Every dog has triggers


“I love this term, triggering, how it makes it sound like we’re all packed tight with emotional gunpowder and coiled, ever ready to misfire.” – Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance

The word “trigger” is a useful one when coaching humans in dog training. It signifies when something will launch a dog into from being “I’m ok” to “I’m not ok.” Fight-flight-freeze reactions take over, manifesting themselves in behavior that can be mischaracterized as naughty but are actually symptoms of a dog’s internal state.

Recently, I came across the above quote while re-reading an essay in Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright. While not about dog training, the sentence gave me pause. I’ve been thinking about when I use the term “trigger,” and whether its frequency in my vocabulary is getting in the way of what I want to communicate to people about training.

Dogs do experience triggers. They hear a car backfire. They see a skateboarder. Or, in the case of one of my recent private clients, the dog encounters something fairly specific, in her case elderly people doing tai chi in a nearby park. To be ignorant the existence of triggers to a dog’s fight-flight-freeze reactions is to set a dog up for a fearful, reactive existence.

However, it’s also important to remember that just because a dog has triggers does not mean that dog is unusual, dangerous, or somehow abnormal. Many dogs who are triggered by a stimulus are normal, healthy animals. In many cases, it’s our responsibility as humans to understand how to approach and communicate with a dog.

Once, someone asked me, “What’s the best way to approach a dog with a muzzle?” My response was, “The same way a person should approach any dog in public: With respect to that dog’s body language, space, and instructions from its human.” Although it can hurt our egos, many dogs don’t want to be approached by strangers. They’d rather come up and sniff a new person on their own time, without worrying about reaching hands, forced handling, or prolonged stares. A dog doesn’t have to wear a muzzle to experience stranger danger, and many humans unknowingly expose their dogs to this type of stress all the time on walks. Nor are these dogs abnormal. Humans simply fumble a bit when it comes to new interactions with dogs.

Another time, a training client asked me what to do about her dog who didn’t want to interact with her friends when she held large parties at her house. My response was perhaps not what she expected. Instead of training the dog to be “ok” during noisy, hectic parties, I told her to provide her dog with a safe space or have her dog stay overnight with a trusted friend or sitter. Why? Because loud noises, new people, and lots of movement in a small space are normal triggers for any dog.

Many parents are experts at setting up environments to help their children feel comfortable. They hire a babysitter for a New Year’s Eve party. They realize engaging in an exciting activity right before bedtime will result in frustration. They know that the playground isn’t the best place to ask children to focus on their math homework. Dog parents need to become just as skilled at employing these types of interventions.

In the world of behavior, triggers are normal. There are of course dogs whose reactions are more intense and require the skills of a professional trainer. But it’s important for humans to realize that a stimulus can trigger any dog. It’s our responsibility to understand how to interact with and care for dogs so they don’t become coils of stress, “ready to misfire,” but can function healthily in the world alongside us.

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

Getting organized

Originally posted on Earl’s Diary.

Earl's Diary

15741136_10106161971566467_3224183597324008745_n“The benefits of keeping records of our dogs’ lives extend well beyond being able to refer to them at vet visits. Humans are notoriously bad at assessing the dates of events (Hammond 2012), and the kinds of gradual changes that are connected to a long-term condition may be the hardest of all to track.” – Eileen Anderson, Remember Me? Loving and Caring for  Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Up until now, I’ve relied on memory and (in keeping with my generation) a history of Facebook posts to catalog Earl’s behavior and symptoms. Now that his care is getting ever more complicated with new medications, supplements and behavior changes, I need a better system of recording Earl’s behavior so I can:

  • Track behavior over time
  • provide an accurate account to our veterinarian, and
  • determine the efficacy of various treatments.

I will be adding 3 supplements to Earl’s medication regimen, which makes…

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Earl’s Diary: Safe Spaces

Originally posted on Earl’s Diary. 

