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.”
Hurricane season ends November 30th, and not a moment too soon. This season was particularly brutal, with three major hurricanes hitting U.S. shores in less than a month. The most impactful for us in Houston, of course, was Hurricane Harvey.
The storms this year, and Harvey in particular, got me thinking long term about what we all need to teach our dogs so that we are well prepared for next year’s hurricane season and the ones to follow. These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead. What can we do now so that our dogs are best prepared if the worst happens – again?
The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge.
Potty Training. During the many long nights and days of Harvey’s deluge, I got more texts and emails about dogs not wanting to go outside to potty in the rain than any other subject. There were few easy answers at hand. We were in the middle of a crisis, all of us including my dogs and I.
One former client posted this great photo of sod she’d purchased and put under her carport. It’s a great solution if you’d thought of it ahead of time.
I leveraged a cue I’ve taught my dogs: “go outside go potty” to get them revved up and out the door. This rather dark video is an example from Sunday Night in the storm.
The Training Challenge: Retrain Potty training with a cue for going going out. Here’s a link to my potty training handout for your review. And here’s a link to my potty training video. Be sure to add the cue, as I did.
Crate Training. Thousands of dogs (yes thousands) ended up at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. They, along with the other dogs at shelters around the area, were required to be under control and safely confined. Many other dogs were crated as they were rescued from flooded homes and remained in crates for long periods of time.
A disaster should not be the first time our dog has to spend time in a crate. It would be so much better if all our dogs were familiar with their crates as a safe comfortable place for transport – or to just relax (as much as is possible in a hurricane).
The Training Challenge: Teach or Review Crate Training. I used Susan Garrett’s Crate Games to teach my dogs to love their crate. Here’s my short video intro to some Crate Games concepts. And here’s the link to Susan’s excellent DVD.
Leash Walking. I’m the kind of guy who scanned the TV coverage during Hurricane Harvey looking for the dogs. Some didn’t have leashes but most did. Dogs being carried through the flood water dangling a leash. Dogs on leash swimming through the flood water. Dogs leashed up on boats floating through their neighborhood. Dogs in the baskets of helicopters with their humans – leash on collar – the other end wrapped around a tightly clenched fist.
Our dog’s leash should be a comfort line, the symbol of the safe emotional connection between the dog and human. When or if a crisis occurs, the leash is a life line as well – an essential training tool – but also a reminder of the dog’s routine of calm self-control outside the home.
The Training Challenge: Teach our dogs to comfortably wear a harness and walk calmly and confidently on leash. This is my favorite YouTube video for leash walking. It’s by my friend and colleague Kelly Duggan.
Building Trust. I couldn’t imagine getting in a basket dangling from a helicopter. It would be a first-time-ever thing and I doubt any of us have prepared for it. I can’t imagine (as many of you have experienced first hand) coming downstairs from the second floor to get in a canoe and paddle out my front door. What is the training for that? I’ve stayed at hotels with my dogs, but never in a shelter with 10,000 other people. There are no practice sessions for this either. The idea is surreal for most of us – but each of these situations was all-too-real for a lot of folks and their dogs during Hurricane Harvey.
I’ve listed three specific things above that we can work on to prepare for next hurricane season: potty training, crate training, and leash walking. Think of these Training Challenges as a framework for the much more important overriding project of building trust between us and our dog.
Teach these core values to your dog as a way to build trust and keep communication open on a daily basis.
You (dog) are safe with me. Let’s create situations in which our dog can learn to look to us for direction and support in novel situations (we traditionally call this “training.”) We’ll use nonthreatening and nonviolent methods to achieve this. We’ll also be careful not to lead our dogs intentionally into danger or into situations they perceive as dangerous. We’ll comfort our dogs to help them through situations that are overwhelming, scary, or painful without concern that we are “reinforcing fear.” We aren’t.
Humans are reliable and consistent. We are not, but we can learn to be with our dogs. We don’t threaten and harm them in the name of training one minute and then treat and pet them the next. We reliably and regularly use reinforcement based nonviolent training techniques that encourage our dogs to think and, when in doubt, to look confidently to us for instructions. We don’t stray from this path.
You (dog) can relax with me. Every day, often many times a day, I sit on the floor and do nothing with my dogs. There are no cues (commands) and no expectations. We just hang out. If one of the dogs initiates play, we play. If they want to lie down, we chill. If they approach for some cuddles, I lean in and touch them.
This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of many ways you build trust between you and your dog. I really like Susan Friedman’s video about how teaching and learning can help us build trust with animals. Take a look at it and let me know if you like it too.
Muzzle training. Just a brief note about this. Many of our dogs have a history of biting. Dogs under unique and extreme stress (think Hurricane) are more likely to bite. Let’s continue to build and maintain muzzle training – or start teaching it if we haven’t already. Here’s my favorite muzzle training video by Chirag Patel.
Take The Hurricane Prep Dog Training Challenge. In Houston we’ve had three 500-year floods in the past three years. I don’t think we can say whew I hope that never happens again anymore. It probably will. I hope not, of course. But, the odds don’t seem to be in our favor.
So over the next six months, from now until the beginning of next hurricane season in June, will you join me as we get our dogs ready? Start now. Let me know how you’re coming along. Post your progress on social media with the hashtag #michaelsdogs so I can see it. You can also email me. I love getting video and photos.
I’ll do the same. I’m teaching my dogs all these skills as well and will post regularly to Facebook www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs and Instagram. I’ll try to get more active on Twitter too. Follow along online and look for the #michaelsdogs hashtag.
Let’s do this together. Even if the worst doesn’t happen again (fingers crossed) – we still get a stronger more enjoyable relationship with out dogs out of the deal. And really, how cool is that?
When I was a child I imagined I could communicate telepathically with my dog, Casper. I wanted to know what he was thinking and what he was trying to say to me, so I imagined it. I spent hours with him and told myself stories about what it all meant. There’s a lot of nostalgia there – a boy and his dog. And, if you’re waiting for a “but,” there isn’t one.
This is what we humans do. We tell stories, all 7.4 billion of us. There isn’t a human being on the planet who doesn’t speak and think in at least one language. We think in words and words are what fill our brains every waking hour and some of our sleeping hours as well. They are powerful things, these wordy thoughts. Powerful good. Powerful bad sometimes, too.
Even now as adults I know we all still create stories about what our dogs are thinking and what they’re trying to say to us. We’re only human, after all. I wrote a blog a few years ago called Positive Thinking – Positive Training about how our thoughts and stories about our dogs can get in the way of good training. We keep tripping over our brains, crowded with words. My dog is jealous of me – My dog thinks he’s alpha – He’s stubborn or defiant. Then we slip and fall into even worse thinking. I need to show him who’s boss – this is hopeless – I can’t anymore.
It’s a curse of being human. We can’t always think our way out of problems, but we can almost always think our way into them. In our worst moments our thoughts spiral and loop back on themselves. We become anxious or depressed. We make bad decisions or become too paralyzed to act. Things get worse.
How can we tame our minds and slow down these damaging thoughts? I mentioned Aaron Beck in my Positive Thinking blog post. He’s credited with pioneering Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a great tool for helping us humans to think better about the stories we tell ourselves. I also recommend the writing of Steven Hayes who developed Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps us notice thoughts without struggling against them. The book The Happiness Trap is a great introduction to ACT.
And, none of this is new. Buddhist teachers have been helping folks tame their minds for millennia. Mindfulness is something of a catchword these days but it has a deep history. When we are aware and present (mindful) we can see our brain chatter from a different perspective – almost like we’re an observer. Hmm, I’m having some thoughts. Author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön writes about not getting hooked by those thoughts. We notice them, but we don’t engage them – we don’t get sucked into the spiral or the word loop in our heads. How? Meditation.
What does meditation have to do with dog training? Everything. It’s where we practice patiently and gently settling our own minds. Chödrön and others frequently refer to our “monkey brain” – fast moving thoughts coming at us nonstop. The 8th Century Monk, Shantideva, refers to it as the “elephant mind;” the thoughts are sometimes strong and pressing. When we meditate, we are learning to tame our thinking – the fast moving monkey and the pressing elephant. We acknowledge thoughts but then release them. Thinking. There is it. Off it goes. Breathe. We don’t judge. We simply notice and let them go. We then return our focus to our breathing. You’ve heard about breathing in meditation. It keeps us in the present moment. It’s where we put our attention when we feel like we’re getting hooked by a thought or two – or fifty. I highly recommend Chödrön’s book, How to Meditate, for more information.
