Training matters

DSC00603 - Version 2When I adopted my dog, Earl, a year ago, he was not a happy dog. He bristled at human touch, was fearful of men, barked and snarked at other dogs, and trembled with anxiety (general and separation-related). As weeks and months passed, I began to uncoil the painful, unhappy layers that were camouflaging a happy, healthy dog. Luckily, for Earl and myself, he has made incredible progress. He loves snuggles and actually plays with toys and other dogs. His leash reactivity is close to zero. His anxiety is managed through medication, training, and dog daycare.  There are still areas of concern: Handling, separation anxiety, and some fear, but I am grateful that, for the most part, his rehabilitation from stray dog to my house has been positive.

I am not alone in this experience. Many have much tougher journeys than myself. This cycle is repeated daily in shelters across the world: Dogs with either a commission of negative experiences or an omission of positive ones, resulting in unwanted behavior problems. Some dogs find forever homes. Some dogs face euthanasia. Some dogs get bounced from home to home, developing more behavior problems along the way.

As a trainer, many of my cases involve coming in and helping clients peel back the layers of negative events in their dogs’ lives. Some dogs are rescues, others have an unfortunate genetic load that predisposes them to fear and aggression. And yet others are the result of incompetent trainers with harmful, aversive methods.

Joseph Ledoux, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, made relevant discoveries when it comes to dogs: Fear is easy to install, and difficult, if not impossible, to extinguish. What’s more, fear causes animals to better remember certain events.

He explained this concept in a 2012 article in The New York Times, writing, “Remember Pavlov’s dog?  When the bell rang the dog salivated because the bell had previously been rung as the dog was being fed (actually, it wasn’t a bell, but no matter).  The dog’s brain formed an association between the sound and the food, and the sound came to elicit salivation in preparation for the imminent food. … the same thing happens in dangerous situations.”

Unfortunately, dangerous, fear-inducing situations happen in the real world. We can’t protect our dogs from reality, even if we are fortunate enough to get them as puppies. But we can stack the odds in our favor. We can provide padding so that when our dogs encounter the real world, their brains will have more positive than negative associations in store. In the world of puppy training, we call this socialization.

Fortunately, those who work with dogs professionally have realized the importance of socialization and reward-based training methods. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior advocates consistent socialization during a puppy’s first three months of life, and that socialization should begin before puppies receive their final round of vaccinations.

During this short and critical period of time, sociability outweighs fear. Once the window closes, the risk of behavior problems like fear, aggression and avoidance increases.

Those sits, downs, stays and play periods you learn about puppy classes aren’t just so you have an “obedient” puppy. They’re part of that padding that allows your dog to face real-life situations without suffering the shrapnel of fear and anxiety – the same shrapnel that affects my dog, Earl, and so many other dogs in shelters and people’s homes.

For those who have dogs who missed that socialization window, or somehow developed fear and aggression, training is still critical. Although the fear and negative experiences are difficult to reverse, reward-based training can counter-condition those negative associations and reduce related behavior problems.

Debbie Jacobs, a colleague and trainer who specializes in fearful dogs, explains training as developing trust with a dog. She writes, “If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them.”

The message in all of this is simple: Training matters. The right type of training matters. It matters regardless of your dog’s breed, age, history or behavior profile. Don’t deny your dog, or yourself, the opportunity to build trust, reduce fear, and peel back the layers of negative associations to reveal a happier, healthier relationship.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at