E279: Dr. Kristina Spaulding & Irith Bloom - "Stress and Agency: Building a More Resilient Dog"

Understanding the role stress plays in training and living with our canine partners is essential to optimizing our lives with them! Agency provides one of the most powerful options for empowering our pups and creating an optimistic dog.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Dr. Kristina Spaulding and Irith Bloom here with me to share a little bit about themselves, their backgrounds, and their upcoming webinars here at FDSA. They'll be co-presenting two back-to-back webinars on July 28, the first on understanding and addressing stress and the second on improving canine lives by increasing agency.

A big hello to both of you and welcome to the podcast!

Kristina Spaulding: Hi. Thanks for having us.

Irith Bloom: Yeah, thank you.

Melissa Breau: Super-excited to talk to you both today. Would you each like to take a moment, share who is who so listeners get a sense of whose voice is whose, maybe by sharing a bit about your own pets and anything you're working on with them?

Kristina Spaulding: I'm Kristina and I have two dogs. I have an Australian Shepherd named Finn, who's about 5 years old, and we have a 10-year-old Beagle mix named Darwin, and they do not do anything formal.

I was training them for a while, and then life just … I still train them, but I was training them for dog sports for a while. We did some teamwork. I wanted to do agility with Finn, but he is too intense for being in public dog sports, so we just work at home. Right now we're mostly doing cooperative care work with them to make sure that they're comfortable at the vet and with all those different things that they need to do. I actually really enjoy that, and they seem to really love it too, so it works out well.

Melissa Breau: It's important.

Kristina Spaulding: Yes.

Irith Bloom: I'm Irith, and I'm actually between companion animals right now. Our last dog passed away some time ago. With him, I had a lot of fun working on concepts, so he knew things like big and small and left and right and that kind of thing. With a lot of my clients these days I'm working on cooperative care, which is something that comes into the topics we're going to be discussing today. And I'm always trying to get people to pay attention to the communication that their various companions are giving them and also communicate better in return. That's a big focus for me.

The next time I have a dog, I'm going to be really glad, because our last dog passed away at about 14 years of age, so a lot of these concepts weren't things that I necessarily had when he first came into our home. So I'm really excited about getting started with our next dog with all of these things right off the bat available to me.

Melissa Breau: How did you both end up in the dog world?

Kristina Spaulding: I was always interested in animals and animal behavior, and I spent a lot of time thinking and wondering what animals were thinking and watching behavior. At some point I found an essay that I had written when I was in seventh grade or something, and it said that I wanted to grow up to rehabilitate aggressive dogs. So that's what I did.

I went to college wanting to major in animal behavior, which you may know that that's actually very difficult to do. I was originally in zoology and I wasn't loving that. I was interested, but it wasn't quite as good of a fit as I wanted. I ended up switching to wildlife ecology and that was a better fit.

I was considering going into conservation work or something, and I remember my biology TA one day asked me what I wanted to do. I said, "What I really want to do is train dogs, but I know that I can't make money at that, so instead I'm thinking about doing this." And he said, "I don't know if you know, but there's a professor on campus that does that, that is an animal behaviorist and dog behaviorist and works with dogs," and that was Patricia McConnell.

I was able to get hooked up with her, and I volunteered at her dog training school, and then I met with her on multiple occasions and attended some of her consults. Then I decided at that point that I wanted to become a certified applied animal behaviorist, which is what she is, and I eventually went back to school and got my Ph.D. for that.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Irith Bloom: For me, the path is in some ways similar and in some ways really different. As a child, I always had animals around me, and when we had dogs, I was the one who was responsible for training the dogs because my parents were too busy to really take care of that.

This was an era when we really didn't have positive reinforcement, so I used all of the methods that today I advise against. But I will say, looking back, I was always as gentle as I could possibly be within the context of doing things like using a choke chain. I wasn't a particularly nasty, aversive, punishment-based trainer. I was as gentle as I could possibly be, but that was the tools I had in my tool kit at the time.

I rode horses. I had a snake, I had gerbils — nowhere near the snake, for the record. But I did have turtles. I always had animals around me.

