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.”
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.
Many of us have noticed, when we’re training our dog he seems to be more worried over the treat bag than the task at hand. He can’t take his eyes off the bag, as if staring at it will cause the food to magically leap out of the bag.
There’s a reason this happens.
Many of us, when we are training, are more worried over the treat bag than the actual task of training our dog. We are busy fussing with the bag or digging in it. My guess is that we’ve been programmed to think we have to be lightening fast with the food or the training won’t stick.
That’s not true. And, our preoccupation with the treat bag is actually derailing our training efforts. It’s distracting the dog and causing him to focus on it rather than on the stuff we are trying to teach him.
How we use food and how we deliver that food in training matters. I hope these step-by-step instructions help.
1. Keep your hands at “home position.” When you are teaching your dog, let your hands relax at your side – at home position. Notice where your hands are are and keep them there. Definitely keep them out of the treat back. You may use one of your hands (usually the one not holding the clicker) to give your dog a visual cue – but really, most of the time your hand will just be hanging there.
2. Click when your dog performs the task. Your treat hand remains still and at your side when you click. Stay out of the back. Count 1-one-thousand to yourself after the click.
3. Reach in the bag and get a treat. This happens after the click (not at the same time), and after that brief 1-one-thousand pause.
4. Give your dog the treat.
These events to not overlap. They are three separate and distinct steps.
A trainer friend, Ginger Alpine (Fortunate Fido) said this years ago and it’s stuck with me. “Training isn’t something we do to our dogs. It’s something we do with them.” I love Ginger’s wisdom. And, I love how clearly and succinctly these two sentences define training as a process in which we and our dogs are full and equal participants. It’s not me versus him; it’s both of us working together.
Training – Teaching – Learning – It “isn’t something we do to our dogs” Here’s what else I love about this saying. There’s no time limit implied. We don’t do it and we’re done. We are freed from the finality of time-based questions about dog training. How long does it take? How much time will I have to spend? When will it end? These are not the kinds of questions we ask about other things we enjoy like hiking or dancing or playing a musical instrument. I, for example, enjoy running (I know not everyone does). How long does it take? Well, as long as I want – a long time if I’m lucky – and long into my old age if I’m really lucky and take care of myself.
Training, specifically reinforcement-based training, is how we learn to communicate with our dogs. Strip the goals away for now. Sit, down, jump through a hoop – yes, all that will come. But look with me for a moment at this as “something we do with” our dogs. When we are training we are in partnership, connected, and engaged with each other in problem solving and task building. We get to stop everything else and keenly observe our dog, see what it is she is actually about, what she actually does in this world. We guide her and provide feedback. And guess what? She’s observing us, paying attention to nothing else at times, noticing our moves, adjusting hers in kind, and giving us feedback as well. It’s give-and-take. It’s process. It’s what we do with our dogs.
If we love our dogs, how can we not love doing things with them? I’m still grappling with that question, and may my whole life. Maybe it’s the “something we do to them” part that gets in our way. Maybe when we frame training as a chore that needs to get done, we freeze up. I can assure you, I’m no fan of chores either. And what if we can’t get the chore completed? How frustrating is that? I wonder what would happen if we kept stripping away the goals and set aside the are-we-done-yet part. What if training was like play – hiking – dancing – making music. What if we could think of this time with our dog not as a chore but as a fun conversation with her? I love a good chat, sometimes spirited, occasionally challenging, often just calm and relaxed.
What if that’s what training is? What if it’s the time we get to spend with our dogs – not the time we have to spend? What if the goal isn’t the thing – what if the thing itself is the thing – the process – that conversation between two species? What if we’ve been missing the point all along? Yes, we will get our sits, and downs, and she’ll jump that hoop. But next time you join your dog in training (today I hope), watch how she moves. Look at the expression on her face. My guess is you’ll see joy. And my further guess is that the joy has little to do with accomplishing goals. She’s happy to see you. She’s happy to be with you. She’s happy to have this time with you.
What are we doing? That doggy grin. What are we learning today? That full-butt tail wag. What does it matter? This is the best part of my day – the best part of my tomorrow – and every day – with you. Let’s do this.
A group class is a wonderful place to bring your puppy for multiples reasons. The biggest reason is socialization. Second on the list is learning in an environment that has distractions. Third up is the development of your pup’s play skills. Last, but definitely not least is bite inhibition.
