Coronavirus: Our Response – Be Safe and Stay Flexible

Michael Baugh, Houston dog trainerMichael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Anyone who’s worked with me knows I preach this all the time: It only takes a small shift in the environment to  change behavior (sometimes in a big way).  And there aren’t many things smaller than an itty bitty microscopic virus.

Michael’s Dogs Houston dog trainers Victoria Thibodeaux and I are staying flexible and shifting our behavior in response to the change in our environment (I’ll say the name – The Coronavirus that causes Covid-19). Here’s where things stand right now.

We are still doing in-home dog behavior consultations and training lessons. There is no change in our schedule. However, you will notice some slight changes in our behavior.

  • We will ask if we can wash our hands at the beginning of our appointment and maybe again at the end.
  • We will ask that you have your own treat bag (the kind that can clip on to your shorts or trousers). We will not be passing our treat bag back and forth.
  • We will provide you with your own clicker and ask that you keep it. We will also not pass clickers back and forth.

We are waiving the cancellation penalty for illness. You can now cancel or ask to reschedule within 48 hours of your appointment if:

  • You have fever or other flulike symptoms (even the day of the appointment). Call and cancel or reschedule. Note: we will reschedule a minimum of 4-weeks later (time for you to recover and self-quarantine).
  • Anyone in your household has the virus.
  • You have been exposed to someone outside your household who has the virus.

We are on the honor system here. Do not cancel or ask to reschedule if:

  • You forgot your child had a game the same evening of our appointment (they are all probably cancelled anyway).
  • Your hairdresser had an opening and you want to go to that instead.
  • You had too much wine last night and you are hung over today.
  • Any other non-health related reason. Please, just be cool about this.

We will not risk your health in the interest of our financial bottom line. That would be selfish and stupid. We will cancel or ask to reschedule if:

  • We have fever or flulike symptoms. Note: I have seasonal allergies. To make sure I am not otherwise sick I’m taking my temperature twice daily
  • We have been exposed to anyone with the virus in or outside of our own household.

Remote Consultations – We will maintain our commitment to you and your dogs even if you or one of us is quarantined. I’m happy to say Victoria and I have been ahead of the curve when it comes to offering effective remote dog behavior consultations. We will be suggesting these for cases that are most appropriate. We will also honor your request to work remotely with us. Here’s a link to our Video Remote and Phone Consultations Page so you can learn a bit more about it. I’d also be happy to chat with you to share more information about how they work.

Quick Recap: Here are the main points to rememberer.

  • We’d still love to see you in person.
  • Let’s be thoughtful about our in-person meetings (scrub-a-dub-dub).
  • Rescheduling is fine – we may have to reschedule, too (but I hope not).
  • Remote consults are a good option.

Here’s the other thing you know I teach and preach all the time. Behavior changes. That is the nature of things. We can expect the behavior of this virus to change. It will not be as intrusive a factor in our lives forever. We will get through this – and Victoria and I will be here for you and your dogs through it and long after.

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Introducing Victoria Thibodeaux

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I knew Victoria Thibodeaux was a talented dog trainer even before I officially met her. She and her dog, Zelda, had set up camp near the back wall of our Karen Pryor Academy Class at The Fundamental Dog in Montgomery, TX. I had my eye on the open space in the back corner for myself and Stella. They looked like good enough neighbors.

You can learn a lot about a trainer by watching how they interact with their own dog. They word I thought of then (and again now) is “intuitive.” Victoria and Zelda worked their way through the class with an intuitive sense of connectedness – not too flashy – just simple and graceful in equal measure. It was amazing to see weekend after weekend when we met for class. “Who is teaching whom?” I thought. The synergy – unpretentious and elegant. And, on top of it all, they were great neighbors. We became friends. “That one,” I remember thinking to myself, “We’re going to work together someday.”

And now, five years later, that someday is here. Victoria started full time March 1st with Michael’s Dogs, now Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group. I asked Victoria to do this blog with me interview style, like a Rolling Stone piece minus the celebrity nonsense.

MB: I’m always curious about how trainers raise their own dogs. Zelda is amazing. Your puppy, Freddie, is 5 months old now. He seems delightful, too. But it can’t all be perfect puppy all the time. Right?

VT:  You are right about that. Like any puppy, if I don’t give him something to do, he will take it upon himself to find something to do. Right now, the “naughty” behaviors we are working on are jumping up on counters and parading my shoes and socks around.

So, I stay ahead of the game. I give him plenty of things to do when he is not confined so he doesn’t look for things to do on the countertops. I hide my shoes and socks. But, when I forget to hide them, I ask him to trade them for a treat, which he happily does.

I am training Freddie to be a multi-purpose working dog. We have plans to compete in the show ring, sport dog world, and even some service dog tasks.

MB: Good trainers like you have a lot of education. What part of that education (or even your one life experience training dogs) do you depend on most when working with your clients. What little golden nuggets of advice seem to come up again and again?

VT: Two things come to mind. First, always be kind. I’ve known many well-intentioned trainers who shame clients for using tools or training methods they do not agree with.  People do the best they can with whatever tools and information they have. Our job is not to make them feel bad about any of that, but to provide the best path forward with kindness and compassion. The second is to help people to understand the same is true for their dogs. Our dogs are always doing the best they can with whatever tools and information they have. If we want them to behave differently, we must give them different tools and information. Always with kindness and compassion.

MB: You just finished Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals Course. It’s all about Applied Behavior Analysis. That’s heavy stuff. What was your big take-away from that course?

