#82 - Mara Velez: How BEAR Can Help Shelters

[00:00:00] Mara: Because when we do things well for our animals, when we do it with skill and we’re adhering to ethics, then welfare just is improved so much. If we are delivering positive reinforcement, but without skill, we might have a real frustrated learner on our hands. And that’s not good welfare. I don’t care if you use all the treats in the world, if you’re not doing it well, that animal isn’t doing well. So that is– when we’re thinking about, when I’m thinking about, from a leader perspective, what do I want all of our programs to do? What are we targeting as an organization? It’s improving animal welfare, and also human welfare because they now have something that they can do, they have better skills, they are safer when they’re interacting with other animals. And good decisions are being made about animal welfare and maybe, for a risk assessment, maybe we, it’s an irremediable suffering and we need to say goodbye, right? So that also is a human welfare, caring for an animal who was suffering in a shelter where we know we can’t adopt them out, people suffer in those conditions. So alleviating– we’re improving human welfare and animal welfare is really at the heart of everything that we’re doing.

[00:01:21] 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…

[00:01:38] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:40] 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 Mara Velez. Mara Velez, MA, CPTD-KA, is the executive director of the Shelter Playgroup Alliance and is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Mara has been working in the shelter setting for about 15 years and was a behavior and training consultant at both open and limited admission shelters where she designed, developed, and implemented behavior program structures, including volunteer training, behavior evaluations, canine enrichment, and play groups.

Mara holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology. And completed all the coursework for a doctorate in education. In addition to completing several animal behavior and training related programs, Mara continually develops her skills and knowledge of canines by attending seminars and reading science based canine literature. To date, she has completed over 3,000 hours of continuing education.

Mara shares her home with four dogs: Nala, Ivy, Pluto, and Bruce Lee. Her current favorite hobby is being back in graduate school at Virginia Tech in the online master’s degree in Agricultural and Life Sciences, OMALS, with an emphasis in Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare. And she’s learning how to dive, so she can swim with the fishes.

We’ve had Mara on this podcast before, I think it was all the way back in Season 1, and we were talking about dog-dog play and interactions, so I’m really excited to get her back on the podcast to talk about sheltering in general and how we can implement enrichment in shelters.

Also, I can’t even imagine having all of the degrees and doing all of the coursework that Mara does, she must just never sleep. In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Mara talk about SPA’s programs and how they all fit together, cultivating company culture to promote success, Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, the difference between safety and comfort, and the importance of mindfulness in teaching and learning. All right, here it is, today’s episode, Mara Velez, How Bear Can Help Shelters.

[00:04:04] Emily: All right. Tell us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:04:07] Mara: My name is Mara Velez. I identify as she/her. And I have four dogs. I only have dogs. And they are Nala, Ivy, Bruce Lee, and Pluto.

[00:04:18] Emily: And they’re all delightful. So I’m not going to ask you to tell us your story and how you got to where you are because you are our first guest to make a second appearance. So if anybody wants to learn more about Mara and her story, you can go back to season one and listen to that episode with Mara the first time around. So we can just jump straight into our main topic, and the reason that we brought you back on is because you have a new program and we want to hear all about it. So, tell us a little bit about the new shelter program that you’ve been working on.

[00:04:53] Mara: Yeah, so actually we have a few new programs and one is that is the, kind of the, biggest. So, since we’re asking folks to go back to the original and listen to the backstory if you’re interested. I’ll do a little bit of an update on the programs that we currently have, because they are slightly different than a few years ago when we talked on, on mics, at least, and recorded last.

So the first is our Shelter Playgroup Alliance Core online program, and that is most similar to the one that I described before. So it is a good 50 hours of online content that takes folks through ethics, basics of teaching animals how to do stuff. So, basics of positive reinforcement, marker training, lure reward training, body language. So, we have a pretty in depth modules, a number of in depth modules on reading body language and documenting body language. So we have really improved that documentation piece over the last couple of years.

And then, of course, where we talk about our enrichments program that sort of features play groups, but also encourages shelters to develop and implement all sorts of different enrichment strategies across species, so not just dogs. And then we talk about behavior modification. So, what are some of the protocols? How do you modify them for the animal in front of you? So, that’s our basic program, and it’s not basic at all. But that is our foundational program, I guess is probably a better way of saying it, which is why we call it core.

And a couple of the things that are really important features of that core program is that we have a team of graders. So, the initial– at the outset, it was me grading folks but now we have a team of folks who are looking at video submissions, providing feedback, reading through the behavioral descriptions that folks are submitting for a number of the assignments. So, all of that feedback makes it a very robust program. And also, we have a number of different folks who are delivering that content and supporting the growth of knowledge. So that’s, that’s a really exciting piece, even though most of the modules were recorded by me. We also have Dot Baisley, who is the, the director of the IAABC. She is one of my cat people. So it’s primarily me and Dot who have that content for the core program, but the Core Hybrid Program also has all of the rest of our team who travel from shelter to shelter and provide hands-on training. So it’s a yes and to the core program, for shelters, we call that the core hybrid program.

So, individuals can take the core program, and shelters can contract with us for the core hybrid program. So, we all fly out, we do small group teaching. So we talk about defensive handling, we talk about how to deliver enrichment for arousal reduction, we do dog-dog intros, we manage play groups, and think about what that shelter needs in terms of developing their enrichment program. 

