Behavior Modification vs. Weight Loss: a False Dichotomy

Click here if you’d prefer to listen to this blog post.


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

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


Why we use food in training

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

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


Cutting calories

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

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


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


Using other reinforcers

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

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

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

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


Phasing out food

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

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

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


Increasing exercise in other ways

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

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

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


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

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


Now what?

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


Happy training!


November 2020 Training Challenge


When we had originally planned our 2020 training challenges last year, we hadn’t expected there to be a worldwide pandemic. Even though this month’s challenge was with Thanksgiving in mind and this year’s Thanksgiving will likely look different, we decided to keep the planned challenge and count it as a practice run for next year! Our November training challenge is:


Use the Relaxation Protocol or mat work exercise from the August challenge to prep for Thanksgiving festivities.


The situation we were specifically thinking about when we came up with this challenge was the Thanksgiving meal, including cooking and sitting down to eat. We routinely have clients tell us how annoying their pets when they’re trying to cook and sit down for a meal. Extrapolate that to an even larger, potentially more stressful meal and you can see where preemptive training comes into play!

I talked a little about this concept in this blog post about using “human food” in training. I mentioned that I taught Oso to hang out in our dining area when we are cooking so that he’s not in the way. I was pretty lax with my criteria when I taught him this (as long as he was on the hardwood and not the tile it counted) but you can tighten up your criteria by using a mat, bed, blanket, rug or something similar to create a specific spot for your pet to hang out. 

Brindle dog lying next to kitchen table and chair.
Oso demonstrating how to politely lie next to me while we eat.

Here’s how to go about doing this task:

  1. Decide what makes sense to manage and what makes sense to train during your normal Thanksgiving festivities (remember- this counts as a practice year!) Some people will choose to manage the majority of the day and that’s perfectly fine. Others will want to put more preemptive training in place. Do what makes sense for your festivities, training schedule, and desires. 
  2. Decide where you want your pet to be during cooking and/or eating. Set up a bed, mat, blanket, rug, etc. for an easy visual cue for your pet. 
  3. Start training your pet to hang out in that spot (you can use your Relaxation Protocol and/or mat work exercise from the August challenge) when you’re not cooking or eating. We’re starting in pet kindergarten first and then raising expectations as they become more proficient at this task. 
  4. Incorporate other distractions into this training exercise. You’ll likely want to include distractions like people walking around and anything else that will happen during the holiday. You may also want to practice while you’re pretending to cook a meal so you get the hang of training while cooking in a lower-stakes situation. This step is called proofing, and is one of the stages of learning
  5. Start incorporating this exercise into real-life cooking and/or eating scenarios. Remember to reinforce your pet as much as necessary to make it worthwhile for them to hang out in their spot!


One last note: dogs are opportunistic scavengers by nature. Even with solid mat work training, leaving a pet prone to counter surfing alone in the kitchen with counters full of food for an extended period of time is asking for trouble. We recommend still managing situations in which you aren’t watching your pet.


Now what?

  • Start training with the above steps!
  • Let your trainer or behavior consultant know if you’re getting stuck. That’s what we’re here for, after all!
  • Send us pictures and videos of you working on this month’s training challenge to us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram


Happy training!


How to Work with Multiple Pets at a Time


Last week we discussed the pros and cons of working with pets individually vs. with multiple at the same time. Check it out here if you haven’t yet read that post. Now that you’ve considered if you should be working with an individual pet vs. your whole crew, let’s get into the details of how to make that possible. 


Working individually

I observe body language for a living: canine, feline, and human. Often when I make the recommendation to someone to work with one of their pets individually, I’m met with a look of apprehension. Sometimes that apprehension stems from time or worrying about not being fair to another animal, but sometimes it’s because they’ve tried it before and it didn’t work well for them. In those cases, the client usually describes to me that their other pet– the one left alone– spent the entire time barking or scratching at the door. I can understand the apprehension of trying it again if that was the case before!

When this happens and it’s not a matter of separation, isolation, and/or confinement anxiety, then I recommend to my client to give the other pet something really awesome to work on while they’re alone: stuffed Kong, bully stick, food puzzle, etc. If that doesn’t work, we can work on building duration with the other pet in the separated room. If it is a matter of separation, isolation, or confinement anxiety we can work through a behavior modification plan to address those more serious behaviors. 


Working with multiple pets simultaneously

There are a number of ways to be successful at this task and each situation may look a little different depending on the specific needs of the animals and what you’re working on. Here are some tips for working with multiple pets at the same time (but know that there are other options out there than just these!):


Many hands make light work

So often I hear that people are worried about two animals trying to take the same treat at the same time and a fight ensuing. In that case, if your pets don’t yet have a great “wait” behavior, treat each simultaneously from two hands like in the picture below. 


You can also get additional help from others. Have 4 animals? Get 4 hands into the training mix. This can help with letting you focus on your particular task, too, if you’re working on growing your animal training skills. Many hands really do make light work in this case.


