Human Centered Dog Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Yes, good dog training is mostly about teaching the human. And, there’s absolutely no shame in that.

All the stuff our dogs do, their behavior, is largely influenced by their external environment. Some would say behavior is driven exclusively by the dog’s external environment. Sure, our dogs have internal experiences, like pain, hunger, illness, etc. and those play a role in behavior.

stewie-houston-sun-dogStill, our dog’s external experience is key. Dogs walk, run, lie down, chew, poop, pee, bark, and jump – all in their in the physical world, our homes and neighborhoods. How the environment responds to those behaviors determines if the dog keeps doing that stuff, and if so where, when, and how. Here’s one example. My dog lies down and stretches out. He’s learned over time that areas in which the sun is shining provide him warmth. He seeks those areas out more often. The environment (angle of the sun) has influenced when and where he lies down. The world is always teaching our dogs which behavior is reinforcing and which is punishing. Right?

What does all this have to do with us humans? Everything. No doubt we are the most important players in our dogs’ environment. Every day we determine when they eat, where they sleep, when they are let inside or outside, what opportunities they have for social interaction (with humans and nonhumans), and how they live their physical, mental and emotional lives in general. Nothing influences our dog’s behavior more than we humans do. Nothing.

Of course our dogs think (and feel). They may not muse and contemplate. Those processes involve verbal language. But our dogs are expert observers, constantly assessing the world around them for potential danger or sources of pleasure. Our job is to line up the feedback we give our dogs (when they eat and when they have access to other pleasurable activities) with what they are doing. That’s called reinforcement. Our dogs remember, and memories of reinforcement (and punishment) guide their behavior. We call that learning. Harnessing this process is the most natural way to train dogs. It’s the natural way all animals learn.

We humans are the most important player in our dog’s world. But, there’s a down side to this. Whether we intend it or not our dogs are always learning from us. The only question is are they learning what we want them to or are our actions teaching them the wrong lesson? Here’s my short list of stuff we should avoid doing around our dogs (this is not an exhaustive list).

  • Yelling, Hitting, Choking, Shocking: teaches the dog that we are dangerous – may lead to them avoiding us or aggressing against us.
  • Lying to our dog with our actions (being inconsistent): teaches the dog that we are an unreliable actor in their environment – will lead to unreliable/ inconsistent behavior from the dog.
  • Misusing food / bribing / giving food at the wrong time: teaches the dog that they get food for doing wrong things (like begging at the table) – can lead to the dog only responding to us when we have food.

Noticing the mistakes we’ve made with our dogs is actually a good thing. Don’t ever let anyone shame you about the choices you’ve made. Just use the information to make better choices from here on out. Our dogs can learn. But, so can we. We learn which of our actions work and don’t work just like our dogs (learning by doing). We also learn by watching others model behavior (imitation), by listening, and by reading. So we’re actually in really good shape. We can learn to:

  • Be better observers of our dogs – notice when our dog gets stuff right and how to reinforce behavior we want him to do more.
  • Set our dogs up to succeed – creating opportunities to do the things we want them to do more and then providing reinforcement that strengthen those good choices.
  • Put those great behaviors “on cue” – teaching our dogs to do what we want when we ask it.
  • Be consistent – making training a lifestyle of good behavior and reinforcing experiences throughout the day and not just when we have a treat bag on.

Houston-Dog-Trainer-Stewie-CuddleSuccessful dog training hinges on our human behavior. That’s big, maybe even a little scary. But it’s empowering too. I call it human-centered dog training – teaching humans how to teach their dogs. It’s a two species process – always. That’s a lot of brainpower and lots of heart working toward changing behavior, even reversing the most troubling behavior problems. We are learning together with our dogs, learning cooperation – humans and dogs not in conflict but on the same team – making choices with each other – finding better ways to live with each other – looking together for that warm spot in the sun.

Dog Trainer Michael Baugh specializes in behavior related to fear and aggressive dog behavior in Houston, TX.

