A “good dog” is a happy dog

Good dog! Most of us have expressed our approval with a certain individual more than once in this way. Sometimes this phrase is used as reinforcement for desired behaviour and sometimes it is more of a general praise, not specifically linked to anything the dog is doing at that moment. But what exactly qualifies a dog or their behaviour as “good”? We all have our own ideas about what we like and don’t like about dogs, but it is worth putting our picture of the “ideal dog” into perspective. After all it is human ideas and expectations that will largely determine a dog’s quality of life.

The obedient dog

Traditionally, from a dog training perspective, a good dog is one that is obedient and follows his master’s every command. A good dog has no annoying habits such as excessive barking, jumping up, pulling on lead, house-soiling, chewing, digging or being aggressive towards the wrong target. Dogs with “jobs”, such as working, racing or assistance dogs, have to satisfy even stricter requirements and many don’t make the cut. In fact, a great many domestic dogs do not live up to human expectations and suffer neglect, abandonment, abuse or an untimely death.

This is not the dogs’ fault. Historically, breeding and training dogs was rarely done with the dogs’ best interests in mind. Our zealous attempt to create the perfect dog for various applications has caused substantial suffering in dogs and common behaviour problems are often of our own making. Selective breeding did not just fashion – and sometimes burden – dogs with exaggerated anatomical features, but also contributed to a range of mental and physical health issues which impact on our dogs’ behaviour. Training has its own shameful history of torturing and subjugating dogs which continues to this day – albeit under various disguises – and has to take the blame for countless fearful, aggressive and otherwise emotionally damaged dogs. Sometimes the damage – no matter if it was largely genetic, environmental or both in origin – cannot be undone through training or veterinary intervention. These dogs will never be “good” in anybody’s books. They are the losers of ruthless breeding and wild-west-style training methods. And with the law being largely silent in both industries – dog breeding and dog training – we will have to deal with preventable behaviour problems in dogs for quite a while yet.

The educated dog

What would greatly help our dogs, but also benefit us, is a shift away from the traditional notion of the “obedient dog” as a role model. Allowing dogs to freely express their personality and, to an extent, make their own decisions might just be the best way forward in the world of dog training. This does not mean that we forgo safety and let our dogs run wild. It means that we give our dogs the skills to happily live within human society without constantly having to tell them what to do. It means that we ask ourselves not just what we teach a dog but why. Too many dogs are taken through the usual rigmarole of obedience exercises at dog training schools or at home without being taught how to make use of those skills to access all the things they want in life. Although training can be beneficial for dogs in itself – think mental exercise akin to a crossword puzzle – it is usually linked to a goal. Humans mostly train dogs for the purpose of having more control over them. However, a much better and more contemporary definition of dog training would be “canine education”. Education is liberating, because it gives individuals knowledge they can use to improve their lives. If we look at it from that perspective, dog training is no longer about humans controlling dogs but about dogs learning how to control their own lives.

Modern dog training classes that aim to teach dogs “life skills” or turn them into “canine citizens” are positive signs that we have already started to change our thinking. The trend is away from militaristic drills and boot camps which aim to turn dogs into robotic obedience machines towards a more holistic and cooperative learning experience for the dog-human team. It is a persistent myth that a dominance-submission relationship is needed to create harmony between human and dog, but slowly awareness is growing that this approach is risky and unnecessarily stressful for everyone involved. Harmony does not arise from intimidation and coercion, no matter how subtle this is executed. Good behaviour does not come from stress and tension. Fear of punishment is a potential time bomb and creates a volatile individual, not a relaxed and friendly one.
Armed with this knowledge, many progressive dog trainers continually develop better and more humane educational programs for dogs and their people. It will be interesting to see how we can take this even further over the next decades or so.

The happy dog

Ultimately it is up to every dog’s guardian to decide what it is they want from their dog. However, animal welfare concerns should challenge us all to think beyond our own needs and give consideration to the dog’s needs and quality of life.

Compulsive behaviours, anxiety and aggression are signs that not all is well regarding the dog’s mental and physical health. In order to prevent these problems from developing or getting worse, we need to learn and be aware of how our own behaviour affects dog behaviour, be that through specific actions, tone of voice, body language or otherwise. What is it we do that enables, triggers, maintains or worsens a dog’s behaviour? We can all help to make the community safer and dogs and their humans happier by protecting dogs from being coerced, intimidated or hurt in the name of dog training or otherwise.

A good dog is not the one who sits in the corner too afraid to move for fear of punishment. A good dog is not the one who has stopped barking because of the obnoxious citronella collar around her neck. A good dog is not the one who doesn’t jump up anymore because his people knocked the enthusiasm out of him. A good dog is not the one who trots along listlessly because they were yanked and strangled for pulling. These are all stressed dogs and, unfortunately, there are far too many of them. It’s time that these “good dogs” of old become a dying breed. That’s why we all need to educate ourselves to create many more happy dogs – because a happy dog is a good dog.




A dog’s life – what’s it worth?

Every so often I hear complaints about the amount of money people spend on their dogs or other companion animals. There seems to be a moral objection to the idea that animals receive so much of our disposable income and a suggestion that the money should go towards “worthier” targets, for example less fortunate humans who suffer from poverty, disease and other hardships in this world. But is this a valid argument?

What we spend money on

There is no better tool to address emotional arguments than statistics*, so let’s start there. The numbers tell us that Australians spend around $20 billion a year on beauty products and personal care, another $20 billion on recreation and around $10 billion on gadgets. We certainly value alcohol and gambling (between $15 and $20 billion a year each) and our spending on coffee and sweets easily exceeds donations to charity. Australian households also waste a lot. A possible $8 billion of food is thrown away per annum, not counting the wastage from restaurants and other businesses. In comparison we spend approximately $5 billion a year on pets. This includes everything – food and health care, pet products and accessories, services such as grooming, boarding and training – and all pets – from dogs and cats to fish and reptiles.

It feels wrong to compare expenditure on luxury items and entertainment to the money we spend on our animal companions. But since pets are legally nothing more than property, they get bundled together with hair straighteners, golf clubs and flat screen TVs. Even then, it would make more sense to criticise our exorbitant spending on non-essential beauty and lifestyle products before we bemoan the cost of animal care or even pet pampering, whatever that may mean.

But there is something else wrong with criticizing spending money on our animal companions. It implies that those people who do not have pets or spend less money on them are more charitable than others. Clearly this is not the case. If someone puts their house up for sale to pay for their dog’s medical bills, it is highly doubtful they would have done the same to give money to charity. People spend their money whichever way they like. No matter if someone collects vintage cars, enjoys going to restaurants or loves their dog, we simply cannot draw any conclusions about how much or how little they give to charity.

