Tails From The Field” is a series of true stories from Chad Culp’s experience in the field of professional dog training. Some details, such as names and breeds, may have been changed for privacy protection.


Bobo, a small poodle, had been through 1 ½ years of complex strategies for “an unusual barking problem.” He would bark like crazy at the husband whenever he came home. My first question when they told me this on the phone was, “Is he just barking from excitement or does it seem aggressive?” I mean, he’s a little poodle mix so this would not be unusual, it’s actually very common. She told me it wasn’t happy, excited barking. She said the dog was fearful and it seemed like the barking might be a little aggressive. He would even go into this behavior if the man got up to go to another room and when he came back into the room minutes or seconds later.  

Two vets, a student, a dog trainer and a psychic walk into a bar…

At first this sounded like it would be a simple case of a yappy little dog that needed some basic training but then I learned that, over the last 18 months, they had worked with their regular vet, a holistic vet, someone who was studying behavior at UC Davis, a professional dog trainer who specialized in positive reinforcement training and a psychic animal communicator. Now I was intrigued. They had tried a lot of treat-based training tactics to alter the dog’s behavior. They tried acupuncture, Bach Flower Remedies and rubbed essential oils on the dog’s collar, all intended to calm the dog and ease his fear and anxiety. They tried ignoring the dog when he was barking. They even tried an electronic anti-bark collar and nothing worked. Finally, after a year and a half of this, their animal communicator suggested they call me.

We set up the appointment at a time when I could get there first so I could see how they behaved when Dad came home from work. What I witnessed was something like this: Dad comes home and the dogs start barking like crazy, both of them, not just Bobo. Dad goes to the table by the front door, where they already had treats laid out, grabs a handful and starts tossing them on the ground for the dogs to eat. I saw no signs of either dog being fearful or aggressive. Honestly, it looked to me like they had intentionally trained the dogs to go bonkers when Dad comes home and throws a pinata party. 

Here’s the deal: Bobo was not afraid of Dad, so devising treatment plans based on attempting to counter-condition a fearful dog was the wrong approach. To be fair, perhaps Bobo was afraid at the beginning and the counter-conditioning tactic of throwing treats actually did work. Maybe it worked so well that it turned the fear into excitement to see Dad. That is quite possible but I can’t say for sure, I only know what the situation was at the time I was there. The dogs were already excited about him coming home, so throwing treats all over the place simply fanned the flames of that excitement. It was basically how to make dogs go crazy 101.  

The Simple Solution

I suggested simply ignoring the dogs until they calmed down. They said, “Oh, we tried that for three months. It didn’t work.”  

I could tell he was a little discouraged to hear me advocating for a strategy that had already been tried at the very beginning of their journey but I convinced him to indulge me anyhow. We had him leave for a few minutes then come back in and ignore the dogs. Just so I could see how they behaved. He did it and the dogs went bonkers and he looked at me and shrugged like, “See, I told you.” 

Now, I had to tread softly because I could sense his frustration. However, I had to explain to him that he had only “tried” it, he hadn’t actually done it. He only THOUGHT he was ignoring the dog while, in fact, he was looking at the dog the entire time. From the moment he opened the door to the moment he sat down and, even as we discussed the fact that he was engaging the dog simply through the act of making eye contact, he continued to look at the dog. It was like, “Oh, really, I didn’t know that. Now that you mention it, that makes sense.” All while still looking at the dog, then back to me, then back at the dog. 

I had him go back outside for a few minutes, then come back in and do it again, without eye contact this time, and everything was way better. The dogs actually calmed down fairly quickly. He still couldn’t stop looking at the dog but I would quickly remind him each time. I literally don’t think he even realized he was doing it. This is actually quite typical, so before you start thinking this sounds too easy to be true, it’s not, it’s actually very difficult for most people to do. Oh, it’s easy for them to think they are doing it and then complain that it doesn’t work, but it is very hard to actually do it correctly. Why? Because most people are super unaware of their own behavior.

Here’s me at a typical one of these sessions, “You’re looking at her. You just looked. You’re looking again. Don’t look at her. It’s ok, you don’t have to stare at the ceiling, just don’t look at the dog. Oops, you looked again. Do you realize that every time you talk about the dog your eyes automatically look at the dog? Try looking at me while you talk about the dog.”   

So, at the end of the day, this was a super easy problem to fix and they had actually been given the right answer at the beginning. The problem was that they didn’t execute the technique properly, so they assumed “it didn’t work” and kept searching for new answers. 

Moral of the Story

Step number one is to get the proper diagnosis before starting a training plan. As we saw in our story, they were attempting to treat fear which led to the mistreatment of what was actually overstimulation.

Buyer Beware: There is a large sector of the dog training industry that has a default setting to fear. They believe that all aggression is based on fear and often misinterpret barking or growling as aggression, which then gets treated as a case of fear. For example: Most leash reactivity is treated as though it comes from fear when, in fact, it often comes from frustration and overstimulation in dogs that actually want to be social. Assuming it’s fear-based, they will shovel treats at the dog as a form of redirection or counterconditioning or they will attempt to “reward” the dog’s non-reactive behavior by moving away from the supposedly fear inducing stimulus. This would make sense if the stimulus actually was fear-inducing but it is totally backasswards if the stimulus was excitement-inducing. Do you catch my drift? Are you diggin’ what I’m sayin’? Far out and groovy, man!

Dog training only works when we use the right approach in the first place and it needs to be done correctly.

There is a big difference between trying something and actually doing something correctly. 

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda 

Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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