Jul 122016


Great animal training requires substantial knowledge and mechanical proficiency.  But perhaps even more, great training requires artistry.

Recent decades have been a golden era for the science of animal training.  Our understanding of behavior has grown and evolved, our techniques for utilizing that knowledge have advanced, and core principles have become widely understood by a great many trainers. Hallelujah!

But knowing, and mastering, techniques is only the first half of becoming a good trainer. I have known several trainers who possessed extensive book knowledge but whose training outcomes were dismal. And I have observed others who had very little knowledge but who achieved incredible results. Why?

For teaching almost any behavior, numerous techniques can be utilized; and the well-versed trainer knows many.  But selecting the right technique for an individual animal at a particular moment demands acute perception and judgement: when to push; when to ease pressure; when to encourage, to coddle, to take a break; when to reward with food or toy or praise or play; when to correct, to lure, to raise or lower criteria; when to cheerily accept effort, to add energy, to be calm; when to wait, to rest the dog for more energy or exercise them for less; when to capture or back-chain; when and how to proof; when more training is needed, or less …. .

For some trainers, this feel – this ability to read an animal and a situation and respond with just the right tool – comes easily.  For others it seems almost impossible. As with so many talents, there is an innate component, but there is one process that can maximize whatever talent a person may possess as a trainer: mindful experience.

Not to be confused with mere repetition (some people can “train” for thousands of hours without really hearing or learning), the single most powerful means to develop training artistry is to carefully, critically, thoughtfully observe and listen as one trains.  During each moment you are training, your dog is reacting, responding, showing you what is working and what is not.  You must listen. Science and technique must be so honed that they require little attention and recede into the background as you focus everything on feeling your dog. You must attune yourself to the dog’s reactions, not only the obvious changes in behavior, but the tiniest and most-subtle changes in body language – eyes, ears, tail, energy, enthusiasm, engagement.

You must constantly adjust and file away each moment as information that will help you to develop and refine your training intuition. Videotaping yourself can be useful, as can asking other trainers to observe and critique your sessions. But ultimately you must listen to your partner and refine your partnership so that you instantly and seamlessly accommodate your partner’s needs at each moment.

This is not to disparage science. By all means read and study and listen and learn everything you can.  It will all help you improve.  And absolutely spend many, many hours learning and practicing various techniques. But ultimately the training excellence you achieve depends upon how willing and able you are to listen to the animals with whom you practice.

 July 12, 2016  Posted by at 5:05 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Jun 272016


The Fourth of July signifies American independence, barbeques, celebration, fireworks, and unfortunately many frightened dogs. In addition to the obvious refrains about keeping your pets safe and secure, let’s talk a little about what you can do to help minimize your pets’ distress.

First, let me point out that each individual is different, and you need to figure out what is best for yours.  For some there may be little choice other than heading out of town, for some pharmaceuticals may be effective, for others a Thundershirt may be useful.  There is no single right answer, so you need to try a few options and find a combination that is most effective for your pet. And if you have a great technique, by all means share it in the comments below!

That said, here is the technique I have found to be most effective with many dogs:

A couple of nights a week, for the next several weeks, go into whichever room in your home is most soundproof, and turn up a stereo as loud as you can without causing your dog any stress, introduce a strong scent (peppermint perhaps), and then play a rip-roaring game of fetch, tug, race, wrestle, rollover, etc. Play to all of the dog’s strongest drives and make the game fun.  Try to make it the most upbeat, engaging romp possible, although not so over the top that it becomes frenetic or stressful. Have a very high rate of reinforcement—lots of treats, praise, cheering, throwing, tugging… If possible, have a colleague set of a few small noisemaking fireworks outside a distance away, or have someone in another room play a recording of fireworks. Have a container of super-treats sitting nearby, and periodically make a show of running to the treats and giving one, or more, to your dog, so that the act of running over to the treats becomes reinforcing as well. You should be laughing, dancing, sweating, and generally all having a blast.

On the Fourth, and in some places a few days earlier, before the fireworks start, go into the same room, crank the stereo, introduce the scent, and repeat the same exercise.  Your dog will be somewhat trained to the desired behaviors, but even more he will be conditioned to a state of exuberance. Whenever you hear a boom over the loud music, do not react, but make sure a fun action occurs and run for a reward, so the booms start to seem like a precursor to the fun stuff.

The underlying notion here is that wild exuberance is a more immersive state than calm. Calmness tends to be fairly passive and fragile and easily interrupted by the first loud noise.  Conversely, energetic play has great inertia and is difficult to interrupt.  Exuberance also utilizes more similar chemical and neural pathways to fear, and so is more feasible when faced with frightening stimuli. And of course, the aural, visual, and olfactory cues that you have conditioned will all serve the secondary role of dampening the frightening stimuli.

Do not stress about the Fourth.  Your dog will detect your anxiety which will compound his.  Come up with a plan, ameliorate the noise as much as possible, and do everything you can to keep them safe and happy! Oh, and Happy Independence Day!

Note: before you panic about the image at the top, two things: one, do not try this at home, and two, it was shot in pieces and was very safe–there was one firework behind me when I was working the dog, and we were a safe distance and he was well acclimated. The angle makes it look closer, and then the others I photographed separately and composited in afterwards!