Life has no price tag

It is an impossible task to estimate the value of life. We can assume that a life is most important to the individual who lives it, but it also matters to others. How much it matters is fluent. It is evident that even human life is not valued evenly across the globe and throughout history. In war-torn and poverty stricken countries a life can end quickly and without fanfare. Sometimes one life is less important than family or community and sometimes a life is sacrificed for a greater cause or goal. And while “developed” countries may rate individual life very highly, we are also willing to send young men and women into war if we deem necessary. Life has no objective value. It simply cannot be measured in monetary or even ethical terms. The value of a single life is a subjective experience and can only be qualified by the individual themselves and everyone around them.

As a society we tend to value human life above all other. This does not mean that every human being values every single human life over that of every other animal. Just ask yourself: Would you save your dog’s life over that of a sadistic psychopathic serial killer, if you ever found yourself in the unfortunate position to have to make that decision? Would you run into a burning house to save your dog, risking your own life? Neither worldly laws nor spiritual beliefs can answer these questions for us.

More than just a dog

The recent story of a young man who committed suicide after authorities killed his dog shows just how much non-human animals can mean to us. The psychological and emotional benefits of pets have been sufficiently proven but we also need to acknowledge that humans can genuinely form close bonds with members of other species. There doesn’t have to be a measurable benefit to us in order to justify spending money on our pets. It’s ok if it simply makes us happy.

Not everyone may understand the emotional attachment that is possible between species. A few years ago Dusty, a young kelpie from Queensland, tested positive for Hendra virus antibodies and was euthanized for bio-security reasons. While his distressed family pleaded for their beloved dog’s life, a nearby farmer – apparently wanting to help – offered to “replace” the kelpie. This type of thinking puts dogs on the same level as a tractor. The dog is a replaceable utility, not a unique individual whose family have come to know and love him. But every animal – dog, human or other – is unique and so are the relationships they form with others.

People who get emotionally attached and spend significant money on their dogs are sometimes accused of treating them like children. The only thing wrong with that is when the animals suffer from being anthropomorphised and subjected to unrealistic expectations by their humans. Otherwise, the kindness of people should be applauded, especially if we consider that around 250,000 abandoned, neglected and abused dogs and cats are killed each year in Australian animal shelters. Empathy does not stop at species boundaries, meaning that people who are kind to animals are also likely to be kind to humans. We can never have enough of those people!


Like everyone else I have my private thoughts about what type of expenses I find reasonable (not just in relation to pets) and which I classify as extravagant. But it is not for me to decide what other people should spend their money on. As a dog trainer I want to see happy, healthy dogs, so my focus is on training and behaviour as well as health care and good nutrition. Any expenses in these categories are important to not just keep the animal alive but to give them a life worth living.
However, if someone wants to express their love for their dog with a diamond studded collar, it’s entirely their business. This is no different to buying jewellery for a human loved one (except that the dog couldn’t care less of course!). Nobody really needs these items but it clearly means something to people. Before I pass – my purely personal – judgement on anyone, I try and remind myself that the big spender might also be a big philanthropist.




* The numbers are neither exact nor current but are meant as ballpark figures only.


Australian spending habits, ASIC, MoneySmart
We’re getting more charitable, but the gambling bug still bites, Nortons, Business Advisers & Chartered Accountants
Australians are world-leading gamblers, but the house’s winnings are slipping, Business Spectator
Do Australians waste $8 billion worth of edible food each year?, ABC Fact Check
He Had The Wrong Dog In The Wrong Country And When They Killed It He Killed Himself, 3MillionDogs
Empathy and Compassion: The Awesome Sauce, Jason Powers in Huffington Post
Dusty the red kelpie – Hendra Virus, Barristers Animal Welfare Panel


Does your dog’s jumping up cause you to forget your manners?

Imagine you extend your hand to greet someone or attempt to hug a friend and they slap you in the face. You’d be pretty shocked and probably at a loss why your friendly overtures caused such a violent response. Or could you imagine engaging in such brutal behaviour yourself? I don’t know of any culture where this response to a sociable approach would be acceptable. There’s no problem though when it comes to human-dog greetings. It is still fairly common practise for humans to respond to a friendly dog greeting with slapping, kicking, pushing or other crass antics. From our dogs’ point of view surely this must seem worse than just violating the dog greeting etiquette. They must think we are truly mad.

Dogs need support, not sabotage

It certainly appears crazy to alienate precisely those animals that we most expect to be friendly and free of aggression. We have extremely high standards when it comes to the behaviour of pet dogs but at the same time we sabotage them at every turn. Lucky for us, dogs are immensely adaptable. The close dog-human collaboration has worked over so many tens of thousands of years not because humans are so uniquely clever but to a large extent because dogs are such amazingly successful survivors.

Jump with your dog, for joy

So here we are in the 21. century – modern, advanced, educated humans – and we still stick to those appalling methods for stopping our dogs from jumping up and licking us in the face. It is understandable that not everyone enjoys having a wet dog nose, let alone tongue, slobbering across their face and being jumped on can be very unpleasant if not dangerous. But there is absolutely no reason to respond to a friendly greeting with violence. Jumping up and licking faces are pro-social dog behaviours. You might not experience it as such, but it really is a good sign if your dog behaves that way. A reason to celebrate in fact, since it means your dog likes humans rather than being fearful of or aggressive towards them. Yay!

How to greet a dog and keep face

Our mismatched greeting ritual is an example of the culture clash* that exists between dogs and humans. The question is how can we turn our response into a more socially acceptable form for the dog and at the same time prevent ourselves from bruises and scratches, muddied jeans and slobbered faces. With a bit of effort this is very achievable. As a pre-requisite, your dog first needs a solid, reliable “sit-stay” under distraction. If you think your dog already knows how to sit, think again. Teaching your dog to put their butt on the ground is one thing. Staying in that position while you jump up and down on the couch is another. Can your dog pull that off? If so, congratulations! If not, get to work and have some fun. Ask your dog to sit, then take a step, left, right or back, and promptly reward your dog for staying in the sit position (if the dog gets up, start over). Try different distractions and increase the difficulty gradually so your dog can succeed. Jumping around on the couch is optional of course, but you want to proof your dog’s sit-stay simulating the excitement that may arise when good friends come over for a dinner party. If you need help, contact a good dog trainer** or get yourself a decent dog training book***. Once your dog is good at sit stay, practise with friends and instruct them to ask your dog to sit upon greeting. The dog’s reward could be access to the person, which is what dog was after in the first place. For example the person may crouch or bend down and pet the dog. Treats, tossing a toy, throwing a ball or whatever the dog enjoys are other options for reinforcement. If you take it step by step, you can build very reliable behaviours without being rude or violent with your dog.

