The Connection Between Dog Training and Dog Advocacy


This blog is Part 1 of an article for No More Lies Bull Breed Magiazne in the UK.


Like most people I woke up one day and based on the type of dog I had chosen, I was involved, like it or not, in advocating for “pit bulls”, and moreover, dogs.

Not wanting to add to the problems already created by the emotionally charged tenor of “pit bull’ advocacy, I began researching, figuring out a way to help the situation. This was 2003, just three short years after deciding to get a dog. Also, like many others I had no major experience in the world of dogs.

Fast-forward to 2007, some four years after my researching began, a whole lot more knowledgeable, I decided to actually step into “pit bull” advocacy full on and not look back.

In order to have what I consider the most important aspect of defending dogs, knowledge about dog training and behavior, I enrolled in and graduated from The Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA in 2007. This was hands-on 6-week course taught under the guidance of world-renowned dog trainers and behaviorists Jean Donaldson and Janis Bradley.

6 weeks may not seem like much to some, though consider they train men and women to fight in combat in 8 weeks. Also consider, I had since 2001 been walking dogs professionally. My wife, Vyolet Michaels, CTC, CPDT - KA, had also attended and graduated from the aforementioned Academy for dog Trainers in 03. We started our dog training business Urban Dawgs shortly there after. For roughly 5 years, I was walking dogs, assisting with training, helping run the business, and researching both dog training culture and pit bull advocacy culture leading up to attending the SFSPCA Academy for Dog Trainers course in 07. 

By the time I decided to get in the advocacy game I had a very solid foundation in both dog training, speaking with people about dogs, as well as a clear view of what had been done and not been done in pit bull advocacy over the past 30 odd years.

I knew that in order to defend the dogs, a sober and scientific conversation was in need of being started. After all, when one looks at the most concerning aspects of the dog world, lethal and fatal bites, which both are rare, it is behavior, mainly human behaviors, that are the main factors that lead to the fatal or lethal events occurring.

Seeing that there was an abundance of “feelings”, “opinions” and “media manipulations”, I had to find people outside of the issues, yet well versed in the behaviors of dogs, as well as the behaviors of humans that lead to dogs being in risky situations or lead to being safe and sound.

Advocacy many times gets diluted and drowned out due to the singular voice of one persons view of the situations at hand, many aspects of the animal advocacy world are mired in human drama that inevitably leaves no room for discussion on solutions. When I took an overview of the “pit bull advocacy” landscape in 2003, it was lost in a sea of “they are all good dogs” mantras and “Petey was a pit”, slogans.

While those defenses are correct and not a bad thing to say, they were and still are not enough to convince people outside of dog culture, and some inside it, to look at bully breed dogs as innocent, and not as dogs thought of as different than other dogs in terms of how they learn and how to train them.

These pithy defenses, and emotional arguments that had been weighing down pit bull advocacy were aspects I would work to avoid and still do. We need real talk to get real results.

Pit Bull advocacy in 2003 seemed to have stalled somewhat. There was a dire need for a new look at the concerns of both dog guardians and the concerns of people that are maligning the dogs.

In 2006 I decided to start interviewing both lauded and credentialed dog experts and educators alongside everyday people. I knew that there was one central answer that most sane and sensible people would agree on if they were asked, that is; Are dogs innocent?

The answer of course was and still is a resounding “yes”. No matter how people frame it or come to it, I have yet to meet any sane people that really believe dogs are “out to get us” with a moral imperative.

This is the central focus of dog advocacies, to prove the animal is innocent and in need of protection, but how to prove it? Simple, understand behavior. Not just some simple tricks you get at the local dog shelter, nope. Though there may be some nuggets of wisdom among the opinions on the street, in order to defend dogs, one must be unimpeachable in their defense of the dogs. That takes understanding behavior. Not just dog behavior, but also human behavior and how it effects dog behavior.

At the start of my advocacy efforts I decided not have my opinion up front in the mix, and quite honestly, I was still learning, as we all are, and hopefully always will.  I knew I could use my talents and my energies to get others to speak on the questions I had about dogs and about human behavior related to dogs. Even now I always refer to a source when citing aspects related to behavior, training, advocacy, or the law. This adds legitimacy to any conversation, and alleviates the “opinion” conundrum.

