Tag Archives: bravery


Underdog, the cartoon superhero dogA little while ago, I heard Spencer bark in the kitchen. I assumed he wanted to go out, but knowing that Greg was near the back door, I didn’t move. Spencer barked again. I got up muttering about how Greg could at least open the door. Greg heard me and replied, “The door’s open.” Well, that’s odd. Why is Spencer barking then? Continue reading


Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)

10/10 on a difficult course!

This morning was one of those we-have-come-so-far walks.

Whenever we have to go around a blind corner, I call Spencer to my side, prepare a treat just in case, try to peer through fences and bushes and prepare to react if we are surprised by someone. This morning, I thought I had a good view around the first corner we encountered, but when we turned it, there was a young boy, too short to be seen through the break in the fence and bushes. I calmly asked Spencer to do a u-turn and cross, which he executed without hesitation while the boy called a friendly “Bonjour!” after us. Continue reading

I would like to walk past those people, please

In recent months, Spencer and I have had quite a few occasions where we’ve had to walk by people in somewhat close quarters. I am always more comfortable if the people are on my side when we pass, but we can get away with them being on his side, with treats and a bit of space. However, Spencer has never voluntarily chosen to walk towards strangers on a narrow path…until the other day. Continue reading

Getting past the lizard — the science of positive training

When you search the internet for information about dog training, you can find everything and its opposite. This makes it really hard for well-meaning dog owners to find out how to raise their dog well, even with professional help (since there are no licensing requirements, anyone can declare him or herself an expert dog trainer). Unfortunately, too many vets have scant training in animal behavior; their knowledge is, after all, in anatomy, not behavior. The fact that even our vets aren’t up to speed on the latest science about animal behavior makes it even harder for dog owners to understand how to be good leaders/parents/owners or whatever word you prefer.

Today, a friend shared a user-friendly article on interpersonal neurobiology and what it teaches us about how to raise children, but many of the conclusions are applicable for animals, although to a different extent. Actually, many of the conclusions are also applicable to our spouses, co-workers etc. I strongly recommend everyone to read it, think about it, re-read and keep re-reading it.

Some of the really top-level messages of the article:

  • We are Borg, but in a good way. Although we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we are actually part of a collective. Our “mirror neurons” allow us to experience what others are feeling and doing in much the same way we would if we were doing those things ourselves.
  • Our brains are interconnected. The way we act and react to one another can actually change the way the other’s brain is wired, especially in the critical phases of development in early childhood (and puppyhood, in the case of dogs).
  • Our reptilian brain is reactive; our cortex can learn. This is where the science is really critical to help people’s attitudes about “discipline” and “teaching” to evolve. The reptilian brain is designed to ensure survival. This is where the Fight or Flight instinct is housed. But stress can create permanent cues that trigger these basic survival responses, even when the stimulus is benign. In people, a well-known example is post-traumatic stress disorder. In dogs, aggressiveness and other reactive behaviors fall into this category. The problem with domination and discipline-based approaches is that they depend on one reptilian brain dominating the other and they thus perpetuate the cycle (which is why abused children often abuse their own, among other things). The key to resolving these problem behaviors is to reassure the reptilian brain and to allow it to hand control back to the cortex. This can only be done by a trainer/teacher/parent using a cortex-level response and being a safe haven for the reptilian brain.

This is why the training methods we use with Spencer entail a lot of treat-giving around things and people he considers scary, regardless of what his behavior is. A purely behavioralist response would be to only distribute treats if the desired behavior is demonstrated first. The interpersonal neurobiological approach says that the first thing to do is make the trigger less scary so that the reptilian brain doesn’t feel a need to react and cedes control of the dog’s response to the cortex. Only then is the dog ready to learn more appropriate behaviors.

The next step of this process is for the animal to understand that you will always protect it. I noticed almost right away that the day we were attacked by a Chihuahua was a turning point for Spencer. I was convinced then and am even more convinced having seen this scientific information that it was because I actually shielded him with my body. This was a clear signal that I would protect him no matter what. Increasingly, he turns to look at me when he is uncertain about something, and if he’s really unsure, he scoots back to my side.

This feeling of safety allows his brain to continue functioning at the cortex level, even when confronted with something or someone that makes him uneasy. This allows him to learn the things I try to teach him at these times and it also allows him to make decisions according to the routines he has acquired through learning rather than having panic trigger his reptilian instincts.

A final aspect of the article that has parallels in positive dog training has to do with mindfulness. One of the techniques we use to help keep Spencer operating at cortex level is called “Look at That”. Simply put, you call the dog’s attention to scary things before he sees them on his own; by doing so, you pair the external trigger with the emotions you communicate. Depending on your tone of voice, the dog either receives the message “stranger/unworried tone” or “stranger/happy tone” (using a worried tone would be counterproductive). For this to work, though, it is really helpful if the dog already sees you as a safe haven.

In closing, I’d like to point out something unrelated to dog training that struck me as I was reading the article: how much science once again underscores some of the central tenets of many major religions. If responding to aggressiveness with a cortex-driven response isn’t an example of turning the other cheek and loving thy enemy, I don’t know what is. Mindfulness of course has a direct parallel in Buddhism, but also in other religions.

Our threshold has moved

As Spencer started to show significant progress this past winter and spring, we made the resolution to use this summer to socialize him as much as possible. It’s easier in summer because the days are longer, providing better conditions for walks, and we can have visitors in the garden, which is less stressful for both the people and the dog.

Based on the results, I’d say it’s paying off immensely. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating by saying that Spencer is making progress everyday. There are many signs: Continue reading