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  • Writer's pictureAshten Ntewak

Whiskers & Wisdom: Insights from Local Pet Behaviour Consultants

Updated: Jun 17

Welcome to Lap of Luxury’s latest blog post, where we're delving into the fascinating world of pet behaviour with insights from local pet behaviour consultants. If you've ever wondered why your furry family member exhibits certain behaviours or how to address them effectively, you're in the right place.

In our quest to provide valuable resources for pet owners, we've had the privilege of interviewing experienced pet behaviour consultants from our community, Liz Flaming and Vicky Brannan from Little Weirdos


Little Weirdos specializes in behaviour modification for dogs and cats, addressing issues such as aggression, fear, resource guarding, and separation anxiety. Their force-free training plans are tailored to their client’s pet's unique needs and their family's goals, ensuring a safe and collaborative approach. Liz and Vicky are experts in their field and have many certifications to back it up. 



Liz is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), Accredited Professional Canine Behaviour Consultant (PCBC-A), and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). She's actively involved in community education and mentoring, boasting extensive rescue and consultation experience. Liz values collaboration with behaviour professionals locally and globally.




Vicky is a CPDT-KA and member of the Pet Professional Guild and IAABC, is expanding her expertise to include cat behaviour consulting. With over 10 years of experience in rescue, shelter, and private training, she specializes in dog reactivity, extreme fear, and fostering safe cat-dog relationships. Vicky is dedicated to mentoring new trainers and collaborating with behaviour professionals worldwide.
You can check out their full bio here

 

From understanding common behavioural issues, to exploring effective training techniques and personalized approaches, our conversation with these experts promises to offer valuable insights for pet owners of all kinds.

Now, without further delay, let’s get into it… 
We asked Liz and Vicky:

What is your approach to understanding and modifying challenging pet behaviours?

Although our specific approaches may vary depending on the particulars of the case, we are force free, evidence based trainers. This means we take a holistic approach by identifying and addressing areas in your pet’s life that may need some additional support such as enrichment, medical concerns, and gaps in how the behaviour is being managed. 

Our first step is to ensure that your dog/cat is getting their needs met. They are not dealing with any pain/discomfort, discussing human expectations and guiding some re-alignment in terms of expectations and normal doggy/kitty behaviour. 

For example, it is normal, healthy, and a very integral aspect of a cat feeling safe to be up on elevated surfaces. If you really do not want your cat on your countertops, we suggest providing them with a desirable alternative, (such as a tall cat tree), and some environmental management/modifications to support our overall behaviour plan. 
Over and above that, our approach involves teaching new skills, teaching behaviours we want to replace the challenging behaviour with, changing associations from negative to neutral/positive (if necessary), and doing our best to only put the dog/cat in situations where they can be successful. 

This often means a graduated approach where certain environments or situations are not for “current us” but will be for “future us”. It really comes down to asking what is the dog’s/cat’s experience and how can we support them in living a happy and enriched life alongside their human guardian?


What are the most common pet behavioural issues you encounter in your practice, and what advice do you usually offer to pet parents facing these challenges?

Doggie Example:
One the most common behavioural issues we support guardians with is reactivity. Reactivity is a huge (and sometimes unhelpful) label, but generally, “reactivity” refers to any behaviour that is a big response to a stimulus in the environment that causes distress to the animal and/or the human involved. 

We work with a lot of folks whose dog barks, lunges, growls, or freezes when in the presence of other dogs or humans. This is often seen on leash or through the window or a fence. The “why” behind reactive behaviours is a complex one, but generally, we see dogs engaging in “reactive” behaviours for a wide variety of reasons: frustration-based (“I want to see that thing and I can’t!”), fear-based (“That thing is scary - get away!”), resource guarding (“Don’t come near my valuable thing”) and others including genetics, past learning experiences, patterned behaviour, pain, etc. 

One of the most helpful mindshifts we’ve found if you have a dog with reactive behaviours is to start to understand that your dog is not doing this thing to be “bad” or give you a hard time. We know this behaviour can often feel embarrassing, stressful, and frustrating. 

HOWEVER! They are not trying to give you a hard time just because. We promise. Sometimes this understanding alone can make things feel just a bit easier. Next steps would be to seek out the support of a good veterinarian and a force-free trainer to support you and your dog work through these concerns together. 

For ANY behaviour concern, please do not assume that your dog will “grow out of it”. Getting support early really is important to ensure everyone’s quality of life remains high and that all humans and animals involved are safe.

Kitty Example:
The most common issues we encounter are relationship concerns between cats in the home, dogs and cats in the home, and integrating a new dog/cat into a home where an existing dog/cat already lives. 
One common symptom of stress/relationship issues is when a cat starts eliminating outside their litter box. This should ALWAYS warrant a vet visit ASAP.  

Eliminating outside the liter box can also be a sign of serious medical concerns. We have also worked with cats who display aggressive behaviour towards new people entering the home. If you are planning on adding a new dog/cat into your home where you already have a cat, especially if they are an adult cat, please connect with a force free trainer who has knowledge and experience with both species you are trying to integrate. 

Most integration issues arise due to the process being rushed and/or resource allotment that is not in alignment with the needs of the animals involved. Cats are not social eaters, they do not love sharing valued resources. Placing their food stations too close together can be a recipe for conflict. 

They do not generally like sharing litter boxes, so always make sure there are enough for each cat in the home + one (minimum), access to vertical space, toys, water, and human interaction can all be areas in which conflict can arise.
A lot of my job when working with cat clients involves increasing enrichment opportunities, environmental modification, slowing down the integration process, and THEN teaching skills and working on desensitization if required. 
 


Do you think a pet sitter can have a positive impact on a dog's behaviour? Could you share some advice for pet sitters on how to handle challenging behaviours?

Absolutely! There are several scenarios where we’ve seen pet sitters be incredibly beneficial for the animals that we work with. One of those scenarios is when we’re working with dogs who have separation anxiety. An essential part of the treatment protocol is ensuring that while we build up their tolerance to longer and longer absences, we are also never putting them in a situation where they will be left alone longer than they can handle. 

Essentially, we never want them to experience an unsafe absence while we’re doing our best to teach them that absences are safe. Many of our clients rely on pet sitters to bridge that gap and spend time with their dogs to make sure they are not experiencing that panic of being alone. 

Another way that pet sitters can be crucial members of a pet team is stepping in to help ensure dogs and cats get enough enrichment, (either physical or mental or both!) Throughout the day if their guardians are away from the home or busy. Pet sitters provide a really important service for those of us with busy lives or limited capacity to make sure that our pets' needs are met. 

If you are sitting a cat or dog with challenging behaviour, we’d encourage you to reach out to a qualified force-free trainer to connect and chat about your particular case. We are always excited to connect with other folks in the animal community in Edmonton. 

Additionally, it is important to learn as much as you can about dog and cat body language to understand how the pet is communicating with you during your visit, and to keep everyone safe. There are some great certification options out there now for pet sitters, and exploring a force-free certification can also provide you with more knowledge and information. 

In your experience, how important is breed-specific behaviour in understanding a dog or a cat? 

In our experience, understanding breed-specific behaviour is quite important in working with dogs and cats, although we see more breed specific traits in dogs. Understanding the genetic predisposition of the dog we are working with has a very large impact on prognosis, and the best way to address the behaviour. 

For example, a border collie who is engaging in car chasing is LIKELY to be addressed very differently than a shih tzu who is reacting to and trying to chase cars. The breed can help guide our understanding of the function of the behaviour which is important when we provide techniques to address the behaviour. Although breed is one important piece of the overall puzzle of who a dog is, we cannot let it tell the whole story. 

To quote Susan Friedman “behaviour is a study of one” and although it can be tempting to let their breed tell the whole story, it is just one aspect of who they are. It is possible to have a border collie who reacts to cars because they find them scary rather than a “thing” to control and herd. 

More globally, no matter what the breed, all animals are best supported through any learning journey through force-free strategies. It is an unfortunate myth that bigger or “high drive” breeds (like German Shepherds or Cane Corsos, for example), need more aversive methods. 

This is not true - no breed needs a heavy hand and force-free approaches are the most ethical and evidence-based for all breeds of both dogs and cats. If a polar bear can be taught to consent to a blood draw using positive reinforcement, surely our companion animals can be taught using positive reinforcement without the use of aversives or punishment. 


Could you please discuss the importance of mental stimulation for dog and cats? Can you suggest activities or games pet sitters/pet parents can incorporate to keep pets engaged and happy? Are there any toys or games you do not recommend? How come?

We love this question! Mental stimulation and enrichment are foundational pillars to well-being for every cat and dog and especially if you are concerned about any piece of your animal’s behaviour, ensuring that enrichment needs are met is a critical first step.

Enrichment means ensuring that your dog or cat has access to engage in species specific behaviours frequently in a safe environment. As guardians of living beings of a different species in our home, we have an obligation to provide them with outlets to meet their doggy and kitty needs. 

This means, for example, allowing dogs to engage in behaviours like sniffing, scavenging, digging, chewing, shredding, moving their body freely, etc. 

While every animal is different and part of the joy of enrichment is discovering what your pet loves the most, some common enrichment activities for dogs are:
Snuffle mats (either store bought or homemade)
Tossing food in the grass 
Sniffy walks in green spaces where they are free to explore and move as they desire
Bones, chews (as deemed appropriate and safe)
Licki mat, kongs, Toppls
Car rides
Play with human and/or dog friends as appropriate
Food in cardboard containers to shred


It is a common misconception that enrichment activities should take a long time and really make the dog “work for it”. Rather than seeing how long an enrichment activity can last, we recommend considering how much our dog enjoys it and how well does it meet a particular need? 

Enrichment for cats could include setting up an environment with access to vertical spaces and scratchers (cats need to scratch in order to maintain nail health, dig their nails in and stretch their bodies, and mark their territory to help them feel more secure in their environment).

More suggestions could be to provide opportunities to engage in interactive play, visual enrichment, (windows or cat TV), catnip, catgrass, nosework, clicker training, going for walks on a harness or access to a catio, etc. 
Not every cat will enjoy every activity, but we owe it to our feline friends to provide them with a wide variety of options to see which ones they enjoy and find enriching. 

We don’t recommend any enrichment activities that are too difficult or frustrating for your particular dog. More specifically, we strongly recommend against using a laser pointer for your dog to chase - the inability to catch the laser and complete the chase cycle has the potential to create obsessive behaviours in dogs. If your dog loves to chase, engage instead with a flirt pole or fetch with a toy. 

 

As we wrap up this enlightening journey into the realm of pet behaviour, it's clear that our furry companions are complex beings with their own unique needs and communication styles. Through our discussions with local pet behaviour consultants Liz Flaming and Vicky Brannan from Little Weirdos, we've gained invaluable insights into understanding and addressing common behavioural challenges in dogs and cats.

As we part ways, armed with a deeper understanding of our furry family members and equipped with practical tips and advice, let's embark on a journey of companionship filled with enriching experiences and mutual growth. After all, it's the bond forged through understanding and compassion that truly enriches both our lives and theirs.

If you would like more information about Liz and Vicky’s company Little Weirdos or more information about Fear Free, please check out the links below. Lastly, don't forget, Lap of Luxury is a Fear Free Certified Professional so if you have questions we are always happy to help. :)

Thanks for reading and stay pawsitive!

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