Let’s take a look at each of these.
Socialization – Puppies go through what is referred to as the critical socialization period between the ages of 8-16 weeks. During this time it’s crucial to get them out to help them build positive associations with the things that they will encounter in every day life.
To build positive associations all you need to do is give your pup some treats a second or two after something new appears. Give those treats the entire time the new thing is there and once the new thing is gone, stop treating. It won’t take long for him to realize that people, dogs, surfaces, loud trucks, going into buildings, being handled and examined all predict awesome stuff. Once that clicks, your pup will enjoy all of those things.
It is important to socialize in as many places as possible. Dogs are poor generalizers. (Except they generalize fear well.) They can discriminate that a certain place is awesome and they may enjoy all the people in that place, but they may be fearful of other places and be nervous of people in those places.
Use the location of the group class you join as one place. From there, utilizes pet friendly places like certain hardware stores and ice cream parlors. (You’ll even want to do lots of happy visits at your vet’s office and at your groomer’s.) This will set him up to be a behaviorally sound adult dog.
Distractions- Life is full of distractions. In reality, these distractions are what we refer to as “competing motivators.” These are just other things in the environment that your pup wants to interact with. If you want him to be able to do behaviors while out and about, it’s important to practice out and about.
The main issue that people have when they’re out in public with their pup is that he has trouble staying focused. If he sees something that he wants it’s naturally going to motivate him to do a behavior in hopes to get to interact with it. That’s often where barking, pulling on leash and not coming when called come from.
One of the best places to start is a group setting. In the group setting he will be around lots of other people and puppies. You will get lots of practice and coaching from your trainer on how to get him to do the behaviors. This can and will translate to out into the real world, making life easier.
Play skills- These can be developed quite easily at this young age. In a group setting that allows puppy play (look for one that does) your pup will get to learn what is and isn’t appropriate to do to the other pups. If his play gets to look a little questionable then a “consent check” can be done to see whether or not the other pup is enjoying what is happening. This is how he can be coached because if he is removed from play for doing a certain behavior, that behavior should decrease. This is because with consistency he learns that doing that behavior results in the removal of what he wants and enjoys.
Since play is a part of developing play skills, he will be getting a lot of physical exercise. This exercise will come from chasing, being chased, barking, biting, humping, wrestling and rolling around. These are all normal play behaviors.
Bite inhibition- This is something that not everyone knows about. This means your pup learns to control the amount of force/pressure applied during a bite. During a group class he can learn from other pups if he is biting too hard. Usually they learn that they’re biting too hard by an alert that comes in the form of a loud “yelp!” Most puppies hear that yelp and back off.
Puppies play bite. This is beyond normal. A group setting gives them an outlet to play bite and helps teach bite inhibition. This is a win-win.
Searching for the right group class
Now that you have all of that information it’s time to start researching places near you. When searching for a group class you want to ask some questions to ensure you’re going to the right place. Here is a list.
Do the puppies get to interact off leash with one another?
What happens when my puppy does the right behavior?
What happens when my puppy does the wrong behavior?
What type of equipment do you utilize in class? (Avoid any trainers that are recommend the use of choke, prong or shock collars as these types of collars can lead to aggression.)
Do you check vaccination records?
You’re looking for a place that does have off leash puppy play. You want to find a place that focuses on rewarding the pups when they do the right behavior. You want to find a place that doesn’t give any sort of physical correction when the pups do the wrong behavior. You want to find a place that recommends body harnesses or head halters. And lastly, you want to ensure that they do indeed check vaccination records.
Now that you have this list you’re ready to start having some fun training your pup in a group setting. Have fun!
Kevin Duggan is the owner of All Dogs Go To Kevin, which services Northeast Ohio and Eastern Tennessee.
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Life with our dogs can be confusing sometimes. Life in general can be confusing. It’s true. The world is crazy. Our dog seems crazy. Maybe I’m going crazy. He’s growling. I’m yelling. We just want the bad stuff to stop. But, where do we begin?
Where to begin?
I suggest we begin – with wonder. We know there are times when our dog is at his best. There are places in which he is not troubled or troublesome. We know those times and places. Let’s find them. Be still. Be with our dog. Just be.
