The art of shutting up: When not to give dog training advice

A perceptive and mean-spirited person might describe me as a cross between a pathological helper and a know-it-all. (A nicer person would call me “empathetic and well informed.”) If I see someone with a problem, it takes a lot of work for me to refrain from telling them how to fix it, or jumping in and fixing it myself.

One of the hardest life lessons I’ve learned is how NOT to do this. I call this lesson The Art of Shutting Up.

This weekend’s mild temperatures meant that the field at Masters N’ Hounds where Milo and I usually play was muddy. The first time he gleefully skidded out in the mud, I said, “Jiminy Cricket, aren’t you a mess.” (I didn’t use those exact words.)

But, it was a gorgeous day, and Milo needed a bath anyway, so I decided to let him enjoy the mud, and that we’d stop by the dog wash at PetValu on our way home. Problem solved.muddy german shepherd puppy

Years earlier, at a different park, Milo already found mud irresistable.

Skip ahead to PetValu where Milo, enjoying handfuls of treats and praise from the employees who were already his friends, gets started on a gentle shampoo.

All was well until another muddy dog, a lab, and its two people moved into the dog wash station beside us. It quickly became apparent that all three of them needed help.

  • The dog didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
  • It was afraid (ears back, tail between its legs, head down).
  • It wouldn’t get into the tub, so its people picked him up, and when he started to squirm, they dropped him.
  • When they finally got him into the tub and wet him down, they started to bicker about the right way to wash him.
  • He took advantage of their fight and jumped out of the tub, trotting over to say “Hi” to Milo and me.
  • When I asked them to remove their dog, they gave me death stares. (I didn’t even say “Jiminy Cricket,” just “please remove your dog.”)

The minute they walked in it was clear that the situation was not ideal so I put Milo’s bath into super-speedy mode. Poor Milo only got the most cursory blowout before I hustled him out of the store and into the truck.

As I was leaving, I thought to myself that I could teach those folks a lot about how to bathe a dog. I could tell them that they should have taught their dog to like baths before it was an emergency that it get one and that they should use lots of rewards and take baby steps.

Instead of explaining to these strangers what they should have done, or offering to help, I practiced the art of shutting up. For me, the art of shutting up involves recognizing when speaking is not going to do any good or isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Here are some situations where I try to practice the art of shutting up:

1) When the people I’m talking to aren’t in a position to hear me or when I’m not in a state of mind to be clear and kind
Those people struggling to bathe their dog were obviously stressed out, and so was I. I would have had a hard time being kind and they would have had a hard time learning anything.

2) When speaking up is contrary to other important goals and commitments 
At that dog wash, my primary responsibility was to take care of Milo. Stressed out dogs do weird things, and I didn’t want Milo around that poor stressed out pup and its people. Also, my goal that day was to spend some fun and relaxing time with Milo, not to teach strangers about dog husbandry.

3) When I lack knowledge of the context of the situation 
It is entirely possible that those people already knew everything that I could have told them, and that they were just having a terrible day. How was I to know?

The week before a squirrel was teasing Milo. It got Milo all jazzed up and he gave a mighty tug on his leash in a futile attempt to catch it. A bystander suggested that if Milo pulls like that all the time, I should use a head halter on him. I politely thanked her for the advice in a tone of voice that clearly suggested that she put a sock in it. She had no context for her comment. She didn’t know me or Milo, and she didn’t know that he rarely pulls like that. In fact, we do use a halter sometimes, but this was not one of those times. This lady could have made the situation better by saying nothing at all.

german shepherd sticking out tongue

Milo’s response to a stranger suggesting he wear a halter.

Sometimes the art of being well spoken is about knowing when not to speak.

What the dog smells: The world of canine olfaction

Milo the AwesomeDog often punctuates our walks with fits of coughing, sneezing, and snorting. He’s not sick. He just sniffs thgerman shepherd dog trackinge ground vigorously enough to suck dirt and leaves right up into his nose. He takes his sniffing seriously and his days revolve around finding things to smell, and then smelling them.

It’s difficult to imagine what it is like to be Milo because while we humans are visual creatures, dogs are sniffing creatures. Dogs live with us, some of them in our homes, but at the same time, they live in a different world, a world of smells.

Nineteenth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll called these different worlds umwelten. An animal’s umwelt, literally ‘life-world,’ is its subjective environment consisting of objects that it can perceive and with which it can engage. In the same physical space a dog, a bat, and a human have different umwelten because they can perceive and do different things. Humans can see the color red, but dogs can’t. Bats can echolocate and fly, but dogs and humans can’t.

We can begin to understand how a creature experiences the world by investigating how its senses work. If we want to understand the inner experiences of dogs, we need to study how they smell things.

This four and a half minute video, written by canine cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, does a great job explaining the complexity of dog noses and dog olfaction.  It gets us started answering the question “what is it like to be a dog?”

This video taught me that when it comes to smell, there is a bigger difference between the umwelten of a dog and a person than I initially imagined.

This difference is based on more than the fact that dogs are better sniffers than humans, although they are. Dogs can smell odors at lower concentrations than we can–100 million times lower. To illustrate the scale of this difference, Horowitz describes dogs as being able to identify the individual components of a spritz of perfume in a football stadium.

It is not just dog noses that differ from human noses, dog brains differ too. Horowitz points out that the olfactory bulb in a dog’s brain is HUGE compared to ours, and that olfaction bypasses the “thalamus to connect directly to the brain structures involving emotions and instincts.” A dog’s sense of smell is orders of magnitude more powerful than ours, AND olfaction itself is an “immediate and visceral” mode of sensation. So when you think of what it is like to be a dog, you have to imagine a powerful sense of smell, likely producing emotionally charged sensations.

Dogs can smell in stereo. Just as we can tell what direction a sound is coming from, dogs can detect the direction that an odor is coming from. They can use scent to orient themselves in the world.

Finally, a dog’s sense of smell gives them the ability to travel back and forth through time. Dogs can smell into the past to determine who you had lunch with and what you ate. And they can smell into the future, alerting you someone approaching around the corner ahead of you.

Dogs can do different things with their sense of smell than we can do with ours. This impacts their emotions, their perceptions through time, and their ways of navigating the world.

This is exciting and distressing. Exciting because it’s fun to imagine having the superpower that is a dog’s sense of smell. Distressing because the gulf between what it is like to be me and what it is like to be Milo is wider than I thought.

Even though Milo and I spend most of our time at each others’ sides, we live in different umwelten.

German Shepherd smelling grass

Hoss the Cat benefits from positive dog training

Nothing is more alluring to Hoss the Cat than an open book, the scratching of a pen on a notepad, or my fingers tapping away on a keyboard. His mission, which he chose to accept, is to get between me and whatever I’m trying to do.

He’ll saunter up and lay down on my hands as I’m writing. I pick him up and set him on the floor, and within 4 seconds he’s right back on my computer. Like the turning of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, Hoss effortlessly cycles from keyboard to floor and back again.

It’s reminiscent of Milo the AwesomeDog’s desire to be underfoot when I’m cooking. After realizing that yelling at Milo to back off was entirely ineffective, I embraced a positive training approach to that problem. Now Milo has a comfy bed, where he receives lots of yummy treats, in the kitchen. Rather than being underfoot, he chooses hangout on that bed because I make the bed a more desirable place for him to be.

I tried the same strategy with Hoss the Cat with great success. Hoss now has a soft bed, on a corner of my desk that works for both of us.

Here’s how it worked:

Step one: Add cat bed to desktop. 


There is lots of room for Hoss the Cat to make himself comfotable.

Step two: Add cat.

cat on desk

Hoss the Cat immediately made himself at home.

Step three: Give cat time to consider whether this state of affairs is to his liking.


Hoss contemplates the consequences of abandoning the keyboard.

Step four: Realize that your clever plan has backfired because cat distracts you from work by being adorable.


cat bed wins


It ends up that all the creatures benefit from a positive approach to training.


Consent, respect, and dog safety

The woman walked straight up to Milo and me, grabbed Milo by the fur on both sides of his head, kissed him on the nose, and nuzzled his head with her face. That’s right, with her face.

Of all the dumbass things to do…

toothy darling

Raise your hand if you think it’s a good idea to grab this guy by the head and rub your face on his nose.

If I freaked out, it could have been the match that set off that powder keg, so I shoved a handful of liver treats in Milo’s maw and chirped, “OK, that’s enough cuddling.”

The woman backed off with her face still attached to her skull while Milo concentrated on getting all of that liver out from between his molars—it was a big handful of treats—and all was well.

Think about the fight or flight response. When a dog is on a leash, flight is not an option. This is one of the reasons why some dogs act more aggressively when they’re on a leash than when they aren’t.

Never approach a dog when they don’t have the option of saying “no thanks” and leaving.  It is about respect, and consent, and common sense.

Ideally, if you meet Milo and me on a walk and you want to say hello to him, the scene plays itself out in one of these ways:

Scenario 1
You: “Can I pet your dog?”
Me: “Not today, thank you for asking.”
And Milo and I walk on.

When this happens, don’t give us the stink eye, because you know what? Although there are lots of reasons why we may not want to interact with you, neither he nor I have to give you a reason. I always appreciate it when people ask rather than, say, walk up and grab Milo’s face. But, if you ask and give us one bit of grief for saying “no,” you aren’t really asking. That is not cool.

Scenario 2
You: “Can I pet your dog?”
Me: “Milo sit” (with me between him and you).
Me some more: “Thank you for asking. Let’s see if he wants to say hello. If, when I release him he walks up to you, you can scratch him under the chin or on the side of his body.”
Me, to the dog this time: “Milo, would you like to say hello?”

This scenario can end in two ways:
Ending a: If Milo wags his tail and walks over to you, you get to share some personal time together.
Ending b: If Milo doesn’t happily walk up to you, I’ll say, “I guess not today. Thanks again for asking.” And Milo and I walk on.

In an ideal world if you and Milo interact, three of us—you, me, and Milo—all have to consent.

I won’t let him go bounding up to you and sniff your crotch or demand to be petted, and I won’t let you pet him if I don’t want you to and if he doesn’t want you to. The interaction will start when he walks up to you, and it will end when any one of the three of us wants it to. He tells us that he wants it to end by moving away. Milo is more fun and makes friends faster when he gets to consent.

If you want to pet a dog, but you’re wondering what doggie consent looks like, I recommend that you go over to Sara Reusche’s post at Paws Abilities. She gives a great step-by-step description of how to determine if a dog consents, and continues to give consent, to a social interaction.

This way everyone gets treated with respect, and everyone stays safe.


Animals in our lives: Teaching the Philosophy of Companion Animals

This semester I’m teaching a university class on the Philosophy of Companion Animals called “Animals in our Lives.” Wow. I feel so lucky to do this! My students are hardworking, engaged, and good-natured, and together we are doing great work. Thanks gang!

Developing and teaching a new course takes up every spare moment. After getting my work done, going to the gym, and training and exercising Milo, I’m usually finished for the day. So, I’ve been posting here less frequently than usual.

Thank heavens I have my students’ permission to post about our class.

For starters, here is an excerpt from the syllabus that explains a little bit about what we are up to.

Animals in our Lives, Philosophy 271

Course Description
This class explores the science and ethics of human relationships with companion animals.

Course Outcomes
In this class you will:
1. Explore the social influences on, and impacts of, scientific research
2. Develop an understanding of the relationships between humans and companion animals from scientific, philosophical, and practical perspectives
3. Acquire the skills and confidence to learn, assess, and use scientific information

Discussion Topics
Unit 1: The science of emotion and the role of emotion in science
• The neurobiology of canine love
• The impact of human emotion on animal research
• The movement of scientific knowledge from the lab to the public

Unit 2: Anthropomorphism or anthropodenial
• The sense of smell and what it’s like to be a dog
• Consciousness and animal minds
• Folk psychology across species

Unit 3: Do good animal handlers and trainers need science?
• Is clicker training scientific?
• The media and celebrity dog trainers
• Different kinds of expertise and the public understanding of science
In each unit, we will explore readings from scientific, philosophical, and popular sources.

So far we’re just getting going on the unit on love.

I’ll update you as we move through the class.

What do words mean to your dog?

OELI’m reading Patricia McConnell’s excellent book, The Other End of the Leash. In this book, McConnell frames the challenges of dog training and human-dog relationships in terms of the kinds of communication typically used by primates and canids. She’s not just talking about differences between creatures that rely on vision and creatures that rely on olfaction. She gets into things like grammar, volume, repetition, and pitch of vocalizations.

McConnell points out that even though we know it’s important to consistently use the same words, in the same way, we often don’t. In states of frustration, I’ve told Milo to “lay down, down, get down.” These disco lyrics are not exactly what even a generous person would call good handling. Milo is biddable, smart, and patient and so usually complies with my desires even when I express them poorly. But, what if I had a dog who was slightly less awesome? (The results would not be so good.) And how much better could Milo and I be if I was more consistent and clear? (The results could be fab.u.lous.)

To sharpen my game I made a list of words that Milo knows, along with a description of what I am asking him to do when I use those words.

Here’s Milo’s vocabulary list:

  1. Milo: pay attention to me and approach me
  2. Look: make eye contact with me
  3. Sit: bum on ground, front legs straight
  4. Stand: legs straight, four paws on the ground
  5. Down: bum and elbows on the ground
  6. Stay: don’t move until I give a release or another command
  7. Come: snap your head toward me, approach me quickly, sit in front of me, and let me grab your collar
  8. Wait: pause until I’m gone or I tell you to do something else or I release you.
  9. Drop: let go of what you are holding in your mouth
  10. Easy: do less of whatever you are doing
  11. Let’s go: keep up with me when we are loose leash walking
  12. Hup hup: forge ahead and lean into your leash/collar
  13. Heel: keep your shoulder aligned with my knee, keep your body parallel to the direction I’m facing and sit if I stand still
  14. Back: step backward in a straight line
  15. Around: get into heel position by walking behind me
  16. Get in: Get into heel position by swinging yourself around on my left. This is also a reminder to tuck his butt toward me when we are making a left turn.
  17. Switch: walk behind me and stand or sit quietly on my right side
  18. Crate: get in your crate
  19. Mat: go lay on your nearest bed, or the bed I’m pointing at
  20. Hoover: eat what’s on the floor
  21. Leave it: stop sniffing or eating
  22. Out of it: stop staring
  23. Break: release from a sit, down, stand, or his crate
  24. Yes: functions as a click and is a release
  25. Good: keep doing what you are doing
  26. Nope: try it again
  27. Up: jump onto what I’m pointing at
  28. On: put your front paws on what I’m pointing at
  29. Touch: touch your nose to my open palm
  30. Over: jump over a high jump
  31. Jump: jump over a broad jump
  32. Tunnel: go through an agility tunnel
  33. Kiss: lick my face
  34. Paw: put your paw in my hand
  35. Toys: all the things that he plays with and live in his toy box
  36. Kong: red rubber toy that I fill with food
  37. Ball: any tennis ball sized ball
  38. Clean up your toys:  picks up your toys and puts them in your toy box

He also knows some German words, but I don’t use them regularly because I’m much pickier about precision when I use these commands:

  1. Sitz
  2. Fuss
  3. Platz
  4. Hier

I learned a lot from this list.

First of all, I didn’t realize that Milo knew so many words or so many kinds of words. Some of these words are verbs, some are nouns, some are general terms. I use some of these words to ask him to move or move faster, and some of them to ask him to stop or slow down.

Second, “wait” and “easy” are interestingly vague. Milo does what I want him to do when I use these terms. But I wonder how much of “easy” has to do with my tone of voice. And I wonder how much of “wait” has to do with my body language that blocks him from moving. I need to think about those words.


Even when I’m sloppy, Milo is a good sport and tries to figure out what I want. Thanks buddy!

Finally, this exercise made me wonder what these words mean to Milo. For example, does “sit” mean drop your bum to the ground or does it mean be in a sitting position? In other words, when I ask Milo to sit am I asking for the movement or the final result? This is important because some folks will reinforce a long sit or down by repeating the command every so often–maybe every minute or two. If the command is for a motion, then saying the command when you want the dog to stay still is giving the dog an instruction that it is impossible to follow.

I’m interested in this for two reasons. First, I want to communicate as clearly as I can. Second, I’m curious about what it is like to be Milo, and I’d love to know what these funny sounds we humans make mean to him.

I’d love to know what you think your dog thinks when you give commands.

Doggy desires, training, and vulnerability​

Have you ever wished that you didn’t want something?

chocolate cakeFor me, it is chocolate cake. Not fudgy chocolate tortes, but Devil’s Food Cake. I can’t imagine saying ‘no’ to an offer of chocolate cake. I wish I didn’t want chocolate cake, but I do.

Philosophers call these two kinds of wanting first and second order desires. I have a first order desire for chocolate cake, and I have a second order desire that I not want chocolate cake. First order desires are what a person wants. Second order desires are what a person wants to want.

Here are some things Milo the AwesomeDog frequently wants to do:

  • Play
  • Chase things
  • Eat
  • Chew bones
  • Snuggle
  • Sniff things
  • Please me

These are some of his first order desires.



Milo’s a pretty intense chaser of things.

But what about second order desires? Can Milo want to want something?

He has conflicting desires. For example his desire to chase things and please me almost always conflict. You can see this in his behavior. When I ask him to sit in the absence of anything ‘chaseable,’ he plops his bum down and looks up at me with soft eyes. He is alert and relaxed.

When I ask him to sit while a skateboard whizzes by, he sits but hums with tension. His whole body focuses on the potential chasee. Hips tense like a runner in the starting blocks. One paw lifted anticipating his first bound. If I released him, he’d be off like a rocket. But, he restrains himself, because I ask him to.

He and I do all sorts of exercises to help him learn self-control, and you can frequently see him wanting to do something, and not doing it.

But, wanting two conflicting things, or wanting something and not acting on that desire, can be different from having a second order desire. I doubt Milo is thinking anything like, “Boy, I sure wish I didn’t want to chase that dude on the skateboard.”

However, if I consider Milo and me as a unit, I am the part of that unit with the second order desires. In other words, I think that MY desires can play the role of second order desires for Milo and here is where his vulnerability and my responsibility come into the picture.

Humans foster first order desires in dogs in lots of different ways:

  1. Herding and hunting dogs are bred to be biddable. A biddable dog wants to please its handler. A dog bred to work with a person to herd livestock needs to figure out what its person wants it to do and do it. Milo is biddable—he wants to please me—in large part because he’s a German Shepherd Dog, and through careful breeding, humans made German Shepherd Dogs biddable.
  2. Milo and I have a healthy relationship. I took a workshop from a hardcore Schutzhund trainer, and she commented, “He really loves you.” What a great compliment! I work hard on Milo and my relationship, which isn’t difficult because he’s an angel. We love and respect each other. This relationship contributes not to his general biddability, but to his biddability to ME. I nurtured his first order desire to please ME.
  3. Training a dog involves manipulating its desires. In all strictness, I don’t train Milo to sit. I train him to want to sit when I tell him to. I pay close attention to what he values, and by controlling his access to those things, I can make him value other things.

Here’s how all this plays out. Milo has first order desires to please me and to chase skateboards. I have first order desires for chocolate cake and for Milo NOT to chase skateboards. So, if we think of the two of us as a unit, he and I both individually have first order desires. Additionally, I have second order desires for both of us, and I can manipulate Milo’s first order desires. I am the one who wants him to want things. I can make him want to sit more than he wants to chase.

Vulnerability and responsibility.

Sometimes we humans manipulate dogs’ desires to make them perform dangerous work. Police dogs, military dogs, and even search and rescue dogs put their lives on the line for us.

I don’t put Milo in danger, in fact, most of his training is to keep him safe, but I do manipulate his desires. I don’t just have the power to confine him physically. I have the power to confine him psychologically and emotionally, not with harsh punishments, but by controlling what he values, and what he desires.

I have to admit that he trains me as well: how can I not desire to scratch his head when he lays it on my lap and looks up at me with his big brown eyes? But when I train him I have science, coaches, and 150 years of selective breeding on my side.

This makes him vulnerable to me, which is a responsibility that I take seriously.