Behavior Modification vs. Weight Loss: a False Dichotomy

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I’ve mentioned before that issues seem to come in waves. In the spring we usually get a lot of new leash reactivity clients. With the pandemic we got a huge wave of intrahousehold aggression cases. This winter, though, it seems to be pets who need behavior modification who are also on a weight loss plan. 

Whenever I find that I’m having the same conversation multiple times per week, I add it onto the blog list. So this week is all about how to use food in training while sticking with your pet’s weight management strategy. Let’s dive in!


Why we use food in training

I’ve talked in a previous blog post about why we use food in training so frequently. Check it out here for a more in-depth explanation. The short answer is that it’s easier to dispense than other options and usually more effective than other options. Our pets need food to survive which means that it’s valuable; if it’s not valuable (even in a specific moment) it means that there’s something else going on that we need to troubleshoot. Again, there’s a much more in-depth exploration of this topic here

There are plenty of times where the behavior needs and the physical needs of an animal seem to be at odds with each other. A pet going through a behavior modification plan and a weight loss plan at the same time is one of those scenarios. The good news is that we don’t necessarily have to choose between the two!


Cutting calories

There are a few different ways to cut calories for pets who need to lose some weight while continuing to use food in training:

  • Use smaller treats. Below is an example of how small of a treat I use for 83-lb Oso. He works better for larger treats, but these suffice for things he knows how to do really well and for playing “find it”. 
  • Experiment with fruits and veggies. If your pet loves low-calorie foods, use them! I trained Oso’s “out” behavior (hanging out outside of the kitchen) exclusively with veggie scraps. Check out the blog about that here
  • Lickety Stiks (below) or broth cubes. Great taste and fewer calories with these flavored liquid options! (Also, shout-out to Duncan’s parents for calling the Lickety Stik “bacon goo” in a recent session. I’m totally stealing the phrase and still giggling about it.) 
  • Use their meals for training. Set aside some of their breakfast to use for training throughout the day. 
  • Feed less at mealtime if it’s a treat-heavy day. If you know you’ve dispensed a lot of treat calories one day, take out the equivalent from that evening’s meal. Talk with your vet before resorting to this a lot to make sure your pet is getting the nutrients they need. 


small treat next to a penny for comparison
One thing to keep in mind is that treat value matters (more info here). It’s not necessarily as easy as switching out treats or using kibble in training. There are times where you will need to use the higher-value– and usually higher-calorie– treats to get effective results with your training. Talk with your behavior consultant about where you can cut calories and where it’s imperative to use the better stuff. 


Using other reinforcers

Although using food in training is effective and often easier, it’s not the only thing that works. You can absolutely experiment with using other things that your pet enjoys: toys, play time, petting, praise. And don’t forget those “real-life reinforcers”: going through the door, putting the leash on, coming up on the couch. Here’s a post I recently wrote about teaching Oso to stay out of our basement without using any food. 

Now, if you’ve been with us for a little while you probably know what I’m going to say next. Remember: only the learner decides what’s reinforcing. If you decide to switch from giving treats for a sit to only petting them on the head and they stop sitting, then petting on the head isn’t actually reinforcing that behavior. 

To label something as reinforcing we need to observe how behavior changes over the course of our training. If the behavior continues happening or happens more, then what we’re doing is reinforcing. If the behavior happens less frequently or stops happening all together, then it’s not reinforcing. 

Long story short: we should only use something other than food if it’s actually effective. 


Phasing out food

I often hear the term, “phasing out food” when poking around the dog training internet (and used to say it myself!) What this should mean (not what it always means when used, though) is that we switch from using food to using some other type of reinforcer for a specific behavior. It doesn’t mean we stop using food altogether or that we stop providing any type of reward for performing a behavior. Really this is another way of saying “using other reinforcers” like the above category.

One way to combat weight gain while on a behavior modification program is to phase out food for behaviors that your pet knows how to do really well in the situations in which they know how to perform them. Oso is great at sitting in the house. Every now and then he gets a treat for sitting, but more often than not he doesn’t. We’ve phased out food for that behavior in that context. Now, he doesn’t have as strong of a reinforcement history for sitting at the vet clinic. That’s harder for him to do and so he still gets treats each time he sits in that context. 

So if we’re concerned about weight gain while working through a behavior modification program, we can phase out food for some behaviors while using treats for others. 


Increasing exercise in other ways

One of the challenges for especially dogs going through a weight loss program and a behavior modification program at the same time is that often many of the typical exercise activities are out. Leash reactive dogs often need to limit walks in order to limit triggers. Doggy daycare is out for pups displaying dog-dog aggression. Finding a dog walker is challenging for those stranger danger kiddos. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t exercise our pets in other ways, though. We just need to get a little creative with it. Last year’s February training challenge went through several different ways to provide more physical exercise inside the house for dogs cooped up in the winter. Check it out here

Oso gets most of his physical exercise inside the house in the winter (and we certainly don’t have a big house!) It’s very possible to keep up with the physical exercise part of your pet’s weight loss program while following management strategies for their behavior modification program. Make sure to speak with your vet about incorporating different exercises into your pet’s routine to ensure that it’s safe to do so with them. 


Shelving parts of a behavior modification program while working on a weight loss program

There are several stages to a behavior modification program. The first stages are much more about human learning and behavior than it is about training your pet. That means that the first stages don’t necessarily require a lot of extra, high-value treats! If your pet is at a seriously unhealthy weight, let’s work on managing their behavior issues (the first stages) instead of modifying their behavior so we can progress quicker through a weight loss program. As long as we’re managing the behavior so that it’s not getting worse over time we can safely come back to it later. 


Now what?

  • If you know your pet needs to lose some weight, your vet should be the first person you talk to. They can help you put together a plan to help your pet safely lose weight. 
  • Do a food preference test to determine what your pet’s favorite foods are and also what lower-calorie foods we can use in training. 
  • If there are behaviors that your pet knows how to do really well, start phasing out treats by decreasing how frequently you treat and increasing other types of reinforcers. Remember: if the behavior starts deteriorating you’re not actually reinforcing. 
  • Explore different types of exercise. Again, talk to your vet first to make sure the exercise is appropriate for your pet. But after that, have at it!
  • Speak with your behavior consultant about how to mitigate calorie intake while working through your pet’s behavior modification plan. We’re here to think outside the box for you!


Happy training!


How Cherry Picking Your Plan is Getting in the Way of Your Progress– and What to do About it!


There are a lot of factors that go into how successful a behavior modification program is. Some of those factors are uncontrollable: genetics, certain things in the environment (i.e. city-living is always going to be louder than rural living), age, etc. Some of those factors are controlled by your behavior consultant: science-based, empathetic, ethical training techniques, splitting steps down small enough for both you and your pet to be successful, etc. And then there are those factors that are controlled by you, the pet parent: communicating successes and hardships with your consultant, practicing the exercises, managing stress and unwanted behaviors, etc. 

There’s one pet parent factor in particular that I want to talk about today: cherry picking parts of your behavior modification plan. What I mean by that is following some parts of your behavior plan but not all of them. Let’s dive into why it happens and why it’s so detrimental. 


Why Cherry Picking Your Plan is Detrimental

Cherry picking parts of your plan and ignoring other parts is detrimental to your progress. Yes, you can still make progress this way. Yes, sometimes you can even reach your goals this way. However, it’s probably going to be slower than it could be if you followed all parts of your plan. If the behavior modification journey already typically takes several months, why would you risk adding more time onto it?

It may also not be possible to reach your goals if you’re cherry picking. For example, if you want your pet to stop counter surfing but you keep leaving food on your counter while you’re not home and your pet is loose, you’re not going to reach your goal. Your pet could have an amazing stationing (go to a spot and hang out there) behavior when you’re cooking, an amazing “off” cue, and other foraging opportunities. You’re still not going to reach your goal without that particular management component.

Because there are so many factors that go into behavior, we usually need to address several factors to be successful. Think about it this way: all of those factors are like an orchestra that comes together to create one end result. All of the factors of behavior come together to create one end result, too. Now, if our orchestra is practicing and we improve the woodwinds, brass, and percussion, but completely ignore the strings, the end result isn’t going to be the same as if we improved each section. We can’t cherry pick and expect the end result to be the same. 


Why Cherry Picking Happens

I see cherry picking happen for a lot of reasons:

  • Not knowing what a recommendation is for, does, or why it’s important
  • Not knowing how to do or implement that recommendation
  • Not seeing the recommendation work, including not knowing how to troubleshoot it to make it work better
  • The consultant put in too many recommendations at one time
  • Forgetting a part of the plan
  • Old habits– and concepts– die hard

I’m probably missing a few but those are the most common reasons I see when speaking with my clients. Almost all of these merit an entire blog post to themselves, but let’s briefly explore each and talk about solutions. 


Not knowing what a recommendation is for, does, or why it’s important

This one is all about buy-in. Some people need to know why they’re doing something before they’ll do it. There are plenty of times that that’s applied to me, too! If you don’t know (or remember) why you’re supposed to do something or do it in a particular way, ask your consultant. There’s no shame in asking and, believe me, we’d much rather you ask straight off the bat if you’re not sure why instead of avoiding it for a few weeks. 


Not knowing how to do or implement that recommendation

This usually comes down to a break-down in communication when you’re given instructions (or can come from people skipping ahead in their plan instead of following instructions as they were relayed). An example of this is when a consultant might say “separate your dogs with baby gates and perform this exercise on either side of the gate” and you have an open-floor plan. Even though the instructions seem straightforward, the environment makes it a whole lot trickier to implement. Again, speak with your consultant and relay specifically what you’re having trouble with. The more specific the better!

If the reason you don’t know how to do something or implement it is because you’ve skipped ahead, go back to what your consultant recommended. When we say, “practice this only in your yard or with someone they know for the next 2 weeks”, we really mean it. There may be tweaks that need to be made before the recommendation can work in other capacities and we don’t want you to have to figure that out yourself. Plus, moving too fast is a prime reason for seeing setbacks later in the process. 


Not seeing the recommendation work, including not knowing how to troubleshoot it to make it work better

Reasons for a recommendation not working can run the gamut and is going to be based on the individual case. That said, almost all of those reasons can be resolved with some troubleshooting. Before giving up on a recommendation completely, talk to your consultant (noticing a pattern here?) Tell them what you tried, for how long, and send a video if you can! We don’t expect you to know how to troubleshoot something to make it more effective; that’s our job. 


The consultant put in too many recommendations at one time

I was incredibly guilty of this when I was a newer consultant, and am still sometimes guilty of this! Your consultant should tailor their recommendations to you as they get to know you better, but in the beginning it can be difficult to find that sweet spot. Tell your consultant when there’s too much, but only after you’ve made sure that it’s not actually because of one of these other reasons. I often hear someone say they don’t have time for one thing in particular, but when we talk more about it we discover that one of these other reasons is the real culprit. 


Forgetting a part of the plan

Okay, we’ve all been here, right? Remembering everything you’re supposed to do can be hard, especially in the moment. I see a lot of my clients get around this by posting their training worksheet (which we send to all of our clients after every session) on the fridge. Others opt for post-it notes around the house. The point is that the system needs to work for you. I recently spoke with a client who was cherry picking her plan. When I brought it up, she admitted that she forgot about some parts of it and doesn’t check email frequently and so wasn’t utilizing the training worksheets I was sending. We decided that her taking her own notes would be more effective. No system will work unless it works for you! Think through what systems work for you in your regular, daily life and figure out how to incorporate what you should be working on into those tried and true systems.


Old habits– and concepts– die hard

This one is part buy-in, part forgetting, and part habit. There are so many times that someone has come to me with a history of leash popping their dog and looking for a more LIMA-friendly way to walk. Usually the short-term solution involves them looping their thumb in their belt loop or pocket to keep them from leash popping. Even habits that we want to change die hard! And, sometimes, we have no idea that we’re even doing them. Give yourself some grace as you’re working on changing your own thoughts and behaviors- and remember that your pet is going through the same process. Ask your consultant if they have any recommendations to help you change particular habits (like looping your thumb in your belt loop). 


Now What?

  • Take an honest look at your behavior modification and what you’re doing. Does it match up? Even the little details? If yes, awesome! Keep on keeping on. 
  • If it doesn’t match up, which of the above (or combination thereof) best describes your situation? 
  • Talk to your consultant about what’s going on, even if you’re not quite sure what the issue is. They’ll be able to help troubleshoot the issue to set you up for success better!


Happy training!