PODCAST E96: Trish McMillian - "Dog Body Language"

Today we talk to Trish McMillan about her experience working in shelters and with shelter dogs, as well as about some of the most overlooked dog body language cues you need to know!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Trish McMillan.

Trish McMillan is a certified professional dog trainer (through CCPDT), certified dog behavior consultant and associate certified cat behavior consultant (through IAABC) who holds a Master's degree in Animal Behavior from the University of Exeter in England. She specializes in training and behavior modification work using positive reinforcement with dogs, cats, and horses.

Trish has an extensive background in the shelter world. She spent seven years with the ASPCA, three years as the director of the animal behavior department at the ASPCA's New York City shelter, and has helped assess and rehabilitate animals from cruelty, hoarding, and dogfighting cases, and more. She also co-chairs the Shelter Behavior division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and runs an online shelter behavior mentorship through them twice a year.

Hi Trish, welcome to the podcast!

Trish McMillan: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat. To start us out, can you tell us a little bit about the dogs that you have now and what you're working on with them?

Trish McMillan: Sure. I have three dogs, which is the perfect number, as far as I'm concerned.

I have a 12-year-old Puerto Rican Sato who was found on the beach in Puerto Rico as a puppy. If you hear noises in the background, that will be her. I have a 6-year-old pit bull who was seized from a dog-fighting case in 2013, and I have a 4-year-old Doberman who was rehomed from somebody who found her a little too much dog.

And what are we working on? My Sato was a really good working obedience dog. She did rally, a little bit of competitive obedience, and agility, and she's the kind of dog that I swear reads the map before I even go in. You just show it to her and she figures it out, and if I don't mess up, she comes out with a ribbon every time. But she's almost 12, so she's retired.

The pit bull, we're working on assorted art projects. He's very creative, and if you'd like to check out some of his work, he has a Facebook page called Pibbling With Theodore, and he has another one called Pibble Art Collective. I started it because the fighting dogs tend to be super-energetic, and he takes out his energy in creative projects, which often involve toilet brushes, assorted farm supplies, whatever he can get his hands on. He likes to rearrange things, and so instead of getting upset with him, I started taking pictures and giving them names, and that has really helped me cope with having such an energetic and busy and creative dog. His name is Theo.

The Doberman is Maggie, and we have been working on fear things with her. She's quite an anxious dog and so we may try agility, if I ever slow down with the seminar stuff, because I think she would like having a job to do. But she's been very anxious about car rides and new things, so she has just been being a dog for the last year-and-a-half and she's settled into that quite nicely, so I should do more with her.

Melissa Breau: Hey, being a dog's pretty awesome too.

Trish McMillan: For her, just to be a dog is quite a nice step, so I'm happy to see her more comfortable with life in general.

Melissa Breau: To take things back a little bit, how did you originally fall into or wind up in dog training?

Trish McMillan: I was a horse person before I was a dog person. We always had a family dog, which I always trained because nobody else was going to do it, but I trained and showed horses for about twelve years.

And then I got too broke to have horses after I finished art school, so I called up the shelter to see if I could get a dog, and they said, "No dog for you. You're a university student. We don't adopt to university students. You're sometimes away from home more than four hours a day. We don't adopt to people who are away from home four hours a day."

They were in general very rude to me on the phone, so I went to a breeder and bought a Dalmatian for the only good reason anybody ever buys a Dalmatian: I wanted a dog to run beside my horse when I got a horse again, and that's kind of what they do. I knew nothing about buying a dog, and I lucked into this awesome breeder and I got this amazing dog who did obedience and agility and therapy work and was just … I spent 13 years with her, telling people, "Dalmatians aren't all like this." She loved children, she loved everybody, she was a great, great dog.

If my first dog hadn't been so awesome, I don't know if I would have gotten so deeply into dogs. But about three years in I started feeling guilty about having this beautiful purebred purchased dog, so I started volunteering in shelters. That was the mid-'90s, so I guess the rest is history. I still haven't gotten out of the shelter stuff. It sucks you in and you can't ever leave.

Melissa Breau: What got you started on positive training? Obviously, coming from a horse background, that probably wasn't where you came from, so how did that happen?

Trish McMillan: I didn't come from a conventional horse background, because my dad is a minister and my mom is a social worker, so it's not like horses were given to me with lessons and things. I got free horses and I trained them myself, and I read books, and I secretly had a carrot in my back pocket a lot of the time, and I had very obedient horses who really liked me because nobody ever showed me how to do harsher things with them, so I trained without coercion.

