January 2020 Training Challenge: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

All of that leads us into our January 2020 challenge: 

Draft an enrichment plan for your pet 

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

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

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

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

Undesirable behaviors:

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

Desirable behaviors:

  • Sleeping in the evenings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now what?

Happy training!


Winter Oso

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

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

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

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


It Was Enough Until It Wasn’t

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

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

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

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


Solving Winter Oso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now what?

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

Happy training!