Home for the Holidays – A Success Story

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

This is a success story. It’s the happy ending kind of holiday story about well-earned success through smart and dedicated training.

Perla (I have permission to use real names) barked at strangers, primarily strangers she saw on walks. This is a dog behavior problem I know a lot of you can relate to. But there was an added twist. Perla and Jennifer, her human, were flying home for the holidays in just 4 weeks – Perla’s first time flying under the seat and her first time meeting a ton of family.

Let’s cut to the ending. Perla did fine.

Here’s how we pulled it off.

Training is a process. We follow three overarching steps.

  • Set the dog up to succeed. In Perla’s case this meant creating learning experiences in the beginning that were lower-stress so that she could wrack up a bunch of wins, build her confidence, and take on new challenges at her own pace.
  • Teach functional skills. In order to navigate a flight Perla needed to learn to see people and remain calm, relax in public (on her mat), and successfully ride in a soft-sided carry-on crate.
  • Teach the learner that she is safe throughout the process. Emotions matter. Perla learned that she was safe performing her simple skills because Jennifer always set her up to succeed. She lowered the intensity of exposure to people when Perla needed it, taking breaks and increasing distance.

I know a lot of you are familiar with these principles, too. It’s the science of behavior change in a nutshell.

Jennifer taught Perla:

  • To look at people calmly without barking. She practiced at home and on a nearby walking path.
  • To lie on her mat and really relax. She taught this at home as well.
  • To go in her soft-sided carry-on crate and remain relaxed.  Jennifer carried Perla in the bag and fed treats.

After a couple of weeks of daily work, Jennifer and Perla went to the airport for some real-life practice. Below are some quotes from their training journal.

I gotta tell you,” she wrote. “it went MUCH better than I could’ve imagined. I have happy tears.” Perla grumbled a couple of times from the carrier as they were walking into the airport. Once inside, Jennifer sat down and helped Perla get more comfortable (taking a break and increasing distance from people). A few people walked past us,” Jennifer wrote, “no bark, so I kept the treats coming. Then I picked up her carrier, this time heading to the check in area (there were more people, but still- not very crowded at all). I walked past a few people checking in, no bark, marked yes, treats, good girl. I stood in what would be a check in line- walked up to the counter and asked the lady if that’s where I would check in with a dog- almost on cue, Perla barked the lady, I “sshhh” Perla and hid her a little behind the counter so that Perla couldn’t see the lady directly but could hear her talking with me- Perla didn’t bark so I put treats in her carrier. I kept the treats coming while speaking with the lady at the counter as she explained the check in process with a dog and I explained to her what I was doing with the training. I slowly kept moving Perla’s carrier to be more in sight of the lady as we kept talking, keeping my eyes on the lady but placing treats into the carrier since Perla wasn’t barking. I was able to finish the whole conversation with the lady and there wasn’t additional barking. I kept the treats coming.”

Jennifer did a great job reading Perla’s emotional response to a challenging training session. It may not have been perfect, but they were on their way. A week later they went back to the airport.

Jennifer wrote again in her journal. “It went like this. I drove with Perla, arrived at the parking lot, put her in her carrier and walked from the parking lot to the airport. I had my rolling carryon bag with me as well as her carrier. I went directly were the check in area is, Perla was a little restless in the carrier so I went to some chairs across from the check in area, set her on the seat next to me, talked to Perla for a little bit and gave her treats for being there and not barking at the people walking across from us.

Once she was a little more settled, I stood in line as I would for checking in, as I waited (I had about 3 people in front on me) I continued to give treats to Perla inside her carrier. She did not bark at all. When I went to the counter, I talked to the person behind the counter, asked them a few questions, told them about the training, all the while putting treats into Perla’s carrier. She did not bark at all when I went up to the counter nor when I started speaking to the person.

From there I walked to the security check area. There were some chairs next to the security area so I did a little bit of mat training next to the security area so that Perla could see people and hear the sounds of the area. She did not bark, she stayed on her mat for the most part, though she did get up a couple of times to look around a little, but would settle back when I asked. I have her treats through the whole process.

After a few minutes, I walked back to the outside area and took her out of her carrier and walked her around a little. She went potty and we stayed for a few minutes. Before going back in, I put Perla back in her carrier. We went back into the airport, took the elevator (no one was around) and I walked back to the car. Someone crossed our path as we were making our way back, but again, Perla stayed settled, no barking. All in all, it was a little less than 30 minutes between the parking, training and leaving.”

When the day on their flight arrived Perla and Jennifer were ready. They’d worked hard and learned so much. Traveling can be hard on the best of days. But, Jennifer and Perla had figured out how to navigate it together.  It was their big holiday adventure. But, more importantly, it was a journey of the heart. I think we can all relate to that, too.. Because no matter where we are and no matter where we end up – if we are with our beloved dog – that is home.

 

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX.

 

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.