Let’s start right here, in wonder of all that our dog is. Author Richard Rohr refers wonder as “standing in awe before something.” Can we really do that with our dog? Be right there, for a moment, a short while, aware and in awe.
Our dog thinks. But, what exactly? Let the question roll over you. Rohr also writes about wondering as “standing in the question itself.” We will never know our dog’s thoughts. But we can wonder. That alone could keep me here, contemplating not what my dog is thinking but that she is. And, it’s private.
Our dog feels. Researcher Jaak Panksepp opened that door for us, uncovering the emotional lives of animals. We can watch our dog, whatever she’s doing right now, and we can settle in with the truth that she has feelings. We can imagine those feeling, because we are emotional creatures too. She seeks out things that feel good and avoids things that feel bad. We can relate. We can empathize.
Our dog moves. She is a living being in motion here with us, right now, at this time, in this place. She makes choices and puts those choices in motion (or in stillness). It happens in this space with us fully present. Aware. In Awe.
As I write, I’m looking at my own dog standing in the sunlight. She is looking out at I-don’t-know-what. She is living. Thinking. Feeling. Her ball is on the ground just behind her, a choice for playing a moment ago and perhaps in the moment ahead. But now, in this moment, she is present in the sun and the sound of the wind and the moving leaves and the dappling of light on her face. What is out there? What moves her to this stillness?
Begin with wonder, every day, every new start. We are able to engage with dogs in ways not open to us with most other animals. We can learn to communicate with them. Spend a moment with that idea. It is wonderful – this connection we have – this chance to learn how they interact with us – the chance to teach them our words and phrases. It’s cooperation. It’s learning together. Who cares that I am human and she is dog? How amazing.
Where else to begin now that we know, now that we notice? There is only wonder. They come to us, our dogs, and ask us: Play? Rest? Touch? Eat? They comfort us and turn to us for comfort when they are afraid, or anxious, or sad. They turn to us. Us.
And they are a wonder, these animals who live with us and think their private thoughts. Their feelings, like ours, must run amok at times. Their actions seem to run in kind – amok – but much differently than ours – fully dog. No wonder, really, we get confused. And no wonder they get confused, too, I guess. It’s hard.
But connected we stay, and committed. Life in this human world is crazy enough for us humans. What a mess it must seem to our dogs. It’s a good thing we’re here to see them through it. It’s a good they are here to see us through it.
She’s resting now, almost asleep, the ball and the window and the flicker of sunlight forgotten – so it seems. She’ll dream, eyes flitting under half-opened lids. She always does. There may be muted barks, a twitch, sometimes full kicks of her legs. I’m not allowed to see what she sees. I can’t go with her. I can only watch and wonder. That word again. And awe. That one too.
And on we go. And every day, every moment, we begin again. We are right here. It’s right now. And, yes, every time it takes my breath away.
Hurricane season ends November 30th, and not a moment too soon. This season was particularly brutal, with three major hurricanes hitting U.S. shores in less than a month. The most impactful for us in Houston, of course, was Hurricane Harvey.
The storms this year, and Harvey in particular, got me thinking long term about what we all need to teach our dogs so that we are well prepared for next year’s hurricane season and the ones to follow. These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead. What can we do now so that our dogs are best prepared if the worst happens – again?
The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge.
Potty Training. During the many long nights and days of Harvey’s deluge, I got more texts and emails about dogs not wanting to go outside to potty in the rain than any other subject. There were few easy answers at hand. We were in the middle of a crisis, all of us including my dogs and I.
One former client posted this great photo of sod she’d purchased and put under her carport. It’s a great solution if you’d thought of it ahead of time.
I leveraged a cue I’ve taught my dogs: “go outside go potty” to get them revved up and out the door. This rather dark video is an example from Sunday Night in the storm.
The Training Challenge: Retrain Potty training with a cue for going going out. Here’s a link to my potty training handout for your review. And here’s a link to my potty training video. Be sure to add the cue, as I did.
Crate Training. Thousands of dogs (yes thousands) ended up at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. They, along with the other dogs at shelters around the area, were required to be under control and safely confined. Many other dogs were crated as they were rescued from flooded homes and remained in crates for long periods of time.
