You Have to Practice Before the Test

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When I’m giving a client a new activity, I always tell them to practice first in scenarios where they’ll be more successful. For example, practicing loose leash walking or the flight cue inside. Or Look at That or a greeting strangers protocol with faux triggers or people they know. Every now and then, someone will come back to me with:


I tried what you said to do and it didn’t work.


After some sleuthing, we sometimes find that the problem is that they tried to use it in a more difficult situation before they or their pet were ready. That happens to all of us (myself included!) at some point! But, if we go straight to testing without practicing, we usually fail the test. 


Practice makes perfect

This cliche applies to behavior modification: practice makes perfect. Well, as close to perfect as we can expect from a living, breathing individual with free will. The situations in which we want to use our pet’s skills are usually higher stress situations, either due to excitement or distress. I liken this to a “test”, where you’re expected to perform skills you’ve been learning in a higher stress situation. But the only way to do well in that type of situation is to practice a lot in easier scenarios that gradually build in difficulty. 

Imagine we plucked someone off the street, told them the basics of brain surgery, and then asked them to perform brain surgery on someone. Show of hands of who’d like that person to operate on them? That’s a hell no from me! I want someone who’s gone through school, practiced on cadavers, and has operated on a bunch of people before me. I want someone who’s practiced. 

Teaching our pets something once or twice and then asking them to perform it in a high-stress situation is like asking someone we’ve plucked off the street to perform brain surgery. It’s just not going to go well. And, if through luck it does, it’s not going to be predictably replicable. We need to practice in easier situations that gradually build in difficulty in order for them to succeed. 


What do easier situations look like?

This will be different depending on the skill or maladaptive behavior we’re talking about and where the pet is in their learning journey. In general, easier situations can look like something as simple as you and your pet training in your living room without anyone else around or it can look like a watered-down version of the situation you’re working up to. You have a lot of options when it comes to an easier situation. In general, choose a scenario where you’re pretty sure your pet will be successful. 

Keep in mind that “easier” is subjective, and is based on current skills. Calculus is easy for someone with a Ph.D. in math but it’s hard for a 3rd grader. Staying still is hard for a puppy but is easy for a service dog. The goal is to practice in situations that gradually increase in difficulty but for each step to still be easy for your pet’s current skill level.


Now what?

  • Determine what an easier situation looks like for a skill you’re trying to teach. 
  • Start practicing! If your pet is doing well, keep practicing. If they’re not doing well in that situation, that means it’s currently too difficult for them. Go back to the drawing board to figure out what would be easier for them and try again. 


Happy training!


December 2020 Training Challenge: Holiday Safety

It’s time for our last training challenge of 2020! Keeping with our holiday and enrichment theme from last month, this month’s training challenge is inspired by the “Safety” chapter of our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World


Create a holiday safety enrichment plan


Holidays often bring about a lot of décor changes within our homes and some of those changes are safer than others. Plants like poinsettias and mistletoe are toxic to our furry family members (and us). Candles and wagging tails present fire hazards. Extra candies around the house make for prime counter surfing targets. 

Then there are those holiday decorations that aren’t necessarily dangerous in and of themselves, but that we still need to include in holiday safety plans, like Christmas trees. Or things like decorations with sentimental value that need to be protected from our pets rather than the other way around. And that’s just the decorations!

Here are 7 tips to creating your holiday safety enrichment plan:


