28 December 2016

The Posts of the Year 2016

The most popular posts from Companion Animal Psychology in 2016.

Two Old English Sheepdogs sitting the snow; pretty winter scene

Looking back, I'm surprised by how much I wrote this year. During 2016 I published 58 blog posts, including 28 reviews of individual research papers on dogs, cats, ferrets, and the human-animal bond. I feel very lucky to have interviewed both Dr. Sarah Ellis and Jean Donaldson, and thank them both for such interesting and inspiring interviews. I published the first guest post, an important piece by James Oxley and Clare Ellis about how rabbits are missing out on basic pet care practices.

I really enjoyed hosting the Train for Rewards Blog Party, which was a huge lot of fun (look out for it again in 2017!). Thank you to everyone who participated, whether by writing a post or sharing your favourites. I also kept my list of dog training research resources up to date, and there you will find a list of research articles on dog training and places where you can read about those articles for free.

This year saw the start of the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club, and I am thrilled to have the chance to talk about books with like-minded people. The first books were The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis, and The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

These were the most popular posts of the year:

1. Losing a pet can lead to different types of grief.
A sad looking dog

2. Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss)
Enrichment tips for cats that many people miss

3. Seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.
A happy dog waiting for a reward in a dog training session

4. Clicker training vs treat: Equally good in dog training.
A dog being clicker trained

5. Dog bite strength: It's not what you think.
A smiling pit bull dog in front of some flowers

6. Testing an automated and humane way to resolve barking.
A dog looks out of the window looking sad

7. In dog training, balance is off.
A Jack  Russell Terrier balances on a beam outside

8. Why science matters to our dogs and cats.
Four happy dogs running towards the camera

9. Less stress at the vet for dogs and cats.
A dog and cat visiting the vet

10. Why do people choose certain dogs?
Why do people choose certain dogs, animal welfare?

Honourable mention: Although it looks like posts about cats haven't done very well this year, there's an older post that's consistently had readers all through the year: Where do cats like to be stroked?

Thanks to all of you for your support and encouragement throughout the year. One of the best things about my blog is the way it has helped me get to know so many wonderful people.

What would you like to see on Companion Animal Psychology in 2017? Please feel free to send me an email at companimalpsych at gmail dot com with your ideas (subscribers can just hit the reply button - if you're not yet a subscriber, why not sign up?). I do my best to follow up these suggestions, and there are a couple of reader-inspired posts in the works at the moment.

And if you would like to propose a post, my guest post guidelines are here.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year and all the best for 2017!

Photo credit: Olga_i (Shutterstock.com). For other photo credits, follow the links.

21 December 2016

Season's Greetings

Happy Holidays!

Siberian Husky puppy plays with a toy by the Christmas tree

Thank you for your support, encouragement, comments, likes and shares throughout the year.

Season's Greetings and all best wishes for a joyful and peaceful 2017!

Companion Animal Psychology

18 December 2016

Companion Animal Psychology News December 2016

The latest news on cats and dogs from Companion  Animal Psychology, December 2016.

A dog and a cat peruse the newspaper

Some of my favourite posts from around the web this month

Realizing the Fear Free dream for pets by Dr. Marty Becker.

Good intentions can go very wrong when you find a lost pet by Maddie’s Fund.

Helping your dog feel safe during the holidays by Maureen Backman.

How to enrich cats’ lives: Food puzzles for cats. Felicity Muth talks to Mikel Delgado.

Why are pets popular with artists? Dr. Anne Fawcett interviews Dr. Sarah Engledow about the Popular Pet  Show at the National Portrait Gallery in Australia.

Pets in the news…

In the UK, the RSPCA’s petition to repeal Breed Specific Legislation now has more than 50,000 signatures. The London Assembly has also called for a review, saying the legislation “has failed to protect the public and dog welfare.” If you want to know more, here is a link to the RSPCA report ‘Breed Specific Legislation – A Dog’s Dinner’ and to the petition

Meanwhile in Montreal, the new pit bull bylaw that was temporarily suspended is now back on. The deadline for owners of existing pit bulls to get a special licence has been extended. To find out more about better solutions, visit Safer, Kinder Communities.

In Toronto, new city bylaws ban choke collars & choke chains, prohibit tethering a dog for more than 3 hours, and provide a new definition of a ‘dangerous dog’.

And National Geographic has a nice story about how pet dogs are helping out their endangered kin in the wild.

Upcoming events

Dr. Patricia McConnell presents The Education of Will – A mutual memoir of a woman and her dog 20th Feb 2017 in Milwaukee, WI

The 5th Canine Science Symposium will take place at the San Francisco SPCA 11th – 12th March 2017. “The 5th Annual Canine Science Symposium brings the latest in cutting-edge canine behavior research to the Bay Area.  Join us for a weekend of presentations and discussion on the current research in applied canine science.”


There are some very nice photos of animals in the RSPCA’s Young Photographer’s Award galleries.

Florida photographer Adam Goldberg takes goofy photos of pit bulls to try and change stereotypes

Kittens purrfectly take centre stage in horror movie re-enactments.

And it's not pets, but this tiny mouse café opened in  Sweden.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club: The book for December 2016 is The Secret History of Kindness by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

The post that has been getting a lot of attention this month is losing a pet can lead to different types of grief. If you're looking for a dog trainer, see how to choose a dog trainer.

