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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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

It's Not Just Catnip: Olfactory Enrichment for Cats

The olfactory enrichment cats love but you’ve (probably) never heard of.

A euphoric cat rolling on a catnip plant

A new study tests domestic cats with four different types of olfactory enrichment: catnip, silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian. Tigers and bobcats were also tested. The results show almost all domestic cats love at least one of these.

These compounds are safe and not addictive, meaning owners have an easy way to provide enrichment to their cats (provided they can get hold of them).

First author, Dr. Sebastiaan Bol told me in an email,
“This research gave us insight in how many cats in the USA go crazy for catnip and plants that can have a similar effect on cats. Catnip was loved by many, but so was silver vine, a plant that is very popular in Japan, stinky valerian root and the wood of Tatarian honeysuckle. Sadly, about 1 out of every 3 cats doesn't like catnip. It's not a choice; it's genetically determined. The good news is that this study demonstrates that most of these cats WILL LOVE one or more of the other, SAFE, plant materials that were just mentioned.  
“These plant materials are a lot of fun for your cat at home, but they may also be helpful when socializing scared cats, for trap-neuter-return programs, training (e.g. redirecting scratching behavior) and possibly even for reducing stress during for example medical procedures (e.g. giving a pill), transportation and (medical) boarding. So much research that needs to be done!  
“The results from our small survey learned us that most veterinarians in the USA, including ones specialized in cats, do not know about the existence and effects on cats of these plants. This is why we love to reach out to people who care about the well-being of cats.  
“Finally, also for cats who DO like catnip, it can be super exciting to receive something new that they may like. If you enjoy drinking a glass of red wine, that doesn't mean you won't like a glass of champagne, does it? It probably depends on the moment. It's the same for cats. The best thing about being a cat in this particular case is that you don't have to worry about becoming an alcoholic or getting a hangover; all these plant materials come without any known negative side effects.” 

So whether or not your cat likes catnip, it’s worth giving these a try.

Zappa the cat loves her silver vine stick
Zappa loving a silver vine wood stick. Photo: Sebastiaan Bol.

Sebastiaan Bol says his cats love silver vine, as you can see from the photo of Zappa enjoying her silver vine stick.

"Pretty much every day I see how much two of our six cats love the silver vine wood sticks. Multiple wood sticks are available to them all the time, but they really seem to pick their moment. It's adorable to watch and it makes me so happy to see them enjoy it so much."

The study tested 100 domestic cats with all four of these compounds. The cats were mostly moggies and they included cats at a sanctuary, waiting for adoption at a rehoming centre, at a cat-friendly veterinary practice and cats in their own homes. Five of the cats were adopted before completing the study, so the final sample was 95 cats.

The compounds were presented in two ways: in a sock, or on a piece of carpet. If the cat did not notice the arrival of the compound, it was moved one time to see if it would attract their attention, but cats were not chased with the items – it was up to them whether to interact with it or not. An empty sock was used as a control, but the person coding the responses did know which substance it was.

You have probably seen the classic kitty response to catnip, which includes licking, sniffing, drooling, rubbing the head or chin on the catnip, rolling, and raking (bunny-kicking the back legs). But not all cats respond to catnip, and this study found that about a third of cats did not respond to it.

Silver vine was a favourite, with 80% of the cats responding to silver vine. About half of the cats responded to valerian, and half to Tatarian honeysuckle. In fact, only six of the cats did not respond to any of the smells.

Cats' responses to catnip, silvervine, valerian and honeysuckle
Reproduced from Bol et al (2017) under Creative Commons licence CC4.0

Young and old cats were equally likely to respond. The scientists also found similar responses in cats considered friendly, shy, or somewhere in between. This suggests that this olfactory enrichment is suitable for all cats.

The study was conducted because there are anecdotal reports of cats responding to these substances (and to a fifth one, Indian nettle root, that was not tested). In Japan, silver vine is popular for cats and is known as matatabi. However, the scientists asked 38 vets and 6 vet techs who specialize in cats if they knew about this, and almost all said no. So you can be forgiven for not knowing about it too.

