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!


December 2020 Training Challenge: Holiday Safety

It’s time for our last training challenge of 2020! Keeping with our holiday and enrichment theme from last month, this month’s training challenge is inspired by the “Safety” chapter of our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World


Create a holiday safety enrichment plan


Holidays often bring about a lot of décor changes within our homes and some of those changes are safer than others. Plants like poinsettias and mistletoe are toxic to our furry family members (and us). Candles and wagging tails present fire hazards. Extra candies around the house make for prime counter surfing targets. 

Then there are those holiday decorations that aren’t necessarily dangerous in and of themselves, but that we still need to include in holiday safety plans, like Christmas trees. Or things like decorations with sentimental value that need to be protected from our pets rather than the other way around. And that’s just the decorations!

Here are 7 tips to creating your holiday safety enrichment plan:


  1. Manage during meals. Just like we talked about last month with Thanksgiving, sometimes management during family meals is the easiest solution. Set up the environment to keep your pet out of the kitchen or in another room entirely during holiday meal prep and eating if need be.
  2. Manage stranger danger issues. Holiday parties are not a great time to work on your pet’s stranger danger issues. This is probably not as much of a problem with this year’s holidays, but something to keep in mind for the future. Put your pet completely away so that you don’t have to worry about anyone’s safety while you’re celebrating. They’ll be happy to be away from the festivities, too.
  3. Keep ornaments, lights, and tinsel off the bottom branches of your tree. All can pose as hazards, whether ingested, tangled up in, or knocked off by your pet.
  4. Keep candles out of reach. This is easier said than done for those of you with cats in your home. 
  5. Keep hazardous gifts out of reach. Make a note of any gifts (especially food items) that are hazardous for your pet to get into and ask anyone else sending gifts if their presents should be kept out of reach too. 
  6. Watch the wires. Make sure that wires are well-hidden from pets who are prone to chewing. 
  7. Exercise pens are a Christmas tree’s best friend. Do you have a dog who’s a little too interested in your tree? Put a free-standing baby gate or exercise pen around your tree. Here’s the link to an exercise pen that we like (also pictured below). Disclosure: This is an affiliate link. 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!

There are, of course, many other things that you may want to include in your holiday safety enrichment plan and each person’s plan is going to look different depending on how they celebrate during this time of year. We’d love to hear what’s included in your plan!


Now what?

  • Decide how you’d like to create your holiday safety enrichment plan. Does it make sense to create it as you decorate? Are there parts you need to plan for before you start?
  • Gather any management tools you need. Pick up baby gates, exercise pens, and the like before you need them. 
  • Discuss your pet’s holiday safety enrichment plan with your entire household and anyone else who is visiting your house. Make sure that everyone is on the same page to limit slip-ups. 
  • Be prepared to tweak your pet’s plan based on how it’s going. The best plans are dynamic. 
  • Share your plan with us on Facebook and Instagram @petharmonytraining 


Happy training & happy holidays!


Pet Behavior During & After the Pandemic

It’s been hard to write this post. Heck, I’ll admit that I didn’t want to and wasn’t planning to, but have gotten requests from some of you and feel a sense of obligation to our readers and clients who are searching for information. We try to be a pretty upbeat, positive company but the reality is that we’re scared, too. We’re not sure of all the effects that this pandemic will have in the years to come. And it’s hard for all of us, ourselves included, to be at our best when we’re struggling to make sure that our most basic needs are being met. Often I can use writing and focusing on other projects as a way to step out of reality, even just for a moment. And, because of that, I often avoid writing about things that are still quite fresh and heavy on my heart: like this post. The one that I knew I would eventually have to write. The one that I know that you guys are looking for. 

I suppose this is all to say that this article isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to your pet’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. We, like you, are still learning what the ramifications are and how this impacts animal behavior. There are things we may be wrong about. There may be experts who disagree with something here. There are things that we may say later that contradict something written today. That’s okay. Part of the beauty of a learning journey is being vulnerable and honest throughout, and admitting when we’ve learned something that is different to what we used to think. And, I’ll be frank in saying that this will be one of the more candid posts you read from me (as you can already surmise). It’s just plain hard for me to be eloquent and concise at the moment. But, I’m allowing myself some grace in the name of helping pets, and I hope you can do the same. So, without further ado and with no more disclaimers, I bring you Pet Harmony’s take on pet behavior during the 2020 pandemic. Buckle up; it’s a long one.

