What Owning a Cat Teaches You About Agency

Why Cats?

I love cats. Cats are regal, majestic creatures. They defy the laws of science by filling any container they curl up into. They purr, and rub on you, and curl up on your lap to snuggle. I have had cats from the time I was small. I cannot remember meeting a cat I didn’t like, though I’m sure I have. 

I once saw a meme that made me laugh out loud. It said:
“What if the Internet is filled with cats because dog people go outside?”


So, if you’re here on our website, then you are obviously a cat person. 

 

While that may not be true, it is true that if you follow Pet Harmony, you probably care a lot about your pet. You might have a pet whose behavior puzzles you. You may feel frustrated by the behaviors your animal is displaying. I promise to relate my experience with cats to dogs- and to other species, as well.

Cats get a bad reputation. I have heard many people describe cats as jerks. They’re not loyal like dogs. They make their own decisions. They never consider what you need. They’re independent, and they don’t really need us. Cats are lazy and prefer humans to dote on them like the feline gods they are!           

After getting my first two dogs, and becoming a dog trainer, I’ve met many people and dogs. Often, people are happy with their dogs, only wanting to prevent future problems with a new dog. Just as often, however, I’ve run into people who are frustrated with their dog’s behaviors. Since I have been a dog trainer for quite a few years now, I’ve noticed a trend among people unhappy with their dogs. They tell me:

“He never listens to me.”

“She only minds when she wants to.”

“He won’t stop getting on the counter!”

“She nips at me when I try to make her do things.”

I understand those feelings. I know it is frustrating to think you got a man’s best friend, just to find they won’t listen to you, destroy your house, steal your food, or even hurt you. Those feelings are totally and completely valid. When I hear these things, what I understand from it is basically this:

Their dog is acting like a cat. Well, a stereotypical one, anyhow.

 

Cats Are a Lesson in Consent. (And Agency)

What I mean when I say that their dog is acting like a cat is really that their dog has opinions. Their dog has things they like and things they dislike. Their dog likes some things better than listening, especially if they don’t understand why they should listen. Dogs are very social creatures. They descend from creatures that worked together to bring down large prey. Wild felines, however, are usually pretty solitary. What that means is though both wild canids and wild felines are individuals with wants and needs, our concept of “dog-ness” includes a certain level of “clinginess” and working for its “master” (which is a strange use of words we can get into another time). We expect dogs to appease us. However, our society’s concept of “cat-ness” is usually aloof and independent.

What a cat really needs, as well as any pet, is agency and consent. Agency is the ability to have control over certain outcomes in your life. This can usually come in the form of choices given to an individual. Consent is the ability to assent to or approve of something, especially something that is happening to oneself. Each of these creates a sense of freedom in the animal. Trapped animals lash out, bite, and scratch. An animal that is given agency will feel more secure, and less likely to lash out. 

Why Agency? Check out Allie’s excellent post about it, here, or read about it in Emily and Allie’s book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World.

How do I give my pet a sense of Agency?

Give them choices. That doesn’t mean that you open every door and window and take out any safety measure for your pet. It means you offer them choices that don’t endanger your pet or anyone in your home. If your cat (or dog) doesn’t like to be out when new people are over, make them a safe place to hide away from people until they leave. They may surprise you and come to observe the new person. Don’t pick them up and force them to interact. This is removing their ability to control the situation and thus limiting their choices. If you let them choose when, how, and if they want to interact, don’t be surprised if you find they are more willing to come out in the future. Conversely, if you force them to interact with someone, they may become more reclusive in the future.

When we brought home my cat, Sylphrena, she was 6 months old. My husband and daughter had limited experiences with cats, and were upset that she didn’t want to be held by them, but would (often) allow me to hold her. At first, I wasn’t sure why. After watching the way they held her, I realized why. My daughter and husband would often hold her tighter if she struggled to get away. This would result in a teenage kitty tantrum: scratches, bites, and occasionally growling. Obviously, she didn’t like it, but they couldn’t understand why she would let me hold her.

When an animal allows me to pick them up, I give them the choice to leave, by pulling my hands away, while still on level with the animal. If the animal runs away, so be it. Should they choose to stay, I try petting them and see if they settle down to snuggle. Then I can put my arms back around them. If they start to struggle again, I let them go. In this circumstance, I am both giving my pet choices, and allowing them to consent to being held (or not).

Allowing Sylphrena to feel safe by giving her the choice to leave really built her relationship with me. She knew I would let her go if she wanted, and knew she had agency if I tried to hold her. She wasn’t trapped.

 I taught my family how to help her feel secure and safe by allowing her to make the choice whether she wanted to stay (or not), and over time she has become more trusting of my husband and daughter.

 

There are little things you can do every day to give your pet agency and let them consent:

  • Petting consent tests (for any species)
  • Making different textures and types of chews and toys available (for many animals)
  • Sensory areas with pet-safe plants and textures your pet loves. (I will likely be making another blog specifically about this after I make one for my pets!)
  • Allowing your pet the choice to move away from other people or animals (do not force them to say hello!)
  • Making different textures available to scratch on for kitties
  • Having multiple litter boxes available in different areas for your cat (you can even provide different litter options to see what they prefer)

Many times, if we just look at what our pet is telling us with their body language, we can see what they really need or want– and if we can safely provide them with the agency to do that thing, we can improve their quality of life– and, in most cases, our own as well. Because a content and healthy creature doesn’t feel the need to lash out.

 

Now What?

  • Learn more about your pet’s species-specific body language, so you can tell if they like something or not.
  • Find one way to allow your pet more agency in their life
  • Research and prepare your home with appropriate furniture or enclosure requirements unique to your pet 
  • If you’re not sure where to start, try our free Facebook group, Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community.
  • If you now want to own a kitty, or are just looking for another, check out this article on how to prepare your home for a new kitty!

