Whole Dog Journal's Blog March 23, 2017

Dog Training Wisdom from Pat Miller

Posted at 10:22AM - Comments: (16)

I was originally introduced to Pat Miller via email and then phone. At the time, I was working on a publication called the Whole Horse Journal, and she was one of the contributors to that publication. She was a good writer and contributed a few articles with terrific horse-friendly training tips.

Later, the publisher of that publication asked me to edit a start-up sister publication, to be called the Whole Dog Journal, modeled on the Whole Horse Journal. I knew far more about horses than dogs in those days, but I was game to learn, and I happily accepted the gig.

As I was rounding up writers and experts to contribute to the new publication, the editor of the Whole Horse Journal mentioned that Pat Miller would be a great resource for articles on training dogs, too. “Oh?” I remember asking. “I didn’t know that. Thanks!” I contacted Pat by phone and was pleased to learn that, in fact, she had an even more extensive background and training in dog behavior than horse training! She began contributing articles to WDJ – and has been ever since. She helped me develop WDJ’s dog-friendly ethos and mission statement, and routinely provides expert guidance and direction toward the most effective, humane dog training techniques and tools available.  We’ve worked together by phone and email for some 20 years now – throughout her residencies in California, Tennessee, and most recently in Maryland.

So it may be surprising to learn that we’ve met in person only a few times – once in California for a photo shoot, a few times at dog training conferences around the country (always with us too busy to actually spend more than a meal or two together), once for an all-too-brief visit at her farm/training center in Maryland, and once for less than an hour as she drove through northern California on her way from a speaking engagement to visit her brother, who lives in the top left-hand corner of California. When I heard, a few months ago, that she was going to be presenting at a conference in Sacramento – only an hour from me – and was again going to drive to see her brother, I offered to drive her from there to there, so we could hang out, do some planning for WDJ, and maybe take some photos for some upcoming articles.

The funny thing is, though we’ve worked together for more than 20 years, there were tons of things we didn’t know about each other that we learned in the 20 or so hours that we spent together in the car! Reaching the top-left corner of the state takes a good long while, and even longer when literally all the roads that go there are sliding down the mountainsides they traverse. We took one route there, and another back the next day, got out of the car and stretched during road-construction delays, and took more than a few snack and pee-breaks.

We were accompanied by my adolescent dog, Woody, whom I don’t like to leave at home when I can help it, as I always seem to come back to some new woody damage – a new spot on the deck or fence chewed, or the bamboo hedge with a new tunnel chewed through – and besides, he could be our photo model! Woody spent a significant amount of time with his chin on Pat’s shoulder as we drove, so I think she ended up liking him okay. (I wish I got a picture of that, but I was driving!)

At the end of our trip, I joined Pat after her presentation at the conference so we could take some training photos for articles. And it was during that brief photo shoot that I received my most recent pearl of Pat’s wisdom.

We were in a busy park in downtown Sacramento. I had brought both Woody and Muppet, a foster dog; at this moment, we had Woody on leash and Muppet was in my car, parked close by in the shade. We paused for a minute to allow a person with two large dogs on leash to walk by. Both of the dogs were growling and barking and pulling toward Woody, and he started growling and reacting to the dogs.

Now, I’ve worked with Woody a LOT on reducing his reactivity to the sight of strange dogs and people, and he’s come a long, long way. If he spots someone (dogs or people or both) that he regards as “strange,” he will usually emit a small growl; that’s my cue to pay attention and manage the situation BEFORE it’s a situation. In the beginning, I would just counter-condition like mad from a safe and sane distance (doing a quick U-turn and exuberant trot off into the opposite direction if need be), and then delivering treats to him in a rapid-fire fashion. The goal is to change how Woody FEELS about seeing strange dogs or people by making it RAIN treats whenever he sees said strange people or dogs; a secondary goal is to get him to look to me when he sees something alarming, so I can give him direction and reassurance that all is well.

In the early days of our counter-conditioning sessions, I wasn’t looking for any particular behavior from Woody; the point of counter-conditioning is not to (immediately) change the dog’s behavior, but to change his emotional response from a negative one to a positive one. Once he’s been conditioned to feel happy about the sight of “strange” people or dogs, as evidenced by a quick look at his handler with what Pat calls the “Where’s my treat?!” look, changing his behavioral response becomes easy and not so highly charged. In recent months, Woody has improved to the point where I can give the cue “Off!” and he will instantly and happily look away from whatever it is that has him spooked and look at me for the treats. 

So there we were: The person struggling with her growling, reactive dogs about 30 feet away; Woody starting to put his hair up and growling, too; Pat with Woody’s leash in her hands; and me with a treat pouch and treats in one hand, camera in another. I did what I have been doing lately with Woody: I said “Off!” and was waiting for him to look away from the dogs and toward me. But he was still growling and fixating on the dogs (who were being dragged away by their person).

Pat said, “More treats! Give him more!”

And I said, “But he usually . . .” (and I was about to finish, defensively, “will look away from the scary thing and look at me when I say ‘Off!’).

