Human Centered Dog Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Yes, good dog training is mostly about teaching the human. And, there’s absolutely no shame in that.

All the stuff our dogs do, their behavior, is largely influenced by their external environment. Some would say behavior is driven exclusively by the dog’s external environment. Sure, our dogs have internal experiences, like pain, hunger, illness, etc. and those play a role in behavior.

stewie-houston-sun-dogStill, our dog’s external experience is key. Dogs walk, run, lie down, chew, poop, pee, bark, and jump – all in their in the physical world, our homes and neighborhoods. How the environment responds to those behaviors determines if the dog keeps doing that stuff, and if so where, when, and how. Here’s one example. My dog lies down and stretches out. He’s learned over time that areas in which the sun is shining provide him warmth. He seeks those areas out more often. The environment (angle of the sun) has influenced when and where he lies down. The world is always teaching our dogs which behavior is reinforcing and which is punishing. Right?

What does all this have to do with us humans? Everything. No doubt we are the most important players in our dogs’ environment. Every day we determine when they eat, where they sleep, when they are let inside or outside, what opportunities they have for social interaction (with humans and nonhumans), and how they live their physical, mental and emotional lives in general. Nothing influences our dog’s behavior more than we humans do. Nothing.

Of course our dogs think (and feel). They may not muse and contemplate. Those processes involve verbal language. But our dogs are expert observers, constantly assessing the world around them for potential danger or sources of pleasure. Our job is to line up the feedback we give our dogs (when they eat and when they have access to other pleasurable activities) with what they are doing. That’s called reinforcement. Our dogs remember, and memories of reinforcement (and punishment) guide their behavior. We call that learning. Harnessing this process is the most natural way to train dogs. It’s the natural way all animals learn.

We humans are the most important player in our dog’s world. But, there’s a down side to this. Whether we intend it or not our dogs are always learning from us. The only question is are they learning what we want them to or are our actions teaching them the wrong lesson? Here’s my short list of stuff we should avoid doing around our dogs (this is not an exhaustive list).

  • Yelling, Hitting, Choking, Shocking: teaches the dog that we are dangerous – may lead to them avoiding us or aggressing against us.
  • Lying to our dog with our actions (being inconsistent): teaches the dog that we are an unreliable actor in their environment – will lead to unreliable/ inconsistent behavior from the dog.
  • Misusing food / bribing / giving food at the wrong time: teaches the dog that they get food for doing wrong things (like begging at the table) – can lead to the dog only responding to us when we have food.

Noticing the mistakes we’ve made with our dogs is actually a good thing. Don’t ever let anyone shame you about the choices you’ve made. Just use the information to make better choices from here on out. Our dogs can learn. But, so can we. We learn which of our actions work and don’t work just like our dogs (learning by doing). We also learn by watching others model behavior (imitation), by listening, and by reading. So we’re actually in really good shape. We can learn to:

  • Be better observers of our dogs – notice when our dog gets stuff right and how to reinforce behavior we want him to do more.
  • Set our dogs up to succeed – creating opportunities to do the things we want them to do more and then providing reinforcement that strengthen those good choices.
  • Put those great behaviors “on cue” – teaching our dogs to do what we want when we ask it.
  • Be consistent – making training a lifestyle of good behavior and reinforcing experiences throughout the day and not just when we have a treat bag on.

Houston-Dog-Trainer-Stewie-CuddleSuccessful dog training hinges on our human behavior. That’s big, maybe even a little scary. But it’s empowering too. I call it human-centered dog training – teaching humans how to teach their dogs. It’s a two species process – always. That’s a lot of brainpower and lots of heart working toward changing behavior, even reversing the most troubling behavior problems. We are learning together with our dogs, learning cooperation – humans and dogs not in conflict but on the same team – making choices with each other – finding better ways to live with each other – looking together for that warm spot in the sun.

Dog Trainer Michael Baugh specializes in behavior related to fear and aggressive dog behavior in Houston, TX.