 June 27, 2016  Posted by at 6:51 am Tagged with: , , , , ,
Nov 242015


One puppy behavior that cannot be taught without help is how to meet new people.  Each of us needs interactions with novel people so that our puppies can practice appropriate greetings and learn that people are fun and not frightening.  I have wrestled quite a bit with whether or not to blog about this: I do not want to seem condescending or strident, and this is information most readers of this blog will likely be very certain they already know! However, for the past few months I have been taking a puppy around to socialize and meet lots of people, and I have been reminded over and over again how many people out there—even people with extensive dog experience and great intentions—interact with puppies in ways that are problematic.

So please do not take this as scolding, but as an opportunity for us all to pause and think about how we can help one another… And do not interpret any of this to mean you should not interact with puppies—it is very much appreciated when you take a few minutes to help us socialize! But puppies learn very quickly, and it does not take many bad encounters to have a significantly negative impact. So give a little thought to how you can be a positive influence.

Here are a few thoughts:

Things to do:

  • Have a conversation—the single best step you can take to making your interaction beneficial for the puppy is to have a conversation with the owner before you do anything with the puppy. 254313_10150204842632371_5903048_nAsk them about how they want the interaction to go, what things to avoid, what to encourage. No two puppies are identical, and what would be super helpful with one puppy might be quite harmful with another. You do not know their goals, their issues, you must ask!
  • Listen to the owner—no matter how knowledgeable you may be, you do not know what this owner and dog want. You must carefully listen to what they tell you.
  • Listen to the dog—observe the dog closely while interacting. If it is intimidated by what you are doing, back off. If it is pulling back or trying to avoid you, stop. If it is getting too excited and frenetic, slow your actions and reduce your energy. This is not a contest to get the dog to love you the most, it is a long process to get the dog to react to new people the way the owner wants.
  • Start easy, get harder—you can always increase the intensity and difficulty, but if you come on too strong it is very difficult to undo.
  • Be calm but friendly—almost  nobody wants a dog that goes crazy and gets frantic when it meets new people.
  • When in doubt, ignore—if you are not sure; if a puppy seems nervous or hyper or whatever, and you are not sure what the owner would like, the safest path is to ignore the puppy while you ask the owner.
  • You are not entitled—this is not your puppy. Sometimes the owner way not want the puppy to meet you at all. Or may want you to ignore the puppy. You do not know what that they may be working on at any given moment, so do not take it personally if it does not involve you…


Things to avoid:

  • Too much energy—many dog lovers coming rushing in and start frenetically playing. This is overwhelming to some puppies, but to many it simply creates an expectation that greetings are supposed to be super-high-energy, which is almost never what an owner wants. Calm, friendly, thoughtful greetings are far more desired by most owners. After the initial greeting is over, many owners will appreciate your having a good play session with their puppies, but initially calm is much better than too energetic.
  • Telling them to sit, sit, sit—this is a very well-intended recent trend. Lots of pet owners and Petco trainers, learned the idea that a great way to avoid jumping up is to reinforce an incompatible behavior, and so they ask every puppy to sit. And in truth, this might be a fine trend, except that most people do it poorly. Their timing is awful. 427393_10150948043917371_571527743_n
  • Approaching too directly—when you see a puppy and immediately rush straight towards it, think about how this looks to the puppy.
  • Petting them on the top of the head—some dogs love this, some owners want to work on this, but in general, most dogs would prefer if you do not start out petting them on their heads.
  • Grabbing them or pulling them towards you—most dogs have a natural opposition reflex, especially to being pulled towards a stranger.
  • Petting them roughly—many puppies do not want to be whacked, tousled, slapped, etc.
  • Correcting them—unless we have discussed it, you do not know the rules I have taught my puppy. So if he paws at you that may be exactly what I trained him to do. If he jumps up on you, or mouths your hand, or lies down, or stands, whatever he does, you should not correct unless you know it is something he is not supposed to do…
  • Pushing them too far—I was at a seminar recently with my puppy, and he was having a great time meeting new people in a new place with lots of dogs and commotion. And a lady came over, sat down, and started harassing him. Grabbing his feet, lifting him up, grasping his testicles… And she kept it up until he was trying to get away from her and she would not let him get away. All the while she was explaining to me how much people appreciate her playing with their puppies, how she desensitizes them to lots of strange things, how she is beloved as a molester of puppies. It is not your job to torment my puppy. If I want or need my puppy to have that experience, I will ask someone I know and trust. I might even ask you, but it is not your place to decide to push my puppy.
  • Your adult dog correcting them—unless we have discussed it in advance, I do not want my puppy to have negative experiences with other dogs. If you are not 100% sure that your dog is great with puppies, please stay away. Many people bring their dogs over to meet my puppy and when I ask if their dog is good with puppies, they tell me they do not know. @#$^$%&#&!! Do not experiment with my puppy. A bad experience can cause issues that will take years to resolve or may never be undone. Oh, and noise counts. I have had several people tell me their dogs are good with puppies, then their dog reacts negatively and growls, barks or otherwise tells off my puppy, and they say, “See, she doesn’t ever make contact…” Contact is not the issue—I am far more concerned about psychological trauma then physical trauma, so if your dog is not welcoming and benevolent tell me so I can keep my puppy away!
  • Your dog being too forward—If your dog loves puppies and people and comes rushing up into my puppy’s space, there is a good likelihood that my puppy will be frightened. MAny puppies are sensitive to pressure, particularly from adult dogs. Keep your dog under control and a bit away, and let me bring the puppy over. This way the puppy can approach at his pace and not get overwhelmed.
  • Your dog being too interested in me—many puppies are a little insecure and even jealous about their owner. If your dog comes running in and greets me super enthusiastically, it may be negative for my puppy.
  • Your dog making things negative—I was practicing tunnels with my puppy when someone else came in and let their puppy say hello. Which was great. But every time my puppy tried to go into a tunnel, theirs would blast in after him, sometimes same direction, sometimes opposing, and would either knock my puppy over or just startle him. Later I was working my puppy on a table, and she encouraged her dog to jump up and essentially knock him off the table. These actions made my puppy far less confident about tunnels and tables—he is not sure another dog will not come knock him down…
  • Playing keep away—I am a little flabbergasted when people come up and take my puppy’s toy and don’t give it back. What is this game supposed to be? It is just obnoxious. Sure, you can tease the puppy, move the toy quickly, but the goal is to get the puppy to try harder and when they do try hard, they should win! If you want a toy, go get one, but that toy is my puppies, so if you are going to play with it make sure you do it in a way that is pleasing to my puppy.
  • Pretending to throw something—much like keep away, I am not really sure what people think they are doing. Yes, if you try you can fool the puppy. Bravo for you. But you are diminishing the puppy’s desire to fetch and decreasing his inclination to trust humans. 11226080_10206399172931203_4726228965782265055_o
  • Tugging on their toy too hard—although it may not always feel like it, puppies have small teeth and weak jaws, and we do not want tug to be unpleasant.
  • Intruding on training—if I am not looking at you, and am clearly working on something with my puppy, do not talk to me. Do not talk to my puppy. Do not call my puppy. Leave us alone, or wait until we are done and approach you.
  • Following—if you are approaching and I head the other way, don’t chase me down. It likely means that my puppy is not in the mood to meet you, or that your dog is frightening my puppy, or that for some other reason I do not want to interact with you right now.
  • Picking them up—I cannot believe how many people think it is ok to run in and pick up a puppy that they hardly know. How would you like it if someone did this to you? Being held is an act of trust. Do not pick up a puppy until you have cleared it with both the owner and the puppy.
  • Making lots of baby noises—a surprising number of people squeal and grunt and goo-goo and screech when they see a puppy. This is probably not a huge deal to the puppy either way, but it is really annoying to me, so please stop it.
 November 24, 2015  Posted by at 5:30 pm Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Jul 162015


