Touch Me Not

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

It’s one of the most uncomfortable things for us trainers to say to a client.  I am always looking for the kindest and most tactful way to say it.  “I don’t think your dog really enjoys being patted on the head like that.”  It’s tough because the thing is, we humans love to pat and pet and paw on our dogs.

Ethologist and Author Patricia McConnell PhD was one of the first to shine the light on this basic disconnect between humans and dogs.   We humans are primates.  Our social interactions are played out primarily with our arms and hands.  Dogs are canines and they are notably lacking arms and hands.  Their social interactions are played out with their whole bodies, but primarily with their mouths.  So, it’s no surprise then to find new puppy owners bloodied on their limbs and digits baffled over why their young bundles of teeth keep biting them.  It’s also no surprise to see a dog duck away when their person reaches out to pat their head.

Here’s the rub (literally and figuratively).  Even when we know better, we humans keep on keeping on.  We don’t get it, even when we get it.  Case in point: that picture of me and Stella over there.  My face says, I love this dog.  Her face says, I don’t care just get me out of here.  I knew better but I just couldn’t stop myself.  Facebook and Google are littered with videos and pictures like this one, and worse.  People hugging dogs who clearly are uncomfortable.  Children draped over dogs who are at best tolerating the interaction.  We can’t help ourselves.  Almost daily we’re highlighting the difference between our species, photographing it, and publishing it for the world to see.

Sometimes I chuckle at myself when I forget and reach for Stella’s head for a nice pat.   She, of course, ducks away and I apologize.  The laugh is on me.  I knew better and couldn’t help myself.  Dogs tend to not like hands reaching for them; especially hands belonging to someone they don’t know too well.  Some dogs are more sensitive than others (Stella knows me well and still doesn’t care for that kind of greeting).  We forget because quite often we greet each other, including strangers, with an extended hand.  We call it shaking hands.  If we know each other even a little bit better, or if we’re in Europe, we might hug.  Hugs to dogs are very alien and offensive.  Dogs who drape their heads over another dog’s withers (shoulder area) often get in fights.  So do dogs who full-on mount another dog (sort of like hugging).

People who reach for the wrong dog get bitten too.  Sometimes the results are serious.  Children, unfortunately get bitten most frequently.  They’re the ones most likely to hug or even try to ride a dog.  It pains me to know some parents don’t know better and actually encourage this.  They grab the camera and log on to Facebook.  I cringe.  At least one dog related fatality this year involved a baby pulling himself up on a dog.  Those cases are rare and extreme.  It’s easy to blame the dog or the parents.  The truth though is that we all need to learn better ways to interact with dogs;  we trainers especially need to take the lead on this – teach – learn – teach again.  No one who loves their child and loves their dog wants things to go badly.  But it happens.

This doesn’t mean dogs don’t like to be touched.  Most do.  When I’m thinking correctly, I let dogs approach me first.   If the dog appears fearful, I’ll turn sideways to the dog, and I might bend at the knees to get down to his level.  I don’t reach into the dog’s space or make direct eye contact, the way you might do when you’re greeting a person at a business meeting.  If the dog approaches, I pet him on the chest or on the cheek by his ears.  Watch to see how he reacts.  If he backs away, I stop.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of dogs will love this.  Many will be exuberant and jump for joy (that’s another issue altogether).  Children are always supervised.  In Stella’s case, because she is particularly sensitive, interactions with kids are structured and brief.

Trainer educator Jean Donaldson got it right in The Culture ClashWe want our dogs to be like dogs the in the movies.  She calls them Disney Dogs.  They are cute and always nice, with human sensibilities and manners.  That, of course, is a myth.  Dogs have their own ways, their own sensibilities, and they are nonetheless still cute and nice.  I think they are more so.  Nearly perfect in fact.  I should remember that when I see a dear client looming over her dog and reaching out.  “Your dog is wonderful, and so are you.  Let me show you how he likes to greet people.  He’s so cute.

“Wait, I’ll get the camera.”

A Tad Improved

Micahel Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

Change is sometimes subtle, even imperceptible.  There was a time when Tad was labeled “aggressive,” barking, and lunging at people he didn’t know.  Tad had bitten, for humans the worst offense a dog can commit.  Hope ran thin for Tad.  The idea that he’d ever be a “typical dog” seemed a far way off.  Change, it seemed, would have to be dramatic.

Tiffany had found Tad in an awful state.  He’d been dumped on the side of a country road to wither and die.  Tad had done the former and was well on his way to the latter when Tiffany scooped him up and took him home.   He gained weight and healed well.  Then the trouble started.

Tiffany called Tad’s behavior “going ape shit.”  She works at a vet clinic and Tad had been going with her every day.  Whenever Tad saw a new person (mostly clients) he would “go ape shit.”  I wondered exactly what Tiffany meant, so I asked.  She sent me video.  There was Tad, behind a baby gate barking and jumping and lunging toward someone just off camera.  I’m not one for labels; just tell me what the dog is doing.  Still, Tiffany’s label was apt.  She told me that Tad had bitten her father, and that she was worried Tad would bite again (he did).  So, we set an appointment and a week later I drove nearly an hour to meet Tad.


I never saw Tad behave poorly other than in that video.  If I do my job right with so-called aggression cases, I never see the behavior.  That was how it went with Tad.  We met at a friend’s training facility, then a few weeks later at the clinic, then a few more times after that.  Tad and I became fast friends, and that’s certainly the way I like it.  I like Tad.  In another life he’s the dog I’d live with.  That’s saying something.  I don’t fall for all my clients the way I fell for Tad.

All the while, Tiffany and I stayed in close contact.  It wasn’t always easy.  I worried.  I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Tad.  I texted and emailed Tiffany to make sure she was on track.

She and I butted heads once (my fault).  I got frustrated and forgot my golden rule: the client is not my enemy.  Tad had bitten a delivery man and I feared we’d lost our way altogether.  On paper this was an easy case.  When it started to play out, it wasn’t easy at all.  That’s how it goes sometimes.  It’s the way it went with Tad.

Assess the risk to the dog and to other dogs and humans.  Lay out a good training plan.  Communicate the plan well.  Restate the plan often.  Provide a safe and caring relationship for the client.  Remember behavior is driven by the environment.  Change the environment even a little and the behavior will change in turn.  Those are the rules, except there’s one more.  Believe.  Follow the rules and believe.  The rest will follow.  That’s the way it went with Tad.

No one ever calls and says my dog is better.  It doesn’t happen very often, anyway.  Change is rarely dramatic.  What happens instead is that as the dog improves his guardian relaxes and stops calling.  That’s a tricky time for me as a teacher and a coach.  How is Tad?  Why isn’t she calling?  Some clients get lax and fall back into a bad pattern of behavior with their dog.  (Yes, that happened in this case).  But, once real change starts to settle in the pattern of training and monitoring the dog’s behavior just becomes part of everyday life.  Things get better and no one really pays any notice.  Typical is boring, right?  That’s what happened with Tad.

He goes to work with Tiffany still, but not with his housemate dogs.  That one little change helped a great deal.  Tad greets people well and shows just about everyone the real self he showed me.  Tiffany remains vigilant, knowing that teaching her dog is a life-long proposition.  Change came subtly.  It was almost imperceptible, but change came.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Tad.  Tiffany and I have been talking for several weeks with nothing much to report.  Tad is doing fine, no more incidents, making progress on his rowdy play, otherwise pretty boring.  I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it didn’t.  I knew it was coming time to close the case, and tentatively put a check in the win column with Tad’s name on it.  Tiffany and I discussed this, and agreed.  My work is done for now.

I think of Tad and the road where Tiffany first found him.  They’ve come so far from the suffering and the tears.  Now, there are so many more roads yet to explorer.  That’s the way it goes with people and their dogs.  Another adventure into the unknown, except for the one thing they each know for sure.  They’re in this together.

Good Days and Tad Days

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

Seriously, most of my days are good days.  My best days are Tad days.

It takes me a little more than an hour to get to the clinic where Tiffany and Tad work. On the way I think about Tad, how much he’s improved, and the work we still need to do.  I also sing along (a bit too loudly) to some of my favorite music, but that’s off the subject.

The truth is Tad is improving – a lot.  I walked into the treatment area of the clinic unannounced and he didn’t make as much as a peep.  Tiffany says he’s not barking very much at all when he’s in that area looking out into the lobby.  He doesn’t bark at all anymore when the front door chime rings; and he greets people nicely in the lobby.

We focused this visit on teaching Tad some manners in the treatment area (go to your spot and stay).  We also addressed his habit of biting for attention during play.  Play biting isn’t the same as emotionally driven fear biting or so-called aggressive biting.  Still, it hurts just the same.  I was pleased when Tad and I played a bit and he didn’t bite me.  I was equally chagrined when he gave Tiffany a few good chomps.

For dogs, the function of bites that are rooted in fear or aggression are all about making something stop or go away.  The function of play bites is to get something going.  The motivation is totally different.  How do we stop it?  First, we teach Tad how to control his play.  Good dog play includes pauses, short breaks.  Watch dogs at play and you’ll see them stop and start often.  That’s the polite way to play.  So we’re teaching Tad how to start play with humans (when we prompt it) and how to “settle,” which means sit and take a short break.  The idea is to keep these training sessions short so Tad doesn’t get excited enough to bite.  If he bites and ignores the “settle” cue, he gets a “too bad” and a time out.  For a social animal like Tad, nothing could be worse than losing a round of play for a trip to the penalty box.  That’s how he’s going to learn to watch his mouth.

Tad uses his teeth a lot playing with dogs too.  That got me wondering about the great mystery of his past.  A lot of play biters were single puppies, or puppies removed from the litter too early (prior to 7 weeks of age).  Was Tad an only child?  Did he loose his siblings too early?  Puppies are good about teaching their littermates to mind their mouthy manners. I get the sense Tad missed out on this learning.

Dogs can’t tell their own stories.  We’re left to wonder, what was Tad’s life like before Tiffany found him, skinny and sick, lost and forgotten?  So much of his behavior tells us he lived with people.  Who were they?  Did they send him away or just let him wander off?  Was it because of the biting?  Do they think about him?  Do they miss him?

I think about that on my way home, south on I-45 toward Houston, almost 6 months to the day from when Tiffany found Tad.  I don’t know, but I believe dogs draw from a deep well of forgiveness.  I like to think Tad’s moved on and doesn’t dwell on the hurt of past offenses the way we humans do.  There’s lots to learn from all this.  The thing is it’s hard to tell sometimes who’s doing the learning and who’s doing the teaching.

It’s a hot Fall day in southeast Texas and there are plump promising rain clouds on the horizon.  Tad’s improving, and it’s already better than a good day.  Time to turn up the music and sing.