  1. Manage during meals. Just like we talked about last month with Thanksgiving, sometimes management during family meals is the easiest solution. Set up the environment to keep your pet out of the kitchen or in another room entirely during holiday meal prep and eating if need be.
  2. Manage stranger danger issues. Holiday parties are not a great time to work on your pet’s stranger danger issues. This is probably not as much of a problem with this year’s holidays, but something to keep in mind for the future. Put your pet completely away so that you don’t have to worry about anyone’s safety while you’re celebrating. They’ll be happy to be away from the festivities, too.
  3. Keep ornaments, lights, and tinsel off the bottom branches of your tree. All can pose as hazards, whether ingested, tangled up in, or knocked off by your pet.
  4. Keep candles out of reach. This is easier said than done for those of you with cats in your home. 
  5. Keep hazardous gifts out of reach. Make a note of any gifts (especially food items) that are hazardous for your pet to get into and ask anyone else sending gifts if their presents should be kept out of reach too. 
  6. Watch the wires. Make sure that wires are well-hidden from pets who are prone to chewing. 
  7. Exercise pens are a Christmas tree’s best friend. Do you have a dog who’s a little too interested in your tree? Put a free-standing baby gate or exercise pen around your tree. Here’s the link to an exercise pen that we like (also pictured below). Disclosure: This is an affiliate link. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!

There are, of course, many other things that you may want to include in your holiday safety enrichment plan and each person’s plan is going to look different depending on how they celebrate during this time of year. We’d love to hear what’s included in your plan!


Now what?

  • Decide how you’d like to create your holiday safety enrichment plan. Does it make sense to create it as you decorate? Are there parts you need to plan for before you start?
  • Gather any management tools you need. Pick up baby gates, exercise pens, and the like before you need them. 
  • Discuss your pet’s holiday safety enrichment plan with your entire household and anyone else who is visiting your house. Make sure that everyone is on the same page to limit slip-ups. 
  • Be prepared to tweak your pet’s plan based on how it’s going. The best plans are dynamic. 
  • Share your plan with us on Facebook and Instagram @petharmonytraining 


Happy training & happy holidays!


What I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Studying Animal Body Language

Last week I wrote a post about the “freeze” option our pets have while over threshold and mentioned that it often gets written off as “fine”. You can read that article here if you haven’t yet. This week, I want to focus on a reaction that I often see when people first learn about this: the prelearning dip. 

Waaay at the beginning of the Pet Harmony blog, I talked about “prelearning dips”. You can read the full article here, but the Cliffs Notes version is that a “prelearning dip” happens when we receive new information that competes with information we previously had, so we reject the new stuff. It’s one of the reasons why providing facts, stats, and scientific studies in an internet argument doesn’t usually work in persuading the other person. We all go through these dips and sometimes we hang out in that dip for a while instead of reconciling the new information and updating our knowledge base. I know that I have!

Often, when I talk about the “freeze” option to clients I see them having a bit of a prelearning dip as this new information – that their pet is uncomfortable, stressed, and/or anxious – is incompatible with what they thought was happening– their pet being “fine”. That’s a really difficult piece of new information to reconcile. In a session, I’ll let my client work through that and ask me as many questions as they need to to reconcile instead of pushing them, but I wanted to take the time to talk to y’all about this particular situation more in-depth. And, more importantly, let you know that this is a normal part of the learning process. 

Prelearning dips & learning body language

I regularly give presentations about animal body language. After every presentation, there is at least one person – without fail – who is concerned about their pet displaying many of the stress signals that we discussed in the seminar. This happened so frequently that I included an entire slide in my updated presentation saying that, “not all stress is bad stress” to allay some of those fears and questions I was routinely getting. 

Good stress vs. bad stress is a topic for another day; the point of this anecdote is that there are a whole lot of feelings that come up when people first start studying animal body language. Guilt, anxiety, confusion, wonder, excitement: I’ve seen it all! And a very common occurrence is that of the prelearning dip. This happens because, for some people, I’ve inadvertently shattered their beliefs about their pet. They might think that their pet loves belly rubs but I challenged that by describing a “tap out” (pictured below).

This dog’s ears are held low and back against the head, mouth is tight, and body looks stiff. All signs that this is a tap out instead of a belly rub invitation!

They might think that their dog loves getting kissed on the top of the head, but I challenged that by putting all of the signals they see from their dog in that situation into the “distance-increasing” category. 

