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.”
Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA and Amanda Rietheimer CDBC CPDT-KA
At about 4:20 a.m. on Friday January 24th the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing Plant on North Gessner Road in Houston exploded. Two people were killed. The blast leveled the plant as well as neighboring businesses. Windows and doors were blown out of neighboring houses. Our house is less than mile away. It shook so hard pictures flew off the walls along with the nails they were hanging from.
We weren’t home. I woke up nearly 4-thousand miles away to a series of texts. “Are you okay?” “Are the dogs at your house?” “How are the dogs?” “Call me.”
My friend and colleague Amanda Rietheimer was staying with our dogs, Stella and Stewie. She and the rest of our neighbors had no idea what had just happened.
Amanda: Stella screamed for a long time, we think, because of the immediate pressure from the explosion. Both dogs began to pace and shake, having a hard time settling. None of us went back to sleep. Both dogs startled to just about any sound, such as the hot water heater crackling, the toilet flushing, the dishwasher running, or walking on the hard wood floors.
Michael: We were texting back and forth, but Amanda already had a plan for emergency behavior care. I don’t think we coined that phrase. but a follower on facebook asked me what it meant. Of course it included comforting the dogs, touching them and allowing them to stay close by. But there was more.
Amanda: We drilled the basic skills the dogs had long identified with fun and food.
Hand targeting sits and downs all over the house.
Hand targeting used to re-direct both dogs from fear of low flying helicopter outside (there were lots of those).
Scattered treats in grass to help them adjust to being outside for potty breaks.
Desensitization to common house sounds (mentioned above) using counter conditioning. Each sound was worked on in individual sessions, always using food as the reinforcer and using the familiar hand targeting behavior to re-direct.
As training progressed that day, we began to tap on the wall and windows to help dogs work on recovering from vibrations and sounds of this nature too.
To give the dogs breaks, mental stimulation was interspersed. This included snuffle mats, Kong’s filled with apples and a JW Pet Hol-ee Roller ball filled with apples.
The dogs began to get nervous to go in other rooms so we worked on relaxation going upstairs in the office first where they were comfortable then used hand targeting, sits and downs in the guest room to progress them with comfortability in a room they were unsure about. Jumping on bed to lie and lying on floor were key parts to training in guest room.
Michael: That’s emergency behavior care. In fact, it could well be the new standard in care. The dogs had human contact nonstop for the next 36 hours (never left alone). And, the training and enrichment continued for days after the explosion (as did the sirens and the buzz of helicopters). And that wasn’t all.
Amanda: We used Stewie’s medication (Diazepam) to help him cope with a storm rolling in mid-day that made him pace in the house. Stella had a hard time during the storm as well, but powered through with training. The dogs were sometimes hesitant to go outside but enjoyed the food-scatter game in the grass and seemed to relax. We fed all their food during training sessions and in enrichment toys to avoid stress diarrhea.
Michael: In fact, after we got home I talked to the office manager at Village Veterinary Clinic. They treated a large number of diarrhea cases the day of the explosion, most likely related to stress. On that same call we got a prescription for Stella just in case she has a hard time in the future with thunderstorms.
But, so far so good. By the time we got back home it was as if nothing had happened. Stella and Stewie, by and large, are their typical old selves. It was a scary morning for all of us, but they bounced back, thanks to a great deal of help and love from our friend.
I ask clients to share an online journal with me between our in-person appointments. We use Google Drive because it’s easily accessible technology. I also encourage clients to email if that is more convenient and to send videos of their progress when they can. In a perfect world, I would hear from my clients every day. Every-other-day is okay, but longer than that can be too long. Why?
This is detail oriented work. Most of my clients are working on long-term plans to change unwanted behavior. That’s a euphemism. Their dogs lunge, growl, bark and bite. Some are dangerous. I try to roll out the plans incrementally so I don’t overwhelm the human family members or the dog. Still, it’s a lot of information. Sometimes between visits folks forget key details from the training plan (truth is, some haven’t read the training plan at all). A week between visits can be a long time. Absent those journal or email check-ins, people tend to forget the plan (that’s normal) and as a result they go off-plan. They skip details and cut corners. The training looks like it’s failing. Frequent contact, though, helps us stay on track. Details stay clear and unwanted incidents become less frequent.
