On Bad Walks and Love

I had several other things that I thought I was going to write about for this week’s blog post: more stuff on ego, some really interesting stuff I’ve been thinking about on frustration vs anticipation, and then a whole thing about plateaus in reactivity work that I’m really excited about.

But something got in the way: it was my walk on Tuesday.

One of the recent changes to my life is that I gifted myself with hiring a housekeeper to come twice a month to clean: I’m literally buying myself time by having someone else do my chores while I take the dogs out of the house for the time that she’s here. We try to find local hikes that are low-traffic for me & Kit (who, in case you’re just tuning in, is better-than-before but still WILDLY reactive to other dogs) and easy enough for 13 year old Shine and her functional-but-still-arthritic joints to manage. Because Stormy, my 10 year old, just had dental surgery on Monday, she needed to stay home, to have a fairly quiet morning while I took Kit and Shine out on a morning adventure.

We went to the park around 7:30 in the morning. Kit and I normally walk this park closer to 10:30 or 11 when most people are already done with their morning dog walks, but we figured it was early enough to be not too busy, and the trail has plenty of little offshoots if we needed more distance from other dogs.

Everything started off really well, Kit was in top form, and I don’t mean that in a snarky, sarcastic way: he was rocking it. We were able to work around the first dogs we saw, and he was playing the game like a champ. Honestly, he was much more interested in me and the game of “look-treats; look-at-mom-treats; look-treats” than he was interested in the dogs; my heart was swelling with pride in him and how far he’s come. Even when we passed by a group of women with a small (off leash!) dog, I was able to carry him past without incident.


Quick note: one of the things that Kit and I have worked on over the last few years is him letting me know when he needs to be picked up and carried. Unlike many dogs who find physical restraint incredibly stressful and aversive, when Kit is overwhelmed it has a decompressing effect on him. This is something I intend to write more about separately because it’s so cool and interesting. We have a fantastic system worked out where if I give him a cue like “touch” or “sit” but he is in too high a state of arousal to perform the behavior, he can place his front paws on me and I will pick him up because that’s the support he needs right then. If I think he’s getting a little stressed I can ask him, “Do you need an assist?” and if he does, he will place his front paws on me and I will pick him up and carry him; if he doesn’t hell look back at me and keep walking. Sometimes he asks me to pick him up without any cue or conversation before hand, he’s upset, and he knows he has the power to ask for what he needs. It’s a really lovely system, and I don’t know where we’d be without it. When I’m carrying him, I can feel his body going from rigid to slack in my arms as we walk along, and that’s when I know he’s ready to go back down: when all 30 pounds of him become deadweight instead of tense muscle. Again, I totally recognize how awesome this dialog between us is, and I’m excited to write more about it at a later date.


Back to the walk: Kit was doing really well. I had my treat bag pretty well loaded with two packets of cream cheese and a baggie full of my usual trail mix of cheese, hot dogs, and Happy Howie’s. It was a nice morning, cool, but with the promise of heat later on.

Anyway, it was really good. We would see dogs, and either work Kit where we were or I could move the kids away from the main trail far enough that I could work Kit and not have him anywhere near a point of reaction. Shine, who is a fearful girl, would also get treats for being in proximity with people and dogs, but her distance of concern is MUCH shorter, and she doesn’t hold onto stress the same way Kit does. So, Kit would get worked, Shine would get a cookie or two dropped on the ground for her. It was good. I was genuinely impressed by how well Kit was keeping it together, the choices he was making, and all those other wonderful things that dog reactive dog parents love to see from their kids.

As the morning crept along, we started seeing more and more dogs on the trail with their people, many of them off leash. Unfortunately, I had thought about what foot traffic was going to be like at 7:30 when we started, but not what foot traffic was going to be like as it got closer to 8:30 and then 9. That’s when people take their dogs for walks.

That’s when people with friendly dogs take their dogs for walks.