As always, if there's anything you would like to see covered on the blog, please let me know (subscribers can just hit the reply button).

14 December 2016

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

How to choose the right dog trainer for you and your dog, including the methods and qualifications to look for.

How to choose a dog trainer. The qualifications to look for and other important things to know, whether you are looking for a puppy class (like for this cute puppy) or private sessions to help with your dog's behaviour issues.

Whether you want to take part in obedience classes or arrange private sessions to resolve your dog’s behaviour problem, choosing the right dog trainer can be a difficult decision.

Because dog training is unlicensed, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, regardless of whether or not they have any education.

So what should you look for? This article explains the key things you need to know before you hire a dog trainer.

The most important choice in hiring a dog trainer

When choosing a dog trainer, the most important thing is to find a trainer who uses reward-based dog training methods, which they might call positive reinforcement, force-free, or humane training methods.

However, just because you see those words on someone’s website, does not mean they actually use those methods (see below for the questions you should ask).

Reward-based dog training is based on either giving a reward (to make a behaviour more likely to happen again) or withholding a reward (to make the behaviour less likely to occur).

Technically speaking, using rewards to make a behaviour increase in frequency is called positive reinforcement. That’s why some dog trainers call themselves positive reinforcement dog trainers.

Others call themselves force-free or humane dog trainers, to distinguish themselves from people who use aversive techniques such as electric shock, prong collars, leash ‘corrections’, ‘alpha rolls’ or the like.

In practice, the reward that works best is food. It is possible to use other types of reward, such as play, but food is more efficient because it’s faster to deliver; it’s better for most dog training scenarios (for example, if you’re teaching a dog to sit-stay, play will encourage your dog to jump out of the sit); and all dogs love food.

So in other words, you want a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog.

That’s because there are risks to using aversive methods (technically, positive punishment and negative reinforcement). Those risks include making the dog aggressive or fearful, and these are serious problems that can take a long time to fix (if at all).

If you want to know more, check out my article seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.

Or if you want to know more about the scientific research, check out my dog training science resources page which lists articles on dog training methods (and places where you can read about those articles for free).

If your dog is on a special diet, don’t worry. There is always something tasty that fits with a special diet and that will motivate your dog. Once you’ve found a good dog trainer, tell them about your dog’s dietary needs.

So, now you know you need to find a reward-based dog trainer, what next?

What qualifications should you look for in a dog trainer?

Remember I said at the beginning that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. But dog training is actually a skilled activity, and it also requires knowledge. Just to mention a few things, dog trainers need good timing, to be able to read a dog’s body language, to understand learning theory (that’s part of the technical information), and to have good people skills so they can explain it all to dog owners in a way they can understand.

So it’s not enough if someone has always loved dogs, or grown up with them. In fact that part doesn’t matter. You need to find a dog trainer who is qualified.

The best qualifications you can find are CTC, KPA CTP and VSA-DT (those are the letters that will appear after your dog trainer’s name).

Don’t just take my word for it. In a 2016 article for veterinarians about what to look for in a dog trainer, veterinary behaviourist Dr. Lisa Radosta recommends trainers with the KPA or CTC and says these are the two programs she relies on for finding dog trainers.

How to choose a dog trainer, illustrated by a happy Shih Tzu dog running by a pond
Photo: rebeccaashworth; top, Mila Atkovska (both Shutterstock.com)

I include the VSA-DT as well, a program that started in 2016. All three programs require course work and have examinations.

The CTC is an advanced, two-year program from the Academy for Dog Trainers, which covers both dog training and behaviour. The Academy is known as “the Harvard of Dog Training” and is run by world-renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson. You can find an Academy dog trainer here.

KPA CTP means that someone has taken the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program. This is a six-month program and you can find graduates here.

VSA-DT means that someone has graduated from the Victoria Stilwell Academy Dog Training program. This is a six-month program and you can find graduates here.

Graduates of these three programs will only use reward-based training methods.

If you’ve found multiple dog trainers with CTC, KPA CTP, or VSA-DT in your area, you’ve got several to choose from and can move on to the next section of this article.

If you haven’t, then you can look for people who have CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, or CBCC-KA (all assessed by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) or the PCT-A or PCBC-A (assessed by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board). Again, these are people who have had their knowledge of dog training assessed.

These are not the only dog training certifications. It’s actually quite a confusing situation for consumers, which is why I’ve chosen to focus on the main credentials. There are other kinds of credentials you might look for if your dog has serious behavioural problems, and I’ll get to those later in the article.

Membership of a professional dog training organization

Another thing to look for in a dog trainer is membership of a professional organization.

There are several organizations that a dog trainer might be a member of. One is the Pet Professional Guild, which is committed to force free dog training. Members of this organization will only use reward-based training methods.

Another organization is the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.  Note that this organization follows an approach called LIMA, which stands for ‘least invasive, minimally aversive’ which (as you can tell from the name) allows for the use of aversives in some cases, so quiz the trainer on the methods they will use. They say that "we allow trainers with all methodologies to join with the goal of exposing them to humane, science-based training methods. However, this does not mean that all trainers in our directory subscribe to this philosophy..." so you need to find out for yourself which methods they actually use.
By the way, APDTs in other countries are independent, have their own member assessments and follow their own guidelines; for example the APDT(UK) only allows its members to use non-compulsive methods.

If a dog trainer says that they are a member of a particular organization, remember that you don’t have to take their word for it. You should be able to look them up via that organization’s directory to verify their membership.

What about continuing education for dog trainers?

Like any other profession, dog trainers ought to stay up-to-date on developments in their field.

Again, since dog training is not regulated, there’s no requirement for them to continue to learn. However, professional organizations do have continuing education requirements for their members.

If you are considering a dog trainer, check to see what continuing education they have listed on their website.

How to choose a dog trainer for your dog or puppy, like this red Alaskan Klee Kai with blue eyes. Look for a dog trainer with qualifications and who uses food to train dogs.
bon9 (Shutterstock.com)

If they are a brand new dog trainer, they may not yet have had time to complete much continuing education (but make sure they have some education, as already mentioned). Over time, the list of continuing education courses should get longer.

Some of this training may take place at annual conferences, such as those of the organizations listed above. Some of it may be online, via webinars or other distance learning opportunities. Some dog trainers will even be giving talks and seminars at dog training conferences themselves.

There are certain names that are a very good sign. For example, if someone has attended training with the likes of Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Chirag Patel, Ken Ramirez, Ian Dunbar, or Bob Bailey, that’s very promising, because these are all important names in science-based dog training.

There are also some additional certifications available to dog trainers who are interested in them. These include Fear Free certification (for trainers interested in making vet visits less stressful for their clients; maybe your veterinarian is also Fear Free certified?); Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers certified by Malena deMartini (for dog trainers specializing in separation anxiety); courses from the Karen Pryor Academy such as DogSports Essentials or Canine Freestyle; and courses for advanced professionals (webinars on demand) from the Academy for Dog Trainers.

What methods will they actually use to train your dog?

At the start of this article, I mentioned that some dog trainers may say they use positive reinforcement but not actually use it when working with your pet.

One reason for this is that they know there is demand for positive reinforcement and, well, dog training isn’t regulated.

One clue that they might not only use reward-based training is if they refer to themselves as ‘balanced’. Usually, balanced is used to mean that they also use punishment or ‘corrections’. And unfortunately, that means balanced dog training is not a good thing.

Another clue is if the dog trainer refers to ‘cookie pushers’ in a derogatory way or says that they train without food. Remember, you are looking to find a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog. If they say they don’t use food, cross them straight off your list.

And yet another clue is if you are reading through customer testimonials and they happen to refer to a shock collar. Or if the trainer has an online shop, and that’s what they sell. There is no scientific evidence to support the use of shock collars, and they are not more effective than reward-based training (see here for results of testing shock collars vs rewards for training dogs to come when called).

If they mention dominance or being the alpha or pack leader, this tells you they are using out-dated methods too. For more information, see the AVSAB position statement on the use of dominance theory in behaviour modification of animals. Again, cross them off your list.

Transparency in dog training

Because there is no regulation in dog training, Jean Donaldson of the Academy for Dog Trainers started the transparency challenge. These are three questions to ask dog trainers about how they will train your dog. If you don’t like the answers, keep looking.

Three questions to ask a dog trainer before you hire them

If you want to know more about the transparency challenge, you can watch the Academy's video about transparency in dog training, and read my interview with Jean Donaldson. (The interview celebrates 20 years since publication of Donaldson's influential book, Culture Clash, which should be on your reading list if it is not already).

Customer testimonials and social media

When you think you’ve identified a good dog trainer, read the customer testimonials and look at their social media accounts just to double-check that you are happy with your choice.

Hopefully they will have lots of positive comments from clients.

Many dog trainers also have social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram where they share interesting articles and photos of their client’s dogs.

If you hire them and you are agreeable, they may even share photos of your dog looking happy in a training session. (If you don’t want them to, that’s fine, just let them know; they should ask anyway).

Some dog trainers even have blogs that you can follow for useful pieces of advice and to keep up to date on their activities.

As above, if you see any signs here that a trainer uses shock collars, prong collars, pins dogs to the floor, refers to dominance or alpha rolls, or other kinds of aversive method, find another trainer.

What if I can’t find a good dog trainer in my town?

Some people are lucky and will have many good dog trainers to choose from. Other people might be unlucky, and struggle to find a dog trainer they are happy with.

In these cases, you could see if there is a suitable dog trainer in a nearby town. They will probably charge mileage to come out to you, but sometimes it’s worth it to work with the right person.

Another option is an internet consultation. These days, an increasing number of dog trainers are willing to offer consultations via Skype or telephone. This gives you a much wider choice of people to work with, and sometimes will be the best option. (Obviously, this only works for private consultations, and not for classes).

Choosing between classes and private dog training lessons?

Maybe you already know the answer to the question of whether you would like to attend dog training classes or have private lessons, but there are several things to consider.

If you have a puppy, then puppy class is usually the best option. Some trainers offer one-off puppy parties, but in the only study that looked at this, they found that a six-week puppy class offers better results in the long run.  So if you want to go to puppy parties, it's probably better to sign up for several, to get more socialization and play with other puppies.

A puppy class must be exactly what it says – for puppies only, no adult dogs.

