#9 - Let The Animal
Be Themselves

[00:00:00] Allie: Instead of asking ourselves, how do we get rid of this behavior? We should be asking ourselves; how can I provide a more appropriate outlet for this particular behavior?

 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…

[00:00:31] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:32] 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 Helen Dishaw and one of the topics we discussed was letting animals be animals. This week we’re going to dive further into letting animals be themselves and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about, should we treat animals like mini- humans, dealing with those annoying species-typical behaviors, and what Emily’s rabbit and my turtle have in common. Let’s get started.

I think one of the reasons that we see certain behavior problems is because there’s been a shift in our culture, at least in the United States, I can’t speak to other countries since I don’t live there, but at least in US culture, there’s been a shift in how we treat animals, and a shift towards treating them sometimes like mini humans.

[00:01:37] Emily: For sure, and to be clear, that’s not always a bad thing. For example, animals are receiving better medical care because we’re thinking of them more as family members now than we have in the past. But it can also cause some serious dysfunction in how we view them and what our expectations are for their behavior

[00:01:56] Allie: Absolutely, as with everything else, there are pros and cons to those societal shifts, and one of the cons that we see is sometimes those expectations that you mentioned, where people expect their animals to essentially not be animals. I’m sure you’ve gotten the same thing, Emily, where you have someone who’s asking for your advice about their pet and the first thought is, but that’s what animals do. Whether it’s rabbits chewing furniture, or dogs barking, or cats scratching.

[00:02:25] Emily: Right. Like, do you remember that guy from the sanctuary where we both worked, who was super upset that his dog was tearing up toys?

[00:02:33] Allie: I do. It’s such a common concern folks have, too. And really that comes down to our society has shifted away from it being okay that animals act like animals, and we expect them to act like humans. And that’s just not realistic in many situations, and can lead to dysfunction in a household, and impair relationships that we have with our pets.

[00:02:54] Emily: Absolutely. And to be clear, we’re not saying that it’s okay for dogs to be aggressive, just because animals in the wild are aggressive, and we’re not saying that it’s okay to terrify our pets because animals in the wild are terrified sometimes. We’re not even saying that you should put up with your pet destroying your house because, “Oh, well, that’s what they do.” That kind of false dichotomy is super common. People think either, I let my dog be a dog and they destroy my entire life, or I have to control their behavior and they have to spend half of their day in a crate, and when they’re out of their crate, they have to strictly obey me. Those are my only two options. We’re here to say those are not the only two options. You can have a physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy pet who can live life to its fullest and be the doggiest dog they can be, or the cattiest cat or the birdiest bird. You get the picture. And also, you can have a safe, happy, intact home.

[00:03:57] Allie: One of the things that’s important about this mindset shift is that we’re so used to seeing behavior as good or bad. And we’re so used to being told that this species does this and that’s a bad thing or this thing, and that’s good. And so, we have this expectation of what a good dog or bird or cat looks like, but in reality, animals don’t understand morality, and morals have nothing to do with animal behavior. So, what we really need to look at is, what do we want in our home and how can we teach the animals in our care to live within the house rules while still giving them opportunities to be who they are. And that leads into our first takeaway of how to implement this concept with your pets at home. Taking morality out of our perception so that we can see our animal’s behavior clearly.

Clients ask us all the time, “Should I let my dog do X, Y, and Z?” And the answer is, “I don’t know.” Do you want them to, is it something that you enjoy? Is it something that works in your house? If yes, then let them do it. If no, then teach them something else to do. Instead, the first step in being able to implement this concept is to reframe how we think of behavior and take it at face value instead of attaching morals or character flaws to certain behaviors.

[00:05:19] Emily: And that brings us to our second takeaway. As Helen mentioned in last week’s episode, we can learn what is typical for a species by observing other members of that species in the wild. What do they do? About how much of their day is spent doing each of those activities? When and how much do they rest? And so forth.

Ethologists have already done a lot of that work for us by creating ethograms. So, we can also look at ethograms to give us a leg up. That said it’s a little trickier when we’re dealing with domesticated species like dogs, because there aren’t really any wild counterparts for dogs. Dogs have been domesticated for so long that there’s quite a bit of variety in how they behave based on their environment, their breeder breed mix, whether or not they’ve been raised around humans, et cetera.

So, the best way to know what a domesticated pet like a dog needs is to have a general understanding of their species’ activity budgets, but then also just observe your pet. What behaviors are they offering? What are they asking for? How do they play? What are their preferred activities? I’d even go so far as to say, how do they annoy you?

What behaviors do they do that feel like a nuisance to you? Because 99 times out of a hundred, those are just species-typical behaviors being performed in a counterproductive context. And that gives you a lot of information about the species-typical behaviors that they need to perform.

[00:06:56] Allie: And then finally, that allows us to take all of this information and apply it by finding ways to give our pets opportunities, to do the behaviors that they’re doing. Especially those annoying or nuisance behaviors, in more appropriate ways. This can look like giving dogs, DIY destructible toys on the floor to replace counter surfing or training cats to use a scratching post to replace destroying furniture.

Or as Helen was talking about teaching free flight to birds to replace stereotypic pacing in the cage or providing hidey holes for rats and other rodents to replace digging in the carpet. Instead of asking ourselves, how do we get rid of this behavior? We should be asking ourselves; how can I provide a more appropriate outlet for this particular behavior?

Emily, do you have an example of how you’ve provided a more appropriate outlet for a nuisance behavior?

[00:07:48] Emily: I do, actually. I have a lot of them, but the one that comes to mind is about my bunny, whose name is Bundini. And Bundini got his name because when I adopted him, I originally had tried to have him in a confined area and turns out, Bundini is not a fan of confinement. And he’s in fact, quite adept at getting out of confinement.