…and it felt like they were all heading on to the trail as we started getting closer to the end of the walk. Our first real problem happened when we were about two thirds through and a young woman on her cell phone was passing by with a white Pit mix. I think it probably would have been fine if that dog didn’t care about us, but that dog looked at us. It wasn’t threatening or even close to it, but the direct eye contact and pricked-forward ears were too much for my boy and Kit went over his edge into shrieking barks, lunging, and full amygdala overload. Nothing existed for him but that dog until we were able to get more distance from them, both spatially and temporally.

It wasn’t just that dog though. It was the fact that we had already passed several dogs. Trigger stacking is a real thing. If you’re not familiar with it (or choose not to watch the helpful video behind the link) the basic idea is that the stress-producing things that happen during our days pile up and compound. You don’t just spill your coffee, then stub your toe, then get cut off in traffic, and not have all of it affect how you react to the next stressor that pops up in an hour or so. We all, cross-species and individually, have different levels of ability to let things roll off, to not carry stressors or triggers with us through our hours and days. For humans, while chemicals still play a role, it’s a lot about how much we ruminate on the events and disturbances that have occurred. For dogs, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it’s primarily chemical.*

Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get released into the system don’t just disappear when the event itself has ended, they stick around and have a residual effect on how the stressed individual reacts to things moving forward. When you have triggers stacking up, one after the other, without sufficient time between events for the chemicals to dissipate sufficiently to bring the dog back to baseline, you see arousal levels rise and rise and rise.

If that first dog we saw put Kit at a 4–because even though he didn’t display textbook reactivity, it was still a stressor–the next dog pushed him up to a 5. The one after that to a 6. You get it? Even though he was totally handling himself, there’s only so much he can take. Finally, that adorable Pittie pushed him over his limit, where he began barking like a maniac and was unable to cognitively engage in our training game.

I want to stop here and again acknowledge it was my own poor foresight that had us on the trail at a prime hour. I thought about the low traffic when we started, but not where things would be as we came back, and of course coming back means arriving at a trail head, the busiest part of the trail, after already experiencing all the stressors and stimuli of the whole walk.
That last half an hour of what should have been a much shorter walk, or I should say what could have been, consisted primarily of me jogging towards and then hiding in the bushes, either holding Kit or trying to keep his brain engaged, dodging poison oak, as well as trying to keep Kit out of it so I wouldn’t contract it from his coat when I had to pick him up.

He had a few over-the-edge moments that were, as far as I could see, unpreventable, and I was trying HARD to keep those moments to a minimum. At one point I literally climbed through scrubby bushes carrying Kit, and nearly dragging Shine to get away from an elderly woman with a cast on her leg and an off leash terrier. I was dropping treat crumbs on the ground for Shine while talking soothingly to Kit hoping this woman would pass quickly. She saw us in the bushes, and–of course!–stopped to ask if we needed help, when all I needed her to do was keep going.

At one point, a gentleman who we had passed previously on the loop stopped as I was hiding behind trees to try to talk to me about my dogs. His dog, a Cattle Dog mix, also off leash, was not helping the situation. I asked him to please just keep moving past us, or at least I hope that’s what I said.

In these meltdown moments he was no longer able to work and we weren’t able to get far enough away from the dogs to be able to keep him in a cognitive or functional state. All we could do was hope people walked fast and that their dogs were both on leash and uninterested in us.

I’m not sure I’m really clearly articulating just how horrible this was for me and Kit. When we were probably a quarter mile from the end we were stuck hanging out maybe 30-40′ off the trail just waiting for dog after dog to pass. I was running low on treats and he was up so high he wasn’t fully engaged anyway. At one point we thought the coast was clear and I started back up towards the trail and all of a sudden there was a woman with a stroller and a retriever just a few yards away. Kit lost it again and we had to turn back into our hiding spot. At some point I even lost the first packet of cream cheese that I opened up.**

This probably reads like the overly dramatic comedy version of what most reactive dog parents deal with all the time. It’s funny because it’s true.

One of the saving graces of the situation is that we had no real options, so there was no internal struggle. All we could do was keep dancing this dance: on the trail, off the trail, on the trail, off the trail. I accepted the moment we were in.

There was one option that only occurred to me in dark jest during one of our extended rest stops in the bushes: just stay on the trail and keep going. Let Kit blow up to get to the car sooner.

…And I did want to get back to the car. More than anything, I just wanted this horrible horrible walk to be over. I wanted to get back to my car which is clearly labeled by the large magnets stuck to the doors to belong to a dog trainer. So anyone who saw me and my dogs would know exactly who not to call for help with their own problematic pups. Insert face-palm emoji here.


I’ve been listening to a lot of Tara Brach, a wonderful Buddhist meditation teacher lately. Anyone familiar with her knows that she talks at great length and with great insight about compassion. Compassion for oneself and compassion for others. I think that was what inspired me to, at one moment as we were crouched in the bushes, to whisper to kit, over and over again, I love you, I love you.

I think it was the most important thing I did during that whole walk.

Because I love him.

I’m hiding in the bushes, dropping packets of cream cheese, dodging poison oak, and and bending so much of my life around his needs.

Because I love him.

I’m not dragging him out on the trail to pass other dogs, just to get over it with, because I love him. Because I don’t want him to experience all the upset that’s so obvious when we’re too close to another dog.

I want him to live as calm and peaceful a life as possible, and that means going out of my way to protect him from the things that cause him so much distress that he will turn into a screaming demon.

In my last post, I talked about the shame that I so often feel when Kit reacts. But I didn’t feel that at all on Tuesday: I felt concern and care and compassion. I just wanted him to feel okay.

Yes, I was frustrated that things went so south at the end of what started off as a beautiful and successful walk, but I wasn’t frustrated at Kit, and I wasn’t frustrated at myself. I had moments of frustration at the people who stopped to talk with us, although I know that they were just showing compassion for us in their own way: wanting to make sure we were okay, trying to see if there was anything we needed that they could help us with. If they had ever had reactive dogs, they would have known what I needed was the exact opposite of what they chose to do, but I can’t fault them for never having a dog like Kit. I wasn’t angry with them. I certainly wasn’t blaming them for my dog’s behavior.

But I also wasn’t blaming my dog for my dog’s behavior.

It’s just behavior.

It’s the result of neurons firing & chemicals releasing as a response to an external stimulus.

I am not mad at my dog for his brain.

I love my dog for his brain.

I love my dog.

I love my dog.

And I say to my dog: I love you. I love you. I love you.

Even when it’s hard.

And especially when it’s hard.


We got back to the car eventually.

Sitting on a bench not too far from us was the gentleman with the Cattle Dog mix who had tried to talk to me earlier. I put Shine and Kit in the car and then went down to chat with him. I started off by apologizing if I came off as snappy earlier, and he said he just wanted to see if my dog was so excited because he was friendly and wanted to say hello. I laughed and let him know that that wasn’t the case, that that Kit was not friendly. I explained that I normally take this trail at a different time, that I was not anticipating quite so many dogs. We chatted for a few moments, he told me about his daughter, who is a groomer, which explained why his mostly-white dog had large dyed orange stripes on her coat that were reminiscent of a tiger. He said she had entered a contest. We said our goodbyes, I excused myself back to my car, and I drove home.


Back at home, the housekeeper was just finishing up. She told me that Stormy hadn’t barked at her at all, and while she wouldn’t take treats from her hand, Stormy would eat the ones that she tossed on the floor. Not barking and eating treats is a success in our book.

Kit and Shine drank water, cooled off on the clean floor, and took long naps after they settled down from the excitement of the morning. I showered and settled in for my day of desk work, and was surprised by how calm I felt after so much difficulty and upset on our walk.

While I wasn’t protected from unpleasant emotions on our walk, I was protected from destructive emotional aftershocks and thought cycles because–I think–blame and shame never entered the story. There was concern, fear, distress, and frustration, but I wasn’t throwing the fault of all those feelings on Kit, myself, or the dog walkers we passed. I focused my heart and my actions on the most important thing: shielding Kit from what upsets him, and by protecting him, I protected myself.