Touch Me Not

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

It’s one of the most uncomfortable things for us trainers to say to a client.  I am always looking for the kindest and most tactful way to say it.  “I don’t think your dog really enjoys being patted on the head like that.”  It’s tough because the thing is, we humans love to pat and pet and paw on our dogs.

Ethologist and Author Patricia McConnell PhD was one of the first to shine the light on this basic disconnect between humans and dogs.   We humans are primates.  Our social interactions are played out primarily with our arms and hands.  Dogs are canines and they are notably lacking arms and hands.  Their social interactions are played out with their whole bodies, but primarily with their mouths.  So, it’s no surprise then to find new puppy owners bloodied on their limbs and digits baffled over why their young bundles of teeth keep biting them.  It’s also no surprise to see a dog duck away when their person reaches out to pat their head.

Here’s the rub (literally and figuratively).  Even when we know better, we humans keep on keeping on.  We don’t get it, even when we get it.  Case in point: that picture of me and Stella over there.  My face says, I love this dog.  Her face says, I don’t care just get me out of here.  I knew better but I just couldn’t stop myself.  Facebook and Google are littered with videos and pictures like this one, and worse.  People hugging dogs who clearly are uncomfortable.  Children draped over dogs who are at best tolerating the interaction.  We can’t help ourselves.  Almost daily we’re highlighting the difference between our species, photographing it, and publishing it for the world to see.

Sometimes I chuckle at myself when I forget and reach for Stella’s head for a nice pat.   She, of course, ducks away and I apologize.  The laugh is on me.  I knew better and couldn’t help myself.  Dogs tend to not like hands reaching for them; especially hands belonging to someone they don’t know too well.  Some dogs are more sensitive than others (Stella knows me well and still doesn’t care for that kind of greeting).  We forget because quite often we greet each other, including strangers, with an extended hand.  We call it shaking hands.  If we know each other even a little bit better, or if we’re in Europe, we might hug.  Hugs to dogs are very alien and offensive.  Dogs who drape their heads over another dog’s withers (shoulder area) often get in fights.  So do dogs who full-on mount another dog (sort of like hugging).

People who reach for the wrong dog get bitten too.  Sometimes the results are serious.  Children, unfortunately get bitten most frequently.  They’re the ones most likely to hug or even try to ride a dog.  It pains me to know some parents don’t know better and actually encourage this.  They grab the camera and log on to Facebook.  I cringe.  At least one dog related fatality this year involved a baby pulling himself up on a dog.  Those cases are rare and extreme.  It’s easy to blame the dog or the parents.  The truth though is that we all need to learn better ways to interact with dogs;  we trainers especially need to take the lead on this – teach – learn – teach again.  No one who loves their child and loves their dog wants things to go badly.  But it happens.

This doesn’t mean dogs don’t like to be touched.  Most do.  When I’m thinking correctly, I let dogs approach me first.   If the dog appears fearful, I’ll turn sideways to the dog, and I might bend at the knees to get down to his level.  I don’t reach into the dog’s space or make direct eye contact, the way you might do when you’re greeting a person at a business meeting.  If the dog approaches, I pet him on the chest or on the cheek by his ears.  Watch to see how he reacts.  If he backs away, I stop.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of dogs will love this.  Many will be exuberant and jump for joy (that’s another issue altogether).  Children are always supervised.  In Stella’s case, because she is particularly sensitive, interactions with kids are structured and brief.

Trainer educator Jean Donaldson got it right in The Culture ClashWe want our dogs to be like dogs the in the movies.  She calls them Disney Dogs.  They are cute and always nice, with human sensibilities and manners.  That, of course, is a myth.  Dogs have their own ways, their own sensibilities, and they are nonetheless still cute and nice.  I think they are more so.  Nearly perfect in fact.  I should remember that when I see a dear client looming over her dog and reaching out.  “Your dog is wonderful, and so are you.  Let me show you how he likes to greet people.  He’s so cute.

