#7 - Agency in Social Interactions

[00:00:00] Emily: And a library dog is going to react differently in a library-esque setting versus a party type setting and vice versa. That’s also true for the party dogs. So, opting into one situation does not mean that they’re going to opt into every situation.

[00:00:15] 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…

[00:00:34] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:35] 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 Mara Velez and one of the topics we discussed was agency in relation to dog-dog play. This week, we’re going to dive further into agency in relation to social interactions, not just dog-dog play and talk about implementation with the animals and your life.

In this implementation episode Emily and I talk about opting into social engagements, teaching disengagement, and how I’ve officially crossed into bougie pet parent territory. Let’s get to it.

 For those of you who are involved in the world of animal sheltering, you’ve likely seen that playgroups have been in the spotlight in the last several years. And like every trend that takes off, there are good things that come with that, and then some not so good things that come with that. One of the problems with trends is that a lot of the nuance, especially the nuance in regards to the benefits get lost in translation or exaggerated.

[00:01:46] Emily: That’s absolutely a problem with trends because we can get stuck in this false dichotomy. And there are several false dichotomies actually that happened around this topic. For example, there’s a widespread belief that either we get as many dogs out in a yard together as possible, or the dogs won’t get to go outside at all.

In fact, there are several other solutions for getting dogs out of their kennels. Another one is either we increase the dog social skills in playgroups, or they won’t develop good dog social skills, and there are actually many other options for that as well. And another common one, either we correct any sign of arousal or dogs will end up fighting. And again, those aren’t our only two options. If we teach staff and volunteers to be better observers of behavior and we give them more skills in their inventory, we’ve actually got lots of options available to us.

[00:02:43] Allie: The world does not operate in black or white. It operates in a gray space. And at the end of the day, “behavior is a study of one” as Dr. Susan Friedman says, and we have to keep that in mind when we’re looking at the efficacy of trendy activities with. And that includes enrichment by the way, enrichment is also a current trend. So, one of the things that we’ve seen in the United States for many years at this point with the invention of the dog park, is that people become really focused on their dog being able to interact with other dogs, and sometimes that means missing whether or not their dog actually enjoys interacting with other dogs and missing if that is actually a beneficial activity for them. And now that dog-dog interactions or playgroups, as they’re often called, are being seen as the next big thing in sheltering, we’re seeing that same missing piece. I know you and I, Emily, have seen a lot of dogs participating in playgroups who absolutely did not want to be there, and it was definitely not improving their quality of life or decreasing their stress levels.

[00:03:46] Emily: Ab-so-freaking-lutely, and this is where a prescriptive approach to enrichment is problematic. If we don’t have a behavioral goal that is taking an animals behavioral and emotional health into account, and is focused on meeting their needs, we are bound to miss the mark. So, instead of patting ourselves on the back for getting a bunch of dogs into a yard together without observing their experience in the yard or the impact of that experience on their behavior, after the fact, what would a descriptive approach look like?

It would look like observing the dog’s behavior to see if they are interested in playing with other dogs. Then seeing if they know how to play with other dogs. Then determining what our goals are based on that information. Then deciding how best to enrich the dog based on those goals. And then observing whether or not our strategies met those goals.

But you can’t do any of that, if you can’t observe whether the dog is opting in or out to begin with. And play, or else doesn’t really let them opt in and out.

[00:04:55] Allie: So, bringing this back to last week’s episode with Mara Velez agency is an absolutely crucial aspect of social interactions. We can’t make a sweeping generalization that all animals enjoy all forms of social interactions and will benefit from them. We are culturally conditioned to believe that all dogs are social butterflies, that they will love everyone, anywhere, at any time. But in reality, that kind of dog is kind of a unicorn. Dog sociability varies wildly, just like it does in humans. We can certainly improve social skills and there’s a small amount of flexibility in each dog sociability, but there’s a huge difference between a dog who wants to play but doesn’t have great social skills versus a dog who really just, isn’t all that interested in playing with other dogs. And that’s okay if they’re not that interested. And it’s important for us to recognize that and let them have a say in what their social interactions look like. And one of the things that we love about Shelter Playgroup Alliance is that agency is built into all aspects of their program.

Side note. I always feel like I have to add a disclaimer here that we help develop those initial protocols with SPA because I want to be transparent, but I don’t know about you, Emily, but I feel like I had such a small hand in it, and it’s grown so much beyond the input that you and I added, that I also don’t want it to make it seem like we had more to do with their success than we did.

[00:06:19] Emily: Oh, for sure. It was such a privilege to work alongside such an incredible group of colleagues, including obviously Mara, but also Kiem Sie and Marissa Martino, Lisa Mullinax, Ali Verba. So many amazing people. Even though we played a super minor role in that process.

