Teaching Your Dog Behavioral Flexibility

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Behavioral flexibility is our dog’s ability to make adaptive changes in behavior when the environment changes. Adaptive is the key word here. Any dog can (and many do) act impulsively when things around them change. Think: barking, lunging, or even biting. The behaviorally flexible dog isn’t as emotionally charged. His behavior is more intentional. The response to environmental change, though still challenging, is hinged on calmer more deliberate behavior choices. Think: go with the flow.

Stella sleeping peacefully on one of our long road trips.

Many folks assume some dogs are just calmer than others. But, the truth is we can teach behavioral flexibility. We have to be thoughtful about it, yes. Is it difficult? No.

Teach your dog that his choices matter. It is up to us to provide our dogs with meaningful feedback when they make behavior decisions. There are no good or bad behaviors. That may be startling to read, I know. Think of it this way instead. Is my dog choosing an action that will be useful in his life with me or not? Is it a behavior I want to see more of or less of? If it’s useful and we want to see our dog do it more (maybe we even want it to become a habit), then we provide meaningful positive reinforcement for that behavior. Food is always a strong choice. 

This is on us. We need to be feedback machines. We are warm and loving, certainly. And, we are providers of constant and reliable information for our dogs. Good, here’s a piece of cheese. Yes, let’s play. More of that, here’s your chew toy. Perfect, let’s go on a walk. Well done, have this bit of chicken. Fantastic, have another. Our dogs will learn quickly that interaction with us (or humans in general) is meaningful and that their behavior choices matter. It’s a conversation across species rooted in trust.

Stewie deciding whether or not he wants to pee in the snow from the big freeze February 2021

Allow your dog to say no. This is heresy to old school dog trainers, but it’s essential to us now. Forcing or coercing a dog into a behavior choice is really no choice at all. Worse still, punishment stiffens flexibility and kills trust. It leads to escape and avoidance which are very limiting choices. Dogs who are allowed to say no are, in fact, still learning that their choices have meaning. In most cases (dare I say all cases), the “no” is really just a pause. Our dog is trying to figure out what we are teaching him. He’s looking for the “yes.” It’s an opportunity for us to make the lesson a bit clearer, to make it a bit easier for our dog to take the next step, to keep the conversation going.

Stella high up on the red rocks in Sedona, AZ

Teach your dog he is safe. Giving your dog agency in his world – allowing him to make adaptive choices and allowing him to pause and consider those choices – leads back to this one fundamental lesson. He is safe. Working cooperatively with you is safe. Humans are safe. Taking on a new task, whatever it may be, is safe. Novel experiences – safe. New settings – safe. At the core of all of this is a sense of ease and security because we’ve encouraged our dog’s thinking – his choices – and we’ve supported him along the way with positive reinforcement feedback.

Behavioral flexibility is what allows our dogs to take on novel experiences bravely, try things they’ve never tried before, conquer new challenges. Our dogs don’t just learn to do things. They learn how to learn, how to temper and alter their behavior as the environment changes. At age 11 my dog, Stella, learned to climb steps into our bed – and then to climb red rocks high above Sedona. Stewie learned to pee outside at age 2 when we found him, and then how to pee on cue in a hurricane at age 10. When we broke down on the highway they both learned how to ride in a cramped tow truck, because we do new things all the time. They meet dogs sometimes and ignore them other times. Horses and chickens were a curiosity at first, but Stella and Stewie have learned to just take in novel experiences without a fuss. They visit hotels and relatives’ homes – and sleep on beds and dog beds and tile floors and on mats. It’s not always easy, but we take our time when they need an extra few moments to let things soak in. 

Life isn’t always chaotic, but it is always changing. Behavioral flexibility, prepares our dogs (and us) when chaos hits – when a flood means leaving home in a boat (or in a helicopter), when humans have to leave or are gone longer than expected, when the ice comes and the house gets dark and cold, when we move to a new home or city or country, when a loved one dies. The more we and our dogs can learn to lean into change, to change with our environment, embrace adaptive behavior over impulsive or reactive behavior – the better off we will be. Teaching our dogs behavioral flexibility is a gift to them and ourselves. 

