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.

Postcard from the Pandemic – Lessons from Life with Dogs

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Training our dog can sometimes feel overwhelming. Where do we start? What’s next? When can I stop worrying? (Aggressive dog behavior is, after all, potentially dangerous). How will I be able to relax and have fun with my dog again? The questions and the thoughts can get all mixed up in our heads. It can feel like too much.

And then there’s the comparing of our dogs against the other dogs we know. My dog’s not as good as theirs. Or that person’s dog behaves so much better. Or he just did this or that and his dog was fine. There’s so much self doubt and judging.

A dog business colleague posted some raw and vulnerable truth online today. It was a mix of I love my job and my job is hard and I put everything into my work and sometimes I suffer and sometimes it’s really really hard and I am strong. She posted a photo of herself. It was simple. Beautiful. Black and white. Somehow, all of those thoughts and feelings ended up right there in the picture. So too, did the elephant in the room. The world feels upside down right now. Life is crazy and sometimes scary (Covid is, after all, potentially dangerous). I read her post and looked at the photo and thought, “Yeah, I feel ya. I feel all of that.”

It’s been in my head for a while that dog training is sort of a metaphor for life in general. Our relationships with our dogs are like microcosms – simpler, easier, test runs for our relationship with one another and the world at large. That is the gift of Dogs. Are our relationships with them sometimes messy, difficult, and exhausting? Yes. All that. Is it also messy, difficult, and exhausting living with each other in the world right now? Be honest. It is. Right?

When my clients get overwhelmed (I cherish you all, by the way), my advice is almost always to take a short break. Then, focus on the small goals we’ve set. Where do we start? Here, with the dog in front of us. What’s next? The attainable tasks at hand. We set ourselves up to succeed so we can get that first sweet taste of success. And, then we keep going. When can I stop worrying? Anytime. Right now. We are doing the work. How will I be able to relax and have fun? Ah, now there’s the question. For me it’s about sitting and noticing –  noticing my dogs, noticing you, noticing the here and the now. So often we get caught up in our heads. We take in a small bit of information and we build an entire epic around it. We project ourselves into a future we don’t yet know. Or we cast ourselves back to rewrite the past. Forward and back, we end up running circles. “Relaxing” and “fun” spin off to the sides because our thoughts are moving too fast. And, I feel ya. I feel all of that.

I’m still talking about dog training here but really I’m talking about everything else, too. We’re under pressure. There’s the virus and the uncertainty and the friends and family whose fuses seem so much shorter now. And there’s the isolation – figurative and literal. And there’s the comparing. Are they handling all this better than I am? Do they have answers I don’t? Self doubt. Judging.

Stay in the metaphor if you like. Or, we can still call this “dog training advice.” Either way.

  • Set yourself up to succeed today with clear, easy, and measurable goals.
  • Small wins add up.
  • Take stock in the progress you’ve already made.
  • Look for the joy in the process.
  • Connect (with your dog – but also other people)
  • Avoid nonsense advice (especially online)
  • Be here right now.
  • Observe without judging.
  • Reinforce generously.

We are not alone. Clichés are so annoying because they are true. My clients know this: When they suffer and struggle with their dogs, they are in good company. Many others are on the path with them. And, the path is well worn with foot prints and paw prints from those who have gone before. And, here is where this microcosm of life with dogs shines a clear light on the bigger picture. We really are in this together. At some level on any given day we are all dealing with our own private shit storms – with our dogs, with family, with friends, with an invisible virus, and with a political landscape we can’t stop looking at. This isn’t a misery-loves-company essay. And, at the same time, even that cliché carries a bit of truth. If we can feel the angst, or suffering, or pain, or whatever you want to call it – then we can relate to it in others. This is how we access compassion. This is how we connect (even when we are physically distant) to others. This is how we care for others and for ourselves at the same time, by remembering we are not alone. These very personal feelings we are feeling are actually universal.

This is what I was reminded of today, looking at a stark monochrome photo of a woman under the heavy weight of her own thoughts and feelings. It’s not just you. It’s not just me. We’re feeling it together. That crushing weakness. That badass strength. All of it at the same time, right here in this moment. Pull compassion from these feelings. Set goals, add them up, and take stock. There’s joy in the process. Be kind and generous with yourself  because Reinforcement Drives Behavior.

Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.

Dog Training Begins with our Eyes

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is your dog doing?

It’s funny. When I ask this people almost always answer the wrong question. He’s acting shy. He wants food. These are answers that come from our brain. These are answers about what we think our dog might be feeling or thinking. But the question is what is your dog doing? The answer to that question does not come from our brain. It comes from our eyes. Look. Pay attention. What is he doing?

We dog trainers (you as a trainer) are in the business of behavior. Behavior is what our dog is doing. Behavior is physical movement in time and space. Behavior is verbs. Watch. What is your dog doing?

Is he walking? Is he running? Is his chest moving? Is his tail wagging? Are his ears twitching? Is he licking his lips? Is he barking? What is happening now in this moment and in this place? These are questions for our eyes. What do we see?

I like to do this. Sit and relax in a chair or on the ground. Watch your dog. Observe without judgement. It’s more fun if he doesn’t know you are watching him. Track his movement. Take note. What is he doing? Don’t worry about good or bad. Let go of what your dog might be thinking or feeling. Notice the actions, your dog’s behavior. Try not to interrupt. Be the dispassionate observer. Jane Goodall. David Attenborough. Ethologist on safari.

It’s fascinating.

After a while go back to life-as-normal. Think of what you saw. What did your dog do? Are there some things you would like to see him do again?  Set aside right and wrong. Think of the things you’d like your dog to do more frequently. What would you ask to see again?

I suggest a short list. Maybe it’s just one action. Observe and reinforce. You can use food. Observe and reinforce. Turn it into a habit. Your dog looks at you. Reinforce. That’s one example. He sits when you walk in the door. Reinforce. That’s another example. Dogs do these things all the time. You’ve seen him do it.

Because you were watching and paying attention. That’s where training begins.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas.