The Gift of a “Perfect” Dog


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I sit on the floor because I’m having a moment. Okay, here’s the truth. When I say I’m having a moment I mean I’m having a cry. Stella, my old retriever mix, gets up slowly and walks over to me. I don’t know why I’m crying. Maybe it was a sad story on the radio or an email about a client’s dog. Maybe neither of us knows why I’m crying but here she is, leaning in, sniffing my face, the tears. And, maybe neither of us knows why she walked over to me, why she is so gentle, why she seems to care. It’s just her way. And, here’s the other truth. It’s why I’m sitting on the floor. This is her gift and she offers it just the same every time and I know that.

This will be the summer that Stella turns 13. She was 5-months when I pointed to her cage at the Houston SPCA and said “That one. I want her.” We didn’t know she was sick at first , distemper, respiratory then neurological, usually fatal. But, I knew what we were up against when we finally got the diagnosis. The week after we adopted Stella distemper swept through the SPCA and killed half the dogs there. The first time I sat on the floor and cried with Stella was a couple weeks after we brought her home. I was holding her. She was all legs even then, twitching uncontrollably, crying because she was so uncomfortable, crying because she didn’t know why. I was crying because I did.

That was the worst night. The ones after were better. Stella did what we all hoped for but didn’t dare say aloud. She lived. She lived for months and then years and then a decade and more. She learned to swim and to dive and to climb steep paths to the top of red rocks. Stella grew to be strong and clever and awkward and weird. She is long-legged and small-headed and remarkably beautiful but only at just the right angle. And even now I sometimes look at her and think, that one. .

We brought Stewie home when Stella was barely 18-months. He was small and scrappy, fresh from a run through a tropical storm and a close call with a speeding car. The vet said he was 2 or 3. He had a collar but no tags. Testicles but no microchip. I put up signs and called the shelters but no one claimed him. And, here’s the truth. I could understand why. He was a hot mess, shitting and pissing indiscriminately, claws like an iguana and a piercing scream at the sight of nail clippers. He wasn’t crate trained or leash trained or anything trained. No wonder no one claimed him except us. My partner, Tim, was at the sink when he rather stoically pointed to Stewie and said (as if issuing an edict) “We can keep him.”

Stewie learned potty training and pedicures, but also paths to the top of red rocks. That brush with a fast-moving car faded with quickly passing years (though, he’s still afraid of storms). Stewie is about 14 or 15 now, the last 12 with us. It’s been 12 years of Stella and Stewie, of I want her and we can keep him. It’s been hard for a long time to imagine one without the other, each of them so a part of the other, so a part of us. They were each a gift, dubious and imperfect. Now they are treasured gifts, imperfect still, but perfectly fitted to our lives and to our hearts.

We all want the perfect dog. But, here’s the truth. Perfect isn’t packaged up for us to get. It’s not the right breed, or the right breeder, or the right boot camp we send our dog away to. Perfect is years of giving. Perfect is vet visits and cleaning up messes and nail trims. Perfect is swims and leash walks and hikes up steep red-rock paths. Perfect is awkward and scrappy, her and him, month after month, year after year. Perfect isn’t something you buy. Perfect is something you create, the giving and the receiving, the forging of a friendship (maybe a best friendship), with a being who will never speak a word but communicates so beautifully nonetheless. Perfect is earned. Perfect is dried tears at the end of the day, near the end of a life well lived, with a good girl and a good boy, on the floor.

Stella walks up stiff-legged, her face next to mine, and I lean into the thick fur around her neck that doesn’t quite match the rest of her body. Such an odd-looking dog. Awkward. Perfect.


Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston, TX

How Shock Collar Training Hurts Us All



TL;DR A personal post about shock collar training and how it tragically impacts not only our dogs but us as human beings.

I’m writing you because I care about you; I like you. From the start I was interested in your wellbeing. I wished a peaceful and joyful life not just for your dog but for you. Some of what I have to say might hurt, though. So, let’s agree now that this is not about you, not you as an individual, not just you, but you in great numbers, an amalgam of you the many.

You called me when your dog was two. She had bitten three people on walks, two of them runners. One of them threatened to file a report. She said she’d have your dog put down. You were crying. I was quiet. I listened. If you remember this call let me say again, this is not about you. You’re an amalgam, which means you call me this way about once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. You are crying because you love  your dog and I’m listening because I care about you as a fellow human being. You mention the shock collar training you did. I don’t say anything. I think about it, but let you dry your tears instead.

When your dog was a puppy you used to laugh when she tried to pick up a ball half her size. She’d run a few steps and stumble. You laughed and picked her up and offered her a smaller toy and you played until she was exhausted and she cuddled on the sofa with you until you both fell asleep. When she got older your dog pulled on leash and barked at people. She got bigger, more gangly, stronger. You hired a trainer who taught you how to yank on her leash and then how to yank on her leash with a prong collar. You trusted the trainer and did what she said. It was a neighbor who told you about the shock collar. No, it was a friend. But, she called it an e-collar. No, it was your aunt. Someone told you. It was someone. They used the shock collar or sent their dog off to a trainer who used it. Their dog was perfect, they said. And, that sounded perfect to you.

You called to tell me your dog wouldn’t leave the back patio. You have a huge yard with an invisible fence. Your dog can see the woods and the wildlife and she has so much space, but she won’t budge. Why will she only poop and pee on the patio? You called to tell me your dog barks and snarls at men who come into your home. Your trainer used a shock collar to teach her this was wrong. Yesterday your dog bit someone coming in. You called to tell me your dog is afraid to go on walks. It’s cool and sunny out but she won’t walk past the driveway, even when you take the shock collar off. You carry her for the first block and even then she keeps pulling to go back, head low, panting the whole time.

When your dog was a puppy she came to you, face bright and tongue flapping out the side of her mouth. You called her your bouncing pom pom, the way she ran to you. You played and she licked your face and you thought you were the luckiest person in the world, which you were. Your friends loved her. She was beautiful. Even at 8 and 9 months when other dogs start to look awkward in their own bodies, she was beautiful. But she jumped a lot and knocked things over. She wanted to play all the time. She just wouldn’t settle down. So your neighbor-friend-realative told you about a place you could send her. Their dog went there for 3 weeks and was perfect. Perfect sounded good and you sent her away. She was thin and seemed a bit shy when she came back home. She was more subdued, slept more, hung out by your side and didn’t cause much trouble. When the barking started and the chewing, you sent her back again. If once was good, twice would be better.

I know this hurts, I tell you when you call. When we meet I tell you how shock collars work. That’s hard.

I know this hurts, I tell you when you call. We meet for weeks and I never tell you what the shock collar did to your dog. It would break your heart.

I know this hurts, I tell you when you call. You don’t hire me. We never meet. I have an extra cocktail with dinner. I forget that has anything to do with our call and forgetting feels good.

I know this hurts, I tell you when you call. And, it doesn’t matter. Your dog is shattered. You already know how this is going to end. I do too. I don’t sleep well that night.

Here’s the short version. Punishment is the introduction of a stimulus that decreases a target behavior. Example: if a dog experiences a shock to the neck when she approaches the boundary of your property, she will be less likely to go there in the future (she may stay on the patio).

You are explaining yourself to me. “It’s only the beep, she only got shocked once and now all we need is the beep.” You don’t want me to think bad things about you; you’re a good person; you are kind. I don’t think you’re a bad person. I like you. I feel bad for you. I want to help. This is what I wake up in the morning to do – to help you. I work hard at it. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes.