Dog kiss
This dog’s ears are super far back and low against the head, body stiff, mouth closed tightly, head turned away, and it looks like the tail might be tucked as well.

They might think that “freeze” is a sign of “fine”, but I challenged that by stepping on a mini soap box about how not-okay it is for animals to be shut down. 

Scared puppy
This dog’s ears are low and back against the head, tail down, body stiff, and slightly crouched. The weight distribution on the hind legs (leaning back) may be for balance instead of a stress signal.

The list goes on. 

The biggest thing that I want to tell folks who I see struggling to reconcile this new information with the information they previously had is: it’s okay. It’s okay to go through a pre-learning dip! We’ve all been there before and will be there again. It’s okay to take some time to sift through new information and noodle it over. It’s okay to reframe how we think about our pets based on this new information; they’re still the same individual they were before and we won’t love them any less. It’s okay. 

If you’re one of the majority of people who has or is struggling with a prelearning dip as you learn more about your pet’s body language, know that you’re not alone. It’s okay to learn new things and even learn that you were wrong about a certain aspect of your pet. We all do the best that we can with the information that we have in the moment; and when we learn better, we do better. The most important thing is to keep learning.

Now what?

  • Have you started studying your pet’s body language? If not, get on it! If everyone knew how their animal communicated we would live in a very different [and I think better] world. Here are some resources to help you (these are Amazon affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!)
  • Think through your learning journey in regards to animal body language. What’s something that you’ve learned from multiple reputable sources that you’re still hung up on? Why do you think you’re having a prelearning dip about that particular thing? What ideas do you currently have that have to change in order to reconcile the new information?
  • Talk to an expert about your prelearning dip. Tell them about the hangup you’re having and why you think you’re having it. Many times hangups happen because there are kernels of truth in mostly untrue ideas or statements; it’s hard to piece together what is and is not factual in those situations. An expert can help you do that more proficiently! 
  • If your prelearning dip is happening as a way to keep guilt at bay, you’re not alone. All of us at some point have been told to do something or train in a way that wasn’t LIMA-friendly towards our animals. And oftentimes, prelearning dips are a way for us to not have to deal with the emotions that come along with that. Remember, we all do the best that we can with the information that we have at hand. Let yourself feel those difficult things and then move on, knowing that you’re on the path to knowing better and doing better. 

Happy training!


Let’s Get Rid of “Should”

I love when people are committed to doing right by their pets. Hearing how much people love for and strive for the best with their pets is one of the things that keeps me going as a consultant. Along with that commitment, though, I see a lot of doubt and worry creep in. Those are the times that I get questions like:

Is it okay that he sleeps in bed with me? 

Should I go first through the door?

Does it matter what side he walks on? 

Her reactivity on leash makes me not want to take her on walks anymore but I feel like I should…

What cues should I teach him?

All of these boil down to just one question:

What should I do with/for my pet? 

My answer, in a nutshell, is: whatever you’d like to.  Of course there’s a bit more to it than that. Really the answer is, “Whatever works for you, your family, your situation and keeps the animal and others happy, safe, and physically, mentally, and behaviorally healthy.” There’s quite a bit of stuff that we do as pet owners that doesn’t necessarily keep our pets mentally and behaviorally healthy but that’s a discussion for another time. 

In an effort to do the best for our pets we fall into this thinking that there’s one right and proper way to go about meeting this goal. Our society encourages this viewpoint that there’s one right way. The truth is that there are a lot of ways that we can keep our animals happy, safe, and physically, mentally, and behaviorally healthy and what works for one household doesn’t always work for another. 

Let’s take dogs jumping up on the furniture, for example. Many people sheepishly tell me that they let their dog onto the furniture, usually quickly followed by, “I know I probably shouldn’t let him.” To which I tell them that I don’t mind either way! The look of relief on their face always makes me smile. 

