May 2024 Enrichment Challenge: Learn Your Pet’s Baseline

Hi, friends! 

If you follow us on Instagram, you may have seen Griffey and I have been having some challenges. Part of having a pet in your life is going through ebbs and flows, and the last 9 months or so have felt like a whole lot of challenges clustered together. And let’s be real, that stinks. It stinks for me, for him, for my partner, for everyone. 

With the help of our care team, we’ve found some answers, and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on some of the little things that made the biggest differences in our being able to weather the storm. Returning to basics, returning to observation, and noticing small deviations from Griffey’s baseline meant that we were able to notice and act on small warning signs before they became the big blinking neon signs of danger. 

So, for this month’s enrichment challenge, I’m challenging you to take the month and reacquaint yourself with your pet’s baseline. You never know when it will come in handy! 

And of course, because we believe in clear, executable actions and small approximations, let’s dive into 5 things you can learn about your pet this month. 


#1 – Identify your pet’s ladder of escalation

We talk about things like stress, triggers, ladders of escalation, and body language a lot. Like a lot, a lot. Because they are big deals. They are the key to understanding and communicating with our pets. They help identify how we can help our pet, to know if what we’re implementing is making a difference. 

And here’s the thing, our pet’s language is going to evolve just like ours does. There are phrases I used years ago that are no longer in my vocabulary, and there are new words that I learned that I immediately integrated into my everyday language. Our pets are the same! As your pet learns skills, their environment changes, and your observation skills grow, you’re going to see new patterns in your pet’s body language. 

So, take some time to review body language resources, and observe your pet as they are going up their ladder of escalation. What body language do you see when your pet is experiencing various degrees of stress? When do you see the whites of their eyes? When do you see their muscles tense up? When do you see their tails get high (if that is what they do)?

And even if you’ve done this exercise before, remember that your pet’s ladder can change. In the case of Griffey, we had cultivated a nice, long, predictable ladder of escalation with him, and we were seeing rungs of his ladder disappear. Seeing that he was making bigger jumps in his escalation. For example, we started seeing full body flinches and bolting at the sound of the bug zapper, compared to the small flinch and looking at me that used to be his typical response. So that was one of the cues that we needed to start tracking data for our care team. 


#2 – Identify your pet’s ladder of de-escalation

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the ladder of de-escalation. And this is how your pet looks as they are calming back down from stress, or completing their stress response cycle. What are ways that you know that your pet can cope with and recover from stress? What does their body do as they are lulling themselves to sleep? As your pet is recovering from the soulful yowls of the coyotes in the creek behind the house, what does their body look like? 

If you’re noticing differences in your pet’s ladder of de-escalation, or in their ability to execute or engage with their stress-relieving activities, it may be a cue for you to pay a little extra attention. For Griffey, we know that playing tug and doing a deep molar chew on toys are two ways that he goes about calming himself and relieving stress. When we saw a decrease in tug (but not an overall decrease in NEED for tug), and molar chewing, it added one more data point to our information for our care team. 


#3 – Know your pet’s baseline consumption

This one is going to include a few items in it. 

First, know what you’re giving your pet. Go through all the things you provide your pet to consume, and snap a picture of them. It is so helpful when you go to the vet and you can show them pictures of the treats, the food, the supplements, the oils, and whatnot. It helps them get a complete picture of what is fueling your pet’s body. It can also help you identify when you started or stopped giving your pet something!

Next is to know how much food you’re giving your pet. Some species are harder to measure than others (side eye at all the birds that continue to “seed the forest floor” of their guardian’s apartment), but for most species, take the time to learn how much your pet eats in universal, replicable measurement. You can use a scale to weigh, you can use a measuring scoop (and I mean a real measuring scoop, like one you would use for baking, not a random beverage cup that you get out of your cupboard), you can even use proportions of the container if you feed something like canned food (Griffey gets ⅓ of a can a food 2x daily).

In our podcast episode with Kathy Sdao, Kathy talks about all the reasons that knowing how much your pet eats, and knowing how your pet eats, is important. It can be one of the earliest indicators of an issue when it comes to health and comfort. Both my dogs are eager and excited when it is meal time, and I know that if someone doesn’t get up to come “help” me prep, they are probably not feeling 100.

