And How Does That Make You Feel?

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

The phrase “and how does that make you feel?” is pretty much a stereotypic response that you’d expect from a therapist.  But as a dog trainer you probably don’t use that phrase very often.  It’s particularly unlikely you’d address it to your dog.  But that’s exactly what we should be doing; keeping a close eye not only on what our dogs are doing, but more importantly, on how they are feeling.

Dog trainers spend countless hours working on training specific and precise behaviors.  They obsess endlessly over small details, plan out session after session, and troubleshoot solutions when problems arise.  They understand and implement training plans based on operant conditioning principles, splitting behaviors into small parts and providing appropriate reinforcement.  And yet, for all that care and attention, things still go wrong.  The dog doesn’t learn the desired behavior as easily or well as expected.  The trainer becomes frustrated and unsure of what to do next.  The problem is that we trainers are often ignoring the other part of the training equation, classical conditioning.  We are totally focused on the actions, but we aren’t giving enough attention to the related emotions.  

In my newest online class Achieving a Balance Between Motivation & Control one of the issues we consider has to do with whether a behavior is not being performed correctly due to lack of skill, lack of emotional comfort, or both.  Typically in dog training when a dog does not perform as expected people look to issues related to the skill.  Has the behavior been trained to fluency?  Is the dog capable of performing the behavior with a variety of distractions?  Many times the answer is “no”.  The skill has truly not been well-trained and will fall apart when there is any sort of pressure from the trainer or the environment.  The path to fixing this type of skill building issue is very clear.  Go back and strengthen it with more practice.  Then move it into more challenging environments and continue to reinforce well for good performance.  Build the behavior up to make it stronger and better able to withstand challenges.  

Sometimes, however, things simply do not progress as we think they should.  Even with lots of skill building our dogs continue to have issues performing behaviors that we have worked very hard to develop and strengthen.  So what could the problem be?  

Thinking over these types of situations reminded me of something that fellow FDSA instructor Amy Cook said at our annual Camp several years ago.  The phrase has always stuck with me.  She said “every time you teach your dog what to do you are also teaching him how to feel”.  Behaviors and skills cannot be separated from emotions.  In fact, we are building emotional associations every single time we train our dogs.  It’s just that most people don’t realize it, or don’t realize how powerful it is, so they don’t give it enough attention and consideration.

This idea of paying attention to emotions as well as behaviors falls under the realm of classical conditioning.  Classical conditioning addresses how we come to associate emotions with particular environmental stimuli.  In general, classical conditioning tends to be ignored by many dog trainers.  But it shouldn’t be.  It is the secret to building strong and lasting skills that your dog is happy and excited to perform.  

In order to highlight the importance of emotional comfort, one of the first exercises in my Balance class was to consider several of the dog’s behaviors (could be already trained or in process) and determine where they fall in the following set of stages.  Emotional comfort is an umbrella term that refers to the dog’s feelings of security, confidence, stability, enthusiasm, and success.  These are vitally important factors to forming a great association with a behavior.  

Skill x Emotional Comfort Stages:  

Stage 1: Can’t do skill / Uncomfortable

Stage 2: Can’t do skill / Comfortable

In Stages 1 & 2 the dog cannot yet perform the skill.  This would typically be a brand new behavior in the early stages of training.  Our goal here would be to make sure the dog feels comfortable and confident in the training sessions and that he is successful early and often so that he develops a positive emotional association with the behavior being trained.  If the dog is anxious, stressed, or frustrated while training, those emotions attach themselves to the behavior.  So we really want our dogs at Stage 2 in early training sessions.  

Stage 3: Can do skill sometimes / Uncomfortable

Stage 4: Can do skill sometimes / Comfortable

In Stages 3 & 4 the training is now a bit more established.  Your dog is starting to figure out what you want and is managing to do it sometimes, but not yet regularly.  In these stages your dog needs plenty of success and support from you so that he doesn’t become confused or feel pressured when the behavior isn’t solid yet.  Pushing your dog by reducing reinforcement too soon or too abruptly, or adding challenges your dog isn’t ready to handle, will leave him in Stage 3.  We would really like to see him in Stage 4, where even though his understanding of the behavior isn’t quite there, he’s more than willing to keep trying.  If you establish a history of only providing your dog with reasonable challenges he will become more persistent at happily working to figure out what you want.  

Stage 5: Can do skill regularly / Uncomfortable

Stage 6:  Can do skill regularly / Comfortable

In Stages 5 & 6 the skill has been well-learned.  It is performed correctly in almost all situations.  In fact, you’d be surprised if it wasn’t done well when you cue it.  However, there is still room for variation in emotional comfort level.  You will likely notice that your dog is performing the behavior properly, but something seems ‘off’.  There may be unexpected variations in the way the behavior is performed.  For example, your dog may move into a position just a bit more slowly than usual.  Or there may be small signs from your dog that he is not completely comfortable; maybe a yawn or lip lick or ear flick before and during the performance of the behavior.  These things are easy to overlook, but they are often the sign of a bigger issue looming just ahead.  Recognizing Stage 5 earlier rather than later is going to be key to fixing the problem before it becomes worse. 

The stages are fluid and strongly influenced by changes in the environment.  When you start showing your dog in trials you are likely to start seeing changes in emotional comfort levels (Stage 5 in particular).  Don’t ignore those little signs from your dog!  Recognizing them early gives you a chance to address the pending problem before there’s a total breakdown.  

So what’s the best way to address issues related to emotional comfort?  First, pay close attention to your dog’s ‘tells’; those small subtle changes in behavior that are the first step in indicating discomfort.  Be a careful observer of your dog’s behavioral changes.  The sooner you notice a ‘tell’ the sooner you can change what you’re doing.  Things like ears rotating away from you, tail dropping, lip licking, moving more slowly, taking treats more roughly, vocalizing, and glancing away more often than usual, are just a few possibilities.  Learn your dog’s ‘discomfort lexicon’.


Star’s ears are her ‘tell’.  They rotate towards the direction that she’s concerned about.  She can be looking at me and even responding to cues, but her ears always give her away.  If I don’t have the ears I don’t have 100% of the dog.

Second, be proactive in raising your dog’s confidence level while training.  Confidence comes from your dog knowing that he can figure out the training puzzles you present to him.  Set your criteria so success builds on success for your dog.  Increase challenges just enough to lead to more effort, but not to frustration or giving up.  There’s plenty of space between babying your dog along at every step and leaving him to work things out on his own.  Aim for the middle ground where you are there to help him when he needs it, but also there to challenge him to problem solve.  Recognizing when your dog needs your support and when he is capable of working through something on his own isn’t always easy, but it is very necessary.  

Third, educate yourself more fully on the topic of classical conditioning.  I typically recommend the college level textbook Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance as an excellent resource for solid scientific information on learning theories.  Get an older edition, they are much cheaper!  You might also want to join me for my upcoming webinar Pavlov: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?  This webinar will run live on Thursday March 1, 2018 at 9 pm Eastern time.  You can watch it live and ask questions, or you can watch the recorded version later.  But you have to buy it before it runs live even if you plan to watch later.  Here’s a link:

I plan to cover a LOT of ground in this presentation.  Everything from scary clowns to slobbering dogs to the perils of flooding.  It will be packed full of information related to classical conditioning!    

And finally, while you are training remember to ask your dog “and how does that make you feel?” quite regularly.  Teaching behaviors is only part of the training equation.  Being sensitive to your dog’s emotional state is vital to excellent training as well.