How I Will
Treat Your Dog
The Donaldson Three
Years ago, dog training icon Jean Donaldson proposed 3 questions to help consumers select a dog training professional. I think they're a great standard to this day. Here are my answers:
What exactly will happen to my dog when they get it right?
My approach to behavior modification is to identify what we want your dog to do (preferably by giving them several desired behaviors to choose from) and then set the dog up to perform those behaviors so that they can then be reinforced. (Reinforcement means strengthening a behavior over time by following it with a consequence that your dog finds enjoyable and valuable in that situation).
I choose my form of reinforcement based on the dog, the situation, and my clients' long-term goals. My preference is to discover what your dog is trying to achieve (via a behavior assessment), and then to use that thing as a consequence to build desired behavior. For example, if your dog is jumping on you to get attention, then let's teach them to access your attention by keeping 3 or more paws on the floor, sitting, leaning, or lying down.
Sometimes it isn't practical or safe to give your dog the thing they want most. In these situations we will choose a different form of reinforcement to build desired behavior – food, play, affection, or an incompatible (but still desired) activity are common choices in these situations.
For your dog, I see my primary job to be making the pathway to reinforcement – what they need to do to get something they want – simple, clear, and predictable. For you, I see my primary job to be developing a pathway that leads to your long-term goals.
What exactly will happen to my dog when they get it wrong?
In training scenarios where I have control over the environment, my response to "mistakes" may see counter-intuitive. When I have an expectation that your dog doesn't meet (a.k.a they perform an undesired behavior) – I reinforce them. I do this because I see the mistake as mine, not theirs.
I like thinking of dog trainers (professional or otherwise) as puzzle makers. The trainer's job is to set the level of the puzzle so that the dog can successfully solve it. If the dog "fails" to solve the puzzle (e.g. performs an unwanted behavior) – then that mistake is on me. So I'm going to reinforce them just for trying, and then I'll either make the puzzle easier immediately or pause training so that I can rethink my plan.
In situations where I do not have control over the environment, then my response to a "mistake" will be to get the dog out of the situation ASAP. Here's an example: living in the city of Chicago I've had a lot of clients struggling with dogs that bark and lunge at other dogs when out on walks. If I'm out with a dog like this and all of the sudden a screaming chihuahua pops out from behind a parked car, if my client dog starts barking and lunging (or even if they don't) then I'm going to move them away as quickly as possible. There are skills we can add at other times to make moving away in these emergency situations easier, but my point here is that these moments are to hang out and teach. My immediate goal is damage control, I want to reduce the negative impact of the encounter.
Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
I hope there are and I look forward to learning about them! I am always in search of interventions that give dogs the most freedom and highest welfare possible. This is part of why I strongly prefer to use functional reinforcers whenever possible. To me, this is like telling your dog, "I hear you. Let me figure out a way to get you what you want." Anything else is like saying, "I know you want this, but..."
Training with punishment is like saying, "I know you want this, but I don't care." This is not something I use in my training. The closest I get is, "I know you want this, but I simply can't let you have it so we've gotta go."
Training with reinforcers other than the functional reinforcer is like saying, "I know you want this, but how about that instead." At times this is entirely necessary, and it is far better than many other options. But I do see it as being more "invasive" than I would prefer if I can find another option.
But all of life is a balancing act, dog training included. Your wants and needs are important too, so sometimes we just do our best to come up with a compromise that spreads the happiness as thickly and evenly as we can.
My path to becoming a trainer has been somewhat circuitous. I spent my childhood raising and showing American Quarter horses. Then I got off track studying chemistry in college (except for a 2 week vacation volunteering at a marine mammal lab in Hawaii (which was A-MAZING).
Since college I've had many different jobs and adventures, e.g. teaching skiing and snowboarding and getting a master's degree in human nutrition.
And then that one special dog came into my life. Many professional dog trainers have a dog like this who is their origin story – Ginny (pictured right and above) is mine. She bit my husband the first week we had her and landed me right in the middle of the road to becoming a professional trainer.
My first job as a dog trainer was at Urban Pooch Training and Fitness Center where I started teaching group classes, and eventually took over their Reactive Dog Program. I became more and more drawn to dogs with complex behavior issues, so in 2021 I moved to Insight Animal Behavior Services so I could focus on those cases full time.
I am the definition of a lifelong learner — always signed up for at least, but rarely just, one class. I never have to worry about continuing education requirements, because I always blow them away.
After obtaining two science degrees and multiple certificates in the field of human health, focusing my study on the world of dogs was like coming up for air after having been submerged since I left the horse world to go to college and study science.
But the dog training industry was a wild west when I started (it still is to be honest), so I cobbled together an education with sticks and spit. I am so grateful that today's online world continues to afford me with opportunities to learn from and with some of the foremost practitioners in our field.
Some of the professionals who I've had the pleasure to learn from and who have influenced my development as a trainer include Sean Will and Maasa Nishimuta, Susan Friedman, Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, (pictured right), Michael Shikashio (pictured right), Trish McMillan (pictured right), Laura Monaco Torelli (pictured right), Sara Brueske, Sara Fisher, Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, T.V. Joe Layng, Ken Ramirez, Kristina Spaulding, Sara Filipiak, Dr. Chris Pachel, Amy Cook, Leslie McDevitt, Susan Clothier, Kathy Sdao, Shade Whitesel, Susan Garrett, Jean Donaldson, Patricia McConnell, Ian Dunbar (pictured right with an earnest young me) and so many more.
Notable Learning Events:
CAAWT Conference (2022)
CAAWT Member Conference (2022)
Canine Con (2022)
Aggression in Dogs Conference (2021, 2020)
Lemonade Conference (2021)
Canine Impulsivity and Fear Mentorship (2021)
ACE Dog Detective and Adolescents (2021)
Living and Learning with Animals (2020)
Aggressive Dog Master Class (2020)
Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice (2019)
Defensive Handling Seminar (2019)
Aggression A-Z (2019)