How a Pandemic Reintroduced me to my Dogs


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

My dog, Stella, is 10. Stewie is probably around 12. Our relationship is pretty solid. I’m a dog trainer, after all. I teach people how to build relationships with their dogs. That’s my job. But, here’s the truth. I often didn’t have time for Stella and Stewie. I’d come home from a long day with clients and crash. We’d chill together, yeah. But the day had slipped away. There was so much to do for everyone else and not enough left for them.


Now? Well, you know. Things are different.

All of my dog training appointments are online now. I shower and get dressed (yes, really) and work here at home. My lunch breaks and coffee breaks are just downstairs. I’m guessing this isn’t all that different from your work days recently. We’re at home all day. Because, that’s the way it needs to be. Sure, it’s mind numbing at times. But oh, I keep thinking, what an opportunity this is as well.

By circumstance more than design I’m getting a whole new outlook on what my relationship with my dogs could be. Yes, I’ve discovered they bark much more than I ever imagined. And, yeah, they sleep way too much. But, I’m also discovering just how cool they are. Okay, I knew they were cool. But, their personalities! Senior dogs have such a gentle wisdom about them. I’m actually getting to know Stella and Stewie all over again. Let me share a little of what we’ve been doing.

We play. My old dogs still love to play. I know your younger ones do too. Stella especially loves playing tug and retrieving. It’s refreshing really. The time I would have normally spent driving between clients I can now use to take a breath and play. Play is like the cement that bonds social animals. I can tell you with certainty that it crosses species lines. You want to really get to know your dog? Take some time today to play with him. If you have more than one dog, sit back and watch them play with each other. It can be a beautiful dance.

We walk. What I really mean is we explore. Stella and Stewie do okay walking on leash. What we really like, though, is exploring off-leash. We walk the narrow path along the drainage creek back to the green space behind our subdivision. I’ve spent years teaching these two a strong recall. We practice it every walk. The safer option is just as good. Take your dog out to a wooded area or field on a long line. They love to wander around and sniff. It’s great physical and mental activity.

We train. We practice coming when called every walk. I mentioned that. Next week we will start teaching mat work at the front door. I’ve taught this to hundreds of client dogs. I think it’s time I take on the challenge with my own dogs. Don’t you? Haha.


We hang out. Life goes by so fast. Our dogs are puppies and then just like that we look over and they are white-faced and cloudy-eyed. Where did the time go? And, where was I all that time? Sorry I’m so late. I’m here now.

Most evenings I just get down on the floor for them. They don’t care how long it’s been or what I’m wearing or even if I’ve showered. One or the other comes in for the huddle. Usually it’s the pair, like an old married couple. They totter over and plop themselves down. And, we don’t do anything. We just share the moment and settle in.

It’s funny how many details we miss when we don’t really look. Their toes and the soft fur in between. The way their mouth curls up at the corners like they are smiling. Their eyes, heavy, when we rub their bellies. Sometimes I just watch them breath – and then notice how my breathing falls in with theirs. It’s a kind of meditation, letting the rest of the world fall away just to be present in this one moment. Stella. Stewie. Me. Nothing else.

What an opportunity. And they were right here the whole time waiting, these damned dogs. All it took was for the world to go crazy enough and grind to a stop, so that we could pause and find our sanity again – in them.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He’s currently offering online behavior consultations.

Freedom to Learn

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Give this a try when you’re training your dog.  Leave room for him to make mistakes.  Experimenting with failing can actually help your dog learn.  It also leads to more creative thinking.

The classic example is the dog who jumps up to greet you.  Lots of trainers recommend turning your back and ignoring the dog.  That very clearly teaches the dog what doesn’t work.  Jumping doesn’t earn him any attention.  That’s half the equation, though.  You’ll notice that most dogs will experiment with an alternate behavior.  Some will run get a toy and bring it to you.  Others might try offering you a “sit.”  Pretty much all of them will at least put all four paws back on the ground, if for no other reason than to take a rest.  Perfect!  Let your dog know that does work for him.  Shower him with calm gentle praise, or maybe even a nice bit of food if you have it handy.  He is learning.  In fact, he employed his own “doggie creativity” and tried out a new behavior other than jumping, and it worked.

There’s an added side effect that comes along with this newfound freedom. Your dog will be more likely to watch you for feedback when he tries new behavior.  Does this work?  What about this? That tightens your bond with your dog and enhances your relationship.  The most striking example of this approach is the Karen Pryor training game, 101 things to do with a box.  It requires creative thinking and allows plenty of room for low-stress failure.  Peta Clarke, a wild animal trainer in Australia, also demonstrates vividly how this works with fearful animals in her short video, The Power of Choice.  I also have a short video of Stellla learning “down” using this free approach.

Of course, there are some behavior problems that require we give our dogs more active direction.  We wouldn’t, for example, let our dog pee everywhere until he finds the right spot and earns our praise.   That would be silly.  Sometimes, though, it’s exactly the right approach.  Let your dog learn to fail, then learn to win.  Wait until you see just how creative he can get, and just how fun training can be.

(originally published in Houston Dog Blog)

Psyching Out Your Dog

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Something funny happens when your dog starts to get good at learning.  She can tell when you are in training mode and when you are not.  Basically she knows when the reinforcement is available compared to when you simply aren’t paying.  How?  Well, you have that treat bag on your hip.  There’s that clicker in your hand.  And you’re standing sort of at attention leaning over your dog saying all those “commands.”  You are so obvious (yeah, I am too).

Stella. Courtesy Brett Chisholm Photography

Maybe your dog loves to work when the treat bar is open.  But the rest of the time it’s “no deal.”  How do you get your dog to respond in real life, all the time, anywhere?  My answer: psych her out.

That bag on your hip, the clicker in your hand and the way you stand and talk are all part of what behavior scientists call your “stimulus package.”  You don’t have to remember the name.  Just remember that it alerts your dog that it’s time to act nice; it predicts  goodies are coming.  In order to psych our dogs out, all we have to do is make that set up a bit less obvious and a whole lot more unpredictable.  Anything can predict goodies.

Try this.  Hide some treats in a candy jar in the living room.  Later ask your dog to do her best trick or maybe just a simple “sit” or “down.”  When she does it – BAM give her one of those secret treats.  Wow, she thinks, I didn’t see that coming.

Slip some morsels of goodness in your pocket one day when your dog isn’t looking.  Put the clicker in your other pocket.  Call your dog to you and surprise her with a click and treat when she gets there.  Whoa, that never happened before.

How about some surprise training on a walk. This is new.  Going to the vet?  Train there.  Cool, you do this everywhere.  Why not train in your p.j.’s?  Hey, those are cute.

This is all about teaching your dog that she should be ready all the time and anywhere.  Training (and the possibility for reinforcement) doesn’t just happen when you wear a certain outfit in a certain place at certain times.  Training can happen wherever you are, often when your dog least expects it.

The result is a dog who is joyfully alert whenever you are around.  This could be another opportunity.  She watches and listens.  What’s he want me to do?  And when you say the word she acts quickly.  Yes, she thinks, I love this game.