You Have to Practice Before the Test

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When I’m giving a client a new activity, I always tell them to practice first in scenarios where they’ll be more successful. For example, practicing loose leash walking or the flight cue inside. Or Look at That or a greeting strangers protocol with faux triggers or people they know. Every now and then, someone will come back to me with:

 

I tried what you said to do and it didn’t work.

 

After some sleuthing, we sometimes find that the problem is that they tried to use it in a more difficult situation before they or their pet were ready. That happens to all of us (myself included!) at some point! But, if we go straight to testing without practicing, we usually fail the test. 

 

Practice makes perfect

This cliche applies to behavior modification: practice makes perfect. Well, as close to perfect as we can expect from a living, breathing individual with free will. The situations in which we want to use our pet’s skills are usually higher stress situations, either due to excitement or distress. I liken this to a “test”, where you’re expected to perform skills you’ve been learning in a higher stress situation. But the only way to do well in that type of situation is to practice a lot in easier scenarios that gradually build in difficulty. 

Imagine we plucked someone off the street, told them the basics of brain surgery, and then asked them to perform brain surgery on someone. Show of hands of who’d like that person to operate on them? That’s a hell no from me! I want someone who’s gone through school, practiced on cadavers, and has operated on a bunch of people before me. I want someone who’s practiced. 

Teaching our pets something once or twice and then asking them to perform it in a high-stress situation is like asking someone we’ve plucked off the street to perform brain surgery. It’s just not going to go well. And, if through luck it does, it’s not going to be predictably replicable. We need to practice in easier situations that gradually build in difficulty in order for them to succeed. 

 

What do easier situations look like?

This will be different depending on the skill or maladaptive behavior we’re talking about and where the pet is in their learning journey. In general, easier situations can look like something as simple as you and your pet training in your living room without anyone else around or it can look like a watered-down version of the situation you’re working up to. You have a lot of options when it comes to an easier situation. In general, choose a scenario where you’re pretty sure your pet will be successful. 

Keep in mind that “easier” is subjective, and is based on current skills. Calculus is easy for someone with a Ph.D. in math but it’s hard for a 3rd grader. Staying still is hard for a puppy but is easy for a service dog. The goal is to practice in situations that gradually increase in difficulty but for each step to still be easy for your pet’s current skill level.

 

Now what?

  • Determine what an easier situation looks like for a skill you’re trying to teach. 
  • Start practicing! If your pet is doing well, keep practicing. If they’re not doing well in that situation, that means it’s currently too difficult for them. Go back to the drawing board to figure out what would be easier for them and try again. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

May 2021 Training Challenge: Overt vs. Covert behavior

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

 

Describe 1 construct or label using overt behavior

 

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

 

Overt vs. Covert Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Stubborn
  • Fearful
  • Aggressive
  • Anxious
  • Sweet

All of those are labels. 

 

Why does all of this matter?

All of this matters for a few different reasons:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our judgment shapes our decisions, for better or worse

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Our assumptions cloud our observations

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Back to the training challenge

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

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

Construct: Zorro likes his new tank setup

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

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

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

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

Now what?

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

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

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

What is the Difference Between Training & Behavior?

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As someone who sees clients as both a trainer and a behavior consultant, I often get asked the question, is the behavior I see my dog exhibiting a training issue or a behavior issue?  I think it is a legitimate question and one that deserves a closer look, especially because it can help a client determine what type of professional would be best suited to help them work on and implement a training plan for themselves and their dogs. 

                                                          

Training

When I think of training, the first thing that comes to mind is giving our dogs the tools they will need to help them safely navigate our human world and expectations. Dogs certainly weren’t on the receiving end of a ten-page document on how to live harmoniously with humans in a home! They do what works for dogs because after all, that’s exactly what they are. They don’t come hardwired to understand that open doorways are not for dashing out of or that delicious turkey sandwiches left unattended by humans are not for their consumption. It is up to the humans in their lives to teach them the skills they will need to share our homes in a way that still allows them to be dogs but also addresses safety concerns and good manners from the human perspective. 

So how do dogs typically acquire these essential skills? Perhaps you’ve taken your dog to a group class like puppy kindergarten or beginning obedience. Or you’ve hired a trainer to do a remote training session or come to your home. Or you could have joined an online training forum. Through one of these venues, you have taught your dog some basic manners such as sit, down, stay, or to go to her “place” when cued. Are these acquired skills essential from the dog’s perspective? Probably not. It is highly unlikely that your dog finds it necessary to do a sit/stay or go to her “place” when the pizza delivery arrives. And yet, from a safety perspective, we humans know that these trained behaviors help to keep us, our dogs, and possibly the pizza safe! So, as responsible dog guardians, we train our dogs to respond reliably to these cues. 

 

Wait, There is More

Now, technically we know that trained cues are behaviors. In the textbook Learning and Behavior, the definition of behavior is as follows: “anything a person or other animal does that can be measured” (Moore, 2011; Reber, 1995; Skinner, 1938). The book goes further by saying that “anything an animal does might qualify as behavior, whether measurable or not, but for scientific analysis we are necessarily limited to those things we can measure” (Baum, 2011). A cued sit or stay is certainly something that a dog does and there is no doubt we could find ways to measure the behavior but it is very unlikely that a measurement is necessary for daily functioning. We just need to know that the cued behavior is reliable in a variety of circumstances. The predictability of our dogs understanding and performing their known cues is helpful for their daily functioning so that they can live cohesively in our homes with minimal stress for both species. 

 

Behavior

Now that I have explained what might constitute a training issue, let’s take a look at what would more likely fall under the behavior issue category. When a prospective client contacts Pet Harmony with a concern about their dog’s behavior, we would typically be thinking about behaviors that are considered maladaptive behaviors. 

The American Psychological Association defines maladaptive behaviors as “a condition in which biological traits or behavior patterns are detrimental, counterproductive or otherwise interfere with optimal functioning in various domains, such as successful interaction with the environment and effectual coping with the challenges and stresses of daily life” (http://dictionary.apa.org). Bearing that definition in mind, typical behavior issues a dog behavior consultant might be contacted to help with could include the cluster of behaviors that help describe things like leash reactivity, separation-related problems, fear of strangers, and dog to dog aggression. In other words, if a dog is exhibiting behaviors that prohibit optimal functioning in their daily lives, a behavior consultation would better address these concerns than a training session. To help us further clarify the differences between training and behavior, I will provide some common scenarios that fall under each category. 

 

Training

Behavior

  • Your dog is jumping up on visitors as they enter your home as a form of greeting.
  • Your dog is counter surfing to retrieve food items during meal preparation.
  • Your newly rescued dog or a new puppy is house soiling or chewing or destroying household items.
  • Your dog is pulling you down the street on walks making it very difficult and uncomfortable to walk them.
  • Your dog is emitting a low growl or is barking and lunging at visitors as they enter your home.
  • Your dog took a counter surfed item and is freezing, growling, or air snapping your direction as you approach him to retrieve the item.
  • Your newly adopted dog is soiling in the house or destroying items whenever you leave her alone.
  • Your dog is pulling, lunging, and barking every time he sees another dog on a walk.

 

As you can see there are some similarities in the scenarios above. For example, in the first example of visitors entering the home, both reactions from the dog are not ideal. We don’t necessarily want our dogs to rehearse the behavior of jumping up on guests to greet them. However, I’m guessing that it would be way more troublesome to owners everywhere if their pet was exhibiting the set of behaviors (growling, barking, lunging) that are described under the behavior category. Both situations are the same in that the style of greeting isn’t well-suited for safe interactions with visitors but in the behavior example, the dog’s behavioral choices are much more likely to include the possibility of escalating to a bite if management and a good behavior modification plan are not implemented. 

 

Why Does Any of This Matter?

