December 2023 Enrichment Challenge: Spot the Difference

I consider myself to have strong observation skills.

I consider my partner to have strong observation skills.

And yet, with each of us having over a decade of experience in animal training and care, our dogs still manage to stump us. So, when I have a pet parent tell me that nothing was different or out of the ordinary I recognize that, while something was different for their pet, it wasn’t within the perception of their person.

And that’s okay! We have different perceptive ranges than our pets. We experience the world differently. There are things that become background noise to us over time, so when our pet is having The Big Feels about it we don’t even notice it.

But, this is a skill that we can continue to hone over time, and that’s why this month’s enrichment challenge is to practice Spotting the Difference. It will help you notice the small changes in your pet’s behavior, help you to feel more in control of your journey, and will help your behavior consultant build a robust plan for you. 


Let’s start with a story…

About a week or so ago, Griffey was having an “off” morning. He was moving through the house at a pace, his head and tail were lower than normal, his ears were radaring back and forth, he would pace his way up to my office and hop on my lap, then pace his way to my partner’s office and hop on his lap, and then rinse and repeat.

Now, usually when we see this suite of behaviors it means one of two things: 

  1. Laika has a dingleberry. Griffey is terribly offended by fecal matter, and when Laika has a dingleberry, especially one that we haven’t caught, he will start this pattern of behavior.

  2. There is a nemesis fly in the house. Sky raisins are clearly little blimps of destruction and chaos. 

So my partner and I noticed that he was having an “off” morning and went on the hunt. We checked to see if Laika had an active or dropped dingleberry, and none was to be found. We surveyed each room one by one to see if there was a flying nemesis on property that needed to be dealt with, and found nothing. We took a few minutes to discuss if there was anything different that we weren’t noticing, and couldn’t come up with anything.

I had made breakfast, but there wasn’t anything particularly pungent or noxious.

Both dogs got their full breakfast and went out to do their things. |

We had Twitch playing on the TV in the background like most mornings.

My partner had his office heater on, and the air purifiers were running like normal.

Laika was having a typical morning, so whatever it was wasn’t also impacting her.

Finding nothing, we went back to our stations and continued to work, while Griffey continued his shenanigans. Eventually, as I got back into my work, a sound from the TV downstairs entered my awareness, and I immediately heard Griffey jump off the couch, run into my office, and hop on my lap.

When I went to investigate, the streamer on Twitch had switched to a new game that we’d never seen, and after a few minutes of observing the game and Griffey, we saw that there was one particular sound that would send Griffey running and jumping on our lap every time it happened.

There it is! That’s what’s different! While our routine stayed the same, there was a new suite of sounds coming from the TV, one of which was not okay in Griffey’s book. We switched to something else, and he was able to settle right down for his mid-morning nap. It took us well over an hour to identify what the change was and, honestly, it wasn’t a change I’d expect people to notice. It was very small and very normal for us, but made a big impact on Griffey’s morning.


And here are some reasons why this is important

#1 – This helps us build a robust management plan 

When we’re helping our pets learn to work through their Big Feels, or that we don’t need to have The Big Feels about something, management of triggers to prevent trigger stacking is one of the first things we should be doing. This helps our pet start learning these skills from an efficient and effective place. It lets us control what we’re working on and when, and helps to inform us in the most effective and efficient way to start crafting the plan.

#2 – It helps us understand when things get challenging 

Previously, we’ve talked about how teaching our pets new things, and generally just life, is a roller coaster, not an escalator. We’re going to have spurts where things are going so well, and then we’re going to have blips where everything may seem like it is all falling apart. When we find one of those valleys, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What’s different? What has changed in my pet’s life? What stressors am I not accounting for or aware of? Can we revise the plan to meet the changes?”

As a pet parent of a dog-reactive dog, I know I have had times where suddenly Griffey feels like he’s reacting to every little thing outside. When I  pause to pay attention and become more in tune with what’s going on in the environment, I can hear that there is a new bark happening outside. There is a new dog that is either visiting, or has moved in, and we need time to become acclimated and habituated to this new range of vocalizations.

#3 – It helps us troubleshoot the plan 

Every behavior modification plan will come with adjustments and changes. We get more information, each family and pet moves at different rates, sometimes things in life change. That means that we’re going to need to match the plan to the current situation. Sometimes, with the information that we have, we suspect that one approach will be the best course of action, and then when new information arises, we learn that coming from another angle will make more sense. The more information you can collect, the more full the picture will be!

And it is okay if you feel lost.

That is what your behavior consultant is for. While your behavior consultant will work with you to build your observation skills, they will also help you to identify what is relevant to you, your situation, and your pet. Your behavior consultant can help you parse out the noise from the information through empathetic listening, thoughtful questioning, and intentional skill building. We’re here so that you don’t need to carry that weight alone. 


Now what? 

  • Brush up on your body language skills! In order to spot the difference, you first need to spot the change in your pet’s behavior. 
  • When you notice that your pet’s behavior has changed, ask yourself, “What is different?” Do a scan of the environment for changes using all of your senses looking for anything that has changed. 
  • Look for patterns! What elicits a stress response from your pet? What elicits a joyful response? Does this happen reliably? 


Happy Training!