Reflections on training: Restoring fearful dogs

goldinfill-pottery“The ancient Chinese had a practice of embellishing the cracked parts of valued possessions with gold leaf, which says: We dishonor it if we pretend that it hadn’t gotten broken. It says: We value this enough to repair it. So it is not denial or a cover-up. It is the opposite, an adornment of the break with gold leaf, which draws the cracks into greater prominence. The gold leaf becomes part of its beauty. Somehow the aesthetic of its having been cracked but still being here,  brought not back to baseline but restored, brings increase.” – Anne Lamott, “Hallelujah Anyway”

Those familiar with my blog and training style are also familiar that I draw inspiration from an eclectic variety of sources, one of them being writing. Although my bedtime reading is decidedly not dog-related, it’s amusing how often I read a passage from a book and find parallels to my work in dog training and the rehabilitation of fearful dogs.

How many times has a client come to me and, in not so many words, explained to me that their dog is broken? How many times has a client come to me and, when asked of her training goals, said she wants to fix her dog, or that she just wants things to go back to the way they were before her dog’s behavior got worse? The answer, in my case, is innumerable. You might say this is a recurring experience for me.

When I first started training, I came in with the perspective of “fixing problems.” After all, people call me, their dog has a problem, so it’s my job to fix that problem so life can go on as it was before. Over the years, my perspective has evolved. I still come in with the goal of helping clients. I still use the foundations of animal learning and the tenets of force-free dog training to change behavior. But I don’t go into a consult viewing a problem that needs fixing. I go into a consult knowing that there’s a dog, a sentient being, with needs, varying internal states, and temperament, a being that requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach to dog training.

Dogs are not robots. Dogs are not automatons. To reduce their rehabilitation to standard plans that fail to take into account their needs and emotions at any point in time is doing them a huge disservice. When a fearful dog and his guardian enter my practice, I don’t ask “How can we return this dog to baseline?” Instead, I ask, “How can we restore this dog?” How can we restore this dog so he can move through the world with less fear, more comfort, and with a set of skills that will help him navigate his unique environment? After all, each dog has his unique set of triggers that culminate like cracks of broken pottery. And by nature of the training process and our influence on behavior through classical and operant conditioning, a dog whose cracks have been filled will still be a being different than the one who entered training. (Ideally, that dog will have more resilience, coping skills, and a guardian who is better equipped to guide that dog through the rest of his life.)

Some dogs come into our lives with fear and aggression. Some develop it over time due to factors including environment and genetics. But if we train from the perspective of restoring and creating a stronger being than the one we first encountered, instead of picking up broken pieces and putting them back together again, I believe we’ll have a better chance at deeper, longer-lasting behavior change and rehabilitation.

–  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.