Here’s how it relates to our work with our dogs. Meditation sessions are brain training. We learn how to see thoughts, many of them potentially damaging, and then set them aside. We don’t get hooked. We don’t act on them. We return to the breathing and relax into the right-now. Later, though, in our daily lives we can use these same skills. In a teaching session with our dog we might have a thought like, oh he’s never going to be able to do this. But, we don’t have to believe it. We don’t have to become paralyzed by it. We’re not hooked. We can notice the thought and then let it go – returning to the present moment with our dog. Yes, we’ll observe our dog’s behavior. And, yes we’ll adjust the learning session to help him succeed with the task at hand (that’s all thinking of a sort). But with our new clearer minds we won’t be stymied by useless or destructive thoughts.
So often in dog training we talk about starting with our own behavior. Our actions affect the choices our dog’s make. Now we’re taking one extra step back to look not just at our actions but our thoughts. Is our wordy brain chatter leading us to poor choices with our dogs? Or, is our clear thinking helping us both? Let’s see our thoughts for what they are. Let’s tame them. Let’s set the ones aside that we don’t need and come back to the ones we do. Let’s think and act better. And breathe. And simply be. Be human with a delightful brain full of stories. But be present and mindful, too. And most certainly, be right here right now in this moment with your dog.
Most dogs are at least mildly afraid of the sound of fireworks. Some are more frightened. A few are downright terrified. No matter where your dog falls on the scale. It’s important to help your dog stay calm and keep him safe.
1. Staying Put. Make sure your dog doesn’t bolt off in terror when the fireworks start popping. July 4th is the single biggest day for dogs going missing (and being found as strays). Some dogs literally can’t find their way home because the run so far in fear. It’s best to make sure your dog is safely confined inside your home (not in the back yard). And keep his collar with current tags on him just in case.
2. Block the Sound. Many dogs do well in an interior downstairs room with carpet. This blunts the sounds from outside. Add some white noise like a fan or music, and you may be good to go. Include your dog’s bed and a nice chew toy or stuffed Kong toy for added comfort. Make sure your dog has peed and pooped before the big fireworks get going. If you need to take him out later, do so on-leash for added safety.
3. Calm from within. Some dogs are inconsolable when it comes to the sound of fireworks. These are also the dogs who often have thunder phobia, too. Your vet can prescribe short acting anti anxiety medication that can definitely help. My dog, Stewie, takes medication for thunderstorms and fireworks. It has no side effects and it helps him a great deal.
Do not take your dog to a fourth of July party or fireworks display with the idea of “getting him used to it.” I’ll be blunt here. It won’t help. In fact it will likely make the problem worse. Better to enjoy the day with your fellow humans – and let your dog chill out as best he can.
Feeding our dogs from enrichment toys, toys that dispense food, can actually make them smarter. It definitely seems to make them happy. Puzzling out the food inspires activity and thought. A lot of trainers liken it to the skills a scavenging dog or a hunting dog would need in order to eat the food they’d found or killed. Other trainers, me included, have noticed that it helps our dogs focus, activating their brains in a way boring bowl feeding simply doesn’t.
It turns out we’re probably right. Animals (and human animals) who successfully learn challenging skills are more likely to be successful at subsequent challenging skills. In other words, succeeding at hard stuff makes us better at doing more hard stuff.
The research actually dates back to the late 1970s. I came across it in Angela Duckworth’s great book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She cites the research of Dr. Robert Eisenberger from the University of Houston. He showed that rats that mastered a complicated task to earn food pellets, pressing a lever multiple times, we able to master subsequent complicated tasks (like running a maze) more easily. In fact they learned new tasks with more vigor and endurance. He ran related studies with children and college students in the 1980s with similar results. Eisenberger called the process Learned Industriousness.
Are our dogs learning to be more industrious because we feed them from food-dispensing toys? I think so. The task-based eating process is similar to what Eisenberger used, teaching the animal to work for the food. It also aligns with what many clicker trainers have observed. Dogs who learn tasks seem to learn how to learn. As they come to understand the process, the learning seems to come faster.