Here’s an excerpt:

Bringing home a cat is an exciting time for the family. They provide laughter, companionship, and can even teach little ones about responsibility. However, preparing your home for a kitty can bring about some uncertainties and renovations to ensure your cat is well taken care of and comfortable in your home.

To help you get started, Redfin reached out to 14 cat experts, from Seattle, WA to Ottawa, ON, including us. Here is our best advice on how to prepare your home for a kitty. Check out How to Prepare Your Home for a Kitty: 14 Tips from the Pros.

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!

Allie

What Gardening Can Teach Us About Behavior

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I’m a plant person. So, naturally, I was thinking about plants as we were readying a space to install raised beds last year. We have a shady backyard and while we chose the sunniest spot for the new beds, I was carefully monitoring how much sunlight it actually got so I knew which plants to put in. And that’s when I realized that there are some similarities between plants and animal behavior.

 

Environment matters

I mentioned that our backyard is shady so we didn’t have a choice to put our raised beds in an area with full sun (unless we wanted to chop down a tree, which we didn’t). That means that those beds house our veggies that need less sunlight: peas, salad greens, carrots, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. They’re loving it! Those plants are doing great and we’re getting to eat the rewards of that hard work. The environment is set up for those particular plants to thrive.

 

Definitely part shade! Fencing up to keep Oso from eating the veggies before we do.

 

But what would have happened if I had tried to put plants in those beds that required full sunlight? Some of them may survive, but they would never thrive. They would never do as well in partial light as they would in full sunlight. It wouldn’t matter how well I cared for them. It wouldn’t matter how much water they received or how much compost I added to their soil. They still would never thrive, no matter what I did. 

Environment matters. Each plant needs a particular type of environment in order to thrive. That’s true for our pets, too. Our pets may be okay in an array of different environments, but will likely only thrive and be the best they can be in certain ones.

We know this already for ourselves, whether consciously or not. When I think of this topic, I’m reminded of my professional wife and Pet Harmony co-owner, Emily. Emily and I met when we were working in southern Utah. She knew that she wasn’t a desert person even before moving there. She described to me that she had low-level stress all of the time by living in a desert and that she felt a sense of relief when she traveled somewhere greener. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I found myself experiencing that same relief when I would travel back to Illinois. I didn’t know I had low-level stress from living in a desert environment until I wasn’t in the desert anymore. 

It’s not that either of us did poorly living in the desert (well, Emily may say otherwise at times). But we would never be our best in that environment. It’s not the right living situation for us. The same can be true for our pets, too. A pet with sound sensitivity is going to have a harder time living in a city or living with certain kids. Dogs who come from a working line will do better in a household that loves doing things with their dogs and perhaps has more space. I’ve mentioned before that we adopted Oso as a behavior case. In our environment, he’s incredibly easy on a day-to-day basis. That wouldn’t be true in a different one, though (and was not true in several of his previous environments). Environment plays a role in behavior. 

 

What if my environment isn’t perfect for my pet?

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Uh oh. I know my environment isn’t the best for my pet. What do I do?”, you’re likely not alone. Many of the cases we see are situations in which that environment is simply not the best for that pet and that’s a large reason as to why they’re having problems. It wouldn’t be as hard in a different environment. 

One thing that we can do is management, and that can go a long way to improving the environment. For example, if we know our pet has a hard time with sounds and we live in the city then we can explore different sound masking options. Or, if we have a dog with leash reactivity to other dogs we could walk them in an industrial area where there isn’t likely to be other dogs. There are tweaks that we can make to improve our environment for our pets. 

This is also where behavior modification comes in. We can help our pets feel more comfortable in their environment and teach them skills that can help them interact with it. In some scenarios, these skills can help them be much closer to the best version of themselves; in others, it may only help make the situation okay instead of great. 

There are also several times where we’ve seen people choose the answer: change the environment. I did this with Oso when we moved back to Illinois. Our set-up in Utah was not ideal for him and we knew that when we brought him into our family. However, we also knew that we were moving in a few months and that we would be able to have a much better environment for him in Illinois. He’s one of the reasons we live in the house that we do today. I’ve seen other folks do the same when they’ve moved in the middle of their behavior modification journey and their pet’s behavior was a factor in their new location. Emily had a client who wasn’t planning on moving and then did so specifically for her dog! 

The question we get not infrequently when talking about changing the environment is about rehoming. That conversation is outside the scope of this particular post, but it is a viable option in some cases. Sometimes loving an individual means doing what is right for them, even if it’s hard for you. And sometimes what’s right is allowing a pet to be in an environment that’s set up for them to thrive even if you can’t be the one to provide it. 

 

Accepting our pets for who they are

Sometimes the issue is not necessarily the environment our pet lives in, but the environments we want them to be a part of. For example, a dog who’s afraid of kids might do quite well in their home environment which doesn’t have kids but it would be disastrous to take them to a family party in which there are a lot of kids running around. Or, a pet with generalized anxiety might do well with their day-to-day routine and home, but would likely not do as well traveling cross country in an RV with their family. We need to accept our pets for who they are and not put them into environments in which we know they won’t do well. We wouldn’t ask a plant to need less sunlight, would we? (Okay, I actually make that request of plants all the time and then they start dying so it’s not a successful request.)

 

Now what?

