#51 - Tracy Harachi: Caring for the People Who Care for Pets

[00:00:00] Tracy: So, I think it’s really important, um, for folks to think about how do they make the environment more secure and predictable. So, I, I spoke earlier about trying to increase See Kao’s predictability to help with her anxiousness, and I think that’s something really important for new dogs, either dogs that are coming from a different environment, coming from a shelter having predictability in their life and setting up a safe place, building their security are, are important elements.

[00:00:27] 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…

[00:00:45] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:46] 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.

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was our very own Tracy Harachi. Tracy is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge Assessed, Certified Canine Fitness Trainer, and Fit Paws Master Trainer. She joined the Pet Harmony team in 2022 and applies years of experience focused on improving the wellbeing of families through evidence-based interventions to the science behind training and behavior change now focused on dogs.

In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Tracy talk about swaddling a paraplegic dog, predictability with a capital P, building security, and caregiver burden. All right, here it is, today’s episode, Tracy Harachi: Caring for the People Who Care for Pets.

[00:01:57] Emily:  Okay, so tell us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:02:02] Tracy: It’s Tracy Harachi. My pronouns are she, her, and my pets are, uh, Takeshi, a cat from Cambodia. See Kao, who is a dog from Thailand. And also, Boon Ngaam also from Thailand.

[00:02:20] Emily:  Awesome. And tell us your story and how you got to where you are today.

[00:02:24] Tracy: Well, if I, I’ll keep this short, but the story does start maybe when I was in, I think, maybe 6th or 7th grade, when I decided that maybe I wanted to study pathology and animal behavior. And really got into that as a youngster. But then paths kind of, kind of, I guess took a little segue, or took a little detour, and I started instead focusing on kids and their families.

And that’s what I ended up doing for graduate work and what I did for, uh, many, many years as a research scientist, studying how kids develop problem behaviors and how to support kids, their families in schools and communities. And I’m very happy to report that I kind of got back on the animal, animal pathway, and started learning more about particularly dogs. And very excited to have that pathway link back and be working here at Pet Harmony as a behavior consultant.

[00:03:36] Emily:  We’re also really happy to have you working here at Pet Harmony as a behavior consultant, but I want to circle back to your pets a little bit because your pets have really given you a gift, albeit a dubious one in that they have some special needs that have given you knowledge and skill to help clients in a way that a lot of behavior professionals have never been in a position to acquire. So, I’d love for you to talk more about your pets, their needs, and how you meet those needs.

[00:04:09] Tracy: Sure, we have kind of a unique pair of dogs currently. I think our, our cat who thinks he’s a dog is probably not in the special needs category except that he’s very special, and like I said he thinks he’s a dog. So, some years ago, let’s see, maybe 2012, I started volunteering at a sanctuary in Thailand, and that’s actually where I met our two current dogs. And it was, let’s see, the sanctuary at that time had one special needs, at least physically special needs dog, and actually went through quite a bit of effort to try to create a living space for that dog who is paraplegic. Uh, most of the dog runs at that sanctuary were on, you know, just in, on dirt and rocks, which would have been very challenging for a paraplegic dog.

So, they, they build a special run. And See Kao who, um, who is now living with us, was kind of the second special needs dog that appeared there. So, she actually, um, was, was dumped at the sanctuary after a villager came and said that she used to walk, but now could no longer walk, and, and they felt they couldn’t take care of her and wanted to leave her at the sanctuary.

So, when I first met her, she was, she was dragging her hind end and it was, it was unclear what had happened to her, and, really what her prognosis was. Skip ahead a few months, and, um, when I came back to volunteer again, I found that she was actually standing, and, um, and I asked, and she apparently had, had gone into the nearby town, had some, had some water therapy, and was, was doing a lot better.

See Kao unfortunately did not get along well with the other paraplegic who bullied her and, and actually bit her multiple times. So, we decided to hatch a plan to migrate See Kao to the US, and at that point, we actually thought she was going to a friend who was going to foster her, and we were going to find her home.

Long story short, she was kind of a foster fail, and she ended up being a permanent resident of our household. If you met See Kao now, she, she actually, um, doesn’t. appear to have any physical limitations, um, though, I anticipate as she grows older that she’s likely to have arthritis, and some other issues, given that she probably did have a traumatic injury that caused her to be a paraplegic for at least several months.

But she has probably a lot of emotional special needs and is quite an anxious dog who has a lot of, a lot of big scares in the world. Our other dog, Boon, Boon was found by the founders of the sanctuary as they were going off to do an elephant check, and they saw this little dog scooting across the road, and she was also paraplegic, it appeared to be at that point, and they actually thought that her spine was severed.

She ended up being my roomie at the park, and again, sort of a foster fail. Brought her home and thought we were going to be living with a paraplegic. Boon mostly is, mostly a paraplegic, though, if she chooses to stand and walk, she actually has been over the years, growing stronger abilities to do that.

As a result of kind of both dogs, I started focusing a lot on canine fitness and ended up getting some certifications from the University of Tennessee in canine fitness it opened a kind of a, a different world related to animal behavior than I had planned.

[00:07:37] Emily:  And Boon requires some special care sometimes as well, right? In addition to just caring for a dog who doesn’t always have the best mobility.

[00:07:45] Tracy: Yes. Um, Boon has several different medical conditions, or not necessarily, um, some diagnosed, some not quite diagnosed, and she over time has had some kind of neuropathy, sort of some what appear to be neuro spasms. That I don’t know the source of, but she ends up having kind of like a very serious Charlie horse, and it’s hard to tell a dog who’s having a Charlie horse that that pain and what she’s feeling is going to end soon.

So, I’ve tried a variety of different things and talked to some different vets about what I might be able to do, and what seemed to be the best was, um, I actually walk Boone, she’s a small dog. Um, when I need to move her from point A to point B, I put her into a baby carrier and hold her. And so, what I found, I think partly because she finds a lot of, I think, a sense of security in that baby carrier, when she starts having these muscle spasms, I swaddle her in the baby carrier, and it’s a baby Moby, and hold her, which sometimes can be quite a few hours. So, I have, I’ve watched a lot of bad TV at like 4 a. m. when Boon has had a really bad episode. And maybe sometimes throws a wrench in my schedule as I sit and watch bad TV holding, holding on to her till she calms down, she sort of ends up having a panic attack, I think, in addition to the actual physical sensation, I think, not knowing what’s going on sort of puts her into a panic attack. And so, I feel like me swaddling her is probably as much addressing, I think, the panic that she feels or is experiencing, um, and probably less, so I’m don’t know that I’m doing anything for her actual spasms itself.

[00:09:31] Emily:  Yeah, I mean, I obviously have to be careful about assuming that the human experience and the dog experience are identical, but I can speak to my experience as a human with chronic pain that, sometimes addressing the panic is more important than dressing, addressing the physical pain. Because it’s like you handle it, and you’re like, “Look at me. I’m handling my chronic pain. I’ve got this. I’ve got this.” And then all of a sudden your brain is like, “I definitely don’t got this. I need this to stop now. Can I crawl out of my skin? What can I do?” And, for me as a human anyway. being able to, like having the tools to process that panic and release it is, even more helpful than, getting rid of that physical pain, so I love that you have found a way to help her with that.

[00:10:21] Tracy: I think, I think this is a, an example to where a lot of stuff happens to Boon, both because of her physical conditions, but also kind of over her, she was probably hit, well, she was by a motorcycle when she was than a month old. And so, she had a lot of sort of needed to be on crate rest, a lot of things happened to her at a very young age. And so, I think what that’s really taught me as a pet parent is how can I give her choice and agency, and that when I do need to do medical things with her, we, I have sort of cues to give her, to let her know, for example, when I need to pick her up, I don’t just scoop her up, but I, she has a word we’d say “ready” and that means I got to pick you up now, regardless of what you might want to do, we got to get up and going. So, yeah, I think it’s really taught me a lot about how to create situations where she has some predictability and knows when she has control over the situation or when she’s, she’s not because we have to do a medical procedure.

[00:11:19] Emily:  Yeah. Yeah. I love that you brought up the predictability as well, because that’s part of it too, right? Having predictability, having control, having the tools to process emotional responses, and complete your stress response cycle. All of that is super important. And you mentioned that See Kao has a lot of anxiety issues, what accommodations do you make for See Kao and helping her to navigate the world?