I then tell them that Oso has very specific furniture rules that work for our family. He’s always allowed on the couch at our house but never at my mom’s. He’s allowed on our bed any time during the day or if we invite him up at night but never when we go to sleep. He is then allowed to get on the bed in the morning regardless of whether we invite him or not. It’s what makes sense for us but those specific rules likely don’t make sense for everybody.

How could I not want him on the couch when he’s this cute?!

Another example is training basic cues. I often get people telling me (again, sheepishly) that they’ve never trained their previous dogs. They want to train their new dog and want to know what to work on. My question is always, “What do you want the dog to do?” That question usually elicits some blank looks because they knew that they *should* get their dog trained but didn’t really know what they wanted out of that. 

We then discuss that training helps teach animals how to live in our world (and is good for mental exercise) so there’s no set rule of what we teach. Again, it’s dependent on the animal and the household. If you don’t want to go into formal obedience or rally then there’s not really a point to devoting effort on teaching a proper “heel”. If the dog doesn’t grab items willy nilly then they might not need to learn “leave it”. All of those cues are helpful to getting a behavior that you want but aren’t imperative to living a healthy and happy life. 

My challenge to you is to get rid of “should”. Ignore what everyone (except your vet and behavior consultant) is saying you should do with your pet and look at what you and your pet actually need. Hate walking with your pet but both of you love playing fetch in the fenced-in yard? Go for it. Fetch is often better than walking for physical exercise. Love cuddling on the couch with your pet? Go for it. Unless your pet is guarding the couch from you then there’s no harm done. Figure out what makes you and your pet happy together and do that. 

Now what?

  • Think about one thing that you do in relation to your pet that you don’t particularly enjoy. Is it not letting them jump up to greet you when you come home? Is it taking your reactive dog for long walks? 
  • Consider if that activity is actually beneficial. If you’re not letting them jump up on you when you come home and they haven’t been jumping on guests then that might be beneficial. If you’ve been taking your reactive dog for long walks for months and their reactivity is still not better then it’s not likely beneficial. 
  • Figure out a more beneficial and attractive solution. For jumping, you could teach your dog to jump up on a cue. That way you get your coming home snuggles and your guests get a polite greeting. For reactivity, contact a behavior consultant to help with the issue and play in the yard or in the house for physical exercise in the meantime. 
  • Reevaluate after you’ve implemented your more attractive solution: is it beneficial? Are you and your pet happier and physically, mentally, and behaviorally healthier? If so, huzzah! Keep at it. If not, repeat the above steps. 

Happy Training & Happy Holidays!


December 2019 Training Challenge

It’s time for our last training challenge of 2019! Your December challenge is:

Last chance for 2019 goals

For those of you who’ve participated in our training challenges from the very beginning (before this blog existed!) you know that our January challenge was to create 1-3 2019 goals for your pet. With the end of the year rapidly approaching it’s now or never to complete those this year! If you joined us later in the year (welcome!) then your challenge is to come up with just one goal for this month and complete it. 

Here’s how Oso and I are doing on our goals:

Our 2019 training goals

As you can see, there are some things that we did well and some things that we didn’t do well. He’s done awesome with his vet visits this year but I definitely did not do one happy vet visit each month. Something we can aspire to next year! I still have time to finish his Western Hold Up trick so you know what we’ll be working on this month. 

If you’re like me and you know there’s a goal that you definitely won’t complete this year, here’s what I recommend doing with it:

  • Reevaluate how important it is. Do you want to try it for next year or scrap it altogether? There’s no shame in scrapping! 
  • Identify your barriers to performing that goal: the real reasons, not excuses. I could easily say that we moved this year and that’s why I didn’t do one happy vet visit per month, but the real reason is that it makes me anxious to take him because of his past behavioral history from years ago. Even though he’s made leaps and bounds of progress since we adopted him I need to work on that more for me, not him, and my comfort level. After that I can return to our happy vet visit goal.  
  • Think about your process instead of your goal. I’m currently reading a (so far) great book called Atomic Habits by James Clear(this is an affiliate link). One of the big points it makes is that if we focus on a process, like “train 5 minutes per day”, instead of a goal like “have a better trained dog” that we’ll be more successful. For those of you who participated in our October “Train 5 Minutes Every Day” challenge you know how true that is! 