It matters because it’s important to work with the appropriate professional to help you reach the training and behavior goals you have for your dog. Whether you think your dog has training issues or behavior issues, hiring a trainer or behavior consultant who understands learning theory and the behavioral sciences can help you safely, effectively, and ethically address those concerns by providing you with a plan to help you and your dog. We at Pet Harmony are ready to help you address these concerns, whatever they be, because we believe that the relationship you have with your dog should be mutually beneficial to you both so that you can live the best life that is possible for you and your dog. You can find out about the type of services we offer by using this link: http://petharmonytraining.com/services/clients/all-services-comparison/

We are here to help and look forward to hearing from you, whatever your concerns may be. 

 

Now what?

  • Think about a behavior that your dog exhibits. Does it seem more like a training issue or a behavior issue?
  • Determine if you need to work with a professional (this blog post can help you do that.)
  • Choose a professional and start working with them. 

MaryKaye

 

April Training Challenge: Drop It

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Happy kind of spring! We have another fun training challenge this month:

 

Teach a “drop it” cue during play

 

Playtime can very often double as training time. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive! 

Before we get into some examples of how to do this, let’s have a brief chat about what I mean by “drop it”.

 

“Drop It”: The Behavior

When I say “drop it”, I mean the specific behavior of removing an item from your mouth. I like to have specific cues that mean specific behaviors to limit confusion with a pet as much as possible. 

If you are using “leave it” for both behaviors of not putting something in your mouth and removing something from your mouth and it’s working, keep doing it. I’m not here to fix things that aren’t broken. However, if your pet is struggling to learn that the same thing means two different behaviors, then I suggest having one cue for each. Remember: just because we understand the concept of synonyms does not mean our pets do. 

Another reminder: our pets don’t speak human language. You need to teach your pet what the “drop it” cue means before it’s going to reliably work. Fairly often someone will tell me that their pet does not drop something when asked to. And, almost just as often, I’m met with blank looks when I ask them how they taught that behavior. Stubborn quite often means they were never taught how to do it in the first place. 

And, one last note: this behavior needs to be reinforced just like all others if you’d like to see it continue. If the only time you’re using “drop it” is to ask your pet to give up something amazing for nothing in return or only at the end of a play session, they’re going to discontinue following that cue pretty quickly. Like all behaviors, it needs to be worth it to the individual performing it.

 

“Drop It” with Fetch

There are a few variations that usually work for teaching this cue while playing fetch. 

Option 1: 2-Toy Fetch

  1. Grab two identical (if possible) toys that your pet likes playing fetch with.
  2. Throw one toy.
  3. When your pet brings Toy 1 back, make a big fuss over Toy 2. Make it seem like the most fun toy that’s ever existed. 
  4. When your pet drops Toy 1, immediately throw Toy 2. The hope is that throwing Toy 2 (continuing the game) reinforces the drop it, not any other behavior– like sit. We’ll only know if this is effective for this pet if they continue dropping the toy moving forward. 
  5. Pick up Toy 1 while they’re chasing after Toy 2.
  6. When your pet brings Toy 2 back, make a big fuss over Toy 1. 
  7. When your pet drops Toy 2, immediately throw Toy 1. 
  8. Repeat until your pet reliably drops the toy. Pay attention to the cues that they are going to drop the toy. Some will chew it a few times then drop, others it’s based on proximity to you, others it could be a change in head position.  
  9. Add in your “drop it” verbal cue right before they drop it. If you’ve successfully completed Step 8 you should be able to tell when they’re going to drop it and say your cue before the behavior happens. Reinforce by tossing the other toy, like before. Repeat until, in this context, your pet reliably drops the toy on cue.
  10. If you want to add some other behavior between the drop it and toss, now’s the time. 

