Creating safety amid chaos: Thinking out of the NILIF box, part II

13256_10103676212337887_8284870794583483028_nOne of the most rewarding aspects of my work is making a connection with another dog owner, and finding a way of explaining training information, that changes a dog’s life for the better. My job isn’t to invent new “quick fixes” to common behavior problems or discover and market a new type of training methodology not based on the principles of animal learning theory (operant and classical conditioning). To do so would be going down the path of the snake oil salesman. Instead, my job is to communicate the principles of operant and classical conditioning in a way that sparks an interest, changes a paradigm, and perhaps helps a dog owner have a more rewarding and humane relationship with her dog.

When I published my article No Stimulus Goes Unconditioned last week, I was humbled by the amount of support I received, and by the number of dog owners who wrote to me saying how my words resonated with them and their relationships with their dogs. When making an idea public, one never knows whether it will “stick” or whether it will land in the bin of poor writing, forgotten ideas and mangled metaphors.

Based on feedback, the element of my last article that resonated most with dog owners was the idea of a mantra: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.” For this article, I thought, why not dig deeper? 

The idea of a mantra came to me as I studied aspects of meditation and mindfulness in my own life. Mantras help calm the mind, particularly in moments of chaos. When training dogs, we deal with chaos. For some dog owners, particularly those with fearful and reactive dogs, it’s easy for the world to resemble a non-stop trigger turnstile.

Many of my training clients joke with me that they are just as reactive as their dogs. They learn to anticipate triggers, they know in intricate detail what causes their dogs’ fears, and in turn they feel overwhelmed. Not only is the dog on edge due to chaos, the owner is on edge trying to prevent chaos from triggering the dog.

The problem is, as much as we all want to control our environment, it never really works out that way, does it? Enter the idea of a mantra. When the trigger turnstile is tossing skateboards, loud noises, other dogs and whatever other triggers you and your dog’s way, a mantra helps you focus on the here and now. A mantra helps you return to the most important job you have as a dog owner: Helping your dog feel safe in a chaotic world.

In digging deeper into this concept over the weekend, I created what I term the “Three P’s” for creating safety within chaos.

1) Predictability: Dogs love structure. Surprises add to the chaos. Make your routine with your dog predictable. Be consistent in what you choose to reinforce. Maintain the ever-important 1:1 ratio between triggering event and positive associations to strengthen your dog’s Pavlovian response. Ensure every member of the household gives your dog the same feedback.

2) Protocols: Have a plan in place for high-stress scenarios. If your dog is reactive on leash, ensure you walk in areas with escape routes. If you know your dog is fearful of guests at the front door, ensure you have a plan in place if and when the doorbell rings, and make sure anyone visiting the house is aware of the plan. Write down a protocol of what you will do if you get stuck in a chaotic situation so that when chaos does strike, you can respond quickly and confidently to get you and your dog away from the scary stuff with as little wear and tear as possible.

3) Practice: The more you practice with your dog in calm environments, the more confident you will feel when entering real-life chaos. If you have a leash reactive dog, practice happy talking, turning and going the opposite direction, and dumping treats for counterconditioning, and practice these things in the house, the backyard or on a quiet street. If you have a dog who is fearful of the vet, practice handling exercises, muzzle training, and touching your dog with various implements at home before stepping inside the exam room. The benefits of practice work two ways: You and your dog’s responses and mechanics will be sharper.

Many thanks to all of you who have showed your support for No Stimulus Goes Unconditioned, including Kathy Sdao, to whom I’m so grateful for fostering human-dog relationships based on love, trust and science. After all, it works.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at