When I went to college I majored in biology, and my goal was to get into veterinary medicine. I was somewhere where there's a veterinary school, University of Pennsylvania, so I worked at the veterinary hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. That was one of the things I did to support myself in college. As I did that, I realized that the way that I was interacting with animals in a veterinary context wasn't what I wanted to do because they were always sick and unhappy, and they were not happy about us approaching them, and all of those kinds of things. At the time, veterinary behavior was in its infancy. It was actually starting right there at Penn, but I wasn't aware of it and I didn't know, and so I wound up taking this detour away from biology and away from animals.

And then I got a dog who had a lot of problems. I know so many people in the professional training world — this is how they got into it. As I tried to figure out what I could do to help him, I very quickly realized that the stuff I had been doing in the past was not the right way to do things. I had picked up a lot by then. I drilled down into behavior and behavior science, and then I went and started getting myself an education in dog training.

I'm a complete education glutton. We were actually talking the other day, Kristina and I, about how I renewed my CCPD credential with 271 CEU's one year, so that tells you how addicted I am to the stuff. If I put together all of my CEU's in an organized fashion, I could probably have a master's degree at least, but that's just not the way my path went.

And so, at any rate, at the time that I got this dog, I was working as a professional translator, not doing anything animal related. Let's just say that I took this dog a really long way, in a good sense, from where he had started. People kept asking me in the neighborhood, "Wow, your dog is behaving so well. Are you a professional?" I finally decided to look into it, and that was when I started doing all that education. Now I teach people how to work with their dogs. I also work with people who have cats and parrots, and I even have a horse client right now, which is uber-cool. I also love teaching other trainers how to work effectively with the clients in their lives.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. You both touched a little bit on what I was going to ask you next, but maybe you'll go into it a little bit more. I was going to ask were you both always positive trainers. I think we got a little bit of that in that answer, but maybe you would each share a little bit more about your start in positive training, how you progressed down that journey.

Kristina Spaulding: We had a dog when I was born. We'd always had a dog, but we got a new puppy when I was 8. She was a Standard Poodle, and we took her to training classes. I don't know if I'm the one that asked to go to training classes or if my parents made that decision, but I was the one that trained her there. This was in St. Louis, and I don't remember the name of the place, but this would have been in the '80s, so I think they were maybe less punishment-based than some places. But definitely I remember there were leash corrections for sure, and so I trained her using those methods.

She was just one of those dogs that sort of trains themselves. She probably did maybe one or two classes. I remember walking her off leash at our cabin in northern Wisconsin once, and a couple of deer ran in front of us and she took off after them, and I called her and she came right back. That is not to my credit. I trained her, but not to that level. That's just who she was. I remember at one point we eventually moved to Minnesota and I was training her. I remember training her in the backyard one day and looking at her and being like, "She doesn't like this." And so I'm like, "Well, I'm just not going to train her."

But then we got a Sheltie, and he was my dog. He was really attached to me and couldn't care that much about anybody else. I knew with him, like, "I can't use punishment with this dog," and so I just made a decision like, "I'm not going to do it." I don't know. I had all these things happen. I was just incredibly lucky. Somehow there was a trainer facility called Total Recall in Forest Lake, Minnesota, that they did largely a positive-reinforcement-based training. This was the early '90s. I trained him there for a while, and then we were involved in 4-H, and the advanced trainers at 4-H were positive reinforcement, which that doesn't even happen now where we are. So I just got very, very, very lucky. It's like once you see that that works, why would you ever go back to punishment? So my professional career has always been positive-reinforcement-based, but I did have a short little, like Irith was saying, I just did what I was told to do. But I decided pretty quickly that the dogs didn't like it and therefore I didn't like it.

Irith Bloom: For me, it's really funny, because my transition from using the aversive methods I had been originally taught to using purely … there's just no such thing as purely positive, but focusing on positive reinforcement, I can't exactly pinpoint when that happened because there was a gradual process as I picked up more and more tools.

But by the time I hit the 2000's, I was seeking solutions that involved positive reinforcement for everything I encountered. Sometimes I didn't have that solution. Sometimes the information wasn't out there and I didn't have the resources that it sounds like Kristina was very lucky to have these resources very early. Sometimes I didn't have the resources, so I sort of fell back on other paths, if you will. But in time I developed more and more skills, and I learned from more and more people, and added a million things to my tool kit, so that all those aversive tools are sitting dusty and untended in the bottom of the toolbox, if you know what I mean.

