There’s a chance you have a dog with a serious, life threatening (to the dog), behavior problem. You’re on my mailing list, after all. This is the work we do together, you and me. It is hard work, emotional work. Many of you have been bravely open-hearted with me, sharing frustrations and shedding tears. I appreciate that – the honesty – the trust. I feel bad that I have rarely been as boldly vulnerable with you. Until now.
I love this quote from Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “No Mud. No Lotus.” It’s popular with many dog trainers these days thanks to the work of Jessica Dolce. It’s a pithy meme, too. It’s also the title of a book by that same monk. The take away, if I may risk being so concise, is that compassion is born of suffering. The lotus, a beautiful flower, is born of mud. The muck is required for the bloom to emerge and survive.
These past several months have been hard for me. I’ve lost client dogs for whom I cared deeply. I’ve shared in the pain of their humans, all of whom I like a great deal and care for in equal measure. It’s been a rough stretch, unusual numbers, unexpected individuals. Suffering. Longing for the lotus. Struggling against the mud that feels like it’s pulling me down.
I’m no monk (trust me). But, I know enough to settle into this moment and let compassion rise through. This is written to none of you in particular and each of you just the same. I share in your suffering without judgement. That is the easiest sentence I’ve written here thus far. You acted well and thoughtfully. Deciding to euthanize a beloved pet for safety or because the animal’s mental health is severely compromised is excruciatingly hard. It is also, in it’s own way, an act of compassion. The loss is painful enough. You needn’t complicate it with self loathing.
I will follow my own advice in that regard, and I will remember this: compassion is born of our suffering. I had a counselor who often said “let these feelings be a road sign pointing you toward your future choices.” So even as I weep in the mud, and that is not just a metaphor, I’m looking ahead to how I can better care for my garden. How can I better care for you, my treasured fellow humans? How can I set you up better to succeed with your beloved dogs – the ones who are so dear and sweet – except when they are not? Except when they are dangerous. Lotuses struggling.
Behavior change can be a long road. Certainly some training affects immediate change, and that’s cool. Other behaviors, though, especially emotionally fueled behavior (fear) can take longer. I think – we should all think – in terms of lifetime behavior care for our dogs. Focus on a specific change plan in our target areas and then maintain that change plan – forever. The good news for us is that behavior does change.
The bad news is also that behavior changes. Trainers and Behavior Scientists often refer to the term Spontaneous Recovery. You can follow link for a deeper dive on this. But, in short, it means sometimes the unwanted behavior re-emerges long after we’ve made great strides in our behavior change plan. Behavior changes for the better and for the worse. The aggression can come back. It can look the same as it did before or it can look different. It is rarely permanent, though. A solid behavior maintenance plan can prevent spontaneous recovery it in most cases. When it does occur, a touch-up behavior change plan can often (not always) quell it.
With all this in mind, here is my best thinking. On my end I’ll be putting together plans for better long-term client support. All too often we are losing touch with each other. Things seem to be going well and then they are not. Behavior change can be a long road and I want to walk it with you – because – well, that’s my job. This blog is one part of that. So is my newsletter and our connection with each other on social media. But, I’m going to be doing more. I need to do more.
In the meantime, please reach out. If something changes with your dog’s behavior in the weeks, months, even years after our last meeting – please reach out. I want to help. I can speak for Dr. Haug too if you are her client – she wants to help. This is a long road. If we’ve fallen behind, if you’ve lost sight of us, call out. We’ll catch up. We’ll step up. I promise.
Lastly but most importantly, thank you so much for inviting me into your home and into your life. Your dogs are beautiful, even the ones who don’t like me at first. They are in my heart. I think of them when I fall asleep, even as I feel my own little Stewie’s heartbeat up against mine. And this work we all signed up for, it is hard. And dirty. And sometimes devastating. Yes it is. And it’s such a privilege. That is equally true. It is like the old monk said, there on the slick of dark flooded soil is the sacred, a vibrant emerging flower.
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specailizes in behavior related to fearfulness including aggressive behavior.
More than anything, we humans just want out dogs’ unwanted behavior (i.e. “bad” behavior) to stop. Barking. Make it stop. Biting. Make it stop. Jumping, running, digging, you name it. We want it to stop.
So, how do we make things stop? One way is punishment. Technically speaking, punishment is anything we apply or take away that decreases a behavior. We humans love punishment, because it often has instant results (though, often not very lasting results). See: The Allure of Punishment.
The trouble with punishment is that the standards are quite high if we want to see any long-term effects.
We have to punish at a level that is sufficiently crummy for the dog. He either loses some very desirable privilege of gets some level of painful nastiness (and most of us don’t really want to hurt our dog).
We have to punish in a timely manner, like the moment the bad behavior occurs. We humans are notoriously bad at timing.
We have to punish every occurrence of the bad behavior. Every one. No exceptions.
If we don’t met the three criteria above, then punishment will fail.
