Dog training: Look for nuance, not pizzazz

12115865_10104698067491967_7758333872740131794_nA common phrase when it comes to dog training is that watching classical conditioning done correctly is like watching paint dry. Nothing visibly dramatic is happens. There’s no flair, no excitement, no “near misses” from an aggressive, biting dog.

My response:

1. Lack of visible dramatics is a good thing.

If a dog is displaying threatening behaviors (growling, snarling, snapping, biting, etc.), that dog is over threshold. Eliciting these behaviors is “anti-training:” It will not help your dog get better faster and sets the stage for more problem behaviors to occur in the future.

While animal learning may not be everyone’s passion, viewing quality dog training through the lens of entertainment puts dogs and dog guardians at risk. When looking for a heart surgeon, few people look for someone who makes an angioplasty exciting or does open heart surgery with pizzazz. Most people look for a surgeon who is qualified, well-trained, and follows up-to-date best practices. Dogs deserve the same standards of care.

2. Rapid results do not mean high quality. 

Learning takes time, particularly if a dog is fearful or anxious. Typically, videos showing night-and-day transformations in a dog are the result of:

a) Behavior suppression, where the dog’s threat sequences are punished, temporarily suppressing them, or
b) Behavior that is not complete or fully proofed for the distractions present in the dog’s everyday environment.

Neither of these results effectively solve behavior problems. They simply put a very weak bandage over an expanding wound.

3. It’s more than drying paint.

If you look closely at a dog during the training process, something incredibly dramatic and beautiful is occurring: You’re helping a species different from your own learn his world is safe and full of tip-offs to positive things.

No matter how often I see it, watching the learning process occur never fails to amaze me. When training or searching for a trainer, don’t look for pizzazz. Look for nuance.

–  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

One thought on “Dog training: Look for nuance, not pizzazz

  1. Pingback: Dog training: Look for nuance, not pizzazz | animalbehaviorblog

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