Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Digging Into Our Common Ground with Dogs

It’s unassailable: we’re truly different than dogs, in really important ways. But that doesn’t mean we can throw the baby out with the bathwater and deny our similarities, either.

Guest post by Kristi Benson CTC.

A black Yorkshire Terrier digs a hole in the sand at the beach

Much of the information about dogs available to dog owners (even to really thoughtful and careful information ‘consumers’) is uneven at best, and flagrantly damaging to dogs at worst. In fact, dog trainers often have the unenviable and rather delicate task of breaking down some passionately held, well-intentioned, but generally unproductive‒or even counter-productive‒convictions in the very people who have hired us to help them.

We’re different from dogs 

Many of the misconceptions about dog behaviour and in particular, dogs’ motivations, are born from anthropocentrism.

Anthropocentrism is likely a familiar concept‒it is an (inappropriate, for our purposes) willingness to ascribe human emotions, cognition, or motivation to other animals. Dog trainers regularly greet dog owners who lament that their dogs have some exceedingly human motivations: greed, evil stubbornness, and revenge are certainly in the top ten, but there are many others.

Although dogs’ cognitive abilities are at the centre of a boom in canine research and are much more complex and interesting than we considered even ten years ago, the overwhelming likelihood is that a dog who soils the house is simply not house-trained, rather than angry at the owner for putting her on a diet or for patting another dog at the park. And a dog who digs under the fence and escapes is simply… well, escaping. Because loose time in the neighbourhood is fun, and they’re otherwise bored stiff. Not because the owner’s new boyfriend insists that the dog isn’t welcome on the couch for game day.

We can’t ask dogs if they are feeling particularly piqued at the random couch pronouncements of the owner’s new beau, of course. But the fact remains that if we house-train the one dog, and enrich and tire out the other dog (along with some fence repairs), the problem behaviours will likely go away. Alternatively, if we allow the dog on the couch on game day or stop patting those other dogs, the problems seem to remain. The proof is in the pudding‒dogs are not furry humans with large teeth. Dog trainers get very practised at introducing owners to this gloriously simple new reality: dogs behave in ways that will get them what they want. Every day is the Friday of a long weekend for them.

We’re akin to dogs 

Anthropocentrism is an important mindset to be aware of when interpreting your dog’s behaviour. A house-soiling dog incorrectly labelled as revengeful and back-stabbing will likely get a wholly different treatment than one diagnosed as being in need of some remedial house-training. And it isn’t a long shot to guess that there are welfare implications.

Close-up of a mixed breed dog's face
Photo: Anant Kasetsinsombut; top, fongleon356 (both

However, it is certainly possible to go too far on our mission to root out anthropocentrism. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests that when studying all animals, we must be aware of, and at times wary of, two opposing biases: anthropocentrism on the one hand, and “anthropodenial” on the other.(1) Anthropodenial is the opposite of anthropocentrism: “a blindness to the human-like characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.”(2) We do share some feelings, abilities, motivations, and experiences with our dogs, after all.

On occasion, dog trainers come up against anthropodenial. In particular, anthropodenial is at work when trainers see dogs who are anxious or flat-out scared, hiding behind the legs of an owner who states baldly that dogs just ‘don’t feel things the same way we do’. Far from being motivated by belligerence, some dogs who soil the house when alone suffer from separation anxiety. This is an urgently sad condition where a dog is terrified to be apart from his human family. When facing clients with fearful dogs and hoping to bring them on board with a humane behaviour modification program, then, it is not usually helpful or even necessary to talk about the neurological or biological processes of fear. It is much more sensible and reasonable to accept, and propose, that fear is indeed a similar state across many animals and compare the dog’s feelings when left alone with something that terrifies us as humans‒spiders, heights, or add in your own secret panic-inducer here. In fact, a whole academic discipline called comparative psychology is predicated on the understanding that one animal can serve usefully as a model for another.