It was the early '90s, and they said, "You can't train a dog until they're six months old, because that's how big they have to be to take a choke chain correction." So I trained her at home with cookies and love, and then took her to the class with the choke chain and she was very puzzled and brought her back home and trained her with cookies. So I was really delighted in the mid-'90s, when the whole positive reinforcement thing started coming around. I read Don't Shoot The Dog, and The Culture Clash, and all of these wonderful books that were coming out, and I thought, See, I was right with that carrot in my pocket with the horse.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Trish McMillan: It was really cool to be able to find my people and to be able to go to a class without hiding the cookies. I have been looking for people who know more than I do since that time, and I have been downloading as much as I can from their brains, and I take what is useful to me and discard what I am not so good at. That's what I've been doing since the '90s with dogs and horses, and now I'm working with cats, and I have two goats and I just got two chickens. The cool thing about positive reinforcement training is that if you have things they like, you can get them to do behaviors. It doesn't matter what the species is. If they eat, they can be trained.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there you've been working with shelters since the '90s. As somebody who has worked extensively with shelter dogs, how much can people really tell about a dog's personality and what that personality is actually like while it's still at the shelter? How often do people get it wrong?

Trish McMillan: There's been a real revolution in shelter behavior assessments just in the last few years with some research that's come out. One of the big papers that came out was Patronek and Bradley's paper called "No Better Than Flipping A Coin." What they found is that the two most popular behavior assessments get a whole lot of false positive for aggression and a whole lot of false negatives for aggression, so even if you think you are assessing them as well as a human possibly can, you're not going to get real-life results.

The more modern way to assess behavior in shelters, and what I teach in my shelter behavior class with IAABC, is to start as soon as the dog walks into your building, and get information from whoever found it, get information from whoever is relinquishing it, get information from the officer who seized it, because they'll know maybe it lived in a yard with other dogs, or maybe it was awesome in the car on the way here, or maybe they had it for three days before they brought it in and put up posters. The person bringing the dog in often knows a lot, and the best predictor of future behavior in a home is past behavior in a home, so I really encourage people to get that information because once they're in a shelter, they may have never seen another dog before.

Like, I'm a Canadian and I'm pretty mild-mannered, and if you put me in jail and I had a roommate who kept me up all night, and there was noise and I was fed things that I'm not familiar with and threatened by people who are not as Canadian as I am, I might show some behavior under those circumstances that is not typical of what you'd run into if you were to walk into this house right now.

What we used to do in the behavior assessment was we would annoy the dogs with every possible trigger they could possibly run into in life, all over a 20-minute period in some back room where they have not been before. And — surprise, surprise — what they're finding is we were getting were a lot of false positives for aggression, or we were getting dogs who were so shut down they wouldn't show what they would do in a home.

That's kind of fallen by the wayside, so people are starting with intake, they're getting positive feedback from volunteers, from the people who feed the dogs, the people who see the dogs at their best. We take them out in play groups and see how they are with a variety of other dogs, figure out what kind of friend they would do well with, a lot of shelters send dogs out on field trips, send them home on overnight trips, and you can really build a better picture of what a dog will become if you have multiple points of view.

I'm thrilled that the ASPCA just came out with a position statement saying exactly that, so it's very cool to see the formalized assessments being walked back a bit and dogs given a little more of a chance.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I hadn't heard about that, so that's really cool.

Trish McMillan: Yeah, I should send you some references along these lines, if people are interested in learning more.

Melissa Breau: That would be great, and I'll include the links in the show notes for anybody who wants to take a look.

Trish McMillan: It's an exciting time to be in the shelter world. I see with the rise in fostering and a lot of really cool new programs. I think it's only going to get better for shelter dogs.

Melissa Breau: How do you think the work that you've done with shelters and in shelters has influenced your behavior modification work in the other training that you do?

Trish McMillan: I think shelter training makes you very pragmatic. You tend to want to find the fastest, most expedient, quickest way to get things done. When it's your dog and you can take a little more time, you can shape more things, but in sheltering, if the dog does not learn the behavior, they might not find a home, and the longer they're in the shelter, the less likely it is that they'll get out of the shelter. So I think it's made me a pretty speedy trainer.

I might not be as elegant as some of the competitive obedience trainers that you have, but it's been very helpful in my private practice because I can get things accomplished pretty quickly. I can get any dog to lie down pretty quickly, or go to their bed, or whatever the alternative behavior we decide is that is going to help them with whatever problem they call me with.

I really recommend for young trainers to go and work with shelter dogs, because I've worked with some of the best in the business, I've been doing this for a long time, and I've got a Master's degree in animal behavior, but you know who has taught me the most is shelter dogs. Absolutely, hands down, shelter dogs have taught me how to handle dogs, how to get behaviors quickly, how to handle a leash, how to handle defensively. They've really been my best teachers, and a lot of them are the ones that I brought home and looked in their little eyeballs and said, "How do I work with a dog with this problem?" If they're in your home, you've got to figure it out. So I really, really encourage people to foster, to volunteer, to take shelter dogs out on field trips, if you want to improve your training. They're amazing teachers.

You also meet some dogs in shelters that you won't meet in private practice. You'll meet the ones who are brought in on bite quarantine who you still have to handle. You still have to get them from Point A to Point B, but these aren't dogs that you would necessarily see a whole lot of living in homes. They're dogs who have not succeeded in homes, but they still need to be handled in shelters. They still have to be handled as gently and carefully as possible to keep them and to keep people safe, and that's what I've been teaching a lot of lately.

Melissa Breau: The other advantage that jumps out at me is most people can only have so many dogs in their home at a given time, and in the shelter world you're probably dealing with more dogs more quickly than you might if you're just training your own dogs or even clients' dogs, right?

Trish McMillan: Yeah, and you get a really wide variety of breeds and personality types. It's just a wonderful learning lab for trainers, and the more trainers we get into shelters helping the shelter dogs, the better it is for them. So I'm always encouraging people to spend half a day a week at the shelter, and you will be better for it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. In addition to the dog work, you've done quite a bit of work training other species. You mentioned cats and horses, chickens and goats now. How do you think that impacts your training?

Trish McMillan: I think every species I add makes me a better trainer. I think one of the things that horses did for me was that they made me really good with fearful dogs.

When you're working with a prey animal, with an animal where flight is their first option if they get worried, you learn how to be much more careful with your body, you learn to be not startling with your movements, and horses will also slow you down. You can't make sudden sharp movements, you can't be as sloppy with your clicks and your treats with horses because they're huge, they spook easily, they're always hungry, they're very enthusiastic, so they make you very precise and methodical and slow you down. Whereas your smaller species, like chickens, will speed you up because you've got to be on it, you've got to have that reward into them quickly, or they are on to the next bug. So I think every species I've added has taught me something.

I really encourage trainers to just get a cat, get a friend's cat, mess around with them a little bit, teach them a little bit with a clicker. Cats will teach you humility. You cannot make a cat train. I had a Skype session with a client last week, and I thought, I will use my senior cat, who's an awesome clicker cat, to show her how to teach hand targeting. The cat did one hand target, ate one piece of chicken, and went right out the dog door. She was like, "See ya. Not working right now. There's mice calling me." But it was a good illustration, it was, Your cat will do this, and you can't beg them or force them, and you shouldn't do that with any species. And they're just as smart as dogs. They will learn all kinds of things. They are super, super quick, but you have to change up your training style and your expectations and do it at the cat's speed.

Melissa Breau: That's funny. I know you chatted a bit with Denise about doing a webinar on canine body language, pending us figuring out the rest of the details. And generally I think our audience is slightly more dog-savvy than your average dog lover, so what are some of the more subtle dog body language cues that even a fairly dog-savvy person might miss?

Trish McMillan: I do a small section on body language at our seminars that I do with Mike Shikashio, and I always tell people I could do a whole weekend on body language, because if you're going to do one thing to make you a better trainer, especially working with aggression, I think learning how to read dogs as efficiently and quickly as possible. It's those little changes, these things that happen right before the dog aggresses, or as the dog is amping up, that if you can read them and defuse it, you never get to the bite. Mike is always talking about getting the pot off the stove before it starts whistling. You want to see those little bubbles and crackles.

A lot of people focus too much on the back end of the dog, and they worry about tails and what's going on back there, whereas I look at the pointy end of the dog. I like to look for small wrinkles on the top of the nose, look for tension above the eyes. I think a thing that a lot of people miss — maybe not the Fenzi group — but a lot of us teach about dog body language are those freezes where the dog is panting, panting, panting, and then stops. So we know the more overt stress signals, the lip licks, sniffing the ground, the displacement signals, the yawns — those are pretty obvious. But those little micro-freezes where the dog is panting, panting, panting, and then closes their mouth, that often happens before the dog changes their mind about what they're going to do with you. So I think looking at the stiffness of the body, looking at the little micro-expressions around the face, and that's where working with a wide variety of dogs is really helpful.

Like, I'm a Doberman person, I'm on my fourth Doberman, I'm pretty good at reading them, and I'm on my second pit bull, and I've worked with probably thousands of pit bulls, so I feel like I'm pretty good with some of the breeds I'm more familiar with. But you get a fluffier breed, like a Pomeranian or a Chow, and they don't have all of those little wrinkles. And the different ear types. There are dogs who can do more with their ears than others, like a Shepherd can go from all the way up to all the way back, whereas a Cocker Spaniel can only move the base of their ear.

