I am sometimes asked what the difference is between a behavior consultant and a trainer. They are close siblings but different processes. Behavior consulting employs training but the reverse is not true. Training involves getting an animal to perform a behavior when asked. Good training for pets involves coaching others to be able to elicit that same response. Behavior consulting requires that we look at as many factors as possible – medical, environmental, past behavior and experiences, and more - to understand behavior that is being exhibited and (if appropriate) figure out how to modify it.
“Behavior consulting is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together,” is my fall back explanation.
I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. I find them meditative. I can’t multitask, I have to focus on finding matching patterns and shapes. Recently, I was finishing up a puzzle and my well-worn comparison of puzzles to behavior consulting came to mind. As I turned it around in my brain, I realized that both jigsaw puzzles and behavior consulting require more than “just” putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
I have a strategy when it comes to puzzles. Doesn’t everyone?! There is more than one way to tackle a puzzle. Some more efficient than others. But you settle on the approach that makes the most sense for your brain.
I start with the frame. The nice thing about starting this way is that all the pieces have something in common – a straight edge. So, the frame comes together pretty quickly. From there, I can decide on which area I should focus next. Maybe it’s a distinct color pattern or a specific part of a picture that is easy to piece together. I sift through all the pieces to find those that might fit in this specific area, match up those that do, and eliminate those that don’t.
For the most part, I stick to one area, finish it, and then move on. But if I happen to find an “easy fit” elsewhere in the puzzle, I put that piece where it belongs and set it aside for later. Same thing for two random pieces that magically fit together even though I wasn’t trying to match them. I don’t want to lose them back in the pile of all the pieces that don’t yet make sense to me.
Some puzzles are hard. Colors are just a shade different or bleed together. The shapes of pieces are similar. Patterns repeat with only the subtlest of differences. If I stare too long at the pieces, I stop seeing how they might fit.
I have found that I do my best work when I have fresh eyes, so I’ve developed a ritual of setting a time limit for how long I will work at a puzzle in one sitting. I set my timer for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes and accomplish what I can in that time. It never fails that when I come back to a puzzle after being away from it for a day, I see an obvious fit that I missed before. And then I can build on that success for the session.
There comes a point, usually halfway through finishing a puzzle – sometimes more – when pieces start to fall into place easily and quickly. The rest of the picture helps me see what is missing and where the pieces need to go.
But then, invariably, the last few dozen pieces are stubborn. I don’t know if I get over-confident or over-tired, but I hit a roadblock. It takes me a bit to find the one or two pieces that I need to have fall into place so that I can make sense of the remaining spaces. This is usually one of those times when I walk away so that I can come back later with fresh eyes.
Once that last piece falls into place and the picture is complete, I savor the accomplishment. The bigger the puzzle, the longer I leave it sitting there to enjoy the beauty that resulted from my focused work. A day or maybe a few, but then I put it away and move on to the challenge of the next puzzle.
The past week has been an emotional one in our country. The events that occurred in Central Park and in Minneapolis have left me feeling sad and concerned about the state of our society. I am not one to invite conflict or to make political statements. My work is the opposite of political and contentious. It aims to prevent, reduce, and eliminate the presence of conflict in the lives of people and their pets.
In the field of animal welfare, “The Five Freedoms,” originally established in 1965 by Britain’s Farm Animal Welfare Council, are internationally accepted standards by which we measure the humane treatment of all species. The Five Freedoms are:
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
Freedom to express normal behavior
Freedom from fear and distress.
I’ve been thinking about these five freedoms quite a bit over the past several days and realizing that many Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color in this country are not afforded these freedoms, particularly that last one, “freedom from fear and distress.” How sad that we can articulate the belief that this should be a freedom for non-human animals of all species when we are unable to provide an environment in which it is true for all humans.
As a person and as an animal behavior and animal welfare professional, I am passionate about advocating for those who have no voice. I can never know what it means or feels like to be a cat or a dog but that doesn’t stop me from trying to improve the quality of their lives and the ways that people treat them.
As a service provider and business owner, I want to be clear that I strive to support people of all ages, gender identities, races, colors, religions, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic classes as they advocate for themselves and their pets. I will do whatever I can to make my services accessible and affordable to anyone who is experiencing a behavior problem with their pet or who wants to learn more about how to improve the quality of their relationship with an animal. I also want to help young and other emerging professionals who are under-represented in the field of pet training and pet behavior.
When it comes to the Five Freedoms, I may not be able to ensure all of them for the human members of my diverse community, but I want to assure every person that they can contact me to help alleviate some of the discomfort, distress, and pain that they may be feeling due to challenges with their pets. They can do so without fear and with the knowledge that I will work to bridge cultural, communication and any other gaps we may encounter in our work together.
As of May 19, 2020, By Your Side Pet Behavior Consulting & Training, LLC will offer both in-person and virtual private sessions. In-person group lessons will not resume at this time. Group lessons will continue online.
My primary concern is to protect the health of you, your family, and myself while still being able to help you and your dog with behavioral concerns during this unique time. Please schedule your sessions based on your comfort level and your ability to comply with the following health and safety requirements.
If you are not comfortable meeting in-person or are not able to comply with these requirements, please schedule virtual (video) sessions which can be just as effective as meeting in person in many cases. If you schedule an in-person meeting but chose not to adhere to the following when I arrive, I will not conduct the session and you will still be responsible for payment.
1. For all in-person sessions during Phases 1 and 2 of Reopening Massachusetts:
2. I prefer that payments be made electronically for both virtual and in-person sessions. If you need to pay by check for in-person (only) sessions, we will make accommodations at the session.
3. As always, written information, including instructions for training exercises, will be sent electronically.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
For one of the many hats I wear as an animal behavior consultant and trainer, I work with traumatized animals. Even before I did, I was interested in learning about PTSD-like patterns of behavior in animals coming out of traumatic situations. My interest stemmed from working with hoarded cats and from the appearance in my life of my dog seven years ago. As animals have taught me, trauma comes in different forms. It is not only a single, disturbing event. It can also be the result of prolonged exposure to a distressing experience.
Like so many other people, the COVID-19 stay-at-home order has impacted me professionally, financially, and mentally. Simultaneously, a traumatized foster cat has come into my life. It seems fitting that I am drawn, once again, to examine the impacts of trauma.
I got a call two weeks ago from the operations director of an animal welfare organization for which I sit on the Board. I had made it known that I would be home for a while due to the “COVID-thing” and available to foster kittens if any came our way from one of the many community cat colonies that we assist. Instead, I got a wreck of a cat.
Percy was in a lot of pain when I picked him up from the vet clinic. He had likely been attacked by another animal. He had multiple puncture wounds to a rear leg and broken nails and teeth. The vet drained an abscess on his leg the day the before I picked him up. He was underweight, had a horrible upper respiratory infection and diarrhea, and tested positive for FIV. While the vet cleaned him up, she neutered him. “OK,” I thought, “Not fuzzy, fun kittens but this guy needs someone who can care for him physically and behaviorally, and I can do that.”
Antibiotics, pain meds, wiping his sore and dirty bottom, and warm compresses daily added to the trauma of his experience. He only got up to move to his food bowl and did not put any weight on the injured leg. He tolerated my touches with ears turned away. Once he was done with pain meds, just touching the warm compresses to his leg caused him enough pain that he would hiss and “try” to bite me. Two more abscesses developed despite my efforts. A week after I originally picked him up, the veterinarian decided that removing his leg was going to be the best way to help him get on the road to recovery.
In the few days since I brought Percy home after the amputation, he is a new cat. Without that painful leg, he has started to push his head into my hand for pets. He rubs against me and the furniture in the foster room. Occasionally, I hear a soft purr while I pet I him. He gets up to eat while I am near and is learning how to get around on three legs. He does not miss his injured leg; removing it freed him to move beyond the trauma. He is not 100% yet but he is no longer in pain and no longer feels like he has to constantly protect himself from further pain.
Watching Percy’s transformation got me thinking about the impact of trauma on behavior. Percy did not voluntarily get rid of his leg; he could not make that decision for himself. But now that it is gone, he is happier and feels safer. His behavior reflects those feelings.
The unexpectedness and uncertainty that we are living with during the COVID-19 pandemic is traumatic for many of us in so many ways – financially, physically, socially, emotionally. We are bound to live with some behavioral ramifications of our current situation, but we can bounce back and thrive.
I have seen behavioral resilience in both cats and dogs who have come from traumatic situations. But it wasn’t until I watched Percy let go of the tangible evidence of his trauma and listened to the audiobook “The Education of Will” by Patricia McConnell, in which she describes her own journey out of trauma, that the pieces snapped together for me.
Why do we choose to hang onto trauma and pain and to let it define us? We hang onto “things” that are not healthy, and we cling to the “way things should be” even if those things, people, or ways no longer serve us or cause us continued trauma. Our behavior reflects our pain and the burden of carrying around something that we feel we must protect. We are cautious and fearful and sometimes downright unpleasant to be around.
If we can learn to let go of the things that no longer serve us when we come out on the other side of this pandemic-induced trauma, we will be better for it. Maybe we can all figure out how to stop hanging on to the pain that weighs us down and makes us suspicious that others mean us harm. I hope we learn that we can purr again.
Recently, I have seen a few new Feliway commercials on television and, of course, my eyes turn and my ears perk up when anything related to cats comes on TV. (Here is a link to one of the commercials.) For those of you unfamiliar with Feliway, it is a synthetic version of the facial pheromones of cats. I do not want to get into the science of pheromones here, but they are naturally occurring biochemicals; humans and dogs secrete pheromones, too, as do all mammals.
The idea behind creating synthetic feline facial pheromones is that their use may reduce stress in cats by creating a calming physiological response. Much of the research done on these synthetic pheromones has been done by or supported by the companies who manufacture them, particularly Ceva. They tout that Feliway is “clinically proven” to work because they have funded studies and have widely distributed the product to veterinary offices for trial, receiving anecdotal reports that it seems to reduce stress in cats. In a quick search, I could find little independent research on the efficacy of Feliway. Here is one non-biased study.
Anecdotally, my experience has been that Feliway falls into the “can’t hurt, might help” category. I have not found it to be efficacious in reducing stress when I have tried the spray and wipe forms with my own cats and foster cats. I have had some clients who report that they have seen a reduction in the symptoms of stress in their cats using the plug-in diffusers. I have heard from an equal number of clients that they saw no difference in their cats’ stress levels with and without Feliway. As a result, I rarely recommend that clients spend the money on Feliway.
Back to the Feliway commercials that prompted me to write this blog. My feelings about Feliway's efficacy aside, as a cat behavior consultant, I am bothered by the messages they send.
The title of the commercials is “You wouldn’t put up with it if someone else did it.” The commercials are about stress-related responses. So why does Ceva portray scratching, peeing outside of the litter box and hiding as intentional and vindictive?
Scratching is a NORMAL cat behavior. Cats scratch to stretch, slough dead nails, and mark territory. They scratch surfaces that feel good and help them accomplish these healthy, normal goals. Rarely is scratching a “stress-related” behavior in cats. And NEVER do they scratch a surface vindictively. Scratching of what we deem as inappropriate surfaces by our cats should be managed by providing appropriate surfaces in places where cats like to scratch – not by discouraging scratching altogether.
On the other hand, cats do hide when they are stressed. And if a synthetic pheromone helps them feel comfortable enough to VOLUNTARILY come out and socialize, great! But, again, hiding is a natural behavior, a normal coping mechanism - not something that we “shouldn’t put up with.”
Urinating outside of the litter box is often a sign of stress for cats but it may be a sign of a medical problem. Rather than suggest that a pheromone diffuser be your first line of defense, the responsible advice is to start with a veterinary visit to rule out a medical problem. The litter box itself, the type of litter, cleanliness, and location all come in as recommendations ahead of potential pheromone usage to reduce stress.
It is disappointing that Ceva, a company that could do so much good for the public perception of cats and their welfare, chose to put profits over science-based education for cat owners. They could have responsibly promoted Feliway as a supplement to medical and behavioral interventions. Instead, they suggest that cat owners should not have to “put up with” normal feline behaviors, including expressions of stress.
When we choose to share our lives with a companion animal, we need to understand that we are not living with a robot, but a sentient being who deserves the freedom to express normal behaviors. If expression of those normal behaviors makes it difficult for us to continue living with that animal, then we should work through the challenges using compassionate, science-based behavior modifications and not put our faith in a well-marketed faux magic bullet.