  • Evaluate your environment objectively. Try to keep emotion out of it as much as possible (I know it can be hard!) Is your environment perfect for your pet? If yes, great! If no, keep on reading. 
  • Consider how you can manage your environment to help make it closer to what your pet needs. Start implementing those management strategies!
  • Evaluate how those management strategies are going. Is it sufficient or do you need to go to the next step of teaching skills and modifying behavior? If it’s sufficient, great! If not, keep on reading. 
  • Work with a behavior consultant to determine which skills will help your pet and your particular situation. A professional will be able to get you results faster than if you were to go through it on your own. Email us at [email protected] if you need help or get started immediately with our Beginning Behavior Modification on-demand course! Even remotely we can still evaluate your environment; we’ve mastered the wobbly Zoom house tour without getting seasick!

 

Happy training!

Allie

May 2021 Training Challenge: Overt vs. Covert behavior

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Happy spring! I have no idea how we’re already in May, but here we are. And with the new month comes a new training challenge. Here’s the challenge for May:

 

Describe 1 construct or label using overt behavior

 

Okay. What the heck did I just say? This training challenge requires a bit of a vocabulary lesson. Now, y’all know I try to not be super vocab-heavy or technical in these blog posts, but this is one where the technical terms end up being the easiest way to communicate this concept. I promise to make it as painless as possible! Let’s dive in. 

 

Overt vs. Covert Behavior

Overt behavior refers to observable, measurable behavior. Examples of this include:

  • The person took three steps to the right
  • The hawk is flying at 20 mph
  • The dog’s ears turned back and are sitting low against the skull
  • The cat jumped onto the counter

There’s no arguing whether these behaviors are or are not true because we can see them and measure them. 

Covert behavior refers to internal thoughts, feelings, motivations, and intentions. And a construct is our interpretation of those covert behaviors. If you want to think of covert behavior and constructs as the same thing for now, go for it. The technical differences between those two aren’t as relevant for our level of discussion. Examples of this include:

  • The dog is mad that I left him alone and that’s why he pees when I’m gone
  • The dog is anxious when I leave him alone and that’s why he pees when I’m gone
  • The dog doesn’t know to not potty inside and that’s why he pees when I’m gone
  • The dog is trying to claim his territory when other dogs pass by the house and that’s why he pees when I’m gone

As you can see, there’s a whole lot of debate as to whether these behaviors are or are not true. Here we have the exact same overt behavior- urinating when left home alone- but I’ve heard all of the above as constructs people have created to explain that particular behavior. 

Here’s the thing with covert behavior and constructs: we’ll never know if they’re accurate. Heck, we’re even terrible at guessing the covert behavior of our fellow humans, with whom we speak the same language! How can we assume that we’re better at guessing the covert behavior of another species that doesn’t speak the same language? 

One more vocab word to throw into this mix: labels. A label is something we use to describe someone. For example, we could say a pet is:

  • Stubborn
  • Fearful
  • Aggressive
  • Anxious
  • Sweet

All of those are labels. 

 

Why does all of this matter?

All of this matters for a few different reasons:

 

The words we use shape our judgment, and ultimately can shape how we feel about our pets

Let’s say we have a dog who sometimes lies down in the middle of a walk and cannot be coaxed to get up for several minutes at a time. 

Overt behavior: lies down while on a walk for several minutes

Constructs and labels I’ve heard people use to describe this behavior:

  • Stubborn
  • Too hot to walk
  • Scared
  • Watching everything; attentive or focused on their surroundings
  • Getting old and joints might hurt

Now, how do you think the person who thinks their dog is stubborn feels about them vs. the person who thinks their dog is getting old with ouchy joints feels about them? My guess is those two people have a pretty different relationship with their pets and feel very differently about this particular behavior. 

 

Our judgment shapes our decisions, for better or worse

Let’s continue with the previous example. Each of those people would likely choose a different path to change that behavior. This might look like:

  • Stubborn: force them to walk
  • Too hot to walk: manage by walking in the morning when it’s cool
  • Scared: seek help from a behavior professional
  • Watching everything; attentive or focused: train a watch me or attention cue
  • Getting old and joints might hurt: speak with their vet about pain management options

One behavior, 5 different options for treatment based on our assumptions about what’s happening. But, and I can’t stress this enough:

 

We don’t know if our assumptions about covert behavior are accurate.

 

That means that we can’t make training decisions based on covert behavior, constructs, or labels. While we might be right in our assumptions, we can end up doing more harm than good if we’re wrong. For example, if the person thinks their dog is stubborn but actually they’re too hot to walk or in pain, forcing them to walk could end up seriously injuring them. Assumptions do not make for effective decisions; observing overt behavior makes for effective decisions. 

 

Our assumptions cloud our observations

I see people on a daily basis who are struggling to reconcile seemingly incompatible thoughts, theories, assumptions, etc. that they have about their pets. The most common I hear is reconciling the “sweet” label with a dog who is biting people. This usually comes in the form of the following statement:

 

They’re so sweet 95% of the time but it’s just that 5% we’re worried about

 

It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around how a pet who is sweet can also bite someone; sweet individuals don’t hurt others. When I see this happen we usually have a discussion that we’re the ones setting up that false dichotomy; their pet can still be very sweet with them but also fearful and biting other people. They’re not mutually exclusive behaviors. 

Sometimes, though, I see people struggling with that more than others. In those situations, I often see where folks will hold fast to a label or construct that they have about their pet and it makes it so they cannot see overt behavior that contradicts that label. 

For example, I’ve worked with a few clients who had leash reactive dogs and would even bite other dogs in some situations. The dog was showing clear signs of stress around members of their own species and even though we went through all the typical spiels about anxiety-related behaviors, they still believed that their dog truly enjoyed other dogs because they had a dog friend as a puppy. They couldn’t see the stress signals I was pointing out to them because that contradicted who they thought their dog was. Needless to say, those folks made much slower progress than their counterparts until we reached the point where they were able to see with their eyes, not their ideas. 