 

Option 2: Using Treats

  1. Grab a toy or two that your pet likes playing fetch with
  2. Throw the toy
  3. When your pet brings the toy back, show them a treat (luring) and say “drop it”. 
  4. When your pet drops the toy, give them the treat, then pick up the toy. If you’re having trouble with your pet grabbing the toy again when you’re reaching for it then toss the treat instead of handing it to them so they’re busy while you’re picking it up. 
  5. Because you’ve already rewarded the “drop it” behavior, you can ask for a sit or anything else you’d like before throwing the toy again. 
  6. Repeat the above steps 5 times. 
  7. The next time your pet brings the toy back, say “drop it” without showing them the treat. If they do, awesome! Hand or toss them the treat. If they don’t, repeat the above steps. 
  8. You can either slowly phase out the treat and just have the continuation of the game be the reinforcement (if it is, actually and indeed, reinforcing enough) or you can keep the treat in the game long-term. There’s no harm in that. 

 

“Drop It” With Tug

Let’s get one question that I hear frequently out of the way: does tug cause aggression? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that there have been one or two studies looking at tug and aggression and they did not show that there was a significant correlation between the two. Now, two studies are not a lot and there could absolutely be more research done on this and that’s something we should keep in mind. Anecdotally, I frequently play tug with dogs who are considered “aggressive” and still have all my limbs (even the resource guarders!)

The way to teach “drop it” with tug is exactly how you would do it with fetch, just with tugging instead of throwing. I recommend playing for just a few seconds at a time (10-15 seconds). This can often make it easier for them to drop it because they’re not fully in the throes of tugging. 

 

Now What?

  • Choose your game and toys. 
  • Get to playin’! If you’re using treats, you may need to experiment with the type of treat to get the perfect value of “worth dropping the toy for” vs. “not too exciting that play stops”.
  • Share your progress with us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram

 

Happy training!

Allie

 

5 Benefits of Muzzle Training You Might Not Know About

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I love muzzles. I think they are great. I heard Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Chris Pachel refer to them as a portable baby gate on Drinking From The Toilet and I thought that was so clever. 

Muzzles, at least here in the United States, tend to carry a lot of stigma. It’s so unfortunate, because they are as important as a harness or a leash. Over the past few years, thanks to diligent dog trainers, and the wonderful community the Muzzle Up! Project built, we have made a ton of progress. You can find gorgeous custom made muzzles that will allow your pup to reap the benefits of a muzzle in comfort AND style. Trainers, like the wonderful team at Summit Dog Training, have paved the way to help clients navigate the stigma of their dog wearing a muzzle

You can find lots of great articles on the benefits of wearing muzzles, like this one from Synergy Behavior Solutions.

Now, enough fluff.

Hot Take: All dogs should be muzzle trained.  

Now, as I type this, I can feel the flinching, the gasps, the defensiveness that my prior statement will cause. But bear with me. I don’t use words like “all” and “should” lightly. Muzzle training can really improve your dog’s welfare and help us to meet their needs. 

 

I want to focus on 5 benefits of muzzle training you may not know about.

 

1. It is great mental exercise for our pup… and us.

Muzzle training puts our pup’s brain to work! When I say “muzzle training”, I don’t mean, buy a muzzle, strap it on my dog, and ABRA CADABRA! Dog is muzzle trained. 

Muzzle training, when done correctly, is a slow, beautiful process. It involves teaching our dogs to be active, engaged participants within the procedure. When we are moving through the training plan, we are looking for happy body language from our pups. And by “happy” I mean, loose, wiggly, body language, with quick responses and engagement (see Griffey’s “happy” here!). In my dogs, it’s the same body language as when I pull out dinner or get home. We want the sight of the muzzle to work like the world’s BEST recall. 

Because we are working so hard to keep the muzzle meaning “all good things”, we are also going to work our brains. Watching our pup’s body language, modifying our training, and tracking our progress is going to give us a mental work out too.

2. Relationship Building

We are so careful to make muzzle training fun for our pup, which means our pup is having fun with us. We strive to be predictable, so we don’t push or surprise our pup with too much too soon. It’s an excellent way to bolster our relationship with our dog. Having a fun activity to do together is super important. It’s 3-5 minutes of your day where you and your dog get to connect, work cooperatively, and enjoy each other.

As you progress through the training protocol, you can start to pair the muzzle with other fun stuff like sniff strolls or even foraging enrichment opportunities. You can also start using the “shove my muzzle into things” behavior for other fun tricks. We do sock muzzles in our house.

3. It’s a great way to hone your skills.

Want to practice your training mechanics? Muzzle training is the way to go. Being able to read our dog’s body language is critical when we are trying to condition a positive association with something. My goal is that with the muzzle in my lap, my dog will insert his nose, and remain in the muzzle while I clasp it behind his head.

Muzzle training is really about letting your dog control the session. Imagine sitting still on the couch and letting your pup do the work. Do you know where you would start? How would you progress? Do you know how to proof a behavior (video part 1 and part 2)? Have you ever taught a start button procedure? When we let our dog do the work, we get to park on the couch and focus on our own skills: reading your dog’s body language, your timing, your treat delivery, how you are raising criteria, and your ability to provide your dog agency.

4. It’s a great opportunity to practice providing your dog agency

I bet you can guess my next sentence by now. Muzzle training is about our dog being in control of their outcomes. It is the perfect situation to practice providing your dog with complete control over their outcomes. This is a great exercise for teaching your dog to say “no, thank you”, and for you to practice listening.

5. You, and your dog, will be so relieved.

Training, conditioning and practicing wearing a muzzle can create a wonderful sense of relief if and/or when we need to use them.

I remember a DVM (I wish I could remember who it was!) that shared a story during a muzzle training seminar I attended. They had a dog come in with something fairly catastrophic, I think it was a broken leg. It was a dog everyone knew. By all measures, this dog was “not a bite risk”. Except for this moment. The dog was in pain, people were trying to help, but he didn’t know that. For safety reasons, the dog needed to be muzzled. 

The vet pulled out the muzzle, and immediately saw the dog relax. The muzzle was well conditioned and well trained. This pup’s hooman put in the work to teach the muzzle before it was needed, and now everyone, the dog, the hooman, and the vet staff were able to feel more safe and secure EVEN during a traumatic incident. 

6. And one more benefit for good measure: the end result of muzzle training is a dog who can comfortably, cooperatively, wear a muzzle.

We have a saying in animal care that “all things with a mouth can bite”. This includes our dogs. All dogs. We do our darndest to keep them safe, prevent any bad things from happening, but we can’t control everything. Training, conditioning and practicing wearing a muzzle can, not only prevent additional aversives during times of distress, but also provide comfort like in the dog mentioned above. It allows for our dog to “wear a muzzle” (opt in) instead of “being muzzled” (having something done to them).

That’s a very important distinction.

 

Remember when I said “all dogs should be muzzle trained”? 

You should do “Whatever works for you, your family, your situation and keeps the animal and others happy, safe, and physically, mentally, and behaviorally healthy.” (see our blog on getting rid of “should”)

Muzzle training can accomplish all these things and more. The return on investment for muzzle training is so high, that I really do think it’s worth it for everyone. 

 

Now What?

  • If I’ve convinced you to embark on a muzzle training journey, you’re going to need a muzzle! (Disclosure: the muzzle links 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!) We usually recommend the Baskerville Ultra as a good starting muzzle or the Leather Bros for dogs with longer faces. 
  • If you have a muzzle, but don’t know where to start, check out the muzzle training plan from The Muzzle Up! Project.
  • If you have done some muzzle training with your dog, share a video or picture of your dog on our Facebook, or tag us @PetHarmony on instagram! We want to see those happy pups!
  • If you are considering muzzle training because you have a safety concern, I suggest seeking professional behavior consultant support. We offer services worldwide! Email us at [email protected] to schedule your first consultation

What’s Ab/Normal with Resource Guarding?

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Resource guarding can be scary. Seeing your sweet pet suddenly turn into a snarling mess over a chewy or their food dish is concerning. But while it’s concerning, one of the questions that I hear more with this behavior than with others is:

Is that normal?

 

Most people would call leash reactivity abnormal. Or light chasing or excessive tail chasing are usually thought of as abnormal (and they are). The behaviors that the average person labels as abnormal are usually the ones that they don’t see as frequently, whereas the average person would likely say it’s normal for dogs to bark at the mailman or to be afraid of thunderstorms. Normal and desirable are not always one in the same. 

The answer to this question when it comes to resource guarding is a favorite answer in the animal training community: it depends. Guarding in and of itself is normal, however, there are ways that it can present which are abnormal. As with most things in behavior, it’s not so black and white. 

 

Guarding is normal

We all guard or protect things we find valuable. Human examples can include something like hiding the chocolate from the rest of your household or locking your door. Humans are incredible at guarding their stuff; we have billion dollar industries devoted to helping us resource guard better. When it comes to our children and pets, though, we often expect them to relinquish their valuables much more so than we would do ourselves. But I digress. That’s a whole ‘nother topic. 

In short, guarding is a normal, natural behavior. It’s how our ancestors survived and it’s unrealistic to expect an individual to never guard something in any circumstance ever. That said, there are healthy guarding interactions and unhealthy guarding interactions. I think this may be more what people are after when they ask about resource guarding being normal: is this particular situation abnormal vs. the entirety of the behavior. Let’s take a look at some healthy and unhealthy examples. 

 

Healthy examples of resource guarding

Two criteria that I’m looking at when I’m looking at how concerning a resource guarding scenario is are:

  • The guarder’s communication (i.e. body language, like growling) is reasonable for the threat level
  • The other individual reacts appropriately by deferring to the guarder

What this can look like:

Fido has a bully stick and is happily munching away. Rover comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Rover walks away. 

In that situation Fido’s communication was reasonable in that he warned Rover to leave his bully stick alone when Rover stuck his nose into the situation (literally). Rover deferred and listened to Fido’s communication by walking away. Neither dog escalated the situation. No harm no foul in this scenario.

While this may seem concerning because Fido is growling, remember that growling is simply a form of communication. It is also natural, normal, and healthy in appropriate situations. For example, no one would likely have an issue with their dog growling at an intruder. It’s not an inherently “bad” thing. We have a whole blog post here about why growling is okay and what to do about it.  

One note: “appropriate” and “reasonable” are in the eye of the beholder. There’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule when it comes to what is reasonable in a situation and there are several factors to consider. 

 

Unhealthy examples of resource guarding

It should come as no surprise that the criteria for unhealthy guarding is just the opposite of that for healthy (plus one more):

  • The guarder’s communication (i.e. body language, behavior) is unreasonable for the threat level
  • The other individual continues pestering the guarder or escalates the situation
  • There are a lot of guarded things

Let’s look at a few examples of unhealthy guarding behavior: 

Fido is happily munching on his bully stick again. Lola comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Lola attacks him. 

Hoo boy, not a good situation here. Fido is again showing appropriate warning signs for this particular threat, but Lola is having none of that and instead of deferring, ends up escalating the situation. 

Let’s look at another example, which is similar but not as severe:

Fido is once again happily munching on his bully stick. Petey comes over and starts sniffing the bully stick that Fido is munching on. Fido shows his teeth and growls. Petey backs up a few inches, then immediately resumes sniffing the bully stick. Fido once again shows his teeth and growls. Petey continues backing up and immediately resuming sniffing the stick. 

This is not as severe as the situation with Lola, of course, but poor Fido can’t eat his bully stick in peace! Petey is being pretty rude by not respecting Fido’s request for space. Let’s give Fido a rest and we’ll look at another example. 

Helga is happily munching on a bully stick. Rover walks past her, about 4’ away, on his way to the water bowl. Helga lunges forward and bites him. 

In this example, Helga’s reaction is not in line with the threat level. Rover is pretty far away and presumably ignoring her and the item while he’s on his way to the water bowl. 

Let’s look at one more scenario. Peggy and Billy were told that Colonel Sanders was a resource guarder when they adopted him, but didn’t expect it to be anything like this! He growls if someone approaches his food or water dish, a chewy he’s working on, his bed and crate, and now Peggy whenever Billy approaches. Peggy and Billy are doing their best to avoid these scenarios, but it’s proving to be very difficult and they’re now worried about what else will set him off. 