Dog Bite Prevention

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

None of us expects our dogs to bite. Even folks who have dogs who’ve bitten before are still sometimes surprised by their dog’s behavior. The reason is simple. Most dogs don’t bite, and those who do tend to do so infrequently and in very specific circumstances. We’ll get to that last part in a bit.

The best way to prevent bites from our own dogs is early intervention. No surprise there. Teaching young puppies important life skills and exposing them to the human world in thoughtful ways can prevent tons of problems, most notably aggression. Puppy classes for young pups (as young as 8 weeks) are an essential start.

StellaFaceAs your dog matures, the most important bite prevention skill humans should have is awareness. Notice your dog. Specifically, notice what frightens him or makes him uncomfortable. Fear fuels aggression. We can often prevent outbursts (and bites) by simply avoiding situations that scare our dogs. Otherwise, we can help our dogs around those situations. Ideally, we’ll help our dogs though the scary parts of life with some long-term training and behavior help.

Fear is the most common cause of bites, but it’s not the only one. Dogs in pain often bite people (we could argue that that’s fear of escalated pain, but I digress). Dogs who covet or guard food, objects, locations, and sometimes people can also bite (fear of losing those things? – Okay I’ll stop). Even in these cases, our job as dog guardians is still awareness. Avoiding, Working Around, and Working Through still apply. Be your dog’s advocate and help diffuse situations that frighten him.

Avoidance. This one is sometimes controversial. We humans are stuck on the idea of mastering our dogs and making them do things. As a result we have trainers who intentionally expose dogs to things that frighten them so they can show the dog who’s boss. Nonsense. If there’s something that upsets your dog and you can easily avoid it, do so. Keep the dog in another room, behind a solid door, or on a leash – away from the people he’s most likely to bite. That’s prevention.

Work Around. Many dogs can tolerate frightening situations if the scary thing (person) isn’t too close or too active. For short-term bite prevention, moving your dog away from the scary thing is always helpful (leash). Calming the environment (including our own human behavior) is also very helpful. Humans who don’t move, who avoid looking at the dog, and who don’t speak to the dog are doing great work. We teach children to stand like a tree: hold their feet still like roots, wrap their arms around themselves like branches, look down, and remain silent. They’re diffusing the situation and preventing a possible bite.

Work Through. This is training for longer-term bite prevention. We can teach dogs to behave better (not biting) in three ways:

  1. Teaching Tasks – This involves teaching your dog how to respond to situations that used to result in conflict, fear, or anxiety. It’s obedience training. But, some of the tasks are specifically designed to help dogs relax (resist the impulse to lash out). Note: the only way to successfully teach frightened and potentially aggressive dogs is with positive reinforcement training. Using physical punishment or intimidation will likely increase aggressive behavior.
  2. Teaching Confidence – This is about teaching your dog that situations (and people) that were frightening or upsetting are actually not so bad. Because we train with reward-based methods, your dog learns that whenever a new situation presents itself that we humans become joyful, praising and generous with food. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it occurs even as you teach tasks.
  3. Teaching your dog to make good choices (self control) – Our dogs should never be forced to “handle” or “get used to” a situation that is frightening or upsetting (see “Avoidance” and “Work Around” above). We can expose our dogs to situations in a calm setting and at a safe distance. In this way we give our dog the option to make good behavior choices on his own. Because we’ve taught him useful tasks and helped him learn to be less frightened, we are setting him up to make appropriate choices. Trainers of wild and exotic animals have known about the importance of choice in training for a long while. An educated and experienced dog trainer can help you better understand and apply it as well.

During training many dogs learn to wear a muzzle. Muzzles prevent bites by keeping the dog’s teeth away from human flesh. The Muzzle Up Project on Facebook is a great resource for us humans to learn about the use and importance of muzzles.

If your dog has already bitten someone, or many people, please see a veterinary behaviorist or behavior consultant. You can prevent future bites. This blog is a start, but it’s not enough. You’ll need more help. Fortunately, that help is available.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggression and other behavior related to fear in dogs.

Positive Thinking – Positive Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

You know the look they give us. They cock their head and flash those weary eyes. It’s as if they are saying, “For God’s sake human what are you thinking?” It’s the way our dog, Stewie, looks at us just about every day.

