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Overcoming Fear of Dog-Dog Play: An Interview With Suzanne Bryner

Overcoming Fear of Dog-Dog Play: An Interview With Suzanne Bryner

Many dogs enjoy dog-dog play. It’s enriching, it’s welfare-increasing, and it’s good exercise for dogs. But although many dogs enjoy it, the same can’t always be said for the people in the room. Standard, safe, and species-typical pet dog play can appear (to the human’s gaze, at least) alarming and aggressive, and it’s not unusual for dog owners and even dog trainers to find it off-putting or worrisome. At The Academy, our graduates learn to identify the constituents of normal dog play and how to help dogs with play-style issues learn new skills, which renews their invitation to the dog park. But just learning what normal play looks like doesn’t necessarily help us humans, who might find the body-slamming, biting, boxing, and chasing of normal play to be scary or discomfiting


Photo credit: Diana O'Brian

Our graduates who want to work with dog-dog issues but who also find normal play worrisome are a bit boxed in by their own (entirely normal and human) worries. We counsel two paths forward here: these graduates can simply avoid accepting clients with dog-dog issues and instead refer them to trainers who are more comfortable. However, we also support and encourage our graduates to roll up their sleeves, take a deep breath, and try to habituate to the roly-poly raucous nature of good dog play, if they so desire. We want more competent trainers helping dogs experience normal sociability with other members of their own species. And we know, from experience, that trainers can learn to have a cool head in the face of dog play: we help dogs overcome fears every day, so we’re already primed in the process of learning.

Academy graduate Suzanne Bryner of Lucky Fido Behavior Consultation and Training on San Juan Island, Washington runs a play group for large and boisterous dogs who need a bit of human intervention to bring their play styles more in keeping with canine norms. She calls this group the “Bruisers”, and reports with regularity that dogs who were kicked out of the dog park for transgressions like humping, scrapping, or other inappropriate behaviours are now dog park professionals: perfect, playful pooches. Suzanne was not always comfortable with raucous dog play, though. She shouldered the burden of a lot of personal work to overcome some initial misgivings, and I recently spoke with her about why, and how, she managed to habituate to rough dog play and scraps enough to offer this wonderful service to her clients. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

KB: Can you describe how you used to feel when you saw dogs playing athletically or roughly?

SB: Honestly, I’m not sure that I saw a lot of that. Where I grew up, everyone had dogs but they were back yard dogs. When I got into dogs about ten years ago, I ended up pulling my own dog out of play really early on advice of another trainer. I hadn’t seen a lot of really rough dog play.

I’d seen skirmishes, and when I look back now, they were mild. But to the people I was listening to at the time, they were a big deal. I was doing a lot of training classes and agility with my dog Foxxy. We did dog classes every day, she did great around other dogs, but we’d often walk at the ‘Gravel Pit’, [a local off-leash dog walk], with lots of off-leash dogs. She had a couple of fights. A dog trainer advised me that she shouldn’t be around dogs at all! I mean, it was scary that she got into fights. And scary, for me, that people thought it was a bad sign, that she was “aggressive”.

KB: When did you first have an inkling that you wanted to change your own perceptions?

SB: I mean, at the Academy, you’re getting it from the very beginning–about what dogs are. When I was about half-way through the Academy, I knew I wasn’t ready for clients or certain kinds of classes, but I did start a puppy class. I allowed free play in my puppy class. I loved it and the people loved it. It felt like a really important part of their development–the people and the puppies.

Then, the Academy did those Habituate Webinars. [The Academy offers an on-going webinar series to help our students and graduates habituate to dog-dog cases, using video. The videos go from gentle play to boisterous play to snarking or squabbling dogs, and participants are asked to rate their response level from one or calm to ten, or really upset, after each video segment.] It’s so memorable to me–one video with a fighting dog and a person on a bike in the woods. We had to scale our responses, and I was at the extreme end. Like a ten. Other webinar attendees were not nearly as worried. I looked at that and thought “clearly this is a place where I need to clean up. I can’t help dogs with this strong of a gut reaction.” So that was the moment that I really took it by the reins.

KB: What did you find helpful in your journey to become comfortable around boisterous dog play?

SB: Immersion in the culture of the Academy and the Habituate webinars. Even just having the opportunity to change my mind was very important. Early on when I decided to start running a play group, and I went and spent two or three days watching Academy graduate Kelly Lee run play sessions. Just that watching taught me so much. It made me feel brave enough to start doing this, so a big shout-out to her, she made a huge difference to me.

KB: Can you tell us a bit about your Bruisers Play Group?

Photo credit: Suzanne Bryner

SB: My Bruisers Play Group grew out of my regular play group. I had a few dogs coming in who were large and intense. Their people had been shamed at the dog park for rough play, or some were dogs who were a bit off, play-wise. I now run it once a week. I have other adult play groups, but Bruisers is once a week. I was not sure if it would be a go, but I just put them together [at this point, Suzanne laughs, remembering her own audacity.] I started to work with them in the group, and bringing their owners in too. No-one was sitting down. Everyone was in there, interrupting, moving dogs along, participating. I enlist the dog parents actively. And it gives them amazing skills. They are now amazingly skilled handlers because of that. And they’re proud! They’re proud of themselves and their dogs.

It’s open to anyone, but it’s not open to dogs who have harmed dogs. If dogs have caused injuries needing stitches or medical care, they’re not invited unless they’re muzzled. And although the public is invited, they must fill out forms. Almost every dog is big, or felt shamed at the dog park and didn’t feel like they could go back, or they have a breed issue. Or they’re scared to let their dogs play, but they all want it. A lot of them are dog park attendees who were run out of town. Before they get to the Bruisers Play Group, many of them had play that tended to be a bit off, and they tended to scrap.

Some really common problems include dogs who hump, dogs who neck bite incessantly in play, dogs that tend to scuffle–not full-on fights, but a lot of snarky interactions. Dogs that bang into each other, or pin other dogs. It can look scary, a bit predatory even.

Some days, I can have two dogs, other days I can have six or seven dogs. Once you’re in that group, you’re welcome whenever—it’s drop-in. I find I’m getting more and more new dogs. When a new dog comes in, I fence about a third of the training area off. The new dog goes into the smaller area. I want to bleed off that first ‘coming in hot’ thing that dogs do. This way, all the dogs can interact through the fence. I’m looking for some sign that they want to be there. Looking for a play bow, it doesn’t matter who, from the new dog or the other dogs. Dogs come in one at a time anyways, but new dogs stay in the fenced off third longer, until they are welcomed. Then I just open the gate.

I still feel terrified every single time. But I’m the one in the room who has to not be that person. I always admit how I feel, and we’re fully prepared with everything needed to break up a squabble. We use a recall out of play if we think they’re about to tip over into a scrap. At one point, I had a discussion with all the parents about the use of citronella spray. I’ve evolved. Previously, when dogs fought, we used spray right away. Now, when a fight starts, we count to three. If they’re still fighting, we’ll try to call them apart or separate using a safe pull-apart. If that doesn’t work, we’ll use the spray as a last resort. We haven’t had a lot of fights since we started doing that. Part of the reason for the decrease in fights is that the Bruisers are so solid. We’re changing their play. The parents are so proud of their dogs. 

Photo Credit for this and cover photo: SpyHopper Travels Photography, Katie Jones

KB: What’s your favourite part of watching dogs play now?

SB: I was always on edge before, around loose dogs. I was always on edge, because my dog was from Mexico. I would think “she might be a bad dog, as a street dog”. Now I just swim in feel-good hormones. I can go into a play group feeling tired, but I always leave there so full of energy; happy, and confident. I feel excited and strong. And I feel so excited for the people who attend.

I spend a lot of time modifying and normalizing dog play. I tell them “your dog’s play is fine, but dog park people might be nervous or have had a bad experience. There’s nothing we can do about that. But your dog is fine. We can help their problem play type through interruption and redirect with a new behaviour.” Just that small thing changes everything! It’s not a big trainer-y magic thing.

Suzanne now gives her own students this opportunity to habituate and even enjoy dog-dog play through graduated video exposure, based on her own success.

I have students and play group attendees and clients who want to do that. They want to watch dog play. I send them videos to look at and watch, because they want a tougher skin so they can advocate for their dogs. Advocating for their dogs–that’s what my Bruisers Play Group, actually all my play groups, is all about. The people who come to Bruisers are forever changed. They advocate for dogs, and in particular for their dogs. And they let their dogs be dogs. Empowering the public to be out there with their dogs and saying “hey it’s ok”. Or leaving, when they’re feeling vilified and knowing there is nothing wrong with their dogs.

The Bruisers taught me a lot. They continue to teach me a lot. And they led me to my passion, dog-dog play!



Thanks so much to Suzanne Bryner for sharing her experiences with her Bruisers Play Group. This blog is a part of the 2019 Train for Rewards blog party, with Companion Animal Psychology. 




