Prioritizing a dog’s emotional health, part 2: Be creative, flexible

DSCF0021_2Earlier this week, I discussed ways to help clients low on resources, time and money prioritize a dog’s emotional health. Continuing on that subject, this post discusses how trainer creativity and flexibility can yield happier clients, happier dogs and more successful outcomes – all without compromising the dog’s emotional health.

When a consult’s focus switches: Flexibility

Sometimes, clients call me immediately after they’ve rescued a dog. Their training goals include basic obedience, loose leash walking, and solid recall, all good goals for any dog. But by the time the initial consult rolls around, the clients realize the dog isn’t as fear-free as they originally thought. Other times, clients may not realize the extent of their dog’s fear or the need to address the emotion prior to refining verbal cues and tricks. In yet other cases with recent rescues, I’m one of the first strangers the dog meets, and the clients realize that their dog has stranger danger. In these scenarios, I put the training plans I’ve prepared for the first session on the back burner and prioritize the dog’s emotional health. If the dog is uncomfortable with my presence, the clients and I quickly create a set-up to keep the dog under threshold. I then start classical conditioning protocols to establish a trust account between myself and the dog.

For very fearful dogs, I scratch planned demos of basic obedience behaviors and focus instead on educating the clients on fear, aggression, and how classical conditioning works. I’ve found the most effective way to incorporate this information is to weave it into the classical conditioning process already underway. This also models how clients will work with their dog to maintain the training once I leave the session.

Meeting client’s original goals: Creativity

I have a contract with each client dog I work with: I will keep you feeling safe and under threshold to the best of my abilities.

If a dog is uncomfortable with proximity to myself, my hand movements, or my body movement, the initial in-person training sessions focus on desensitizing and counterconditioning the dog to these things. If the dog isn’t comfortable with my presence, I don’t demo the initial sit/down/stay training. That would break the contract. This doesn’t mean the dog can’t also learn these foundational behaviors. As I’ve blogged previously, these behaviors are instrumental in helping a fearful dog develop coping skills to navigate the world.

The key to navigating this scenario is flexibility. I coach clients to train the foundation behaviors on their own while I stay a safe distance from the dog. I also follow-up with various video demos to help them troubleshoot and have a visual reference of how to work through the training plans.

Technology is invaluable for situations in which the dog is so fearful that the initial meet-and-greet takes place outside the home or with significant distance between myself and the dog. Programs like Skype and Google hangout allow me to coach clients on muzzle training, harness desensitization, and initial session set-up so that when we do meet, everyone is on the same page.

The overarching benefit of this approach is that I don’t break my contract with the dog, and neither do the clients. He’s learning, but not being pushed over threshold in the process, which ultimately reduces the time and money clients will have to spend on training in the long run.

If I could give fearful dog owners one training mantra to carry with them at all times, it would be this: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.”

–  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

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