In the above scenario, Colonel Sanders is guarding a lot of things: food, water, high-value items, space, and people. While guarding in and of itself is normal, this poor kiddo is likely stressed quite a lot of the time because of how many different things he guards. And, some of those things are not as manageable as others, like people guarding. Though he’s sticking with just warning signs and Peggy and Billy are doing their best to respect his request for space, we would still label this as unhealthy if only because of how stressed everyone is in this situation. Usually when I see pets like Colonel Sanders they often have other anxiety issues as well.

One last note while looking at abnormal and normal guarding scenarios: while I used pets in almost all examples, you could easily trade out a pet for a human in each of them. Humans often escalate guarding situations, like Petey or even Lola. We often also exacerbate resource guarding by trying to prevent it. More info about that here

 

Now what?

  • If you’ve seen resource guarding with your pet, think back to one of those situations. Do NOT illicit resource guarding for the sake of observation. Was your pet’s response reasonable for the threat? Did the threat (which may be you) respond appropriately? Which above scenario fits most closely with the situation you’re thinking about? Now you may be able to answer for yourself if your pet’s guarding seems normal or abnormal. 
  • If your pet is displaying guarding behavior, manage the situations so as to not illicit the behavior. This can be as simple as picking up toys that your pets fight over or feeding pets in separate rooms and picking up the bowls when they’re done. Item guarding is often quite easy to manage. 
  • Learn your pet’s body language. There are more subtle signs of guarding going on before the growl; we just need to know what to look for. 
  • If you need help with learning your pet’s body language or thinking through a management plan, our Beginning Behavior Modification Course is here to help. It goes through all of the foundation skills you need to be successful in a behavior modification plan. This is perfect for folks who have a pet displaying normal guarding behaviors but who want to make sure everyone stays safe and help keep the behavior from escalating.
  • If you have a pet displaying abnormal guarding behavior, check out our free Resource Guarding workshop happening next month. 

 

Happy training!

Allie

March 2021 Training Challenge: Teach a Trick

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Happy March and almost spring! It feels like a good time to have some fun with our pets as the weather is warming up, so this month’s training challenge is:

 

Teach your pet a new trick

 

This is one that anyone with a pet of any species can participate in! I’ll likely work on a target with Zorro (the turtle) and some new fitness exercises with Oso. The word “trick” is pretty subjective so I think some of those exercises should be allowed to count. 

 

Why I love trick training

There are a lot of reasons to love trick training. Two of my favorites, though, are that it can be a great relationship builder and a great confidence booster. I find that when I see my clients working on training exercises that are supposed to serve a particular purpose, like teaching “place” with the intention of using it when the doorbell rings or working on Look at That for reactivity, they tend to be a little more tightly wound. 

In general, they get more frustrated when their pet doesn’t pick up on the exercise quickly and they’re more quick to get discouraged when it’s not going as planned. With trick training, I usually see them loosen up and be more forgiving of their and their pets’ mistakes. That can go a long way towards relationship building! Everyone just gets to have fun. 

It can also be a good confidence booster and a way for our pets to break out of their shells if they’ve had negative experiences with training in the past. I’ve had several clients who’ve started working with me and using a LIMA training philosophy after working within a different training philosophy with their pet. Sometimes, that pet is not too keen on training because training had been scary or painful in the past. With these pets, we’ll often work on them just feeling comfortable in a training scenario. That sometimes involves trick training! 

We’ll teach them something that they have no prior experience with and make it super fun: lots of treats and lots of forgiveness for mistakes. When their pet starts understanding that training isn’t always scary or painful, we can then start moving on to other exercises. 

 

Some trick ideas

There are so many possibilities when it comes to trick training and there are a ton of great articles, YouTube videos, and resources out there to give you some ideas. Here are a few of my go-to options:

  • Nose to hand target
  • Nose to post-it note target, which can then be used to turn off lights, close a door, etc.
  • Spin right and spin left
  • Back up
  • Play dead
  • Roll over
  • Army crawl
  • Speak
  • Put toys away
  • Head down
  • Head nod “yes”
  • Head shake “no”
  • Sit pretty
  • Shake/paw
  • High five
  • High ten
  • Wave
  • Dance
  • Figure 8 between legs
  • Bow
  • Jump

And those are just a few options! If your pet is physically capable of performing it, then it can theoretically be taught. Keep in mind that there are some things you may not want to teach, though. For example, it’s a cool trick to teach your dog to open a door, but there may be some doors in your house that you’d prefer them not to know how to open. Think about potential future consequences of what you’re teaching your pet to do. 

Additionally, be thinking about the impact that the trick might have on their body. A pet doing a handstand looks amazing, but is not the greatest as far as wear and tear on their body is concerned. Just because we can teach something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. 

 

How to teach tricks

There are three ways that we at Pet Harmony recommend to teach a new behavior (more exist, but these are the most LIMA-friendly options): luring, capturing, and shaping.

Luring means having a treat (or toy, etc.) in your hand and moving that hand in a way that when your pet follows they perform the desired action. For example, to get a pet to sit via luring you’d move the lure hand up over their head and as the head goes up the butt goes down. 

Luring is an easy way to teach a lot of things and most pets do well with it. The thing to remember with luring is to fade the lure quickly so you’re not stuck having to have a treat in your hand forever. I generally lure 5 times then perform the same action sans treat in hand (this can act as your hand signal). If the animal does the behavior, great! We’ve moved onto a hand signal. If not, I lure 5 more times and try the hand signal again.

 

 

Capturing is waiting for your pet to do the desired action naturally and then rewarding them for doing so. Lying down is an easy one for this. Simply wait for your pet to lie down (which they’ll eventually do) and then treat. A marker is helpful for capturing. The downside is that the pet has to naturally perform the behavior for us to capture it. And, many people would say that another downside is having to employ the patience necessary to capture during training. 

 

 

Shaping is capturing and rewarding the baby steps, or approximations, towards the end goal behavior. For example, to teach a “head down” behavior you can wait for the head to move down a little bit and reward, then continue rewarding for the head moving down a little bit more and more. A marker is very helpful here. Shaping is the hardest of the three strategies for both the human and the pet to learn. However, it’s usually how you get all of the really cool tricks. 

 

 

Now what?

  • Choose a trick. If you’re newer to training, choose something that your pet naturally does or something similar to what your pet naturally does. It’s much easier to train a behavior that you know they can already do. If you’re more seasoned, try something a little harder or more involved. 
  • Develop your plan for how you want to train this trick. Can you lure it or do you need to capture or shape? If you try plan A and it doesn’t work, what’s plan B? Having an idea of how you’re going to train will help you make quicker decisions in the moment. We love Kikopup on YouTube for all things trick training. 
  • Start training! Make sure to have fun and that your pet is frequently being rewarded. Treats are easiest for this (which we talk about here). Frustration isn’t fun and not being treated frequently enough is frustrating.
  • If you’re stuck, go back to the drawing board on how to teach this particular trick. Be sure to make tweaks based on what you’re actually seeing with your eyes, not what you think is going through your pet’s mind or what your ideas may be trying to tell you you’re seeing. Stubborn in this case is really just not understanding, and that’s on the teacher, not the student. If you’re truly stuck, choose a new trick. Again, this is just for fun!
  • Send us pics and videos of you working with your pet on Facebook or Instagram @petharmonytraining. We love to see y’all having fun with your pets!

 

Happy training!

Allie

Agency: What It Is & Why Your Pet Needs It

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

 

What is agency?

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

 

Doesn’t meet the 2+ desirable choices criterion

 

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

 

Why agency is important

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

But… what if they make poor choices?

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

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

 

Now what?

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

 

Happy training!

Allie

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!

Allie

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!

Allie