15941322_10106208995619887_267948270371438500_nEvery dog needs a safe space, somewhere he can go where he feels secure and stress-free. Earl’s safe space has always been our bed. My husband and I always laughed when he stood on the pillows, usually by 10 pm, and barked as if to say “Hey! It’s past my bedtime! Where are you?” Sometimes, he would attempt to lead us to bed by staring at us in the living room, then running into the bedroom, waiting for us. If we didn’t follow, he’d come back to his starting point and try again.

For the past few months, Earl’s safe space has been source of stress – not because it’s no longer his safe space, but because he has difficulty settling anywhere else. Since the beginning of his cognitive decline, he struggles to relax from afternoon onward. Typically, his restlessness begins around 2 pm and doesn’t abate until bedtime. During this time, he will engage with puzzle toys, chew on bones, and play training games, but he cannot sit still. If he tries to nap, he typically resumes his pacing after 5-10 minutes, or quickly jumps up mid-nap, as if startled.

Initially, I thought I could “fix” this problem through training. I timed out Earl’s demand barking for bed. I ramped up his enrichment and exercise. I played soothing music in our living room. I placed several fluffy blankets on the floor and sofa, hoping to replicate the softness of bed. Despite these efforts, Earl’s pacing and restlessness continued. And because of my focus on fixing Earl’s behavior, I became increasingly burnt out.

What I now realize is that I was approaching the situation from the wrong perspective. I cannot approach Earl’s dementia symptoms with a “fix it” paradigm. Instead, I have to adjust my behavior and the environment to reduce his stress and help his body and mind relax.

After all, if Earl was experiencing difficulty reaching his water bowl, I wouldn’t create a training plan to help him bend over to drink. I would simply elevate his water bowl to accommodate his aging body. I need to approach Earl’s pacing and restlessness in the same way: Accept and accommodate, not resist and fix.

Earl received his diagnosis last week and since then, I’ve worked hard to change the way I approach my care for him. When he paces, his body is stressed. Even if he’s working on a puzzle toy or a bone, I know that he’s experiencing an underlying restlessness that abates once I sit with him in bed. His demand barking for bed is a request for time in his safe space, not simply a nuisance behavior. My primary job isn’t to address the demand barking, or to entertain him until he’s too tired to pace.

My job is to address his underlying need to feel safe.

I’ve begun proactively sitting with Earl in his safe space during scheduled times, particularly times he has been displaying restless behavior. Instead of trying to tire him out with hours of puzzle toys and exercise, I give him play time, followed by guiding him to bed so he can rest (which he does, beautifully, once he snuggles into his favorite spot). When he wakes up, I engage him in a puzzle toy or some form of exercise, and then encourage him to rest again in his safe space. My goals are a reduction in pacing, a reduction in stress, and a scheduled routine that helps him feel safe and calm.

My mantra for this new chapter with Earl: Accept and accommodate to create a safe space for his mind and body.

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

Celebrating the mischievous dog

IMG_0048.jpgAs a dog trainer, it may seem strange when I say I celebrate when my human clients tell me their dogs are exhibiting mischievous behaviors. But, considering a majority of the dogs on my caseload are fearful and anxious, getting behavior – any behavior – is a cause for celebration. Because whether naughty or nice, exhibiting behavior is a key indicator of a dog’s emotional well-being.

Behavior is an essential part of life. In the words of Kathy Sdao, “Consequences drive behavior.” In fact, consequences are the reason behavior evolved, not just for dogs but for all species, including our own.

You may have heard someone describe a fearful dog as “shut down.” Typically, “shut down” is a metaphor for lack of behavior. Healthy, well-adjusted dogs explore their environment, interact with stimuli, and perform a variety of behaviors to produce consequences. These consequences can range from gaining access to reinforcers like playtime and food, to exploring outlets for basic needs like chewing, and exercising, to expressing when they are uncomfortable by growling or barking.

Fearful dogs possess a limited range of behaviors. They may appear “frozen” and lack the ability to use growling, snarling, or barking to express discomfort. If presented with a food toy, they may not investigate it. They may eschew contact with other dogs and humans. While these dogs may appear to be beautifully behaved, the fact is, they aren’t behaving. And that’s a problem.