It’s economical. The detail oriented nature of this work requires that my clients and I communicate regularly. However, most can’t reasonably afford to have me out in-person every day or even every second or third day. And, quite frankly, I usually can’t budget the time required for this frequency of in-person visits. Journaling (or emailing) daily is much more economical. The time I commit to this process is woven into the cost of our in-person visits, so it’s not exactly free. But there is no additional cost. And, failing to journal is actually wasting money already spent.
Lives are at stake. Money aside, behavior-change cases can sometimes be a matter of life or death. Dogs who bite or threaten to bite are at higher risk of being euthanized. Some are surrendered to shelters (and then euthanized there). No one wants that. Frequent communication between trainer and client helps us stay on track, attend to the details of the work we are doing, and gives us a better shot at saving the dog’s life. We are also talking about quality of life, not just for the dog but for the humans involved. I want my clients to be able to enjoy their dogs – to be able to exhale some – even as they remain committed to their long term training and behavior management plans.
My most successful clients (and thankfully they greatly outnumber the ones who are not) communicate with me every day. When they falter, they apologize as if the journaling process were somehow for my benefit. I thank them, of course. Then I remind them that all this is for them and for their dog. I’m here on their journals and in my email box for them. My goal, when all is said and done, is their happiness – a better life and a longer life with their dogs.
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in behavior change for families with dogs who bite.
Training your dog doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact it can be fun and satisfying, and I hope it is.
The best dog owner / trainers seek out support from other dog enthusiasts, maybe even a professional dog trainer. We humans are great for helping each other out. And, sometimes we are terrible at it, no matter our best intentions. We can trip each other up and derail the learning process. If you’re part of a training team, with a spouse or other family member for example, remember to be patient, supportive, and encouraging. Avoid these three toxic training traps:
The Training Foul
Dog training is about learning timing and mechanical skills. So much of what we do when training is a precise sequence of events (Giving a cue –> Noticing the dog’s response –> clicking the clicker –>reaching in the treat bag –> delivering a treat). It sounds and looks easy until you try to do it yourself.
When we interrupt someone else’s training efforts and take over without our permission, that’s called a “training foul.” We’ve interrupted their training sequence and gummed up their learning in the process. Let’s not jump in with cues to help or click for them when their timing is off. At best, that’s unhelpful. At worst, it’s rude. Don’t do it. Let your partner come to a natural stopping point in training and then ask. “May I have a turn?” or “Can I share my observations?”
The opposite of The Training Foul can be just as bad – withholding valuable reinforcement. We humans thrive on reinforcement. “Let me know when I’m doing it right.” Our dogs are great at reinforcement. When we are training well, they respond. That taste of success is so very important when it comes to keeping the process going. Thank you, dogs. Equally important is the feedback and affirmation we give each other. Let your training partner know what you see that they are doing well. “Great timing on that click,” or “Good work keeping your hands at home position.”
Most of the time that’s my job as a trainer, coaching and supporting my clients. But, it’s not only my job. You can do it too. And, you should.
This is the most toxic of the toxic training traps. I’m sorry to say, a lot of us trainers are guilty of it. When we shame our training parters, or when trainers shame their clients, they are stopping the teaching and learning process dead in its tracks. Shame is worse than criticism. Criticism can give us pause. It can even sting a bit. But, shame? Shame is crippliing. Shame suggests our training partner is simply not good enough.
“You need to be a stronger leader for your dog.” Shame
“You need to make your dog respect you.” Shame
“Your dog listens to me. Why doesn’t he listen to you?” Shame
“Here let me show you.” Training foul + Shame
Silence when the person training succeeds anyway. Holding back + Shame.
This can be tricky stuff. That’s why I call them traps. I don’t think people set out to be mean – to foul – to withhold – to shame. We can intend the best and still deliver the worst. It happens. So, my plea here is: be careful.
Dog training can be hard sometimes. Life can be hard. Take great care with each other. Take great care of each other. Tread lightly. Give thought. Take the time. Here’s my short list of how we can support each other well when we are working with our dogs (and it is a short list).
Take turns. This helps us avoid the training fouls. Ask to take a turn. When you are done ask your partner (or professional trainer) what did I do well?