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[Insert Shiny, Eye-catching Title Here]: New Dog Training Techniques as Marketing Ploy

[Insert Shiny, Eye-catching Title Here]: New Dog Training Techniques as Marketing Ploy

Recently, some dog training colleagues and I were batting around the issue of popular dog trainers denouncing standard dog training technique as an advertising ploy. The rules and methods of changing an animal’s behaviour are pretty well-known, in the way that “tonsil removal surgery” is pretty well-known, or “building a frame wall” is pretty well-known. Sure, advancements and refinements are made by practicing professionals and scholars, but no one expects tonsil surgery to suddenly be carried out by butterflies or frame walls to suddenly be made out of black matter. And yet, we regularly see dog training professionals suggest that they themselves have come up with a whole new way of changing an animal’s behaviour or emotional state, and furthermore, suggesting (with alarming alacrity) that current practice is wrong, dangerous, and out-dated. Don’t head to a dinosaur surgeon for your child’s tonsil removal! We have kinetic tonsil-fishing technology™.

“Non-operant Conditioning: The New Dog Training Technique that will Blow Your Mind”

In the time since I’ve studied dog training and animal learning theory, and was therefore exposed to the pure, clean logic behind operant and classical conditioning (it’s magic if you step back from it, isn’t it?), I’ve always been befuddled by this. Jean Donaldson, the matriarch of the Academy and a brilliant mind, worries that the invention of new and shiny training methodologies is a sparkly costume worn by those with shallow knowledge of animal learning theory. This glittering shoe, sadly, fits. But it doesn’t describe the whole picture.

According to my also-brilliant colleague at the Academy for Dog Trainers, Erik Tamm, there is more than just ignorance involved. There is money involved. And more specifically: our money, as dog trainers are often part of the target audience for this revisionist material. Erik says:

It's just a sales tactic. Take existing, established practice and vilify it in blogs/social media etc. Then (how surprising) launch your own coaching/course/ebook that does things "different". (It doesn't have to, you can just give existing exercises new names). After a few years, do a 180° turn with a new blog/social media post ("why I changed my mind about x, y, z") and launch yet another new product. You see this again and again when people are selling coaching/courses/ebooks. Fitness, personal finance, weight loss, stress management (and apparently dog training)—it's all the same. Very predictable but it does work from a sales perspective.

Now, I love ‘shiny and new’ as much as the next person, so I admit I find it hard to pass by the gorgeous and evocative marketing materials and the promises of quick results or ‘whole new dog’ that slide by in my social media feeds. But I do resist, and I resist because I care about someone else’s money: my clients’. They pay me to help them with their dogs, and the best way to do this is to use well-vetted techniques based on the science of how animals learn. I also resist because I care about my reputation. My reputation was built on the successful resolution of my dog training cases... and here we go, back to the science of animal learning and behaviour change.

Of course, this isn’t to say I ignore refinements to the practical application and ethics of animal learning methods. These are the refinements made both by people doing research, and by people who are training hundreds of dogs in the same area that I am: pet dog training and behaviour modification. Staying abreast of new research and best practices is an important part of my job. But these are usually a tweak, not a seachange. And if and when I jump ship on any technique, it will be based on a preponderance of evidence, not on a personal manifesto, no matter how charming, no matter how tempting, no matter how deft.


Cover photo credit lilu13 via iStock

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If They Learn Just One Thing: The Academy team weighs in

If They Learn Just One Thing: The Academy team weighs in

The founder and director of the Academy, Jean Donaldson, has a particularly brilliant pedagogical tool. Whether she’s delivering a webinar, crafting an article or chapter, or creating some stand-alone content for the Academy’s core curriculum, she makes sure to answer the question “if they learn nothing else, what is the one thing I want them to take away from this lesson?” Setting up a key message helps build a framework for the lesson and ensures her teachings have that punchy, clear, and concise quality that she is known for. Each paragraph, each page, each slide, and each module leaves her audiences satisfied that they see the whole picture she is painting, and they see it clearly.

Successful dog training is due in no small part to the successful coaching and instruction of the human clients we work with, so the Academy program allots considerable time and effort to the theory and process of teaching and coaching. When our students get to the module on teaching, Jean draws back the curtains on her use of “if they learn nothing else”. It is, as she points out in yet another clear educational module, useful at every level of information production from class instructions to client homework to drafting website text to structuring webinars.

For the twentieth anniversary of the Academy, the Academy’s staff decided to pull together their favourite and most compelling “if they learn nothing else” messages for the students of the program. All staff are professional dog trainers with outside businesses, and all contribute to the educational experience of our students. However, each bring a different message and a different perspective for our student body.


Jean Donaldson

Jean is the school’s founder and director. She also marks most of the written assignments our students must submit and pass to move through the program. Jean supports students and graduates with case coaching and academic coaching as well, and her rigorous attention to critical thinking and ethical training sets the bar for all Academicians.

If I could teach our students but one thing it would be to train using an incremental plan. One big advantage is that training this way requires knowledge of the usual-suspect plan parameters and when to incorporate which. In turn, this not only allows for effortless plan construction but suggests splits once one is training. Training plans can feel really constraining if one has been primarily pleasure training, where there is not efficiency pressure the way there is with an at-risk dog and fed-up client. But a sound, vetted plan optimizes the balance between incremental and efficient, and keeps RoR where it should be. The alternative–reinventing the wheel from first principles case after case after case, often without parameter fluency–, while romantic, is grindingly inefficient at best and incompetent at worst. So we emphasize that, when they’re messing around for fun, they can meander about at will. But when they’re taking someone’s hard-earned money to resolve problems in the real world with time constraints and limited client resources, it’s time for a training plan.

Sarah Pennington

Sarah is a student coach and mentor, and provides most of the video coaching for our students. All Academy students must submit video for a set of increasingly difficult training tasks, and Sarah’s fantastic coaching provides both feedback to ensure the students gain proficiency in the mechanics of dog training and a playbook for how our graduates should coach their own clients.

Take full advantage of the video coaching. The video submissions are an opportunity to be coached on, and therefore improve, your training mechanics. The Academy training methods may be different from what you are used to, but we strongly encourage you to jump in and give them a try. You’ll get very useful feedback. For example, we’ll remind you to always be aware of rate of reinforcement. When you are losing the dog it is almost always a rate issue. You’ll hear this message over and over: Train fast and shorten your inter-trial latency. We’re also coaching you to be proficient at production training, which is extremely efficient. It may feel awkward at first but following a plan and the Push Drop Stick rules, both key elements to production training, will take your abilities to a new level. And once you’re a sophomore, approach the free-shaped retrieve assignment as an adventure. It was purposely designed to be a challenge. Once you’re through the retrieve, you will be able to shape any behaviour with confidence. This exercise is not a race to see how fast it can be installed. To get the most out of it, find a dog who does not readily pick items up. The more challenging the dog, the more you will learn. And finally, recognize that the coaching you are receiving is a model for how you will coach your own clients in the future. Coaching laypeople is critical to this business. Clients are not trainers; it is important to acknowledge their efforts. Every session reinforce one or two things that your human client is doing well.

Kristi Benson

Kristi is a student mentor and coach, and runs special projects for the Academy. She leads the Academy’s Husbandry Project, and also manages several other Academy-led research projects. Kristi handles the Academy’s weekly Wednesday webinars, ensuring that this ongoing content is interactive and fun while meeting students’ educational needs, and collecting an ever-growing stable of wonderful guest presenters.

If I could teach the participants in our program just one thing, it would be to identify, accept, and be realistic about their own fear of dogs. We all have it: I do, you do, all the staff here do, your friendly neighbourhood dog guru does…everyone. Fear of dogs is perfectly natural, just like a dog’s fear of thunder or fear of painful veterinary procedures is natural. But even though it’s natural, we don’t seem to accept it in ourselves. We pretend we’re not scared of normal dog behaviour, which leaves us in a bit of a quandary when the dogs around us are aggressive, tense, jubilant, forceful, or whatever button they happen to push. If we see ourselves as not scared, but dogs scare us, then our minds make a simple but incorrect leap: the dog in question must be scary. Acknowledging that every dog pro and every dog student gets a racing heart about at least some of the stuff that dogs do allows us to take a step back and view dog’s behaviour through a more careful and scientific lens: normal dog behaviour (even aggression and even rough play) isn’t pathological or dangerous in cases where standard ethological benchmarks of safety are met by the dog. There’s a danger in allowing our heartrate to be the barometer of a dog’s safety.

Lori Nanan

Lori directs the Academy’s public-facing media, producing and curating educational content aimed at both the dog-owning public and the pet services community. She also welcomes new students into the Academy and provides assistance to students navigating the program’s two-year, multi-level curriculum. Lori is in charge when the Academy hosts seminars such as the two multi-day sessions with vet behaviourist Daniel Mills held in the summer of 2018.

