Trust: It works

10012525_10102979253738507_233167973_nTrust. Love. Science. It works.

It’s the tagline I created when launching my business, Mutt About Town. It lists the three principles I believe create effective, humane dog training. Love: Well, that meaning is obvious. Science: I’ve written quite a bit about the importance and meaning of using science in training, which you can reference on this blog. But what I haven’t addressed is the third and final piece of the tagline: Trust.



firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.

“relations have to be built on trust”

synonyms: confidence, belief, faith, certainty, assurance, conviction, credence; reliance


On its most basic level, trust is the unspoken pact between you and your dog: You will inflict no harm, pain or abuse; you will care for your dog to the best of your abilities; you will attend to your dog’s vital needs. On its most nuanced level, trust lays the foundation for effective training.

Envision asking your dog to “sit.” Think of the process. You say the word, present the hand gesture. Your dog sits, you provide the reward. Your dog doesn’t sit, and you remove the reward. Practiced constantly and consistently, your dog learns behavior X leads to consequence Y, every single time.

Envision a different scenario. Your dog demand barks for food during dinner. Think of the process you use to address the behavior. You say “too bad,” and place your dog in time out for one minute. Again, practiced constantly and consistently, your dog learns behavior X leads to consequence Y, every single time.

Giving your dog predictable consequences to behavior is a cornerstone of trust. Your dog trusts that each time he sits when you ask, good things happen. Each time he jumps up on a stranger, he goes into time out. This structure and reliability of antecedents, behavior and consequences forms the foundation of a happy and emotionally healthy dog.

Trust also comes into play when working on husbandry and fear-based behaviors. If your dog snaps and growls when you bring out the nail clippers, you need to build trust through training. You do this through classical conditioning, pairing the nail clippers with a high-value treat, every single time, and then progressing through a gradual training plan. You teach your dog to trust that nail clipping always leads to good things. If you only do the training sometimes, or not at all, that trust will disappear.

“I believe, though, the ultimate goal of teaching husbandry exercises to our dogs, or to any animal, is to build up a deep reservoir of mutual TRUST,” writes Kathy Sdao in her article “How to Get a Handle On Your Training.”

If your dog guards bones and snarls when you try to take them away, you again need to build trust through training. Through practicing object exchanges in a gradual training plan, you teach your dog that when you remove an object, he not only gets a high-value treat, but most of the time also gets the object back. (Jean Donaldson’s book “Mine” is an excellent resource for dealing with resource guarding, as is contacting a trainer like Mutt About Town for private sessions.) If you always take the object away and never give it back or give your dog a treat, you won’t fix the resource guarding behavior. You won’t have trust.

Debbie Jacobs, a colleague and expert on fearful dogs, gives a brilliant explanation of her goals when working for a dog. “I want them to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (or out of their crate or the corner they’ve hunkered down in). I want them to be able to enter new environments and be capable of looking for ways to feel good, to do something fun and rewarding, or to find a good spot for a nap. I want changes in their environment to elicit curiosity or the anticipation of something good, including the opportunity to do something they’ve been taught and get a treat for it, not terror or worry.”

These goals embody the definition of trust, and also highlight our immense responsibility as dog owners to create a padded foundation of trust to last a dogs’ lifetime.

To build and strengthen the trust you have with your dog, ask yourself:

– Am I consistent and reliable in my delivery of rewards and punishments?

– Do I pair things my dog fears with high-value food, and do I do it every single time?

– Am I clear in what I am asking my dog to do?

– Do I know what my dog must do in order to earn a reward?

– Is my dog too upset to do or be OK with the task at hand?

Trust. It works.

– 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