In puppyhood we call this process socialization. There’s a myth that puppy socialization is just letting our puppies play and run amok with each other. But, that’s not it at all. Socialization is about partnering with our dog to take on the world together, to learn new things, to discover new boundaries and take them on (or not), to find safety with each other and in each other every step of the way. It’s a lifelong process. I’d go so far as to say it is what life with our dogs is all about.

So, if we didn’t have our dog as a puppy then when should we start? Now. Right now. Begin with the dog in front of you in the moment at hand. Start easy. Take it easy. Build from where you are together. Challenge yourself to be behaviorally flexible as you guide your dog to behavior flexibly. Notice the conversations you are having with him. Let your actions be a response to his and his to yours. Now you’re talkin’. Worry less about whether or not you can trust your dog. Offer the assurance that he, in fact, can trust you – today and from now on.

Above: Stella and Stewie showing off their behavioral flexibility going outside to potty during Hurricane Harvey.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA is a dog trainer in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs with fearful and aggressive behavior.


How Balanced Dog Training Fails

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Balanced trainers pride themselves on using a mix of positive reinforcement dog training and, when needed, punishment. They might use food and praise or even clicker training. They might also use choke collars, prong collars, or even shock collars. At first glance it sounds pretty good. Let’s use all the tools and techniques available to us. And if the dog does well with positive reinforcement we don’t have to resort to the nasty stuff. Fair enough. Right?

Honestly, I can see the appeal. But I see the trap doors and trip wires, too.

The truth is all dogs do well with positive reinforcement training. We know this because it’s the natural way all organisms learn. No one invented this. We discovered it. It’s a law of nature like gravity. You don’t have to believe in gravity. It just is. You don’t have to believe in positive reinforcement either. It simply is and it doesn’t fail (just like nothing ever falls up). Balanced trainers rest on some binary thinking that seems intuitive. If the dog fails, then we resort to pain or intimidation (the euphamism they often use is “pressure.”) But, here’s the flaw in their logic.  Our dogs don’t fail. Nature has already hard-wired them to learn this way. So, where’s the failure? Why do we so easily reach for the leash correction or the shock collar?

Here’s what I’ve learned. Positive reinforcement is easy for our dogs. It’s hard for us. Don’t misunderstand. The ideas are straightforward and clear. And even the mechanics of doing positive reinforcement dog training are fairly easy. Some of us just have a hard time wrapping our brains around it. We humans are bombarded with punishment and the threat of punishment all day everyday. I can understand how we could see punishment-based dog training as a viable option (or perhaps the only option). Even dog trainers dedicated to teaching with positive reinforcement struggle. We learn and re-learn year-after-year. We need reminding because positive reinforcement doesn’t come naturally to some of us. We know it works. Yes. We can see it working, of course. And yet, we remain blind. A balanced trainer is simply this: a positive reinforcement trainer who lost sight.

Positive reinforcement training teaches our dogs what to do. It’s proactive. Come. Sit. Lie down. Stay. Punishment is reactive. And here’s how else balanced dog training fails. Punishment doesn’t really teach our dog what we think it does. It doesn’t teach him what not-to-do. When the scale tumbles toward using pain and intimidation in training we are tumbling with it into some treacherous territory. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past century about what punishment really teaches.

Escape. We and our dogs retreat from things that are painful or scary. This is as natural as positive reinforcement, but it’s much less precise. A dog escaping a shock by running back to his human can masquerade as good training. But, we are teaching the dog more about what he’s running from than what he’s running to. Don’t count on any lasting dog-human bonding here. There’s also the very real danger of the punishment getting hitched up with other triggers in the environment. Think of ripples in a pond. The shock is scary. Run. But what else is associated with the shock? A bird? A cracking twig? That guy over there? Lot’s of things can start to spook our dog now. Anything can predict a shock and lead to a terrified bolting dog.  Plus, we are sliding dangerously close to Escape’s more troubling cousin.

