Sunday, 19 February 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News February 2017

The latest news on cats and dogs from Companion Animal Psychology.

Some of my favourite posts from around the web this month

"Cats, on the other hand get a raw deal. Especially stray ones." Our cat in Havana by Will Grant.

Memory wins when dogs sleep. Julie Hecht on how sleep helps learning in dogs.

"I will never forget the first time a patient died at the clinic." Compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout in the animal care profession by Dr. Vanessa Rohlf.

Opening the heart's floodgates, with a paw. Beautiful piece by Amy Sutherland about match-making people and dogs at a shelter.

The need for transparency in training and behaviour. Daniel Antolec writing for the Pet Professional Guild blog about the problem of false representations in the dog training and animal behaviour industry.

I can’t control neurodegeneration: on acceptance and letting go. Maureen Backman’s diary of life with her senior dog Earl.

International Cat Care on the problems faced by ‘designer’ cats: Manx, Munchkin and Scottish Fold.

Does good welfare equate to happiness? Monkeys, happiness and winning debatesLauren Robinson's post about her PhD research on monkeys is of wide interest to anyone who cares about animal welfare.

Pets in the News…

Trump shutting down the USDA animal welfare info as reported by TeenVogue.  Some information has since been put back, but not the missing puppy mill reports, says ASPCA.

DNA saves a dog in Michigan from the death penalty.

The sale of puppies under 8 weeks old is to be made illegal in the UK, as illegal puppy imports ‘more than treble’ in 3 years.

Breed-specific legislation is not working for dog control, says Prince George’s top bylaw officer. Prince George wants to follow Calgary’s lead and draft new laws based on responsible ownership rather than breed. Meanwhile, Laval has new animal control bylaws that do not include BSL
And Surrey skips breed ban, puts more teeth into updated dog bylaw. The BC SPCA says it’s the best bylaw in the province.

86,000 Hong Kongers get minor injuries from domestic animals every year and cats are the most common culprit followed by dogs. Playing with the pet was the most common activity immediately prior to the attack.

And Scottish hospitals see 80% increase in dog attack victims.

Taiwan animal euthanasia ban comes into force  following the suicide of veterinarian Chien Chih-Cheng last year

French Bulldogs are increasingly popular in the UK, and that’s a welfare issue, explains Pete Wedderburn.

Dogs Trust joins the Sort Our Shelters campaign to license shelters in Scotland.

Upcoming Events

The Delta Institute Dog Behaviour Conference 7 – 9 April 2017 in Sidney. Keynote speaker Dr. Alexandra Horowitz; other speakers include Dr. Julie Ashton, Dr. Vanessa Rohlf, Dr. Melissa Starling, Dr. Bradley Smith and Dr. Gaille Perry.

Summer internships at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale.

Measuring animal welfare and applying scientific advances: Why is it still so difficult? UFAW International Symposium 27 – 29 June 2017 Royal Holloway, University of London UK.

UFAW Animal Welfare Student Scholarships Deadline 28th February.

Photos and Video

I love this photo series by Italian photographer Marianna Zampieri of hard-working cats on the job. You can follow her on Facebook

This Vanity Fair article has a trailer for the documentary Kedi about the street cats of Istanbul.

Jane Sobel Klonsky’s photos of senior dogs and their people, from the book Unconditional: Older dogs, deeper love, are featured in this article in The Oregonian.

Fashion’s most stylish dog, Hector Browne, at New York Fashion week.

Just your average video of two blind cats enjoying themselves… via Slate.

Alexandra Horowitz on the alpha dog myth.

Research Studies

These two research studies are currently looking for participants:

US Pet Owners: This survey aims to investigate the use of the internet by U.S. pet owners to find pet health information. It will take 5 - 10 minutes to complete. More information is available on the first page of the survey

UK Pet Owners: This survey aims to investigate the use of the internet by UK pet owners to find pet health information. It will take 5 - 10 minutes to complete. More information is available on the first page of the survey.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal.

My article, “Dominance” training deprives dogs of positive experiences, has struck a chord this month. Many thanks to Marc Bekoff for mentioning this post in his round-up of “hot” dog articles. You should check out the other articles he mentions too.

Several friends of Companion Animal Psychology have shared photos of their happy dogs with me, and it makes me very happy to see all these photos.

If you want to stay up-to-date with the science about dogs, cats and the human-animal bond, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology. Subscribers can send me their comments simply by hitting the reply button – it comes straight to my in box.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

"Dominance" Training Deprives Dogs of Positive Experiences

Dominance is an outdated approach to dog training – and it also means dogs miss out on fun.

A dog playing with her toy in a blur of snow

Approaches to dog training based on dominance rely on the idea that you have to be the ‘alpha’ or pack leader. Unfortunately, this type of dog training is not just out-of-date and potentially risky, but modern approaches to dog training are also a lot more fun – for you and the dog.

What is dominance in dog training?

We sometimes hear the phrase ‘my dog is being dominant.’ ‘Your dog is being dominant’ can even be an insult because it implies you are not confident enough.

What people mean by ‘dominant’ can be anything from your dog walking through a door in front of you, to jumping on you, or relaxing on the sofa, growling at you or winning a game of tug. For that reason alone, it’s not a very helpful description.

Let’s unpack these examples for a moment, because using a framework of dominance is taking away the person’s choice about things. It’s perfectly fine for your dog to walk in front of you, and it’s up to you if they jump on you to greet you or are allowed on the sofa (some people like it, some people don’t – of course strangers probably don’t like to be jumped on).

If your dog growls at you, it’s important not to punish them because this is their way of telling you they are uncomfortable; instead you should stop what you are doing and reconsider how you can fix it so you and your dog are both happy. A dominance-based approach would potentially put you in danger of getting bitten.

As for tug… dogs who win at tug are more involved in the game (suggesting they enjoy it more) and show more playful attention-seeking afterwards, such as nuzzling and pawing at their owner (Rooney & Bradshaw 2002). Games of tug can be fun for you and the dog, and are a useful way to entertain your dog at times when walks are limited. Arbitrarily saying people should not play tug or should not let the dog win is doing a disservice to both dogs and people.

Problems with dominance in dog training

When people apply dominance to dog training, it usually results in them using aversive methods, such as alpha rolls, because they think they have to make their dog submit. This can cause a range of issues.

Here are just a few examples:

  • There is a risk of an aggressive response with the use of confrontational methods (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009). 31% of people who did an alpha roll, 39% who forced the dog to let go of something from their mouth, and 43% of people who hit or kicked the dog reported an aggressive response. 
  • If people use aversive training techniques, their dogs are 2.9 times more likely to be aggressive to a family member and 2.2 times more likely to be aggressive to a stranger outside the home than if the dog had been trained using reward-based methods (Casey et al 2014). 
  • Greater frequency of punishment is associated with an increased prevalence of aggression and excitability (Arhant et al 2010) 
  • Dogs trained to sit and walk on leash using leash jerks or tugs and pushing the dog into a sit position showed more signs of stress (mouth-licking, yawning, and lowered body posture) than those taught with reward-based techniques. They also gazed less at their owner, suggesting the human-canine relationship is not as good (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014). 

A very cute German Shepherd puppy in a garden
Photo: Grigorita Ko; top, alexei_tm; below, oneinchpunch (all

What do scientists think about dominance and dogs?

“Dominance” as applied by so many people in dog training is not the same as “dominance” when used by scientists, which is a much more nuanced term. Even so, it does not adequately describe the relationship between dogs and people.

Writing in his Psychology Today blog, John Bradshaw, author of Dog Sense, explains that for dogs to think about dominance would actually require some important cognitive abilities – knowing that other creatures can think about us – which we have no evidence that dogs have.

He says,
“It is more parsimonious to interpret dogs’ behaviour as if they were simply trying to maintain access to essential resources, perhaps the most important being, uniquely for this species, access to one or more human attachment figures.”

So how does this relate to dog training? In the same post, Bradshaw says,
“Both for their own safety and to be acceptable to society, companion dogs need to be kept under control, but that can be achieved by reward-based training, without reference to their position in some illusory “hierarchy”.”

Now, you can find some scientists who think dogs have dominance hierarchies between themselves, and Marc Bekoff summarizes some of them in his blog. But he also says,
“I don't think that dogs need to be forced into submission to train or to teach them how to live harmoniously with other dogs, with other animals, or with humans. I favor positive training/teaching methods and they have been shown to be highly effective in achieving these goals.”

Let’s be clear about this: these two scientists have very different views about dominance and dogs, but they both say it’s not the way to train a dog.

It’s unfortunate that some people mistakenly believe the dominance or pack leader approach to dog training is based in science, especially since it has negative consequences.

Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and Being a Dog, explains the problems with the alpha dog myth in this recent video for Business Insider.

Luckily, there is an excellent alternative to the dominance approach: reward-based dog training.  

Reward-Based Dog Training: Many Things to Like

Let’s look at reward-based training from the dog’s perspective. 

First of all, it teaches the dog what to do, instead of just what not to do. With reward-based training your dog knows, for example, to sit and wait while you come in from the car with bags of shopping instead of jumping all over you. Over time, if the behaviour of ‘sit’ keeps getting reinforced, your dog will sit in other situations when they are not sure what to do. That happens to align with what you would like too, but can you see how it’s useful from the dog’s perspective? It helps to give a sense of control e.g. “If I sit, I will get patted.”