If you ask me our dogs are on to the right question. What we think and how we perceive our world has a huge impact on how we feel and how we humans behave day in and day out. Psychiatrist, Aaron Beck writes about cognition and its impact on depression, relationship problems and other psychosocial maladies. For Beck and other cognitive behavior therapists the trick to feeling and living better begins with changing the way we think. Hmm, makes sense.

So, let’s think about our dogs for a minute. Better yet, let’s think about how we think about our dogs. Take a moment just to let some random thoughts run through your head. Cognitive therapists call these “automatic thoughts.” They’re the things we think about without really thinking. As a trainer I get to hear a whole bunch of people’s automatic thoughts about their dogs. Most of them aren’t too upbeat. “He’s stubborn.” “She’s too distracted by other dogs.” “He’s aggressive.” “She’s shy.” “He won’t do that.” “She doesn’t like treats.” And then there’s my all time favorite, “My dog is being dominant.” Add to the list if you’d like. We could fill the page.

Negative thinking is like poison. This is particularly true in dog training. Our thoughts and beliefs serve as filters for all that we observe and experience. They directly and immediately influence our feelings and actions. Here’s an example. Our dog jumps on a visitor. We may think our dog is “bad,” or maybe “overly friendly.” That can leave us feeling hopeless or even angry.  The result may be that we give up on trying to help our dog change his behavior (mistakenly believing that training a lost cause). Or, worse yet, our anger may lead us to harsh or abusive training methods.

Now let’s look at the exact same scenario again. The only thing we will change this time is how we think about the situation. Our dog still jumps on the visitor, but instead of thinking poorly (and inaccurately) about him we notice that the dog is behaving the same way many dogs do. We may feel some comfort knowing that behavior can change (if my dog learned to jump on people, he can also learn other things). There are no feelings of hopelessness or anger.  We can take calm rational action. We can teach our dog some new skills.

The point here is that dog training really does start in our head. Yes, it involves timing, eye-hand coordination, knowledge and skill. But you can throw all that stuff out the window if you’re not in the right frame of mind. It’s time to weed out some of that negative thinking.

  • Step One: Be aware of your own negative thoughts. Some of them are just plain obvious. If you’re mumbling “stupid dog,” then you can pretty much chalk that up as a negative thought. But others might be a bit subtler. Here’s my favorite way to identify a negative thought in dog training. Ask yourself, “Does this belief or way of thinking help me train my dog or does it just upset me and leave me confused? If it’s the latter then discard the thought. It’s negative and therefore useless to you.
  • Step Two: Think happy thoughts. It worked for Tinker Bell and Peter Pan. No, I’m not kidding! Think happy thoughts and imagine where you can go with your dog. I suggest you start by speaking well of your dog. When you get a chance tell someone how smart your dog is or what a fast learner she is. Then take it a step further by telling your dog how wonderful you think she is. Maybe she’ll understand you. Maybe she won’t. But by verbalizing positive thinking you will automatically begin to think more productively about your dog and training.
  • Step Three: Visualize. You already do this everyday. You might map out directions in your mind before you get behind the wheel of your car. Golfers imagine sinking a putt before they actually hit the ball. We say things in our head before we speak them aloud. So why not visualize training your dog. Picture a nice crisp sit. See your dog heeling beside you. Imagine her greeting a guest politely without jumping. If you’re seeing good behavior in your mind’s eye then you are crowding out negative thinking. You’re already on your way to better results.
  • Step Four: Build on success. Make positive thinking a way of life just as you have with positive training. The fewer negative beliefs there are getting in the way the more you will succeed. The more you succeed the more confident and positive your thinking will become. You can see how this quickly snowballs into ultimate success.

None of us got a dog so that we could think poorly of him. None of us wants a ho-hum relationship with our dog. And certainly none of us wants to fail at training our dogs. So, by all means, let’s get rid of anything that gets in the way of what you really want – a powerful and satisfying bond with the animal you love.

Think well.   Feel good.   Act it out.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in dogs with aggressive and fearful behavior.