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!


February 2021 Training Challenge: Nose to Hand Target

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

Happy February! This month’s training challenge is with our upcoming webinar, Pandemic Puppies: Finding Harmony in the Future in mind. We wanted to include something that is helpful to the pets we’ll be talking about later this month in the webinar, but is also helpful for all pets and easy enough to include in a training challenge. So, here it is:


Teach or proof a nose to hand target


Ellen has a great video on what a nose to hand target is, how to teach it, and what it can be used for. Check it out here:



What is it?

A nose to hand target is when your pet touches their nose to your hand. We often just refer to this as “hand targeting” but I wanted to include the specificity here to make it known that an animal can target different parts of their body to different things. For example, one of the coolest applications I’ve seen is a hyena who was taught to target their neck to the bars of a crate so their caregivers could take jugular blood samples easily and in a way that wasn’t scary to the hyena. 


Why it’s useful

Ellen goes into a lot of cool ways that you can use a nose to hand target in her video. Here are some of my favorite ways that I’ve used a nose to hand target:

  • Teaching a more precise recall (come when called). You can get the pet into exactly the location and even orientation you’re looking for with a target which isn’t possible with a generic recall. 
  • Relocation. Want your dog to get out of the way? Hand target. Want your cat to jump off the counter? Hand target. Emily used a beak to spoon target for one of her birds who would try to bite hands coming into his enclosure to feed him. He was happy to move away to the spoon so that anyone who watched him could care for him safely!
  • Jump to hand target. I use this with those jumpy dogs who just need to get those one or two jumps in before they can sit and be calm. I talk more about this in this blog post about how the Water Principle in hapkido applies to our pets.  
  • Harness training. I worked with a cat years ago, Milo, who was comfortable with wearing a harness but wasn’t as keen about it going over his head. We taught him to put his own head through the harness with a DIY target stick (a pom pom attached to a chopstick). 
  • Hand shyness. While this isn’t always the most appropriate approach to hand shyness and you should absolutely work with a professional before trying this on your own, it can be an effective way to help pets who are uncomfortable with hands. My favorite example is Castiel, who was very uncomfortable with hands and eventually learned to target new people’s hands as the final step in his greeting protocol. 
  • Exercise. I worked with a pup who had hind-end mobility issues. His caregivers were concerned about how they would provide him with the physical exercise he needs. We decided to teach him a nose to hand target and would ask him to walk just a step or two at a time to touch the hand. This was plenty of exercise for him! Now, I ask Oso to run across the house and jump up to a hand target to get extra winter exercise. 
  • Tricks. There are so many tricks that can be taught using a nose to hand target (or other targeting behavior)! Spin, jump, bow, figure 8s, and more. 

And, the last reason I find this a useful behavior, is because it’s usually an easy behavior to teach. There are absolutely pets who say otherwise, but on the whole I see the majority of folks having quick success with this. Not only is it an easy behavior to teach, but I find that it’s often easier to perform than some of the more common tricks, like sit. There are plenty of times I’ve seen a dog who’s too distracted to sit, but not too distracted to perform a hand target. 


How to teach a nose to hand target

The simplest option is to extend your hand a couple of inches away from your pet’s nose, wait for them to investigate, then mark and treat from your opposite hand when you feel their nose or even whiskers in the beginning. Ellen does a great job of showing different ways to teach this in the video above. 

Note: if you have a pet who’s uncomfortable with hands near their face, work with a behavior consultant on how to safely teach this behavior. There are more options available than what we can get into in a generic post or video!


Who should learn a nose to hand target?

Almost every pet can benefit from this– including all species! A hand target specifically may not be appropriate for all pets, in which case you can use something else for them to target to. 


Now what?

  • Go forth and teach a nose to hand target!
  • Does your pet already know this behavior? Your training challenge is to then proof or strengthen this behavior. Check out the below videos on how to do that:
  • Share pics and videos of you working on a hand target with your pet! Email us at [email protected] or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining


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!



7 Tips for Introducing a New Dog or Cat to Your Resident Pets

As I’m writing this, we’re smack dab in the middle of our free “Dog-to-Dog Aggression & Prey Drive Workshop” this week and both Emily and I are having a blast getting to know our workshop attendees! As I was thinking about the workshop and our upcoming course on the same topic, I realized that one of the topics we don’t get into as much is how to set up introducing a new dog or cat into your household so you can mitigate some of those future issues. A blog post seemed like the perfect way to supplement the workshop! So without further ado, let’s get into 7 tips for introducing a new pet into your household. 

