Your Bad Dog is Also Your Good Dog

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Stella is a delight to be around. She is affectionate. She moves a bit slowly now at 13, but she’s still playful. Occasionally she’ll roll her ball to me while she stretches out on the cool tile. Stella is a good dog.

Stella was also bad. It seems like a long time ago, but Stella refused to pee in the rain when she was a puppy. She’s the only retriever I’ve ever met who didn’t know how stay upright in water. We had to teach her how to swim. She growled at me all the time, guarding this or that.

Stella was both good and bad, same dog, different behaviors.

We humans tend to notice and focus on bad things. We are hardwired that way. It literally is for our own good, our safety. For that reason, we tend to zero in on our dog’s bad behavior, the barking, the growling, the biting. We notice and complain about the digging, and the chewing, and the pooping and peeing. It’s normal. It’s also okay. Noticing where we struggle with our dogs helps us identify where we need to work. Ideally, it leads us to a plan to help our dog and alleviate our suffering at the same time. Our dog’s undesirable behavior always has a cause (oops, sometimes we are the cause) and that means it can be changed. That’s the beautiful thing about behavior, it’s always changing.

Let’s not overlook the good stuff, though. In short, it’s good for us to notice that our dog is not all bad. Most of my clients tell me “ninety-percent of the time he’s great.” They need help with the other ten-percent. One way I can help is to encourage you to look intently at all that is good about your dog. One reason is that your dog’s good behavior exists, plain and simple. We should take some solace in that. We like our dogs and there’s a reason for that even though they are sometimes awful. The other reason is that your dog’s good behavior also has a cause (yes, you are sometimes that cause). How did our dog get so good in certain ways? The answers can help us resolve the problem behaviors. What we are doing right with our dogs can help us where things are going wrong.

We notice where things are tough, often very easily. We can also sometimes see the path that lead us to these behavior problems with our dog. That’s a good start.

We can also notice where things are easy with our dog. Let’s look at the path that led to all that good stuff, too.

Behavior, by definition, is how your dog is acting in and interacting with his environment. There’s behavior we like. There are also things he does that we don’t like. He’s the same dog, though, all the way through. We can all relate to this, I think. Some day’s I’m at my best, so proud of the things I do. Other days, I’d rather not mention, not my target behavior, not my greatest moment. And yet, I am the same person in both instances.

Good dog. Bad dog. Same dog. On our best days we can see both. It’s the good human, the smart and patient versions of ourselves who can help our dogs tip the balance (yes, us). We can help them change the conversation with their environment, help them change their behavior. He’s great ninety-percent of the time, and now just a little bit more. It turns out that finding a good dog isn’t so hard because, after all, it’s about finding the good in the dog we already have, right here in front of us.

Michael Baugh specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training in Houston TX

 

Stop Shoulding on Your Dog (and yourself)

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We are trapped in a toxic relationship with “Should” and “Shouldn’t.” That is to say, we are trapped in our own heads with our own worst critic – ourselves. So it’s no surprise that we project that emotional poison onto our dogs.

He should come when I call him.

She can bark at the door but she should calm down when I tell her it’s a friend.

He shouldn’t growl … jump … lick … bite … move.

“Should” and it’s ugly cousin, “Shouldn’t,” are hurtful to us and potentially dangerous for our dogs. “Should” and “Shouldn’t” prowl the borders of  what we’ve dreamt our dog would be, what we’ve wanted him to be, perhaps even before he was born. We wished for a loving companion, a champion, a supportive friend, loyal, reliable, smart, like in the movies. When we actually have a dog we find ourselves very much in the real world of what he is and is not. Perhaps our dog really is loving to us and smart, but not so reliable when it comes to strangers. Maybe our dog scares people and sometimes bites. The parts we dreamt of that overlap with reality (loving and smart) feel good. The parts that don’t line up (reliable, for example) cause us to suffer. In fact, the greater the perceived distance between our dreams and our reality, the more we suffer. It’s in that gap that “should” and “shouldn’t ” wreak havoc.

Our worst critic (remember that’s us) is now our dog’s worst critic. We love him, but he’s also the target of our vitriol. “Should” and “Shouldn’t” box us in and loom heavy over us; they hurl our own sharp words at us; they shame us; they are angry with us. You should go to the gym. You shouldn’t eat that. You should stop this or that vice. You should do better. You should be better. It hurts. We should on ourselves every day, sometimes all day. It’s no wonder we slip into the muck of dog shaming. My dog should behave better. 

“Should” and “Shouldn’t” are the bullies we let into our own heads. They push too many of us to use force and pain in the name of training. Languishing in the chasm between what we imagined our dog would be and who this dog in front of us actually is, we turn to “should” and “shouldn’t” for guidance, our worst critics, our worst enemies. But, instead of offering calm assurance they prod us to hurry up, fix this, make him behave better, make him submit, make him what he should be. And they taunt us – you should show him who is boss, you should be more alpha, you should be the pack leader. You should. You should. You should.

But Michael, you might ask, shouldn’t we have goals for our dogs? How else will things get better?

That is your rational self talking. And yes, I certainly agree. Goals inspire our present moment. They articulate the potential for growth and improvement. Goals invite us to the path toward all that is possible. “Should” and “Shouldn’t” are not goals. They keep us stuck in self-criticism, self-loathing. They reject the present moment over an illusory future laden with vague expectations. They invite us to engage in nothing but our own dissatisfaction. So yes, choose goals. Write them down. Take action. And leave “Should” and “Shouldn’t” behind.

This is one of the first things I learned as a dog trainerTrain the dog in front of you. I’ve adapted it over the years to include Teach the person in front of you. I know “Should” and “Shouldn’t” well. It has become my life’s work (including my personal life) to keep them at arms length or farther. Teaching the student in front of me grounds me in the present moment, right here, right now. I do not know what your dog should be. I do not know what you should be. I’m more interested in what we can all become together, in where the process of learning and teaching may take us. Training with your dog may lead to unexpected places. Perhaps it will be a journey that bridges the divide between what you dreamed your dog would be and who he is now. Or perhaps you’ll will discover something else, a life with your dog you never imagined, one so wonderful you dared not dream it until now.

Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston TX.

What is my Dog Thinking?

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is my dog thinking? The truth is none of us knows. Period. I don’t even know what my fellow humans are thinking most of the time. And seriously, how many times have we all said to ourselves, what was I thinking? Even on good days it’s really hard to crack the code of homo sapiens and we share written and spoken languages. The chances of ever knowing what a dog is thinking are zero.

Here’s where it gets tricky. We think we know. Clients tell me all the time they know what their dogs are thinking. Why? Because we humans hate an incomplete story. We hook on to one or two bits of information, usually a causal observation of what our dog is doing, and we fill in all the gaps. We create the story of what our dog is thinking. And, because the story was born of our own incomplete experience and the experience of our own complete thoughts, we perceive it as fact. Our brain believes, sometimes rigidly, what it knowns – even, in fact, when it does not.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called this natural human process “fast thinking.” It’s how we all quickly piece together information for decision making. The process is evolutionarily adaptive when it comes to safety and survival. Movement – dinner – aim -shoot. See a person – enemy – hide – fight. It even works well for us in modern times, in traffic for instance. Speeder – unsafe – avoid. We need to be able to create quick narratives for decision making with limited fast-moving information. Compare this to “slow thinking” which literally involves our slowing down, assessing all the information we have and that we don’t have, and making a logical conclusion. We do have that ability. Trouble is we don’t always take the time to use it.

Kahneman and Tversky coined the term behavioral economics (you might have heard of that). After Tversky’s death, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics. What they discovered, in short, was that “fast thinking,” though useful sometimes, often leads us to make mistakes. The answer to the question what was I thinking becomes I don’t know but it was fast and it was wrong. Here’s a harmless example from my own life. Buzzing insect – wasp! – flail hands and run. It was a June Bug.  “Fast thinking” because of it’s early roots in survival is almost always hooked to emotion (Think: fear, desire, exhilaration). Fast thinking over time develops biases – the quick decisions we habitually make (unconsciously) about our fellow humans based on how they look. It’s also why we are notorious for making decisions with apparent pay-offs in the moment even though the long-term effects are disastrous (e.g. buying the hot sports cars instead of saving for retirement). Politicians and marketers know how hack our “fast thinking” and exploit our biases and desires. Believe it or not, some dog trainers do too.

What is your dog thinking? Disreputable trainers will tell you. It will come with just a few facts (he’s growling and showing his teeth). Then they will fill in all the gaps to form a concise memorable story that our “fast thinking” brain will love. He thinks he’s dominant, or He doesn’t respect you or He’s trying to be pack leader.  Add to this that we might have already heard that story from our neighbor or our Uncle Charlie.  Our fast thinking brain shores up the narrative with more non-facts. That’s called confirmation bias. It becomes fact to us because it came from our own brain and was then echoed by others. Trouble is, we still have no idea what our dog is thinking. And what does dominant dog really mean (the definitions are as varied as they are vague). And, do dogs actually form pack hierarchies (the evidence suggests they do not). And yet, it’s hard to let go of short, simple, fast thinking explanations to the point that we might actually push back when presented with real verifiable facts. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance. Welcome to the most advanced brain on the planet.

We aren’t doomed, however. At least I don’t think so. We all have the ability to slow down, check and recheck our observations, assess facts, look at alternative explanations. When it comes to our dogs I suggest this. Focus on what your dog is doing more than what you think he is thinking. Disconnect from the story; connect to the present moment with your dog. You are communicating. Your actions (behavior) influence his actions (behavior) and back the other way. People often ask who’s training whom. My answer is you and he are both teaching and learning. Enjoy this moment, this time to set aside troubling thoughts, this time to simply explore and learn with your dog. It may not be the story you thought it was. But, it is more profound than most prose and as inspiring as any poem.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training.