Dog training’s incremental heroes

16105541_10106263199574727_7336248183755278855_n“Success, therefore, is not about the episodic, momentary victories, though they do play a role. It is about the larger view of incremental steps that produce sustained progress.” – Atul Gawande

This isn’t the first time I’ve read something by Atul Gawande and found parallels to the dog training industry. (See here and here for other morsels.) Given his keen sense of how systems work and where systems break down, his articles provide understanding beyond the scope of health care.

In Gawande’s latest article for The New Yorker, he argues for “the heroism of the incremental.” In health care, incrementalism means targeting focus well-funded primary care, not just rescue medicine. In another example he discusses incrementalism in bridge construction – funding incremental maintenance and care, as opposed to using those funds for new construction.

The allure of the quick fix is nothing new. The reason, Gawande writes, is obvious. “Construction produces immediate and visible success; maintenance doesn’t.”

The dog training industry is filled with quick fixes. As a force-free trainer, I have to compete with people offering dog owners brand new construction over incremental maintenance. Paraphrasing Gawande, who wouldn’t want a one-time appointment that produces shiny new behaviors in one’s dog, as opposed to someone selling consistent maintenance that could take weeks, months, sometimes years to fully actualize?

The problem is, new construction comes with pitfalls. Invariably, the individuals claiming to be the “quick-fix heroes” in dog training have poor knowledge of the science of behavior change, which does not, contrary to popular belief, bestow whispering gifts upon gifted practitioners. The quick fixes so-called trainers apply, and the tools they use (shock,  pain, prong and choke collars), are laden with significant, often inhumane side effects. Dog owners lured by the new construction myth often end up with a dog who has severe, lifelong behavior problems.

Real behavior change, humane behavior change, celebrates the incremental. There are no quick fixes in dog training. There is no “easy” button. Whisperers and gurus are simply other names for snake-oil salespeople. An incremental approach to dog training and behavior recognizes potential red flags before they spiral, and provides steady support to dogs and their humans over time to reduce and change behavior problems.

An incrementalist approach to dog training includes:

  • Transparency of methods
  • Realistic outcomes
  • Evidence-based behavior change plans
  • Ongoing support for the dog’s humans to maintain behavior change
  • Early intervention and prevention with puppy an adolescent socials, group classes, and puppy training
  • Education and pre-adoption counseling

The above list isn’t as exciting as a magical quick fix. As Gawande acknowledges, everyone loves to be the hero who swoops in and makes everything better. It’s time the dog training industry shifted priorities and celebrated the “heroism of the incremental.”

–  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.