Getting rubbed the wrong way

I rarely get involved into discussions but this morning I got “rubbed the wrong way”. Those are actually the words my counter part used in the conversation I had with her this morning.

Facebook and Dog Goups

This morning a post about a woman wanting to re-home her dog due to house training issues popped up in my newsfeed. There may have been more issues going on but it appeared in her first post that house training was definitely an issue. Many judgmental comments followed the post. Not many could validate her decision and indirectly accused her of being a not so good person. I’m pretty sure you have seen those posts as well. Feeling sorry and being in an ever helpful mode I offer my services for free. A phone conversation and setting up a training plan for house training is not going to kill me or my business. I was hoping to help. Maybe today was one of those days I could help make a difference in a person’s world.

Well Meant Advice

Another woman stepped up to offer her help as well. It seemed like the posts were getting more positive. What caught my eye was the information she was providing.  It started with “I have heard….  And Dogs are den animals and … when put in crates they generally adapt very well.” Providing advice about dog training is one of those often discussed topics we professional trainers have. Well meant advice can turn into situations that often cause the behavior to become worse. The individual went on offering behavioral advice saying she is not a “trained behaviorist” but felt she had an “innate guidance about doggies” since she was a little girl.

Animal Behaviorists

Animal behaviorists “study the way animals behave and try to determine what causes certain types of behavior and what factors can prompt behavior change. They usually specialize in certain types of animals, whether it’s fish, birds, large animals, wild animals, livestock or household pets. They also may focus on certain types of behavior, such as hunting, mating, or raising offspring.” Behaviorists are highly educated academic individuals who have spent years studying animal behavior. Behaviorists often stay in the academic setting to continue their research in animal behavior. Some work for businesses or veterinary clinics.

Not even I can call myself an animal or pet behaviorist as I do not have the academic background to call myself that. I am allowed to call myself a dog trainer and dog behavior consultant. Why? I have had years of formal training and hands on experience working with dogs on various levels. Still there are cases I will not take. I refer them to other professionals I feel are more capable of handling them due to their specialization or years of experience.

Back to Facebook and the re-homing thread. I respond on my iPad to the post. I caution the individual not to offer advice in a field she is not trained in no matter how well her intend is. My post was expectantly not taken well. Engaging her full defense mechanism she defended her statements and blamed me for being territorial, afraid of her trying to steal my business and degrading the profession of dog trainer by saying you need no certification to potty train a dog. She thanked me cynically for slapping her on her wrists. Although not intended I guess it was one. Not for the sake of business but for the sake of avoiding individuals providing professional advice on a questionable level.

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Gut instinct does not make you a dog professional no matter how comfortable and knowledgeable you feel. Even if in your heart you believe you are providing the best advice possible to the person seeking help think twice before providing it.

Dog training consists of the knowledge of how dogs learn. Do you know the two ways of how dogs learn? Do you know the stages of learning? Do you know when to apply operant or classical conditioning? What kind of operant conditioning? Should I reinforce or punish a behavior? Do I want the behavior to increase or decrease? When do I use rewards? How do I reinforce? What about timing issues? Am I going too fast or too slow in training? My dog is not responding to the training. Motivation problems? Rate problems? Are you prompting correctly?  If these questions seem like a foreign language to you then you should reconsider your dog training abilities because providing dog training advice means you should have some kind of knowledge of these terms. You can waive them off as dog training jargons, which they are, but they provide the professionals among us to do our jobs without using explanations. It is professional dog training language. Language we don’t use with clients but language that helps us do our job.

House Training Case

Back to our case: A three year old dog is not house trained and causing the family a lot of grief. They feel their only option is to re-home the dog into a home that has more time for this dog and the possibility to tackle the issue. Other issues are unknown at this time. The dog has not been crate trained. That is all the information we have. I would most likely ask her to see her vet first to exclude any medical issues. If those are excluded I would set up a training plan. We start with the wanted end behavior and build up a plan from there. What advice would you give in such a situation? Tell them that the dog is 3 years old and should be able to hold it at least 8 hours? Crate them all day? Any training comes with an incremental plan. A step by step guidance on what to do. What if you get stuck? What if the dog still eliminates even though you have stuck to the plan? What if the dog doesn’t respond well to the crate training? “What if …” A trainer provides you with an appropriate answer. Adjusting the plan, splitting the step where you got stuck and helping you to take your dog one step further into ensuring your dog becomes house trained.

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Good Advice or Bad Advice?

When it comes to dog training and behavior ask a professional. One that has the qualification. Getting the advice of one that has not been educated in the matter will provide you questionable advice. It could be good or bad either way. Just because people have had dogs all their lives doesn’t make them knowledgeable in the field. They may have picked up things here and there, gone through some training and thus feeling content about dog behavior. How correct is their knowledge? Don’t wait to find out and possibly cause more damage to your dog. It is not worth it. If you do take the suggestions of unqualified individuals then be prepared to deal with the consequences. Dog Parks inhabit many so called “dog professionals” with all different answers to one question.

Which professional?

Stay away from professionals with no formal training. If you don’t see any accreditation or education in the “About” part of a business web site then rest assure it is a self-proclaimed dog professional. No education means they are basing their own experience, whatever they have picked up here and there and mingle it together into a whole new “dog training and behavior” guide. A vet is not a dog trainer nor is a Vet Tech unless they have gone through some specific training. They are qualified within their field of education even though they deal with dogs on a daily basis. I don’t do their job and they shouldn’t do mine. If they do ask them for the qualification in dog training and behavior.

What can Dog Connect do for me?

Dog Connect is a group of dog lovers. We have individuals in this group on every single level. From first time dog owner to highly educated professional. If you have a question please just ask. We may provide you with insight, helpful links or refer you to a professional in your area.

Nathalie Mosbach is the owner of Beyond Companions LLC. K9Consultant, The Dog Hikers and pawDOGraphy are a few of her successful businesses. 

Getting rubbed the wrong way

Protecting dogs from disinformation

I came across a brilliant cartoon in The New Yorker today:


To be a professional dog trainer often feels like a constant battle against disinformation. When it comes to dog behavior, disinformation is dangerous. Disinformation leads to abusive training techniques. Disinformation leads to myths about how dogs learn and why they behave the way they do. Disinformation leads to stressed and confused dogs, and stressed and confused owners.

Imagine going to a doctor because you’re worried about your health. You tell her your symptoms. She turns to her computer and, instead of jotting notes about your conversation. searches Internet health sites for possible diagnoses. Obviously, this would never happen – it’s preposterous! Our society has come to accept that medicine is a science, that practitioners of medicine must receive training, and that the process of diagnosis and treatment must follow specific evidence-based practices.

Why, then, does it not seem preposterous that society does this every day for dogs? So-called “trainers” appear on TV, spreading techniques that are based in nothing more than myth. In fact, anybody can call herself a trainer without receiving any formal education or training. Considering how much we love our dogs, and how many dogs face behavior problems that require training, this is a sad state of affairs. A sad state of disinformation.

Animal learning is a science. Dogs behave according to known and studied laws. Behavior that is rewarded increases in frequency. Behavior that is punished decreases in frequency. When dogs are afraid, trainers use a different approach than when training obedience behaviors like sit, down and stay (classical conditioning for the former, operant conditioning for the latter). Unlike humans, dogs don’t operate by any moral code, and they aren’t masters of insight, observation, and abstract thinking.

Which is why statements like “Dogs that soil the rug in the living room are being obstinate” are the antithesis of correct, and the epitome of disinformation.

Society owes it to dogs to think critically in the face of myths, falsehoods and incompetent advice. Proper training based in science gives dogs the best chance at a happy, well-adjusted life, and a peaceful coexistence with their human counterparts.

Jean Donaldson says it best in her book The Culture Clash: “The prevailing winds, in fact, would make it our responsibility to have a clue about the basic needs of the species we are trying to live with as well as a clues bout how to modify their behavior, with as little wear and tear on them as possible so that they fit into our society without totally subjugating their nature.”

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at

Protecting dogs from disinformation

Sunday musings on science and dogs: The lens of perception

Originally posted on Mutt About Town.

IMG_1402I stumbled across an interesting piece on NPR this morning from Robert Krulwich discussing the effect of emotions and interpretations on our perceptions of animal behavior.

The piece focused on a photo of a polar bear and a dog interacting. Thirteen years ago, the response to the photo was entirely negative, with individuals claiming the dog was being set up as “bait” for the vicious, killer polar bear. The present day reaction has been completely the opposite, with people embracing what they see as a deep friendship between two different species.

Krulwich explores the theory that recent media attention on the plight of the polar bears has changed people’s perceptions of the photo. Instead of a violent, predatory animal, people now view the polar bear through a different lens: one of endangerment and empathy. This lens casts a different interpretation of the photo among the general public.

Of course, this is just one theory, but it provides an intriguing launching point when it comes to humans and dogs. Much of dog literature is filled with emotions and interpretations instead of objective, factual science. Dominance and the myth of the “alpha dog” is a prolific example. We, as humans, are very concerned with dominance hierarchies. Our lives are filled with them in the workplace, among social circles, and in politics. It’s easy for us to view dog behavior through the dominance lens. If a dog is “disobedient,” he’s asserting dominance. If he enters the door before his owner, he’s claiming alpha status in the household. These nonsensical statements have been disproved by research time and time again, yet many dog owners still cling to the interpretations as fact. They perceive the behavior as dominant, therefore it must be true.

In Krulwich’s NPR piece, he interviews author Jon Mooallem, who asserts the narratives we create based on our perceptions affect how we view animal behavior. Krulwich writes, “‘Emotion matters. Imagination matters, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them.’ The wild animals, he says, ‘always have no comment.'”

Thus is the dangerous cycle we create for our dogs. Our dogs, like a PR rep for a politician, always have “no comment.” They cannot tell us when we are wrong. They cannot debunk our inaccurate perceptions of their behavior. It is up to us to change lenses so that we view our dogs’ behavior not through the lens of interpretation, but the lens of observation.

Even though our dogs cannot communicate through word or thought, they have given us a great gift: their behavior. Dogs’ behavior is the aperture through which we can decipher why they do what they do, and how to build consistent, reliable behavior without the use of force or pain. 

Dog behavior, and all animal behavior for that matter, follows certain laws. Behavior that is reinforced goes up in frequency. Behavior that is punished goes down in frequency. Behavior exists to produce consequences. It has nothing to do with dominance, stubbornness, or defiance.

Jean Donaldson identifies one particularly dangerous lens in The Culture Clash: The Walt Disney (aka Lassie) myth. “As soon as you bestow intelligence and morality,” she writes, “you bestow the responsibility that goes along with them. In other words, if the dog knows it’s wrong to destroy furniture yet deliberately and maliciously does it, remembers the wrong he did and feels guilt, it feels like he merits a punishment, doesn’t it? Well, that’s just what dogs have been getting – a lot of punishment. We set them up for all kinds of punishment by overestimating their ability to think.”

I don’t think it’s wrong that we access our emotions and interpretations of the world around us. I tend to be a very spiritual person when it comes to nature and dogs. But we should cultivate self-awareness so that we know what lens we’re using on our dogs – particularly when it comes to training and punishment. Is it the lens of science and observation, or the lens of perception and bias?

As long as we have that awareness, we are capable of switching lenses, like a photographer, to strengthen our training skills and give dogs a stronger voice.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at

Sunday musings on science and dogs: The lens of perception

A case of “the bad becoming the norm”?

In Temple Grandin’s book “Animals in Translation” she describes a phenomenon she calls “the bad becomes the norm.” She gives the example of a man who raises chickens for food and over the course of a breeding program to achieve optimum meat production, his roosters become violent when mating. He describes them as rapists who harm and sometimes even kill the hens when mating. When asked about it, he is almost confused by the questioning, and it becomes clear that over time he has become desensitized to the behavior and has come to accept it as normal.


