Multi-animal households: The more the merrier or crowded house?

Dogs are social creatures, just like humans. And so are cats, by the way. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone gets along with everyone else, same species or not. Scenarios where individuals are more or less forced to live together and don’t always have a say in who they share with are common. Starting with the family you grow up in (and hopefully it worked out for you!), you may have moved on to share with friends or fellow students, and maybe even later in life, because you couldn’t afford a place on your own. Age or disability may also force you to live in a home where sharing with others is unavoidable.

There are situations where living together simply doesn’t work out. There could be a clash of personalities or incompatible lifestyles. There could be constant fighting or even an abusive relationship. If you are not able to change your situation and feel trapped in a social network, you are likely to suffer mentally, emotionally and, quite possibly, physically. I assume this may be a major reason that people disappear. And, it is mind-boggling just how many people go missing without a trace every year.

Now spare a thought for all those animals that we add to our homes. Not only do they not have a choice if they want to live with us in the first place, they also have no say every time a new family member is added. How do they cope? Well, not always very well. Some animals do wander off in search for a better life – mostly cats who have better survival chances than dogs – but most animals are unable to vote with their feet. They are either physically trapped or their dependency on us is so great that escape is not an option. And, just like humans, they get stressed, depressed and anxious if they have little control over their lives.

Trying to tick all the important boxes before adding someone to your family is ideal, but in reality neither our decision-making nor life itself are always ideal. Not even close. So, if you already are in a challenging situation, here are some things you can do to create a more harmonious household.

Everyone needs to feel safe

If you live in a mixed species household, consider the natural relationship between the animals (predator – prey?) and have safety measures in place. The risk of your dog preying on your cat or guinea pig may be low, if they have grown up together, but it is never zero. Leaving them alone together without supervision can end in disaster. So is leaving large dogs with tiny dogs or animals that don’t know each other well or have a history of serious fighting.

Of course, who is scared of who isn’t always clear-cut. If your dog tip-toes around the house because they are constantly vigilant of being ambushed by your cats, it may make for ‘funny’ YouTube videos but it sure is a hellish life for your dog.

If any of your animals is afraid of others in your household – and that includes you, your children and anyone who comes to your house – things need to change. For example, change how you manage your animals, think about how your own actions affect your animals’ behaviour and avoid anything that could scare your animals. Don’t be hesitant to engage a qualified positive reinforcement animal trainer or veterinary behaviourist to set you on the right track.

Everyone needs their own space

Personal space is not just a human need. Opportunities to retreat and not be bothered by other members of the family – human or other – are essential for everyone. For cats this means high places where dogs and kids can’t reach. For dogs this may be a crate, a playpen or a cosy bed under a desk that is off limits to everyone else. This is especially important, if the dog or cat is shy or anxious. Closely supervise any human member of the household who is not old enough or able to understand that animals are not toys.

Having separate feeding, resting and toileting stations for your animals is important. For example, don’t expect your three cats to share one litter tray, keep your puppy away from your senior who is desperately trying to have an afternoon nap and feed dogs separately who have a history of being a little too protective of their food. Stressful situations cause friction and, if repeated over and over, can escalate and make one or more of your animals decidedly unhappy and even sick.

Everyone needs to be listened to

Animals living with humans have one very significant problem: They can’t tell us how they feel or what they want. Understanding another species – which mostly means understanding what their body language and behaviour might tell us – is a science and needs to be learned from qualified animal behaviour experts. So, in order to understand your animal better, stick to sources that rely on actual animal behaviour research. Avoid following advice you hear on TV, social media or from anyone who thinks they have all the answers but no scientific data to back it up.

If you are able to recognise your animals’ emotions and moods, you can take immediate action if things are not well. Rather than being reactive to ‘unacceptable’ behaviour and potentially making a situation worse, your knowledge and understanding will turn you into a skilled planner, coordinator, negotiator, protector and friend.

 
 

To sum it up, if a multi-animal household is to have any chance of success, each individual must feel safe and have the right to express themselves in a species-typical way. Sometimes this means you have to get creative with how you provide suitable outlets for your animals’ favourite activities. You are, after all, a zoo keeper.

 

Who is your dog?

Dogs are predators with pointy teeth and bone crushing jaws. Yes – even the cutest, cuddliest, button-nosed munchkin is a serial killer at heart. And they live in our homes.

This mercilessly self-centred yet sociable species gave us a leg up when we still had much more to fear from the equally merciless Mother Nature. Dogs helped our ancestors track and catch prey, protected them from other sharp-toothed predators, provided a public health service in form of waste removal and proved their mettle in bovid crowd control.

But many of the historical jobs for dogs have been on the decline due to our advanced technologies and changed lifestyles. Although dogs can still showcase their outstanding abilities in some specialist fields – such as drug detection, search & rescue, conservation – the vast majority of dogs are unemployed. Yet they are still around in large numbers. The reason, of course, is that we turned them into pets.

Seriously, who wants to be a pet?

When dogs became pets, their roles changed but their nature did not. Instead of using and appreciating their unique skills, we became engrossed with their looks and cuddliness. In the process of narrow-focused breeding we robbed many of them of their good health and quality of life. Their tendency to still behave like dogs started to be frowned upon and these days it is not uncommon that their barking, chewing, chasing, digging, jumping, growling, snarling and biting is labeled abnormal. Dogs are suspected to have psychological problems when in fact their only problem is us!

The dogs of old gave us their unique skills in exchange for food and shelter and, in many cases, were otherwise free to roam and be dogs. They could roll in the grass, follow a scent and chase after a critter whenever they pleased. In short, they had the freedom to satisfy their needs and wants, largely without constraints. In contrast, the modern domestic dog typically has to learn how to access the things they need and want by either using us or bypassing us – whatever is easier. At the same time, they cannot easily escape our presence. This can readily trigger fight, flight or freeze behaviour, including aggressive displays, whenever we accidentally or intentionally frighten them. And the behaviour problems follow.

So we invented pet dog training to help with the resulting frustrations. Except, while we can easily formalise our own annoyances with the other party, we really struggle to understand what’s going on in our dogs’ heads. But without understanding the nature of the dog, against the backdrop of their evolutionary history, there is no way we can ever make up for taking their freedom away. Forcefully trying to shoehorn dogs into our human lifestyles – which is what pet dog training has mostly been about – has caused a lot of confusion and misery for a lot of dogs. Our biggest mistake is that we routinely assign thoughts and intentions to our dogs which exist in our imagination only.
 

We can be better than this!

 
We all have the power to make the world a better place for dogs. We can allow them to be dogs again and resist the urge to interpret their behaviour as if they had human thoughts and motives. We can embrace who they truly are. Can you? Here is your leg up:

Your dog is a dog and has no ulterior motives.

When your dog drags you down the sidewalk towards the next fence post, they demonstrate their most impressive canine skill: To be able to smell stuff that is nowhere near our radar. And, unfortunately for us, it means we frequently drop off our dog’s radar.

Ignoring you, as insulting as this may feel, is not a matter of attitude in your dog, it’s a matter of biology. To make things work for both you and your dog, try to rid yourself of any lingering ideas about your dog’s unsavoury motives and start using your analytical skills. It’s what we humans are good at, right?

If you still believe your dog looks to you for leadership or tries to challenge your status and you base your dog’s training on that belief, stop wasting your time. Dogs are opportunists. They try to figure out how they can access the things they want and if they find a way, they’ll stick to it. Now, it happens to be the case that we can offer most of the things that dogs want, e.g. food, play, going for walks and sniffing. They want it, we can provide it. Tada! No need to bring relationship counselling into what is essentially a supply & demand model where the supplier – we – can set the price.

By taking the relationship aspect out of dog training, we can stop the blaming and the speculations. And, by playing fair and being generous, we can get our dogs to love our brand and come back for more.

Know your dog’s specific skills and [let your dog] use them.

Use your dog’s natural skills and behaviours to reinforce them for the behaviours that are important to you. Again, use your smart forward thinking before you feel negative emotions that cloud your judgement. Think of it as making a deal with your dog:
“You adjust your speed to mine instead of pulling me off my feet and I will let you sniff at that tree; you come to the kitchen instead of barking at the delivery person and you get a tasty chew; you bring me a Frisbee when you feel the urge to chase the kids and I throw it for you”.

When trying to understand your dog based on their particular breed, look for energy levels and certain traits that have been enhanced for specific tasks, such as stalking and chasing in herding dogs or going underground and killing critters in terriers. Knowing what to expect can prevent frustration and misdiagnosis. Not to mention panic, in case you thought your Border Collie was aggressive for chasing and nipping the children.

If your dog is a mixed breed, don’t bother. The result of mixing genes is too unpredictable to allow for any useful predictions in regards to your dog’s behaviour. Your dog is much more than a result of breeding and inherited genes. Individual gene expression and environmental influences are what ultimately shapes your dog’s individual character.

Get to know your dog and be the best friend you can be.

What does your dog love and what do they fear? Your dog’s body language is the most valuable tool to gauge their possible emotions, motivations or intentions. Become an expert in your dog’s body language by educating yourself through qualified sources rather than relying on folk knowledge. The more often you can make that tail wag, those ears perk up and those eyes sparkle with anticipation, the more your dog will pay attention to you and make you part of their decision making.

Signs of stress, fear and anxiety in dogs are so commonly missed or dismissed that it poses a wider animal welfare problem. Fortunately, modern technology and increased scientific interest in the domestic dog have been delivering fascinating facts on canine brain & behaviour, which is changing the ways we treat and train them. Companion animal professionals across the board are taking this knowledge from the lab into vet offices, dog training schools, grooming salons and more. You can be part of the change by pro-actively choosing force- and fear-free practitioners to protect your dog from fear and pain.

Your dog is a unique creature. A dog who suddenly found themselves in your home and tries to adapt as best as they can. A mind, although at basic level quite similar to yours, preoccupied with its nature as hunter and scavenger, lacking our societal rules and moral values. A character that you have the unique chance to get to know and love better than anyone else. Enjoy the journey.

 

 

RESOURCES

ISpeakDog
Fear Free Pets

Puppy play: Why it matters

Play is fun. We may still be in the dark about why dogs and other animals play, but I think we can be fairly confident that they get something out of it. Most young dogs routinely and eagerly engage in play and their body language is ridiculous when they do it. They throw themselves on top of one another and on the floor, they paddle and punch with their paws, they hang off each other’s ears with their teeth, they chase and invite being chased, they bow, bowl and bounce all over the place. In short, they seem to be having a ball.

I could stop right here, since this alone gives me reason enough to be an ardent supporter of dog-dog play. But, we can also assume that something as risky (think injuries) and energy-consuming as play could not have evolved if it didn’t equip the animals with some sort of advantage or – in evolutionary terms – improve their fitness. So, there must be more in it for the individual than just the thrill of letting their hair down.

We don’t know what animal play is for, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

Animal play is a topic that has challenged researchers for a long time as there may well be more than one reason that play evolved. Evidence for the commonly held view that play might serve as practise for real life has so far been elusive. However, the lack of conclusive research to explain exactly why animals play does not mean we can dismiss play as a useless and irrelevant activity.

Here are some of the possible functions of play that have been put forward by researchers:

  • Helps an animal cope with stress throughout development.
  • Facilitates learning and creativity.
  • Develops the cognitive abilities of an animal.
  • Prepares the animal for unexpected situations.
  • Increases emotional resilience.
  • Is an opportunity for self assessment.
  • Hones an animal’s physical skills.
  • Is fun and therefore psychologically beneficial.
  • Aids in the forming of lasting social bonds.

Even if we cannot fully explain the adaptive and proximate functions of play behaviour in animals, we have to assume it delivers benefits to the animal and is important for their welfare. As animal behaviour researchers Held and Spinka1 point out:

“if engaging in play strengthens some future somatic properties, enhances skills or widens competencies, then it also improves future animal welfare since the animal will be better able to withstand adversity, maintain health, reduce fear and achieve goals that will be sources of reward”.

The latest hypothesis that animal play prepares an individual for the unexpected2 and teaches them to recover quickly from loss of locomotion or sensory control is especially interesting. Watching puppies play does indeed seem like a string of mishaps such as being pushed over or falling over, losing balance, being pinned down, being jumped on, facing sudden role reversals and being barked or snapped at and so on. If this develops the puppy’s ability to quickly get back on their feet physically as well as emotionally, that is a good thing.

So, if play is beneficial for dogs, why would we not allow a puppy to engage in dog-dog play?

One reason someone may not allow their puppy to play is the fear the dog could be harmed, similar to the over-protectiveness in some parents of human children. This can be rooted in the personality of the owner but could also be a result of misinformation. As long as puppies are only exposed to other puppies and friendly adults and play sessions are properly supervised, the risk of receiving any sort of physical or emotional damage is tiny compared to the benefits. Incomplete understanding of what good dog-dog play looks like may also be to blame. Being knocked over, jumped upon and bitten on the neck (with inhibited bite force of course) is just as much part and parcel of normal dog play as self-handicapping and role reversals.

Each dog has a life of their own and we have no right to spoil it for them.

Not giving one’s dog access to social play with other dogs, especially during their juvenile and adolescent developmental periods, can affect the dog’s ability to cope with life outside their immediate family and make them less adoptable should they ever get into that situation. Intentional or not, this essentially ties the dog’s fate to that of their current owner. This is an unnecessary and potentially tragic situation.

I believe we have a responsibility to set our dogs up to successfully negotiate life in a society that includes humans, dogs, cats and other animals. The likelihood that a dog will encounter other dogs (and cats) during their lifetime is extremely high. Even if this does not include off leash encounters, a dog is more likely to be at ease, if they have a history of positive experiences with other dogs. Ethically, I believe we do not have the right to deny our dogs potentially crucial experiences which contribute to their future happiness. Anxiety can arise from many sources, not all of which we can control. But we can control our knowledge and compassion. Let’s do everything we can to make our dogs happy.

References and resources

1 Spinka M, Newberry R C & Bekoff M (2001) Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology 76:141-168.

2Held S D E & Spinka M (2011) Animal play and animal welfare. Animal Behaviour 81:891-899.

Dugatkin L A. 2004. Principles of Animal Behaviour. 509-539.

Learn dog-language before you teach

“Don’t worry, I can handle these dogs”. The burly man was referring to a German Shepherd whose humans had just sat down next to him at an outdoor cafe. The dog had curiously approached the man and received a pat in return. A nice thing to witness at first: A confident German Shepherd, not afraid of human strangers, happily accepting a pat on the head and even doing a bit of playful jumping around and inviting the stranger to engage further. Unfortunately, in response to the owner’s gentle attempts to curb his dog’s exuberance, the burly man made the above statement – completely ruining the moment.

Whatever ‘handling’ means, it’s not teaching

It was a typical example of the still widespread belief that getting a dog to ‘behave’ (meaning: to do what we want) is a result of how we ‘handle’ them. ‘Handling’ is not a word that I would associate with teaching or training. To be a good teacher or trainer you have to be an expert in the subject matter and – just as importantly or arguably even more so – be able to effectively and constructively communicate with your students.
So, to be a successful teacher of dogs requires not just solid knowledge of how animals learn, but an ability to understand ‘dog language’. Since dogs communicate primarily via body language, this means being able to pay attention to and correctly interpret canine body postures, movements and facial expressions, but also vocal signals such as growling or barking.

Dominance theory, anthropomorphism and laziness keep us in the dark ages

Interpreting canine communication has always been plagued by human bias and misinformation. Dog behaviour is either labelled in the same vein as human behaviour and with the same presumptions (naughty, guilty, stubborn, loyal, aloof, mischievous, etc.) or it is reduced to a simplistic and fault-ridden version of wolf behaviour (behaviour is driven by status-seeking, i.e. trying to be dominant). The former just shows how hard it is to step outside our human minds and drop our biases – even when we attempt to understand a member of a different species – and the latter is a result of ill-designed experiments – and most likely influenced by the same biases – and was discarded by animal behaviourists a long time ago.

It is of course very intuitive for us to describe canine behaviour with human words that have intrinsic meaning to us, but since language influences how we think it also influences what we think our dogs think. And that is where we go astray. For example, if we label a dog as ‘stubborn’ for not doing as we ask, we clearly put the blame on the dog and insinuate an intention not to comply with our request. This is of course much easier than looking at our own failure of not training the requested behaviour so a satisfactory standard. Could it be that what we interpret as ‘stubborn’ is in fact a dog who is confused and maybe even a little intimidated by our commanding voice and growing anger? Teaching a dog requires a step-by-step plan, proper execution and high-value motivators. It is a labour-intensive endeavour. How much more convenient is it to blame the dog for intentional non-compliance?

The idea that our dogs’ behaviour is dominance-driven fits in nicely with this attitude. All we have to do is show the dog that we are in charge and they will happily submit and ‘behave’. Except that the only way this method has ever worked is through intimidation. The dog learns that some of their behaviours turn their human into a scary person, so they try to avoid those behaviours. Intimidation, however, has nothing to do with teaching. It is a violent and abusive way of controlling someone else’s behaviour.

Learning dog-language is the only way forward

So, if you want to make sure your dog is well-behaved and happy, there is no way around learning dog language. In order to make good decisions, you need to be able to recognise when your dog is scared, anxious, aggressive, happy, playful or relaxed. Giving your dog more reason to be anxious or even aggressive by coercing and intimidating them will do nothing to make your dog a better canine citizen. But, if you make your dog feel safe by listening and responding to what they tell you and if you encourage their cooperation with gradual and reward-based skills development, your dog will be a much better – and safer – companion to have around.

Fortunately, a new resource – iSpeakDog – makes it even easier for anyone wanting to extend or update their knowledge of dog language and behaviour. Created by writer Tracy Krulik, a member of The Academy for Dog Trainers, the website is a unique knowledge base reflecting scientifically sound canine communication expertise. Dig in!

The suburban choir of dogs that shames us all: what you can do.

Chances are that at some time in your life you have been annoyed by barking or howling dogs in your neighbourhood. Be it the constant daytime yappers, the intermittent howlers or the midnight patrol, a constant barrage of canine voices – especially at times when we want our peace – can test the patience of most people, including animal lovers.

But apart from the nuisance factor those voices are often trying to communicate something. Instead of listening and understanding though, we routinely just want the noise to go away. Putting the suburban choir of dogs on the same level as noise from building sites or overzealous gardeners with their power tools ignores the real problem: why are those dogs barking so much?

Why dogs bark

Every dog barks. It is normal dog behaviour and something we humans have bred into them to protect us and our stuff. But there is no such dog who only barks when there’s an intruder on the property and the family is in danger. Dogs cannot make such subtle distinctions. That’s why visitors and neighbours often get the same noisy treatment as the ‘baddies’. That’s why people who walk past the dog’s fenced yard get barked at. That’s why delivery people are the most hated individuals in the canine universe.

Dogs bark at stuff they are not familiar with and they do so because they feel threatened, i.e. because of fear. The reason behind this is often insufficient socialisation as a puppy, but genetics also play a role. Being afraid of the unknown has always been an important trait for survival. No animal can simply shake off its evolutionary history. Not even humans.
And then there are of course those dogs that we specifically raise and train to be guard dogs. Rather than socialising them, we exploit their fear of strangers to achieve their ‘protective quality’ for our own purposes. Those dogs rarely make good neighbours.

Modern dogs also spend far too much time on their own. They sit at home all day waiting for their people to come home. They have nothing to do and may therefore chew the couch to pieces, dig up the garden or bark the neighbourhood down. It could simply be boredom or it could be distress because they are left alone. If a dog has full blown separation anxiety, they suffer a state of severe panic every time their family is away. It is a terrible way to spend one’s life.

Arousal by wildlife or other creatures of the night is a particular problem for dogs who sleep outdoors. Some dogs do just fine sleeping outside, but if a dog’s mental, physical and emotional needs aren’t met, if they feel lonely or if they are prone to bark at noises or anything that moves at night, they’ll likely join the midnight choir. That’s why it’s best to keep dogs indoors where they belong: with their families.

How not to complain

Complaining to the dog’s owners can be a delicate mission.  Unless you know the people well, how do you think they’ll react? If you are only concerned with yourself or your patience has been stretched too far, you might not even care. Maybe you simply drop an angry note in the person’s letter box and threaten with calling the authorities if things don’t change pronto.

However, if you are even slightly concerned about the dog’s wellbeing (or if this is your primary motive) or you want to stay on good terms with those neighbours, it’s best to use a non-confrontational approach. It’s also better for your own stress levels.

If someone worries their dog may create trouble with neighbours and possibly the law, they may take desperate measures. Even people who love their dogs could resort to suppressive and even cruel methods, such as citronella collars and electric (shock) collars – anything to stop their dog from barking. This will solve the problem for the humans but not for the dog. In fact such measures can be catastrophic for the dog.

Bypassing the owners and going straight to the authorities can have similar detrimental results for the dog. Depending on a particular council’s policy, the owner may first be reminded of their duty of care for the animal but, unless there is a serious case of cruelty, it’s usually ‘case closed’ once the barking has stopped, no matter how this was achieved.

Working towards a solution

The best approach is to be constructive. If there is a dog in your neighbourhood that annoys or concerns you, first ask the owners politely if they are aware that their dog barks a lot at such and such times. Who knows, they may not even have noticed if no one has told them before. Ideally, you do this in person (far less room for misinterpretations) but if you don’t feel comfortable, just put it in writing.

I would avoid going into too much detail about how you are affected by the dog’s noise. There is usually no need to elaborate on your lack of sleep, how much it stresses you out and other inconveniences caused by the dog. The goal at this stage is to make your neighbours aware that there is a problem, not to make them feel defensive (which is what generally happens when you blame people). Your neighbours will most likely feel bad anyway when they learn their dog causes a noise problem. They don’t need the blame. They need solutions and support.

If the barking happens at night, it is still a good idea to pretend the barking may have gone unnoticed. For all you know, the owners may work at night. Finally, even if there is awareness about the dog’s vocalisations, there may be genuine ignorance, subconscious denial of the severity of the problem or a feeling of helplessness. You won’t know until you start a conversation.

If you decide to add an assessment, make sure you don’t “go all expert on them” (even if you happen to be a trained animal behaviourist). For example, you could say the dog seems to be stressed when alone or the dog seems to be over-stimulated by the wildlife at night – whatever the situation is. By doing so you show your neighbours that you have sympathy. This can in turn mean the difference between the dog receiving genuine help or having an “anti-bark” collar slapped on them. It’s an animal welfare issue, so unless you are a cold-hearted person, please consider the consequences for the dog.

You could even go further and mention that you know someone who had the same problem with their dog and solved it by keeping the dog indoors. Who cares if you actually do know a person or if you only heard about that ‘someone’ somewhere (like right here right now), it’s still good advice. Furthermore, you could add links and references to positive reinforcement trainers and websites*.
Another possibility, just in case you have the time and inclination, is to offer to look after the dog while the owners are away.

If your friendly approach is met with silence or does not lead to a reduction in barking, send a note a couple of weeks later using slightly firmer but still polite vocabulary. For example, you might ask first if they have received your previous note (maybe it got lost?). Then ask if they have started working with a trainer or behaviourist to solve the problem.
You could also say you hope they take the problem seriously for the sake of their dog and the neighbourhood. And you could mention that other neighbours are concerned as well.

After you have sent two or three notes – always polite but each time with a more urgent call to action – it is time to contact the authorities.

 

Not starting the communication with assumptions about the owners’ character or conduct is definitely the way to go. Too many problems and misunderstandings are caused by making assumptions about others. By keeping an open mind and not being judgemental you can help solve the problem for everyone involved rather than adding to it. And how good would that be?
 

 
 

*The Pet Professional Guild Australia, The Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals
Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia

Lament for the “non-reward marker”, the underdog in dog training

I never thought I would revisit “quadrant hell”, as we used to lovingly call it at The Academy for Dog Trainers. My venture into this pesky topic was triggered by a lack of consensus regarding a humble training aid called the “non-reward marker” (NRM).

While its most famous “reward marker” counterpart – the clicker – enjoys a cult-like following, the NRM has an image problem. It seems the poor NRM has become the nerdy kid that few people want to be seen socialising with. Always rooting for the underdog, I’ll try to jump to the little fella’s defence.

The context: The four quadrants.

In short, the four quadrants are used to explain the processes of learning via consequences.

REINFORCEMENT

R+

Your dog comes to you when you call her and as a consequence you give her a piece of chicken. If, as a result, your dog comes more often when called in the future, the behaviour will have been ‘positively’ reinforced. ‘Reinforced’ because the behaviour of coming when called increased and positively because you ‘added’ something to make this happen (you gave the dog chicken).

R-

You say ‘sit’ and put pressure on your dog’s rear end until he sits. If, as a result, your dog sits more often when you say ‘sit’ in the future, the behaviour of sitting will have been ‘negatively’ reinforced. ‘Reinforced’ because the behaviour of sitting increased and ‘negatively’ because you subtracted something to make this happen (you stopped putting pressure on the dog’s butt).

P+

Your dog jumps on the couch and you hit him over the head with a rolled up newspaper. If, as a result, the dog jumps on the couch less often, the behaviour will have been positively punished. ‘Punished’ because the behaviour of jumping on the couch decreased and ‘positively’ because you added something to make this happen (you whacked the dog).

PUNISHMENT

P-

You play tug with your dog and she nips your hand. As a consequence you stop playing with her for a minute. If, as a result, your dog grabs your hand less often, the behaviour of grabbing your hand will have been ‘negatively’ punished. ‘Punished’ because the behaviour decreased and ‘negatively’ because you subtracted something to make this happen (you stopped playing with your dog).

What are the quadrants for?

Animal trainers use the quadrants in two ways. First, to choose which of the processes to use, based on what we hope to achieve and our individual philosophy. And second, to assess the outcome of our training.

INTENTIONS

You may wonder why I have colour-coded the quadrants and, yes, your suspicion is correct. I prefer to use R+ and P- because I consider P+ and R- to be offensive and fraught with danger. If you read through the four examples, you will notice that there is a common factor in R+ and P-: they deal with good things (stuff that the dog likes such as food, play etc.). P+ and R- on the other hand deal with bad things (anything the dog wants to avoid such as fear, pain, discomfort etc.).

Since my intention is to keep the dog happy when I train, I avoid the use of bad things. So it is my choice to use R+ and P-. But do my intentions lead to the desired outcomes?

We cannot know for sure what the dog experiences as punishing or reinforcing. So, when I choose a certain type of food for training, I’m simply guessing that it will work as a reinforcer. Once I witness the dog doing the target behaviour more often in the future, I can be confident my approach has worked.

OUTCOMES

Equally, if I remove myself from the room whenever the dog chews my clothes, I cannot claim I am punishing the dog (by removing myself) until the time I have firmly established that the behaviour of chewing on my clothes has indeed decreased because of my actions.

But wait, there’s more

DIFFERENTIAL REINFORCEMENT

So, one way to tell if reinforcement or punishment has occurred is to monitor the frequency of the dog’s behaviour we are concerned with. However, behaviour doesn’t only decrease when it is punished. It can also decrease because it is never reinforced.

A training technique called “differential reinforcement” strengthens one behaviour over others. By rewarding one behaviour but not others that occur in the same context the dog will likely perform the rewarded behaviour more often and other behaviours less often. Although other behaviours are decreasing in frequency, they have not been punished. The dog neither lost something they value nor did they receive bad consequences in response to engaging in those behaviours. They simply weren’t reinforced. If a behaviour never pays off, it is not worth engaging in.

EXTINCTION

We use the term “extinction” to describe non-punishment-based behaviour reductions. If a behaviour has a strong history of reinforcement, extinction can be very frustrating for a dog because it leaves a “behaviour vacuum”. This is unless we direct the dog towards alternative behaviours to build a new reinforcement history.

What are markers and why is one the superstar and another the villain?

REWARD MARKER

Sometimes it is helpful to “mark” the target behaviour we want to reinforce with a “yes” or a “good” or a click with the clicker. This is especially recommended when we are not quick enough to deliver the reward and the dog may therefore not make the connection between a specific behaviour, e.g. sitting, and the reward that follows. The marker stands for “your reward is coming” and therefore becomes a reward marker, a type of conditioned reinforcer. Reward markers, and in particular the clicker, have proved to be incredibly useful training aids and have been closely linked to the rise of reward-based animal training.

PUNISHMENT MARKER

Do markers also work for punishment? Yes, we can condition a sound, word or phrase to mean “you are about to lose something”. Usually that something is the company of people or other dogs, for example when giving a timeout for bullying another dog at the dog park. The marker is useful to inform the dog of the precise moment they “stuffed up”, particularly when getting hold of the dog may not be instantaneous and the implementation of the timeout is therefore delayed. After several repetitions of preceding the capture and timeout with a marker, e.g. “you’re gone”, the dog will learn that the marker predicts being removed from the fun. The marker becomes a punishment marker, or conditioned punisher.

NON-REWARD MARKER

And finally there is this thing called a non-reward marker. It is easy to see how it could be interpreted as being the same as a punishment marker but we’ve already established that the absence of reinforcement does not automatically mean punishment. If I let the dog know that they just made the “wrong” move, for example moving out of the position they were asked to stay in, am I telling them they are being punished? Am I telling them they are about to lose something? Or am I telling them the opportunity to earn a reward has just been delayed? I think the latter. We are not taking anything away from the dog that they are currently in possession of or enjoying, so there’s no case for P-. And, as long as the non reward marker is given in a friendly, non-threatening tone, there is also no risk of it tipping over into P+.

The training scenarios that have been presented as evidence that NRMs are “punishing” and decrease a dog’s enthusiasm for training were – to my knowledge – cases of using NRMs without a clearly defined instance of the “wrong move”. The NRM was given when the dog did not perform the desired behaviour. The NRM was apparently given to mark a whole range of behaviours, except the target one, as “wrong”. That would seem to me like a bad application of the NRM. From the dog’s perspective, there is no clear instance of behaviour to attach the NRM to. The risk here is that – after enough repetitions – the dog may well make an association between the NRM and a frustrating experience (“What am I supposed to do?!”), which could make the dog reluctant to take part in future training.

Compare this with a very clearly defined instance of “getting out of position” in case of a stay exercise. The dog is already doing the “right” behaviour but then breaks before the trial is complete. The information given to the dog by marking the break of stay is unambiguous. And if the break of stay doesn’t resolve itself quickly, we go back to a shorter duration to help the dog succeed.

Conclusion

A dog who has learned what to do by being rewarded for it (R+) will eagerly take part in training as training itself becomes rewarding. They want to be there and share the fun with you. If using a non-reward marker makes this less enjoyable for the dog, the problem is not the marker. If we leave the dog guessing as to what exactly triggered the NRM or if we use the NRM too frequently because our training setup is too difficult for the dog, we have only ourselves to blame if the dog quits.

RATE OF REINFORCEMENT

In my opinion, as long as the dog wins a lot, there is usually no need to aim for errorless learning. If the dog sometimes doesn’t get a treat because they haven’t done the requested behaviour, that’s perfectly OK. The anticipation of earning rewards and the social aspect of training is already reinforcing for the dog. Not always getting a treat is part of the game and raises the anticipation (this is exactly what we do to maintain behaviour once it is learned: we put it on a variable reinforcement schedule). There is no risk of frustration if the rate of reinforcement remains high enough for the dog’s level of skill in the required task, training experience and sensitivity. It’s the trainer’s challenge to take care of that and to know their students.

Phew! Now back to more entertaining things.

The almost unbearable burden of raising a puppy.

Have you ever had a puppy or are you thinking of adding a puppy to your family soon – maybe even this Christmas*? Living with a puppy can be loads of fun but at times even the most patient person might feel more than a little exhausted. But it is not the exuberant and impulsive puppy behaviour that we should be most concerned with. The biggest responsibility of raising a puppy is not to teach them “manners”, it is to ensure they have a bright future. And that future lies in your hands.

“Those first three months of your puppy’s life are just too important to be casual about.”

Guiding the young of any species through their most vulnerable time in life is always a bit daunting. So many things can go wrong. If you’ve never even thought about it, start before you venture down the path of getting a puppy or a kitten or any other young life that needs your care. Their total dependence on you gives you total power over them. And that is an enormous responsibility.

Your new puppy will have the first culture shock when they arrive at your home. Having been removed from their mother and siblings, now they are placed in a foreign place, expected to understand very different rules and forced to spend much time by themselves.
Up until then your puppy had never been alone. So what if you intend to leave your new puppy for eight to ten hours a day because of your work? What if you don’t want them in the bedroom and they have to sleep alone, maybe even outdoors?
Then there are all those normal puppy behaviours, like jumping and biting, that you try so hard to erase. For the last few weeks your puppy has been happily romping around with his mates. Now those playful behaviours are suddenly met with hostility? How will your puppy cope?

Trying to see life from your puppy’s perspective – as difficult as this is, being human – is a good first step to prevent any major traumas. Understanding what your dog’s emotional and physical needs are is even better. Those first three months of your puppy’s life are just too important to be casual about. Yes, your dog may grow up regardless and – if they are lucky – somehow muddle through life no matter what you do. They are an extremely adaptable species after all. But would it be better to give them the best start possible? You bet.

“We have adapted to living with anxious pets. They are everywhere.”

If our dogs’ poor upbringing resulted in more dog attacks than is currently the case, we would already have regulations around puppy socialisation, handling and training. But the fallout of our failings is hidden away behind the bars of countless animal shelters and the exorbitant number of young lives lost due to premature euthanasia. And that is not to say that the rest of them are happy and well-adapted dogs living in loving homes. Dogs largely suffer in silence. You rarely hear them complain. Their lives may be dull, riddled with anxiety or even barely livable, yet most of them just carry on. Why don’t we see their plight?

