Can Dogs Feel What We are Feeling?


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

It’s called emotional contagion. The idea is that dogs perceive our emotions and then experience an emotional response themselves. Affective empathy takes it a bit further. Dogs can actually feel our emotional experiences. (Karen London PhD, Bark Magazine). It turns out that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest both of these ideas are true. (Google “emotional contagion dogs.” Use google scholar for more in-depth results).

Of course, a lot of us have suspected this for a long time. Many of us routinely experience it. Dogs just get us. They have feelings with us. They are little mirrors into our emotional lives. It’s an amazing thing to witness as a dog behavior consultant. I meet a ton of people and their dogs every year. Sometimes it’s very clear to me that a dog who is suffering emotionally lives with a human who is also suffering. It’s heartbreaking sometimes. It’s also awe inspiring to see such a powerful bond playing out in real time right in front of me.

Folks ask all the time, “is he (the dog) feeding off my anxiety.” Well, maybe. We certainly know our feelings show up in our dogs’ emotional lives. But, the answer, in my opinion, is not to blame ourselves. Too many trainers do that, as if our anxiety is some form of mystical “energy” that we control. Instead, I think we should all make space to compassionately look at the big picture. How is my dog doing? How am I doing? For me this means regular counseling so I can develop and maintain my own emotional and behavioral flexibility. You probably know how passionate I am about our dogs’ behavioral flexibility. The Magazine Psychology Today has a great online resource for finding a therapist that is right for you. Staying emotionally and behaviorally flexible is good for all of us (like yoga for our feelings).

Does this mean we all have to be in therapy? Um, maybe. Does it mean we all have to have our lives in perfect order before we can have a dog or help the dog we already have? No, of course not. In fact, many dogs have emotional and behavioral problems completely separate from our own human issues. The research suggests that our dogs can experience our feeling. It does not say that every dog’s behavior issue (including fear and aggression) is somehow tied to our own disfunction. It’s not. By far most of the clients I meet are joy-filled and highly functioning. And, some of them have grumpy dogs. Remember? No blame.

What does all of this mean for those of us who have dogs with fear, anxiety, or aggressive behavior? We all like some concise tips and I’m happy to add some information to the mix.

Think well of your dog. The things we tell ourselves about our dog are important. Instead of getting stuck in negative thoughts and frustration, let’s remind ourselves of all that is good about our dog. It will help our training. It will also set us up to notice progress as it comes. How we think about our dog is so important. That’s why I list it first.

Choose joy. It’s not always easy but I think it always helps. When we are training let’s make a decision to smile, say kind things to our dogs, and use food. Even though our bigger behavior goals with our dog might be challenging, individual training session can be light and fun.

Take breaks. If you’re feeling tense or angry during a training session, stop. Take a break.  It’s okay. Your dog will definitely sense that tension and anger and it will affect their learning. Take a long break if you need to. We’ve all been there. No blame. Just circle back later.

Let me help. That’s what our journal is for. I’m not qualified to offer human therapy. At the same time I am a fellow human being. I can definitely help us keep things on track with training and offer coaching along the way. Complicated behavior plans related to fear and aggression can sometime feel overwhelming and isolating. Of course, you’re not alone. And, it’s my job to clarify what seems complicated and ease frustration along the way.

One last story. I’ll keep it brief. I learned a long time ago why I gravitated toward helping fearful and sometimes angry dogs. It’s because it helped me. Some of you have heard me joke aloud with your dog, “I get it honey, people scare me too.” Like all jokes there was some truth in that. So, we break things down for our dog; we set them up to succeed; we let them take on new experiences at their own pace; we provide support and feedback to help them. All that feels very familiar to me personally. In time, almost always, feelings start to change little-by-little. In them. In us. What a joy it is to see that happening. What a beautiful lesson it is to experience through our dogs.

Change. It’s the stuff of life. Human emotions reflected in our beloved dogs. The hard work that softens them, that softens us, a team in transition together. It’s amazing how our feelings affect our dogs. But, oh how our dogs affect our feelings. It’s a gift for which I am ever so grateful.


Michael Baugh is a behavior consultant and dog trainer in Houston, TX. He works with clients all over North America and specializes in aggressive dog training.

Five Things to Know about Dog Resource Guarding


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Many dogs hide, cower, freeze, stare, snarl, growl, snap or bite when they are guarding something. For the purposes of this blog post we will call that resource guarding, dogs who claim possession and guard a prized object, place, food related item, or food itself.

Resource guarding is normal dog behaviorThis fact surprises a lot of people. We have a romanticized view of dogs including the idea that some are good and some are evil. Ascribing this kind of moral code is a disservice to them and to ourselves. They are animals, as are we. Animals protect valuable resources, as do we. Wanting to keep our stuff is hardwired into us. Yes, we can share. But, you might also have a few things to say to a random dude at a restaurant who pops one of your french fries in his mouth and walks off.

Normal does not mean acceptable. Some dogs do take it too far. I agree. Who among us really wants our dog’s scrap of stinky frayed fabric that used to be a stuffed toy? It doesn’t make sense that he bit Aunt Sally when she reached to pet him while he rested his head on that disgusting thing. Some dogs (and humans) can get weird about their prized places and things. It seems a bit out-of-context, a bit too much.

It can be dangerous. Dogs who guard a lot of things, including random stuff they find, can be hard to predict. Is he guarding that leaf, that remote control, his poop? It can get especially dangerous if the dog bites to protect his vast and changing collection of valued things. One mistake can turn bloody.

Dominance and conflict-based training can make it worse. From the dog’s point of view resource guarding is about a perceived conflict. He’s already gearing up for a fight. Training methods focused on dominance are conflict-based. This outdated training approach frames every interaction with our dog as a competition with a winner and a loser. We end up proving to our dog that his already-inflated sense of danger is in fact justified. That sock is very valuable. This is a challenge. Violence is possible if not inevitable. Every time we approach resource guarding from this skewed  perspective we risk the dog escalating his response. We actually make the resource guarding and the intensity of our dog’s behavior worse.

There is hope. We humans have already won the evolutionary race. We have nothing to prove to our dogs other than this: I can help you. This is good news for dogs and for humans. We now have smart, simple, and effective aggressive dog training techniques for quelling resource guarding in dogs. These reinforcement-based methods work and (I promise) do not jeopardize our position as the dominant species on the planet. You can reach out to me or a similarly credentialed dog behavior consultant for help. Or, contact a veterinary behaviorist.

Bottom line: Resource guarding is normal but it is not okay. There is hope.  You can have a long and enjoyable relationship with your dog.

Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston TX.

Positive Reinforcement and Aggressive Dog Training



Most folks just want their aggressive dog to stop. Stop barking. Stop lunging and charging at people. Stop biting. They want that most of all, for the biting to stop. I get it.

But, here’s the deal. When we think in terms of stopping a behavior our mind tends to shift into confrontation mode. We want to suppress and block our dog’s behavior. Worse yet, we get sucked into ideas of dominating our dog and devices to control our dog. At first we may feel like we’re making progress. Punishment tends to reinforce the punisher in the short-term. The trouble is punishment-based dog training and even balanced dog training almost always has side effects. (see Coercion and Its Fallout). In other words, it might feel good to us, but it’s not. Punishment training is flawed, deeply flawed.

Okay, then. How do we make aggressive behavior stop without confronting, suppressing, or dominating? Here’s what I do. Instead of focusing on behavior-stop, I suggest we focus on behavior-change. We set our dog up to succeed rather than lash out. We decide what we want our dogs to do instead of bark, lunge, and bite.  And, maybe most importantly, we help our dog feel differently about his world and the people (and other animals) in it. When we change our focus in this way, we naturally shift from confrontation to collaboration. We start working with our dog rather than working on him. That shift leads us away from punishment and squarely toward positive reinforcement dog training.

Set your dog up to succeed. Dogs who behave aggressively are under pressure. They are emotional. The barking, lunging, and biting is about making that person or other animal go away or stop. See the irony? They are using violence or the threat of violence to make something stop, and it’s not working long-term. It’s up to us to help our dogs in these situations by giving them a break. Make the scene a bit more suited for learning. Often this means training with the person or other animal farther away. Sometimes we start in a setting in which there are no stressors at all. Regardless, create an environment where your dog can get it right over and over. When it’s time we will raise the challenge level gradually, and put his new skills to the test.

Teach this instead of that. Here’s an example of how we train a new behavior to replace an old (aggressive) behavior pattern. Imagine a dog who barks at people who ring the doorbell. A lot of us can relate to this one. The doorbell is the cue that starts the whole thing. The dog charges the door, barks, and gets all worked up. We can actually change the meaning of the doorbell and make it a cue, let’s say, to run to another room where he can wait behind a baby gate. Positive reinforcement in this case would include happy talk from the human (praise) and food – probably a lot of food over time – the good stuff (think: chicken). We’d start easy, when no one is really at the door. Maybe we’d even start by just leading him to the room over and over. Then we’d add the doorbell or a doorbell sound effect on our smartphone. Over time we’d progress to the real deal, reinforcing the new behavior pattern generously every time.

Teach new emotions. Because we are using happy talk, food, and movement (going to the other room) we are actually influencing our dog’s emotions. Specifically, we are affecting a change in how he feels about the doorbell. Think about it. If the doorbell results in a happy human feeding chicken over and over and over again, then that doorbell is going to become pretty good news for the dog. He will know what to do: run to the room. And, he will also be happy about it. Imagine how your dog acts when you take out the leash. It’s the same thing. We trainers call this a conditioned emotional response.

(The flip side of this phenomenon is a nightmare. The dog hears the doorbell and gets a shock on his shock collar (for barking) over and over and over again. In a rather short time that dog’s behavior could actually devolve as the doorbell becomes a predictor of pain, an enemy).

Here’s the win-win of positive reinforcement dog training when it comes to aggressive behavior. The aggression does stop. That offensive behavior pattern gets replaced with one that is calmer and functionally better for the dog and the people involved. More importantly, we are addressing the underlying emotions that fuel the aggressive behavior. Our dog learns to relax a bit around the thing that was scaring him or making him angry. Over time this can lead to what we call behavioral flexibility, the ability to take on other experiences with less rigidity. We get a dog who can go with the flow a bit more.

I think that’s something we can all wish for, a bit more flexibility, not just for our dogs but for ourselves and each other.


Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training. He lives in Houston, TX where he works daily on his own behavioral flexibility.