The Case Against Emotional Support Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

In early 2002 a man came to my Sunday Morning group dog training class. During introductions he told the class that his doctor had suggested he get a dog, an adorable golden retriever, and that he should take a training class with her. Emotional support dogs weren’t so much a thing back then. And I didn’t know until weeks later exactly why his doctor had prescribed the dog and our class.

Humans’ shared history with dogs is relatively brief. In the big picture humans have been on the planet a very short time (about 200,000 years). Dogs and humans have been together for about 11,000 to 15,000 years give or take. Most of that time the work of dogs has been physical. They flushed prey and retrieved our kills. Dogs moved herds and flocks for us. They guarded flocks too and property and our lives. Dogs were extensions of our bodily will and force, weapons even. In war. In police states. The work of dogs was muscle and motion and might.

Modern human history started around 6,000 years ago when we first formed what we refer to as “civilization.” Villages and Towns. Concepts around the mind and mental wellbeing came later: western and eastern philosophies and religions. Not until the 1800’s did the ideas around modern psychology start to emerge in Europe. Vienna was a hotbed of psychological thought and the home of what became psychotherapy. Dogs in Vienna back then were hunting and killing rats and mice, by the way. Many quite successfully.

Here’s what we know. Our relationships with dogs make us feel good. Please note that I didn’t say dogs make us feel good. They don’t. Not all of them. Not for all of us. Humans produce a hormone associated with social bonding (oxytocin) when in contact with their own dogs. Dogs they know. Dogs they like. This is not new information. And this reaction has little or nothing to do with the dog itself. We produce the hormone in response to our relationship with the dog. It happens with my neighbor who adodores her 10o lb shorthaired block-head dog. It happens with my sister who dotes on her doodle. It happens to me when I look into my dog’s dewey eyes. It happens in men. It happens in women. Oxytocin does not care if your dog pees on your carpet, lunges and threatens strangers, or listens when you call his name. It does not even care if your dog returns your feelings of love and admiration.

Here’s what else we know. Our relationships with our fellow humans make us feel good too. Oxytocin is associated with human bonding most especially. And certainly there are other factors at play. In fact, data throughout the decades indicate that the most important contributor to our overall emotional wellbeing as humans is (wait for it) our successful relationships with other human beings. Compared with any variation of psychoherapy, day-to-day human relationships matter more. (A therapist early in my adult life literally told me to go make some friends. It worked). Yes, human relationships are messy. They are reciprocal. And, sometimes they are not. They are dynamic, blissful, painful, all that. And human relationships are what we humans are built for. And, when done right – they are consensual.

Our dogs have no choice. When I adopted Stella she had no idea what my intentions were. Would she be a game retriever? Would she be a rat hunter? Would she be required to carry the burden of my human emotions, of which she likely has no understanding? Stalk, chase, grab, shake? Yes, dogs are built for that. Navigate the complexities of our human life? I daresay, no. Who among us has even figured that out? And may I also ask, why are we putting this added responsibility on our dogs?

The truth is our dogs need our emotional support. We have taken these formidable physical hunters and guarders and herders and put them on leashes and in cars and up against our sobbing bodies. In many cases we have denied them the sniffing and the sprinting and the seeking they were built for and (literally) boxed them into “calm down” and “hurry up” and “let’s go.” I’m guilty of it too. On top of it all, over the past few decades, we’ve added an extra burden: “and, take care of me please.”

Thirty years ago my profession did not exist. There were no trainers who specialized in emotionally at-risk dogs. And my hope is that in 30 years hence it will not exist again. Let’s shift the focus off ourselves. Let’s take the weight of our own emotional fragility off of our dogs. Let’s challenge ourselves to turn to each other for care and support. And then, let’s turn to our dog and ask “How can I help you?” In relationship with humans dogs produce oxytocin in their own bodies, too. They feel. They bond. They are social animals. Let’s make these simple commitments to our dogs:

  • I will learn to better understand your emotions by leaning how you communicate nonverbally with your body and face.
  • I will keep you safe and protect you from stressors that I can see cause you pain and suffering.
  • I will teach you how to navigate our complex human world with kind and gentle positive reinforcement learning.
  • I will play, exercise, and relax with you. I will share my time with you.
  • I will connect with other human beings to support my emotional wellbeing so that I can better attend to yours on a daily basis, every day for the rest of your life.

A few weeks into that group class back in 2002 I asked folks how they were doing. The man whose doctor had prescribed the dog and our class spoke last. He spoke softly. I will prophase as best I can remember. I have depression. He said.  It’s hard for me to get up some mornings. I don’t always like being around people. But, I have to get up in the morning to take care of (he said his dog’s name). I have to train with her. And, I come here every week. She’s having fun. I think it helps her. And, it’s good for me to get out. I think it’s helping me too.

I think of that man and his dog often. I wonder who his doctor was. What a brilliant idea he had, teaching his patient that a dog could get him up and out in the world. The healing wasn’t in the care his dog provided  him – it was in the care he provided his dog. It’s such a simple and beautiful concept. Go to a training class. It was a specific remedy to go be among people. Fellow human beings – travelers together down this same uncertain path. Even now, I remember the walk up the stairs to my own therapists office. “Go make some friends, Micheal.” Yes. Yes. “Look for the helpers,” as Fred Rogers famously said. Look for each other. Turn to each other. Bond with and care for each other, with a dog at your side if you wish. Make some friends.

And, when the time comes get a petsitter for the dog.

And, take a trip with a friend. You can always share a plane ride with a dear fellow human being.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in dogs who behave fearfully or aggressively.

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