The new Mutt About Town

As some of you may know, I’m going back to grad school to get my second master’s degree, this time in counseling psychology. I am changing careers and moving toward getting my therapist license. That being said, I want to keep all the blogs in one space so that everyone can continue to access the content. And, stay tuned, because who knows when inspiration will strike to write another dog-related post! Thanks so much for all your support thus far. On to the next adventure!

Reflections on training: Restoring fearful dogs

goldinfill-pottery“The ancient Chinese had a practice of embellishing the cracked parts of valued possessions with gold leaf, which says: We dishonor it if we pretend that it hadn’t gotten broken. It says: We value this enough to repair it. So it is not denial or a cover-up. It is the opposite, an adornment of the break with gold leaf, which draws the cracks into greater prominence. The gold leaf becomes part of its beauty. Somehow the aesthetic of its having been cracked but still being here,  brought not back to baseline but restored, brings increase.” – Anne Lamott, “Hallelujah Anyway”

Those familiar with my blog and training style are also familiar that I draw inspiration from an eclectic variety of sources, one of them being writing. Although my bedtime reading is decidedly not dog-related, it’s amusing how often I read a passage from a book and find parallels to my work in dog training and the rehabilitation of fearful dogs.

How many times has a client come to me and, in not so many words, explained to me that their dog is broken? How many times has a client come to me and, when asked of her training goals, said she wants to fix her dog, or that she just wants things to go back to the way they were before her dog’s behavior got worse? The answer, in my case, is innumerable. You might say this is a recurring experience for me.

When I first started training, I came in with the perspective of “fixing problems.” After all, people call me, their dog has a problem, so it’s my job to fix that problem so life can go on as it was before. Over the years, my perspective has evolved. I still come in with the goal of helping clients. I still use the foundations of animal learning and the tenets of force-free dog training to change behavior. But I don’t go into a consult viewing a problem that needs fixing. I go into a consult knowing that there’s a dog, a sentient being, with needs, varying internal states, and temperament, a being that requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach to dog training.

Dogs are not robots. Dogs are not automatons. To reduce their rehabilitation to standard plans that fail to take into account their needs and emotions at any point in time is doing them a huge disservice. When a fearful dog and his guardian enter my practice, I don’t ask “How can we return this dog to baseline?” Instead, I ask, “How can we restore this dog?” How can we restore this dog so he can move through the world with less fear, more comfort, and with a set of skills that will help him navigate his unique environment? After all, each dog has his unique set of triggers that culminate like cracks of broken pottery. And by nature of the training process and our influence on behavior through classical and operant conditioning, a dog whose cracks have been filled will still be a being different than the one who entered training. (Ideally, that dog will have more resilience, coping skills, and a guardian who is better equipped to guide that dog through the rest of his life.)

Some dogs come into our lives with fear and aggression. Some develop it over time due to factors including environment and genetics. But if we train from the perspective of restoring and creating a stronger being than the one we first encountered, instead of picking up broken pieces and putting them back together again, I believe we’ll have a better chance at deeper, longer-lasting behavior change and rehabilitation.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

Reflections on dogwatching: Keep looking


“Just then, though, I began to realise that there was something in my field of vision that hadn’t been there before. … It was probably nothing, so I said nothing, but kept looking. That’s what the keen-eyed naturalists say. Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.”

“Sightlines” by Kathleen Jamie

Last week, I visited a friend and her three dogs. Under the guise of vacation, I allowed myself the luxury of simply observing her dogs’ behavior. I’m not unused to the activity; as a dog trainer, you might say I do it for a living. But to have the opportunity to watch her dogs, with no constraints on time, client needs, or agendas felt like a precious gift – and one I realize I need to indulge in more often.

I was an avid birdwatcher as a child. I would spend hours sitting outside watching what was occurring in my field of vision. Of course, this was before I had to worry about smart phones, schedules, and training plans, so I had more mental real estate available to simply watch. Despite physically inactive, birdwatching was an intense mental activity. Observing the peripheral limits of my vision, understanding changes in the environment, connecting sound to movement to sight, required skill. Whenever I dip back into birdwatching, I need to allow my brain some time to reacquire my “watching” skills. At first, I’m slow, not as perceptive, and fidgety.

