#77: How to Evaluate Your Environment for Behavioral Impact

[00:00:00] Allie: it’s really important to remember that we live in a human world and a human environment, and so we see, I don’t know, the garbage truck, let’s say, as just it’s the truck that comes and takes away our garbage and we like that. A critter might see it as like the scary thing that has, like, arms that come out, and like shakes stuff, and makes a lot of noise, and has squeaky brakes sometimes, and all of that. So, I think one of the things when we’re looking at evaluating our environment is making sure that we’re not dismissing something because we know the human purpose of that item, or action, or whatever it is.

And thinking about like, ooh, what would that actually look like if I was a seven pound creature like a cat? What would that look like if my eyesight was different? What would that sound like if my hearing was different? And so on and so forth. And so, when you’re evaluating your environment, make sure that, again, you’re looking through your pet’s senses and recognizing that behavior is information.

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…

[00:01:28] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:30] 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 Katenna Jones, and one of the topics we discussed was building a better relationship with your cat.

This week we’re going to dive further into evaluating your environment for behavioral impact and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about how our pet’s senses are not necessarily better or worse than ours, just different, bunny bathroom habits, a story you’ve probably heard before, but I always love hearing it from Emily, and Big Boy Oso fitting under my desk.

 Environment is something that we’ve talked a lot about in some various capacities in past interviews and past implementation episodes, but I’m really excited to dive in further today about how environment impacts behavior.

[00:02:40] Emily: Yeah, it’s funny how we’re two years into this podcast and we have talked about a lot of these things multiple times, and yet there’s always more to say about them, because there are so many facets of enrichment – and even very specific parts of enrichment, like environmental enrichment, or looking at the environment – that there’s always more to think about, more to discuss, more to improve. So yeah, we’ll just be here forever, apparently, like the podcast will just live forever.

[00:03:11] Allie: That was–I feel like you just like shackled me to this, like this is now… let’s be real, that’s how you’ve done my entire life.

[00:03:20] Emily: I shackled you back in 2015.

[00:03:22] Allie: It’s true. It’s true. Apparently I’m now doing this podcast forever. That’s okay. I like it.

[00:03:27] Emily: I was like, “Get in, loser, we’re going businessing together.”

[00:03:31] Allie: We’re going businessing!

[00:03:33] Emily: I wasn’t sure how to make that movie quote apply to us, but–

[00:03:36] Allie: I, I like it. We’re going on a life journey together, essentially.

[00:03:41] Emily: “Get in loser, we’re going on a lifelong journey.”

[00:03:44] Allie: That really softens the line though. Anywho, so, yeah, and not only is there more to say, but I, I think one of the lovely things is, is there, there’s always just more to learn. And the more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know, and how much more there is to know. And how we’re going to talk about evaluating environment today is different than how we would have talked about it two years ago when the podcast first started.

[00:04:13] Emily: Yeah. And also the more you realize you don’t know, the more exciting that becomes instead of feeling discouraging or overwhelming. So, that’s a sign of growth too. So, we’re like two years in and now we’re like, look at all this stuff we don’t know. Isn’t this great? Thanks for listening to us talk about things that we don’t know.

[00:04:33] Allie: So getting back into environment: obviously all of our pets live in an environment of some kind. For our dogs and cats, that’s our home environment, but we have other species–like Zorro, my turtle, is living in an environment that I’ve carefully created and curated for him, which is different than my living environment, and good! Because I don’t want to live in a pond. That doesn’t sound great, and it sounds wrinkly and squishy, and I’m not about that life. Somehow humans like water, but less than semi aquatic terrapins do. That was redundant. Semi aquatic terrapin. Regardless. Is it? I’m gonna ignore that entire rabbit hole.

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve looked up what defines a terrapin. Anywho, so obviously environment is a thing for all of our pets and when we’re talking about what impacts behavior, environment is a really big part of that. One of the hard things for all of us, professionals included, is that there’s so much that goes into the environment.

That’s such a huge category that when we’re talking about evaluating your environment for behavioral impact, there’s just a whole lot to think about when it comes to that. So that’s really what we want to talk about today is just, where should we start thinking about those things?

[00:06:02] Emily: Yeah. And the first category, if I may.

[00:06:07] Allie: You may not. I hated it.

[00:06:09] Emily: Love that you hated it. The first category is talking about non-human senses and how they are different than human senses. And so they sense and perceive the world differently than we do. Birds can see a much broader color spectrum than us, so what looks like a pretty drab object to us might look dazzling to a bird. Dogs can smell things that we can’t even begin to fathom smelling. Cats can see and hear things that we can’t even fathom seeing and hearing.

So we have to remember that they aren’t seeing their environment the way we are. They’re not sensing it. They’re not smelling it. They’re not feeling it. And one of the things that Katenna talked about that I thought was so important is remembering how much cats are heat seeking. And so for them, what, what feels like a comfortable temperature to us might not be the temperature that your cat prefers, and so the reason that they’re doing something annoying like sitting on your counter is because there’s a sun puddle there that is a temperature that they would prefer. So, instead of thinking of that punitively, like, “Why are you on my counter?” Think of it like, “How can I create another space for you in the house that has the temperature that you would prefer to stay in?”

So, remembering that, learning our pets’ senses, what they are – as best as we know, because again, there’s so much we don’t know – but to the best of our ability, we should be learning about the way that our pets are sensing the world, and try to arrange our environment in a way that better meets those sensory needs.

[00:08:02] Allie: And, in addition to that, remembering that it’s not necessarily about their senses being better or worse than ours – I think it can trip us up when we compare their senses to our senses sometimes – but remembering that they are experiencing it differently. And the, the story that I have about that is when we were writing the book, I, I guess I must have written the chapter on the senses now that I’m telling this story because that’s what would make this story make sense.

We got feedback from Eileen Anderson, who is a phenomenal professional, and who just happens to have a Master’s in some sort of auditory sound something or other, I forget. She’s going to have to remind me when she’s, when she’s on the podcast. I had said something along the lines of, in that chapter, of, “Their hearing is better than ours.”

And she came back with, I remember, it was like multiple paragraphs about dog hearing. It was, it was so cool and so welcomed. And it was essentially like, well, better is not necessarily the right word. Here’s how it’s different than humans’, and here, like, you know, in some areas we might consider it better, in some areas we might consider it worse.

It’s not really about better or worse, it’s just about how different they are, and, and so I, I think whenever I am thinking about another species’ senses, I am removing my human part of that, and just looking at how would experiencing the world in the way that you experience it be like.

[00:09:39] Emily: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And I’m going to do that annoying epistemologically incorrect thing where I’m like, I feel like several years ago, I read a study on but it’s because I, I feel like uh, several years ago, I read a study about that dogs can’t smell bananas as well as humans can.

[00:10:00] Allie: Oso begs to differ. .

[00:10:01] Emily: Right, that’s why I’m like, don’t quote me on this because I can’t cite my sources, but if that is true, that humans for some reason can smell bananas better than dogs, even though in general dogs have a better sense of smell than we do, then that’s a really good example of how it’s not really better or worse, it’s just different. So, so hopefully that story is true. If anybody out there can give me a citation, that’d be great.

So, moving on, um, and the next thing that Katenna brought up that I really loved was that we tend to view behavior through a human lens. And that makes sense because we are humans, so it’s the only lens that we are capable of viewing behavior through. But we have to remember that we are processing information and we’re processing the world around us from a species specific point of view, and that that’s not the point of view of the animals in our care. We have to remember that when we’re, when we’re looking at how our pets move through their environment, they’re using, you know, doggie logic if they’re a dog, and cat logic if they’re cats.

We can’t project our reasoning on our pets for why they are engaging with their environment the way they are. Katenna brought up a really good example of cats don’t urinate on things to retaliate because in the first place, like they don’t think their urine is gross, like they lick it, they put it in their mouth. So, obviously it’s not as repulsive to them as it is to us. I think that’s a really funny and poignant example of, of this, of how, we are viewing their behavior as retaliatory because our perception of their urine is different than their perception of their own urine. They don’t think it is the most revolting smell on the planet like I do.