But Pat, with a world of experience that I don’t have, quickly interrupted, “But he’s NOT!”  – meaning, no matter what my expectations were of Woody, he was NOT in fact doing what I thought he should do or could do, so I should train the dog in front of me, not some ideal version of him, and deal with what was actually happening at that moment!

And I got it!

Two decades working together, and two days in a car talking together, fortunately, speeds up one’s comprehension. Pat’s pointing it out made me immediately see my mistake, and I instantly understood that the circumstances – days in a car, busy park in a new place, being handled by a new person, close proximity to some scary, nearly out-of-control dogs – added up to a situation that Woody just couldn’t “look away” from at that moment. I was asking too much, and setting him up to fail. More treats! Duh! When in doubt, go back a level (or more) to where your dog is able to succeed! I did, and the moment passed.

Such a small thing, and yet it rocked my world. It reminded me that any time you are expecting a dog to do something that he’s showing you he’s not capable of in that moment, you are setting him (and yourself) up for failure and frustration. And that’s what working – for even a short moment – with a master will do.

Thanks, Pat! 

Comments (16)

sugarjazz......unfortunately , i have tried chicken, but she isn't crazy about it ( maybe because she has to have so much chicken and rice when she has pancreatic flare ups ). but thank you for the reply. good luck with your baby !!

Posted by: sugarbooger7 | March 28, 2017 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Coryaz - it's important to watch our dogs' weight but you can treat your dog and thereby have successful training by reinforcing good behavior and building a great bond and not have a fat dog! Decrease the food you give in meals - you can even feed your dog's entire ration in training instead of a boring bowl. And there are quite a few raw treats out there now that are dehydrated. Helene G.

Posted by: Helene | March 26, 2017 2:26 PM    Report this comment

what a good reminder to me, as a would be trainer, to train my dog in the moment and not from some imagined point in my own head. Saves me frustration and is a lot more effective for us as a team.

Posted by: Mel Blacke | March 25, 2017 3:10 AM    Report this comment

Sugarbooger, I am kind of in the same boat so to speak.
What I do is:
make my own chicken jerky. I buy chicken breast when they are on sale, put them in the freezer for about 3 hours or so (until they become somewhat firm) and then I slice the breasts into thin slices after I have taken most of the fat off (of which there should be very little) .
Preheat the oven to 180 Degrees. Line a (or several ) baking sheets with parchment paper, lay out the chicken strips, so they don't touch and place into the oven for about 3-4 hours , depending on the thickness (try to keep them thin).
I turn all the strips mid term for better drying. Just mess with it some , you'll get the hang of it, it's not a science.
After they are done and cooled, I cut them into little pieces and throw them into the freezer in a ziploc bag or container keeping just a few of them in the fridge, to take out whenever I want and replenish when needed.
I feed them to my dogs all the time and they LOVE them.
hope this helps

Posted by: Sugarjazz | March 24, 2017 3:10 PM    Report this comment

my problem with the treat based training is that my dog has no interest in toys as a reward and she has pancreatitis and can't have hot dogs or cheese, which are the only treats she cares about in the least....and she turns her nose up at low fat cheese! she doesn't care for dry treats at all, so her prescription food doesn't work ( she eats it for dinner...but as a treat to draw her attention away from something more exciting....nope !)...i have tried baking her canned prescription for to make treats....nope. i am at a loss

Posted by: sugarbooger7 | March 24, 2017 9:46 AM    Report this comment

Timing is everything, and yes - she is!

Posted by: Steve R | March 23, 2017 8:39 PM    Report this comment

ClscFlm7, have you tried squeezing a squeaky toy instead of feeding cheese? You have to use what motivates your dog. Or used a favorite toy?

Your dog may love this ball that has an incorporated squeaker, so the dog can't chew the toy open and eat the squeaker. It is a 3 inch wide ball ( too big for my Havanese toy breed) and the best price is on Amazon ( if you have free shipping) because planet dog charges $5 for shipping. Search for planet dog orbee stuff squeak ball. The ball is $15 but you don't have to worry about your dog destroying it.

Posted by: Beckys11 | March 23, 2017 4:18 PM    Report this comment

If your dog is raw fed, use a grind or cut up small pieces of gently cooked meat, and put it in a Ziploc baggie. Cut off the corner of the Ziploc baggie and squeeze out the food when you want to give your dog a treat.

I have an 11 pound dog and successfully train my dog with food without my dog gaining weight. I put the raw grind in a Ziploc baggie, feed it to her when I'm training her instead of at breakfast or dinner. If you don't want to use a Ziploc baggie, just use one of the squeeze pouches meant for babies.

Sometimes I also use low-calorie treats, like little pieces of dried seaweed. If you buy the snack size dried seaweed (for humans to eat), each whole sheet of seaweed is only one calorie. That is the lowest calorie treat that I can find, it's even lower in calories than other vegetables. You can also use small bits of vegetables like bits of carrot.

Another option is to buy "training treats". Just search for dog training treats on Amazon and choose the ones that are one calorie to 1 and 1/2 calories per treat. One example is Zukes tiny naturals dog treats. You can also make your own treats for cheaper than you can buy them. Just use one of those silicone fat catching mats.