* I highly doubt that Kit spends much time thinking about those two retrievers who bark at him from behind their fence hours after we’ve already passed the house. Just a guess, though.

**My apologies to the person who found it later and probably silently condemned the thoughtless person who dropped it on the trail.

The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 2)

As I said in my last post on this topic: ego has no role in dog training. Unfortunately, ego frequently appears, sometimes subtly and under the guise of something else; other times ego screams its presence from the rooftops. To be the best trainers, handlers, and dog parents we can be (not to mention the best human beings) it is our duty to root out ego and excise it from our interactions with our dogs*.

For clarity’s sake please note that I’m not talking about the Freudian ego which–in that line of psychology–is an essential part of the psyche.  Here I’m referring to the Buhddist idea of ego: the individual’s idea or construct of self: the self we think we are, which at its core is illusion.

This ego is self-important, self-absorbed, and fragile. Ego is the root of many of the “shoulds” in our lives and the driving force of much of our unhappiness. Ego (along with its cruel twin, attachment) creates a false narrative that our self-constructed view of the world (ourselves included) is right.  This narrative propagates the sentiment that things should be the way we want or expect them to be, and anything other than–that contradicts–our “should be” version of reality is wrong, bad, or undesirable. Ego frequently creates blame, judgment, and shame, often turned on our dogs, but sometimes turned back onto ourselves.   When ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Manifestations of Ego: Proactive and Reactive

The most odious and obvious version of ego in dog training is seen in folks who insist on being the “alpha” (which is just the contemporary version of the old fashioned and ugly term “master”). These are the people who pride themselves on being in charge, on dictating their dogs’ every move. An old neighbor of mine was like this: she kept her dogs marching in step beside her on walks, never allowing them  to sniff or explore, leashes short and attached to pinch collars. She loved her dogs, but her need for visible control over them was more clear to me than her affection. These owners, trainers, and handlers often do not hesitate to use pain and fear to get the behavioral results they want, because the most important thing is the result they want. This is the proactive ego:

This ego says: I present my control over my dog to the world as an object lesson on my construct of importance, power, and worth.

A more subtle manifestation of ego can be seen in the person who does not require full-time compliance but “corrects” or otherwise punishes their dog for doing something (typically normal and predictable dog behavior) that falls outside their perception of “appropriate” behavior. I saw this recently when a young man harshly jerked back on the leash and scolded his adolescent Golden Retriever for attempting to say hello to another dog in a public space. The dog went outside of the young man’s unconscious (and uncommunicated!) list of what he felt was appropriate or tolerable public behavior, and the dog was punished. This is the reactive ego aiming away from the self: the internal upset caused by the conflict between desire and reality is shifted away from the self.  The handler’s negative emotions are discharged onto the dog.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior contradicts my construct of appropriate or good; I will take action to show the dog they are wrong for this.

Reactive ego can also point its arrows inward: the person who experiences feelings of failure or shame when they perceive their dog’s behavior as being outside what they think it “should” be. I personally have experienced this more times than I can count when Kit, my 30 pounds of fury, completely loses his marbles over some trigger or other and spikes into an explosion of reactivity. 

I’m a professional, my dog shouldn’t be like this, his behavior is supposed to be different, and because I am responsible for his behavior, I am failing as both a dog mom and trainer. 

Do you see how completely self-absorbed that thinking is? While in this example I’m not reacting with any response that is directly injurious or aversive to my dog, the foundation of the sentiment is about what I want and who I think I should be.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior is a reflection of my own failings.

Again: when ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Wanting a Trained Dog Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Here’s the thing: in so, so many cases, there’s a really valid reason out there to want our dogs’ behavior to match our idea of “good” or “correct” responses to situations. There are very good reasons not to want a dog to leap forward to greet another dog, react to environmental triggers, or even to want your dog to walk at heel, but when the primary motivation to curtail undesired responses is rooted in ego, the training process becomes soiled with judgment, attachment, pressure, and impatience.