[00:06:38] Allie: And here’s the thing, even though in last week’s episode with Mara we were specifically talking about dog playgroups in shelters, this is applicable to every pet because every pet is going to encounter some form of social interaction. It could be you feeding your turtle or a cat who sees another cat through the window, or your dog passing by another person or dog on a walk. All pets encounter some form of social interaction, and what we talk about with playgroups absolutely applies to other interactions with other species as well. Let’s take a look at how we can implement this concept of agency into social interactions with our pets. Emily, go ahead and kick us off.

[00:07:15] Emily: So, first of all, we need to be able to recognize what agency looks like in relation to social interactions. I think as we were discussing already, we’re looking at first of all, are they even interested to begin with? Are we seeing that they’re watching the other animals? Are we seeing that their body language looks like interest rather than avoidance?

There’s a difference between, ” I want to play with you, but I don’t know how.” versus a dog who’s just actively looking for an escape. That’s the first step. Let’s identify whether or not they’re even interested in interacting with their own species. Then the next step is, do they know how? So, we see dogs who are, quite adept at social skills, at greetings and offering play behaviors, communicating when they’re not happy about something that’s going on, communicating when they need to break, versus a dog who is interested in playing, but when another dog asks them to play, they’re like, “Oh my God, I only interact online. I’m not an IRL type of pupper doggo.”

We have assessed that they have interest, but do they have the skills yet to confidently try those interactions, or is that something that we need to foster? And in the process of that do they have opt-out options where they’re like, “This has been enough practice for today. I’m ready to take a break from this.” Because just like with humans, skill acquisition can sometimes be exhausting.

And then of course there’s also how much stamina do they have for play? Do they want to play for short bursts? Are they in for the long haul? Do they like playing with one other dog or two other dogs? Or are they in fact, a dog who likes a big old group of dogs? One of our Pro Campus members actually recently shared a great analogy about this, that there are library people, and there are party people, and neither of those are inherently bad or good. So, there’s also library dogs and party dogs, right?

And a library dog is going to react differently in a library-esque setting versus a party type setting and vice versa. That’s also true for the party dogs. So, opting into one situation does not mean that they’re going to opt into every situation.

[00:09:34] Allie: I’m a library person. I love that for what agency can look like in relation to social interactions and what we need to be including in that like, skills, and stamina, and everything. And I think one of the things that people don’t really realize when it comes to what agency looks like in social interactions is that it’s not always really over the top or exaggerated what opting in or out looks like. Opting out can be as simple as just moving away from an individual or putting yourself in a particular location in relation to another individual. It doesn’t have to be this really over the top aggression type behavior or distance increasing behavior.

Sometimes it’s subtle, so when we do see those things, the way to respond is to give the animal what they’re asking for. If they are saying that they want distance between them and another individual, we give them distance.

We see this a lot with leash reactivity where we have a dog who is uncomfortable with other dogs when they see them on leash, or maybe just at all times. And we see people who have the best of intentions, but don’t include that agency component into their behavior modification plans and are asking the animal to sit there and watch the scary thing and the animals, like, “Please get me out of this situation.” And so, it can be as simple as moving away, let’s cross the street, let’s go up an alleyway, whatever that needs to look like to increase distance in that moment.

In dog-dog playgroups we’ve seen numerous times where a dog has done and then goes and sits by the gate. The way to react to that is we remove them from the playgroup, and we let them leave. They’re very clearly asking to leave if they are sitting by the gate. When it comes to responding appropriately, when you do see an animal asking for certain things, give them what they’re asking for a lot of times, it is not that difficult to do that. Sometimes it is, but many times it’s not, and it’s just better all around for mental and emotional health.

[00:11:59] Emily: And I am sure that there are a lot of people listening to this going look, if I gave my dog what they were asking for, they would bully the entire playground. That is a super valid concern, and all that tells us is not that the dog needs more restriction necessarily, but that the dog needs more life skills. And there’s some amount of restriction that may go along with that. But it’s really important for us to teach dogs how to disengage appropriately as a part of their social skill sets. So, we’ve been talking a lot about library pets, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t also talk about those party pets, and sometimes the frat boy doggos need to learn how to slow their roll a little bit.

 So, we can have dogs who are a little overly friendly and need to chill a little bit. My favorite example of this is a dog named Wally at the sanctuary where Allie and I worked. He was this little, short stack, baby hippo, tank guy, he was just the cutest little, little baby hippo.

[00:13:11] Allie: Meatball.

[00:13:12] Emily: Meatball! That’s actually what he was for sure. but Wally loved all dogs. However, he had really terrible body language skills. He would come into the room over the top exuberantly friendly and the other dogs would be like, “Dude, you need to stop.” And he would take those corrections as you love me. You really love me. And then he would just escalate. He would get really excited when dogs would express irritation and he would escalate and then he would end up causing these fights, and then he would just look so hurt. Like, “Why did you come after me?” And so, we had to teach him how to recognize when other dogs aren’t super happy with what he was doing, and it was a process that we went through. It took some time, but he learned that when dogs exhibit these body language signals, that means I should disengage. I should go away, give them a break. And he did learn that fluently to the point that we didn’t need to prompt him anymore. We actually had a video of the first play date where he got it on his own without being prompted.

The other dog said, “You’re being a little bit extra, bro.” And he went, “Gasp! This is where,” I mean, you could see, like he kind of sat back a little bit, and his little eyes are wide, and his ears were high and forward, and you could see the wheels turning in his head. And he’s like, “This means that this dog is irritated with me. I’m going to take a break.” And he like backed, scooted back a little bit and waited for the other dog, and we were all so excited because that was the moment when he was really proving that fluency of like, “I can disengage when another dog asks me to.” And I’m gonna turn this story over to you, Allie, because he was actually your project dog. So, I think you have a better idea of his adoption story than I do, right?

[00:15:16] Allie: Absolutely. Before getting to that adoption story, I just wanted to mention that we tell this Wally story and people think that it’s really challenging to do something like that, and really, it’s just a lot of time and repetition, like everything else in training. It is managing it so he can make better decisions or not make bad decisions. And also reinforcing the behavior that we want to asking him to move away, reinforcing the heck out of it. It doesn’t have to be this really long convoluted process. It just takes time and repetition and consistency like anything else. I had the privilege to do Wally’s adoption introduction, and Wally’s adoption and introduction included a 11 month I think old Boston terrier, and that stereotypical 11 month old Boston Terrier, where like, just excited about life. And you’re like, man, where do I tap into that energy?

 During this introduction, this Boston terrier, legit was hanging off of Wally’s jowls in, in like a good way in like a “I’m so excited. I found my best friend way. Let me hang off your jowls to tell you how excited I am about meeting you.” And Wally just stood there, like, “Okay, this is fine.” And didn’t retaliate, didn’t escalate, didn’t be annoying back. Nothing happened. Dog is literally hanging off of his jowls and he’s like, “All right, this is fine.” It was like a proud parent moment.

[00:16:53] Emily: Watching him learn not to escalate like, “Oh, this dog has a little bit excited. I’m going to not match that energy. And I’m just gonna like slow my roll.” It’s just, yeah, definitely proud parent moment. Right? What an amazing demonstration of fluency.

[00:17:12] Allie: Absolutely, and he ended up doing fantastically in that home. So, skills can be taught is the moral of that story. One of my favorite stories of yours, Emily, and we talk about this when we talk about flight training, usually and teaching animals to move away from stressors, but you have a daycare story that is like the epitome of agency when it comes to social interactions.

[00:17:40] Emily: He’s definitely one of my favorite stories as well. So, I worked with a client who had an Australian shepherd and he loved other dog, but as is the case with many herding breeds, just a pretty intense kiddo and so in these playgroups and in daycare, he would be really excited and start escalating and it would continue escalating to the point of getting into fights, and then he started redirecting onto the daycare attendance. And so, he got kicked out of daycare and they were like, “You need to hire somebody to help you with this because he’s, he’s not okay in these groups anymore.” We’ve worked on several skills with him, but one of the most important skills that we focused on was disengaging, moving away, the technique that we used was the flight cue, where we teach them to move away, good things happen, we have a party, and then we go somewhere where they can self-regulate, decompress, complete their stress response cycle. It did not take him very long. It took him a few months to get to absolute fluency where he would do this on his own unprompted when he was feeling a little too intense.

He would move away from the thing that he was excited about and would go to his relaxation station and chill out. So, when the client demonstrated to the daycare that he had improved, they let him come back for a trial. So, he’s playing with these other dogs, it starts to escalate, and he jumps the seven-foot fence to put himself in timeout in the air lock.

 After he’s relaxed and feeling better, he jumps the fence back into the playgroup, and the daycare attendants were floored and they contacted his owner and they were like, “Did you teach him this?” She was like, “Well, we didn’t teach him to jump a fence.” Amazing that he was able to generalize the skill to a new place and figure out that the only place he could go to escape, the really high, intense stressors in his life, was to jump the fence and go into this little space that had no dogs.

He found the one place in the room that had no dogs and he put himself there. They sent her a video of it, and she told me about it, and it was again, a proud parent moment, right? Because, good for you for understanding the concept of moving away from a stressor and finding a safe space and being able to map that onto a different environment, that’s hashtag life goals, right?