I rode horses for years, and obviously we used aversive methods. Negative reinforcement is sort of the primary tool in the horse world. Today, what I love about using positive reinforcement, and I think what actually got me to keep going down the path, is that the relationship you have with the animals you're working with is so much richer and it's so much more fun. And they express their personalities in a way that they don't when they're afraid that every next thing is going to lead to a leash pop or something else aversive.

So my comment is I think that probably what really kept me on the journey, maybe not what got me started, because I don't quite remember what that was, but what kept me on the journey was the wonderful relationship you wind up developing with the animals you work with, including human animals, by the way.

Melissa Breau: I like that. If I were to ask you each to summarize your current training philosophy or how you approach training these days, what would you say?

Kristina Spaulding: I'm a big nerd. And again …

Melissa Breau: Best start to an answer.

Kristina Spaulding: Very early on, just to give you an idea of how much of a nerd I am, I think, again, it was around third grade or so, I found out what a Ph.D. was, and that was the best day of my life. I was like, "After high school, you can go to more school, and you can choose what you specialize in, and then you can specialize more," and so I decided very young that I was going to get a Ph.D. It took me a little while to become clear enough on what my career path was going to be that I was ready to go back and choose what program I was going to go into.

I don't know if I would call it a training philosophy exactly, but for me, the biggest thing that informs my training is the science. And again, I'm very lucky, because if I was much older, I wouldn't be able to rely that much on science to inform my training. Learning theory has been around for a very long time, but this explosion that we're getting in dog behavior research is really only from the last ten years and it's continuing to accelerate. That has allowed me to really inform what I do with the research.

I like to take a very holistic approach, where you're looking not just at learning theory, but at many other things that can be impacting behavior. We're going to talk about stress today. That's a big one. And ethology, of course, and genetics, health, all of those things interact and intersect with each other.

My Ph.D. program was in human psychology, and so I'm trained academically, not at all clinically, but I'm trained academically in human mental health, and so that model is something that I apply very much to working with dogs, and that I think is very applicable to working with dogs.

I recently last year — actually the beginning of this year — I stopped taking on private training clients, and now I just teach other trainers. Now it's all about bringing as much science as I can to working with other people and applying the same concepts to people, like Irith says. All of these things — to me, it's all the same, whether you're a dog or a person or a cat or a horse, especially when we're talking about mammals, it's just all the same.

Irith Bloom: First of all, I just have to say, Kristina, I love that you were like, "I want a Ph.D.," when you were in third grade, because I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian then, but I feel like that's a little bit more of an ordinary child goal to be a veterinarian. So that is uber-cool, and you definitely win the nerd or geek or whatever the right word is award right now. I am very much a self-styled geek or nerd or pick a word, I'm happy to apply it to myself. But I bow down. I am very impressed.

With that said, about my training philosophy, in part thanks to Kristina, I do very much bear the science in mind. But what it boils down to for me is my goal is greater wellbeing for both the human animals and the non-human animals in a household. That means that I'm going to apply positive reinforcement as much as I possibly can, use management when positive reinforcement isn't working, and think really hard about all the other factors that are affecting the stress levels of the various animals in the household, because stress leads to a lot of the behavior that we humans don't love in companion animals.

So it's very much a holistic approach, where I ask people, "Where is the dog sleeping? What's your household like? What do you feed your dog? When you go on a walk, what does the walk look like?" I want to gather as much information as possible so that I can find places to add enrichment, the importance of which has become even more obvious to me, thanks to a lot that Kristina has shared. Add to the enrichment, make a life where the dog can be a dog and the cat can be a cat and the horse can be a horse, and we're not just trying to scrunch them into a little human-shape box, whatever that box is that we have for dogs.

By the way, I will say editorially, cat people are way more at peace with cats being cats than dog people are with dogs being dogs. I'm not sure why that is, but my cat clients, it's always less of a struggle to get them to let the cat be a cat. Dog people are like, "I don't like that he digs." Well, it's this unfortunate thing about dogs. This is a normal behavior for them. They do dig. So now let's figure out how we can get that digging to happen in a way that is less disturbing to the humans.

