Agency: What It Is & Why Your Pet Needs It

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A few weeks ago there was a discussion in our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community Facebook group where I realized that I’ve never actually written a post about agency itself. Sure, I’ve included this topic in other posts but I’ve never devoted an entire post to this topic alone. It’s about time that changed! So this week is solely devoted to a topic that I don’t think gets near enough attention in the pet community: agency.


What is agency?

Agency is the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. One of the important factors here is that agency requires at least two desirable choices. A “cake or death” decision a la Eddie Izzard doesn’t fly. 


Doesn’t meet the 2+ desirable choices criterion


A pet example of a choice that fits the criteria would be the choice to sleep on comfy bed A or on comfy bed B. An example of a choice that doesn’t fit the criteria would be come when I call or get shocked. Make no mistake, though, it’s entirely possible to use food coercively as well. Such as, you can have delicious treats but only if you approach a person you find scary. Those examples don’t have at least two great choices to choose from. 


Why agency is important

There are so many reasons why agency is important that it would take me an entire book chapter to explain them all 😉 The short answer is it’s helpful in:

  • Combating learned helplessness
  • Creating resilience
  • Improving behavioral health
  • Improving quality of life (I don’t have research to back this bullet point up since “quality of life” is pretty subjective, but I think it’s safe to say that this is likely true from an anecdotal capacity and if we look at all the other things agency does for an individual.)

On a more practical note, having agency can be huge when it comes to how an individual reacts in certain situations. Here’s the example I use with my clients to illustrate this point:

Say that you’re at an educational wildlife event. The presenter is holding a snake. You hang out at the back of the room, fearful to move closer. The presenter continues talking about the snake they’re holding and offers for anyone to touch the snake who would like to do so. By the end of the presentation you’ve made your way to the front of the room and touch the snake. This was not a scary experience because you had full control over whether or not you put your hand on the snake. 

Now, let’s say you’re having a picnic. You’re sitting and chatting with your friends when you put your hand down– right on top of a snake. Chances are you’re not okay with this scenario, even though it’s the exact same behavior– hand on snake– as above. You may scream, run away, or perform some other fight or flight behavior. The difference between these scenarios is that you didn’t have the choice to touch the snake in the picnic but did in the presentation. 

We seem to see this with our pets, too. I often see reactive dogs who are far less reactive when they’re able to move away from the scary thing than when they’re made to sit there and watch it. Or dogs with separation anxiety who display fewer stress-related behaviors or less intense stress-related behaviors when they’re given more space to move about in the house (though, confinement anxiety is also a thing). While we can’t necessarily ask our pets in these situations if it’s agency that’s truly causing the change in behavior, we see it consistently enough that it’s a valid hypothesis. 


How can I provide more choices in my pet’s life?

There are so many ways to do this and we have a lot of examples in our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Here are some easy options:

  • Multiple sleeping areas to choose from
  • Being able to choose where they go and what they sniff on a walk
  • Food preference tests
  • Toy preference tests

Here are couple that are more involved but also allow for even more agency in situations where it really counts:

  • Cooperative care & start button behaviors for medical and grooming procedures
  • Being able to choose whether or not they move closer to a stressor– without luring with food


But… what if they make poor choices?

Agency doesn’t mean that your pet has full authority to do whatever they want. If you have a pet who bites people coming into the house they still need to be managed to ensure they don’t bite people coming into the house. We should not diminish safety to increase choice. 

Agency means providing choices that don’t compromise safety, physical health, mental or behavioral health, or enable them to practice unwanted behaviors. That sometimes means that our pets may not have multiple choices in a situation. When that happens we can acknowledge that and work on training a skill that allows our pet to have choices in future similar situations. For example, a dog who doesn’t have a rock solid recall (come when called) shouldn’t be off-leash even though being off-leash allows for more agency. Instead of resigning to that, we can work on training a rock solid recall for future use. 


Now what?