A dog trainer wouldn’t suggest that understanding dogs, or understanding ourselves, is easy. But time and time again, we see that owners who are open to learning about both what we share with dogs and where we differ have more peaceful homes and better behaviour modification outcomes. I’d also propose that they seem to find a more joyful and satisfying relationship with their dogs. And who wouldn’t like that?

About Kristi Benson CTC

Photo of Kristi Benson with two of her dogs in a field

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC).  She lives and works in the Parkland Region of central Manitoba Canada, where she teaches dog obedience classes and helps dog owners in private consultations – both in-person and via video chat – for a full range of dog problems, from basic obedience to aggressive behaviour. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, and for fun she runs them with a dog-powered scooter and on skis.

Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

1. De Waal, Frans. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?. WW Norton & Company, 2016.
2. De Waal, F. B. M. "Are we in anthropodenial." Discover 18.7 (1997): 50-53.
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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Ultimate Dog Training Tip

The one thing every dog owner should know about how to train a dog.

A cute dog with a head tilt

There’s a lot of incorrect dog training advice on the internet, which makes it hard for people with dogs to sort out which advice is good and which is not.

Does it matter? Some of the time, despite using methods that aren’t recommended by professional organizations, you can get away with it. Maybe you will have a well-trained dog or maybe you will muddle along. Maybe your dog will actually be a bit afraid but you won’t notice (people aren’t very good at recognizing fear).

But unfortunately, for some dogs, there will be issues. And perhaps, instead of blaming the method, you'll blame the dog.

Here’s what one scientist concluded after reviewing the evidence on dog training methods (Ziv, 2017):
“it appears that aversive training methods have undesirable unintended outcomes and that using them puts dogs’ welfare at risk”
Dog training is not regulated and so trainers do not have to be transparent about how they describe their methods. Typically, they don’t call them aversive even if they are.

But there is one piece of information about dog training that will help many people start sorting out the good from the bad. Granted, it’s not the only thing – when it comes down to it, dog training can be quite complicated – but it is a vital thing to know.

But first of all, can you guess what it’s not?

What’s not as important in dog training as some people think

Even though some people still believe it to be the case, dominance, being the pack leader, or being the alpha (however you want to phrase it) is not the most important thing in training a dog. In fact, it's not even important at all.

One of the problems with dog training based on ideas of dominance is that it can lead to the use of confrontational methods (such as alpha rolls). Confrontational methods risk an aggressive response (Herron, Schofer and Reisner 2009) and aversive techniques may affect the dog-owner relationship (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014). A review of the scientific research (Ziv, 2017) says these methods are not recommended because of concerns about animal welfare.

Another problem with dominance dog training is that it can mean dogs miss out on fun learning opportunities. And it is simply a distraction from people learning about modern dog training methods.

I won’t go into details here because it’s not the focus of this article. But if you want to know more, including what scientists think about dominance, see my article on problems with dominance training.

So if dominance isn’t as important as people think, what is the thing that matters?

A happy Golden Retriever looks over the top of a chair
Photo: Africa Studio; top, Kellymmiller73 (both

The one thing every dog owner should know

The one thing every dog owner should know about dog training is this: Use food.

It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? And it’s not exactly a secret: Modern dog training uses food.

Use food to reward your dog for doing things you like, such as sit or wait or drop it when you ask.

I’m not saying food is the only reward you would use with your dog. There might be times when you use a game of fetch, tug on a rope, lots of lovely petting, or even life rewards like the opportunity to go chase a critter.

But for most dog training situations, food is the easiest way to deliver positive reinforcement because it is so quick and efficient. And scientists have found that food is a better reward than petting or praise (Fukuzawa and Hayashi, 2013; Okamoto et al 2009).

The reason I wish more people would know to use food is that it would make it easier for people to find a good dog trainer and to weed out bad dog training advice.

For example, if you go to a dog trainer and they recommend a prong collar, well, a prong collar is not food.

A shock collar is not food.

A leash correction is not food.

