About MichaelBaugh.com

Welcome to MichaelBaugh.com, my personal blog and repository for dog writing I’ve done here and there.  I guess now it’s all … here.

The blog is set up pretty simply.  To the right you will find categories for articles and essays I’ve written organized by source and subject.  Pieces with video are also listed under “video.” Articles and essays written exclusively for this site are categorized as “site original.”  Material by guest writers is stored under the author’s name and subject where applicable.

The latest postings are always directly below this one and listed to the right under “recent posts.”

Above there’s a little something about me and information about Michael’s Dogs Training and Behavior in Houston, TX.

Please link to this site freely and often.  :)

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What Panting Means (Not All Panting is the Same)

By Guest Blogger Lore Haug DVM MS DACVB

We all know dogs pant for thermoregulation. But panting can provide information about the dog’s emotional state as well. Dogs pant when under heat or physical stress or psychological stress. Panting also can appear associated with any type of arousal or exertion (e.g. excitement, aggression, or anxiety).


Figure 1: This is a relatively neutral, temperature related pant. The dog’s facial expression is alert but relaxed. While there is some caudal retraction of the commissures of the lips, the lips themselves have a downward relaxed droop. Additionally, the span of the tongue and protrusion of the mouth are commensurate with the amount of lip retraction.


Figure 2: This dog also shows a relaxed pant. Again, the ears and facial expression are relaxed. The eyes are soft and there is no excessive wrinkling or tension of the skin and muscles on the face. The dog’s lips have a pronounced downward droop and there is no extension of the tongue out of the mouth.

pant-fig3  pant-fig4

Figures 3 and 4: This is a relaxed pant related to heat and exertion.   There is marked protrusion of the tongue with expansion of the tip into the “spoon” appearance.   While there is notable caudal retraction of the lips, there is again a lot of downward droop. In the second photo, this downward droop makes a pucker at the commissure as the retraction of the commissure causes the lip to slightly fold over or bulge outward. Again, otherwise the skin and muscles are relatively smooth and the eyes are soft – no exposure of the sclera . This dog would exhibit normal frequent and “full” blinking of the eyes.


Figure 5: Compare this photo to Figure 1. In this photo, the dog is showing more anxiety compared to Figure 1. The tongue is extended about the same amount; however, there is more caudal lip retraction and more “upward” lift of the lips themselves. There is more tension and wrinkling of the skin and muscles along the muzzle and particularly under the eyes. Additionally, the ears are slightly dropped at the base.


Figure 6: This is another dog with an anxious element to the pant. The level of retraction of the commissures of the lips is excessive as compared to the amount of tongue extension.   The dog’s mouth is open relatively wide, yet there is very little “spooning” or expansion of the tip of the tongue as would be expected for more effective heat dissipation.


Figure 7: This photo shows an almost pure anxiety/fear related pant. There is marked lip retraction with no protrusion of the tongue. The lips are vertically elevated (no downward droop) to the point that almost all of the dog’s teeth are visible. (Compare this to all the other photos where there is NO exposure of the upper canine teeth.) The scleras are visible (“whale eye”) and the ears are rolled back in a high stress position. This dog would likely show little and/or abbreviated blinking.

Dr. Lore Haug is a veterinary behaviorist in Houston, TX

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10 Practical Reasons to Teach Your Dog “Sit”

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

“Sit” may be one of the most undervalued things we teach our dog. Everyone teaches it, and just about every dog can get really good at it. So, let’s start applying it in situations that count. This one simple life skill can prevent a whole bunch of problem behaviors while promoting good manners at the same time.













Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston TX. Special thanks to Cleveland dog trainer Kevin Duggan CPDT-KA for contributing to this post. Thanks also to Peta Clarke for the final photograph.

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Puppy Classes: Fun and Important

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

There are lots of good reasons to take a group puppy class with your new dog. There are so many reasons, in fact, that I’m actually shocked more people don’t do it. (Can you believe fewer than 5% of new puppy owners engage in any training at all?). That’s crazy. Why? Well, for one puppy classes are so much fun. Add to that, they’re incredibly important.

