Dog Training: Teaching, Learning, and the Gift of Humility

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for a long time, since 1999. Sit me down over a bottle of wine for a chat about behavior science and I can hold my own with any of my peers and many of my mentors (better than I can hold the wine probably). I’ve got the credentials. I’ve got the education. I’ve got the google reviews. And yes, I’ve even got the t-shirt (more than a few). And, let’s be honest; I’m proud of all of that.

But, let me also be honest with myself. None of that – none of the dogs and clients that have come before – matter as much as the next dog and the next client. This work is humbling. There is no room for bravado or hubris. No flippant mention of the hundred dogs I’ve seen or the hardest cases I’ve solved will get me through my next consultation if I’m not humble enough to take it on like it’s my first. Bring your A-game, yes. But, as the saying goes, leave your pride at the door. That dog won’t be fooled. He may not bite me on the hand but he will cut me at the knees and bring me fumbling back to basics faster than I can say where I earned my last degree.

Note to self, all of this. Preaching comes easier than the practice.

I am deep into a continuing education course as I write this. It’s meaty content – still dog training, but outside my area of expertise. Learning is hard work, grit and grind. It’s the gift of taking pause and taking in what you don’t know. Opening the mind, rearranging all the old truth to make room for the new. It’s the gift, too, of humility – standing less rigidly – bowing more with arms outstretched – the weight of ego falling away to make room for the heft of knowledge.

This is why I think of you, my clients, so often these days because I am also bending and learning the way you have. It’s hard wrapping myself around the newness and the knowledge. I’ve been inspired by you – so open to learning, so kind, and smart. I’m inspired by your dogs, so willing to risk, so eager to take on the world, hungry to loosen and adapt. Learning is hard and I’m reminded now each day of how well you do it. Sure a tough case will cut me down if I’m too stiff and haughty. But, more often you lift me up, kind learners and your dogs. You are the heroes of my day’s work, day in and day out. Your artful skill of taking in and applying new information so quickly and with such aplomb takes my breath. I don’t admit it often much less preach it enough. But, here I am – less on my high horse than on my little soap box – calling it out so everyone knows. You, dear people and you, beloved dogs. You make me look smart. And, I am as grateful for that as I am humbled by your awesomeness.

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

Meet Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Tons of folks have heard of Dr. Lore Haug. Many of you have probably worked with her to help your dog or cat with behavior issues. Dr. Haug is a board certified veterinary behaviorist here in the Houston Area. For those of us at Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group she is a trusted colleague, a mentor, and a friend. Dr. Haug is who we routinely turn to for professional counsel (often with our own pets) as well as personal chats to celebrate or commiserate. We work with lots of her patients. Collaborating with a professional of Dr. Haug’s caliber is a privilege and a joy. I feel particularly lucky to have her in my life.

Dr. Haug has been a veterinarian since 1993. She actually started out in general practice with a strong interest in neurology. But, Dr. Haug also had a keen interest in training and behavior that went all the way back to her childhood. “My love of training persisted through college and veterinary school, so when I graduated, it was a logical progression to evolve my love of training with the physiology and neuroscience behind the learning process.”

Dr. Haug became a board certified veterinary behaviorist in 2002. “Veterinary behavioral medicine is one of the only disciplines in our profession where residents receive education in all aspects of veterinary medicine.” Dr. Haug and I chatted about her beginnings and a range of other topics. Here is our brief conversation, mostly unedited.

MB: People often get the various behavior professionals confused. What exactly is a veterinary behaviorist? What is it that you bring to the table that is different from what we do as Certified Dog (and Cat) Behavior Consultants?

LH:  The term “veterinary behaviorist” simply refers to a veterinarian that practices behavioral medicine. Technically, there is no legal restriction on the use of this term; however, within the veterinary profession, there are strict guidelines for being able to use the term “specialist”.

While board certified veterinary behaviorists do receive extensive education in learning principles and behavior modification, our program is still centered around medicine and how the animal’s physiology and medical status relates with its behavior issue as well as the treatment modalities that may be utilized. So we are uniquely qualified to evaluate both the animal’s brain (and behavior) and its body.

MB: You have such excellent training skills that, honesty, some behaviorists lack. How important are solid training techniques to the work you do?

LG: While you can learn quite a bit by reading books, watching videos, and watching other trainers, there are nuances that can only be gleaned by personal training challenges. Decades ago, many veterinary behaviorist did lack hands-on training skills. I feel this was in part because the origin of our discipline focused highly on medicine and ethology. Our newer generation of boarded veterinary behaviorists has an impressive array of hands-on skill and experience.

Other individuals, such as myself, started in this discipline as trainers. This is how our love of behavior melded with our passion for medicine. I love training. While I certainly find solving the puzzle of a medical problem very reinforcing, taking the journey through a learning process with an animal is equally if not more reinforcing to me. So despite the fact that I work with an amazing group of trainers in the city, and have a talented behavior technician myself, I will never want to completely relinquish those hands-on training challenges entirely to those individuals

MB: A lot of folks got dogs during the Covid 19 pandemic. I am sure many have ended up in your office. What do you wish every new dog owner knew that would keep them from having to see you or us for help later down the line?

LH: Bringing an animal into your family is an obligation and there are certain minimal interventions that must be provided to ensure that animal’s mental and physical well-being. Many of my acquaintances and clients are surprised to discover that I have only one dog and one horse, but I realize that spreading my time and financial resources across more animals will only do them all a disservice as none of them will receive the level of attention and care that they deserve to keep them happy and healthy. Educating the animal is one of these obligations; we can’t expect them to be well behaved if it is our fault that they are “illiterate.”

So as the famous Ken Ramirez states, training is an obligation just like feeding and watering your pet. It is not something that you do only if or when you have time.

MB: The world is changing super fast. There are young trainers coming up the ranks and new technology emerging every day it seems. Look in your crystal ball. When you imagine the future of dog training and behavior care what do you see?

LH: The comment about new technology is interesting. I think technology can fall into categories that are going to make us better trainers, behaviorists, and pet parents – or that are going to remove us from the picture.

Science and technology that provides new knowledge allowing us to improve our relationship with our animals, design training protocols that provide more clarity, and further reduce stress during the learning process will be a boon to our professions.

However, there been a few devices come out over the years that essentially allow owners to care for or train their pets with a device rather than in person. Training is largely about establishing a bond and a relationship with your learner. Removing the owner from the equation, especially for a social species that evolved to live and bond to humans, will not have a good outcome. This type of technology is going to be extremely detrimental to our animals’ behavior and welfare in our relationship with them. What’s the point of having a dog if you don’t want to talk to it, touch it, and take a learning journey together? How sad if we missed seeing the expression on our dogs’ faces when they earn a
reinforcement or solve a training puzzle? My oxytocin level is probably dropping just thinking about how I would feel if I could not come home to my dog or go out to the barn and see the eagerness and “joy” in my dog’s or horse’s face at the chance to have a training session together.

Dr. Lore Haug is a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Her practice, Texas Veterinary Behavior Services is based in Sugar Land, TX.

Michael Baugh leads Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group. He teaches dog training in Houston, TX.

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.