Eventually I decided to produce and release a short film called The Pit Bull Hoax. This film has now been viewed over 35 thousand times on You Tube, and has seen two editions printed and self distributed all over the globe.

I am not in the film, though the people that appear in the film are hard to argue with.

Dr. Ian Dunbar (UC Berkeley), Dr. Nicholas Dodman (Tufts), along with Jean Donaldson and Diane Jessup, have all earned their proverbial stripes in the dog world. What I have found is this, no mater what some may say or think, one central agreement can be had among us sane dog folks; all dogs are innocent, and humans need to get their act together in order for dogs and people to have a better life.

The Pit Bull Hoax film was shown as part of educational presentation by Lucas County Pit Crew and the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates that eventually led to the demise of BSL in Ohio at the state level. Ohio was part of the “big three”, along with Denver and Miami, both cities. Ohio, a state, was said to be in many respects the worst of them as it covered an entire state with prejudicial dog laws.

Ohio was proof that the approach of explaining behavior in a legitimate way will help in understanding dogs, and that can stop prejudice. This was also an example of information taken out of the personal and placed into the professional. Politicians will usually “get it” easier, when it is not directed at them in any way, it is simply information about a concern all people share.

Lastly, but not least, it also shows the efforts of a team of advocates with one goal, to stop the prejudice towards certain types of dogs. We succeeded in Ohio by everyone doing his or her part. I want to thank Jean Keating, President of Lucas County Pit Crew & President of Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates and Dawn Stretar - Vice-President, Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates for their efforts on an amazing job in ending BSL in Ohio.

When people are shown math and science in a cogent and efficient way usually they “get it” and then the dogs are given a fair chance. This is the goal, to help people to understand dogs legitimately. Even if they are fearful of dogs, or do not like the dogs, that is their choice, however when they understand the dogs, usually their fear and dislike is decreased, and more empathy is felt.

Advocacy is not simply saying good things in a cool way, or a bunch of images to soften the blow of media hysteria. Advocacy is not simply events that cater to the choir of dog lovers, though they are much appreciated and help raise money and awareness, many times they are simply the echo chamber of people already on the team so to speak.

True and lasting advocacy must be built on a foundation of proper education. Other wise it’s just a whole lot of words and phrases and feelings that evaporate every time the media sensationalizes a dog incident.

When you advocate for dogs, you must know the foundational behavioral aspects of their species, lest it be just another pithy, emotionally driven plea to accept them. 

When 6,000 “pit bull” type dogs are euthanized every day in the USA, as a matter of course, and many of those dogs are relinquished due to some sort of perceived “behavior concern”, we need more than a few catch phrases, TV shows and T-shirts to get the job done thoroughly. We need to properly teach people, all people, about behavior, so they can really help save dogs from misunderstanding, which in turn will save them from abuses. Then, the ripple effect of that education leads to safer communities and less stress for dog guardians, more dogs in homes, not in shelters.

Training and Behavior.

The crux of all issues with dogs is behavior, human behavior more so than dog behavior by the way. Once human’s focus on their behavior and the environment, things usually go much better. I see this time and time again with my dog training clients.  

Many dogs of any type or size can land 25 bites in roughly 4 seconds. Count out 4 seconds, and think about that. I say this not to cause fear, but to put into perspective just how much deference dogs have when you consider how much crap they endure even in the “best” of situations. Far too many dogs are subjected to various forms of pokes, prods, leash jerks and verbal abuses daily, and its thought to be “training”. In addition, any dog that mauls or kills a human has been seriously abused in some way. It may be subliminal abuses, slightly racked up over time, but make no mistake; the dog became unsound or developed behavior issues due to nothing else other than humans letting the dog down to some degree. Ignorance and negligence are often best friends.