Reinforce excellent training. Let your training partner know what you observed and what you think they did really well. If you are on a break or between reps training, give some constructive instructions for next round. (e.g. “This time I’m going to pay close attention to your hand movement. Do you remember the sequence?”).
Assume the best. One of my friends and mentors says “I choose to believe that at any given moment this person is doing the best they can with the information they have now.” That steers us away from shaming.
None of us set out on the journey of training our dogs to muck it up. We’re doing the best we can at the moment. And quite often the best we can do is to call in some help. And before long we might be the ones to get the call, to answer, and to step up and help.
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He’s also mentored other trainers at lectured at the IAABC conference on coaching humans. Sometimes he mucks it up – resets – and tries to do better next time.
I’ve known about “My Last Dog Syndrome” (MLD) for many years. I didn’t know the name, though, until recently. Lisa Mullinax CDBC coined the name on her Facebook page, 4 Paws University.
MLD is a funny name and it’s kind of serious, too. It’s not actually something a dog gets. MLD is something we humans suffer from. It is the idea that our last dog – the one who we still think about and pine for – was somehow better, less flawed, more perfect than the dog we live with now.
Lisa writes on her Facebook post that people often complain that: “My last dog was never this destructive. My last dog stayed in the front yard and never went past the driveway. My last dog loved kids.” Fill in the blank. The dogs of yore seem to have been magical in so many ways. And, the dogs of today – imperfect and unruly or worse – pale in comparison.
The real danger of MLD is that it can get in the way of training. My Last Dog was perfect and this one is broken. The reality is very likely that neither of those statements is completely true. I know of what I speak. I will tell you stories for hours of the enchanting (dare I say mythical) brilliance of My Last Dog, Juno. She was Dinseyesque, “practically perfect in every way.” But of course she was also not perfect, not at all. She chewed woodwork, ate clothing, and pulled on leash like a demon in her early days. But, we forget all that don’t we? And that is the gift of dogs. We remember the joy and their soulful eyes and the nights they stayed with us when everyone else had walked away. My Last Dog stole my heart and saved my life.
How can today’s dog compete with that? The heart is often so generous. It remembers the love and comfort of a dear gentle dog on a cold night. And oh yeah, the training and struggle? Forget about that. And, we do forget. Even if you don’t think you trained your last dog – of course you did. Maybe you didn’t go to a class or hire a trainer. But, you still taught him. One way or another you and that dog learned to be perfect together. It was luck and chance and some skill. You made it work and the skies opened and the sun shone and you figured it out, both of you. It happens. I know. It feels like magic. And, it’s not.
I remember the day Juno died, the end of our long story together that was not long enough. Not nearly. Our vet carried her body so carefully to his car. She would be cremated. The vet hospital staff would send her final paw print on a little painted plaque a few days later. The house was so quiet. Every so often I’d think I saw her from the corner of my eye walking in the room or jumping up on the bed. But, no.
Stella at 4 1/2 months.
Those of us who love dogs know we can’t replace them. We also know we can’t live without them for long. Stella, who came after Juno, was a puppy. She was sick in the early days, terrible in the typical ways (though, honestly less-so than Juno), and terribly quirky in unexpected ways. I remember the first time I called for her and said Juno’s name by mistake. “Juno, come!” I caught my breath and felt my knees give way. I sunk to the ground and sobbed. When I looked up I saw that she had come to me, barely 5-months old with that weird look she gives even now almost 10 years later. She came to the wrong name but, without question, to the right person. I needed her then more than ever and there she was.
I love the way Lisa put it in her Facebook post. “Your dog may not naturally take to the things your last dog did, but I promise that he has a truly amazing and unique quality that your last dog didn’t. You just have to find it!” And the magic is in the finding, learning with each other, communicating with each other, playing and training with abandon that leads to delightful exhaustion at the end of day with each other – a cuddle on the sofa in the glow of the television sharing that last little bit of pizza crust.
There are no magical dogs. Maybe not. And yet, all dogs are imbued with the magic of their kind. I think that’s the real joy of loving dogs. Each is so different. And at the core, each is so beautifully – dog.
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas. He lives with two amazing dogs, Stella and Stewie, and the perfect memory of his last dog, Juno.
