[00:00:00] Emily: I can’t tell you how many times a professional has asked us, “how can I tell if an animal’s behavior is typical or maladaptive”? And that’s a super valid question because we often see one of two extremes. Either people see a species-typical behavior and get really concerned about it and fear that it’s maladaptive or conversely, they see a maladaptive behavior, misinterpret it as species-typical, so they miss the mark in trying to address it.
[00:00:29] 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…
[00:00:48] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…
[00:00:49] 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 Dr. Jessica Hekman, and one of the topics we discussed was how breed impacts behavior. This week we’re going to dive further into breed-typical enrichment and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about the nuances surrounding breed, typical enrichment, seeing with your eyes, not your ideas, and how to determine when a behavior is maladaptive. Let’s get to it.
Okay. We get questions about the topic of breed-typical enrichment all the time, so we definitely wanted to do an episode about it. But if you listen to Dr. Hekman’s episode last week about breed and behavior, you know that this is kind of a misleading phrase.
[00:01:57] Emily: Yeah, I find it fascinating how much of a focus seems to be placed on breed, when in reality, there aren’t really any breeds that have behavior that is completely unique and not found in any other breed, nor are there behaviors that every dog within a breed exhibits.
[00:02:12] Allie: All breed-typical behaviors are actually just dog behaviors, and the history of the breed has led to a tendency, but not a guarantee towards more or less pronounced variations of the same behaviors that dogs in general exhibit.
[00:02:28] Emily: We’re really just talking about modal action patterns. The kernel of truth in all the hubbub about breed is that through selective breeding, we have made specific aspects of a modal action pattern, either more or less likely to occur, or to occur in a specific way, or to not occur at all. But that doesn’t mean that every dog from a breed needs a specific enrichment activity or that any enrichment activity is unique to a specific breed.
At the end of the day, the way to determine what enrichment activities we need to offer is by looking at the dog in front of us and seeing what they offer. See with your eyes, not your ideas.
[00:03:04] Allie: I love how Jessica phrased it, that if you’re meeting a dog for the first time, that’s when you may take breed into consideration to determine what you’ll include in a preference test. But then, like you said, Emily, we’re going to see with our eyes and actually observe if they got the memo that their breed should do X behavior or like X thing.
Like Jessica said, there are a bunch of labs out there that don’t know that they should love retrieving.
[00:03:30] Emily: And that’s true on a species level, too. Whatever species you’re working with, you should know their natural history, their species-typical behaviors, and have a general. Idea of how much, how often, or how persistent a species-typical behavior is for that species, so that you know what to expect. But you still need to base your enrichment plan on what the animal in front of you needs, what they’re offering, and what they seek to obtain.
[00:03:55] Allie: So, let’s dive into the takeaways here for today. The first one is to just, like you said, observe the individual in front of you. And we do that by starting to assess what the animal does, what they need, and what they’ll seek to obtain.
In most cases, the behaviors that people consider to be a nuisance are actually species-typical behaviors being performed in a context that humans find inconvenient or unsafe, think of digging, or counter surfing, or chewing.
Those are all species-typical behaviors. We just don’t always love how our dogs do those behaviors. But that’s actually great information for us because it tells us exactly what that animal wants to do, so that makes our job easier. We just have to find a more appropriate outlet for the animal to perform that particular behavior.
Alternatively, if we’re seeing a dog who is amped up, or can’t take breaks, or does too much of one behavior, we need to look at other behaviors that can facilitate our behavioral goals. And certainly, we can and should take breed-typical behaviors into consideration, but those aren’t always going to be the most appropriate solution.
Sometimes the skills we need to focus on are more general like relaxation or flight, or scent work. It’s like fighting fire with fire. Sometimes we actually wanna fight fire with water, so if a dog is really amped up, instead of just like running the heck out of them, sometimes we wanna fight that fire with water and teach them how to actually relax instead.
