Don’t forget to smile

12509514_10104948476106097_4320062013953608354_nA common phrase I hear when I tell people what I do for a living is, “You must love playing with dogs every day, it must be non-stop smiles.” While it’s true I am fortunate to do what I do, and that my days contain their fair share of puppies and smile-worthy moments, a majority of my job is, as is the rest of life, complicated.

A majority of clients don’t call me smiling. They call me because they are upset about their dog. He is afraid to go outside; he snaps at children; he has a bite history; he feels barks and growls if someone tries to touch him; he has a panic attack at the vet; he is afraid of his world. These are serious problems that require serious training.

It’s easy to get stuck in the trenches of desensitization, counterconditioning, management, and training protocols. I know I do. And while there’s nothing wrong with focusing on these things – clients who do this make me a happy trainer, indeed – an important criteria often gets pushed aside: Smiling.

I was reminded of the “smile criteria” awhile back when I was working with a long-term client whose dog continues to overcome severe fear. I was focused on working through the day’s training plan with this dog, and in the middle of the session, she wiggled her tail and gave me a goofy, joyous play bow. I smiled, put my training plan aside and spent the next several minutes marking and rewarding play behaviors. It was mutually beneficial. Both our brains filled with positive associations. I put more deposits into my trust account with her. Even though we took a break from the training plan, our diversion into playing together was equally important because it reinforced safety and trust.

The overall goal in any training protocol is a happier dog and a happier client-dog relationship. Training plans exist to make our lives with dogs less stressful. If I see myself or a client getting too rigid in training, and beginning to feel tense about the dog meeting such-and-such goals in such-and-such amount of time, I know it’s time for a break. We get out a toy, dance around with the dog, laugh and toss treats, anything the client and dog find mutually rewarding. We shake out the tension. We smile.

I’ve started building “smile breaks” into my written training plans. The activities vary based on the dogs’ presenting behavior problem and what the dog enjoys doing. For some dogs, it might be a certain game. For other dogs, it may be gentle massage with happy talk. Doing this has helped several of my client dogs move through training plans more efficiently – they’re less stressed, more engaged in the training, and feeling happier.

Unfortunately, training isn’t always easy when it comes to fear and aggression. Which makes it all the more important to spend time simply enjoying each others’ company.

–  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  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog