Episode 11 – Alana Stevenson

Alana Stevenson

Alana Stevenson is an animal behavior specialist, trainer, and author and works with both dogs and cats to overcome behavior problems. She believes in force-free humane techniques and has been practicing for 17 years. Alana is certified in Low Stress Handling for Dogs and Cats and is certified by the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. Alana is on the Cat Friendly Practice Advisory Council for the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the creator of Feline Fundamentals Humane Handling webinars. Additionally, she is the author of two dog training books “The Right Way the First Time” and “Training Your Dog the Humane Way”.

Alana’s Website: https://www.alanastevenson.com

Feline Fundamentals Webinars: https://www.alanastevenson.com/feline-fundamentals-webinars/

Other Webinars: https://university.lowstresshandling.com/#/catalog/e2796078-51c0-4473-8e9c-608d93f3740e

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Alana Stevenson is an animal behavior specialist, trainer, and author, and works with both dogs and cats to overcome behavior problems. She believes in force-free, humane techniques and has been practicing for 17 years. Alana is certified in low-stress handling for dogs and cats and is certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour Professionals. Alana is on the Cat-Friendly Practice Advisory Council for the American Association of Feline Practitioners, and she’s also the creator of Feline Fundamentals Humane Handling Webinars. Additionally, she is the author of two dog training books, “The Right Way The First Time” and “Training Your Dog The Humane Way.” 

Hey, Alana, welcome to the show. Hi. How are you? I’m doing good. I’m really excited to have you. You have an amazing background. You do work with dogs and cats and so I want to just jump right in. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got involved with training and behaviorists? And then we’ll learn a little bit more about your philosophy. Well, I was teaching science, prior to getting into behavior. I have a graduate degree in biology with a focus on education. And after working for a few years, teaching high school biology and environmental science, I really wanted to transition because my passion was animals and always was, even prior to getting my grad degree. I was very involved in animal advocacy, so I wanted to work with aggressive dogs. I didn’t know how to do that. I don’t know why I wanted to work with aggressive dogs. I just felt that somehow they need help. I didn’t know anything more than any other animal lover or person who’s an animal enthusiast.

 So pretty much, I had to reinvent the wheel. When I started, which was in 2003. There weren’t nearly as many options to direct someone who wanted to learn about animal behavior. Now, of course, it’s very popular, and so there are a bunch of certification agencies or certification lobbies, and now they’re in school programs, and there’s many resources out there for those who want to learn about animal behavior or dog training. And when I began there really wasn’t much. So I started with “Clinical Behavioral Medicine in Small Animals”, by Dr. Overall, and that’s a veterinary behavioral book. And so I read that before I started. And then, from there I read a bunch of research and other resources that we’re more academic, based on how animals learn, straight away with a humane approach. I interned in New York City, so I did that full time, for a month. And then I continued voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on again for more reputable sources where people had some formal training or educational background. And then had my first clients, my very first client, was a dog with food aggression. A little Dachshund and I started implementing the theories and putting them into practice, and for some reason, it clicked for me, how to apply theory to behavior modification. Where often we understand the principles of how something works, but you don’t know how to implement it into day to day activities or into day to day actions and that clicked for me, with animals. 

So started working with aggression and behavioral problems with dogs right over the gate, using a very humane, gentle approach. So I’ve never used shock collars or Prague collars or went by dominance theory or trying to establish yourself as “Alpha.” And I love kitties. So kitty’s were a natural transition. I wanted to also do behavioral work with cats, and so it was really a natural transition because things I was implementing and a lot of behavior modification based on principles of how animals learn. There wasn’t too much of a difference behind the fundamental principles of what I was doing for dogs, implementing it for cats. A lot of the behavior modification of dealing with fear or stress, or how animals learn was the same. So it was a natural extension, and I started working with kitty’s a year later and doing it since then, for 17 years. 