So those are some really exciting changes to the programming that we have. An offshoot of that core hybrid program is just a focus on safe handling. So we have pulled out all of the behavior modules and we set them aside. Folks take those, and then a half day of just learning defensive handling: how to break up a fight, what do you do when you can’t take an animal back on your own, so what’s the importance of communicating with another person, bringing them in? Or if before you take the animal out, you feel like, “Hmm, I’m not so sure.” Two-person handling in and out of the kennel and then making an assessment: is this a, is this a dog that is safe to take out and evaluate, or do we need to do some work before then?

So, those three main programs are our bread and butter. And then that core online program provides us the foundation and the first phase for the new program, which is the one that, that we had been talking about that you said, “Ah! We should, we should let folks know!” Which is, BEAR. So the BEAR program is Behavior and Enrichment Academy and Resources. So, it’s the Behavior and Enrichment Academy and Resources because I really wanted an acronym that resolved into an animal. So, sorry to Eddie Fernandez, he runs also BEAR, which is different. But, so, I also repurposed an acronym that is already in use, but in a different context, it’s not for shelters. So, I felt okay about also borrowing that. 

So the phase one of B. E. A. R. looks just like the core program because it is. And then the next phases – which it’s also super exciting – is that you’ll see very little of me. You’ll see me pop up every once in a while for some of the modules, but we have a whole team of folks who are delivering the content. So, before I launch on to that, let me pause to see if you have any questions about any of the other programs leading up to B. E. A. R. and some of the fundamentals of what B. E. A. R. is.

[00:11:00] Emily: I don’t have any questions, but I love how you laid it all out because I will confess that even though obviously I have been involved in Shelter Playgroup Alliance from the beginning, I’ve, I’ve only been involved in an ancillary type of way. And so I knew that you were working on a bunch of different programs.

I had seen bits and pieces of those programs as we’ve been working and collaborating together. But it’s really lovely to hear you explain how all of those puzzle pieces fit together and what it looks like in a big picture because I, I wasn’t really clear on that and it, it all makes sense. And it’s, and it does not surprise me that what you have been doing this whole time is scaffolding. Just, “Let’s start with this foundational course. Okay, and now we’re going to have a shelter implementation portion of it. And now we’re going to do the next tier or the next layer.” So, it’s not at all surprising. And also. I, I love it. 

So, talk to me about what, what happens in B. E. A. R.? What’s the deal with B. E. A. R.? What is it? I guess the first question is what all is contained in B. E. A. R.? What do you cover?

[00:12:18] Mara: And before I talk about what we cover, I want to talk about how it even came to be, which really has been a series of conversations– So– with lots of different folks. So this isn’t just my thinking around stuff. This has been a conversation that myself and Dot Baisley had when we were doing interviews for our series of articles on socially conscious sheltering. This has been the result of conversations with me and Fernando Diaz at San Diego Humane and Amanda Kowalski at San Diego Humane. All of us, as we were working – and Marissa Martino – as we were working on the risk assessment book.

So we all noticed and have commented over time, “Gosh, there really aren’t programs for developing shelter behavior professionals. There are training programs, but there’s really not much out there that combines training, and enrichment, and communicating with others, and leading from every seat or leading a team.” And we have a, like, zero development pathway for folks who are in shelters. Or like, I really want to go on behavior at most, the folks who are most successful are coming in from the private client side, because they understand training, they’ve gotten probably some exposure to behavior, but then those folks get burnt out pretty quickly because sheltering is really hard work.

So we see a lot of turnover in those shelter behavior professional positions, and we’re looking across the country and seeing it’s super hard to fill. And when Dot and I were talking to folks – shelter directors, executive directors of open admission shelters and private shelters across the country – they were saying, “God, it’s so hard to fill this role.” So then we started out, “Okay, well, then what is the, what is that role and what education do people need?”

So now I’ll actually answer your question, Emily. So there are four phases, the first phase of BEAR again, like I said, is essentially that SPA core program. So folks who have already taken the program, they’ve already completed phase one. So they can jump to phase two. Phase two is an overview of sheltering. So we talk about shelter models, what socially conscious sheltering is, we talk about capacity for care and how to calculate capacity for care, what that means in terms of ethics. We talk about intake and pathway planning. We talk about euthanasia decisions, developing a volunteer program. We talk about shelter evaluations – not like you should use X or Y – but what are folks actually trying to get out of shelter evaluations? What is core, common, and critical among all of the shelter evaluations? So that if you want to, let’s say, build your own or choose one of them, that you’re well informed. And then we also talk about developing behavior plans and implementing behavior plans. Because it’s part of the core program, we’re saying, okay, you can do these couple of things. It’s very basic, but it isn’t that next step, which is, okay, you have these animals in front of you, or you have this particular population and you need to write more robust plans for this particular volunteer population, or you have these sets of staff and you can do this level of behavior planning, and then adapting for the animal in front of you. So, really equipping folks with the knowledge, skills, and abilities of that– of the shelter– of what folks expect from somebody who is a shelter behavior professional. And then we have our risk assessment. 