  • Assess the choices your pet currently has. Don’t be critical or hard on yourself; we’re simply assessing to see where we have room for improvement. 
  • In those areas where you find your pet doesn’t have agency, ask yourself why that is. Is it to mitigate safety concerns? Is it to mitigate unwanted behaviors? Or, are there situations where you’re not quite sure or because it’s what someone once recommended or you think it’s what you should be doing? Keep probing until you find those answers. 
  • If you’re newer to agency and thinking about your pet’s choices, choose one of those easier situations to increase your pet’s desirable choices. 
  • If this is something that you’ve been working on or thinking about for a while, you may want to consider one of the more involved options. Cooperative care is a great place to start for almost everyone. 
  • If you’re interested in learning more about agency and how to incorporate it into your pet’s life, check out our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and be sure to join us in our Facebook group.


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!


October 2020 Training Challenge


Part of me can’t believe it’s already October and part of me reminds the first part that this has been the longest year ever. Regardless, it’s time for our October training challenge!

List enrichment strategies you employ while you’re gone and objectively go through the list to determine if those strategies are effective. 

Not only is this training challenge dedicated to the “Independence” chapter of our book, it’s also a great exercise in taking a descriptive vs. prescriptive approach to your enrichment plan. (Note: we decided what the training challenges were going to be well before Covid hit. While you may not be gone at work all day at the moment, this exercise still applies for shorter outings!)


Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

For those of you who’ve heard us speak this year, you’ve heard us talk about taking a descriptive approach to your enrichment plan.

Descriptive: “I see a change in my animal’s behavior because of the activities we’ve done or provided.”

Prescriptive: “I provided an activity for my pet therefore he’s enriched.”

With the descriptive approach, we observe behavior to determine if the activity was effective instead of assuming that it was. Did it actually meet the animal’s needs as we intended? If it did, great! We can keep doing it. If it didn’t, well, then it’s back to the drawing board. Emily wrote a great blog post about this here. It’s not enough for us to just assume that our pet’s needs are being met while we’re gone, we need to actually observe that that’s true. 


How can I tell if those activities are effective?

There are a few ways we can tell if these activities are effective:

  • They’re being used. If you leave a stuffed Kong for your pet and it’s untouched when you return, that’s not an effective strategy. 
  • Watch your pet on video. Want to know if the window film you put up for your pet’s reactivity is actually decreasing reactivity throughout the day? It’s time to break out a recording option and see what your pet is up to during the day. 
    • Recording options can be high-tech, like Furbo and Nest (these are affiliate links), or low-tech, like Skyping or Zooming yourself or setting up a laptop to record shorter absences.
  • Observe your pet’s behavior when you come home. Providing activities while you’re gone can be the determining factor between having an adolescent dog who’s bouncing off the walls when you come home vs. one who’s excited but not uncontrollable. 


Now what?

  • Make a list of the enrichment activities you utilize while your pet is home alone. 
  • Make a list of desirable and undesirable behaviors that you’re hoping these enrichment activities address.
  • Observe your pet’s behavior. Are those activities effective in increasing desirable behaviors and decreasing undesirable behaviors?
  • Adjust your enrichment plan accordingly. 
  • Share your findings with us on social media! @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram


Happy training!


scent work challenge

May 2020 Training Challenge

For those of you who have been doing training challenges with us for a while, you’ll recognize this one. It’s so beneficial to our pets that I had to bring it back!

Play “Find it” 3x per week

I’m a big fan of “lazy man’s” find it: scatter a bunch of treats or food on the floor and let your pet search for them. I play this with Oso while I’m watching TV at night. He has a great time and I get to relax. Win-win! 

I recommend playing for just 10-15 minutes to start with, 3x/week and see how that impacts your pet’s behavior. For many pets I see that this relatively small amount of scent work is sufficient to decrease attention-seeking behaviors and increase periods of rest. You may decide to increase or decrease how frequently and how long you play for depending on what you see from your pet! And keep in mind that this isn’t just for dogs; there are many species who would love to play this game, too. I’ve known many cats who love this!

Check out our Facebook Live Training Challenge video for instructions on how to teach your pet to play the “lazy man’s” version of “find it”:

Why “Find It”?

There are several reasons why we love this game and it’s one that we recommend to almost all of our clients. Here are some of our favorite reasons:

  • Great for relationship-building, especially for kids.
  • Ticks the box for several categories of enrichment: foraging, mental exercise, and for some individuals the calming category.
  • Fantastic for animals with anxiety, fear, and compulsive behaviors.
  • Can be built upon for behavior modification techniques later.

Now what?

  • Grab some treats and start playing!
  • If your pet doesn’t already have a cue to search for food on the ground, teach them a word or phrase (the video above tells you how).
  • If your pet is already a pro, you can increase the difficulty by playing outside in the grass or by hiding treats under furniture or items. 
  • Make sure you’re only hiding food in places where your pet is allowed to search. For instance, don’t place food on a table or counter if you don’t want your dog to search there normally!
  • Post videos on our Facebook page of your pet searching! We would love to see your pet enjoying this game.

Happy training!


Dog enrichment ideas

April 2020 Training Challenge

We hope you’re all doing well and staying safe in this crazy time! I’m personally really excited about this month’s training challenge as it’s something that I recommend to clients all the time:

Explore DIY Destructible [Trash] Toys

Not only is this a simple and cheap activity, but it’s often great enrichment, too! Dogs were made to destroy and gut things. But, unfortunately for them, we humans don’t love that natural doggy behavior. We get upset when they destroy their toys. We get upset when they steal tissues and paper towels and shred them to pieces. We get even more upset when they destroy our furniture. 

Toys that we purposefully give to dogs to destroy serve a wonderful purpose. Our pets get to do what they were made to do and we don’t get upset with them for it. It’s a win-win! An even larger bonus is that when we allow our pets to express their natural behaviors in appropriate ways, they are less likely to express them in ways that we’ve deemed inappropriate. Yep, that means that you can curb that annoying stealing-tissues-and-playing-keep-away-before-your-dog-inevitably-shreds-it behavior by providing these sort of toys. 

I’m always looking for a cheaper way to provide enrichment for Oso (who LOVES shredding things), so while I’ll occasionally get him stuffed toys to destuff from clearance bins, our go-tos are DIY trash toys. As the name suggests, I make them out of literal trash. Supplies include:

  • Newspaper
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Paper towel rolls
  • Empty tissue boxes
  • Granola bar, cereal, and similar boxes
  • Take out beverage holders
  • Treats

Check out our video on how to put it all together here:

And here’s a video of Oso enjoying one of those creations:

It’s truly as simple as it sounds!

Now what?

  • Make some of your own destructible trash toys! Watch the above video for tips on how to make them. 
  • Give one to your dog and let them go to town! Watch your pup the first few times you’re giving them new items. While the majority of dogs will not ingest inedible items (especially if you’re not actively trying to get the item away from them), we want to double check to make sure they’re not ingesting them. A little bit of paper swallowed along with the treat isn’t a big deal but we don’t want them eating the whole thing!
  • Routinely provide your dog with these items for a couple of weeks. Do you notice any changes in their behavior? Let us know at [email protected]!
  • As with all challenges, we’ll check in with you on our Facebook page (@petharmonytraining) at the end of the month. Be sure to post pics and videos of your pets enjoying their toys there! 

Happy training!


When is Enrichment Not Enriching?

When Allie and I first started writing our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, we had a conversation with Dogwise about what exactly the book would cover. When we submitted the outline, our publisher’s comment was, “This is a lot more comprehensive than I imagined!” And, yes. That’s precisely the point.

The thing about the pet-owning community is that we want to learn more about the animals in our care, and we often do so by passing information around, rather than learning about these topics in a more formal, structured way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but community-shared information doesn’t come without its risks: namely, that we end up playing a game of Telephone, and as information gets shared it gets watered down and misinterpreted, until no one is really sure what’s true, what’s false, and what’s somewhere in between the two.