I’d want them to understand that gaining skills such as client counseling and empathy building are as important as learning the technical skills involved in training. It’s so important that our clients feel heard and understood and as professionals, we owe it to them to let them know we are on the same team. For so long, dog training as a profession has attracted those who say they like dogs better than people, and as part of their Academy experience, I hope that students come away recognizing the importance of the human end of the equation. And that they do so with the understanding that this cannot be ignored and that it must be cultivated and nurtured. The benefits in doing so exist not only for each client and individual trainers, but to the industry as a whole, as it helps legitimize and validate our profession.

Casey McGee

Casey oversees the application process and handles student records. She is the first point of contact for the many interested Academy applicants. She also coaches students and oversees the process whereby senior students and new graduates gain coaching skills by assisting new students. Here, Casey models with remarkable care both the problem-solving skills and client-centred approach we expect from our graduates.

Until I experienced it firsthand I didn’t fully appreciate how powerful–and more importantly, efficient–it is to work with upset dogs under threshold. It’s a tricky concept to grasp as a trainer, and even trickier to explain to clients. I suspect that’s because it’s counterintuitive to conventional wisdom about how fears are conquered: by testing limits, pushing past the pain, faking it until you feel it. But it turns out that all the magic happens in the invisible space below threshold, where the dog notices the Scary Thing but still feels completely safe, and it can take some creative problem-solving to pull this off. My best client script has been to ask them to consider how many times their dog has been exposed to a scary version of X stimulus–whether it’s a kid on a bike, a large dog, the nail clippers, or being alone at home. It’s usually in the dozens, if not hundreds. Our job going forward is to start with a clean slate and expose him carefully and repeatedly to safe versions of X stimulus. Insist on this without compromise, and your clients will become believers as well.

Erik Tamm

Erik is the computer virtuoso behind the Academy. He is the administrator of the Academy’s comprehensive online learning platform, The Dog Scientific. He also handles the technical aspects of the application process, and with his rare and unique combination of technical skills and dog skills, is working with the Academy on some exciting new tech-based applications for the future.

The one piece of advice I would like to give to students (especially the ones that are just about to graduate and take clients) is this: make it as easy for your clients as possible to be compliant. When you get your first "X is not working" and start asking questions to figure out what is going on, you will discover that most of the time "X is not working" really means "I'm not doing it". Your clients aren't lazy, they just have other priorities in their lives. They are not dog trainers, so what is effortless and fun for you is tedious and a burden to them. Set them up for success, not failure. Make their to do list as short as possible. Then make it shorter. Go for the simplest solution that could possibly work. This might feel disappointing in the beginning. The solution you choose for your clients will often be different, and less ambitious, than what you would choose for your own dogs. But soon enough you'll find real joy in your client's relief at an efficient and easy training protocol that works for their lives and their dogs. And just as importantly, your professional reputation will benefit, as you focus on helping real people in their own messy lives.

Kelly Duggan

Kelly is the Academy’s artist-in-residence. She creates the visually appealing hand-outs, logos, and other graphic design elements that give the Academy its image.

Design matters. Don’t skimp on visual communication for your business–whether it’s your logo, handouts, website, business cards or social media posts. They should be persuasive, informative and perhaps most importantly–beautiful. You’re losing clients if they aren’t, no matter how great a dog trainer you are. There is a science to this art–science that a professional designer understands. So don’t be afraid to hire one! It’s a small investment that will yield big results.

Claudine Prud’homme

Claudine heads the Academy’s French Connection. She reaches out to Francophone students and communities, spreading the word about both the Academy’s program and force-free training. She works hand-in-hand with Lori to translate Academy articles and educational posts, and liaises with Francophone students as needed as well.

Pick your battles when working with clients. Prioritizing is so important. And that does not necessarily mean prioritizing what you want and would expect as a trainer (or even personally). It means prioritizing what is important and what will help your human clients, in their own reality, and right away. Unless welfare or safety is at stake, the person in front of you should dictate what should be addressed and/or trained. Our goal is to alleviate their burdens and make the training process easier on them. We need to be able to walk a mile in our client’s shoes, to normalize what needs to be normalized and to be able to verbalize it properly and nicely, without judgment. Pick your battles and prioritize what is best for the person in front of you. Then make a plan for it, and then stick to it.


The Academy is celebrating 20 years of educating the finest dog trainers with the most forward-thinking, comprehensive, science-based, and ethical curriculum we can. Follow our Facebook and Instagram to see more and join in the festivities.

Sarah Pennington, Jean Donaldson, Lori Nanan, Casey McGee, and Kristi Benson at Graceland in 2018.


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Our Responsibility To Dogs: Fear, Self-Knowledge, and Puffs of Air

Our Responsibility To Dogs: Fear, Self-Knowledge, and Puffs of Air

Have you ever had that test at the eye doctor, the one where they puff air against your eye? If not, just imagine it. Air in a puff right into your eye. “Don’t blink”, the doctor may tell you. Because typically, if a puff of air hits you in the eye, you blink. It’s a reflex, so you do it automatically. (Bear with me if you will, as we go down this path just a bit. We’ll get to dogs soon enough and it’s worth the journey.)

Imagine you feel a bit of a breeze in your home one day. Just a tiny movement of the air. You pinpoint the crack in the plaster where it’s coming from and crouch down, only to get a puff of air in your eye.

And you blink.

“Well hold right on, that’s not right” you say. You’ve lived in this windy city for years; your eyes are hardened against gale force winds. You’ve competed professionally in staring contests. You’ve worn contact lenses far past the time they feel like sandpaper dipped in jalapeño juice. Ain’t no way a puff of air is going to make you blink. Other people, sure, they’d blink at anything. But not you.

So what’s going on with the blink, then? Something must be really wrong, you decide. Maybe it’s a chemical leak. You take an axe to your wall and start to dismantle it. It’s obviously unsafe for anyone to live in this house, this house with a blink-worthy air leak through a crack in the wall. Something’s there, puffing away, just waiting to kill you and your family. Or worse.

This probably sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? You are likely whispering “why don’t I just admit that blinking is a reflex? Why the tortuous logic and wall dismantling?” And you’re right to whisper that. You really are.

We all, to a one, blink when a puff of air hits our eyes.

Blinking protects our eyes from damage. Our eyes are important to our survival, as you can well imagine. So evolution has bestowed upon us this gift, this automatic behaviour. Blink! In fact, evolution has gifted us with a lot of reflexes and behaviours, gained somewhat painfully through our long primate history as delicious-looking and (until tool-making proliferated, at least) poorly-armed mammals sprinting across the savannah. One of these gifts is the ability—the wondrous ability—to quickly identify threats and get the heck away from them. Sitting in an office with a dog snoozing beside me on the couch, it’s hard to imagine the frequency and severity of threats that my great-great-great-to-the-power-of-twelve-grandmother would have faced. I worry about the diseases of old age as my eventual demise, the majority of my primate ancestors worried about something a bit more immediate: being eaten. Pass the floss; this one’s a bit stringy.

Since being eaten was our relatives’ numero uno cause of death for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we evolved some special ways to avoid it, just like all our meals-on-legs mammalian compatriots. I mean we have those wonderful blinking eyes, of course. But even more fundamental, even more foundational, we have fear. We naturally find certain things scary, or we’re born ready to quickly acquire fears. Fear, as all dog trainers know, causes flight. Or fight. And the things we find scary are the things that killed us in great numbers, of course. Those random great-great-great-grand-siblings of ours that didn’t find giant predatory birds or giant predatory hyenas or giant predatory crocodilians to be scary didn’t live long enough to reproduce, if you know what I mean. Hand over the floss; that one was a bit stringy. You see? Fear matters. Fear kept us safe.

We are all, to a one, scared of dogs.

As a dog training professional, you might be saying “hold on a second here. I’m not scared of dogs. I love dogs. I’ve dedicated my life to dogs!” And yes, all of that is true, too. One doesn’t replace the other. Or more, you may be saying “um, actually, I’m so un-scared of dogs that I have worrisome level of fearlessness.” But that’s not true, either. That’s not true unless you come from another planet or have some very peculiar brain damage. Humans find certain things scary, and that’s perfectly fine. We’re all human, after all. And take heart: admitting our fear of dogs, as dog professionals, doesn’t make us worse at our jobs. Quite the opposite, in fact. Admitting that dogs are, on some occasions, close enough to our Pleistocene predators to evoke some deep-level fears is actually ethical, helpful, and freeing. Pretending we’re not scared is when issues crop up.

Imagine this scenario. You have a client with two 80lb mastiff crosses. The dogs have been arguing over bones. They have argued at least 20 times in the last few years and never done any real harm to each other. The owner decides that she’d like to train the dogs to stop arguing because her new condo association finds the noise to be too much. Usually with a client with infrequent and non-injurious dog-dog resource guarding, you don’t recommend training—it’s just normal dog stuff, after all. However, you have a great plan to work on it anyways, so you head on over to start working with Chomper and Bruiser. All is well in the consult until the moment that Chomper decides that the time is neigh to chomp, and Bruiser returns the favour with a bit of bruising. They start to brawl. 160 pounds of brawl. A tiny ear nick produces a spray of blood in the way ear nicks do.

And you blink.

Your heart rate spikes as your sympathetic nervous system ramps up, although you and the owner manage to separate the dogs without fuss. As per usual with these two dogs, no injuries resulted from the fight other than the tiny nick.

But wait. Something’s different than the time you worked with the squabbling Labradoodles or the arguing Pugs. This time, you’re upset.

“Well hold right on, that’s not right” you say. You’ve trained scrapping dogs for years; your heart is hardened against the fury of fights. You’ve competed in agility and flyball with working-line border collies, for goodness’ sake. Ain’t no way a dog fight is going to make you upset. You’re fearless.

So what’s going on with the pounding heart, then? Something must be really wrong, you decide. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. You take an axe to your beautifully laid out plans and start to dismantle them. It’s obviously unsafe for these dogs to live together in this house, these dogs with their violent brawling that made your heart beat like a castanet. Something’s wrong with these dogs. They’re just waiting to kill each other or harm your client. Or worse.

Remember what you thought after reading about the blink? Well, this should sound just as ridiculous. You should be whispering “why don’t I just admit that being scared of large dogs fighting is a normal human emotion? Why the tortuous logic and plan dismantling?” And you’d be right to whisper that. Recommending crate-and-rotate, re-homing, or euthanasia for non-injurious dog fights is as silly as chopping down a wall to prevent a blink response. And this is the rub.

If we tell ourselves we’re fearless, then when we do actually feel scared, the only conclusion we can come to is that the dog in question must actually be scary. There is no other way out of the cognitive box we’ve jumped into.

But that’s just not a box that dog trainers can afford to get comfy in. The welfare of our dogs, and our clients’ dogs, is at stake. If we use our own heartrate as a barometer of a dog’s threat, rather than established methods focussing on real risk and acquired bite inhibition, then we’re simply doing all dogs a disservice. This fear usually shows up with certain breeds (this is personal, but there are trends which you can guess), certain sizes of dogs (the bigger the better, unsurprisingly), or certain behaviours (aggression of all sorts, no matter how ritualized, but in combination with breed and size even unruliness can work). Preventing a playful, social dog from having the joy of dog play after non-injurious scrapping is the typical outcome here, although other, sadder outcomes are also possible.

So the next time you feel your heartrate start to skip, be thankful. It’s the gift that kept your ancestors alive, so that xx years later, you could catch a lift on this mortal coil. And it’s kind of interesting, to feel your pupils blow and your nostrils flare and the sound of your heart in your ears…but don’t be fooled by it. You’re scared because you’re human. In most cases it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog in front of you.

We are all, to a one, scared of dogs. We’re scared because we’re human. In most cases it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog in front of us.



Cover photo credit: Utopia_88 by iStock.

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Preparing Our Dogs to be Comfortable at the Vet’s Office: the Academy’s Husbandry Project

Preparing Our Dogs to be Comfortable at the Vet’s Office: the Academy’s Husbandry Project

We used to accept it as a given that dogs just didn’t like going to the vet, and that there wasn’t much to be done about it. However, things are really changing in today’s more patient-centric veterinary care models. No longer is it considered acceptable to frighten or traumatize dogs in order to do routine veterinary care. From vaccinations to ear exams, the old way of cornering and manhandling wide-eyed and trembling dogs has been replaced with the idea of co-operative care with dogs who are comfortable enough to participate willingly. Vets and their staff are learning how to approach, move, and treat dogs without causing alarm, and are becoming much more aware of the use of anxiety-reducing medications to help those dogs who are suffering despite a careful approach. The physical and emotional health of animals is at the forefront of modern veterinary care, especially with the growing Fear Free movement and certification.

The Academy for Dog Trainers resoundingly supports this movement in the veterinary community. The Academy’s program and graduates in good standing adhere to a strict code of conduct that clearly outlines our position against the use of techniques and practices that hurt or scare dogs. We are thankful and relieved that veterinarians are leading the charge to make dogs comfortable with vet visits, from the very moment the dog enters through their office door.

However, the Academy acknowledges that for many dogs, and for many veterinary situations, changes within the clinic cannot be the whole answer. To reduce or eliminate fear of veterinary care, many dogs first need carefully-crafted, incremental training outside of the veterinary office, and then within the veterinary office but with no scary procedures happening, before they can be comfortable with real-life vet care. And that’s where the Academy’s ongoing Husbandry Project steps up to the plate.

The Academy has been working with our students and graduates for several years now on the Husbandry Project, which is our own contribution to the modern veterinary approach of pain-free and fear-free veterinary care. The Husbandry Project’s goals are to create, test, refine, and publish training plans to help all dogs feel comfortable and happy at the vet’s office, and with the common veterinary procedures carried out on conscious dogs. These training plans will be accompanied by all the information a dog owner needs to carry out the training: step-by-step instructional videos, troubleshooting information, work plans, and so on.

Why training plans?

Training plans are simply a series of steps needed to get a dog from untrained to trained. The steps need to be something which most dogs can achieve, and the end product of the plan, the so-called “terminal behaviour”, must be clearly laid out. For the Academy’s Husbandry Project, our terminal behaviours include “dog will do a stay in lateral recumbency for a range-of-motion test on the exam table”. Training without a plan (for example, picking up a clicker and just starting to free-shape, or trying to get a dog to do anything without first strategizing how you’ll elicit the behaviour and then fade any prompts) can be fun to do at home when there are no stakes. But it’s inefficient when we need results. And to prevent or treat fearfulness at the veterinary office, we do indeed need results.

What are we going to train?

The Academy chose to tackle a number of specific behaviours and veterinary procedures in consultation with a steering committee of veterinarians. These veterinarians are either in our program currently or are graduates. They identified both common fear-inducing triggers for dogs at the vet’s office, and common procedures needed. With this information in hand, and with decades working with fearful dogs of all shapes and sizes, the Academy’s director Jean Donaldson drafted around 20 separate plans. These plans range from a sit-stay for a jugular blood draw to a plan to get fearful dogs comfortable on the exam table to a plan to have a dog stay standing relatively still for a vaccination or ear exam. These plans include two main types: Pavlovian (or classical) conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable with veterinary implements, staff, and offices, and operant conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable holding the positions they’ll need to hold for various procedures.

Classical conditioning plans

Classical or Pavlovian conditioning changes a dog’s underlying emotional state. A well-drafted plan carried out by a knowledgeable trainer or well-coached dog owner is a powerful tool in the prevention of fears, but also to change an already-fearful dog’s emotional response to an item or situation. The Husbandry Project’s classical conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs enjoy muzzles, tooth-brushing, veterinary implements, and also the vet waiting room and exam room, and veterinary staff.

Operant conditioning plans

Since manhandling dogs and forcing them to endure vaccinations, manipulations, or exams is no longer an acceptable standard of veterinary care, dogs must be taught to assume a variety of positions on cue. The Husbandry Project operant conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs are trained to assume relevant positions such as standing still or lying on their sides (lateral recumbency) and to remain in these positions for the usual types of veterinary procedures. Since all training will be done using positive reinforcement, the dogs will also learn to enjoy assuming these positions. 

Why data collection?

Although Academy staff have created thousands of successful training plans, drafting a training plan and simply offering it up for public use is inappropriate and can sometimes even have dangerous consequences. Untested plans can go wrong in a few different ways. Training plans that are too vague or too hard can cause dog owners to give up and return to old (possibly fear-inducing) habits. And this is to say nothing of the owners who throw their hands up in despair if the plan doesn’t work, and end up going to trainers comfortable with aversives to get things done. Dog owners, and dogs, deserve well-vetted training protocols and plans which allow for the majority of dogs to move through their training with the minimum of fuss. “Every dog is an individual” is a great marketing message but is simply not true when it comes to training. Most dogs will progress through well-vetted training plans in a similar way. In fact, a firm adherence to the ‘every dog is an individual’ credo seems to lead technically unskilled trainers towards aversive stimuli for dogs who would do just fine with a proficient R+ trainer and good plan.

For these reasons, the Academy has committed to not only drafting plans, but to drafting plans and having a good number of dogs and trainers work through them to work out the kinks, before offering them to the public. We’ve gathered a crew of our students and grads who have agreed to help us out, and sent the plans around. They’re all training every plan and taking careful notes: where are the plans inefficient? Where are they too pushy? We’re compiling the data and will use them to create a set of revised plans. These plans will be much closer to print-ready, but the Academy will do one final round of plan testing to be sure (read on below for how you can help us) before releasing them to the public.

We completed Phase One in 2017, which included all the classical conditioning plans and the baseline positions such as stand and lateral recumbency. Phase Two will be finished in the summer of 2018, and includes veterinary procedures such as range-of-motion tests and “vaccinations”.

Although the dogs in training aren’t technically “vet ready” until the end of Phase 2, they’re all living creatures who need regular vet care, so many of our tester dogs have already been to the vet. We have heard reports of many successful veterinary visits (including for dogs who were previously profoundly fearful), which is an indication of more good things to come. Please read on for some examples, below.

Interested in helping out?

If you’re interested in helping out with our next round of testing, we would love to have you. You must commit to train about 15 things with your dog. Depending on your dog, this might mean around 15 minutes at a time, a few times a week, for a few months. You must also be able to do some training at a veterinary office. This will require getting permission, although we will help with that by providing a letter template. Please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to be put on the notification list.

Successful veterinary visits

Although we are just partway through our project, many of our participants have had to jump the gun a bit, and take their partly-trained dogs in for veterinary care. We are delighted with the results and would like to share a few of them, to tempt any dog owners into participating in our next round of plan vetting.

Luke and Tovah

Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.

Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.

Academy graduate Tovah Riester (Facebook) and her dog Luke have been hard at work training the Academy’s plans, including a stand stay on the scale. Tovah said “My Luke was taught the stationing on the vet’s scale and has used it three times since then! He had dental surgery so lots of visits back to back and they weigh him every time”. Scales can be quite scary for some dogs.

The most important thing we have made use of from our participation in this project is the positive conditioned emotional response Luke has to his vet office. [A recent]  tooth extraction was very painful for him. His recovery time took much longer than other surgeries he's had at other vet clinics. However, the next visit to the vet, Luke was clearly very happy to be back there despite the painful visit.

Christian, Bree, and Safi

Caption: Bree and Safi on the exam table, ready for treatment (and treats)

Academy graduate Christian Williams (website) is training her two Border Collies to enjoy vet care.

Bree and Safi live in South East London with older brother Rusty and little big sister Pod. I adopted Rusty, Bree and Safi as a family through Valgrays Border Collie Rescue in 2012.

As a very sociable dog, Bree (Blue Merle) has always enjoyed vet visits. Shy and sound sensitive Safi (Black and White) used to spend most of the time at the surgery trying to get out the door.

Road testing the Academy’s Husbandry Project Training Plans has boosted Safi’s confidence and turned vet visits from “get me outta here” to “let’s have fun –this is where the venison sausage treats flow!”. How did we get from scary place to good place? We practiced at home and built lifting onto a table into the most fabulous thing. We developed olfactory CER’s to the “smell of the Veterinary Surgery” and we visited the surgery for practice visits. Last visit, instead of pulling on her lead to get back to the car, Safi sniffed excitedly all around the waiting room, she had never done this before. Then she whizzed right into the exam room and danced around on her hind legs – peeping at the top of the exam table. “Wow, you’re keen Saf” I thought as I lifted her up. And up she went & those tasty sausage treats appeared as if by magic.

Does this stuff work? It does! Two weeks ago, Safi had a minor eye infection, off to the vets we went. We had some fun in the waiting room doing our stationing game. Then into the exam room and yes, you’ve guessed it – straight up on that exam table.

Eva and Bjorn

Bjorn holds a lateral recumbency position while having hot and cold compresses applied.

Eva Kifri worked through the Husbandry Project plans with her agility champ Malamutes, which came in handy when one of her dogs needed hot and cold compresses after a surgery. "Having just completed recovery from that surgery, Bjorn then lacerated his ear and required further treatment...and one day after returning to regular activity, he broke a toe and spent four weeks in a cast. The flounder position [lateral recumbency] helped him to get through his treatments; giving him a lot of control over the pace."

Having been trained into a useful position is a huge step forward in reduced stress and difficulty with an exam/treatment, even for a  dog who is reasonably relaxed/non fearful and good about body handling. It's not just a nice bonus. It’s also not particularly difficult to do in advance—cooperative care really should be part of basic pet training/knowledge… The reduction in stress to the dog –in having the  treatments and exam procedures be familiar and active things that they do cannot really be overstated.

Melanie and Wyatt

Trainer Melanie Cerone (website, Facebook) was working through the husbandry plans with her dog Wyatt when he developed some hot spots that needed veterinary care.

Wyatt had developed some “hot spots” on his hind quarters near his tail from incessant chewing, possibly due to allergies. I took him to the vet on Friday and the vet and vet tech needed to comb through the hair on his back-end and tail to see the sore spots. I used the muzzle station [the Husbandry Project’s stand-stay] throughout the exam and he did beautifully! He held the station for the entire exam with me reinforcing every five seconds or so since this was the first time we had used the station for a real exam. Both the vet and the tech were impressed and commented on how well he did throughout the exam. 

Then, we decided to clip some hair around one of the largest sores where I needed to apply an antibiotic spray daily. Wyatt’s never been clipped and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The vet initially suggested that the tech take Wyatt to another room and have a second tech assist her with the clipping, but then she said that Wyatt did so well during the exam the tech could just shave the spot in the exam room with me there (and no second tech). The tech got the electric clippers and just turned them on while I had Wyatt station. He did not react to the sound of the clippers and stationed beautifully. She then clipped the spot while he continued to station. I have to say I was pretty blown away, and so was the tech. 

It was about as stress-free a vet visit as we’ve ever had. The vet and the tech commented repeatedly how grateful they were to have such an “easy” patient.

Megan and Atrus

Megan and Atrus practiced the stationing behaviours in the Husbandry Project plans before they were needed.

Trainer Megan O’Hara (website, Facebook) was part way through the training plans when her dog Atrus needed to visit the vet for full glands. Megan reported that “Atrus was able to hold a chin station the whole time. It was a proud momma moment, for sure.”


Cover photo Credit:vadimguzhva via istock.



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Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

One of the most glorious times in a dog trainer’s life is that moment when we gently (if metaphorically) grasp our client’s hands and escort them and their dog into a play session. This is especially the case if the client is a bit wary or unsure—they believe in us, sure, but also trust their gut: my dog is a scary beast, isn't he? So their flat-out joy at seeing their dog play gleefully warms the cockles of our hearts.

Often this scenario comes up if our client’s dogs have had a scuffle with another dog at some point in the past. A cautious dog owner might, from that alarming moment on, sequester their dogs: leash walks only, no more play dates, or in multi-dog homes, they might even start a program of crate-and-rotate or otherwise keep dogs separated at all times. In some cases, owners find leash reactivity alone to be worrisome enough to decide that they can’t chance dog play—a sad scenario indeed, as many leash reactive dogs are frantically pro-social with other dogs and would in fact be improved by the chance to decrease their social motivation through dog play. 

To trainers familiar with normal and healthy dog play (which occasionally includes a minor squabble or some intense moments), it can feel a bit like we are spinning our wheels when we allow the minutes to tick by in a consult, normalizing what is really just normal dog behaviour. However, it is simply not time wasted: we must be thorough and caring to really help owners move past their feelings of alarm and fear, no matter what else is on the training to-do list. A non-injurious scuffle or one resulting in a few minor facial dings is not a walk in the park for a dog trainer but certainly doesn’t make us throw in the towel on all future dog interactions. For dog owners, though—who do not understand ritualization and acquired bite inhibition—this stuff is really scary. A few comforting words and a “get over it” attitude will do no one any favours.

In fact, spending time with our clients normalizing non-injurious interactions can pay real dividends. First, we are getting more dogs to play. Play with conspecifics is a great way to provide exercise and enrichment and a tremendous welfare boost for members of a social species like dogs. Second, our clients get access to an easy and enjoyable way to tire out their dogs. Play time is a quick energy burner for dogs and an enjoyable social occasion for humans, if orchestrated well. Clients with active dogs especially appreciate the big payoffs and small investment from having play available to them as an exercise option. And third, our businesses will grow with the ever-elusive word of mouth. Many people find watching dog play to be exquisitely enjoyable, and if we open the gate to dog play, it keeps them talking about our services.

If you have clients with dogs who are good candidates for dog play and who are pushing back due to wariness from an alarming (to them) but safe and normal encounter, consider the time you spend normalizing and myth-busting to be time well spent. On one hand, dog play may form a key component to a behaviour modification program. For certain diagnoses like leash reactivity in a friendly but barrier frustrated dog, dog-dog play can be used within your behaviour modification protocol for saturation (getting the dog bored of dogs), motivation (using play as a reinforcing consequence) and distraction (for training very solid alternate behaviours). On the other hand, even in cases where play won't be of direct use for your training plan, dog play is of value for the exercise and enrichment it provides. For example, owners who have experienced a minor scuffle might easily misinterpret the seriousness of it and end up preventing their young, active, and bored dog from playing. "He would have killed the other dog if I hadn't intervened" is a common theme, despite the strong likelihood that their dog has a species-normal and safe way of settling minor disagreements. It makes good sense to take the time to discuss acquired bite inhibition, which is the ability of dogs to bite with attenuated, non-maiming force in social interactions. Talk about how the dogs, if they had intended on hurting each other, could have done so immediately. And recognize that these owners are quite legitimately scared, so need a gentle approach. You may have to repeat the message often, and in many different ways, for the owner to get some clarity about their dog's behaviour and needs.

Getting previously-sequestered dogs set up with playmates is good for your client, good for your business, and good for the dog. And all that hand-holding has a delightful bit of reinforcement for you, too: a video card full of play between dogs who (without your intervention), simply wouldn't have the chance.

Joya, sequestered after a minor squabble, was able to shine as a dog-friendly dog after some work by Academy graduate Sabrina Mignacca of Ivy League Dogs. Anna, also sequestered after a squabble, took it upon herself to reintroduce play in her life after two years away from it. Anna's newfound sociability was fostered by Academy graduate Lisa Skavienski of Dog, Educated.

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Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

As dog trainers, we love management—that is, arranging the dog’s environment to prevent mess-ups.  It’s a godsend for a bunch of pesky behaviour issues. We use baby gates, dog-proof rooms, curtains, and crates to provide relief to our clients (and often, their dogs). Management can also protect shy or fearful dogs from experiences that they are not ready for, either as a permanent solution or temporarily during training.
But long-term management, no matter how alluring or easy it seems, nor how ‘humane’ it feels, is not always the answer.
In cases where a management-only solution impacts a dog’s quality of life, and where well-vetted, humane, and aversives-free behaviour modification options exist, we have a double duty as dog trainers. First, we must disclose to our clients that a training option exists, and that the training option will protect or even increase their dog’s quality of life. Second, if our clients then wish to train, we must be proficient at the techniques needed and offer them, or refer on to practitioners who are. Enrichment—an increasingly hot topic in both dog training circles and animal welfare more broadly—matters to us, our clients, and their dogs.

Example: Play issues

Dogs are, in general, social creatures who enjoy the company of other dogs. Play (or simple companionship) with the conspecifics of their own choosing is profoundly enriching and important. Trainers dealt a steady diet of dogs who are fearful and aggressive towards other dogs sometimes forget how deep the pool is of socially normal dogs. But salience, of course, does not mean prevalence.
Many dogs who enjoy play also, and separately, have play-related behaviour issues. They might target and bully some dogs, or their play might frequently tip over into squabbles. Dog trainers skilled at using a well-planned combination of positive reinforcement on the one hand, and reducing problem behaviours through removal from play on the other, can generally resolve these cases over a number of weeks. In other words, the dogs stop bullying and scrapping, but get to keep playing. Although using a differential reinforcement protocol (for example, recalls out of play) may work for some of these cases, for many dogs the problem behaviour itself seems to be exceptionally self-reinforcing, and simply re-directing the dog fails to produce the desired outcomes.
Removal from play is a time-out—in other words, “negative punishment”. This label sounds distasteful but simply means making a good thing disappear. We have to leave the play session at some point anyways, so having “play ends” contingent on problem behaviour simply harnesses this pain-free, fear-free learning opportunity for the benefit of the dog. The dog learns that bullying results in loss of play opportunities, and they modify their behaviour accordingly. And like all aversives-free training, using removal from play as a consequence can even be considered enriching. We can compare this protocol to the puzzle toys that we are so quick to recommend to our clients. A dog might try pawing, but finds that doesn’t work to open a compartment. They might then try chewing, but that doesn’t work either. Finally, they try moving a lever with their nose, and out comes the food. The dog learns to get more of what they like from doing one behaviour (just as the dog learns that acceptable play gets them more play), and to avoid doing another behaviour because it clearly terminates what they want (similarly, bullying means play will end).
The management-only solution for play issues (“no more dog park” or even “no more play”) radically decreases these dogs’ quality of life. These dogs enjoy play, and benefit tremendously from the opportunity to interact with other dogs. The very fact that these dogs will change their behaviour to avoid the consequence of removal from play is proof positive that they like play, and that they aren’t secretly trying to communicate a negative state like “over-stressed”. If they were over-stressed we could expect that bullying would increase with a time-out protocol, because the dog would be in a hurry to get away from the dog park and would learn that bullying brings relief. (And luckily for dogs, savvy trainers can usually pick up when a dog is stressed through their body language.)
A management-only solution may also cause new behaviour problems like barrier frustration (“reactivity”) on leash, due to deprivation. So if the play issue is left unaddressed, a social, enriched dog with a fixable problem can easily become a bored, destructive dog without playmates and without leash walks. We have all seen these dogs and felt for both the dogs and their owners too, who are very much at the end of their ropes. This is not an academic or theoretical outcome.
And it leads us to another, more serious, point. Dog owners may also find a management-only solution simply doesn’t meet their needs. They may themselves recognize the value of joyful dog play. If we do not offer them humane alternatives, they may (quite reasonably in their eyes) knock on the door of the local force trainer, who will certainly modify the dog’s behaviour. This trainer may do so with painful corrections and ‘negative reinforcement’, though, and will likely not disclose the well-documented side effects of training this way. Negative reinforcement may sound similar to negative punishment, but it is a whole world apart. It refers to making use of the relief an animal feels when something painful or scary ends. In dog training this typically means something truly awful like a long-duration electric shock.
There is a suite of behaviour problems that can seemingly be solved through management, but at great cost to the dog’s quality of life: play issues, aggressive guarding of chew items, and jumpy and mouthy dogs, to name a few. These solutions, which needlessly deny dogs things they enjoy due solely to practitioner preference, must eventually be taken off the table as an acceptable practice for dog trainers. We simply care too much about dogs’ quality of life to continue to prescribe needless emotional warehousing.

If you are ready to take your training to the next level and offer your clients a full complement of services, please consider applying to the Academy for Dog Trainers.


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Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Dogs have extremely strong jaws and powerful bites. Even the smallest of dogs can deliver an injurious bite as an adult, and big dogs can inflict even greater damage. Despite this physical ability, most dog bites do not result in terrible injury. In fact, many leave only a small scratch or a few bruises.

Like wolves, with whom dogs share a recent ancestor, dogs use their jaws to both hunt for prey and settle social disputes. Because their jaws are dual-purpose, it is vitally important that dogs and wolves do not use the full (prey-killing) force of their bite during social interactions such as play and fighting. Instead, they use what ethologists call “ritualized aggression”. Ritualized aggression includes threats, body postures and inhibited bites.

Large predators... which live permanently in a society as wolves or lions do, must possess reliable and permanently effective inhibition mechanisms. These must be sufficiently self-reliant to be independent of the changing moods of the individual.

Lorenz, Konrad. On aggression. Psychology Press, 2002 (1966), p125.

Acquired bite inhibition (ABI) refers to the ability of a dog to bite with inhibited force. Dog trainers care deeply about a dog’s ABI because it has important prognostic implications. A dog who bites a neighborhood kid with an inhibited bite is the subject of a very different conversation than a dog who bites the neighborhood kid with maiming force. In the first case, the dog will likely undergo a standard behavior modification program. In the much rarer second case, the dog may well end up euthanized, depending on the severity of the bite and other factors. Luckily, most dogs have good—or at least good enough—ABI. However, dog trainers and veterinarians do occasionally get a call about a dog with poor ABI, and it is always heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, research on acquired bite inhibition is scant. Like all behavior, it seems reasonable to assume it has genetic and environmental determinants and influences. Many experts and practitioners believe that dogs learn, or refine, their ABI through play biting as puppies.

Puppies play by tumbling around and biting one another. Suddenly one of them gets a grip on another's ear. It bites hard and the poor brother or sister howls in pain. The other puppy succeeds in getting its teeth in the tender skin of its sibling's belly. Much whining and yelling follow. They stand still for a short while, then let go.

Next time they act slightly differently. One will grasp the other's ear only until the puppy begins making noise. It will react to the sibling's vocal distress, which works as a mechanism to inhibit or control aggressive behaviour. Previous experiences showed the puppy it is better to let go at the first signs of vocal distress, or its belly will hurt. This is learning by trial and error.

Abrantes, Roger. Dog Language. Dogwise Publishing, 1997, p23.

Many dog trainers offer puppy classes where puppies are allowed to play freely...with caveats. The most important caveat is that all canine parties consent. Playing puppies are regularly separated to allow them to re-enter play, or not, at their will. Puppies exhibiting inappropriate play are punished by their play-mates if their infractions are minor. If they are more serious, thoughtful practitioners will institute time-outs. Much of the time, trainers see inappropriate, scrappy puppies trend to become socially normal. This allows these reformed scrappers to continue to play as puppies, which in turn allows them to refine their ABI. (And this is completely aside from the potentially enormous benefits of the puppy being able to engage in dog play with the playmates of their own choosing, an activity that is so pleasurable, enriching, and basic to a social species that it is sometimes used as a shorthand welfare indicator.)

Many dog trainers also coach their puppy class students to allow their puppies to mouth them. At first, all mouthing is allowed, except for the very hardest of bites. As the puppy ages, progressively softer bites earn the puppy a time-out. This protocol allows puppies to gradually lessen the force of their bite through information feedback—and indeed, a gradual reduction of bite pressure is what puppy class instructors see, in thousands upon thousands of puppies. This protocol and its heavy helping of information feedback to the puppy is believed to have superior ABI-refining benefits over other protocols: those where every bite is punished from the get-go; those where every bite is redirected without consequence; or those where non-biting behavior is instead constantly reinforced. It does appear that once puppies are past the socialization window, ABI is not modifiable, based on the lack of any known successful attempt to modify ABI in adult dogs.

Although there is not a body of research about how ABI is gained or refined, several case studies of socialization-age puppies with known poor ABI being turned around with a time-out protocol are both compelling and typical.

The first case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Kristy Francis. Francis teaches Early Puppy Socialization classes at VCA Animal Wellness Center of Maple Grove in Minnesota.

“Maui was an 8 week-old female mixed breed (possibly Labrador retriever cross), who was found as a stray and brought to a shelter. Her poor ABI was discovered during her intake at the rescue organization. She bit 3 littermates and 3 volunteers, resulting in a puncture wound to a littermate and bloody scratches on the other 2 puppies and the volunteers. In the first few days of fostering her, she bit the palm of my hand hard enough to leave a 1 inch cut that was as deep as half of her tooth.

I used three training protocols on Maui. Everyone who had contact with her was instructed to follow these protocols. Firstly, I yelped and briefly moved away from her to end play when she delivered a hard play bite. In this case, the yelping and ending of play did not result in softer bites. On day two, I decided to increase the magnitude of the time-outs. The revised protocol was to place Maui in an automatic timeout for any hard bites. When she bit hard, a cue was issued and she was placed in timeout for 30 seconds to 1 minute. This did help improve the hard biting. It reduced the number of incidents and some gentle play biting began. I allowed, and even encouraged, the gentle biting. When she was 10 weeks old, she was still occasionally play biting too hard, and I changed the protocol once again. The magnitude of her timeouts increased, and she was placed in timeout for 30 minutes for any hard bites.

At the age of eight weeks, she was introduced to playful adult dogs that are known to be gentle with puppies. These dogs informed her when the biting was too hard in a gentle, non-scary manner. She was not introduced to other puppies until she was 4 months old, and even then, only to older puppies between the ages of 4 months and 6 months.

When she was 5 months old, she had a normal scuffle with a 6-month-old playmate. The play had become too rough and a fight broke out. I broke up the fight and examined the other dog and found zero injuries—in other words, she had a real-life test of her refined ABI, and it had changed from injurious to non-injurious.

Maui was adopted when she was 13 weeks old and was no longer play biting hard. She is currently one year old. She has since been introduced to puppies as young as 8 weeks. She has a very gentle play bite and has never made a puppy yelp due to her biting.”


The second case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Lisa Skavienski. Skavienski co-owns Dog Educated in Rochester, New York.

“A local farmer surrendered a litter of nine 6-week-old mixed breed puppies to a rescue after their mother died. These were timid little pups, exposed to very little prior to surrender, so they went to a seasoned puppy foster. She reached out to me shortly after their arrival, concerned about how hard they were mouthing. All were issuing painful bites, with three of them, in particular, drawing blood in every instance.

Recognizing that the socialization window would be starting to close in the next few weeks, I decided to address both the fearfulness and poor ABI immediately using our trained volunteers. A plea went out to the volunteers that evening, and an interactive schedule was made to ensure a steady flow of visitors on continuous rotation through the foster’s home. That’s the great thing about a rescue full of volunteers—strangers are a precious resource in cases like this, and this is the fun part for volunteers. People arrived in shifts, were greeted at the door with a container of freshly boiled chicken, and the puppies were treated to an abundant helping of gentle body handling paired with generous portions of chicken and ‘happy talk’ for the next four days.

All volunteers were given the ABI protocol ahead of time, and the foster coached them to use time-outs for all hard bites to humans (puppy bites hard—“too bad!”—placed in pen for 1 minute—let out of pen to try again). This protocol successfully modified all the puppies’ ABI, although it did take a few days and a large number of volunteers. We had roughly a dozen new people a day pitching in. By the third day, all puppies were mouthing softly and all were decidedly pro-social to strangers, wiggling and snuggling up to every new person who entered. Their ABI progress allowed us to bring in kids of different ages to extend their socialization even more. Once we had reached this point, we scaled it back a bit to a couple of people once a day with bigger socials on weekends; however, that intensive effort over those first few days was considered imperative.

The puppies progressed normally, and all were adopted into wonderful homes, some of them multi-dog homes. All exhibit normal, non-injurious play with their new siblings. One is a therapy dog who visits patients at a nursing home every week.”

Adult dogs who bite with maiming force are a danger to the public, their owners, and themselves, as society has very low tolerance of such dogs. For this reason, the Academy for Dog Trainers endorses puppy programs which include exercises to carefully train puppies to have good ABI when they are adult dogs even in the absence of good research. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Can’t hurt.

It may be that our ABI protocols are simply for naught. However, the two types of exercises in use to refine ABI—allowing a social species to have normal, appropriate play access to conspecifics as young animals, and using well-established, aversives-free, and humane protocols to gradually, rather than suddenly, decrease mouthing—are not problematic, so the drawbacks are minor: time wasted, and arms mouthed.

  1. Might help.

Some trainers recommend avoiding attempts to refine ABI or even avoiding structured puppy interactions altogether. However, it is a fallacy to claim that there are no risks to these approaches. Anything we can do to improve ABI may, without exaggeration, save life and limb. The likely case is that these exercises do function as we intend, as is suggested by the case studies above and many others. Practitioners who choose to prevent puppies from having an opportunity to improve ABI are proselytizing from a dangerous soapbox indeed.


Photos: Cover photo Top three credit K. Francis. Lower two credit L. Skavienski.

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The Academy for Dog Trainers' video coaching process

Recently, a prospective Academy for Dog Trainers applicant asked “aren’t there in-person workshops? How will we learn to train dogs?” This was an excellent question about our online-only program, of course: dog training is a physical skill, like throwing a three-point basket, completing a tricky figure skating move, or baking a soufflé. Competent dog trainers must learn a suite of important skills, from luring to fading; paying to prompting; adding cues to adding distractions.

So it was a good question. But the answer might come as a bit of a surprise: the Academy has found that in-person sessions are simply not the best way to teach trainers to train.

With an eye to efficiency, the Academy has created, and refined, a video-coaching process that has consistently turned out graduates with excellent technique (“mechanics”, in trainer lingo). Students submit videos of themselves training a series of behaviours as assignments. For example, the program includes training some basic obedience behaviours to verbal stimulus control and a free-shaped retrieve, among others. Each time a student submits video, the Academy’s coaches review it and provide feedback. We look for and reinforce the proper execution of key mechanical skills (or approximations of key skills, in early assignments). Feedback is provided quickly and on a standardized form, which is a springboard for the student’s next submission. Each assignment was carefully selected to hone certain training skills and styles, and it generally takes a few repeat submissions of video to bring a student’s performance to Academy standards for any one assignment.

Video coaching allows the Academy’s coaches to assess a student’s mechanics thoroughly. Videos can be viewed by the coaches at slower speeds or multiple times, and can be compared against earlier submissions to gauge progress. Videos can be submitted for coaching without the expense of travel, and with dogs that are not otherwise suitable for workshops–a student’s own dog, dogs in the shelters they work for, or fosters. When our students graduate, their clients’ dogs will not always be social and low-key like those dogs most suitable for in-person workshops, so this trial-by-fire approach actually ends up being a boon.

I found the video coaching process tremendously beneficial, and you are not expected to submit video of professional quality:  no one minded my sending in tape wearing full early morning PJ and slippers attire. (Me, not my dog.)  The instructional feedback from instructors is very specific and targets exactly the areas requiring improvement, but always in a positively constructive and helpful tone.  And what you are doing well is always emphasized and highlighted, so even if there is an area in which you are struggling, you feel good about the feedback.
- Thea R., Academy student

Students are offered the golden opportunity to submit video as often as they need to become proficient trainers–coaching is included in the price of admission to the program. Our students are encouraged to use video to assess their own skills in a structured way as well, which helps to build the coaching skills they’ll need later with clients and in classes. And the Academy’s coaches model the teaching style we hope our graduates emulate: warm, thoughtful, generous, specific, and purposeful encouragement. In Academy lingo, we “scan and reinforce”. To the surprise of nary a dog trainer, reinforcement works to change behaviour.

I was nervous about submitting my first video–everyone seems to be. But it got much easier after that one and the feedback I received was invaluable. Getting clear, specific, kind, constructive reviews of videos I submitted was incredibly helpful, and knowing I can send in as many versions as necessary to get it right takes off some of the pressure.
-Tim S., Academy student

In fact, the Academy would encourage all trainers to do regular self-assessments by video. Take a keen eye to your performance: do you have a “quiet body”? Are you keeping track of your dog’s performance? Are your luring motions, and later hand signals, consistent between reps and sets? Is your rate of reinforcement between 8-12/minute for untrained dogs? If you’re using secondary reinforcement, is the reinforcement overshadowed or blocked by moving or another ‘tell’? To make the most of your practice time, take a page from the Academy’s playbook: record your performance, track your improvements, and of course, reinforce!

When the Academy first moved to being offered solely online, video coaching was seen as a necessary evil. After more than half a decade of producing consistently proficient trainers, though, the writing's on the wall: well-designed video coaching works, and it works really, really well.  

The video coaching has improved my technique a thousand fold!
-Sarah M., Academy student

I love being able to train at my own pace instead of needing to be at a specific time and place with a dog who might or might not be ready to work. I can work with any dog in any location and at any time while recording the session for feedback about what's working and where I should practice a bit more. 
-Tim S., Academy student


Header image: iStock by Getty Images Credit: walik

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Dog training and decision fatigue

Dog training and decision fatigue

We train dogs for a variety of reasons: to reduce unwanted behaviour, increase desired behaviour, for their welfare, to improve public safety and of course for pure, unadulterated fun. Owners who are training for fun without clear goals might be slow to reach them (or even -gasp- never reach them!), but this is no big deal if aversive stimuli are not in play.

Professional dog trainers, however, have a greater responsibility to train in ways that are both non-damaging to the dog and also efficient. Clients pay us to achieve outcomes. Gross inefficiencies in training can drive clients to punitive trainers who will get some kind of a job done. It is therefore wise, humane, and business-savvy to focus on efficiency. This blog, the first in a series on efficiency, deals with the important topic of decision-making.

Dog training is a profession which draws rather intensely on the brain’s resources - the trainer’s brain, that is! Trainers must navigate awkward social situations while side-stepping their client’s mythologies and bizarre internet-borne training advice. We must prioritize behavioural issues in a way that answers to the client’s needs, maintains or increases the dog’s welfare, and protects the public. We must categorize problems into a few columns on the page: train? manage? ignore? We must figure out how much of the training should be delegated to the client.

Finally, and in no small feat, we must identify a “terminal behaviour” for all training. To change a dog’s behaviour, a trainer writes a plan, which is a series of criteria steps that lead to a final, or “terminal”, behaviour. (If classical counterconditioning or operant counterconditioning/DRI is the appropriate technique, the “terminal” will be or include a positive emotional state.) Every trainer needs to move from early, achievable-right-now criteria steps to the more difficult - and often real-life - steps. Moving between steps takes decisions on the part of the trainer: when to make it harder, when to stay at the current level, and when a backwards step is needed.

Decision fatigue refers to “the notion that making choices can be effortful and can therefore deplete [mental] resources.”1 Some interesting research has found that our ability to make good decisions (or even just any decision) declines if we have to make a lot of choices in a short time. A rest and a snack allow for our decision-making prowess to rebound, indicating a physiological basis.

With the prioritizing, categorizing, figuring, and identifying that are standard parts of our work, our brains are already shouldering a heavy load: choices, choices, choices. By the time we start to actually work on a dog, we are at elevated risk of decision fatigue. We might push a few steps ahead when the dog isn’t ready, and feel flustered when we have to drop back multiple times. We assume our instincts serve us well, when they likely don’t - how many of our clients have motivated, drivey, herding breeds, after all? We might stay on a step for an inordinate amount of time when the dog is ready for something harder. These training errors have a cost: they’re inefficient. The job just ain’t getting done.

All is not lost, however. The best training methods have a fantastic over-ride: they simply punt decision-making to empirical rules. They automate. It’s a sub-routine, not a conscious consideration of alternatives. They make moving through a training plan a habit, freeing mental resources for other things... like chatting with your client about enrichment. Gabbing about anti-pull gear. Driving home safely.

At the Academy, our practitioners are trained to count correct and incorrect responses in a set. If the dog gets enough right - usually at least four correct responses out of a set of five - the trainer moves smoothly on to the next step. If the dog misses enough, the trainer simply drops back. And if the dog is in-between, there’s an answer for that too: another set, counted out of habit, of the same step.

Our human and canine clients deserve the speediest resolution we can offer. Automation of criteria change decisions is a boon to efficiency and can help a trainer meet, and exceed, their client’s expectations. It reduces human fatigue and by basing the choice of when to change criteria on an objective sampling of the responses in a set, it helps a training session stay fun, challenging, and engaging for the dogs, too.

Take your training to the next level. Avoid taxing decisions like “is my client’s dog proficient enough to move to the next step?” Let the dog’s performance tell you - it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.



1. Vos et al. 2005. Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources - But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives. Unpublished manuscript.

Cover photo: © Monkey Business 2/

Second photo: © DGLimages/

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The Seductiveness of Why

The Seductiveness of Why


My training as an archaeologist prepared me well for my work with dogs.  Archaeologists tend to be consummate generalists. We learn some biology (How do bones grow?), some physics  (How do percussion waves through volcanic glass make razor-sharp flakes?), and some chemistry (How does radioactive decay tell us how old stuff is?).  Of course, we also learn a lot about humans, our culture, our society, and our fascinating history as primates.  

Dog trainers have to be generalists, too.  We need to know how to teach, how to counsel, and how to use modern applied behavior analysis techniques to change a dog’s behavior and emotions.  We must have a solid understanding of evolution, genetic and environmental effects on behavior, and of ethology.  

I once worked in a bone lab as an archaeologist, reducing animal carcasses to skeletal material for a comparative bone collection.  This cemented my ability to handle really gross stuff, a skill I’ve found useful with dogs who aren’t motivated by the usual fare.   

But I think the best gift I received from my archaeologist past is a tolerance of uncertainty.  (Did modern humans float from one continent to the next during the last ice age, exploiting the rich marine environment at the ice’s edge?  Who knows!  Who do we share our branch of the hominid tree with, really? Who knows!)  Some questions do get answered as time and science marches on.  Some questions, though, seem unanswerable, at least without time travel.  But here’s the thing: not knowing the answers to these questions has not stopped the archaeological juggernaut.  Sites are excavated, artifact collections are assessed and re-assessed, and archaeological papers are published.  

This comfort with uncertainty has been a great boon to my ability to help my dog training clients.  Beyond the broad strokes of motivation (Is the dog scared or upset?  Or is he feeling fine and just being a dog?), it often really doesn’t matter why.  In fact, getting stuck in a loop of asking why, why, why, is a common reason that owners and new trainers falter.  Yesterday, an owner asked me why her dog buries pieces of chewed-up hose in her rose garden, only to immediately excavate them, then re-bury.  (Is he angry at me for putting him outside? Is he communicating something?) An answer starting with “Because...” would likely delve into dogs’ fascinating position as a domesticated canid with remnant food caching software, made ‘buggy’ through generations without selection pressure.  Despite my own love of evolution, and her use of the seductive why, I knew that a long-winded explanation was not what this client was asking for.  My suspicion – soon confirmed – was that what she really wanted was simply to get the dog to stop digging in her rose garden.  We decided on a digging pit, I pointed out how cool it was to watch her dog showing off some of his wolf ancestry, and I was able to quickly move on to another issue she was having with her dog.  

A comfort with uncertainty allowed me to make the best use of my client’s time and money, which is no small deal.  But much more importantly, it opened up time in my consult to create a more enriching environment for this dog, and allowed us to tackle other behaviors which were interrupting the peace in their home.  Time spent on a discussion of what, if anything, the behavior communicated (or how the hose may have mimicked ligaments from a caribou’s leg) would have detracted from our session.  In other words, there would have been a real time and money cost to the client, and a welfare cost to her dog.   

Why is a seductive question.  Uncertainty is a frustrating state.  So I tip my hat to my archaeological studies for the comfort I now have side-stepping the why why why, accepting the uncertainty inherent in dog training (we really do not know what dogs are thinking! Really!), and allowing me to spend the most time doing what I really want to do: helping people, and helping dogs. 

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