So, 1 of the programs that I did not mention is our CARS. So the Canine Assessment of Risk. We have that educational program as well. That particular educational program is really geared toward leaders in shelters, whoever is on an outcomes committee, your shelter behavior folks. So all of the modules and CARS are also part of phase two, so it’s pretty robust. The folks who have developed all of those– again, I said that there, it’s not just me. It’s Dot. It’s Selena Brown – who is also in the master’s program with me at Virginia Tech – she has a really great background. She worked for the A. She’s worked at a number of different shelters, goes out and helps a number of different shelters in the South. Allie Holt, who is at the animal welfare lead of Alexandria. She used to run the volunteer program and is currently on the behavior team. Bev McKee, who is the chief operating officer at or used to be Chief Operating Officer at IAABC and is back in her role – or a role actually, she just got promoted – at Toronto Humane. She is doing our data. Bev is seriously amazing at, well, at lots of things, but particularly data and really breaking things down. Brandy is on our grading team and will be helping with in-person workshops. We have Alyssa, who helps with the in-person workshops. And Connie and Michaela. So we have this whole, like, big team of folks who are creating content, delivering the content.

So since the first time that we came out with the program, we really have grown a ton. So then that gets us into what happens for phase one in phase two to cap off those two phases are in-person workshops. So, those are four days, for phase one. It is mostly about handling and running playgroups and doing basic behavior modification. And then for phase two, it’s about, okay, we have these animals, let’s write some behavior plans for them. Let’s collaborate with the host shelter and figure out what their needs are. And so we have some communication and collaboration that will happen in the– during those four days. You want to create your own shelter behavior evaluation for your dogs? You want– let’s, let’s do that.

And then also risk assessment. So let’s look at these animals who are potentially risky in the shelter. The shelter has identified them. Those risk assessment profiles are many pages in length. They take a long time to create, they’re very robust. And so, that will be a key component of those in-person workshops. So, the whole BEAR program is very much a hybrid program that takes some of the components of some of our existing programs, and then also extends them and also put some of that content in person.

And then are you ready for phase three? All right! So phase, phases one and two, kind of, are the foundational elements. What is, what are the basic pieces of your job? Basic block and tackling, right? Phase three is how, how are you collaborating, communicating, and integrating behavior across the organization? How are you working with vet med? How are you improving knowledge, skills, and abilities of folks in animal care using your behavior skills, teaching them. What are some of your starting points? What about a behavior foster program? What about community programming? So looking at– taking your head out of your own behavior office – so that’s where we started is in that, that little space, speaking of scaffolding – and then we’re starting to pick our head up, and then walk out the door of our behavior office, and saying, “Hey, I’m here. Let’s make behavior a part of all aspects of sheltering, and then also start to go out into the community.” So we talk about all of those pieces of the program. We also, for this, for this, this year – well actually that phase three will be in 20– the first phase three will be in 2025 – we’re also adding a ton of cat content, which eventually, after this particular cohort, will be moved into phase one. But we don’t have it developed yet. We’re currently in development. So folks who are enrolling now, will get it in 2025. Future, it’ll be moved to earlier because that sort of basics of feline communication belongs adjacent to the basics of canine communication. 

And then finally, this is the part that is most exciting to me because this is where folks will see me emerge and reappear. And this is because you’ll have to go back to the background of how, how I got from A to B, but my other life is focused on organizational development, leadership development, team development. I just got off of a call with a leader where we’re going to be traveling to their corporate office, we’re going to be doing a one and a half day workshop with their team, team integration, building each of those team members as leaders within their organization. And so, then I get to bring that content to sheltering, which is super exciting. So these are a lot of the things, a lot of the content and concepts that I use in my corporate consulting life that I get to bring to the sheltering world.

So, this is where I feel like there’s also, if, if, what you heard before wasn’t as impactful, I feel like this is also a tremendous benefit to our community of shelter behavior professionals. So, we’ll talk about leadership frameworks, coaching, peer coaching, and then also coaching your direct reports, if you have direct reports. We’ll talk about teaching as leading because that’s behavior change. Leading is behavior change. So how can you be a leader as through being an educator? We’ll talk about decision making frameworks, navigating the organization through principles of organizational savvy. Accountability: what does that look like? How do you hold yourself accountable? And what does holding others accountable look like? And then an important one is leading without authority, which is using concepts of negotiation and influence where you do not have direct authority over somebody, but you can influence folks for change, for sure. And then program and project leadership. How do you put together a RACI? What is a RACI? I’m sure there’s a couple of people who are Googling right now. R A C I. So as a, as just a little hint. So there’s lots of all of these like leadership frameworks that I’m very excited that I get to put into play for our learners. And then just like what we see in our current core cohorts, we get to see these folks, like, learn and grow and get excited. And just earlier today we got a submission from somebody that we had gotten to meet in person. He was finishing up and it was just amazing, like, cry level amazing that he had gone from not being super engaged with the animals in his care as a kennel tech to doing exceptionally thoughtful delivery of enrichment for animals and the thinking about why he was doing it, creating a thoughtful approach for each individual animal, not just like, “Oh, today is scent day and we’re going to give everybody a Kong.” Like those are fine too, but what we want is folks say, “Oh, hey, that particular animal in J3, he’s struggling a little bit, he’s been there for three days, he’s not eating. Let me see if we can’t, add some slow feeder in with kibble, and some cheese, and reduce some of the jumping and bouncing off the front of the kennel.” And that’s what this person did. And it was a beautiful result. So I’ll pause there. I said a lot.

[00:25:03] Emily: Love everything that you said. I am so excited about B. E. A. R. and also B. E. A. R. in the context of the other programs that SPA offers. And there are so many threads that I want to pull. Like everything that you– there’s like, “Oh my God, I want to talk about that. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about that.”

So. I think I’m going to start at the end because as when, when you and I met – six years ago already, I can’t believe it’s been that long – but when you and I met Allie and I were running our own kind of shelter behavior program called First Train Home. And, and, we fortunately, when we realized that you were doing the Shelter Playgroup Alliance thing, and we were realizing that we cannot run a behavior consulting business and build a team that is supported, and also run a professional development mentorship program for behavior consultants, and also run a shelter behavior program that that was just– we had bitten off way too much, way more than we could chew, it was really– we were able to let go of the shelter program because we knew that it was in good hands.

And it’s been such a delight to see SPA evolve over the past six years, but the thing that we learned in running First Train Home, and that we saw over, and over, and over again is that you can teach staff how to do things and they can learn it, and they can be super motivated, and they can do it well, and they can really thrive. And if there isn’t that organizational component where everybody is on the same page in the team, there’s good team communication, there’s a system in place for passing on that knowledge to the rest of the organization, then that person’s good work just gets subsumed by the chaos, right? And I, and we saw that happen over, and over, and over again, where people would come out of our workshops with tools and resources, and they would be really effective for like a hot second.

And then the organization would just sort of– like, the project would die on the vine, right? And so I think that is such an important component that is missing from resources that are available to, not really, if I’m being real, not just shelters, right? Like everywhere I feel like could benefit from that organizational behavior component, but that is, that is the piece that is necessary for the, the changes that are made and the knowledge that is required and the skills that are honed to become standard operating procedure. That is the part. And I, I think that is so important and I love that so much.

So my question for you with this – and I think you did say the answer briefly in passing, but I want to really make sure I’m understanding you correctly – is that that final phase where we’re talking about how to work as an organization together, we’re all in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, we have the same goal. Do you find that that’s necessary to start at the top? Like does the, the head of the shelter, or the board need to be the ones who are showing up for this education and are, are– have the intellectual buy in? Or do you find that somebody on the behavior team could go through this program, and go through B. E. A. R. and learn these skills and then take it back? So I guess my question is, how do you get one or two people from a shelter going through your program to help create lasting and effective change in, in the entire organization? What does that look like?

[00:28:57] Mara: Yeah, so, that would be fully aspirational. I’m not, I am under no delusion that our program is going to fix the leadership team at any shelter. What I do know is that these are the behaviors. These are the frameworks that, I’ve, I’ve had the gift of working for multi billion dollar organizations, having gone through all of this training myself in my Master’s degree when I did my Doctoral studies. And these are things that we’re consistently implementing in these larger, richer organizations. And in some organizations with the leadership, yeah, somebody who goes through this program can maybe say, “Hey, I learned this thing. Maybe we could implement it across the organization.”

That would be my hope, but in some cases, where, it’s not a great– the leadership team is not on board, they don’t have the skills, then I wouldn’t preclude somebody from going through BEAR but I would expect that they would have less success. So this is not an executive leadership program. This is for an individual contributor or a leader in behavior. But the more you know, the more you can influence. And it certainly depends on lots of factors. If you are very good at influencing, you have a positive and growth mindset, you’re not burnt out and angry. Then absolutely you could probably make some good influence. So I’ll give you an example of, like, one organization that we were recently at in, in the mountain region. Wonderful executive director does a lot of this stuff very naturally, and when we were with that group, they were all just so positive, and so engaged in the learning. And she helped them through because the core program, it’s tough, man. It’s a lot of work. It’s a couple hours a week. It’s 20 minutes a day. It’s videoing yourself. It’s putting yourself out there. And they supported their team and going through it. And even if they would complain a little bit, just like, yeah, but we’re– in order to do it well, we need to do it right. And that means investing the time in, in the education.

One person can’t change an organizational culture, unless they are at the top. And I would love to also have an executive leadership development program, but I’m not, not there yet. So, I think that that level of influence could happen, but I, I don’t expect it as a learning outcome, or a program outcome for this particular program.

[00:31:50] Emily: Yeah, I think that was one of the most, kind of, heartbreaking conversations that I had to keep having over and over again with people where they would go to a workshop and they’d be like, “We love this. We want to do it. How do we convince the board that it’s worthwhile?” And I was like, “I don’t know. When you find the answer to that question, let me know, because that’s often the biggest challenge, right?”

Okay. So thank you for clarifying that, because I think that is helpful to give people the right mindset going into it. Like they’re not necessarily going to change the world, but if they have more tools and resources, they may be able to influence their organization, or they may be able to find an organization that actually wants and values the skills that they have. So I think having that reframing of those expectations is going to be really helpful for anybody who’s interested in going through the program.

The next thread I want to pull is something that you just mentioned, which is: the core curriculum is hard. And this is something that you and I have had many conversations about. I’ve had conversations with many of our colleagues about, and I’m seeing this over and over again, that because our industry has a culture of you pay your money, you watch some videos, you maybe take a quiz or make a few videos of your own, and then ta da, you, you have– you’ve completed that, whatever that looks like.

It has been fascinating watching what it looks like when we’re actually focused on skill acquisition and what the actual learning process needs to look like for skill acquisition to be really solid. And, and the, the kind of disparity between expectations when people enter one of our programs, either PETPro or the SPA courses and what those, those, programs actually look like, because to me, and I suspect to you as well, the curriculum is just the first step, and we have to keep going after the first step. It’s like the curriculum is where you get, we give you all of the materials, but you still got to build the building, you still got to learn how to put the materials together and make them make sense and connect the dots between what you know in your head and what you know on a cellular level and what you can do with your hands and your eyeballs, right.

So, that has been a really fascinating journey of seeing people in our program be like, “Well, I finished all of the lessons in the core curriculum, like now what?” And my answer is, “Oh, babe. Now we’re starting. Now we’re getting started. Now that you got that foundation laid, now we got some work to do to start moving that knowledge from your head to the rest of your body, right?”

And one thing that you taught me that has been enormously helpful, not just in how we develop our own materials, our own programs, but also in how we explain it to people to reframe their expectations for what the learning journey is going to look like, is Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. And we’ll have more information for that in the show notes.

But for now, just for people who are listening, Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle looks at actually four different types of learning. So I think a lot of people think there’s like theoretical and practical learning, and like book learning and on the ground learning, right? And those are only two of four components that are necessary for skill building.

The other two components being experimental practice, and the biggie is a reflective observation where you receive constructive criticism, you learn how to evaluate and analyze your own work to assess, “What have I done well, and I need to keep doing, and what do I need to improve and go back and try again and hone and refine?”

And the reason it’s called a cycle is because you don’t go through those four steps of theoretical learning, experimental practice, real world practice, and reflective observation, one time. You go through that cycle again and again and again and again, it’s a really, like, cyclical learning process where you have to learn something many, many, many times before you really gain fluency at it.

And that has been so enormously helpful for, for us to help our students understand what their learning journey is going to look like in our program. So, can you talk about how you implement Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle in your programs, and how you help students mentally prepare themselves for what that looks like? It’s not a one and done endeavor, right?

[00:36:37] Mara: Yeah. So first, yeah that is a beautiful explanation of Kolb’s, so wonderfully done. And part of, I don’t know that I’m so explicit about it in the core program. I am in the teaching and learning program. So, I have sunsetted that as a separate program, but you will, it is going to pop up again in phase 4 of BEAR and being more explicit about what it takes to design, develop, and implement a, a set of curricula. But what we do talk about is, what does grading look like? And what does practice look like? And so, and then for my graders, what does kind and constructive feedback look like? So there’s always, this is what you’re doing great, this is where you need to improve, and then we have a pretty robust rubric that we all use.

So our entire, we have a rubric and a grading guide. So, we have a one page rubric that just says, “For everything, these are the expectations.” Regardless of the, and it’s broken up into different types of if it’s a written piece, if it’s a video, we’re expecting certain, certain base level and then passing is 80 percent or better, or 80 points or better – because that’s how our learning management system is set up is by points – and then the other 64 pages of our 65 page grading guide have all of the individual assessments and assignment grading criteria. So, then that makes it easier for our 8 person team to go through anything. So, we’re pretty consistent. Our interrater reliability work within 5 points. But you’ll get different feedback from different people. And so that is also a part of the process. That’s one of the huge benefits is that, great, you can get the world according to Mara. Great. I’m, I’m not the source of capital-T Truth. So, you’re going to get it from other people as well. So getting that kind and constructive feedback and everybody’s going to see something different, that is something when we look at the evaluations at the end, the feedback on what was beneficial for you, what would you advise other people about this program? If they’re considering it, which is also a really good reflective exercise. Like, what did I learn that feedback comes up again and again and again, “It was hard, but I learned a lot, and I really appreciated the feedback, it helped me get better.” And that is– you’re right. You’re absolutely right, Emily. It is it’s, it’s sorely missing. We get a lot of, well, like smile sheets. “Oh, great. You did it.” You check the box, you move on, but you don’t get a lot of, Hmm. Hey, you did those two things great. And this, this is an area to really grow into.

Because when we do things well for our animals, when we do it with skill and we’re adhering to ethics, then welfare just is improved so much. If we are delivering positive reinforcement, but without skill, we might have a real frustrated learning learner on our hands. And that’s not good welfare. I don’t care if you use all the treats in the world, if you’re not doing it well, that animal isn’t doing well. So that is when we’re thinking about, when I’m thinking about, from a leader perspective, what do I want all of our programs to do? What are we targeting as an organization? It’s improving animal welfare, and also human welfare because they now have something that they can do, they have better skills, they are safer when they’re interacting with other animals. And good decisions are being made about animal welfare and maybe, for a risk assessment, maybe we– it’s an irremediable suffering and we need to say goodbye, right? So that also is a human welfare, caring for an animal who was suffering in a shelter where we know we can’t adopt them out, people suffer in those conditions. So alleviating– we’re improving human welfare and animal welfare is really at the heart of everything that we’re doing.

[00:40:57] Emily: Yes. Same. The, the kind of mantra that we say over and over again in our– in PETPro is our pole star is reducing harm and improving welfare and wellbeing. And we’re not falling for the Nirvana Fallacy, we know there’s no such thing as zero risk or zero harm, we also know there’s no such thing as perfect well-being forever, that’s not a thing, but we want to reduce harm and increase welfare and well being. So, we have very similar sort of– I mean we have the same goal, and we have very similar ways of talking about that goal, right?

I also love that you, you’d mentioned that the feedback from so many of your students: “It was hard, but it was worth it.” Because that’s one of the things that, you know, is learning is a vulnerable state. and people have to feel really safe in order to learn. And one of the things that we realized when we were creating our community, and in learning from our own mistakes in previous programs, is that we had to very clearly set the stage for our learners to create a code of conduct and a very, very, well defined boundaries and well defined expectation of, of how we are going to maintain this culture. And one of the things that we learned through our mistakes that we have to teach people, is that just like animals, humans tend to conflate safety and comfort, and if something feels uncomfortable to them, they interpret that as being unsafe.

And we have received feedback from people in previous iterations of our program saying, “Well, this made me uncomfortable. I don’t feel safe because this didn’t feel good to me, and you said you would make me feel safe or help me to feel safe.” And that was a real big aha moment for us. It was like, “Oh, the onus is on us to help our students realize that safety and comfort are not the same thing. And when we say we’re going to, we, this is a safe space. It means that we are going to protect you from any kind of shaming that happens. We are not going to allow anybody in the program to shame each other. We have no tolerance for any kind of bigotry. We’re going to do everything we can to make learning accessible to you. But learning is intrinsically uncomfortable sometimes, and that’s not what we’re doing, that’s just the reality.” You can’t gamify everything, even though you should gamify as much as you can–and we certainly do, we, we try to do that. Sometimes in order to gain skills, we have to confront something that is uncomfortable in ourselves and, and you can be uncomfortable and safe at the same time.

And so, I think it’s really important that you are modeling that by, by, like, being like, “You are accountable, you are going to have to work, and also if you do the work, if you, push through the discomfort, you will come out the other side a skilled and knowledgeable person.” So the question I have for you regarding that is, do you have that, does that come up? Do you have situations in your program where somebody is maybe conflating safety and comfort, and how do you help them to reframe their expectations and, and see through a different lens?

[00:44:24] Mara: Yeah, so there’s a couple of things that are a little bit different. So the notion of safety may not come up for us in the same way because we don’t have a community. We don’t have a Facebook community, none of– our learners don’t get together and, have conversations about stuff. We have drop-in office hours, and so folks, if they have questions, they can drop in every three weeks and the entire– not the entire grading team, but everybody on the grading team who is available that day is there. So that, we can answer questions and then provide a number of different perspectives on things. We sometimes get videos of, like, this question about, like, in our risk assessment program show video of a dog and get different perspectives. So, there’s not zero engagement among learners, but it’s very minimal, which is different than what you guys have, which is a very community-oriented collective type of program.

So when we, I see folks have challenges, it usually presents as frustration. I thought– so they’re reading two different people’s feedback, which may be similar if you know what kind of understand the, what we’re giving feedback on. So let me just take one example of marker training.

So, the assignment is to make sure that the animal has another way of contacting reinforcement, other than– in addition to what you’re providing. We’re giving the animal choice. Do you want to train with me, or do you want to go get it in a snuffle mat? It’s really good feedback for our training if the animal says peace out to you and goes to the snuffle mat. So, that’s part of the reason why we do it. We have the animal give them some of the feedback. And then we’re also looking at mechanics: show us at least three reps of that behavior that you’re looking for. Some of the challenges that folks run into on that because that’s often that’s their first video to us, so we try to keep it pretty short. So, they’re already nervous about videoing themselves and submitting that. And then folks would have all sorts of different mechanical skills. So we give them a number of different videos of different people doing the thing, so they have a number of different things to model after, but sometimes they’re like, it’s a dog who is in a shelter, doesn’t know any cues and they’re cueing sit.

Well, maybe that’s not going to work quite so well. So folks who are newer in training, or in behavior, and haven’t used positive reinforcement training before sometimes we’re having them submit three or four times and we’re giving maybe similar feedback because they didn’t quite pick up what we’re putting down the first time. So, we’ve had some folks get a little frustrated and in those cases, then I’ll take over and be like, “Hey, I’ll get on the Zoom with you. Let’s talk it through. Let me look at what Brandy said this, and Yona said this, and then Allie said this, and they’re all saying the same thing, this is where you need to…”

So there’s a little bit of translation that happens when folks are like, “Ah, I can’t read it and decipher it because I’m in,” – and I think that’s the different translation of feeling unsafe, just feeling frustrated – “Oh, I don’t know what to do. I’m, you, I, you guys are inconsistent in the feedback.” And I’m like, “Well, actually it’s not that inconsistent,” and it doesn’t happen very often. I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen very often, but we have a couple per cohort that are much newer. They’re, they really want to do the right thing, and it just isn’t happening for them with them right away. But, it’s part of the process, everybody comes to it with a different set of information that they’re coming in with with different skills, they’re, they’re coming in with different learning history.

We have some folks who have very little facility with technology, and they’re doing this online program and they’re like, “Ah, what do I do? This is brave new world, right?” I had one woman bless, bless her heart, just like the sweetest, but she’s like, “I don’t ever use the internet.” I’m like, “Okay, well, do you have a, a grandkid that could maybe help you?” And what she ended up doing was she found another volunteer at her shelter, and they were partners and that just made it so much easier. They videoed each other, the other person submitted her videos on her behalf. So by hook or crook, I don’t care how that doesn’t– as long as it’s you in the video, you could carrier pigeon it, don’t care. Like, just get me, get us the, the content, get us the assignment and we will grade it and we’ll find a way to carrier pigeon that feedback back to you.