So that's my philosophy. Use positive reinforcement, do everything I can to engender a stronger bond, because then the humans will work harder for that animal when their bond is really strong, and the nonhuman animal will work harder for the humans when the bond is really strong. Hopefully that made some kind of sense somewhere in there.

Melissa Breau: I think that was good.

Kristina Spaulding: I think what you're doing, Irith, is so important, because I had to make a choice, because I'm doing science full-time now, and in order to do what I want to do with it, I have to immerse myself in that. But we still need those people out there that are working directly with the animals and informing themselves about the science. I think Irith does a really fantastic job with that. And so I commend you and all of the people like you, who are putting so much effort into bringing this in, because there are certain aspects, like what we're going to talk about today, that really can transform what we're doing with animals, if we understand what the research is saying.

Irith Bloom: And I do think it's great that there's more and more people who are starting to geek out about the science. I think it's really fantastic.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of that, how did you two meet? How did you come to present together?

Kristina Spaulding: Do you want to take that on, Irith?

Irith Bloom: Sure, I'll take this one. We were introduced by APDT is the simplest way to put it. As our friend Joanne, who we also met in the same general time period, likes to say, I am the Chair Emeritus of the APDT Education Committee. And Joann Rechtine, who some of you may know, was my vice-chair for a while, or my co-chair, I don't know, we had weird title issues. But whatever it was, she and I worked together on that, and Kristina was one of our committee members — one of our hardest working and most amazing committee members, of course. And so we knew each other through phone calls, because that was how we used to do. Do you remember? We used to do our education things on one of those conference lines. We would do these conference calls, and then we all came together at a couple of conferences.

When we met up in … I want to say it was Portland — I can't remember what year APDT was in Portland — 2017, '18, '19, somewhere around then — Joanne and Kristina and I got to talking and we were like, "We should all do something together." This is how this, I guess I can call it a partnership between us, emerged. Joanne, for a long time, was also a big part of this. But she's retiring from this particular kind of work right now and focusing on being a CSAT, in case anyone needs separation anxiety help. Joanne Rechtine — you can't go wrong.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's so cool. It sounds like you have been working together then for quite a while.

Irith Bloom: Yeah, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. And in the process I've also become Kristina's biggest fan. I'm a regular at her research seminars, which I recommend highly to everyone. I attend her long courses. I'm actually about to sign up for another one. I'm often too busy to take as many of Kristina's courses as I want, but I'm carving out time for the one she's starting in October.

Melissa Breau: It's the best kind of friendship when everybody's everybody else's biggest fan.

Kristina Spaulding: Yes. I had Irith come in when I was still working with clients and help me with a cat client. I work with cats, but it was a dog and cat situation that was a little more complex than I initially thought, and the normal things that I do weren't working. And so she came in and helped me work with that client, who was a wonderful client. And so yes.

Irith Bloom: A lovely client.

Kristina Spaulding: So we've done a lot of different things together.

Melissa Breau: Very exciting. As I mentioned in the intro, one of those things is going to be presenting two webinars for us on the 28th — one on stress, the other on agency. Why are these such important concepts for trainers to understand?

Kristina Spaulding: I like to say that stress is everything. I know it's not literally everything, but it really is incredibly important, and I do think it impacts everything, even to the point where it changes gene expression.

Stress impacts every part of the body, and it impacts every aspect of behavior, and if we don't understand stress, then I don't think we can fully do our jobs of protecting animals and making sure that they have the best possible lives. I think I'll let you talk a little bit more about this, Irith, but one of the most important things we can do to help animals cope with stress is promoting agency. And so those are the two big topics that we're going to be talking about at the webinars.

Irith Bloom: Right. Kristina just gave a lovely nutshell explanation of how important these two concepts are. As I mentioned earlier when I was talking about training philosophy, I think, stress is the source … or let me rephrase this … distress — by which I mean negative stress and sometimes just excessive excitement-type stress — are usually the source of all of the issues that cause humans who live with animals who are not human to come to a trainer and say, "I'm tearing my hair out. I can't stand it anymore if my cat does this, or my parrot does that, or my dog does this other thing."