I found myself watching a novice obedience class a few nights ago, and I wanted to cry. Don’t get me wrong, nothing awful was happening, no physical abuse, no harsh corrections, but so little joy… Watching most people plod along with their dogs connected to them by a leash but nothing else is like some macabre satire of what dog training ought to be.

If you watch 20 people train their dogs, you will immediately observe that there are two distinct groups who are essentially doing two completely different things: those who are going through the motions but their dogs are disconnected, flat, out of control. And those whose dogs are beautifully, magically, joyfully playing the game. Within each group you will see a variety of techniques and skill levels, the difference between them is something more fundamental…

Here is the secret that separates the two groups:

You cannot effectively teach your dog anything until you get him engaged and connected. Attentive, happy, excited, eager to learn, enthused. You need to make learning enjoyable. You must figure out what makes your dog excited and build an expectation that playing/training together is super fun. One of your very first responsibilities as an owner and trainer is to figure out how to induce joy for your pet, what combination of treats and toys and tone and luring and whacking and squealing and petting really lights them up; and if you cannot figure out a path to joy, you need to build one. You need a great attitude yourself. You need to make sessions short and fast. You need to tug and fetch and race and wrestle and play. You need to be willing to get on the floor, to run, to praise and cheer like a loon. You need to play with your dog many times each day at home and everywhere so that you have built this into your relationship. You need to teach your dog that looking at you is great, on its own, and that it is the key that will unlock the best and most rewarding game of all. Only when you have built this reward base and tapped into attention and attitude can you really start worrying much about specific behaviors, and you will find they are so much easier to train when you and your dog have this core connection.

If you are dragging your dog around, pushing and pulling him into various positions, giving him commands that he ignores, you are not merely wasting your time, you are actually hurting your relationship. You are making your dog like you less. You are convincing your dog that you are a boring bully. You are inculcating resistance, lethargy, disinterest. Better to NOT train your dog than to keep slogging through these miserable sessions. Stop training immediately, and from now on any time you feel yourself starting to do this, stop! Go do something else. Come back when you are ready to be present, joyous, enthused, connected.

If you can get five beautiful seconds of your dog looking at you, ears perked and eyes bright, listening, eagerly trying to play the game with you, then you are genuinely training your dog. Tomorrow it will be ten seconds, then twenty… Now you have a partner, you can start dancing, start working on super-fast sits followed by a game. A step or two of perfect heeling, an eager down. Happy, happy chase recalls. Now you are working for several perfect minutes, increasing distance, duration, distraction, but never for a moment sacrificing attitude and relationship… Do this for a few months, and you will be amazed! You will have a dog that loves training with you, that has a fabulous attitude, and that can do all those behaviors you originally wanted.

 July 16, 2015  Posted by at 7:14 pm Tagged with: , , , , ,
Jul 072015

RallyJustice317I was conversing with a friend recently who does not train her dogs beyond the minimum required. She does not want to diminish their individuality, to be their master, to break their spirits, to turn them into automatons. She does not even really want them to be obedient—she wants them to do what they want, not her bidding.

As we talked, it became clear to me that her idea of training is something very different from mine. She perceives it as diminishing—removing unwanted parts of a dog, while I perceive it as enriching—nurturing and developing additional facets of a dog.