 

Hold up. Don’t you use labels and constructs all the time?

Yep! I do. Even though we shouldn’t make training decisions based on constructs or labels, they’re really helpful for communicating as long as all involved parties are defining those words the same way. For example, if I had to describe leash reactivity as barking, lunging, growling, and air snapping at the end of a leash when a dog is near another dog every time I talked to a client, we’d never get anything done. Instead, I tell my client, “this behavior that you’re describing I’m going to call leash reactivity.” That way we can communicate more efficiently and be on the same page as to what we’re defining as leash reactivity. 

 

But, what about the anxiety label you use? Isn’t that an assumption?

Right again! Those of you who have done an initial consultation with me might remember that when I describe your pet’s behavior as an anxiety-based behavior, I’ll actually say it’s a behavior based in anxiety, stress, fear, however it helps you to think of it. The next sentence is usually something along the lines of, “Those are all technically different, but for our purposes, I’ll use those phrases interchangeably because we can treat them all the same way and that’s really what I’m more interested in.”

Those are, however, all still labels or constructs. The reason I feel comfortable using those to make behavior decisions is because of body language. There has been enough study on body language, and studies are still coming out, that we can make an accurate enough guess as to broad strokes of covert behavior– like excitement and fear. So really those behavior decisions are happening based on body language and other behavior observations (overt behavior), and we attribute those body language signals to different constructs or labels. 

 

Back to the training challenge

Alright, I think we’ve detoured from this month’s training challenge enough for it to now make sense. 

Your task for this month is to take 1 construct or label that you have for your pet and describe it using only overt behaviors. Here’s an example:

Construct: Zorro likes his new tank setup

Overt behavior: Zorro is spending more time basking, less time trying to escape, and less time performing repetitive swimming behaviors in his new tank setup than his old one. 

If you’re feeling extra ambitious for this challenge, you can then turn that overt behavior into a different construct or label so you can see how easy it is for folks to create different explanations for the same behavior, like this:

New construct: Zorro has realized that I have finally outsmarted him when it comes to him escaping and he’s given up. I’m finally smarter than my turtle. 

Turtle resting on artificial grass on a green wooden platform. He is behind plexiglass and there's a black lamp behind him.
What I describe as Zorro enjoying his new tank setup

Now what?

  • Choose a construct or label. 
  • Think about what your pet is actually doing when you use that construct or label. What do you see with your eyes? 
  • Share your results with us on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining
  • If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, we have a video training on overt vs. covert behavior in our Beginning Behavior Modification course

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

P.S. We have something BIG in the works to help even more pets and their people. Stay tuned for an announcement later this month!

5 Tips for Living with a Resource Guarder

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Last week I talked about normal vs. abnormal guarding, and that resource guarding in general is a pretty normal behavior. Humans are masters at it! Just because something is considered normal, though, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take steps to avoid it or treat it accordingly. So for this week I thought the logical next step would be talking about tips for living with a guarder. Check them out below. 

  1. Learn their body language. For those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while, I probably sound like a broken record when it comes to the first step. When it comes to resource guarding, there are signs before the growl, air snap, or bite. Learning these signs allows you to intervene before there’s a problem and before your pet has to use those warning signals to keep someone at bay. 
  2. Make a list of all the things they guard and share it with everyone in their life. If your pet only guards, say, raw bones, you probably don’t need to write this down. You can simply let anyone who would give your pet that item know that it’s a guarded item. However, if you have a pet who guards a lot of things from various individuals, a written list can be incredibly helpful for people like dog walkers, pet sitters, and longer-term visitors. 
  3. Create a management plan and share it with everyone in your pet’s life. Now that you know what they guard, we can look at those situations and determine how we can prevent guarding. This could be something like simply not giving your pet items they guard or picking up all the toys when the neighbor dog comes over to play. Food and item guarding is usually quite easy to manage. Space and people guarding is more challenging, and often requires a professional because it’s not as easy to manage.
  4. Don’t test your pet. There are so many things that I don’t know if Oso guards because I’ve never bothered him when he has them. If it’s a high enough value I assume it will be guarded and I leave him alone and manage as I would if I knew it were true. There’s really no reason to test instead of manage. This also goes for feeding your pets together. There’s really no need to test this when you can simply feed them in separate rooms. Management is easier and cheaper than a bite.
  5. Don’t take things from your pet. It’s fairly easy to create a resource guarder. How do you create one? Take things from them. Teach them that someone is routinely going to take their valued possessions away from them or bother them while they’re eating. More info on that here. If your pet has an item they shouldn’t have and it’s not dangerous or valuable, ignore them. Let them have it. If it is dangerous or valuable, trade them for it with treats. 

 

Now what?

  • If you’re living with a resource guarder (and we all likely are, to some extent!), go through the list and determine what your first action should be. Do you need to learn more about what body language signals to look for? Or talk with the rest of the household about your management strategy? 
  • Start in on your first action item! When that feels comfortable and sustainable, choose another action item.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed with where to start or how much it feels like there is to do, check out our Beginning Behavior Modification: Learn the Skills You Need to Successfully Address Your Pet’s Aggression, Anxiety, Reactivity, or Fear. It walks you through learning your pet’s body language, setting up a management plan, and more. Check it out here
  • Check out our free Resource Guarding Workshop to learn more about resource guarding specifically and some of the RG-specific foundation skills. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

How I Accidentally Taught My Turtle to Escape

I talk about my dog, Oso, all of the time but he’s not the only critter in our household. I’ve mentioned my turtle, Zorro, a couple of times throughout the course of this blog but today I want to devote an entire post to him. Specifically, I want to talk about a trainer/owner failure: how I accidentally taught him to escape from his tank. 

