Oh Mr. Postmaaan…

one day the mailman is going to

 

Our U.P.S. delivery dude is pretty hot.

He’s also a total sweetheart.  Our mail person is adorable as well.  She sings songs so loudly from her postal vehicle I can hear her from inside my house.  It always makes me giggle and smile.  

But what I think of our postal and package delivery people doesn’t matter; what does matter is what our dog thinks of them.

Now that the holidays are here, I am unbelievably grateful that our dog adores the Dudes and Dudettes Who Bring the Boxes.  In fact, our dog thinks the UPS people and their big brown sleigh are hawt-doggity-dawg.

But she didn’t always love them.

In fact, she used to go absolutely insane when the postal people came; you would have thought our house was being invaded by a SWAT team every time the truck pulled up to our house, or when he came to the door.

dogs barking at post man
Is this how your dog sees the delivery people?

 

Let’s Get A New Perspective:

Imagine what it must feel like to your canine companion:  You are resting comfortably on your cushion in your canine castle. Then all of a sudden a loud, intrusive rumbling sound comes racing down your street.

Rumble! Bang! Boom!  Metal clangs and rattles.  Door slams.

You leap up from the comfort of your canine bed, wide-eyed and wildly wondering: 

Is that thunder!??  

Take Cover!!!  HIDE!!
No.  Wait.  It’s just a car.

Now the doors are slamming!!  OMG! Someone is here!!!

I will alert my people with my canine call!!!

They will be so glad I told them!

WAIT. Do I know this person?!!?

NO!  Agh!  It’s a stranger!!

DANGER! 
All canines on deck!!! 
Oh noooo! He is getting out of his monster machine and coming up to our house!!! — MY CASTLE!

Must defend my canine castle!!!

Must alert my people more loudly!  They don’t understand the danger!

Knock-Knock. Doorbell rings.

AGH!!! The Chimes of Doom!   

People …. HELP!!!!!
Now he’s banging on the door!!!  He’s coming in! OMG! I must defend my canine castle!!!

All life forms in your home fearfully flee the scene, or they do the opposite: They physically go after your invisibly-caped canine crusader to make her shut-the-heck-up and calm-the-heck-down.


 

Does this sound familiar?  As chaotic as that scene sounds, it’s all too common in family homes, but it can and should be prevented. 

We prevent this by removing fear. 

Think about it: Everyone’s response in that moment was based on fear. If you have a cat or dog that flees (or fights) the dog when she goes nuts, it’s a behavior that stems from fear.  The other animal is either trying to keep themselves safe from the threat, or he/she is trying to eliminate the threat.   If you go after or scream at your dog when he/she is screaming at the perceived threat, you are experiencing anger (which is actually just a mask for fear).  And, anyone or animal that goes after the dog when the dog is in the middle of a full-on-freak-out, that animal or person is only adding more fear and frustration to the already out of control fire.

Let me repeat that:  If you are reactive to your reactive dog, you are adding fear-fuel to the fear-fire. 

Hollering and forcing a dog into a position to make them “behave” isn’t going to help.  This approach can backfire. It’s very dangerous and honestly, very irresponsible.  And it’s only teaching your dog (and any other animal or child in the house) that there is something to be afraid of when the “stranger-danger” appears.  If you are reacting angrily when your dog reacts, what are you teaching them?


 

The flawed idea that a dog will only learn to behave through force and fear is sad and misguided, but people are still misled into thinking that these methods are the right way to go. This leads to elevated stress levels that could be avoided if time was taken to understand how dogs’ learn and how they can be taught effectively. Choice training is a beacon of hope in what is still a dominating world. -Victoria Stilwell, world-renowned humane dog trainer


 

So, what do we do instead of screaming “SHUT UP!” or wrestling the dog away from the door or window?

–> We teach the dog that the approaching monster man in his monster machine is A MA Z I N G, and something to look forward to! 


