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

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.

A Rebuttal

Earl1Disclaimer: I am a force-free trainer and do not use pain, intimidation, or fear to modify dogs’ behavior. The following is a rebuttal to Gary Wilkes’ article titled “Modern, Scientific, Positive Dog Training and Dirty Little Secrets.” For brevity’s sake, this post will only focus on the first six points of his article.

While full of myths that pervade current dog training culture, Wilkes’ statements simply do not hold up in the court of science.

“Let’s pretend for a second that you are a positive trainer who uses methods based on science. That is a pretty big club. It’s also a pretty handy business strategy. For one thing, it differentiates your style from “those other trainers,” who are assumed to be un-positive and unscientific. It also implies that you are more educated than your competition and have diligently studied learning theory – the science of behavior as accepted by behavior analysts, ethologists and comparative psychologists.”

While I’m sure there are trainers who view reward-based training as a viable business strategy, it should not be the primary motivation of anyone going into the field. Business strategy is different from ethics. Certainly, ethics can and should be incorporated into a trainer’s business strategy. But first and foremost, a trainer’s motivation should be to use training methods that result in efficient, effective results with as little wear and tear on a dog’s emotional and physical state as possible.

Herein lies an example of consumer protection: There are plenty of force-free trainers who lack a solid understanding in animal learning theory and the skills involved in identifying behavior problems and implementing behavioral modification plans. Buyer beware.

“In science, especially behavioral science, positive doesn’t mean nice, good or beneficial. Modern trainers use the term (and all of its derivatives using adaptations of “paw-sitive” to imply dogs + nice.)”

Wilkes is correct in stating that “positive,” when used in terms of animal behavior analysis, does not refer to a moral choice. It simply refers to the addition of a stimulus. This isn’t a training issue. This is a marketing issue, which is why I tend to use the term “force-free training,” and why others choose to use “reward-based training.” Semantics.

No animal can be trained to a high level of performance without the use of aversive control. At least, none ever have. That is because if there are no “negative” consequences for errors there is no incentive for the animal or human to improve their performance. 

While certainly a myth that pervades current dog training culture, this statement simply does not hold up in the court of science.  And, as Dr. Susan G. Friedman so eloquently states, “Behavior doesn’t flow like a fountain; behavior is a tool to produce consequences.” In other words, dogs are consequence-producing machines. They don’t produce a behavior for no reason; they produce a behavior to get something, whether it be food, attention, social access, or in cases of fear and aggression, to increase distance from a scary stimulus.

Wilkes’ statement also flies in contradiction to The Matching Law, which states that an animal, when faced with two possible behavior options, will choose the behavior that has the strongest history of reinforcement. This isn’t just opinion. It’s a law.

Writes Friedman, “It is the nature of animal behavior to change what they do, based on the outcomes of doing it. In this way, behavior is selected by consequences: Behaviors that produce desired outcomes are repeated; behaviors that produce aversive consequences are modified or suppressed. Behavior is a purposive tool, part of every animal’s biological endowment, used to affect the environment. Even bacteria change what they do based on the consequences of doing it.”

In terms of consequences, force-free dog trainers have two highly effective options. The trainer can reward the behavior, upping the odds the dog will do the behavior again. If a dog is doing a behavior the trainer wishes to decrease, the trainer can remove the consequence the dog was trying to achieve via “negative punishment.”

Let’s discuss punishment for a moment. By definition, punishment decreases the occurrence of a behavior. When a trainer uses “negative punishment,”  that trainer removes a reinforcer (like food, access to humans, access to play and other dogs) immediately after an unwanted behavior occurs. The dog realizes that the unwanted behavior results in the removal of highly coveted things, rendering the behavior irrelevant.

Dogs do what works. If a dog consistently realizes that doing one behavior gets him the exact opposite of what he was trying to achieve, he will do the behavior less. That dog doesn’t have to endure pain, fear or intimidation to get this result. He simply has to understand what behaviors produce which consequences. And the consequences certainly don’t have to inflict fear to produce reliable behavior. In fact, the more fear involved, the less reliable a dog’s behavior is likely to be, as I will discuss below.

Also, there are a plethora of examples of dogs trained to high levels of precision without the use of aversives. Confirmation bias and cherry picking are dangerous things for anyone, particularly those who espouse the virtues of science.

