What Dog Training Taught me About Life (so far)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’m just going to put this out there. Life is hard right now. Don’t get me wrong. Life is also beautiful and there’s a lot of joy to be had. Yes, that is true and cause for gratitude. And also – right now a lot of folks are suffering. We are in a pandemic that seems relentless. Natural disasters sometimes seem unnaturally frequent and intense. We are divided and at each other’s throats over just about everything and anything (including the pandemic and natural disasters). I won’t even mention politics. Because really do I have to? Even when the day-to-day seems to be humming along there is an undercurrent of suffering. Some have gone so far as to identify it an epidemic of despair. 

I am not immune and I doubt you are either. And I don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure. But, maybe I have one or two answers worthy of your consideration. They are things I’ve learned from working with my favorite teachers: dogs.

Call in help. Just about everyone reading this at one point called me for help with their dog. All of us need to remember that wisdom now. When shit gets hard in life – when the despair seems too heavy to carry – when the irritability and sadness seem overwhelming – call in help. No, don’t call your dog trainer (I’m not qualified). Call in family, friends, clergy, mental health professionals. We are social creatures (we share that with dogs, too). We are not built to work this stuff out alone. And we don’t have to. Rally the team around you. And for real, if life feels hard like it’s never felt hard before – call 911. They can help.

Break things down. We all do this when we are working with our dogs (remember the term “splitting?). Big problems are made up of small parts. When we look at them as a whole they can feel like indomitable monsters. Don’t do that. Look at the smaller parts. Choose one. Begin there.

Expect change. This is the constant nature of all things: Change. Yes, things sometimes change for the worse. Just as often, they change for the better. Expect it. Use it. Our actions influence change as well. None of this is permanent. Knowing that leads to hope and hope leads to, well, more change. It’s the stuff of life.

Play. Dogs do it. Play is healing balm for all social creatures. It inspires laughter, conversation, and  interconnectedness. My neighbors and I will very likely never vote for the same political candidate. But, it is equally doubtful we will ever miss our weekend game night either. Give it a try. Or at least give it some thought.

When in doubt lead with kindness. I work with aggressive dogs. That means many of them want to bite me. And yet, I’ve only actually been bitten a handful of times. Why? Kindness works. Make no mistake. Kindness is not weakness. It’s smart and it’s strong. I use the word lead with intention. Kindness is our first move and it’s also how we lead. I mentioned calling in help. Why not call with help, too? Take the lead. Call a friend or family member with a little morsel of kindness. Send your veteriarian a thank you card (they are working their butts off). When you ask someone “how ya doin’?” make eye contact. Stay present. Listen. Be kind. Smile at a stranger. Kindness is just about the only thing we can give away and still lose nothing. In fact, we usually get some extra in return.

It’s hard. I know (really, I know). Be kind. Hell no! Right? (Sigh). Wrong. How many times this year, this month, or this week have we all felt like – I don’t know what I can do to help. It’s too much? The answer is right there: Kindness. We’ve got that. We can do kindness. And, kindness always helps. Always.

Just ask your dogs. They can’t tell you, but they’ve been trying to show you for years.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA lives in the same challenging moment in history as you. He teaches dog training in Houston, TX.

The Case Against Emotional Support Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

In early 2002 a man came to my Sunday Morning group dog training class. During introductions he told the class that his doctor had suggested he get a dog, an adorable golden retriever, and that he should take a training class with her. Emotional support dogs weren’t so much a thing back then. And I didn’t know until weeks later exactly why his doctor had prescribed the dog and our class.

Humans’ shared history with dogs is relatively brief. In the big picture humans have been on the planet a very short time (about 200,000 years). Dogs and humans have been together for about 11,000 to 15,000 years give or take. Most of that time the work of dogs has been physical. They flushed prey and retrieved our kills. Dogs moved herds and flocks for us. They guarded flocks too and property and our lives. Dogs were extensions of our bodily will and force, weapons even. In war. In police states. The work of dogs was muscle and motion and might.

Modern human history started around 6,000 years ago when we first formed what we refer to as “civilization.” Villages and Towns. Concepts around the mind and mental wellbeing came later: western and eastern philosophies and religions. Not until the 1800’s did the ideas around modern psychology start to emerge in Europe. Vienna was a hotbed of psychological thought and the home of what became psychotherapy. Dogs in Vienna back then were hunting and killing rats and mice, by the way. Many quite successfully.

Here’s what we know. Our relationships with dogs make us feel good. Please note that I didn’t say dogs make us feel good. They don’t. Not all of them. Not for all of us. Humans produce a hormone associated with social bonding (oxytocin) when in contact with their own dogs. Dogs they know. Dogs they like. This is not new information. And this reaction has little or nothing to do with the dog itself. We produce the hormone in response to our relationship with the dog. It happens with my neighbor who adodores her 10o lb shorthaired block-head dog. It happens with my sister who dotes on her doodle. It happens to me when I look into my dog’s dewey eyes. It happens in men. It happens in women. Oxytocin does not care if your dog pees on your carpet, lunges and threatens strangers, or listens when you call his name. It does not even care if your dog returns your feelings of love and admiration.