Why would any one want to temp this 25 bites in 4 seconds ratio by doing harmful things to a dog? Mainly because in some way those people are conditioned and taught it’s ok to bully and abuse dogs and call it “training”. Or maybe they are under the false notion that the dog is not “feeling” pain. If the dog does not feel fear or pain, then the aversive the human is implementing is not “working”. Intrinsically the aversive has to have some degree of fear & pain built into it, that is how it works to decrease behavior. Annoyance or frustration for the dog by way of humans training is not the same as fear and pain, and this is where the humans with the proper knowledge and nuance with their skills will get better results with fair “punishments” and kind consequences in order to teach dogs.

Dog training is a profession mired in fiction, with lots of abuse wrapped up in euphemisms about “leadership” and “pack” and “domination” etc…

Dr. Ian Dunbar, legendary dog trainer, is famous for saying that when someone uses the words "dominance and aggression" the same sentence it essentially illustrates how little he or she knows about either.

When someone gets a tip or a suggestion from a “trainer” or from a friend and that suggestion is rooted in the hypothesis that the dog is “dominant” or doing it as a way of “gaining rank over you”, and the recommendation is to use fear, force, shock, choke or startle to “train” the dog, that is abuse being perpetuated under a false hypothesis. This is also going to cause the dog and the humans in the dog’s life more problems sooner or later.

I see this day in day out as a professional dog trainer, as do other legitimate dog trainers, we see this 100’s of times a year. It’s killing and abusing far too many dogs for it to be of any use. The pain trainers and wanna be “trainers” that blame the dog based on fictional nonsense they made up, or were taught by people that made it up, are causing dogs to die due to ignorance or at least causing dogs to be abused by way of harmful methods, and this leads to problems of all sorts.

This mindset that the dog is behaving with a moral imperative to disobey humans sets up the human canine relationship as adversarial, when in fact it is not. Dogs are not doing anything ever to intentionally make us upset or “get back” at us. It may feel like that, but to believe it and act upon it harshly with recrimination would be wrong.

When a dog does something severe such as maul a child, there is always a historical criterion that follows in part or in total, and that criterion rests in the human behavior domain.

These criteria presented by Karen Delise in her book The Pit Bull Placebo, are the following...

Resident dogs; i.e. not companion dogs, dogs kept for guarding, protection or fighting/breeding. Multiple dogs. Dogs not spayed or neutered. Dogs and children left unattended. Harsh pain based “training”. Loose roaming dogs and last but not least. Domestic violence is also found in many bite cases.

All of these human conditions are in part or all tolled, part of all fatal and lethal dog bite incidents. Dogs do not choose any of these conditions they are subjected to them by humans.

People would do well to learn this and carry it with them as an intellectual safety net so they interact with dogs without adversarial overtones and so they speak about matters concerning dogs with truth and empathy for abused animals. They need to learn this so that they are not creating behavior issues in dogs or undeserved reputations for a dog or types of dogs. People need to learn how to train and maintain dogs so they stay sound, not just be “perfect” beasts for human gains; then we’ll see a “sea change”.

All dog aggression is rooted in fear or medical issues, and many dogs, believe it or not, may not be feeling as well as you think, even in a supposedly “good home”. However, the vast majority of dogs no matter what they encounter or have to endure, do amazingly well on the whole year in and year out.

Some dogs may have more or less deference, and or a better or worse bite inhibition, they may or may not be involved bone fide fearful events, i.e. two dogs in the home that are fearful of one another, or the dogs could be in normal every day events they perceive as fearful made worse by scolding, and harsh interactions. Indeed there is always contextual components to dog behavior of any kind, the point is; the vast majority of dogs do not land lethal or fatal bites, and they should not be hit, shocked, choked, poked and or scolded as a “way” to “train” or “communicate” with them as it leads to behavior and health issues.

Now some may say, of course not, they would “never” do this or that. Some may scoff at this notion and proclaim “my dog is fine and I do X Y Z from time to time”. “Fine” is not an assessment of the dogs positive and negative associations based on every day interactions with people, the world at large or other dogs. “Fine” is pretty much what most people say their dog is until they are not, and at that juncture no matter the degree of “not fine”, they need to know how to properly address the dog so things do not get worse. In fact, if they had been given and implemented the proper protocols to address the dog at the start of their relationship, they would have most likely avoided many of the issues they have or at least have lesser versions of the behavior they want decreased or eradicated.