If our motivation for wanting a dog to sit quietly next to us in public is because it’s “correct” or makes us look good, there is automatic judgment on anything else the dog does. Our ego response to anything outside the realm of “correct” will cause dissatisfaction/suffering in us and our feedback to the dog will be tainted by that unhappiness. Woah. Uncomfortable truth, much?

But what if our motivation is different? What if we want our dog to sit quietly next to us for the safety and comfort of our dog, other dogs, and the people around us? How will that motivation change how we respond to that joyful leap to meet another pup? Are we worried about ourselves and our constructs of good and bad? Or are we concerned with the wellbeing of our dog and others?

What is the opposite of an ego-driven motivation?

In part three of this series, we will explore motivations rooted in compassion, community, and relationship, and how moving from these spaces is better for humans and dogs, alike.

*and everyone else, including ourselves, forever. 

Finding Balance

A dear friend who also self-described as my “favorite troublemaker” recently wanted to hear my thoughts on “balanced training.” I thought that was a little bit hilarious because she knows perfectly well how I feel about punishment-based training, generally speaking (and yes, I know that so-called balanced training isn’t just based on punishment, but it does feature consistently and/or often). But in light of some recent conversations and internal philosophical musings, I’ve decided to expound my views. This post is far from the be-all-end-all of my thoughts on balanced training or punishment in general, but it’s a start. If there are particular parts of this you, dear reader, would like to discuss, I am happy to engage in a respectful, compassionate dialogue. If you just want to hear more about what I think, I can certainly elaborate on anything, too.


When I started learning how to train dogs at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland back in the early aughts, I was trained not only how to use a clicker and deliver treats at the appropriate time, but also how to use a choke chain. We didn’t actually put them on the dogs, we placed them on a chain link fence so we could practice “pop corrections” without actually inflicting pain or discomfort on a real dog. I never in fact used a choke chain while I worked there, but it was part of my education because I was told that I needed to learn how to use all the tools. All the tools. This was at a time when shock and so-called “e collars” were not nearly as popular or prevalent in the training world, at least not for pet dogs. The philosophy that that we worked under, at that shelter, at that time, was, we use what works for the dog.

There was one dog from my time there who seemed to be fairly uncontrollable–a large fluffy German Shepard mix named Pellinore. After trying standard treat-based training methods the decision was made by leadership to try a pinch collar on him to reduce his jumpy/mouthy behaviors to the point where he would be considered “adoptable”. He wore that for a very brief period of time before he was transitioned to a head collar, but the fact remained that we, the training staff at an animal shelter, placed a dog on a punishment device intentionally.

In hindsight I feel that the reason a pinch collar was chosen and utilized was because the skill level and education of the handlers and decision makers, myself included, was not nearly where it should have been to create a force-free plan for this dog at that time. Everyone was doing the best they could with what they had, and no one had any ill intent. The dog certainly was not irreparably harmed (to my knowledge) by the use of this tool, and he ended up in a wonderful home with a family who loved him very much and renamed him “Wookie”. From my perspective now, with well over a decade of education and hands-on experience behind me, it wasn’t the right choice to use that pinch collar, but it was something that probably would have been used by a “balanced trainer”. Now I think we could have done him better.

Folks who call themselves balanced trainers, to the best of my understanding, are trainers who utilize a combination of punishment techniques as well as reinforcements. Things that fall into the punishment category include corrections with choke, pinch, slip, or similar collars, verbal reprimands, and/or shocks from electronic collars. Those aversives, used to reduce undesirable behaviors are “balanced” by the use of various reinforcers such as treats, praise, play, access to toys, and so on, which are used to increase the likelihood of desired behaviors.