The “instant solution” temptation: don’t risk it

If you are still thinking “why can’t I just whack the dog once and be done with it”, consider the ramifications. Yes, if you hurt or scare the dog enough, they might never jump up on you or another person. But imagine what the shock of being met with such force just for trying to be friendly does to your dog. They might become wary of you or people in general, they might flinch at quick hand movements, become anxious and withdrawn, maybe even aggressive. Why would you risk compromising the relationship between you and your dog and put a damper on your dog’s happiness if you can solve the problem in a cooperative and risk-free way.

Slowly but surely we learn some manners

Stepping away from tradition and breaking habits is never easy and dog training is no different. If even a veterinarian advices a client to whack her dog under the chin in response to jumping up, we have much education to do before things change for the better. The woman who received this advice and “successfully” tried it on her dog promptly passed it on to other people at the dog park. I could not help but notice that her dog was anxious and shied away from people’s outstretched hands. I have no proof that this was the result of aversive handling but, considering everything we know today about dog behaviour, it’s very possible. This type of advice given by a vet who apparently overstepped his field of expertise (no respectable dog trainer would ever give canine medical advice to a client) is not the worst example. Even in some dog training schools they still teach you anything from violently jerking the leash to a well-timed swing with a frying pan (I’m not kidding). Anything goes it seems to let our dogs know just how offended we are by their friendly greeting rituals. I think we can do better. Let’s turn the tables for once and show our dogs that we have some manners.


*The Culture Clash, award winning book by Jean Donaldson, is a must read for anyone who is involved with dogs.

**Crosspaws – recommended dog training books.

***Crosspaws – How to chose a dog trainer.

The Remote Controlled Dog: Is this the Future of Dog Training?

A young woman arrived at the off-leash park with her small fluffy dog in tow and set off on a brisk march. As the dog fell behind to cautiously investigate me and my canine companion I noticed a rather large device strapped around the dog’s neck. Surely enough the woman was carrying what looked like a remote control in her hand. After a brief sniff from a safe distance the little remote controlled dog suddenly growled at us, did a big shake off and rushed after the woman. Had she just pressed the button?

The encounter was not just distressing because of a tiny dog wearing a gigantic shock collar but because the woman seemed so entirely disconnected from her dog. While she marched around the park she only rarely glimpsed over her shoulder, but even when her dog was out of sight she didn’t stop or call the dog. Periodically the dog performed a body shake and then rushed in the woman’s direction. Of course I can only speculate if and how often she pressed the button on her remote control, but this short and memorable encounter made me wonder if this woman had ever attempted to train and build a relationship with her dog. It also made me wonder if she simply walked into a store and purchased the device or if it was recommended and fitted by a dog trainer. Was it really possible that she had no doubts about using a shock collar on her dog?

“The convenience of solving dog training issues with a simple device may be tempting but it seems just as bizarre as trying to remote control a child.”

I’m afraid so. It is very possible that many people simply see nothing wrong with using such manipulative devices on their dogs. And I don’t believe at all that these people are cruel and want to hurt their dogs. Rather I think that a) they are made to believe that using shock collars and other aversive equipment is perfectly OK or even necessary and b) they want to believe it.

It is understandable that people put their trust in anyone who claims to be an expert and have their problem solved on the spot. The promises made by proponents of shock collars have the same purpose as any other promise made by businesses or politicians: to sell something. Only inquisitive minds can detect false, flawed or dangerous promises. But this requires time and effort – an investment which is often too much for people with busy lives. It is not surprising then that technology to control one’s dog is so easily accepted. The decision is made easier by the fact that no one who promotes shock collars actually uses the term “shock collar” as this would be risky in terms of marketing. And, repeated assurances that the collars are perfectly harmless help to convince even those who might have some lingering doubts.

The convenience of solving dog training issues with a simple device may be tempting but it seems just as bizarre as trying to remote control a child. Why did we ever think it was OK to use electricity to control the behaviour of our dogs? If someone claims they love their dog but at the same time reaches for shock collars and other wretched gadgets, what kind of love are we talking about? Something is missing if there is no consideration for exactly how a dog experiences the invasive treatment. It seems contradictory that we anthropomorphise dogs to the extent that we do (“she knows she shouldn’t”, “he feels guilty”, “she is stubborn”, “he steals food”), but at the same time we deny them “personhood” when it comes to their capacity to suffer at our hands.

What doesn’t help the situation – and what might be one reason for it – is that dogs largely endure us no matter what we do to them. They may very well communicate their pain, stress or discomfort, but dog body language is unfortunately poorly understood, even amongst people with long term exposure to dogs. This makes it easy to overlook possible ill effects of aversive devices such as shock collars, citronella collars, choke chains and so on. What we can’t see doesn’t trouble us.

“Our rush towards quick fixes for dog behaviour problems has encouraged an entire industry that deals with making our dogs’ lives miserable.”

Did I just mention citronella collars? Yes, I did. These scent-dispensing collars are commonly used to discourage dogs from barking. They sound harmless enough but who are we – with our poor sense of smell compared to dogs – to judge if they are harmless to dogs? For all we know, citronella could be as disgusting to a dog as cat urine sprayed in your face is to you. Of course this is exactly the idea behind the device. Only if the experience is bad enough will it stop the dog from barking, or not. The result largely depends on the dog’s motivation. Whatever it is – loneliness, boredom or an external event (e.g. noise in the neighbourhood) -, something is causing the dog to bark and if that something doesn’t go away, the spray collar may not be sufficient to suppress the barking. What it most likely will achieve though is an increase of negative emotions in the dog. Even more reason to bark.

Citronella collars may not hurt or potentially burn the skin as shock collars do, but they can be just as psychologically damaging for a dog as something considered harsh or painful. No matter what type of technology is used to torment a dog, it’s never acceptable. And this is where even educated and advanced human societies currently fail dramatically. The same societies who continuously improve animal welfare standards and even fight for animal rights have pet shops filled with torture equipment for their most beloved animal companions. Our rush towards quick fixes for dog behaviour problems has encouraged an entire industry that deals with making our dogs’ lives miserable.

“Imagine an alien planted a little buzzer in your ear and every time you laugh out loud the buzzer goes off.”

There are times when it all becomes too much and we just want to switch someone off. Remove the stress from our lives with the push of a button. But just as we have learned to live with other people we have to learn to understand and respect our dogs’ behaviour if we want to share a harmonious life with them. Trying to see things from the other person’s perspective or – in this case – trying to imagine what your dog might experience helps a lot.

