Advocating for your dog

Silas is a deceptive little creature. He’s generally interested in other people and dogs, but his reactions tend to change quickly once things get too close.

This means that strangers think he wants to be petted. Right up until he starts barking at them, that is, and they act like my dog is a hell creature.

The problem is that this belief is so strong that I have difficulty overriding it. We get a lot of scenarios like this:

Stranger: “Can I pet your dog?”

Me: “He’s really not good with new people.”

Stranger: “Oh, but dogs love me!”


Me: “He’s very shy.”

Stranger: “He doesn’t look shy to me!”¬†(reaches down to pet Silas, gets barked at.)

It’s exhausting. Why can people not listen to me?!

Sleeping Silas

The problem with my statements in both of these cases is that the stranger thinks I’m asking for help.¬†Their magical abilities with dogs will help Silas be less afraid of new people. Their petting will override his shyness. My dog has a behavioral problem that they think they can help me fix.

Once I realized this, I changed my tactics.

Me: “If you pet him, he will bark at you.”

Stranger: “Well, he sure is cute.” (Goes on about their business.)

It turns out, people are a lot less likely to ignore your objections when the consequences are clearly explained.

What Happens if the Dog Gets it Wrong?

I’ve been watching a lot of World Dog Training Motivation Transparency Challenge videos this morning. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s an idea from the very wise Jean Donaldson. Dog training has picked up so many coy terms for punishment that it can be hard to tell when a trainer is using even heavy-handed aversive methods. So, Jean Donaldson created this set of questions (roughly paraphrased here) that should be asked to clarify any trainer’s position:

1) What happens if the dog gets it right?
2) What happens if the dog gets it wrong?
3) Is there a less invasive way to proceed?

Professional and amateur dog trainers have been posting videos explaining their stance on these three questions and challenging each other to do the same.

I’ll post the videos I watched this morning below, all of which are from trainers I respect:

First, Grisha Stewart. Her incredible sympathy for reactive/fearful dogs has been an inspiration for me, and her answer to the last question is really wonderful:


Second, Michael Baugh, whose video wins for beautiful production values + sound dog training:


Third, Thomas Mitchell, a great up-and-coming dog trainer from the UK. You may have heard of the Absolute Dogs Training Academy that he runs with Lauren Langman. Tom gets bonus points for fitting the Premack principle into his discussion of rewards (and for chopping off his head in the video, because I always do that, too.)


Finally, I also love Eileen’s video (from Eileen and Dogs), for general awesomeness and for acknowledging that we do stupid things and sometimes need professional help:


What I found most interesting in these videos was their answer to “What happens when the dog gets it wrong?” The answers vary slightly in their specificity, but the general theme is that if the dog makes a mistake it is your fault for asking too much, and we shouldn’t do this.

Let me just say: I agree with the first part of that. I’m not so sure about the second. In fairness, I absolutely believe these trainers would give more nuanced answers over a cup of coffee in a chat with an experienced dog person, and some of them do give more details. The whole point of the Dog Trainers’ Challenge is that it is intended for the general public. So, I’m using my luxury of space and audience here to ruminate.

Is constant success our goal?

If you really want a dog to be successful 100% of the time, you can arrange that. It’s absolutely important to remember both that we can help our dogs succeed and that we can inadvertently make them fail. The more carefully you think about the demands of your training environment, including things like distractions, the better off you’ll be.

But when was the last time you played a game you could always win? If you completed every level of Candy Crush on the first try, would you still be playing it? If every slot machine turned up a jackpot on every pull (and thus could only pay back exactly what you put in), would casinos even exist?

I’m not saying that you should constantly overwhelm your dog, but dog training with zero challenges is boring. Your dog is smarter than you think, and you’ll never know that if you’re obsessed with always setting the dog up to succeed.

As positive trainers, we can let failure be a big bogeyman. “I don’t know what to do if my dog makes a mistake! I can’t correct him?!” The key is to have a plan. Before you start training, ask yourself what you’re going to do if, within the context of this exact training moment, your dog makes the wrong choice. You’ll find that you have more options than you think.

Where We Are Now


(No, Silas is not at Niagara Falls. I was there briefly on one of my recent trips, and I hated to post three times in a row with no photos.)

I find the record-keeping aspect of this blog to be the most personally useful for me, even if it isn’t the most fascinating reading. So, excuse me while I ruminate on our current status.

The Big Picture
Silas is doing extremely well. He’s handling environmental stress (things like noise) much better. He seems happier and more relaxed most of the time, and small mistakes don’t have the enormous fallout they used to. For instance, the tree trimmer came while I was out of town in early August, and Silas was only extra-paranoid for a few days.

With that said, here are some individual updates:

Instead of barking twelve or fifteen times a day, he might bark at one thing every two or three days. He still reacts strongly to the doorbell (my fault for losing my Relaxation Protocol mojo), which has extended to include barking at the UPS truck idling outside. He barks at some dog noises from outside. He will alert to people noises outside, but he rarely barks at them. I expected a big uptick in barking once school started back, but I haven’t seen it so far.

He’s walking on the sidewalk almost every day now. This walk is still only 1-2 minutes long, because he always walks the same route. I’m trying creative ways to get him to go a little further. Last night we met my husband on his way home from a bike ride, which got Silas to 1) go back out our front gate once he was already inside and 2) go about five feet further than he usually goes. He was also a little happier. We may try that again. I made an ill-considered attempt to take him to the busier side of the park on Labor Day weekend. It was still way too much. We left quickly, but he didn’t ever panic.

His car riding is really much better. On Saturday he quite happily got in with me, even when he thought my husband wasn’t coming. That’s a step up from when I took him to the park last, which was a little touch and go. Once the weather cools off a bit I’m going to resume regular park trips with him, which will be our real test.

General training has totally gone to pot this summer. We made the rookie mistake of thinking of his training as “exercise.” You know what’s wrong with that? You exercise a dog until he’s tired and stops. The activity itself is gradually less fun, until the dog decides he’s done with it. Every day, you practice “this is boring and I’m done.” Our retrieve has gone from pretty good to “What? Bring the ball back? Nah.” Even Susan Garrett’s Recallers games, which Silas knows and generally loves, have been a huge bust lately. But we’re working on it.

A new cloud on my horizon is stranger reactivity. We’ve been very careful to walk Silas when there aren’t any people on the sidewalk, so that he doesn’t have any additional stress. (My neighborhood is very predictable.) Too careful. Silas has never liked people to be in unexpected places or to be doing things he doesn’t think of as “normal.” On the trail in the park, for instance, is okay, but if someone is standing off in the bushes they have to be barked at. So now he barks at every person we see on the sidewalk, unless they have a dog. People aren’t supposed to be on the sidewalk! This doesn’t seem to be generalizing to other environments–we even spoke to a lady at the park this weekend–but I need to watch out for it.