Home for the Holidays – A Success Story

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

This is a success story. It’s the happy ending kind of holiday story about well-earned success through smart and dedicated training.

Perla (I have permission to use real names) barked at strangers, primarily strangers she saw on walks. This is a dog behavior problem I know a lot of you can relate to. But there was an added twist. Perla and Jennifer, her human, were flying home for the holidays in just 4 weeks – Perla’s first time flying under the seat and her first time meeting a ton of family.

Let’s cut to the ending. Perla did fine.

Here’s how we pulled it off.

Training is a process. We follow three overarching steps.

  • Set the dog up to succeed. In Perla’s case this meant creating learning experiences in the beginning that were lower-stress so that she could wrack up a bunch of wins, build her confidence, and take on new challenges at her own pace.
  • Teach functional skills. In order to navigate a flight Perla needed to learn to see people and remain calm, relax in public (on her mat), and successfully ride in a soft-sided carry-on crate.
  • Teach the learner that she is safe throughout the process. Emotions matter. Perla learned that she was safe performing her simple skills because Jennifer always set her up to succeed. She lowered the intensity of exposure to people when Perla needed it, taking breaks and increasing distance.

I know a lot of you are familiar with these principles, too. It’s the science of behavior change in a nutshell.

Jennifer taught Perla:

  • To look at people calmly without barking. She practiced at home and on a nearby walking path.
  • To lie on her mat and really relax. She taught this at home as well.
  • To go in her soft-sided carry-on crate and remain relaxed.  Jennifer carried Perla in the bag and fed treats.

After a couple of weeks of daily work, Jennifer and Perla went to the airport for some real-life practice. Below are some quotes from their training journal.

I gotta tell you,” she wrote. “it went MUCH better than I could’ve imagined. I have happy tears.” Perla grumbled a couple of times from the carrier as they were walking into the airport. Once inside, Jennifer sat down and helped Perla get more comfortable (taking a break and increasing distance from people). A few people walked past us,” Jennifer wrote, “no bark, so I kept the treats coming. Then I picked up her carrier, this time heading to the check in area (there were more people, but still- not very crowded at all). I walked past a few people checking in, no bark, marked yes, treats, good girl. I stood in what would be a check in line- walked up to the counter and asked the lady if that’s where I would check in with a dog- almost on cue, Perla barked the lady, I “sshhh” Perla and hid her a little behind the counter so that Perla couldn’t see the lady directly but could hear her talking with me- Perla didn’t bark so I put treats in her carrier. I kept the treats coming while speaking with the lady at the counter as she explained the check in process with a dog and I explained to her what I was doing with the training. I slowly kept moving Perla’s carrier to be more in sight of the lady as we kept talking, keeping my eyes on the lady but placing treats into the carrier since Perla wasn’t barking. I was able to finish the whole conversation with the lady and there wasn’t additional barking. I kept the treats coming.”

Jennifer did a great job reading Perla’s emotional response to a challenging training session. It may not have been perfect, but they were on their way. A week later they went back to the airport.

Jennifer wrote again in her journal. “It went like this. I drove with Perla, arrived at the parking lot, put her in her carrier and walked from the parking lot to the airport. I had my rolling carryon bag with me as well as her carrier. I went directly were the check in area is, Perla was a little restless in the carrier so I went to some chairs across from the check in area, set her on the seat next to me, talked to Perla for a little bit and gave her treats for being there and not barking at the people walking across from us.

Once she was a little more settled, I stood in line as I would for checking in, as I waited (I had about 3 people in front on me) I continued to give treats to Perla inside her carrier. She did not bark at all. When I went to the counter, I talked to the person behind the counter, asked them a few questions, told them about the training, all the while putting treats into Perla’s carrier. She did not bark at all when I went up to the counter nor when I started speaking to the person.

From there I walked to the security check area. There were some chairs next to the security area so I did a little bit of mat training next to the security area so that Perla could see people and hear the sounds of the area. She did not bark, she stayed on her mat for the most part, though she did get up a couple of times to look around a little, but would settle back when I asked. I have her treats through the whole process.

After a few minutes, I walked back to the outside area and took her out of her carrier and walked her around a little. She went potty and we stayed for a few minutes. Before going back in, I put Perla back in her carrier. We went back into the airport, took the elevator (no one was around) and I walked back to the car. Someone crossed our path as we were making our way back, but again, Perla stayed settled, no barking. All in all, it was a little less than 30 minutes between the parking, training and leaving.”

When the day on their flight arrived Perla and Jennifer were ready. They’d worked hard and learned so much. Traveling can be hard on the best of days. But, Jennifer and Perla had figured out how to navigate it together.  It was their big holiday adventure. But, more importantly, it was a journey of the heart. I think we can all relate to that, too.. Because no matter where we are and no matter where we end up – if we are with our beloved dog – that is home.


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX.


The Life-Changing Power of “Decompression Walks.”


In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We need this. We need moments to pause, to stand in awe of beauty, to take in a deep breath and whisper “wow” on the exhale. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to get out, let go, and decompress.

I’d heard about the simple but profound power of walking with a dog in nature. Dr. Lore Haug routinely prescribes what she calls Long-Line-Walks in green spaces away from other dogs and people. Sarah Stremming coined the term “Decompression Walk” in her podcast, Cog-Dog Radio. It’s a walk on a long leash or off-leash in nature, allowing the dog to move freely, pause, sniff, be. I knew the concept. I even embraced it and recommended it. But, I hadn’t experienced it. Not really. Not until now.

Michael and Tim with Stella and Stewie

My husband, Tim, and I both work from home these days. And, it turns out home can be wherever we want it to be, so long as there’s a strong internet connection. So, we packed up Stella and Stewie and drove to Sedona, Arizona for the month. It turns out the internet connection isn’t so strong here after all. And, I won’t bedazzle you with stories of the mythic vortices, or the new age vibe. In fact, the rhythm and roll of the town is decidedly human, with all of our decidedly human aspirations and faults. So be it.

But none of that detracts from the place itself, nestled in the Arizona Desert but higher up where the air can cool at night, with sweeping views of bold red and green against blinding blue sky, and mile after mile of  trails – packed mud and sand and red stone trails.

I don’t know of any studies. The data is all anecdotal, stories from trainers and dog enthusiasts. Walks in the green spaces just out of town, or on the beaches further off, or on the red rocks and dust outside our door here, are life-changing for our dogs. Aggressive dogs learn to self-regulate more easily. Fearful dogs gain confidence. The unruly and misfitted find their way. The slow and the aged reclaim some youth. Is it the exercise? Certainly. Is it that freedom to move willfully without our constant tug and correction? Yes, absolutely. Is it the chance to pause and sniff – to sniff for as long as needed and longer – to sniff at every chance, every rock, every shrub, every delightful blade of tall brown grass? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I pulled a cactus needle from the tip of Stellas nose and I still have no doubt the sharp point of it was well worth the delicious scent. The power of these walks, I am convinced, is from all of this and so much more we still don’t fully understand.

Stewie and Tim on Bell Rock

Stewie is 13, maybe 14. He’s lean and muscular, a Chihuahua Cocker Spaniel design according to the DNA. He loves his walks. But his strut seems even more pronounced with the desert under his paws, scaling rocks two and three times his height, climbing mountain trails to overlooks 30-stories up.

Stella is 11. She has hip dysplasia and arthritis. We keep her on the flat and easy trails and steady her up the rocks and gentle inclines along the way. We stop when she stops. And, we take in the moment with her – the stunning views, the fresh and new scents, the feel of the warm dry air all around us.

In the evening we watch the sun set the day aside and blow in the cooler air. We all eat our fill and rest our bodies on soft furniture (or cool tile floor).  I wonder, almost every evening now, how such a simple thing can be so profound, how pausing can be so powerful, how the natural world – so essential to our being, to every living being’s existence – has slipped away. We built over it, built around it, built up our lives to forget it.


And these are the very things we need to remember, the things we need the most. A moment to decompress. A deep inhale and a quiet exhale, standing high on a rocky path still warm from the midday sun. Life, our own and others, all around us – and our dog a few feet away. She is staring at the dirt, or maybe it’s a bug, or a lizard flitting under a rock, or a scent still fresh from who knows what. She’s seen more than 4-thousand days, but none as important as this. She’s traveled a thousand miles, but not a step has been more important than the last that brought her to this place. She is, in this moment, fully dog, unfettered, un-fussed-with, allowed to be and become more of who she is.

I quietly take out my phone and snap the photo. And, I think to myself. “Wow.”