 

My management failure

A year or two ago I changed Zorro’s setup by building a platform that sat on top of his tank to allow for more water in it. As soon as it was installed, I questioned whether or not he would be able to escape from his new setup. However, instead of doing something preemptively about that, I decided to take the “wait and see” approach. 

 

 

This was mistake number one. Zorro tries to escape whatever enclosure he’s in. This has been true of every enclosure I’ve put him in in the last 12 years I’ve had him. I knew he would try to escape this new setup and I knew that it was more possible than it was with his previous setup. Yet, I still took the wait and see approach, even though I knew better. 

Sure enough, it took only a few days for him to start trying to climb out. Luckily, his tank is in my office so I was right there to put him back in. It quickly became clear that I would need to actually have some management solution in place to keep him safe. Instead of developing a great management solution, though, I put up a half-assed management solution. Again, I questioned whether or not it would be effective. 

 

 

This was mistake number two. Instead of putting a great management solution in place that I knew was going to be effective, I opted for the easiest solution I could think of and I still questioned whether or not it would be effective. Of course that didn’t work and he was able to climb out of his tank. What this did was teach him that if he just pushes the barrier a little harder, then it will work. 

Since that didn’t work I reinforced it a little more. I knew it still wasn’t perfect, but it should’ve been much harder for him to escape. However, because I previously [accidentally] taught him that if he pushes against the barrier harder then he’ll be able to escape, he was now able to get out of this more difficult setup, too. Mistake number two came back to bite me and provide mistake number three. 

 

 

This situation was 100% my fault. I knew Zorro’s past behavior; I knew he’d try to escape this setup and I knew that it was likely possible. Even with all of that knowledge, I still chose to take my chances and feign surprise when what I knew would happen actually happened because it was easier for me to do it that way. I didn’t have to put in the extra effort or forethought by taking the “wait and see” approach. And, because I didn’t do what I should have done the first or even the second time, I taught Zorro to try harder and how to escape more successfully.

The way that I taught him to try harder is through something called “shaping”. Shaping means reinforcing gradual approximations– or baby steps– towards an end goal behavior. This is the technique frequently used for teaching really cool tricks. Below is a quick video example of shaping:

 

 

How I used shaping here [albeit without trying] was by setting up gradually more challenging situations for him to succeed at escaping. If I had put a more rigorous management solution in place after the first time Zorro tried to escape, he would have failed and learned that it doesn’t work to try harder. However, because I set up an only slightly more difficult approach he did learn that pushing harder worked and was able to use that knowledge later for the next only slightly more difficult approach. 

 

 

The right way

This past summer I finally started building the dream enclosure I’ve been thinking about for Zorro for a while. And this time, I decided to do it right when it came to him escaping. When thinking through the design for his enclosure, I took into account all of the ways I could possibly think of for him to escape. I knew I wanted a plexiglass barrier surrounding it for aesthetic reasons, but decided to make the barrier taller so it wouldn’t be possible for him to reach the top and pull himself up and out. Anything that’s tall enough for him to climb on to then climb out is against a wall. We anchored the back walls so he can’t move the barrier off and slip under. 

When the top and barrier finally went up and he was able to move around, we reassessed our management strategy to make sure what we assumed and expected to happen were accurate. While watching him and testing the barrier for ourselves, we decided there might be one more possible way for escape: if he pushed it hard enough could he break the adhesive holding the sides together or bow out the plexiglass enough to slip out? Instead of taking our chances, we grabbed a few brackets so that even if he pushed he wouldn’t be able to bow or break the sides. We’re a few weeks in and he’s tried to escape as he always does. This time, though, he’s been unsuccessful and his attempts are dwindling. 

 

Still some work to do but it’s now functional!

 

How does this relate? A dog counter surfing example

The reason I wanted to tell this story is because I often see pet parents go through this same process of taking a half-hearted approach to management and inadvertently shaping their pet to be better at foiling those management attempts.

One behavior that I frequently see this happening with is counter surfing. Dogs are opportunistic scavengers. They are made to search for food and eat it when opportunity strikes. It’s what they do. Even though we know that, many people still opt for the “wait and see” approach when bringing home a new dog, just like I did at first with Zorro’s new platform. The “wait and see” approach here is to leave food out on the counter (even if it’s in a bag) and leave the dog unattended in the room. 

When that doesn’t work, many people will opt for pushing the food back on the counter so it’s harder to access but will still leave them unattended with the food on the counter. This is the part where we inadvertently train our dogs that if they try harder, they can still access the food. 

When that doesn’t work some people opt for the sink but will continue to leave them unattended. Again, we usually end up inadvertently shaping our dogs that they can still access the food if they try harder.

A more solid management solution to start with instead is to leave no food on the counters when the dog is unattended and if you do need to leave the kitchen while you’re cooking (when it’s difficult to put food away) to then keep the dog out of the kitchen using baby gates, doors, etc. It’s much harder to counter surf when you’re not in the kitchen when food is on the counters. 

 

Now what?