The deep dark dirty secret of behavior and behaviorism is that punishment works. There have been studies upon studies upon studies on all kinds of species, including human children, that show that punishing behaviors through use of applying aversive stimuli is an effective method for behavioral change, and often a fairly fast one (though it should be noted that speed of efficacy is typically based on severity of the aversive; i.e. level of pain or fear [of pain] inflicted). There are of course caveats to this – you can google “punishment doesn’t work” and read a plethora of articles on the ineffectiveness of punishment in dog training, criminal justice systems, classrooms, and so on. That said, there are also plenty of other studies as well as endless anecdotal reports from dog owners, professional trainers, not to mention the sales data for electronic collars and invisible fences that speak otherwise.

Let’s take it as a fact that some types and applications of punishment do in fact work to train a dog to do or not do a variety of things. If this is the case, why on earth are so many dog trainers and behaviorists opposed to using effective methods, even just sometimes?

In short, because there’s a better way.

Let’s say you have two options in front of you to modify your dog’s external behavior (what he is doing with his body):

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your dog stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the person.

The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the dog, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the dog’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis while achieving the desired behavioral result. It requires more time, patience, energy, and commitment from the human.

Both these methods work, but the big difference to me isn’t simply how they work, but who they are working for. Option one (punishment, obvi) works for the human. There’s no major impact on the person’s life, they don’t have to change much at all, and they will see (external) results in a reasonable period of time. It should however be pretty damn obvious that this method is basically crap for the dog, as it becomes up to them to learn what’s desired of them, or else.

For people who do not recognize (or care?) that dogs experience emotions, including fear, joy, frustration, and anxiety as well as experience stress and all it’s physiological consequences in ways shockingly similar to humans, for those people I can see how they justify the use of positive punishment* methods in fairly pedestrian situations: jumping on guests, barking at delivery personnel, pulling towards other dogs on leash, and so on. And I can also see “balanced” trainers feeling okay with using punishment knowing that they would still be doling out the praise and/or treats for tasks accomplished well.

But let’s look at option two:

Option two has little negative impact on the dog, but requires comparatively quite a bit from the human. The responsibility for behavioral change is in the hands of the person to make sure that the dog is set up to learn without stress (which, for the record inhibits learning – you can Google that one yourself). In many cases this method requires huge shifts in how we live and work with our dogs, and therefor requires the pet parent to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their dog’s well-being.

That’s asking a lot, but I don’t think it’s asking too much. If you think that sounds like too much, let’s read the descriptions of the two options again, but replace the word “dog” with “child”.

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your child stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his or her internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the parent.
The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the child, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the child’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis. It requires more time, patience, energy,, and commitment from the parent
.

Suddenly seems a little more obvious which method to choose, doesn’t it?

No, dogs are not children, but there are a lot of clear parallels, the most relevant being: adult humans are responsible for looking out for both children and dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being and best interests as they cannot sufficiently advocate or care for themselves.

For the most part, people now agree that you can raise children without hitting or yelling at them, but for some reason, a large number of folks still think you “need” pain or fear to train dogs. That’s just one of the many falsehoods that trainers who emphasize punishment in their protocols are holding on to: it justifies their methods. In addition to the “punishment = good” (or at least “useful” or “necessary”) half for the story, there are also misconceptions spread about what positive reinforcement training is, allows for, and both how and why it works.**

The claim is made by many self described balanced trainers that positive reinforcement (R+) or force-free dog trainers believe in “never saying ‘no'” or let problematic behaviors go ignored without interruption. This is far from actuate. Most, if not all, R+ trainer use some methods of punishment, some of the time, because technically just turning your back on a jumping dog can be a punishment, or using a head collar for an anti-pulling walking device.

For the most part, well educated and skilled R+ trainers follow what’s known as The Humane Hierarchy when working to resolve training or behavior concerns. The Humane Hierarchy is A Big Deal, and it’s awesome. It is a road map to addressing issues by starting with the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) methods, and as one method is exhausted, then move on to the next least intrusive/minimally aversive method. The Hierarchy places the animals’ well-being front and center because, again, they can’t advocate for themselves, so we have to take their welfare not only into account, but make it the most relevant thing in a training plan, right up there with efficacy.