VT: Yes, it was such a fun and informative course! Applied Behavior Analysis is all about breaking behaviors down to their core and understanding what causes the behavior to happen in the first place, as well as what makes the behavior more likely to continue or discontinue. I feel like I have a clearer way of looking at and evaluating all behavior, but especially aggressive dog behavior.

MB: People often joke that we are training them more than their dog. What do you think? Who is learning more in your training sessions, the human or the dog? 

VT:  Most of the time I would agree, the people are usually the ones learning more. They have to develop new communication skills with their dogs, carve out time in their already busy days to practice these new skills, and sometimes make lifestyle changes, all of which can feel daunting.

Though the dogs are learning a lot as well.

MB: This work can be emotionally draining sometimes. What’s a bad day at work look like for you, and what’s your advice to other trainers for getting through the tough days?

VT: You are right. Not all days are good days. Sometimes the training plans don’t play out as intended. Sometimes the dog or human clients are having a bad day and everyone needs a break. I have been peed, vomited, and pooped on all in the same day. This job is not all rainbows.

During those tough days, I regularly stop to breathe. Occasionally I even ask my clients to do this with me. Taking a few seconds to stop and practice deep breathing really helps us come back to the task at hand with a calmer brain.

MB: We talk to our clients a lot about positive reinforcement. When you think about what’s most reinforcing for your as a trainer, what comes to mind? What really gets you up and going in the morning?

VT: More than anything, I enjoy being an advocate for the dogs and behavior science. Of course, seeing my clients make progress towards their goals is very reinforcing for me. Deeper than that, I strive to help modernize our cultural understanding of dogs. I really am a “behavior geek,” and a “dog nerd,” if you will. Though I find behavior science absolutely fascinating, my mission is always to find ways to make it easy for the average person to understand and apply those principles. This is how I believe we will see a cultural shift take place. And I am strongly motivated to be a part of that cultural shift.

Michael Baugh and Victoria Thibodeaux teach dog training in Houston, TX

Our Dogs and the Northwest Houston Explosion

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA and Amanda Rietheimer CDBC CPDT-KA

At about 4:20 a.m. on Friday January 24th the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing Plant on North Gessner Road in Houston exploded. Two people were killed. The blast leveled the plant as well as neighboring businesses. Windows and doors were blown out of neighboring houses. Our house is less than mile away. It shook so hard pictures flew off the walls along with the nails they were hanging from.

We weren’t home. I woke up nearly 4-thousand miles away to a series of texts. “Are you okay?” “Are the dogs at your house?” “How are the dogs?” “Call me.”

My friend and colleague Amanda Rietheimer was staying with our dogs, Stella and Stewie. She and the rest of our neighbors had no idea what had just happened.

Amanda: Stella screamed for a long time, we think, because of the immediate pressure from the explosion.  Both dogs began to pace and shake, having a hard time settling. None of us went back to sleep. Both dogs startled to just about any sound, such as the hot water heater crackling, the toilet flushing, the dishwasher running, or walking on the hard wood floors. 

Michael: We were texting back and forth, but Amanda already had a plan for emergency behavior care. I don’t think we coined that phrase. but a follower on facebook asked me what it meant. Of course it included comforting the dogs, touching them and allowing them to stay close by. But there was more.

Amanda: We drilled the basic skills the dogs had long identified with fun and food.

  • Hand targeting sits and downs all over the house.
  • Hand targeting used to re-direct both dogs from fear of low flying helicopter outside (there were lots of those).
  • Scattered treats in grass to help them adjust to being outside for potty breaks. 
  • Desensitization to common house sounds (mentioned above) using counter conditioning.  Each sound was worked on in individual sessions, always using food as the reinforcer and using the familiar hand targeting behavior to re-direct.  
  • As training progressed that day, we began to tap on the wall and windows to help dogs work on recovering from vibrations and sounds of this nature too.  
  • To give the dogs breaks, mental stimulation was interspersed.  This included snuffle mats, Kong’s filled with apples and a JW Pet Hol-ee Roller ball filled with apples.
  • The dogs began to get nervous to go in other rooms so we worked on relaxation going upstairs in the office first where they were comfortable then used hand targeting, sits and downs in the guest room to progress them with comfortability in a room they were unsure about.  Jumping on bed to lie and lying on floor were key parts to training in guest room.

Michael: That’s emergency behavior care. In fact, it could well be the new standard in care. The dogs had human contact nonstop for the next 36 hours (never left alone). And, the training and enrichment continued for days after the explosion (as did the sirens and the buzz of helicopters). And that wasn’t all.

Amanda: We used Stewie’s medication (Diazepam) to help him cope with a storm rolling in mid-day that made him pace in the house.  Stella had a hard time during the storm as well, but powered through with training. The dogs were sometimes hesitant to go outside but enjoyed the food-scatter game in the grass and seemed to relax. We fed all their food during training sessions and in enrichment toys to avoid stress diarrhea.

Michael: In fact, after we got home I talked to the office manager at Village Veterinary Clinic. They treated a large number of diarrhea cases the day of the explosion, most likely related to stress. On that same call we got a prescription for Stella just in case she has a hard time in the future with thunderstorms.

But, so far so good. By the time we got back home it was as if nothing had happened. Stella and Stewie, by and large, are their typical old selves. It was a scary morning for all of us, but they bounced back, thanks to a great deal of help and love from our friend.

Michael Baugh owns Michael’s Dogs Training and Behavior.  Amanda Rietheimer owns Behavior Focus of Houston. Both are professional dog trainers and behavior consultants in Houston, TX