The Tadlands

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

The clinic where Tiffany works and Tad hangs out is much nicer even than it looks in pictures.  There’s a pleasant chime that sounds when the front door opens.  I was pleased as I walked in that I didn’t hear Tad barking.  Tiffany greeted me in the lobby and asked me how I wanted to meet Tad this time.  “Just let him out,” I said, and around the corner he came.  Tad ran up to me like we were old friends.  I couldn’t have wished for a better start to my day.

Behavior science is the language we use to communicate with the non-human animals in our lives.  Don’t worry; I’m not going to geek out on science again.  During our visit we taught Tad to sit and focus, and how to say “hi” to visitors, and how to lie down and chill out with his Uncle Michael, and how to stand calmly at the baby gate and watch people.  All that is grounded in sound behavior science.  It’s also good communication.  If we can change our behavior a bit, and Tad changes his in kind, then we are definitely communicating.   And the cliché is true – good communication builds good relationships.

Tad hanging out with me in the lobby

There’s little doubt that Tad and Tiffany have forged a powerful bond.  They are learning to communicate at a much different level now, and they are making progress together.  It’s cool to watch and I count myself incredibly lucky to not only be witness to it, but deeply involved in the process.  We all know how easy and wonderfully alluring it is to fall in love with Tad online.  It is something altogether different to be with him in person.  For just a few seconds Tad tucked his head into my arms and pressed his forehead against my chest.  I scratched him behind the ears and kissed the top of his head.  No one said a word.  Then we all got back to the work at hand.  The moment had passed, but it was sacred nonetheless.

Tad didn’t bark once, or growl or lunge the entire time I was there.  I’ve actually never seen him behave that way, and that’s the way it should be.  Tiffany tells me he’s doing those things less, and not at all when the front door chimes.  We’re changing his life, and changing his behavior.  We’re creating opportunities for him to succeed, and relishing in that success with him.  There’s no need to set him up to bark and growl and lunge so we can tell him he’s bad.  He was never bad, just afraid.  Of course, all that is changing now.  There’s no need to be afraid anymore.  We even have a plan in the works to curb his play biting (most of his bites were attention-seeking).  I hesitate to make any predictions, but Tad is improving.  I’m hopeful he will continue to do so.  Very hopeful.

I don’t like goodbyes so I didn’t make a fuss over Tad when I left.  I’d stayed longer than expected, and I would have stayed longer still if there had been time.  I headed south toward Houston and remembered Tad pressing his head against me.  It made me smile and remember why it is I do this work.  Before long I’ll be back in The Tadlands, at the smartly appointed clinic, stealing a moment with the rag-tag dog no one wanted.  When did I first notice he was stealing my heart?


Keeping Tabs on Tad

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

I like to stay in close contact with my clients.  This is especially true for cases which involve bites, or even lunging and barking.  With my newest clients, Tiffany and her dog Tad, I’m using an online training journal.  Tiffany and I share the journal on Google Docs.  Daily, or at least every other day, she adds an update on her progress with Tad.  I respond with feedback, and sometimes notes on how we can make his behavior-change plan more efficient and more effective.

The journal really helps all of us involved.  It keeps Tiffany thinking about our training plan every day.  She observes Tad more keenly and works with him more regularly, because she knows I’m expecting journal updates.  The journal also helps Tiffany reflect on her own progress with Tad, because she has to take moment to stop and record her thoughts.  Writing in the journal is a planned “pause and take a deep breath” moment.

As a behavior consultant, I benefit a great deal from the online training journal.  There are several ways a behavior change plan can get slowed down or derailed altogether.  One is poor execution.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about beating up the client.  Tiffany, as an example, is an extremely committed and intelligent person.  However, two weeks will have passed before our next appointment (even a week would have been a long time).  Much of the material she learned to help Tad is detailed and technical.  Mistakes happen.  It’s better to catch those along the way than two weeks down the line.  The online journal is very helpful with that.  As her coach, I can help her catch execution errors within a matter of hours rather than weeks.  Of course, there are occasionally problems with the training plan itself.  If an issue comes up on the training journal highlighting an error I’ve made educating the client, I want to be able to fix that immediately.

Tad benefits the most.  Two species are learning new information at once throughout this process.   One of the tricky parts of behavior cases like this is that both the human and the dog are putting brand new skills into action as they are learning them.  That can set both the dog and the person up for some added stress and possible mistakes.  For Tad’s benefit, it’s a good idea to have at least two human brains collaborating on his behavior-change plan daily.  Again, that’s where the online journal plays a key role.

Of course the journal is not a replacement for regular phone and email check-ins.  I do those with my clients as well, and that includes Tiffany.  The journal is definitely a more-is-better addition to the client-coach relationship.  We have two learners from two species taking in brand new information.  Add to that, in some of these cases the stakes are pretty high.  I’d rather not leave anything to chance.  And if everything is going well, then excellent; checking in is still worthwhile.  If nothing else, the online journal is a great way to remind Tiffany and I that we are both involved in helping Tad and that neither of us is walking this path alone.

Meeting Tad

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

I love a good story of redemption.  That’s probably why I’m drawn to dogs we commonly call fearful or aggressive.  They’re the barkers and growlers and lungers and biters.  They walk a hard path and are often misunderstood. They are the hard cases with no guarantees for anyone involved.   Few have walked a path more difficult than Tad, my newest client.  A young woman named Tiffany found him along the side of a country road in Montgomery, Texas late last March.   Tad was eaten away by mange and malnourishment, weak and wounded.  The veterinarian at the clinic where Tiffany works wondered if Tad would survive the night.  He did.  As he grew stronger, though, his behavior grew worse.  Tad started barking and growling at visitors to the clinic.  Then he bit Tiffany’s father who had the double misfortune of falling and frightening Tad in the process.  That would have been the end of the line for some dogs.  But not Tad.

It turns out Tiffany is a storyteller, and a good one at that.  She began blogging about her Abandoned Dog the day she found him.  She posted  pictures and videos of Tad, and before too long he had a worldwide following (nearly 5,000 fans on Facebook as of this writing).  When Tad needed money for expensive veterinary care, hundreds of people responded.  And when word came that he needed a trainer, more help rolled in.  It only took a phone call for one of his followers to find me.

I liked Tad the minute I saw him.  He’s smaller than he looks in pictures and video (about 55 lbs).  He’s also loose and wiggly most of the time, a young dog coming into his prime.  We met outside of The Fundamental Dog near The Woodlands.  I like to meet dogs like Tad on neutral territory, outdoors if possible.  The idea is to make it easy for the dog to make the best choice possible.  If Tad didn’t like me, he had plenty of room to move away, an easier choice than barking or lunging.  This wasn’t his place, so there was no pressure on him to make me go away if I looked like bad news.  Fortunately, he trotted right up to me.  He seemed pleasantly surprised when I pulled out my “secret weapon:”  Cheeze Whiz (Tad’s favorite).  It wasn’t a bribe.  If you come to my house, and I want us to be friends, I’ll offer you a snack.  It’s good manners.  Of course, there’s good behavior science behind it too.

I won’t take too much time talking about the science of dog training.  Most people already know I depend exclusively on well tested and verified behavior science in my practice.  Very little (if anything) of what I teach is based on folk wisdom or popular consensus.  That’s my bias.  If there isn’t a body of data to support a training protocol, then I’m not teaching it.  More importantly, I don’t use any methods that frighten or hurt a dog.  Tad’s been frightened and hurt enough.  What he needs now is to learn that people are safe, and that good things happen for him when new people show up on the scene.  I got to be one of the first to teach him that.  Tad liked me and my colleague Marie.  It made my day.

This is about as geeky as I’ll get.  Tad is learning that every time he sees a new person (or even an unfamiliar person he’s seen before) tasty bits of food soon follow.  Some of these people may actually choose to hand Tad the food themselves.  This is called Classical Conditioning.  Person predicts Yummy food.  In addition, we’re pairing up the sound of the door chime at the veterinary clinic with lovely snacks as well, because the chime is also associated with new people coming in.  Chime predicts Yummy food.  Right now chimes and people are  associated with increased heart rate, shallow respiration, dilated pupils, elevated cortisol (most likely), and piloerection (hackles up) – in other words, fear.  In order to change the association, we’ll need to be careful to protect Tad from repeated full-on exposure to the scary stuff (new people).  He’s going to meet his new friends much the same way he met me, in a controlled and calm setting.  The rest of the time he’ll be away from the hustle bustle.  Tad never has to be afraid again.

Was Tad abused?  The physical evidence clearly points to that.  The behavioral evidence, interestingly enough, is less clear.  Many dogs display behavior similar to Tad’s without any history of abuse.  Lack of experience with a wide variety of human beings can lead to what we call “socialization deficit.”  Dogs who behave in ways related to fear and aggression often didn’t have enough positive exposure to human beings early in life (5-16 weeks of age).   That lack of experience is enough to create serious problems down the line.  We trainers see it a lot in puppy mill dogs, and even in some dogs who come from  so-called reputable breeders.  This is precisely why well-designed classes for young puppies are so important.  A lot of street dogs, like Tad, have a very mixed bag of early socialization.  Regardless, remedial socialization in canine adolescence and early adulthood can help turn things around.  That’s what I’m hoping for with Tad.

Tad’s not all that unlike a lot of the dogs I see day-in-day out.  Maybe that’s what  makes him special.  Being a dog is quite enough, thank you.  He doesn’t have titles or ribbons, and his coat is still pocked with mange.  He’s just a dog from a country road in rural Texas.  But His story of survival against great odds touched us nonetheless, thousands of us.  Tad is one dog who stands for so many other dogs, too many who are left to suffer and die young.  Perhaps that’s what gave so many of us pause, and made us reflect on the better measures of being human.  People failed Tad, but it was also people who lifted him up, thousands of people.  There’s a story of redemption being told here – not just his, but our own.