It’s an amazing story. I love the progression of it. Now, were you one of those kids who just always had dogs and cats around? Or did you come to really grow fond of them, a little later in life? I was obsessed with animals. So I’m one of those. You knew from an early age that you wanted to do something with animals. I didn’t know what my profession would be. I actually wanted to be a Marine Biologist when I was in college. And that didn’t turn out the way I was hoping, for a number of reasons. But that was my goal as a professional. But that transition then I love what I do now for behavior. It is very fitting. But when I was raised, I was raised with dogs and kitties. I had my first kittens, which I felt with my kittens in kindergarten or actually in a nursery, probably nursery school. And then I was raised with dogs. But my first dog was maybe at six or seven. And prior to that, I was just obsessed with animals, ever since I can remember. I would collect stuffed animals. I had 100 stuffed animals, anything that were little figurines of animals, I would always want that for a school curriculum. Mrs. Elementary School. They have the summer reading and every single book I would read had to be an animal as the subject.

 I definitely love that. And 17 years in this industry is a really long time. There’s a lot of ups and downs and, you know, good days and bad days. And so talk to me a little bit about your beliefs and your philosophy in training. You had mentioned the fear-free and steering clear of the aggressive training angle. And so I want to know a little bit more about where that came from? Where did that start? And how have you been able to really maintain that all through the 17 years in this industry? That’s a good question, and it actually touches on a number of different, I guess, factors or facets. One I’m vegetarian, and so I’ve been vegetarian pretty much my whole life. I certainly have tasted, you know, the taste of meat, hamburger, and so forth and I stopped eating dairy when I was 16, for the most part. And so I had that philosophy as a background. 

But I have to say the humane methods and getting very passionate about positive training when I started with dogs, was coming from academia. When I started to learn about animal behavior and wanted to work with aggressive dogs and work with animals and that kind of behavioral, I assumed that people who were working in the field or working 20 years or something, with dog aggression or dog training, that they would be kind of experts in their field. Because in academia somebody who’s been doing something for 20 years or somebody who would be knowledgeable on teaching others, they’d have to have their Ph.D.’s or they’ve gone through a bunch of steps to get where they currently are. They’re considered an expert. And when I started doing training and working with aggressive dogs, doing behavior modification, right off the bat, I was seeing the other trainers. People who were doing training for 20 years, were hitting dogs with soda bottles, they were helicoptering dogs. Helicoptering dogs is where they hang them with a choke chain until they pass out. I basically walked into kind of Pandora’s box of, Oh my God, does this really happen? I never realized the extent of the abuse when it came to dog training and was essentially to me, it was just abuse. There’s no reason to be hanging dogs by choke chains and punching them. And this is what trainers or experts were doing, including trainers who were referred by veterinarians. So a veterinarian or veterinary clinic would refer a trainer, who would be getting complaints because the students or the human peoples who were there, you know their puppies would be hiding because the puppies were smacked or again recommend shock or prawn collars on little tiny Chihuahua’s you know.

 I saw a lot of that, and that made me extremely passionate about using humane techniques and approaches, especially since before I started working with any cases or any clients, I read so much behavioral information and wanted to make sure I really knew inside and out all the theory and all of the principles. And I wanted to know that I knew what I was talking about before I even had my first client. And just knowing things from that kind of academic perspective, or how animals actually learned or having that science background, I was astonished with what was considered normal in the field of dog training. And dog and cat behavior that is understood by the public. Information is out there of how to, behavior modification, how animals learn. So I was having great success remedying these serious aggression cases. And once I think, when I just started out, I was only within, like the first 6 months. I received a referral from somebody from Cornell because I was in upstate New York, but I was quite far away. And so I was thinking, You know, in one way it’s a compliment because, wow, you’re considered like an expert and you’re helping resolve aggression cases in dogs, which no one will touch. But at the same time, I’m thinking, you know, I’m a newbie and I didn’t invent this stuff. This stuff is written down. It’s in science, it’s in textbooks.

 And that made me very aware of just how little knowledge the public really does have, about how animals learn and how dogs learn and how cats learn. And there’s so much myth or preconceived notions or ideas that people have, that’s just incorrect. And that made me more passionate and also was hard because I left home very early and still now I’m sure there are people who are wanting to get into dog training and behavior who are facing the same dilemma if they’re sort of a newbie. I wanted to help aggressive dogs. But if I tried to ask for any behavioral advice from other trainers, who I thought, you know, online, online chats. So I thought, Oh, they must be an expert. They’ve been doing it for 15 years. Oh, you can’t treat an aggressive dog. You’re gonna be sued. Fortunately, Jean Donaldson, she helped me with my first year, over the phone with some really interesting cases, where I was a little bit stumped. One was a Boston terrier, who was attacking people when they went to the bathroom. Interesting. Yep. And that was within the first 6 months of my practicing to be, behavioral modification for dogs. So you know, that’s quite a bit that answers the question of how did I get into the humane methodology. So I was doing what’s considered fear free or low stress. They’re being humane right from the gate so that none of that is new to me. It’s coming new now for people, but I’ve been doing it all along.

 I love that you wanted to completely dive in before even taking your first client. I think that says a lot about who you are and the care that you want to provide to, not just the animals but their owners as well. So I know that in talking to a few people, the behavior side is as much about the animal owner as it is about the actual animal. And so how much of what you’re doing, now with the behavior training, would you say is geared towards the human versus the animal? That’s a good question. I would say 80 to 90%. The most I instruct people on how animals learn because they’re the ones who are doing the behavior modification. So I go over a lot of body language. I teach them how to implement behavior modification. I go over with them what association learning is, what context learning is. And I do think that having that teaching background probably helped me and teaching others, but simplifying kind of complex ideas and putting them into really simple, easily digestible sentences or scenarios so that other people can understand.

 What’s the number one thing that you see with your clients when they’re calling you and asking for help? Are you seeing a common behavior that people are looking to address? Yes, for both dogs and cats. For dogs, a lot of leash lunging and leash reactivity. Anxiety. Usually, by the time I’m called, the issue has been going on for a very long time, and other trainers have been used. So, many of the dog behavioral issues are convoluted. They’re not just kind of cause and effect. There’s one problem and one solution. There’s little stuff going on. And for the kitty’s, litter box issues are a big one and play aggression. I would say the two main ones are those. And then third would be the Inter Kitty issues, introducing cats and having them get along.

 Are there a couple of quick tips that you can provide to dog owners that might be struggling with leash issues? Oh, the leash issues are complex because there’s multiple, multiple things going on. When it comes to the leash, when dogs have an oppositional reflex, so any push or pull against them, they will push or pull back in response. So one of the issues we have is that we’re constantly pulling back or pulling up on dogs, with the leash and that actually makes the dog more reactive and makes them pull or lunge harder. I have a series of techniques that I created, which are leash handling isometrics. So it’s more learning how to position your body and lock your body, so that the dog just gets to kind of a stop, no different than they would be tied to a post or a tree, as opposed to pulling up or pulling back on them. And that changes the response of the dog, tremendously. The other thing is, we’re constantly reacting to dogs, and this is the same for cats, too. It’s the same principle. We’re waiting for the behaviors to happen, and then we come in there and try to correct it or redirect it. But the issue is, animals learn by doing. So, just by them doing a behavior, that behavior kind of reinforces itself. And then we’re coming in after the fact so that behavior is never gonna go away. Some of it is timing. If we’re going to be doing something positive, we want to do it before the animals start reacting, so they never get to that state. Often, people are just late in their timing. The animal has already done the behavior, and now we’re just interrupting it so that initial behavior is never going to go away.

 And then the other aspect for people to understand is that if their dog is reacting to something on leash or off-leash, anyway, we behave at that moment, the dog is not going to initially connect it to their behavior. So if they’re lunging or barking at a man or at another dog, anything we do at that moment, they most likely are going to pair with the dog or with the man. They’re not gonna pair it with their behavior. Is it because their tail was up? Their ears were back. They were on the left, they were on the right. They’re not thinking of their behavior. And so that’s called Association Learning or is an aspect of Association Learning. And that’s what many people don’t realize is that they’re trying to correct the behavior but the dogs are not thinking of their behavior. So if the dog’s behaving a certain way in front of the doorway when guests come, anything the person does at that moment, the dog’s going to pair it with the guests, not with their behavior, because guests are the variable. So the best thing that people could do is be positive with their dogs, and reward their dogs for doing behaviors that they like. But the dog initiates them, that’s passive training. So, for instance, on walks there, sometimes the dog will look at you. That’s what needs to be rewarded. The dog chose to look at you on their own. Sometimes to me, she leaves. They might grab a stick. They might pull, they might bark, but sometimes they look at you, and that’s the moment where you want to put the treat in their mouth and say, Oh, I love that. Thanks for that eye contact. We tend to focus on what we dislike as opposed to what we do like. And so that’s also a principle that I implement or teach people. Focus on what you’re wanting, not on what you don’t want. Changing the timing, to be a little more preemptive, and then understanding that the dog is not necessarily thinking of their behavior, then making connections, according to our scenarios and situations. So if we behave a certain way, in a certain context, the dog will most likely connect it to that context, not with their behavior.

 Before we get into the cat piece of this, I do just want to say that it is really interesting to me because you’re right, we do focus on the behaviors. We never focus on when they make eye contact when they do it on their own terms. And I think that’s a great piece of information for listeners in that there’s always an opportunity for training with them and even the slightest movement in a nontraining session, can be rewarded. And then it keeps them doing that. I don’t know that I’ve heard that before, Alana. So I thought that was really interesting that you brought that up and I’ve heard other people say, every moment is a training moment. And in those subtle moments, when they’re making eye contact with you, that’s when you should give them the treat. I think that’s fantastic. 

Yeah, passive training is a lot of what I implement and passive training is happening 24/7. Passive training can be a number of things. I consider passive training, one, it’s animals learn by doing so, just buy them doing behaviors. The more they do it, the more it becomes learned and automatic, just buy them playing it out. And then passive training is also, usually it’s unintentional what people are doing, but it’s where the dog does the behavior and the behavior is reinforced. But we didn’t ask for the dog to do it. It was the dog that initiated it. And then we respond. Passive training is happening 24/7. So passive training is happening all the time. We tend to focus more on active training, which is where we’re prompting, cueing or soliciting a dog to do something. We’re saying, Hey, I want you to sit or I want you to stay or back up. The problem with active training is the dogs only gonna do it when we asked. It’s not their default behavior, and then we’re left with how many distractions are there for the dog? Does the dog really understand what you’re talking about? Has the dog done it in that context? For how long does the dog do it for? So there’s all these issues with active training.

 Passive training is the dogs doing a bunch of behaviors and it’s their choice. It’s voluntary on their part, and you’re looking at those behaviors you like and so you’re reinforcing those behaviors, but you didn’t cue or solicit them. You could manipulate the situation, so the dog does the behavior, but you’re not telling the dog to do it. It was their idea. And with passive training, it’s the dog’s default behavior, and dogs learn it quicker. You don’t have to worry about intimidation, or if you have a dog who’s fearful. There’s no baggage of somebody trying to prompt or instruct them. So it’s a very gentle way to train, and it’s also highly effective. I love everything about that.