So, his full name is Harry Bundini. Get it? Hahaha So, yeah, so I had a little escape artist on my hands, and I realized once he actually escapes, he doesn’t do anything bad. He’s actually perfectly content to just hang out in the bird room. So, I thought, why not just let him stay in the bird? And he was great for several months, just hanging out, playing with his toys, eating food, foraging, like any good self-respecting rabbit. And then one day he discovered the baseboards. I had thought about rabbit proofing the baseboards, but because he hadn’t really showed any interest in them, I had kind of let it slide, and one day he was like, “I’m a chew on these baseboards now.”

And I was like, “Okay, no, nobody, you can’t do that.” So, I did end up having to get some acrylic to protect the baseboards, but, this gave me a lot of information about his chewing preferences, because he was ignoring the objects that I had provided for him to chew and selecting the baseboards instead, which told me that he has a very clear texture preference for that type of wood.

So, I got him really thin pieces of wood that are actually bird toys, but they were perfect because they very closely emulated the baseboards themselves. So, I’m managing the environment so he can’t chew on the baseboards, and I’m giving him very similar material that he can work on instead. And sure enough, that did the trick.

He never really tried to get at the baseboards again. He never tried to take the acrylic down. He’s just happy to chew on that wood. So, that’s a really good example of seeing a nuisance behavior, because it is a nuisance for him to destroy the baseboards. Right? But instead of trying to punish that behavior, I recognized that this was a species-typical behavior.

He was telling me what kind of textures he preferred to chew on, and I just gave him more appropriate outlets for that behavior and prevented access from the inappropriate outlets that he had selected for himself.

[00:10:27] Allie: And that reminds me, I have my own escape artist at home, and that is my red eared slider, Zorro. Red eared sliders are semi-aquatic turtles, for those of you who are not as familiar with reptiles. I mean, technically they’re terrapins, but whatever. I I’ve written a blog post on, this, which we can put in the show notes so y’all can see the pictures that go along with this story. Zorro is my red eared slider, and he is an escape artist as well. At some point in time, I think this was last year, he started really trying to escape from his tank, like this was a daily occurrence that was happening.

It was becoming a problem, and unfortunately, one of the problems with management is you have to like really mean your management. If you do it haphazardly or half-heartedly, then you can shape your animal to get out of the management situation that you’ve created. And that was, unfortunately, what I ended up doing. I was very half-hearted with my management strategies to keep him in his tank, and he figured out each of them, and that just made him better at escaping from his tank. So, that was definitely a trainer fail on my part with that. But his escaping behavior told me, okay, there is something that he is missing in this environment. And there’s a reason he’s escaping. It’s not just happening, because he feels like it, or to annoy me or whatever morals I could put on to that, even though it felt like that plenty of times. I recognized there was something that was missing here.

My answer was one that I don’t necessarily expect everybody to do, my answer was to build him in an entirely new enclosure. It took a few months to do this, but he now has a larger tank, and a big area surrounding it, and above it, like I said, we’ll put the blog in the show notes so y’all can see the pictures of what I’m talking about. It’s a little bit hard to describe. He has the ability to climb more in his current enclosure, which is something that I had seen in the past as something he did, climbing, and trying to get up stuff and falling because turtles are not graceful creatures. So, he has that opportunity more.

He has an opportunity to walk around on land, more in this enclosure than he did in the previous one. And in addition to the things in this enclosure that he was missing in the other, I also meant my management strategy this time. I thought through every single way that he could possibly escape out of this new enclosure, and I preemptively fixed those problems.

So, it took maybe a month or so for me to see him try to get out, he tried a couple of times, said, “No, that’s not going to work.” And he does not try anymore, which is fantastic. A lot of times when we’re talking about those nuisance behaviors, which is true in both, my story about Zorro and your story about Bundini, Emily, is it’s a combination of management, so they can’t do the behavior that we’re trying to decrease while also providing them a more appropriate outlet for the behaviors that they’re trying to perform.

[00:13:59] Emily: Yeah, and I think a really important sort of detail to add to both of our stories is that there’s a difference between a learned helplessness where they try all these different ways and they have a really aversive experiences as a result of that, so they stop trying anymore. In which case we would see an overall reduction in behavior by which I mean really, behavioral diversity, as opposed to what we’re describing, where, yes, we’re preventing access to the thing that they can’t interact with, or they can’t do for their own safety, but we’re not adding any aversive consequence to that. And we’re also providing other means for them to do the thing that they want to do. We’re honoring the function of that original nuisance behavior, and we’re allowing them to meet that function in another more appropriate and healthy way. And what we see in that case is not only an absence of any kind of stress behaviors, stress-related body language signals, but we’re also seeing quite a bit of behavioral diversity. They’re not behaving less; they’re behaving the same or more. They’re just behaving in ways that’s appropriate, and safe, and healthy, and delightful. It’s stuff that we take great joy in watching them do now that they’re not destroying our house.

[00:15:23] Allie: Yes. I love watching Zorro climb and inevitably fall off of things, now that it’s not the edge of the tank that he’s falling off of.

[00:15:33] Emily: Yeah, for real, it’s just, it’s so much, it’s fun to see them be themselves when being themselves is not super destructive, or scary, or unsafe.

[00:15:42] Allie: Absolutely. So, today we have talked about letting your animal be an animal, and that does not mean giving them free rein to destroy your house and be a nuisance or put themselves into danger. That means observing their behavior without attaching morals to it, seeing what behaviors they already perform, and for undomesticated pets, you have the added bonus of being able to watch videos of their wild counterparts to see what behaviors they should naturally be performing, and then giving our pets outlets for these species, typical behaviors in ways that are more appropriate in our home environments.

Next week, we will be talking about influencing the industry through empathy with Mike Shikashio.

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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