Best Friends: Being Kind to Pets and to People

How kindness - in dog training, animal behaviour, on rehoming pets, and to others in our profession -  can change the world for dogs and cats.

A German Shepherd and a grey tabby cat, best friends on the sofa. How kindness to pets and to people can change the world
Photo: New Africa/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

A revolution in dog training is well under way: a transition to kinder, reward-based methods instead of the aversive methods that risk fear, anxiety, aggression, and a poorer human-animal bond. The reason is simple: more and more people are learning that positive reinforcement is effective and the best way to train dogs and cats.

But it’s a slow revolution. It would be better if people put more time and effort into learning about what dogs and cats need and how best to provide it.

On a bad day, it can feel like social media is full of photos and videos of pets in distress, afraid, or with what looks like a medical issue, yet being thought of as cute or funny. On a good day, we see great training videos that show you how to deal with issues like a resource-guarding dog or enrichment for your cat, and learn the results of new scientific studies with implications for companion animal welfare. 

Kindness makes a difference

Amidst this maelstrom, it’s easy to join the shouty people or to feel ground down by the heart emojis appearing on sad images. One of the things I try hard to do with this blog is to stay focused on the positive, the things people need to know, and a belief that they want to learn. 

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Over years of blogging, I’ve learned how much this information is needed and welcomed. The people who write and tell me that a post (or my book) helped them understand their pet and changed the way they see them make my day. (Of course there’s the other side of it – the hateful comments and spam that seem to be inevitable. I’m trying to focus on the positive here, but if you create any content you know what I mean; I hear you and send commiserations).

Kindness in dog training and animal behaviour

It’s easier than ever to find good information about dog and cat behaviour, but it’s also still easy to find plenty of bad or misleading advice. While Petco has banned the sale of human–activated shock collars, dog training books that recommend aversive methods are still amongst the most popular titles. The number 1 question people want to ask their dog is, “Are you happy?”, yet so many people don’t do their research before getting a puppy. Cats rule the internet, yet the most serious issue for cats is stress because of the environment they live in. The pet world is full of contradictions. 

A curious kitten by some vases of flowers. Being kind to people and to pets can change the world; here's why.
Photo: svetlanabalyn/Shutterstock

So when someone comes to us seeking advice on training their dog or helping their cat, it’s best to be kind. They may have had the misfortune to buy a book with bad advice or to search for a trainer and only find ones that use shock or prong collars in their area. It may come as a big relief to learn that there is a better way. They may have winced with every shock or leash correction they did. In any case, now they found you – so teach them, kindly, what to do instead.


"In a world where a wall of outrage is just a click away, kindness has never been more valuable or more powerful."


Besides which, if someone is thinking of changing from dominance or balanced training to reward-based methods, telling them off won’t be the thing that convinces them. We know that confidence and emotions play a role in choice of training methods, so undermining confidence won't help people. Asking them questions and listening, answering the questions they have, showing them that it’s possible and supporting their learning will help you welcome them over (see: teach, engage, and amplify).

Kindness and rehoming pets

Another common time to see shock and outrage on social media is when people are talking about re-homing pets. How often do you see someone say, “I would never give up my dog or cat, even if I lost my home”? Yet many of these decisions are motivated by doing what is best for the pet (yes, sometimes they should have been better informed – see earlier – but you never know what someone is going through). The person may be devastated to rehome their animal, but know it is the right thing to do. If the average pet dog lives for 15 years, and the average cat for up to 20 that’s a time in which anyone might have multiple life events to deal with. 

Focusing on outrage means we’re distracted from the real issues. It’s easier to get angry on social media than to do something positive about it. If we want to help pets stay in homes, we need things like pet-friendly rules for rental properties, accessible and quality dog training classes, pet food banks, financial supports for pet-owners who are going through a hard time, temporary spaces for pets to stay when people are hospitalized or flee domestic violence, and so on. 

A border collie in a red bandana on a red chair. How kindness can change the world for dogs and cats.
Photo: Julia Suhareva/Shutterstock

All those things are much harder to achieve. But you can support a local organization that is working on them, and ask politicians where they stand on these issues. Piling on the poor person rehoming their pet doesn't help that pet; offer friendly, constructive advice if you have some, and do something about the bigger issues (even if it’s only once every 4 years at the ballot box).

Being kind and supportive

Another way to be kind is in supporting others. Finding the time to mentor someone, putting someone’s name forward as a speaker at events, mentioning them to an editor, turning up (virtually) to listen to someone’s talk to show support, or simply congratulating them on a training milestone or a great blog post. I’ve written about reasons to be positive in dog training before, but being positive and supportive can help bring social change and improve inclusivity. I think Oluademi James-Daniel makes a great point about how simply making sure to support and share posts can improve diversity:  

“Honestly the biggest thing that helps is making sure that representation is forefront, so sharing the blogs and Facebook posts and Youtubes of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] working in dog things.” 

Sharing good information and supporting good people and organizations helps make other people more aware, and it supports those who are making a difference to animal welfare. Plus, when they go low, we go high, as Michelle Obama said. (And let's be honest, sometimes the most fun posts and shares are those when you've seen something outrageous and share something good instead. Revenge kindness for the win!).

Kindness is personal

Kindness on its own won’t fix systemic issues, like lack of diversity, financial inequalities, or puppy mills. But it can help us frame the kind of society we’d like, help us to teach people about their pet, and help us support people or organizations who can make change happen.  

In a variant on a familiar phrase, kindness may not change the world for dogs and cats, but it can change the world for your dog or your cat. Helping people make the switch from leash corrections to a harness and reward-based dog training, or from squirting water at their cat to providing the right kind of scratching posts, is so important.

Kindness can be very personal. We’ve all experienced the kindness of a vet or vet tech at a time when our pet is sick. This makes a difficult moment more bearable, and those moments of kindness make a big difference. And sometimes kindness should be directed at ourselves too, as when we mess up or find things hard. And let’s face it, life is hard for everyone at the moment (except billionaires). So if this isn't a time to be kind, when is.

My late dogs knew who was kind to them. They were always excited to see the people who would give them a treat (having checked it was okay with me), or who knew just the right spot for scritches. My cats are indoors-only and we’re not having visitors in the pandemic, but they always like people who ask where the treat packet lives or who sit quietly on the settee and let them cuddle without trying to pet them. 

Sometimes kindness is life-changing. More often it simply puts a smile on someone’s face or a bounce in a dog or cat’s step. We should treasure those moments, and multiply them.

In a world where a wall of outrage (real or manufactured) is just a click away, kindness has never been more valuable or more powerful. Use it wisely, and you can change the world. 

Further reading

To learn more about what your dog needs, see my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.”  You might also like my posts on five fun things to do to make your dog happy today and five things to do for your cat today

I have some recommendations for dog training books, and I keep meaning to write a similar list for cats, so hopefully I’ll find time soon. And I have lots of book suggestions in my Amazon store and on the animal book club page

Special thanks to the kind person who, with perfect timing, bought me a coffee on Ko-fi while I was in the middle of writing this piece. And thanks to everyone who supports this blog.

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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