I believe the reason for our collective blindness to the prevalence of fear, stress and anxiety in dogs – as well as cats and other animals – is desensitisation. It starts in early childhood where we learn that it is ok to manhandle animals and make them do what we want. We either never learned what fear, stress and anxiety in animals looks like or it has been “normalised” in our minds. We have adapted to living with anxious pets. They are everywhere. Animals are being restrained and manhandled for grooming and veterinary procedures, pushed, shoved, strangled, hurt and yelled at in the name of training and left in solitary confinement day after day, year after year. If all this fear and anxiety in our pets would burst into aggression on a massive scale, we would have long learned to pay more attention.

“You have the power to make your dog happy.”

You – as a new puppy parent – can make sure your dog does not become one of the silent sufferers. You can prevent the mental and emotional distress that may one day prompt your dog to become aggressive. You have the power to make your dog happy. And the welcome side effect for you is a much decreased risk of behaviour problems and a more enjoyable life with your dog.

Being physically manipulated is one of the major sources of anxiety in our pets but something we can easily prevent or change. Dogs, and other animals, can learn to voluntarily cooperate with whatever needs to be done for their health and safety. They can be taught to enjoy all the groping and smooching we bestow on them.

You also have the power to prevent fear of strangers, children, noises, novel objects and situations in your dog – all potential sources of anxiety – by understanding what socialisation is really about and by doing the best job you possibly can.

 
So, here are some guidelines for the first twelve to fourteen weeks of your dog’s life to get you on the right track. You can print a PDF version to put on your fridge!

 

COMPANIONSHIP

  • Let the puppy sleep near you during the first few days and slowly wean them towards their own bed and ultimate sleeping location.
  • Keep your puppy company, especially during the first few weeks. If you work long hours, get someone else to help out. Gradually get your dog used to spending time alone.
  • Spend quality time with your puppy daily. Play with your dog using toys so they can chase, grab and tug.
  • Invite people to your house. Take your puppy to work or social activities (take a crate so the puppy can rest undisturbed at times).

 

HOUSE TRAINING

  • Invest the time to properly house train your puppy. Supervise, confine and reward. Never punish a puppy for eliminating where they shouldn’t!

 

SOCIALISATION

  • Take your puppy out into the world from the get go. If your dog only had their first vaccination, carry them on your arms or let them watch from the car.
  • The importance of socialisation cannot be overstated. Create positive associations with lots of lots of sounds, sights, people, other animals – anything your dog could possibly encounter in their lives.
  • Prevent fear of strangers by introducing a large variety of humans in a positive manner including children. Let the stranger give your dog treats, but be careful the puppy does not get overwhelmed. Do not allow people to simply walk up and handle your puppy. Always watch your pup for signs of stress and back up if necessary.
  • The primary time for you to socialise your dog is from the moment you get them to about twelve weeks of age. Everything your dog experiences during that time will have an especially deep and lasting impact. Make sure the experiences are positive. Do not waste a day! After that continue socialising your dog to maintain their skills and well-being.
  • Attend a well-run puppy preschool which includes off leash play.
  • If your puppy is shy, never force them! Allow them to explore the world at their own pace.

 

BODY HANDLING

  • Teach your dog to enjoy being touched, held, squeezed, poked etc. by starting with brief handling and gradually work up to more invasive handling. Always give a tasty treat after handling. The higher the value of your treats, the more the dog will enjoy being handled.
  • Allow strangers, including children, to touch your dog but supervise closely to make sure your dog enjoys it. Always follow the handling with treats.
  • Take your dog to the vet outside appointment times and give them treats in the waiting area, exam room and on the exam table. Perform mock vet exams to make them comfortable with various types of procedures.

 

TRAINING

  • Attend a well run puppy school which uses positive reinforcement training.
  • Socialisation is the most important thing at this stage whereas training can be done at any time. Focus on three or four behaviours such as sit and drop/down, stay or wait and ‘leave it’ and do lots of repetitions in different places.
  • Use rewards to train your puppy. Do not use coercive methods such as physical manipulation or raising your voice. Redirect unwanted behaviour towards alternative behaviours, e.g. ask the dog to sit or go fetch a toy in situations where they are likely to jump up.

 
 

LINKS

*A puppy is for life, not just for Christmas, so consider carefully if your family is ready for a dog. If you intend to get a puppy for your kids, remember that kids quickly lose interest in new things and you are the one to be left looking after the dog for the next 10 – 15 years. Only get a dog if you really want a dog in your life!

AVSAB Puppy Socialization Statement
RSPCA Puppy Info
PPG Puppy Socialization Info
Crosspaws Puppy Guide
Crosspaws House Training Guide

Random thoughts on human division and canine cognition

The last few weeks have been interesting. I travelled through Florida and attended a conference at the exact time the United States went through an acrimonious election campaign. The conference was hosted by the Pet Professional Guild, an organisation dedicated to force-free and science-based training and handling of companion animals.
While the country around me was going further and further down a path of divisiveness and hatred I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to the divisions in the dog training world. My focus this time though was not on the chasms between the major training philosophies but on the disagreements within the force-free and science-based community. And since we so readily find fault with each other, maybe it’s not surprising how quickly we jump to conclusions when judging our dogs. Science can help us out.

“[The environment we grow up in] does not normally teach us how to live harmoniously with members of another species.”

Humans are emotional creatures and so are dogs. We know that emotions are triggered in the brain before rational thinking kicks in, so channelling our emotions into healthy, productive and appropriate pathways requires learning and practise. The environment we grow up in teaches us certain rules and customs that enable us to live in relative harmony with other humans. It does not normally teach us how to live harmoniously with members of another species. Dogs and other animals have their own ‘codes’ for intra-specific behaviour. What is appropriate behaviour for humans and appropriate behaviour for dogs rarely overlaps.

“There is a real risk that we … increase the already unrealistic expectations many dog handlers and guardians have in regards to their dogs.”

Research into the emotional and cognitive lives of dogs has recently been running on fast forward. There is an air of excitement that our dogs may be capable of more than we have ever thought possible. The quick turnout of studies however – often with small sample sizes and not always published in reputable journals – is not without danger. There is a real risk that we adapt new, and quite possibly misleading, ideas too quickly and increase the already unrealistic expectations many dog handlers and guardians have in regards to their dogs.

Whatever dogs are capable of, either emotionally or cognitively, we can never compare their internal experiences with those of humans. Every time we suggest that dogs may feel guilt, jealousy, revenge, spite, empathy, love and more, we encourage their humans to make assumptions about what goes on in their dog’s head. Unfortunately, their judgement will depend on their own interpretations of and experiences with those emotional and cognitive events. We are trapped in our human brains. And unless we constantly remind ourselves of that fact, chances are we aren’t being fair to our dogs.

“The fact that animals learn via operant and classical conditioning does not mean they are emotionally and cognitively deprived automatons.”

Even science-based dog professionals are not always safe from the pitfalls when studying a different species. Currently there seems to be a sentiment of “throw out the old and bring in the new” among a growing number of trainers. Disparaging remarks about animal learning theory, an eagerness to adopt new training methods and the push to assign higher cognitive function to dogs than is currently the case have been popping up on social media and at the conference I attended. It worries me not because I believe dogs are less capable than we give them credit for, but because I fear that we risk sacrificing good science for the thrill of discovery.

Animal learning theory is the pillar of dog training and it has neither been invalidated nor does it prevent us from making new exciting discoveries about dogs. The fact that animals learn via operant and classical conditioning does not mean they are emotionally and cognitively deprived automatons. It should be remembered that humans also learn to a large extent and very successfully via operant and classical conditioning. There is no need to criticize these processes as dated or limiting. Science does not toss out a well-established model because it’s been around for too long. In fact, the usual process is to build on and possibly modify existing knowledge, rather than discard a proven scientific theory or law.

Breaking new ground is an essential part of science, but there is good reason that science is conservative. It is necessary to guarantee its objectivity and adherence to evidence-based facts in pursuit of the truth. Before a new idea is allowed credibility it has to withstand merciless and unbiased experimentation and scrutiny. Otherwise it will remain just an idea, and so it should.

“What arrogance do we possess that makes us punish the behaviour of another species, especially one that has never signed an agreement to share a home with us?”

I also do not believe that the respect we have for dogs and other animals should depend on how their cognitive and emotional intelligence compares to ours. With this, however, I am expressing my personal opinion and ethics and cannot rely on scientific backing.
For example, the granting of personhood to great apes because of their relatedness and similarities to the human species may help provide greater protection for these animals – which is a good thing of course. But to link animal welfare and animal rights to how close or distant a species’ emotional and cognitive capabilities are to those of humans is ethically questionable in my opinion. To differ from the human standard does not mean to be a lesser creature on this earth. No animal – no matter how ‘simple-minded’ according to human measure should be subjected to ill-treatment. Giving other animals the freedom to pursue their own happiness is what makes us particularly human.

In order to teach our dogs humanely and create a good life for them and us, I think we first need to stop trying to explain their behaviour from a human perspective. The mere fact that we talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour in dogs shows our human biases. The definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is our call and therefore rarely does justice to the dog. Why do we think we have the right to force the member of another species to adhere to our rules and morals and think of them as ‘bad’ if they don’t fit in? What arrogance do we possess that makes us punish the behaviour of another species, especially one that has never signed an agreement to share a home with us?

The only way forward is unbiased data. Let’s get some data.

Be it for scientific or ethical reasons, a shift away from a human-centric to a dog-centric perspective is necessary if we want to learn more about those fascinating animals we live with. Recognising and trying to avoid anthropocentrism is highly desirable in dog trainers, handlers and guardians but even more so in scientists who study dogs and anyone who relates the findings to the public. And I believe it is an essential step to truly appreciate our dogs, because it means we are ready to let them be dogs and set our own egos aside. We can keep arguing about how smart dogs really are, if they possess morality, empathy or theory of mind, but I don’t think it will get us far. The only way forward is unbiased data. Let’s get some data.

 

LINKS OF INTEREST

The Pet Professional Guild, The Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals
Gorilla’s death calls for human responsibility, not animal personhood, The Conversation June 4, 2016
Why Fake Data When You Can Fake a Scientist?, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Nov 24, 2016

Stop the Pop. Harness the Love.

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to walk our dogs on leads? If they could just run free and make good decisions, such as not to run across the road to check out another dog or threaten to catapult a cyclist off her bike or jump on the man having lunch on a park bench.

It’s a nice fantasy that our dogs leisurely stroll alongside us without the need for physical restraint despite all those distractions our world has to offer. But it’s usually just as fantastical and risky as walking along a busy road with a toddler and not holding their hand. Since dogs are generally faster than toddlers and even less capable of understanding ‘appropriate’ (according to humans) behaviour, putting them on lead is usually the safest option. And of course in many places it is the law.

“Most walking equipment has the number one goal of stopping the dog from pulling, rather than considering the comfort and welfare of the dog.”

There are various types of equipment that can be used to walk your dog. The problem is that manufacturers and sellers generally don’t disclose potential side effects. This negligence is often not because they intentionally try to deceive, but because they are unaware themselves. Most walking equipment has the number one goal of stopping the dog from pulling, rather than considering the comfort and welfare of the dog. Perhaps it is understandable that we put human interests first, but the consequences can be dire.

“When did we ever forget that necks are sensitive parts of the body and need to be handled with care?”

Why someone came up with the idea that strangling a dog is an appropriate method to change their behaviour in the first place is concerning, but even more mindboggling is the fact that plenty of dog handlers continue to do this, even though there are much better alternatives around these days.
If your dog continuously pulls on a collar (any collar) or if you repeatedly “pop” the leash, so the collar violently pushes against the dog’s neck, the risk of injury and even death is very real. When did we ever forget that necks are sensitive parts of the body and need to be handled with care?

“A dog cannot make rational decisions, such as not pulling because it may compromise their health.”

Apart from physical risks, strangling and “leash pops” do nothing to create a pleasant walking experience for either you or your dog. Worse, your dog may associate you or anything they encounter on the walk, such as other dogs, cyclists, children etc. with being yanked or strangled and create emotions of fear, anxiety and even aggression. If your dog seems undeterred by the pressure on their neck and pulls despite coughing and gagging, it does not mean that your dog will not suffer physical or emotional damage. A dog cannot make rational decisions, such as not pulling because it may compromise their health. A dog makes decisions based on what they want at the moment and the history of reinforcement they received from getting it in the past. If they want something badly enough, discomfort or even pain may not deter them.

“It requires conscious effort to remember that dogs don’t do things to annoy us but because they engage in normal dog behaviour.”

Only yesterday I watched a woman angrily yanking on her dog’s lead several times while telling him off for pulling. The dog’s “crime” was that he rushed towards another dog while the woman was getting poo bags out of the dispenser, causing her to briefly lose her balance. She hauled the dog back, continued to fiddle around with the dispenser, then continued walking and THEN started the yanking and yelling spree which continued for at least 15 seconds. So, apart from the potential risk for life, limb and mental state, the woman’s actions had no punishing effect on the dog’s pulling behaviour anyway. Her yanking and berating started far too late for the dog to make any association with his earlier behaviour.

It was a classic example of how a person’s lack of understanding of animal learning and dog behaviour can lead them to be cruel to their dog. The woman seemed “offended” by her dog’s pulling as if he should somehow “understand” what she expected from him. Humans often make that mistake with other humans. Assuming to know what another person knows or thinks seems to be the default setting in our brains and it is very hard to break the habit. Unfortunately, it causes a lot of unnecessary distress and disharmony.
You would think it was less intuitive for us to make assumptions about what other (non-human) animals think. But our brains are just not wired that way. It requires conscious effort to remember that dogs don’t do things to annoy us but because they engage in normal dog behaviour.

“Take a deep breath and get a front-clip dog walking harness. Grab a handful of tasty treats and start training.”

So, before you get frustrated with your dog’s pulling on lead and reach for a choke chain or other grisly gadget, before you lose your temper and yank your dog around by the neck, take a deep breath and get a front-clip dog walking harness. And if this doesn’t reduce the pulling enough for you, grab a handful of tasty treats and start training.

 
 

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Walking on leash: How to be in sync with your dog

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One Jerk Can Cause a Lot of Damage, Dr Peter Dobias
Pulling on Leash (8 Common Dog Training Mistakes), Michael Baugh
Get Your Dog Into A Front-Clip Harness (The Easy Way), Madelyn Krkljus (Tails in The Valley)
Harness the Love – Tips for On-Leash Walking, Allison Wells (I Love Your Dog)
Do no-pull harnesses work? Ask a sled dog or two., Kristi Benson
Harnesses are a Great Choice to Walk Your Dog, Zazie Todd (Companion Animal Psychology)

Does your dog love food more than they love you?

Did my headline get your attention? Before you ponder your dog’s devotion to you, let me say straight away that it poses an unfair question. It is unfair because a) it’s the type of headline that blatantly aims to trigger an emotional response and b) it’s unanswerable.

“How confident are you that the information is accurate?”

The purpose of a headline is to pique the reader’s interest and encourage them to read an article. Unfortunately, all too often, a headline can become a standalone source of information. As you browse your social media or the daily news, a headline catches your attention but you might not have enough time or interest to read further. Even if you do, maybe you only read the first paragraph or you quickly scan the article trying to extract the gist of the story. And if you actually do read the whole thing: How confident are you that the information you take away from it is accurate?

Here is a recent headline: “Dogs Prefer Tummy Tickles To Treats According To Science”. Note the addition “According To Science”. That should give us confidence that the information is correct, right? The thing is: This headline isn’t any more valuable than mine. It presents a lure to draw the reader in and nothing more. This wouldn’t be so concerning if everyone understood that – unless a headline describes an irrefutable fact such as “Federer wins Australian Open” – it rarely tells the whole story and it can even be misleading. Not that this is necessarily the intention of the author. It is simply the way headlines are created in order to compete for the attention of readers. Sure we can blame individual authors or the media as a whole, but it may be more helpful if we relied on ourselves to read beyond the headlines.

“The results cannot possibly justify a blanket statement such as ‘dogs prefer praise over food’”

As it turns out, there was indeed a recent study* that tested the neural responses (specifically, the activation of the ventral striatum, a brain structure that indicates the experience or expectation of something pleasurable) in 15 dogs when they were presented with either a promise of receiving food or a promise of social contact with their primary guardian. But the study is a little more complicated than simply giving dogs a choice between food and praise. And the results cannot possibly justify a blanket statement such as “dogs prefer praise over food”.

The current research into the emotions of domestic dogs through “awake canine neuroimaging” is extremely fascinating and I’m sure it will add to our understanding of the unique human-canine bond. But we are not doing our dogs – and ourselves – a favour, if we hastily draw conclusions from an experiment that tests the neural response of dogs to specific stimuli under very specific conditions and then hail this as a significant contribution to the practical application of dog training. A common problem with translating scientific studies for the public is the misinterpretation of the study results and this has certainly been the case here.

The possible practical value of the study (and hopefully more studies with larger sample sizes to follow) is the detection of differences in individual dogs and dog breeds in regards to their tendency for strong social bonding to humans. Those differences may help with the selection of dogs for certain tasks such as assistance and therapy dogs. Dogs who showed higher ventral caudate activation in the experiment when expecting social contact instead of food are possibly more suitable for jobs that involve close cooperation and bonding with humans. However, to conclude that praise would have a better or equal effect on the willingness and performance of dogs when we teach them skills or try to create positive emotional responses is not warranted.

“It is the history of reinforcement that determines a dog’s future behaviour. Make sure that history is stacked in your favour by using memorable, high value rewards.”

What a dog wants is influenced by many factors that continuously modify their current mental, emotional and physical state. The dog’s saturation with food, play, exercise and social contact is what largely decides the efficacy of a chosen reward or motivator at any given time.

In the neural response experiment the dog is alone in an environment away from the home they share with their human(s). In a typical training environment on the other hand a dog is either with their human or another person they are comfortable with (reward-based training wouldn’t work if the dog didn’t want to be there in the first place). The dog’s social needs are likely already met. In that scenario the trainer has to find out what the dog wants most at the moment. A motivator has to be potent enough to trump (apologies for using that word – it makes me cringe too) anything else that might be going on in the dog’s internal and external environment.

In a previous study**, which tested the responses of dogs (and hand-reared wolves) to food versus social interaction in a more realistic training setting, the results clearly indicated a preference for food over praise or petting. Even shelter dogs – who were deprived of human contact and could therefore be expected to experience social contact as highly reinforcing – responded better with food.

Before expecting your dog to perform behaviours for you “for free”, think about all the competing factors. Yes, your dog may waddle over to you for a belly rub when hanging out at home. But good luck consistently calling your dog away from their dog friends at the park or a possum in a tree with no other promise than that of a belly rub or praise.
It is the history of reinforcement that determines a dog’s future behaviour. Make sure that history is stacked in your favour by using memorable, high value rewards.

“Social contact is a dog’s right, not a reward. Social bonding between dog and human is the best foundation to successfully teach your dog skills.”

Hopefully your dog gets plenty of belly rubs from you anyway. Rather than using social contact as a reward for behaviour, it should form the basis for cooperation. Social contact is a dog’s right, not a reward. Social bonding between dog and human is the best foundation to successfully teach your dog skills. A happy and cooperative dog is more likely to show enthusiasm during training. You can control this enthusiasm – and hence the learning outcome – through potent motivators.

 
Headlines that dismiss the value of food in dog training are concerning because they pander to some people’s expectations that dogs should perform behaviours simply because of their devotion to us. They fuel the idea that using treats in training is a bad thing, that it “corrupts” dogs and that it negatively affects the dog-human bond. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be highly detrimental if dog lovers avoided or abandoned food rewards in training due to the erroneous belief that praise or petting are suitable replacements. In fact, food rewards should be encouraged more and their value highlighted at every opportunity. No matter if you teach your dog a specific skill, modify a problem behaviour or want to help your fearful and anxious dog to feel better, dish out those tasty morsels, so your dog receives the best motivation and has the best chance to succeed in life.

 
 

REFERENCES

* Peter F. Cook, Ashley Prichard, Mark Spivak, and Gregory S. Berns.
Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access first published online August 12, 2016 doi:10.1093/scan/nsw102

** Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L.(2012). Relative Efficacy of Human Social Interaction and Food as Reinforcers for Domestic Dogs and Hand-Reared Wolves. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129