#24 - When Agency Isn’t an Option

[00:00:00] Emily: I know there are people out there who are thinking to themselves, “Yeah. I could never do that with my pet.” And it’s important to acknowledge that, and say, “Yes, we see you. We hear you. We’ve worked with so many people like you, you’re not alone. Your pet is not a monster. There are so many things we can do for them. And we can get to that point at some point, but here’s how we start.”

[00:00:20] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:39] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:41] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Lisa Clifton-Bumpass, and one of the topics we discussed was agency and communication around medical handling.

This week, we’re going to dive further into what to do when agency can’t be an option and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about how trust is like a bank account, would you do the same thing to a lion, and what to do when you can’t do best practices.

All right. Let’s get started.

There are so many gems that it was hard to pick just one for this week’s implementation episode, but one of the topics that Lisa touched on, what to do when agency isn’t an option, ended up being a huge topic of discussion in the last round of our Enrichment Framework for Behavior Modification Master Class. I think we ended up spending like at least two implementation episodes and talked about it in a weekly session, right, Emily?

[00:01:55] Emily: Oh, at least. Yeah.

[00:01:57] Allie: Yeah. It ended up being a huge topic of conversation with the professionals in that course. So, I know that this is a topic that a lot of people have questions about.

[00:02:05] Emily: And that’s super understandable, right? Because when people are first learning about how to provide agency for the animals in their lives, the next logical question is, “What do I do when that isn’t possible? Or when we haven’t trained for that specific procedure yet?” So, I think it’s important to tease out that aspect of Lisa’s interview and really devote some time to discussing this.

[00:02:26] Allie: There’s going to be a point in every pet’s life where this situation crops up. I mentioned last week that the last time I had to use this was when Oso got skunked. That’s definitely not a thing that I planned for, in fact, we actually have systems in place so that, that shouldn’t be able to happen, but management fails.

So, while we can’t guarantee behavior, we can pretty much guarantee that this is going to be a thing that happens in everyone’s life at some point. Not the getting skunked part, the having to take away agency for a valid reason part.

[00:02:56] Emily: Right, and this is one of the common misconceptions I think a lot of people have about moving away from more coercive interactions or training methods towards, um, what people call positive reinforcement training, or agency, or LIMA, or relationship-based, whatever label you want to put on it, there’s this fear that like, Well then my animal is just going to kind of run around doing whatever they want, and we won’t have any boundaries, and I’ll never be able to tell them, sorry, you know, suck it up, buttercup, you gotta do this thing.” And that’s a valid fear. And also, it’s a misconception. Because what we’re not saying is, you can never touch your animal, you can never set boundaries, you can never do any of those things. The point of this type of a training interaction, or philosophy, or mindset, whatever you want to call it, is that we have built up so much trust in our relationship with our animals, and we give them agency so much of the time, and we’re honest in our relationship with them, and compassionate. We listen to what they’re telling us, we honor their needs, and work to meet their needs, and that builds up an enormous amount of trust, like in a bank account. So, that when we have these moments where we have to do a thing.

We can’t avoid it, it’s just one of those sucky parts of life, we can afford to make that withdrawal without really harming that trust account. And that’s an analogy that I learned from Dr. Susan Friedman, and I use it all the time. Because it makes a lot of sense if you don’t have money in the bank, and you try to make a withdrawal, you’ll end up in the red.

The thing about the trust account, that’s very similar to actual bank accounts with money in them, is that when you’re in the red, you have to do a lot more work, and pay a lot more to get back into the black again. That is so true for trust. If we build up this massive, healthy trust account, where we’ve got a lot of money in the bank and we make one of those withdrawals, we can afford it.

And it doesn’t really deeply or meaningfully impact the relationship as a whole. We’ve got that healthy amount of trust is still left in the relationship.

[00:05:00] Allie: I think that’s a really nice segue into our takeaways for today because the first is, that you need a foundation first. You need money in your trust account, so to speak, before we should really be thinking about removing agency, we need a foundation full of trust that is built on communication, and you need that kind of special relationship. You have to do all the things first before you can talk about what do I do when I take it away.

[00:05:29] Emily: Yes. For sure. You’re not able to do those safety cues like Lisa was talking about, if you don’t already have that bank account in place, right? You can’t make the withdrawal if there’s no money in the bank. The second part of that is then assessing if it actually is time to make a withdrawal from that bank account. I think a lot of times people feel like, ” Oh, I can’t do anything about this. They’re never going to like this, so we just have to get over it.” And a lot of times that’s not actually necessary.

The more that we learn and the more competent that we get at this enrichment framework, the more often we’re able to come up with other ways to get the same thing done without having to make that trust withdrawal, or set up the arrangement, or do some advanced planning.

Some of these skills take very little time to teach, and so we actually can get like a five-minute training session in to have the animal cooperate with us. So, it’s not really necessary as often as people think it is. And that’s part of the skill of financial health when it comes to trust. Is knowing when you actually have to make a withdrawal versus when you might just think so, but it’s not actually necessary.

[00:06:37] Allie: We talked about this back in season one with Mike Shikashio’s implementation episode, there’s not just plan A or plan B. There are also plans, C, D, E, F, G, and H.

I find myself talking with my clients about, “Do you really have to do that? Can we come up with another way to meet both you and your pet’s goals?” One of the things that I find is that people have a hard time with that creativity aspect because they don’t know what’s possible. I had a client who their dog was biting them when they went to pick him up.

And I said, “Well, why do you have to pick him up?” And they said, “He won’t go upstairs, because we have hardwood stairs, and he’s not comfortable going up them.” And I said, “Okay, I understand if he’s going to go upstairs with you at night, then you think that picking ups the only way, but what about stair treads? Have we tried those?”

We ended up putting stair treads on the stairs, dog stairs for him to get up on the bed, to get up onto the couch, and they didn’t need to pick him up anymore. He stopped biting them because they weren’t picking him up in those contexts.

He still has handling issues that need to be addressed in other ways, but that one was like you said, Emily, it wasn’t that difficult to solve that problem. It was being creative with the solution. I find this all the time with little dogs because it’s easy, right? It’s easy to just swoop them up and relocate them and all of that. I ask them, “Would you be doing the same thing if this was a 90-pound dog?” And if the answer is no, then there’s another option.

[00:08:19] Emily: I tell clients the same thing, and it’s not just for the little dogs, it’s also for cats, hamsters, birds, any small animal, people are more likely to be coercive, and kind of pick them up, and carry them around, and do things to them. And it’s that mindset, it’s because I can, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And so, I, I frequently say that to clients too, if you wouldn’t do it to a tiger, or you wouldn’t do it to a St. Bernard, don’t do it to your Pomeranian or your parrot.

We’re not saying that these clients just aren’t very creative people, it’s that they’re not behavior professionals, so that’s not their job. Creativity isn’t an intrinsic trait, a lot of times creativity comes from years, and years, and years of experience, and education, and skill. And of course, if they had years of education, and experience, and skill, they wouldn’t need to hire us.

Definitely not criticizing clients when we say they’re not creative enough to come up with alternative solutions. That’s our job as behavior professionals. So, we’re the ones who need the years of experience, and education, having spoken to colleagues and getting ideas, brainstorming with other people in the field.

 That’s how we hone our own creativity to come up with these solutions.

[00:09:31] Allie: Yeah, just because you can do it with one topic does not mean you can do it in another topic, for sure. It’s not an intrinsic skill. Let’s say that we have the first part down, we have the foundation, we have the second part we’ve assessed if it’s actually a time that you can’t provide agency, and you have decided, yes, this is a time.

For example, Oso is not allowed to come into my house if he smells like fresh skunk, that’s just not a thing that I’m going to allow. Then here’s what to do.

[00:10:03] Emily: So, the first thing we have to do is be honest. It doesn’t help if we sugar coat, what we’re doing, or try to lure them into it with food, or try to comfort them during the thing, all that’s doing, that’s a kind of dishonesty where we’re promising something that we can’t deliver on.

And that actually poisons all of those things. Being nice to our animal, or using food, or comfort, all of those things become predictors for really terrible stuff to happen to animals. So, we just have to be very honest and matter of fact, and just get the thing done. Telling them, “Look, this is a thing that’s gonna happen. There’s nothing that we can do about this. We haven’t prepared for this, so we’ve just got to get through it and I’ll give you your power back at the end.” You can put that on cue. You can say, something like “medical” or ” tough cookies” or whatever you want your cue to be that signals to your animal. We’re going to do a thing. It’s going to suck, but we’re going to get through it, and you’ll get your power back at the end.