So we, we help folks figure out how to navigate all of that because we’re– people are in various stages of that, they’re flung across the country and around the world. We have lots of folks in Australia, Spain, and we had one person in Iran, folks across the UK, in Asia, so lots of, lots of different areas of the world. And of course, Canada, the U.S., non contiguous, and some Latin America, not as much as I’d like, but definitely some in Latin America too. So, now folks all over the place. Which is super cool.

[00:49:59] Emily: It is so exciting to see your work having an international reach and realizing that not only are you helping other people learn better and do better, but also you’re going to learn from them because they bring perspectives and challenges to the table that you might have never encountered before. And so it’s, it’s, I love working with our international students too, because I know I’m going to learn as much from them as they learn from us. And it’s just really, really delightful to see, not only do we have impact, but also we get to learn from people that we didn’t previously have access to, which is really lovely.

[00:50:40] Mara: Yeah. And it challenges my assumptions too, about like, well, I thought it was clear. Clearly not! Not to that person, right? So, when I look back at the content that we had a couple of years ago, it has grown by 60%, Emily. We have added, we have more than doubled the content because we saw, “Oh, this submission, oh, they’re not getting, two or three people aren’t getting that in the way that we want, we’re having to give lots and lots of feedback on this. Hmm. We’re not teaching it as well as we thought we were. Let’s go back. Let’s add some more examples. Let’s re-record that.” So all of that feedback is such a gift. And I never approached that of like, “Oh, well they should have learned it or, whatever. They’re the dumb ones.” Hmm. This is, this is just, this is the way that communication happens. Some folks got it the way that I presented it. Some folks are going to get it in a different way. And so adding all of that in now, in some, in some cases we’re like, okay, yeah, I think that that one’s pretty solid.

But the grading team, we all get together and they’re like, “Oh, well, let’s do this. Let’s do that. Let’s do this.” All of these different perspectives that are really helping shape and grow and nurture that program. So that we’re hitting the widest amount of population possible.

[00:52:07] Emily: Yeah, I, I really love that. And I think another component of creating, for us, creating a community that really does feel like a warm, inclusive, supportive community, and for you, creating a safe learning environment for your students, is helping people to learn how to give and receive feedback. Because we see over and over again, people coming into our program and feeling like, “Oh, well, I could never present a case in front of everybody.” Or, “I could never ask this question in the forum because that would be really scary.” Or like, “I’m just going to do my thing and I’m not going to bring it to you, I don’t want you to evaluate this because I don’t, I don’t want you to see it.” And it doesn’t take very long for people in the program to feel safe and comfortable enough, and excited enough, to be vulnerable in their learning and say, “Actually, I do want your feedback on this, and I want the group’s feedback, and I want to present my case, and I want you to see this,” and it’s that– it is because we model what it looks like to receive feedback too. So if they tell us, “I don’t understand what you’re saying, I have no idea what that means. I’m very confused.” Or, “I watched this lesson and it makes me feel even more anxious about the thing than I did before.” And instead of being frustrated and being like, “Why, why didn’t you get it? Go back and read it again.” We’re like, “Okay, this is really good information, so we need to add in some other ways to present this information so that it’s accessible, accessible to multiple types of learners.”

And when they see that receiving that critical feedback is received with gratitude and, and like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Okay. I get it. Yes. Yes.” Then it’s easier for them to in kind receive feedback from us. So I think, that’s another thing that I see y’all doing with the BEAR program that is so important. Because so many people have a long and robust history of being punished and shamed for making mistakes or, getting feedback in a way that’s very sarcastic, or impatient, or, or shaming. Back to shaming again! And so, so we have to help people see that that’s not how things happen here. Like this is a safe place to learn and grow. I love that.

[00:54:23] Mara: Yeah. Feedback is really as long as it is done with kindness is always– and the, there’s the, the notion of the shit sandwich, right? So, you give some positive and then you give the constructive feedback and then you get the positive. So, what we’ve discovered, what– I think it was Stanford, I don’t remember if it was Stanford, but, one of the Ivy league schools did some research on is that, is that shit sandwich actually effective? And in fact, no, it’s not. So, just deliver the constructive feedback and balance it, have the whole, the whole piece of feedback be fair and honest. And that honesty and fairness is really what people respond to when it’s done in, in the right way. So, it doesn’t have to be– we like to point out what people– because it’s, it’s very rare that it’s just like, “Oh, wow. That was absolute garbage.”

And if that happens, if, we do get some where somebody is like, they’re working real hard, and they haven’t really paid attention, and they just really need to go back and review the module again, it’ll just be like, “Take another look at the module and then reread the instructions carefully, pay attention to these things.” So it’s all constructive. It’s all like, “Hey, have a beat. We’ll give you a couple of extra days.” If it’s– sometimes as we’re getting closer to a workshop. That we’re going to do at a shelter. And everybody’s like furiously trying to get all this stuff done. Sometimes we’ll get that, that, “I need to get it done by the workshop.” Sometimes that incense some less desirable behaviors. We’re like, “Okay, well, maybe you can show us in person.” So we’ve started with the past couple of work of in person workshops doing some live grading. “Does anybody need live grading today? We’ll help you get to that next one.” 

