The Danger of the Average

As a dog trainer, a significant part of my career focuses on methodology. At some point I had to make some decisions on what sorts of dog training methods I would be using to teach clients, what methods I wanted to learn more about, and which methods I would avoid. I’m not one for going with the flow, or doing something because someone told me to (there’s a reason I’m my own boss now!). I spent a lot of time thinking about what made the most sense to me; I want to be effective, and create procedures that clients can easily follow. The most important thing to me is that the methods I use work across the board, with minimal adaptation, for all dogs. This is important to me because my goal isn’t to teach an owner how to train one specific task with one specific dog. I want to impart enough information that someone could apply this to their next dog without having to think about whether this method is appropriate for this new dog. Is it possible? Absolutely, but it requires us to think beyond what I am calling “the average dog”.

What is the Average Dog?

The definition of average is a mathematical one, reached by dividing the sum of a set of values by their number in the set. So, if we added up all the dog personalities in the world, and divided them by the number of dogs, we have our average dog. Ok, so that doesn’t really make sense, but let’s think about the most middle-of-the-road traits that we see in an average dog population. The average dog isn’t overtly afraid of sights, sounds, or other stimulus. He is friendly with people and dogs, and likes to play, but not obsessively so. He is interested in the world around him, but isn’t overcome with a desire to chase and/or kill prey. He learns new skills easily, but not so quickly as to outthink his human. His energy needs are moderate. He listens to Top 40 Hits.

This bell curve represents the dog population as a whole, and the area colored green hypothetically represents our average dogs. I didn’t do the math, but the green area is smaller than the combined area on either side. That would mean a larger population of dogs falls outside the average than within it. Our training methods should serve the dogs on the far ends of the spectrum as well.

I’ll admit, as a dog trainer, I don’t see many average dogs in my career, and when I do they are generally puppies working on basic manners, or learning one of the sports I teach, Nose Work or swimming. Most of the dogs I see are on one end of the spectrum or the other. When I do come across those average dogs, it helps me to understand how certain punitive dog training methods have persisted, these dogs can take it. I’m not saying that I condone it, but quite honestly, average dogs can handle getting pretty intense corrections without much evident fallout in their overall temperament or affect. These are the dogs that allow traditional, punitive training methods to persist, because they appear totally fine with whatever comes their way, and are socially motivated enough to change behavior based on that information. Here’s the thing – When you set up systems of learning around the average individual, you are going to fail every other individual on either end of the spectrum.

What Happens When we Train to the Average?

The risk of using punitive or aversive methods might be small for the average dog, but it can be quite large for dogs on both ends of the bell curve. The problem is, it’s hard to tell how a dog might respond to a training tool or method before applying it, so you are taking a risk in going down that path to begin with. Some of the common “side-effects” I see from punitive methods include increased aggression, arousal, and/or anxiety, refusal to engage with training, and creating negative associations with innocuous stimuli. Again, just because we don’t see these effects in every dog does not mean that it’s a sound training method. Dogs are incredibly resilient, and just because some dogs can take a correction without having any sign of these negative effects doesn’t mean that it there wasn’t some fallout, and it also doesn’t mean that it won’t have a huge affect on the next dog. What I do know is that using reinforcement based solutions focused on building a relationship of communication and trust between the dog and handler will work well for all dogs, so to me it’s not worth the risk of the potential fallout when we have other options. Using methods that work for dogs on the ends of the spectrum will work faster and more easily for average dogs, so there’s really no argument for using punitive methods on these dogs.

Using an Inclusive Approach

The amazing thing about average individuals, is that almost anything works for them. So why should they be the goal posts? Training should start with a very wide base, and be refined to the individual as you progress. This can be demonstrated by the LIMA model, which I adhere to, which stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. I start every client out with the same basic exercises, whether it’s an 8 week old puppy, or a dog with a bite history. These foundations aren’t “obedience” exercises, they focus on three basic skills that I’ve boiled down to; 1) the handler is a home base, 2) don’t rush toward things you want, and 3) relaxing feels good. I believe every single dog needs to understand these concepts before you can move on to really solving any other problem. For the dog to truly understand these concepts they must be broken down into small pieces and reinforced in such a way as to communicate what you want the dog to do. The dog has to have a choice in the matter, because when choice is taken away, the dog is simply performing a series of tasks based on specific cues. This sort of training will break down over time, or you will be stuck micromanaging your dog for the rest of its life. If you teach the dog what behaviors are reinforcing, and give them choices in the learning process, you will create long lasting behaviors.

Border Collies like Kali fall outside the range of normal almost by their very essence. This is because the traits they were bred for are very unique.

When choosing a trainer, it is important to find someone whose methods work for all dogs. The problem is, most trainers will tell you their training methods work for all dogs, so how do you know who to trust? My decision in methodology was made through my own experiences in many years working with dogs, because that’s how I tend to do things, but if you are looking for trusted resources there are several. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has the previously linked position statement on LIMA, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has several position statements on training, including those on dominance theory and the use of punishment in training. If you are trying to find a trainer to help you solve a behavior problem with your dog, make sure that their methods fall in line with the most current evidence in animal behavior and training research. We know so much more about how animals learn, and how behavior is changed than we did when many of these traditional, punitive training methods were popularized. If your dog falls outside the “normal” range on the bell curve, find a trainer who is skilled in applying these methods with very basic foundations that can build into a significant behavior change.

Redefining our Expectations

It’s okay if your dog isn’t average. Let me repeat that – It’s OKAY if your dog isn’t average. There are so many special and amazing dogs out there that don’t come anywhere close to that middle range we call “normal”. These dogs make great companions for people whose lifestyle fits their needs, and sometimes they are able to teach their humans something about how they might view the world differently. Average isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it just is. Dogs will come into your life that are easy going and perfect in every way, and others will challenge you and cause you to learn new things. That’s what’s great about life with dogs. Good training will enhance your relationship with your dog regardless of where they are on that spectrum, and it won’t come with risks of unintended consequences.

Embrace the Change

Are we holding our dogs back from making the progress we seek?

No matter what we are doing with our dogs, we tell ourselves little stories about who our dog is, and what they are capable of. This happens to pet owners and sport trainers of all types – “My dog is a picky eater”, “My dog doesn’t like men”, “My dog can’t focus outside”, “My dog won’t work in the rain”. We know our dogs and what they like and dislike, right? Those who know me well, know that I am ALL about managing expectations, and creating success for our dogs. It is vital to your relationship with your dog to respect who your dog is as an individual, and to set expectations based on your dog’s current abilities. I often tell people, “Train the dog you have in front of you”, which is typically meant to convey that it’s ok if you have to take a step back and work on your foundations. Recently I’ve been thinking about the other side of the coin, what happens when your expectations of your dog are limiting their progress?

Carter’s owner is one of my favorite students, as she has worked incredibly hard with Carter, who started off near feral, and is now competing in K9 Nose Work, and enjoys hiking and playing Parkour. There were many points along the way that she could have decided to stop challenging his abilities to cope in various environments, but her persistence paid off and he has a much higher quality of life than he would have if she had stopped progressing.

This is an interesting thing to ponder, because isn’t it the whole point of training, to make progress? Why would we stand in the way of our dog’s progress?  It’s never intentional, we can all agree, no one would do that. If you trust in your training, and you are consistent in your practice, you are going to see change. It can be a scary process to test the boundaries of this change, and when you are dealing with any behavior where any being is at risk, it is necessary to take additional safety measures to do so. This may mean conditioning your dog to wear a basket muzzle, or using a long line, so that your training can progress.

I see this frequently, from my behavior modification clients, to my K9 Nose Work® students. The work we are doing is designed to change the dog’s behavior, creating more focus, and building confidence as we go along. If we are working on modifying your dog’s behavior, a necessary part of the process is testing how far we have come. This will require stepping out of your comfort zone, and trying something that might be challenging for you and your dog. We always want to create training sessions where your dog can be successful, but that doesn’t mean always keeping them in situations they find “easy”. Your dog will learn more by overcoming a small challenge than by doing the same thing day after day. Similarly, our K9 Nose Work® dogs need a strong foundation of success, but we need to be careful about defining their limits based on what we’ve seen in the past. One of the most amazing things about K9 Nose Work® is the increase in confidence we see in the dogs, and set-ups or search areas that may have been scary or overly distracting become easier as the dog gains odor obedience. By continuing the narrative that your dog struggles in those environments, you may hold back your dog’s ability to overcome those challenges.

My dog Fawkes (left) has gotten increasingly more confident through Nose Work, Parkour, and other training that he is comfortable jumping up on this bench which would have scared him before. He has also learned to be much more calm around other dogs, allowing me to use him as a demo dog/neutral dog to work with my client’s dogs like Cardi (right).

I’m a big fan of using the language “yet” or “right now” when describing our dog’s limitations, as in, “My dog can’t focus in outdoor environments yet” or “My dog isn’t able to greet people nicely on leash right now”. This leaves us open to the changes that we are working toward, and reminds us that our dog will be able to do these things at some point, even if that isn’t right now. Train the dog in front of you, including when that dog is showing you that they are much more focused, or much more confident. Allow your dog to show off their new skills to you, and challenge their learning by taking those skills on the road. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to work within your dog’s skill level so that they can be successful, but learn to recognize when you are ready to move forward.

