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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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?

Time.

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.

Harley

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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‘Genius’ Misses the Mark

I cannot recommend The Genius of Dogs to anyone in good conscience.  That’s disappointing, since Brian Hare and his wife, Vanessa Woods actually turn some good phrases and tell some decent stories in the book.  It’s equally disappointing because Hare has done some interesting research into how dogs read and understand human signals.  Even the idea that dogs can infer meaning from our signals is fascinating, suggesting that they may be able to reason at some level.

Hare has done some notable preliminary work into how dogs think.  Like any good scientist, he’s focused and clearly states his focus.  “I am not so interested in fancy tricks and what dogs can be trained to do,” he writes, “I love seeing what a dogs do when they see a problem for the first time.”  That’s excellent.  I wish he had stopped there.

The trouble with Hare and Woods’ book is the unexpected and vitriolic attack against modern dog training.  The authors claim that Behaviorism (Skinner’s Operant Conditioning) is a relic of a bygone era.  The book gets more than a bit mean-spirited when Hare recalls speaking at a conference for dog trainers.  He’s aghast that modern trainers understand, use, and teach Behaviorism and Applied Behavior Analysis.  “It was like a spaceship landed and a whole bunch of aliens had jumped out and announced they were taking us all back to the fifties.”  He then goes on to write that the Skinnerian view of learning was long ago “rejected and replaced by a cognitive approach.”

The next segment of the book is called The Tyranny of Behaviorism in which Hare and Woods cast Skinner as an emotionless nerd wearing a white lab coat and thick glasses.  That may be true.  But they also claim, “Skinnerian principles are not useful as a basis for understanding and enjoying the company of your dog.”  That is simply not true.  There is nearly a century of data to indicate Learning Theory (Behaviorism) and Applied Behavior Analysis are cornerstones for understanding the nature of how all organisms learn and how we can influence behavior change.  For a deeper exploration into this subject, I recommend The Science of Consequences by Susan Schneider.

We could excuse Hare and Woods their errors.  After all, Hare’s own research is fascinating.  Add to that, in-fighting in the field of Psychology is legendary, albeit primarily a 20th Century phenomenon.  The Behaviorists rejected the Psychoanalysts (Freud and Jung); The Humanistic Psychologists (Carl Rogers, Fritz and Laura Perls, et al.) cast Behaviorism askew; The Cognitive Behaviorists (Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis) claimed superiority after that.  Hare’s myopic we’re number one cognitive approach to dogs is not exactly shocking.  Even the loosely woven concept he’s calling “cognitive training” for dogs is no jaw-dropper.  And the book’s companion for-profit “dognition” web site doesn’t exactly come with a spoiler alert either (have you seen the prices on there?).  We shouldn’t be surprised.  We could even excuse it, if the stakes weren’t so high.

In chapter 10, the authors describe how Hare tried to train his dog and failed.  It read like any number of emails I get from clients daily, “As soon as we were outside, or anywhere that mattered, I could just forget about it.  He would not sit or come when I called him.”  What was Hare’s explanation for this inability to learn?  The dog had a blue tongue, and was therefore a Chow mix.  I threw the book across the room.  (No, seriously, I did).  Hare is by many accounts a brilliant man.  He has a doctorate degree, which is more than I can say for myself.  His area of study is animal cognition, and I don’t dispute his rigor as a scientist.  Nevertheless, I was stunned when the book began to slip into this weird and fantastical mythology (I daresay I was experiencing some cognitive dissonance).  Hare’s solution to his dog’s errors was to castrate him (not a bad idea), and then everything was okay.   There was no teaching the dog; that failed.  The dog was flawed, inexplicably so until the hormones were cut off.  All this is in a popular book (and companion web site) highly promoted to the general public.  It’s dangerous.

How so?  “As we’ve seen,” the book says, as if it were long-established fact, “animals make inferences.”  That means dogs get it.  They know things, our signals, and our intentions.  They are, as the book suggests, interested in pleasing us.  They are special, our partners in co-evolution.  For more than 200 pages the authors outline the unique Genius of Dogs, weaving tales of impressive studies – and to be fair, debunking some mistruths along the way.  Still, by the end of the book we are left with an image of our own dogs as not only intelligent, but knowing (from the Latin cognitus – known).  So, If my dog “knows” what I want, then why doesn’t he listen to me?  I can hear my clients asking me now.  Hare uses the word “stubborn” in reference to his own dog, the same label my clients use.  He also speaks of dominant members of feral packs of dogs.  Sigh; are we back to that again?