Puppy class will include socialization as well as basic obedience exercises. Your puppy should have some opportunities to play with the other puppies, and a good class will separate the shy puppies from the boisterous ones so that no one becomes overwhelmed. Unfortunately, many puppies miss out on puppy class and also on socialization opportunities. If you have a puppy, see what to look for in a puppy class.

Some dog trainers offer private sessions for puppies. These can be a good choice, but because socialization is so important for puppies, you need to ensure either that the trainer will include socialization as part of the package, or to make sure to do it yourself. A good trainer will explain this to you.

Classes for adult dogs usually cover basic obedience and can continue through to more advanced levels, including Canine Good Citizen certification.

How to choose a dog trainer. A good dog trainer can work with any dog, like this white German  Shepherd in a meadow
anetapics (Shutterstock.com)

Some dog trainers also offer classes for reactive dogs; if you have a reactive dog and are tempted by this, check that the class is small, and that your dog will not be ‘over threshold’ during class (in other words, find it too difficult due to other dogs being too close by). These classes can work well, but some reactive dogs will need private sessions instead.

Many people enjoy the social atmosphere of classes, and the opportunity to meet other dogs and their owners. Make sure you are happy with the size of the class, because small classes are generally better. Classes will usually have at least one assistant to help the trainer and maybe more, depending on class size.

Classes are also available for a whole range of fun activities including agility, tricks, nose work, Treibball, flyball. etc. There may be opportunities to try these out with your dog or to observe them before signing up for a whole set of classes. Some people enjoy these activities so much they go on to compete or to become a dog trainer themselves.

Private training involves the dog trainer coming to your house for a lesson. In some cases, they may have an office that you go to instead or arrange to meet you in a public location such as a park.

Private lessons are best for behaviour problems, because the trainer comes to you and sees the dog in his or her usual environment. They will develop a plan for your dog, and will do some training whilst at your house and coach you in how to deal with the problem. In between times, expect to be given some homework.

With private training, you have time that is dedicated to you and your dog instead of having to share the trainer with others like in a class. Many trainers will also provide support by email or telephone in between sessions, and they will tell you what to expect.

If you attend a class but it turns out your dog has behaviour problems that are beyond the scope of the class, don’t be surprised if your trainer suggests private sessions instead (or as well). That’s because they can work with you more easily to resolve the problems that way.

If your dog has a behaviour problem, it’s generally better to try and do something to resolve the issues early on, instead of waiting for the problem to get worse before you seek help. This is especially important if you think your dog might bite someone (or indeed if your dog has already bitten someone). In these cases, make sure to ask how you can keep everyone safe until the appointment.  (For serious behaviour issues see below, what if my dog has a behaviour problem?).

What about board and train?

Another option is board and train, where your dog goes to stay with the dog trainer for a period of time, usually several weeks, and is trained while there. This can work well for some issues, such as house-training, but not so well for other issues.

This may also be useful if you are planning to go away and need somewhere to board your dog, and would like your dog to get some training as well.

Even though the trainer will be doing most of the training, you should still expect to have to do some work yourself; the trainer should keep in touch with you about your dog’s progress, and will schedule at least one session to ‘transfer’ the training.

After all, even if your pooch has learned lots of new commands, they won’t be much use if you don’t know what they are; and if you aren’t prepared to keep practising them, your dog may forget them.

How to choose a dog trainer. Here, a Treeing Coonhound relaxes on a bed, looking at the camera
Lindsay Helms (Shutterstock.com)

With board and train, you need to take even more care to select your dog trainer carefully and check references. Because they will be training the dog away from you, you won’t be able to see the training they do – so you need to be sure they really will be using food to train your dog, and not an aversive method such as a shock collar.

Vaccinations and Cleanliness

Expect to be asked to bring vaccination certificates to your first class. Adult dogs should have DHPP (distemper – parvo) and rabies vaccinations.

For puppies, the guidance from the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour is that,
“In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class”

Read their full position statement on puppy socialization for more information.

The premises where classes take place should be clean, and sanitized before each class. Carry your puppy from the car to the class.

Kindness and Courtesy in Dog Training

You want a dog trainer who will be professional and polite in their dealings with you. You also want a dog trainer who is a good teacher, because at least part of what they do will be teaching you how to train your dog.

Like I said above, dog training is actually quite a skilled activity and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. So find a dog trainer who will be encouraging. Classes should be fun for you and your dog.

I hear stories of people who go to a dog trainer only to feel disheartened, discouraged and upset because the trainer told them their dog’s problems were due to them not being the alpha or not providing leadership. Don’t sign up with such a trainer. They are using out-dated dominance methods. And they are also showing they are not a good teacher (and sometimes being downright rude as well).

Courtesy works both ways. If your dog trainer asks you not to feed your dog before class, to bring treats to class, or to do some homework, do your best to comply. You will get more out of the training that way.

And if you find a dog trainer you like, you can always leave them a positive review. Your recommendation will help others in their search to find a good dog trainer. 

What if my dog has a behaviour problem?

If your dog has a behaviour problem, you still want to find someone who will use reward-based methods. For more information, see the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour position statement on the use of punishment for behaviour modification in animals.

They say,
"AVSAB’s position is that punishment (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals."

Who should I hire if my dog has a behaviour problem?