Almost all of my clients report that Mat Work, teaching their dog to lie on a mat, helps the dog become more focused. Mat Work is fairly complicated because it challenges the dog to figure out what do do with the mat (lie down on it) on his own. We don’t provide instructions, only feedback via clicks and treats. It’s a puzzle for the dog to solve. When we set it up properly and provide honest and clear reinforcement the dog figures it out, usually pretty quickly. It’s a hard skill that sets our dog up for more learning – for mastering other hard skills. In the clear light of Eisenberger’s research, all this seems to make more sense now. For a great primer on how Mat Work works, read Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura Van Arendonk Baugh (no relation).
How do we teach our dogs learned industriousness? Let’s start with the toys. There are lots of great food-dispensing toys on the market. For beginners I recommend the Bob-A-Lot (pictured above). It’s perfect for feeding dry food. I’m also a big fan of the KONG Classic, which truly is a classic. Both are available online and at local retailers.
Dog trainers like to say that coming-when-called is an odds game. If you called your dog right now, what are the odds he’d come? Would you place a bet on it? How much. Now, what if your dog was outside, or playing with another dog, or sniffing a lamp post?
Our job, yours and mine, is to stack the odds in our favor, to make it so we’d be willing to place a big bet that our dog will come when we call him every time anytime. Here are the keys.
Use a clear and consistent cue. I say “Stella, come!” (My dog’s name is Stella). I call it in a clear-throated voice, loudly. There’s a bit of lilt and lyricism to the call. It’s strong but not intimidating. I think of coming when called as an invitation not a demand. Avoid having a conversation with your dog. Don’t repeat the cue over and over. Don’t give multiple cues.
Watch to see if your dog moves toward you. As soon as he does, start smiling, and praising him. Cheer him on as he comes to you (but don’t repeat the cue).
Reinforce generously. Use the highest value reinforcer you can think of and give more than one treat (I recommend 3-4 in sequence). Then, if possible return your dog to play or whatever it was he was enjoying before you called him.
Repeat the process often, at different times, and in different places. In the early stages of training (all stages really) help your dog win the game. Set up your training so that he can succeed. I taught Stella coming-when-called using games. The process was fun for both of us, and easy as a result. We also mixed up the games to keep them interesting. I call Stella to me often when she leasts expects it and I reinforce it with a variety of things: food, play, access to fun activities. (See: Psyching Out Your Dog).
Practice throughout your dog’s lifetime to keep the behavior strong. It’s a powerful skill for keeping your dog safe from harm. But really, it’s nice just to show off that your dog is under some sort of control. How cool, right? My bet is that you’re going to love seeing your dog running towards you with that big goofy grin. Yeah, I’d put my money on that any day.
We want stuff fast: food, coffee (definitely coffee), replies to our emails – the faster the better, right? We want to feel better quickly, advance in our careers quickly, stop being sad and get happy – quickly. We’re in a hurry, zipping, weaving, taking short cuts and cutting people off (not you, I know). But here’s the thing about fast. It’s often sloppy. And a lot of the time it actually slows us down when we hurry up.
Here’s my advice, especially when it comes to working with your dog: Slow down. It will help you speed up your training. That’s a great paradox, isn’t it? It’s sort of like jumbo shrimp but, it’s true. If we dial back the rush and get out of our own way (and our dog’s way) we can actually step up the rate of our success.
We’re all guilty of this (me too). We want to teach a task, let’s say coming when called, and it feels like we’re on some sort of time crunch. So, we do two or three reps with our dog in the house and we get bored. Let’s go to the dog park and practice there. We call and call and call and she doesn’t come. Then we get frustrated. This isn’t working. We blame the dog. But, it’s not her fault. We’re rushing.
Here’s how you really speed things up. Break down all your training goals into small steps. For coming when called we may begin by reinforcing our dog for looking when we call her name – just a look (click/treat). Then we build to her coming short distances inside – then longer distances – then out in the back yard – and so on.
We do this when we teach our dog to lie on a mat. We reinforce her for looking at it, then stepping towards it, then stepping on it, then sitting, then lying. Those are all small steps with clicks and treats along the way. We could actually break down the steps even smaller to progress even quicker. That’s how you can train your dog to lie on mat in a matter of days – sometimes faster.
Breaking the task down may seem cumbersome and even boring. But, don’t be fooled. The key is to keep the process moving forward. As our dog masters each small task, we advance to the next one. Let’s not go too slowly and get stuck reinforcing one step for too long. But, let’s not move too fast and leave our dog in the dust either. Better to stay mindful and keep our dog (and ourselves) engaged and progressing. We can move very quickly that way.
Okay, but what if training falls a part and our dog just isn’t getting it? Tap the breaks. Go back to an earlier easy step at which your dog was successful. Jump start the process. Show her how to win again. Motor forward. Before long you’re building some speed once more.
Breaking things down as a key to winning is not a new concept. Trainer educator Laura Van Arendonk-Baugh (no relation) talks about it a great deal in her book, Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out. Clicker training is all about teaching skills quickly (sometimes very quickly) in incremental steps. It works well for us humans too. Psychologist Angela Duckworth researches grit, that human quality that keeps us passionate and persistent in our life goals. She’s found that the grittiest of very successful people split their big goals in to many smaller ones. They thin-slice tasks and push speedily towards their own personal finish lines. I highly recommend Duckworth’s book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Now a quick note about urgent dog behavior matters, the ones in which people and other dogs might be in danger. Dog who bite need to stop biting, right now. The same is true of dogs who might be a danger to themselves. We can take action to prevent dangerous behavior that can stem the problem right away. Baby gates, closed doors, leashes, and such all play a role. That kind of management of our dog’s environment is, in fact, essential. It’s an quick fix but, still, it’s not sufficient.
Training and behavior change plans complete the story. Can we teach our dogs to behave differently (better)? Yes, of course. Can we do it quickly? Yes, if we’re willing to slow down. When create a plan that breaks our big objective down into smaller ones, we speed up the process – one task at a time – one win at a time. All the while we are narrowing the distance to our goal, faster than we might have ever imagined.
We are under pressure. Our dog’s behavior is dangerous. We need to change it. We’re in a hurry. We have no time. The only comfort we have, if there is any to be found, is that we are not alone. So many of us taking on complicated dog behavior problems get tripped up. We flail and sometimes feel like we are drowning in despair.
You might have guessed by now that I’m not talking about that shallow in-and-out that keeps us upright. It’s not the gasping and sighing we do while we prattle off commands to our dogs either. No, I’m talking about mindful breathing. It’s the take-a-breather, focus on your body, draw it in, let it out slowly, stay in the moment kind of breathing. Breathe. Notice your lungs pulling in the air. Relax your belly, then fill your chest. Pay attention while you let it out.
This is the breathing you’ve done in yoga class, or at least tried. It’s the foundation of meditation. It’s part of prayer and contemplation in every religion (the root of the word “spirit” is breath). Breathing, real attentive breathing is at the heart of who we are as humans. It certainly plays a role in our relationship and our ability to communicate with our dogs. Here’s how.
Breathe to prepare your mind for teaching your dog. Take five minutes. Sit quietly and focus on the in and out of your breath. This is a simple and short meditation. That word scares some people, I know. Breathe. You know how to do it. In. Out. The idea is to focus on one thing for a short period of time. Your breathing. You’re breathing.
I sometimes cheat. My focus becomes watching my dog as I breathe. There is no talking, simply observing and breathing. I’ve caught Stella looking back at me and we’ve held that observant vigil for minutes on end – long enough for me to get lost in it, awakened only by the tear tracking down my cheek. (I’m a sap, it’s true). Watch. Breathe.
Breathe while you teach. So much of what you and I are doing with our dogs is about modeling calm behavior. Mindful breathing helps us do that. Focus on the process of training, yes. Observe your skills and how they affect your dog’s behavior in the learning session, definitely. But, don’t forget to breathe. That remembrance will keep you connected to your body and your mind space. Are you tense? Are you losing patience? Are you okay? Take care of yourself. The teaching and learning will come more easily if you breathe.