I can tell you that we can teach dogs to listen and even to follow our leadership if that’s your bent.  But Hare throws that notion out the window when he aggressively attacks the science of learning (Behaviorism).   He tells us dogs should and do know us.  Then he strips his readers – some of whom I fear are quiet naïve – of the most tested and proven tenets of teaching their own dogs.  What are we left with?  A thin construct called “cognitive training” and a web site with celebrity endorsements from Victoria Stillwell and Nina Ottosson.  That will be $147 please.

The stakes are high.  When people think their dogs know what do to but are refusing, they get angry.  When they want to teach their dogs but then read that the industry standard for training dogs is false, they become helpless.  Helpless and angry are a dangerous combination in humans, and dogs suffer from it.  We humans like shiny new things – fresh – cutting edge.  That’s what this book promised.  Unfortunately, even notions that are wrong-minded sell in the marketplace of ideas so long as they are packaged well.  We need look no further than the success of Cesar Milan to see that truth.

And now we have The Genius of Dogs, a toxic if not intoxicating blend of science, pseudoscience, and lies.  I wanted to love this book.  I ended up hating it.  But more than anything, I think it just scares the hell out of me.

 

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

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The Whole Truth (so help me dog)

Truth is a slippery thing, subject to so much bias and spin.  We know that all too well after the recently past and long suffered political season.  And, those of us who work in the community of dogs and their people know it particularly well.

We dog people are an emotional lot, and emotion is so often what clouds truth.   We take on beliefs about our dogs and shore up those beliefs with what we see on TV or read on the Internet.  It’s called confirmation bias; we hold true to an opinion and that belief is strengthened every time we hear it repeated elsewhere.  A natural human process called cognitive dissonance blocks contradictory ideas; information that doesn’t support our beliefs is disruptive to our mental processes and set aside as false.  We are, it seems, not a reliable filter for truth.

In the world of dog training there is a great deal of bias and dissonance.  Some believe quite strongly that dogs learn from a social structure similar to that of wolves.  The idea is that wolves and dogs both form linear pack hierarchies lead by alpha males and females.  Humans teach dogs by showing their social dominance and become leader of the pack.  It’s the basis for Cesar Milan’s approach, and that of many other trainers.

Still other trainers believe with equal vigor that dogs learn based on clearly communicated criteria and consequences.  The idea is that dogs learn the same way all other animals learn, based on whether or not any given action is reinforced or punished.  This is called Behaviorism.  It’s rooted in the early 20th century work of John Watson and B.F. Skinner.

Add to that other ideas.  Many feel quite strongly that they can communicate intuitively with dogs both living and dead.  Closely related is the idea that dogs have a sixth sense that allows them to know and understand us at a very deep, even unconscious level.  This belief suggests dogs learn in a much more humanlike way, that they already understand what we mean and intend.  For some, dogs even become mystical creatures, romanticized as much as they are beloved.

What’s the truth?   It’s a slippery thing, especially when it mixes with strongly held emotional beliefs.  The closest thing we have now to truth is the vigorous work of science.  Contrary to what many believe, science is not a list of answers but a constant questioning.  It is the search for truth, proposing possibilities and testing them against reality.  An idea is tested, measured, and then presented for scrutiny.  Others then test the idea as well, measure, and present.  Ideas that test and measure what they clearly intend to are considered valid.  Those that are tested many times by others with identical results are considered reliable.  Validity and reliability are the hallmarks of good science.

When it comes to how dogs learn, I lean deeply into science.  Some questions have been asked for nearly a century with valid and reliable answers.  Dogs (all animals) do learn based consequences.  Presented with a given situation, dogs will behave (act) in a way that reflects the consequences of that behavior in the past.  Dogs who get treats when the come when called tend to come when called more often.  We’ve taught dogs in this way, perhaps for hundreds of years.

