Authored by Denise Fenzi,

I recently taught a seminar where I asked a participant if I could handle her dog to demonstrate a specific technique.

She said no.  Nicely but…No.

I doubt this comes up more than a handful of times a year – that someone pays money to get my input, brings a dog to see me, and then chooses not to let me handle their dog.

That handler believed that her dog would not benefit or might be distressed by going with a stranger. So what did she do? She advocated for her dog.


If more people would do that – stand up to their friends, instructors, judges, presenters, and advocate for their dogs, then I would hear a lot less of the story that starts…

“He was fine until my instructor took him and ____”

You fill in the blank.

If you opt to own and train a dog, you are also opting to advocate for your dog.  It doesn’t matter how “nice” or “well-respected” or “force free” that presenter is – it’s your dog.  Your responsibility.    At the end of the day, will your dog still see you as an advocate or will you have become part of the problem?

That handler has the right – the responsibility – to do what she thinks is in the long term best interest of her dog.  I have enormous respect for her.  Honestly, I wish I saw that sort of advocacy more often.

If you’re not sure you can do it; stand up to a person in a position of authority, then that’s fine.  Leave your dog at home when you attend a seminar and then you won’t find yourself in that difficult position.  Don’t be naive.  Just because someone is well known doesn’t mean that they’ll behave in a way that is in the best interests of your dog.

And if it’s already happened?  You made that mistake?  Fine – put that in the past, learn from the experience, and do right by your dog as you go forwards.

Good luck.

He’s Fine

Authored by Chad Mackin,

I once had occasion to watch a new trainer working a young boxer puppy. The dog was four or five months old, the trainer was considerably older than that. He came for a fairly heavy-handed school of thought and being new in the business lacked understanding of the nuances of the work. He had a fairly black and white outlook. The dog either obeyed or he didn’t. If he didn’t, there was a leash correction for every occasion. It should have been clear to him that this was no way to train a puppy. But it wasn’t. The trainer probably was temperamentally unsuited to be working with puppies. He wasn’t patient enough, nor forgiving enough. It was almost as if he couldn’t be bothered to take the time to teach, he needed get results right away. He would argue that punishments do teach, and they are faster and more effective than rewards or countless repetition. Had I taken the time to challenge him, he would have very likely pointed out that he’s getting obedience really quickly from dogs other trainers had failed to get responses from. He was too young and too inexperienced to think there might be more to good dog training than how quickly you can get compliance. The statement that not all compliance was equal, would have been met snide derision.

As I watched the session unfold, the pup became more and more frustrated. The more the “trainer” corrected him for not understanding what was expected and thus failing to comply, the more frustrated the puppy got. So he did what boxers often do when frustrated, he tried to make peace by getting the trainer to play. He responded to each correction by jumping on the trainer. Each jump invariably brought on a stronger correction.

The spiral terminated in it’s inevitable conclusion.

The 4 month old puppy decided his only real choice was to try to put his teeth into this trainer.

The trainer hesitated not an instant before he responded by hoisting the dog off the ground by the leash. The puppy dangled there, thrashing to and fro, foaming at the mouth, until deprived of oxygen he relented. The trainer set him back to the ground with a satisfied look on his face, and patiently waited for the pup to expel the contents of his stomach onto the parking lot. He said to the pup, “I didn’t want to do that, but you left me no choice.” He gave the dazed pup a scratch on the head and went to resume the “lesson”. I said nothing. The reason for this will become clear shortly.

His girlfriend was not so slow to speak up. She was clearly aghast at her boyfriend’s behavior and she let him know it. He explained that he couldn’t let the dog get away with attacking him. “If I let him win, he will just think it’s ok to use his teeth on humans when he doesn’t get his way.”

She rebutted that there had to be a better way to stop that behavior. To which he responded that he was the “trainer” and knew more about it than she did.

Then she expressed concern about the dog’s health. She asked if he wasn’t worried about hurting the dog.

And then he said it.

He said the words that trainers everywhere use when challenged about using too much compulsion:

“He’s fine.”

He was pretty much right too. The dog eventually got to be well-trained despite the shortcomings of his trainer. He was off-leash reliable under all manner of distractions. He was safe around strangers and kids, every one who met him loved him.

The reason I didn’t say anything to that young trainer was because I agreed with him at the time. Because I was the trainer. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I just told you about a lesson I “taught” in my first year as a professional trainer. I did those things.