So it's very helpful to get to know a wide variety of dogs and know what those micro-expressions look like on different faces. A lot of people look at the tail and they're, "Well, the dog's wagging; that means it's happy." But it means they're aroused, and there's good aroused and there's not-so-good aroused, and which one it is is determined by what the rest of the body is doing.

Melissa Breau: That's really interesting, and just thinking through, like you said, there's a difference between talking about a dog where you can see all those muscles and all those little body parts moving and something with too much hair to see it and figure out what they're thinking.

Trish McMillan: I think a lot of the times when we see … like, I'm a hardcore pit bull person, and there's always these horrible articles and suddenly and without warning the dog just attacked somebody. I always wish I had video, because suddenly and without warning a dog is going from friendly to biting. I'm sure it happens, maybe if they've got a brain tumor, but if you could read dogs, and I would bet what those same people are missing is the freeze, is the cessation of behavior. It's hard to read a lack of behavior. It's so important. I really urge the people who are listening to this to educate folks, to teach people about freezes, because dogs read that really well and humans don't, and very young humans don't at all.

Melissa Breau: Right. Very young humans aren't always so good at reading even the more obvious signs.

Trish McMillan: I know, I know. That's why they get more bites than the older ones, and it's so important for us to learn as much as we can about body language. I'm still learning. Every dog I work with teaches me a little bit more.

Melissa Breau: What about when it comes to dog-dog play? What is there that even some dog-savvy people might not think about?

Trish McMillan: That was the other topic that Denise and I were discussing doing a webinar on, because a lot of us, especially if you've got competitive dogs, maybe you don't let them play. Maybe they only play with their very good friends, so you get to know how your dog plays, but what do you do if … what I just did this weekend, I came to my friend's house with one of my dogs and she has two dogs who don't know this one, so how do we introduce them? How do we know if they're going to get along?

There's so much to learn about dog play. My first paying job in the dog industry was in a dog daycare. I did that for two-and-a-half years, and I'm so grateful for that to this day, because 2000 hours a year of watching dogs play with one another teaches you a lot, like often on a level you're not even processing. You can feel the tension over at the other end of the room and go, "Something's going to erupt," and you can't even put your finger on it. It's been really helpful for me in my shelter work because dog play is becoming a lot more popular in rehabbing shelter dogs. I foster a lot and I do board-and-train, so I'm often bringing dogs in and introducing them, so I think it's great for dog professionals to learn more about dog play. I think most of us micro-manage it a lot too much, and I think we can get our dogs and ourselves in trouble because every move they make they're being interrupted or pulled off by the leash.

I don't like letting dogs play with one another on-leash. If I'm out walking my dogs … and they're all pretty dog-social, but even if they meet a dog they like, even if I have my most social dog — which is the fight-bust pit bull, ironically enough — if he meets a dog that he really likes, he can't play on-leash. He'll start bouncing around, he'll start choking himself, nobody makes good decisions while they're being strangled, their leashes can get tangled.

I like to do introductions off-leash, and the things I look for are the … dog play is just rehearsal for everything the dogs are going to do in life, so they are fake-playing, they are fake-humping, they are fake-chasing and stalking. A lot of it depends on what they were originally bred for, but knowing what's normal for your dogs, and figuring out what's friendly, and knowing when to step back and just let the dogs be dogs.

I think about all of the time in daycare … we had a webcam in our daycare so the moms in Silicon Valley could check in on their dogs, so I spent a lot of time getting dogs to stop humping one another, and I had leashes and time-outs and protocols and warning signals. I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that mom in Silicon Valley didn't see anything happen to little Fluffy. But now that I work with shelter dogs in play groups, my favorite thing to do with a humpy dog is to put them with a mama dog who will just say, "Stop it right now," in a way that won't hurt them, and they get it. With me going and interrupting and "Please stop," and "You're going to get a time out and you're going to sit in the naughty-dog pen for a while," as soon as you let them out, they go right back to it, but one correction from a mama dog and they go, "Oh, I'm going to think twice before I do that." So sometimes dogs can be their own best teachers, but you've got to know when it's OK to let it go and when you have to step in, and that's a fine line that takes some practice and some teaching.