If I’m sloppy as a positive reinforcement dog trainer we end up with a dog who begs for food or stares at the treat bag. I’m not sloppy. I teach you how to not be a sloppy trainer, too. If someone is haphazard with a shock collar your dog never knows when the shock is coming, or from where (other than it attacks her neck from nowhere), or why. Why? Painful attempts to punish behavior always have side effects. Always. Your dog tries to escape the pain or the fear. She locks up on walks or runs away when you call. Your dog avoids situations altogether. She won’t leave the patio or her room or the driveway. Or, your dog lashes out. The pain out of nowhere with no escape – or the threat of it – is too much to bear. She growls, snarls, and bites. That’s usually when you call, when she’s had enough and lashes out.

You’re calling me because your dog, though physically healthy, is psychologically damaged. She paces the house, can’t seem to settle down. The vet put her on three medications that don’t seem to be helping. She cornered your husband in the kitchen. Your husband, the one who used to roll the too-big ball to her so he could see her tackle it and fall over. You both laughed so hard then. She was having fun, too. Now, she growls at your husband and at you. You’re afraid of her, your bouncing pom pom. Sometimes she lies by you, exhausted. But you haven’t been able to cuddle her in months. Not really. Not anymore.

I’m sorry. You’ve called twice today already and four times this week. Not you, but you in numbers, dozens over the past few months, scores of you over the last two decades. It gets to me sometimes and sometimes I am not strong; I am not calm. I shouldn’t let this stuff get to me. I definitely shouldn’t lash out at you. But, I tell you that the beep is like a man pulling his fist back. “You only need to get punched once to know the terror of what that means,” I say. I know my words are sharp and when I get off the phone I hate myself for saying it that way. I don’t know you yet. I don’t know what you’ve experienced, if anyone has ever raised a fist to you. I’m an asshole for going there. But, I also don’t know how to tell you that no this is not your fault but yes you caused this – because it’s not your fault (you were given shitty information) and because your choices did cause it. I know that hurts. It hurts me, too.

You call me and I can tell by your voice what this is about. We’ve worked together for months. There’s a veterinary behaviorist involved, a team of experts.

You’ve been wonderful and things have improved, you say. But, there was an incident.

You’ve been wonderful and things have improved, you say. But, it feels hopeless. That young vibrant dog you once had is long gone. You don’t think she will ever be the same again.

You’ve been wonderful and things have improved, you say. But, you are done. You don’t have any more emotional energy.

You’ve been wonderful and things have improved, you say. But, not enough. You’ve already called the vet. She’ll be euthanized in the morning.

I’m trained for these calls. And, as many times as you’ve called with this news I’ve never cracked. I hold steady. I care about you more than anything and I stand by your side. This is your decision, not mine. My role is to support you. When I cry it’s after the call. I cry for  you most of all. As my wise friend says, you were doing the best you could with the information you had at the time. I believe that. I cry for your dog, too. This should have gone differently from the start. But, it didn’t and here we are.

It hasn’t always gone this way for us, of course. You and I have had our high-fives and victory laps together and it’s felt great. You did it. You pulled your dog back from the brink. Your dog, for her part, recovered, healed well from the terror of the past. She made it. You made it. I am so happy for you, for her, for us. We’ve been through a lot, you and I, you big wonderful collective you. I’ve written too much already, I know, but I could write more. I could go on and on about you because I care about you. I like you.

I’ll end here with one small request. And, this part is for you, specifically you, reader. Will you be a voice for our dogs? You are someone’s neighbor. You are someone’s friend, someone’s family member. When someone asks you about training, about shock collar training, will you be the one individual who speaks up? They may not know any better yet, this someone you know, this someone you care about. You know better, though. Did you know shock collars are against the law in some countries? It’s because shock collar training hurts our dogs; it can damage them psychologically. In too many cases the fallout from this frightening and painful training hurts us as well, damaging our relationship with our dogs, endangering our dogs’ lives. Be the voice who speaks this truth. If this is your story, then tell it. Your neighbors and friends and family deserve to know better. Their dogs deserve a voice who will speak for them.


Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston, TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training including helping dogs who are survivors of shock collar training.