Here are a few (very simplified) steps to get you started:

1.Form a friendly relationship with your postal service people. These people have a very exhausting job this time of year, so go out of your way to have some compassion for them.  Find out their names.  Ask them how their day is going.  Maybe even ask how their family is doing.  Care about them, instead of seeing them as the people who drop off the-item-you-have-been-waiting-for-forever.  Not only is doing this a kind gesture, but it will pay off tremendously when you ask for their help with calming your chaotic canine!

 

2. Explain to your postal person that your dog is having a hard time with him/her coming to your house.  Just take a few minutes to let them know that you are working on helping your dog to be more calm around them. They might appreciate that you are making their life easier! They may even have some suggestions or offer ways to help you.

 

3. Ask them how they feel about dogs.  –If you know their perspective on dogs, you can know whether you need to keep your dog away from them, or allow your dog to eventually say hello calmly.  Remember that some postal people may be just as fearful of, or frustrated with dogs as your dog is to them!  Learn what their comfort level is and be respectful of it.

 

4. Change how your dog feels about the postal people.  –Many dogs who lunge or bark have been “corrected” (punished) for their behavior.  This kind of reaction has only added to their fear or frustration.  If your dog has never been corrected in any form, congrats to you, but your dog’s fear or frustration about the postal people is still present, so we need to address it.   We do this by changing the association that the dog has with the perceived threat.  We use food to transform the dog’s negative emotions to positive emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the unpleasant thing (Mr. Postman).  When done correctly, this results in a dog who turns and looks happily and expectantly at his person as soon as the dog spies the stranger-danger that used to elicit a reactive outburst.

Ever since Hocus became reactive (barking and going berserk) around the UPS and mailman vehicles I decided to rain down delicious treats when they approached.   Note: The key word is DELICIOUS.  Don’t grab a dog biscuit. Get the bacon, people.  

 

Science of how food helps in dog training

 

If we were in the house I calmly presented any one of Hocus’ favorite treats (like bacon, cheese, cat food, or chicken) to Hocus when she heard them pull up; I did this on our walks when they rumbled by; I did this when she saw them in the window; I did this anytime she heard or spied them coming.  (This video from Urban Dogs is a great example of how this can  be done outside.)  Eventually her fear and frustration turned to glad, calm anticipation.

 

5. Change how YOU feel about your dog going berserk.  Folks, you are the adults here.  You can see the full picture.  Have compassion for your canine.  Learn to control your reaction to your dog.  Take a deep breath and remember that your dog truly believes he/she is doing their job!  Thank them for doing such a good job of letting you know the postal person is here!  Remove your frustration!  Don’t allow yourself to go into your own fear or reactivity.  That only creates more confusion, fear, and frustration.

 

6.  Help your dog to focus on something else.   If you are inside and the monster machine arrives, tell your dog you will take over from here, and ask them to focus on something else that they do really well.  We call this an incompatible behavior.  Identify a behavior that’s incompatible with, or cannot occur at the same time as, the problem behavior. For example, your dog can’t be at the door barking if she’s going to get her favorite toy.

My husband and I (literally) say, “Hocus, you did a great job letting us know they’re here.  We will take over from here.  You are safe. We are all safe!  Now go get your Kong and bring it to me!”.   Once she brings us the Kong or squeaky toy, she gets rewarded with something that will keep her attention and focus for a while  (usually via frozen stuffed Kong or pig ear).

Remember to stay calm. Take deep breaths!  Be easy.  Think about what you want your dog to do instead!  By the way, “not barking” doesn’t count. What could your dog be taught to do instead of her self-assigned job of Caped Canine Crusader?  Be playful and easy about all of this while helping your dog to move her energy into something healthier, and more peaceful and fun!

 

7. Ask the postal people for their permission. If they are comfortable with it, and you have already been working on counter conditioning your dog to the sights and sounds of them from a distance, bring your dog out on a secure leash and harness. Then offer irresistible treats to your dog.  You don’t need to be close to the postal person at this point.  Merely standing on the doorstep while they are at the street can be too much for some dogs.   Just let your dog see them while you offer the tasty treats.