In my last post, I talked about enrichment and, in general, why you should do it for your pets. In the dog behavior and training world, enrichment for shelter and pet dogs is becoming a more popular/trendy topic. People are learning about creative ways to feed their dogs and to provide mental stimulation through enriching food-based, scent-based, and play-based activities. This is great news for dogs and dog owners. So, naturally, I am going to talk CATS first. Our cats need enrichment as much as our dogs do and for many of the same reasons.
Enrichment for cats can fall into one or more of these categories (and probably some others that I am forgetting): environmental, interactive play, self-play toys, scent, and feeding.
Here are just a some of the reasons that enrichment is important for your cat:
With the social distancing/isolation orders in place, many of us are staying home more. What a great time to get to know your cat better and have some fun experimenting with ways to provide a more enriched life!
Over the next week, I am going to post a series of short (and very homemade!) videos on cat enrichment on my YouTube Channel Cat Behavior Playlist. Check out the first video below. Try out some of the ideas you see in the videos, research other ideas and let the fun begin. I’d love to hear what works for your cat, what you learned about your cat, and any of the creative ways you found to enrich your cat’s life….and yours.
While we are all staying home, we are learning how challenging it is to have limited activity and entertainment options. Many people can “find things to do” to occupy some of their time but after a while, even the most resourceful and creative among us will be itching to get back “normal” routines and behavior.
Imagine how your pets feel every day! Their abilities to “find things to do” are more limited than ours – and when they do “find” something to do, it may not be something we want them to do! Just the other night, my dog decided to shred one of her beds. She may have been bored and decided that the stuffing flying all over the place was fun. She may have just been “fluffing up” the bed. I don’t know. But she found a thing to do, and it wasn’t something I appreciated.
So how do we help our pets channel their energies – both mental and physical – appropriately? The same way we would for ourselves: EXERCISE and ENRICHMENT!
EXERCISE for our pets is similar to what we are doing for ourselves without the access to fitness clubs and gyms right now: running, playing, jumping, hiking, chasing things (frisbees, balls, etc.). It is important that you always provide exercise (safe, species appropriate activities) for your pets to help them stay healthy and well-behaved. And, yes, cats need exercise, too (more on that in a future post). Enrichment for our pets, however, is going to look a little different than it does for us. They could care less about reading books, pampering treatments, and podcasts.
So, what exactly is ENRICHMENT for pets? My favorite explanation is from the 2010 Guidelines for Standards of Care in Shelter Animals written by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. This definition of enrichment applies to all pets, not just shelter animals. The ASV tells us that enrichment is:
"…a process for improving the environment and behavioral care of confined animals within the context of their behavioral needs. The purpose of enrichment is to reduce stress and improve well-being by providing physical and mental stimulation, encouraging species-typical behaviors…and allowing animals more control over their environment."
I love this definition! Enrichment reduces stress. It improves well-being. Enrichment meets the behavioral needs of animals and allows them to be themselves (“species-typical behaviors”). Isn’t this what we all want for our pets (and ourselves these days)?!
My next couple of posts are going to focus on enrichment activities and items for dogs and cats that you can easily and inexpensively implement in your home. Stay tuned and get ready to have some fun with your pet. My hope it that providing enrichment for your pet will be so enriching for YOU that you will want to continue to do it even after you get back to your work and social routines!
Nobody told me there'd be days like these...Strange days indeed. – John Lennon
If someone had told me a month ago that I would not be allowed to go to a person’s home at their request and help them work through their pet’s behavioral problems, I couldn’t have imagined it. If I had been told that my small group classes would be cancelled because 10 human beings and their dogs wouldn’t be allowed in one large room at the same time, I would have questioned their logic.
Pet behavior consulting and training are “non-essential” services. So those of us who serve as educators, trainers, resources, support systems, trusted advisors, and a myriad of other roles for new or struggling pet owners are sitting on the sidelines. We are concerned about the behavior problems that are not being addressed and those that will develop as a result of owners being home 24/7 and routines being disrupted. We worry for the puppies growing up in this strange time when it is difficult, if not impossible, to socialize them properly to new dogs, new people, new spaces and new experiences. These are not our pets, but it is in our nature to wonder and to be concerned. We are problem-solvers by nature. We don’t like to feel helpless when it comes to the welfare of animals.
