Training with trust

11752325_10104447910638307_8184408064341384391_n“We don’t “cause” animals to behave in the sense that physicists cause liquid to boil by turning up a flame. We can only set the occasion for particular behaviors; the animal’s response to our cues is up to the animal. In the same way, the animals set the occasion for, and reinforce, our behavior in a perpetual feedback loop. Behavior is always the result of interaction with the environment in which all present are a part.” – Susan G. Friedman, PhD

One of the greatest gifts we can give our dogs is the ability to choose. The ability to choose whether to engage with us, another person, or another dog. The ability to choose whether to take a break from a training procedure. The ability to say “I’m not comfortable with this; I want to stop.”

Often, when discussing training and behavior, we find ourselves questioning why a dog isn’t doing what we want him to do, why a dog refuses to listen, or why a dog doesn’t cooperate with us when we’re trying to do various grooming or handling procedures. It’s understandable why this happens. After all, we’re humans, not dogs, and we try our best to communicate despite the language barrier.

But by viewing training and behavior through the lens of compliance, we ignore the more important lens of choice.

A dog gives us a wealth of information by simply choosing to do something we ask. He tells us he’s comfortable approaching us. He tells us he’s ready to learn, and other environmental factors aren’t getting in the way of his learning process. He tells us he’s motivated and that we’re using the right reinforcers.

From a dog’s perspective, giving him the knowledge that he can choose to participate with us, instead of being forced to tolerate a training procedure, is nothing short of empowering. By establishing a foundation of choice, we establish a foundation of trust. And, as I’ve blogged before, trust is paramount in any successful dog-human relationship.

If a dog chooses not to participate, we aren’t faced with a training failure. Instead, we have information so that we can set the dog up for success. Did the dog choose to retreat due to fear? Is the environment too distracting for the dog to focus on what we’re asking him to do? Are we asking the dog to do something he hasn’t yet learned? Is the dog frustrated? If a dog says “no,” we as humans must determine why, instead of forcing the dog to comply.

By giving dogs the ability to choose, we can train with trust, not force.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at