The dog was named Sampson and I’m not lying when I say he turned out to be an awesome dog. I’m also not lying when I say it was despite of my methods not because of them. What I did to the dog that afternoon was stupid and unforgivable. But the truth is, as far as I could tell, the dog suffered no long-term consequences from the abuse I dished out that day. And it was abuse plain and simple. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to stop taking people’s money for training dogs and get a real mentor.

But he was fine.

Depending on what you mean by fine that is.

There was no evidence of physical injury. There was no lasting fear of people or even of training. He wasn’t even afraid of me after that. No one looking at the dog in later life would say “Someone abused this poor dog at some point.” He was as gregarious and trusting dog as you might ever meet.

Now, I hope that most readers can readily see that there is nothing about the fact that the dog didn’t suffer any apparent long term effects which makes how I handled the dog “ok” in any sense of the word. Yet, that exact argument is often put forward to defend less dramatic types of unnecessary compulsion.

I hear it all the time. Whenever someone opines that a particular training method was rougher than necessary, or that it could have been done in a more fair way, someone inevitably pipes up and says “The dog is fine.” They may even point out the fact that there was no lasting damage done to the dog. I guess it all depends on what we mean by the word “fine.” But is “fine” the gold standard? Is that the life we hope our pets enjoy? A world where they are “fine.”

I think we can do better than “fine.” In fact, I think we are obligated to try.

The fact that the dog might not suffer long term ongoing damage doesn’t automatically justify whatever training methods we choose to use.

Such an assertion is just nonsense.

What if we made assault only a crime if the victim demonstrated long term negative effects? What if we made theft only illegal if the victim lost enough money for them to suffer serious hardship?

“He’s fine” isn’t a defense, it’s a obfuscation of the situation. It’s the stage magicians ruse of getting the audience’s attention away from the thing he doesn’t want them to see. The abuse is hiding in plain sight while the audience is directed to a different question. “The dog is no worse for the wear, therefore there’s nothing to be concerned about.”

But we don’t know if the dog is any worse for the wear. We can’t know, not in that moment at least.

Sampson turned out to be an exceptional dog. But as I think back on my career, there are a number of dogs who never achieved their potential.

They too were “fine.”

There were countless dogs who were well-behaved, but not well-adjusted. They, like the men Thoreau famously described, led lives of “quiet desperation.”

“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them …” These words echo the results of so much of my early training. “There is no play in them.” Even when those dogs would play, it was a reserved, careful, uninspired type of play. Like I said, Sampson was the exception.

Having training dogs to be joyfully obedient, I now see the difference between “he’s fine” and a dog fully experiencing what it means to be a dog.

The well-adjusted dog is the well-trained dog.

If the dog is not well-adjusted, then he’s not trained to his fullest potential. And the well-adjusted dog is not desperate. He is enthusiastic and engaged. He may have to accept that he can’t have his way all the time, but he finds the joy in being a dog nonetheless. The dog has the ability to teach us to embrace the moment. To find joy in a blade of grass, or a new scent. He can show us how to see magic in every new experience. This is part of the magic of the dog. He is more immediately in touch with the world than we are. He can teach us if we will listen.

But when we accept “he’s fine” as the standard, we run the risk of infecting them with the quiet desperation for which they are such a fine remedy. This, I think, is a great tragedy!

No Matter What Camp You’re In, You’re Missing Out!

Authored by Chad Mackin,

Got to get something off my chest.

When it comes to solving behavior problems, there are a few widespread ideas that need to be addressed.

One idea is that the only two criteria that matter are “did it work?” and “did the dog live?” Along with that is often added the idea that the fastest solution is the best solution.

There is another that says that any sort of pain, discomfort or fear is to be avoided at all costs.

In my opinion, not only are both of these opinions ludicrous, they are both untrue and dangerous. The extremism that both sides demonstrate is offensive to reason and common sense. If that offends you, I invite you to keep reading. You might actually agree with me once you see where I am going.

The fact is, the first group doesn’t actually believe their own rhetoric. I have heard proponents of this idea say things like “punishment doesn’t cause blowback” or, “anything is ok if it saves a dog’s life.” but they don’t mean that. If I said “The best way to stop a dog from jumping on you is hang him until he’s unconscious every time he does it” I think they would tell me there are better ways than that. If I countered that it meets their criteria: It works, it works quickly and the dog survives it. They would say, “Well yeah, but there are ways that are way less damaging to the dog.” Of course there are. Which is my point.