1. Learn each species’ body language first.

For those of you who’ve followed our blog for a while, you probably knew that this tip was going to be in here! I truly believe that one of the most important, most influential things we can do as pet parents is to learn our pets’ body language. Yes, there are signals that are intuitive and there are some people who have a natural inclination towards understanding body language without learning it. However, there are body language signals that aren’t intuitive: lip licks, stress yawns, tap outs, cat tail wagging is usually angry, and so on. 

Everyone needs to study animal body language to understand the nuances and it’s our responsibility as pet parents to know what our pets are saying. There are a lot of great resources available online (and some not so great ones) to help learn each species’ body language. Check out this blog post for more information on dog and cat body language and resources. 

2. Go slow. Even slower. 

I know it’s tempting to try immediately integrating your new household member in with the rest of your pets. We want to start this new chapter in our lives as soon as possible! Sometimes doing that turns out fine. But there are many times where it does not and people need to bring in a behavior professional after fights have already happened and there’s been damage to the relationship– which makes it harder to work on. Resist the temptation; do slow introductions. Whatever time frame popped into your head– go slower. 

When I’m working with clients who are integrating new pets into the household I tell them that  my time frame is at least 2 weeks for day-to-day cohabitation with supervision; longer if any pet has a history of having trouble making new friends. There have been cases where it’s taken months but everyone was happy, healthy, and safe throughout the entire process. This is absolutely a situation where slow and steady wins the race.

3. Don’t provide opportunities for conflict. 

Reading it that way, many people would say, “Sure! Makes sense! Moving on.” But what if I said that trying to feed your new pets together can count as a common opportunity for conflict? Giving them chewies together? Playing fetch together? Being in a tight space together? 

For some pets these scenarios may not be sources of conflict; but you don’t know if that’s true or not for your new pet. And, you don’t know if that’s true or not for your pet and this particular individual at this particular point in their relationship. For example, I’ll share my credit card with my husband, but not a stranger. Nor would I have shared my credit card with my husband when I first met him. There would’ve been conflict if he’d tried to take it from me when we first met. Relationships change and evolve over time.

Let’s work on their relationship together before adding resources– and opportunities for conflict– into the mix. (Side note: I always recommend feeding pets separately even after the initial introduction period. It’s such an easy management tool and I have so many people tell me that their pets got into a fight over the food bowl that the risk just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Unfortunately, I feel like I see few people agree with that sentiment until it happens to their own pets.)

4. Provide plenty of exit strategies (especially for cats!).

There’s a fine balance between keeping your pets near you so you can supervise them and keeping them so confined that they can’t leave the situation if they want to. For introducing new dogs to one another, this can look like having them interact in a larger space (but not so large that you can’t get to them if needed) and routinely monitoring interactions and separating when needed (see the next tip for more information on that.) For dogs and cats, cat trees are my go-to for providing exit strategies. 

5. Provide plenty of break time and be an advocate for your pet.

Have you ever had a roommate who just won’t leave you alone? How did you feel in those interactions? Did you eventually snap at them? The same thing happens with our pets, too.

We need to provide adequate break time and time apart for our pets. This can especially be true for the resident pet and older pets. They didn’t necessarily consent to having a new roommate and it’s unrealistic to expect them to hang out with their new roommate 24/7 without conflict. 

Break time should also be based on their body language and behavior. This particular point reminds me of a client I had last year. They brought a new, younger female dog home and the male resident dog was periodically growling at her and eventually lunging and biting. When they brought me in they asked about changing the resident dog’s aggressive behavior. As I asked them more questions, it became clear that the resident dog was asking the new dog to give him space and that she wasn’t respecting his request and eventually that led into the fights. I told them to be his advocate; she was the one pestering him until he snapped. As we worked through their behavior modification plan and reintegrating them, they realized that that was true– she was annoying him. When they saw that happening they’d call her over and give her something else to do. Fights didn’t happen anymore after that! 

6. Don’t let them “just work it out”.

This is another fine balance item. There’s a fine line between micromanaging appropriate interactions and stepping in and appropriately managing and modifying behavior. This is one of the reasons why it’s vital to know and understand your pets’ body language before you’re in a situation. You need to first know what appropriate interactions and inappropriate interactions really look like! There are plenty of instances where I’ve seen people try to discourage appropriate interactions and other instances where people needed to step in a lot sooner to keep everyone happy and healthy. (Another side note- there are very polite ways to step in without correcting, physically grabbing, etc.)

7. Seek professional help- especially for animals who’ve had trouble making new friends in the past.

When in doubt, seek professional help. A professional can help you with all of the above and help create a viable, sustainable behavior modification plan for your household. It’s what we’re here for!

Now what?

  • It’s never too late to learn about body language and appropriate vs. inappropriate interactions. Our Setting Yourself Up For Success: Behavior Modification Basics course is chock full of body language information for dogs!
  • Do you have a relatively new pet in your house and you think their relationship with the resident pets could be better? You can always go backwards, increasing management through separation, and start back at square 1 with the above tips.
  • Do you have pets in your household that aren’t getting along well or are sometimes getting into fights? Our Dog-to-Dog Aggression & Prey Drive course is for you! This course starts on Wednesday 9/2/20 and client spots are going fast. Check out more course info here

Happy training!


Leash Reactivity Practice… in a Parking Lot?

Leash reactivity (I.E. barking, lunging, growling on leash when seeing another person, dog, car, etc.) is one of the maladaptive behaviors that I help clients with the most. It’s a pervasive issue in our country. When I’m in the beginning stages of working with a client and their leash reactive dog, I often hear myself saying, “the exercises that we’ll do are fairly simple; it’s the implementation that’s difficult.” And, because of that, I almost never have them start out by using those exercises on a walk. Here’s why.

You have to crawl before you can walk.

Have you ever had that dream where you show up for a test but you’ve never attended the class? How did you feel in that dream? Scared? Frustrated? Destined to fail?

Teaching your dog a new behavior modification exercise on a walk is like having them take a test when they’ve never attended the class. We’re expecting them to not only use a brand new skill, but learn a brand new skill, in an incredibly difficult environment when they may or may not be ready and capable of learning. Doing this often leads to frustration on both the human and the canine ends. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but by and large it’s not as effective or efficient to start out training in this difficult scenario. Slow and steady wins the race.

Your dog isn’t the only learner.

 As I tell many of my clients, “If you already knew this you wouldn’t need me.” We often add this pressure onto ourselves that we need to know everything and be instantly good at something. We don’t give ourselves the same grace during our learning process that we would to a child. That pressure can lead us to throw ourselves into situations that we’re not ready for. 

I usually find that it takes longer for the human to learn how to do the behavior modification techniques than it does the dog. Though, to be fair, the human usually has more to remember, implement, and sometimes unlearn than the dog does! Plus, ask any teacher: you need to know way more about a subject when you teach it vs. when you’re using it. And if you’re training your dog then you are teaching. 

For this reason, I like to move at the pace of whoever is at the earliest step in that particular learning process– regardless of species. For example, I will sometimes do consultations for new adopters who’ve adopted a dog that I or a team I know has worked with in a shelter. I know the dog has been taught a particular exercise and now it’s a matter of teaching their new family how to do it too. We’ll need to work at the human’s pace, as they’re at an earlier step in that particular process than the dog is. 

Conversely, take someone who has worked with a leash reactive dog before. They’re adept at doing the exercises from working with a previous dog and just need help transferring those skills to a new one. In this case we’ll need to work at the dog’s pace. 

Most frequently, however, I have cases where both the human and the dog are new to leash reactivity exercises. We’ll need to play these by ear and examine skill levels at each step to ensure that all parties are ready to move onto the next task. Each individual moves at their own pace, and that is perfectly okay. 

Real-life situations have a lot more variables

Even when both dog and handler have a solid foundation built of their leash reactivity exercises in easier, low-stakes situations, taking those skills straight to a neighborhood walk can still be challenging. There are a lot of variables on a walk and you’re likely to encounter extra-challenging situations, like people popping up from behind corners or exiting their houses, multiple triggers coming from different directions at the same time, barking dogs in yards (especially if they’re on an electric fence and you don’t know if they’re going to stop or go through it), general trigger stacking throughout the experience, and more. It’s much easier to continue working on those skills and exercises in increasingly difficult situations and work your way up to implementing those skills on a walk instead of jumping straight to a neighborhood walk. 

Your neighborhood wasn’t designed for leash reactive dogs.

Neighborhood planners don’t keep leash reactive dogs in mind in their design plans and it shows! I always tell clients that distance is their best friend when working with a leash reactive dog; if their dog starts reacting then move away from the trigger until they stop. I frequently hear some protest to that statement in the beginning, along the lines of, “I can be 4 houses down and he’s still barking!” Both statements are true. There’s a distance that exists where your dog will not be reactive towards a trigger and it’s farther than 4 houses away. Your neighborhood planner wasn’t thinking about leash reactivity. 

I find that in many cases we can’t start off immediately working in the neighborhood partially because we can’t get the proper distance. Across the street or 4 houses down doesn’t cut it. That’s where parking lots can come in. Specifically, I like using those giant strip mall parking lots that big name pet stores often have (at least in my area!) Park and work in the very back of the lot and you’ll get the distance you need, a more steady stream of triggers to practice with, and fewer surprises as usually people will park near the store and go only from their car into the store and back. (Note: large parks can also get you the distance you need but because people walk more sporadically and erratically in parks I still prefer parking lots.)

What if I have to walk my dog?

Up until this point, I’ve made a big and sometimes untrue assumption: you don’t need to walk your dog. There are many cases I see where this assumption is true. The family has a fenced-in yard that the dog will potty in and we can replace walks with other mental and physical activity while we’re working on the reactivity. In the suburbs that is often the case. However, there are absolutely situations where the family does not have a fenced-in yard that the dog will potty in or doesn’t have a yard at all and an indoor potty space isn’t a viable option. These are more challenging because we can’t avoid walks but we’re also not ready to practice on walks. In these cases we’ll heavily increase the management on walks to avoid triggers as much as possible until we’re ready for this scenario. 

Now what?

  • Are you someone who’s struggling with working on your dog’s leash reactivity while on a neighborhood walk? Take a few steps back (figuratively) and find an easier scenario to practice in. Your behavior consultant can help you with this!
  • Not sure how to work on leash reactivity? Join us for our FREE Roadmap for Behavior Solutions Workshop next week (8/16/21-8/20/21) to take the first step towards your behavior modification journey. Sign up here:

Happy training!


August 2020 Training Challenge

This month’s training challenge is dedicated to the “Calming Enrichment” chapter of our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and is one of my favorite exercises for clients:

Work on a relaxation protocol or mat work

This exercise is something that most pets can benefit from. I incorporate it into flight training, building a sense of security, teaching pets to be calm, and teaching them to hang out in a particular location. Almost all of my clients working through anxiety and aggression behavior modification plans get this exercise!

Oso demonstrating mat work on a pillow case.

Different options:

There are several different types of relaxation protocols and ways to do mat work. Even though some of the protocols don’t require performing them on a mat (or bed, blanket, towel, etc.), I still like to include one. Options include:

  • Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol
    • This is my favorite for so many reasons: the frequency of treating is higher than most people do on their own which lends itself to it working faster and more consistently & it tells you exactly what to do so there’s less room for error as long as you’re following the instructions. 
    • Emily has further developed this protocol and put a special agency twist on it which we’re finding makes it even more effective! She’ll be teaching a course on Pet Harmony’s version of this protocol for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Stay tuned for more info on that upcoming course.
  • Suzanne Clothier’s Really Real Relaxation Protocol (this link contains the first half of this protocol; the full protocol is available for sale here.)
    • I like this one for pets and people who need less rigidity than Dr. Overall’s RP and who also have some training prowess under their belt. It can sometimes be too loosey goosey for someone newer to training. 
  • Mat work
    • Similar to the Really Real Relaxation Protocol, but I would say even more loosely structured when it comes to relaxation as our goal. Some people start with this to teach their pet to go to a mat and then switch to one of the above protocols. 

There are other options out there but these three are my go-to exercises. No matter which option you choose, start working on this in just one location before taking it on the road. 

Now what?

  • Choose an exercise that you’d like to work on. 
  • Choose a mat, bed, blanket, towel, rug, or whatever works for you and your pet! We want to pair this mat with relaxation. I like bath mats quite a bit; the rubber backing helps it to not slide when you’re practicing. 
  • Start practicing! Remember that the goal is relaxation– not stay. I advise against using a “stay” cue and having that be the primary criterion. It’s okay if they’re not perfect at this yet! 
  • Send us your pics and videos of your pet working on the August training challenge! Email us at [email protected] or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining.

