Yes, You are Learning as Much as Your Dog (and That’s Okay).


I love it when clients have ah-ha moments, even when they are ones I’ve heard a million times. One of my favorites is “You’re training me more than you’re training my dog.” I laugh along with folks when it comes up like they are the first person to say such a thing. Then I reassure them. Of course you’re learning a lot. You’re learning as much as your dog if not more. There’s no shame in that at all.

And …

Your dog’s behavior is not your fault. Just because you’re learning as much as your dog right now does not mean you are to blame for his misbehavior. First, you didn’t know what you didn’t know – and here you are now learning to do better. Second, your actions are not the only factor in play. There are lots of other things going on that contribute to your dog’s behavior. Third, most of the stuff you are doing is just fine and not harmful at all. This is especially important to remember in cases of aggressive dog behavior and dog separation anxiety. There’s way too much human shaming going on around these behavior syndromes. You aren’t loving your dog too much, or paying him too much attention (or too little). There is no evidence to back up old tropes that your persona as a leader counts for much either. There is some research that correlates harsh training methods with owner-directed aggression. But, even with that in mind let’s all take a breath. Lift that shame off your shoulders. You’re learning.

You do matter. Make no mistake. “Your dog’s behavior is not your fault” is not the same as “You are irrelevant.” Your actions definitely influence your dog’s behavior. In fact, we are counting on that. Our dogs look to us for guidance and feedback. When we play this right we can teach our dogs some pretty amazing things. And, in cases of aggression and separation anxiety we can influence their behavior and their feelings.  Let that sink in. How you set your dog up to succeed matters. How you behave matters. That information, for me, is so empowering. Heck yeah, I’m training you as much as I’m training your dog. I need you to know how important you are to make all this work. Without you fully engaged, I don’t have a chance at all for a successful outcome with your dog.

I’m one of those odd trainers who likes his human clients as much as I like their dogs. I’m also one of those trainers who trusts in the process of behavior change grounded in solid science. I know it works. And yet, every time I see it work I’m thrilled like it’s the very first time. I get my own ah-ha moments when I see the dog’s behavior change for the better, learning new patterns and coping skills. Just as thrilling (even more, maybe) are the times I see the light bulb turn on with my human clients. There are moments when you can tell they just “get it.” They reinforce their dog’s behavior before you can even point it out. They are routinely setting their dog up to succeed on their own. They are working the process because they, too, know how the process works.

“I’m learning more than the dog,” they say. “Absolutely,” I reply and think – Thank you. Thank you for your hard work. I’m so proud and so grateful. I’m not lying when I add this next bit. Sometimes (many times actually) I glance at their dog and I’d swear they are thinking the exact same thing. Thank you.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training and dog separation anxiety training.