And then once we’ve gotten through it, you can give them their power back in really simple ways. This was actually something that we ended up talking about a lot in the Enrichment Master Class, how do you do that? And that actually, we’re going to more intentionally incorporate that moving forward as this was such a popular question.

Let’s talk about how to use safety cues, and how to implement this so that we can have these moments where, we haven’t prepared for this, the animal doesn’t know how to participate willingly, so we’re just going to get through it. So, I’m pretty excited that we’re incorporating that into the Enrichment Masterclass from now on.

[00:11:34] Allie: I am too, because you know, the devil’s in the detail, and I want to call back to what Kathy Sdao was saying of, you know, using food coercively, when you should not be using food. Those situations where you do have to remove agency is definitely a time where devil’s in the details, and it takes a whole lot more explanation than what we can feasibly do in this format.

So, I’m really excited that we’re incorporating more of it in that course.

[00:12:01] Emily: Me too. But what we can do in these implementation episodes is give examples. I will give an example with my dog, Brie. Brie was a feral dog who was brought into the sanctuary where Allie and I worked. When I adopted her, she’s a very sweet dog, human directed aggression has never been her issue, but she has had a lot of fear and anxiety around people and especially around handling, and so when we first got her, if anybody came over to our house, she would scream-bark, like shriek, glass shattering shriek the entire time that somebody strange was in our house. If any of us tried to handle her, she would jump away, or move away, or squirm out of, alligator roll out of the handling that we would try to do with her. So, we had to do a lot of body handling work with her. And I had to teach her how to be comfortable being handled.

We had to do a lot of cooperative care training. I had to teach her how to rest her chin in my hand and be still for jugular blood draws, and how to be still for abdominal exams, and all of that stuff that a lot of us take for granted with our dogs. I had to teach Brie how to do those as behaviors.

A few years later she started having some troubling health issues, we had to go in and do an ultrasound and that was not something I had trained for. It was an abdominal ultrasound, what happens is you put dogs in these kind of wedge pillows upside down and stretch them out like an x-ray where you’re stretching their front legs way over their head and their back legs way past their tail.

And so, they’re just stretched all the way out, upside down on their back. That was not something that Brie and I had worked on at all. To be honest, I’m ashamed to admit this because I was a vet tech for many, many years, I didn’t even think to work on that as a skill. When we went into the session, everything else that we did was done cooperatively.

And then we had to do the ultrasound and I, my, my cue for her, I stole from Lisa, is “medical.” So, I said “medical” and we turned her upside down and we stretched her out, they put this cold jelly on her belly and did the entire ultrasound. She was definitely not comfortable. She was, she had concerned look on her face and every once in a while, this little whimper would come out like, whoa.

But that is light years away from what she would have done when we first adopted her, she would not have been still, she would have had to be sedated. The whole time that she was upside down getting this ultrasound, she kept checking in with me every time she’d check in with me, I’d give her a little ear scratch, which is something that she enjoys.

And when we were done, I immediately gave her her power back, uh, through this, kind of like, a pick the cup game that I played with her. And she handled it great, as soon as she got down, she was wiggly and nice. She even went up to the vet and let the vet pet her. So that was just league’s better than how she was when we first adopted her.

And the reason that she was able to do that is because I had taught her. Sometimes I’m not able to give you a choice, but we’re going to get through it and good things will happen at the end,

[00:15:06] Allie: I like that you give Brie’s backstory each time when I just am like, ” Obviously, you know, that Oso is my dog, the end. Everyone knows Oso, he’s like Cher.”

[00:15:18] Emily: I know, I don’t know. I probably overexplain things. That’s very typical for me, isn’t it?

[00:15:27] Allie: We just are on opposite sides of the coin of like, “Obviously my dog, Oso is all you need to hear? And you’re like, yes, that’s the one named wonder, you know, like…”

[00:15:39] Emily: Everybody knows Prince, Madonna, and Oso.