Puppy classes are “brain changers.” Really good puppy classes are specially designed for dogs between 8 and 18 weeks of age, youngsters. At that stage of their development, our puppies’ brains are still growing, making connections, and creating receptacles for important brain chemicals. Puppy classes that include interesting and enriching activities like play, exposure to novel sights and sounds, as well as fun interactions with other humans can help our young dogs’ brains grow stronger (and measurably bigger, too).

Puppy classes prevent fear and aggression. Young puppies are adventurous sorts, always walking a fine line between bravery and fear. They’re figuring out what is safe in the world and what may not be so safe for them. A well-designed and properly supervised puppy class helps our young dogs learn that the world is full of wonder, with other dogs, new people, and new sights, sounds and smells. Better yet, they learn that all those new experiences come with a variety of smiles, praise and treats. Our dogs grow up learning that life is good, and the world is safe for them. They aren’t fearful, and they don’t grow up to be aggressive dogs.

Good manners start at puppy class. Our young puppies are clean slates. They haven’t learned any bad habits yet. Smart puppy classes fill their brains early on with lots of good habits, simple tasks that even very young dogs can learn. It’s amazing to see how much and how fast a very young dog can learn. They are ready, and oh so willing.

Puppy classes are good for humans. Humans who engage in early training with their young dogs bond more strongly with their dogs. We learn how to communicate with our dogs at a level other dog owners don’t. Plus, we learn skills for training our dogs even more useful and complicated tasks as they mature. So yeah, we learn stuff too.

Don’t forget reason number one: Puppy classes are fun! Seriously, they are big fun. The best puppy classes include lots of off-leash play and games for humans and their dogs. It’s low stress learning for everyone. And, c’mon, you’re in a room with lots of really cute puppies. How could it not be fun.

Now, you have permission to stop reading. Go find a reward-based puppy class in your area (I’ve provided some links to Houston Area trainers below). Take some cute pictures from your puppy class experience and post them to my Facebook page. I can’t wait to see them.

Houston Area Puppy Classes

Peace Love and Dogs (Spring Branch)

Houston Dog Ranch (Houston)

The Fundamental Dog (The Woodlands)

Rover Oaks (Bellaire and Katy)

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston and Katy, TX. He specializes in behavior related to fear and aggression.



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Positive Thinking – Positive Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

You know the look they give us. They cock their head and flash those weary eyes. It’s as if they are saying, “For God’s sake human what are you thinking?” It’s the way our dog, Stewie, looks at us just about every day.

If you ask me our dogs are on to the right question. What we think and how we perceive our world has a huge impact on how we feel and how we humans behave day in and day out. Psychiatrist, Aaron Beck writes about cognition and its impact on depression, relationship problems and other psychosocial maladies. For Beck and other cognitive behavior therapists the trick to feeling and living better begins with changing the way we think. Hmm, makes sense.

So, let’s think about our dogs for a minute. Better yet, let’s think about how we think about our dogs. Take a moment just to let some random thoughts run through your head. Cognitive therapists call these “automatic thoughts.” They’re the things we think about without really thinking. As a trainer I get to hear a whole bunch of people’s automatic thoughts about their dogs. Most of them aren’t too upbeat. “He’s stubborn.” “She’s too distracted by other dogs.” “He’s aggressive.” “She’s shy.” “He won’t do that.” “She doesn’t like treats.” And then there’s my all time favorite, “My dog is being dominant.” Add to the list if you’d like. We could fill the page.

Negative thinking is like poison. This is particularly true in dog training. Our thoughts and beliefs serve as filters for all that we observe and experience. They directly and immediately influence our feelings and actions. Here’s an example. Our dog jumps on a visitor. We may think our dog is “bad,” or maybe “overly friendly.” That can leave us feeling hopeless or even angry.  The result may be that we give up on trying to help our dog change his behavior (mistakenly believing that training a lost cause). Or, worse yet, our anger may lead us to harsh or abusive training methods.

Now let’s look at the exact same scenario again. The only thing we will change this time is how we think about the situation. Our dog still jumps on the visitor, but instead of thinking poorly (and inaccurately) about him we notice that the dog is behaving the same way many dogs do. We may feel some comfort knowing that behavior can change (if my dog learned to jump on people, he can also learn other things). There are no feelings of hopelessness or anger.  We can take calm rational action. We can teach our dog some new skills.

The point here is that dog training really does start in our head. Yes, it involves timing, eye-hand coordination, knowledge and skill. But you can throw all that stuff out the window if you’re not in the right frame of mind. It’s time to weed out some of that negative thinking.

  • Step One: Be aware of your own negative thoughts. Some of them are just plain obvious. If you’re mumbling “stupid dog,” then you can pretty much chalk that up as a negative thought. But others might be a bit subtler. Here’s my favorite way to identify a negative thought in dog training. Ask yourself, “Does this belief or way of thinking help me train my dog or does it just upset me and leave me confused? If it’s the latter then discard the thought. It’s negative and therefore useless to you.
  • Step Two: Think happy thoughts. It worked for Tinker Bell and Peter Pan. No, I’m not kidding! Think happy thoughts and imagine where you can go with your dog. I suggest you start by speaking well of your dog. When you get a chance tell someone how smart your dog is or what a fast learner she is. Then take it a step further by telling your dog how wonderful you think she is. Maybe she’ll understand you. Maybe she won’t. But by verbalizing positive thinking you will automatically begin to think more productively about your dog and training.
  • Step Three: Visualize. You already do this everyday. You might map out directions in your mind before you get behind the wheel of your car. Golfers imagine sinking a putt before they actually hit the ball. We say things in our head before we speak them aloud. So why not visualize training your dog. Picture a nice crisp sit. See your dog heeling beside you. Imagine her greeting a guest politely without jumping. If you’re seeing good behavior in your mind’s eye then you are crowding out negative thinking. You’re already on your way to better results.
  • Step Four: Build on success. Make positive thinking a way of life just as you have with positive training. The fewer negative beliefs there are getting in the way the more you will succeed. The more you succeed the more confident and positive your thinking will become. You can see how this quickly snowballs into ultimate success.

None of us got a dog so that we could think poorly of him. None of us wants a ho-hum relationship with our dog. And certainly none of us wants to fail at training our dogs. So, by all means, let’s get rid of anything that gets in the way of what you really want – a powerful and satisfying bond with the animal you love.

Think well.   Feel good.   Act it out.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in dogs with aggressive and fearful behavior.

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Is Love Enough?

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

For those of us who know dogs, really know them, the love comes easily.  And for those involved in the hard and difficult work of rescue and sheltering, there is no shortage of love.  It’s what fuels us, what keeps us going day after day.  It’s what sees us through the anguish and the tears to get out once again and rescue and shelter some more.  Love is the thing.  But is it enough?

Psychiatrist Aaron Beck was writing about human relationships when he jumped to the answer.  His book from the late 80’s was called Love is Never Enough.  His idea was for people, especially couples, to use the tools of cognitive therapy to improve their lives together.  Listen.  Separate out feelings (at least don’t jump to feelings first). Be mindful.  Love was not enough.  It never was.  We had to think as well.

What would Aaron Beck say about those of us who rescue and shelter dogs?  Do we love too much?  Does our love ricochet us into darker emotions, sadness, anger, hate, and despair? Does it paralyze us; keep us from acting at all because the problem of abandoned and suffering dogs is just too big?  That was my story up until recently. Is love not only “never enough,” but is it also sometimes what gets in the way of doing the work?  I won’t speculate on what Dr. Beck would say.

Here is what we do know, the sad facts:

  • Too many dogs are abandoned or born into homelessness. In Houston the numbers are huge.
  • These dogs suffer from health issues ranging from mange to broken bodies to heartworms.  Most rescue groups raise funds for the proper medical treatment for all of the animals in their care.
  • Nearly every one of these dogs also suffers from behavior problems ranging from poor manners to extreme fear of humans to aggression toward humans or other dogs.  Very few rescue groups provide professionally structured behavior care for any of their animals.

That last point interests me the most.  Here’s why.  89.7% of dogs end up in shelters in the first place because of behavior problems (Wells and Hepper 2000).  My colleague, Carolyn Grob, presented this bit of data and more at a recent Project Rusty Seminar in Houston (more about Project Rusty in a moment).  So, we know going into this that at least 89% of dogs in rescue and shelters are there because of behavior problems.  We know it like we know they have mange or a broken leg or heartworms.

Connecting the dots is pretty easy.  If we help the dogs in our care learn better behavior, we increase the chance that their adoption will be successful and lasting.  We justify the time and expense involved the same way we justify medical treatment. Adopters don’t want a mangy dog. Guess what? They don’t want a rude freaked out dog either.

So, let’s get back to the love.  Won’t love and a little time heal most behavior issues, like fear and aggression? The short answer is no. In fact, with many dogs the problems just get worse. Can’t a dog learn to trust humans again? Yes, of course. But love and time are not enough, not really, not ever. And let’s not even talk about the jumping and leash pulling and other crazy hyper goofy behavior. Add some well-intentioned love and that unruliness can turn into downright rude-dog stuff. But, I digress.

What would Beck say? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. What if we step back from a moment and give this behavior thing some thought?  We won’t stop loving. We’ll just starting thinking a bit.  Let’s be mindful about training and behavior.  There’s a process to treating medical issues right? There has to be a process for helping dogs act better and feel better around their new humans. (Of course there is, said the trainer).

In fact, there’s a time-honored and well-tested process for teaching animals how to act and feel better. It boils down to showing the dogs in our care that their behavior (their actions) matter.  Good things happen when they behave a certain way (the way we like). Nothing much good happens when they don’t.  Because we’re using rewards (reinforcement) like food and play, we’re also teaching the dogs that we humans are safe, nice in fact.  We won’t get bogged down in the technical terms like Learning Theory and Classical Conditioning. We can just think of it like this. We teach the dogs what works for them in our crazy human world – and at the same time we teach them that we’re not all that crazy after all. Humans are pretty darn good it turns out.

The process is not hard. It can be fun once we get the hang of it. But, it’s not magic either. We have to show up, and we have to put in some effort.  Get the dog out of the crate, into a space where we can interact with him one-on-one, and let’s start training.  It’s like taking the dog to the vet for medical care, equally important, but with less hassle.  Forget Aaron Beck for a moment.  Here’s what trainer educator Ken Ramirez from The Shed Aquarium says: Training isn’t a luxury.  It’s an essential part of daily animal care.

“Wait a minute”, you might say, “I’m not a trainer.” Well, that’s where Project Rusty comes in.  That’s the group I mentioned a little bit ago. Project Rusty is a nonprofit organization in Houston with a mission to teach shelter staff and rescue volunteers how to be trainers. The truth is, you are already teaching the dogs in your care every day.  Every waking minute they are learning, not just from you but also from your family, the cat, the bird, and of course from the other dogs in your home. The question isn’t whether or not they’re being trained (they are).  The question is are they learning the stuff we want them to learn. Probably not.

Let’s change that. In the months and years ahead Project Rusty will be rolling out programs to help shelters and rescue groups better care for the behavioral health of their dogs. We’ve actually already started with interactive seminars. The next step will be more intensive learning programs for rescue groups, some of which are already in development. There will also be online resources for staff, volunteers and the general public. If behavior is the problem, then we will be the solution.  All of us.  Together.

So where’s the love? I can only speak for myself on this one. I love my dogs. I love some of my client’s dogs too, and most came from shelters and rescue groups. I write about love and compassion and hope and all the soft stuff. I’m that guy. Is love enough? Maybe not.  But, maybe that’s also not the right question.  Maybe the question is how do we love these dogs?  What is the thing?  What is the stuff of love? For me it’s the moment I look at a dog and understand and know in my heart and in my brain that she understands too. It’s communication, clichéd as that sounds. It’s learning and teaching and blurring the lines between the two. Who’s training whom?

Love is a verb.

When I’m training with my dog I am loving my dog. It’s in my actions, and hers too I think.  Teaching is loving.  Learning and teaching more is loving more. And, if that’s so then loving is the thing, loving thoughtfully with our actions.  It’s what we do, mindfully and wholeheartedly?  Can we ever really get enough?

Michael will be leading an interactive presentation about this topic on May 4th in Houston.  Visit his Houston Dog Training Events page for more information.

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Making Training Work with a Busy Schedule

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

What gets in the way of helping our dogs change their behavior?  Of course we need to know  how to train our dogs.  We have to learn new skills.  Our dogs do too.  But that’s really not the big obstacle.  Our dogs and we humans are actually good learners.  What really gets in the way?


We think training takes too much time, and we think we don’t have enough time to do it.  How do we get around that?

A lot of dogs are very fast learners, even dogs who have some behavior related to fear and aggression.  We can lay out a plan to teach them essential skills (often quite simple skills) to help them handle life in our crazy human world with a bit more, shall we say, grace.