You can see from looking at the graphic below that use of positive punishment (adding an aversive consequence) is on the list of options, but as a last resort. That means, if you’ve tried and exhaused everything else and your options are now re-homing/euthanizing the dog or using a punishment based method, maybe it’s worth trying.

The problem arises with the phrase “tried everything else”, because most of the time “everything else” hasn’t been tried, or at least has not been correctly/sufficiently/appropriately to say that method is exhausted.

Most balanced trainers do not follow the Humane Hierarchy roadmap or operate under the guidelines of LIMA. Maybe there are some who do, but when LIMA & the HH are in place, you almost never get to the point to need positive punishment because all those other methods work, and work well. The use of positive punishment is reserved for seriously extenuating circumstances, not because it’s easier for the human to press a button or jerk a leash than modify their own behavior, because, again, we are our dogs’ only advocates: it is our responsibility to care for them: physically, mentally, emotionally. They can’t do that for themselves.

The Humane Hierarchy places methodology on a scale to be balanced against the animal’s emotional and physical well-being, which gets the most weight, always.†

There will be times that circumstances are extenuating, or certain methods not accessible. For example: if we have a dog who continues to escape his yard, scaling over even a 7′ solid wooden fence, and the possible repercussions of those escapes include getting hit by a car or killing a neighbor’s cat, would it be okay to put in an invisible fence? What are the other options? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the dog is receiving age-appropriate exercise and enrichment, a tie out or runner have been tried in the past but the dog has managed to get dangerously tangled, and it is unrealistic for the dog to be attended/babysat every time he’s in the yard†† for what would likely be the duration of the learning process, which removes most of the training options. If it boiled down to getting rid of the dog or using an invisible fence, which would you choose?

Is it better for the dog to be sent to a shelter (to potentially be euthanized for untreatable escape behavior) or placed with another family who will still have to deal with this problem (it’s not like changing homes will make the fence jumping behavior magically go away), or for him to stay with the family that knows him and loves him, but to experience the discomfort/pain of an electric shock as many times as it takes for him to learn the boundaries of his yard? Knowing that invisible fences are not guarantees and many dogs push through the shock to get to the outside world, is it worth trying?

In this case, IF we have made it though all those other options on the Hierarchy and eliminated them as either “tried correctly and completely” or “not available”, then I say, give the invisible fence a shot.

After saying that I still maintain that I am a force-free and R+ trainer, because this is the only option left on the scale that balances against the dog’s physical and emotional well-being as training with a shock collar in my opinion is in this case preferable to death.

You see what I did there? I’m still advocating for the dog’s welfare.

This is an extreme hypothetical case, but not too unrealistic. It is one of the rare, rare times when all other options have truly been exhausted in one way or another and we’re left at that last turn-off on the Hierarchy map before we hit the dead end.

Most training and behavior concerns don’t have to go all the way to that last turn off. A well educated and proficient R+ trainer can get satisfactory resolution out of nearly every issue prior to hitting that positive punishment turn-off, and we choose to do so because it’s fairest to the dog. It might take more work, commitment, and ownership of the issue from the person, but you know who’s job it is to care for that animal? The person.

Let’s sing it from the rooftops: we are our dogs’ advocates. With that fact clear as a bell, we are doing a disservice to our voiceless animals to cause stress, pain, or fear when there is another option available, and that other option is, with only very rare exceptions, always available.

So, balanced training?

I’m happy balancing the dog’s very real needs with an effective training plan, and so far use of positive punishment hasn’t needed to come into the conversation.



*Positive here does NOT mean “good” it means that the punishment is added, as in: when the dog behaves undesirably, an aversive consequence (shock, pinch, etc) is added/applied: Dog barks + electric shock = less barking. For more on the terminology of operant conditioning, check this info-graphic out.

**I want to make clear here that I do not believe that the trainers who espouse these views are inherently bad people or intentionally spreading untruths. I think, that similar to my history at the East Bay SPCA way back when (they have changed since then!), they are truly doing what the think is best given the tools and education they have.