[00:11:55] Allie: And so in addition to that human perception is different than non human perception, I think it’s really important to remember that we live in a human world and a human environment, and so we see, I don’t know, the garbage truck, let’s say, as just it’s the truck that comes and takes away our garbage and we like that. And one of our critters might see the scary monster that comes by once a week or in my neighborhood we have three garbage days actually. I feel so bad for any animal who does not like garbage day in my neighborhood. A critter might see it as like the scary thing that has like arms that come out, and like shake stuff, and makes a lot of noise, and has squeaky brakes sometimes, and all of that. So I think one of the things when we’re looking at evaluating our environment is making sure that we’re not dismissing something because we know the human purpose of that item, or action, or whatever it is.

And thinking about like, ooh, what would that actually look like if I was a seven pound creature like a cat? What would that look like if my eyesight was, was different? What would that sound like if my hearing was different? And so on and so forth. And so, when you’re evaluating your environment, make sure that, again, you’re looking through your pet’s senses and recognizing that behavior is information.

And so, if you see that your pet is sidestepping, let’s say, this this appliance that you have, instead of saying, like, oh, that’s just Sully, they’re, they do silly things. Sully does silly things. Yeah, okay. I think like, ooh, why? Why would Sully have feelings about that appliance enough to sidestep it?

And really looking into what’s the information that my pet is telling me instead of just casting it aside because it’s, it’s so, normal for us as humans.

[00:14:01] Emily: I actually have a real world example of this. We brought Bundini home. His last foster home was, is not a bunny person, doesn’t know anything about bunnies, just welcomed Bundini in out of the goodness of his heart and, not being a bunny person, trying to take good care of Bundini was like, I bet you want your litter box cleaned because I wouldn’t want to go to the bathroom in something that stinks.

And so he was fully emptying out the litter box and cleaning it with soap and water every week. And Bundini stopped using the litter box. And he was so confused. He’s like, “Am I not cleaning it enough? Do I need to do it every day?” And I was like, “No, because remember that because– remember that bunnies go to the bathroom in places that smell like their potty. And so washing it out with something like soap is not going to make it welcoming. So, I had to get a totally new litter box and put some of his, you know, poop and, and smelly things into the new litter box, and fortunately Bundini started using that new litter box. So I’ve had a very real world experience of, just because cleaning out that litter box with soap and water is the, the, the comfortable and clean and kind thing to do for us does not mean that that’s how the rabbit perceived that.

[00:15:22] Allie: And I think the last part about talking about how, assuming behavior is information instead of random and how that relates to information about the environment is how they interact with the environment, and what body language you’re seeing as they interact with the environment. So, I mentioned just a moment ago how a dog might be sidestepping an appliance, and it’s like, okay, well that sidestep, that’s a pretty clear body language signal that we are wanting to increase distance between ourselves, themself, and the item or appliance or whatever it ends up being.

And so, it can seem like we’re looking for little things like sidestepping half a foot, or maybe a little liplick, or a stress yawn, or whatever it is, but once you’re fluent in your pet’s specific body language and how they interact with the world, and how they communicate, how they’re interacting with the world, they can provide so much information about their feelings surrounding the environment.

[00:16:22] Emily: My favorite story related to this that I’ve probably already told on this podcast, and I don’t care, is the easiest behavior consultation I ever went in to, to help with was a blue and gold macaw who was screaming in the middle of the afternoon, like around three o’clock every day for like an hour. They were like, “We’ve tried everything. We can’t get this bird to stop screaming. We don’t know why it happens. It’s miserable. Please.” And so, I went in thinking this is going to be just like a really difficult case, I’m going to have to work with them for a long time, I don’t know that I can really do a lot because macaws make noise. That’s what they do. And I went in at the time of day that the bird usually starts screaming. And I noticed that the bird was screaming at– very intentionally looking across the room. And I was standing next to the cage. And what I felt annoyed by was that there was a glare from the sun at that time of afternoon, the sun went through the window at an angle that hit the mirror that was hanging above the sofa and was reflecting right back to the cage.

And so, I had the sun in my eyes from that mirror, and I looked at the bird, and the bird was looking right at the mirror as he was rage screaming, and I was like, “Can we take that mirror off your wall?” And they were like, “Sure.” And I like took the mirror down off the wall, and put it on the ground and the bird stopped screaming.