I am troubled by a trend in the companion dog world that seems to be on a similar track. There seems to be a belief that any behavioral issue can be fixed and the life of a dog takes priority over families, communities and other companion animals. I will be blunt, I personally spent 6 years trying to fix a dog with serious issues and have met several people in the past few years, who like me, have made significant compromises to the quality of their own lives, their relationships and financial stability to “save” a dog. They have put their families, other pets and members of the community at risk of injury because they underestimate their dog’s issues or are unable to manage their dog. In those rare moments of honesty, they have told me they are stressed out all the time and miserable; which is exactly how I felt. They feel like failures, guilt ridden and helpless because despite their best efforts, they can’t “fix” their dogs. These feelings are compounded by well-meaning friends and family who are quick to tell them what to do differently, recommend some wonder person or method, share a miracle story of success or give a pep talk. For illustrative purposes, I want to use a human relationship analogy. If a family member brought home a potential partner who exhibited violent or verbally abusive, unpredictable behavior, possibly, *only* toward “other” people or animals, would you encourage that family member to pursue that relationship? Would you join in with excuses about why the behavior might be justified, how amazing you think that person is for giving the person a chance or recommend methods they should try to “help” the other person? I hope not. If that family member had children or animals that were going to live with this person, would you encourage your family member to put those children and animals at risk? Would you tell your family member that violent, abusive behavior is “normal” for humans? Would you want this person to take on this responsibility because they *really* love this person and want to make the relationship work? If your answer is “yes”, you should do some research on domestic abuse and the probable outcome for your family member.

Hopefully, you answered no to the questions above and you recognize that what this person is pursuing is an unhealthy relationship. So, why are we telling people who have dogs with clearly “anti-social” behaviors they can fix them? I have not been able to find objective statistical data to support the claim that aggression in dogs can be cured. We tend not to dig deeper into the miracle stories. But, if you do, often you will find parallels again with the abusive relationship. A lot of denial; the dog is doing “better”. It has been months since there was a serious incident. The dog is such a wonderful dog except for this problem. The dog owner assuming blame for incidents either because they “caused it” or didn’t prevent it. The truth is that the average dog owner has as much of a chance of fixing their dogs as the person does of fixing an abusive partner. Why aren’t we honest and tell them, the more likely scenario is that *they* will be the one to change to accommodate their dog, to find ways to protect themselves and others, at potentially great monetary, emotional and physical cost to themselves and their families.

I hope that we have finally evolved to the point where we understand the difference between training/learning skills to do tasks, cultural norms, personality differences and mental illness in humans. Why don’t we think the same lines exist in animals? You can teach a dog obedience commands, they can adapt to living with us in our homes, and they should be allowed to have individual preferences for play, treats, exercise, how and how much they are touched, etc. We know dogs are hard wired with genetic traits through breeding to perform various “jobs”, but when they exhibit behavior that jeopardizes the safety of their “pack” or family, there is a serious problem.

“We need to be realistic about our limitations and take responsible actions that are based in reality.”

We can debate the range of normal and we can try to match environments to needs that come from personality and genetic traits, but why are we encouraging people to keep dogs that are dangerous or soanxiety ridden they self-mutilate? Why do we expect dog owners to be successful with dogs in a way that we have yet to achieve with people? People don’t usually go into these situations knowingly, and it is usually the kind person who feels obligated to keep trying. It breaks my heart to watch these people struggle and get pressured to keep trying in ways that get close to the line of bullying.

What started out as a movement to change the punitive, dominance based dynamic between human and dog to a more positive one has, in my opinion, taken a wrong turn; a turn that is promoting unhealthy relationships and unrealistic expectations. I did a search on aggression in dogs and “treating” this has become a booming business so clearly, there is no shortage of people seeking help, but is this really what we people want from their relationships with dogs or is this a case of “the bad becoming the norm”? After my experience, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted a dog again. When I did decide I wanted a dog in my life, I did everything possible to stack the deck
in my favor to find a dog whose baseline did not include fear, aggression, resource guarding or anxiety. I went with a responsible breeder and a gentle, family oriented breed. I have continued to try to stack that deck with regular socialization, training, using positive re-enforcement methods, etc. So far, so good, but I don’t look at dogs the same way I did before. I spent the first 6 months with our new dog looking for “signs” of trouble. I am finally relaxing and truly enjoying our dog. But still, when I am out in public, my initial reaction to a dog, particularly one off-leash is fear and sadness.


Written by our guest blogger Cynthia Hiatt. Longtime shelter volunteer, foster and animal rescuer who has worked on the rehabilitation of many dogs, including her own dogs.

A case of “the bad becoming the norm”?

Hiring a dog professional – part II

photo (73)The pet industry is one of the most unregulated industries in the US. When you hire a plumber or an electrician you make sure they are qualified for the job. You check their legal status and contractor number to ensure you are getting a professional that knows what they are doing. At least it is a start. If they are good that still needs to be determined but at least you know they are bound to a certain standard. You wouldn’t want to deal with a leak or a fire destroying your house when the professional doesn’t end up to be one? When it comes to having someone take care of your dog. Do you care?

Dog care providers come in all varieties. Most dog care providers do not have any formal training. They can call themselves professional dog walker, sitter and even trainer the moment they start their business. A website is set up within minutes even for those who are not tech savvy at all.

“If you set such high standards for any other professional why not for a dog professional?”

In 2013 people spent $55 billion dollars on their pets. It is a growing market and an easy one to get started in. With almost no capital someone can enter the business world of dogs. The “about me” or “bio” page of websites often give the biggest clue of whether or not you are dealing with a professional. Some business owners are smart with words and entangle the potential client into believing they are the best. It is simple. Cut through the “rubbish” and look for “education and/or accreditation”. THAT is what counts. Is it really not enough if they have “always” been dog lovers, have been trained in Search And Rescue, are a natural talent working with dogs ” Ask yourself the question: have they been trained to do the job? Would you visit a vet that has those words on their website? The best one ever is: “dog lover who speaks their language.” First of all there is not one who speaks their language or knows what dogs think. You have professionals that are highly trained, who can identify behavior and work with a dog on a level beyond basic training. Speak their language? Know what they are thinking? That is only possible in movies and it is called fiction not science!

Dogs are continuous learners. Behaviors can change when exposed to the wrong environment. Any dog professional should attend seminars and trainings to keep themselves educated in the field. Otherwise the word professional should not be used. The definition of a professional is: “a person engaged or qualified in a profession.” A profession is defined as: “a paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.” (

“How is it that consumers turn a blind eye when it comes to the pet industry?”

Maureen Holt, co-founder of Dog Connect SF and owner of Mutt About Town Dog Training, just wrote a great article about the big myths in the dog world especially in dog training. “The Power of Letters“, referring to certifications and what they really mean. As Maureen Holt says:  “We endeavor to achieve education, to adhere to a code of ethics and to pursue continuing education in the field.We are only a few and we are often not more expensive then those with no education.  Especially when it comes to behavior modification dog owners “deserve real science, competent practitioners, and a mutually agreed upon ethos to use the least aversive methods possible.” 

If you need a guideline on how to hire a professional read our blog: “Hiring a dog professional” . The message is clear. Provide your dog with the best care and the best education. Hire educated professionals who use force free methods based on animal learning. You owe it to your dog!


Nathalie Mosbach is the owner of Beyond Companions LLC. K9Consultant, The Dog Hikers and pawDOGraphy are a few of her successful businesses. 


US Pet Industry Market

The Power of Letters

Hiring a dog professional – part II

Cesar Millan training methods can lead to dog abuse

Monday evening, September 9, 2013. Pictures of a woman jerking, kicking and dragging three dogs behind her made the round on Facebook. Not much was known. KTVU report Amber Lee posted a picture on Twitter. Shortly after KTVU showed the whole footage:

My first response was “boil in oil”! How can someone treat their dogs like that? The body language these three dogs provide to us is clear. Their bodies are crouched, their tails are all down, their ears back and they go into a dead stop every few steps. They are moving slowly and at a great distance behind her. This is not behavior that happy dogs provide us when enjoying a walk with their handler. These are dogs that appear afraid.