The topic of enrichment has not been immune to this game of Telephone. Most folks in the pet community don’t realize that enrichment started in zoos, and that the concept was created to improve the welfare of captive wild animals. As such, what zoos, aviaries, and aquariums mean by enrichment is often significantly different than what pet owners and dog trainers mean. For zoos etc., enrichment is the means by which they ensure that the animals in their care are physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy. When the pet-owning community talks about enrichment, they generally talk about it in terms of keeping pets occupied, making their life more interesting, or giving them things to do—keeping them busy, in other words. Which, to be clear, is certainly an important aspect of enrichment! But by no means the whole picture.

During the process of writing the book, I spent a solid three months trying to get in touch with people from the zoo and dog training world who had been in this profession in the 70s and 80s, trying to figure out when and how the concept of enrichment made its way from zoos into the pet community—to no avail. No one could tell me how it happened, or when. It just… kind of… did. So it’s no wonder that much got lost in translation!

So our goal for the book was to bridge the gap between enrichment as it was originally intended, and as zoos etc. currently use it, and how the pet-owning community thinks of it. We want pet owners, behavior professionals, shelter workers, veterinarians, and anyone else in the pet community to have access to the same information that zookeepers have. We want the people in our community, which we love so much, to be empowered by more and better information.

And here’s the reason this matters so much: our community has a strong tendency to approach problems prescriptively. We look at a situation – whether it’s a specific behavior issue or just a general, overall welfare issue – and we say to ourselves, “I’m going to use positive reinforcement,” or, “I’m going to give this animal more enrichment,” or, “I’m going to provide foraging.” Those are all fabulous goals! The problem is that we tend to get stuck at the stage of our intentions, without paying much attention to whether or not our outcomes match our intentions. We often keep doing something because we believe that we’re achieving our intended goal without actually measuring whether or not we truly are. This often leads to us doing a whole lot of work without seeing a whole lot of improvement. Which can be frustrating and demoralizing.

But enrichment isn’t what we do or the things we give them; enrichment is what happens as a result of what we do and the things we give them. Toys aren’t enrichment. Playgroups aren’t enrichment. Nose work classes aren’t enrichment. All of those things have the potential to make enrichment possible, but enrichment itself doesn’t happen until the animal chooses to engage with those things, and as a result of that engagement, is able to meet one or more of their own needs. We can only know if enrichment has happened after the fact.

This approach to enrichment is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. When we learn how to take a descriptive approach to enrichment, it looks like this instead: “This dog loves to spend time with other dogs but is not currently getting enough play opportunities. So I am going to take him to some playgroups to see if playing with dogs in that setting will meet that need. Oh yes! Look! It does! Look at him having fun playing with those dogs. Wonderful. For this dog, at this stage in his life, playgroups are a good form of social interaction enrichment.” Or, “This dog is destroying my furniture when I leave her at home alone. This tells me she needs more opportunities to chew, tear, and shred appropriate objects rather than my sofa. I’m going to give her some foraging toys that have to be chewed, torn, and shredded in order to access the food. Oh look! Now that she has these toys to keep her occupied during the day she’s no longer destroying my stuff. For this dog, at this stage in her life, destructible foraging toys are a good form of foraging enrichment.”

Being able to take this descriptive, goal-oriented approach to enrichment requires an understanding of what our pet’s needs truly are. It requires learning a bit more about their species – their body language, common motivators, and species-typical behaviors – and it also requires carefully observing the individual animal in front of us to see what behaviors they’re offering, what needs they have, and how we can best meet those needs. It requires learning to see with our eyes, rather than our ideas. And all of that is very doable! We’re here to help you do exactly that.

Want to dive deeper into this topic with us? Want to learn about how taking a descriptive approach to enrichment can improve your relationship with your pet? Here are some upcoming resources which will be available soon:

  • I’m a guest on the FDSA podcast, talking about this very subject, on March 14th. The link is here.
  • I’m also doing a webinar, “Using Enrichment to Improve Your Relationship With Your Dog”, for FDSA on March 19th. The link to purchase the webinar is here.
  • Allie and I are guest authors in Books, Barks, and Banter from March 16-31st, and we’ll be going through our book one chapter at a time to discuss it in more depth with whoever wants to join us. The link to that group is here.
  • And of course, as always, if you want to chat with me directly or want information about any of the services I provide, you can always email me at [email protected]


February 2020 Training Challenge

I can’t believe it’s already February! That means it’s time for this month’s training challenge:

Experiment with, and incorporate 1 new indoor physical activity into your pet’s repertoire. 

I’ve been talking quite a bit about “Winter Oso”: how Oso’s behavior changes in the winter when his physical activity decreases. I know many other dogs start getting “cabin fever” around this time of year so this challenge seemed fitting for February. It’s always great to have more activities that both you and your pet enjoy up your sleeve when the weather gets bad! 

Here are 10 examples of indoor physical activities that you can experiment with:

  1. Jump to target: if your pet already knows a cue to touch their nose to something (ie: your hand, tennis ball on a stick, etc.), then gradually raise the target up so they have to jump to reach it!
  2. Jump up/off furniture: if your pet is allowed on the furniture, ask them to jump up and back off several times in a row. 
  3. Recalls throughout the house: wait until your pet is farther away from you (I toss treats down the hall to get this!) then ask them to “come”. The faster they come the more treats they get!
  4. Running up and down the stairs: run with your pet or stand at the top of the stairs and have them run down and back up by tossing treats or toys down (like fetch!) Be sure to put a mat at the bottom of the stairs so they don’t slide. 
  5. Fetch (down a hallway or up/down stairs): all you need is a long hallway or set of stairs and you can play fetch inside!
  6. Tug: a great strength-building game! It’s an old wives tale that this increases aggression so tug away! 
  7. Flirt pole: these are like giant cat wand toys made for dogs. They are great for exercise and can still be done inside if you have a large enough space or small enough dog!
  8. Long-distance “place”: similar to recalls throughout the house, wait until your pet is farther away and then ask them to sit or lie on their place/mat/bed.
  9. Balance activities & other physical therapy-type activities: get out the balance boards and exercise balls! These activities require extra training and can benefit from the recommendations of a professional, but are wonderful for senior pets. 
  10. Tricks that use extra muscle (I.E. sit pretty, army crawl, etc.): another that requires training but these can be a great way to get both mental and physical exercise in in one fell swoop!

Oso and I demo several of these activities in our February 2020 Training Challenge FB Live video (find our FB videos here). 

Now what?

  1. Pick an activity that sounds fun for you and your pet. 
  2. Try it out! Whatever you pick may require some time, patience, and training. Troubleshoot if necessary!
  3. Does that activity actually wear your pet out? If yes, then it’s an appropriate form of physical exercise for them. If not, go back to step 1. 
  4. Post pics and videos of your pet enjoying their new exercise on our Facebook page
  5. Need extra help? We offer enrichment consultations for things just like this! Email Emily at [email protected] to schedule yours. 

Happy training!


January 2020 Training Challenge: Part 2

Last week we started in our our first training challenge of 2020: Draft an enrichment plan for your pet. We had just finished filling out the first two columns for Winter Oso and were about to start in on the “Priority” and “Plan of Action” columns. Let’s pick up where we left off!

Here’s where we left off:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits    
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate    
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate    
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate    
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed    
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate    
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate    
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

Oftentimes when people fill out an enrichment chart for the first time they’re overwhelmed with how much there is to work on and even feel a little guilty. We all want to meet our pet’s needs as best as possible and many times seeing everything in one place lets us know that we have more work to do than we were expecting. That’s okay! Oso’s enrichment chart definitely did not look like this when I first started on his enrichment plan; you’re looking at something that’s a few years in the making. It’s okay if there’s a lot to work on! We all have to start somewhere.

To help with the overwhelm, we put the “Priority” column next. It’s unrealistic and usually unproductive to tackle everything all at once. Additionally, if you add a bunch of things at the same time you don’t necessarily which is helping to change your pet’s behavior. The systematic approach is better in the long run.

When looking at prioritizing Winter Oso’s plan, I specifically want to pay attention to the new winter behaviors that I put on his list earlier (from Part 1). The other things that we’re already working on are built into his schedule, for the most part, and are a part of our routine. I can stay at a maintenance level with those for now and mark them as lower priorities.

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits   Low  
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate   Low  
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High  
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate   Med.  
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed   Med.  
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate   Low  
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High  
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

You’ll see that while destuffing his bed was on our “Undesirable Behaviors” list earlier, I marked it as a lower priority here. That’s because I believed the behavior to be a result of a different category (either mental or physical activity) instead of this one. If addressing the high-level priorities didn’t change this behavior then I would address this category. [Note about prioritization: Emily and I are working on a specific Prioritization Protocol at the time of writing this but it’s not quite ready for release nor did it greatly impact this post’s content. Stay tuned!]

Finally, we can get to our plan of action. What are we going to do to address those high priority categories? Those of you who’ve recently read the Winter Oso blog post, you’ll remember that I first tried increasing how frequently we played “find it” to address mental exercise. Here’s what the chart looks like with that added in:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits   Low  
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate   Low  
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High  
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate   Med.  
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed   Med.  
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate   Low  
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High   “Find it” with all dinners
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

However, I didn’t see as much of a change in his behavior. Remember: activities must serve a function to be classified as enrichment! Even those “find it” and foraging are absolutely great exercises, do meet his needs in several categories, and theoretically could address the behaviors I didn’t actually see a significant decrease in his undesirable behaviors. That means that it’s not the activity he needs at the moment. With that in mind we increased his physical activity:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits   Low  
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate   Low  
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High   Fetch outside daily, tug inside daily
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate   Med.  
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed   Med.  
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate   Low  
Mental Exercise Likely   Appropriate    
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

Eureka! That worked! We started with a hybrid game outside (we’ve since taught him to play fetch) and tug inside each day and that has significantly decreased his undesirable behaviors and increased the desirable ones. It was physical exercise that he was lacking!

There you have it: a full example from start to finish of creating an enrichment plan. In our experience, it takes quite a bit of practice to look at behaviors in relation to their needs, so take it slow and go easy on yourself. And remember, we’re here to help!

Now what?

  • Time to finish up your enrichment plan for your pet!
  • An enrichment plan is fine and well, but the more important part is implementing it to see if your plan is beneficial. Have fun and experiment with some new activities! Check out our book if you need some ideas for the different categories.
  • Does this seem like a lot of work? Or overwhelming? Email Emily at [email protected] for an enrichment consultation and let her create your plan for you!

January 2020 Training Challenge: Part 1

Happy New Year everyone! I can’t believe we’re already into our 2nd year of training challenges. Thank you to everyone who has participated thus far and posted your progress on social media. I’m excited to get this year started! 

A little debrief about training challenges this year: they’re all enrichment-focused! Most of you know by now that our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, came out a few months ago (a huge thank you to everyone who’s purchased!) In honor of that, we decided to go through the book and set a training challenge based on the different categories of enrichment. So if you find yourself needing a little extra help in completing challenges in addition to the FB Live videos and these blog posts, there is plenty more info in the book. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of enrichment, the simple definition is: meeting all of an animal’s needs. We can expand that to a full definition: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. One of the challenging things about working on enrichment with our pets is that there are several species-typical behaviors that we don’t like: chewing, digging, barking, scratching, etc. But just because we don’t like a particular behavior doesn’t mean that we don’t have to meet that need. It means that we often need to think outside of the box on how we can meet our pet’s needs in a way that we also enjoy or at least don’t mind. 

Additionally, we need to actually see a change in our pet’s behavior to count that activity as enriching. If we provide our pets with activities or items that don’t elicit them performing species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways then those activities or items are not enriching. If your dog is afraid of going on walks, then walks are not enriching. If your cat doesn’t use the scratching post, then the post is not enriching (without some training to teach her how!) We need to see the results to determine if what we’re doing is working. 

What I love about enrichment is that it helps improve behavior! There are many times where clients come to me for help with their pet’s behavior and it’s the simpler enrichment activities that give them the desired outcome instead of complicated training activities. When animals’ needs are being met they behave better. 