When I was in high school we were assigned a book that has stuck with me all these years after. It was titled Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (John Powell 1975). One of the things I liked most was the universality of the title. It wasn’t, Are you afraid or I am afraid. It assumed a truth. We are afraid, all of us, sometimes terrified.
I haven’t re-read the book in years but I remember the answer to the title question. If I tell you who I am, if I’m really open and genuine, if I put myself out there, then I’m vulnerable. You see me, all of me. If you reject me, that’s all I’ve got. It’s dangerous. I could get hurt.
We learn early on, long before high school, how treacherous vulnerability can be. Rejection, scorn, ridicule, mockery. Those are all strong punishers. We are taught from the moment of our earliest memory:
Don’t be different (fit in).
Don’t be wrong
Don’t be weird or awkward
That’s the short list.
If you’ve ever lived or worked in a consistently punishing environment (and most of us have at some time), then you know where this leads. And for those of us who are animal trainers we know from our own education and training experience where it leads. Animals with a punishment history shut off. They do the safest thing they can think of to avoid being hurt. In many cases that is simply to hunker down and do nothing.
When we consistenly punish our fellow humans for being different, or wrong, or awkward, we get similar results. We get humans who step back – sit down – and shut up. Worse, when we witness each other getting beaten down there can be a chilling effect. That could happen to me. I’m not putting myself out there. No way. No how. So more and more of us hunker down, too. We keep our truth to ourselves. We hide who we are. Because if we stand up, step up, and speak out we’re fucked (loosely paraphrasing John Powell).
There is an old (tired) joke among dog trainers. It goes like this. The only thing two trainers can agree on is that the third one is wrong (see also different and awkward). We are plagued by clannishness. There are camps: this methodology against that. And then there are camps within the camps, fine lines of thinking and acting that if crossed violate the arbitrary rules of those opposed. We are, for the most part, deeply dedicated to teaching animals with compassion and minimally aversive techniques. And at the next turn we are apt to savage each other.
The dramatic irony plays out most often and with the greatest vitriol on social media platforms. I’ll spare you the details because I’m so very confident you’ve seen them yourself. At best we adhere to our own righteousness. At worst we are sarcastic and cynical. We excuse our own behavior because of what he or she said first. Or, when we feel the sting of our actions we try to quell it with the idea it was all in good fun. Humor. Jokes for which others paid.
I have been that asshole. I have fired off barbs wrapped in velvet. I have posted crap that looked sane and even poetic with the raw intention of causing pain. At my worst I’ve participated in whisper campaigns and back stabbing. I regret it every day. I drag a wake of human wreckage and I remember the names. We suffer and we cause more suffering and in the end we hurt ourselves the most.
Here’s my simple plea. Be kind. I put this idea out for consideration in my talk at the IAABC Conference earlier this year. Sometimes it’s better to be kind than to be right. This is hard for us. We trainers are in the business of being right. Our information has to be right. Our skills need to be right. We need to demonstrate and teach rightly. We are also in the business of reducing suffering, the suffering of animals and of our fellow human beings. If kindness is missing from our work we are impeding our best efforts. Information wrapped in anger or sharp edged snark is wasted. It is lost on the learner. The recipient of even our most valued truths will likely only feel the blows and the cuts. We trainers know better than to do this with dogs. It breaks trust and builds nothing. And yet, we do it to each other.
I want my fellow trainers to know that I see them and hear them. I want this most especially if we sometimes disagree. Why? Because we aren’t done yet. At our best (and I firmly believe we are all striving for our best) we trainers are voracious learners. When I value my fellow trainer, my fellow learner, I maintain access. When I speak kindly even in discourse, I get to stay in the game, stay on the path with him or her. Choose your own metaphor. When we are connected we can teach. We can explore ideas together. And, wait for it, we can learn. Play the long game. Is one tweet or one facebook post worth losing the chance to work in concert to build our profession – to lead – to heal?
So, this is a plea for kindness. It’s a plea drawn from my own experience. It’s a feeble try, perhaps, to draw compassion from suffering. Because we are all afraid, terrified sometimes, of each other. And, because when all is said and done, no matter our differences, we want the same thing. We want to tell each other who we really are (fear be damned). We are hardwired for connection with each other, collaboration, friendship and love. It’s who we are at the core. We want to be seen and to be heard and to feel safe. It’s a yearning we all have and it’s also the greatest gift we can give to each other.