While dog trainers can deal with many issues, there are some behaviour problems that need more expertise. Also, some dog trainers only take certain kinds of cases. For example, they might work with reactive dogs but not with fear and aggression cases.

Some dog trainers are able to work with dogs with certain behaviour problems, and will know if and when they need to refer you (e.g. to a veterinary behaviourist). Some dog trainers even specialize in certain kinds of behaviour problems, such as fear or separation anxiety.

How to choose a dog trainer. Here, a cute Maltese dog sitting on the settee
Alzbeta (Shutterstock.com)

As mentioned above, make sure to check your dog trainer has qualifications.

Dog trainers with the CTC from the Academy for Dog Trainers have studied behaviour modification as part of their course.

Animal behaviour consultants are certified by the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants. Certified members have a minimum of 500 hours experience in behaviour consulting and at least 400 hours of coursework in required areas, and must supply case studies and references (at the Associate Certified level, it is 300 hours of experience and 150 hours of coursework). IAABC follows LIMA. Members can be found via their online directory which is organized by species (dogs, cats, horses and parrots).

Certified applied animal behaviourists (CAABs) are certified by the Animal Behaviour Society. CAABs must have a doctoral degree in a relevant field, as well as experience of working with a particular species, and references. Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists may have a Master’s degree. They can be found via the CAAB directory. Some CAABs are also veterinarians.

Veterinary behaviourists have a vet degree plus at least 3 years of further training in animal behaviour. As well, they must have published a research report, provide case studies and take a two day examination. The kind of problems they treat include aggression towards people and other animals and anxiety. The American College of Veterinary Behaviourists has a listing of board-certified veterinary behaviourists.

Some of these professionals are willing to take distant clients via Skype/telephone.

Why has my dog trainer asked me to see the vet first?

For some problems, your dog trainer will ask you to see your veterinarian first, to rule out any medical conditions that might be affecting your dog’s behaviour.

A typical example is for house-training issues. If a dog that was already house-trained suddenly starts to make a mess in the house, they need to see a vet in case it is caused by a medical issue. A urinary tract infection can cause dogs to have accidents in the house, for example, and no amount of training will take the place of antibiotics if they are needed. It’s only if your vet rules out medical issues that it would be appropriate to work with a dog trainer.

Any sudden changes in behaviour would also need a vet visit, because for example they could be a sign that your dog is in pain.

In some cases of fear and anxiety, your dog trainer might ask you to see your veterinarian in case they want to suggest medication. Dog trainers and pet behaviour counsellors are not able to prescribe medication (or even to recommend it), and so there are times when they will suggest you ask for an opinion from your veterinarian.

Only veterinarians can determine if your dog needs medication.

If, after seeing your vet, it’s decided that you do need to work with a dog trainer or behaviour counsellor, they will be willing to coordinate with your vet as necessary. For example, if your vet prescribes medication, this may have an effect on any training (e.g. if training should be delayed to allow the medication time to take effect, or if it should proceed at the same time). Your veterinarian will advise.

Prices and Packages 

Dog training classes are usually sold in a package, typically a set of six classes starting on a particular date.

For private dog training, most dog trainers will charge more for the first consultation. That’s because they are meeting with you to find out what the problem behaviour is and will devise a plan to resolve it. After the session, they will send you a report outlining the problem and what they propose should be done.

Future sessions, which involve carrying out that plan, typically cost less. Many trainers offer a package that includes the first session and then a set of follow-up sessions. This is usually cheaper than booking each session separately.

Although some dog trainers list their price on their website, others do not. Don’t be afraid to contact them and find out how much they charge.

Remember that, since you are choosing your dog trainer wisely, they have taken the time to educate themselves, gain experience, join a professional organization and stay up-to-date. You are paying for their expertise and so their rates should be set accordingly.

Having said that, since dog training is an unlicensed profession, some people charge a lot of money despite having no education. That’s why this article hopes to help you choose an excellent dog trainer.

The most important things to consider when hiring a dog trainer


Your dog trainer should have insurance, and this information is usually included on their web page, but if in doubt, ask.

What if it all goes wrong?

Some people have the unfortunate experience of signing up with a dog trainer who they think will use positive reinforcement, and then when they turn up to class or the trainer is at their house, they find out that actually the dog trainer is recommending aversive techniques such as a shock or prong collar.

This post is designed to help you avoid that experience.

However, if it happens to you, remember that you are your dog’s advocate. Don’t let someone else treat your dog in a manner that you are not happy with. It may feel difficult or socially awkward to find yourself in this situation, but explain that this is not what you want for your dog.

Then find another trainer.

And finally…

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you’re obviously a dedicated dog owner. I hope you can use this information to find a good dog trainer near you.

Remember, to choose a good dog trainer, look for:
  • a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog;  
  • who has an educational qualification in dog training (ideally the CTC, KPA CTP, or VSA-DT); 
  • who is a member of a professional body; 
  • and takes part in ongoing continuing education. 

If you see any of the warning signs I mentioned, keep on looking. The right dog trainer is out there, and your dog deserves nothing less.

If you found this article useful or would like to share some feedback with me, please feel free to send me an email. (companimalpsych at gmail dot com).

And if you’d like to learn more about how we can use science for a better relationship with our pets, why not subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology?

