Is Love Enough?

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

For those of us who know dogs, really know them, the love comes easily.  And for those involved in the hard and difficult work of rescue and sheltering, there is no shortage of love.  It’s what fuels us, what keeps us going day after day.  It’s what sees us through the anguish and the tears to get out once again and rescue and shelter some more.  Love is the thing.  But is it enough?

Psychiatrist Aaron Beck was writing about human relationships when he jumped to the answer.  His book from the late 80’s was called Love is Never Enough.  His idea was for people, especially couples, to use the tools of cognitive therapy to improve their lives together.  Listen.  Separate out feelings (at least don’t jump to feelings first). Be mindful.  Love was not enough.  It never was.  We had to think as well.

What would Aaron Beck say about those of us who rescue and shelter dogs?  Do we love too much?  Does our love ricochet us into darker emotions, sadness, anger, hate, and despair? Does it paralyze us; keep us from acting at all because the problem of abandoned and suffering dogs is just too big?  That was my story up until recently. Is love not only “never enough,” but is it also sometimes what gets in the way of doing the work?  I won’t speculate on what Dr. Beck would say.

Here is what we do know, the sad facts:

  • Too many dogs are abandoned or born into homelessness. In Houston the numbers are huge.
  • These dogs suffer from health issues ranging from mange to broken bodies to heartworms.  Most rescue groups raise funds for the proper medical treatment for all of the animals in their care.
  • Nearly every one of these dogs also suffers from behavior problems ranging from poor manners to extreme fear of humans to aggression toward humans or other dogs.  Very few rescue groups provide professionally structured behavior care for any of their animals.

That last point interests me the most.  Here’s why.  89.7% of dogs end up in shelters in the first place because of behavior problems (Wells and Hepper 2000).  My colleague, Carolyn Grob, presented this bit of data and more at a recent Project Rusty Seminar in Houston (more about Project Rusty in a moment).  So, we know going into this that at least 89% of dogs in rescue and shelters are there because of behavior problems.  We know it like we know they have mange or a broken leg or heartworms.

Connecting the dots is pretty easy.  If we help the dogs in our care learn better behavior, we increase the chance that their adoption will be successful and lasting.  We justify the time and expense involved the same way we justify medical treatment. Adopters don’t want a mangy dog. Guess what? They don’t want a rude freaked out dog either.

So, let’s get back to the love.  Won’t love and a little time heal most behavior issues, like fear and aggression? The short answer is no. In fact, with many dogs the problems just get worse. Can’t a dog learn to trust humans again? Yes, of course. But love and time are not enough, not really, not ever. And let’s not even talk about the jumping and leash pulling and other crazy hyper goofy behavior. Add some well-intentioned love and that unruliness can turn into downright rude-dog stuff. But, I digress.

What would Beck say? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. What if we step back from a moment and give this behavior thing some thought?  We won’t stop loving. We’ll just starting thinking a bit.  Let’s be mindful about training and behavior.  There’s a process to treating medical issues right? There has to be a process for helping dogs act better and feel better around their new humans. (Of course there is, said the trainer).

In fact, there’s a time-honored and well-tested process for teaching animals how to act and feel better. It boils down to showing the dogs in our care that their behavior (their actions) matter.  Good things happen when they behave a certain way (the way we like). Nothing much good happens when they don’t.  Because we’re using rewards (reinforcement) like food and play, we’re also teaching the dogs that we humans are safe, nice in fact.  We won’t get bogged down in the technical terms like Learning Theory and Classical Conditioning. We can just think of it like this. We teach the dogs what works for them in our crazy human world – and at the same time we teach them that we’re not all that crazy after all. Humans are pretty darn good it turns out.

The process is not hard. It can be fun once we get the hang of it. But, it’s not magic either. We have to show up, and we have to put in some effort.  Get the dog out of the crate, into a space where we can interact with him one-on-one, and let’s start training.  It’s like taking the dog to the vet for medical care, equally important, but with less hassle.  Forget Aaron Beck for a moment.  Here’s what trainer educator Ken Ramirez from The Shed Aquarium says: Training isn’t a luxury.  It’s an essential part of daily animal care.