Fortunately there is an easier way to end bad behavior without having to jump thorough all the difficult hoops of punishment. We can, without much hassle, teach our dogs what we want him to do. This is a proactive approach to training. What behavior do we want our dog to perform instead of the unwanted (bad) behavior?
There are technical terms for this. One of them is Differential Reinforcement of an Alternate Behavior (DRA). But, I like to simply call it giving our dog a landing spot. Don’t do that. Do this instead.
Here’s more good news. Most alternate behaviors (replacement for the bad stuff) are very easy to teach. It’s simple stuff like stand, sit, and lie down – things our dogs do anyway. I came up with this short list of unwanted behavior and simple solutions to fix them below. It’s a short list but it gives you an idea of how this works.
Stop jumping on guests becomes stand with all four paws on the ground. Reinforce with food and petting.
Stop biting guests becomes go lie down over there on your bed or mat. Reinforce with food (keeping guests away from the mat or bed is also reinforcing).
Stop pulling on leash becomes walk beside me and check in every once in a while with a glance up. Reinforce with food and praise.
Stop barking out the front windows of the house becomes come when called and hang out here with me. Reinforce with food, praise, play, etc. (Limiting access to the front windows also helps).
If a behavior problem seems too complicated for you to figure out, certainly bring in a qualified positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant to help you come up with an alternate behavior (or series of alternate behaviors). But, for the most part, this is pretty straight forward. Take your focus off the stuff you don’t want your dog to do Put your mind and your energy into what you want him to do instead.
Many of us have noticed, when we’re training our dog he seems to be more worried over the treat bag than the task at hand. He can’t take his eyes off the bag, as if staring at it will cause the food to magically leap out of the bag.
There’s a reason this happens.
Many of us, when we are training, are more worried over the treat bag than the actual task of training our dog. We are busy fussing with the bag or digging in it. My guess is that we’ve been programmed to think we have to be lightening fast with the food or the training won’t stick.
That’s not true. And, our preoccupation with the treat bag is actually derailing our training efforts. It’s distracting the dog and causing him to focus on it rather than on the stuff we are trying to teach him.
How we use food and how we deliver that food in training matters. I hope these step-by-step instructions help.
1. Keep your hands at “home position.” When you are teaching your dog, let your hands relax at your side – at home position. Notice where your hands are are and keep them there. Definitely keep them out of the treat back. You may use one of your hands (usually the one not holding the clicker) to give your dog a visual cue – but really, most of the time your hand will just be hanging there.
2. Click when your dog performs the task. Your treat hand remains still and at your side when you click. Stay out of the back. Count 1-one-thousand to yourself after the click.
3. Reach in the bag and get a treat. This happens after the click (not at the same time), and after that brief 1-one-thousand pause.
4. Give your dog the treat.
These events to not overlap. They are three separate and distinct steps.
A group class is a wonderful place to bring your puppy for multiples reasons. The biggest reason is socialization. Second on the list is learning in an environment that has distractions. Third up is the development of your pup’s play skills. Last, but definitely not least is bite inhibition.
Let’s take a look at each of these.
Socialization – Puppies go through what is referred to as the critical socialization period between the ages of 8-16 weeks. During this time it’s crucial to get them out to help them build positive associations with the things that they will encounter in every day life.
To build positive associations all you need to do is give your pup some treats a second or two after something new appears. Give those treats the entire time the new thing is there and once the new thing is gone, stop treating. It won’t take long for him to realize that people, dogs, surfaces, loud trucks, going into buildings, being handled and examined all predict awesome stuff. Once that clicks, your pup will enjoy all of those things.
It is important to socialize in as many places as possible. Dogs are poor generalizers. (Except they generalize fear well.) They can discriminate that a certain place is awesome and they may enjoy all the people in that place, but they may be fearful of other places and be nervous of people in those places.
Use the location of the group class you join as one place. From there, utilizes pet friendly places like certain hardware stores and ice cream parlors. (You’ll even want to do lots of happy visits at your vet’s office and at your groomer’s.) This will set him up to be a behaviorally sound adult dog.
Distractions- Life is full of distractions. In reality, these distractions are what we refer to as “competing motivators.” These are just other things in the environment that your pup wants to interact with. If you want him to be able to do behaviors while out and about, it’s important to practice out and about.
The main issue that people have when they’re out in public with their pup is that he has trouble staying focused. If he sees something that he wants it’s naturally going to motivate him to do a behavior in hopes to get to interact with it. That’s often where barking, pulling on leash and not coming when called come from.
One of the best places to start is a group setting. In the group setting he will be around lots of other people and puppies. You will get lots of practice and coaching from your trainer on how to get him to do the behaviors. This can and will translate to out into the real world, making life easier.
Play skills- These can be developed quite easily at this young age. In a group setting that allows puppy play (look for one that does) your pup will get to learn what is and isn’t appropriate to do to the other pups. If his play gets to look a little questionable then a “consent check” can be done to see whether or not the other pup is enjoying what is happening. This is how he can be coached because if he is removed from play for doing a certain behavior, that behavior should decrease. This is because with consistency he learns that doing that behavior results in the removal of what he wants and enjoys.