The chemical which causes the effect in catnip is called nepetalactone. Silver vine contains six compounds that are similar, and one is also found in valerian.

Silver vine is available in different forms, including wood sticks, powder, normal fruit, and fruit galls (where midge larvae have matured). The scientists found cats were more responsive to the fruit galls than the normal fruit. Unfortunately this makes it more difficult to commercially prepare silver vine on a large scale, since not very much is known about the silver vine gall midge and it also requires another plant as part of its life cycle. If you are looking to try it with your cat, the powder (which is the powder of the silver vine fruit galls) is probably the best place to start.

Tatarian honeysuckle is available as sticks or as blocks of wood. It will last forever, although you may need to wash it from time to time (after your cat has drooled on it a lot). If your cat stops responding to it, you can shave a bit of wood off to give it a fresh edge again.

Valerian root is available in some cat toys.

A cat lying on a catnip plant

Catnip, of course, is available as plants for your garden, as a dried herb (including with additional scents), and in many different cat toys.

The scientists tested catnip and silver vine on nine tigers at Big Cat Rescue, where keepers gave it to the animals. One tiger had a little interest in catnip, but the others were not interested. Four tigers were not interested in silver vine – and five of them took an active dislike to it. So it does not make good enrichment for tigers.

They also tested bobcats. Four bobcats responded to silver vine, and one to catnip, and their response was similar to that of the domestic cats. If you take a look at the paper (which is open access), you can see a photo of a bobcat rubbing her chin and cheeks on a paper bag that contains silver vine.

The video below, which was made several years ago, shows some of the cats at Big Cat Rescue responding to catnip.

A chemical analysis of all four substances shows the concentration of the chemical compounds which cats are probably responding to.

All four of these substances cause euphoria in at least some cats, with most cats responding to silver vine. So it is worth trying them out to see if they make your cat happy too.

The scientists conclude that “Olfactory enrichment using silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle or valerian root may, similar to catnip, be an effective means to improve the quality of life for cats. Nearly all cats responded positively to at least one of these plants.”

The paper is open access, and you can follow the first author on twitter and Facebook.

Have you tried any of these alternatives to catnip with your cat?

More cat stories: Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss) and what kind of scratching post do cats prefer?

Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G. D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C. T., ... & Bunnik, E. M. (2017). Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research, 13(1), 70.  Open access here.
Photos: HHelene (top) and itakephotos4u ( Photo of Zappa, Sebastiaan Bol.
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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Best Friends of Companion Animal Psychology

Share a photo of your happy pet for a chance to win a Companion Animal Psychology mug.

Companion Animal Psychology just turned five! As I said in that post, one of the best things about this blog is the community of people who read, share and support it.

Several recent posts have shown photos of happy dogs who are friends of Companion Animal Psychology.

This time, it’s over to you to join the celebrations by sharing a photo of your contented pet.

One person will win a Companion Animal Psychology anniversary bone china mug.

Click the link-up and follow the instructions to add your photo. The winning photo will be published on the blog and shared on social media when the winner is announced. More details are below.

The photo link-up is open until 4pm Pacific Time on Friday 14th April.

To add a photo of your pet, click the link and follow the instructions. You will have to supply an email address but this will only be used if necessary to communicate with you about the photos. You will not be subscribed to any email lists. (Click here to subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology; or read the privacy policy).

Please include your pet’s name. You have up to 50 characters if you wish to say something about your pet (e.g. “Bodger loves snow”).

The winning photo will be published on the blog and shared on social media when the winner is announced. By taking part, you consent for this to happen if your photo wins.

Only two entries per person. If you change your mind, you may delete your photo at any time. You must have copyright of the photo.

Photos are moderated so you may have to wait for yours to appear. Photos are displayed in a random order, so if you submit two photos, they may not appear together.

I have recruited an independent judge to choose the winner. The judge’s decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

The winner will be sent an email to request their postal address to send the mug to. In the event that the winner does not respond to this email within 7 days, they will forfeit the mug and another winner will be chosen.

Companion Animal Psychology supports the humane treatment of animals and photos showing prong, choke or shock collars are not permitted.