As a society, we rarely refer to “dogwatching” as an activity. We train dogs, exercise dogs, work with dogs – we use active verbs to describe what we’re doing. On the plane ride back from visiting my friend, I read a passage from the book Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, quoted at the beginning of this post. She was describing the moment she saw orcas along the horizon while watching gannets during breeding season in the outer Hebrides.

Perhaps it was because I had just spent the past couple of days “dogwatching” with my friend, but this passage jumped out at me as a key ingredient I need to remember to focus on in my own training practice, as well as cultivate in my clients. If we don’t watch our dogs, we won’t recognize their normal patterns of behavior, we won’t notice when those patterns deviate, and we’ll miss out on a key ingredient to healthy training and relationships: Understanding.

Of course, going “dogwatching” is easier said than done, but here are some simple ways to hone your watching skills in your daily life:

  • Video your training sessions – and your play sessions! – with your dog. The gift of being able to watch and re-watch your interactions with your dog is invaluable.
  • Use the slow-motion feature on your smartphone. You’ll be amazed at the minutiae of behavior your naked eye misses.
  • Set aside some time to sit with your dog and watch. No training plan, no behavior goal, no structured activity. Just interact with your dog, and watch.
  • Keep a little journal. You can add as much or as little detail as you want. Full sentences, bullet points, illustrations, one-word notes. Whatever motivates you to continue watching.

If this feels foreign to you, it’s ok! Keep at it. Get in touch with your inner birdwatcher. Keep looking. 

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

A dog trainer’s guide to navigating the training wars

18447641_10106773307165027_7176857807764373140_nEvery so often, a sun flare emerges within the dog training community. It’s bright, it attracts attention, causes some explosive interactions and, eventually, burns out. Flares are not necessarily bad. After all, had no flare-ups occurred in the past couple of decades, a majority of trainers might be continuing to use outdated methods. But flare-ups can also be rife with logical traps. The dangers are two-fold:

  • They interfere with our critical thinking skills
  • They have the potential to confuse and mislead dog guardians

While it’s good to question the status quo, many discussions easily dissolve into logical fallacies and poor science. Whether you’re a behavior change professional, a behavior geek, or someone who wants to provide the best life possible for your dog, here are a few pointers on how to solve (and resolve) flares when you see them occur within the dog training community:

Where’s the evidence? 

We owe our dogs real science. Real science is peer-reviewed and backed by evidence. Real science is not based on conjecture, opinion, or personal stories. Nullius in verba. Demand evidence.

Beware logical fallacies

We’re all susceptible to logical fallacies, whether making one of our own or believing someone else’s. If you’re aware of potential missteps ahead of time, you’ll be more likely to catch them in your own patterns of thinking or in someone else’s. Here are a few examples (read more about logical fallacies here)

Begging the question: This is an argument that requires the reader to accept the conclusion without providing real evidence. In these cases, the argument’s premise states the same thing as the conclusion, or the argument fails to address critical gaps.

Example: Socializing puppies is the humane, ethical thing to do. Therefore, it’s humane and ethical to socialize puppies.

False dichotomy: An argument that incorrectly paints a situation as having only two choices. The argument then eliminates one of the choices, seemingly leaving the reader with only one remaining option.

Example: Puppy parents have the option to socialize their puppies or avoid socialization altogether. Since puppy socialization can be done incorrectly, puppy parents must avoid socializing their puppies altogether.

Appeal to ignorance: Claiming that due to inconclusive evidence, readers should accept an argument’s conclusion on an issue.

Example: Because the research on puppy socialization is inconclusive and divided, people should accept my conclusion.

Slippery slope: The arguer claims that a chain reaction will take place, often leading to a bad ending, despite a lack of evidence supporting this claim.

Example: If we allow all puppies to continue being socialized, dog owners will continue to socialize their puppies improperly. We will end up with generation upon generation of dogs with behavior problems. To prevent this from happening, we must avoid all puppy socialization.