Lack of behavior is not a goal in any training plan. Lack of behavior means something is seriously wrong. A good example is the dog who appears “completely fine” at the veterinary office, but is frozen out of fear instead. The illusion of “completely fine” is in actuality an absence of behavior.

Recently, a long-term human client of mine excitedly emailed me with the news that her dog had jumped on the bed, taken a library book, and shredded it to bits. We were both ecstatic at the news because for the longest time, this dog was too scared to do any behaviors, let alone behaviors humans typically classify as “mischief.” In addition to being too afraid to go outside, she was hesitant to step on different surfaces, hesitant to engage in normal dog behaviors like chewing, and didn’t express an interest in toys or games.

Through training, her humans and I have helped this dog come out of her shell and, above all, start offering behavior as a means of interacting with her world.

Still confused as to why a dog trainer would celebrate library book destruction? Here’s just a small list of all the behaviors this fearful dog performed to achieve this “mischievous” trick:

  • Leaving her “safe” space in her house, the bathroom
  • Placing her paws on a new surface
  • Performing a “paws up” behavior, where she places her front paws on an elevated surface
  • Actively engaging with her environment
  • Seeking an object to chew

All of these things are indicators of a healthy, well-adjusted dog – something to celebrate. After all, teaching dogs to stay off furniture and refrain from chewing illegal items is the easy stuff compared to dealing with fear and anxiety.

So if you have a fearful dog, celebrate mischief. Your dog is behaving. And behavior is a healthy thing.

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

On consent and choices in dog training


“When people take part in research, scientists must ensure they give informed consent. When the participants are pets, owners give consent on their behalf: they understand the risks of the research and they have the right to end their participation at any time (e.g. if they feel their dog is stressed). We can’t ask animals about their feelings, but scientists have several ways they give the pets a choice.” Zazie Todd, Companion Animal Psychology

Unlike humans, dogs can’t sign an informed consent form prior to training. It’s up to us to determine whether our dogs are stressed, fearful, need a break, or need clearer instructions to make training successful and enjoyable.

One common way to determine whether the dog is saying “yes” to more training is via a “consent” test. When given the choice to walk away or say “no more training,” what does the dog do? Consent tests are important, but as I continually remind clients, we want more than just consent. We want a no-holds-barred “yes!” to the following questions:

  • Is the dog still approaching happily?
  • Is the dog comfortable at all times?
  • Is there a +CER (positive conditioned emotional response) to the training setup?
  • Is the dog asking for more training?

A huge factor in whether we have a dog’s consent or an enthusiastic “yes!” to more training is choice. We can’t always give completely free choice in training. (Remember, as trainers, we can control the amount of distractions, availability of reinforcers, and other antecedent set-ups.) But we can be mindful of a dog’s internal state, environment and preferences, and incorporate these factors into our training protocols as best we can.

For example, we can adjust for how long we train and the chances of the the dog being successful through criteria set-ups. We can also ensure that, more than simply availability of choice, a dog has favorable choices to choose from.

After all, just because a dog has choice doesn’t imply that dog is relaxed, enjoying the training, and feeling emotionally safe. If he must choose between option A and option B, but option B is aversive or scary, he may have a choice, but it’s not necessarily a good choice.

“When a dog retracts, retreats or refuses, the dog has made their choice.  The dog is saying, ‘A sucks.’  Communication goes two ways.  We can respond to the dog’s message that ‘A sucks’ through our actions. I can continue doing the same thing, justifying it by saying that the dog is free to leave.I can change what I am doing, so the dog no longer wants to leave.” – Yvette Van Veen, Awesome Dogs

Training isn’t a fixed point in time, but a continual adjustment in how we interact with the dog’s needs, preferences and the environment. When it comes to choice, the following questions are always in play:

  • Is the choice forced?
  • How much choice?
  • Are any of the options aversive to the dog?