This post was last updated in June 2018.

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07 December 2016

Losing a Pet Can Lead to Different Types of Grief

New research looks at the factors that influence how we feel after euthanizing a pet.

A sad-looking Shiba Inu lies on a bed; losing a pet causes different feelings of grief and sorrow

The loss of a pet is a difficult process. People’s feelings of grief may be the same as for losing a human family member. New research investigates some of the factors that may affect people’s grief and sorrow after euthanizing a dog or cat.

The study, by Sandra Barnard-Nguyen (University of Sydney) et al, is one of the first to use a survey designed specifically to measure people’s responses to loss of a pet, rather than a human. This takes account of differences in the experience, including the decision to euthanize a pet.

A reaction of grief and sorrow on the loss of a pet can be seen as part of a normal psychological process.  However in some people there may be feelings of guilt and anger that are more problematic. This type of grief is seen as ‘complicated’ and may sometimes develop into depression or other mental health issues.

The study looked at these three types of grief in people who had euthanized a pet in the previous year. Sorrow and grief was measured by questions like “I miss my pet enormously.” Anger might be directed at the person themselves, or at veterinary staff (e.g. “I feel anger at the veterinarian for not being able to save my pet.” Guilt included feeling that “I feel bad that I didn’t do more to save my pet.”

One way of understanding our relationship with pets is through attachment theory, the idea being that we become attached to our pets in much the same way as we do to people. From this perspective, you would expect people with a stronger attachment to their pet to feel more grief when the pet dies.

And this is one of the findings of the study. People who were more attached to their pet reported more grief and sorrow, and also more feelings of anger (but not guilt).

The scientists write,
“While guilt can certainly be related to the decision to euthanize a companion animal, it may be the case that pet owners are effectively rationalizing this decision as being in the best interest of the pet. Additionally, veterinary staff may be helpful in explaining the need for euthanasia in end-of-life situations and in supporting and validating the decisions made by pet owners.”
The researchers expected to find that people who were younger or lived alone would be more like to experience complicated grief, perhaps because they might have less social support. However, this was not the case, even though it has been found in earlier work. It shows that more research is needed into possible links between owner characteristics and experiences of grief.

Finally, they found that the circumstances of euthanasia made a difference to people’s grief. A sudden death for the animal was linked to greater feelings of anger. In contrast, if the pet had had cancer, people had lower feelings of both anger and guilt.

A St. Bernard in a snowy landscape is a metaphor for the grief we feel when losing a pet

The scientists have recommendations for veterinarians:
“Identifying pet owners who may be at greatest risk for problematic grief reactions has substantial clinical value for veterinary staff. While veterinary staff should be prepared to support all clients in their grief, recognizing that an owner is highly attached to their pet or that a pet has died a sudden or traumatic death, for example, should trigger additional support responses.”
The survey was completed by 409 people who had euthanized a dog (78.5%) or cat in the previous year. The average age of the pet was 10 years old; 52% had died suddenly and 43% had been diagnosed with cancer.

Earlier research by Tzivian et al (2015) found that losing a pet is a stressful life event, and social support is important to help people cope. This new research by Barnard-Nguyen et al is an important addition to the literature and helps us to better understand people’s experiences of grief when losing a pet.

Although social support is important to everyone who loses a pet, this study suggests some pet owners may need that support even more than others. It also suggests that the way veterinarians support their clients to make decisions about euthanasia and to understand what is in the best interests of the pet may make a difference to people's subsequent grief response.

What helped you to cope with losing a pet?

Barnard-Nguyen, S., Breit, M., Anderson, K., & Nielsen, J. (2016). Pet Loss and Grief: Identifying At-risk Pet Owners during the Euthanasia Process Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 421-430 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181362
Photos: mannpuku and Grigorita Ko (both Shutterstock.com).

 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 Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

04 December 2016

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club: December 2016

The book of the month is The Secret History of Kindness by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

A happy mixed-breed dog sits on a beach with a pile of books

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club continues with discussion of The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

From the cover, "Pierson draws surprising connections in her exploration of how kindness works to motivate all animals, including the human one."

Later in the month, I will post my comments about the book, along with some highlights of the book club discussion.

You will be able to leave your thoughts on the book in the comments section.

Through the book club, we will learn more about companion animals and our relationship with them, build up a nice library of books about animals, and of course enjoy talking about the books.

Are you reading too?

30 November 2016

Playtime After Training Improves a Dog's Memory

Making time for play immediately after a dog training session improves the dog’s memory.

Science shows play after a dog training session is a good idea; happy Black Lab playing in the snow

New research by Nadja Affenzeller (University of Lincoln) et al investigates whether play following learning leads to better performance the next day. The scientists wanted to know whether this effect, previously found in humans, would also apply to dogs.

In people, it is thought that the hormonal response during positive arousal acts on parts of the brain called the hippocampus and amygdala and leads to better memory. The effect applies to a type of memory called declarative memory, which is our memory for facts and events (for example, the President of the United States, or the capital of Denmark).

Now we can’t expect dogs to tell us who is the President of the United States, but it is possible to get them to do a task very similar to one used in some of the human memory research: learning to tell the difference between two objects.

The results show that the dogs who got to play immediately after learning needed fewer trials in the task the next day, compared to the dogs who had rested instead.

First of all, each dog had a pre-training session, in which the dog was taught to approach an object. In the very early stages, food was placed on the object, and when the dog approached, s/he was allowed to eat it.

For those interested in the food canine scientists use as rewards, it was either a piece of pork or chicken sausage, depending on the dog’s dietary preferences.

In the training session, the dogs were taught to distinguish between two objects and choose the right one by putting their two front paws on a cardboard square on which the object was placed. If they went to the correct object, the researcher clicked and then gave them a reward. If they picked the wrong object, the researcher used a no-reward marker (“wrong” said in a neutral tone of voice).

The objects were not things the dogs were used to. There was a blue basket with white dots which contained a layer of woodchips, and a green box with black stripes on that had a layer of cat litter at the bottom.

The dogs were trained in sessions of 10 trials, until they had got 80% right in two sessions in a row.

Immediately after doing this, dogs either had a play session or a rest session, depending which group they were in.

The 8 dogs in the play session had a 10 minute walk to an enclosed area where they had a 10 minute play session, followed by the walk back. Dogs had a choice between fetching a ball or Frisbee, or playing tug.

The 8 dogs in the rest session were given a bed to lie on while the owner and researcher engaged in a 30 minute conversation. The researcher kept an eye on the dog and said their name or distracted them to prevent them from going to sleep.

The next day, the dogs came back to learn the same task again.

Dogs that had taken part in the play session re-learned the object discrimination much more quickly, taking 26 trials on average (plus or minus 6), compared to 43 trials (plus or minus 19) for the dogs who had rested.

Play improves dog training memory - just ask this Lab playing fetch
Photo: Dmussman; top, dezi (both Shutterstock)

The researchers took measures of heart rate, which differed between play/rest sessions as you would expect, but otherwise was the same for both groups of dogs. They also found that salivary cortisol was lower after the play sessions, which they found surprising (if you’re interested in salivary cortisol research, see this post by Julie Hecht).

19 Labrador Retrievers, aged between 1 and 9 years old, took part. The study focussed only on purebred Labrador Retrievers so that breed could not affect the results. Their prior training levels were also taken into account and evenly distributed across the two groups.

This turned out to be important, because the ‘experienced’ dogs who had previously taken part in cognitive tasks like this learned the task much more quickly. The gundogs need more trials, perhaps because they had previous experience of following human cues in the field, which didn’t happen in the lab. Some of the dogs were ‘naïve’ and had only basic obedience, did not work or participate in trials, and had never taken part in similar research before.

This shows it is important to take prior training experience into account when designing canine research studies.

Three of the dogs had to be excluded (two because of motivation issues, and one because of a preference for one of the objects), so only 16 took part in the full study.

The study does not show the mechanism by which memory is improved, but it is thought to relate to the hormones produced during the play session. However, the play also included exercise, and further research is needed to confirm whether it is play per se or exercise that caused the effect.

The scientists write,
“The results show that engaging in playful activity for 30 min after successfully learning the task improved re-training performance, evidenced by fewer trials needed to meet task criteria 24 h after initial acquisition. This significant difference between the two groups not only suggests that the intervention is affecting long-term memory rather than an improved short-term memory, but also that pleasant arousal post-learning has similar effects on enhancing memory in dogs as it does in humans.” 

This study asked dogs to discriminate between two objects that looked and smelled different. A similar real-life training task is scent detection. Further research to investigate the best ways to improve performance in the training of scent dogs for drug or explosives detection, or in medical testing, could be very exciting.

It’s nice to know another way in which dogs are like people. And next time someone says they’d like to end a dog training session on a positive note, perhaps a game of tug or fetch is in order.

If you're interested in the research on dog training, check out my dog training research resources page or my post about why canine science is better than common sense.

Affenzeller, N., Palme, R., & Zulch, H. (2017). Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) Physiology & Behavior, 168, 62-73 DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.10.014

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27 November 2016

The Trainable Cat: Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

The book for November was The Trainable Cat: How to Make Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat is fascinating from start to finish.

It is about how to teach your cat the things that will help him or her to have an easier, happier life. Instead of tricks or obedience, think useful skills like how to get along with a new baby or how to go in the cat carrier.

Near the beginning of the book, the authors say,
“we aim to show you how training can improve not just your relationship with your cat but also your beloved pet’s sense of well-being. That’s not to say that the training won’t be fun – it will, for both of you – but the distinction is that you will be producing a happy and well-disposed pet, not a circus star.”

Each chapter has a section on how cats see the world, followed by training information. Early chapters explain how cats learn. Chapter 3 introduces a set of key skills, along with activities so you can practise them before you start training for real. Future chapters use these key skills and apply them to the practical situations your cat faces in everyday life. The book shows you how to tailor training to your individual cat – taking into account whether your feline is bold or fearful, and what their preferred rewards are.

The book also explains how you can meet your cat’s instinctual needs to hunt and to mark their territory by providing scratching posts and toys. Ideas to keep indoor cats content include cat agility and a sensory box to bring the outside in.

The book received overwhelmingly positive feedback from book club members; even the ‘dog’ people found it fascinating.

With this book, cat owners will not only understand their cats better, but also be able to teach them useful skills. It is essential reading for cat owners, and may even change your cat's life.

