Dog Behavior – What I Learned from Animals on The Galápagos Islands

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

On about the 5th day of our trip it occurred to me that The Galápagos Islands are one of the few places on earth where everything is still as it should be. There are very few humans. We fish there, but not too much. Birds and large mammals, like the sea lions, are mostly safe from us. We haven’t crowded the animals out or paved everything over. There are a few towns and two small airports. There are small ports and motorized boats. Still, in most ways the animal inhabitants of The Galápagos live as they have for hundreds of years.

What happens when animals live with relatively few pressures from human beings? This is my opinion as a matter of experience. They thrive. This appears in their physical and reproductive health. It also shows in their behavioral health. Because of strict conservation laws, humans are not allowed to hunt or harass animals on the islands. As a result, many are very trusting of us – friendly, in fact. Curious juvenile sea lions routinely approached us on the beach and in the water. Penguins swam up to us and around us, sometimes within inches. Iguanas tolerated our clumsy trodding over them. Birds flew and landed nearby. Giant tortoises plodded along with nary a notice. These are animals under absolutely no pressure from humans. I daresay they are better for it – happier.

It got me thinking about our dogs. The hard truth is we put our dogs under a lot of pressure. Even the Belgian Malinois at The Galápagos airport on Baltra is under pressure. Say on a leash. Stay in a crate. Climb the luggage and sniff for contraband. Meanwhile back in Houston we insist our dogs answer our every command. Stay alone for hours on end. Move at our pace on walks. Meet who we want them to meet when we want it, including other dogs. All the while remain friendly. Never express an emotion unless it’s one of the ones we like. Behave this way in public, in crowds, wearing a harness and a leash and silly clothes.

What if we just let our dogs be dogs? Would that be enough for us? Aren’t they already enough? What if our influence on them was light and kind? What if they got a fraction of the empathy and respect we were required to show the sea lions on the beaches of The Galápagos? Our dogs are noble animals. They are not toys. They are not Disney characters. They’ve evolved with us. They are uniquely suited to live with us. But, our life with them is not all about us. This isn’t all about us.

Human beings, Homo Sapiens, have walked the earth for about 300-thousand years. Only in the past 500 or so years did we really start to spread. Whalers stumbled upon The Galápagos in the early 1500’s. The industrial revolution started just 200 years ago. Two hundred years is very recent compared to 300-thousand. I’ve often said to clients that we humans have already won the evolutionary race. We inhabit every bit of the earth. For better or worse, we’ve won.

I stood on a beach no one had walked on since the last high tide. I could see stingrays and eagle rays in the surf. Bright orange crabs clung to the lava rocks. A green sea turtle crawled out of the water. Giant frigate birds, broad-winged but barely 2-pounds in weight, floated above. This is where everything is still as it should be,  I thought. It wasn’t that long ago that the whole planet was like this, 400 years ago, 500. What happened? When did we decide it was all ours and only ours?

For many of us, our dogs are our only real connection to the natural world. That’s a lot of responsibility for one species. It’s even more responsibility for us. I’m in the business of helping people teach their dogs. But I wonder. What could we learn from our dogs, or from the squirrel, or the cardinal, or the possum, those fragments of the wild that remain? What could they teach us about ourselves?


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in behavior related to fear including aggressive behavior.

Michael’s Dogs – Celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Some folks are going to hate me for posting a “political” blog. Stay in your lane. Stick to dog training. I’m okay with that. Politics is only divisive and nasty when we make it that way. The word itself derives from the Greek for “affairs of the city.” The comings and goings of our common spaces. How we all get along. Our common ground.

I’ve long said that your dog has led us to the common ground on which we meet. That’s true for you and me. It has been for nearly 25 years now. Some of you identify as LGBTQ. Most of you do not. I speak freely about my husband, Tim. Some of you give pause. Most don’t. Some of us have spoken openly and respectfully about differences that don’t pertain to dog training (we both remember). That was cool. Most of the time we don’t. One of my clients prayed over me during a consult. That was awkward. Another pulled me aside as I was leaving and said kindly, (paraphrasing) We are conservative and devoutly Christian and we want you to feel comfortable here working with us. We respect you for who you are as a person. I thought about that for a long time and still do.

These are the affairs of our common ground, our idle comings and goings, our politics (Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká). Eventually, and inevitably, your dog reels us back in. He barks or growls or otherwise let’s us know he doesn’t like me nearly as much as you seem to. Back to work we go.

I don’t think I’ve every officially identified Michael’s Dogs as an LGBTQ+ owned business, not in 25 years. It seemed superfluous. Politics isn’t of much merit in our little town square, your home with your family, your dog, and me. And besides, politics can be divisive or nasty when it’s weaponized. Here’s the other thing. I’m gay. But, I’m also a cis white male. Cisgender means I identify with my gender assigned at birth. I’m white. I’m a man. I pass. And in daily life I pretty much get a free pass. No one worries much about the gay florist or the gay hairdresser or me, so long as we do our work and stay in our lane. Stick to the dog training. Let’s not get political.

I’m old enough, though, to remember the teaching of Harvey Milk. He was an out gay politician on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (like the city council). He was assassinated in 1978 (along with the San Francisco Mayor) after passing a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Again, this was 1978. The assassin was a fellow supervisor who cast the only vote against the measure. Milk’s teaching to LGBTQ people was simple. Be visible. Come out. It’s the teaching I remember today, this first day of LGBTQ Pride Month 2023. Stand up. Be seen.

Why? Because the affairs of the city (or the state, or the nation) are often a big and messy thing. All politics is local. Real politics is up close, one-on-one, in our homes, on this common ground right here with our dog. Milk taught us to be authentic with our family and friends because they already know us. They love us. It’s why I’m authentic with you now and always. I’m that guy who helped you out of a tight spot with your dog. I told you about my husband and our dogs. We had some serious talks because sometimes dog behavior issues are serious. We had some fun chats, too. It wasn’t political but really it was because what I’m talking about is how we got along. That’s what politics is all about.

Politics is only ugly when it’s weaponized, when we are divided so that someone else can wield power. Here was Milk’s strategy. Be who you are, open-hearted, calmly confident, without shame because there is no shame to be had here. Be yourself. Be visible. Be out. Be proud, so that when politicians try to gain power at your expense, your family, your friends (and yes your colleagues and clients) will know better. They will know you.

It’s hard to hate up close. It’s hard to cast a vote for someone’s demise when you know them – to wish someone ill – when you know them – to elect for someone’s suffering and take refuge in indifference – when you know them. So, know this. I cherish the common ground onto which your dog has led us. I see and know you. I take pride, take solace, sitting with you here, confident that you see and know me, too.


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training and behavior. He lives with his husband, Tim, in Houston Texas.


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.