March 2023 Training Challenge: Find a Fun Way to Practice Your Observation Skills

If you’ve been following the Enrichment for the Real World podcast, you already know that observation skills have been a frequent topic!

And, let’s be real, it’s always a frequent topic here at Pet Harmony.

Observation skills will help you in so many ways when developing an enrichment plan and living with your pet. 

As Dr. Friedman said in their podcast episode: 

“Being able to observe carefully, that there are other ways to meet outcomes that include the learner in their own path. I don’t know how you can do that without observing well. And being again, we’re, you know, it is full circle. You and I always end up back in the origins places because they are the underpinnings. This is the natural science, this is our gravity. Is that your outcomes are better when you are in conversation with the learner, when you are in dialogue, not monologue with the learner.” 

Strong observation skills unlock the opportunity to involve your pet in their care, offer and increase agency, provide enrichment that makes a difference, see the subtle changes in your pet over time, and have a conversation WITH them. 

We tend to focus a lot of our discussion of observation skills around communication with pets, learning their body language, creating a dialogue between us and them, but observation skills benefit more than just your communication, and you can build those skills in a variety of ways. 


So, this month we challenge you to find a way that to build those observation skills that you find fun! 


Let’s talk about some activities that have helped me, and other members of the Pet Harmony team practice and hone their skills of observation, and how they helped us. 


1. Puzzles 

Puzzles can be a great way to practice your observation skills! When working with another living creature, one of the things we often need to do is filter gigantic amounts of information. What is happening in the environment? What is my pet telling me? What is my pet doing? What am I doing? What am I telling my pet? What do we do next? 

It can be a lot! 

Puzzles are an excellent way to practice scanning the pieces to find *the right piece*, to practice filtering information and putting it together, to practice matching *this* to *that*. 


2. Where’s Waldo?

Again, living with another creature, and just generally navigating the world requires us to filter so much information. Hidden object games, or Where’s Waldo are a great way to practice looking for specific information. It can help you identify new ways to look for things. Looking for a trumpet, but aren’t finding the color? What about the shape, or any small accents added to the image? Can you identify 5-10 different characteristics of the item, object, or creature?

If you want to take it a step further, you can try noticing small things your pet does. Great starter options are to notice when your pet sighs, goes to their spot, or insert something here that you love that your pet does.


3. Spot the Difference 

This is an oldie, but a goodie! Spot the difference activities can be a fantastic way to hone your observation skills! Static images, and even finding easter eggs in media (Psych pineapple, anyone?) can be low-stress ways to flex that observation muscle.


When working with other creatures, I often ask myself, “What is different?”

What is different in their body language? What is different in the environment? What am I doing differently? How does their response differ between these two activities? How does their response differ between these two different situations? What is different in their movement?

One of the questions we get all the time is along the lines of “Why does my dog bark at some people and not others?” Or “Why is my dog comfortable in the crate as long as the door is open?” 

And, a great place to start is to ask yourself, “What is different about these two situations?” 

Here are two videos of Griffey. He’s vocalizing in both, but ask yourself, what are the differences between these two videos? 


What body language do you see?

What differences do you notice in the environment?

What differences do you hear in the vocalization? 


4. Marking for *something* 

If you’re looking for a refresher on what “marking” is when we are teaching our pet something, check out this video:

In order for a marker to be effective, we need really clear and consistent timing. The good news is that we can practice that without our pet! 

You may decide that you are going to “mark” each time the actor in the show blinks, or when a bird lands on the tree outside, or you can even make it a family game! 

Games like Slap Jack practice reacting quickly to specific criteria, which is exactly what we are looking for in training. 

If you’re really looking to challenge yourself, grab some dice, and play with a friend. One person rolls the dice, and the other person “marks” for a set of criteria. You can make it as simple or difficult as you want: mark for 2, mark for even, mark for odd, mark for divisible by three. If you really want to up the ante, pull out some D20! 

For one of our skill-building exercises, we even had Emily read Green Eggs and Ham and the rest of us needed to “mark” each time Emily said, “Sam I am”. And I’ll be honest, I’m much better at visual criteria than auditory! 


5. Bird or Nature Watching 

There is so much to observe and investigate in nature. Learning to tell different species of plants or animals apart takes strong observation skills. Learning to identify the different calls of animals in nature can be an excellent way to improve your auditory observation skills. 

It allows you to practice identifying sequences as well. In Dr. Susan Friedman’s podcast episode, they talked about their experience learning how to tell when California Condors were about to take flight.

It takes time to learn those small changes, but over time, you’ll be able to better predict what will come next. Knowing the precursors to your pet barking, running, or jumping can make the process so much easier! 


6. Drawing, painting, and/or creating 

Through projects like drawing, painting, and just general creation, you can practice that attention to detail. While this may take some additional skill building, learning to turn your attention to small details and differences, troubleshooting why something is just *a little off*, can help you cultivate a skill to troubleshoot when things aren’t just quite going as planned in your enrichment plan. 


7. Video Games 

Shoot, through video games, you can practice all these skills and more. From noticing subtle changes in the environment to learning patterns of behavior from other players or foes, and fine-tuning your timing, video games of all sorts can be valuable tools for improving your observation skills. There is something for just about everyone out there, so play around with your options! 


Now What?

  • Find something that sounds like fun to you! When we find something fun, cup-filling, and engaging, we are more likely to actually *do the thing*, and build those skills!

Happy training!