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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Why We Need to Modify the Humane Hierarchy

Why we need to modify the Humane Hierarchy

Our guest blogger is Tim Steele, a newly minted Academy graduate and owner of Behavior Matters Academy in Santa Clara CA. 

His post is part of Companion Animal Psychology's Train For Rewards Blog Party 2018.

I love the idea of the Humane Hierarchy. We’ve needed a simple-to-understand graphic which gives people a visual representation of what training and behavior modification techniques are more humane and which ones should be used with extreme caution or never. When the current version of the Humane Hierarchy (“HH”) came out, many dog training professionals heralded it and used it in their marketing materials to make it clearer to the public how they train dogs. And the public deserves that sort of transparency.

So, what went wrong?

Despite the best intentions of the creators, I’ve seen the HH used to justify the use of some pretty awful treatment of dogs because on it, R- is on the same level as P-. People with lesser information (or, if I’m thinking more skeptically, people who are looking for a justification to use force) say, “oh, it’s okay, this method is fine – Susan Friedman said so herself.” Now, having spoken with Susan about this, I know she’d disagree with those people. Here’s why.

While I’m absolutely dedicated to not using any Negative Reinforcement to train dogs, I think we can agree that some varieties of R- are worse than others. At the risk of sounding like I’m endorsing R- methods, I’d suggest that crowding and leaning over your average comfortable, well-adjusted, reasonably-fearless dogs to teach them to back up might be effective and harmless. Sure, they’d back up to seek relief from our crowding, but they may not find it terribly scary or painful. I’d not recommend this approach and I wouldn’t intentionally use it myself – but I wouldn’t be worried about the welfare of a dog being taught that way by a well-meaning dog owner.

On the other hand, if someone is pressing a button on a shock collar until a dog recalls, I AM going to worry about the welfare of that dog. And that is a common application of Negative Reinforcement. Likewise, ear pinching to teach retrieve, collar tightening, and pinning a dog to the ground are also common examples of Negative Reinforcement that I suspect the majority of people who the HH was intended for wouldn’t be using.

But the success of the Humane Hierarchy means that it is now reaching people who are new to dog training, who don’t understand quadrants very well, or are balanced trainers who are more comfortable using force to train companion animals. And the Humane Hierarchy provides them the justification they need to continue using pain, fear, and intimidation. How? Because, again, on the Humane Hierarchy, R- is on the same level ethically as P-.

Now, might Negative Punishment be unpleasant for the dog? Sure. As a matter of fact, for it to work, it almost certainly has to be unpleasant. Most dog trainers point to timeouts as the standard P- move. That can be frustrating to dogs. The issue is the same with extinction, which is on the same level as P- and R- on the current HH. It can cause frustration, sometimes in a big way. But here is the thing: Frustration does not equal pain or fear in my book.

The Humane Hierarchy, as written, makes it as easy for a trainer to claim it is OK to shock a dog (at any level of shock, by the way) until they recall as it is to time out a dog for 30 seconds for jumping on a guest.  Or to close your hand in a leave it exercise.

And that’s absolutely not okay.

So, how do we fix it?

The way I see it, we have two options.

First, we could list a wide variety of R- and P- techniques and rank them in terms of invasiveness, pain, fear-inducing, etc. We could color code those we feel are acceptable, caution people about some with yellow, and mark the “really – NEVER use this approach” with red. This takes away from the simplicity of the HH (and that would be a real loss). But the simplicity is causing real harm to dogs now. We have to change that.

Our second option is to completely separate R- from P-. This is the way I’d go. Now, there are arguments against this. Some would say that SOME P- approaches are worse than SOME R- options (so they might like that first ranking idea more than this one). Maybe well-educated professionals are in a better position to do their own rankings and make appropriate choices. But the average pet owner and many self-taught dog trainers aren’t the same – a real understanding of ABA is required for this sort of decision making.

Glenn Pierce of PowerPuppy Dog Training has created an alternative hierarchy which gets us closer to something safe. His version looks like this:


I’d add in extinction to this like Susan’s version has it – or at least on the same level as Negative Punishment (they are similar – frustrating, but not painful or scary).

I’d make Negative Punishment come after Positive Reinforcement like in Glenn’s example. But because Negative Reinforcement requires the introduction of an aversive that can be removed for relief, I’d move it farther down in the list because many take the hierarchy quite literally and count any magnitude of Negative Reinforcement as equivalent to any other. I would make Negative Reinforcement equivalent to Positive Punishment to ensure dogs are being treated as humanely as possible by the greatest number of people.

And isn’t that the whole purpose of the Humane Hierarchy to begin with?

Can’t we just educate people better?

I’d love to think so. I feel it is all our jobs to educate better and to educate more people. I recently attended a wonderful three-day training with Susan Friedman with about 150 attendees. It’s going to take a lot of those sessions to counter the spread of “oh, P- and R- are equally humane in any form” that’s being bandied about in Facebook groups containing more than 20,000 members. The admins of such groups can only do so much when someone says, “but the Humane Hierarchy which is supported by experts, says…” In reality, we’ll never get to all those people.

So what’s next?

Before publishing this, I’ve already asked a number of people to review it. Now, I’m publishing it here (with sincere thanks to The Academy for Dog Trainers for allowing me to do so). If there’s sufficient support, perhaps a modified version of the hierarchy can become the standard for dog trainers. I look forward to your input.


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Predation and Dogs-Normalizing Behavior

Predation and Dogs-Normalizing Behavior

One gorgeous summer morning, I watched from across the pool as a small grey bird fluttered down out of a tree and hovered just a few feet in front of my foster dog, Quinn. Quinn tilted her head to the side and froze for a brief moment before lunging forward and snatching it from the air, issuing a neck-breaking shake, and then tossing it aside—all in one quick movement. She nudged it with her nose once or twice before continuing her sniffari in the pachysandra, as I stood there wondering about the absence of this bird’s self-preservation. I did not wonder about Quinn’s behavior. Quinn is a dog, and dogs are predators. More accurately, they are scavengers and predators.

