Introducing Victoria Thibodeaux

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I knew Victoria Thibodeaux was a talented dog trainer even before I officially met her. She and her dog, Zelda, had set up camp near the back wall of our Karen Pryor Academy Class at The Fundamental Dog in Montgomery, TX. I had my eye on the open space in the back corner for myself and Stella. They looked like good enough neighbors.

You can learn a lot about a trainer by watching how they interact with their own dog. They word I thought of then (and again now) is “intuitive.” Victoria and Zelda worked their way through the class with an intuitive sense of connectedness – not too flashy – just simple and graceful in equal measure. It was amazing to see weekend after weekend when we met for class. “Who is teaching whom?” I thought. The synergy – unpretentious and elegant. And, on top of it all, they were great neighbors. We became friends. “That one,” I remember thinking to myself, “We’re going to work together someday.”

And now, five years later, that someday is here. Victoria started full time March 1st with Michael’s Dogs, now Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group. I asked Victoria to do this blog with me interview style, like a Rolling Stone piece minus the celebrity nonsense.

MB: I’m always curious about how trainers raise their own dogs. Zelda is amazing. Your puppy, Freddie, is 5 months old now. He seems delightful, too. But it can’t all be perfect puppy all the time. Right?

VT:  You are right about that. Like any puppy, if I don’t give him something to do, he will take it upon himself to find something to do. Right now, the “naughty” behaviors we are working on are jumping up on counters and parading my shoes and socks around.

So, I stay ahead of the game. I give him plenty of things to do when he is not confined so he doesn’t look for things to do on the countertops. I hide my shoes and socks. But, when I forget to hide them, I ask him to trade them for a treat, which he happily does.

I am training Freddie to be a multi-purpose working dog. We have plans to compete in the show ring, sport dog world, and even some service dog tasks.

MB: Good trainers like you have a lot of education. What part of that education (or even your one life experience training dogs) do you depend on most when working with your clients. What little golden nuggets of advice seem to come up again and again?

VT: Two things come to mind. First, always be kind. I’ve known many well-intentioned trainers who shame clients for using tools or training methods they do not agree with.  People do the best they can with whatever tools and information they have. Our job is not to make them feel bad about any of that, but to provide the best path forward with kindness and compassion. The second is to help people to understand the same is true for their dogs. Our dogs are always doing the best they can with whatever tools and information they have. If we want them to behave differently, we must give them different tools and information. Always with kindness and compassion.

MB: You just finished Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals Course. It’s all about Applied Behavior Analysis. That’s heavy stuff. What was your big take-away from that course?

VT: Yes, it was such a fun and informative course! Applied Behavior Analysis is all about breaking behaviors down to their core and understanding what causes the behavior to happen in the first place, as well as what makes the behavior more likely to continue or discontinue. I feel like I have a clearer way of looking at and evaluating all behavior, but especially aggressive dog behavior.

MB: People often joke that we are training them more than their dog. What do you think? Who is learning more in your training sessions, the human or the dog? 

VT:  Most of the time I would agree, the people are usually the ones learning more. They have to develop new communication skills with their dogs, carve out time in their already busy days to practice these new skills, and sometimes make lifestyle changes, all of which can feel daunting.

Though the dogs are learning a lot as well.

MB: This work can be emotionally draining sometimes. What’s a bad day at work look like for you, and what’s your advice to other trainers for getting through the tough days?

VT: You are right. Not all days are good days. Sometimes the training plans don’t play out as intended. Sometimes the dog or human clients are having a bad day and everyone needs a break. I have been peed, vomited, and pooped on all in the same day. This job is not all rainbows.

During those tough days, I regularly stop to breathe. Occasionally I even ask my clients to do this with me. Taking a few seconds to stop and practice deep breathing really helps us come back to the task at hand with a calmer brain.

MB: We talk to our clients a lot about positive reinforcement. When you think about what’s most reinforcing for your as a trainer, what comes to mind? What really gets you up and going in the morning?

VT: More than anything, I enjoy being an advocate for the dogs and behavior science. Of course, seeing my clients make progress towards their goals is very reinforcing for me. Deeper than that, I strive to help modernize our cultural understanding of dogs. I really am a “behavior geek,” and a “dog nerd,” if you will. Though I find behavior science absolutely fascinating, my mission is always to find ways to make it easy for the average person to understand and apply those principles. This is how I believe we will see a cultural shift take place. And I am strongly motivated to be a part of that cultural shift.

Michael Baugh and Victoria Thibodeaux teach dog training in Houston, TX

Why I Ask Clients to Journal with Me

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Fixing Real Life Behavior Problems

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

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.

IMG_9994Use 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.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs who have challenging behavior problems.