 

food for dogs anxiety and fear

 

8.  Ask the postal people for their participation. Not only is our UPS dude a hottie, but he is well prepared for pooches.  He has a huge bag of dog treats that he drives around with, ready to offer to dogs at the houses he visits.  All of the dogs on our block love him!  All the pups know that whenever a package arrives, a treat will be arriving too!  Our dog learned very quickly that the stranger-danger coming to the door was not only bringing a boxed goodie for her people, but she gets goodies too!

 

 

9.  Make safety a priority.   Always err on the side of caution, and if you are not sure about these steps, hire a force-free professional to help you. If your dog is displaying aggressive behavior, please consult a force-free animal behavior consultant .  Don’t try to fix this on your own.

 

NOTE:  Hocus Pocus is not aggressive towards humans.  She absolutely adores people, but can become quite frustrated and vocal when she cannot get to the person.  She has a history of reactivity to loud, unexpected sounds, and to some dogs.


 

dogs and mailman_pets and UPS man_reactive dogs_conscious Companion

 

Don’t let the fear of the postal people be the Fear Grinch that steals your holiday cheer.  Show your dog that there is nothing to be afraid of.  Teach your dog that all is well, and that he/she is safe.

🎄Merry Christmas and Holiday Blessings to you and yours! ⛄❄️

 


 

Recommended Reading 

 

 

Stimulate Them!

Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity.  It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time. 

An Amur tiger cub enjoying bubble enrichment at the zoo. Amur (Siberian) Tigers are critically endangered. Less than 40 exist in the wild. Zoo breeding programs are helping the species to survive.

While working for a decade as an Enrichment Coordinator for various animal sections at the Audubon Zoo, I learned that physical and mental stimulation is vital to every species on the plant.  Squid, poison dart frogs, mice, tortoises, spiders, jaguars, sheep, dogs, parrots, ferrets, anteaters, cats, and pigs all need daily mental and physical stimulation!  Think of any animal, and I assure you that it needs daily stimulation.

Life is very stale and very boring without enrichment.  Imagine sitting on the couch in your home. There are no windows. You cannot leave the house.  No one ever visits you.  You have no radio, T.V. iPhone, or internet.  You have to eat and drink the same thing every day.  What do you think would eventually happen to your mind and body after a day, then a week, then a month?  This kind of mental stagnation is incredibly harmful to all living creatures.  In fact, it’s downright deadly.

All animals need enrichment, which is a fairly simple but important concept.  Enrichment improves or enhances the environment for an individual animal and stimulates the animal to investigate and interact with their surroundings more.  At the Audubon Zoo, I would enrich an animal’s environment by making changes to structures in their enclosures, present novel objects and scents for them to investigate, change how we presented food to them, and much more.

We encouraged them to forage, hunt, and handle their food in ways that are natural to them in the wild. (The Shape of Enrichment has a great sample article of this kind of enrichment.)  These tools were used on a regular basis at our zoo to alleviate boredom.  Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors.  Giving animals more choices prevents boredom!

 

animal enrichment_pets_DIY puzzle toys
Offering an animal more CHOICES prevents boredom and other unwanted behaviors!

Coordinating Enrichment for Exotics

As an Enrichment Coordinator, it was my job to ensure that every animal in a particular section had species-appropriate enrichment provided for them every day.  This could be anything from planting geographically appropriate plant species to encourage a critically endangered female Blue Iguana to forage on her native country’s plants to prepare her body for breeding season, to providing a Boomer Ball for our Miniature Donkey in the Children’s Zoo to keep her from becoming bored and harassing the goats, sheep, or visitors!

 

The video below is an excellent example of how we could use a Boomer Ball in a captive zoo environment.  This demonstrates the fun and importance of mental and physical enrichment, with a focus on Choice, Change, and Complexity.

Otters Playing with Boomer Balls at the Philadelphia Zoo

Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors


What Captive Otters Can Teach Us About Our Pets

Right about now you might be asking, “So what does an otter playing with a ball, underwater, at a zoo, have to do with my pet at home?”  Well, that otter is a perfect example of  what I encourage all of my clients to do with their pets, in their homes, every day: mentally and physically challenge them!   Every one of you has the ability to have this much fun with your pets at home!  I am going to explain how you can do this, why enrichment is so important for your pets, and how it improves your life as well.


How Enrichment Helps

Environmental enrichment, when used properly, can positively address many behavioral issues. This can be anything from “rowdiness,” cognitive dysfunction, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and behaviors that result from the all too common problem in homes: boredom and/or frustration.

In addition to treating behavioral disorders, environmental enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.


What is Enrichment?

Enrichment can be defined as:

A process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioral biology and natural history.  It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare .   (Association of  Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] Behavior Scientific Advisory Group 1999, excerpted from Disney’s Animal Programs).

Behavioral enrichment is defined as “the environmental enhancement of the lives of animals in a managed setting by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior.”

Simply put, enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.

More simply put:  Add a little creativity, fun, and stimulation to an animal’s life!

Environmental enrichment for pets (also called behavioral enrichment) is a means to enhance a companion animal’s surroundings. It serves to enhance their life through means in which the animal is presented with novelty in his/her environment. The animal is given opportunities to learn. And the animal is encouraged to engage in natural, instinctive, species-specific behaviors.


Why Enrichment Is Important

Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs. 

Behavioral enrichment and environmental enrichment are necessary components of life in captivity.  Enrichment improves the welfare of all animals.   All animals in captivity need environmental enrichment whether they live in a zoo, shelter, laboratory, sanctuary, or your home.  It’s one of the 3 Key Elements That My Work Is Based Upon.

Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn.  This directly relates to your pets at home!  Bored animals are easily frustrated, and frustration can lead to destruction.  You can avoid boredom and destruction by enriching your pets!  Enrichment is one of the keys to enhancing your pet’s life.  It is also one of the easiest tools to implement on a daily basis.

Enrichment at Home Serves To:

  •        Curb boredom and restlessness of an animal
  •         Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
  •         Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
  •         Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion

 

Types of Enrichment 

Enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories.  All of these can be used at home with your pets:

  • Food based
  • Sensory (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound)
  • Novel objects
  • Social
  • Positive Training
  • Foraging

DIY pet-enrichment-puzzle-feeders_dog_cat_parrot_turtle
Food, sensory, novel objects, and foraging enrichment are all shown in this image of pets in homes. Can you identify each one?


The Key to Successful (and appropriate!) Enrichment 

As I mentioned earlier, enrichment is something that can, and should be, incorporated into your animal companion’s life every day.  The image above is a great example of how easy it is to do!  However, the key to successful (and appropriate) enrichment for an individual animal is doing a bit of research.  Your homework is to understand your pet’s natural history.  This means that you need to learn about the history of their species, or background and history of their breed.

For example, did you know?

  • The Italian Greyhound was bred to  hunt rabbits.
  • The Dachshund was used to hunt badgers.
  • The main reason cats were bred and kept around homes was originally for hunting vermin.
  • The Bengal cat breed originally came from crossing domestic cats with wild Asian leopard cats.
  • Although cats are carnivores, they still have an occasional craving for live green plants.

All of this matters!  

The breeding history and the natural history of animals affects our pet’s today – even if only on a small level at times.  Your domestic house cat still has a strong predatory instinct, so she needs to hunt every day.  Your cockatoo may live in a metal enclosure in your house, but he/she still has the innate need to chew, fly, and forage.  Your couch potato dog might have a lineage that was bred to swim and retrieve.  We must provide opportunities for animals to do things that are in their DNA.  We can provide simulated hunting, chewing, foraging, and seeking in our homes.  This is what enrichment provides.  It’s important that we take the time to put the pieces of their breed /species puzzle together.


 

Ask yourself:

  • What would my _____ be doing if they were living in the wild??
  • Are they nocturnal, crepuscular, or diurnal?
  • Do they like to climb, hide, or fly?
  • Do they enjoy chewing, foraging or digging?
  • Do they need to soak or bask?
  • Do they hunt, stalk, ambush, or chase?
  • What does this breed of cat do really well, naturally?
  • What does this breed of dog do on his/her own that might be a peek into their genes?
  • What was this breed of dog, cat, horse, etc. originally bred for?
  • What behaviors does this species do naturally in the wild?
  • What kinds of food are found in their country of origin?

Exploring the breed- and species-specific background for each animal in your home is where we should begin thinking about how to provide appropriate enrichment for them.

The video below is an example of how hedgehogs naturally behave in the wild when they have the opportunity to make their own choices.  Why does this matter?  Well, if a hedgehog owner knows how hedgehogs naturally behave, then they can then provide this kind of stimulating environment for their hedgehog in the home!  The same concept is true for your dog, cat, parrot, or turtle!  When we learn about how our animals would behave naturally in the wild, we then have the tools to help them thrive and live long, healthy, happy lives with us in our homes!

Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors


How You Can Provide Enrichment at Home! 

Most people have limited resources available to enrich the lives of their animal companions, which results in a huge lack of appropriate enrichment with most household pets, especially exotic animals.  Making a few changes to their daily routines can greatly enhance the life and longevity of your animal companion! They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal.   

 

You don’t have to be rich to enrich your pet’s life!

One thing I learned very quickly while working at the zoo was that funds were limited.  If you wanted to do a lot of enrichment, you had to get creative and do it yourself.  This now carries over into our home, and also when I am working with a family that has a very limited budget.  I teach my clients that anyone can make enrichment toys out of almost anything, and in the process you get to recycle in a super fun way!

Every night we give our dog Hocus Pocus (and the cats) some sort of enrichment challenge to do.  Below is a video demonstrating a very easy one for her, but the point is to not just “give a dog a bone”.  Make them work for it!  Dogs are natural foragers, so allow your dog to utilize his/her natural instincts!  Be as creative as you want to be!  This kind of enrichment provides mental and physical stimulation, and in the process they learn that being alone is a Very Good Thing.  Bonus: it gives you time to do whatever you need to get done while they are having fun!



 

Here’s another suggestion: The old school (“traditional”) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors.  Enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors!  The video below is a great example of providing simple mental and physical enrichment for a very smart and energetic dog.

And here’s another easy example that we do with our dog, Hocus Pocus every night!


Below are a few more examples of simple, easy enrichment that we use in our home on a daily basis.  Each of these are examples of natural behaviors that the animal would do in the wild if they were given choices.  Click the links to see each short video:

Make toys, or buy feeders that “feed” your cat’s natural hunting instinct!

The BoomerBall "Herding Ball" is designed for herding dogs (Shetland Sheep dogs, Australian Cattle dogs, Australian Shepards and Aussies). It's also great for horses when 3.5" holes are added so hay can be stuffed into ball.
The BoomerBall “Herding Ball” is designed for herding dogs (Shetland Sheep dogs, Australian Cattle dogs, Australian Shepards and Aussies). It’s also great for horses when 3.5″ holes are added so hay can be stuffed into ball.


What Science Has Shown Us

Results from a study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more.  These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward.  The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.

Now let that really sink in for a moment …. What does that tell you?

 


 

In the video below, Chopin, the Moluccan cockatoo, is being challenged mentally and physically to utilize his natural foraging and problem solving skills to retrieve a high-value nut from a puzzle feeder.  We used this kind of enrichment for Chopin to reduce aggression, frustration, and boredom.



 

I encourage everyone to learn what their animal enjoys doing.  Discover their natural behaviors. Learn the history of the breed, and the natural history of the species.  Once you understand these things, you can challenge the animal to move out of their stale comfort zone and step into the space of Who The Animal Really Is.   Enrichment allows us to bring out the inner “House Panther” in a lazy cat.  Enrichment transforms destructive dogs into mentally healthy canine companions.  It changes frustrated parrots into relaxed, feathered friends.

Daily enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming, but the more creative you get, the more fun your animals will have!  Make it a FUN challenge for you and them!

TIP: Be there with them as they discover their new toy.  Encourage them every time they make a small success!  Don’t just leave them alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder.  You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.”  You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress!  The same is true for our animal companions.  Encourage them.  Praise them when they make small progress, and even when they are just trying to figure it out!

enrichment

What kind of enrichment do you provide for your animals?  Please share in the comments below!