I sometimes take a mini-breather while training. It’s easy to do when switching between exercises. I especially like to do that if I’m going to transition from clicker training to a play break. Remembering what I’m doing and breathing through it helps me smile in learning sessions. That keeps me connected to my dog and the work we’re doing together. It fuels the fun and the joyful praise in the moment.
Breathe in the space in between. So often we are caught in the illusion that learning and teaching are only things that happen in “sessions.” Take just a second, or a minute, or two. Then take a breath. Look at your dog. Is she looking back? Raise your eyebrows and say “hello.” It’s such a powerful moment. If she comes to you, pet her. Let everything else that is happening fall away (It will be there when you get back). Breathe through this experience with your dog.
Not just sometimes, but every day I sit on the floor with my dogs and let them come to me. I don’t talk. I breathe with them, and touch, and nuzzle. I do this even after very long days with everyone else’s dogs. It connects me to Stella and Stewie. It also reminds me of how I’m connected to my clients – all dealing with the stressors and the drama life – none of us really alone – keeping our heads above water. All of us, when we can, remembering to breathe.
We do our best teaching (training) when we set our dogs up to succeed. We make it easy for our dogs to get it right – to perform the tasks we want to reinforce. Once we build some momentum we increase the difficulty, but not before.
As trainers, we want to do the same thing for ourselves. Let’s set ourselves up to succeed by eliminating the stuff that get in the way of good solid learning. They are the distractions and interference that slow us down or even derail our teaching efforts. I call them training fouls. Here’s my short (but not exhaustive) list of the worst culprits of training fouls. Don’t fall victim and, please, don’t get flagged for a training foul yourself.
The Session Thief. This is perhaps one of the most common fouls. A trainer is in a session with her dog. Perhaps the dog is a bit slow to respond to a cue. Then, another well-meaning person jumps in with another cue and steals the session. You can see how this would confuse our dog and frustrate the first trainer. Don’t be that person. And, don’t let others foul you in this way.
The Dog Shamer. Nothing kills training like someone making you feel bad about how you are raising your dog. This foul may come as a surprise. After all, it’s my job to help get folks back on course with teaching their dogs. But, giving professional advice and guidance isn’t the same as making someone feel like an idiot. Don’t shame your fellow dog lovers – they are doing the best they can with the information they currently have. And if you want to be helpful to someone else, be helpful. Leave the criticism and same on the other side of the foul line.
Whispering Uncle Buddy. We all have a friend or relative like this. Our dog is sensitive to new people he doesn’t know well. Maybe he’s even bitten before. But our kind-hearted (but bumbling) friend or relative is certain our dog will love him anyway. “I have a way with dogs.” “All dogs love me.” “I’ve had dogs all my life.” Sigh. These are most often the folks who get bitten. They feel bad. We feel bad. They are walking, talking, smiling, training fouls. Certainly don’t be that person. And keep that person away from your dog.
The Alpha “Expert”. This guy (and it’s usually a guy, sorry) might also be an Uncle Buddy (see above). He may not a dog trainer by profession, but he’s seen lots of TV shows on dog training and maybe a few YouTube videos. He knows how to show a dog who is boss – how to make him mind – and he certainly knows more that the trainer you’re working with. Foul. I already know you are not that person. Don’t let The Alpha “Expert” confuse you about how to teach your dog. And please, don’t let him hurt your dog in the name of training.
The One-More-Timer. This is a training foul we most often do to ourselves. A learning session is going exceptionally well. Our dog seems to be grasping the concept and that last rep was perfect. We’re so proud we want to see it just “one more time.” Stop. Record the win and take a break. “One more time” is the curse of great trainers worldwide. Don’t foul your dog (or yourself). Celebrate the success and end on that note for the time being.
Most of these folks are just humans, like you and me, trying their best. Be firm with them, but kind. Help them become better teachers and dog lovers, just as you have become. We are all learning. And we all know the learning comes faster and easier when the humans involved are patient, relaxed, and clear thinking.
Yes, good dog training is mostly about teaching the human. And, there’s absolutely no shame in that.
All the stuff our dogs do, their behavior, is largely influenced by their external environment. Some would say behavior is driven exclusively by the dog’s external environment. Sure, our dogs have internal experiences, like pain, hunger, illness, etc. and those play a role in behavior.