But in general, we can get a lot of information about what an animal needs by becoming skillful observers of their actual behavior, unfiltered by our beliefs about what they need because of their breed.
[00:05:42] Emily: The second takeaway is doing preference tests. So, like Jessica was saying in her episode, sometimes we don’t know an animal or anything about them because we just met them. I’d also add that we may not know what an animal does because they’re shut down, or they’ve been in really restrictive environments, such as puppy mills or bird mills or hoarding cases, and as a result of that, they’re super inexperienced.
Allie and I have worked with several cases like this. I can’t even count how many we’ve encountered. So, there are several reasons why we may not know what behavior an animal offers, but the good news is that in these situations, we can just ask them. We can ask them by conducting preference tests.
We talked a little about two types of preference tests in Learn How to Play with Your Animal episode, but there are lots of different kinds of preference tests. There are food preference tests, toys, play preference, scents preference, sound, petting. Okay. Those are all of the ones I can think of off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are more, basically, anytime there’s a situation where you want to find out what an animal prefers, you can do a preference test for it.
Also, there are lots of different ways to do those preference tests. It really depends on how rigorous you need to be. If you’re just trying to find out like, “Hey, do you like these things?” You can opt for a simpler, easy peasy type of preference test. But if you need to dig a little deeper, “Hey, when the chips are down and life is hard, which one of these things will you still care about?” then you need to get a little more methodical about it.
So, Allie, why don’t you talk about how you have most of your clients do their food preference? It’s.
[00:07:23] Allie: For sure. So, the purpose of food preference tests when I’m using them for my clients is to determine which food, treats, whatever you wanna call them, which food falls into the low valve category, which falls into the medium value category, and which falls into the high value category. Because when I’m working with a client, I will tell them, I want you to do this activity in this particular situation, and I want you to use X value of treats, whether that’s medium, or high or, or whatever it is, because I don’t always want them to use the highest value because I want to keep them at high value. And that means you can’t just have chicken all day, every day for everything that you do. That’s the goal when I’m doing food preference tests with my clients is to put foods into different categories.
So, the way that I have my clients do this is I have them pit two types of food or treats against each other and put one type of food in the heel of their hand, put the other type of food on their fingertips, put their other hand on top, so it’s like a sandwich, and then present their sandwiched hands sideways to their animal so that the animal can sniff both treats.
It’s not like only fingertips are towards your animal, and so they’re obviously gonna go for that one first, if it’s closer.
But you’re doing sideways so they can sniff both treats. And I tell my clients, this is where they’re figuring out what they’re playing for. Open the hand and then see which treat the animal goes for first. I then have them do a best two out of three. Whichever treat was in the heel of their hand now moves to the fingertips, whichever treat was in the fingertips now moves to the heel, and then sandwich again, present your sandwich sideways, open and see, do they go for the same treat first again. Sometimes dogs have a preference where they’re like eating a treat out of the heel of your hand is just weird, I never do that. And so they only go for the fingertips, so that’s what the best two out of three helps you determine. Is it actually food preference or is it placement preference? If we have issues with placement preference, then I have them do this on the floor instead of their hands, and there are other variations that you can make too.
Like, if you have an animal who has a hard time eating out of hands in general, if you have somebody who’s differently abled, there are a lot of ways that you can modify this. But I have them figure out, which is the favorite between those two treats in a best two out of three test, and then we go into our bracket, winner gets pitted against something else until something is the ultimate winner. But the nice thing about that is they can determine this is the best treat of all time. As Emily said, when the chips are down, this is what I want you to use, in other situations, I want you to use something that is, still desirable, still preferable, but isn’t as high value as that one ultimate treat.
[00:10:20] Emily: I love your approach and I love how you do that. And it’s pretty similar to what I do when again, we don’t need to be super rigorous and methodical. Sometimes, however we run across cases where we have to be so much more methodical than that for whatever complicated reasons.
For example, they have food sensitivities, and so their family reports that they’re not allowed to eat any of the foods that they know that they like, so we have to really figure out what foods that fall within the like okay to eat category are appetitive to the dog, or we have an issue where the owner reports that the dog is not always food motivated and we really need to investigate, is it an issue of the type of food you’re feeding in the context that you’re feeding it?
There’s just a lot of reasons that we need to be more methodical in our approach. And so, the way that we’ll have clients do that is, I tell them take a sample of everything in your kitchen that’s dog safe, and approved by the dog’s vet for dietary issues. And we’re gonna lay it out in a grid pattern, and you’re gonna either film it or write down your grid, like what food is, where on the grid, and then let the dog into the room.
And I am a really big fan of filming it so we can go back and re-watch it. And see you know, when your dog sniffs through all the food, see which food the dog goes for first, and then second, and then third. And then like Allie was saying with her food preference test uh, we’ll repeat that process.
We’ll change the location of the, all the different food items on the grid. So, they’re not in the same place so we’re ruling out location. We’ll do it on a different day, so we don’t have to worry about satiety lowering the value of the food, and we’ll do it again and see if the dog goes for those same foods or if the dog’s like, “Hey, if it’s food, like if I find it, it’s mine, I eat it.”
And I tell clients it’s actually really good information. If your dog is a hoover and comes in and is just, ” Look at all these snacks that are mine now!” That actually tells us that your dog might not be as picky as you think they are. They actually like a whole lot of food. So, then we need to figure out.
Why they appear to not be food motivated in other contexts. So, it’s not a failure of the test if the dog hoovers up everything, but I think a lot of people would be surprised at how often dogs are actually pretty selective, and they’ll sniff and find out what their options are. And then they’ll eat something first, and something second, and something third.
So, we can get an idea of what their like hierarchy is of most valued, to least valued food. And if we repeat that test a few times, we can then figure out if there’s a trend or if they’re like, “Hey, today I’m in the mood for this one, and tomorrow I’ll be in the mood for a different one.” Which also gives us information about that dog, that they don’t have a favorite food.
I am one of those dogs, my favorite quote, unquote changes from day to day. I like variety varieties, the spice of life. So again, it’s a more methodical test that gives us really important information when we need to be more methodical. But there’s no reason to go through that big hula blue, if a more simpler approach will do the job.
So that’s why there’s lots of different ways to do this. There’s not one right way to do preference tests. You can do a lot of different methods depending on what makes the most sense for the specific thing. You’re trying to test the individual animal, the environment, the people, everything, take all of that into consideration.
[00:13:44] Allie: It’s just like with your enrichment plan, where you need to know what your goals are in order to figure out the best way to achieve them.
[00:13:51] Emily: I love that comparison. That’s super accurate. Yes. It’s almost like there’s like a pattern here that we’re developing.
[00:13:58] Allie: Almost, it’s almost like you can apply that concept to like pretty much everything in your life.
[00:14:03] Emily: It’s so funny how that works.
So, the third takeaway after we’ve figured out this animal’s preferences, and what they’re offering is determining whether or not a behavior is maladaptive.
Allie and I get asked this question all the time. I can’t tell you how many times a professional has asked us, “how can I tell if an animal’s behavior is typical or maladaptive”? And that’s a super valid question because we often see one of two extremes. Either people see a species-typical behavior and get really concerned about it and fear that it’s maladaptive or conversely, they see a maladaptive behavior, misinterpret it as species-typical, so they miss the mark in trying to address it. And that’s not just a thing that pet parents do; we also see this really commonly with behavior professionals.
I think it’s really important to go back to when we’re talking about, you know, determining whether a behavior is a healthy, normal expression of a species-typical behavior, or whether it’s maladaptive, we have to go back to that animal’s natural history and figure out why that behavior exists in the first place. So, in other words, we have to know did that behavior evolve to accomplish, and what context did that behavior evolve to occur in? How persistent is it supposed to be? How frequent is it supposed to happen? When is it supposed to happen? So that’s what we have to go back to. If we’re determining that a behavior is species-typical or maladaptive. Is it functioning in the way it was meant to function?
I think a good example of this is let’s, let’s look at a grazing behavior of grass eating. If we are looking at a grazing species, like a horse or a sheep we would expect that grazing behavior would happen for several hours a day, every day. And that is adaptive that’s species-typical for those species, because that’s how they’re meant to engage with grass. For dogs, it is species-typical for dogs to eat grass, but we would expect them to eat, a few mouthfuls for a couple minutes and then move on. So, if we saw a dog eating grass for hours a day, every day, that would be maladaptive because that’s not how dogs evolved to interact with grass. They aren’t a grazing species.
So, eating grass is neither typical nor maladaptive. It depends on the species, their natural history, and where that behavior falls within their activity budget. So that’s what we’re looking at. A lot of people in our industry get really concerned with chasing light and shadows because we frequently see that happening in a maladaptive way.
A play type behavior that imitates a real behavior, so, you know, a light and shadow eliciting a play version of a predatory modal action pattern, that can be healthy normal. It’s only maladaptive if it’s happening for really long periods of time, replacing other behaviors, we’re seeing this anxiety surrounding this behavior.
So, we have to be careful not to say all light and shadow chasing is maladaptive, it’s a problem we have to fix. So that’s an example of how we can differentiate. Is it functioning the way it was designed to, or is it happening out of context, or too persistently, or too long? Is it replacing other behaviors? Is it reducing their behavioral diversity? Is it happening as a coping mechanism? Because when animals don’t have skills to handle stressful situations, they typically fall back on innate behaviors. That’s how we determine whether something is typical or maladaptive.
[00:17:52] Allie: And to bring this back into the breed-typical discussion, we see where people misinterpret a behavior because it’s perhaps a breed-typical behavior of a particular dog. And I know we’re, we’re talking like super dog heavy this episode, but dogs are not the only animals that have breeds or like subspecies or something like that.
Replace dog with whatever other type of animal you would like if you want to do that. But we see where people will misinterpret a behavior and say, just because it’s breed-typical, that means it’s okay. But really, we’re actually seeing it in a maladaptive way. For example, the retriever that is playing fetch for three hours a day beyond the point of exhaustion.
It doesn’t matter if retrieving is breed-typical, it’s being performed in a maladaptive way. To bring this conversation back to that discussion of breed, just because something is typical of a breed does not mean that it’s not maladaptive. So, we really have to walk this fine line of looking at what is the outcome of this behavior, regardless of what breed or subspecies this animal is. And so, that’s actually my example for today, is Oso who I feel like he’s half of my stories, but I just, I love him so much, so it’s fine. I’m gonna pretend everybody loves hearing Oso stories as much as I love telling them. So…
[00:19:22] Emily: I do.
[00:19:23] Allie: Oso. Oh, good. I know you, you love him too, so everybody should love him.
[00:19:28] Emily: He’s oh, so dreamy.
[00:19:30] Allie: Yes, he’s just the best.
[00:19:32] Emily: It’s true.
[00:19:33] Allie: So, Oso is a mixed breed dog, and I met Oso the second day that I started at an animal sanctuary, and I met him because he was a problem child. And specifically, he was a foot biter. Those of you who work in shelters, you know exactly what that means, all I have to say is foot biter, and you’re like, yes, I know you don’t even have to operationalize that. But for folks who are not familiar with this particular behavior. Foot biting is just as, it sounds like you walk into a space, they bite your feet, it’s really painful when dogs bite your feet, regardless of what size they are, but Oso happens to be, 80 ish, 90 ish pounds, so it was extra painful. I walked into Oso’s run, and he said, “Hi, I’m Oso.” And I said, “Hey, do you wanna do stuff?” And he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do stuff.” Didn’t bite my feet, and then I left and, and we later learned that it seemed like it was a Clever Hans situation where he is very in tune with people, and if they were a little bit nervous about him, he would for lack of a better word, be a jerk and bite their feet. And I can say that because he’s my dog and I love him.
[00:20:39] Emily: He’s like, “You’re not a human, you’re a toy!”
[00:20:42] Allie: Right. Exactly. And this continued to escalate until he tried dragging a volunteer out through his doggy door, by her shoe. And then he was placed a staff only. Foot biting was, was Oso’s big behavior issue at the sanctuary. He developed other behaviors in between that there and me, but that’s neither here nor there. I was teaching a workshop for another shelter, and that morning I had said, ” I see so much foot biting with like heelers and herding dogs, and, and, you know, it kind of seemed like a breed-typical behavior in shelters to me. You know what, though? Oso was a foot biter and he’s not a herding breed.” Literally that afternoon, I got the DNA results for him, and he was I think like 25% cattle dog. Was the, was the percentage.
And we are not going to go down the rabbit hole that is mixed breed and behavior, and like that, cuz that is an entire rabbit hole that we do not have a ton of research on. So, that is just a funny anecdote, not like a, he has is part herding dog, so he is exhibiting breed-typical behaviors.
Where we’re going with this is, even though this foot biting seems like a breed-typical behavior that I saw with herding breeds in shelters, and sanctuaries, and more stressful environments like that. It didn’t make it okay. It was super not okay for him to be biting people’s feet. It was a maladaptive behavior. Instead of saying like, “Yeah, he’s part herding breed. And that’s why he’s doing it, and I’m not, going to, to work on it or change it.” I said, ” That’s a really interesting perhaps coincidence, perhaps not coincidence, I don’t know, I don’t have enough research, and we are going to change this behavior.” Because it was a coping skill for him or a coping mechanism for him. Like Emily was saying, when you’re in a stressful situation, a lot of times you fall back on those innate behaviors, and that’s exactly what Oso was doing was that we saw this in times of stress. And that could be good stress, eustress, or that could be bad stress, distress. We ended up seeing that in all the stress situations for him. And so, now he has a replacement behavior of if you are stressed, good or bad, doesn’t matter. If you are stressed, go grab a toy or a destructible or something else to do with your mouth, and do that instead of biting feet.
And so, as long as he has the ability to perform that more appropriate behavior, he will do so. The only times that we see that now are when he does not have the ability to perform a more appropriate behavior where he’ll fall back onto that innate behavior.
[00:23:34] Emily: I love that story so much because this notion is actually really empowering. I think there’s a, there’s an element of defeatism in this idea that because there’s a genetic component to a behavior, therefore you can’t do anything about it except to manage it. And obviously management is an important component of it, but it’s so much more empowering and relieving for both pet parents and behavior professionals when they know that, no, not at all. Just because there’s a genetic component to something doesn’t mean that we can’t change it. We absolutely can. All behavior is still influenced by the environment and the world around them.
So, there’s a level of hope in that story that I think is really important. Also, I love Oso, but I might be a little biased, but anyway, moving on. The story that I wanted to share was about the power of preference tests. Because, like I said earlier, Allie and I have worked with hundreds, if not thousands of dogs who were shut down and or inexperienced. Who came from hoarding situations, or breeding mills, or feral situation, and so we didn’t know anything about these animals, and they weren’t offering a lot of behavior, and so we really had to get to know these animals and the way that we did that in many, many cases, I don’t know why I’m talking about this in the past tense.
The way that we do that in many cases is through preference tests. So, I wanna tell you about a little tiny friend of mine named Pinky. That I would’ve brought home with me if it weren’t for meany pants partner, who would not let me bring home pinky and every other dog I fell in love with at the sanctuary.
I don’t know why my partner wouldn’t let me bring home 14 dogs, but that’s a different story. So, pinky was one of the dogs that I fell in love with at the sanctuary. She was a little Chihuahua who came from uh, puppy mill situation. She was very shut down, and then if anybody tried to get close to her, she would kind of leap out of freeze mode, into fight mode, and would like lunge, and snap, and bite at people. And she was not afraid to make contact, she put her little teefers on lots of people. So, the way that I developed a relationship with her, it took two sessions of me coming in for, maybe, I don’t know, 10 to 15 minutes.