Baby gates can help improve safety

As I mentioned in the post about how Covid-19 is impacting behavior (read it here), I have a lot of clients at the moment currently working on dog-dog interactions within the house. I’ve seen a significant uptick in dogs having trouble living with one another and I know some of my colleagues have mentioned seeing the same trend. In those cases, we will eventually need to work with the dogs in relatively the same space. We’ll also need to make sure we do so carefully and safely. 

We can absolutely have both dogs on leash (and for those of you working on dog/cat relationships, we often get the cat comfortable wearing a harness and leash, too!) with two handlers. That said, it becomes trickier when we need to rely on multiple people’s schedules to work on the pets’ relationship. This is where baby gates can be incorporated. 

Set up a baby gate so that you can work with one pet on one side and one on the other. This usually brings some peace of mind to the humans as well which can make the session more fun for everyone. If having pets on just one side of the baby gate is still too close for them, then you can set up two gates with however much “dead space” you need in between, kind of like an airlock:




The last technique we’ll talk about here is stationing: teaching a pet to go to a particular place and hang out there. Sometimes trainers will refer to this as place work, mat work, or something similar. With stationing you can have one animal on a mat or bed out of the way while working with another, then switch them. This is a more advanced approach in that you need to be able to focus on the animal in front of you but also keep whoever is stationing in mind and reinforcing each appropriately. I tend to give a treat to the stationing animal whenever I treat the one I’m currently focusing on.

This is a regular technique used in zoos where it’s more challenging to separate animals for training. Regardless of your feelings about zoos, many do a wonderful job of training their animals– usually to safely participate in husbandry and medical procedures– and can be a good place for inspiration of what’s possible with training. 

Check out this video showing crocodiles training and stationing from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Bronx Zoo:


It’s often easier to teach animals to station separately before bringing them together. A professional trainer can help you with this process; it will need to be well-proofed, especially if you have trouble keeping a high rate of reinforcement (aka how frequently you treat).


Now what?

  • Try your hand at training multiple animals at once. Choose one of the above options to start with.
  • Practice whichever option you choose before bringing your pets into the mix. Practice doling out treats single-handedly. Teach stationing separately. Practice splitting your attention between observing multiple individuals at a time. Whatever you choose, it will be easier for you and less frustrating for your pets to practice without them first.
  • Start short and sweet. Work with your pets just a minute or two at a time. Assess how it went and how it can be improved on then try again for another minute or two. 
  • Consult with your professional trainer or behavior consultant– especially if there are safety concerns between the pets. A professional can help you fine tune your skills, your pets’ skills, and help you keep everyone safe during the training process. Email us at [email protected] to be paired with a consultant and set up your first session. 


Happy training!



The Truth About Using “Human Food” in Training

I hear the phrase “human food” frequently. For those of you who haven’t heard this term, “human food” refers to foods that we commonly eat as opposed to food that is specifically marketed for our pets’ consumption. Usually it pops up in one of the following phrases:

I never give him human food. 

Is it okay to give him human food? 

If I use human food for training won’t it make her beg?

I’m going to be blunt. This phrase bothers me, for several reasons, one of which is because it’s pretty arbitrary. What’s the actual difference between “human food” and “pet food”, especially with the higher quality foods now available for our pets? They’re both edible and in many situations they’re the same core ingredient. Whole, natural foods should not be exclusively for human consumption.

Another reason for my gripe is that I think this phrase unnecessarily burdens some aspects of training and behavior modification. Let’s explore a few examples of how this distinction can be burdensome:

I recently met with a new client who had already started her behavior modification journey with a veterinary behaviorist. She mentioned the expense that comes with behavior modification: the veterinary behaviorist, me, and the treats. She was using great-quality, expensive treats for activities requiring high-value food. I commended her for using great treats, and agreed that they were expensive, which is why I use things like boiled chicken, string cheese, and peanut butter for Oso’s high-value foods. He loves them, I have them on hand more frequently, and they’re way cheaper than pet foods that he equally loves. I saw a look of relief cross her face as she admitted that she hadn’t thought about using those kinds of foods. 

A few years ago, I had a client who wanted to work on her dog’s behavior while she was making dinner. We discussed the management options but she really wanted to work on training instead, so we started talking about place training. She told me that she wasn’t keen on using treats for this because she’d need to wash her hands too frequently between working with the dog and preparing the meal. I suggested she use dog-safe components of whatever she was cooking, instead of store-bought treats, and that solved that problem. The dog now calmly waits on her mat instead of being a nuisance in the kitchen. 

Sometimes we create our own problems by having an arbitrary distinction between “human food” and “pet food”, as seen above. Instead, I tell clients that as long as it’s safe (I.E. non-toxic and does not cause digestive problems) and your pet likes it then consider it an option for training. 

But does that make them beg?