Likewise if I were to say the best way to stop counter surfing would be take a bull whip to the dog’s back when he put his paws on the counter, they would be aghast (I hope) and suggest that (again) there are easier ways. Easier for the dog, for the dog’s owner, and for the trainer. So whether they say it outright or not, there is a limit to what is acceptable that stops well short of death. Effectiveness and quickness are, in truth, not their only criteria. Rather, those requirements are a rhetorical device used to frame the argument in a way that never requires them to deal with the counter argument that there may be a kinder way to create the same effect. Because in the end, they all know abuse exists. They all know that punishment can go too far. They all know that blowback CAN happen. But they believe that THEY don’t go too far. It’s kind of like overpopulation, “There’s just enough of me, and too much of every body else.” They want to be free to use their own judgment without fear of being attacked, so they try to shut down arguments by creating a rhetorical framework that supports the idea that the relative harshness of two effective approaches is immaterial. But it’s not immaterial. Not for them, and certainly not for the dog or the dog’s owners.

On the other side of the spectrum. The no pain, discomfort or fear people also aren’t being entirely honest with themselves. They too create walls or rhetoric that allow them to avoid a hard look at their own work and the well-being of the dogs. To say that there is no amount of punishment that is ever useful is every bit as illogical and disingenuous as to say that there is no such thing as too harsh. Both extremes allow for the possibility of abuse. But as with the other group, the rhetoric isn’t entirely representative of their behavior. It’s a rallying point and a protective wall. It keeps them from having to explain why they are taking a path that is taking more time than what someone else might do. It keeps them from having to defend a method that might be a bit slower than others. I might make the same choices, and often do. But I don’t protect my choices with a rhetorical absolute, rather I defend my choices with solid reasons based on what I know of dogs in general and that dog in particular.

Many of those who live by this idea, will tell you they would rather see a dog put to sleep than receive a leash correction. “Death before discomfort” is an unavoidable result of this kind of thinking. Dogs might go through life constantly frustrated by strict management protocols and almost no freedom.

The truth is, most days I have more in common with the second group than the first one, but I differ where it matters most. I understand that sometimes punishment is not only excusable, or even that it’s the best choice.

Sometimes, it’s the only reasonable choice.

However, sometimes it’s an irresponsible choice.

There are no golden absolutes when it comes to deciding when and how to apply punishments. Except that we should all be working hard to do the job in the way that is best for the dog. We might disagree about what is best for the dog, but we should at least agree that the dog’s well-being has to be a priority. For me, it should be top priority. What’s best for the dog should not be determined by my preconceptions but about the dog in front of me.

It’s very simple. I think we would all agree that if we can solve a problem reliably and quickly without putting the dog into a fear response, we should definitely take that path. I don’t think anyone is advocating for using fear when fear is no more effective than other approaches. But if the only thing that I have that will stop a dog from running in front of a car is fear … well, I have two obligations at that time. The first is use fear, to save that dog’s life. The second is to find out if I could have done the same thing without fear, and if it can be done, become skilled at doing that.

I wrote many years ago, that I will never let my ideas about how dog training should be done get in the way of getting the job done. I don’t think I’ve ever betrayed the principle. I also wrote that I never want to use any more pain, discomfort or fear than is absolutely necessary to create the reliability my clients need to keep their dogs safe. At the time I wrote those words, I was much heavier handed. I used a lot more discomfort and punishment than we absolutely necessary in general. But it was absolutely necessary because of my meager skill set. I didn’t know how to do it any other way.

These days, I routinely solve problems with 90% motivation-based work that I used to believe unequivocally required punishment to solve. I would not have believed a trainer saying they solved some of the cases I have solved the way I have solved them. But now I have no choice but to believe.

In the end, dog trainers are a contentious bunch, and they love to argue, they love to debate, and they love to pontificate. The love to take offense, and to (maybe) a lesser extent, they love to give offense. But the truth is none of that matters, not really. Winning an argument is not the same thing as training a dog. And that’s what we are here to do.

Train the damn dogs.

I don’t care if you think I’m full of shit.

I don’t care if you think my ideas are too soft, and my training too weak.

Because day in and day out, I help people with their dog problems. If you’re doing the same thing, more power to you. If you’re not, maybe stop arguing with others and start listening? Because no matter what camp you belong to, there’s a ton of good and valuable information in the other camp that you aren’t hearing about. Go get it. Use it, and be a better trainer.

If you ever ask about my training, I hope to be able to answer you “A little bit better than it was yesterday, and hopefully a whole lot worse than it will be tomorrow.”

That’s my goal. I invite you to share it and stop worrying about what camp or ideology you subscribe to, instead subscribe the mantra of constant improvement.

Cruisin Like A Convoy

Authored by Cameron Thompsen, Home2K9 Dog Training .

One of the most common misconceptions among dog owners is that dogs are happier if they have more freedom on the walk to sniff, pee, and explore. In reality, being out in front – or otherwise directionless on the walk – puts a lot of undue stress on our dogs. An unstructured walk makes a dog feel allowed to, or even responsible for, scanning the environment for potential issues. It empowers them to address/react to perceived problems, and enables a constant state of arousal that is actually quite uncomfortable for dogs. This dynamic is made worse by the fact that the leash has limits; like a seat belt that becomes tight, a tense leash will evoke more frustration and tension in an already uncomfortable situation.

Dogs who do not receive direction and leadership on the walk often represent far more anxious and insecure dogs than those who learn to partner with, and default to, their handler. We like to think of the walk as a military convoy, an opportunity for you to be the lead “rig,” handling all the stressful work of scanning, processing, and executing in accordance with the world around you. Your dog, however, should be a traveling teammate in a rig *behind* you, looking to you for information, and trusting your lead so he/she can relax and enjoy the true freedom of a clarified objective.

Cruise like a convoy, and be the leader who takes on the most work (you, after all, will know better how to process the human environment and not feel stressed in the way that your dog does). With your dog in the back of the line, he/she can truly relax, and the benefits of this dynamic can spill over into your relationship as a whole.

Negative Reinforcement And The Curse Of Sisyphus

Authored by Tyler Muto, .

Sisyphus was the King of Ephyra, and he had a reputation for defying the Gods and being a bit of a trickster. One of his best known exploits came at the end of his life when Hades, the God of the Underworld came to claim him, bringing along a pair of handcuffs. Sisyphus, in all his cunning and mischief, managed to persuade Hades to demonstrate the handcuffs on himself. Sisyphus further took advantage of this turn of events by locking the handcuffed Hades in his closet.

Eventually Sisyphus’ shenanigans caught up with him and he was brought to the underworld to receive his eternal punishment. For all his transgressions, he was condemned to an eternity of rolling a massive boulder up a hill. What made this especially torturous was not that the hill was infinitely tall; in fact by exerting all his strength Sisyphus was able to reach the top. However, the moment he reached the peak and was ready to rest and rejoice in his accomplishments, the darn boulder rolled right back down to the bottom. Sisyphus, tired and frustrated, had to start the process all over again. And on it went for eternity….

Now, for lack of a clever segue, I’m going to abruptly shift gears. But don’t let the tale of King Sisyphus slip too far from your mind.

Negative reinforcement is one of the most widely used and versatile aspects of how animals learn. Technically speaking, negative reinforcement refers to the elimination of a stimulus (generally unpleasant), for the purposes of encouraging or strengthening of behavior. In dog training, negative reinforcement refers to when the dog learns to turn off (or escape) an unpleasant sensation, and later learns to avoid the unpleasant sensation altogether by responding to a specific cue.

Used properly, negative reinforcement can strengthen and solidify your dog’s response to known commands, and make that response far more reliable and resistant to extinction. The key, however, is to learn to use negative reinforcement properly. An incorrect understanding of negative reinforcement can make training stressful for the dog. At best, using negative reinforcement incorrectly can simply slow down your training progress and limit the overall reliability of the results.

While there are many mistakes that are commonly made when it comes to the use of negative reinforcement (which I will refer to as R-), I would like to use the story of King Sisyphus illustrate one of the most common ones: During the initial conditioning, or instructional phases of training, when the dog is learning how their actions can control the stimulus (or pressure), no sooner than the dog completes the task asked of it, then they are instantly released and/or given another command and the dog has to escape the pressure again.

To illustrate by way of example, let’s take the early stage of remote collar conditioning where the dog learns to go his bed in response to the stimulation*. The trainer presses the button on the transmitter on a low setting (only a mild tickle or annoyance to the dog), and then guides the dog to his bed. As the dog goes to his bed, the trainer releases the button and the dog is praised and rewarded. Then, after only a brief moment, the dog is released and the exercise is started again (the trainer presses the button, guides the dog etc.).

What we must remember is that it is the cessation of the collar pressure that is reinforcing to the dog. In order to really take advantage of this reinforcement, the dog needs a moment to enjoy his accomplishment and the sense of relief and relaxation that comes with it. In other words, when the dog successfully removes the stimulation, give them a minute to savor it.

When we drill our dogs with a rapid succession of commands during R- training, we are essentially giving our dogs the same fate as Sisyphus. However, training should be a fun and enjoyable experience for the dog. The “curse of Sisyphus” erodes the value of the reinforcement, thus eroding the dog’s desire to work with us, causing them undue frustration, and slowing down our progress.