What we’ve been seeing

Emily and I joke that behavior challenges come in waves. Sometimes it makes sense as to why that happens, like when we suddenly get a burst of leash reactivity cases every spring. Or why we sometimes see a surge of stranger danger cases right after Thanksgiving leading into Christmas. But other times there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason. Just a few months ago it seemed like the only new cases I was getting were dog and kid cases; but I digress. This pandemic has brought forth a few behavior challenges that we’re getting many requests for, including:

  • Reactivity (on leash and behind a barrier)
  • Intraspecies aggression with housemates
  • General anxiety (especially regressions)

These make a whole lot of sense and, you’ll notice, that these are all anxiety-related behaviors. So why would we expect to see an increase in anxiety-related behaviors right now? A few reasons:

  • Change in routine. Individuals with anxiety do quite well with routines; they can help to lessen stress. It’s quite common to see individuals who experience anxiety normally to have regressions in their otherwise improved coping skills when their routine is disrupted. Like, say, when their humans are now home 24/7 and schedules are complete anarchy. 
  • Less nap time. I have spoken with a number of clients, and my husband, about how pets who don’t get enough sleep can wind up like cranky toddlers, thus increasing agitation, reactivity, and anxiety. Oso had a hard time the first couple of weeks that we were home and I realized it was because he wasn’t napping as much throughout the day (us pesky humans wanting to cuddle him got in the way of that). 
  • More togetherness. This is along the same vein as routine changes and less nap time. I’m seeing an increase in clients asking for help with their pets suddenly not getting along in the house. Oftentimes, when I learn what their routine was before and after shelter-in-place procedures, I find that the animals are spending a lot more time together than they once did. We all need breaks from our housemates no matter how much we love them; especially when we’re with them 24/7. Many people are acutely feeling that fact right now.
  • Everyone and their dog, quite literally, is outside walking. I get it; I also try to get out and walk daily. But for pets who already have reactivity or anxiety from people passing by their house, yard, or while they’re on leash are now experiencing a lot more triggers than normal. And, not only are there more triggers, they’re far less predictable than they used to be. We used to know when the quieter walking times and areas were and people with reactive pets could gauge when and where it was better to walk to avoid stressors. It’s far harder than it used to be to do that. 
  • Some household triggers are increasing. If triggers outside increasing weren’t enough, there are plenty of pets out there whose fears are coming from inside the house. This can include things like noises, household members moving around or doing certain activities, and, for some of those newly adopted pets, fear of their new humans altogether. More triggers means more stress and more stress often manifests itself in anxiety-related behaviors.
  • Our stress adds to their stress. You’ve probably heard this adage before, that when we are stressed our pets become more stressed, too. It can be true! Dogs can even smell our stress hormones so it’s very hard to fake it with them. We’re all stressed right now. That can further lend itself to our pet’s new or exaggerated behaviors. 

What we expect to see

We’ve now been in this long enough that it appears the above are primarily where people are currently feeling friction. But what happens when the world resumes to some semblance of normality? There are two concerns that I’ve seen over and again: separation anxiety and puppy development. Let’s briefly explore both. 

Separation anxiety

I’ll confess, I have a pet peeve (well, more than one but this one is relevant to the topic). I’ve seen a lot of articles talking about “Preventing Separation Anxiety” and it frankly gets under my skin. Separation-related disorders are complex and there are several factors that are involved, including genetics and other contributing factors we have no control over. Prevention is not guaranteed and we shouldn’t be talking about it as if it is. Additionally, development of a separation-related problem is also not guaranteed and we shouldn’t be talking about that as if it is, either. We need to strike a balance. 

Experts in the field all seem to be speaking right now about their fear of a rise in separation-related disorders when people start leaving for work again. I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay attention to what they’re saying. It’s wholly possible that we will see many more separation-related cases in the future. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of pets having separation-related disorders crop up after their humans start a new job and their hours change.That will happen to some pets soon, unfortunately. 

That said, it’s still a complex issue and there are many, many factors involved, some of which scientists are just scratching the surface of (like epigenetics). I expect to see an uptick in these cases in the future, but I’m not concerned about every single pet out there. I am, certainly, concerned about pets who’ve shown inklings toward this in the past and those with general anxiety. If that’s your pet, let’s do something now to address it. If that’s not your pet, let’s keep it in the back of our minds but focus on other things. 

Puppy Development

Hoo boy there are a lot of new puppies out there! In addition to the wave of cases I’m currently seeing above, I’ve also gotten more requests for puppy sessions than I have in the past several months combined (to be fair, I don’t often get many puppy requests since aggression, reactivity, and anxiety are my passion, but still). The question that’s on everyone’s mind is: how will these puppies who are experiencing their critical socialization period during shelter-in-place behave when they’re older? I’m curious to know the answer, too. 