Dog training is a broad catch-all term encompassing a huge range of techniques used to modify the intensity and frequency with which a dog offers certain behaviors. The goals, objectives, and methods are nearly infinite. Of course, in the strictest sense of the word dogs are always learning, so you are always training them whether you mean to or not, you only get to decide what they are learning. But for the purposes of this post, I am talking about structured intentional training, and I want to share why I train my dogs:

Let me start with a few ancillary benefits that I believe accrue from dog training but are not the core reasons I train:

  • Fun: virtually every animal I train values training sessions above almost all other activities. Better than food, better than walking, better than swimming—when I pick up the tools and take an August09005animal to go train they are giddy, ecstatic. They bounce and glow and vibrate. It is pure joy.
  • Proscription: teaching a dog what not to do makes them more pleasant to live with. Do not pee on the floor, pull on the leash, bark, take food off the counter, chew on the electric cords, etc.
  • Increased range of opportunities: the world is full of fun places that welcome well-behaved dogs. Friends’ homes, restaurants, busses, concerts; if you have taught your dog to have good manners you can take them on many adventures.
  • Skills: Sit, down, stay, wait, fetch, leave-it, all very useful for a dog to know.
  • Safety: a dog that comes when called, that does not take things off the counter, that holds a stay, and that can relax in a crate; is safer than a dog that cannot.
  • Trust and leadership: your dog learns to look to you when unsure, to rely on your guidance, to come to you for assistance.
  • Vocabulary: language and communication make it much easier to live with an animal. flintwithlamba7
  • Activities: training opens up doors to fun shared activities: agility, dock diving, tracking, carting, obedience, if you train, you and your dog can have so much fun doing so many things. You can do these things recreationally or competitively.
  • Tricks: many dogs really enjoy showing off, gathering a crowd, making people smile and laugh.
  • Fun: okay, I have fun too! I love the challenges, trying to figure out how to induce some new behavior, watching them think, reinforcing in just the right way at just the right moment. I usually end training sessions tired and glowing and happy and fulfilled.

While many of those are valuable, in truth I train my dogs—lots—for two fundamental reasons:


  1. To maximize their development through education. For the same reasons I would send my child to school: I want to help them actualize their potential. The act of learning, regardless of what one is learning, increases neural development and plasticity. It increases the ability to solve problems, to be thoughtful, to mindfully assess challenges and solve them. Learning begets learning. Learning literally changes and grows their brains. Each day children wonder why they need to learn algebra, what real-world application is there for solving a quadratic equation. And while there are real world applications, the ultimate answer is that what we really want from their education is something different: we want them to become free, thoughtful, kind, effective, confident, happy, engaged, etc.
    By choosing what we work on, and how, I can develop drives, increase confidence, improve problem solving skills, alter energy levels, change reactions to various stimuli, decrease contentiousness. I can help them become the best possible version of themselves, the most content, confident, happy, relaxed, enthusiastic, intelligent, well-rounded individuals they can be.
  2. To build connection, relationship, intimacy. I want the best partnership possible. I am not sure I can explain this to someone who has not experienced it, but somewhere after a few hundred hours of shared training time, a partnership develops that simply does not come without those hours. Trust, communication, anticipation—the dance becomes delicate, fluid, nuanced. Your dog knows when to look to you for leadership, knows your subtlest cues, knows how to succeed. You trust your dog, and know how to help him. You can read his every raised eyebrow or IMG_2492tightened muscle. You are a team.

Many people have lovely dogs with little training. And many people have rich and fulfilling relationships with their dogs without ever having taught them a single formal behavior. I simply know that in my experience, good training can make great dogs even better and wonderful relationships even deeper.

 July 7, 2015  Posted by at 5:48 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Jan 302014


Some dog trainers, particularly those with less or a more narrow range of experience, believe that issuing commands in a staccato, clear, authoritative voice is optimal. I am always a little amused when I am near these trainers and I myself can hardly avoid sitting when they demand it!  There certainly are times when clarity and authority are the most important criteria, but in many instances there are other options worth considering.

It is important to recognize that a dog becomes habituated to respond to a certain level of command intensity, and will often not respond to less intensity.  So if you normally give commands at a 70% volume and intensity level, your dog will likely learn to ignore commands given at a lower level.  There are several “drawbacks” to this:

  • If you need to increase your intensity for whatever reason, you will not have much room.  You are already near the maximum.
  • By giving commands at a loud volume, you eliminate the need for your dog to listen.  They do not particularly need to keep an eye or an ear on you because they know that you will make sure they hear you.  This put the onus on you, instead of on them.  Think of it like talking to another person—if you are quiet, they will generally lean forward and listen more intently.
  • Most of us want our dogs to become lighter—more responsive to less and less forcefulness.  But a dog will only become as light as your first command.  But you need to give them the opportunity to succeed at the lower volume and intensity or they will never learn it.
  • Variation is important—whatever tone you tend to use, if it has little variation, it becomes, well, monotonous, and therefore less effective.
  • Tone of voice has a cascading impact upon tone in general.  Personally, I like the tone created by giving primarily quiet and enthusiastic cues.  It becomes almost a game in which my dog learns to stay attuned to me at all times, even while playing or doing other things, because he is hoping I will make a subtle sound or movement that will invite him to play the great game. It becomes almost like mind-reading as he learns to watch and listen and see tiny predictive markers and almost always he beats me to the punch and is sitting in front of me offering some behavior before I have even finished formulating my intention.  That to me is far more wondrous than if I bellowed out a command like some Germanic drill sergeant.