“Wait a minute”, you might say, “I’m not a trainer.” Well, that’s where Project Rusty comes in.  That’s the group I mentioned a little bit ago. Project Rusty is a nonprofit organization in Houston with a mission to teach shelter staff and rescue volunteers how to be trainers. The truth is, you are already teaching the dogs in your care every day.  Every waking minute they are learning, not just from you but also from your family, the cat, the bird, and of course from the other dogs in your home. The question isn’t whether or not they’re being trained (they are).  The question is are they learning the stuff we want them to learn. Probably not.

Let’s change that. In the months and years ahead Project Rusty will be rolling out programs to help shelters and rescue groups better care for the behavioral health of their dogs. We’ve actually already started with interactive seminars. The next step will be more intensive learning programs for rescue groups, some of which are already in development. There will also be online resources for staff, volunteers and the general public. If behavior is the problem, then we will be the solution.  All of us.  Together.

So where’s the love? I can only speak for myself on this one. I love my dogs. I love some of my client’s dogs too, and most came from shelters and rescue groups. I write about love and compassion and hope and all the soft stuff. I’m that guy. Is love enough? Maybe not.  But, maybe that’s also not the right question.  Maybe the question is how do we love these dogs?  What is the thing?  What is the stuff of love? For me it’s the moment I look at a dog and understand and know in my heart and in my brain that she understands too. It’s communication, clichéd as that sounds. It’s learning and teaching and blurring the lines between the two. Who’s training whom?

Love is a verb.

When I’m training with my dog I am loving my dog. It’s in my actions, and hers too I think.  Teaching is loving.  Learning and teaching more is loving more. And, if that’s so then loving is the thing, loving thoughtfully with our actions.  It’s what we do, mindfully and wholeheartedly?  Can we ever really get enough?

Michael will be leading an interactive presentation about this topic on May 4th in Houston.  Visit his Houston Dog Training Events page for more information.

Just Plain Ordinary Dogs

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

It always comes down to this for me.  Would I live with that dog?  You see, I don’t endorse dogs for adoption lightly; that’s bad business for dog trainers.  If I’m going to put my name behind a dog, he or she has to be a dog I’d honestly and freely welcome into my own home.  I’m also not the kind of dog trainer who adopts rehab cases.  I want to live with a just-plain typical dog, magical yes, but in the way ordinary dogs find magic by settling deep into your heart.

My dogs are those kind of dogs.  They are mutts, as we used to call such gifts, mixed breeds of questionable origin.  But, this isn’t really about them.  It’s not about my adopting a dog either; our house and our hearts are full.  This is about other ordinary dogs, magical dogs with no home, mutts whose origins and looks draw their worth into question.  They are dogs who’ve touched my heart and even now risk breaking it.


When I posted pictures of Tara and Oreo on my facebook page, my brother posted only one question about them.  “Are they pit bull mixes?”  The question made me angry, and at first I wasn’t exactly sure why.  My answer to him was staid.  Breed identification based on visual observation is only about 30% accurate.  He didn’t reply.

I met Tara and Oreo more than two months ago.  They were scrappy adolescent dogs pulled from the streets of the Corridor of Cruelty in Houston and placed directly into a boarding facility.  Oreo was literally a mangy mutt, black and white, slightly squared at the jaw.  Tara was and is brown and muscular with a blocky head and slanted amber eyes.  My job was to assess them and a third dog, a shepherd mix named Skipper, for a program called Project HEEL.  The program places homeless dogs from Corridor Rescue Inc. with teenage boys in the custody of The Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.  When I first met them, the three dogs ran amok and were definitely untrained.  Nevertheless, they got along well and within a week they were sent off to a juvenile probation home in the rural reaches of a Houston Suburb.


It’s hard to ignore the parallels – tough-looking dogs with tough-looking teenage boys, all behind the double locked doors and barbed wire of the county.  For the dogs and the boys both, the trouble is more about how they look, than what they’ve done or ever will do.  The boys at least know what they’re up against when they get out.  The dogs have no idea.  Block headed, bully bodied, banned in some places.  They are totally, if not blissfully, unaware of how hard it will be for them to find a place in this world, a home, a family.

Someone claimed Skipper, the shepherd mix, weeks before Project HEEL ended.  Skipper’s leash will be handed to his new guardians at a graduation ceremony.  No one will take Tara’s leash, or Oreo’s leash, the ones my brother summarily asked about.  They will return to their crates, and if time runs out they will go back to the boarding facility to wait.  I don’t know for how long.  I also don’t know if they are pit mixes.  It doesn’t matter.  They look the part and that’s enough of a mark against them.  And here’s the irony , bitter as it may be.