  • Think through your pet’s current behavior and learning history. Is there a behavior you’ve been trying to manage but are instead inadvertently shaping your pet to foil your attempts? 
  • Think about a management solution that would make it so your pet couldn’t perform that behavior. Chances are you may have already heard of the management solution but maybe thought it was too cumbersome (like I did with Zorro’s platform!) Is there a way to make it less cumbersome or easier to enact?
  • Enact your management solution and start breathing easier!
  • If you’re having trouble coming up with a management solution, email us at [email protected] to schedule a session or check out our Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics course. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

January 2021 Training Challenge: Video Your Pet Home Alone

 

We are full swing into our free Separation Anxiety Workshop this week! In honor of that workshop and our Separation Anxiety Immersive Digital Course which starts this upcoming Sunday 1/10/21, I wanted to do a separation anxiety-related training challenge this month. Here it is:

Video your pet home alone

Here are a few screenshots from one of our consultants, Ellen, doing this activity:

 

Why everyone should do this

In Ellen’s blog post about her dog’s separation anxiety journey last month (check it out here if you haven’t read it yet), she mentioned that scientists are starting to think that more pets have separation-related issues than we previously thought– up to 22.3% – 55% of the dog population. That’s a whole lot of dogs! Even if you think your pet is fine being left alone, let’s double check just to make sure. 

For those of you who do have a pet who you think may be displaying separation-related issues, this is definitely something you’ll want to do. The first thing we ask potential separation anxiety clients to do is send us a video of their pet home alone. With other behavior issues we’re able to ask questions about what the person sees their pet doing and we can determine what’s going on that way without needing to see the behavior (more info here). However, with separation-related issues the person can’t know what their pet is doing without a video. There can be other explanations for certain behaviors aside from separation-related distress, so a video is incredibly helpful in this situation.

Note: if it’s pretty obvious your pet is distressed being left home alone, work with a consultant before doing this. There’s no need to cause unnecessary stress and a professional can give you more specifics on the set-up than what’s feasible in a blog post. 

 

How to do it

There are a lot of ways to get a video of your pet home alone. Here are a few of our favorites (Disclosure: Affiliate links ahead. 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!):

  • Zoom yourself. Set up a zoom meeting between two accounts (both of which can be owned by you!). One camera stays in the house (laptops work great here) and the other goes with you (i.e. phone or tablet). I love this option because you get real-time streaming + recording function that you can send to your behavior consultant. 
  • Ring or Nest systems. A lot of folks already have home security systems set up in their house that can be accessed in real-time and can save recordings. If you already have something like this, use it! 
  • Furbo cameras. Furbos are designed specifically for knowing what your dog is up to while you’re gone. A super cool feature is their event-triggered recording option (available through an optional subscription with the device) so you can better learn what triggers a reactive dog throughout the day. 

What you’re looking for

Long-time readers of this blog won’t be surprised at the first answer: body language. We’re looking for stress signals before and after leaving. Everyone– pets included– shows stress a little differently so the specific signals will be dependent on the individual. Common signals include vocalizing, pacing, drooling, and destruction. However, shutting down is a not uncommon signal that can also be difficult to distinguish from true rest and relaxation. 

We’re also looking for how long it takes them to calm down if we do see stress signals. Some pets’ anxiety is more centered around the actual departure than being alone for a long time. A video makes all of that clearer. Again, if it’s pretty obvious that your pet is distressed being left alone I recommend working with a consultant first so they can give you more specifics on the video set-up. 

 

Now what?

  • Figure out the technology you’d like to use to get a video of your pet home alone. 
  • Record your video. Since it’s hard to go places at the moment, a quick walk around the block can be a good start. 
  • Watch your video. What body language signals do you see? What activities do you see them performing?
  • If you’re seeing signs of stress, we recommend starting on that behavior modification journey now before it becomes a real problem when we’re back to leaving our pets for longer. Our Separation Anxiety Immersive Digital Course or a private session are both great options. We recommend Ellen for separation-related problems– she’s finishing up a program to be a certified separation anxiety consultant! Email us at [email protected] to get started with either option. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

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!

Allie

The Behavior Modification Journey Part 2: I Tried a Program, but…

Last week I talked about how the behavior modification process is a journey: a journey someone may not be ready to take. With this two-part post series, I wanted to specifically address those folks who aren’t yet ready to take that journey. 

Those of you who read last week’s post (check it out here if you haven’t already), you know that this article is written without judgment. Last week I mentioned that I also wouldn’t be ready for some behavior modification journeys and I’d be a hypocrite if I judged those who currently find themselves in that situation. 

I simply want to provide some relief for those folks who aren’t yet ready to work with us or those who find themselves in a “failed start” situation by outlining some of the common scenarios I see and offering advice. Last week’s post was for folks who haven’t yet tried a program. This week we’ll get into the failed start situation for people who have tried a program already. 

Let’s dive right in!

 

I started a program but my life changed and I can’t continue.

We’ve all been here, right? We start something with the best of intentions and then our lives are suddenly flipped upside down. The whole of 2020 has been like that. The good news is that because management is one of the first steps in creating a behavior modification program for an individual, you probably already have quite a few management tools and tricks up your sleeve. Lean on those as much as needed to keep everyone safe and to prevent your pet from being able to practice the unwanted behavior. 

You may have some behavior modification techniques in your toolbox as well if you’re further into the program. It’s okay to take a break and get back into your program when life allows for it. Be sure to communicate these intentions with your consultant. We wonder about those clients who seemingly fall off the face of the earth and like to know that you and your family are okay.

 

I tried a program but didn’t understand how much work it would be on my part.

We’ve also all been here, right? I feel like every time I start a new-to-me project I quickly learn how much more is involved than I expected. Sometimes that causes me to indefinitely shelve that project. Sometimes I’ll take the time to go through all the extra hoops I didn’t anticipate in order to finish it. The point is, it’s hard for us (or at least me) to fully understand what’s involved until I’m in the thick of it. 

I see this with clients, too, because there’s no magic wand when it comes to behavior modification; just good ol’ hard-fashioned work. Sometimes people aren’t in a position to devote what they need to or would like to with a program. Like the previous scenario, the good news is that you probably have some management options that can keep everyone safe and keep the behavior from worsening until you’re ready to fully commit to the program. 