EG: The next bomb detection dog you see was trained with some element of punishment for failure or negative reinforcement to compel the dog to do something it didn’t want to do. You better hope it wasn’t trained “all positive.” Why? Because the dog never had anything to fear if it screwed up. If the word fear bothers you and you instantly have “negative” feelings about it, I suggest you consider how much of your life is governed by fear – such as not stepping in front of a bus. The assumption that fear is a bad thing or that it is always traumatic is simply another rhetorical distortion of modern trainers and behaviorists. If your life is being protected by someone who has no fear of missing an explosive device you are not really protected.

This example is rife with flaws. First and foremost, Wilkes shows a fundamental misunderstanding of fear in relation to animal behavior. Competent trainers do not use operant conditioning on a fearful dog. Instead, they use classical (Pavlovian) conditioning to address a dog’s emotions. Not until the dog shows a positive emotional response to a stimulus in the environment does the trainer transition to operant procedures. (See my previous articles here and here for more information).

Second, instilling fear in a dog doesn’t produce reliable behavior. As Jean Donaldson teaches her students, when dogs are afraid, nothing else matters. Fear overrides a dog’s ability to respond to operant contingencies. Fearful dogs may not want food. They could care less about their owners telling them to sit, go down or stay. They may start to display aggressive behaviors that aren’t present at other times. They are unable to cope and paralyzed by one thing: fear.

“An animal’s functional behavior is made ineffective whenever we ignore its fears, force it to go where it resists going, and coerce it to do things against its will. Even locking a dog in its crate with a fear- eliciting toy, based on the rationale that “he’ll get used to it,” renders the dog unnecessarily powerless to escape. When a lack of control becomes a life-style, it may result in the aberrant behaviors dogs do such as excessive barking, repetitive licking, and phobic behavior,” Friedman explains.

Thirdly, Wilkes’ analogy is a flawed one. A person’s choice not to step in front of a bus is not comparable to a bomb detection dog not “screwing up” because of a potential explosion. It simply goes against the principles of animal learning theory and dips dangerously into anthropomorphizing. A bomb-sniffing dog doesn’t do a “good job” because he is inherently fearful that if he won’t, a bomb might explode. A bomb-sniffing dog reliably detects and alerts handlers to explosives due to a history of learned relationships between antecedents, behaviors and consequences.

To quote Dr. Murray Sidman in his book Coercion & Its Fallout, “An overworked and incorrect bit of folk wisdom pronounces the carrot to be of no avail unless backed up by the stick. But the carrot can do the job all by itself.”

“Behaviorists and modern, positive trainers offer methods that please them and forget that dog owners do not have unlimited funds, time and patience to live forever with low-expectation non-solutions. There is no effort to offer knowledge aimed at the “end user” in the world of modern dog training or behaviorism.There is no thought to the damage that is done by offering bogus, never proven advice. There is only the quest to rein supreme in the public eye while ignoring the dog and owner – the very reason to offer behavior services in the first place. The word “fraud” comes to mind.”

This isn’t a force-free vs force-based training issue, this is simply a consumer protection issue. There are plenty of incompetent trainers on both sides of the aversives vs. non-aversives argument. Wilkes is correct in stating dog owners must be wary of who they choose to train their dog, but it’s a problem across the board, regardless of a trainers’ philosophy.

“By definition, positive reinforcement increases behavior. It cannot stop behavior. That is done by punishment. If you preach that you do not use punishment it means that there are limitations to the services you offer. This fact is covered up by the fictional and unsupported claim that modern scientific methods can control all behaviors. That is a logical contradiction. Those methods can’t stop anything. To believe their rhetoric you must assume that there is never a reason to stop a behavior, now.”

Wilkes is confusing the phrase “positive reinforcement training” with the idea that a positive reinforcement trainer uses only reinforcement. There are many positive reinforcement trainers that use punishment (see above about removal of desired consequences to reduce a particular behavior).

Wilkes also fails to address the many nuances of animal training, including concepts like behavioral momentum, differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior, and the pitfalls of punishment. To quote Friedman again, “The focus on replacing the function of a problem behavior with an appropriate alternative is fundamental to understanding behavior and respecting behaving organisms: If the behavior didn’t matter to the animal, it wouldn’t keep doing it.”

If we only focus on telling a dog what “not” to do, we leave a massive void. The dog knows not to jump, but what does he do instead? For dogs that have high energy and low ability to control impulsive behaviors, we need to help them fill the void. We must teach them replacement, desirable behaviors to do in place of the unwanted ones we’ve taught them not to do. And we teach them via – you guessed it – positive reinforcement of the desired behavior.