Beware cherry-picking and single-case studies

Articles that cite studies that support the author’s argument can be misleading. After all, the author’s statements are backed up by citations, so those statements must be correct, right? Wrong. It’s important to consider several factors when reading articles that cite other sources in support of an argument:

  • Are the citations valid?
  • Does the author take a comprehensive look at the literature available, or does the author only focus on citations that support his or her argument?
  • Is the author accurately interpreting the research?

It’s also important to look at single-case studies with a critical eye. While they can be helpful in understanding the context of behavior, beware articles that base arguments solely on personal experience, or one or two ad hoc experiences with dogs.

Remember: While important, personal experience is vastly different from research that has been vetted via the scientific process.

Avoid sweeping generalizations

It’s important to stay informed of the latest research on dog behavior, but it’s equally important to avoid training “trends.” Trends are typically based on popular opinion at the time, and aren’t based on true, hard science. Training trends gain popularity because they “sound good,” are a quick fix, or appeal to a person’s own biases. Trends also put the dog behavior community at risk of making sweeping generalizations about a particular topic.

Whenever you notice a trend emerging in the training community, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where’s the evidence?
  • Is the evidence valid?
  • How are my own biases affecting my interpretation of this trend?

Final note: As trainers, it’s important to realize that how we communicate the latest trends within the behavior community has a vast impact on dogs and their guardians, particularly if others see us as experts in the field. This doesn’t mean we can’t have biases – that’s not reasonable. But it does mean we need to be particularly careful when communicating information about behavior and training. And it also means empowering our own clients with critical thinking skills.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

Walk with me

IMG_6198Humans generally lump “dog walks” into one main category with the following parameters: Pay attention and don’t pull. But from a dog’s perspective, what he wants -and needs – from a walk is much more nuanced, and varies depending on the dog. Instead of focusing on general “leash manners” or a strict view of walking where the dog remains at heel position the entire time, I encourage my students to think first and foremost about what their dogs need from a walk. I call this exercise, “Walk with me.”

Most of us take our dogs for walks because we’ve heard somewhere along the way that walks are a good thing for dogs to do. Which is true – walks are an excellent source of enrichment and exercise. But “going for a walk” involves so much more than simply ambulating around the neighborhood. The key to a quality walk is attending to a dog’s emotional as well as physical needs. Examples of these needs include:

  • Sniffing
  • Exploring new environments
  • Interacting with the walker
  • Training games and play
  • Exercise

Note that I listed exercise as last on the list not because it’s the least important, but because it easily overshadows the other benefits of walks – and can get in the way of understanding what each individual dog enjoys and needs. For example, if a dog goes for three long walks a day in an environment that he finds stressful and scary, those long walks aren’t improving his quality of life despite the exercise they provide.

When putting on your dog’s leash and harness, imagine your dog saying, “Walk with me.” What would that look like?

Some dogs may love scent tracking and exploring their environment. For these dogs, “walk with me” means allowing them to sniff and explore even if it means going at a slower pace or taking the occasional pit stop at a particularly fragrant row of hedges. Other dogs enjoy interacting with their human on walks, engaging in either play or training games along the way. For these dogs, “walk with me” means doing some urban agility tricks, engaging in some simple training games, and providing lots of happy talk and feedback along the way. If their human is distracted, on the phone or checked out, they’re not going to receive the enrichment and engagement they need for an enjoyable walk. Still other dogs may need the physical exercise that comes with walking . While leash walks aren’t as physically tiring as off-leash play, “walk with me” to these dogs involves helping them achieve the brisk pace they need plus engaging their brain in training games. After all, one of the reasons an athletic dog may be pulling ahead is simply because he’s excited to move. 

If you work in tandem with your dog’s physical and emotional needs, things like loose leash walking and leash manners will seem more achievable and, ultimately, less frustrating to train. If you meet your dog’s physical and emotional needs, your dog will have more mental real estate to train with you, and will be less likely to resort to “nuisance” behaviors like leash chewing, pulling, and jumping – which are symptoms of a dog’s needs not being met.

Remember, “Walk with me,” isn’t what you’re telling the dog – it’s what the dog is asking of you.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

The problem with viewing behavior as a problem


I rarely, if ever, focus on punishment – even the force-free, humane kind – when working with training clients. But before you quit reading and think this is one of those kooky training articles full of yoga, chakras and kumbaya, hang in there and let me explain why.

When a client contacts me for help, I invariably ask the client to describe the behaviors causing concern. The person usually mentions behaviors like barking, lunging, air snapping, or reluctance (“putting on the brakes”) in certain situations. While these types of behaviors are certainly cause for concern, and certainly cause for contacting a training professional, I hesitate to classify them as “problems.” Instead, I view them – and try to help my clients view them – as expressions of a dog’s needs.

When I meet a dog who is barking and lunging at strangers and other dogs on- and off- leash, these behaviors are critical information about that dog’s internal state. He’s likely saying “Back off, I’m not comfortable!” This dog is expressing his need for space in order to feel safe. And, in this case, I’m glad that the dog is barking and lunging . Animals that display threat signals when uncomfortable are functioning and healthy. After all, I’d much rather a dog say “Back off!” early rather than stay shut down until he has no other option left except to bite.

I also meet with clients whose dogs are chewing up items in the house or barking out of boredom. While both the client and I want to ensure their dog doesn’t continue these behaviors, I again help the client understand how these behaviors provide critical information about their dog’s internal state. In some cases, dogs who excessively chew and bark are severely lacking in enrichment and exercise. Simply put, they need something to do. In other cases, the chewing and barking could indicate a greater underlying problem like separation anxiety or environmental stress.

I’m not saying time-outs are ineffective or inhumane. And, as part of a comprehensive force-free behavior change plan, they can help reduce unwanted behavior while the client also works on rewarding new, more desirable behaviors. But I do think it’s important to shift the paradigm away from viewing behavior as a “problem” and instead view it as an “expression of needs.”

All species – including humans – behave to produce consequences. As a trainer, I want behavior from my clients’ dogs. A lack of behavior indicates an unhealthy, potentially shut down animal. So the next time your dog displays a behavior, instead of asking, “How can I stop this?” ask, “What does my dog need?”
–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

Remove the ego, listen to the dog


“Instead of focusing on what you don’t want your dog to do, focus on what you want your dog to do.”

This is a common phrase in dog training, and it’s a good one. In fact, it’s one of my go-to phrases when helping clients dissect behavior problems with their dogs. It helps clients focus on what to reinforce instead of what to punish, and helps them set their dogs up for success.

But even though a trainer’s motivation by using this phrase could be setting the dog up for success, there’s a pitfall. And it’s a big one: Ego.

Let’s rewind a minute and think about a trainer or client’s responses to the question “What do you want your dog to do instead?” Inevitably, the client or trainer will respond with variations of:

“I want my dog to do x, y, z.”

But while you may find x, y or z reinforcing, does your dog feel the same way?

While it’s good to consider our needs when building behavior change plans, it’s vitally important to think about the dog’s needs. Sure, we might want a dog to do a certain behavior in a specific context, but is that behavior the optimal choice to meet the dog’s needs at that moment? Is the behavior we want a dog to perform the option that helps the dog feel the most comfortable at that moment? Is the behavior we want a dog to perform the most positively reinforcing option for the dog at that moment?

For example, suppose a client wants her dog to sit-stay while houseguests come up to say hello. For some dogs, this is an excellent training goal. But what if the dog in question is uncomfortable greeting lots of new people? While the client may want her dog to sit for pets and hellos, the dog may be more comfortable choosing to sit-stay on a target at a distance away from new people entering the room. What if the dog gets so excited when new people come in the house that remaining in a stay position becomes stressful and frustrating? This dog may be less stressed by enjoying a high-value chew or puzzle toy behind a barrier until the house guests settle.

Because each dog is an individual, it’s important to consider each dog’s behavioral and emotional needs. Otherwise, we may think we’re practicing force-free training, but we might be placing undue stress on a dog, or be placing a dog in a fear-inducing situation. This perspective isn’t always the most popular, nor is it the easiest. Recognizing a dog’s individual needs requires vigilance and flexibility. After all, many people, trainers included, enter the dog training field with the perspective of what they want from dogs.

If we believe in positive reinforcement and force-free training, we must assess what behaviors will be most reinforcing for the dog.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.