Almost invariably, those behaviors, when you look down the path of where they are starting, it all starts with the animal is excessively stressed. They're experiencing too much stress one way or another, and then they have to find an outlet for that stress, or their body would deteriorate even more, I expect. And so they wind up finding these behaviors that give them an outlet for the stress, which often are not behaviors that we love.

And often, as we will also be discussing, when an animal is under stress, they fall back on habitual behaviors or instinctive behaviors. The things that are the easiest to get to and the fastest to get to are what the animal will do in a stressful situation, instead of the thoughtful behavior that we've been working on training them for the last three months. But they get under a certain level of stress and that all just falls apart. So reducing the overall level of stress that an animal experiences, whether it's a human animal or not, is really, really huge, if we want to be getting productive behavior — behavior that leads to good outcomes.

Agency is basically the sense that I can control what happens using my behavior. That's a really rough definition, but it covers the bases, I guess is what I'll say. When we can teach animals, again whether they're human or not — I just want to keep stressing that a lot of this is true for humans, too, as Kristina pointed out, working in human psychology, it's all related.

One way we can reduce that stress is by teaching them that their behavior can control their outcomes, that their behavior leads to things. They can change what happens in the environment around them, using their behavior. As animals learn that their behavior can control outcomes, they actually become less stressed. It's like this teeter-totter, where the more agency we allow, the less stress an animal is likely to experience basically. And unfortunately, the less agency we allow, the more stress they tend to get.

Kristina Spaulding: Right. And just to add to that, to help people understand how important it is, in human mental health, many or probably really most, at this point, of the mental health disorders are increasingly considered to be stress-induced disorders. So for sure depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and probably many, many, many others, are now categorized as stress-induced or stress-related disorders.

Stress causes very serious issues. It's also linked to things like heart disease and diabetes and autoimmune disorders. It's really, really, really impactful, and that's why we talk about it so much. The good news is that there are things we can do to help our animals cope better with stress.

Melissa Breau: There's a whole lot in there. Do you want to go a little more into how the two concepts overlap or intersect, or at least how they'll intersect as far as what you're talking about for the webinar?

Kristina Spaulding: Agency, Irith already covered a lot of it, but there's lots of research that shows us that adding control is one of the things that influences how an animal is impacted by stress.

There is good stress. Not all stress is bad. And how an animal responds to stress is in large part impacted by how well they are at coping with stress. One of the ways that we increase coping is by increasing agency.

And then also, which we'll talk about, I think … we talk a little bit about enrichment and exercise … yes, Irith is nodding and confirming. We've talked about this in so many contexts I lose track sometimes. And also social support. Those are all other ways that animals can cope with stress and that we can reduce the likelihood of behavior issues and increase their well-being.

Melissa Breau: Are there aspects of stress and agency that are often misunderstood? Are there are misconceptions there that maybe you guys would want to overturn?

Irith Bloom: I think that one of the things that's really misunderstood … I'm actually going to start with agency and then I'm going to go back to stress, just to confuse our listeners.

One of the things that I think is misunderstood, and this is something that we see a lot when you get the arguments between people who are using methods that are based more in the use of aversives versus people who are using positive reinforcement as their primary tool, what you'll often see is that we, in the positive reinforcement community, for lack of a better term, get called something like "treat-slinging weenies." I've literally had that phrase thrown at me, by the way. I have been called a treat-slinging weenie, and I wear the badge with pride.

But we also get told that positive training means no boundaries and no this and no that. There's a difference between saying, "I want to give the animal in my life more agency," and saying, "I'm going to let my animal run roughshod over my household and do whatever they want at any time." I think there's a little bit of a misconception that if I allow my … let's just stick with dogs for the moment. If I allow my dog to feel like they have control over a situation, they are going to become a small dictator and take over the world, which is this concept of you have to be the boss or your dog will be the boss. And it's much more nuanced than that.

If you think about any relationship you have with humans in your life, other than the ones that are truly hierarchical, because there are hierarchical relationships we have most of the time, neither of you really controls the other and you exchange control. I think when we say, "I'd like to give — and maybe the Fenzi audience is not going to view it this way, I'm just going to say that right now — when I say I'd like to give the dog more agency and more self-empowerment, or whatever word you might associate with agency, people are like, "Oh my gosh, you want my dog to just be able to pee where he wants and bark at whoever he wants, and I can't control him. You don't even want me to use a leash."