I watch the woman continuously correct the dogs. Jerking the leash and kicking the dogs. Methods promoted on National Geographic through the infamous Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan. Mr. Millan doesn’t use the words jerking and kicking. His style is definitely more fine tuned and gracious. A kick is a “tap” and lifting a dog in the air with the feet of the ground is called “helicoptering”. Words that sound much friendlier then the actions really are. They are cruel and disturbing. What would you do if you saw this woman treat three kids this way? Dragging the kids by the hair, kicking them when they refuse to continue and choking them for just a second to put them back into their spot so they get the message? What would you do?

Lisa Mullinax, professional dog trainer in Sacremento of 4 Paws University, had a very good point after she saw the footage. “These methods aren’t methods that are invented by her. This may be the only thing she knows to do.” Indeed. How can we blame someone using methods like these when they are widely promoted? What is on tv must be good. Right?

The video was difficult to watch for me. I agree with Lisa Mullinax that the use of punishment often comes out of frustration. You want the dog to do one thing but it does something else. It appears that the woman is knowledgeable in the same methods Cesar Millan uses.

Hanging/Jerking/Helicoptering by Cesar Millan (left) and the woman (right)

Choking dog

Kicking or tapping Cesar Millan (left) and the woman (right)

Kicking dog

I don’t want to excuse her behavior because I know that a lot of people simply don’t know and understand that these methods are outdated and cruel. If she is identified she may face animal cruelty charges but what about Cesar Millan? Will he face charges since he promotes those methods out there? Doesn’t he set an example?

As a professional dog walker and trainer my methods include a $10 treat bag, high value treats and a big dose of positive reinforcement. Yes, I reward good behavior and I can move up to 8 dogs on-leash happily forward. Treats are not there to bribe the dogs but to motivate the dogs to show good behavior. Education on science based modern training techniques could have prevented this situation. If identified the burden she will carry will be heavy. If she is a professional dog walker she may lose her business. If she is the owner of the dogs she will live in shame.


I hope the dogs are okay. These methods cause damage. As Kathy Sdao once said: “Using these methods means you are buying yourself a project down the road.” To hire a professional that uses force free methods please visit:

Hiring a dog professional:

Understanding Cesar Millan:

Nathalie Mosbach is the owner of Beyond Companions LLC. K9Consultant, The Dog Hikers and pawDOGraphy are a few of her successful businesses.


References: for news story

Thank Dog! Bootcamp for Cesar Millan images

Lisa Mullinax: Owner of Sacramento Dog Behavior:

Cesar Millan training methods can lead to dog abuse

Making force-free training the norm

Originally posted on Mutt About Town

Image_25 Lately, when in conversation with friends and colleagues about dog training, I find myself trying to answer the same question: Why do we face such an uphill battle to make every dog a force-free dog? Whether it’s banning breed-specific legislation (BSL), encouraging the ban on shock, choke and prong collars, or convincing people that popular dog training television programs are promoting abusive, inhumane and unscientific training techniques, it often feels like an endless hike through an unscientific, myth-infested muck.

But … why? Why must it be so difficult to encourage people not to abuse their dogs? Why does someone with no scientific background in animal behavior create a dog training television empire based on faulty methods? Surely, common sense should prevail. And yet it doesn’t. Although the force-free community is making great strides, every day dogs suffer from the fallout and shrapnel of improper training and misguided laws.

There are, of course, many reasons as to why we don’t live in a force-free world. In fact, it could provide the curriculum to an entire college course. However, thanks to an article in The New Yorker, I came across one answer that could have much impact on how we train dogs in the future.

In the article, titled “Slow Ideas,” author Atul Gawande explores the reasons why important, even life-saving ideas that could provide massive benefits to society take a long time gaining momentum. The answer, according to Gawande, lies in how we communicate these ideas to society, as well as the extra work these ideas impose on the individual.

Expensive Ideas

“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas,” Gawande writes. “They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.”

Although Gawande was discussing health care in his article, the dog training community faces a similar conundrum. In this scenario, the stalled ideas are not about germ-reducing procedures in hospitals or eliminating pain during surgery, but about the use of scientific and pain-free methods to train dogs.