Often, when I recommend using meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables, I get some form of the question, “But does that make her start begging?” I think this is more the point that people are after when they talk about “human food” vs. “pet food” in the first place. So let’s address that!

There is nothing intrinsic to the food we eat that makes our pets beg. Sure, we eat some things that our pets may find pretty tasty, but that’s probably not true of everything (even Oso decided ginger wasn’t his jam). The same rules of food preferences and high-value foods vs. low-value foods still apply regardless of who the food is marketed for (check out last month’s blog post on food preferences here!) The reason that some people see an increase in begging when giving their pets “human food” is all about the delivery and timing, which is being incorrectly conflated with the food itself. Let me show you a few examples.

Here’s a picture of Oso, who is learning to stay out of the kitchen while we cook. Specifically, I want him to be on the hardwood instead of the tile. He gets to choose where exactly that is and in what position he’s in. I trained this behavior using– you guessed it– the dog-safe ingredients from our meal (particularly veggie scraps we weren’t going to eat anyway). 

Here’s another example of Oso while we’re eating. The behavior I want is for him to lie next to me and I trained this using food from my plate

And one last one: snacking on the couch means “head down”. I also trained this with the food I was eating. 

It’s clear the old adage, “Don’t feed your dog from your plate or else he’ll beg”, doesn’t have to be true. So what’s the difference?

The reason that Oso can politely hang out while being trained with “human food” is because I kept in mind that our pets are always learning, even if we don’t mean to be teaching them. I reinforced Oso for very specific behaviors that I liked instead of giving him food willy-nilly or based on my behavior (E.G. When I’m done eating he licks the bowl clean, regardless of what he was doing before I offered the bowl). 

Reinforcement increases the probability of a behavior happening again. We do things that work for us, our pets included. Additionally, to truly be reinforcing the consequence has to happen within 3-5 seconds of the behavior and there can’t be another behavior in between (behavior chains are a thing that make the last part of that sentence not completely accurate, but that’s a topic for another day). That means that I need to be strategic about when I give him food in order to get the behaviors I want to see more of. 

If I were to give him snacks for classic “begging” behaviors– putting his nose next to my plate, his head on the table (he’s barely tall enough), nudging my hand– then those are the behaviors I’d see more of. Instead, I only gave him snacks when he was on the hardwood (which gives us space), lying down, or with his head down, respectively. So I got more of those behaviors! The trick is in the timing. 

Now what?

  • Do you have a mental block against using “human food”? Let’s start small. Do a food preference test with some veggies (frozen often work great) to see if you can incorporate any of those into your training. 
  • Ready to try it out? Try teaching a stationing behavior (go to a place and hang out there) while you’re doing something with food: preparing a meal, eating. 
  • Working through a behavior modification plan with your consultant? Do a food preference test to determine if there’s something higher-value than what you’ve been using. Meats are a classic go-to for both dogs and cats. 
  • Share with us your own examples of training with “human food” on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining.

Happy training!


Ice Cream Vs. Brussels Sprouts: High-Value Foods

Last week I talked about why we use food in training and addressed some common concerns with that (check it out here). The topic of using food in training lends itself to talking about “high-value” foods, so let’s do that! 

Some of the common phrases I hear from clients when discussing high-value treats are:

“Everything seems like it’s high-value to him!”

“Can’t I just use his kibble?”

“Does it really make a difference?”

Like many dogs, I, too, love eating almost any food. Sure, there are a few things that I don’t like but on the whole I’m not picky. The core component of the above statements is that those pets are not picky. But there’s a big difference between being not picky and not having any preference. 

I like both ice cream and Brussels sprouts. However, there is a difference in my preference level between those two foods. I will choose ice cream over Brussels sprouts almost every time. I like ice cream more; it’s more valuable to me. Our pets are the same way. They may like a lot of different types of foods, but that doesn’t mean there’s no preference between them. There’s a difference between ice cream and Brussels sprouts even if you’re not picky.

Does high-value make a difference?

Yep. We don’t have to look any further than our own salaries to know that. Would you do the same job for less value (i.e.: money) in return? Not likely. If a behavior is not adequately reinforced then it’s less likely to happen in the future. And, when we’re talking about working through fear and anxiety, the value is even more important. You’re more likely to get quicker, longer-lasting results by using a higher value reinforcer. 

What should I use for high-value treats?

Only the learner decides what’s reinforcing to them. While ice cream is more valuable to me than Brussels sprouts, a lactose intolerant person or someone on a vegan diet would likely disagree with me. We need to ask our pet what they find more valuable, and we can do that with a food preference test. Check out the video below to learn how to do this:

Because dogs and cats are carnivores, meat-based foods are a good place to start for food preference testing with your pet. Check out some of our go-to options below (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!)



Now what?

  • Get a few different foods and start testing! What’s your pet’s treat hierarchy?
  • Experiment with using different values of foods in your training. How do different reinforcers change the outcome of your training?
  • Share your results with us on our Facebook page!

Happy training!