In addition to volume and forcefulness, I would suggest people give a little thought to how they pronounce each word they commonly use to communicate with their dogs.  It is amazing how much information can be conveyed by a tiny lilt, by drawing a word out, by truncating a word.

Drawing out their name into the next command, so their name lingers and hangs in the air with them listening carefully for the word that is coming next: “Seeeeequuueeeelllllll…..sit.”

Saying “down” quickly, almost daring them to try to complete the task before I can get the word finished.

“Heel” with an upbeat sing-song quality that sets a mood and rhythm for the behavior.

“Ready” with an inviting tone.

One very useful technique is to videotape yourself training and playing with your dog, and then watch it and evaluate the tone your voice and body-language are setting… Does it sound, look, and feel inviting? How is the dog reacting to commands, not just in terms of performing them, but ears, eyes, tail, does each command make the dog more happy and attentive, or less? There is no single “right” tone, but observe yours and its effect, and make sure it is the best choice for your animals and your goals.

 January 30, 2014  Posted by at 11:11 pm
Jan 062012

­I am asked about Cesar Millan fairly regularly, generally by novice dog owners who are curious as to whether I recommend his show and techniques. This is a reasonable question since Cesar Millan is perhaps the most recognizable and influential dog trainer ever: millions of people watch his show and listen to his advice on how to address behavioral issues with their dogs.  Yet many of the most respected experts in the field consider his techniques to be harmful to dogs, ineffective, and destructive to relationships.

So, what is the truth?  There is no single right answer about how to train animals. We all have opinions, and most of us are certain we know the best way and everyone else is wrong! Most trainers are very good in some areas and less good in other areas. And we all have different goals–one trainer may be much better at helping you achieve a particular objective while another trainer may be much better at something else.

I do not know Millan, and can only comment on what I have observed on television. People are entitled to like Millan’s methods–many people do! And it would be hard to fault his business and marketing savvy… I am not judging anyone’s opinion, merely sharing mine:

I think Cesar Millan is a first-rate bully and a fifth rate trainer. While he does some things well, and offers some excellent advice, in aggregate I do not like what he does to most of the animals with which I have seen him work. He is uninformed, unimaginative, cruel, and absurdly coercive.  The fact that his bullying sometimes works at least temporarily does not make it less offensive.  In my opinion he has hurt far, far more dogs and relationships than he has helped, and of the ones that he has helped, I suspect the recidivism rate is extremely high. He has set dog training back decades. He is dangerously irresponsible. (For example, one person taking 30 dogs off leash to a dogpark ought to be a felony in my opinion)

Let me start with what I like about Millan’s message: exercise, calmness, and leadership.  I absolutely agree that a huge portion of the behavioral issues people see in their dogs can be ameliorated through increased exercise and mental stimulation.  Canids evolved to spend a large portion of their lives active and challenged, and sticking them in a room all day with rich foods and little exercise leads to many problems.  I also agree that canids thrive in an environment with clear boundaries and a calm and strong leader.  This allows them to be relaxed and confident and know how to behave. I also recognize that many average pet homes want a dog that is as “shut-down” as possible: they do not want a happy, curious, and confident pet, they want a pet that just lies quietly in the corner, and Cesar’s techniques are in many instances an effective path to that end.

Now to the negatives about Millan’s techniques:

  1. Impatient: Millan often takes little time to get to know the dog, or to teach it what is desired, or to build a relationship, he simply grabs the dog, puts it into the situation where it is known to have problems, and then corrects it for failure. In most cases, good training is just the opposite of this. You find situations in which the dog can succeed, and then you gradually increase the difficulty of the situation while rewarding the dog for success at each step. Good training is often almost invisible.
  2. Correction first: Millan often hits, chokes, kicks, drags, and electrocutes dogs that do not yet know what is being asked of them as part of a systematic routine of intimidation. There are several steps that should occur before correction: it is very rarely effective to correct or punish a dog that does not yet understand what you are asking.  In many instances Millan could work the dog a little further away from a particular stimulus and teach the dog how to succeed and then get closer, but instead he rushes up, lets the dog fail, and then corrects the heck out of it. This may create good TV drama, but it is patently not in the dog’s best interests.
  3. Micromanaging: Millan often keeps the dogs on such a short leash (literally and figuratively) that they do not learn accountability.  They do not learn to make the right choices and respect the rules, they simply learn to give up and shut down. They learn to do and try nothing because they will get attacked if they move.  Good training allows dogs to feel empowered and instructed; to clearly understand what behaviors are not allowed, and be responsible for making the right choices.
  4. Confrontation: Millan routinely creates confrontation where it does not naturally exist.  This was a popular notion in the 50s—you cannot really train a dog until you have shown it that you are the boss by kicking its butt, so you should make this happen—set up the dog to fail without any training, just so that you can induce a confrontation that you can then win and make sure the dog knows you are stronger, bigger, and tougher. Good trainers absolutely may do this with some animals, but it is fairly rare, and Millan seems to want to go there with almost every dog.
  5. Unimaginative: Millan sometimes uses different tools, but his basic range of techniques is very narrow.  So when he happens to get a dog that needs those techniques he will be very effective, when he happens to get a dog that needs something different he will be very destructive. I would have the same problem if he were purely positive and gave treats for everything—one technique does not work across the board. Good trainers are fabulous problem solvers. They come up with brilliant ways to induce behaviors, change attitudes, and mold responses. They have a remarkable range of techniques that they use to work with different dogs. They can be very positive when needed, very harsh when needed, supportive, quiet, loud, calm, exuberant, etc.
  6. Cruel: Millan chokes dogs till they pass out and he electrocutes them repeatedly until they are biting and terrified. The American Humane Association who monitors animal use on set has requested that Nat. Geo not air some Dog Whisperer episodes because the treatment of the animals is so inhumane. Good training is never cruel.
  7. Archaic / Uneducated:  Millan’s training is essentially exactly what one would have seen in 1950.  But then, what educational background does Millan have?  How many of the relevant books has he read?  Has he made any real effort to learn what others know so that he can improve? Or is he just reinventing unrefined and simplistic dog training? We have learned so much in the last 50 years that it is hard to imagine someone who would not integrate some of that learning into their training. Good trainers avail themselves of available knowledge and science and continually improve. Even the best trainers in the world often attend each others seminars, but I have never seen Cesar…
  8. Isolation:  I am not a huge fan of competition with animals, but occasionally it can be useful to objectively assess how your techniques are working.  Entering an obedience trial, or agility or Schutzhund or whatever, lets you gauge your performance against your peers.  Cesar not only does not compete, he has never, so far as I know, tried any canine competition so he could see where he stands.
  9. Indifference to canine attitude: Millan sacrifices attitude for quick superficial results, and I believe that is very counterproductive. Watch any of the dogs he works, and you will rarely see truly happy dogs, confident dogs, secure, trusting dogs. Good trainers focus on attitude and character—training rules and specific behaviors is essentially trivial. Once you have taught a dog how to learn, how to take cues, how to relax, it is easy to teach specific behaviors.