We hear a lot and I talk a lot about behavior change in dog training. What, though, does that term mean? Specifically, what does it mean in real life — in your life with your dog?
Most of my clients are very focused on what we might call behavior stop. And that’s understandable. They want their dog to stop barking, stop biting, stop jumping up on countertops, stop chewing on their stuff. Stop everything, now.
When faced with the plea to “make it stop,” I and many of my training colleagues will ask: “what would you like to see your dog do instead?” Excuse the 90’s music reference, but “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” (Closing Time by Semisonic 1998). In other words, whether we intend it or not, whenever a behavior stops another one starts up in its place. What would you like your dog to do instead? That’s behavior change.
From your dog’s point of view there is no bad behavior versus good behavior. They aren’t working from some Disney fantasy moral compass. Their choices for activity (i.e. their behavior choices) are steered by the compass of effectiveness. Does this activity pay off? Does this activity get me something (e.g. food off the countertop)? Does this activity help me avoid something (e.g. going in my crate)? There is no right or wrong. There is only does it work or doesn’t it.
We can decide that our dog’s behavior is wrong or bad if we want to. But, changing unwanted behavior needs to go a step beyond just stop it. Our plan needs to stay focused on what we want our dog to do instead. We know he’s getting something (or avoiding something) when he misbehaves. So, can we make our dog a better deal?
Maybe some examples would help. If our dog puts his paws on the countertops to steal food while we are cooking, could we make him a better deal? Could we teach him how to earn food on his mat on the floor instead? It takes less energy and the outcome is basically the same. That’s exactly what one of my clients did in this video.
Or how about this? Make my dog stop barking at me. Hmm. Let’s try teaching the dog to bark quietly. Perhaps we could even make it a trick. Good deal. Granted we are just teaching a variation on the bark, but it’s still behavior change. (Turn on your volume for this one)
Make my puppy stop biting everyone’s hands and arms. We could teach a lot of things to replace this unwanted behavior. I like to get ahead of the biting and teach appropriate play with toys (note: I didn’t say give him a toy when he bites. Get ahead of that bite). Hand targeting is also a good option. But watch how this client used mat work to solve the problem. Now, there’s a good deal!
Behavior change is about teaching new behavior to replace the old. We get to decide which one is wrong (the old unwanted activity) and which one is right (the new one we are teaching). That’s on us. From the dog’s point of view it’s super simple. Does the new behavior pay better than the old behavior? Can you make us a good deal here?
What about ignoring the unwanted behavior (e.g. barking at me doesn’t pay off for me anymore)? Some trainers advise clients to do just that. I understand why, and I also understand that is a slower more frustrating way to train. It leaves the dog guessing for a new behavior alternative, often making an equally undesirable choice. So, let’s teach him something new and specific instead – something better. And and at the same time, let’s help our dog forget the old behavior choice ever existed in the first place. It’s okay to block his access to countertops, unwanted chew items, or scenarios you know will make him bark. Set him up (and yourself) to succeed as he learns his new and better behavior choices.
I bet you already have a list of stuff you want your dog to stop doing. Now, let me ask you that trainer’s question again. What do you want him to do instead? Give it some thought. Jot it down if you want. And, let’s get to training.
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas. He specializes in behavior change with families whose dogs have bitten or otherwise behaved in an offensive manner.
The key to changing unwanted behavior is pretty straight forward. We teach other behavior to replace the stuff we don’t want to see anymore (e.g. we teach standing on all four paws when we want to see less jumping up on people). The truth is, in training sessions this is pretty easy and we get quick results. But, what about real life? What do we do to make sure our good results show up outside of training sessions?
First, make training look like real life. Will you have a treat bag on all the time in real life? No. Okay, slip a couple treats in your pocket and ditch the bag for now. Will you always be sitting, standing, on the floor, or in a particular room in real life? No. Okay, train in various positions and in various rooms. Create a picture of what real life with your dog looks like and train for that.
Then, make real life look like training. Teach your dog throughout your daily life with him.