All of that leads us into our January 2020 challenge: 

Draft an enrichment plan for your pet 

Specifically, I want you to look at one or two undesirable behaviors that your pet does, consider what needs those behaviors are meeting (because all behavior serves a function to the individual performing it), and figure out how you can meet that need in a more desirable way. While the materials we’re providing are dog-centric, you can do this challenge with any species! I’m considering drafting an enrichment plan for my turtle, Zorro. 

I talked a bit about using enrichment to mediate frustrating behaviors in a fairly recent blog post about my nemesis: Winter Oso. Check out that post here if you haven’t read it already. “Winter Oso” is what we call our dog when it starts getting cold out and he starts getting squirrely. I knew that this behavior change was because I wasn’t meeting his needs well in the winter, but I wasn’t sure exactly which was deficient. Let’s go through creating an enrichment plan for Winter Oso. I’ll use our enrichment chart (pages 195-196 of the book) to make it easier to plan:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Physical Exercise        
Sensory Stimulation        
Instinctual Behaviors        
Social Interaction        
Mental Exercise        

The first step is listing out the undesirable behaviors you’d like to see less of and the desirable behaviors you’d like to see more of. For Winter Oso, it looks like this:

Undesirable behaviors:

  • Increased activity at night
  • Destuffing his bed
  • Inappropriate investigation of household items within his reach

Desirable behaviors:

  • Sleeping in the evenings

After you have your desirable and undesirable behaviors, fill out the first column “Is This Need Being Met?” based on the behaviors you previously listed. What categories of needs do those undesirable behaviors likely fall in? What function do they serve? Here’s what that looks like for Winter Oso (I threw in other things we’re working on not listed above as well to give you a full picture):

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely      
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails      
Diet/Nutrition   Likely      
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior      
Sensory Stimulation   Likely      
Safety   Likely      
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace      
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter      
Foraging   Likely      
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people      
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior      
Independence   Likely      
Environment   Likely      
Calming   Likely      

The categories that his undesirable behaviors might be meeting include: Physical Exercise, Mental Exercise, and Instinctual Behaviors (specifically chewing/gutting). We now go to the next category: Agency. Agency can be defined as: the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. If an animal doesn’t have agency within a category then that category doesn’t meet the definition of enrichment either.

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits    
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate    
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate    
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate    
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed    
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate    
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate    
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

Oso has a lot of agency in his daily life and we’ve spent a good deal of time teaching him that he has choices in difficult situations. We’re still working on medical handling but you can also see that one area that he has too much agency in is having access to his bed so as to destuff it. Last winter we put one of them away before he destroyed it completely. This year we’ve been working on teaching him more appropriate choices.

Phew! If you’re following along with your own enrichment plan these two columns alone probably took quite a while to complete. Let’s put a pin in this here and get into the second two columns next week.

Now what?

Happy training!


Winter Oso

If you’ve followed Pet Harmony for probably any length of time you’ve heard me talk about the four-legged love of my life, Oso:

But let me introduce you to my four-legged nemesis: Winter Oso. 

I first met Winter Oso in the winter of 2018. I wish I could blame it on the polar vortex but he arrived prior to that. Winter Oso is squirrely. He cruises around in the evenings looking for mischief and driving us crazy. He destroys his bed. He decides to bark at the birds on the feeder for the first time ever. He gets into things he’s left alone for years. He’s such a nuisance that my husband and I actually, truly call him “Winter Oso” when he’s like that. And the worst part? Winter Oso is our fault.

Oso generally gets a lot of enrichment: playtime in the yard, training sessions, daily food puzzles, regular scent work, lots of toys, chews, and destructible items, and lots of snuggle time. He’s 7 years old and pretty happy to lounge on the couch with us in the evenings. This enrichment routine was enough to keep him calm and even keel for a year and a half after we adopted him.


It Was Enough Until It Wasn’t

When Winter Oso arrived, I went through the same thing that a lot of my clients go through:

But I do so much for my pet. Are you saying that it’s not enough?

