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.

Be Your Dog’s Christmas Miracle

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

A lot of us want things from our dogs. We mostly want them to behave differently – less of that behavior – more of the other. If we are smart we don’t expect we can wish better behavior into being. We know we can’t simply complain the unwanted behavior away. It doesn’t work like that.

Real Dog Training is a process. It’s work. It’s hinged on our own human behavior. In order for our dogs to change, we need to change. We need to change.

  • Force your dog less
  • Set them up for success more
  • Protect them from the things that trigger them (over and over and over again)
  • Teach them how to better handle triggering events gradually (little by little by little)

Learning and teaching is a process. It’s sometimes fast. It’s always steady. Thoughtful. Gentle. And, therein lies the magic.

Command and demand less. Pause and observe more. Simply be. Be your dog’s guild. Be his safe place. Today and always, be the Christmas Miracle your dog has always wanted.

 

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

Off The Leash (A Confession)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I let my dogs off-leash sometimes in our neighborhood in Houston, along the walking path by the drainage ditch. I bring treats and practice recall. I get ahead of them when we pass access points where other dogs might emerge. I keep my phone in my pocket. I watch them. But here’s the deal. Every time we take off our dog’s leash in the name of giving them a chance to run wild we put them in danger. Real danger. I know this.  And I’m sharing my confession so that you’ll know it too. Letting our dogs off leash in public places is dangerous to our dogs. 

A few years back a woman called me to ask about training. She’d been walking her large (80 lbs) mixed breed dog on a leash. A small chihuahua mix had run up off-leash barking and nipping at her dog’s legs. Her dog picked up the little one, shook it twice, and dropped it. The chihuahua mix was dead. It was that fast. No fight. No fuss. Just dead. That could be our dog. Not the big one on leash. The little one. The dead one.

But Michael, you might be thinking, that’s a rare thing. I’d like to think that, too. Unfortunately, though, I know better. Dogs killing other dogs is a real thing. Even if they are similar in size it can happen. I recently worked with a person whose dog bit another dog. It was relatively minor, just a couple of punctures. But the wounds got infected. The dog got sick. And, then the dog was dead.

I’m not here to tell you that letting our dogs saunter or trot along side us (or ahead or behind) off-leash is wrong. Of course, we already know that. We know it’s illegal too. That’s not the point. I’m here to remind us what we so often choose to forget. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to our dogs.

Humans who are walking their dogs lawfully on-leash can get mean in a hurry, let me tell ya. They yell and they curse if your dog runs up to theirs uninvited. They will defend their dogs and their righteous position vociferously.

  • But my dog is friendly. “I don’t give a f”.” They will yell.
  • He just wants to say hi. “Get the f’ out of here.” They scream.
  • He’s well trained. “Really? Call him the f’ back to you.” They retort.
  • We do this all the time. “That doesn’t make it okay,” they claim “it just means you’re a f’ing repeat offender.”

Always the F-bombs. That’s pretty standard. They are angry, they and their leashed dogs barking like crazy.

But here’s the thing that’s really dangerous. Humans walking their dogs on-leash will actually hurt our dogs, especially if a fight breaks out. They will kick our dogs. They will spray them with citronella or pepper spray. They will throw rocks. And seriously, a lot of folks are armed. They will shoot our dogs. It’s happened. Don’t think it hasn’t.

But Michael… That’s illegal, you might be thinking. You can’t discharge a firearm in city limits. Fair enough. Take them to court. But dead is dead. There isn’t a judge in the county who’s going to bring our dog back. Hasn’t happened yet. Never will.

A few days ago we were walking our dogs here in Arizona on a trail in the shadow of the red rocks. They were on-leash. A couple of women on horseback rounded the bend. Their two large and beautiful dogs wove ahead and beside them. It was like a scene out of an old western. We stepped far off the trail to let them pass, hoping their dogs would saunter along with them. But, that’s not what happened.

Their young, unfettered dogs ran right toward ours. “It’s okay. They’re friendly,” one of the women hollered from atop her horse. Tim, my husband, picked up Stewie, our chihuahua mix, and stepped farther away. I stood with Stella, our old arthritic retriever, yelling for them to call their dogs back, afraid of what was going to happen, angry, wishing I had a stick or a rock or some pepper spray. Or a gun. I wish I could say I was cool in the moment, eloquent, acerbic and wry. I so wanted to set the scene right with some perfectly placed F-bombs and a mic drop at the end. But that’s not the way it went. I was just the sputtering guy gripping his dog’s leash while a collective 130 pounds of I-don’t-know-what’s-about-to-happen ran towards us.

Life happens fast. We are all caught off guard. Even when we think we are being safe, there are always cracks in the plan. I’m a good trainer. But, no matter how well our dogs’ recall is trained, there’s always a breaking point. Always.

Dogs are fast. Very fast. They approach too fast; the leashed ones are ratcheted back too fast; the fight starts too fast for us to see it coming. The dogs get hurt. People get hurt. I’ve had clients who showed me photos of gaping wounds on their own arms. They were trying to pry a dog off their dog – or their dog off another.  In that moment, I’m told, no one thinks about the justifications for what they did or what they failed to do. It’s just a scramble. It’s an uncoordinated rush to get the dogs apart. It’s a f’ing mess.

On the trail the other day, the approaching dogs slowed to a trot, circled around me and Stella once and approached politely to sniff her. They really were good looking dogs, big, strong, elegant.I know better than to yank up on Stella’s leash. So, I let out a bit of slack and let her sniff them as well. Then I called her away to follow me. The other dogs wandered after the horsewomen, if not into the sunset then into the shade we were still throwing at each other as they plodded off.

But Michael, what are you trying to say here, you might be asking. I don’t know, really. Confessions are tricky that way, especially the personal ones like this. I’ve had many clients and friends, too many to count, who’ve stood terrified and vulnerable just as I was on that trail. They endured incidents like this one but not like this one because they did not end as well. Dogs were hurt (some killed). People were hurt (some seriously). There was physical and emotional trauma. Behavior care for the dogs. Therapy for the humans. Lawsuits. Lives turned sideways and upside down. Suffering all around.

Our dogs have never run up to another dog when they were off leash. That’s the truth. But here’s the other truth: a lot of our success has been good luck and luck aways runs out. So, maybe this is a cautionary tale with a stretch toward empathy. I’ve been that guy – the one with the friendly dogs romping off leash – and the one white-knuckling the leash bracing for the dogs romping toward him. And honestly, I don’t want to be either of those guys again.

Confessions and cautionary tales and empathy all have this in common. In our best moments each is impetus for change, real change, a change in our behavior. I love my dogs. In fact, I’m fond of most of the dogs I meet. And when cooler heads prevail I actually like most dog people, too. So, when all is said and done the only real questions left are: How to we keep our dogs safe? How do we help keep other dogs safe? How do we get to know and enjoy the other dog lovers who come into our lives?

But Michael, you might be thinking, why don’t you just leash your f’ing dogs?

Michael Baugh teaches dog training and specializes in aggressive dog behavior. He lives in Houston TX and part-time in Sedona AZ.