The Psychology and Art of Positive “Do No Harm” Dog Training

Dog training is a huge global industry. In the United States, there are no certification standards and anyone can claim to be a dog trainer.1

Of course, there are many highly educated certified dog trainers, and dog psychologist and trailblazer Linda Michaels is one of them. In her new book The Do No Harm Dog Training and Behavior Handbook: Featuring the Hierarchy of Dog Needs, Linda combines science with compassion and I’m sure every dog ​​would appreciate it greatly if their human(s) would study it carefully.2

Here’s what she had to say about how to use force-free, practical solutions to solve common and complex behavior problems, and honor what the dogs need and want to do.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write The Do No Harm Dog Training and Behavior Handbook?

Linda Michaels: My academic training, hands-on experience, and personal ethics compel me to speak out on behalf of our unconditionally loving dogs because those attributes put me in a unique position of responsibility. In the dog training industry, the apparent normalization of causing psychological and physical pain is disturbing. My disappointment and frustration with the misinformation and widespread promotion of shock, prong, and choke collar devices, and the use of punitive methods in the unregulated field of dog training inspired me to put my ideas into my book.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

ML: I’ve felt a deep love and connection with animals all my life. My passion led me to a humane society shelter to fulfill thesis-study requirements for my master’s degree in experimental psychology. My experiences there underpin all of the work I do today. While searching for solutions to the most difficult trauma cases, I discovered how to use my research experience in behavior and neurobiology to help heal dogs’ emotions. I founded a very active do no harm public social media animal welfare and training group that includes seasoned professionals and pet parents.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

ML: My book is written for dogs and the people who love them. It is intended for both academic and everyday use. I have dedicated it to our passionate and unfailingly devoted force-free dog trainers, behaviorists, veterinarians, groomers, and rescue and shelter workers—and to every pet parent who has struggled to understand their dog’s behavior. I cast a wide net because the need is so great.

MB: What are some of your major messages?

ML: The book is a wellness, practical training, and behavior modification guide that adheres to the “First, do no harm” ethical code. It is an alternative to traditional teaching models in dog training, recognizing that dog behavioral problems often mirror human psychological conditions, such as attachment disorders, fearfulness, and underlying drives to aggression.

The book is also a bridge between the worlds of research, how-to dog training, and pet parenting. The preponderance of evidence in the scientific literature demonstrates that using fear, intimidation, and pain worsens behavior and may cause aggression. However, the dog training industry has gone far afield from what science has painstakingly learned about behavior. Understanding that dogs of all ages have the brain anatomy and function similar to that of a two- to three-year-old child often helps professionals and pet parents treat their dogs with greater understanding and empathy.

Exploring the principle of “consent,” my book seeks to bring the industry back to compassion through science. Meeting the emotional needs of our dogs breeders trust—which is critical for establishing a strong human-animal bond and secure attachment. A comprehensive separation anxiety treatment plan is included.

In addition, the book is the operational definition of Do No Harm dog training. The first 100 pages focus on the topics detailed in the updated Hierarchy of Dog Needs, replete with 18 pages of scientific citations to support it. The book also analyzes nutrition—unraveling the mysteries of a biologically appropriate diet that fosters optimal health and thriving.

It includes roadmaps for finding the right dog to fit a family’s lifestyle, choosing the right dog trainer, choosing the right veterinarian, and choosing the right groomer—giving the pet parent and the dog the greatest chance for success. It explores the importance of careful and proper socialization, as well as providing bountiful species-appropriate enrichment.

Sadly, fear, trauma, and tonic immobility are often mistaken for “good behavior,” even by professionals. Learning to listen to our dogs’ communications with us through body language is essential to developing the relationship pet parents want with their dogs, and the relationship our dogs need with us. For advanced trainers, the book includes treatment plans for understanding what drives and decreases aggressive behavior using the gold standards in behavior modification.

In 2021, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior unequivocally stated that collars designed to cause pain and dominance methods should never—without exception—be used to train dogs. One of my key messages is that there are no “red zone” dogs or dogs who require a heavy hand when seen by a competent trainer. My book provides the tools and treatment plans to become that trainer and pet parent.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

ML: My book is unique in that it is dog-centric: it puts the needs of dogs first—ahead of the human need to control, micromanage, and force compliance, obedience, and subjugation. In understanding and meeting dogs’ needs, dog behavior often becomes more compatible with our own desires because we “let go” and “let dogs be dogs,” focusing on relationship, play, and achieving a high quality of life together.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about dog behavioras they become dog literate and learn who they truly arethey will treat them with more respect and dignity?

ML: I am. Dogs are intrinsically fascinating. The more I study them, the more I am in awe of the unique gems we have in the heartbeats at our feet.

However, education is not enough. I believe we must all become activists for stronger animal-welfare laws. Consistent with other industries involving the care and treatment of sentient creatures, regulating the dog training industry for practitioner competency and transparency in advertising requirements embedded with the “First, Do No Harm” ethical code is critical.

Leave a Comment