Jessica Graves grew up knowing that she wanted to work with animals. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and used to rescue baby birds and squirrels that fell out of nests. She also loved to learn about animals and would spend much of her free time studying an animal and then writing a report on it. The past ten years, Jessica has spent gaining professional experience in various animal fields. When working at a humane society in Maine, where she helped turned challenging cats and dogs into adoptable pets, she discovered that her true passion lay in training animals. To increase her skills, Jessica enrolled in continuing education courses in domestic animal behavior. When she moved back to Nebraska, she spent a couple of years at the Nebraska Humane Society, first as an adoption counselor and then as a member of the behaviorist team. After that, Jessica found a job at a Lincoln vet’s office, working at the front desk. Here too, she discovered she could make a difference with animal behaviors, and soon implemented a behavior modification service for their clients.
Today Jessica runs Greenleash Pet Services, which offers pet sitting, dog walking, and behavior consultations. For a long time, her goal has been to operate her own business, where she could help pet owners build a healthier and safer bond with their pet. For her, “Greenleash” represents a pet who is friendly with both humans and other animals. Her dream is for every pet to “earn” their “green leash”. Jessica and her husband have two dogs and two cats of their own.
ALLISON: You specialize in Behavior Modification. Share an example of what this might involve.
JESSICA: Most of the time if there is a behavior problem, there’s a reason for it. This reason can be so little to the owner that they don’t realize that was the trigger. I go into the home and ask questions about the history of the pet and what behavior is being seen. From there I ask more thorough questions about the home environment and if there has been any changes. Usually when I dig into that last question, it’s more like an ‘ah ha’ moment for the owner. Once I know what the trigger is, it’s easier to come up with a plan to change that behavior. A lot of the success of my plan has to do with the owner and how well they follow the plan when I’m not there.
ALLISON: What are the most common behavior issues you’ve encountered?
JESSICA: When it comes to cats, the most common behaviors I see are litter box issues or aggression. With dogs, it is more often separation anxiety.
ALLISON: What is a memorable training moment?
JESSICA: One of my most memorable training moments was a client from a vet clinic I worked at. This client had visited South America and brought back a dog. The dog was pretty wild and had never been in a home or a kennel. I went through a plan of action with this client and gave them my weekend crate training program. After three days, the dog loved his kennel and was a new dog! Hearing the client thank me for that and knowing that I made that bond stronger was a great feeling!
ALLISON: What have you learned from the less-successful moments?
JESSICA: Generally, each of those times a plan has been unsuccessful can be traced back to the lack of commitment from the client. I’ve learned the importance of ensuring that EVERYONE in the home is on the same page. It’s next to impossible to change any behavior in an animal if the whole family isn’t on the same page. I have this discussion with people before I even start helping them. It may seem insignificant but even the kids in the household need to be involved in the training issues.
ALLISON: What lessons in general have you learned about working with animals?
JESSICA: Each animal has their own story and their own background. Each dog and each cat has their own language for you to learn. I love just watching animals and their body language to figure out what they’re feeling or how they will react to a certain situation. It isn’t about you trusting them, but about them learning to trust you.
ALLISON: What did you learn about helping your own pets from working at a vet’s office?
JESSICA: Being in the animal field you learn a lot about health and vaccinations. One thing I learned is how important dental cleanings are for your pets!
ALLISON: What did you learn about helping pet owners by being an adoption counselor?
JESSICA: One of my most famous sayings while being an adoption counselor was: “You may love and want this pet, but this may not be the best pet for you or your home.” Many people don’t realize the process that’s involved in testing the animals for adoption. We went through great lengths to make sure we knew what type of household the pet should go into. It’s not enough to say, “I want that one”. It’s a process where the adoption counselor wants to ensure success by matching you with the right pet and the right pet with you.
ALLISON: You worked in several different humane societies trying to better the lives of felines and feral cats. How do you think we can improve the lives of indoor cats?
JESSICA: Although cats seem to sleep a lot, they really need mental stimulation. Cats are born with instincts to hunt and play. When they become indoor cats, they still have these instincts. We can improve their lives by providing enrichment for them or even play areas just for them. One of my cats loves paper, so I ball up paper and throw it to her. I’ve also taught her how to fetch! This keeps her brain going and in return she is a happier, healthier cat.
ALLISON: What are some easy ways owners can enrich the lives of their cats?
JESSICA: One easy way is as simple as moving something to the window so that cats can watch the birds, squirrels, and (my cats’ favorite) leaves. This keeps cats entertained for hours! Another enrichment that I do with cats is getting a fake fish bowl or aquarium with fake floating fish that swim around. It’s so fun watching cats with this enrichment. You can also do other things with supervision such as roll up aluminum foil or cottage cheese containers with treats in them.
ALLISON: Currently, there are more trainer available for dogs than cats. What do think needs to happen to change this?
JESSICA: Awareness is key. Especially with first time/new cat owners, feline behavior can be an oversight. Being able to talk to clients openly through the process makes them aware of the need.
ALLISON: What lessons have you learned about running a business?
JESSICA: It’s important to keep your skills up to date. The animal industry is always changing and it’s essential that you keep up with the new trends and skills of others.
ALLISON: Give a tip to anyone who might want to work in the pet business.
JESSICA: Be educated and informed about animals and different behavior training techniques. Work in a humane society or at a vet’s office to see if animal welfare is the right field for you. You may walk in with one career path in mind and walk out with another. Get your feet wet and decide from there what your passion is!