Now what?

  • Get training and have fun! Don’t sweat it if you don’t finish everything on your list. There’s always next year!

Happy training!


Smaller Steps Make for Faster Progress: Splitting for Pets

I recently met with the cutest new puppy, Maddie, and her family. Maddie’s mom told me that she was having trouble teaching their new puppy some basic manners. During their training sessions Maddie would get frustrated, grumble, and walk away. That made it frustrating for the humans, too. 

I asked her mom to show me what she was doing and quickly discovered the problem: the steps were too big. I offered to work with Maddie and described the process I was using called “splitting”.  Maddie made quick progress and was learning enthusiastically. Her mom exclaimed:

“Ohhh, I was expecting too much!” 

Maddie’s mom started working with her again– this time splitting the steps– and Maddie learned enthusiastically for her as well. Hooray for Maddie and her family!

Splitting is the process of taking a task or larger step and breaking it down into smaller steps. It’s like teaching a child how to read: first we teach the letters, then how the letters sound together, then how to sound out parts of the word, then the whole word and so on. If we started teaching the word as a whole first the child would likely get frustrated and give up. We need to split it into smaller steps. 

Here’s an example of splitting while teaching a go-to-your-bed-and-lie-down behavior:

  1. Look at the bed 
  2. Lean towards the bed
  3. Take one step towards the bed
  4. Take two steps towards the bed, 3 steps,etc.
  5. Put one foot on the bed
  6. Put two feet on the bed, then 3, then 4
  7. Turn head over left shoulder
  8. Turn over left shoulder until facing human
  9. Bend elbows
  10. Lie down on bed

Even within this example there are several times that I lumped smaller steps together for the sake of convenience (which is usually why we lump instead of split in the first place!) However, you get the picture. There are a lot of steps that go into that single lie-down-on-bed behavior and we can and usually should be reinforcing our pet every step of the way. 

Splitting allows us to create easier wins for our learners (all species included!) That means less frustration and more success. Splitting also makes it easier for us to have a higher rate of reinforcement (aka how frequently we’re treating) which can do things like speed up learning, boost confidence, and improve our relationship. Splitting provides us and our pets with a ton of benefits. 

If there are so many benefits then why don’t we do it more? Well, splitting is a skill and like every skill we need to learn how to do it and practice it to become more efficient. Also, not only is it a skill that many people have yet to acquire, but it’s also a process that can seem counterintuitive. We need to take smaller steps to reach our goal faster? That doesn’t sound right. But, as we saw with Maddie, splitting into smaller steps usually does help us reach our goal faster. It’s like the old saying goes…

Slow and steady wins the race!

So the next time you and your pet are stuck take a moment and ask yourself, “How can I split this step?” Your pet will thank you for it! 

Now what?

  • Practice conceptualizing splitting. A good way to do this is to watch a video of an animal performing some behavior. Slow the video down and watch it frame-by-frame if needed. Write down each step the animal takes to perform the behavior; essentially, each new thing the animal does in each frame. If you’re looking for an extra challenge try to watch the muscles contract before the animal moves! Now that’s some serious splitting.
  • Consider a behavior you would like to teach your pet. Write down each step your pet will need to take to perform the behavior. 
  • With your steps in hand, start teaching your pet the new behavior and treat each step along the way. Phase out treats as your pet becomes proficient at performing the smaller steps. Did your pet learn the behavior faster when you treated for each step along the way? Were you and your pet more or less frustrated? Were there times that you had written down smaller steps than your pet needed? 

Happy training!


P.S. Next week we’re going to look at applying this concept to humans!