To a dog trainer, the concept that training force-free  produces more effective, long-lasting behavior change and also eliminates the risk of more behavior problems down the road seems simple. But to another person dealing with a leash reactive dog, this might not be the case. Say this person meets with a force-free trainer and learns that, among other things, she has to carry treats and a clicker on her person, stick to a training plan, practice and rehearse the training procedures with the dog, and maintain these behaviors for a lifetime. Sure, the phrase “It’s science!” is nice, but this is very expensive (read: time- and energy-consuming) behavior.

Say this same person decides to place a prong collar on the dog. Each time the dog growls and lunges on leash, she pops the collar. As an immediate reaction, the dog may stop growling. And, the owner thinks that as long as the collar is on the dog, she can use it at any time to stop unwanted behaviors. Of course, as a force-free trainer this situation would make me cringe, but I recognize its allure. To some, it certainly seems so much easier to put a prong collar on a dog because of its immediate benefits and the relief of not having to do all the expensive behavior mentioned earlier. Not to mention the fact that many compulsion trainers unethically promise guarantees and immediate results – again, very alluring to the harried dog owner.

Of course, what this person may not predict is that by using the prong collar as a quick-fix solution, the dog will not overcome the leash reactive behavior, and is likely to develop even more aggressive behaviors down the road. In fact, this dog may end up biting another dog or person because the behavior was never actually addressed. But this may happen years later – long after the owners had met with the force-free trainer -similar to the “big, but to most people, invisible” problems Gawande discussed in his article.

Communicating Expensive Ideas

So, if making the argument that force-free training is a “slow” idea, does that mean the situation is hopeless? Far from it. In fact, Gawande argues that honest, compassionate communication does wonders. He presents three different types of communicating great (but slow) ideas to an unconvinced public:

  1. Public service campaigns or, as he terms it, “Please do X.”
  2. Punishment or, as he terms it, “You must do X.”
  3. Offering incentives to soften the punishment of “You must do X.”

The problem with these options? According to Gawande,“neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day and and day out, even when no one is watching. ‘You must‘ rewards mere compliance. Getting to ‘X is what we do‘ means establishing X as the norm.”

And, as far as the force-free community goes, we want to get to “force-free is what we do,” too.

1174922_10102382079031407_570710568_nI agree with Gawande’s argument that forcing compliance or pleading for compliance aren’t viable long-term solutions. After all, force-free dog trainers realize that pure punishment does not create effective behavior change, nor does pleading with a dog. What does work? Motivating the dog and showing the dog what behaviors lead to desired outcomes. We need to do the same with dog owners: Motivate them to train force-free, motivate them to change their training behavior patterns, and show them how using science-based training methods provides better, long-lasting results for their dogs.

Unlike forcing compliance and pleading, motivation gets to the root of behavior change. Instead of finding mistakes, which will only put dog owners on the defensive, we need to give them good, solid reasons for adopting non-traditional training techniques. These reasons need to be more enticing and more powerful than the potential drawbacks (time, money, carrying treats around, changing routines for the dog, letting go of previous habits and beliefs).

We also need to communicate at an individual level because each person’s source of motivation will be different. “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms,” writes Gawande. “You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”

Here are two examples of how trainers can create new norms for dog training clients:

  • A client uses a prong collar for her rambunctious pit bull. She is also dealing with pressure from friends and family to train with traditional methods and “get control” of her dog, and is hesitant to be criticized or ostracized. This person needs encouragement to communicate why she is training force-free, and also needs the confidence that these force-free methods will produce the behavior change her family and friends are looking for.
  • A client has an aggressive dog and he is afraid that without a shock collar, his dog may run away and get hurt or killed. If this person realizes that he can build a much more solid recall through force-free training, he will be much more motivated to drop the shock collar.

We have a long ways to go before we realize the goal of a force-free training society. But as the history of slow ideas has shown us, with the right communication and motivation, it’s possible. And that’s quite motivating.

-Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, and founder of The Muzzle Up! Project to provide education and awareness about muzzle safety.

Making force-free training the norm