Imagine an alien planted a little buzzer in your ear and every time you laugh out loud the buzzer goes off. At first you are surprised. You might shake your head, possibly thinking there was an insect trapped in your ear. After the buzzer goes off again and again you eventually make the connection between your laughter and the buzzing sound and you become confused. You might even try not to laugh anymore but what if you are out with friends having a good time? By this stage you probably hope to wake up realising it was all just a nightmare. But it continues day after day. First it drives you mad. Then a feeling of helplessness washes over you. You become depressed, frustrated and maybe aggressive. Of course if that really happened to you, you would see a doctor before you go insane. Sadly, your dog doesn’t have that option. Their only hope is you.

“We are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan.”*

image of robotic dog
I have no idea where we are headed but it makes me sad that there is a thriving market selling all sorts of devices that are meant to cause pain, fear and frustration in our dogs. If this is going to increase as our population keeps growing and our lives are becoming ever more frantic or if people will find the compassion within them to invest a little more time to help their best friends – who knows. As long as people who are in need of help with their dogs fall victim to the promises of quick solutions we will continue to see the fallout in form of stressed, surrendered and euthanized dogs who could have lived happy lives but never got the chance. If this is where we’re headed, my sincere hope is that more consumers will choose these instead:


*Robotic pet ownership to rise in an overpopulated world, professor says.

“Force free” dog training: More than a label

Since the dog training industry has been largely ignored by government regulatory authorities, it is up to dog trainers themselves to set some standards, at least for now. Not surprisingly, the results are less than satisfactory. Dog trainers differ in their goals and values and these are not always in the best interest of their clients. While there is of course nothing wrong with promoting one’s business and setting oneself apart from the competition, the dog loving public clearly needs some reliable and unambiguous information on what it is they get for their money.

Labelling for change

Just like a patient wanting to understand a surgical procedure or a customer wanting to know the ingredients in their cereal, anyone intending to hire a dog trainer should be able to easily understand what exactly it is they are buying. The most common questions on people’s minds are “what is the result?”, “how long does it take?” and “how much does it cost?” But with growing sensitivities towards the treatment of animals and a better understanding of dog behaviour more people are turning into informed consumers rather than being easy to impress shoppers.

Unfortunately we do not hear the question “what methods do you use?” often enough but we do know people have started to pay attention to labels such as “positive”, “force free” or “reward based”. They may not know exactly what that means, but there is no reason to be cynical about it. The fact that those labels are increasingly used in the industry and that the public sees them as “qualifying” is a good thing. After all this is how change usually starts. Once there is awareness there will be questions. Soon there will be demands for evidence, for regulation and for certification. It has happened in relation to other goods and services and it will happen to dog training. In fact it has already started in some countries.

Yes, some unethical trainers label themselves “positive” and are in fact quite the opposite. As long as there is no legal protection for labelling in this industry, consumers need to be very wary and inquisitive. However, the fact that certain labels are used carelessly and seem to have no real value attached does not mean they should be avoided by those who claim them as their legitimate tags. I believe it is crucial that humane dog trainers set themselves apart from their dominance driven colleagues. We need to advertise where- and whenever we can that cooperative and scientifically supported methods work and that they come without the nasty risks and side-effects of confrontational training.

Force free training is a choice, not an outcome

While the dividing line between dog trainers generally separates those who use force and dominance from those who use rewards and cooperation, the reality can be a lot more confusing. Some trainers may not even be sure about exactly where they stand or they are reluctant to be lumped together with others. It is absolutely vital though that humane and ethical dog trainers stand as a united front to the public and in the industry. It is not helpful if we argue amongst ourselves, either because we are not clear on our own methods or because we have our own agenda. There are ways to advertise the uniqueness of one’s business without sacrificing or undermining the unifying ideals we all stand for.

Dedicated organisations who promote humane dog training such as the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) have definitions for terminology and provide training and handling guidelines. This is the kind of information that needs to be promoted widely and publicly so that everyone has a usable standard. Until we get some sort of government regulation or certification, it is in our best interest to accept the agreed-upon labelling as the best we have. There is no need to attack those labels as dishonest or misleading unless the goal is to attack the force free dog training community itself.

The meaning of force free is the avoidance of anything that could cause fear or pain (or any versions of these) in a dog. To begin with, this rules out any equipment or technique that specifically has the purpose of causing fear or pain (shock, prong and choke collars, yanking, yelling, pinching, rough handling etc.). But it also means observing the dog at all times for signs of possible stress or unease. Force free does not mean we can guarantee that a dog will have only positive emotions when we train them. Of course only the dog can truly know if they experience something as pleasant or aversive. But we can make sure we have the education and skill to minimize any possible negative impact our training might have. We can decide that we want to cooperate with a dog rather than overpower them. This is what force free means. It’s a choice of methods.

Let’s keep spreading the word

I will happily promote myself as being force free, reward based, positive, or whatever it takes to let everyone know where I stand. Furthermore, I’ll explain exactly what it is I do and how I interact with someone’s dog to achieve results. And I will continue to do so beyond the day when mandatory certification and protected labelling are introduced in the dog training industry.

Change happens because people learn about issues, talk about issues and eventually feel compelled to take action. Our global and hyper-connected society has never been more sensitive to human- and animal-rights issues or any sort of injustice or barbarity. There has never been a better time to talk about and fight for a better future in dog training. So, let’s continue to be vocal about what we do and why. Let’s not sacrifice a greater common goal for petty reasons.



The Academy for Dog Trainers. Consumer Protection: Dog Trainers
The Pet Professional Guild



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

Dog walking on lead with humanWhat most people envision or hope for when walking their dog is a picture of harmony: The dog leisurely strolling along next to them, no pulling, no zigzagging, and no charging at other dogs or people. Unfortunately, adjusting to their human’s pace is something that dogs rarely do by default. To rectify this, the dog training profession has come up with a range of measures from choke chains and prong collars to various harnesses and head halters. Equipment of that type can be more or less successful in thwarting the dog’s efforts to follow their own agenda, but it doesn’t necessarily result in harmony. A better, more cooperative approach is leash training.

We don’t all walk to the same drum beat

When I was younger I had a friend with an annoying habit. Her walking pace was slower than mine, so every time I walked ahead of her she tugged at my sleeve in order to slow me down. But only seconds later I would again be a few steps ahead since my friend’s pace simply wasn’t my pace. In fact, I’m convinced that it cost me more energy to keep a slower pace than to trot along at my own natural pace, apart from the fact that the frequent tugging irritated the $@#% out of me. Of course my friend was also clearly annoyed by having to try and keep up with me all the time.

Maybe it is because of this personal experience that I sympathise with dogs on leash. If I find it so difficult to match my pace to that of another human, just how hard must it be for a dog to fall into line with one of those slow moving humans. Unless a dog is old, sick or otherwise impaired, they usually walk at a faster speed than we do. In fact they don’t walk, they trot. They are like window shoppers. Instead of moving at a consistent speed in one direction they trot from smell to smell and linger until they have collected all the info that can be found there. If they do happen to keep to a straight path, it typically involves a clear goal, for example the dog park or some other irresistible attraction.

Of course I also understand the frustration of humans when their dogs seem to ignore them in favour of smells, other dogs or whatever the environment has to offer. It’s no fun having your arm pulled out or being tripped up by your dog zooming in front of you.

The confrontational way to stop pulling

According to traditional dog training my friend used the wrong technique. Instead of nagging me with those frequent sleeve tugs, she should have grabbed me by the collar – just once – and pull it tight so violently that I’d gag and struggle for air. Apparently this rather shocking experience would have forced me to walk at my friend’s slower pace for good. Somehow I doubt she would have been a friend for much longer after that.

Causing a one-off traumatic experience is exactly the philosophy behind choke and prong collars. You are supposed to yank at your dog’s neck so hard the first time you use the collar that you will never have to yank again. One massive yank and your dog’s pulling on lead will have been solved for life. Apart from the fact that this treatment risks the dog’s health and even life, how could anyone actually want to do this to their dog? One explanation why this technique is still widely used could be the desensitisation of people to violence in dog training.

I had to witness a demonstration on the “correct technique” to use a choke chain when a former instructor of mine yanked a client’s dog around in front of the whole class. Today, under the same circumstances, I would suggest the client quickly take their dog and get as far away from that person as they can. Instead I stood silently, together with everyone else, while we were lectured on the dog’s experience. It didn’t matter that the dog yelped every time he was catapulted backwards. It wasn’t pain we were told, the dog was just surprised.

What exactly a dog feels when all of a sudden the chain around their neck tightens, digs into their throat and hurls their body back, we will never know. But I think we can make an educated guess that the experience is not pleasant. If the procedure succeeds in stopping the dog from pulling, then it must have been painful or frightening enough, so the dog will want to avoid the experience in the future. Chances are the dog will also become wary of the person holding the leash.

The practical way to stop pulling

Moving forward, there are more humane solutions these days to stop a dog from pulling. However, even harnesses and head halters rely on thwarting rather than training. Front clip harnesses which have the leash attached to a clip on the dog’s chest rather than their back, work by pulling the dog’s body sideways when the dog pulls forward. Some dogs learn to walk that way, i.e. they still pull but walk sideways at the same time, leading to an awkward gait which could cause health problems in the long term. Other harnesses tighten around the body or even the throat to prevent pulling.

Head halters are generally not readily accepted by dogs and it’s better to desensitise them to wearing this equipment (preferably in combination with counter conditioning). Otherwise the dog may forever try and get the thing off their face rather than enjoy the walk. Head halters can be dangerous if the dog still pulls or the leash suddenly stops the dog’s forward movement with a violent head turn.

Compared to choke and prong collars, these types of walking aids are clearly preferable but a thoughtful approach is required. As long as the dog seems comfortable and doesn’t suffer side-effects, harnesses and head halters can be a very good solution. It can even mean the difference between the dog being walked or not at all. Ideally, though, the use of these mechanical aids is partnered with training, so the dog doesn’t feel the need to pull anymore in the first place.

The harmonious way to stop pulling

Truly walking together in harmony requires that dog and human pay attention to each other. Neither dragging a dog nor being dragged results in a pleasant outing. It’s worth reminding ourselves that dog walking is primarily for the dog’s benefit. It’s about sniffing and investigating, taking in sights and sounds, marking here and there and having toilet breaks. These are important activities for a dog and given that many dogs spend countless hours alone in their homes, a “walk around the block” in the evening is often the only daily excursion they get.

For us humans walking the dog clearly has benefits too. It gets us outside and moving and it’s a chance to have some “us” time with our dogs. If we tune in to our dog’s activities and experiences on walks we can learn more about them and increase the bond we share. We can make our dog, as well as other dogs and people, feel safe by keeping an eye on our surroundings, moving away from situations if required and monitoring our dog’s interaction with others. Paying attention is of course also useful in preventing doggy stomach aches due to ingestion of unidentified objects.

Teaching a dog to walk at our pace means making it attractive for the dog to adjust their natural movements and slow down*. It requires time and patience. If the dog is a strong puller, it’s a good idea to start off with a harness or head halter to get a foot in the door. Otherwise the frustration levels – especially the human’s – might be too much to do any effective training. The dog must then be heavily rewarded, starting in a no distraction environment and with tasty treats, for walking within a given semi-circle next to our leg. The most important thing though is to frequently allow the dog to do all those worthwhile things on walks like visiting a tree or lifting a leg. If these are used as rewards for not pulling, everyone wins.

Another important point is not to use the leash to move the dog around. A leash is simply a safety device, nothing more. To move the dog about, we are much better off encouraging the dog verbally to come to us or with us or directing them with hand targeting**.

In another world in a parallel universe dogs may be walking and running freely without the need to be tethered to us. Unfortunately ours is a dangerous world and full of restrictions. But with some thought and effort we can make walking together a more enjoyable experience for us and the dogs. There really is no need to punish dogs for being dogs.



* In case a dog moves slower than their handler, the human needs to slow down too. Unless the dog is old, disabled or injured, a dog can be encouraged verbally or with treats to pick up pace. However it’s important to be mindful about possible reasons the dog is unable or unwilling to walk or walk faster. These can be physical health reasons or even fear or anxiety. A vet check should be considered and – if this does not result in anything – a veterinary behaviourist or good dog trainer may be able to help.

** Hand targeting is a useful behaviour where the dog aims for and touches the outstretched hand of their handler.



Loose Leash Walking by Lousiana SPCA
Loose Leash Walking in 30 days by Bina Lunzer

The language of fear and loathing in dog training

Human language is powerful. It enables us to express what we think and feel but it can also influence how we think and feel. Language can be wielded by people to shape opinions and it can serve to reiterate and confirm cultural norms and beliefs. Throughout history we have used language to discriminate against people based on their race, gender, religion or customs but we are also continuously adapting our language to reflect progress and changes in our societal values and sensitivities.
At present we are experiencing a change in the language related to dogs and dog training in parallel with a more informed and humane treatment of dogs and other non-human animals.
Word associated with dominance

How we talk about dogs

The language of dog training has traditionally, and not surprisingly, been full of human-centric terminology. Dogs are expected to follow commands, be obedient and loyal, understand discipline and authority and respect their masters. Normal dog behaviours such as barking, chasing, chewing, digging or jumping up are considered behaviour problems that need to be fixed, commonly via some sort of punishment. Good dogs know right from wrong and want to please their owners.

After observing wolf packs we decided that dogs are pack animals and therefore needed a leader which fitted nicely with the human notion of social status and rank. A dog owner is meant to adopt the position of the alpha dog and assert their dominance over the dog. The dog must rank lower in the hierarchy and know their place. Manoeuvres such as alpha rolls, muzzle grabs or scruff shakes should be employed to force the dog into submission as they are considered natural wolf behaviours.

In addition to being subordinates, dogs occupy an even lower status of course: they are property. To classify a dog as property endorses the view that dogs are tradable and replaceable goods. We breed them, buy them, sell them, treat or mistreat them and kill them as we please.

Much of the traditional language in relation to dogs is still around in the 21st century but it feels increasingly awkward and out of date. The dominance lingo never made much sense to begin with and it is not how most people want to treat their dogs these days. This change in perspective is a logical result of our ever growing knowledge of the nature, needs, and emotions of dogs as well as the general abandonment of force in teaching. We have been gradually shifting our thinking to include more of the dog’s point of view.

The language of change

Every “rights movement” has its own story of language. At first, certain words are identified as offensive, for example as racist or sexist, and then they are banished from the general vocabulary. How big a role can language play in generating change? Does the way we talk about our dogs influence how we view them and subsequently how we treat them? If so, adjusting our language and dropping the jargon relating to dominance and ownership may help accelerate the spread of modern dog training.

We are already hearing less about dogs having to respect their owners and more about the need for people to respect their dogs. Overall, we are seeing a move away from confrontation and towards cooperation – something we humans are actually quite good at, even if that’s hard to believe sometimes.

The signs of advanced methods and attitudes in dog training are everywhere. People are learning more about dog body language and how to notice signs of discomfort or stress. Dogs are given space and children are taught how to behave around dogs. Positive reinforcement is fast becoming the preferred training method and is replacing the disciplinarian corrections. Commands are being changed to cues, obedience is giving way to life skills and dog owners are more often referred to as dog parents or dog guardians. Dominance first morphed into leadership and now leadership is falling out of favour too. The maxim Nothing in Life is Free is yielding to Plenty in Life is Free.

It seems we are starting to treat dogs as those best friends we always claimed they were. We are dropping force and intimidation from the tool bag of dog training and replacing it with science and compassion. We are finally letting dogs be dogs instead of moulding them into our concept of a human-dog social hierarchy. There is increasing acceptance that we share our lives with members of a different species who have a right not to be humanized. And all of this is reflected in how we talk about dogs.

How dog trainers talk about dog trainers

There is another aspect to language in dog training and it’s ugly. It shows a deep chasm in today’s dog training industry. First, there is the direct combat between dog trainers of different camps, which is mostly played out on social media with its usual share of vitriol, and then there’s the far more dangerous war of words directed at the public. Potential clients and anyone interested in dog training are the real victims when dog trainers talk about each other and themselves.

Apart from the name calling and sledging of the competition, it is the warped, confused and pseudo-scientific gibberish that is mostly concerning. It is facilitated by an industry that lacks requirements for formal education and accountability. You don’t need a piece of paper to be a dog trainer. All you need is clever language to convince your clients that you are a dog training guru. As long as your clients see results, you are in business. Since the dogs you train – with whatever methods – can’t speak up, your only problems may arise from the occasional knowledgeable or concerned client who dares to ask the right questions. Long term, however, you should be worried about a tightening of animal welfare laws and mandatory licensing for dog trainers. It’s already happening in other countries, so it’s best to be prepared.

The biggest disservice to the public is done by trainers who make unsubstantiated and misleading claims about their own and other trainers’ methods. A layperson may be able to look beyond language which aims to insult or ridicule other trainers, but they may not have the knowledge to detect false or worrying statements in relation to training methods and results. Dog training is a science. If a dog trainer is not able to talk expertly and clearly about the scientific principles behind training, they are not credible. Throwing some technical jargon around which a client can’t verify or boasting with decades of experience (doing what exactly?), has nothing to do with proving one’s expertise and up-to-date credentials. Making nasty comments about the motivations, character or ethical values of other trainers is also not helping.

Speak clearly, change your tune or fade out

The fact is that many dog trainers have been using whatever methods they want to successfully* train dogs for decades. The debate is not about what works or what doesn’t work. It’s about what works with using the most dog-friendly and risk-free approach, in other words employing the least invasive training methods with the minimum risk of causing detrimental outcomes. And that is where many dog trainers fail their clients, either intentionally or because they don’t know any better: they simply aren’t upfront about exactly what will be done to the dog to achieve results and how this may affect the dog and their humans in the short and long term. Of course if the only objective of dog training is to get the dog to do or not to do something, regardless of potential risks for dogs and people, then any methods are equally valid. The choice remains ours, at least for now.

Fortunately more and more dog trainers are joining the ranks of an educated, scientifically literate, humane and progressive community. It is echoed in how we talk about dogs and dog training but also in the increasingly acrimonious language amongst dog trainers. Every societal change inevitably creates resistance. For some people change can be inconvenient or even frightening. It may challenge their long held beliefs or even their livelihoods. But progress is a necessary and inevitable element of our society and no amount of kicking and screaming can stop it. You can either hop on board or you will be left behind. The choice is yours, for now.



* The term “successfully” here is used strictly as a measure of satisfying the trainer’s objectives, not as an evaluation of the quality of training

Thinking of getting a puppy this Christmas? Think again!

Christmas Puppy looking sad in a box wrapped in Christmas paperGiving a puppy as a Christmas present is a bad idea. Why? Well, think about what you are really giving: A commitment to love and care for a high maintenance animal over a period of 10 – 15 years or more. It means a significant investment of time to provide daily companionship and exercise, spending time, money and effort on dog training, paying veterinary bills, registration and insurance, buying toys and equipment, paying for boarding and grooming and so on. Is this your intention? And, if so, how confident are you that the recipient will happily show this sort of responsibility and commitment to the dog? And bear in mind that this person might be you.

Since most recipients of a “Christmas puppy” are children, the responsibility for the dog lies firmly with the parents. While it is a good idea to teach children how to care for animals by having pets in the family, they cannot be left in charge of an animal’s well-being on their own. Children’s lives change quickly as they grow up and so do their activities and interests. But unlike a neglected toy, a dog cannot sit in the cupboard and be dragged out only when someone feels like playing with them. A bored and lonely dog will likely develop behaviour problems, become a burden for the family and end up at an animal shelter. This is what happens, sadly, over and over again.

If you are determined to get a dog this Christmas, please ask yourself first: Do we, as a family, have the time and commitment to love and properly look after a dog for as long as the dog lives?
If the answer is a resounding “yes”, please

  • do your research to chose a type of dog that suits your lifestyle
  • consider adopting a dog from a rescue organisation (they can make great pets)
  • never get a dog from an unlicensed breeder or any other source which cannot be trusted




RSPCA Puppy Info
Life Skills for Puppies
PPG Puppy Socialisation Info
ASPCA Puppy Socialisation Info


Socialisation matters: Don’t let the clowns eat your puppy

I admit I’ve never been particularly fond of clowns. I find them neither funny nor sad. Just weird. For some people though clowns can be outright scary. Some people are afraid of clowns. And this unfortunate fear even has a name: coulrophobia. Some experts think the fear of clowns is linked to the uncanny valley effect, a fascinating phenomenon which describes how a “human-but-not-quite” appearance makes some people feel uncomfortable or repulsed. When I watched a news report on a clown convention the other day, showing a room packed with hundreds of clowns, I could only imagine the nightmarish horror this would create in a coulrophobic person. And what on earth does that have to do with puppies?
Puppy sitting in yard while scary clown peeps over fence
Well, thinking that clowns are weird is of course a personal matter but clowns certainly look weird. They typically transform their faces with heavy makeup to create a frozen emotional expression such as a wide laughing mouth, raised eyebrows and other exaggerated features. We humans are able to “look beyond the mask” (even those who are phobic) – we still know there’s a human underneath – but what about other animals? Can dogs automatically assign a disguised person to the broad category of human? Do they even have a category of human?

Fear and survival for the modern companion dog

Dogs, just like many other animals, learn crucial lessons about the world they live in as they grow up. Everything they experience during the early stages in life – sights, sounds, smells, other animals, plants, objects etc. – will be catalogued in their brains as familiar. Most of these familiar things will fall into the category of safe (irrelevant, harmless, good or desirable) while some may be considered potentially dangerous (to be avoided). Anything a dog does not experience during early development will generally be met with caution, suspicion or fear later in life. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective: You better believe the clown is going to eat you before your trusting nature makes sure you’ll never get another chance.

But, if a dog’s early developmental environment is so impoverished that almost everything they come across later in life falls into the unknown category, their quality of life will be greatly diminished. There will be clowns everywhere. It is one thing to experience stress once in a while when faced with a real or perceived threat but to live in a constant state of anxiety creates a serious mental and physical health risk. Imagine you can’t leave the house because there are scary clowns lurking on your doorstep. Imagine that sometimes they even come inside and you are powerless to stop them. And worse, imagine that the only person you thought you could trust seems to conspire with those clowns against you. This is what fearful dogs must experience whose humans fail to understand their anxieties.

Domestic dogs, and in particular companion dogs, have the best chance to succeed in a human world if they believe that world is safe. Dogs who are not fearful of people, other dogs and whatever life throws at them will hopefully never feel the need to defend themselves. Our society has zero tolerance for dogs defending themselves and dogs who growl (“leave me alone”), snarl (“I mean it”) or bite (“I told you”) can quickly end up with a one way ticket to the vet.

So the goal has to be that there is very little left in the unknown category when a puppy starts to emerge from their sensitive period of development some time between 12 and 18 weeks of age. Given that puppies generally come to live with their families at no younger than 8 weeks of age this may only leave a small window to socialise a young dog and expose them to as many new and positive experiences as possible (known as puppy socialisation).

The ideal puppy graduates with an “I ♥ humans” badge

It seems dogs are perfectly able to form categories based on visual information but they may not generalize as well as we do, at least when it comes to variations of human appearance. One favourite and often repeated example of incomplete puppy socialisation is the fear of bearded men. I think we can be quite sure that dogs don’t have an issue with beards per se, unlike pogonophobic people (yes, believe it or not, there is a fear of beards). Maybe they consider bearded men as a new (unknown) category. Or maybe they recognize bearded men as humans but feel uncomfortable because “something is not quite right”. The important message to take away from this is that puppies need to have friendly experiences with more than just a human in order to strike humans off their list of potentially dangerous.

The human species comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colours and camouflage. We differ in age and gender, the way we speak and the way we move. Clearly, we are a diverse bunch and modern technology has made us even more variable. Be it headphones, wheelchairs or snorkels, humans often have stuff protruding from or attached to almost every part of their bodies. Only a dog who has seen different versions of human appearance and locomotion as a young puppy will be untroubled by encounters with the human kind.

Does a dog have to like all people? No, and they probably won’t anyway, but at least we don’t want them to fear people. Unfortunately we cannot teach a dog to distinguish between good people and bad people. If a dog thinks humans are generally good news, we can confidently take the dog anywhere and invite people to our homes without worry that a particular person or type of person might trigger the dog to react badly. Yes, your dog might one day happily take a treat from a burglar instead of raising the alarm. But that’s nothing compared to dealing with an agitated neighbour at your doorstep because their child got bitten by your dog. A poorly socialised dog may make a good guard dog but they will probably spend their lives in relative isolation. That’s a sad fate for such a social species.

Puppy socialisation and beyond: we can always make a difference to our dogs’ lives

Puppy socialisation is hard work and it doesn’t happen by itself. It’s a proactive, well-planned and controlled procedure (for details see the resources below). But those early weeks in a puppy’s life simply cannot be wasted. How we treat puppies and what we expose them to makes a huge difference for the dogs, their families and the community they live in. Part of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of breeders and the regulating authorities. The rest is up to everyone who takes a dog into their home.

While the early weeks are super important for the puppy’s development, the need for socialisation doesn’t end once the sensitive period is over. Social skills can be lost and problems can develop over time if a dog lives isolated and without frequent exposure to other people, other dogs and the outside world. The first three months are the most crucial in terms of impact and long lasting effects, but every animal is shaped continuously by experiences throughout their entire life. We may not be able to repair damage done and opportunities lost during the sensitive period, but we can always try to maintain and possibly improve a dog’s quality of life.

It should be noted that there is of course always a genetic component to a dog’s behaviour. Some dogs for example are naturally wary of strangers or easily spooked by new things (neophobic) and not even the most extensive socialisation program can turn them into sociable and relaxed dogs. But we should always do as much as we can to make our dogs feel as safe and comfortable in their environment as possible.




Note: The term puppy socialisation usually includes habituation (strictly speaking socialisation means learning to live with humans and other animals while habituation means getting used to one’s environment).