A disaster should not be the first time our dog has to spend time in a crate. It would be so much better if all our dogs were familiar with their crates as a safe comfortable place for transport – or to just relax (as much as is possible in a hurricane).
The Training Challenge: Teach or Review Crate Training. I used Susan Garrett’s Crate Games to teach my dogs to love their crate. Here’s my short video intro to some Crate Games concepts. And here’s the link to Susan’s excellent DVD.
Leash Walking. I’m the kind of guy who scanned the TV coverage during Hurricane Harvey looking for the dogs. Some didn’t have leashes but most did. Dogs being carried through the flood water dangling a leash. Dogs on leash swimming through the flood water. Dogs leashed up on boats floating through their neighborhood. Dogs in the baskets of helicopters with their humans – leash on collar – the other end wrapped around a tightly clenched fist.
Our dog’s leash should be a comfort line, the symbol of the safe emotional connection between the dog and human. When or if a crisis occurs, the leash is a life line as well – an essential training tool – but also a reminder of the dog’s routine of calm self-control outside the home.
The Training Challenge: Teach our dogs to comfortably wear a harness and walk calmly and confidently on leash. This is my favorite YouTube video for leash walking. It’s by my friend and colleague Kelly Duggan.
Building Trust. I couldn’t imagine getting in a basket dangling from a helicopter. It would be a first-time-ever thing and I doubt any of us have prepared for it. I can’t imagine (as many of you have experienced first hand) coming downstairs from the second floor to get in a canoe and paddle out my front door. What is the training for that? I’ve stayed at hotels with my dogs, but never in a shelter with 10,000 other people. There are no practice sessions for this either. The idea is surreal for most of us – but each of these situations was all-too-real for a lot of folks and their dogs during Hurricane Harvey.
I’ve listed three specific things above that we can work on to prepare for next hurricane season: potty training, crate training, and leash walking. Think of these Training Challenges as a framework for the much more important overriding project of building trust between us and our dog.
Teach these core values to your dog as a way to build trust and keep communication open on a daily basis.
You (dog) are safe with me. Let’s create situations in which our dog can learn to look to us for direction and support in novel situations (we traditionally call this “training.”) We’ll use nonthreatening and nonviolent methods to achieve this. We’ll also be careful not to lead our dogs intentionally into danger or into situations they perceive as dangerous. We’ll comfort our dogs to help them through situations that are overwhelming, scary, or painful without concern that we are “reinforcing fear.” We aren’t.
Humans are reliable and consistent. We are not, but we can learn to be with our dogs. We don’t threaten and harm them in the name of training one minute and then treat and pet them the next. We reliably and regularly use reinforcement based nonviolent training techniques that encourage our dogs to think and, when in doubt, to look confidently to us for instructions. We don’t stray from this path.
You (dog) can relax with me. Every day, often many times a day, I sit on the floor and do nothing with my dogs. There are no cues (commands) and no expectations. We just hang out. If one of the dogs initiates play, we play. If they want to lie down, we chill. If they approach for some cuddles, I lean in and touch them.
This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of many ways you build trust between you and your dog. I really like Susan Friedman’s video about how teaching and learning can help us build trust with animals. Take a look at it and let me know if you like it too.
Muzzle training. Just a brief note about this. Many of our dogs have a history of biting. Dogs under unique and extreme stress (think Hurricane) are more likely to bite. Let’s continue to build and maintain muzzle training – or start teaching it if we haven’t already. Here’s my favorite muzzle training video by Chirag Patel.
Take The Hurricane Prep Dog Training Challenge. In Houston we’ve had three 500-year floods in the past three years. I don’t think we can say whew I hope that never happens again anymore. It probably will. I hope not, of course. But, the odds don’t seem to be in our favor.
So over the next six months, from now until the beginning of next hurricane season in June, will you join me as we get our dogs ready? Start now. Let me know how you’re coming along. Post your progress on social media with the hashtag #michaelsdogs so I can see it. You can also email me. I love getting video and photos.
I’ll do the same. I’m teaching my dogs all these skills as well and will post regularly to Facebook www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs and Instagram. I’ll try to get more active on Twitter too. Follow along online and look for the #michaelsdogs hashtag.
Let’s do this together. Even if the worst doesn’t happen again (fingers crossed) – we still get a stronger more enjoyable relationship with out dogs out of the deal. And really, how cool is that?