I make sure to subtract the calories from the treats from her daily calorie allotment and that is the key to not gaining weight

Posted by: Beckys11 | March 23, 2017 4:04 PM    Report this comment

Very good advice.

If you raw feed your dog, get a grind, put it in a Ziploc baggie, cut the corner off the edge of the bag, and to give your dog the food, just squeeze it out. Or let's say you feed chicken thighs. Use the same technique. Cut some pieces of chicken off of the chicken thigh and put it in a Ziploc baggie , then squeeze it out. You won't have to touch Raw food with your bare hands. If you don't want to use a Ziploc baggie, just use one of those squeeze pouches they sell for babies.

If you're concerned about obesity, give something low-calorie like dried seaweed or bits of vegetables like tiny pieces of carrots. Dried seaweed is only one calorie for a whole sheet if you buy the snack side. Just subtract the calories from your dogs regular meal, instead of feeding your dog at meal times, just feed the meal when you're training him. Use what you would normally feed your dog at the meal to train him instead of adding additional treats. Let's say you feed your dog kibble. Feed the kibble when you're training him instead of breakfast time and dinner time.

Yes, you can train your dog with food and not have the dog gain weight. I do it. My dog is only 11 pounds and puts on weight pretty easily. I use the tips I told you about above to avoid weight gain. I have to use the motivator that my dog responds to, which is food because she is highly food motivated.

Posted by: Beckys11 | March 23, 2017 3:45 PM    Report this comment

I love these type of columns. For my previous dog, English Cocker Spaniel with me from 7 weeks to 16 years, WDJ was indispensable. I have a rescue now, a four-ish English Springer-Cocker mix and need WDJ advice more than ever. I've had her for two years and every day is a learning experience. She has gained enormous confidence in our time together, but she can be anxious, growl and leashy with some dogs (almost always other females) and she's frightened of most men -- and the sound of construction (which abounds here). And she is not treat or toy motivated (makes me doubt her Spaniel credentials). She will usually sit when asked even if focused on challenging another dog. But essentially I am stuck with what to do to help her stop the lunging and barking. She will ignore the highest value treats (cheese) if she's frightened or growly. No one addresses non-treat motivated dogs. She will work w a trainer w treats in class situations that never quite mirror a real walk or park experience.

Posted by: ClscFlm7 | March 23, 2017 12:54 PM    Report this comment

I have a reactive dog and have tried so many different training tactics from professionals with nothing that works to change his behaviour towards other dogs. So now I have come to the conclusion that I need to manage his behaviour. Which is working for us. Unfortunately there still are people who when they see a dog on leash they continue to let their dog run up to mine. Really!? Come on dog owners, it's common sense and common courtesy to leash your dog when approaching another dog on leash...and thanks to those who do!

Posted by: Kimberlee | March 23, 2017 12:14 PM    Report this comment

CoryAZ for best results and no weight gain, use something small, smelly and soft for training. You don't want the dog to have to stop and think about chewing, crunch it up. It's better to be able to smush whatever you're using up and just push the food into the dog's mouth. Most kibble is too large, it's crunchy and also, probably not "high value" enough to work on counter conditioning. I love Plato Small Bites and Natural Balance rolls (you can cut and crumble them up really small. Both treats are very aromatic and soft, meaty). I only use them for training sessions, so it keeps them special.

"My dog will gain weight" is the most common criticism you'll hear from force and "balanced" trainers.. but it's simply not true. Keep the treats small & soft, keep your sessions short and if you're still concerned about weight gain, you can cut the kibble or raw food back.

Posted by: hmch | March 23, 2017 11:47 AM    Report this comment

The whole thing about "more treats" confuses/stresses me. My one dog is food motivated (toys and attention do nothing to gain a desired outcome) but I have to be very careful that I don't introduce weight issues with him. So do I only use his normal food (dry kibble) for treats so that he is not over fed - meaning he does not have a "scheduled" feeding? What about my other dog that is on a raw diet? I'm not about to pack that in my treat pouch. I am having a hard time with all these treats that are being used to reward a good behavior or distract from an unwanted behavior. This "more treats" is just adding to the whole obesity issue that is so prevalent in dogs these days. Many people take this literally.

Posted by: CoryAz | March 23, 2017 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Love it. Great spending time with you, Nancy!!

Posted by: PPaws | March 23, 2017 11:14 AM    Report this comment

I should laminate this for my students (and myself) So often I am told the same thing that "he usually (or always) does it", but he is not doing it now. I also need to remind myself of that when my little beagle darling pulls one of his little "stunts" in training. For a dog that competes in obedience and agility, he can be very naughty and try to set up his own play dates.


Posted by: beaglemom | March 23, 2017 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Great reminder! It's so easy for us to forget that just because a situation feels familiar to us doesn't mean it feels familiar to the dog and a step back training wise may be necessary to help them to make that vital connection.

Posted by: Stephenie D | March 23, 2017 10:50 AM    Report this comment

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