Timesaving Training 

There are lots of things we can teach our dogs using clicker training that take very little time, a matter of weeks if not days.

  • Eye contact and attentiveness.  This takes next to no time.
  • Settling down on a mat.  We can shape this behavior very quickly.
  • Following us / Coming when called.  It trains quickly.

Of course we humans need to learn how to train these things, and that can take a bit of time.  The good news is we human learners can pick things up as quickly as our dogs do.  I’ve found that the Online Training Journal really helps speed up the learning process for us humans.  Clients who log daily training activities give me a chance to coach clients daily and keep the process on track.  That’s a huge time-saver in the long run.


More Awareness – Less Time

Once we teach some basic skills, maintaining (even sharpening) that training can take next to no time at all.  We don’t have to schedule any training sessions at all (or very few).  We just have to be more aware.

One of my best clients is helping her dog, Harley, adjust to having a new baby in the home.  All day long, while my client is being a busy mom, she pays attention to what Harley does.  And, throughout the day she praises and treats all the things Harley does well.  It’s awesome.  She actually keeps a log of all the great things she reinforces throughout the day and reports the results on her Online Training Journal.

  •  Harley waited patiently while I made lunch – praise and treats
  • Harley rested quietly outside the nursery – praise an treats
  • Harley gave us extra space when I asked him to back up – praise and treats.
  • Harley played nicely with the other dog – verbal praise

Yes, she spent some time early on clicker training and teaching Harley some nice manners.  But, how much time is this busy mom spending with training now?  None.  She’s just more aware.  She’s training all the time as the day unfolds.

It’s a good thing she has this system worked out.  We just learned a few days ago that she’s expecting a second baby.  She’s going to need the extra time.

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Katy and Houston, TX.


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Puppy Adolescence

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

They grow up so fast.  But honestly, some puppies just can’t grow up fast enough.  They go from cute to incorrigible in no time.  Then they seem to get stuck, for months, or for years.

We call it puppy adolescence, probably because it so horrifically mirrors human adolescence.  Our dear sweet puppies who followed us around and learned their manners so quickly, suddenly go wild.  A dear client of mine said she hardly recognized her own dog when he suddenly went rogue at the pet  store.  Atticus is a 5-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, and a model puppy.  Then in aisle 7 he met a boxer who he absolutely had to play with, right there, right away.  Atticus learned in that very moment that he’d grown in size and strength.  He pulled hard on his leash to reach the other dog (who was barking and growling, by the way) and gave my client’s shoulder a good hard strain.

Welcome to the next year of your life with an adolescent puppy.

The early months of puppy development are all about teaching him that the world is a safe place.  Before they come into our lives, puppies learn to interact with siblings and their mother.  We hope they also have healthy interactions with humans in their birth homes (dogs born on the streets and in puppy mills aren’t so lucky).  Once they come to us, we introduce them to the various types of people and human activities they will encounter throughout their adult lives.  The goal here is to show them that those crazy humans and their weird ways are really quite safe and great fun for puppies.  We coo, praise, and offer lots of tasty treats.

By 4 ½ to 5 months, our best efforts have produced calm and confident young dogs.  We’ve been to puppy class for some beginner manners.  Potty training and puppy biting are both under control.  Now we have a developing dog who is growing in size and intelligence.  They’ve had a taste of the exciting world, and they are hungry for more.

Atticus already weighs 45 lbs.  He’s strong, and he’s sharp.  He’s also is a savvy learner.  That’s good news because Atticus has an excellent early history figuring out how to respond appropriately to humans, especially his human family.  That can be a double-edged sword though, because Atticus is also quick to learn what to do to get his way in general.  For example, jumping up on counter tops gets him free snacks (sometimes).  And, pulling toward that boxer in the cat toy aisle gets him closer to an impromptu play date.  Our adolescent dogs discover that behavior pays.  Good behavior or bad, those are our labels.  It’s all the same to our dogs.  Whatever behavior works is good for them.

Helping your dog through adolescence is similar to getting him through early puppyhood.  It’s all about structure, and setting your dog up to succeed.  But the specifics are a bit different.

  1. Focus on what you want your dog to do, not what you don’t want him to do.  Teach him skills and practice daily. For puppy people who have already been training, much of this will be review.  Start thinking about basic manners as solutions to problem behaviors.  Sit prevents jumping on people.  Down teaches your dog to relax and slow down hyperactivity. Coming when called averts many varieties of mischief away from you.  Eye contact while on-leash prevents pulling and lunging.  Reinforce the behavior you want and you will get more of it.
  2. Teach impulse control.  Stay, leave it, and drop it are all good starts.  Just remember point one: focus on what you want your dog to do.  Impulse control isn’t about your yelling “no.”  Stay means your dog holds his position and focus on you.  Reinforce this activity.  Leave it means your dog takes is eyes off of trouble and looks at you instead.  Clicker training is a great way to teach him to do that reliably when you call “leave it.”  Drop it is also an activity.  Release the object in your mouth.  Yes!  Good dog!
  3. Turn play into learning.  Our adolescent dogs are eager for activity and play.  Integrate playtime and training time.  You can reinforce all of the lessons above with tug, fetch, and other types of play.  Experiment and see what your dog wants to work for.  You can also use treats.

Exercise and a healthy diet are also very important.  You might want to ask your vet if your dog’s breed and overall physical development are appropriate for dog sports like beginner agility, fly ball, or dock diving.

Now, pause for a moment.  Imagine who you want your adolescent dog to become.    Think about walking your dog down the path toward that goal.  What will you teach him along the way?  How will you let him know when he’s getting it right – smiles, praise, clicker train, play?  Choose to let the bad stuff fall to the wayside.  You already know that punishing behavior gives it too much of your attention.  Watch your dog grow in size and strength, but also in spirit and maturity.  Imagine the noble old dog he will someday be.

You will make it through your puppy’s adolescence.  I bet you’ll even forget how hard it was.  If you’re like me, you’ll wish time had moved more slowly.  Darned if the little guy didn’t grow up too fast.

(This blog originally published on Chron.com)


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The Control Myth

We are desperate for it, seduced by it, deceived by the illusion of it.  But, we can never really have control.  We struggle, and grasp at it.  We even celebrate the lie that sometimes we have it, that we’re in it.  It’s okay.  I’ve got this.  And then we don’t.

It comes up for us dog trainers all the time.  We’re notorious control freaks.  In all honestly, we’re also in the business of selling control.  Clients beg us to make their dogs stop doing this and that.  He’s out of control.  They want him back in control, their control.  We oblige, but often miss the truth.  This isn’t control, but something else altogether.

In her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainly and Change, Pema Chodron speaks about our human quest for solid ground, certainty, and predictability.  Control.  We want life to fit our storyline, the narrative we create.  But, it rarely does.  We fight and we suffer, and grapple for more solid ground, and suffer more.  Life is moving, changing, and exciting unstable ground.  It does not have transitions; life is transition.  It terrifies us or exhilarates us; the decision is ours.  But there’s no controlling it.  Not really.

Our life with dogs is a window to this truth, a microcosm of our life in total.

We’re drawn to our dogs, and love our dogs, and tremble at the thought of their deaths.  When death comes, we weep and memorialize them.  It is messy and unpredictable, all of it.  Unstable ground.  But for those of us who are “dog people” it can also be exhilarating bliss.  Those of us who train our dogs with compassion find even more joy, the glimmer of life’s meaning, connectedness.  It’s an open line of communication, and relation to another being that transcends.

Chodron writes about the Tibetan word: Bodhicitta.  It means having an open mind, and an open heart for all living beings.  It’s the core of enlightenment.  Buddhists seek it gently, without struggle.  They embrace the uncertainty of life, the unstable ground.  It “is not a process of building ourselves up,” Chodron writes, “but of letting go.”

Which brings us back to our dogs.

When clients come to us trainers they are often carrying heavy burdens of shame, burdens they’d be better off letting go.  They have not been a good leader; they haven’t been their dog’s “alpha.”  They’ve let things get out of hand, failed their families, and failed their dogs.  Things are not perfect, not as they should be.  Their dog’s out-of-control behavior has somehow become a reflection of their own self worth.  They want control, when all the while their vain attempts are what’s causing their suffering.  Brene’ Brown is a sociologist who researches shame.  In her book, Daring Greatly, she writes eloquently about how we try to protect ourselves from shame with perfectionism, control, and putting people (and animals) in their places.  The results are almost always disastrous, resulting in a cycle of more shame and suffering.