 I do want to spend a few minutes, though, talking about the cat side of things. What’s the main difference in training dogs or working with dogs and behavior problems versus cats? And then how did kitty’s come into play here? Cause I see on your website that you start them as young as six weeks with the socialization. I think the main issue with cats that people have to be aware of is that they’re not group creatures, and what that means is they do not have many appeasement gestures to deal with stress. So all group animals, whether it’s sheep, whether it’s cows, whether it’s a flock of birds, geese, us, dogs, we innately have all these nuances in communication to appease, to mimic each other, to placate, we’re aware of each other, even if we look like we’re ignoring each other. If you look in a certain direction in person, if you were with other people, they look in that direction and say, Hey, what are you looking at? Dogs will do the same thing. If you look in a certain direction, dogs will look in that direction too, most people don’t notice that. But if they point to a dog, the dog looks at where you’re pointing. If you point to a cat, the cat looks at your finger. They don’t get that kind of perspective of, what do you think of this?

 That group point of reference, which is also where you can herd people. You can herd sheep. You can herd cows. You can’t herd cats because cats have not developed all these nuances in communication, to keep a group intact. And so when we’re talking to each other as humans, we’ll head bob, men will say the ah-ha, yeah, and we’ll look away. We can roll our eyes. We can sigh. We have all these things that we use to communicate that we take for granted that’s like a group dynamic. And all group animals have that, and what that ultimately means is, if there’s any stress or conflict, we have all these ways to appease and placate. So if somebody’s mean to us, we might be extra nice. And we’re not saying, Oh, you’re right and I’m wrong. We’re saying I’ll be nicer next time. Dogs do the same thing. Somebody’s mean to a dog and the dog may growl and roll over or lick and somebody says, Oh the dog saying I’m sorry. No, the dog is saying, Don’t do that again. They’re trying to appease and placate. If you’re mean to a cat, the cat has absolutely no interest in appeasing you or placating you or trying to make you feel better about yourself, so you’re not mean to them next time.

 So this comes down to the main difference between dogs and kitties. Our cats don’t know how to handle stress. The moment they get stressed, they immediately get into, freeze, flee, and fight mode. And the other aspect of that, with kitty behavior, is if a cat wants to be close to anyone, whether it’s a person or another animal, it’s because they feel safe and they actually like the individual. It’s a voluntary want. It’s not an innate need. And the kitty’s are needless to that. So following instruction, trying to placate you, appeasing you, that dynamic a point of reference, they really don’t care what you think. Their opinion is always right. So that’s where kitties are often stigmatized or maligned as independent or untrainable. They do learn, and they’re learning all the time but following our instructions and trying to placate and trying to mimic us and trying to please us, which is what dogs do, kitty’s have no interest in. And so I think that’s a fundamental difference that is good to know when you’re working cats vs dogs. So then it really does come down to really observing them, really watching them and their body language. You almost have to be like a cat whisperer, is the word that came to mind as I was hearing you kind of talk about that. With humans and dogs and other animals versus cats and kitties, like once you broke it down, I could really see that difference, and that is certainly fascinating.

 So talk to me a little bit about the litter box problems that you see and what are some of the things that you can do or that you do do with your clients to help kind of curb that behavior? Litter pan problems are a big issue for many, many people. And the vast majority of times, it’s because the litter box is too small and too dirty. So I would say those are the main priorities, is a large box, the larger the better. I usually tell clients as large as you can psychologically handle, or that will fill the space so you can’t really get big for the kitty. Most litter boxes are just too small, and then location is another issue. Cats like to have really nice entries and exits, and we tend to put everything flush to corners. So the dome type litter boxes, the covered tubs, those inevitably tend to cause letter pan issues because cats want more space and they want a better visual and they want to be open. They don’t want to go into an enclosed cocoon to go potty. And the other thing is that cleanliness. People will tend to scoop if they think they’re really keeping the litter box clean, once a day. But if you have multiple cats, or if you have one cat who’s eating regularly and pottying, they may poo once a day and then or even twice a day and then pee, three or four times a day. So if you have two cats now, you kind of double that. If you have a small box, that box is pretty dirty, pretty quick. They want clean boxes and they want to separate their pees and poos. So, that would be the other factor is that cleanliness. Most litter boxes, the reason we have that litter box to poo because it’s like us. If we can flush our toilet that the litter box is too dirty, it’s not scooped enough as the kitty goes and the box is too small, so the dirtier it gets by default. Larger boxes, shallow boxes, and filling them up with litter and keeping that litter clean, I would say, is the most important.