The Promise



You come to me full of promise, a gift from heaven or the universe or wherever it is sacred things derive. You are the dream incarnate, the promise still unsullied of the dog I always wanted. You are the promise of memories lost and found, of my dog at 13, unbuckled on the bench seat, head out the window, tongue out the mouth flapping like a cartoon at 40 miles per hour. You are the living potential of my own hopes, the dog with whom I will run agility, or learn dock diving. You are the promise of a more joyful life, smiles, security, naps on the sofa spooned and snuggly. You, my puppy, are filled with this sacred promise.

Cuddled, so small now, you can fit in the dips and curves of my chest, breathing in a rhythm so close to mine I could weep. This is the most perfect puppy ever, I think. You shift and make a muffled high-pitched grumble, slipping just under my chin. I catch just the faintest hint of your breath, puppy breath, so intoxicating. This sacred promise, this puppy, this living and breathing moment, it seems to be missing nothing. And, then I remember there is one thing, one important missing part, a humble thing maybe I can offer in return. And I close my eyes as if in prayer and offer this sacred promise to you, my puppy.

I will love you even as I do this very moment for as long as we live, even when you become flawed (because life is hard and this world claims its tolls), even as I am flawed, even when it’s inconvenient or hard, even as you navigate your most challenging years, and even (most especially) as you come to the end of your years. This I promise you.

I will learn all about you. I will learn your kind, the way you carry your body and express your face, the way you communicate without words (so elegant). I will learn with you and teach you how life in a human world works. I already told you it is sometimes hard. I’m so grateful you’re here. I’ll do my best to make it as easy for you as I can. I promise. We will make learning fun, together. I promise that as well.

I will speak on your behalf. Your language, perfect and complete, is still a mystery to too many of my kind. I will be your human voice. You can count on that. I will interrupt anyone who means you harm – emotional or physical – either by their malice or their ignorance. I will speak loudly if I must, clearly always, without shame or hesitation ever. You are from a place of sacred things and I will remember that when I speak. This is my promise.

We will spend time together. I don’t know yet if we will win ribbons or prizes or likes on social media. I’m assuming you don’t care. That is part of what makes you so wonderful. We will simply be with each other and that will be enough for me and for you, I hope. We will do things together. I don’t know what yet. You are so young. You can help us decide. But, it’s going to be you and me and maybe some other friends and some doggie friends. This is important. So, I promise.

You get to make choices. I promise. Sometimes things just suck and we have to do what we have to do (Honey, I get it). But, I will let you make choices in your everyday life. It might be scary at first – or maybe not, but after a while it’s fun. I’ll help make it fun. There are so many choices and you get to choose them. Who will you play with or not? What will your favorite activities be, your favorite games? Where will you like to go and where would you rather steer clear? How do you like to be petted? Will you be a cuddler like now? What do you want to learn? I’ll teach you. Even when you have to experience icky things, I’ll show you how to let us know when you are ready. You can choose that too. I’s a promise.

If I could I would promise you forever. Of course, as long as we both live we will spend forever together. This is true. But, little one, none of us gets to have forever here. Our lives are short, yours so very much so. You are a gift whence sacred things come and when it’s time for you to return I will be with you. Even as I breathe in your sweet breath now I will breathe in your last because I will be that close to you, right next to you, so close I could travel with you were that possible. And If I am the one to go first I promise you will live with someone we both love. I’ll see to it. This is as close to forever as I can promise. It is my promise, nonetheless.

But, let’s not think too much on that. All this has just started. You have my promise now and you can hold me to it. I have you now, overflowing with promise, and I will hold you dear. The years ahead are filled with promise too, dreams and memories yet to be made. (But that car thing, little one, isn’t happening. That was the 70s). Now, let’s rest. My breathing and yours are one rolling hill toward sleep. We have today. Tomorrow. So many ahead. What will we do? How wonderful will our lives be together?


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