Rewriting your dog’s recovery narrative

10367192_10105026393005007_3435937101768939311_nWhen writing about dog training, I often find inspiration in unlikely places. I recently finished Fiona Wright’s collection of essays about hunger and disordered eating titled “Small Acts of Disappearance.” Throughout the book, she questions whether viewing behavior change via the traditional “recovery narrative” is helpful or even realistic.

Writing about one of her many setbacks in overcoming anorexia, she writes, “There’s no room in any narrative of recovery I’ve ever seen for this terrible sadness, this unreasonable fear, and these unmeasurable movements, backwards and forwards and sideways, towards, away from and around whatever a return to health might mean.”

Although Wright is speaking of her own personal experience, her description of non-linear progress hits home when working with fearful and aggressive dogs (both for the client and the dog).

When beginning a behavior change program for a fearful dog, the terminal goal is always reduced fear and increased trust – “a return to health,” in the words of Wright. It’s easy to view the steps toward this goal through a rigid paradigm: Step A, Step B, Step C, all forward progress. Unfortunately, fear doesn’t go from A through Z. It has setbacks and sub-steps.

In Wright’s words: “Recovery is not a linear process.”

Sometimes outside events cause a sideways or backwards move in a dog’s journey. A dog with separation anxiety is left alone. A reactive dog gets bit by another dog at the park. A noise sensitive dog sensitizes after July 4th fireworks. Sometimes internal events create a setback. Illness, the wrong combination of medications, or periods of heightened stress all affect behavior.

The definition of recovery itself can be misleading. Some health fields prefer the terms “rehabilitation” and “reintegration.” In dog training, does recovery mean complete reversal of fear and aggression? Or does recovery mean possessing the tools to cope with the environment, alleviate symptoms, and gain more trust and higher quality of life? I choose the latter definition.

It’s understandable to worry when a fearful dog appears to regress. After all, society is well-primed to see recovery as linear, to expect the narrative to progress forward at all times. In reality, your dog’s narrative is unique to you and your dog.

When you notice your dog’s recovery going sideways, backwards, perhaps even forwards a few times in between, don’t panic. It’s ok. You’ll be ok. Your dog will be ok.

Observe what’s happening in your environment and ask the following questions:

  • Is there anything in the environment that’s new or causing your dog stress?
  • Are you pushing ahead too quickly in your training plan before your dog is ready?
  • What is your dog’s body language telling you?
  • Have you spoken to your vet to rule out any underlying physical causes?
  • Do you need to add another element to your training plan to address a new or previously unknown trigger for your dog?
  • Are you managing your dog’s environment to prevent his going over threshold and developing negative associations to his environment?

If you live with a fearful or aggressive dog, remember: Recovery may not be linear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

–  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.

Dog training: Look for nuance, not pizzazz

12115865_10104698067491967_7758333872740131794_nA common phrase when it comes to dog training is that watching classical conditioning done correctly is like watching paint dry. Nothing visibly dramatic is happens. There’s no flair, no excitement, no “near misses” from an aggressive, biting dog.

My response:

1. Lack of visible dramatics is a good thing.

If a dog is displaying threatening behaviors (growling, snarling, snapping, biting, etc.), that dog is over threshold. Eliciting these behaviors is “anti-training:” It will not help your dog get better faster and sets the stage for more problem behaviors to occur in the future.

While animal learning may not be everyone’s passion, viewing quality dog training through the lens of entertainment puts dogs and dog guardians at risk. When looking for a heart surgeon, few people look for someone who makes an angioplasty exciting or does open heart surgery with pizzazz. Most people look for a surgeon who is qualified, well-trained, and follows up-to-date best practices. Dogs deserve the same standards of care.

2. Rapid results do not mean high quality. 

Learning takes time, particularly if a dog is fearful or anxious. Typically, videos showing night-and-day transformations in a dog are the result of:

a) Behavior suppression, where the dog’s threat sequences are punished, temporarily suppressing them, or
b) Behavior that is not complete or fully proofed for the distractions present in the dog’s everyday environment.

Neither of these results effectively solve behavior problems. They simply put a very weak bandage over an expanding wound.

3. It’s more than drying paint.

If you look closely at a dog during the training process, something incredibly dramatic and beautiful is occurring: You’re helping a species different from your own learn his world is safe and full of tip-offs to positive things.

No matter how often I see it, watching the learning process occur never fails to amaze me. When training or searching for a trainer, don’t look for pizzazz. Look for nuance.

–  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 She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at

Training mindfully: First, be aware

1981744_10104369062819967_2832924214322087898_nAwhile ago, I introduced the concept of training mindfully, of being acutely aware of what is happening with the dog and environment in the present moment and suspending all judgment and preconceived notions about what the dog should be doing or what we think the dog is thinking.