Newer studies within the past decade indicated that dogs do not form packs with alpha males and females.  In fact, we are gaining new understanding that suggests wild wolves don’t either, at least not in the way we once thought. Wolf packs are more like a family with a father and mother; the rest of the pack is made up of their offspring who remain with them for a year or more.  The idea that dogs are trying to ascend to leadership of our human families has never been shown to be true.  These early studies are promising in terms of their validity.  More research will be needed to bear out their reliability.

The idea of animal communication is intriguing.  It speaks to our attraction to things mystical and unknown.  Mystery and questioning were the very things from which science was born.  Still, there has been little research in this area.  That said, there is early evidence that dogs can read our facial expressions and body language expertly, better even than chimpanzees can.  That can look very much like evidence of a sixth sense to us, but is it more likely the very deft use of the dog’s existing five senses.

What then is the truth?  How does it settle with our beliefs?  To what can we grasp firmly when so much seems all too slippery?  My answer follows the vigorous work of questioning.  Lean into the science.  It’s where faith finds firm rooting.  Science is the universal codex of great things divine.

And what better way to explore the divine than through our dogs.

 

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The Nonsense of No

We all do it: fuss at our dogs, yell at them to stop doing this or that.  More often than not our rants begin with a sharp stern “NO!”  The funny thing is with most of our dogs the “no” results in nary a pause in the action, a look of glum recognition followed by more of whatever it is we wanted him to stop doing.   The sad truth is, “no” is a nonstarter.  It doesn’t work.   And yet we keep barking away.  “NO!”

The main problem with “no,” of course, is that it’s devoid of any instructive content.  What does “no” mean?   If a dog is jumping on our guest, for instance, and we yell “no” what are we communicating to the dog?  Maybe we’re letting him know we’re angry, but we’re not conveying even an inkling of what we want him to do.  Part of the reason is because “no” means so many things to us.  We yell it when the dog is jumping up, but also when he’s running away, digging, barking, and pulling on his leash.  It’s too vague.  It also violates one of the golden rules of dog training:  a command can only have one meaning, not many.  Inference, creating meaning out of context, clues, and the subtleties of language is a uniquely human quality (and not always one of our best).

Of course, we humans are clever.  So we add the offending behavior after the word “no” to help our dogs understand our indignation.  We say “no jump,” or “no bark.”  In my many years as a dog trainer, and the many more as a human being on this planet, I’ve never heard a dog use a verbal language.  The idea that our dog understands our particular meaning of the word “jump,” much less its antithesis, is a huge leap of logic (pun fully intended).  They are linear, not relational, thinkers.  Plus they follow visual cues better than words.  Never mind the minutiae of behavior science.  Yelling no-anything just makes us sound like cartoon cavemen.  It’s silly.

So what are we wordy creatures to do?  We just want our dogs to STOP IT (whatever it is).  Are we hopeless?  No.  Let’s try this instead.  What do we want our dogs to do?  When our dog is jumping, what would we prefer he was doing?  Sit, perhaps.  We can teach that.  “Sit”, when taught properly generally has one meaning (place bottom on ground).  Awesome!  I can teach my dog to sit, and if he jumps on a guest I have something clear and meaningful to yell at him.  “Sit!”  His bottom hits the ground – jumping ceases.  It might take some practice, sure, but the meaning is clear.  Do this, not that.

Some of us will still yell out “no” in anger (move me to the head of the mea culpa line).  That’s okay if we just remember this.  Follow up with a clear instruction.  If we see a dog digging a hole in the back yard, we might bark out “no” in our justified anger.  But then what?  Add meaningful instruction.  “Stella, come.”  Stella is my dog’s name and she has a pretty decent coming-when-called.  It’s liable to get her away from the hole, at least long enough for me to get her on to a new task.  “No” is quickly forgotten.  The instructive part was calling her to me.

Try this, too.  When your dog does something right, pick a word that means they’re getting a tasty bit of food.  The word should be short and crisp, timed exactly with the good deed to let them know a food reward is on the way.  That’ll get them learning.  Actions result in delicious consequences.  The word marks the moment of success.  Of course, I have a favorite word for this kind of teaching.  “Yes.”

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston and Katy, TX.  He specializes in behavior related to canine fear and aggression.

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