Pat Miller -- Wonder Dog University Expert Interview Series

We're excited to share our very first Expert Interview with all of you! If you're not familiar with Pat Miller and any of her dozen published works, you'll want to know more! 

Pat's professional life has always involved animals, first as a horse trainer in Wisconsin, then for 20 years as a humane officer at the Marin Humane Society in California, and most recently as a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant. She launched her own dog training company on the West Coast in 1996, after five years assisting nationally acclaimed obedience instructor Judie Howard of Arydith Obedience, and relocated the Peaceable Paws Dog and Puppy Training Center to Chattanooga, Tennessee in the year 2000, then to its present 80-acre campus in Fairplay, Maryland, in April of 2004. Pat received her CPDT-KA certification as a professional dog trainer from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers in September of 2001, one of the first 136 trainers in the world to attain this title. 

Pat is also a freelance writer and author, regularly contributing articles on dog behavior and training to The Whole Dog Journal, Your Dog (a publication of Tufts University's Veterinary School), and several other publications. She is also Training Editor for The Whole Dog Journal. Her first dog training book, The Power of Positive Dog Training was released by Howell Book House in August of 2001 and has been on’s "Top 10 Dog Training Books" list since January of 2002. Some of her other books include: Positive Perspectives, Positive Perspectives 2, How to Foster Dogs, Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life, and Play With Your Dog.

This interview focuses on Pat's newest offering Beware of the Dog: Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, and our recent experience this past October at her Reactive Rover Workshop in Maryland.

Q: How would you define aggression?

A. Aggression is a natural, normal dog behavior covering a long continuum of more properly termed “agonistic” behaviors, including avoidance behaviors (look away, retreat), a freeze, a hard stare, growl, snap, and actual bites. It is a dog’s attempt to keep himself safe and/or make his world work for him. The first chapter of my new book, Beware of the Dog, goes into a lot more detail about what aggression is.

Q: How would you describe reactivity?

A. Reactivity is an abnormally aroused response to a normal stimulus. Dog owners tend to describe it as their dog “going crazy” in response to the stimulus, such as another dog. See Chapter 16 of Beware of the Dog.

Q: What do you see as the most common obstacle when doing behavior modification with reactive dogs and their owners?

A. Hmmmm… don’t know that I see that many obstacles. The biggest challenge for some owners is probably to find the right location to do the work so they can succeed in keeping the dog below threshold and therefore have success in modifying behavior.

Another big challenge is to owner’s ability to manage the environment so the dog doesn’t have opportunities to practice (and be reinforced for) the unwanted behavior while we are working to modify it.

Q: Why do you think food is such a powerful tool to change behavior?

A. Because all living creatures need food to survive. Food is known as a “primary reinforcer." See page 71 of Beware of the Dog for more information on primary reinforcers.

Q: Are reactive dogs 'behaviorally unhealthy'?

A. There is a continuum of reactivity – I don’t know that I would call *all* dogs with reactive behavior “unhealthy,” but certainly a good percentage of them are behaviorally unhealthy. Owners need to know that the dog is not just being “bad,” but he literally cannot help himself. In cases where this inability to self-control is driven by brain chemistry imbalances, it may be necessary to use behavior modification drugs so that the dog becomes physically and mentally able to self-control, just as you would medicate a dog who had a medical ailment.

Q: Your use of counter conditioning & desensitization via the use of classical conditioning is so powerful in changing the dog's reaction to a trigger or triggers. We have become huge fans of using this in our work. Would you explain how this big terminology is actually such a quick and simple way to change a dog's behavior?

A. We are simply giving the dog a new association with the thing (stimulus) he is reactive to. By pairing the stimulus with high value food, we are changing his association with and his behavioral response to that thing. Let’s say we have a dog who is reactive toward other dogs because he is frightened of them. He has learned that his reactive behavior keeps other dogs away, and therefore keeps him safe. Every time he reacts and the other dog goes away, it reinforces that belief.

However, if we have another dog appear far enough away that our dog doesn’t feel too threatened (below threshold), and the instant he looks at the other dog we feed him chicken, and repeat this every time he looks at the other dog (who isn’t coming any closer), his brain starts to connect the other dog with chicken. “Hmmmmm – this other dog makes chicken happen!” If we repeat this with multiple dogs, he will start to think *all* dogs make chicken happen. Eventually, instead of being fearful and reactive when he sees another dog, he will turn happily to his human with a happy “Where’s my chicken!” look. 

There are multiple discussions of counter conditioning in Beware of the Dog as it applies to various types of aggression, including reactive behavior.

QWhere do you suggest people do their training initially?

A. For reactivity? In a controlled environment, where dogs will pass by at a sub-threshold distance, and not walk directly toward our dog with reactive behaviors. Pass-bys' are easier for our dog because they are less threatening than a direct approach, and we have better control over the distance, therefore are better able to keep our dog below threshold.

QWhat is the difference between consulting with a regular veterinarian versus a veterinary behaviorist for a dog owner about their dog's behavior issues?

A. Veterinary students at *most* vet schools are not required to take a single class in behavior, and most of them don’t. Well-meaning as they may be, most veterinarians know nothing – or next-to-nothing – about the complex field of veterinary behavior, and the mind-boggling array of medications that go along with it. Behavior modification is an art as well as a science, and requires intensive study to be able to do it well, and right. Well-meaning vets who *think* they know, but don’t, can do serious damage to a dog’s mental health.

First off, many veterinary behaviorists (VBs') offer free phone consults to veterinarians who are trying to help their clients with behavioral issues. Because there are so few veterinary behaviorists and they are in such demand, it can take a long time to get an appointment with one, and meanwhile, your informed veterinarian *may* be able to help with, with proper guidance. (You should offer and be prepared to pay your vet for his/her time that she spends consulting with the VB.)

When you do have an opportunity to consult an actual VB, you will come away with an incredible wealth of invaluable information about your dog’s behavior, and how you can best help him.

QIn our area of Charleston, SC, we don’t have any veterinary behaviorists locally, nor do we have any in our state. How would someone go about getting their vet to give them a referral and consult long distance with that remote vet behaviorist?

A. Veterinary Behaviorists are listed on the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists' website – and their vet can find one there to work with. Some VBs will do remote work with a client, others will only work through the client’s own veterinarian. 

QWhat is your favorite training equipment?

A. My relationship with the dog I am working with. Hence the huge importance of using tools and methods that enhance and strengthen relationships, not ones that have the very real potential to damage relationships.

QWhat is your favorite type of collar or harness for this type of training?

A. I prefer the front-clip control harnesses above all else. Most dogs accept them easily, and they give considerably more control than a regular collar or back-clip harness. My two favorite brands are the Balance Harness and the Freedom Harness.

QWhat do you think of head harnesses such as the Halti or Gentle Leader?

A. I am not a fan. While they do give excellent control (where the head goes, the body must follow), most dogs hate them. If the dogs find them aversive, they are not a positive training tool.

QIn your Reactive Rover workshop, you incorporate the use of longer leashes at times. Why do you like using a longer leash when you are training a reactive dog? When is it appropriate to use one?

A. We only use a longer leash when the dogs are out hiking around our 80-acre farm, with chaperones to make sure they don’t run into other dogs. I like them because normally we have to keep these dogs under wraps to keep them out of trouble, and a long line gives them opportunity for exercise, which is very helpful for behavior modification. However, I would *only* recommend they be used in a well-controlled environment where there is absolutely *zero* chance that they will encounter another dog.

QWhy do you think using no-force training works better for all dogs, regardless of this issue, than old fashioned, punishment based methods?

A. Simply, old-fashioned training uses coercion, force, pain and fear to control a dog. I know, I used to use those methods. They are seductive, because they can successfully *stop* some behaviors – but they always come with unintended side-effects and have a strong potential to damage the relationship between dog and human.

Force-free training, properly done, is effective, *strengthens* the canine/human bond, creates relationships built on mutual voluntary cooperation and trust, and teaches the dog what *to* do rather than focusing so much on what *not* to do,

QWhat happens to a dog physiologically when they are in a reactive state?

A. The system releases stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol, and the thinking part of the brain (the cortex) shuts down. The dog is running on stress and emotion. He’s not ignoring you when you ask him to do something – he literally can’t think, and therefore can’t respond to your cues for behavior.

QWhat are your top three choices for natural calming products, so that stress can be reduced and learning can take place?

A. L-Theanine (capsules, not chewable), Exercise, Melatonin, Lavender, Through a Dog’s Ear music, massage, Thundershirt, and Calming Cap

Oops… did you say three ?  

Hope you've enjoyed our first Expert Interview with Pat Miller! For more information on Pat's offerings and books, visit her at Peaceable Paws.

Here's to a Happy New Year to you and your dog! Bark soon!

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