If we find ourselves in a training setup where a dog has limited or unfavorable choices, or where a dog is walking away from the training session, we shouldn’t keep pushing. Ignoring these red flags leads to eroding +CERs and increased stress during the training session, both of which affect behavioral outcomes.

The bottom line: Don’t simply look for “consent.” Adjust your training so the dog gives an enthusiastic “yes!” to the training set-up each step of the way.

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.


Paradigm shifts aren’t easy

10419603_10103916647748397_2792827974898225307_nA short post today for trainers about paradigm shifts and the human side of dog training.

Behavior change is not easy. Paradigm shifts are not easy. As trainers, we’re asking clients to view their dogs and training through a different lens, a lens that might be the complete opposite of what they’ve been thinking and doing for years. In addition to changing thought patterns, we’re asking clients to change their behavior in order to help their dogs. All of this may be contradictory to what their partners, spouses, family members, neighbors, or even other trainers are telling them.

It’s not surprising that at some point along the way, me may meet resistance or confusion from clients. After all, the training industry hasn’t done us any favors as far as cultivating trust and standards of care. All a client has to do is google “dog training” to get hundreds of conflicting opinions on the best, guaranteed, no-fail way to “fix” a dog. Besides, it’s not easy to train a different way than your family members, or admit to a person that you made some past mistakes training your dog. Remember how embarrassing it is to tell the dentist you forgot to floss? Imagine how clients feel approaching a force-free trainer and telling that trainer they’ve used shock and prong collars?

When clients call us, it’s important to remember that what we are asking them to do is not easy. Yes, we’re asking them to train their dogs in a specific manner, but we’re also asking them to change their behavior and do things contrary to what their friends and family may be telling them to do. We may be the catalyst to them realizing that their previous training methods were less than ideal, a sensitive topic for any dog guardian.

The answer to all this: Empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean we have to agree with what a client is doing. It doesn’t mean we have to think that what a client has chosen to do during training is right. It does mean we have to make an effort to understand where that client is coming from, to understand the motivating operations. After all, behavior exists to produce consequences. It’s our job to identify the antecedents and consequences for our human clients, not just the dogs.

And never forget: The client called you. Despite resistance, the client spent time and money, two very expensive things for humans, to call you and ask for help. The motivation is there. It’s our job as trainers to guide them toward a better relationship with their dogs.

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

Dog training: On mindfulness, unrelenting kindness, and working with ‘what is’

DSC06058Last, week, I wrote about viewing work with behavior change in dogs through a mindful lens, in lieu of attempting to fix something that is broken.

This week’s post continues on that trend, taking inspiration from another quote from a recent yoga class:

“We don’t try to force out or change anything. We try to move with ‘what is.’”

Just like most people discover yoga in an effort to find and cultivate some wort of change, most dog guardians contact a trainer because something feels out of sync. Rarely do I get a call from someone who says “Things are going great, I just want to do more training!” (Although I certainly welcome it whenever someone does!) Usually, people call me because they want change, whether change within their relationship with their dog or change in their dog’s behavior. They also call when their dog is going through change, whether it be the addition of a baby, a change in their dog’s temperament, or a change in environment.

The knee-jerk response to someone asking for change is to look for what’s wrong and immediately fix it. While there’s nothing wrong with this paradigm, it fosters a rigidity that is not always helpful, particularly with dogs with fear and anxiety.

Working with the ‘what is’

Sometimes, the hardest thing for dog guardians is accepting that they have a fearful dog. For many, the fact that they live with a dog with a genetic predisposition toward fear-based behavior is a tough pill to swallow. Even tougher is the realization that they may have neglected seeking help sooner, or tried methods that actually caused the fear to worsen.

I often tell people who have used aversives in the past, or who realize their responses to their dog in the past may have worsened the problem, that hindsight is cruel. It has the power to paralyze and prevent change from occurring because we get stuck in the ‘what ifs’ as opposed to the ‘what is.’

So what is this “what is” that I keep referring to? In training, it can refer to:

  • An undersocialized dog
  • A dog with a fearful genetic load
  • A dog with a history of aversive-based training
  • A dog who underwent a traumatic experience
  • A dog whose breed makes it difficult to manage and cope with its current living environment

And any number of things that cause a breakdown in a dog’s relationship with his humans.

Science shows us that forcing change does not work, whether it be for dogs or humans.

When I work with clients, I help them see how fighting against the ‘what is’ leads them further away from change. After all, they can’t change the past, they can’t change genetics, and they certainly can’t control what happened to a dog prior to his coming into their care. But they can move and work with the ‘what is’ in order to build more positive associations, more trust, and improve their training protocols to foster behavior change.

This process takes time. Sometimes, working with the ‘what is’ starts with something as simple as ceasing to scare a dog or place him in situations known to cause him stress. (Although ceasing to scare or cause stress isn’t that simple, is it, especially if it’s  been in one’s lexicon and paradigm for years?) Once we lay the foundation, working with the ‘what is’ can get more nuanced, focusing on classical conditioning, teaching the dog coping skills, and refining technique or mechanics.

Each dog owner, and each dog, is at a different point on this continuum. And that’s OK. What’s not OK is becoming paralyzed in ‘what ifs’ and forcing change, whether change in humans or dogs. As long as dogs and their humans are moving with the ‘what is,’ they’re moving toward longer lasting behavior change, less force, more trust, and an unrelenting kindness toward both themselves and their dogs. And for me, that’s enough.

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.


Fearful dogs are not broken

Image_11When facing a behavior challenge with a dog, whether it’s fear, anxiety, aggression, or a physiological issue, a common response is, “How can I fix this?” My goal when I meet with clients is to help them reframe that question so that instead of asking how soon and how quickly they can fix their dogs, they ask what can they do on a daily basis to help their dogs find it a little easier to just be.

I recently heard this phrase – “finding it a little easier to just be” – during a yoga class. Its applications to my philosophy of training mindfully are plentiful.

Fearful dogs gain confidence and feelings of safety on their own timelines. Their internal states ebb and flow depending on body chemistry and the environment. Often, recovery is not linear. 

Viewing training for fearful dogs through the lens of “fixing” is unhelpful; fearful dogs are not “broken.” Just like all dogs, they have temperaments influenced by nature and nurture. They have the capacity to learn, to form new neural connections, to develop new associations with the environment, and to communicate via body language. What separates fearful from non-fearful dogs is not the fact they are broken, but the fact they need specific tools and management to exist with a little more ease and a little less fear.

They need extra help from their humans to find it a little easier to just be. 

When I meet with clients, we discuss how small daily adjustments help dial down the stress:

  • Giving the dog a safe space in the home away from noise and triggers.
  • Providing puzzle toys and games to give the dog moments of joy during the day.
  • Moving walking routes to a less stressful location.
  • Teaching coping skills to help the dog stay calm in stressful situations.

None of these adjustments “fixes” fear. And, as we know from research done by LeDoux, fear is easy to install and difficult, perhaps impossible, to fully extinguish. But when combined into a comprehensive management and training plan, these adjustments provide a way forward for dogs and their humans. Dogs experience a few more moments of joy during the day. Startle responses decrease and recovery times improve. Dogs experience relief from environmental stress. They start existing in a world with more positive associations.

They find it a little easier to just be. 

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.


When ‘getting the behavior’ isn’t the priority

Behavior, behavior, behavior! Sometimes, we as humans are in such a rush to get a dog’s behavior on perfectly on cue, we forget to determine whether “getting the behavior” is the priority. For fearful and stressed dogs, it often is not. The priority is classical conditioning.

Starting with classical conditioning is important. When dogs are stressed and afraid, their brains don’t have much room left for the operant conditioning side of the equation. The stressed, fearful dog is primarily concerned with fight, flight and freeze reactions. If we ask a dog to sit or look at us during a stressful situation, he may do the behavior, but there may be a delay between the cue, the behavior and the reinforcer, or the behavior may be weak or incomplete, leaving the dog’s human frustrated and leaving the dog without the valuable and timely placement of reinforcement.

Classical conditioning is deceptively tricky. Often when going into a consult, my job is to help people slow down and simplify their training so that their dogs begin making strong positive associations with the environment.

As a quick review: Classical conditioning refers to a dog’s associations with events in the environment. The responses we elicit and condition through classical conditioning are involuntary. These conditioned emotional responses can be positive or negative. When training, we want to increase the amount of positive conditioned emotional responses. This type of training is different from operant conditioning, where a dog receives a reward or punishment contingent on a particular behavior. The dog sits, he gets a reward. The dog demand barks, he gets placed in time out for one minute.

In pure classical conditioning, our use of food is not contingent on the dog’s behavior. The dog receives food simply for being aware of a particular event or stimulus. He doesn’t have to do anything else.

So, if we’re classically conditioning a dog to have a positive conditioned emotional response to delivery trucks, we dispense food immediately after the dog notices the truck, regardless of whether the dog is looking at us, sitting, lying down, standing, or even barking. If we ask for any type of behavior, even something as simple as playing “look at that” or “click the trigger,” we’re not doing pure classical conditioning because we’re making the reinforcer contingent on some sort of behavior.

Why not start with operant conditioning with a very fearful or stressed dog? While there’s nothing wrong with asking for various behaviors like “watch me” or “touch” in various situations – in fact, I often build these behaviors into a dog’s training plan – asking for behaviors before we have a positive emotional response on board creates problems.

As I wrote in a previous post on the pitfalls of NILIF: “For classical conditioning to work effectively, dogs must realize their triggers are sure-fire, no-holds-barred, no-fail tip-offs to high-value rewards. If we impose conditions on that reward – ‘you must sit and look at me for two seconds,’ or ‘you must heel at my side to receive a treat, even if you’re really scared’ – we create confusion. We weaken the strong association between stimulus and positive event needed to successfully change dogs’ emotions.”

Returning to the delivery truck example. If we require the dog to look at us after seeing the truck, there’s a delay between the appearance of the truck and the delivery of food. This delay weakens the association we’re trying to build, and all the while, the dog is experiencing stress at the appearance of the truck. If we ask for a “watch me,” and the dog is too stressed to do so, then he doesn’t get a reward, meaning we’ve lost out on a crucial opportunity to communicate to the dog that delivery trucks are a surefire, no-holds-barred predictor of good things.

It’s easy to get stuck in this frustrating cycle. When clients call me and say the training isn’t working, this is the first place I examine in the training protocol. Often, I instruct clients to worry about building in behaviors later. The priority is delivering food and happy talk – the “good stuff” – upon appearance of the stressful stimulus, and making sure the “good stuff” follows the stimulus every time.

I also tell clients with fearful dogs to create a different protocol: “No stimulus goes unconditioned.” Every time their dog encounters a stimulus (be it scary, anxiety-provoking, or slightly suspicious to the dog), I tell them to make something good happen. Whether it be a high-value treat, a game with a much-loved toy, or anything else the dog finds immensely rewarding, I tell my clients to maintain a religious 1:1 ratio between stimulus and the good stuff. Later, when the dog is less fearful and has a strong conditioned emotional response to the environment, they can bring in various operant behaviors and contingencies. But creating a sense of safety, and protecting trust between owner and dog, comes first.

A happy, relaxed dog has more real estate in his brain to learn. Once those happy emotions flow upon seeing a previously stressful stimulus, we can start to build various behaviors into the training plan.

So if you’re working on classical conditioning with your dog, make sure you’re doing it correctly. By going slow and focusing on building positive associations, you’ll reach your behavior goals sooner, and your dog will be less stressed.

For further reading: “Plenty in Life is Free,” by Kathy Sdao

–  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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.