Adding all of this together, I find Millan’s relationship with the dogs unappealing—I do not see trust, respect, confidence, and adoration, I see subservience, temerity, and learned helplessness.

Millan fans sometimes suggest that those who dislike Millan must be softies who reject notions of control and discipline.  It is absolutely true that some people who dislike Millan do so because they dislike any sort of correction.  However, there are also many, many excellent trainers who do believe in appropriate corrections but who revile Millan’s techniques. Virtually all good trainers impose rules, boundaries, and limits.  Some excellent trainers even use strong corrections when they are appropriate. Go to any canine competition (obedience, French Ring, agility, herding, etc.) and ask around, you will generally find the top people with the best trained and most obedient dogs dislike Millan’s methods, while hordes of novices with unruly dogs are devotees.  Some of the most accomplished trainers in the world dislike his methods, and I assure you their dogs are not disobedient or disrespectful.

I do not understand why many people equate control with intimidation.  Abusive parents who beat or terrorize their children may achieve “control.” So do reasonable parents who set and explain clear boundaries, teach and reward desired behaviors, earn respect and trust, and effectively utilize punishment when necessary.  These good parents or dog trainers absolutely may use intimidation when it is the best option, but it is not the foundation of their relationship—it is not where they start or how they interact most of the time. (I vividly remember the few times my father seriously intimidated me, and they were hugely effective in large part because they were not frequent!)

Perhaps the best place to observe the dichotomy between dominance based training and cooperation based training is in training any wild animal.  Work with a tiger, a grizzly bear, a pack of wolves, an orca, or even a raccoon or squirrel, and you quickly discover that these schools of thought are NOT the same.  Dominance based trainers exert a clear and absolute dominance every moment of interacting—it is imperative that the animal understands that humans have absolute power and should never be challenged.  Non-dominance trainers exert a clear and absolute cooperation every moment—it is imperative that the animal understands that humans are their friends and are not going to challenge them or hurt them. While a single trainer may utilize both attitudes at different times, if you switch back and forth with these animals, you have a VERY short career—suddenly showing weakness to a wild animal that has been dominated, or suddenly showing dominance to a wild animal used to cooperation generally elicits extremely undesirable results… Each attitude can be powerfully effective, but they are essentially different in far more than language. (I think it is important to concede that even many of the most cooperative trainers do have a line that cannot be crossed.  A point at which dominance training does come into play.  A point at which they say, “You have no choice here, you must do what I say.”  The critical distinction is that they strive to help the animal avoid crossing that line, rather than regularly luring the animal across that line so that they can have an “opportunity” to dominate and intimidate some more…)

If your primary method of control is intimidation, the animals you train learn that intimidation and power are tools to get what you want.  Sooner or later these animals may well decide to try to get what they want using intimidation.  This is what happens eventually to most animal bullies in the wild, and is extremely dangerous.  So I elect to use cooperation and leadership so that they learn that I am a powerful and benevolent leader who will help them get what they want in the world.  I outsmart them by making sure that their success coincides with my desires until they reflexively and habitually do what I ask. I am smarter, but not stronger or faster, so it makes sense to use my intellectual advantage rather than bluffing about a physical advantage.

There is a genuine distinction between a leader who is revered and idolized and a leader who is feared, and I personally believe that being revered leads to better working, more reliable, happier, healthier dogs, but I rarely see this occur on Millan’s show.  I see bullying and intimidation instead of leading and teaching.

It makes me profoundly sad to think that such a bully is out there working with dogs every day, but far worse is that so many people do not see his techniques for what they are.  That millions of people still see intimidation and cruelty as viable leadership techniques makes me sad indeed.

 January 6, 2012  Posted by at 9:15 am
Feb 262011

I am a passionate advocate of swimming your dog.  It is one of the very best all around exercise activities, it is a great way to cool them down on hot days, reduce parasites, keep your dogs clean, and generally have a great time.

The vast majority of dogs will learn to love swimming.  Some will take longer than others, and a few might never come to love it, but for most it will become a favorite activity and is well worth the time spent introducing.

First of all, there are a few things to avoid:

  1. Do not take your dog to the water—the first few times—unless you are ready to get wet.  I am amazed how many people I see on the beach trying to get their dogs to swim while the owners are wearing shoes and are running away from each wave.  You dog looks to you for leadership, and if you act like water is something to be avoided, they will too!  So make sure that, before you get anywhere near the water, you have removed your shoes, rolled up your pants, put on a swimsuit, or whatever else you need to do so that they will see you happily and enthusiastically entering the water.
  2. Do not force your dog—do not pull, push, drag, shove, or trick your dog into the water.
  3. Try to avoid the accidental entry.  Do not start out on a slippery dock, or a steep edge, or in a location where the surface of the water appears solid and your dog will try to run onto it and sink…

A few times before you head out to swim, take your dog to shallow water to splash around.  Warm, fun, shallow, where you can both run and play fetch and generally have a great time in the water.

Next, create an optimal situation for swimming:

  1. Pick a warm day. I know you may be excited, but rushing and trying to get them to enjoy going into the water when they are cold and uncomfortable will backfire.
  2. Select a great location:
    • Select water with no current or waves.
    • Pick reasonably warm water.
    • Look for a place with a gradual slope into the water so that they never have to step off a precipice—they just walk forward and find themselves swimming.
  3. Easy egress: a dog that feels trapped in a pool or other body of water is prone to panic and not want to get back in the water.
  4. In a perfect world, you find a pond that is narrow, so they do not have to turn around to exit, and can just swim a few feet across.  But these are hard to find, so if they have to turn it is not the end of the world.
  5. Take along a water loving dog, or a couple of water loving dogs. Seeing other dogs run and jump into the water can help your dog see that it is fun and not frightening.
  6. Have treats, floating kibble, and a few favorite toys in your pockets.

When you first arrive, head down to the water, enter right away, and start playing in the shallows.  Go out a few feet past where your dog can still stand, and lure him with whatever he finds most enticing.  Ideally you want him to swim just a stroke or two, get rewarded, and then swim back to solid ground so he know he can. Do this a few times, and then start gradually increasing the distance.  And really, that is it—once they are swimming comfortably you just start gradually increasing the distance and you are off to the races.  You may want to carefully introduce them to current and waves and dock diving, but essentially once they can swim these are all easy if you make them fun and go slowly.

Some dogs swim too vertically—instead of kicking with their rear legs and moving forward, they try to swim up and out of the water and their front feet come out of the water and splash and they get nowhere.  The key to helping these dogs is to motivate them forward—throw a ball or a treat so that they are focused on that and are pushing to get to the reward, and they will accidentally start moving forward, and will teach themselves that forward motion works better than vertical…  If necessary, you can support their rear slightly and help them to move forward.

It is possible that with some dogs, even after doing everything above, they will just not take that last step.  If this is the case, depending on your dog’s attitude, it may be time to force the issue:

  1. Find a creek crossing where your dog will have no choice but to swim or be left behind, and wade across.
  2. If your dog is of a size that he can be lifted, carry him out past the point where he would have to swim, face him towards shore, and gently set him in the water, still supporting him somewhat, and let him swim to shore.  Repeat this a few times.  Try to praise when he is swimming, not when he gets to shore.
  3. Find a pond where you can swim out and make them feel like you are leaving and call them to come to you.

I have had many dogs that needed no help—they just ran in and started swimming.  Some have taken a few trips, while a few have taken up to a year to really start loving water.  I have only had one dog over the years that never really came to like swimming.  He liked splashing and wading, but not swimming.  But in fairness, I do want to point out that the point of this is for your dog to have fun, so if your dog does not enjoy swimming, move on to another activity.  But most dogs, if you are a little patient and enthusiastic, will come to love swimming…


 February 26, 2011  Posted by at 11:58 pm
Feb 162011

Your puppy is a delightful charmer most of the time, but when he has a favorite treat, a stolen sock, or gets near the food bowl or refrigerator, he turns into an evil beast …  What to do?

I write about this issue with some trepidation because in many cases it is not something that should be tackled without experienced assistance.  This is not because it is particularly difficult to resolve—in most cases it can be completely eliminated in a few weeks of relatively simple work.  Rather, it is because there is something of an art involved in determining when to implement which techniques, and applying the wrong technique in a particular case can easily exacerbate the problem or create new problems.  There are moments when confrontation will be effective, and moments when it will completely backfire, and unless you have been through it a few times they are very hard to tell apart… Additionally, resource guarding is not something to ignore or address ineffectively for very long—it is a behavior that tends to become ingrained with rehearsal and can be very challenging to eliminate once it is habitual.  So, I am going to enumerate a few techniques that are useful, but if you do not see immediate improvement, I would strongly encourage you to find an authentic expert to help…

The first thing you need to genuinely understand is that resource guarding does not mean you have a bad dog.  It is not a bad behavior, nor a sign that your dog does not love you.  This is simply an animal behaving in one of the most natural ways possible.  Virtually every animal has evolved to guard valuable resources.  Particularly wolves, who live in packs, have for millennia needed to protect what is theirs.  Those that did not do this died millions of years ago, so growling, snarling, snapping and otherwise telling your packmates that you are not going to share is very much hardwired into every canid. You also need to remember that after a snarl comes a bite, so be careful–your dog is behaving in a reasonable way, but you certainly can be injured, so do not push beyond where you feel comfortable.