And the reality is that I can give agency in a lot of ways that don't create any harm to me or to the general society, and still give that dog, or whatever other animal we're dealing with, a greater sense of agency without them then saying, "Now that we're on a walk, I'm going to run into the middle of the street because you told me I can take over the world."

So that's something that I think is a misconception is when we start talking about agency, people do that. It's sort of the catastrophizing. They go to the extreme and they assume that the extreme is what we're talking about. And we're really not. Just as most positive reinforcement trainers know that positive doesn't necessarily mean permissive "You can do whatever you want." There are still boundaries. We use management. We have other tools. But we're intervening in different ways and we're trying to load the behaviors we like using positive reinforcement instead of punish behaviors we don't like using some kind of aversive.

And I'm just going to come back to the stress question. The other misconception, the main misconception that I see with stress, and then I'm going to turn this over to Kristina, is that stress is always bad. That's the biggest misconception, I would say. Kristina, I know you're going to have notes to add.

Kristina Spaulding: I actually don't have a whole lot to add. Those are the two answers that I would have given as well, particularly about agency. I think that's how people …really they don't understand. They do think we're just talking about letting the dogs do whatever they want, and that's not what we're talking about.

The thing is, though, I think if we want to have a dog that's a pleasure to live with, one of the best ways to do that is to give them increased agency. I think the assumption is that then they're just going to take over and they're going to do all these things and they're going to have all these problems. But in my experience it really helps decrease problems because they're happier. And so you need to know how to do it in a way that is beneficial, but it is really helpful to the people in the home or that are interacting with the dog, in addition to the dogs themselves.

I think the only other thing that I would say about stress, and we already touched on this, so I'm not going to expand on it too much, but just I don't know that people understand how incredibly important it is and how huge of an impact that it can have on the animal in their behavior.

Irith Bloom: I absolutely agree with that. I think stress is underrated as a factor to consider when starting a behavior modification plan or honestly any kind of training. Even if you don't have a problem behavior, even if you're just training agility, not to say that agility is a just thing, but even if you're training agility because you think it'll just be a fun thing to do with your dog, you do need to consider stress and stress levels and always have that in the back of your mind somewhere.

Melissa Breau: Building on that stress topic for a second there, is it possible to create or teach increased resilience? To create a more optimistic dog? How does that fit into this picture?

Irith Bloom: It's one of these things that I think people think that behavior is set. We have phrases like, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." And I'm going to say one of the things we talk about in the presentations that we're going to be giving is habit. Sometimes it is very hard to change your behavior, but behavior is not immutable, and neither is what I'm going to call mindset, although I'm not inside the mind of the dog.

Resilience is like a …mindset isn't even the right word, but it's a state of the brain where the brain is able to flex more easily. So instead of "Something horrible happened to me and now I'm going to be shut down and stressed for the next three days," which is certainly unfortunately true in some cases with some stressors and for some animals, you can have an animal that says, "Whoa, that was a little weird," but they regain their balance more quickly.

Some animals are indeed going to be born that way. And Lord knows in humans you can see this. There are people that it just seems like nothing really fazes them. They just stay more or less stable all the time. And then there are other people that the pizza delivery is late and they lose it. They're just completely stressed out about the pizza delivery being late.

The good news, to get back to the real question, is that you can actually teach that skill, but the way you teach it is multi-faceted. One of the best ways to increase resiliency in your learner is through the use of proper enrichment, because where resiliency comes from … this is not a scientific thing I'm about to say. This is a concept in my head. If I know that I can have an impact in general, then the one time I don't have an impact on my environment through my behavior, I say, "That's one out of a hundred times, and a hundred times I was successful." My mindset, if you will, is that the next time it will probably be different. This is as opposed to an animal who says, "I never get to have any control over anything, so when my behavior fails, obviously that's just the way it is. I'm not able to resiliently pop back because I can't. I don't have a good baseline to pop back to almost."