It’s time for us to let go.

Shame and our poor defenses against it distance us from each other.  We need only look at our dogs to see it.  We seek help from trainers who often shame us more.  They take our money and tell us to dominate our dogs, to jerk their leashes, to spray and slap and shock them.  We’re told to hurt them in the hope that we will feel better, less ashamed, and more solidly planted on stable ground.  What we get is an illusion at best, a dog who is compliant in the service of avoidance.  We feel in control but still disconnected.  It’s the worst possible glimpse of a life in total.

Chodron and Brown both write about the undeniable ambiguity of being human.  We are enigma, all of us.  Brown writes about her own work “leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way.  In a word – messy.”  I think that’s our calling as trainers too.  We all live on unstable ground, and our life with dogs is messy indeed at times.  But, that is not a hopeless message.  We have information to share and empathy that can relieve our clients of shame, and the need for compulsion.  We can help their dogs, and free them at the same time.

The challenge for us trainers is to be courageous.  Courage requires vulnerability.  Being real.  Having the strength to let go of our own need for control, and to find our own compassion.  Brown calls this “the core, the heart, and the center of meaningful human experiences.”  It’s the antithesis of shame.  She calls it “Wholeheartedness.”  It’s Chodron’s Bodhicitta, an open heart and open mind connecting with all living things.  Dogs and their people.

What do we want, control or connection?  A dear friend and business advisor once told me not to mention “relationship” when selling my dog training services.  Clients want results, not relationships. I have to disagree.  We may not see at first what we really want.  The illusion of control is alluring.  But connection, a real bond with another living being – that’s the stuff.  That’s the stuff.

Take a breath and notice that the ground is moving and life is transition.   Notice too that we matter and our actions have meaning.   That’s important for our clients and us trainers to remember.  We may not have control – not really.  But, we can and we do learn to communicate with our dogs.  We set the stage for them and help them find a path for their own actions.  We can even respond to those actions, reinforce the behaviors, hope for more of all the good we see in our dogs.  That’s not control.  It’s choice.  How we choose to act.  How our dogs choose to act.   There is a connection between the two.  I sometimes tell my clients, “We’re not controlling our dogs.  We’re teaching them self control.”  We’re helping them make good choices.  And isn’t helping dogs so much better than controlling them?

We can achieve great things with our dogs, or we can find greatness in the simple things with them.  Even the dogs who seem to be out of control have a place with us.  Chodron was speaking about our fellow humans when she wrote, “Be grateful to them; they’re your own special gurus, showing up right on time to keep you honest.”  I think we can apply the wisdom here to our dogs as well.  Who’s teaching whom?  It’s hard to tell.  Maybe not knowing makes the joy even greater.  For those of us who are “dog people” it is exhilarating bliss.  Mindful connection.  The relationship that doesn’t sell, but that we wouldn’t give up for a million bucks.

Take a breath and notice your dog.  How beautiful.  How nice when the look is returned, softly and honestly.  That moment of quiet sharing.  Free falling through time, but linked together.  What happens next?  And who cares really?  Such a clear window into what life in total could really be.

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Dogs on Hold

Sella’s practice visit to IAH

As many of you know, Tim, Stella, Stewie and I are planning to move to Norway this month.  It has been my job to prepare the dogs for the transatlantic journey.  I’ve also been making the necessary arrangements for their immigration (our human immigration is already settled).

I was discussing the details with a colleague today and mentioned the interesting time constraints related to the last week before the move.  The dogs need an exam from our vet, and a signature from her on a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) document.  Norway requires the USDA to approve this document before the dogs can leave the United States and legally enter Norway.  That USDA document is time sensitive, so I’d have to travel to Austin to get it signed and then back to Houston to get on a plane to Norway within a matter of days.  It was an interesting conversation until my colleague reminded me of a stark truth that’s been right under my nose the whole time

The USDA is closed indefinitely.  Remember?  The government is shut down; out of business; sorry for your luck.  The result: Tim has to go to Norway anyway for work.  The dogs and I are stuck here.  Waiting.