The PPG (Pet Professional Guild) and the ASPCA have good advice on puppy socialisation including checklists:
PPG Puppy Socialisation Info
ASPCA Puppy Socialisation Info

Range F, Aust U, Steurer M, Huber L (2007) Visual categorization of natural stimuli by domestic dogs. Anim Cogn 11(2):339-47
Visual categorization of natural stimuli by domestic dogs

And just in case you are now curious about the fear of clowns, here are some interesting links to articles on coulrophobia and the uncanny valley effect which have absolutely nothing to do with dog training:
History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary
Why zombies, robots, clowns freak us out


How to avoid totally ruining your dog’s recall (coming when called)

The Disaster

It’s a beautiful day and a couple and their two dogs are walking across a wide open field at a popular off-lead park. Gradually one of the dogs strays off, apparently following an irresistible scent near the trees. When the people finally notice that their dog has gone missing, the man shouts the dog’s name. The dog immediately lifts his head, briefly looks around to locate the source of the sound and, as the man shouts a second time, promptly runs back to his people.
dog coming back
When I witnessed this scene the other day I was impressed. Despite being distracted and quite far away, the dog responded instantly to his person’s voice and quickly returned. In my book this was a “perfect” recall (coming when called). However, as I watched the dog return to his family things did not unfold as I expected. Instead of praising and rewarding the dog for his stellar performance, the man immediately commanded the dog into a sit, grabbed his muzzle and gave him a stern talking to. Now, I have seen worse being done to a dog for so-called “disobedience” but I was very disappointed by the man’s reaction. Apparently he was completely oblivious to the missed opportunity and the potential damage he had just done. What was going on here?

The Analysis

The answer may be found in the nature of the human mind and in particular its capacity to ponder the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. Known as Theory of Mind, this mechanism allows humans to attribute mental states to other people as well as themselves. It plays an important role in social interactions as it allows us to understand, predict and feel for others, but also to manipulate, judge and deceive others. Unfortunately we also routinely believe that we know what non-human animals think or feel and this is when Theory of Mind becomes a liability.

Here is what Daniel Povinelli, a prominent chimpanzee researcher, has to say about the ‘distorted’ human view of animal minds:

“Faced with the overwhelming similarity in the spontaneous, everyday behaviour of humans and chimpanzees, how can someone like me – someone who has dedicated his life to studying these remarkable animals – entertain the possibility that their minds are, in profound respects, radically different from our own? How can I challenge the received wisdom of Darwin – confirmed by my own initial impressions – that the mental life of chimpanzees is best compared to that of a human child?
Actually it’s easy: I have learned to have more respect for them than that. I have come to see that we distort their true nature by conceiving of their minds as smaller, duller, less talkative versions of our own. Casting aside these insidious assumptions has been difficult, but it has allowed me to see more clearly that the human mind is not the gold standard against which other minds must be judged. For me it has also illuminated the possibility of creating a science that is less contaminated by our deeply anthropocentric intuitions about the nature of minds.”

If even science is “contaminated” with anthropocentrism, as Povinelli puts it, then maybe it’s not so surprising that most people treat their dogs like human children who need to learn “obedience”. Without necessarily subscribing to the idea that the minds of chimpanzees and other animals are radically different, I think Povinelli points to an important problem not just in animal research but in the wider public, namely the perception of animal minds as lesser versions of the human mind. Humans have a long history of viewing animals as less refined and less intelligent life forms while considering themselves as the “crown of evolution”. Fortunately we are seeing a shift away from this sense of supremacy and towards a better understanding that non-human animals are not less developed but simply different compared to humans. Each species has their own distinct features, optimized for the environment they naturally live in, and their behaviour and abilities only make sense when viewed in that context.

So, going back to the scene at the park, what can be said about the man’s behaviour towards his dog and what are the potential ramifications?

By scolding the dog after calling him back the man demonstrated

  • an inappropriate application of Theory of Mind and moral judgement – he seemingly made assumptions about the dog’s thoughts and intentions, i.e. the man obviously believed the dog made a conscious decision to follow a scent instead of following his people despite knowing it was the wrong thing to do;
  • anthropomorphism – he treated the dog like one would a disobedient child and attempted to lecture the dog about his apparent wrongdoing;
  • a lack of understanding of the principles of animal learning, specifically the behaviour-consequence contingency which states that consequences affect the probability of the preceding behaviour to occur in the future, i.e. negative consequences make the preceding behaviour less likely to happen in the future and positive consequences make it more likely.

Trying not to fall into the same trap of assuming to know what the dog was thinking, here is my take on what the experience might have been like for the dog:

The dog picks up a scent and follows it. This is perfectly normal dog behaviour without which his wild ancestors would not have survived. To assume that the dog would ponder the consequences of his actions other than hoping to find something of interest is without foundation. Once on the trail the dog continues undisturbed since neither do his people pay attention nor does the dog seem to be aware of the separation from his family.

The dog hears his person’s voice and immediately responds to it, looking slightly confused as if woken from a slumber. He then runs to his family as soon as he spots them in the open field. Maybe whatever had drawn his attention previously was not that appealing after all. Or maybe he was worried because he didn’t know where his family was. Maybe he had previously been trained successfully to come when called or maybe a bit of everything contributed to his quick response – who knows.

Although the dog seems at first happy to run back to his family, his body language changes as he gets closer. On approach he lowers his tail and assumes a slightly cowering posture suggesting he is uncomfortable or even afraid. He stands still as the man holds him by the muzzle and talks to him. Afterwards the dog continues for a short while with tail low before returning to normal.

At any stage the dog seems to directly respond to the current events in his environment: the scent that causes him to change path, the voice that makes him pay attention, the sight of his family which makes him happily run to them, his person’s threatening body language which makes him cower. There is no reason to believe, and no research to support it, that the dog understood that following the scent was somehow ‘wrong’ and that he will refrain from doing so in the future because his human got angry. In fact, according to everything we know about animal learning today, the dog will most likely associate approaching his person with a negative experience and avoid that person in the future in a similar context (assuming the dog experienced the muzzle grab and ‘lecture’ he received as punishing which – judging by the dog’s body language – seemed to be the case). I’m quite sure this is not what the man intended.

The Solution

The only way to prevent such disasters is through knowledge and awareness. By actively keeping one’s own mind in check whenever the temptation arises to make assumptions about the thoughts and intentions of another species, solutions to real or perceived problems could become a lot easier and – most importantly – a lot more humane.

So, here is what a correct application of animal learning principles looks like when teaching your dog the recall:

Call your dog (happy voice)

  • your dog comes to you –> reward your dog like there is no tomorrow
  • your dog doesn’t come:
    • try again when your dog is less distracted
    • try again when your dog is closer to you
    • try again when your dog is hungry

Watch Cozmo, the Maremma, demonstrate a rockstar recall:



Daniel John Povinelli, Behind the ape’s appearance: escaping anthropocentrism in the study of other minds. Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Winter 2004, Vol. 133, No 1, Pages 29 – 41.

Daniel John Povinelli, Behind the ape’s appearance: escaping anthropocentrism in the study of other minds.