown tabby cat high-fives its parent.

Here are some behaviors cats typically perform:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown kitten scratches on black scratching post.

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

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

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

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

Now What?

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

Happy Training,
Amy

Walk This Way

 

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

 

Whatever can you mean?

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

 

Big feelings, small world

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

 

Walks aren’t a panacea

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

 

Here comes the helpful part

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

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

 

Now What?

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

Happy training,

MaryKaye

March 2022 Training Challenge – March Madness For Your Dog

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

 

It’s a new month, which means it’s time for our next training challenge! 

This month, we challenge you to explore your pet’s treat preferences. To do a March Madness of treat testing if you will!

Treats can be so extremely helpful in training and behavior modification in a variety of ways. It’s effective, efficient, and often requires very little additional training to be utilized. If you have any questions about the use of treats in training, Allie wrote this stellar blog about all things treat-related! 

One of the things that we want to know when embarking on a behavior modification journey is “what is your dog’s extra special treat?” What are the things they are *SO EXCITED* about? 

Sometimes, you may have an idea of what your dog’s extra special treat is, and sometimes, it’s helpful to do a food preference test. Even if you do think you know your dog’s extra special treat, it can be fun to see if they agree!

Food preference tests can give us an idea if our dog prefers one thing over another, which means we can use their favorite thing for the more challenging situations.

 

Doing Food Preference Tests 

 

 

Now What?

  • Collect 3-6 treats to test with your dog. I give you permission to think *safely* outside the box! Consider trying some new items with your pet!
  • Grab a pen and paper, and create your very own, treat test march madness bracket! You can even have the family take guesses at which treat will win the test. 
  • Complete the treat preference test with your pup, and find out your dog’s preferred treat. 
  • Let us know over @petharmonytraning on Facebook or Instagram, what’s your dog’s preferred treat?!

Happy training,

Ellen

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.