And they thought I was magical. And I was like, “No I, I’m just observing your animal interacting with your environment.” Easiest, easiest consultation I’ve ever done. But it’s a really good example of watching what the animal is caring about and, putting the puzzle pieces together.

[00:18:08] Allie: And I think that’s a perfect segue into our last point for today about how do you troubleshoot your environment? So if you have an inkling that the environment is having a behavioral impact, what do we do about this? How do we determine this? And one of the things that you just illustrated so well with that story, and I love that story, I never get sick of hearing it, like I just love that story so much, is the trial and eval aspect of it, of being like, “Is that a thing? I don’t know, let’s try it.” Because, at the end of the day, especially because their senses are different than ours, and they’re experiencing the world differently, we’re taking educated guesses about a lot of this stuff, and so, it’s like, cool, let’s try it, let’s see what happens.

[00:18:54] Emily: Yeah. And it also really speaks to what we were talking about earlier about the human perception versus non-human perception. Because for me, I’m like, “Oh, the sun is reflecting in the mirror and that’s annoying,” but I know what it is, and I know that the sun’s going to go down, and eventually it’s going to go away, and so I can just move away from it. We don’t know that the macaw has that understanding that this is happening because it’s midday, and the sun comes through the window, and is reflecting off of the mirror, and if he just waits it out, or turns his back to it for an hour it’ll go away. We don’t know that they’re able to do that thought process or understand concepts at that level.

And so, it would be incredibly distressing if every day at the same time of day something really miserable happened, and you didn’t know why, and you couldn’t control it. I would also scream! So looking at it from the bird’s point of view is, yeah, you’re handling it in a really reasonable way, considering that it’s miserable, and you don’t know how to make it stop.

[00:19:58] Allie: You’re just having all the segues, because I think that segues nicely into looking at: does this animal have the skills to interact with the environment that you’ve set up? So, in that example, yes, the solution could have been he just turns his back, and doesn’t have the glare. But he didn’t have the skill to do that, he probably didn’t know that was an option. I know that Katenna talked about that as well, you have a scratching post for your cat, but do they know that it’s a scratching post? Do they have the skills to interact with that piece of furniture in that particular way?

If we have set up our environment and we’re like, “You know what, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of setting up my environment for this specific species that I have in my home,” and they’re not doing it, then the next question we need to ask is, do they have the skills to do it? And when you’re asking that question, one of the first things we should be thinking about is, have you ever seen them do that particular thing?

Because if you are expecting them to do a behavior that you have literally never seen them do, then we probably need to teach them that skill.

[00:21:05] Emily: Apparently, unmuting myself is really hard and it’s not a skill that I have. I don’t have the skill to interact with my SquadCast environment. It’s fine. I’ve got this. So one aspect of that is let’s make sure that our animals have the skills that they need to successfully navigate their environment.

And we do that by teaching them, and we can teach them in lots of different ways. But they’re not going to learn it on their own, necessarily. If they haven’t already learned it on their own, they’re probably not going to learn it on, on their own. I’ll put it that way, which means that we need to teach them how to do it.

Another facet of this to consider is, if we don’t know what skill we need to teach them, if we don’t know what would help them navigate an issue with their environment, then we need to keep a trigger log, because the best way to find out what the issue is. It’s data collection. I know y’all are probably tired of hearing us saying that, but we’re going to just keep saying it forever.

So, suck it up buttercup. I don’t know what to tell you. This is just life with animals. If you want to be good, effective problem solvers, data collection has to be a part of that. We can look at what is the time of day that this behavior is happening, or the lack of the behavior that you want is not happening.

What, whatever the case may be, what’s happening in the environment at the time? What can you see with your eyes? What can you smell? What can you hear? Pay attention to all of the sensory input because even though their senses are different than ours and they perceive the world differently, we can probably get clues as to what is bothering them by using our own senses, and keeping a log of everything that you can perceive in the environment that may be relevant to them. And then by keeping this log, and collecting that data over time, you’ll get a clearer picture of what it is that they’re having a problem with and therefore, what skills we can teach them to better navigate that issue. Or in the case of the bird, they don’t need a skill, we just need to take down the mirror.