Avoidance. Sometimes we just shut down. We’re done. I’ve met dogs trained on shock collar fence systems who won’t leave their back porch. I’ve met dogs for whom walks are so punishing they are afraid to go out at all. I’ve met dogs who hide and cower and won’t do anything. Of course, this common effect of punishment doesn’t look like training at all. The dogs get slapped with labels like “stubborn” or even “dominant” when in fact they are just terrified of what could be. It’s sad but not as dangerous as what could come next.

Counter Coercion. That’s the technical term for pushing back. We do it. Some dogs do it. There are plenty of studies now that link painful training with owner-directed aggression. I suspect that the ripple effect of punishment is what leads to dogs lashing out at less culpable targets as well. Violence begets violence. It’s a mnemonic we know well but too often forget when we think of our dogs. And too many dogs end up paying for our forgetfulness with their lives.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like if we constantly supported and encouraged each other’s best behavior choices. And then in the next thought, what if we could start doing that even just a little. What if, instead of crashing into a punishing day, we tilted into the nature of our better angels. What if we could tip the scale all the way to a lighter, more joyful, more natural kind of being – with our dogs and with each other?  What if our lives, in this one beautiful way, were delightfully out of balance?

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

How to Choose a Dog Trainer – The Most Important Factor

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We love our dogs. We want nothing but the best for them. And, when their behavior is troubling or even dangerous we want competent professional help.

The trouble is dog training is an unregulated profession. Lots of professions require state licenses, including exterminators, hair and nail professionals, plumbers and electricians, and veterinarians and vet techs (of course). Dog training is not on the list in any U.S. state.

We are self-regulated. Anyone can call himself or herself a dog trainer. So, what should you look for when choosing a trainer or dog behavior consultant? What’s the most important factor?

Education is certainly very important. Competent dog behavior professionals invest a lot of time and money into learning their profession. The very best engage in hours of continuing education every year. They focus on learning Applied Behavior Analysis, best practices for teaching humans and dogs, as well as dog handling skills.

Experience is great, so long as the trainer is practicing sound techniques backed by reliable behavior science. Anyone can do things wrong for a long time. Quality experience requires learning the profession well and putting it into practice effectively year after year.

Credentialing is essential. Excellent dog trainers and dog behavior consultants look to their peers for standards of excellence and accountably. This is different than winning ribbons at dog shows. While that may prove a trainer can effectively teach a number of skills to his own dog, it does not speak to how he teaches his human clients with a variety of dog behavior issues. Professional certification, however, requires that the dog behavior professional prove his or her breadth and depth of knowledge and skills. The two most honored certifications are the Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) and the Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC). Each is rigorous in its requirements to achieve and maintain.

Education, experience and credentials are all important. But, none is as key as this last factor when choosing a dog trainer or dog behavior consultant.

Transparency. Your trainer or behavior consultant should be able to answer your questions before you hire him or her. How will you treat my dog if he does something wrong? Challenge him or her to be specific. What will you do when my dog does something correctly? What training tools do you use? And yes, what is your education, experience, and what credentials have you earned? Look for clarity in the answers, offered freely and without hesitation. Qualified dog behavior professionals should have web sites rich with information and modest in their promises. Sure, a bit of marking is fine. But, we all know what it means if something sounds too good to be true. Look for authenticity. Behavior consultants and trainers who value transparency will post videos of their work. They will seek and share feedback from clients. They will write blogs about their cases; publish their knowledge; put themselves out there to see.

Excellent trainers and behavior consultants celebrate positive reinforcement learning. They are eager to teach it to you. Beware the trainer who wants to take your dog away and won’t disclose what happens behind their closed doors. Remember transparency. The dog trainer you are looking for has nothing to hide.

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

Related video: The World Dog Trainers’ Transparency Challenge