I’d live with either of these dogs, Tara, Oreo.  I would if it weren’t for the dogs who’ve already claimed me.  Tara, tough as she may look, with her muscled body and serious eyes, would have a place beside me – curled and pressed against my chest please.  Oreo would learn tricks and accompany me on TV, the eager learner, the clown.  I’ve looked at each of them squarely and asked myself soberly, would I live with that dog.  The answer is yes.  I’d put my name behind either of theirs, and let them settle into my heart to find the magic life of an ordinary dog.

I don’t endorse dogs lightly, but these are dogs with whom I’d live.  Wouldn’t you?  Won’t you?  Please.

Food is not a Four Letter Word

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

IMG_9994The question isn’t whether or not you can train your dog with food.  That’s pretty much a no-brainer.  Author and long-time animal trainer Dr. Grey Stafford put it best.  “If you’ve ever fed your dog, you’ve trained with food.”  Dogs have learned to do all sorts of things for their food bowl, including beg, spin in circles and jump on people.  What seems strange is that so many people would sooner give their dog a bowl of food for all that annoying behavior, than use small bits of food to teach desired behavior.  There seems to be a disconnect.  Feeding is good.  Food in training is bad.  Even some self-professed trainers advertise that they don’t use food in training.  Why?  Dr. Stafford inspired the title of this article when he made the claim that should be common sense to all of us.  Food is not a four-letter word.

Here’s how positive reinforcement training works.   If your dog spins in circles and barks, and the result is that you give him a heaping bowl of food, then he’s going to do more spinning and barking in the future.  It’s that simple.  Our dogs will keep doing the stuff we pay for.  In fact, it’s science (See “The Science of Dog Training”).  Dr. Susan Friedman PhD is a behavior analyst.   She cuts right to the meat of the matter.  “If behavior has no effect, what are we behaving for?”  So why not use the effect to our advantage?   Dog sits – food – more sitting.  Dog comes when called – food – more coming when called.  The list goes on.

Do you always have to have food with you?  No.  But (there’s always a “but”), it doesn’t hurt.  As your dog learns good manners, he may only get food every once in a while.  Many trainers refer to that as “phasing out the food.”  Use food to show your dog how to do new things (trainers call it luring), but don’t get stuck in a long-term pattern of bribing.  You should put the food out of sight as soon as possible.  Keep it handy but hidden.  Dr. Stafford speaks from experience, “I’ve trained hundreds of animals covering more species than I can recall.  The one lesson I’ve learned is the ultimate power of positive reinforcement, whether you train dogs or dolphins, is in its unpredictability.”  That means your dog will get paid for doing things you like, but not always how and when he expects it.  Any dog knows to come running when you’re wearing a treat bag, but try sneaking a few treats in your pocket, and then call your dog while you’re brushing your teeth or watering the lawn.  He’ll be mighty surprised when you hand him that food for a job well done.  Now, that’s unpredictability.

Is food the only way you can reinforce your dog’s behavior?  No.  But, some of the most potent reinforcers speak directly to the animal’s biological needs.  We call those primary reinforcers, and they include food, shelter, reproduction, and control (the ability to make choices).  In dog training food just happens to be the easiest primary reinforcer to deliver.  For professional trainers, food is often a first choice when teaching simple behaviors because you can get a lot more repetitions. Modern trainers pair the food with praise and smiles.  Those are called secondary reinforcers.  In time, praise, smiles, etc. will take on some of the built-in value of the food.  That’s a good thing.  You’ll want lots of possible reinforcers in your training tool kit.

What will your dog work for?  Some dogs love food.  But, other dogs will work for the chance to fetch a ball, play tug, or cuddle on the sofa.  Still other dogs learn to love petting and praise. Dr. Friedman notes, “It’s a teacher’s job to notice that individuality and use it well. The more reinforcers a learner has the more enriched its life can be.”  It’s our job to find what motivates our dog and to then use that to get the behaviors we want. Pay your dog for doing great things in lots of different ways, and see how that adds to the excitement from the dog we are looking for.  Your dog will work harder and learn faster because he’s always wondering, what am I going to get this time?

Is training all about the food?  No, and there’s no “but” about it.  Using food, pairing it with praise and fun, teaching your dog what pays and what doesn’t – that’s all about your discovering how to better communicate with your dog.  It’s about learning new things, looking for the next task, and loving every minute of it together.