I was in denial that Winter Oso was a product of me not meeting his needs. “I do all this stuff for him! It should be enough!” While I thought that I was doing enough, Winter Oso was clearly telling me through his behavior that his needs weren’t being met. If I were meeting his needs better, he would be acting like his normal self instead of this new, squirrely beast.

It took a couple weeks of being annoyed and angry with him (hello, prelearning dip) for me to accept that I had to change course. If this were a client, I would tell them to increase or explore different options for mental and physical exercise. I was letting ideology—what it should be– get in the way of observation—what it actually is.


Solving Winter Oso

Increasing mental and physical exercise is just what we did. We played “find it” with every dinner spanning two floors of the house and getting in a lot of time up and down the stairs. It took 45 minutes. Every. Night. But it worked. Winter Oso was held at bay as long as we did this exercise.

We’ve now reached the one-year anniversary of meeting our four-legged nemesis. But this year, we were prepared. Winter Oso arrived during that cold spell we had in October: early but recognizable nonetheless. He started being more active in the evenings. He started destroying his bed: something we only saw during winter of last year.

We knew what to do, but… we moved into a new house this spring and no longer have the option of the exact same exercise that I was doing before (no stairs). That meant that I had to figure out exactly what was different about his enrichment schedule now vs. in warmer months and what the previous dinner exercise was actually doing to meet his needs.

We tried “find it” in the yard with his entire dinner a few days in a row. It took a little of the edge off but he was still squirrely. That meant it wasn’t a mental exercise problem. Aha! It was specifically going up and down the stairs during that dinner exercise that improved his behavior. He needed more physical exercise. But, why then, did we not need to worry about his physical exercise needs in the warmer months but did in the winter even if he spent the same amount of time in the yard on a warmer winter day?

It took me a few days to figure it out, but I realized two components that were different about his summer and winter yard times. 1) He’s more active in general when we’re outside too and we’re outside with him quite a bit when it’s warm out but not when it’s cold. 2) The reason we can get away with yard time as his primary form of physical exercise (besides age) is the wildlife.

Oso is a hunter and a threat to all things cute and fuzzy. He chases the squirrels, digs for voles, and gives birds a run for their money. We don’t mind it as long as he’s not incessantly barking; he’s a dog after all and it’s all normal dog behavior. In short, he gets a ton of exercise by just being a dog hunting for critters. In the winter, there are far fewer critters for him to antagonize and that means we need to step up our game and be the ones to provide him with his physical exercise needs.

We now play together in the yard almost every day for at least 5-10 minutes. We’ve invented a yard game that has him running for a large part of that time and that often does the trick. If he still needs more exercise a hardcore tug session with him and the husband will take care of the rest of his energy. The best part of this new routine is that its far more sustainable than our previous exercise. Winter Oso is no more and I have the four-legged love of my life back.


Now what?

  • Are there times where your pet is squirrely and you wished they’d just calm down? That is often a result of not meeting all their needs, like with Winter Oso. Take a step back and truly evaluate your pet’s behavior. Don’t let what you think it should be cloud your view of what it really is.
    • If your pet is like Oso in that their behavior changes with the seasons, evaluate what is different. It might be something that’s not as easy to notice, like a change in critter density!
    • If your pet has undesirable behaviors regularly, evaluate what the function of their behavior is. What do they get out of doing it? What needs are the undesirable behaviors meeting?
  • Start experimenting with different activities. Play with duration, time of day, and type of activity. It’s not necessarily about adding “more”. Often, it’s just about “different”. For instance, instead of a 10-minute walk try a 10-minute flirt pole session if your pet needs more physical exercise. Check out our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World for ideas and information on meeting your pet’s needs.
  • Keep track of what works and doesn’t work to address your pet’s behavior. That way the next time you see the change in behavior start you know exactly what to do and when!
  • Do you recognize that you have a Winter Oso on your hands but want professional help with addressing it? Email us at [email protected] to sign up for a behavior consultation!

Happy training!