A dog trainer’s guide to navigating the training wars

18447641_10106773307165027_7176857807764373140_nEvery so often, a sun flare emerges within the dog training community. It’s bright, it attracts attention, causes some explosive interactions and, eventually, burns out. Flares are not necessarily bad. After all, had no flare-ups occurred in the past couple of decades, a majority of trainers might be continuing to use outdated methods. But flare-ups can also be rife with logical traps. The dangers are two-fold:

  • They interfere with our critical thinking skills
  • They have the potential to confuse and, potentially mislead, dog guardians

While it’s good to question the status quo, many discussions easily dissolve into logical fallacies and poor science. Whether you’re a behavior change professional, a behavior geek, or someone who wants to provide the best life possible for your dog, here are a few pointers on how to solve (and resolve) flares when you see them occur within the dog training community:

Where’s the evidence? 

We owe our dogs real science. Real science is peer-reviewed and backed by evidence. Real science is not based on conjecture, opinion, or personal stories. Nullius in verba. Demand evidence.

Beware logical fallacies

We’re all susceptible to logical fallacies, whether making one of our own or believing someone else’s. If you’re aware of potential missteps ahead of time, you’ll be more likely to catch them in your own patterns of thinking or in someone else’s. Here are a few examples (read more about logical fallacies here)

Begging the question: This is an argument that requires the reader to accept the conclusion without providing real evidence. In these cases, the argument’s premise states the same thing as the conclusion, or the argument fails to address critical gaps.

Example: Socializing puppies is the humane, ethical thing to do. Therefore, it’s humane and ethical to socialize puppies.

False dichotomy: An argument that incorrectly paints a situation as having only two choices. The argument then eliminates one of the choices, seemingly leaving the reader with only one remaining option.

Example: Puppy parents have the option to socialize their puppies or avoid socialization altogether. Since puppy socialization can be done incorrectly, puppy parents must avoid socializing their puppies altogether.

Appeal to ignorance: Claiming that due to inconclusive evidence, readers should accept an argument’s conclusion on an issue.

Example: Because the research on puppy socialization is inconclusive and divided, people should accept my conclusion.

Slippery slope: The arguer claims that a chain reaction will take place, often leading to a bad ending, despite a lack of evidence supporting this claim.

Example: If we allow all puppies to continue being socialized, dog owners will continue to socialize their puppies improperly. We will end up with generation upon generation of dogs with behavior problems. To prevent this from happening, we must avoid all puppy socialization.

Beware cherry-picking and single-case studies

Articles that cite studies that support the author’s argument can be misleading. After all, the author’s statements are backed up by citations, so those statements must be correct, right? Wrong. It’s important to consider several factors when reading articles that cite other sources in support of an argument:

  • Are the citations valid?
  • Does the author take a comprehensive look at the literature available, or does the author only focus on citations that support his or her argument?
  • Is the author accurately interpreting the research?

It’s also important to look at single-case studies with a critical eye. While they can be helpful in understanding the context of behavior, beware articles that base arguments solely on personal experience, or one or two ad hoc experiences with dogs.

Remember: While important, personal experience is vastly different from research that has been vetted via the scientific process.

Avoid sweeping generalizations

It’s important to stay informed of the latest research on dog behavior, but it’s equally important to avoid training “trends.” Trends are typically based on popular opinion at the time, and aren’t based on true, hard science. Training trends gain popularity because they “sound good,” are a quick fix, or appeal to a person’s own biases. Trends also put the dog behavior community at risk of making sweeping generalizations about a particular topic.

Whenever you notice a trend emerging in the training community, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where’s the evidence?
  • Is the evidence valid?
  • How are my own biases affecting my interpretation of this trend?

Final note: As trainers, it’s important to realize that how we communicate the latest trends within the behavior community has a vast impact on dogs and their guardians, particularly if others see us as experts in the field. This doesn’t mean we can’t have biases – that’s not reasonable. But it does mean we need to be particularly careful when communicating information about behavior and training. And it also means empowering our own clients with critical thinking skills.

–  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.

Walk with me

IMG_6198Humans generally lump “dog walks” into one main category with the following parameters: Pay attention and don’t pull. But from a dog’s perspective, what he wants -and needs – from a walk is much more nuanced, and varies depending on the dog. Instead of focusing on general “leash manners” or a strict view of walking where the dog remains at heel position the entire time, I encourage my students to think first and foremost about what their dogs need from a walk. I call this exercise, “Walk with me.”

Most of us take our dogs for walks because we’ve heard somewhere along the way that walks are a good thing for dogs to do. Which is true – walks are an excellent source of enrichment and exercise. But “going for a walk” involves so much more than simply ambulating around the neighborhood. The key to a quality walk is attending to a dog’s emotional as well as physical needs. Examples of these needs include:

  • Sniffing
  • Exploring new environments
  • Interacting with the walker
  • Training games and play
  • Exercise

Note that I listed exercise as last on the list not because it’s the least important, but because it easily overshadows the other benefits of walks – and can get in the way of understanding what each individual dog enjoys and needs. For example, if a dog goes for three long walks a day in an environment that he finds stressful and scary, those long walks aren’t improving his quality of life despite the exercise they provide.

When putting on your dog’s leash and harness, imagine your dog saying, “Walk with me.” What would that look like?

Some dogs may love scent tracking and exploring their environment. For these dogs, “walk with me” means allowing them to sniff and explore even if it means going at a slower pace or taking the occasional pit stop at a particularly fragrant row of hedges. Other dogs enjoy interacting with their human on walks, engaging in either play or training games along the way. For these dogs, “walk with me” means doing some urban agility tricks, engaging in some simple training games, and providing lots of happy talk and feedback along the way. If their human is distracted, on the phone or checked out, they’re not going to receive the enrichment and engagement they need for an enjoyable walk. Still other dogs may need the physical exercise that comes with walking . While leash walks aren’t as physically tiring as off-leash play, “walk with me” to these dogs involves helping them achieve the brisk pace they need plus engaging their brain in training games. After all, one of the reasons an athletic dog may be pulling ahead is simply because he’s excited to move. 

If you work in tandem with your dog’s physical and emotional needs, things like loose leash walking and leash manners will seem more achievable and, ultimately, less frustrating to train. If you meet your dog’s physical and emotional needs, your dog will have more mental real estate to train with you, and will be less likely to resort to “nuisance” behaviors like leash chewing, pulling, and jumping – which are symptoms of a dog’s needs not being met.

Remember, “Walk with me,” isn’t what you’re telling the dog – it’s what the dog is asking of you.

–  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.

The problem with viewing behavior as a problem

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I rarely, if ever, focus on punishment – even the force-free, humane kind – when working with training clients. But before you quit reading and think this is one of those kooky training articles full of yoga, chakras and kumbaya, hang in there and let me explain why.

When a client contacts me for help, I invariably ask the client to describe the behaviors causing concern. The person usually mentions behaviors like barking, lunging, air snapping, or reluctance (“putting on the brakes”) in certain situations. While these types of behaviors are certainly cause for concern, and certainly cause for contacting a training professional, I hesitate to classify them as “problems.” Instead, I view them – and try to help my clients view them – as expressions of a dog’s needs.

When I meet a dog who is barking and lunging at strangers and other dogs on- and off- leash, these behaviors are critical information about that dog’s internal state. He’s likely saying “Back off, I’m not comfortable!” This dog is expressing his need for space in order to feel safe. And, in this case, I’m glad that the dog is barking and lunging . Animals that display threat signals when uncomfortable are functioning and healthy. After all, I’d much rather a dog say “Back off!” early rather than stay shut down until he has no other option left except to bite.

I also meet with clients whose dogs are chewing up items in the house or barking out of boredom. While both the client and I want to ensure their dog doesn’t continue these behaviors, I again help the client understand how these behaviors provide critical information about their dog’s internal state. In some cases, dogs who excessively chew and bark are severely lacking in enrichment and exercise. Simply put, they need something to do. In other cases, the chewing and barking could indicate a greater underlying problem like separation anxiety or environmental stress.

I’m not saying time-outs are ineffective or inhumane. And, as part of a comprehensive force-free behavior change plan, they can help reduce unwanted behavior while the client also works on rewarding new, more desirable behaviors. But I do think it’s important to shift the paradigm away from viewing behavior as a “problem” and instead view it as an “expression of needs.”

All species – including humans – behave to produce consequences. As a trainer, I want behavior from my clients’ dogs. A lack of behavior indicates an unhealthy, potentially shut down animal. So the next time your dog displays a behavior, instead of asking, “How can I stop this?” ask, “What does my dog need?”
–  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.

Remove the ego, listen to the dog

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“Instead of focusing on what you don’t want your dog to do, focus on what you want your dog to do.”

This is a common phrase in dog training, and it’s a good one. In fact, it’s one of my go-to phrases when helping clients dissect behavior problems with their dogs. It helps clients focus on what to reinforce instead of what to punish, and helps them set their dogs up for success.

But even though a trainer’s motivation by using this phrase could be setting the dog up for success, there’s a pitfall. And it’s a big one: Ego.

Let’s rewind a minute and think about a trainer or client’s responses to the question “What do you want your dog to do instead?” Inevitably, the client or trainer will respond with variations of:

“I want my dog to do x, y, z.”

But while you may find x, y or z reinforcing, does your dog feel the same way?

While it’s good to consider our needs when building behavior change plans, it’s vitally important to think about the dog’s needs. Sure, we might want a dog to do a certain behavior in a specific context, but is that behavior the optimal choice to meet the dog’s needs at that moment? Is the behavior we want a dog to perform the option that helps the dog feel the most comfortable at that moment? Is the behavior we want a dog to perform the most positively reinforcing option for the dog at that moment?

For example, suppose a client wants her dog to sit-stay while houseguests come up to say hello. For some dogs, this is an excellent training goal. But what if the dog in question is uncomfortable greeting lots of new people? While the client may want her dog to sit for pets and hellos, the dog may be more comfortable choosing to sit-stay on a target at a distance away from new people entering the room. What if the dog gets so excited when new people come in the house that remaining in a stay position becomes stressful and frustrating? This dog may be less stressed by enjoying a high-value chew or puzzle toy behind a barrier until the house guests settle.

Because each dog is an individual, it’s important to consider each dog’s behavioral and emotional needs. Otherwise, we may think we’re practicing force-free training, but we might be placing undue stress on a dog, or be placing a dog in a fear-inducing situation. This perspective isn’t always the most popular, nor is it the easiest. Recognizing a dog’s individual needs requires vigilance and flexibility. After all, many people, trainers included, enter the dog training field with the perspective of what they want from dogs.

If we believe in positive reinforcement and force-free training, we must assess what behaviors will be most reinforcing for the dog.

–  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.

The trouble with “should”

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Lately, I’ve been noticing the word “should” appear in conversations and literature on dog training.

  • “Fido should now how to do this right now.”
  • “Fido should know better.”
  • “Fido should feel safe in this environment.”

It’s easy for humans to dictate how a dog “should “behave or feel. The problem with this type of thinking, and this type of verbiage, is that it sets up dogs and their humans for frustration and failure.

Every dog is an individual. For training to be truly force-free, every dog needs the autonomy to decide what makes him feel safe, what he finds reinforcing, and what he needs to thrive. I believe there’s a reluctance in society to give dogs this autonomy, partly because of the dominance fallacy that’s still pervasive in training circles, and partly because it means giving up some of the control we invariably exert over our dogs.

By placing behavior in terms of  “the dog ‘should’ do or feel xyz,” it relieves humans of the burden of understanding behavior in terms of antecedents and consequences, as well as understanding how classical conditioning affects a dog’s feeling of safety in the environment. This isn’t fair to the dog. After all, the only thing a dog “should” do is what all living species do, every day: behave and communicate according to the laws of behavior.

Dogs don’t choose their families, where they live, or their daily environment. We choose that for our dogs. This doesn’t mean dogs can’t thrive. But it does mean we have an overwhelming responsibility to listen to our dogs’ communication, understand their behavior, and adjust the environment to help them feel as safe and healthy as possible. And stop imposing the word “should,” and all its implications, on their daily lives.

–  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.

Every dog has triggers

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“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.