A man's hands holding a camera while taking a photo of a dog and cat
Photo: Africa Studio (

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

New Literature Review Recommends Reward-Based Training

A review of 17 papers concludes that reward-based dog training has fewer risks and may even work better than aversive methods.

A person clicker-training a cute puppy in the garden, giving a reward

The review, by Dr. Gal Ziv (The Zinman College of Physical Education and Sport Sciences) looks at the scientific literature on dog training methods. Seventeen studies were identified that include surveys of dog owners, intervention studies, and reports from veterinarians.

The paper identifies some methodological issues with the literature, but the conclusion is that people should use reward-based methods to train their dogs.

Ziv writes,
“Despite the methodological concerns, it appears that aversive training methods have undesirable unintended outcomes and that using them puts dogs’ welfare at risk. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that aversive training methods are more effective than reward-based training methods. At least 3 studies in this review suggest that the opposite might be true in both pets and working dogs. Because this appears to be the case, it is recommended that the dog training community embrace reward-based training and avoid, as much as possible, training methods that include aversion.”

Ziv also writes,
“it is perhaps time to pursue a different focus and approach of research. This new line of research will examine how humane, reward-based methods can be improved to facilitate better communication between humans and dogs.”

The review considers four different areas of research, starting with comparisons. Five surveys that compare different training methods found that people who use aversive techniques (positive punishment and negative reinforcement) report more behaviour problems including fear and aggression. One of these studies found that inconsistent use of different methods was linked to aggression. Although these studies rely on owner reports, three other studies that directly observed dogs also found that canine welfare and behaviour may be affected by the use of aversive techniques.

These studies are correlational and do not prove causation. However, although experimental research might be warranted, Ziv notes there are ethical issues that would need to be considered, given these findings.

The second area Ziv looked at was the effects on dog-dog aggression. Here, there was only one study, a questionnaire which found dogs who are trained by being hit or shaken are more likely to be the perpetrator in aggressive dog-dog interactions, whereas dogs whose owners think training should be fun, or who shouted and gave clear commands, were more likely to be victims. This study is a little hard to interpret.

The third section looks at shock collars, electronic containment systems and bark collars. Studies here include surveys, observations and an experiment. Although there are some methodological issues, including with the interpretation of cortisol levels, the results suggest that electronic shock collars, containment systems and bark collars may be painful and/or frightening for dogs. Ziv notes that even when trainers are experienced at using shock collars, dogs may come to associate the shock with their trainer or handler due to classical conditioning. As well as having detrimental effects on welfare, this may also affect performance.

A Cairn Terrier earns a reward in a dog training session in the snow

The fourth section considers the effects of aversive training techniques on a dog’s physical health. Ziv notes that most studies so far look at acute stress, i.e. at the time of the dog training session, and more research is needed to investigate whether aversive training techniques are linked to chronic stress, which can affect physical health. Two case studies showed negative effects of specific techniques, one being a case in which a dog had to be euthanized after being hung by a choke collar for 60 seconds.

Ziv says there are likely more such cases that are not recorded in the literature, and encourages veterinarians to write them up. I think there may well be a file drawer effect here, in that once it is known this is possible, future case studies are probably less likely to be published. Ziv also says that hanging dogs from collars should be made illegal.

Ziv recommends the use of LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) techniques, but he also notes that competence may be an issue here. Given the importance of timing, consistency and other competence issues, he recommends regulation.  He writes, “Handlers’ competence should be defined, regulated, and assessed by relevant regulating agencies based on the recommendations of accredited and experienced animal behaviorists.”

The paper makes many useful recommendations for future research, and I would particularly like to see more research on how to improve the teaching of reward-based training methods.

The implications for dog owners and professionals are that aversive techniques (positive punishment and negative reinforcement) should not be used to train dogs because of the risks to animal welfare. Most professional organizations already recommend the use of reward-based dog training methods because of this risk.

Many (although not all) of the studies referenced by Ziv have been previously covered on Companion Animal Psychology. You will find a list of research on dog training methods and articles about those studies by a range of writers on my dog training research resources page.

You may also like my user-friendly guides to using positive reinforcement in dog training, and how to choose a dog trainer.

Ziv, G. (2017) The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs – a review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 19:50-60.
Photos: Duncan Andison (top) and studiolaska (both

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club April 2017

The book of the month is The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell.

Two chihuahuas sleeping on some books on the settee

The book for April 2017 is the dog training classic The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell.

From the back cover, “Dr. Patricia McConnell reveals a revolutionary, new perspective on our relationship with dogs – sharing insights on how “man’s best friend” might interpret our behaviour, as well as essential advice on how to interact with our four-legged friends in ways that bring out the best in them.”

Book club members can join in the discussion on Facebook. Alternatively you can leave your comments on the book below, or just enjoy reading alongside us.

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club reads one book a month, with January and July off.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Turns Five

Celebrating five years of communicating science about dogs, cats, and the human-animal bond.

A happy Australian Shepherd puppy dog in a party hat

It’s hard to believe it is five years since I started Companion Animal Psychology blog, and yet somehow this is my 278th post.

The aims of the blog remain twofold: to bring up-to-date science about people’s relationships with their pets to a wider audience; and to share evidence-based information about how to care for our cats and dogs.

These aims are nicely illustrated by the two most popular posts of the last year: losing a pet can lead to different types of grief and dominance training deprives dogs of positive experiences. The top post on cats was about the best scratching posts.

In the past twelve months, I’ve been able to bring you some excellent guest posts as well as interviews with Dr. Sarah Ellis, Jean Donaldson, and Dr. Lee Dugatkin. And the photos of happy dogs (and more happy dogs) that people have shared with me have made me very happy too.

A happy mutt dog in a party hat celebrating dog science

I’ve published some useful guides, including how to choose a dog trainer and a user-friendly guide to using positive reinforcement in dog training, not to mention seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.

I hosted the Train for Rewards blog party because reward-based training is for all our pets (shall we do it again?).

I’ve published stories about lots of cool new scientific research (see e.g. here, here, and here). And I’ve maintained my list of dog training research resources for those who want to know what science tells us about dog training.

A kitten peeks out of a wooden box
A fifth anniversary is a "wood" anniversary

I started the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club in November 2016. Members choose the books and April's book is The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell.

Even if I say it myself, I think all this means Companion Animal Psychology is a fabulous resource for people with pets.

So it’s nice to reach five years with good news. I now have a blog at Psychology Today called Fellow Creatures. My first post is about what pets mean to homeless people. And I’m delighted to say my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy has been acquired by Greystone Books.

Thank you to everyone who has liked, shared and commented on my posts. One of the best things about Companion Animal Psychology is the community of people I have come to know through it.

A happy Golden Retriever sticks his head out of a car window

Special thanks to my dog training mentor, Jean Donaldson, and to my agent, Trena White of Transatlantic Agency.

Five years feels like quite a milestone. So it’s time to celebrate. Cheers!

P.S. Don't forget to subscribe.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Interview with Dr. Lee Dugatkin about How to Tame a Fox

Dr. Lee Dugatkin talks about the Russian fox experiment and his new book, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog).

Three very cute domesticated foxes sitting in the grass
Photo:Irena Pivovarova, The Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Novosibirsk

The Russian fox experiment to breed tame foxes has fascinated people for decades. I was very excited to speak to Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin about his new book with co-author Lydumila Trut, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution.

Zazie: I loved your book. I really enjoyed reading it. I thought it was absolutely fascinating from start to finish.

Lee: Thank you so much.

Zazie: So, first of all, for people who are reading this, I think most people have heard of the Soviet fox experiment, but can you just briefly explain what it was and what it was about.

Lee: Sure. Well, the experiment, which has been going on for almost six decades now, it was begun in an attempt to understand the process of domestication, especially the domestication of dogs from wolves, in a way that they could actually watch the process of domestication happen in real time. Because of course, the domestication of dogs took thousands of years and we only have fragmentary evidence about the details of what happened. And the idea here was if we could speed up the process and actually watch the domestication of the species in real time, we could get much much more information and shed light on how one of man’s best friends came to be,

Zazie: So in order to write the book, you’ve been out to visit. What is it like to go and visit, and are the foxes as cute as we imagine?

How to tame a fox (and build a dog) book cover
Lee: Oh yes. I’ve been there a couple of times, and it’s like no experience I’ve ever had. Both times I’ve been there it was winter, and so Siberia in winter is a wonderful combination of just incredible beauty and at the same time extremely brutal conditions in terms of the weather. So it gets to be about minus 30, minus 40 on a fairly regular basis. But of course the foxes are fine because they’ve evolved in these kind of climates and so they’re fine.

But in terms of the animals themselves and the way that they interact with humans, you know you can go and google up a couple of videos where you’ll see these animals interacting with humans and you’ll see pictures and it looks like they’re calm, tame animals, and they sort of look like dogs and so on. But until you actually hold them in your arms it’s hard to imagine just how friendly these animals are to humans. I mean the domestication process has no question worked. I mean these are animals that when you’re handed one of these foxes, within 5 seconds they’ll be licking your nose and putting their head on your shoulder.

Zazie: Wow.

Lee: And the thing about it is, this is one of these things that sometimes people get a little confused about. You know these animals, what’s led to them being so tame and so friendly to humans is not that they have learned that from sort of daily interactions with humans. This is an experiment in genetics and so basically every generation the calmest, friendliest towards humans are selected. But the people who do the experiment have been very careful to make sure that it’s not as if the animals are learning things as they develop from their interactions with humans, because we want to know whether or not the changes in their behaviour are due to differences in genetics, and so they are very, very careful to make sure that all these tame behaviours are not the result of learning. They are the result of a genetic experiment of domestication and boy does it work. Because these animals, they live to interact with humans. I’m an animal behaviourist by training and I’m very very careful about using language like I just used, and I mean I usually would not say something like "these animals live to have interactions with humans", but there’s just no question that they do. I mean they just go crazy when a person goes around they’re so excited.

Zazie: That must be amazing.

Lee: It is!

Zazie: So as the foxes became tamer, there were also other changes, changes in their appearance and the friendliness that you said. What kind of changes did they have in their appearance?

Lee: There’s been a whole series of changes that have occurred in terms of the way that they look. And just one sort of statement before I walk you through the changes, is that these changes have never been what the scientists were choosing each generation, right. So the only thing they ever do to determine who is going to be the parents of the next generation in the experiment, is test them on their behaviour towards humans. That’s it, that’s the only thing they ever select on. But what’s happened over the generations is that lots of other changes have occurred besides getting calmer and tamer animals. So early on for example, some of the first changes were that the animals had curlier bushier tails, the sort of tails that you imagine when you think of a dog wagging their tail because they’re excited to see you. Some of the animals began to show droopier, floppier ears. In addition, they began to see a much more mutt-like kind of mottled fur colour. And then a little bit later they began to see really really reduced levels of stress hormones. So this is not something you can actually see but if you test their stress hormone levels, they’re just much much lower. They don’t seem to be as stressed as a normal fox would be in the wild, their stress hormone levels are that much lower.

A tame fox cuddles up to Dr. Lee Dugatkin in Russia
Dr. Lee Dugatkin with one of the tame foxes. Photo: Aaron Dugatkin.

Other things that you could see that changed were they began to have, if you looked at their faces they began to have a much more dog-like face. So what you saw, instead of seeing that very pronounced fox-like snout that you would see in foxes in the wild, they tended to have more rounded puppy-like features in their faces. And they also tended to have those kind of features develop in their bodies, so what I mean there is they tended to be – when you think of a fox in the wild you think of an animal that’s on the very thin kind of gracile legs that allow them to move very quickly. The domesticated foxes over time began to have kind of a lower-to-the-ground chunkier look that you might associate again with some breeds of dog. And so in general what you tended to see was a kind of build up of more traits that are typically seen in the juvenile stages of foxes than in the adult stages. And those tend to be more dog-like. Does that make sense?

Zazie: It does. Thank you.

Lee: Oh good.

Zazie: You mentioned the hormones and one of the things that really struck me throughout the book was how hard everybody worked, especially Lyudmila Trut, to do what they could with the science even though going back a long way there weren’t such good techniques available. And then that’s changed over time as a new generation of scientists have been able to go out there, hasn’t it?

Lee: Absolutely. So one of the things that’s incredibly striking about the researchers who led this is, as you say, when they started this in the late 50s and early 60s, first of all the techniques were just not there that are present today. But even the techniques that were around then, you know this was the Soviet Union at a time when things were very difficult financially, and so even the technology and the techniques that existed, they often did not have the best access to these things. They’re in Siberia, they’re in a political climate where it’s very difficult for them to get resources, and yet somehow they managed to do what they could with the resources they got. So Lyudmila, who’s the person who’s been running the experiment all these years, she and her team improvised a lot, they worked with what they had. If they didn’t have the newest vials and the newest collecting devices they worked with what they had. If nobody had ever tried something before but it seemed as though it was important for them to try it, they went to the literature and they studied everything they possibly could and said okay, here’s the best thing we can try and let’s see what happens. And often it worked, it allowed them to test what they wanted to test. And so with relatively minimal resources compared to what we might imagine to day they were able to put together a fairly good picture of things like hormone levels and other things that required technical measures.

A wild Russian fox, Vulpes vulpes, on the Kamchatka Peninsula
A wild Russian Fox on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Photo: Alexander Piragis/Shutterstock.

So for example, even some of the changes that we talked about in the way they looked, like more dog-like faces, you know they didn’t have the super hi-tech machinery that would allow you to basically do x-rays to measure bone changes that would be associated with that thing, but they did have callipers and other things that people use to measure when they’re out in the field, and until they could get their hands on a good X-ray machine that’s what they used. And then when they could get their hands on a good X-ray machine, then they went up to that. And they were just very, very good at that kind of improvising.

Zazie: The other thing I didn’t realize, perhaps naively, but it’s part of the untold story that you’re telling in your book, is that when they started this project the political climate was actually very dangerous, and you say that Dmitri Belyaev actually warned people that this was a dangerous project that they would be working on didn’t he?

Lee: Yes, absolutely. The Soviet Union in the 30s, 40s and 50s was in a very dark period in terms of science because  a pseudo-scientific charlatan named Trofim Lysenko had worked his way up to be in charge of certain kinds of science in the USSR. Lysenko had convinced Stalin that the study of genetics was a kind of Western bourgeois lie and that there were other theories about genetics that should be adopted in the Soviet Union. He made it virtually illegal to study modern genetics in the Soviet Union, and this was still going on at the start of the fox experiment. And of course the problem for the researchers working on the fox study was that any experiment like they were doing is an experiment in genetics. I mean you’re basically choosing which animals are going to be the parents of the next generation… you’re doing a classic experiment in evolution and that’s an experiment in genetics. And so at the start, they had to hide what they were doing from the authorities because they could get in serious trouble. And as you say, Belyaev early on was very clear when he started bringing people in to work with him on this.

You know the people who came to work with him, they knew this, because everybody knew it, but Belyaev wanted to be very very clear to them that what they were doing was risky, and it was risky at different levels. It was risky in terms of their careers, and there was a chance, albeit a small chance by that time, that they could be thrown in jail. Ending up in prison for doing genetics was a real threat about 10 years before they started the experiment, but by the time they began the real threat was wrecking your career rather than ending up in jail. And so Belyaev was very careful to make sure everybody understood the risk when they were joining. They understood it all too well, but still wanted very much to be part of what they thought could be a monumentally important experiment

Zazie: And Lyudmila had to do quite a lot at the start. She had to move her husband, baby and mother to Siberia. And I didn’t realize that they didn’t even have a building to start with, so she had to take very long trips to different fox farms, didn’t she?

Lee: Yes that’s right. So you know, Lydumila’s a good friend now and I would tell you that if you look at the sort of things she did, especially early on, she really was sort of like the Jane Goodall of the canine world. This is someone who, when she started to experiment she was young. She basically joined and became the lead person doing the experiment very shortly after she had finished undergraduate work in Moscow. And Moscow was a very cosmopolitan place, but in order to do the experiment she took her entire family and her husband and her young baby and they moved to Siberia, and when they moved there the experimental fox farm that exists today didn’t exist. They were just setting everything up and so basically four times a year Lyudmila would have to leave her family, hop on a train, she took a very very long train ride, and spent months at a time at fox farms that existed around the Soviet Union. Those farms were primarily there for the fur trade, right, for getting furs that they were exporting to the West. But what Lyudmila did was she would talk to people at these places and say look, can you just give me a little bit of space and allow me to work with some of these animals for this experiment that we’re developing. And she did this at many, many places.

Lyudmila Trut with one of her beloved tame foxes in Siberia
Lyudmila Trut with a tame fox. Photo: Vasily Kovaly

Eventually she settled mostly at one of these very big fox farms. It was about a 12 hour train ride from where they lived in Siberia and she would go there many times a year for anywhere from weeks to months. And she would basically be given a house that many of the workers at that farm would live in, and she would go out and test animals to determine which were the calmest towards humans and then she would allow those individuals to parent the next generation. And so the whole experiment started initially not where it’s located now. It took them a good decade to get an experimental place right near where they lived and where the scientific institutions were in Siberia. So it was really quite a brave thing for her to do, to say the least.

Zazie: It was, definitely! And they had another very hard time after the break-up of the Soviet Union and with the financial crisis. Did it seem then that the experiment might end, do you think?

Lee: Yeah there was a real possibility that the experiment could collapse for the lack of resources for the most basic things. And as you say there were two sort of tough times more recently. The first was when the Soviet Union broke up, and the second one was when there was a real problem with the rouble that happened a few years after that with the devaluation of the rouble, and the economy was really really hard. And so hard that there were times where they weren’t even getting funds for the most basic things. So you know, when you’re looking at the late 1990s, it wasn’t as if they weren’t getting money to do the more technical expensive kind of things that they often had to do. It was that they weren’t getting enough money for food to feed these hundreds of foxes, for vaccinations for these foxes. And so Lyudmila again, she and her whole team basically being innovative and dealing with the situation as it was, they did everything they could to piece together small chunks of money to keep the foxes around so they could keep the experiment going. So that sometimes involved putting their own personal money in, it sometimes involved basically going out and stopping cars on the road and asking them for food or money for the foxes.

And it also led Lyudmila to write an article that’s probably the most famous article about this experiment. So there is a magazine called the American Scientist, and it’s a popular science magazine. In 1999 Lyudmila wrote a paper for them and in that paper one of the things she did was summarize the – at that point the 40 years of research on the experiment already. But it was at the end of the paper that you find an unusual section. Basically at the end of the paper Lyudmila explains to the readers of this article how bad the situation is for them in terms of just getting basic resources. And it is basically a call for help from the outside. And that really translated into all sorts of wonderful things happening.

At one level those things were very personal, so Lyudmila has these letters to this day from people who read the article. Just you know regular readers of the magazine who would say I don’t have a lot of money but I can send you, you know whatever it might be, a couple hundred dollars or twenty dollars depending on the person, I wanna help. And enough of those came in that that translated into some real money for them to keep things going. The other thing that it did was it announced it to the whole world, including lots of people in the scientific world who kind of knew the experiment but didn’t know how bad things were in terms of the climate and getting money. And it opened the door to all sorts of scientific collaborations, particularly with people in the US and Europe, that translated eventually into funds that let them keep going. So you know, in the late 90s there was a real possibility that this experiment could just end, they didn’t have any money, but they pulled it out. And so it’s still going on today.

Zazie: And now it’s been going on for about 60 years.

Lee: That’s right.

Zazie: And there have been so many scientific discoveries coming from it. I wanted to ask, what do you think is the most interesting scientific finding from this study?

Lee: Oh, overall, what’s the most interesting finding scientifically?

Zazie: Yes.

Lee: So I think there are a couple of things. Perhaps most important is that first of all they were able to speed up the domestication process fast enough that we could actually watch a species being domesticated and see the order in which things happened in the domestication process. I think perhaps most importantly in many ways is this notion that the key thing to domesticating a species is to choose the animals that are most friendly towards humans, and almost everything else comes along for the ride once you do that. So at a very general level, sort of even more general than the dogs from wolves evolution, people know that when you look at domesticated species you tend to see a bunch of traits that are common in almost all domesticated species. There are things like the curly ears, and the floppy tails, and the mottled colour patterns and the juvenile-like features. This is something that is very common in many many domesticated species. And what the fox experiment showed so beautifully is that that comes along, those other traits come along, when all you do is select for prosocial behaviour towards humans. They’re all genetically linked in some way that the fox team is beginning to understand but doesn’t fully understand yet. And that was, from the start, what Belyaev and Lyudmila had predicted: that if they only selected on behaviour, they would not only get behavioural changes but they would get all these other changes that we tend to see in domesticated species. And they were right.

Zazie: That’s amazing. They both seem very forward-thinking in the ways that you describe them, and what you say about Belyaev thinking about the research and how the research might continue, and some of the other studies you say he thought about doing on self-domestication but couldn’t do. He just seems to have been amazingly visionary in terms of what he was doing?

Lee: You know, that’s so true and one of the fascinating things for me researching this book was that Belyaev early on – so the experiment started in the late 1950s but he sort of was tinkering with ideas in  his head I would say from the late 40s on this experiment. And when you read what he’s writing at that time, the fascinating thing is that he is talking about ideas that were not fully understood or developed for decades yet. And when you read it you see this person that’s struggling to find the language, the words, the terminology to describe what he’s thinking about. Because that terminology didn’t exist yet. Nowadays we have all sorts of terminology to describe the genetics of what Belyaev was thinking about way back then. But the words, the terminology, didn’t exist and so it was fascinating to watch somebody write, and you saying oh yeah what he’s talking about is X, but that didn’t really, nobody had a term for that at that point and you could see him thinking decades ahead of what most people at the time were thinking. And in terms of what you were saying about the self-domestication idea, basically Belyaev even in those days was thinking that the whole process of domestication might be very important in understanding human evolution. That we may have domesticated ourselves by choosing the calmest most prosocial mates. And that theory, again, was sort of many many decades ahead of the time. Now, people have actually looked at self-domestication in other primate species, so in bonobos for example, and there’s a whole theory about human domestication that’s tied to that work. But Belyaev was thinking about this, you know, 50 years ago before anybody else even had tinkered with it and certainly before anybody had designed experiments, he was thinking about what those experiments might be. He could never do them because there were so many things he was involved with and there were ethical issues about doing things that didn’t allow him to do it. But nonetheless he was there mentally, he had these ideas long before anyone else did.

Zazie: I found that fascinating. I found your whole book fascinating.

Lee: Thank you.

Zazie: Before we end, is there anything else that you would like to say about your book?

Lee: You know, on a personal note I would say that working on the book was the most extraordinary experience I’ve had in my life. And I mean that not only in terms of about learning the science that was involved in this sixty year experiment, but in terms of becoming colleagues and friends with all of the people that were involved in this experiment. And understanding the inside story: what it was that they really had to do on a daily basis to keep this almost six-generation cutting-edge experiment going. And I was just in awe of the people that were involved in this. They are spectacular scientists and they’re also just the nicest most generous people that you can imagine. So it was a real honour for me to have a chance to work with Lyudmila and others to tell this story. Because there’s so much here, there’s the science and then there’s the animal-human bond. These animals you know, at some point they’re going to end up being pets in houses. Now it may be another decade or two before that happens but these are going to be dog-like pets and to sort of have been involved in understanding how all of that occurred was a special experience.

Zazie: Thank you very much for your time.

Lee: My pleasure.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is published by Chicago University Press. You can find out more about Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin on his website and follow him on twitter. He also blogs at Psychology Today.

Lyudmila Trut is a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. She has been the lead researcher on the silver fox domestication experiment since 1959.

Lee Alan Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the department of biology at the University of Louisville. His books include The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness and Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to
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