Once again, be sure to communicate with your consultant. Sometimes we as consultants get overzealous and provide a plan that’s not feasible within someone’s lifestyle. When you let your consultant know that you can’t do everything in your plan, they can help you distill down the most important pieces and shelve things that can be focused on later. Often I find that doing so helps someone continue on with their plan with the knowledge that the timeline will be extended by paring back action items. Sometimes we agree to keep it at a management plan for now and they come back when they’re ready. There’s no shame in that, either. 

 

I tried a program but admittedly didn’t put in all of the work.

This one is very similar to the scenario above, but I wanted to include it because there are reasons other than time constraints that cause people to not put in as much work as they’d intended into their pet’s behavior modification plan. I’d argue that time is one of the less-likely reasons, actually, but that’s perhaps a post for another day. 

If you’re not putting in the work that you want to or intended to, think about why that is. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the “not enough time” rut. There are many times where clients will tell me that they didn’t have time to do something, but in looking at their plan I asked them to work on two separate things for 2-3 minutes 3-4x/week. We all have 2-3 minutes to spare each day for something we prioritize; the “not enough time” trope doesn’t work here. The question then becomes, “what’s the real reason?” 

I find a myriad of reasons when I take that deep dive with my clients into figuring out what their roadblocks are. Sometimes they don’t remember why they’re doing something and so decided it wasn’t important. Sometimes they tried it a few times and it didn’t go like it did when we practiced. There are a lot of other reasons that I’ve found over the years. 

The important part is that if you find yourself in this position, where it’s truly not a time issue when you’re being honest with yourself, to think about what the real issue is or ask your consultant to help you suss that out. When your consultant knows the real issue they will be better able to help you. If someone tells me it’s an issue of time but really was an issue of my explanation, I will decrease the time expectations but not change my explanation. That isn’t helpful to my client. Your consultant can only help you if you share your real challenges with them. 

 

I tried a program but it was too challenging.

“Too challenging” can take on a lot of different forms: the exercises were difficult to implement or perform, there were a lot of moving pieces to remember, and so on. Like the above scenarios, this too is one where you should speak with your consultant (noticing a pattern?) There are several ways to achieve the same or similar results and troubleshooting is necessary for any behavior modification plan. 

Your consultant will be able to break steps down further, help you practice to better perform the exercises, or change exercises entirely if you’re struggling with them. The most important part is to be specific with what in particular is too challenging. It doesn’t help to throw up your hands and say, “I can’t do this because I’m not a professional trainer.” That’s true for most of our clients! You don’t need to be a professional trainer to make it through your plan. You do need to tell your consultant exactly what’s challenging, though, in order to be successful. 

 

I tried a program and I didn’t get along with the consultant or like the material, techniques, etc.

You need to click with your consultant and their program. You can be working with a really competent, well-known consultant but if you don’t get along with them then you might not be as successful as you could be. It’s okay to acknowledge that you would prefer to work with someone else. 

Let your consultant know that you’re not going to continue with them and make sure to include in your search for your next consultant specifically what you are looking for. Do you want someone who responds primarily over the phone or email? Someone who works well with kids? Someone who is capable of giving you some tough love or a kick in the pants when you need it? Each consultant has strengths and weaknesses and it’s important to find someone who complements your needs.

On the flip side, we see a lot of clients who come to us because they didn’t like the program or techniques a previous professional was asking them to use. There are various reasons why that could be and many of them come down to the different training philosophies that arise due to our unregulated field. There are, of course, other reasons that fall more into the above categories, too. 

The salient point for this category is that if you don’t agree with or believe in the philosophy governing your behavior modification plan then you likely won’t make as much progress with it. When people aren’t fully on board with their plan they’ll cherry pick the parts they like and ignore the rest. We’ll talk more about why this is detrimental in a few weeks, but for now just trust me when I say that you’re not going to be as successful by doing that. 

If you find that you’re not on board with your behavior modification plan or the philosophy behind it, talk with your consultant and be upfront about this. They can explain to you why they’re doing what they’re doing and should be able to back it up with actual, peer-reviewed scientific studies or references containing those studies. If you’re still having trouble getting on board, it’s time to find someone else. 

 

I tried a program and it truly didn’t work even though I did everything as the consultant said to and worked extensively with them to troubleshoot my plan.

There are many scenarios that can fall into this category– too many to talk about in the span of this article. I want to make it clear, though, that there are scenarios that absolutely don’t fall into this category (hence all of the qualifiers in the heading). Some of those include when people cherry pick parts of their plan and ignore the rest, practice something for only a couple days or weeks and give up if it doesn’t work without asking for help troubleshooting, or work with a consultant only once when they’ve been told their plan will need multiple sessions. Those scenarios fall into one of the above categories. 

This category is specifically for those people who have been working in earnest with a consultant, following their behavior modification plan to a T, and their consultant acknowledges that all of that is true. Now, I’ve unfortunately seen consultants who will put the blame on a client who truly is following the entirety of their plan instead of recognizing that the plan isn’t working. But, if your consultant can’t give you clear, concrete examples of areas that need to be better followed then this situation may apply. If so, it’s time to find another consultant who has more expertise in the areas you’re needing help in. 

A couple notes for folks in this category. One note: experience does not equal expertise. Someone may have fewer years of experience but have more expertise in a particular area. The second is that progress and success can be defined differently for different people. If your expectations are unrealistic (and a consultant should tell you that) then there may be no plan out there that will get you what you’re looking for. Be honest with your consultant as to what your expectations are so they can tell you if that’s reasonable. There are some factors that contribute to behavior that are simply not modifiable. 

 

I started a program but I just can’t do this anymore.