– 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

The power of simplicity when training fearful dogs

10941422_526041150869903_1556947080055215037_n“Why worry about basic obedience when my dog is so scared?” It’s a common and understandable question I get from new clients. When faced with a dog who is scared of people, new stimuli, and unable to settle in and out of doors, it’s natural to think of training goals in terms of big chunks. Clients may say, “I want my dog to enjoy her walks,” or “I want to be able to invite my relatives over to my house without them getting snarled at,” or, “I want my dog to stop being afraid of city noises.” When faced with these serious and overwhelming problems, basic behaviors like hand targeting, sit, “leave it,” and down might seem trivial. After all, the goal is to fix the fear, not teach the dog to do tricks, right?

Not quite. While the overarching goal in every fearful dogs’ training plan is to ease fear, there are, in my opinion, three critical “micro-goals” that must be conquered first.

1) The dog learns her behavior can make good things – really good things – happen in her environment.

Dogs are always gauging whether an environment or stimulus is safe or dangerous. They learn through consequences and associations. Since fear is so easy to install and so difficult to erode, they remember the events and antecedents that precede scary things happening to them. Fearful dogs think many things in their world are dangerous. They don’t necessarily trust that a person walking down the street is safe or that the noise of wind blowing through the trees won’t lead to danger. Because their brains are so occupied by this constant “safe or dangerous” calculation, we need to think in terms of patience and simplicity. Starting a training program with basic obedience behaviors teaches dogs that hand prompts, verbal cues and ultimately, their behavior, leads to safe and rewarding consequences.

In the following video, I teach fearful dog Omie to do a “down” during our first session. Because she had little prior experience with obedience, and was also nervous in her environment and with my presence, I needed to start with a behavior that would be simple enough for her to do. I needed to break that behavior down into small enough increments so she received rewards at a high rate. So, I adjusted my criteria so she was first rewarded simply for moving her head downward, and, though repetition, eventually a full down. In between repetitions, I also added in some easy behaviors that she already knew, like “find it” and hand targeting, to set her up for success and build her confidence.

With fearful dogs, it’s not about how fast you can get them to do a behavior. It’s about setting criteria easy enough so they build confidence and feel safer in a scary world.

2) The dog learns coping skills to help her deal with a potentially stressful or fear-inducing situation.

Often, fearful dogs are slow to recover from startling situations. They lack the coping skills that could help them when stress comes their way. What do I mean by coping skills? Anything that lowers a dog’s anxiety and keeps her under threshold. For some dogs, a coping skill could be making eye contact with their owner. For other dogs, it could be a hand target.

The key to teaching coping skills is to give the dogs a history of doing these behaviors in non-stressful environments and giving them impactful, high-value rewards for doing them. When gradually brought into a stressful context, this history of behavior and reinforcement lowers anxiety. Bit by bit, we can turn down the level of a dog’s fear. Fearful dogs don’t do these behaviors on their own to lower their anxiety. Either they haven’t learned them, or they are too upset to concentrate on anything besides their fear. If a dog learns a solid “watch” or a “touch” in a safe space, and realizes that this behavior has a strong reinforcement history, the behavior produces a positive emotional response in the dog. (Think Pavlov.)

By starting with the simplest of behaviors, we can gradually ask dogs to do them in more stressful environments, so that eventually, they are able to focus on a behavior, and receive the positive emotional side-effects, increasing their ability to cope with their world.

3) The dog sets the pace.

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of trust in a fearful dogs’ training plan. One of the most efficient ways to build trust with a fearful dogs is to teach them simple training games and behaviors, and to let them set the pace. Each time a dog gets the behavior right she gets praise and a reward. And because we’re keeping the behaviors simple, she will receive praise and rewards at a very high rate. From a dogs’ point of view, she is learning that you are the purveyor of good things. She also learns that your presence results in safe, positive consequences, not dangerous ones. She learns you will not push her past her comfort zone.

In the same session with Omie, I taught her to target her harness with her nose. She does not yet trust me enough to touch her or place her harness over her head. If I were to push her too fast, I would break our trust. I would not be as safe to her. By keeping things simple she set the pace and let me know when she was ready for a new challenge.

If you have a fearful dog, start small and simple. Don’t discredit the power of basic behaviors and games. Even though a hand target may seem simple to you, it’s a monumental accomplishment for a dog who finds her world a dangerous, unpredictable place.

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