Look around the neighborhood, the dog parks, the shelters, the other dogs you see on walks, and how to do people interact with dogs in order to get the dog to do this or that or to stop this or that? What do humans do when the dog is excited, fearful, reacting on leash? Look at the human’s behaviors. Listen to how people attach opinions and feelings to dogs. Listen to what people say verses what they do.

That will tell you much of what you need to know about the dog’s overall pathology most times. Sometimes not, depends on if you know what to look for, or care to look for. No matter your interest, humans are making the biggest imprints on the dog, especially when they live with the dog or work with the dog regularly.

Dogs are equipped with loads of deference. This is why they are dubbed “mans best friend”. When people take advantage of that deference, with fear and pain based “training”, no matter how they came to do it, it’s a mistake. Some people bring a ton of baggage to the dog, they may be insecure, or over the compensating types, and when you look further under the surface you see they may be fearful of dogs, and that is why they use the approaches based in fear & pain.  Some people are sadly just following the directive of so-called professional “experts”, and they simply need to start being more critical in their thinking.

It is disheartening that some training and behavioral approaches to dog issues are mired in as much if not more drama and myths than “pit bulls”. The good news in both cases is we have legitimate math and science, and now with the ease and abundance of filming, we can prove that there is no need to harm a dog and call it “training”, or blame a dog for some moral imperative the humans have attached to the dog’s behavior.

It is the dog’s history and the environment that led the dog to the behavior, period.

You can even forget about all those “genetics” arguments, and “blood line” proclamations, because no one really has the full genetics and or detailed bloodlines of most dogs to have that conversation in a serious way. Human behavior and the environment will help in obtaining the needed information to reduce stress and increase the success with the dog for training and behavior modification, every time.

As long as the people assessing the dog’s behavior know how to do it legitimately and not fictionally and focus on humans and the environment, as well as the dog, by asking the proper questions and hopefully receiving truthful answers, when this occurs quite a bit can be accomplished to reduce stress and train the dog.

Of course people forget, and not everyone may know or can remember what has been occurring, however when the accurate or as close to accurate historical information can be derived, it can show us in no uncertain terms, why and how behavior has been occurring and how to avoid it in the future or how to reinforce behavior for an increase of it when it is behavior we like.

How can we prove dogs are innocent? Simple, dogs do not have the same capacity for serial memory as humans, thus they do not have the same “intellectual morality”.

Dr. Karen Overall world-renowned canine behaviorist also succinctly puts it this way when she describes that dogs view the world as safe, unsafe and neutral.  This is largely due to a part of the dog’s brain called the Amygdala; this is where fear and pain are mitigated. Steven R. Lindsay, renowned canine behaviorist, backs this up and as does the most advanced research available on how brains function, both for canines and humans.

As mentioned, dogs do not have the same amount of serial memory as humans. Thus they cannot plan and plot like us to connive and “take over the world”. They live in the moment and have sufficient semantic memory, enough to learn how to communicate with humans, follow sequences that are reinforcing, and be willingly subjugated.

The three big-ticket items for dogs are safety, food and social activities. These, and all the sub catagories of them are the things that matter to dogs when it comes to humans, not rank, not gaining the “lead”, that is all human conjecture being placed on to dogs. This dominance nonsense has also formulated an adversarial relationship between dogs and humans that needs to be done away with.

Consider for a second that this hypothesis were true and dogs were “out to get us”, why would they ever do anything we asked, ever? Think about it, this theory of “dominance over humans”, it does not float. Further the equation to “bully breeds” and the like that are targeted as “other” or inherently “dangerous”, and the hypothesis that they are “just dogs” by advocates fails if you use some sort of force and fear based “training” on them due to them being “ more challenging than other dogs” and or they are “dominating humans”. Why would you advocate for them, and then use harsh treatments as “training”?

If the dogs have a moral agenda, and are out to get us, why are they waiting?
They can land 25 bites in 4 seconds, dogs out number humans on the planet, see the ridiculousness of the argument that dogs behave with a moral imperative to gain rank over humans?

