March Enrichment Challenge: Increase Predictability in your Pet’s Life

It’s not uncommon to see smaller sized dogs get picked up left and right for a variety of reasons. Your dog tends to sniff everything, which means it sometimes takes forever to get across an intersection, so you pick up Fluffy to move yourselves along before the light changes. You are in a park and an off leash dog looks like they’re headed your way, so you scoop up Fluffy to get out of dodge. You are at the vet and you know it’s not Fluffy’s favorite place, so you again scoop them up until you get them to a room. If Fluffy were larger, we’d have to resort to other strategies which may or may not increase the dog’s choice, control, and/or predictability (see This One is for the Littles).  

Why should we care about increasing predictability for our pets?  We at Pet Harmony talk a lot about agency, the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. Allowing all dogs – the small, the big, and the in-between – to have some say in what is being done to them or with them has a huge impact on their well-being.

Some of you may have seen the Instagram post (Jan 19th) where I cue Boon that she’s about to be picked up. I shared in this blog how installing our “Ready” cue let Boon know that she’s about to get picked up and wouldn’t have a choice in that particular circumstance. This contrasts with other times when, for example, I go to the door and ask her if she wants to go outside and it is entirely up to her whether she gets off her dog bed and communicates “heck yes, I want out” or remains a chill pooch in comfy mode on her bed. In the latter instance – the outdoor option – Boon has a choice in what happens and in the former instance – the cue “Ready” – lets her know, “Sorry Boon, I’m carrying you because we need to scaddle right now and not be late to our appointment.” The cue “Ready” in this instance acknowledges that she doesn’t have a choice but provides a degree of predictability to a situation that in prior circumstances would likely have resulted in a hit to our trust account.   


#1:  Teach your pet a new cue which will let them know that a particular thing is about to happen.

Start by brainstorming something that you need to do with your pet where they don’t have a choice but you could build in a predictor cue to let them know what’s about to happen. Besides the above example of my cue “Ready”, here are a few other scenarios:

  • Putting a coat on your dog
  • Toweling off their paws or body 
  • Pulling sticker burrs out of their coat
  • “Ready” isn’t just for Boon, we use it with our cat too

All you need to do is say or show your new cue (heck yeah, cues don’t always need to be spoken word(s)! You can use a hand signal or other visual cue, non-verbal sound, or a tactile cue), then proceed with doing the unavoidable thing.

You might ask: do you need to give a treat at the end of the sequence (e.g. cue > behavior > treat or other reinforcement)?  Well, it won’t hurt to give them a treat and in some instances may help build up a more positive association with whatever you are cuing– so why not?


#2:  Add at least one new predictable IF > THEN sequence into your pet’s life

A lack of predictability can create havoc for a pet who already finds the world a bit unnerving. Predictability, particularly consistent if-then contingencies, can enhance a dog’s sense of control as these predictable patterns can make the environment less stressful. Think about your first day at a new school or new job: that uncertainty of the environment, what will happen, how it will go, and so forth can be very stressful. As we start getting a handle of the routine, what’s expected of us, etc., generally our stress will subside. 

I think we’ve all witnessed dogs who get excited when you pick up a leash. It’s a predictable sequence: pet parent gets leash and then “oh boy a walk is going to happen”. I’ve had a lot of pet parents tell me, “If I put on my jogging shoes, my dog starts getting excited since she knows we are going to go out together. But if I put my work shoes on, my dog just watches me since she knows she’s not coming with me.”  Others have shared, “My dog watches me as I gather up my stuff. I think they’re trying to figure out if they are going to get to go or not.”  

This IF > THEN pattern can be used to make your life easier while also helping your pet know what to expect. When it’s cold and wet outside, it used to be a challenge to rally our See Kao to head outside for one final potty break before we all turn in. We don’t have a fenced yard so we need to put equipment on the humans (raincoat, headlamp, etc) and on See Kao. Plenty of times, I’ve put on my layers and then work up a sweat as I do a party act trying to rally her to get out of her cozy bed and get outside. Enter IF > THEN for a win. See Kao now readily goes out in storms– in fact, she may even come find me to alert me that it must be PM potty break time. What caused this behavior change? We go out and the contract is: when we get back, See Kao gets a prized dental chew – lol, who knew these could be so motivating! This also helps with a slightly different situation as there are times when it’s not a winter storm but maybe the moon is out and See Kao decides it’s now time to have a leisurely stroll through the meadow to see if the deer are roaming nearby— not what I want to do when it’s my bedtime. Now she hustles out, does her business, and hustles back in, ready for the charmed dental chew.  (Video of See Kao)

The examples I’ve provided are simple or singular IF behavior happens > THEN this is the consequence. However, these IF > THEN scenarios can be more complex: for example, a sequence of behaviors and or events that reflect a typical morning or evening routine which can help offer a sense of stability and predictability. I’m not talking about a rigid blow by blow time schedule, but more like a predictable sequence of events routine. I know I’m a lot less stressed out if I have a general idea of what I need to do or what is going to happen during my day rather than have things constantly coming out of left field at me. Here’s an example:

  • When we get home, a short walk happens
  • Then dinner prep for humans happens and critters hang out on their respective spots for something like a frozen kong dinner 
  • Then humans hang out in the family room and dogs get a long term chew project on their beds
  • Then last potty break and bedtime

Now What?

  • Teach your pet a predictor cue so they know something is about to happen. This can be a situation where they may have a choice or not.
  • Reflect on patterns that may be naturally happening during a typical day/night and brainstorm how you can tighten things up so there is a clearer, consistent routine for your pet.


Happy Training!