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.

Kindness: A Plea to My Fellow Trainers

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

When I was in high school we were assigned a book that has stuck with me all these years after. It was titled Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (John Powell 1975). One of the things I liked most was the universality of the title. It wasn’t, Are you afraid or I am afraid. It assumed a truth. We are afraid, all of us, sometimes terrified.

I haven’t re-read the book in years but I remember the answer to the title question. If I tell you who I am, if I’m really open and genuine, if I put myself out there, then I’m vulnerable. You see me, all of me. If you reject me, that’s all I’ve got. It’s dangerous. I could get hurt.

We learn early on, long before high school, how treacherous vulnerability can be. Rejection, scorn, ridicule, mockery. Those are all strong punishers. We are taught from the moment of our earliest memory:

  • Don’t be different (fit in).
  • Don’t be wrong
  • Don’t be weird or awkward

That’s the short list.

If you’ve ever lived or worked in a consistently punishing environment (and most of us have at some time), then you know where this leads. And for those of us who are animal trainers we know from our own education and training experience where it leads. Animals with a punishment history shut off. They do the safest thing they can think of to avoid being hurt. In many cases that is simply to hunker down and do nothing.

When we consistenly punish our fellow humans for being different, or wrong, or awkward, we get similar results. We get humans who step back – sit down – and shut up. Worse, when we witness each other getting beaten down there can be a chilling effect. That could happen to me. I’m not putting myself out there. No way. No how. So more and more of us hunker down, too. We keep our truth to ourselves. We hide who we are. Because if we stand up, step up, and speak out we’re fucked (loosely paraphrasing John Powell).

There is an old (tired) joke among dog trainers. It goes like this. The only thing two trainers can agree on is that the third one is wrong (see also different and awkward). We are plagued by clannishness. There are camps: this methodology against that. And then there are camps within the camps, fine lines of thinking and acting that if crossed violate the arbitrary rules of those opposed. We are, for the most part, deeply dedicated to teaching animals with compassion and minimally aversive techniques. And at the next turn we are apt to savage each other.

The dramatic irony plays out most often and with the greatest vitriol on social media platforms. I’ll spare you the details because I’m so very confident you’ve seen them  yourself. At best we adhere to our own righteousness. At worst we are sarcastic and cynical. We excuse our own behavior because of what he or she said first. Or, when we feel the sting of our actions we try to quell it with the idea it was all in good fun. Humor. Jokes for which others paid.

I have been that asshole. I have fired off barbs wrapped in velvet. I have posted crap that looked sane and even poetic with the raw intention of causing pain. At my worst I’ve participated in whisper campaigns and back stabbing. I regret it every day. I drag a wake of human wreckage and I remember the names. We suffer and we cause more suffering and in the end we hurt ourselves the most.

Here’s my simple plea. Be kind. I put this idea out for consideration in my talk at the IAABC Conference earlier this year. Sometimes it’s better to be kind than to be right. This is hard for us. We trainers are in the business of being right. Our information has to be right. Our skills need to be right. We need to demonstrate and teach rightly. We are also in the business of reducing suffering, the suffering of animals and of our fellow human beings. If kindness is missing from our work we are impeding our best efforts. Information wrapped in anger or sharp edged snark is wasted. It is lost on the learner. The recipient of even our most valued truths will likely only feel the blows and the cuts. We trainers know better than to do this with dogs. It breaks trust and builds nothing. And yet, we do it to each other.

I want my fellow trainers to know that I see them and hear them. I want this most especially if we sometimes disagree. Why? Because we aren’t done yet. At our best (and I firmly believe we are all striving for our best) we trainers are voracious learners. When I value my fellow trainer, my fellow learner, I maintain access. When I speak kindly even in discourse, I get to stay in the game, stay on the path with him or her. Choose your own metaphor. When we are connected we can teach. We can explore ideas together. And, wait for it, we can learn. Play the long game. Is one tweet or one facebook post worth losing the chance to work in concert to build our profession – to lead – to heal?

So, this is a plea for kindness. It’s a plea drawn from my own experience. It’s a feeble try, perhaps, to draw compassion from suffering. Because we are all afraid, terrified sometimes, of each other. And, because when all is said and done, no matter our differences, we want the same thing. We want to tell each other who we really are (fear be damned). We are hardwired for connection with each other, collaboration, friendship and love. It’s who we are at the core. We want to be seen and to be heard and to feel safe. It’s a yearning we all have and it’s also the greatest gift we can give to each other.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He teaches client coaching through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Michael is a human being with many of the strengths and foibles associated with that species.

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.