Brittany Fulton, 35, is the founder of and sole trainer at Dances with Dogs, a Silver Spring canine behavioral practice. Since her days in Eugene, Oregon, Fulton has been an early, leading voice of positive reinforcement training, a technique that she argues is well suited for professional households and their dogs. After she completed a degree in psychology and animal behavior at the University of Oregon, a mentor encouraged her to pursue more schooling, with a focus on force-free positive reinforcement. Her signature methodology was the result of an intensive two-year program grounded in how the mind works. “My classmates felt my psychology degree gave me a huge advantage,” Fulton says. “In retrospect, it did. It allowed me to go even further in my intensive, force-free explorations.” She came to the Washington, D.C., area in 2016 for her husband’s job and found herself part of a “very small group” of trainers working with that approach. We chatted with her about it; this interview has been edited and condensed.
You’ve studied all kinds of animals. What’s so fascinating about dogs in particular?
When I arrived in D.C., I was eager to take on an internship at the National Zoo, mainly to explore my interest in wild and exotic animals. Two things struck me—first, the work on this classification of animals was incredibly familiar, rooted in dog training and stuff I already knew. Humans, dogs and zoo animals like seals, for example, all seek out the same thing: affirmative response. Any type of training needs a reinforcement in order for the animal to continue behavior. For a seal, it is fish; for a dog, it is a treat; for a human, it is the same. This is all rooted in the same psychological place—there is a clear overlap.
What really got me was how work with canines was based on a much deeper level of understanding, echoing through generations and based on perfecting communication between dog and human. With dogs, the signals go both ways: They tell us things, for example, when they need to go out to relieve themselves, and we tell them things, for example, how to walk with us.
You’re an advocate for ‘positive reinforcement training.’ What does that mean?
The focus is on working with clients whose goal is seeing their dog happy and communicating to them what is appropriate for the environment or situation. This is a major shift away from ‘do as I say, or else.’ It is science- and reward-based, and signals a commitment to mutual respect. Owners should see their dogs as emotional, intelligent beings and strive for ways to connect with them.
Why do you think that approach is suitable for our society now?
Especially in the past few years, when we have found ourselves home and our dogs have taken a central role in our lives, this is who we are. We are not people who keep dogs outside in the yard. On the contrary, our dogs sleep with us, hike and walk with us, sit by the table when we eat—they are such a big part of our lives. Meaning, behavioral issues cannot be ignored. Inherent to this is the way in which we attempt to ignore what dogs were bred for and focus on their domestication.
Why do you look at what our dogs were genetically bred for versus how we
At this stage in our evolution, dogs are in the house with us, and as such create or present many new challenges, such as how to respond to delivery people. Our dogs were bred to keep people away from homes. So we are having to work through what dogs were bred for, which may not align well with our lives. An example would be terriers: This breed was bred to chase and kill rats and other small, fast animals. That would likely explain why they use their ‘high prey drive’ to go after Chihuahuas at the dog park or chase down birds and squirrels on a walk.
What is the human job in all of this?
Simple: to keep our dogs occupied and feeling safe. And this becomes a difficult goal to meet when you, the owner, are working at a computer most of the day. This is where training, be it private or through classes, comes into play.
What are some good ways to keep our dogs stimulated?
One, dogs benefit from the exercise and mental stimulation of walks; they sniff new smells and they tire both their minds and their bodies. Mentally stimulating toys are a complement to walking. Things like a Kong or Busy Buddy are toys that can be stuffed with various food items. I like these because they require a dog ’s dedication. It is a task toy, one that takes commitment for the dog to pull the treat out. This is also a great ‘quiet while on a call’ toy.
If you could give dog ‘parents’ just one piece of advice, what would it be?
My wish is to convince everyone to eliminate all punishment tools from the public. While these were once considered best practice, they are no longer advisable. These are cruel and not the way to train our dogs. We in the canine community have seen some really bad outcomes from these methods, including negative feelings of fear and distrust that are hard to undo. Positive begets positive.
5 dog behavior essential
These should include favorite though regular snacks for daily use. “High-value” handouts signify progress and accomplishments, something that qualifies as a reward for extraordinary work. “The pooch doesn’t get these gold stars on a regular basis,” Brittany Fulton says. “The difference is in what they signal to your dog.”
- Non-retractable walking gear
Plain old leashes give you more control and are preferable over fancier retractable models when establishing positive habits, Fulton says.
- A no-pull harness
This is an effective and humane method to reduce pulling while on walks. Fulton prefers the brand 2 Hounds Design.
- A “special spot”
Keep your dog’s toys and bed in one designated spot in the house. It creates control and comfort for your pet. Better still, and if young kids are around, it signals for those kids to show respect and leave your dog alone.
- A crate or exercise pen
This establishes your dog’s area both for comfort and for purposes of identifying their turf within the home. They should have the ability to access it at will, giving them a sense of their own safe space.
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.