Happy training!


What Should I do if my Pet Growls When I Try to Move Him?

You remember how I’ve talked about behavior issues coming in waves for us consultants? One of my current waves is pets who growl when their humans try to physically move them (especially from off the couch!) I felt like a blog post was warranted since I’ve been talking about it so frequently lately.

There are a couple scenarios that fall into this category:

  • Growling, lip curling, air snapping, and/or biting when being physically moved
  • Growling, lip curling, air snapping, and/or biting when reaching towards them so as to move them (especially if you’ve physically moved them in this way in the past).

My simple solution? Don’t physically move them. Done! Solved! Thanks for reading this week’s post.

Okay, perhaps I should give a little bit more info about that solution before moving on. The reason behind this can be best expressed by something my dad used to tell me when I was little. Every now and then, I would go up to my dad and say something along the lines of, “It hurts when I do this” and then would proceed to do the thing that hurt. Each time my dad would say, “Doctor doctor, it hurts when I do this! So don’t do that anymore.” (Y’know, in true dad humor fashion.) I’d usually roll my eyes and walk away, but now I understand the wisdom hiding behind the dad joke. Why do we continue to do things that we know will end badly? Why don’t we just stop doing them? 

If we know that our pet will growl if we try to physically move them, why do we keep trying to do it? From what I’ve seen working with clients, the answer to this question comes from one of the logical fallacies: false dichotomies. Let’s explore that a bit more before moving on to the alternatives to physically moving your pet.

False dichotomies 

False dichotomies (or false dilemmas) happen when we think there are only two solutions to a problem: A or B. We see the situation as black or white, with no grey space in between. I can either physically move my pet from the couch where they’re not allowed or I can let them remain on the couch and break the rule. When we look at the scenario from the lens of a false dichotomy, it’s easy to see why people continue to do something that they know is going to end badly. They’re usually thinking that it’s the lesser of two evils. 

What are the alternatives?

I would say that one of my main tasks as a behavior consultant is helping people come up with plans C, D, E, and so on. I help people realize that there are very few situations involving their pet that only have two solutions. There are a myriad of win-win solutions wherein we don’t have to go into conflict with our pet when we get creative. There are a lot of ways to relocate an animal without physically touching them, too. Solutions to this particular problem include:

  • Lure him off the couch (or from wherever you want him to move) using food or toys
  • Teach an “off” cue
  • Use a hand targeting or recall cue
  • Put up a gate or something similar so he can’t get to that space in the first place
  • Make a super comfy area right next to the couch and teach him that’s the better place to be

There are even variations within those 5 options and I’m sure there are plenty of other options in addition to the ones above. With all of the solutions that exist to get both you and your pet what you want we no longer need to physically move them, and when we no longer physically move them our pet has no reason to growl in that scenario. 

But shouldn’t I teach him not to growl when I try to physically move him?

My short answer is no. There are many reasons why I ardently believe that, including: warning signs are beneficial, dominance theory has been debunked, and I believe that all individuals, regardless of species, should be allowed to have control over what happens to their bodies. The discussions of all of those points are longer than I’d like to get into in this particular post, but best believe that they’re all future blog post topics! Plus, there are so many solutions that avoid the issue altogether that I’d rather spend time and energy on more pressing behavior issues if there are any. I’m a “work smarter, not harder” person at the end of the day. 

Now what?

  • Do you have a pet who growls when you physically try to move them? If yes, which of the above hands-off solutions do you want to incorporate? 
  • Are there other points of contention between you and your pet? Are there any other solutions you can come up with that would alleviate that conflict? Remember: a behavior consultant or trainer can help you with this if you can’t think of any on your own!
  • Are you having trouble remembering to follow through with your new solution? Set up the environment to make it easier for yourself. Placing treat jars in areas where you need them can go a long way to remembering what your new solution is.
  • Having trouble making a new solution work? Reach out to your behavior consultant or trainer. There can be a lot of nuances and tweaks that can make something more effective; a professional will be able to more efficiently help you figure out what those are.
  • If you’re ready to get started right now, check out our Beginning Behavior Modification: Learn the Skills You Need to Successfully Address Your Dog’s Behavior Problems on-demand course!

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!