So because enrichment provides the animals we live with a lot of opportunities to practice having an effect on the environment, practice facing a challenge, and then overcoming that challenge, they get all these repetitions that make it normal for them to face a challenge and then overcome it. So the one time they face a challenge that they can't overcome, or a challenge that's a little too big in some way, they can bounce back more quickly and say, "That's okay, the next challenge will be better." And again I have to emphasize: I can't be inside the mind of a nonverbal animal. Who knows? Maybe I can be inside the mind of a parrot, if I can get them to talk to me about it. But a nonverbal animal, certainly I'm never going to know what they are thinking per se. But behaviorally, what it looks like is dogs who have spent their life being faced with appropriate levels of challenge and getting through that challenge and most of the time succeeding, when they face a challenge where they don't succeed, they're like, "Whatever. Tomorrow is another day." Whereas an animal that has not had a lot of chances to face challenges and overcome those, when they're faced with a challenge that's too hard, they either give up or they retreat or they shut down.

This is all a very long way of saying yes, we can absolutely create and teach greater resilience. I will say that there are all kinds of other factors, other than what we do environmentally with the animal, that will be involved in how much resilience we can teach. And some animals are going to be able to achieve greater gains than others. But basically every animal out there, except for those miraculous people who just take everything in stride, no matter what, can probably improve their resilience. And that includes the animals that we live with in our homes.

Kristina Spaulding: That's a great answer. I'll just add on to some of those things. I'm going to bring in the geeky science part of it. Irith was talking about how if an animal has a long history of being able to have an impact on their environment and avoid these negative experiences or end them, that if they then have one experience where they don't have an impact, then it doesn't have this major depressive effect on the animal.

And no, we cannot get in their mind, in the sense that we can't know what they're thinking or their feeling. But we do have neuroscience research that does tell us what's happening in the brain in these instances. And so we know that when an animal experiences an aversive, that there's this cascade of effects that ultimately ends in stimulating the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, so that animal experiences fear, anxiety, and passivity.

We also know that if an animal learns that they have control over that aversive stimulus, that another part of the brain turns on. This is the prefrontal cortex, which many people think of as the thinking part of the brain, and it actually inhibits that other network and prevents that or reduces that enhancement of fear and passive behavior. And, this is the coolest part to me, that once that has started to happen, the brain starts to produce these new proteins that stick around and change the way the animal responds to stressors, so that in the future, if they've had enough experience with control, when they are faced with an uncontrollable stressor, the brain will react as if that stressor is controllable, which means that the animal still isn't experiencing that fear and anxiety.

We actually have really good science, with fifty years of science, to back this up on this particular topic. We also know that there are a lot of things that we can do to change optimism. We know from human research that mood is connected to how optimistic or pessimistic a person is. And just to define optimism for everybody, optimism means that when you are faced with uncertainty, you tend to anticipate reward, and pessimism means that when you're faced with uncertainty, you tend to anticipate punishment. People that are in a more positive mood tend to be more optimistic. And so what this suggests, and we do have research in other animals to back this up as well, that if we can improve the general mood state of our animals, that that will make them more optimistic, and that should also be connected to their ability to cope with stress. I could talk about this for a very long time, but those are those are a couple of the things that we know. And we also know that enrichment makes animals more optimistic.

Melissa Breau: Such an interesting topic. I'm very excited about the webinar, but I do want to wrap things up. One final question, and I would love if you could each maybe leave us with a final thought or a final point, or maybe sum up some of the points that we've talked about to bring it all home for everybody.

Kristina Spaulding: What I would just say is that stress matters. It's really, really important. It impacts all different aspects of an animal's life, and there is a lot that we can do to help them deal with stress better. And that actually gives us a lot of power to make their lives better, and I think a lot of responsibility to make sure that we are taking the steps that we need to take to make their lives better.

Irith Bloom: I'm going to jump in with what I'm hoping will be so brief that it will turn into bumper stickers or something. Stress matters, which I just stole right from Kristina there. Stress matters, and increasing agency is key. Those are the takeaways for me. Pay attention to the level of stress that your animal is experiencing all the time. Always have that somewhere in the back of your mind and always be thinking about how you can increase agency.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you both so much for coming on the podcast. This was excellent.

Kristina Spaulding: Thank you so much for having us.

Irith Bloom: Yeah, this has been really fun. Thanks.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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