The behavior modification journey is challenging. It’s longer than the average person anticipates and it’s more work than many people anticipate. Not only that, but it’s usually quite emotionally taxing for families to go through. This becomes even more prevalent when it’s a journey that someone didn’t sign up for or expect to go on. 

I have many conversations with my clients about the human side of things. I explain to them that at a certain point regressions are going to feel even worse than it did in the beginning, even though their pet’s behavior regresses to a point that’s still better than it was. I offer exercises that can help with those feelings like they’re stuck or helpless. 

Not infrequently, I have conversations that involve letting them know that they don’t have to do this. We talk about other options. Occasionally I’ll have this conversation with someone during our first session to let them know that we will work through a behavior modification plan but that at any point in time they can make the decision that this pet isn’t the right fit for them and they’re not the right fit for the pet. I tell them that I will support them regardless of that decision. I’ve worked in shelters longer than I’ve worked in behavior and I’ve seen how damaging trying to force something or someone to fit can be. I don’t wish that for my clients or the animals involved. 

If this is you, know that it’s okay. Loving someone sometimes means knowing that someone else could provide more of what they need than you can. This is an incredibly difficult decision and we should all be a lot kinder to each other when it comes to these decisions. If you’re in a place where you feel like you can’t continue, talk with your consultant. They can lay out the different options. I won’t lie; for many cases the options aren’t great and the better options are usually not immediately available. Your consultant should be able to modify your plan in the meantime to help provide you with some relief while you’re deciding what to do. 

 

Now what?

  • Have you experienced a failed start with a program like one of the above scenarios? It’s okay. We’ve all had similar experiences; now’s not the time to beat yourself up. Think about your experience and be honest with yourself as to what went wrong. Which category speaks most to your situation?
  • If you’ve identified that you need a break before continuing your behavior modification journey, make sure to let your consultant know and ask what management strategies you should be doing in the meantime to keep everyone safe and to lessen the chances of the behavior worsening as much as possible. We understand that life gets in the way sometimes and will be here for you when you’re ready to resume. 
  • If you’ve identified that you are ready to continue the behavior modification journey, talk with your consultant about how they can better help you to do so. Or, you may choose to find a new consultant altogether. Search for and speak up for what you know you need. Don’t be afraid to seek help from a consultant offering remote services if you can’t find someone who fits the bill in your area. We have loads of testimonials of people who’ve been able to overcome serious behavior challenges with their pets who we’ve never met in person. Email us at [email protected] if you’d like to set up a session with one of our consultants.

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

 

Every now and then when speaking with a prospective or new client they’ll tell me:

 

“I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything already!”

 

I’ll ask them to describe to me what they’ve already tried. Often the list is quite long and I understand why they made the above statement. But, here’s the thing. We don’t know what we don’t know. And, even if we did try something, that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work without some troubleshooting. We shouldn’t let not knowing what a professional can do for us keep us from reaching out.

 

Everything to you is not everything to me

Think about a time when you started learning something new. In the beginning, it seemed pretty simple and straightforward, right? It seemed like you could easily master this new skill in no time. Then you took a deep dive into different aspects of this topic and realized that it’s not so simple and straightforward. There’s a lot of nuance. There are a lot of related topics that you probably needed to learn about in order to better hone your skill. The more you learned the more you realized how much there was to know.

Animal behavior is the same way. Just because you don’t know of another way to do something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just means that you don’t yet know how to do it. When people tell me they’ve tried “everything”, it really means that they’ve tried everything that they know to do or have researched. That doesn’t mean it’s everything that I know. Everything to you is not everything to me. 

 

Troubleshooting is key

Occasionally I get a new case where someone is already doing the exercise that I was planning to recommend to them, but they’re telling me that it’s not working very well. Do we immediately try a new exercise? No! I first ask them to show me what they’re doing (even in a remote session) or send me a video of them working on it if they’re not able to demo live. 

Watching them perform the exercise is often where that aha moment happens and I find myself saying, “That’s why it’s not working! It’s an [insert training mechanic here] problem.” As with most things, the devil’s in the details. Let’s take counterconditioning for example. Counterconditioning is a specific scientific term that essentially means associating a scary thing with an awesome thing in a way that scary predicts awesome so it can become awesome in and of itself. That’s a diluted definition and we’d actually need to see the scary thing become awesome for it to count, but you get the gist. 

Every now and then someone will tell me that they’re working on counterconditioning with their pet. However, when I ask them to demonstrate what they’re doing they are not actually counterconditioning. There are a lot of ways to do it incorrectly and there are only a few ways to apply it correctly. Once we tweak how they’re doing the exercise we’re able to make more progress with it. 

Perhaps the problem in implementation is not in their mechanics, but in their setup. Let’s say someone is implementing a counterconditioning exercise in a situation where their pet is too stressed to learn (hello, mountain lion brain!) While technically we can still do that and make progress, there are ways that we can change the setup to make it easier. Once again we can tweak how they’re doing the exercise so they’re able to make more progress with it. Even if someone’s tried “everything”, it doesn’t mean that troubleshooting isn’t necessary.

 

It hasn’t been long enough

One last note on “trying everything”. Many times when I hear this statement I see someone who’s tried a lot of different things for only a few days at a time. Think about how long it took you to learn something new or, better yet, to develop a new habit. It was a lot more than a few days. The same is true for our animals; change takes time and a whole lot of practice. Trying something for just a few days doesn’t count. 

 

Now what?

  • Do you find yourself not reaching out for professional help because you don’t know what they could recommend that you haven’t tried already? Reach out! Chances are that they know of something you haven’t seen before or can help you troubleshoot what you’re already doing. We offer services worldwide; email us at [email protected] to set up your first session. 

 

Happy training!

Allie