Is Love Enough?

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

For those of us who know dogs, really know them, the love comes easily.  And for those involved in the hard and difficult work of rescue and sheltering, there is no shortage of love.  It’s what fuels us, what keeps us going day after day.  It’s what sees us through the anguish and the tears to get out once again and rescue and shelter some more.  Love is the thing.  But is it enough?

Psychiatrist Aaron Beck was writing about human relationships when he jumped to the answer.  His book from the late 80’s was called Love is Never Enough.  His idea was for people, especially couples, to use the tools of cognitive therapy to improve their lives together.  Listen.  Separate out feelings (at least don’t jump to feelings first). Be mindful.  Love was not enough.  It never was.  We had to think as well.

What would Aaron Beck say about those of us who rescue and shelter dogs?  Do we love too much?  Does our love ricochet us into darker emotions, sadness, anger, hate, and despair? Does it paralyze us; keep us from acting at all because the problem of abandoned and suffering dogs is just too big?  That was my story up until recently. Is love not only “never enough,” but is it also sometimes what gets in the way of doing the work?  I won’t speculate on what Dr. Beck would say.

Here is what we do know, the sad facts:

  • Too many dogs are abandoned or born into homelessness. In Houston the numbers are huge.
  • These dogs suffer from health issues ranging from mange to broken bodies to heartworms.  Most rescue groups raise funds for the proper medical treatment for all of the animals in their care.
  • Nearly every one of these dogs also suffers from behavior problems ranging from poor manners to extreme fear of humans to aggression toward humans or other dogs.  Very few rescue groups provide professionally structured behavior care for any of their animals.

That last point interests me the most.  Here’s why.  89.7% of dogs end up in shelters in the first place because of behavior problems (Wells and Hepper 2000).  My colleague, Carolyn Grob, presented this bit of data and more at a recent Project Rusty Seminar in Houston (more about Project Rusty in a moment).  So, we know going into this that at least 89% of dogs in rescue and shelters are there because of behavior problems.  We know it like we know they have mange or a broken leg or heartworms.

Connecting the dots is pretty easy.  If we help the dogs in our care learn better behavior, we increase the chance that their adoption will be successful and lasting.  We justify the time and expense involved the same way we justify medical treatment. Adopters don’t want a mangy dog. Guess what? They don’t want a rude freaked out dog either.

So, let’s get back to the love.  Won’t love and a little time heal most behavior issues, like fear and aggression? The short answer is no. In fact, with many dogs the problems just get worse. Can’t a dog learn to trust humans again? Yes, of course. But love and time are not enough, not really, not ever. And let’s not even talk about the jumping and leash pulling and other crazy hyper goofy behavior. Add some well-intentioned love and that unruliness can turn into downright rude-dog stuff. But, I digress.

What would Beck say? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. What if we step back from a moment and give this behavior thing some thought?  We won’t stop loving. We’ll just starting thinking a bit.  Let’s be mindful about training and behavior.  There’s a process to treating medical issues right? There has to be a process for helping dogs act better and feel better around their new humans. (Of course there is, said the trainer).

In fact, there’s a time-honored and well-tested process for teaching animals how to act and feel better. It boils down to showing the dogs in our care that their behavior (their actions) matter.  Good things happen when they behave a certain way (the way we like). Nothing much good happens when they don’t.  Because we’re using rewards (reinforcement) like food and play, we’re also teaching the dogs that we humans are safe, nice in fact.  We won’t get bogged down in the technical terms like Learning Theory and Classical Conditioning. We can just think of it like this. We teach the dogs what works for them in our crazy human world – and at the same time we teach them that we’re not all that crazy after all. Humans are pretty darn good it turns out.

The process is not hard. It can be fun once we get the hang of it. But, it’s not magic either. We have to show up, and we have to put in some effort.  Get the dog out of the crate, into a space where we can interact with him one-on-one, and let’s start training.  It’s like taking the dog to the vet for medical care, equally important, but with less hassle.  Forget Aaron Beck for a moment.  Here’s what trainer educator Ken Ramirez from The Shed Aquarium says: Training isn’t a luxury.  It’s an essential part of daily animal care.

“Wait a minute”, you might say, “I’m not a trainer.” Well, that’s where Project Rusty comes in.  That’s the group I mentioned a little bit ago. Project Rusty is a nonprofit organization in Houston with a mission to teach shelter staff and rescue volunteers how to be trainers. The truth is, you are already teaching the dogs in your care every day.  Every waking minute they are learning, not just from you but also from your family, the cat, the bird, and of course from the other dogs in your home. The question isn’t whether or not they’re being trained (they are).  The question is are they learning the stuff we want them to learn. Probably not.