Use your cues. Bring your training cues into everyday situations. This is the stuff you worked so hard to teach your dog in training sessions, behaviors on cue. Now we are putting that to use in the real world with our dogs. Most of my clients learn “mat”, “touch” (hand target), “come,” “sit,” “down” and other cues. Use those as needed. You taught them – why not benefit from them? Your dog will quickly learn these cues work for him in many different parts of his life. Reinforce generously.
Notice your dog. This is hard for some of us. We are used to cueing behavior (above). But, we are not as used to noticing when our dog is doing something right on his own. Let’s work on that. We want our dogs to self-regulate. We want them making the right choices without having to be told. Look for him doing that – notice it. Reinforce good choices every time you see them. (Reinforcement is an investment in his making more good choices in the future).
Reinforce creatively. Food works. We all know that. So, yes, use food. And, let’s also think of other things our dogs will work for. Play comes to mind. Praise? Meh. But, praise with a big smile followed by play, or food, or a walk, or access to other dogs – that’s pure gold. Mix it up. Always reinforce behavior you want to see more of, whether you cued it or whether your dog offered it on his own. But, make the type of reinforcement you offer a surprise. Good surprises reinforce good behavior.
I often talk about creating a culture of learning and teaching. That’s really what this is. We are making our life with our dogs a nonstop exchange of good for good. We are helping our dog choose good behavior. We are there to support that behavior with good things for dogs. Old fashioned training was a top-down sort of thing. This is a back and forth exchange – communication between two species. Cool stuff. Magical moments that – all put together – make up real life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why people don’t train their dogs. It’s one of those Holy Grail questions for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants. Why won’t my clients do what I tell them to do? We laid out a great training plan. But they just won’t do what I said.
The excuses are as predictable as they are vexing. I didn’t have time. I’ve been so busy. I’m not coordinated enough. I don’t have the right tone of voice. I’m not good enough. Then there are the ones that blame the dog. He’s stubborn. He’s dominant. He won’t do it. He’s too old – too young – too dumb – too distracted. We trainers hear these things – and believe me, we’ve heard them all – and it’s tempting to respond to each one individually in voluminous detail. Of course, in our heads we are much more succinct. No. That’s not true. Stop saying that. Just stop it. Stop.
It’s funny. As I’ve been thinking about this, it’s become very clear that we trainers complain about clients in very much the same tone that clients complain about their dogs. We label our clients. Then we tell stories about them using those labels. You see where I’m going here? It’s exactly what we do with our dogs. Stubborn. Dominant. Distracted. All labels. Each equally useless.
So what’s really going on? Here’s what I think. Those of us who really love training do it because it’s freaking fun – thrilling – a hoot. The process is equal parts suspense (will it work) and joy (of course it will – always does). In other words, our behavior (the act of teaching our dogs) is reinforced. Trainers, professional or hobby enthusiasts, thrive on reinforcement from – wait for it – our dogs. Success. Seeing it work. It’s why we train. It’s what keeps us going.
Side note: dogs learn when they begin to see their actions affect the environment around them. We humans are the best candidates for showing them how that works. Flip side. Trainers learn when we begin to see our actions affecting the environment too – and our dogs fill that bill for us. Who’s training whom? Can’t tell? Good, you’re doing it right.
So what gets in the way of training? New trainers (clients) give up when they haven’t had that first sweet taste of success. It’s like the first episode of a new TV series. If it’s lackluster, you might not keep watching. But if there’s a hook, or even the tiniest bit of a wow moment, you’ll cancel dinner plans and binge watch the whole season. Trainers, even new trainers, depend on reinforcement. Absent the reinforcement, the behavior dies. Training fails.
Now, I’m not blaming your dog for not reinforcing you properly. That’s not how this works. He’s potentially as bored and checked out as you are. What we need here is just a little spark, something to get the conversation started between you two. We need to set the table for that first taste of back-and-forth reinforcement. Some delicious quid pro quo.
Do this: start simple. Just a taste. I intentionally teach hand targeting to all my clients first. (Now you know my secret). It’s the appetizer – the ice breaker – the first reinforcer for the dog and the human. You do this and I do that. Oh my goodness, I did that and you did this. And we’re up and running. Easy peasy.
But hold on, not too fast. Start simple, yes, and build gradually. Set yourself up to succeed every step of the way. Set your dog up to succeed, too. When we rush the process things can falter and we end up starving ourselves of reinforcement. Our dog stops responding and we lose that thrilling feeling of success. We pushed too far too fast. That’s when all those labels and damaging stories we tell about our dogs start creeping back.
Stop it. Just stop.
Dail it back and shake it off. Get yourself tall cool glass of winning. Work on something easy with your dog – maybe a trick that makes you laugh. Taste the success. Show your friends. Make them laugh too. Reinforce the dog’s behavior generously. Move around a bit. Go for a hand target or a sit. Reinforce again. Feel the reinforcement. Then, and only then, are you ready to circle back to the main course of incrementally more challenging tasks. Take it easy on yourself and your dog. Little by little. Sure and steady.
Here’s the bottom line. You can train your dog. And here’s the bottom line to the bottom line. You can learn to love training, too. Okay and here’s something even better. You’re in control. Yes, I’ve had some philosophical thoughts about control in the past, but what I mean is you can set all this up to work for you. For your dog. You can do this.
And when you feel like you can’t – email me – use the subject line “I’m stuck” if you want. I’ll help you clear your head so you can get back up to the buffet for another plate full of reinforcement – rich and delectable success.
More than anything, we humans just want out dogs’ unwanted behavior (i.e. “bad” behavior) to stop. Barking. Make it stop. Biting. Make it stop. Jumping, running, digging, you name it. We want it to stop.
So, how do we make things stop? One way is punishment. Technically speaking, punishment is anything we apply or take away that decreases a behavior. We humans love punishment, because it often has instant results (though, often not very lasting results). See: The Allure of Punishment.
The trouble with punishment is that the standards are quite high if we want to see any long-term effects.
We have to punish at a level that is sufficiently crummy for the dog. He either loses some very desirable privilege of gets some level of painful nastiness (and most of us don’t really want to hurt our dog).
We have to punish in a timely manner, like the moment the bad behavior occurs. We humans are notoriously bad at timing.
We have to punish every occurrence of the bad behavior. Every one. No exceptions.
If we don’t met the three criteria above, then punishment will fail.
Fortunately there is an easier way to end bad behavior without having to jump thorough all the difficult hoops of punishment. We can, without much hassle, teach our dogs what we want him to do. This is a proactive approach to training. What behavior do we want our dog to perform instead of the unwanted (bad) behavior?
There are technical terms for this. One of them is Differential Reinforcement of an Alternate Behavior (DRA). But, I like to simply call it giving our dog a landing spot. Don’t do that. Do this instead.
Here’s more good news. Most alternate behaviors (replacement for the bad stuff) are very easy to teach. It’s simple stuff like stand, sit, and lie down – things our dogs do anyway. I came up with this short list of unwanted behavior and simple solutions to fix them below. It’s a short list but it gives you an idea of how this works.
Stop jumping on guests becomes stand with all four paws on the ground. Reinforce with food and petting.
Stop biting guests becomes go lie down over there on your bed or mat. Reinforce with food (keeping guests away from the mat or bed is also reinforcing).
Stop pulling on leash becomes walk beside me and check in every once in a while with a glance up. Reinforce with food and praise.
Stop barking out the front windows of the house becomes come when called and hang out here with me. Reinforce with food, praise, play, etc. (Limiting access to the front windows also helps).
If a behavior problem seems too complicated for you to figure out, certainly bring in a qualified positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant to help you come up with an alternate behavior (or series of alternate behaviors). But, for the most part, this is pretty straight forward. Take your focus off the stuff you don’t want your dog to do Put your mind and your energy into what you want him to do instead.
I get this question a lot. “When should I start training my new puppy?” My answer is the same every time. “Now. Right now.”
It is never too early to start teaching a puppy how to make life in our crazy human world work for them. Notice I didn’t say how to obey our every fickle human whim. That’s not what training a puppy is about (or an adult dog, for that matter). Our responsibility is to help our fresh new puppies learn what’s what. And it is a responsibility.
Dogs live with us at our discretion. We decide what they eat, where they relieve themselves, where they sleep, who they meet, where they go, where they stay, and yes – if they live or die. That all adds up to huge responsibility. So, we’d better be ready to step up and teach our puppy, who by the way just got to the planet a few weeks ago.