Don’t give the dog the curse of Sisyphus.

Moreover, the more motivating the stimulus or pressure is, the more important it is to give the dog this extra bit of time.

After all, if Sisyphus was given a chance to sit down and catch his breath between boulder rolls, perhaps an extended break at lunch for a Panini and a glass of wine, and two solid days off on the weekend, maybe his fate wouldn’t have been so torturous (heck, it’s just a solid days work!).

In addition to potentially causing undue stress during training, we may also be missing out on one of the potential benefits of negative reinforcement training.

For those with just a casual interest in training, you can probably stop here. For those dog nerds like myself, you may want to read on, I’m going to get all sciency for a moment.

As stated earlier, negative reinforcement training ultimately has two components. First, the dog must learn to turn off, or “escape” the pressure when they feel it. Second, they learn to avoid it all together by responding to a predictive cue (i.e. our command). One of the unique and desirable qualities of this later avoidance learning is that once the dog learns how to avoid the pressure, they continue to do so for many repetitions without needing to be exposed to the pressure again. In fact, done properly, this type of learning is one of the most resistant to extinction.

Early researchers postulated that what was maintaining the dog’s response in the absence of actual pressure was a classically conditioned fear response when the cue is given. This seems to make sense. The dog hears a command, and responds out of fear of the consequence for not responding. The problem was that the evidence simply did not support this theory. Dogs wear their emotions on their sleeves, and they are terrible liars. What researchers observed was that when dogs were properly conditioned through negative reinforcement and avoidance learning, not only did they respond reliably, but they did so with very happy and relaxed dispositions.

More research and a new theory were needed to explain this phenomenon. Along came the safety signal hypothesis. Several researchers (see M.R Denny, R.G Wiesman/J.S Litner, and D.F Tortora) recognized that after the removal of pressure, the dogs experienced a sense of relief and relaxation. Further, as the dogs learned to successfully avoid pressure, any potential unpleasant emotions faded quickly, but the sense of relief and relaxation remained. Thus it is the pleasant emotions of relief and relaxation which act as reinforcement, and account for the dog’s disposition and the continued maintenance of the desired behavior.

In fact, M.R Denny noted that the experience of relief occurs 3-5 seconds after the cessation of pressure, and lasts for 10-15 seconds, whereas relaxation requires approximately 2-5 minutes to produce full benefits**. He also noted that the effects appear to double when the dog experiences both relief and relaxation as opposed to just relief by itself.

In other words, if you give at least 2-15 seconds between reps, the dog experiences some reinforcement, but it if you give a full 2-5 minutes, the experience of reinforcement can effectively double.

What this means is that by giving ample time between repetitions during escape/avoidance training, not only are you avoiding giving your dog the curse of eternal damnation (a bit of an exaggeration I know), but you are doubling the pleasurable aspects of the training.

We can take advantage of this extra time. Research has shown that we can condition other signals to be associated with this sense of relaxation. Thus praising and interacting with the dog during this time can increase the value of your praise and help establish your interaction as a source of safety and comfort. The latter is immensely valuable for professional trainers who are regularly working with dogs with whom they are relatively unfamiliar.

Lastly, remember that this principle doesn’t only apply to leashes and collars. For instance, in the rehabilitation of dogs with social anxieties we are often working on how to relieve social pressures in appropriate ways. Taking a bit of extra time between exposures can help to amplify your results. The same applies to exposure to other forms of fear, phobia and anxiety as well.

Training with any kind of pressure is a responsibility, not a right. If you are going to do it, every effort should be made to do it well. Avoiding the curse of Sisyphus is just one of the many ways you can ensure you get the most out of your training.

-Tyler Muto

*I recommend training dogs initially with the use of positive reinforcement techniques, and utilizing the electronic or remote collar only to solidify and reinforce the previously established training.

** Denny specifies that relief involves a strong autonomic factor, whereas relaxation involves striatial muscles and various motoric components.


Denny M.R. (1976). Post aversive relief and relaxation and their implications for behavior therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 7: 315-321.

Denny M.R. (1983). Safety catch in behavior therapy: Comments on “safety” training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs. J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 215-217.

Lindsay S.R. (2000). The handbook of applied dog behavior and training. Vol 1, 295-296.

Tortora D.F. (1983). Safety training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs. J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 176-214.

Weisman R.G. and Litner J.S. (1969). Positive conditioned reinforcement of Sidman avoidance in rats. J Comp Physiol Phychol, 68: 597-603.