“Wait, I’ll get the camera.”

The Truth About Humping

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA CDBC

Lots of dogs hump.  For people who live with those dogs, it can be embarrassing and upsetting.  We humans aren’t comfortable talking about things related to sex, especially when our beloved dogs are being indiscreet in front of guests.  For many of us, dogs are cute innocent “babies.”  I guess now is a good time to remember they’re also animals, and animals routinely practice behavior related to their own survival.  That includes sexual behavior: humping.

From: Houston PetTalk Magazine (October 2011)

What baffles a lot of people is that dogs hump in situations that have nothing to do with reproduction.  I have a client whose 4 month old female puppy humped a stuffed animal.  We caught our dog Stewie humping his bed.  Dogs hump human legs.  Doggie daycare professionals deal with humping dogs all day, males and females, neutered and spayed.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.  What’s going on here?

I asked trainer educator and author Jean Donaldson (The Culture Clash, Train Your Dog like a Pro).  She zeroed in on Modal Action Patterns.  Those are the behaviors all dogs share related to fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproducing.  She said, “All of the Modal Action Pattern categories are present in play.  That’s what play is.”  Social animals, including dogs, routinely play fight and play chase. They even pretend to stalk and hunt, so we shouldn’t ignore the idea that humping might be play sex.  However, that may not be the whole story of humping.

While humping is common in play groups and day care settings, it also occurs in other contexts.  Some dogs hump people and inanimate objects.  Sugarland Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug says most of the time humping is “merely a nonspecific sign of arousal.”  Trainers and day care counselors agree.  Dogs get wound up or nervous and they hump.  Pamela Johnson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in San Diego.  Her dog used to hump her leg during training sessions.  She videotaped the behavior and noted that the humping was caused by excitement over training and frustration when the lesson got difficult.  Still, identifying what sets off the behavior doesn’t fully answer the question: Why humping and why not some other behavior?

We should keep in mind that anything our dog does regularly is reinforced behavior.  The dog is getting something out of it.  For example, dogs who wrestle or chase during play are reinforced by other dogs who enjoy wrestling and chasing.  Similarly, dogs might enjoy the attention they get for humping.  Humping may also relieve a dog’s anxiety in an uncertain social situation.  It may just be pleasurable.  That pleasure, says Dr. Haug, “obviously would come under the sexual category.”  So, we’re back to that uncomfortable subject.  Regardless, all of this information leads us to some good ideas about stopping humping.

Make humping no fun and not a big deal.   This really means we need to control our own behavior and not react when we see our dog humping.  Don’t accidentally reinforce the behavior by freaking out.

Control the Dog’s environment.  In the case of the client’s dog who was humping the stuffed toy and in the case of our own dog humping his bed, we simply removed the objects of their affection.  People who work at doggie day care facilities calmly and gently remove a humping dog from its playmate.  In all cases, the dog can’t practice the unwanted behavior anymore.

Teach the dog a better behavior.  For the client’s dog and Stewie we replaced humping objects with more appropriate enrichment toys (Kong Toys and other treat puzzles).  In daycare, counselors might direct a humping dog to a less disturbing play behavior.  Trainer Pamela Johnson greatly decreased her dog’s humping by interrupting it and taking a short break from training.  She held and petted her dog until he calmed down, then she returned to training less-frustrating tasks.  In all cases, the handler is teaching the dog to do something other than hump.

That’s the bottom line really.  Stay calm.  Interrupt the humping.  Encourage the dog to do something else, anything else.  I might choose some of those other Modal Action Pattern behaviors, like a game of tug, or fetch, or even some nice quiet time with a chew toy.  The humping one – not many of us really want to see our innocent little dogs doing that.  Sure, it’s normal animal behavior.  But don’t forget, we’re only human.

Houston Dog Trainer Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC is the director of training and behavior at Rover Oaks Pet Resort

Originally published in Houston PetTalk Magazine, October 2011.