And lastly, if it makes sense (I wouldn’t expect this of Allie and Zorro), know how much water your pet is drinking. Increased or decreased water consumption can be a signal that your pet may need to get in to see a vet. If your vet is requesting you do a water consumption study, please follow their recommendations, but for people looking to get a rough baseline, here’s what I’ve done in the past:

Use a liquid measuring cup (again something that is a universal, replicable measuring container) to add a measured amount of water to your pet’s bowl. Write down the date, time, and how much you added. Once that is gone or nearly gone, then repeat the process. 

If you need to refresh before it is empty or reduced, then measure what is left, subtract what remained from what you added, and then repeat the process. 

One of the first symptoms we saw with Griffey was dramatically increased water intake. Through collaboration with our vet, we started with objectively measuring how much water he was drinking (with a little wiggle room since we do have two dogs), and tallying the number of chugging events we were witnessing a day.

With that information, our vet was able to suggest some non-invasive tests we could run, and we implemented a few changes to sleuth out if we were missing some additional information. 


#4 – Record and observe how your pet moves

The amount of information we can gather by watching how our pet moves (or doesn’t!) is incredible. Dr. Micaela Young talks about that in her podcast episode and Lori Stevens also touches on it in her podcast episode!

Take some videos of how your pet moves at different times of day and on different surfaces. It may seem like a simple task, but if you start to see that something is off with your pet, like they are hesitant to jump up onto the couch, or they are avoiding walking on the kitchen floor, or they flinch every time the bug zapper goes off, these videos can be incredibly helpful to pull out for comparison to how your pet is moving now.

With Micaela’s help, we’ve been able to collect a baseline catalog for how each of my dogs move, and when Griffey started to have some challenges, we were able to use those videos to hone in on possible sources of pain. They helped to direct our care plan and to systematically test for different causes.

Knowing how he carries himself on an ouchie day means that we can follow through with #5 using data. 


#5 – Learn when they need you to change the rules

Part of having a pet, and going with those ebbs and flows, is knowing when to implement different plans and creating a household and routine that ebbs and flows with the realities of life. Sometimes our pets are going to try to make decisions that aren’t in their best interest. Shoot, we do, too! But, unfortunately, or fortunately, as their guardians, it is going to be on us to make sure that we’re helping create an environment where making the poor choice is harder than the good one. 

So, what do I mean by that?

There are things that Griffey enjoys, that he will still try to do, and those things are entirely off the table. It puts him and everyone in the house at risk. Things like running and sliding on slippery floors, or standing on only his back feet. Griffey likes to cuddle with my partner and me by rolling around on his back. All of these are things that will flare his known back issues. And when he’s in pain, he gets scared. And when he gets scared, he may growl or panic flail. 

Knowing this, we’ve changed the rules to keep everyone safe, comfortable, and feeling secure. 

He can run, but only on the carpet. 

He can put his two front feet up on a support, or keep 4 on the floor. 

He can cuddle, but he needs to be on his stomach or his side. 

He can’t trust-fall backward, but he can still sit on our laps. 

Implementing each of these new rules meant that we needed to use old skills in new ways, or teach him some new things. Either way, at the end of the day, we’ve created a new set of rules in the house that keeps him in good physical health, and importantly, everyone safe. 

Bonus #6 – Notice when they deviate from their baseline

Collecting all this information is helpful, and when your pet is a little off, it can help you collect information for your care team. But the power is when you’re able to notice small deviations from your pet’s baseline and start getting curious early. 

For Griffey, when we first started noticing he was off, it was small things: 

He was pawing the right side of his face, from the top of his eye to his commissure (corner of his mouth) 5-10 times a week. 

His time playing tug went from 3-7 minutes to closer to 2-4. 

He was snapping his head in our direction when we touched his back. 

He stopped making progress on oral medication administration. 

And I’m happy to say, with the help of our spectacular care team, he’s back to his happy-go-lucky self, we made unbelievable progress on his training goals, and he’s even making new friends with his clinicians. 


Now What?

  1. Take the month of May to get acquainted with your pet’s baseline! Get to know them, what they like, what they need, how they move, what they eat, how they spend their time. When you have an idea of baseline, you know when things are just not quite right. 
  2. If you’ve already got the feeling in your gut that something is off, and you’re ready for some support, let us know. We’re here to help you sleuth!


Happy Training!