Since play is a part of developing play skills, he will be getting a lot of physical exercise. This exercise will come from chasing, being chased, barking, biting, humping, wrestling and rolling around. These are all normal play behaviors.
Bite inhibition- This is something that not everyone knows about. This means your pup learns to control the amount of force/pressure applied during a bite. During a group class he can learn from other pups if he is biting too hard. Usually they learn that they’re biting too hard by an alert that comes in the form of a loud “yelp!” Most puppies hear that yelp and back off.
Puppies play bite. This is beyond normal. A group setting gives them an outlet to play bite and helps teach bite inhibition. This is a win-win.
Searching for the right group class
Now that you have all of that information it’s time to start researching places near you. When searching for a group class you want to ask some questions to ensure you’re going to the right place. Here is a list.
Do the puppies get to interact off leash with one another?
What happens when my puppy does the right behavior?
What happens when my puppy does the wrong behavior?
What type of equipment do you utilize in class? (Avoid any trainers that are recommend the use of choke, prong or shock collars as these types of collars can lead to aggression.)
Do you check vaccination records?
You’re looking for a place that does have off leash puppy play. You want to find a place that focuses on rewarding the pups when they do the right behavior. You want to find a place that doesn’t give any sort of physical correction when the pups do the wrong behavior. You want to find a place that recommends body harnesses or head halters. And lastly, you want to ensure that they do indeed check vaccination records.
Now that you have this list you’re ready to start having some fun training your pup in a group setting. Have fun!
Kevin Duggan is the owner of All Dogs Go To Kevin, which services Northeast Ohio and Eastern Tennessee.
Life with our dogs can be confusing sometimes. Life in general can be confusing. It’s true. The world is crazy. Our dog seems crazy. Maybe I’m going crazy. He’s growling. I’m yelling. We just want the bad stuff to stop. But, where do we begin?
Where to begin?
I suggest we begin – with wonder. We know there are times when our dog is at his best. There are places in which he is not troubled or troublesome. We know those times and places. Let’s find them. Be still. Be with our dog. Just be.
Let’s start right here, in wonder of all that our dog is. Author Richard Rohr refers wonder as “standing in awe before something.” Can we really do that with our dog? Be right there, for a moment, a short while, aware and in awe.
Our dog thinks. But, what exactly? Let the question roll over you. Rohr also writes about wondering as “standing in the question itself.” We will never know our dog’s thoughts. But we can wonder. That alone could keep me here, contemplating not what my dog is thinking but that she is. And, it’s private.
Our dog feels. Researcher Jaak Panksepp opened that door for us, uncovering the emotional lives of animals. We can watch our dog, whatever she’s doing right now, and we can settle in with the truth that she has feelings. We can imagine those feeling, because we are emotional creatures too. She seeks out things that feel good and avoids things that feel bad. We can relate. We can empathize.
Our dog moves. She is a living being in motion here with us, right now, at this time, in this place. She makes choices and puts those choices in motion (or in stillness). It happens in this space with us fully present. Aware. In Awe.
As I write, I’m looking at my own dog standing in the sunlight. She is looking out at I-don’t-know-what. She is living. Thinking. Feeling. Her ball is on the ground just behind her, a choice for playing a moment ago and perhaps in the moment ahead. But now, in this moment, she is present in the sun and the sound of the wind and the moving leaves and the dappling of light on her face. What is out there? What moves her to this stillness?
Begin with wonder, every day, every new start. We are able to engage with dogs in ways not open to us with most other animals. We can learn to communicate with them. Spend a moment with that idea. It is wonderful – this connection we have – this chance to learn how they interact with us – the chance to teach them our words and phrases. It’s cooperation. It’s learning together. Who cares that I am human and she is dog? How amazing.
Where else to begin now that we know, now that we notice? There is only wonder. They come to us, our dogs, and ask us: Play? Rest? Touch? Eat? They comfort us and turn to us for comfort when they are afraid, or anxious, or sad. They turn to us. Us.
And they are a wonder, these animals who live with us and think their private thoughts. Their feelings, like ours, must run amok at times. Their actions seem to run in kind – amok – but much differently than ours – fully dog. No wonder, really, we get confused. And no wonder they get confused, too, I guess. It’s hard.
But connected we stay, and committed. Life in this human world is crazy enough for us humans. What a mess it must seem to our dogs. It’s a good thing we’re here to see them through it. It’s a good they are here to see us through it.
She’s resting now, almost asleep, the ball and the window and the flicker of sunlight forgotten – so it seems. She’ll dream, eyes flitting under half-opened lids. She always does. There may be muted barks, a twitch, sometimes full kicks of her legs. I’m not allowed to see what she sees. I can’t go with her. I can only watch and wonder. That word again. And awe. That one too.
And on we go. And every day, every moment, we begin again. We are right here. It’s right now. And, yes, every time it takes my breath away.