Here are things to work on to resolve general resource guarding (note: if the resource your puppy guards is you or your lap, that is somewhat different, this list applies to dogs that are guarding food or toys):

  1. Give: you need to teach your dog to drop what is in his mouth.  This is not a negative—just another behavior.  He gives, you reward him with a treat.  Then you can have him get the object again, and then give.  He is learning to give on command and also that giving does not equate to loss.  Start doing this with low-value items and work up until he can give just about anything on command and get a treat…
  2. Leave it / Take it: you must be able to sit on the floor with your dog and toss treats, sometimes saying take it other times saying leave it, and having him absolutely listen.  If he cannot do this with low value treats in a controlled situation, you have little chance of success when he has something valuable and is 20 feet away…
  3. Stay and wait for treat: work on having your dog sit before you give him dinner.  Sit before you hand him a yummy treat, and hold the sit until you release him.  He needs to learn patience and delayed gratification, and that you control the resources.
  4. General deference: as a rule, dogs that are guarding resources tend to have an inflated sense of their standing in the pack.  They need to learn in other contexts that YOU are the one making the decisions.  A basic obedience class can go a long way to establishing the right relationship, as can a few training sessions per day on anything. In particular, they need to learn to hold a stay with distractions, to wait at the door, to get out of your way when you are walking, to accept restraint, to relax in the face of stimulus, and other subtle lessons that reinforce that they are not the decision-maker in this pack.
  5. There is no shortage of resources: I like to work on resource issues (at first) when my dog is not particularly hungry, and I like to give LOTS of treats and food and rewards during the training.  I want him to “feel” like his world is full of bounty and he does not really need to fight for resources because resources are virtually infinite.
  6. I will trade you something better:  I often call my dogs to me when they have a toy or something they like, and I give something awesome in exchange.  A piece of steak or something.  I do this all the time with things they have that are NOT critical, so they just become habituated to my calling them, taking what they have, and giving them something better.
  7. Management: while you are working on fixing this issue you need to make sure that your dog is not rehearsing the undesired behavior, this means whatever he is tending to guard you need to make sure he is NOT getting it and guarding it at random times.  Pick up socks, move the cat food, and in general make sure there are no opportunities for your dog to gain possession of high value items that are disallowed.
  8. Feeding by hand:  lots of hand-feeding, entire meals.  You want him to associate that the resources come from you.   That you are the key to his getting more.
  9. At dinner time, put his bowl on the ground, and reach down and drop a handful of food into the bowl.  Repeat until he has eaten his entire dinner, one handful at a time.
  10. Have him do a few behaviors while you are holding his dinner bowl, before you set it down.  End with him in a sit, and do not let him get up until you release him.
  11. Feeding from fork: feed really yummy treats from a fork.  This helps him learn to be less grabby and more thoughtful and restrained about taking treats.
  12. Hands in food bowl: spend lots of time with your hands around his food bowl.  Moving it, adding food, adding higher value treats, holding it, having it in your lap, etc.
  13. Feed him in different places.  Sometimes in privacy, other times in the middle of life.  Do not avoid him when he is eating, go about your business so he learns that people walking around are not a threat to him.
  14. Pet him when he is eating. Start gradually, you may be some distance away, but hang out at the distance where he starts to get tense, and gradually decrease this distance, never getting so close that he is uncomfortable, until you can sit next to him and pet him while he stays relaxed and eats.
  15. Incompatible fun behavior: practice doing something he loves that is also exciting and endorphin inducing as an alternative.  Call him away from a bone to come play tug or fetch.  In essence you are instilling the sense that the resource is less valuable than coming to play with you.
  16. Incompatible static deferential behavior: sometimes call him away from an exciting resource and put him into a down for five minutes and then let him return.  You are conditioning him to stop, listen, restrain himself, and relax in the middle of a rewarding resource experience.
  17. Growling at me does not work: in general if a dog growls at me, I make sure that the growl does not get him what he wanted.  If he wanted to push me away, I step forward, if he wanted to tell me not to take something, I take it…  However, you need to be very careful with this, because if the dog is growling from insecurity, you do not want to reinforce that insecurity by advancing, adding pressure, or taking something away.  You also need to be safe, so if the dog is going to bite, do not push the issue.  And, you need to be careful not to take away a dog’s best tool for warning you—there may be times in life when your dog needs to legitimately warn you or someone else, and you want him to know that growling is better than silent biting and that he will not simply be ignored if the issue is real and legitimate.
  18. Growling at me has negative consequences: with all the same cautions as above, there may come a moment when a particular dog growls and the right response is to correct him.  To tell him, “No, that crap will not be tolerated…”  If you think you are in this position, enlist the aid of an experienced and objective trainer who can confirm that your dog is being a jerk and needs to be corrected.  However, while I am a very positive trainer, I also want to make clear my view that this behavior cannot be tolerated, and there absolutely is a point at which I will not be nice.  Just as I understand that my dog is behaving reasonably according to pack mentality, he needs to understand that, according to the same rules, I am not a member of the pack to whom he gets to be nasty, no matter how much he wants something.  A dog that will growl or bite to protect “his” resources is likely to end up homeless, and will then likely fail most shelters’ evaluations and will be killed, so not fixing this behavior is not an option.

There are many additional techniques, but if you consistently and effectively work on these, all but the most dire resource guarders are likely to be fixed.  However, let me reiterate: resource guarding can almost always be fixed, and doing so is generally fairly simple, but you really need to be able to read your dog’s underlying emotional state and respond appropriately, so if you are not confident that you can do that, seek skilled help soon!

 February 16, 2011  Posted by at 10:32 pm