Secondly, it’s something fun for the dog to do with you. Dogs love hanging out with their owners and doing nice things. The great thing about reward-based training is that your dog is guaranteed to earn some rewards, because you’re going to set the difficulty level to make sure that happens.

And did you know that dogs like to work to earn rewards? Ragen McGowan, the scientist who worked on what she called the ‘eureka effect’ in dogs (McGowan et al 2013) told me that it’s just like the great feeling we get when we solve a problem. Dogs in her study wagged their tails more and were more excited to get another go when they had to work to earn the reward, compared to when they just got the reward anyway.

A dog wants to take the ball from her owner's lap

Plus, of course dogs like the reward. Maybe it’s a piece of tripe stick (that’s a favourite in this household) or cheese or roast beef or tuna fudge… these are not the main component of your dog’s diet and so it’s a nice treat for them to get something different and tasty to eat.

Not only that, but a new model of animal welfare includes providing positive experiences as well as minimizing negative ones (Mellor, 2016). Training with positive reinforcement is a nice experience for your dog that provides cognitive stimulation, and so it can be part of ensuring your dog has good welfare.

These are just a few reasons why your dog will like reward-based training, and I’m sure you can think of others too. I will leave it to you to think about what dominance or alpha-based training is like from a dog’s perspective.

If you have been used to training using a ‘dominance’ or ‘balanced’ approach, you are not alone (especially since there is so much erroneous information about dog training on the internet). If you need some help to make the switch to reward-based training, find a good dog trainer, and/or start by reading some of the dog training classics such as Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. You might also like my article on positive reinforcement in dog training.  

Of course, we can never know what it is actually like to be a dog, but sometimes it’s a nice exercise to put ourselves in their paws. If you already use reward-based training methods, I would love to know what you think your dog likes best about reward-based training.


Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123 (3-4), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 58-65 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Mellor, D. (2016). Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” by Updating the “Five Provisions” and Introducing Aligned “Animal Welfare Aims” Animals, 6 (10) DOI: 10.3390/ani6100059
Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2002). An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog–human relationship Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 75 (2), 161-176 DOI: 10.1016/S0168-1591(01)00192-7
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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Happy Dogs: Photos

Gorgeous photos of happy dogs.

Portrait of beautiful Belle

"Belle is full of sparkle!  Her favorite treat is without a doubt string cheese... Her best trick is she brings in the paper every morning and takes it right to her bed then gives it to us, and she also does a lovely bow that we call "tada"!"
Belle has her CGC and is a service dog and a Pet Partner's Therapy dog.
Photo: Heidi Steinbeck.

Lola looking very cute

"Lola loooves any food but freaks over prosciutto or smoked salmon."
Photo: Claudine Prud'homme.

Turtle in a field of flowers

"Turtle will do almost anything you ask him for any piece of food you give. Some of his favourites are carrots, hotdogs and peanut butter. He is very food motivated.  Turtle's favourite thing to do is sit on the couch with the people he loves, and of course just looking handsome."
Photo: Charity Long.

Happy Howie smiling at the camera

"Howard's favourite treat is tuna fudge, and his favourite trick is waving hello."
Photo: Jennifer Phillips.


"Foxxy loves to train and learn and goes nuts for steak and string cheese."
Photo: Suzanne Bryner.

Idg and Gaby
Idg and Gaby

"Idg likes chicken so much she stole a whole cooked one from the kitchen counter and ate every bit of it by herself. She's learned to get in the tub and to open the door using chicken as a reward!
Gaby likes eating anything she can find and sleeping all day and telling everyone what to do!  Her favorite chew treats are Beams catfish skins. She likes to play follow the leader through the house (her version of hide-n-seek)."
Idg and Gaby have their own Facebook page.
Photo: Tery McConville.

Kuma's portrait

"Freeze dried liver is his favorite reward, and without a doubt, the Flirt Pole is his favorite toy"
Photo: Paul Arrighie.

Portrait of Molly

"Molly likes chicken and cheese but her favourite thing in all the world is an egg carton with interesting goodies hidden in it."
Photo: Sarah McLaren. (Twitter).

Portrait of Eddie on a hike
"Eddie’s favourite reward was probably liver treats, but he was so food motivated that anything edible would do! That was particularly useful when teaching him a reliable recall, one of his best-learned skills. His favourite activity, the thing that made him happier than anything else in the world (maybe even more than liver treats!) was off leash hiking."
Eddie passed away from a brain tumor in 2015, aged 11.
Photo: Jean Ballard.

Portrait of Freddy the Yorkshire Terrier

"Favourite treat? Anything edible.
His party trick is keeping a balloon in the air forever. He plays keepy-uppy better than any footballer."
Photo: Alan Mace.

Many thanks to everyone who shared photos with me! Look out for another photo blog post next month.
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