By paying attention on purpose, we tap into the fundamentals of good training: Timing, mechanics and learning theory.

When it comes to animal behavior modification, trainer and teacher extraordinaire Bob Bailey is well-known for saying “Think. Plan. Do.”

The “think” portion of this quote hints at the inner, quieter aspects of training. Typically, when discussing mechanics and technique, we think about the physical: Timing of rewards, position of reward delivery, maintaining a quiet body so as not to overshadow or block a dog’s learning.

Mechanics are critical to successful training, but not limited to the physical. Before timing of rewards and application of either operant or classical conditioning comes the awareness inside the trainer. In a word, mindfulness.

Sound too new-agey? Bear with me.

“Even scaffolding needs a foundation upon which to rest. It is not very wise to erect it on shifting sands, or on dirt or clay that could easily turn into mud,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers of bringing mindfulness into the Western world an integrating it with Western medicine, in Coming to Our Senses. “The foundation for mindfulness practice, for all meditative inquiry, lies in ethics and morality, and above all, the motivation of non-harming.”

Myths and incomplete understanding about how dogs learn, a dog’s underlying motivations, and the desire to forcibly control a dog’s behavior place a trainer’s scaffolding on shifting sands.

A foundation of non-harming is critical to force-free training. After all, a trainer can have impeccable timing and mechanics, but use those skills to cause pain, shock, intimidation or injury to a dog. A trainer’s ethical code sets the stage for all training protocols. The science of animal learning and the principle of “do no harm” create a solid foundation for the nuts and bolts of training behaviors.

Through mindfulness, trainers can continually be aware of and reassess how their actions are influencing the behavior of the dogs they train.

The brilliant thing about mindfulness is that if we find ourselves slipping into various myths about dogs, or wandering in the wrong direction during a training protocol,  we can catch it sooner because we’re paying attention on purpose. We’re aware of the antecedents, behaviors and consequences that form the feedback loop between dog behavior, the trainer and the environment.

Mindfulness also fosters a force-free community that applies the “do no harm” mantra to humans as well as dogs. It gives people who have used aversive techniques in the past a way forward.

“This willingness to embrace what is and then work with it takes great courage, and presence of mind,” writes Zin. “So, in any moment, whatever is happening, we can always check and see for ourselves.”

In this context, “first, do no harm” really translates to “first, be aware.”

–  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 She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at

Fear in dogs and human perceptions: What matters and what doesn’t

IMG_0251Since becoming a professional certified dog trainer, I’ve encountered and worked with many fearful dogs. One myth I’ve heard over and over is the idea that dogs shouldn’t be afraid of certain stimuli. Unfortunately, this cognitive roadblock interferes with both effective training protocols and empathy for the intense physical and emotional sensations dogs feel when afraid.

As humans, some canine fears make more sense to us than others. For example, loud noises, scary veterinary procedures, and household intruders typically fit into the “this makes some sense” category. But what about the fears we can’t quite understand? The perceived threats that we clearly see as innocuous? What about these actual fears from some of my past cases: Feathers, blowing sand, a large dog afraid of small dogs, open windows, the sound of leaves rustling on the sidewalk, crunchy treats, and birds flying past?

The symptoms of a dog whose fears fall into the more obscure category are just as intense and just as real as a dog whose fears appear more logical.

“Evolution seems to have gone with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ rule when it comes to the fear system of the brain. The things that make rats and people afraid are very different, but the way the brain deals with danger appears to be similar. We can, as a result, learn quite a lot about how emotional situations are detected and responded to by the human brain through studies of other animals,” writes The LeDoux Lab at the Center for Neural Science at NYU.¹

The fear-invoking stimulus triggers chemical processes in the amygdala, which then send messages to the dog’s brain cells indicating perceived danger. Whether we find a dog’s fear relevant or obscure doesn’t matter. Nor does the approach to dealing with the fear (desensitization and counterconditioning) change. When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters.

The ways dogs develop fears differ. They can become fearful due to omission of socialization. They can experience a traumatic event and become conditioned to fear a particular stimuli or group of stimuli. They can also acquire fear genetically. But in an article discussing the role of the amygdala in fear and fear acquisition, prominent neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux indicates that fear, whether conditioned or unconditioned, triggers the same neural processes in an animal:

“They are innate, species-typical responses to threats and are expressed automatically in the presence of appropriate stimuli. Fear conditioning thus allows new or learned threats to automatically activate evolutionarily tuned ways of responding to danger. The ease of establishment, rapidity of learning, long duration of the memory, and stereotyped nature of the responses all speak to the value of the Pavlovian learning as an approach to the study of fear mechanisms…”²

We can’t choose what our dogs should or shouldn’t be afraid of, or decide which are valid and which are silly. We can use trust, love and science to help our dogs overcome these fears and feel safe in their environment.