†I would love, more than anything to reclaim the term “balanced training” to mean that all training methods used are placed on this scale – that any trainer who calls themselves “balanced” is implying that they are weighing everything they chose to do against what’s best for and fair to the dog. Not gonna happen, but a girl can dream!

†† If you’re having a hard time imagining why it would be impossible or unrealistic to stay out with the dog every time he needs to use the yard, imagine a single parent with one or more kids under the age of 10. The dog can not reasonably command 100% of that person’s attention every time he needs to potty.

Be Your Dog’s Valentine

Valentine’s Day is an interesting holiday that people tend to have very strong love or hate feelings about, and those feelings can change from year to year depending on the individual’s romantic life. Well, if you have a dog in your life, you will always have someone to be your valentine. Our dogs love us. Like, luuuuuuuuurve us, so let’s show them how much we love them!

So, how do we show our dogs we love them? Treats, toys, play, sniff breaks, and of course training! Training can and should be fun, both for us and our dogs. Chances are if our dogs are having fun, we’re having fun, too, but how do we make sure that our dogs have fun?

Think about training as taking your dog out on a date, Valentines Day or any day! When you take someone out on a date your goal is to be more interesting, engaging, and fun than anyone else in the environment, right? You don’t want your date to look across the room and see someone else that they might rather be on a date with. When we’re training, we don’t want our dogs to look (or sniff) around and fine someone or something that they’d rather be investigating or hanging our with, either.

So, how do you become a “good date” for your dog? It’s not actually that different than with people: for both dogs and humans, a good date is cheerful, friendly, says nice things to you and buys you dinner.

Be Kit’s Valentine?


Be cheerful and friendly: If you go into a training session in a bad mood or already frustrated, you can bet your biscuits that your dog is picking up on your feels.  On a date with someone grumpy? you’ll check out pretty quickly, and so will your dog.  By keeping things upbeat and fun, your dog is much more likely to stay engaged with you. This is pretty easy to do just with your tone of voice. Dogs love, and I mean LOVE high pitched, squeaky, or otherwise cartoonish voices, and in my personal (and often very regretfully public) experience, they love being sung to, as well. When you’re communicating with your dog verbally, talk to him like you love him, sing his favorite song in a fun voice (Kit is a huge fan of a song that’s only lyric is “who’s a good dog?!?!” repeated over and over), and see what a difference in your dog’s level of interest in you.


Say nice things:  Would you want to be the valentine of someone who was constantly telling you what you were doing wrong? Neither does your dog!  If you focus on the (ahem) “areas of improvement” there isn’t much room for positive motivation  It’s pretty much common sense that being constantly criticized or told “no” is frustrating, and frustration is where I see dogs begin to shut down, disengage, and look for something more interesting (and reinforcing!) to pay attention to.
On the flip side, if you encourage your dog with praise and affection for all the good choices she’s making, you’ll see her excited to keep going on that right track. Being told “yes!” is going to build excitement, engagement, and endurance during training, as well as being the very foundation of positive reinforcement training: the more you’re able to reinforce the good choices you pup makes the more often she’ll make those choices!


Buy dinner: Aside from the fact that you literally always pay for your dog’s meals, when training it really helps to use food (most of the time: there are always exceptions!) to reinforce the behaviors you want to see repeated.  Food is known as a “primary reinforcer” which means that it’s something that dogs find naturally valuable, and that makes it a very potent tool for training. What kind of food? Well, would you rather be taken out on a date to a fast food chain or a 4-star restaurant?  The better the food, the more memorable the experience, and the more engaged and motivated the date, err… dog. Kibble and carrots probably aren’t going to be as powerful a reward as cheese, pastrami, or bacon, but ask your dog what he likes! Bring a variety or treats with you to a training session and notice which snacks make your pup’s eyes light up and focus become laser-like.

In Summary: If you go into a training session with a treat pouch full of special goodies, a heart full of love & patience, and a willingness to get a bit silly with your dog, I can just about promise you that your pup will not only have a great time, but gladly go out with you again.

Happy Valentines Day, y’all.