Dogster Interviews: We Chat with Dog Trainer Pat Miller

"Dog owners need to know that the whole alpha-dominance 'thing' has been completely and totally refuted by behavior science."


After you enjoy our interview with Pat Miller, read on to find out how to win a signed copy of her book, How to Foster Dogs: From Homeless to Homeward Bound.

From her home base on 80 acres she calls Peaceable Paws and Pastures in Hagerstown, Maryland, dog trainer and behavior consultant Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, has reached into every area of the training industry, including punishment-based training (we’ll get to that in a minute).

She’s a respected pro who trains other dog trainers; a highly successful author of six books and star of three DVDs; a blogger; an expert witness regarding canine behavior in courtrooms; a dog, horse, chicken, and pet pig trainer; editor of the popular dog newsletter called The Whole Dog Journal; and she was one of the first to receive certification as a professional dog trainer from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers in 2001.

Miller’s smarts and energy outlast even the famed stamina of Border Collies. She’s certified more than 350 trainers through her Pat Miller Trainer Academy, one of the most rigorous facilities a dog trainer can attend. She’s trained nearly 10,000 dogs over the past 30 years. She’s industrious, optimistic, considerate and always forward-looking.

I interviewed Pat Miller in December, and we are proud to have her kick off our new year-long series of interviews with the world’s most popular dog trainers. We wanted to know what drives this talented dynamo.

Dogster: Tell us where you grew up. Did your childhood include a dog?

Pat Miller: We moved around a lot when I was a kid. I was born in Springfield, Illinois, and also lived in Cleveland, Chicago and Mequon, Wisconsin. We always had dogs –- the first was a Beagle named Flag; then several spaniel mixes including Rusty, Schmircks and Cinders; and several rough Collies (I was a big Lassie fan) –- Squire, Moby, Candy and Sandy.

When and why did you become a dog trainer?

I started training my own (family) dogs as a kid, Squire was my 4-H project dog in Wisconsin. I titled several dogs in AKC obedience, including Marty, a tri-color Collie; Keli, an Australian Kelpie; and Caper, a Bull Terrier; then Josie, a terrier mix, in California’s Mixed Breed Dog Club. I worked for 20 years at the Marin Humane Society (MHS) in California. While I was there became an assistant trainer for Judi Howard (a nationally acclaimed obedience instructor and competitor) at Arydith Obedience School.

Which dog made the biggest impact on your career?

Without a doubt, my terrier mix, Josie. She was the best-trained and best competition dog I ever had, as well as being a delightful canine companion in her own right. I was still training with old-fashioned (compulsion) training methods when we adopted Josie (my husband Paul and I found her while we were doing undercover cock-fighting investigations in San Jose, but that’s another story).

Josie was a delight to train -– happy, brilliant, willing, reliable, and too cute for words. However, when we got to Utility level Obedience, Josie let me know that she hated the metal scent articles. I had trained her using the old-fashioned “forced retrieve,” using an “ear pinch” (pinch her ear flap over the choke chain, and when she opens her mouth to protest, pop the dumbbell in her mouth and let go of the ear. Dog learns to grab the dumbbell to avoid the pinch). I was having to pinch harder and harder to force her to pick up the metal dumbbell, and blindly and stupidly not realizing how aversive that was to her.

One day I carried her training equipment out to the backyard to practice, and she ran and hid under the back deck. Epiphany time. Here my wonderful Josie, whom I loved to pieces and who loved me, was hiding from me. Obviously, there was something wrong with this picture. So I stopped training for several years while I read/learned about behavior science and positive reinforcement training methods, and then ultimately started Peaceable Paws. We have been committed to force-free training since its inception in 1996.

What is the coolest thing happening today in the dog training industry?

The quantum shift in the last 20 years from an overwhelmingly force-based profession to one where positive reinforcement-based training is becoming the norm, and behavior and training professionals who are well educated in behavior science are becoming the rule, rather than the exception.

What is the one thing dog owners need to know right now?

Dog owners need to know that the whole alpha-dominance “thing” has been completely and totally refuted by behavior science. Your dogs are not trying to dominate you or take over your household. A dog who is aggressive is not being dominant. He is reacting to stress in his world. A dog who gets on the furniture is not trying to be dominant. He is trying to lie down where it is most comfortable and/or close to the humans he loves.

You don’t have to eat first, spit on your dog’s food, walk in front of him, or forcibly roll him on the ground to have a good relationship with your dog. In fact, forcibly rolling him on the ground is far more likely to do serious damage to your relationship and cause him to fear you than respect you. (Note: “fear” and “respect” are not synonyms).

Social groups work (human as well as canine, and other social species) because of deference, not because of dominance. In fact, any training or behavior professional who is still talking about alpha and dominance is clearly not keeping current on modern behavior and learning science.

If you weren’t a dog trainer, what other profession would you have loved to be in?

This is actually my third profession (fourth, if you include the writing) and I have loved them all. My first was as a hunter/jumper trainer and riding instructor, and second was my 20 years in animal protection, where I took great satisfaction in taking animal abusers to court (and winning cases there).

If I were to go back and start all over again? Maybe, just maybe, I would be an attorney with an animal-law practice. Or maybe I would still be a horse trainer turned humane officer turned dog training and behavior professional!

And now, win a copy of Pat’s book!

Would you like the chance to win a copy of How to Foster Dogs: From Homeless to Homeward Bound, autographed by Pat Miller? If so, please do the following:

  1. Create a Disqus account, if you haven’t already, and include a valid email. It takes just a minute and allows you to better participate in Dogster’s community of people who are passionate about dogs. If you already have a Disqus account, check it to ensure the account includes a valid email.
  2. Comment below using your Disqus account, telling us why you’d like to read Pat’s book. Our favorite comment wins. You must be a U.S. resident to win.
  3. Check your email for a “You’ve Won!” message from us after noon PST on Thursday, Jan. 8. We’ll give the winner two days to respond before moving on to our next favorite comment.

Good luck!

About Annie Phenix: Positive-reinforcement dog trainer and author Annie Phenix never met a mountain she did not love. This explains why she lives in Colorado, where she’s surrounded by mountains, and why she is always smiling. She delights in the snowy season here, as do her five dogs, two horses, and six adorably cute donkeys.

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