Management 101: Tether Training

Do you have a puppy, or a dog that is out-of-control? How often is your dog on a leash in the house? Yes, I said on leash in the house. This is what trainers call a “tether”, and it is about to make your life a lot easier. Puppies especially require a huge amount of supervision, otherwise they are peeing, chewing on things, and getting into all kinds of trouble. If you are trying to solve a behavior problem with an older dog that only happens when you aren’t looking, like marking, or counter-surfing, the first step is supervision. Depending on the layout of your house it can be really difficult to block off a small area with gates where you can closely supervise your puppy or dog. This is where a tether comes in to save the day.

Gracie wearing a tether while practicing relaxing on the couch. Gracie started off very shy, and the tether helps her people to move her off the couch without grabbing for her collar.

Two Forms of Tethering

A tether can be stationary, easily made by wrapping a six foot leash around the leg of a heavy piece of furniture, and threading the leash clip through the handle. If you don’t have heavy enough furniture, or you have hardwood floors and a big dog, you can also use a closet door by putting the leash handle on the inside doorknob, and dropping the leash down and under the crack under the door, then closing the door. With a six foot leash, there will be about 3 feet of leash sticking out from under the door where you can tether your dog. Only tether your dog in a location where you can carefully supervise your dog for safety.

You can also use what I call the “umbilical cord” method, where the tether is attached to you. You can either loop the handle of the leash through a belt, or just hold on to the leash, whichever is more convenient for your situation. This is a good option if you move throughout the house a lot, because you don’t want to leave the dog unsupervised on a stationary tether until your training is much further down the road.

Tether Training

It’s important to teach your puppy or dog what you want him to do while on the tether, which is to say, not much. As soon as you snap on the leash, start rewarding the dog for standing still, sitting, or laying down. You want to encourage and reinforce as much calm behavior as possible, so once your puppy/dog picks a position, give treats every few seconds to keep them in that position. Eventually you want to work toward lying down, but sometimes we have to start where the dog can be successful. If your puppy/dog wants to bite at the leash, up your rate of reinforcement so you are rewarding for leaving the leash alone. If you prepare your puppy/dog by teaching them what you do want while they are tethered, you will get more of the behavior you want, and less chewing and pulling.

Creating Rewardable Moments

Sadie is wearing a leash, even though no one is holding on to it (she is laying on it), just in case she decides to start jumping up on me.

The beauty of tether training is that it creates the opportunity for the dog to choose the right behavior, while making the wrong behavior harder to do. If your puppy or dog jumps on guests, keep them a leash-length away so that they can’t make contact with the person. When they make the right choice of either sitting, or coming back to you, you can reward them with treats, or the opportunity to greet the guests if they can control themselves! When you can’t control the puppy/dog, you can’t control the misbehavior from happening, so the behavior is practiced. A tether allows you to control what behavior is happening, so you get to chose what gets practiced!

Remember to always supervise your dog while on a tether, they can get easily tangled, especially in the beginning before training has taken effect. If you need help on tether training, and you are in the Northern Colorado area, contact me about In-Home Training. If you are not in my service area, find out more about how to find a trainer here.

Can I Pet Your Dog?

You see her before she sees you. You are walking down the street, when you spot the most adorable, fluffy puppy trotting down the street next to her owner. You start to get excited, this is your favorite type of dog! You resist the urge to push past people on the street to close the gap faster. When the eternity of time between you and this adorable floof finally ends, you spit out the words “CanIpetyourdog?” as you descend on the ball of fur. The owner doesn’t object, but there’s one problem, the fluffy puppy is now hiding behind her owner. “It’s ok”, you think, “I love dogs, and I can help her feel better about me!” Your attention sticks with the puppy as she tries to get away, reaching your hands out to “let her sniff”, and cajoling her to come out from hiding under her owner’s legs.

Who benefited from this interaction? I’ll give you a hint: It certainly wasn’t the puppy. This interaction just served to teach that adorable puppy that people are strange and unpredictable, and that her communication about her discomfort will be ignored by her owner and the world around her.

Why do we, as humans, pet dogs anyway? A review of studies in scientific journals found the following about human-animal interactions:

  • improvement of social attention, behavior, interpersonal interaction, and mood
  • reduction of stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure
  • reduction of self-reported fear and anxiety
  • improvement of mental and physical health, especially cardiovascular health

Registered therapy dogs provide all of these wonderful benefits to the people they encounter. Dogs like Timber are screened for temperament to ensure they enjoy interacting with humans.

These effects, they proposed, are mediated by the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is associated with childbirth and breastfeeding, but levels also increase in the brain with physical touch in trusting relationships. Increased oxytocin levels have been associated with lower stress and depression. If we can get all these benefits from petting dogs, why shouldn’t we?

The first question we need to ask ourselves is “does the dog want to be petted?” By learning to read dog body language (the Dog Decoder app is a favorite of mine), we will start to learn that there are many dogs out there who don’t want to be petted, at least in certain contexts. Just as there is a difference between hugging your Nana and hugging a stranger, many dogs appreciate attention and petting from their owners, but not a random stranger on the street. Some dogs may want attention from everyone they meet, while other dogs aren’t even comfortable being petted by their owners. Dogs have individual personalities the same as people do, and there is a wide variation in the amount of social contact that dogs desire. We need to be observing the dog’s body language before we approach a dog in public, and most importantly LISTEN! If a dog is showing that they don’t want to be approached by a stranger, don’t approach the dog.

We also need to ask the dog how it would like to be petted, and for how long. Most dogs prefer that you come in low; avoid reaching over their heads, or looming over them with your body. The best way to “ask” a dog if they are enjoying the interaction is to pet the dog for 1-2 seconds, and then pause. Bring your hand back to neutral, and watch the dog’s behavior. Does the dog look relieved that you have stopped petting, or even move away from you? If so, don’t go back for more. If the dog moves toward you, it is soliciting your attention and wants more petting. Repeat this “question” several times while you are petting the dog, pausing to see if they come back for more, or move away. This shouldn’t be reserved for strange dogs, try it on your pup at home and see what they tell you!

CSU students petting Timber

Timber loves all this attention, which is why he makes a great therapy dog!

Finally, ask yourself “why do I want to pet that dog?” If the answer is to make ourselves feel better, we need to be very sure that we aren’t doing so at the detriment of the dog. If you love petting dogs, and don’t have your own, or your dog doesn’t like petting, consider volunteering to help a therapy dog organization. These are dogs who have been carefully screened, and have proven to enjoy human touch, so that people can get the positive benefits we’ve discussed. Most therapy dog organizations love volunteers to help with their training and certifications, and you will get your oxytocin rush!

It is imperative that we listen to dogs, especially when they tell us they are uncomfortable. Think back to that fluffy puppy walking down the street – next time she encounters a scary situation, she might escalate to a growl or a snap in an attempt to get space, because she wasn’t listened to when she shied away. Next time you see a dog who is nervous about interaction, let them know that some humans are safe, and will listen.

Unless a dog is practically begging you to pet him, think carefully about who benefits from the interaction, and if it is in the dog’s best interest. Even if a dog is begging you to pet him, be thoughtful about what behaviors you might be reinforcing if you pet that dog. Friendly dogs can become very difficult to manage if they believe everyone in the world will pet them, regardless of their behavior. It is often us who benefit from these chance interactions with strange dogs, just take a moment to be sure the dog will benefit as well!



2015 Classes Posted!


Megan’s Rhodesian Ridgeback Fawkes loves the snow! He also loves helping Megan teach Mind Your Manners! and My Dog Can Do That!

I realize I haven’t updated the site in forever, but I’m going to get started before the New Year on updating more regularly. If I make it a New Year’s Resolution, I’m likely to stop by the end of January, but if I just make it a new habit, hopefully the trend will continue! I have put classes on the schedule starting in January, including Beginning and Advanced Scents & Scent Abilities, and My Dog Can Do That! a new intermediate level tricks and games class. Don’t forget that Mind Your Manners! is an open enrollment class, meaning you can get started any week that there is space in the class. Click on the Calendar tab, and click over to January at the top of the calendar to see the scheduled start dates. If 2015 is your year to do more with your dog(s), then Dogs Deciphered is the place for all your classes!

January is National Train Your Dog Month!

Did you know that January is National Train Your Dog month? What are you planning on doing with your dogs?  If you have any activities in mind, consider joining one of our group training classes! Every Thursday night is our open enrollment class Mind Your Manners! where you can get started any time you want.  We cover household manners, and other foundation skills for a well mannered pet.  Looking for something outside the box? Our Scents and Scent Abilities class teaches your dog to use his nose in a constructive way.  This class can be a fun activity, or prepare you for competition nose work.  Call 970-663-3647 to ask about classes today!

Emily checks under the box to see if her hide is down there!

Emily checks under the box to see if her hide is down there!

Open Enrollment Class Provides You Flexibility!

Did you know our Mind Your Manners class is Open Enrollment, meaning you can get started this week? This foundation class covers foundation behaviors such as “go to mat”, leave it, polite greetings, loose leash walking, and coming when called. You can join any week, and then you have 12 weeks to complete the 6 week course, giving you more flexibility. Call 970-663-3647 to sign up today!


Welcome to the Dogs Deciphered homepage. Please check back often for site updates. I hope to get the calendar up as soon as possible, as well as some helpful training articles. Check back soon!