[00:11:46] Tracy: So, uh, See Kao really needs a lot of predictability. Um, I think predictability with a big capital P rules in her life. And that’s another thing that I feel like I, I learned more through, through having her. Um, she and I used to commute together, um, both dogs and I, because Boon has to go in and get some specialized vet services. We had a weekly commute, and it took me a long time to realize, even though the commute was, in my mind, as the human, a predictable sequence of events, we went to the same place, we did the same thing, we left on the same day of the week. It was still a lot of change for See Kao and for a dog who I think experiences, a lot of just generalized anxiety having that change, even though it was in my mind change that was consistent, it was a lot for her, and I would watch her behavior. Um, I think sort of dip during those times. And I finally decided, maybe it wasn’t in her best interest to commute weekly with me. And so, she stays at home, and it’s remarkable how much I think that has improved sort of her mental well-being of not having that kind of change happen in her life. So, trying to create an environment that’s much more predictable and consistent for her has been really key.

I think the other thing that’s been really, I think, important for me to better understand as I’ve grown in my knowledge about dogs is, is really understanding their body language and particularly their, their whispers. And so, I can start seeing when she is starting to feel a little uncomfortable and, and then I can advocate and help her make better choices rather than her having to scream at me, “Mom, I’m not comfortable now!” And then, the kind of a separate issue is just, watching as she starts to relax and she starts to go, [ inhale] takes a deep breath and is like, “Okay, I can, I can deal with this.” And so, being able to see and observe that, and then support her, and reinforce when she does that has been, I think, a really important thing for me to do as a pet parent for her to support her, um, her welfare.

[00:13:53] Emily:  I love all of that. So, in addition to your own pets, you’ve also done a lot of work with dogs and maybe other species who have been transported from other countries, who, because of that experience, perhaps need some extra support. So, between your experience with your own pets, transported pets, and client pets, what are some things that you wish everybody who lives or works with anxious animals knew?

[00:14:19] Tracy: I think it’s really important to think about building security. A lot of people ask me about, um, you know, they may be just traveling with their dogs, like, to get to a vacation or something, as opposed to actually transporting them from overseas. and asking, is that really stressful for the dog?

And I, and I have to say that in most instances, I haven’t seen dogs being overtly stressed, but I could imagine that that experience is, is challenging and then coming to a new environment also like, “Whoa, where did I just land? ” So, I think it’s really important, um, for folks to think about how do they make the environment more secure and predictable.

So, I, I spoke earlier about trying to increase See Kao’s predictability to help with her anxiousness, and I think that’s something really important for new dogs, either dogs that are coming from a different environment, coming from a shelter having predictability in their life and setting up a safe place, building their security are are important elements.

[00:15:22] Emily:  I agree with you. It’s almost like we’re on the same team or something. Um, yeah, great preach. So, you wrote an excellent two-part series of articles for our blog about caregiver burden, and not going to lie, Ellen and I specifically asked you to do it because we know that you have so much firsthand experience with caregiver burden. So, I would love to dive more deeply into that topic. What are some strategies that you use to gain perspective, muster empathy and patience when you’re having to stay up until 4 a. m. with a dog, for example, and complete your stress response cycle when the animals in your care, or a person in your care, for that matter, needs more from you than you feel like you’re able to give at that time.

[00:16:15] Tracy: I think 1 of the, um, big lessons for me is really being able to tune into myself, and I think it’s, sort of humorous because my background is in social work. And I feel like I, I encourage other people to sort of be in tune with themselves. Um, and so I feel like, I guess, looking in the mirror that I needed to communicate that to myself and be able to see when, when was I kind of at the brink. Because it’s really hard for me to deal with, Boon and See Kao and all of their needs when I’m really at the bottom of my own pit, and so, um, I think being able to say, “Okay, today is maybe not the day that we do, we practice nail trims or something because I’m just not going to be maybe the most patient that I need to be, and maybe I just need to not take something extra on today.” Or I, or I need to ask, ask for help. I think that’s the other key issue, is, is being able to recognize that asking for help is not, is not a weakness. It’s not a character flaw, but it’s something that you really need to do in order to stay afloat.

[00:17:24] Emily:  Yes. And I will just say that I don’t think anybody understands how, how much we appreciate you being on our team. Because you are such an amazing advocate for Allie, and Ellen, and I to take care of ourselves, and you’re always like checking in and being really thoughtful. And it’s been, really great because obviously we care a lot about that, and we teach other people, we share the tools that we’ve learned with other people, and yet you’re always reminding us, not, not intentionally, like not, not in a condescending way, but you’re always reminding and we have to practice what we preach, by you prompting us to take care of ourselves and check in and that has been such a gift.

I can’t even tell you how, how much. that has been a value add to our team, and I love how much you take care of us and take care of yourself and advocate for everybody taking care of themselves, so thank you for that. Do you have any management strategies that you use and can share with others to make caregiving easier?

[00:18:30] Tracy: I think it’s important to talk with your team. Often with like special needs dogs you’re working not only maybe just with a vet, but you may have other people like somebody comes in and helps do a pet sitting or gives you a respite care.

So, um, you know, one is building up a team, it’s not something that you have to do all yourself. It’s also talking with your team, like I may, you may have a treatment that you, you’re being asked to do certain times a day, and it may mean talking to your vet to say, “Is there a way that I can do this that fits better either with my schedule?” Or, or whatever. So, I think building a team, and, and talking with the team to figure out what’s the most efficient and effective way to accomplish your goals without sort of, you know, killing yourself in the process.

[00:19:24] Emily:  Yes, those have all been really helpful tools for us as well. And when I say us, I mean the business owners, right? Allie, Ellen and myself. So yeah, thank you for that.

Great, great advice. All right. So, at the end of every interview, I like to ask everybody the same questions. Um, so we’re going to lead into those right now. The first one is what is one thing you wish people knew about either this topic, your profession or enrichment? Your choice.

[00:19:51] Tracy: I think what I would like to say, or what I would wish people would think about more, um, because I just seem to be reading this a lot on social media lately, that, like enrichment is not an activity, but that enrichment is something that addresses the needs of the animal so that they can perform species typical behavior.

So, it’s not the food puzzle itself or in it by itself, but rather it’s a food puzzle that perhaps is a tool to help us meet the needs of, say, a dog or whatever. So, let’s say, like, I guess if you’re trying to create, we talked earlier about, building security and you’re wanting to create a safe space for your newly adopted dog and increase its sense of security. You could use, say, a food puzzle or a frozen slow feeder with some extra yummy stuff, put it in their bed so that more warm feelings and positive associations with that space, which will help build security in that location.

So again, it’s, it’s a tool that helps us get to a goal. So, I, and I guess that, that also brings me to the goal and, and being outcome focused. So, I feel like we often just, people are saying, “Oh, let’s do enrichment!” And they’re not thinking of it as a tool and what is the outcome that they’re trying to address, and whether they’re measuring whether that outcome is being met or not, so I’d love to see more of that in the field.

[00:21:15] Emily:  Me too. I agree. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field.

[00:21:19] Tracy: Being more outcomes focused, and I guess that comes from years of being a researcher focused on outcomes. It’s hard for me not to sort of take multiple decades of thinking that way into our profession and thinking about how do we, what are the outcomes that we’re wanting to reach, and whether the different strategies that we’re using, whether it’s some type of enrichment is getting us to the To that goal or to that outcome, and if it’s not, we need to really be thinking about what, what should we do differently?

[00:21:51] Emily:  Yes. I’m obviously. Very passionate about that as well. So once again, just super agree with you. And the last question is what do you love about what you do?

[00:22:02] Tracy: I love getting to work with people and their pets, so having had a life as a social worker and thinking about, the welfare of people, particularly the welfare of kids and families, I love being able to take all that, I guess, thinking and passion I had for that, and to bring that into, into this profession and think about how can I support pet parents who may, like me, have some caregiver burden, or some challenging pets.

And so, I love also being able to problem solve and think creatively about what is, what is the issue here for the pet, for the parent? How can we work together to, to solve that? So, it’s kind of like a big puzzle to me, and I really, I enjoy trying to tackle those puzzles.

[00:22:49] Emily:  Excellent. Well, normally we would ask people as a last question, where can they find you and what are you up to? But they can find you here at Pet Harmony if they want to work with you, and what you’re up to is being a behavior consultant for us. So, I don’t need to ask you that question, but thank you so much for sharing some of your history, your time, your expertise, because we want more people to get to benefit from your knowledge, and your skill, and your compassion, other than just the people in our team and our own clients. So, thank you for being here, Tracy.

[00:23:22] Tracy: Thanks, Emily.

[00:23:23] Allie: Y’all, I feel so fortunate to have Tracy on our team, she is just as wonderful of a human in real life as she sounds in this interview, and I’m so, so glad that you got to experience her, her knowledge, her expertise. All of the things. So, grateful that she is on our team. Thank you, Tracy, for everything that you do. Next week, we will be talking with Kyle Hetzel about new alternatives to old solutions.

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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