Interview with Author & Dog Obedience Trainer Marissa Martino

Our relationship with our canine companions can be a window into how we relate to the world around us. It gives us insight to what holds us back and shows us where we
can expand and connect in our own lives.

Marissa Martino, CTC, CPDT-KA, Founder of Paws & Reward and Published Author

Dog Obedience Training

Marissa Martino of Boulder, CO began working with dogs 10 years ago, and she hasn’t looked back since. She was enjoying a successful career as a designer for Martha Stewart but yearning for a change, she decided to attend San Francisco’s Academy of Dog Trainers. Through her subsequent work at various animal shelters and organizations in the Bay Area and Boulder, she honed her philosophy: an approach to behavior modification grounded in positive reinforcement, understanding body language, and the overall strengthening of a relationship between a dog and owner.

In addition to holding dual certifications (CTC and CPDT-KA), she started her own training business, Paws & Reward, which offers in-home and online services for puppy training, obedience training, and behavior modification. Additionally, she serves as the Behavior Manager at the Dumb Friends League in Denver, where she manages a team of volunteers and fosters a positive, supportive culture. Notably, she presented at the 2014 Conference of the Humane Society of the United States, sharing with others her experiences developing volunteer programs to assist shelter dogs. She’s also been recognized in the magazine Animal Sheltering.

She recently published a book entitled Human/Canine Behavior Connection: A Better Self Through Dog Training, which walks people through her 10-step process with an interactive workbook, aiming to modify the behavior of both dogs and their owners with a compassionate, holistic approach. The book details not only her time-tested training techniques, but it also elucidates the parallels between how dogs and their owners perceive the world, paying thought to how people can better understand themselves in being aware of the bond with their pet.

Ms. Martino generously agreed to a 30-minute phone interview about her career and new book with VetTechColleges.com in June 2017. Please note that this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

[VetTechColleges.com] I learned a bit about your book Human/Canine Behavior Connection: A Better Self Through Dog Training and core philosophy from your business website. Let’s begin with your professional background and how you started your career.

[Marissa Martino] Sure! Ten years ago, I began my career in dog training and animal sheltering after working in design. I just knew that I wanted to work with animals. I met with a woman who was a dog trainer in New York City, and she told me about this behavior program through the San Francisco SPCA called the Academy for Dog Trainers. I decided to quit my job at Martha Stewart and my dad was like, “What the hell are you doing?!” [Laughs]

Back in 2007, I attended the program for a few months in SF. I couldn’t find a job [in San Francisco], but then I got a job offer in Boulder, and so I moved here and started my first animal shelter position at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. I was there for two years working in the behavior department. That’s where I learned the foundation of what I know, and then I moved back to San Francisco and got the job at East Bay SPCA. And then I moved back to Colorado and had my own private practice for a year, finally moving into animal sheltering full time and running my private practice part time.

My philosophy and techniques are rooted in science from that behavior program that I did ten years ago, as well as all of the shelters and training groups I’ve joined which focused on positive reinforcement. Also, I began to make the human/canine behavior connection when I started to go to therapy. This was in 2007, when I hated Boulder and told myself, “I need to get fixed. I’ve never been depressed before. This is uncomfortable and I don’t like it and I need to go fix myself in therapy!”

Obviously, that’s not how therapy works. One day, I was very upset that I had regressed—like I had not lived up to my potential. I was super hard on myself and my therapist asked me, “What would you say to your dog training client if they and their dog had regressed in the training plan?” And I responded, “Oh, well I would tell them that regression is a part of learning.” I was just so compassionate towards my clients and I realized that there’s a strong correlation and parallel in behavior modification for both people and canines. So then that’s kinda how I developed the philosophy. That was the impetus.

That’s awesome. So just more granularly, can you tell me a little bit about the ten steps or the part of philosophy that you derived from that experience?

Sure. So how I’ve broken it down is that there are four systems: first is the animal’s relationship to his world. How does he respond to it? Is he anxious? Is he aggressive? Is he confrontational? What’s happening with him and his world? Lots of times, dog owners take this personally but it’s not about us. The next system is how is the owner responding to that. Is the owner embarrassed? Is the owner excited? Is the owner ashamed? The third system is about how the dog and the person are interacting together. Do they meet each other’s’ needs? Are they co-creating solutions together?

And then through the three systems, we work on a fourth system, which is taking those principles and learning opportunities in relationship with one’s dog and applying them to one’s own personal life. For example, I might have a tendency to project my hardships onto my dog and also to other people. So I tried to become more aware of this tendency, asking myself, “When am I projecting?” and “When do I need to get clarity from another person?”

My dog has taught me a lot. Like sometimes I feel that I need to look perfect or be perfect, and I project that onto him. That has actually been super detrimental to our relationship, and then that’s not great for my relationship with myself or anyone around me, right?

Yeah.

So it’s just taking that internal lesson about a relationship with a dog and saying, “How can I use this to shine a light to other areas of my life?”

Let me make sure I understand. So using your example, if you have some sort of self-consciousness about your looks, it’s going to affect the way that you behave towards your dog. Is that right?

Sort of. It could be another way too. Some people are so forgiving to their animals, but they’re not that way with people. One example in my book is when a person looks inward and says, “Well, I already have the ability to be forgiving and compassionate towards my dog. How can I generalize and apply this skill toward people? What gets in my way? What is it about my dog that helps me lean into that? Who am I when I lean into that?” There are a lot of questions and exercises [in the book] to help people dig internally to just gain awareness. Fundamentally it has dog-owners ask themselves who are they in relationship with their dog. Where are they great and where are they struggling? And does that show up in other areas of their life?

That’s great. So with your clients, what are some of the most common mistakes dog-owners make that reflect either the way that they feel about themselves or that might impact the relationship they have with their animal?

Oftentimes dog-owners will take things personally, making the dog’s reaction to an environment about them when it’s really not. For instance, a dog might bark and lunge at other dogs because he feels threatened and he’s learned that when he barks and lunges, that scary dog across the street continues walking and he gets the space he desires. So moving forward, he’s gonna bark and lunge, right?

Definitely.

And people—if they’re old school—may tell themselves, “I have to dominate my dog and let him know who’s boss so he doesn’t do that particular behavior.” But actually that behavior’s very normal. Many times when I wind up normalizing things for clients, they’re typically relieved that the behavior not about them. If I meet a dog who’s not reactive, that’s abnormal. So people then learn to stop taking it personally.

I think they also don’t know how to read dog’s body language. I’m always shocked how much people don’t know how to listen or understand what their dog is communicating. There are little subtle cues that I think people need to pay attention to. The signs may be very loud and clear for dogs, but they’re not really loud and clear for us.

So there’s definitely a cultural clash between us and dogs, and then we end up projecting a lot of expectations onto them; we may become really disappointed when the dogs don’t show up as we had hoped. That’s a really tricky one, too: the fact that our society expects dogs to perform as robots. Expecting them to heel next to our leg despite distractions is so controlling, right? Some dogs are super resistant to it. Sometimes I ask my clients to let go of that and then we make the walk more fun and we do more fun relationship engaging games. Did we teach them like a heel? No, but we just relieved the power struggle that’s been happening. Why do you need your dog to walk right next to you? You don’t really, but that’s what dogs are supposed to do. You know what I mean?

Yeah. That’s the image that we have.

We’re told that a dog should do that. It’s a lot of pressure on them.

I feel like society in some ways imposes an analogous expectation for people. We’re expected to subscribe to a particular lifestyle; we need to have a productive job; we need to make money; we need to buy property; we need to have kids; and then we need to eventually die, and that’s the mold. [Laughs]

Yeah, you’re right. There’s definitely a mold there.

Earlier you mentioned something really interesting. Can you tell me some of the common ways that dogs communicate their internal states, or some of these signals that maybe people aren’t picking up on?

Yeah, so there are a few different categories of behavior, and we go over this in a chapter because it’s all about body language. For example, there are displacement behaviors: behaviors which occur out of context. One of them is shaking off. So if I give a dog a bath, he’s obviously gonna do a shake-off afterwards, right?

Yeah.

However, if my dog meets your dog and your dog is a little bit nervous, and my dog’s a little bit forward in his body language, your dog may walk away and do a full body shake-off. That’s essentially his reset button for his nervous system. If you’re scared of flying, you can run around the airport like freaking out and screaming, and everyone would obviously know that you’re stressed. Instead, you might stand in a corner and rub your arm repeatedly when you don’t have an itch. You’re not cold, but you’re doing that as like a self-soothing behavior. For dogs, there are about seven of these. So it’s shaking off, sneezing, scratching, stretching, lip-licking, yawning…

So do they all have different implications, or…

No, they’re all the same. Like you might actually see a dog yawning and lip-licking and then scratching himself all in one go. These behaviors all soothe the nervous system.

Wow. Interesting.

What I tell clients is that there are these little yellow flags, right? People often don’t notice these. A dog walks into the vet’s office and is scratching even though he doesn’t have fleas, or he’s licking his chops. He might be mildly stressed. He’s not overtly fearful, ducking under a chair with his tail tucked and ears back. We all know that, but he’s more showing, “I’m uncomfortable and I’m trying my best to deal with it.”

That’s really interesting. A lot of people have nervous ticks, too, and I never considered that dogs also express themselves that way. Can you tell me a story about one of your most difficult dog clients and how you overcame those challenges?

I have one dog, Decker, and he had a history of biting people. He’s some kind of Golden/Aussie mix but he’s smaller, maybe 35 pounds. His trigger seems to be escalated when his mom’s around—”escalated” meaning he’s more reactive and more confrontational. When her roommate has people over, he just runs and hides in the room. So there seems to be some sort of territorial piece that happens with the mom present.