For more information on fearful dogs, visit

–  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 She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at


¹ The LeDoux Lab. (2015) What the Lab Does and Why We Do It.

² LeDoux, J. (2003) The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 23: 727-737.

Less reactive, more responsive

11077524_10104157687532737_5712183532265392776_nLast week, during a particularly challenging yoga sequence, the instructor reminded the class that one of the goals of the practice was to place the oneself in challenging poses and teach the mind and body to be “less reactive, more responsive.”

The concept of being “less reactive, more responsive” at first seemed unattainable during that particular class, when I found my body contorted into a pretzel, balancing precariously on one leg. But various tools taught over years of practice, introduced during less complicated poses and carried as a theme throughout each class, helped my body relax into the pose and, ultimately, find a deeper stretch, a deeper twist, and more strength.

Frequent readers of my blog will not be surprised by the fact that I draw inspiration for my writing and approach to dog training from yoga and mindfulness. Remaining calm and breathing steadily during a challenging pose serves as a useful metaphor when training fearful, reactive dogs. Many dogs are fearful and reactive because they find themselves in a type of challenging yoga pose, except for them, the pose isn’t comprised of balancing or twisting, but walking on leash, encountering other dogs, living among lots of people, or any number of stimuli that dogs might perceive as unsafe.

It’s no coincidence that classical conditioning, the procedure used to help change a dog’s emotion to a particular event or stimuli, is also called “respondent conditioning.” By pairing a previously neutral or previously scary stimulus with a positive event, we can change the dog’s response. Less reactive, more responsive.

The environment, just like a complicated yoga pose, is stressful for many dogs. The goal a fearful or reactive dogs’ training plan is to change a that dog’s emotional response to various stimuli. Without the paralysis of fear, a dog can remain responsive but be less reactive. In other words, with training, dogs can develop and use coping skills to help them remain focused and calm in an often noisy, sometimes unpredictable world.

In yoga, because the body and mind do not always relax willingly into challenging poses, practitioners hone various coping skills to change the body’s response, like breath work and mindfulness. Students practice these skills in less challenging poses before moving onto more challenging sets, ensuring their skill set is strong before attempting to remain less reactive and more responsive in a more challenging posture.

I guide my training clients through a similar process with their dogs. In addition to installing strong positive emotional responses to a dog’s various triggers through classical conditioning, I help them teach their dogs various coping skills that will help them react less and respond more in real life. These skills vary depending on the dog’s behavioral makeup. Examples include making frequent eye contact with the owner on a busy street, learning to target the owner’s hand or turn and go on cue when on leash, or look at the owner and move in the opposite direction as opposed in the presence of a skateboard.

These coping skills take practice, just as it takes practice to relax and breathe while holding an arm balancing pose on a yoga mat. I instruct clients to teach their dogs these behaviors in low distraction environments first, all the while continuing their classical conditioning work to help their dogs feel safe. Once their dogs are proficient, we gradually bring these coping skills into more distracting environments, just as yogis gradually move into more challenging poses once their bodies and minds are ready.

While we can’t always control our dog’s environment, we can give them the coping skills so that when life throws triggers their way, they can respond in ways that are less fearful and less reactive.

Less reactive, more responsive.

– Maureen Backman, MS 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 

No Stimulus Goes Unconditioned: Thinking out of the NILIF box

10419603_10103916647748397_2792827974898225307_nWhen I first read Kathy Sdao’s book, Plenty in Life is Free, I cried. I cried because her words made sense. I cried because she described the incredible impact, negative and positive, we can have on our dogs’ lives through what we choose to reinforce, and through the contingencies we place on those reinforcers. It’s a daunting responsibility, but one that is so rewarding if done correctly.

As you can probably guess by now, I do not recommend Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) protocols for my training clients. Sdao explains the pitfalls of NILIF much more eloquently than I ever could, so I will refer you to her book for those details. At times, depending on the severity and urgency of a behavioral problem, I will “close the economy,” meaning I ask owners to feed their dogs a certain portion of their food via training, either via classical or operant conditioning. But this is different from NILIF, and this difference is critical when working with fear-based behaviors.

If I could give fearful dog owners one training mantra to carry with them at all times, it would be this: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.” This mantra is where the NILIF protocol is contraindicative to a fearful dogs’ training plan.

When dogs are afraid, they view stimuli in their environment as dangerous. Their behavior reflects their desire to gain greater distance from that perceived danger. Operant conditioning is important (see my article on relevant scenarios), but only gets us so far. Before focusing on any behaviors, we need to use classical conditioning to change dogs’ emotional states in the presence of stimuli they perceive as dangerous.

Dogs don’t have to produce a behavior in classical conditioning to receive a reward. Instead, they learn by association. A stimulus appears, followed by a high-value food item like tripe. The same stimulus appears, again followed by tripe. And so forth. If done correctly, dogs realize the stimulus is a tip-off to tripe, and voila, dogs develop a positive emotional response to a previously scary thing.

Let’s return for a moment to the mantra I mentioned earlier: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.” If we institute NILIF protocols on fearful dogs, we break this contract. 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.

In lieu of NILIF, I 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.

Susan Friedman and Steve Martin describe this beautifully in The Power of Trust: 

“Each of us has a trust account with every animal and person in our lives. It’s unfortunate that there is no bank insurance fund available (like the FDIC) for trust accounts. The best way to protect a trust account is to ensure that you make many more deposits than withdrawals.”

By shifting your training focus to No Stimulus Goes Unconditioned, you will ensure your trust account with your dog remains intact, and you will truly be doing everything you can to help your dog feel safe in a chaotic world.

For excellent support and resources on working with Fearful Dogs, visit 

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at

Muzzle Training for the Vet: A “must” for dog owners

Originally posted on The Muzzle Up! Project

10406983_878508355500792_4172449915177937825_n*This will be one of a broad range of muzzle-related topics that Maureen Backman, MS, CTC will be presenting at the Pet Professional Guild Summit 2015*

The vet can be a scary experience for even the most socialized of dogs. They’re poked, prodded, and touched by strangers with strange-looking implements.

Dogs who are ill or in pain are at higher risk of biting, even if they have previously been desensitized and counterconditoned to being handled at the vet. (This is why one of the first steps in pet first aid is to muzzle the injured dog to prevent injury.)

In a 2001 JAVMA report Dog bites to humans – demography, epidemiology, injury, and risk, Dr. Karen L. Overall and Molly Love write that “…veterinarians should be aware that pain, certain endocrine and neurologic conditions, and many sedative, tranquilizing and anesthetic agents … can make dogs more reactive and less predictable.”

Years ago, I had the experience of having my dog taken “to the back” by a vet tech to do a necessary procedure. In my dog’s case, he had a bee sting, and the stinger was still attached to his paw. Already shy about being handled by strangers, the addition of pain made any attempts to go near his paw impossible. The tech took my dog to another room, where he was restrained with a muzzle so the stinger could be removed. It was an unhappy and stressful experience for us both.

This was before I became a dog trainer, and before I understood the important role muzzles play in a dog owner’s toolbox of preventative tools.

My story is far from unique, and is a common one I hear from my private training clients and through discussions with members of the Muzzle Up! community. When people adopt dogs, or bring a puppy into their home, they come equipped with a checklist of training “musts” to  shape a well-adjusted, happy dog: Socialization, housetraining, leash manners, basic obedience, and so on. Now, proactive dog owners are even practicing husbandry exercises so their dogs happily allow them to clip nails, clean ears and brush teeth.

Unfortunately, muzzle training isn’t included often enough on that list of “musts.” Most muzzle training occurs after a dog has bitten another dog or human. Or, a dog is placed on a muzzle without any prior training due to an emergency or invasive veterinary procedure.

How wonderful would it be if dogs were conditioned to love wearing their muzzles early on, so that if they needed to wear one later in life, it would not be an aversive event for them?

When dogs come to the vet for a procedure, it’s not uncommon for them display anxious behavior. They may snap or bite at the staff out of fear, requiring staff to use a muzzle to prevent a bite. At this point, your dog is experiencing trigger stacked upon trigger, rendering him even more anxious and fearful with each added stressor.

As Dr. Jeannine Berger of the SFSPCA wrote in our veterinary behaviorist Q&A series last year, “Unfortunately, since the dog hasn’t been muzzle trained, it gets even worse from here. Your dog might get even more upset and start to resist as they try to place the muzzle.  The next step that follows is that the veterinarian now decides in order to complete the nail trim your dog needs to be sedated, adding additional costs to your bill and adding additional trauma to the dog.”

If dog owners prepare their dogs to wear a muzzle by using a muzzle training plan, so the dog associates the muzzle with positive, happy things, they will help reduce their dogs’ anxiety in the event he needs to wear one at the vet. Proactive muzzle training also increases the possibility of vets doing certain procedures without using heavy restraint or anesthesia.

Muzzle Up recommends owners arrive at the vet prepared by bringing their dog’s normal basket muzzle. This way, their dog wears his already well-fitting muzzle used during training.

Muzzle training will help you remove preventable trigger stacking during an unpreventable emergency or vet visit. Reduced fear for your dog, reduced stress for you. What better reason to put muzzle training on your list of training “musts” for your dog or puppy?

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at