I would love to talk about that because I've seen just amazing healing happen in shelter dogs, particularly with the fearful ones, if another dog comes along and helps them through it. My little pit bull does a lot of great work with me with fearful dogs. If a client has a fearful dog who's social, I'll often take Theo over and maybe go for a walk around the neighborhood with him, and their dog will go, "OK, I've got a friend, I'm all right." And often if they play a little bit, I think the oxytocin that comes out in play is an amazing healer of traumatized dogs. And I love, as I am pulling out of the driveway, to let them know that he comes from a dog-fighting bust, after he has helped their fearful dog through it.

So yeah, I think dog play is making a big impact in the shelter world right now. A lot of people are using it with their shelter dogs, and I think we could use it with our clients a little more, if we have the right dog to help them.

Melissa Breau: Of course getting that right dog isn't always so easy, but absolutely.

Trish McMillan: I know, I know. I got mine from a shelter dog playgroup because he was so good with the other dogs at playing. I said, "You need to belong to a trainer."

Melissa Breau: So you can do more good.

Trish McMillan: Yeah, yeah. He works very hard and he loves his work, and I love having a rescue dog who can help other people's dogs.

Melissa Breau: So we're getting to the end here, and there are three questions that I always ask at the end of the interview anytime I have someone new on the show. First, what's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Trish McMillan: Oh boy. I think that would probably have to be my first Doberman, who I adopted after I had to euthanize a really aggressive dog of mine, so the correct thing to do is two days later adopt a really aggressive Doberman from the shelter. The one I couldn't help, he really had something chemically wrong with his brain, and this Doberman, I felt like she was salvageable, so she was kind of my penance.

So I adopted Sara in 1999. She did not like men, she did not like you messing with her resources, she did not like having her collar grabbed, if you went anywhere near her nails, she would snap at you and then take off, just many, many, many issues. But she was smart and she was sane and she was trainable.

That dog, at age 8, I took her to her first and last agility trial, and she was able to do two or three courses that day with a male judge following her around with a clipboard, with no collar on her, no leash, no nothing. Just to be able to take that dog through an agility course, with all the humans around, with men around, and have her just present as a completely normal dog by the end of her life, I think that's probably the thing I'm most proud of.

Melissa Breau: That's a lot of work, I'm sure. It took a lot to get there. That's pretty awesome.

Trish McMillan: She lived ten years with me and she did not bite anybody, so that was an awesome accomplishment, because she was slated for euthanasia at the shelter for aggression. Honestly, if I met her at this point, I probably wouldn't adopt her to a normal person, either, because she really was a lot of work, but she taught me a lot.

Melissa Breau: Sometimes the harder dogs do teach us the most.

Trish McMillan: I think every trainer's got at least one of those in our past.

Melissa Breau: My next question here is, what is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Trish McMillan: There have been so many. I've been thinking about this one since you sent me the questions. It's so hard to pin one down, but the one that keeps popping into my mind is something that Steve White said a long time ago, and it was, "Whenever you are with your dog, one of you is training the other."

Melissa Breau: I love that.

Trish McMillan: I know. Having Theodore the pit bull, I think he's a really good people-trainer, and he is most often the one who is doing the training, but it's a fun journey either way.

Melissa Breau: That's excellent. I hadn't heard that one before, so I really like that. My last one here: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Trish McMillan: Besides Denise, who has taught me a ton about dog-human play, I would say Patricia McConnell has got to be one of my all-time favorites. I have to respect anybody who does all of the work to get a Ph.D., but the thing I love about her is that she walks the walk as well. She does amazing things with her own dogs and she's wonderful with people. The trainers I admire the most are the ones who have the whole package, who know the science, who are good with the humans, and who can also really, really train dogs well. And she's a fantastic writer, so I follow her blog, as well as of course Denise's.

Melissa Breau: It takes a lot to be good at all three of those.

Trish McMillan: It really does. I think a lot of people go into training because they hate people and just they want to train dogs, and that's fine if you want to train service dogs and somebody else introduces them to the humans. But, for the most part, it's the other end of the leash that is writing you the paycheck, so you've got to make that client happy as well, or adopter, or service dog handler, so I really think being able to talk to both ends of the leash is super-important. Another hat tip to Patricia McConnell, who wrote a book by that title, The Other End of the Leash.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Trish! This has been great.

Trish McMillan: Thanks so much for having me. I am excited to be working on some webinars for Denise, and hopefully we will get a little more stuff out in 2019. We haven't decided on a date yet, but I'm real excited to be working with you guys. It's a huge, huge thing that you're doing to improve training in pet dogs as well as competitive dogs.

Melissa Breau: I was super-excited about it.

Trish McMillan: That is great. Have a great night.

Melissa Breau: You too. Thanks again for joining us, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with a surprise episode talking about the future of R+.

Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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