[00:23:16] Allie: Best case scenario. I’ve had so many clients once they’ve been keeping a trigger log, find out that garbage day is the missing piece that we didn’t know about that their pet had a problem with. Especially for households where everybody’s gone throughout the day, and they’re like, man, Wednesdays are just really rough.

And we figure that out through the trigger log. And then we discover that, oh yes, garbage day is on Wednesday, and that’s probably why it’s really rough.

[00:23:45] Emily: For Bree, it was squealie brakes. Because she’s gotten so much better at not reacting to every single thing. And she has learned that other people and vehicles do in fact exist, and that’s fine. But there were just some vehicles that she’s still really reactive to, and after doing a trigger log, I realized that it was the squealie brakes that were the reason that some vehicles are still absolutely unacceptable to her, even though the rest of the vehicles now have her permission to exist. So they just can’t have squealie brakes. She’s a corporate shill for those like brake, Brake Check or something. She like gets, she gets paid every time she sends a truck.

[00:24:24] Allie: Oso doesn’t care about squealie brakes as much. I mean, diesel engines sometimes, it depends on the diesel engine that’s happening. But for him, he became my like indicator that a storm was about to happen. And so, he has some storm sensitivity. He has the skills now to interact with the environment in a way that helps him feel more comfortable during storms.

I think I’ve mentioned this probably a million times, but the ongoing saga of senior dog arthritis, pain med trials, all of that, which, those of you with old joints in your life, either in your body, or in somebody else’s body whom you care for, know that storms are a thing that affects them.

So, for him, I started noticing that about 30 minutes before a storm started, he would come and assume the position behind my chair. I work from home, and so if it’s a work day, I am in my office working, and he knows that the safest place for him to be during a storm is underneath my desk if I am in my office.

His safe space related to storms is related to wherever I am. If I’m not home, it’s related to wherever my partner is. If I’m home, it’s under my desk, which I don’t particularly love that choice, but it is the choice that we have agreed to. So for him, he’ll assume the position right behind my chair. It’s the only time I see that very particular positioning from him.

And he usually has his little worried ears going on and a little worried face happening. And sure enough, like clockwork, 30 minutes later, it will start thundering. It’s wild how good of an indicator he is for storms. And it’s my cue: oh, is it going to rain? And like I look up out of the window, I’m like, oh yeah, it is cloudy, I guess.

Or like, it’s completely sunny, and I’m like, my dog says it’s going to rain, and he’s never wrong. So for him. looking at the behavioral impact to see what’s happening in the environment. Because I know when he sits there, it’s going to storm. And the reason he usually sits there is, I’m assuming, I don’t know, I’m, this is conjecture, but the consequence to him sitting there is not only me paying attention to him, but I’m petting him, talking to him, but I will also move my chair and my footrest out of the way so that he can go under my desk.

And that’s how I for sure know that there’s going to be a storm is that he goes under my desk and he does not at any other time. So that’s my example of environment and behavioral impact.

[00:27:05] Emily: I need a photo of big boy Oso scroonched into that small space under your desk.

[00:27:14] Allie: I probably have one. I’m sure I do. I’ll have to see if I can find one.

[00:27:20] Emily: If I fits, I sits.

[00:27:21] Allie: Yes, cause he just likes confinement when he’s uncomfortable and–

[00:27:27] Emily: Yeah, I get it.

[00:27:28] Allie: –the best way to do that is to be under my desk.

[00:27:31] Emily: Yes. Absolutely.

[00:27:33] Allie: Lucky for him, I usually sit cross legged at my desk, and so he’s not in the way, but anyhoo okay.

So, today we talked about how to evaluate your environment for behavioral impact. And that includes remembering that your pet’s senses are different than yours, not necessarily better or worse, just different. It also means assuming that behavior is information instead of just random happenings. And with that, you can then troubleshoot your environment to ask yourself, do they have the skills to interact in the way that I’m hoping they will? And if we need more information, we can always do a trigger log.

 Next week, we will be talking to Kim Rose about what behavior consulting can learn from nutrition.

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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