A Tad Improved

Micahel Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

Change is sometimes subtle, even imperceptible.  There was a time when Tad was labeled “aggressive,” barking, and lunging at people he didn’t know.  Tad had bitten, for humans the worst offense a dog can commit.  Hope ran thin for Tad.  The idea that he’d ever be a “typical dog” seemed a far way off.  Change, it seemed, would have to be dramatic.

Tiffany had found Tad in an awful state.  He’d been dumped on the side of a country road to wither and die.  Tad had done the former and was well on his way to the latter when Tiffany scooped him up and took him home.   He gained weight and healed well.  Then the trouble started.

Tiffany called Tad’s behavior “going ape shit.”  She works at a vet clinic and Tad had been going with her every day.  Whenever Tad saw a new person (mostly clients) he would “go ape shit.”  I wondered exactly what Tiffany meant, so I asked.  She sent me video.  There was Tad, behind a baby gate barking and jumping and lunging toward someone just off camera.  I’m not one for labels; just tell me what the dog is doing.  Still, Tiffany’s label was apt.  She told me that Tad had bitten her father, and that she was worried Tad would bite again (he did).  So, we set an appointment and a week later I drove nearly an hour to meet Tad.


I never saw Tad behave poorly other than in that video.  If I do my job right with so-called aggression cases, I never see the behavior.  That was how it went with Tad.  We met at a friend’s training facility, then a few weeks later at the clinic, then a few more times after that.  Tad and I became fast friends, and that’s certainly the way I like it.  I like Tad.  In another life he’s the dog I’d live with.  That’s saying something.  I don’t fall for all my clients the way I fell for Tad.

All the while, Tiffany and I stayed in close contact.  It wasn’t always easy.  I worried.  I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Tad.  I texted and emailed Tiffany to make sure she was on track.

She and I butted heads once (my fault).  I got frustrated and forgot my golden rule: the client is not my enemy.  Tad had bitten a delivery man and I feared we’d lost our way altogether.  On paper this was an easy case.  When it started to play out, it wasn’t easy at all.  That’s how it goes sometimes.  It’s the way it went with Tad.

Assess the risk to the dog and to other dogs and humans.  Lay out a good training plan.  Communicate the plan well.  Restate the plan often.  Provide a safe and caring relationship for the client.  Remember behavior is driven by the environment.  Change the environment even a little and the behavior will change in turn.  Those are the rules, except there’s one more.  Believe.  Follow the rules and believe.  The rest will follow.  That’s the way it went with Tad.

No one ever calls and says my dog is better.  It doesn’t happen very often, anyway.  Change is rarely dramatic.  What happens instead is that as the dog improves his guardian relaxes and stops calling.  That’s a tricky time for me as a teacher and a coach.  How is Tad?  Why isn’t she calling?  Some clients get lax and fall back into a bad pattern of behavior with their dog.  (Yes, that happened in this case).  But, once real change starts to settle in the pattern of training and monitoring the dog’s behavior just becomes part of everyday life.  Things get better and no one really pays any notice.  Typical is boring, right?  That’s what happened with Tad.

He goes to work with Tiffany still, but not with his housemate dogs.  That one little change helped a great deal.  Tad greets people well and shows just about everyone the real self he showed me.  Tiffany remains vigilant, knowing that teaching her dog is a life-long proposition.  Change came subtly.  It was almost imperceptible, but change came.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Tad.  Tiffany and I have been talking for several weeks with nothing much to report.  Tad is doing fine, no more incidents, making progress on his rowdy play, otherwise pretty boring.  I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it didn’t.  I knew it was coming time to close the case, and tentatively put a check in the win column with Tad’s name on it.  Tiffany and I discussed this, and agreed.  My work is done for now.

I think of Tad and the road where Tiffany first found him.  They’ve come so far from the suffering and the tears.  Now, there are so many more roads yet to explorer.  That’s the way it goes with people and their dogs.  Another adventure into the unknown, except for the one thing they each know for sure.  They’re in this together.

Good Days and Tad Days

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

Seriously, most of my days are good days.  My best days are Tad days.

It takes me a little more than an hour to get to the clinic where Tiffany and Tad work. On the way I think about Tad, how much he’s improved, and the work we still need to do.  I also sing along (a bit too loudly) to some of my favorite music, but that’s off the subject.

The truth is Tad is improving – a lot.  I walked into the treatment area of the clinic unannounced and he didn’t make as much as a peep.  Tiffany says he’s not barking very much at all when he’s in that area looking out into the lobby.  He doesn’t bark at all anymore when the front door chime rings; and he greets people nicely in the lobby.