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston TX and Sedona AZ. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.

Postcard from the Pandemic – Lessons from Life with Dogs


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Training our dog can sometimes feel overwhelming. Where do we start? What’s next? When can I stop worrying? (Aggressive dog behavior is, after all, potentially dangerous). How will I be able to relax and have fun with my dog again? The questions and the thoughts can get all mixed up in our heads. It can feel like too much.

And then there’s the comparing of our dogs against the other dogs we know. My dog’s not as good as theirs. Or that person’s dog behaves so much better. Or he just did this or that and his dog was fine. There’s so much self doubt and judging.

A dog business colleague posted some raw and vulnerable truth online today. It was a mix of I love my job and my job is hard and I put everything into my work and sometimes I suffer and sometimes it’s really really hard and I am strong. She posted a photo of herself. It was simple. Beautiful. Black and white. Somehow, all of those thoughts and feelings ended up right there in the picture. So too, did the elephant in the room. The world feels upside down right now. Life is crazy and sometimes scary (Covid is, after all, potentially dangerous). I read her post and looked at the photo and thought, “Yeah, I feel ya. I feel all of that.”

It’s been in my head for a while that dog training is sort of a metaphor for life in general. Our relationships with our dogs are like microcosms – simpler, easier, test runs for our relationship with one another and the world at large. That is the gift of Dogs. Are our relationships with them sometimes messy, difficult, and exhausting? Yes. All that. Is it also messy, difficult, and exhausting living with each other in the world right now? Be honest. It is. Right?

When my clients get overwhelmed (I cherish you all, by the way), my advice is almost always to take a short break. Then, focus on the small goals we’ve set. Where do we start? Here, with the dog in front of us. What’s next? The attainable tasks at hand. We set ourselves up to succeed so we can get that first sweet taste of success. And, then we keep going. When can I stop worrying? Anytime. Right now. We are doing the work. How will I be able to relax and have fun? Ah, now there’s the question. For me it’s about sitting and noticing –  noticing my dogs, noticing you, noticing the here and the now. So often we get caught up in our heads. We take in a small bit of information and we build an entire epic around it. We project ourselves into a future we don’t yet know. Or we cast ourselves back to rewrite the past. Forward and back, we end up running circles. “Relaxing” and “fun” spin off to the sides because our thoughts are moving too fast. And, I feel ya. I feel all of that.

I’m still talking about dog training here but really I’m talking about everything else, too. We’re under pressure. There’s the virus and the uncertainty and the friends and family whose fuses seem so much shorter now. And there’s the isolation – figurative and literal. And there’s the comparing. Are they handling all this better than I am? Do they have answers I don’t? Self doubt. Judging.

Stay in the metaphor if you like. Or, we can still call this “dog training advice.” Either way.

  • Set yourself up to succeed today with clear, easy, and measurable goals.
  • Small wins add up.
  • Take stock in the progress you’ve already made.
  • Look for the joy in the process.
  • Connect (with your dog – but also other people)
  • Avoid nonsense advice (especially online)
  • Be here right now.
  • Observe without judging.
  • Reinforce generously.

We are not alone. Clichés are so annoying because they are true. My clients know this: When they suffer and struggle with their dogs, they are in good company. Many others are on the path with them. And, the path is well worn with foot prints and paw prints from those who have gone before. And, here is where this microcosm of life with dogs shines a clear light on the bigger picture. We really are in this together. At some level on any given day we are all dealing with our own private shit storms – with our dogs, with family, with friends, with an invisible virus, and with a political landscape we can’t stop looking at. This isn’t a misery-loves-company essay. And, at the same time, even that cliché carries a bit of truth. If we can feel the angst, or suffering, or pain, or whatever you want to call it – then we can relate to it in others. This is how we access compassion. This is how we connect (even when we are physically distant) to others. This is how we care for others and for ourselves at the same time, by remembering we are not alone. These very personal feelings we are feeling are actually universal.

This is what I was reminded of today, looking at a stark monochrome photo of a woman under the heavy weight of her own thoughts and feelings. It’s not just you. It’s not just me. We’re feeling it together. That crushing weakness. That badass strength. All of it at the same time, right here in this moment. Pull compassion from these feelings. Set goals, add them up, and take stock. There’s joy in the process. Be kind and generous with yourself  because Reinforcement Drives Behavior.

Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.