Still, our dog’s external experience is key. Dogs walk, run, lie down, chew, poop, pee, bark, and jump – all in their in the physical world, our homes and neighborhoods. How the environment responds to those behaviors determines if the dog keeps doing that stuff, and if so where, when, and how. Here’s one example. My dog lies down and stretches out. He’s learned over time that areas in which the sun is shining provide him warmth. He seeks those areas out more often. The environment (angle of the sun) has influenced when and where he lies down. The world is always teaching our dogs which behavior is reinforcing and which is punishing. Right?
What does all this have to do with us humans? Everything. No doubt we are the most important players in our dogs’ environment. Every day we determine when they eat, where they sleep, when they are let inside or outside, what opportunities they have for social interaction (with humans and nonhumans), and how they live their physical, mental and emotional lives in general. Nothing influences our dog’s behavior more than we humans do. Nothing.
Of course our dogs think (and feel). They may not muse and contemplate. Those processes involve verbal language. But our dogs are expert observers, constantly assessing the world around them for potential danger or sources of pleasure. Our job is to line up the feedback we give our dogs (when they eat and when they have access to other pleasurable activities) with what they are doing. That’s called reinforcement. Our dogs remember, and memories of reinforcement (and punishment) guide their behavior. We call that learning. Harnessing this process is the most natural way to train dogs. It’s the natural way all animals learn.
We humans are the most important player in our dog’s world. But, there’s a down side to this. Whether we intend it or not our dogs are always learning from us. The only question is are they learning what we want them to or are our actions teaching them the wrong lesson? Here’s my short list of stuff we should avoid doing around our dogs (this is not an exhaustive list).
Yelling, Hitting, Choking, Shocking: teaches the dog that we are dangerous – may lead to them avoiding us or aggressing against us.
Lying to our dog with our actions (being inconsistent): teaches the dog that we are an unreliable actor in their environment – will lead to unreliable/ inconsistent behavior from the dog.
Misusing food / bribing / giving food at the wrong time: teaches the dog that they get food for doing wrong things (like begging at the table) – can lead to the dog only responding to us when we have food.
Noticing the mistakes we’ve made with our dogs is actually a good thing. Don’t ever let anyone shame you about the choices you’ve made. Just use the information to make better choices from here on out. Our dogs can learn. But, so can we. We learn which of our actions work and don’t work just like our dogs (learning by doing). We also learn by watching others model behavior (imitation), by listening, and by reading. So we’re actually in really good shape. We can learn to:
Be better observers of our dogs – notice when our dog gets stuff right and how to reinforce behavior we want him to do more.
Set our dogs up to succeed – creating opportunities to do the things we want them to do more and then providing reinforcement that strengthen those good choices.
Put those great behaviors “on cue” – teaching our dogs to do what we want when we ask it.
Be consistent – making training a lifestyle of good behavior and reinforcing experiences throughout the day and not just when we have a treat bag on.
Successful dog training hinges on our human behavior. That’s big, maybe even a little scary. But it’s empowering too. I call it human-centered dog training – teaching humans how to teach their dogs. It’s a two species process – always. That’s a lot of brainpower and lots of heart working toward changing behavior, even reversing the most troubling behavior problems. We are learning together with our dogs, learning cooperation – humans and dogs not in conflict but on the same team – making choices with each other – finding better ways to live with each other – looking together for that warm spot in the sun.
Phenomenology is one of my favorite geek words. It’s the study of subjective experiences, how another individual perceives the world from his or her point of view. It’s also the philosophical study of other being’s awareness of self. Think about that for a moment, and then let your thoughts wander to your dog. Think just for a moment, but not too long. Pretty soon you’ll circle back and realize all we can really know is our own experience of self and the world around us. I don’t want us to get that far, though.
Those of us who love dogs have all contemplated phenomenology. Chances are you’ve looked at your dog and wondered what is he thinking or how does he feel about this or that or does he love (specifically, does he love me)? We humans are natural storytellers from as far back as our cave drawing days. We try to answer those questions about our dogs and sometimes not too well. We think we know what they know or what they feel and we tell it like we see it. Maybe we’re right, but chances are we’re not. That’s the thing about phenomenology. How do we know for sure what what another being’s (our dog’s) private experience is?
Short answer: We can’t. Slightly longer answer: Of course we can try. We should try.
You don’t have to know me very long to know my personal point of view on “training” dogs. Teaching and learning are keys to opening a door between two beings – us and our dog – thinking, feeling, living beings. What better way is there to learn who our dog is than by pushing that door wide open? Let’s be present and aware of what our dog is doing and how he responds to what we do. We know from experience (and the great work of behavior scientists) that dogs learn from the feedback we provide them. And yes, we are learning from the feedback they are providing us (their understanding or misunderstanding of us is evident in their behavior). So, here we are, Dogs and humans in a steady exchange of information – learning the world as the other perceives it. We could call it a phenomenological approach to dog training.
As long as we’re geeking out let’s talk about the philosopher Martin Buber. He brought us the ideal of the I-Thou relationship between two beings. These are genuine connections in which the individuals see or strive to see who the other really is and how the other sees his or her existence. It’s a short hop to phenomenology and what Psychologist Carl Rogers referred to as a phenomenological approach to counseling and teaching (see, I didn’t make it up). At the root of all this, of course, is empathy.
Let’s get back to our dogs. We can start to experience how our dogs feel and think by watching how our they interact with their world. We just need to stop – stop and be with them – stop and notice them quietly. Stop talking for a moment. Set aside all those commands and ideas of what he should or shouldn’t be doing. Just watch. Who is your dog? What is important to him? Given the chance, how does he begin interacting with you? This takes a fair bit of patience sometimes (not always). It also requires that we dig a bit into our own empathy reserves. Can you imagine? Can you relate? Give phenomenology a test drive – see the world as your dog might – imagine yourself as your dog imagines himself (whoa).
I forgot to mention something else about Martin Buber and the whole I-Thou thing. We go into this process humbly. Neither being is above the other. That was a big deal for Dr. Rogers in counseling and teaching, too. We meet our dog on equal ground – just two living, thinking animals in a common space and time. Cesar Milan and the other “show ‘em who’s boss” trainers are spinning at the thought of this. But, give it a go. It might do you and your dog both some good. What’s it like being you? What must it be like for your dog to be him? Open mind. Open heart. I-Thou.
How different is it now to think about training? Could we take a phenomenological approach – we and our dogs meeting on a level playing field – learning together – from each other – interested in each other – equally? As equals. Heresy? Nonsense. It’s thrilling. Fun even.
Hello dog, I’m bipedal and take great pleasure from things I see and here. Dog: quadruped – enjoys smells that to him are like symphonies and Cezanne’s.
Human: speaks but also has facial expressions and other non-verbal communication.
Dog: communicates nonverbally but also vocalizes.
Predator: Dog – check. Human – check.
Emotions, including joy, fear, anger, sadness, and excitement: Human – check. Dog – check.
Wanting and seeking good things / pleasure: Humans and dogs – check and check.
Avoiding pain and other crummy stuff: Yup. Both of us.
It’s a bit ironic that the dog trainer’s hero, Dr. Burrhus Frederick Skinner, frequently disagreed with and publicly debated Carl Rogers. Skinner is the one who showed us how to influence another being’s behavior by providing or withholding reinforcement. Folks back in the day (most especially Rogers) thought the approach was sterile and non-feeling. The irony here is that it’s exactly this approach that fuels communication with our dogs in the real world. It takes little more than a few minutes to realize that what we call training sessions are actually conversations. We are showing our dogs how we’d like to live with them, reinforcing their behavior. But aren’t they too showing us what they want and need? Don’t they reinforce our behavior? Let’s meet, dog and human, and work this out. I-Thou, indeed.
And what about that question of love I so deftly left behind? Phenomenology. Seeing the world as you see it. Understanding the idea of another being’s self as you understand yourself. Does my dog love (specifically me)? Can we know for sure? I’ll save us both the disappointment of the short answer. My hope is that the longer answer, the real answer, lays out on that level playing field, the place where we teach and learn with our dogs, equally engaged and connected if only in the moment. Love and hope, they are so closely related. Maybe it’s best if we keep both always at hand, inextricably bound to our own sense of self, and our own perception of the world. Let those help us tell the story of our dog, and the love and hope we trust he must also feel.