I wasn’t timing it, but sitting in her run, and not looking at her, facing away from her, and sitting at the very opposite end, as far away from her as I could and just handling the different toys that she had in her run. And I would pick one up and play with it, and she either wouldn’t look at me or she’d do those little side glances, the avoidant, like full body turned side glance.
And then I did a little squeaky toy, and her little ears perked up, and she’d directly looked at me. So, I didn’t look at her, I just casually, not toss is even too strong of a word, shuffled the toy, scooched the toy?
[00:26:34] Allie: Lobbed.
[00:26:35] Emily: Lobbed the toy in her general direction, and then, I just kept playing with other toys. So, she picked up her squeaky toy after a few minutes and she like, “squeaker squeaker.” And so, I did the same thing with another squeaky toy had. I “squeaker squeakered” back. And so, we started this like squeaky toy conversation. Where she’d squeak and I’d squeak back. And then I started to see a little tail wag. She’s like, “Oh, this is a call and response squeak.” And so, then she would look directly at me, and squeak the toy, and then I started to like do quick glances and squeak, and she got it. And then she like offered like a little quick play bow and then squeaked again, and I squeaked back and she was like, “Oh my God, this human is talking to me with a toy.”
And so, we started this conversation, this relationship, by you know, me offering her different toys and different things to play with. And then when she chose the one that she enjoyed, I was able to play with her, play a little squeaker call response game. And I spent like I said, it was two, two sessions just coming to visit her in her little area.
And after the second session, a couple days later, I walked into this big, enclosed kind of agility run at the sanctuary where we worked. And I wasn’t going in there to visit the dogs, I was going in there to talk to one of the caregivers, but they were doing a Little’s playgroup and Pinky was in the play group.
And she was at the opposite end of this enclosed area, this little arena. And she saw me, and she came tearing across the run, the little arena, and launched herself into my arms. And she’s like full wiggles, kissing me all over my face, and I was like, “This is it. I’m in love. This is my dog now.” And I did not get to take her home because my partner is mean and would not let me take home every single dog I fell in love with. What a monster. But the point of that story isn’t that my partner is a monster, the point of the story is that I used preference tests to not only figure out what this dog enjoyed doing, but also to build a relationship with her, and it didn’t actually take very long. Now disclaimer, there are other dogs who have much, you know, more intense fear.
It takes much longer than two sessions, I’m not claiming that you can like magically fix all behavior issues with two sessions of preference tests. This is just an example, just like Allie’s anecdote doesn’t mean that like you can magically predict all mixed breed behavior. My example doesn’t mean you can magically fix all things in two sessions, but these are just really good examples of how we should be thinking about and approaching enrichment for these animals in these contexts.
[00:29:14] Allie: Pinky was the cutest, by the way. I agree with you.
[00:29:18] Emily: She really was. Yep. I agree.
[00:29:20] Allie: All right. Today, we talked about breed-typical enrichment, which isn’t actually breed-typical enrichment, it’s just enrichment for an individual in which you take into consideration their breed as one of many factors that influence behavior and needs.
But at the end of the day, you need to see with your eyes, not your ideas. That included, observing the individual in front of you, preference tests, and determining when a behavior is maladaptive.
Next week we’ll be talking with Naomi Rotenberg about creating harmonious dog and cat households. I absolutely love Naomi’s take on dog cat cases and emphasizing mental and behavioral health for all species in the household, dog, cat, and human. And I think that even if you don’t have a dog cat household, there are great nuggets in this interview that you can apply to any multi-species households, which technically includes all of them if humans are living with a pet,
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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Results are not guaranteed because behavior, human, canine, or otherwise, are not guaranteeable.