I can’t help but chuckle.  Less than an hour ago I was listening to the radio and the announcer said “we want to know how the government shutdown is affecting you.”  I had the arrogance to think, it’s pretty much not affecting me at all.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  This is the story of how the privileged and the power-hungry disrupt and damage American lives.  In my case, it’s the story of how they split up a family.  I can only hope it’s not for too long.

I have calls out to see if there is a work-around and will post updates on this site as I learn more.

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Lessons from the Living Room (Suffering)

One of my colleagues recently wrote this (paraphrasing):  Attempts at dog training often fail because the owner isn’t suffering or hasn’t suffered enough.  It’s a harsh statement, yes.  Nevertheless, it’s often quite true. Complacency inspires nothing, and nothing is quite as inspiring (and reinforcing) as suffering interrupted. My colleague is spot on.  Action is often borne of agony.  We trainers know the technical term for this: Negative Reinforcement.

We hear our clients begging for it all the time.  Make my dog stop (you fill in the blank).  He’s aggressive.  He’s out of control.  He has ADHD, dominance, and stubbornness.  At some point the labels we slap on things aren’t enough to ease the pain.  We call out for help.  We’ve suffered enough and it’s time for something to happen.

I work with people whose dogs have bitten people or other dogs.  If they haven’t bitten, they’ve growled or snarled or lunged.  These are good people; many are very good people.  They love their dogs.  “He’s a good dog,” they tell me.  Their voices are soft, pleading.  They mean it.  “I love him.  I just want him to stop this.“  And then they ask me why.  Why does he act this way?  Why is this happening?  Some cry.

Suffering shines a harsh light on things.  There is the world the way we hoped it would be.  Then there is the world the way it is.  Sometimes the two match up.  More often they don’t.  The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called this incongruence.  We form an ideal self, a perfect life; and then we struggle to conjure it into reality.  So I listen to people who love their dogs tell me about the life they dreamt.  “I got him for my son,” they say.  Or, “I just wanted a running buddy.”  Or, “I want to pet him, and cuddle.”  They pause.  “But ….”

Incongruence.  Suffering.  The dog bites, growls, lunges.  He won’t be touched.  He is not like the last dog, the perfect dog, the one from childhood.  This dog doesn’t match up.  “I love him.”  But.  More tears.

My colleague is a trainer emeritus of sorts.  Though not yet retired, he’s taken on the title early, a plainspoken Texas Man who’s found wisdom helping folks with their dogs over the past twenty-some years.  It’s strange, though no less profound, what we can learn from people and dogs in their living rooms.  Life is suffering.  The Buddha’s First Nobel Truth is frequently misunderstood.  The literal translation of suffering (dukkha) takes us a bit further than mere discontent.  Life’s pain is the hinge of change; it is temporary and conditional.  Incongruence, for Carl Rogers, was one of the first keys to change in our lives.  The beginning, not the end.  It puts us on notice that life is not what we expected or dreamed of, but that it is nonetheless our life.  For the Buddha it’s also about contrast.  Suffering leads us to compassion.

There are steps to helping dogs who are frightened and angry as a result, the ones who bite and all the rest.  They are not all that unlike the steps we take to help our fellow humans, small steps, gentle.  We begin wherever we are and move forward as best we can, slowly at first.  There is always a helper, a trainer like me or my colleague, friends.  And yes, there are the dreams for which we still reach, or the memories of the last dog, the perfect one, the one we mourn in the face of the one we have.  The wish.  The reality.

The lessons, taught well and practiced faithfully yield results.  The pain eases and the hinge moves more freely.  Behavior changes.  The dog does stop (fill in the blank), and new behavior replaces old.  Life imagined more closely matches life at hand.  People smile.  I wish them well and eventually move on to the next dog, to the next living room.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll stay at this as long as my senior colleague.  It’s been nearly 30 years for him now.   Perhaps like me, he is drawn by what he learns as much as by what he teaches.   Life is dukkha.  Only when it’s crushed and ground does wheat transform to flour; and before it becomes bread flour is put to flame.  The work is hard at times.  I’ve cried for clients, even with them.  The lesson is compassion.  What else is to be learned from unavoidable suffering?  Smile kindly at the client who is pleading and questioning.  She is your teacher.  Love the dog who wants to hurt you.  His suffering is teaching you to care more effectively.  It is the grist that eventually feeds us.

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX.  He specializes in counseling families with fearful and aggressive dogs.

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