Puppies’ critical socialization period is from about 3-5 to 12-14 weeks. During this time they’re like sponges absorbing information about the world around them: the good, the bad, the familiar, and the dangerous. Learning continues throughout their entire lives, but the socialization window is over far before they reach mental maturity. So what will happen when we are limiting our own exposure to the world, and consequently theirs?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. I can see it going a lot of different ways. An interesting thing about the critical socialization period is that it’s actually composed of two parts: one where they’re learning how to be a member of their species and the other where they’re learning about the rest of the world. While there’s a huge emphasis on socialization with other dogs in American culture, the truth is that by the time puppies enter our households at 8 weeks old they’re ending the period where they’re learning how to dog and entering the period where they’re learning how to live in a human world. The puppy should’ve already been meeting other dogs before they came to us (within the safety protocols for their health). So is it necessary for puppies to practice their social skills with other dogs after that first half of the socialization period? Absolutely. Is it necessary for them to learn how to keep their cool when seeing other dogs out in the world? Absolutely. Is it necessary for them to interact with a bunch of other dogs while they’re learning how to be in our world? Probably not. But we’ll certainly learn more as these pandemic puppies grow up.

The reason that I’m skeptical as to the claims that this will be terrible for puppy development is two-fold. One: people have more opportunities to interact with their puppies, to build relationships with them, to teach them how to interact with our human world, and to build their confidence and resiliency when they’re home all day with their puppies. Two: most other countries put far less emphasis on dog-dog interactions than the United States does, and they also have lower incidences of reactivity. When we put more of an emphasis on relationships with humans than other dogs, we see a difference in behavior. Maybe this won’t be the worst thing from the lens of dog-dog socialization.

Where I am more concerned is with these dogs having a harder time when folks go back to working in offices and when meeting other people. Specifically, I’m concerned that these puppies won’t learn how to cope with being alone, learn how to entertain themselves, and be properly socialized with people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, ages, genders, and ethnicities. The first is taught early on in day to day life and the latter often happens in puppy classes without the owners realizing it. New puppy owners will need to be more cognizant of working on these things; they are still quite possible to do even with social distancing. We’ll get into that in the next section.

Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

What to work on now 

Alright. We’ve spoken about what’s currently happening and what may happen in the future. Let’s talk about what we can do right now for our pets. 

  1. Develop a new routine, including nap time and decompression time from housemates.
  2. Get window film. Seriously. If I had a dollar for every time a client thanked me for suggesting window film for their reactive pet I would be rich. It’s hard to yell at things out the window when you can’t see them (though, noises are still fair game). [P.S. That’s an  affiliate link. 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!]
  3. Tweak your management plan to accommodate new or increasing triggers. What used to work might not work right now and that’s okay. Avoid triggers for now and your behavior consultant can help you modify the behavior later. 
  4. Build calming activities into your day. Things like calming music or background noises, aromatherapy, and massage are often calming to members of all species (but not all individuals!)
  5. If you haven’t already been dealing with separation-related behaviors, leave your house. Go for a walk without your dog; it will be just as beneficial in the long-run as going on a walk with him. Give him a stuffed Kong, food puzzle, or chewy when you leave so he gets to party while you’re away. 
  6. If you have already seen separation-related behaviors, start (or continue) working with a consultant now. I would also be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “I tried to do a bunch of suggestions that I found or heard and wish I’d started with a professional sooner.” Gimmicks are just that. They don’t work for every individual. Honest to goodness behavior modification done at a pace that doesn’t elicit anxiety will yield results far more efficiently and effectively than trying a bunch of gimmicks to see if they work. Now is the perfect time to work on separation anxiety with the help of your consultant. 
  7. Work on puppy socialization at home. I love Dr. Yin’s puppy checklist found here. Other great resources include those from Puppy Culture and Puppy Start Right. There are a whole heck of a lot of ways to build confidence and resilience in your puppy right from home. 
  8. Take your puppy out and about and teach them humans and dogs are great at a distance. Your puppy doesn’t need to meet someone to know that they’re alright! Simple things like playing, basic training, and treats falling from the sky can tell your puppy that great stuff happens with you when all those other people and dogs are around. You become more fun and others become less scary. Win-win!
  9. Focus on enrichment as a way to meet all of your pet’s needs. Building a solid enrichment plan can help with all of the above and more. We can help with this; more info below.

Now what?

  • Just as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I’m giving myself some grace to not be at my best right now. I invite you to do the same. Focus on just one thing that you can do right now. When that feels manageable, add another if it makes sense to do so. 
  • When in doubt, increase management. We can modify behavior later. Right now just focus on the behavior not getting worse. 
  • Reach out to a behavior consultant if you need help developing a management plan and/or if you have the wherewithal to start on a behavior modification plan. Remote sessions are just as effective as in-person sessions with a seasoned consultant! 
  • Register for our FREE enrichment workshop: 5 Days to a More Effective Enrichment Strategy. We’ll give you tools to create a more effective plan efficiently and without breaking the bank. Register here:

Happy training,


Conversations with My Dog

A lot of people talk to their pets. I’m one of them. I ask Oso questions he’ll never be able to answer, I sing him songs that he doesn’t understand, and I occasionally throw in something that he does know like, “Do you want to go outside?” Humans are talkative beings. Sorry, Oso. But what if I told you that Oso can hold his own in some of our conversations? I sound crazy, right? Let me explain. 

This may just look like a super cute picture of Oso, but it’s actually the beginning of a conversation. Here’s what he’s saying:

Oso: *puts head on couch* I’d like to come up on the couch. 

Me: Okay, come up then.

At this point, one of two scenarios play out:

Scenario 1: 

Oso: *comes up on couch and snuggles* Hooray snuggle time!

Intense snuggling: the result of missing yesterday’s snuggles.

Scenario 2: 

Oso: *looks at me without moving his head* There’s stuff in my way.

Me: Is something in your way? You’re ridiculous. *Continues chattering while clearing space for him on the couch* Come up then. 

Oso: *looks at me without moving his head* There’s still not enough room.

The subtle eye movement here is impressive.

Me: *Sigh* You’re the worst. *Moves my legs to give him even more space*

Oso: *comes up on couch, sprawls out, and falls asleep*

Now, I’ve clearly anthropomorphized some of this. I don’t *really* know his side of the story. But, what I do know is that we very consistently have this interaction. We have both learned this way of communication from one another. His head-on-couch behavior prompts me to create space for him and he comes up after I do so. He continues to put his head on the couch because he gets the space he’s looking for and I get snuggles so I continue giving him space. It may look unconventional but it definitely qualifies as a conversation. Communication is so much more than talking.

Expanding the picture

Oso learned how to use a “head down” behavior as a conversation starter not through this couch behavior, but during our training sessions. We often start our training sessions with his nail file board. However, after he scratched for a varied length of time, he consistently would become disinterested in continuing. In the beginning I took that to mean that he wasn’t interested in continuing our training session in general and would move on to my own thing. He would continue putzing around the room, though, as if to say that he wasn’t done with the interaction. Maybe I had gotten it wrong?

Around this same time, I was teaching him a “head down” behavior as a new trick. While I don’t remember the actual interaction, my assumption is that during a training session he decided to do a “head down” behavior instead of continuing to use his nail file board and I started reinforcing him for that. We continued the session but switched to a new activity. It only took a few of these interactions for us to finally be on the same wavelength (humans are slow, aren’t we?): he wanted to continue training but didn’t want to do his nail file board anymore. 

The “head down” behavior took off after we learned how to communicate together in this way. He started doing it during training sessions any time that he wanted to switch to a new activity. I learned that he likes switching up what we’re working on far more than I was doing previously. He started doing it whenever he got frustrated because I wasn’t clear in what I wanted. He started doing it to ask to get up on the bed or when he wanted me to create space for him on the couch. He started doing it to ask for most things that he wanted (the only different one is when he wants to go outside). He learned that that behavior works for getting him things he wants.

The Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) term for this type of behavior is called, “manding”. Essentially, it means requesting something that you want. Oso learned “head down” as a manding behavior because I treated the behavior as a form of communication instead of a random or coincidental occurrence. Not only is his “head down” behavior cute and unobtrusive, it is so much less annoying than many of the behaviors he could have chosen: barking, pawing, nudging my hand. 

Here’s my challenge for you: start treating your pet’s behavior as a form of communication instead of a random occurrence. Look around and assess the situation. What could they potentially be saying to you? What has your pet “gotten” for doing this behavior in the past (attention, petting, treats, play time starts, etc.)? 

What conversations will you have with your pet?

Now what?

  • Observe your pet’s behavior free from judgment. Take away the morals– good behavior and bad behavior– and simply watch. Is there something that they do fairly regularly? 
  • After observing their behavior, start noticing the situation around that behavior. What happened before? What happens after? Again, this step should be free from judgment. 
  • Are there conversations that you and your pet already have? Your observations may uncover some form of communication that you weren’t cognizant of!
  • Is there a way that you’d like your pet to communicate with you? One of the easiest ways is to choose a behavior that your pet is already performing and reinforcing it. You can also choose to teach a new behavior and use that instead! 
  • Start training! I chose to reinforce Oso’s manding behavior not with food, but with “real life” reinforcers like access to furniture and fun training exercises. 
  • Post pics and videos of the conversations you have with your pet on our Facebook page! We’d love to see them. 

Happy training!


Winter Oso

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

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

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

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


It Was Enough Until It Wasn’t

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

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

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

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


Solving Winter Oso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now what?

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

Happy training!