For more information, read my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat, or learn more about the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

You can follow the authors on social media: John Bradshaw on Twitter, and Sarah Ellis on Facebook and Twitter.

If you've been reading too, what did you think of the book?

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 Amazon.com

23 November 2016

Pets May Help Children Learn About Animal Welfare

Children’s beliefs about animal welfare and sentience are linked to their own experiences with animals.

A girl and her pet cat look at each other with love and affection

Surprisingly little is known about children’s beliefs and knowledge about animals. Yet this information could help to improve humane education programs for children. Two recent studies begin to fill this gap, with recommendations for how humane education is taught.

We know from previous research that even very young children like animals, and that children with pets are more likely to attribute biological concepts to animals than those without. Children’s experiences of caring for their pets mostly involve play, while the actual pet care is carried out by parents. Is it possible that even though these experiences are mostly social, children with pets will still have a better understanding of the care that pets need?

A series of group discussions with children aged 7 to 13 was conducted by Janine Muldoon (University of St. Andrews) et al (2016). The discussions lasted from 40 to 60 minutes, depending on school timetabling, and focussed on four types of animal: dogs, cats, guinea pigs and goldfish. Children were asked questions about how to care for the animals, how they knew when they needed care, and whether the animals have feelings.


Children’s answers showed a difference between what animals need in theory, and what was actually done in practice. Where they were unsure about an animal’s needs, their answers were framed in terms of their own experience, such as saying that a dog needed breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Answers also depended on the animal species. Dogs were seen as easier to understand if they needed something, although for all species the default position for an animal that needed something seemed to be ‘hunger’. Older children showed an understanding that some animals needed affection and interaction.

Children showed most knowledge about fish, and it seems that experiences of fish dying prompted them to consider what might have gone wrong. They also had knowledge about animals they did not themselves keep as pets. As you might expect, there were many gaps and variability in what they knew about animals and the five welfare needs.

Children talked about how they know what animals want. For instance, 11-year-old Caitlin* said,
“You can tell with a dog, because if they need the toilet they prance about and they brush up against your leg and they’ll go and sit at a door and then you kind of know. But then next they’ll be needing to be fed and he’ll go to this cupboard in the house and it’s where his biscuits sit. So he goes in and pulls the bags open and he’ll be able to get his head in and he brings it through in his mouth and he’ll drop it at my mum.”

A boy plays chess with his pet cat
Photos: Irina Kozorog (top) and Blend Images (Shutterstock.com)  

Muldoon et al conclude,
“Children often express confusion and report being able to identify hunger and injury, but recognize few other cues of welfare state in their pets. As certain types of animals may not have the behavioral repertoire or reinforcement history to give clear cues of need, it seems important that educators cultivate some form of emotional concern for the specific animal they want children to understand better. Perhaps most at risk of negative welfare experiences are animals that are not perceived by children to be reciprocal in their interactions or appear less dependent on them for daily care and attention.”
A large questionnaire study of children from 6 to 13 years old was conducted by Roxanne Hawkins and Joanne Williams (University of Edinburgh) (2016). They investigated the relationship between beliefs about animal minds (BAM), namely that animals are sentient and have feelings, and attachment, compassion and attitudes to animals. This study looked at a range of animals: humans, dogs, goldfish, cows, chimpanzees, robins, badgers and frogs.

Children rated humans as the most sentient animals, followed by dogs and chimpanzees. They rated frogs and goldfish as least sentient.

Children who lived with pets had higher scores for beliefs about animal minds (BAM) than those without, and those who had their own pet or more than one pet had higher scores still. Those with dogs specifically gave higher ratings for the sentience of dogs.

Hawkins and Williams write that,
“The results from the study confirmed the hypothesis that Child-BAM [beliefs about animal minds] is positively related to attachment to pets and compassion to animals, humane behavior toward animals, as well as attitudes toward animals. The findings also confirmed that Child-BAM was negatively associated with acceptance of intentional and unintentional animal cruelty and animal neglect.”

Neither study shows a causal relationship between children’s pet ownership and beliefs or knowledge. Further research would be needed to look at this.

A girl poses for a photo with her pet bulldog
Photo: AlohaHawaii (Shutterstock.com)

Dogs were most often considered to be sentient in both studies. Muldoon et al write that,
“the overwhelming emphasis on dogs throughout all phases of the focus groups suggests that they are the easiest animal with which to “connect.”” 

In Hawkins and Williams study, dogs were rated as having greater sentience than chimpanzees, though this could be because children were more familiar with dogs. In both studies, dogs were the most common pet.

These studies suggest that humane education should include developing emotional connections with animals and education about animal minds, as these are both likely to lead to more compassion toward animals and less tolerance of animal cruelty.

They also suggest that having a pet is a positive experience in terms of learning about animals and animal welfare. Further research can investigate the best ways to teach children about how to care for animals, whether or not they have a pet at home.

Do you think it’s important for children to have pets?

Hawkins, R., & Williams, J. (2016). Children’s Beliefs about Animal Minds (Child-BAM): Associations with Positive and Negative Child–Animal Interactions Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 503-519 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1189749 
Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2016). Exploring Children’s Perspectives on the Welfare Needs of Pet Animals Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 357-375 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181359
*Not her real name; the children were given pseudonyms.

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