So he has a history of snapping and making contact with people, but not really breaking skin, which shows me that he has good bite inhibition; he can control his mouth even when he is stressed. Dogs can really nail you if they want to!

Absolutely.

We did some training and he was probably the most stoic dog I’d ever worked with. I worked really hard on my relationship with him, listening to his body language all the time. I constantly gave him high value treats, and I would move really slow around him because part of his trigger was if I stood up too fast, made a weird noise, or made a really big movement with my hands; those behaviors were really threatening for him. Like he could solicit attention, and then he’d be sitting near you, and then when you make the gesture, his body language would indicate, “I was okay when you were still. I’m not okay with you moving now.”

These types of dogs I think are really challenging because they do want social interaction, but they want it in a specific package. They don’t want it always.

On their own terms.

Yeah, like it’s all up to them basically. There’s a protocol that I do involving a target mat where they lie down, and we work on rewarding all calming behaviors while adding distraction. Basically this mat is a place where he can go and just chill out. It’s akin to a yoga mat. It’s like if you pull a yoga mat out, you’re gonna go into your flow, right?

Right.

So when you pull this particular mat out, the dog knows to target it, lie down, and relax. And so it’s really helpful when there are stressful situations. We also taught him how to leave scenarios when there are stressful situations. So we would say, “Go home” and he would go into her bedroom and stay there. And then once he got that really good and he was loving this game, we then started to add in the scary triggers. I would stand up really tall and his mom would say “Go home.” He would go into the room and be rewarded for that. So we were teaching him how to make a different choice, that just because he wants space, he doesn’t need to get confrontational for it. He can actually remove himself and get the space he so desires.

And then his mom was taught to go walk with him to settle him down because that’s part of it too. He’s getting confrontational because there’s some concern around his mom, right?

Yeah.

I also worked a ton on reading his body language, and I think that that in general has just been so helpful for her because she’s not putting him in scenarios expecting him to be social with people, and he then in turn feels a lot less stressed.

We also worked with him being more excited about being touched and things like that because we even noticed that he had a sensitivity towards her touching him, so we worked a lot on massage and that touching predicted good outcomes. The key with behavior modification is that you always have to move at the dog’s pace.

We can have an agenda, but when we get married to the agenda is when I feel that behavior modification falls apart. If my therapist tells me, “By the next session you need to get over your fear of whatever,” that doesn’t work because when the person feels pressured, he or she pushes back and change doesn’t happen.

I see. I think one of the most interesting parts of your philosophy is the application of these techniques to dealing with people. Can you tell me an example of a breakthrough one of your clients had in their relationship to the world?

Sure. I had one client who was so great. I worked with them since that dog was a puppy; I probably had done 20 sessions with them, and [the dog owner] was always criticizing herself. Every time I came, she was throwing herself under the bus. I saw progress in the dog, and I should mention that I don’t hound my clients; I just check in with them and ask, “Hey, were you able to get these done? If not, tell me why and we can make modifications.” But she was so hard on herself, and I felt like she had anxiety that was then transmitted to the dog. She always felt like she couldn’t commit to the training, but yet she paid money for me to come back. It was really conflicting and so I asked her, “Tell me one thing that you’ve committed to in your life.” And I knew a bunch of these things already because I knew her. She’s a hugely successful businesswoman. She replied, “I don’t really know if I have anything.” And her husband couldn’t believe it.

She eventually said, “Well, I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’ve been sober for 13 years.” And I asked her what drove her to to make that commitment, encouraging her to use her tenacity in that particular area to then commit to this training and giving her permission to ask herself, “Do I need to commit to this training? Is it a priority?” So I helped give her permission and she no longer felt she had to put the pressure on her and her dog. And it helped her see, “Oh wow, I do have it in me and I can take a break. It’s not a big deal.”

Yeah.

And I just find that so many people have asked me about my dog, whether or not I’ve done more training with him, and the answer is yes; I have done some training since I moved back to Colorado, but I really dropped my expectations and decided that I’m gonna connect with him and I’m gonna listen to him. His behavior has shifted because of that. Expectations can get in the way of the relationship. For example, if I expected my partner to show up in one way and he didn’t, I might be super disappointed, and then I wouldn’t be able to see other ways in which he showed up.

That’s such a beautiful lesson for human relationships as well. People’s displeasure often lies in the gap between their expectations and their reality.

Jocelyn Blore (Editor)

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Jocelyn traveled the world for five years as an English teacher and freelance writer. After stints in England, Japan, and Brazil, she settled in San Francisco and worked as a managing editor for a tech company. When not writing about veterinary technology, nursing, engineering, and other career fields, she satirizes global politics and other absurdities at Blore’s Razor.