Yet these are all methods some dog trainers will say are “kind”, “humane”, or even “gentle”, even though from a technical perspective there is no way to describe them other than as aversive (positive punishment or negative reinforcement).

Stuff about relationships and respect and energy is also not food.

A cute Golden Retriever puppy runs through a field

Unfortunately, there are a lot of weasel words used to describe dog training and it makes it difficult for dog owners, because one thing we can safely say about dogs is that everyone has their own opinion.

But we can see with our own eyes whether these methods use food or not.

So if you go to a dog trainer, or you’re reading dog training advice on the internet, and the advice does not involve using food, think about it very carefully even if it is described as kind.

If you’re using food in dog training, you are avoiding some of the biggest mistakes you can make, and you’re using modern, reward-based training methods (Yay!).

The ways we use food in dog training

There are two main ways that we use food in dog training, and they relate to how dogs learn.

We use food as positive reinforcement in operant conditioning, which is when we are teaching a dog to do a behaviour. The dog does the behaviour and we reward them quickly with the food, so that next time we ask for the behaviour they are more likely to do it again. (If they don’t do it, they don’t get the food, and we try again – maybe going back a step in the training plan to make it easier).

The other way we use food is in classical conditioning, when we want to change how a dog feels about something. For example, the dog is afraid of the brush, but we want to teach them to be groomed. Dogs love food, so we can help them learn to like the brush by quickly following every presentation of the brush with lots of yummy food. With a gradual training plan, and being very (very) careful to only work at the dog’s pace, we can help the dog learn to like the brush. (Note that, in contrast to operant conditioning, the dog doesn’t have to do anything – it’s the brush that predicts food).

Those of you with fearful dogs will know that trying to get rid of fear is a long, slow process that may not be completely successful. It’s better to try to prevent fear in the first place, if possible.

What you need in order to use food in dog training

Strictly speaking, all you need is some pieces of food hidden away in your hand. Having it on your person makes it easier to deliver food quickly – although there may be occasions when it’s more appropriate to run to the fridge for it.

Little cubes of cooked chicken are an ideal food reward, but there are lots of other choices. Find something your dog likes and that you are happy with. Kibble is generally not the best idea for training; something that is tasty and adds variety to the dog’s diet will be more motivating.

Adorable West Highland Terrier dog with a happy smile
Photo: Kellymmuller73 (

If you’re going to be doing a lot of training, it will make life easier to get a treat pouch of some sort. You can get one that is literally just for the food rewards, or one that has extra pockets for your cellphone, keys, and poop bags.

You might also want a clicker. For some types of training (when you need to reward fleeting movements) it is essential to use a marker – which could be a verbal marker or a clicker – because it marks the exact moment of the behaviour and buys you time to get your food reward out. But for most basic obedience, it’s up to you whether you use one or not. (Some people love to use the clicker, some people don’t. One study found no difference between use of a clicker, verbal marker or neither (just food rewards) (Chiandetti et al 2016) and this is something we are likely to see more research on in the future).

But really, that’s it. The most important thing is the food.

Some of the technical aspects of dog training…

Of course, it’s not as simple as just using food. But nonetheless, behaviours that are reinforced will get repeated, so if you keep rewarding your dog for a particular behaviour (like sit), the frequency of that behaviour will go up.

When we talk about technical aspects, we can mean something as simple as the speed of delivery of rewards. It’s important to deliver the reward very quickly (or mark it, if you are using a reward marker such as a clicker), so the dog knows which behaviour is the one that earned the reward. Have you ever trained a very bouncy dog whose bottom only briefly touches the ground when you ask them to sit before they jump up and start bouncing around again? If you were too slow, you could be rewarding them for the wrong behaviour, like bouncing.

And while we’re talking about speed, another thing you can do in a dog training session if you’re using food rewards is a lot of repetitions (e.g. ten a minute). Of course it depends on the dog, but if you’ve got the level of the training plan right, that’s what you should aim for (yep, ten a minute – try it! If that’s too tricky, just try to fit more repetitions in than you were doing before).

A few of the technical things we need to get right are covered in my article on positive reinforcement (scroll down to the section on ‘why isn’t positive reinforcement working?’).

A very happy mixed breed dog looks up at the camera
Photo: Pelle Zoltan (

Following a training plan will also really help. A very common mistake is to proceed too quickly for the dog, and expect too much of them all at once. That can get frustrating for both of you. If you follow a plan with gradual, incremental steps, you will actually make faster progress.

Luckily, there are some excellent books that will help you get started. If you want to learn more about the technical aspects of how to train a dog, I recommend Culture Clash and Train Your Dog Like a Pro by Jean Donaldson, and The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.

You may also like to find a good dog trainer and take a class or private lesson.

A couple of caveats

By now, some of you are probably thinking “what about no-pull harnesses?” They aren’t food, and they are okay.

They are indeed okay: a study found that dogs on flat collars or on no-pull harnesses did not show signs of stress (Grainger, Wills and Montrose 2016). So a harness is a great choice for walking your dog, and may even mean you don’t have to train loose-leash walking. Where does food come in? Well, the first time (or first few times) you use one, you might like to use food to help your dog like the harness. You could also use food to train your dog to walk nicely on a harness, if the harness itself doesn’t do the trick.

And what about those dog trainers who sometimes use food and sometimes use corrections? They are often referred to as ‘balanced’ trainers. Well, they get the food part right, but unfortunately not the other part. If you want to know more, read my article about problems with balance in dog training.

Presenting a united front on dog training methods

Have you ever seen someone ask for advice about a dog training problem on the internet, and the discussion quickly descends into lots of conflicting information and maybe even name calling? There is typically also no way of knowing the level of expertise of those giving advice.

To someone who is trying to learn about dog training, and also to the person who was seeking advice, it must be very confusing. Maybe it sometimes even seems like dog trainers don’t know what they are talking about.

We can help by encouraging and supporting good advice. Anyone who is using food to train their dog is trying to do things the right way. They deserve praise for this, even if they are not perfect. (None of us are perfect).

A sleepy brown Labrador puppy plays with a rope
Photo: AndrejLV (

We can help by sharing useful resources that get things right.

We can help by recognizing that sometimes someone needs a dog trainer or behaviourist (rather than internet wisdom) and pointing them in the right direction when they ask for advice.

We can also help by making it clear that when we are talking amongst ourselves about technical things (like the use of no reward markers or food lures), we are still on the same side: we still all support the use of food as a reward in dog training.

We can help by pointing to the scientific research on dog training methods and the position statements from organizations such as AVSAB and the Pet Professional Guild to show this is an evidence-based approach.

And we can help by talking about what we love about training with food – the beautiful way our dog looks at us, the happy anticipation when the treat pouch comes out (“Yay!! Another training session!!”), and how much fun it is, for us and our canine best friends.

Because one of the most delightful things about training with food is how much we and our dogs enjoy it.

I think everyone loves their dog and wants to have fun with them. Using food helps make dog training fun.

What if everyone knew to use food to train dogs?

Do you ever feel like you are stuck in a loop in which people (including random strangers) are always saying, “but you have to be the pack leader”, “isn’t it bribery?” and “my dog does things out of respect!” Doesn’t it get tiresome?

If only all dog owners knew the value of using food in dog training, many things would be better.

Imagine if you walked into a pet store and saw walls of different types of treat pouches, instead of aisles with shock collars and prong collars. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Dogs would not be subjected to aversive techniques that run the risk of making them fearful or provoking an aggressive response.

When people saw you using food to help a fearful dog in a tricky situation, they wouldn’t yell at you and insist on approaching; they would give you distance and think, “Good for you!”

And instead of being stuck on very basic dog training topics, more people would be able to devote time to learning how to get the basics right and how to use more advanced techniques.

It would be better for dogs, better for our relationship with dogs, and therefore also better for us.

That’s why I think the most important thing to learn about dog training is simply to use food. Yes, there’s a lot more to learn after that, but if you get that basic thing right you can go from there.

To learn more about dogs, cats, and the science of our relationship with pets, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology. And if you like this post, please share.

If you could only give one piece of dog training advice, what would it be?


Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., & Cerri, F. (2016). Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184, 109-116.
Fukuzawa, M., & Hayashi, N. (2013). Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8(4), 221-224. 
Grainger, J., Wills, A. P., & Montrose, V. T. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 60-64. 
Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. (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), 47-54.  
Okamoto, Y., Ohtani, N., & Uchiyama, H. (2009). The feeding behavior of dogs correlates with their responses to commands. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 71(12), 1617-1621.  
Ziv, G. (2017). The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs–A Review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.  
For additional references, follow the links in the text.
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Sunday, 16 April 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News April 2017

Favourite posts and the latest news about dogs and cats this month.

Some of my favourites from around the web this month…

“It hit me that there is such a massive disconnect between what people think their dogs are doing and saying and what is really happening, and everyone suffers because of it. “ Marc Bekoff interviews Tracy Krulik about the impetus for iSpeakDog.

So you think you have a ‘master forager’? Ingrid Johnson at Fundamentally Feline on how to make food toys harder for your cat.

Shocker: some cats like people more than food or toys by Karin Brulliard.

Joii the sniffari movement. Why I DON’T train my clients’ dogs to heel by Kristi Benson.

Jeff deYoung: The dog who saved my life and came to live with me.

Is there such a thing as a “purr-cebo” effect? Mikel Delgado looks at new research on the placebo effect in cats.

Things to know on dog farting awareness day by Julie Hecht.

Pets in the news

Dog day care put shock collar on my dog without permission, owner says. An anxious dog in Chicago was found to be wearing a shock collar when the owner went to pick them up, according to this report.

Stricter regulations for rescue centres in BC. The Animal Welfare Advisory Group in BC is proposing standards for rescues.

Quebec is introducing legislation to ban pitbulls and other breeds, including Rottweilers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and certain cross-breeds – and they say they may add to the list in future.

Taiwan has banned the consumption of dog and cat meat.

Charities united to highlight brachy health issues in cats and rabbits, as detailed in this post from International Cat Care.

Philadelphia police use carrots to round up a loose horse.

A 10-year-old in Markham, Ontario, got permission from council to keep a pet hedgehog. Instead of changing the bylaw (which bans hedgehogs as pets) she was granted an exemption.


Muzzle Up seminar at the SF SPCA on 13th May.

Photos, Videos and Podcasts

Photo-essay of street dogs in Goa.

Photos of dogs from underneath. Under-dogs by Andrius Burba.

Maro the cos-playing cat chef.

Meet Kinako the cat and Jiji the grandpa in these photos by Akiko DuPont.

Watch John Bradshaw talk about how your dog sees the world.

This podcast from the Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon features Amy Sutherland talking about Rescuing Penny Jane and Sarah Ellis talking about The Trainable Cat.

Giving older dogs the good life. Dr. Alicia Karas joins Julie Fudge Smith and Colleen Pelar at Your Family Dog Podcast.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

It’s been a busy month! Companion Animal Psychology turned five, I have a new blog at Psychology Today called Fellow Creatures, and I’m delighted that Greystone Books have agreed to publish my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.

The winner of the Best Friends of Companion Animal Psychology photo competition to win an anniversary mug is this lovely photo of Allie, sweet sixteen, by Jean Ballard.

Allie the tortoiseshell cat relaxing on the bed

This month, the book club is reading The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell.

This month’s blog posts included a new literature review recommends reward-based training, people’s perceptions of adoptable dogs are better based on video than photos and olfactory enrichment for cats can include catnip, silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian.

As well, I spoke to Dr. Lee Dugatkin about his book How To Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) and the fascinating history of the Russian fox experiment.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology!

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