My dog, Stella, at 4 1/2 months.
So, let’s start now. Right now. We have two broad lessons to teach our puppy. The first one is time-sensitive. The second one will be a lifelong work in progress. Ready?
Lesson One: The world is a good and safe place for dogs. We need to make this abundantly clear to our dogs in the first 18 weeks (weeks) of their life. Our puppies are weighing curiosity against caution more in the first 4 1/2 months of their life than at any other time. We have a great opportunity to tip the scales in these early weeks by teaching them that the people, places, objects, sounds, and common experiences in their life are safe.
We have a lot to cover – lots of people of many shapes, sizes, and colors – lots of things to see – lots of experiences to take in. And the clock is ticking. Start now. Yes, now.
Introduce your puppy to as many people as you can in a thoughtful, calm, and joyful way. Each new person should give your dog a nice treat. Be mindful not to overwhelm your puppy. Give her a chance to take breaks when she needs to. Meet people outside the home and invite many many of them into the home.
Introduce common household sights and sounds – vacuums, lawn equipment, blenders and ice makers. Hook all that up with your calm smiles and encouragement. Associate each sound with a tasty treat as well.
Introduce your puppy to fully vaccinated socially savvy dogs. Let them sniff and play. Enroll your puppy in a puppy class for fun social activity after her second round of shots.
Think of all the experiences that your dog will have on a routine basis and teach her these are joyful experiences: trips to the vet (treats), trips to the groomer (treats), car rides to fun places, joyful walks and outings to coffee shops and restaurants (treats).
This is a very condensed description of what we commonly call “socialization.” We know without doubt that dogs who have lots of well-thought-0ut positive experiences early in their life mature into more stable adult dogs. Think: calm, confident, and non aggressive. We really can’t overdo socialization but there is a time limit. We begin to see diminishing returns on this work as early as 18 weeks. So, start now.
For more details about how to teach your puppy the world is safe for dogs, order this book right away.
Lesson Two: Here’s how life in the human world works. It’s all quid pro quo. This is the natural way dogs learn. If I do this – I get that. Or, If I do this – I can avoid that. Dogs don’t have to learn this part – it’s hard wired in. In fact, it’s how all animals learn, including us human animals.
The lesson we have to teach our puppies is which of their choices will earn them good stuff. How does the game of quid pro quo work for dogs in our human world? Maybe it’s better if we think of it like two lists: 1) things I want my puppies to do and 2) things my puppy would like to have.
My short list:
Poop and Pee Outside
Chew this instead of that
Come when I call you
Sit when I ask
Lie down quietly when I ask
Her short list:
Yummy bits of food
Interesting toys and chew items
Access to social encounters with other dogs
Play and exercise
Touch / social contact with us
All I need to do to teach my puppy the game. Trade things from my list in exchange for things on her list. If she pees outside (at the top of my list) I will give her a treat and engage her in some play (from her list). If she sits instead of jumping on me (my list), I’ll get down and pet her (her list). You see how it works?
Our constant exchange of this-for-that becomes a form of communication – a way to chat cross-species. And, when we start the process early (like, right now) we can actually influence our puppy’s physical brain development. Certainly we can and should train at home. But, again, early puppy classes are essential.
How far can we take this? We start with basic manners (sit, and down, and coming when called). But what about tricks? How about some complex tasks or maybe dog sports? Anything your dog can physically do – we can teach it. Use your imagination.
And, how long does this take? Well, we practice consistently well into our dog’s adolescence (up to age 2). Then we maintain learning through adulthood. But the truth is, we can teach new things (and should) throughout our dog’s entire life. Why not? It’s fun for the dog and us too.
All of this work adds structure and predictability to our young dog’s life. It’s comforting to know what do and when. It’s also very rewarding to know how the environment (specifically the people and other animals in our world) will respond to our actions. So, it’s clear that teaching our dogs how this process works is essential to their well being. Training (early training) is not a luxury or an add-on – it’s a core part of caring for our new puppy, like food, vet care, and exercise.
So yes! Start now. Start right now and keep going. And don’t forget to take pictures along the way. They grow up so fast.