Let’s change that. In the months and years ahead Project Rusty will be rolling out programs to help shelters and rescue groups better care for the behavioral health of their dogs. We’ve actually already started with interactive seminars. The next step will be more intensive learning programs for rescue groups, some of which are already in development. There will also be online resources for staff, volunteers and the general public. If behavior is the problem, then we will be the solution.  All of us.  Together.

So where’s the love? I can only speak for myself on this one. I love my dogs. I love some of my client’s dogs too, and most came from shelters and rescue groups. I write about love and compassion and hope and all the soft stuff. I’m that guy. Is love enough? Maybe not.  But, maybe that’s also not the right question.  Maybe the question is how do we love these dogs?  What is the thing?  What is the stuff of love? For me it’s the moment I look at a dog and understand and know in my heart and in my brain that she understands too. It’s communication, clichéd as that sounds. It’s learning and teaching and blurring the lines between the two. Who’s training whom?

Love is a verb.

When I’m training with my dog I am loving my dog. It’s in my actions, and hers too I think.  Teaching is loving.  Learning and teaching more is loving more. And, if that’s so then loving is the thing, loving thoughtfully with our actions.  It’s what we do, mindfully and wholeheartedly?  Can we ever really get enough?

Michael will be leading an interactive presentation about this topic on May 4th in Houston.  Visit his Houston Dog Training Events page for more information.

Making Training Work with a Busy Schedule

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

What gets in the way of helping our dogs change their behavior?  Of course we need to know  how to train our dogs.  We have to learn new skills.  Our dogs do too.  But that’s really not the big obstacle.  Our dogs and we humans are actually good learners.  What really gets in the way?


We think training takes too much time, and we think we don’t have enough time to do it.  How do we get around that?

A lot of dogs are very fast learners, even dogs who have some behavior related to fear and aggression.  We can lay out a plan to teach them essential skills (often quite simple skills) to help them handle life in our crazy human world with a bit more, shall we say, grace.

Timesaving Training 

There are lots of things we can teach our dogs using clicker training that take very little time, a matter of weeks if not days.

  • Eye contact and attentiveness.  This takes next to no time.
  • Settling down on a mat.  We can shape this behavior very quickly.
  • Following us / Coming when called.  It trains quickly.

Of course we humans need to learn how to train these things, and that can take a bit of time.  The good news is we human learners can pick things up as quickly as our dogs do.  I’ve found that the Online Training Journal really helps speed up the learning process for us humans.  Clients who log daily training activities give me a chance to coach clients daily and keep the process on track.  That’s a huge time-saver in the long run.


More Awareness – Less Time

Once we teach some basic skills, maintaining (even sharpening) that training can take next to no time at all.  We don’t have to schedule any training sessions at all (or very few).  We just have to be more aware.

One of my best clients is helping her dog, Harley, adjust to having a new baby in the home.  All day long, while my client is being a busy mom, she pays attention to what Harley does.  And, throughout the day she praises and treats all the things Harley does well.  It’s awesome.  She actually keeps a log of all the great things she reinforces throughout the day and reports the results on her Online Training Journal.

  •  Harley waited patiently while I made lunch – praise and treats
  • Harley rested quietly outside the nursery – praise an treats
  • Harley gave us extra space when I asked him to back up – praise and treats.
  • Harley played nicely with the other dog – verbal praise

Yes, she spent some time early on clicker training and teaching Harley some nice manners.  But, how much time is this busy mom spending with training now?  None.  She’s just more aware.  She’s training all the time as the day unfolds.

It’s a good thing she has this system worked out.  We just learned a few days ago that she’s expecting a second baby.  She’s going to need the extra time.

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Katy and Houston, TX.


‘Genius’ Misses the Mark

I cannot recommend The Genius of Dogs to anyone in good conscience.  That’s disappointing, since Brian Hare and his wife, Vanessa Woods actually turn some good phrases and tell some decent stories in the book.  It’s equally disappointing because Hare has done some interesting research into how dogs read and understand human signals.  Even the idea that dogs can infer meaning from our signals is fascinating, suggesting that they may be able to reason at some level.

Hare has done some notable preliminary work into how dogs think.  Like any good scientist, he’s focused and clearly states his focus.  “I am not so interested in fancy tricks and what dogs can be trained to do,” he writes, “I love seeing what a dogs do when they see a problem for the first time.”  That’s excellent.  I wish he had stopped there.

The trouble with Hare and Woods’ book is the unexpected and vitriolic attack against modern dog training.  The authors claim that Behaviorism (Skinner’s Operant Conditioning) is a relic of a bygone era.  The book gets more than a bit mean-spirited when Hare recalls speaking at a conference for dog trainers.  He’s aghast that modern trainers understand, use, and teach Behaviorism and Applied Behavior Analysis.  “It was like a spaceship landed and a whole bunch of aliens had jumped out and announced they were taking us all back to the fifties.”  He then goes on to write that the Skinnerian view of learning was long ago “rejected and replaced by a cognitive approach.”

The next segment of the book is called The Tyranny of Behaviorism in which Hare and Woods cast Skinner as an emotionless nerd wearing a white lab coat and thick glasses.  That may be true.  But they also claim, “Skinnerian principles are not useful as a basis for understanding and enjoying the company of your dog.”  That is simply not true.  There is nearly a century of data to indicate Learning Theory (Behaviorism) and Applied Behavior Analysis are cornerstones for understanding the nature of how all organisms learn and how we can influence behavior change.  For a deeper exploration into this subject, I recommend The Science of Consequences by Susan Schneider.

We could excuse Hare and Woods their errors.  After all, Hare’s own research is fascinating.  Add to that, in-fighting in the field of Psychology is legendary, albeit primarily a 20th Century phenomenon.  The Behaviorists rejected the Psychoanalysts (Freud and Jung); The Humanistic Psychologists (Carl Rogers, Fritz and Laura Perls, et al.) cast Behaviorism askew; The Cognitive Behaviorists (Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis) claimed superiority after that.  Hare’s myopic we’re number one cognitive approach to dogs is not exactly shocking.  Even the loosely woven concept he’s calling “cognitive training” for dogs is no jaw-dropper.  And the book’s companion for-profit “dognition” web site doesn’t exactly come with a spoiler alert either (have you seen the prices on there?).  We shouldn’t be surprised.  We could even excuse it, if the stakes weren’t so high.

In chapter 10, the authors describe how Hare tried to train his dog and failed.  It read like any number of emails I get from clients daily, “As soon as we were outside, or anywhere that mattered, I could just forget about it.  He would not sit or come when I called him.”  What was Hare’s explanation for this inability to learn?  The dog had a blue tongue, and was therefore a Chow mix.  I threw the book across the room.  (No, seriously, I did).  Hare is by many accounts a brilliant man.  He has a doctorate degree, which is more than I can say for myself.  His area of study is animal cognition, and I don’t dispute his rigor as a scientist.  Nevertheless, I was stunned when the book began to slip into this weird and fantastical mythology (I daresay I was experiencing some cognitive dissonance).  Hare’s solution to his dog’s errors was to castrate him (not a bad idea), and then everything was okay.   There was no teaching the dog; that failed.  The dog was flawed, inexplicably so until the hormones were cut off.  All this is in a popular book (and companion web site) highly promoted to the general public.  It’s dangerous.

How so?  “As we’ve seen,” the book says, as if it were long-established fact, “animals make inferences.”  That means dogs get it.  They know things, our signals, and our intentions.  They are, as the book suggests, interested in pleasing us.  They are special, our partners in co-evolution.  For more than 200 pages the authors outline the unique Genius of Dogs, weaving tales of impressive studies – and to be fair, debunking some mistruths along the way.  Still, by the end of the book we are left with an image of our own dogs as not only intelligent, but knowing (from the Latin cognitus – known).  So, If my dog “knows” what I want, then why doesn’t he listen to me?  I can hear my clients asking me now.  Hare uses the word “stubborn” in reference to his own dog, the same label my clients use.  He also speaks of dominant members of feral packs of dogs.  Sigh; are we back to that again?

I can tell you that we can teach dogs to listen and even to follow our leadership if that’s your bent.  But Hare throws that notion out the window when he aggressively attacks the science of learning (Behaviorism).   He tells us dogs should and do know us.  Then he strips his readers – some of whom I fear are quiet naïve – of the most tested and proven tenets of teaching their own dogs.  What are we left with?  A thin construct called “cognitive training” and a web site with celebrity endorsements from Victoria Stillwell and Nina Ottosson.  That will be $147 please.

The stakes are high.  When people think their dogs know what do to but are refusing, they get angry.  When they want to teach their dogs but then read that the industry standard for training dogs is false, they become helpless.  Helpless and angry are a dangerous combination in humans, and dogs suffer from it.  We humans like shiny new things – fresh – cutting edge.  That’s what this book promised.  Unfortunately, even notions that are wrong-minded sell in the marketplace of ideas so long as they are packaged well.  We need look no further than the success of Cesar Milan to see that truth.

And now we have The Genius of Dogs, a toxic if not intoxicating blend of science, pseudoscience, and lies.  I wanted to love this book.  I ended up hating it.  But more than anything, I think it just scares the hell out of me.


Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX.