Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

The first time I really communicated with my dog was when she was 12 weeks old. We were learning “stay.” I was standing about 20 feet away. She was sitting facing me. Our eyes were locked. I sighed. Then she sighed. There was no doubt in my mind that she wasn’t going to move until I said so.

This wasn’t some psychic connection. Though, it was really cool. She’d learned pretty quickly that good stuff happened if she stayed put. I’d praise her; slip her a treat; smile. And when the exercise was over we’d play a little. It was all good stuff. The key was starting easy and building up. We’d do short stays at first. Little by little we’d add distance, duration or distractions (The 3 D’s). When she messed up (or I messed up), we’d start over and do it again.

My training method is very old-school Learning Theory. B.F. Skinner developed it in the early 20th century and it’s worked like a charm ever since. Most sea mammal trainers use Learning Theory. And a lot of human behavior therapy has its roots in Learning Theory. The idea is simple: behavior with a favorable consequence is increased. Behavior with a unfavorable consequence is decreased. In a short time the environment or a person can trigger a behavior even when the consequence is absent.

There are tons of examples in our human lives. But let’s stick with dogs. My dog used to get treats and lots of fan fare for staying. Now, all I have to do is say “stay” and she just does it. In her case “stay” is a conditioned behavior. And interestingly enough, the science of behavior conditioning works with all animals. When I was a kid I had tropical fish in an aquarium. Every time I opened the lid of the aquarium they all swam to the top. Day after day that behavior (swimming to the top) had a positive consequence (feeding). But very quickly the conditioned behavior got locked in. They swam to the top every time I opened the lid regardless of whether or not I had food.

Now, of course, all the rage on TV is communicating with your dog like a dog. I guess the idea is to influence your dog’s behavior by imitating the mother dog or the pack leader. Usually this boils down to inflicting some type of punishment on or around the dog’s neck. Some trainers grab the dog by the scruff of the neck and shake. But it’s more common that they put a collar on the dog that temporarily chokes him. There are also lots of rules about passing through doorways, sleeping locations and who eats what and when. Everything will be okay they say if you dog perceive you as leader.

But, there’s a problem. Most domestic dogs don’t learn how to live with human beings from other dogs. They learn it from… well… human beings. And, they’re very good at it. It’s no wonder really, dogs have co-evolved with us for thousands of years. A recent Harvard study drives the point home. Researchers wanted to know which animal could best read human behavior cues: a chimpanzee, a tame wolf or a dog. Genetically speaking, chimpanzees are our closest animal cousin and actually share some of our non-verbal behavior traits. Wolves have brains significantly bigger than a dog’s. But it was the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris) would could read our behavior cues the best (Hare, 2003). Of course! They know us the best.

So, what about being the pack leader? I tend not to worry about that too much. There is actually a great deal of evidence that suggests dogs don’t form packs in quite the same way wolves and other canids do. Most domestic breeds, for example, won’t hunt and kill for food (much less in an organized pack). Dogs, many of whom come into heat more than once a year, will breed indiscriminately (unlike wolves who maintain a breeding pair). And even biologists who specialize in wolves have a hard time discerning a true pack leader in a group of domestic dogs. Researchers tracked a group of strays in Brazil for more than a year. They observed them scavenging for food (never hunting); they saw them wandering and breeding freely; but they never identified an alpha male or female (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001)

It is true that some dogs are more timid than others. And some will appear to be stronger and more assertive than others. And, yes, dogs do bite the scruffs of each other’s necks. They also growl and hump and posture. They even communicate with facial expressions. But don’t forget what the Harvard dogs taught us. They understand us perhaps even better than we understand them. They learn our cues, both verbal and nonverbal, even better than chimps. And it doesn’t take them long.

My dog was only 12 weeks old when I first saw that. We were locked in a stay. Both of us were relaxed. And the message was clear. “We’re communicating.” I was learning how to train her. She was learning how to read my cues. And, sure enough, it was working.

Juno late in life still holding a perfect “stay”

That was the beginning. Over the past 11 years my dog has traveled the U.S. learning and helping others learn. She’s worked as a therapy dog in nursing homes and a demonstration dog at training events. She’s even starred in a play. She’s not a puppy anymore. Her body is a little stiffer and her face has gone white with age. But I’ll never forget that day we first connected. I wish she could stay forever.


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX.  His beloved dog, Juno, died in October 2009 at age 11 1/2.