[00:20:05] Allie: And not only good for the dog, but good for the daycare attendants for letting him do that, and recognizing that, that was his way of saying, “I need a break for a moment and not forcing him back into the situation and letting him have that agency.” I think that’s one of the hardest things for us as humans is to let them do it and not push it.

[00:20:31] Emily: Yeah, I always love seeing daycares that have spaces like that, where other dogs aren’t, don’t have access to for many reasons, safety, lots of reasons. But that was definitely the first time I had seen a dog utilize that space in that way, which you know, props to both the dog and the daycare.

[00:20:50] Allie: So, we’ve talked about a couple of examples with dog dog interactions, but as, we mentioned before, agency in social interactions is true when it’s cross species, and in a lot of different interactions. So, one last story that I wanted to, talk about today in relation to what agency and social interactions can look like is something that has recently happened in our lives.

 Oso now has a canine massage therapist, I don’t have a massage, well, let me rephrase. My husband is a massage therapist, so I guess I technically do, but it’s very much like the cobbler’s kids have no shoes here. I do not get massages frequently. Oso does now. I feel bougie saying that, but realistically, he’s a senior he’s 10 years old this year, and this is very much a preventative measure for him so that we can keep his mobility as, as long as possible, which, for those larger kiddos is a really big deal when they lose their mobility. It feels bougie, but there’s definitely a medical reason why we went that route.

 He is now done at the time of this recording two sessions with his massage therapist, and I was able to find like the absolute perfect person for him. Shout out to Katie with Physio Pet Massage. Y’all in Southern DuPage County in Illinois definitely check her out, she’s amazing. And, uh, one of the reasons I chose her is, is because she’s, is fear free certified and all of that good sort of stuff. We have worked so hard with Oso being able to opt out of things. Oso is one of those kiddos who, when I first met him, he had a lot of trouble with, being overstimulated, and making poor decisions when he was overstimulated. We’ve done a ton of work in the last six-ish years that we’ve had him of being able to opt out, go away, de-stress, and come back when you’re ready to participate again. And I saw all of our work come to fruition as we were working with his massage therapist. And she would be massaging him, and he’d say, “Oh, you know what? I really need to go and sniff your bag right now.” I told her if he gets up and goes away, just let him go. He will come back on his own, you don’t have to prompt him, you don’t have to ask him, just let him do his thing, and he will come back. And he did because we taught him that way of go away, come back when you’re ready to participate. It was so amazing to see those skills in use. As I was watching this, I was thinking that, for somebody who didn’t know that we had worked on that and didn’t know what opting out, looked like for him, it would look like he was distracted. It would look like he was bored. You know, we could attach a ton of more negative labels to that, like stubborn or whatever it is. And for me, I was thrilled to see him say, “Um, I need to go sniff your bag or your shoes by the door real quick. I, I can’t be here anymore” and leave and come back.

I mentioned before that opting out can be really subtle and I want everyone listening to look through perhaps a different lens when your pet is not participating in the way that you wanted them to or expected them to that maybe it’s not that they’re stubborn or bored or distracted or whatever we want to call them. Maybe this is them opting out and choosing something else for a moment so that they can decompress. If we let them do it, then they’re better off for it.

[00:24:35] Emily: I think that’s one of the recurring themes of our implementation sessions so far. If you haven’t really honed your body language skills, and you don’t know how to read all of the subtle nuanced body language signals, and have accurately identify and interpret what those signals mean, it’s really easy to misinterpret what’s going on with animals who are taking a break, or asking for a break, and think of that as a more negative behavior, or perceive it in a negative light.

When you learn how to read body language, really proficiently, it completely changes how you interpret what’s going on with their behavior, and it makes it easier for you to provide that agency because you can tell exactly what they’re asking for, and in many cases, we can figure out also why they’re asking for it.

[00:25:30] Allie: Absolutely. The why is, is a very good part to know about. All right. For today’s implementation episode, we talked about agency in relation to social interactions, and that could be dog-dog play groups like we were talking about with Mara, but that can be for all social interactions. We had talked about what agency can look like in relation to those interactions, how to respond appropriately, AKA let them do the thing, if it’s safe and you know, et cetera, et cetera. That disengagement can be taught.

Next week, we will be talking with Helen Dishaw about what we can learn from birds. I have to admit I’m not the biggest bird person. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching birds in the wild, I have bird feeders, I use the Audubon app to figure out who is making what silly little chirping noise. If you need a giggle, look up what nut hatches sound like. It’s ridiculous and adorable. But when it comes to working with birds, I have very little experience. So, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Helen’s interview. Y’all, I loved this interview so much. Helen was so lovely to talk to and I absolutely loved her insights from working with birds, and those insights are absolutely applicable to all species.

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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