Just five short months ago on my birthday, October 1st, I drove home my first big girl purchase – a brand new 2015 Mazda CX-5. It’s my dream car: manual transmission, black, equipped with Bluetooth and a back up camera and perfect for driving around both two-legged and four-legged passengers. I love love love my new car.


On Monday night I was driving through a really terrible three-lane traffic circle during rush hour. I was cautiously navigating my way through the circle in the middle lane when BAM! another vehicle smashed into my car, gashing up the entire driver’s side and ripping off the plastic molding. In that moment my heart shattered into a million pieces. I was fine, luckily, but my car! My brand new baby car! I kept it together, thought to myself that it was going to be okay because it wasn’t my fault, and got out of my car to get the process started.

As the other driver started telling the cop what happened, I waited for the explanation of why he merged into my lane. Accidents happen. It’s a chaotic traffic pattern with a lot of angry drivers, I get it. Insurance would cover the damages and I wouldn’t be penalized. Then all of a sudden he says, “so then she cut me off and hit me.” Wait. WHAT. My mouth dropped open. My heart started racing. I could feel my eyes starting to sting with tears of frustration. How could he try to blame this on me? I didn’t do anything wrong!? A million thoughts started rushing through my mind. I wanted to scream.

I’m sure you all can relate to this feeling. We’re all human. It’s that gut-wrenching, emotional reaction inducing feeling. It’s when a lot of people make decisions they wouldn’t normally make. As a positive dog trainer, I’ve taught myself to strive to not be reactive. These are the same emotions that owners and trainers feel when they are frustrated enough to do a leash pop or perhaps a harsh verbal correction. It’s these moments, after our dogs have messed up and maybe angered, scared or embarrassed us, where we as humans make emotional training decisions in reaction to what our dogs have done. What I work towards as a trainer is keeping these emotional reactions in check and, better yet, being proactive about the behavior that sparks them. Adding aversives to an already emotional situation often makes it worse. It takes practice and patience and a totally new frame of mind, but now when my dogs mess up I take a deep breath, address the issue and figure out how to change it for next time.

In this moment Monday night, standing in the freezing cold next to my horribly damaged brand new car as rush hour traffic whizzed past us, staring at this person who was trying to accuse me of an accident I didn’t cause, all I wanted to do was react. I wanted to yell and argue and ask him why he was being so mean. But I didn’t. What would that help? I took a deep breath, and I put my energy towards finding a solution. Instead of losing it on him, I let him say his peace (the cop wouldn’t take a report anyway so it was up to insurance to work it out later) and I formulated the next steps in my head: gather as much evidence as possible, call insurance ASAP with my full story, stay calm, etc. Reacting would have added fuel to the fire – just like with so many situations involving our dogs.

I’m thankful that I’ve learned this skill, and that I’m in the position to help other dog owners learn it as well. The type of reward based training we do is not just skipping aversives or ignoring unwanted behaviors, it’s about having the mindset that we can prevent these behaviors from happening by thinking critically, teaching appropriate alternatives and setting our dogs up for success – not by reacting after they’ve already failed. I unfortunately found out the tough way that it helps in all areas outside of working with dogs, but you don’t have to! I encourage you to see if there are pieces of your life where you can switch from being reactive to proactive – the peace of mind is totally worth it.


Helping Johnnie Decide to Be a Good Dog

The way animals learned is explained by science, based on how our brains works, and Johnnie is no different. We use three tools – management, positive reinforcement and negative punishment – to help Johnnie Cash be the best dog she can be.

When Johnnie does a behavior we like, we reward her. We often use a clicker to mark the desired behavior, followed with a treat. Her reward can also be attention, like only being acknowledged or petted when she is calm and not jumping up on you.  I also use toys as a reward. When we play fetch, I’ll only throw her ball or toy after she’s sat nicely waiting for it and not tried to grab it out of my hands. This teaches her that she’ll only get her toy if she sits politely, which translates into impulse control as well. Rewarding desired behaviors is our effort to show Johnnie what we DO want from her, instead of just trying to show her what we don’t want without offering her an alternative option.

Consider this scenario, common to many of us dog owners: guests coming over to your home. Think of all the things you don’t want your dog to do: jump up, bark, run around, etc. – there are so many behaviors you can come up with, right? Now think about what you do want your dog to do: sit or lie nicely as people come in the door. Much easier to focus on the one behavior you want than the dozens you don’t want, right? So teach that behavior! Set your dog up for success by showing them what you want them to do, not by making them guess what you don’t want.

Negative punishment is a part of the four quadrants of learning, and it means that you take something good away (negative) to decrease the likelihood of a behavior (punishment). When Johnnie becomes mouthy during play, we stop the game. She learns that being mouthy = fun game ending. When we ask Johnnie to sit and wait for her dinner, every time her butt comes off the ground as the food bowl lowers the ground, we pick the bowl back up again. Johnnie quickly learns that moving towards the bowl = bowl (food) going away.

It is remarkable how quickly these basic principles can help a dog figure out what we want from them WITHOUT the use of harsh corrections like yelling, using a spray bottle, leash jerks, etc (these fall under the category of ‘positive punishment’ – adding something undesirable to decrease a behavior). Johnnie is a sensitive dog and, like many dogs, would deteriorate under aversive correction methods. There’s the chance she would form bad associations with whatever is present at the time of the correction, which could create worse problems for the future. Operating under the “do this, or else” mentality of aversive corrections has the possibility to make her shut down and stop being her happy, fun self – all in an attempt to avoid the corrections. Plus, these punishments often only address the symptoms of an issue, not the root of the problem. Often times the anxiety, fear or discomfort is still there, despite the lack of exhibited behavior, and it will likely resurface in a worse way down the road.

I would love to elaborate on the negative effects of aversive punishment methods, but I’ll leave that to the experts. Here is a fabulous post by Love and a Six-Foot Leash about why intimidation tactics can be harmful to your relationship with your dog.  I also recommending checking out Jasmine’s House’s take on why you should address fear or reactivity issues with your dog in a positive way.  Lastly, Your Dog’s Friend has some really great resources about positive versus “traditional” training.

In just two weeks with us, Johnnie has, for the most part, picked up on a bunch of house rules. For example: self-control during play time, waiting to go out the door until released, waiting for her food bowl, not jumping on us when we come home, not getting on the furniture, walking calmly past other dogs and strangers, and more.  This was all done through rewarding the behavior we wanted and teaching alternatives to the behaviors we didn’t want. This has made learning fun for Johnnie and she trusts us. She thinks, “What can I do next that will get me a treat!?” That usually translates into a whole lot of sitting and staring at me, which is fine – especially when we’re out and about!  It comes down to the fact that she makes the decision to perform desired behaviors because she’s realized the rewards make it worth it.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed. We're lucky with her because she's already got an affinity for her bed - some dogs will need to learn a "go to bed" cue or will need a kong to keep them occupied while on their bed.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed, NOT when she was staring at us eating. We’re lucky with her because she’s already got an affinity for her bed – some dogs will need to learn a “go to bed” cue or will need a stuffed Kong to keep them occupied while on their bed during a meal. It is very important that no one reinforces a dog’s begging, even once, or else it will be harder and harder to teach them otherwise. Practiced behaviors get reinforced, and reinforced behaviors get repeated – good or bad!

Johnnie is only going to continue to improve, so I’ll keep you updated on her progress! Week two at the Foster Dog Alliance class had me beaming at how much she improved over last week, but also brought up new challenges for us – so stay tuned! I’m sure we’ll have a lot to report over the next few weeks.

To adopt your very own star student Johnnie Cash, email