We focused this visit on teaching Tad some manners in the treatment area (go to your spot and stay).  We also addressed his habit of biting for attention during play.  Play biting isn’t the same as emotionally driven fear biting or so-called aggressive biting.  Still, it hurts just the same.  I was pleased when Tad and I played a bit and he didn’t bite me.  I was equally chagrined when he gave Tiffany a few good chomps.

For dogs, the function of bites that are rooted in fear or aggression are all about making something stop or go away.  The function of play bites is to get something going.  The motivation is totally different.  How do we stop it?  First, we teach Tad how to control his play.  Good dog play includes pauses, short breaks.  Watch dogs at play and you’ll see them stop and start often.  That’s the polite way to play.  So we’re teaching Tad how to start play with humans (when we prompt it) and how to “settle,” which means sit and take a short break.  The idea is to keep these training sessions short so Tad doesn’t get excited enough to bite.  If he bites and ignores the “settle” cue, he gets a “too bad” and a time out.  For a social animal like Tad, nothing could be worse than losing a round of play for a trip to the penalty box.  That’s how he’s going to learn to watch his mouth.

Tad uses his teeth a lot playing with dogs too.  That got me wondering about the great mystery of his past.  A lot of play biters were single puppies, or puppies removed from the litter too early (prior to 7 weeks of age).  Was Tad an only child?  Did he loose his siblings too early?  Puppies are good about teaching their littermates to mind their mouthy manners. I get the sense Tad missed out on this learning.

Dogs can’t tell their own stories.  We’re left to wonder, what was Tad’s life like before Tiffany found him, skinny and sick, lost and forgotten?  So much of his behavior tells us he lived with people.  Who were they?  Did they send him away or just let him wander off?  Was it because of the biting?  Do they think about him?  Do they miss him?

I think about that on my way home, south on I-45 toward Houston, almost 6 months to the day from when Tiffany found Tad.  I don’t know, but I believe dogs draw from a deep well of forgiveness.  I like to think Tad’s moved on and doesn’t dwell on the hurt of past offenses the way we humans do.  There’s lots to learn from all this.  The thing is it’s hard to tell sometimes who’s doing the learning and who’s doing the teaching.

It’s a hot Fall day in southeast Texas and there are plump promising rain clouds on the horizon.  Tad’s improving, and it’s already better than a good day.  Time to turn up the music and sing.

In Tad We Trust

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

I get to see Tad again tomorrow, and the anticipation has had me thinking about the brilliant truth of teaching and learning.

Given the right set of circumstances, a learner will tend toward making the right decision.  Scientifically that means if we set up the environment correctly our student will succeed.  That includes both environmental cues and pleasant consequences for the learner.  So much for the nerdy part.  Here’s the softer part.  All of my students really are working toward success; it’s the natural tendency of progress.

A perfect learning relationship

There isn’t anything inside Tad that predestines him to behave poorly.  There’s no internal badness in dogs that we humans have to break or dominate.  Dogs, like all other learners are naturally (meaning it’s in their nature) built to discover the easiest right choices for behavior, and to act on them.  In fact, even “bad” behavior is at the time the perceived right choice for the dog.  Our job as teachers is simply to clear the path, make the choices we prefer more obvious, and reinforce those correct choices joyfully.  That’s teaching.

I always trust my client dogs to find and make the right choice.  If they don’t, I look at myself first to make adjustments.  I never look inside the dog for sinister intentions with flimsy labels like stubbornness or jealousy.  What can I change in this student’s environment to make it easier for him to make a correct behavior choice?  When he makes that correct choice, how can I tell him he got it right so that he makes that choice again in the future?  I joke that dog teaching isn’t a religion it’s a science.  Still, it takes a whole lot of faith to ask those questions, trust the dog, and trust the process.

I smile every time I remember that humans can be trusted too.  When we talk about a learner’s environment, we’re really talking about relationships.  A supportive, empathetic relationship between a teacher and a learner (and really we’re all co-learners) sets the client up to succeed, every time, without exception.  I nod respectfully to the late Carl Rogers who brought this knowledge to us.  Humans are naturally built (meaning it’s in their nature) to ascend to the highest level of success possible, given the right environment and relationships.  Abraham Maslow called that “self actualization,” and all of us are on the path.  My path as a teacher and a learner fills me with faith every day.  I trust the people I teach, and the dogs they teach in turn.  I learn from them too.  Certainly, it’s not always easy.  Tiffany will tell you that, as will Tad in his own way.  Still, we travel on together, clearing the path for our better selves, applying the science with abiding faith.