We tend to forget this about dogs. We easily accept predatory behavior in cats for some reason, marveling at the “good little hunter” that dropped the decapitated mouse at our feet while we washed dishes. We might find it unpalatable, but we rarely classify it as a moral fail, nor worry the cat is deviant and a potential threat to people. We don’t mistakenly assign labels like “aggressive” to our rodent-killing cats. But cats hunt and sometimes kill vermin and birds for the exact same reason our dogs do: preinstalled software that comes with our companion animals from a time when food acquisition skills were necessary for survival.

Yet every year, once spring has sprung, my social media newsfeed blows up with posts from dog owners, upset—often angry—at their canine companions’ leisurely killing of all manner of critter. “Thanks a lot, Fido, you jerk! I’m so mad at him right now!” reads the script above the photograph of a broken bodied chipmunk. And I get it. It’s traumatizing to many of us. After all, most of us who share our homes with an animal are animal lovers, and so it saddens and upsets us to see any of them meet an end in our own back yards. 

I remember feeling horrified years ago when my Tuck was still young and fast enough to successfully dispatch the squirrels that dared to run our fence line. He’d spot them from the deck and stalk slowly and quietly to the foot of the stairs. He’d flat run to the fence, leap up and slam his body against whatever panel the squirrel had made it to, causing it to lose its footing. He would catch it in his mouth as it fell, shake it dead immediately, and then run a victory lap around the yard with the limp body dangling from his mouth. Tuck was having a gleeful time while I was worrying that somewhere out there was a nest of orphaned squirrel babies.

I also occasionally receive emails from clients and friends after these events, the owners worried this means their dog is dangerous. Could this “aggression” be extrapolated to the dog’s behavior toward people? “The answer is no,” I attempt to normalize, “because this isn’t aggression. It’s a feeding behavior, and it’s as normal as a gull scooping fish from the sea or a fox pouncing on a field mouse.” Yes, they use those teeth, but if we classify this behavior as “assault,” we need to recognize that we, too, assault our breakfast every morning. But assaulting our over-easies doesn’t make us likely to pummel our coworkers or neighbors.

When dogs direct aggressive behavior at people, it is typically in one of these contexts: stranger fear, body handling discomfort, or resource guarding. In all three cases, the objective is to increase distance: “Stay away from me” or “stay away from my super important stuff.” In the case of predation, the goal is to get closer and to actually obtain the stimulus. Put simply, it’s just a biological imperative triggered by prey objects or objects resembling prey.

I recently saw a meme with a picture of a Boxer that read, “Squirrels are just tennis balls thrown by God.” While quite funny, it’s really the reverse. Tennis balls are just artificial squirrels thrown by man. It’s because they simulate prey fleeing that dogs chase them. Predation is the reason dogs grab, shake, and often “disembowel” stuffed toys. It’s why tug is so exciting and a preferred activity for many dogs: the tug toy simulates struggling prey. In fact, when played with a set of rules, it’s an excellent outlet for this activity and a fantastic impulse control exercise. If the drive to engage in predation for objects that resemble prey is so great, imagine how triggering a real live prey stimulus must be for our dogs!

Dogs also rehearse feeding behavior in play by chasing, along with all the other skills they need to function in the world, like fleeing (being chased), fighting (roughhousing), and fornicating (mounting). We see this rehearsal in play in early puppyhood and throughout their lives.

Some may ask why dogs feel compelled to hunt if we’re already feeding them plenty. While selection pressures are lifted for food acquisition in domesticated dogs, it hasn’t been very long since dogs were domesticated. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s just been a blink of an eye. Just because the pressure to get it right isn’t there, doesn’t mean it goes away entirely in such short order.

David Mech organized the predatory sequence of wolves as search, stalk, rush/chase, grab/bite, kill, dissect, and eat. It’s safe to assume that one-hundred percent of canids in the natural world that actually live to adulthood get this sequence right, because those that don’t will not live long enough to pass on their genetic flaw of poor hunting skills. In other words, there is a life-or-death pressure to get it right when no one is providing you kibble. 

Not so for domesticated dogs, which is why we see only partial versions of predation, or the software gets a bit buggy and is triggered by inanimate objects like squeaky toys. With the selection pressure lifted, they might not complete the entire predation sequence. They may chase, but not grab; chase and grab and shake, but not dissect or eat (like Quinn and Tuck); and so on. But predatory behaviors persist because they once had adaptive significance, and boy is survival ever significant!

Dogs that engage in predatory behavior are just behaving in a way that is normal for their species. For that matter, we humans are also just animals behaving in a way that is normal for our species. It’s normal for us to feel upset about a young bunny being killed, and it’s even normal for us to feel a bit frightened when we see our dogs use their sharp teeth in this way (there is an evolutionary reason for this, as well). As my primary and favorite mentor, Jean Donaldson, once said, “We are all just animals. Animal behaving.” And we behave in a way that is natural for our species.

So while I empathize with upset owners, I have great sympathy for the dogs that are often punished—even if by verbal berating (and sometimes by painful tools like shock)—merely for being normal dogs. They have no idea why their owners are suddenly so upset with them.

I hope it helps people to step back and view these events for what they really are and find some patience and understanding for their pet dogs. They are not morally deficient for chasing and sometimes killing the critters that happen across our lawns. They aren’t a species with moral capability. We simply chose to co-habitate with an animal that comes with some degree of hunting software. We can give ourselves a break for feeling bummed about it sometimes, but we do well to recognize our natural differences and give them a break, too.

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