Many of my colleagues have re-focused their pet behavior problem solving skills on the logistics of how to get help to pet owners who need it. Virtual consultations and training sessions are bubbling to the top of the solutions-list. Blogs, resource lists, recorded educational content, webinars, and eye-catching graphics are just a few of the other creative ways I have seen behavior consultants and trainers try to stay connected with their clients and communities.
I am also choosing to offer virtual consultations and training. I am most comfortable working with people one-on-one. I value the two-way communication, the opportunity to analyze the details of a situation and the ability to adjust as we gather more data. I want to see the pet's environment and pick up details that owners may not realize are important. I like to (hopefully) interact with the animal, get to know him/her. It helps to see, firsthand, how owners and their families interact with their animals. I want to see how they respond to problem behaviors, their body language with their pet, how children's behavior may impact the pet, and more. I work best when I can observe and analyze because an owner is not an objective source of information, and they may (or may not) tell me about a detail is important because they do not realize it is important.
While in-person consultations are ideal, we aren’t living in ideal circumstances. I heard an interview with the head of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers; he was talking about the Corp’s response and building field hospitals. He made a statement (paraphrased) that he did not want “ideal” from his engineers. They didn’t have time for that. He needed “good enough” so that they could get these hospitals up and running quickly but safely. We are in times of “good enough” when it comes to behavioral help for pets. For now, virtual consultations are safe, and they are “good enough” – certainly better than doing nothing.
This crisis will come to an end. I can’t help but wonder and worry about the animals – particularly the pets – affected by the pandemic. Some will become homeless or be rehomed. Others will go through critical developmental stages under very unusual conditions. Still others may develop problem behaviors as a result of their routines (and those of their owners) being disrupted for an extended period. When the dust settles, I will be ready to be by their sides and the sides of the owners – literally – to start the process of recovery and rehabilitation. In the meantime, I will be there figuratively and that will be “good enough”.
"Reactive" is a term that is used a lot in dog behavior and training circles, and not without good reason (that’s another post). But what is a "reactive dog"? If you have one, you probably know. If you do not have one, you may be at a loss when you encounter one.
Applied Animal Behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall defines reactive dogs as those who "respond either more quickly or more intensely to a given stimulus than other dogs" to the point that it is very difficult to impossible to interrupt their reaction. These are the dogs who bark and lunge at the end of a leash when a person or a dog or some other trigger passes by. They are the dogs who bark uncontrollably from inside of a house when they hear a mysterious sound or the mail delivery person comes to the door. They enter a zone when they (quickly) cross their tolerance threshold; no matter how many times their person calls their name or tries to pull them away, they just can’t stop.
Working through reactivity with a dog is a commitment. It is often frustrating, exhausting and can be embarrassing. People working with their reactive dogs make lifestyle changes. It is also hard for the dog to feel stressed out by things that they encounter every day.
If you do not have a reactive dog, it may be hard to fathom that taking your dog for a walk or having a friend over to your house could be a challenge. As the friend, neighbor, or passerby-in-public of someone with reactive dog, you can help! Here are a few tips you can employ the next time you encounter a crazily barking dog on one end of the leash and an exasperated person on the other.
Hopefully someone out there "got" my title. Now that I satisfied my rare need to be cheesy...
I’ve had a handful of cases these past few months involving aggression between cats who previously lived together peacefully. Aggression between feline housemates can be triggered by a number of different things – a trip to the vet by one of the cats, wildlife or an outdoor cat lurking around the house, the addition of a new member of the household (human or non-human), or re-directed aggression in response to a frightening event (startling noise, for example). Whatever the cause (and sometimes we don’t know the cause), sudden fighting between household kitty siblings is unsettling for all family members.
If you find yourself with bickering cats, the first thing you should do is separate them – and I don’t just mean in the moment. I mean set them up to live in secure, separate rooms temporarily. The second thing you should do is take a deep breath and let everyone decompress for a couple of days (yourself and the cats). After that, call a qualified feline behavior consultant (like me!) to talk through your options. These might include some simple tips over the phone, an in-home behavior consultation and re-integration plan, and/or a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.
As always, prevention is the best “medicine”. If you have more than one cat in your home, here are some things you can do to decrease the likelihood of fights between them:
If you are doing all of these things and your cats are still having issues, set them up in secure separate rooms, and get some help from a qualified feline behavior consultant. You and your cats deserve to live in a peaceful home.
Problem-solver, Voracious learner. Educator.