So we have a point where everybody needs to be at 70% – I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud – everybody needs to get to 70% to do the live piece, and we’d like to get them further, usually extend out the deadline post-workshop where they can do the rest of the behavior modification stuff. But, um, that, that sort of alleviates some of those understandable behaviors of like, “I just got to do it fast, get it done.” And it’s not the quality– it’s not the thoughtful level of work that they are capable of doing. We want to see what they’re capable of doing when they’re thoughtful with it, not just like throwing it together.

[00:57:04] Emily: What’s interesting about that is we’ve gotten feedback from multiple students in our program that being in the program has helped them to be more mindful, and to watch their breathing. And what’s funny is we don’t teach that overtly in the program, but by asking people to sit with something, and evaluate it, and analyze, the outcome of that is mindfulness, and, and people breathing. So I just think that’s really fascinating that, like, really good learning, and good teaching, is really about mindfulness, right? And, and that’s, and that’s if, if that’s a lesson that people take away, if they learn nothing else – which I know that’s not true for either of our programs – but if they learn nothing else, I put that in the win column, because how incredible is that, to just teach people to be more mindful teachers and learners, right?

[00:57:59] Mara: Mindfulness and social connection. One of the things about having the feedback is that we put our names after everything. I wanted all of us to do that because I wanted it to be, I wanted folks to be very visible. There’s a bunch of people giving me feedback. They’re all here. We have a– if, if the feedback is beyond the 450 character limit in the learning management system, we have an email. And so we’ll say, just see email and send them the feedback via email. So, it’s that social connection of like, “Oh, there’s somebody who’s actually looking at it,” which is different than some other programs where it just may be like multiple choice, or just watch a bunch of videos and you do the thing. That social connection with multiple people, and multiple perspectives, to me is a really, really key component. And that’s where you guys have done a really lovely job as well of that. There are multiple people that they’re learning from that– who approach the world very– you and Allie are exceptionally different.

[00:59:08] Emily: Yes! Allie and Ellen and I are, like, as, as different as people could be. We form this, like, perfectly balanced triangle of, like, differentness, but it works. We balance each other out and we each provide different perspectives and personalities and teaching styles, which works. And we are not the only teachers in their program either.

Because like you, we, we, we, have a goal of bringing in as many voices as possible so that this isn’t just the, like The Allie, Emily, and Ellen Show, just like you don’t want it to be The Mara Show. So we both– we have that mindfulness of there being multiple voices bringing multiple perspectives and bringing their, their respective skills and personalities to the table being a vital part of that, of that process. Yeah.

[00:59:57] Mara: Yeah. And to extend the different– like, MaryKaye and you and Allie and Ellen are all, like, so different, have such a different approaches to how you’re going to teach something, and what feedback might look like. Getting the, the balance of all of those perspectives is so, so– it’s such a gift, right? Such a gift.

[01:00:20] Emily: So, I could talk to you about this forever because there are so many threads that I didn’t get to pull, but we’re already at time. So, I’m going to say that normally this is the part of the interview where I ask everybody the same set of questions, but I’ve already asked you that same set of questions, and I don’t feel like you probably need to answer them again.

So I think what I’ll ask instead is what are our big takeaways from this conversation? What do you hope that people will walk away from this conversation with? Holding in their heads and their hearts.

[01:00:57] Mara: First is the importance of well trained shelter behavior professionals. I feel like the industry has not yet embraced that it is a specialty, that it takes a lot of knowledge and skill and training to be good at it. And that they should enroll in our program, so that’s thing one. Thing two, I think is, part of where the last part of the conversation is feedback – and I don’t mean this in a, in a trite way at all – feedback is truly a gift. And being able to deliver it in a way that is acceptable by another person takes skill. And I spend a lot of time training our, our folks on how to teach people how to titrate feedback, what good feedback looks like. We spend a lot of time discussing it. It is not something that is a seat of your pants sort of thing. You can’t just, you get better at it over time, but it’s not something that you can do without thinking. So, that’s a really important piece of both: receiving it takes practice, and then doing something about it takes practice, but also delivering it is, is quite a skill. So those are the two things.

[01:02:15] Emily: I love it. I love both of those things. Thank you so much for coming back onto our podcast to talk about B. E. A. R. I am really excited about everything that y’all are doing and the resources that you’re creating for the shelter community, because I think they are powerful resources that are much needed. And I just appreciate you. Thank you for, for taking this on so that Allie and I could let go of First Train Home and just focus on PETPro and our own team.

[01:02:47] Mara: Well, if you guys want to come in and guest facilitate, get your little First Train Home fix, then you’re always welcome. It was a very good program. I loved it. I loved seeing, what you guys had created and we’re happy to, to take the mantle, but you’re always a welcome guest.

[01:03:08] Emily: Thank you. And also, I’m going to gratefully and politely decline because we’ve got our hands full, but, but. It’s– the shelter world is in good hands. So I appreciate you and your whole team, as my love to the entire SPA team.

[01:03:23] Allie: I just love how methodical Mara is in developing programs and scaffolding skills. And how she has built a team to teach SPA’s courses and workshops, I can’t wait to see where SPA continues to go, they’ve already done so much good work and I know they’ll continue to do so much good work in the sheltering world. Next week we’ll be talking about enrichment for shelters.

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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