Again, using fear and pain based “training” undercuts the validity of the argument “they are innocent dogs like all other dogs”, and it clouds real dog advocacy in fictional assessments made by ignorant dog “professionals”.

Seeing as dogs are “innocent”, and the environment and their history do dictate their behaviors, there is no need to blame them, or “train” them with a heavy hand, or use tools that choke and shock, and there is certainty no need to ban certain types of dogs due to some fictional assessments of their “type” and supposed “inherent dangerousness”.  So why does all this misinformation persist?

Old ways die-hard

Some people in culture still hold on to the fictional notion that dogs are in some way “out to get us”. Be it the “guilt” of the dog that slinks down when you come home, which by the way is an indicator that your dog fearful of people coming in to the home, not guilt. Or it may be the sensationalistic media talking heads that jump onto tragedy for ratings that keeps the myths alive.

Culture still holds onto the notion that “some dogs” are “inherently dangerous”, or more prone to bite, again this is fiction based on fuzzy math and media myths and anti dog people lobbying for dogs to be thought of as “others”. The dangerousness of any dog is directly related to their guardian’s practices. Even a friendly happy go lucky dog can escape a yard due to negligence, and cause a car accident. That same “happy go lucky dog” may also be in a scenario where they are fearful, and humans are handling it poorly based on faulty advice from a professional, putting them, the dog, and the community at risk.

Legitimate math from the CDC, AVMA, and JVMA, all agree that dogs are mathematically a safe risk, especially when treated properly and interacted with safely.

With all these credentialed people speaking on behalf of dogs, there should be no need to resort to heavy-handed pain based “training” of dogs, any dogs, and there is certainly no need to ban any dogs.

Anyone reading this that has been instructed to cause a dog fear, pain, electric shock, choke or startle the dog in order to “train” the dog, was instructed to abuse the dog and call it “training”. You were sold a bill of goods, not proper ways to train the dog and decrease unwanted behavior.

When pain, fear and startle are daily ways to stop a dog from doing something, and we all know that pretty much most of the days adventures with a dog include instructing a dog, don’t do that or do this instead, it is abuse on a daily basis.

When you implement an aversive to your dog and he has submitted and will cower or slunk off, or stress yawn after the issuance of the aversive, remember you are achieving behavioral decrease by way of fear and pain. Fear is the underlying cause for aggression, and stress wreaks havoc on a dog’s central nervous system and the immune system. You are abusing your dog when you use harsh aversive methods, not training them.

Dogs generalize fear very well, and this is science, not my opinion. Maybe you and your family are “safe”, even though you use shock or choke or startle, as ways to “train” your dogs, maybe not, depends on many factors. It can change fast when the dog has had enough. This is a big part of the “they turn at 2 years” myth. The dog has for a few years suffered under the weight of fear and pain based approaches to “teach” the dog and then one day the dog has had enough. That is the truth.

When you implement fear and pain based approaches in training you are risking creating a dog that is not as sound as they could be, and should be, especially with unknown people and unknown dogs; and that may come back to bite you, pun intended as a warning.

This is science, not opinion, not my “way”. I’m not trying to “sell” anything. The goal is fair, and empathetic treatment of dogs, and safe non-aversive approaches to train them, otherwise why advocate for their emancipation from prejudice? The goal is to teach people how to communicate with dogs, and not in some mystical TV edited way either, but in a practical way, so that day to day life with dogs is as stress free as possible and the dog enjoys interacting while learning and has a good sound bounce back when life is stressful or they perceive it as fearful.

Dogs should be trained and interacted with so they have the least stress, and they are learning not simply shutting down and stopping a behavior. There is a huge difference between stopping a dog from doing something and teaching them what they need to learn in order to cope with life alongside humans.

When dogs are taught and not simply stopped they really shine. The same goes for humans when they have proper information on how to safely train and maintain dogs; they are less stressed and have more fun interacting with dogs.

END Part 1. Part 2 will appear in the next issue of No More Lies Bull Breed Magazine, UK.


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