[00:15:42] Allie: Prince, but yes. Madonna, like, yes. And Oso. Obviously. I mentioned, Oso getting skunked as a time where I had to use that medical cue to get them cleaned up, and we, of course, hadn’t worked on him being able to sit still and be happy about a hydrogen peroxide, baking soda solution around his eyes and nostrils. Uh, but I actually want to take a moment to talk to folks who are in that predicament of having put off a medical or a grooming procedure, because their pet hates the vet, or is aggressive during medical or groom procedures, or whatever it is, because that’s something that we see a lot as, consultants with our clients. It’s human nature, “I’m just going to kick this can a little bit further down the road, and then we come to a point of, I really need to work on this.”

We talked about here’s what best practices look like, and that’s not possible if you have a pet who absolutely needs a medical, or grooming procedure right now.

I want to take a moment to talk about what do we do in that scenario.

One of the things that, I try to help my clients get done, cause I’m not a vet or a groomer, so I can’t do the thing for them, is kind of like a hard reset.

A client who I love this client so much, I love this dog so much. The dog’s name is Norman, and Norman is a doodle. I don’t remember what kind of doodle, he’s a doodle. And so, it is necessary for him to get groomed, and he had developed mats, and those were painful to the touch.

When his mom came to me and said, ” I know that Norman desperately needs to be groomed, we’ve been kicked out of groomers, if I just bring out the brush, he tries to bite me. Norman had very, very big feelings about being groomed, and his mom was stuck between this rock and this hard place, I know this needs to happen and I have no idea how to make it happen.

I asked her to contact a vet clinic that I absolutely adore working with, for those of you in the Chicagoland area, Danada Veterinary Hospital, huge shout out to them. They’re one of my favorite vet clinics. And so, I asked her to. work with this veterinary hospital, because I knew that they would do a sedated visit for him and do all of his medical procedures that he hadn’t gotten done, because nobody could touch him in that way, the grooming procedures, they would just shave him down.

That was so helpful. She could breathe easier. He is physically well. We have time before we need to do another grooming appointment with him before I need to brush him. And now we can actually go through and work on best practices, and work on him having agency in his grooming procedures. She used to the point where she can brush his entire body. He can opt in and opt out and chooses to opt out instead of biting her to get her to go away. We couldn’t have done that if we hadn’t taken care of the physical needs first.

I know a lot of people ends up in that predicament, not because they don’t care about their pets, or because they’re neglectful or anything. It’s because they care so much about how their pet is feeling that we don’t know what to do in that situation. And so, I thought that was important to bring up. We’re talking about best practices today, and there are options for people who are in this, in this hard predicament.

We can’t do necessarily a best practice right now, but I definitely recommend working with a behavior professional, and a vet clinic, or a groomer who has a lot of experience working with those individuals. That’s definitely a situation where you need a team of professionals on board to, to make the most of that.

[00:19:42] Emily: Yeah, I think That’s so important because, I know that can feel very isolating when you have an animal who is so fearful that they’re dangerous during these medical and grooming procedures. And you know, when we have these conversations, I know there are people out there who are thinking to themselves, “Yeah. I could never do that with my pet.” And it’s important to acknowledge that, and say, “Yes, we see you. We hear you. We’ve worked with so many people like you, you’re not alone. Your pet is not a monster. There are so many things we can do for them. And we can get to that point at some point, but here’s how we start.”

So, I appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge those pets as well.

[00:20:20] Allie: Really, I just wanted to talk about Norman because he is my absolute favorite cooperative care case. I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but Norman is one of my favorites.

[00:20:33] Emily: He sounds adorable.

[00:20:34] Allie: I, oh my gosh. He’s fantastic. I love him so much. All right, so today we talked about what to do when agency isn’t an option and that includes building your foundation first. We need a foundation of agency before we can even talk about what happens when it’s not possible. Trust in that trust account. The second part is to assess if it’s actually a time when you can’t provide agency. And as we discussed, there will be times where it’s a situation where you just don’t know that there are other options because you haven’t experienced those options, you haven’t learned about those options. So, consult someone who has more experience in that particular scenario to determine if it is actually a time that agency is not possible. And then assuming those first two things are true, ripping off the band-aid. Just get it done and then happy things can happen afterwards.

Next week, we will be talking with Dr. Miranda Workman about cat enrichment! There are so many amazing nuggets of information in her interview that are applicable to all species. Miranda is just this mixture of joy, and insight, and knowledge it’s just amazing to speak with her. Plus, cats need some time in the spotlight in my opinion.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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