Here’s what else we know. Our relationships with our fellow humans make us feel good too. Oxytocin is associated with human bonding most especially. And certainly there are other factors at play. In fact, data throughout the decades indicate that the most important contributor to our overall emotional wellbeing as humans is (wait for it) our successful relationships with other human beings. Compared with any variation of psychoherapy, day-to-day human relationships matter more. (A therapist early in my adult life literally told me to go make some friends. It worked). Yes, human relationships are messy. They are reciprocal. And, sometimes they are not. They are dynamic, blissful, painful, all that. And human relationships are what we humans are built for. And, when done right – they are consensual.

Our dogs have no choice. When I adopted Stella she had no idea what my intentions were. Would she be a game retriever? Would she be a rat hunter? Would she be required to carry the burden of my human emotions, of which she likely has no understanding? Stalk, chase, grab, shake? Yes, dogs are built for that. Navigate the complexities of our human life? I daresay, no. Who among us has even figured that out? And may I also ask, why are we putting this added responsibility on our dogs?

The truth is our dogs need our emotional support. We have taken these formidable physical hunters and guarders and herders and put them on leashes and in cars and up against our sobbing bodies. In many cases we have denied them the sniffing and the sprinting and the seeking they were built for and (literally) boxed them into “calm down” and “hurry up” and “let’s go.” I’m guilty of it too. On top of it all, over the past few decades, we’ve added an extra burden: “and, take care of me please.”

Thirty years ago my profession did not exist. There were no trainers who specialized in emotionally at-risk dogs. And my hope is that in 30 years hence it will not exist again. Let’s shift the focus off ourselves. Let’s take the weight of our own emotional fragility off of our dogs. Let’s challenge ourselves to turn to each other for care and support. And then, let’s turn to our dog and ask “How can I help you?” In relationship with humans dogs produce oxytocin in their own bodies, too. They feel. They bond. They are social animals. Let’s make these simple commitments to our dogs:

  • I will learn to better understand your emotions by leaning how you communicate nonverbally with your body and face.
  • I will keep you safe and protect you from stressors that I can see cause you pain and suffering.
  • I will teach you how to navigate our complex human world with kind and gentle positive reinforcement learning.
  • I will play, exercise, and relax with you. I will share my time with you.
  • I will connect with other human beings to support my emotional wellbeing so that I can better attend to yours on a daily basis, every day for the rest of your life.

A few weeks into that group class back in 2002 I asked folks how they were doing. The man whose doctor had prescribed the dog and our class spoke last. He spoke softly. I will prophase as best I can remember. I have depression. He said.  It’s hard for me to get up some mornings. I don’t always like being around people. But, I have to get up in the morning to take care of (he said his dog’s name). I have to train with her. And, I come here every week. She’s having fun. I think it helps her. And, it’s good for me to get out. I think it’s helping me too.

I think of that man and his dog often. I wonder who his doctor was. What a brilliant idea he had, teaching his patient that a dog could get him up and out in the world. The healing wasn’t in the care his dog provided  him – it was in the care he provided his dog. It’s such a simple and beautiful concept. Go to a training class. It was a specific remedy to go be among people. Fellow human beings – travelers together down this same uncertain path. Even now, I remember the walk up the stairs to my own therapists office. “Go make some friends, Micheal.” Yes. Yes. “Look for the helpers,” as Fred Rogers famously said. Look for each other. Turn to each other. Bond with and care for each other, with a dog at your side if you wish. Make some friends.

And, when the time comes get a petsitter for the dog.

And, take a trip with a friend. You can always share a plane ride with a dear fellow human being.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in dogs who behave fearfully or aggressively.

Fireworks Safety for Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Most dogs are at least mildly afraid of the sound of fireworks. Some are more frightened. A few are downright terrified. No matter where your dog falls on the scale. It’s important to help your dog stay calm and keep him safe.

1. Staying Put. Make sure your dog doesn’t bolt off in terror when the fireworks start popping. July 4th is the single biggest day for dogs going missing (and being found as strays). Some dogs literally can’t find their way home because the run so far in fear. It’s best to make sure your dog is safely confined inside your home (not in the back yard). And keep his collar with current tags on him just in case.

2. Block the Sound. Many dogs do well in an interior downstairs room with carpet. This blunts the sounds from outside. Add some white noise like a fan or music, and you may be good to go. Include your dog’s bed and a nice chew toy or stuffed Kong toy for added comfort. Make sure your dog has peed and pooped before the big fireworks get going. If you need to take him out later, do so on-leash for added safety.

DSC000173. Calm from within. Some dogs are inconsolable when it comes to the sound of fireworks. These are also the dogs who often have thunder phobia, too. Your vet can prescribe short acting anti anxiety medication that can definitely help. My dog, Stewie, takes medication for thunderstorms and fireworks. It has no side effects and it helps him a great deal.

Do not take your dog to a fourth of July party or fireworks display with the idea of “getting him used to it.” I’ll be blunt here. It won’t help. In fact it will likely make the problem worse. Better to enjoy the day with your fellow humans – and let your dog chill out as best he can.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in rehabilitating aggressive dogs and dogs with issues related to fear.