 As I hear you say that that is common sense. But I don’t know that I would have ever associated a too small of a litter box with a problem. But now, after you’ve explained that, I can see certainly why that might be a problem for them. So thank you for sharing that. And I think those are fairly simple things that people can do right off the top to kind of troubleshoot and see if it is those things or if it is something bigger for them. So I definitely appreciate that knowledge. And have you always done cat training? Or is that something that’s fairly more recent for you? No. I’ve been doing the kitties for about 17 years. So very early on when you started in the industry. But I do think that when people tend to, there are many dog trainers or people who work with dogs, who know that now we’re doing cats is more popular and trying to transition into kitties. But kitty’s really don’t work the same way as dogs, in the sense of being trained. They have less interest in listening to you. Have less interest in corrections. Timeouts are meaningless to cats, so if people tend to think of treating cats, they’re training them like dogs, keeping them in crates or trying to teach them instructions, they’re gonna be frustrated, or it’s not going to enhance the relationship between the cat and the person, or they’re gonna be struggling and running into stumbling blocks. And that’s where understanding how kitties learn. They are learning all the time. But it’s a different relationship they have with you then what a dog would have with you.

 I don’t know if you have any experience with local rescues and shelters, but do you work with local animal rescues and shelters, either with dogs or cats? I do when I have a relationship with a shelter. Often a staff member or volunteer will solicit me and ask for help for individual dogs or cats, who they’re struggling with or who can’t be adopted. Often because the animal might be euthanized. So they’re trying to find new, alternate ways of doing things or working with that dog or kitty. I don’t work professionally regularly with shelters. I do teach seminars, so I was actually going to be presented a seminar and cat behavior to a local humane society. But because of this COVID-19, that’s been put on hold. So I do a lot of education in that way before shelters and for rescues. Usually, when I’m working with individual animals, it’s those individual cases where that animals’ not adoptable. Or the trainer who works at the shelter or the volunteers who are training or who work at the shelter, are stumped or don’t know what to do. And so they seek help. And I’ve certainly helped in those cases. And some cats too. Kitty’s who were biting and you know, adopters or potential adopters and it’s educating the trainers at the shelters or the volunteers who are working with those cats at the shelters, and then they’re implementing that knowledge, on their rounds or their day today.

 I just love that it’s not just about fixing or helping that animal and their owner. It really is, you are driven by the educational side of this. I know you’ve written a couple of books, and I know you do some speaking and different things of that nature. And so I love the component of reaching out or at least working with rescues and shelters. If the need arises in teaching them and helping them understand the behaviors. You’re sharing that knowledge with others who are passionate about saving lives and getting animals adopted. And through you sharing your knowledge, you’re able to make a bigger impact in your community. And so I really love that side of what you do. 

As we get close to wrapping this up, Alana, I just want to see if there was anything else that we, maybe missed that you wanted to talk about. Oh, actually, yes. I created some webinars which are available on my website for feline handling. So they’re very basic. And the two webinars are Feline Fundamentals and Humane Handling Basics 1 and 2. So it goes over ways to interact with cats, transfer them into carriers and out of carriers. Taking them out of cages. How to keep preventing them from being stressed, alternatives to scruffing. And so that’s something which is recent, that I did last year. Yeah, and will definitely be sure to link to those as well in the recording so that people can check that out and learn a little bit more if they’re interested.

 Well, Alana, I have truly appreciated talking to you. I feel like I’ve learned so much both about the dogs and the cat side of things. And again, I just really appreciate the 17 years of dedication that you’ve put into this and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me, too. I appreciate that.

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