What’s Wrong With Anti-Bark Collars?

So-called “anti-bark collars” aim to silence a dog’s voice by delivering electricity, odours or ultrasonic sound to the dog’s senses. The use of these devices can have serious short- and long-term welfare implications for the dog, so why do dog-loving people use them?

Deceptive Marketing

Across the bench, the language used to promote anti-bark collars and similar devices is misleading, presumably to dispel any lingering doubts a potential customer might have. Apparently, people do have doubts about these gadgets and rightly so. But instead of properly addressing those doubts and being clear about possible side-effects, the product descriptions are full of meaningless labels.

Undisclosed Fact: Anti-Bark Collars Aim to Silence Your Dog Via “Positive Punishment”—A Method Which Is Neither Safe nor Humane

The marketers are at pains to ensure you that the devices are

“safe”, “harmless”, “gentle”, “without pain or fear” and “humane”.

and their modus operandi is a benign

“correction”, “vibration” or “stimulation”.

Despite this lack of unpleasantries, the collars are obviously designed to stop your dog from barking, so we are made to believe that a

“safe static correction“, a “gentle, yet effective, spray”, a “spray of harmless citronella” or a “harmless but effective ultrasonic sound”

can do just that.

Of course, all of this sounds a lot better than naming the actual process behind the reduction in barking. We can’t know how the dog feels about whatever “stimulation” they receive, but if it does indeed lead to less barking in the future, then the correct term for the process of how this was achieved is punishment (or more correctly: positive punishment—more on that below).

Putting the word punishment on the product description isn’t so good for sales, I would assume. But, more importantly, naming the exact mode of behaviour modification by which those collars operate would call for full disclosure regarding the known risks associated with it.

Undisclosed Fact: Your Dog Always Barks for A Reason and May Not Be Able to Just Stop

The companies also want to assure you that your dog’s barking is

“unnecessary”, “excessive” and a “nuisance”.

Thus, the use of anti-bark collars is completely justified, because—clearly—your dog barks for no reason and way more than they should. So, it’s perfectly fine to give a them a “reminder” to turn their annoying barking off. Nothing wrong with a little zap to zip it, right?

But, who makes that call? Who decides, if or when your dog’s behaviour is unnecessary or excessive?

Where in the product description is the suggestion to consult with a qualified canine behaviour expert to identify why the dog is barking in the first place?

Dogs do not bark “unnecessarily” or “at nothing” or “for no reason”. Just because the reason isn’t obvious to us, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Proponents of anti-bark collars want us to ignore this. They try to make us believe that our dogs are not normally functioning biologically beings but rather something we can turn off on a whim, like an annoying TV commercial.

Rounding up the sales pitch are often entirely inappropriate qualifiers such as

“deluxe”, “attractive” and “exclusive”

to cause further distraction from exactly how these devices work. More glitter thrown into your eyes.

Anti-Bark Collars Need to Come with A Risk Statement Until A Total Ban Is in Place

Maybe the product descriptions were written by people in the marketing department who are more accustomed to selling the latest lifestyle gadgets or fashion accessories. Advertising a product that aims to change the behaviour of a living organism is a whole different ball game. It requires disclosure about exactly what will happen to the individual who is exposed to the device and how this will affect their short- and long-term behaviour and well-being.

Positive punishment—which is what all these collars rely on—has known risks, and everyone who considers buying these products needs to be made aware of it. Add to that the risk of leaving your dog alone with a device around their neck that can not only malfunction but function in a manner you did not expect.

What we need clearly displayed on anti-bark collars (and related devices, such as electric fences) are risk statements, similar to what we see on cigarette packs. Better yet: Let’s just ban all of these contraptions and stand shoulder to shoulder with other progressive countries that have already done so, instead of being the laggards.

The Risks Associated with Anti-Bark Collars

The science of Animal Learning and Behaviour tells us that behaviour is controlled by environmental conditions (external and internal). So, a dog’s barking might be triggered by the neighbour’s children playing in their yard, a noisy truck rumbling past the property, a hot air balloon flying over, a burglar breaking into your house or because the dog is in pain or suffers from fear or loneliness. Internal conditions are impossible for us to fully understand but we can detect them by watching the dog’s behaviour and body language.

In addition to triggers, behaviour is also controlled by consequences: A behaviour is likely to occur more often in the future, if it leads to favourable outcomes for the animal (reinforcement), and less often, if the results are not so good (punishment).
Anti-bark collars operate via positive punishment (adding something to the dog’s environment to reduce the behaviour of barking). Punishment can be a very effective way to reduce behaviour, so what’s so bad about it?

Aversive Consequences Can Create Negative Associations with Any Trigger Or Anything In The Environment

The timing and “clean” execution of positive punishment may be easy enough in a laboratory, but there is no guarantee your dog won’t form unintended associations when they receive the shock, spray or sound from the anti-bark collar. Anything that the dog may hear, see, smell or otherwise perceive at that time may become associated with the negative experience. The neighbour’s kids, the cat on the fence, a hot air balloon flying over—anything. Now the dog feels even more motivated to bark when confronted with those elements in the future. Anxious and aggressive behaviour can easily follow.

Aversive Consequences Can Cause Apathy, Anxiety And Aggression

Attempting to block or suppress an individual’s behaviour by providing aversive consequences has known risks. Dogs who are happy and confident may become anxious, apathetic or aggressive following the use of anti-bark collars. This can manifest itself only in certain contexts or it can generalise and affect the dog’s behaviour in other situations. The frightening part is that dogs who show less behaviour overall, i.e. dogs who become less active or even apathetic, are often labelled “well-behaved” dogs. But a decrease in overall behaviour is not a sign of being well. It’s a sign of being mentally or physically ill.

For dogs who bark out of anxiety, for example those who suffer from separation anxiety or noise phobias, the use of aversive consequences can be particularly catastrophic. The collars simply heap more nightmarish experiences onto the dog’s already troubled mind.

When an individual is at the mercy of forces they cannot control, their quality of life is seriously compromised.

The Well-Being of Beings Is All About Control

It may seem the use of an anti-bark collar means giving your dog a choice: “Shut up or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you!” But, the dog may not have such easy control over their barking, and even if they do, how does it affect their emotional health, if they can’t speak up anymore?

There Is No Joy In Confusion And Frustration

Let’s imagine you attend a show by one of your favourite comedians—the type that makes people laugh so hard that their bellies ache and their eyes water. But soon you realize that something is wrong. Every time you laugh out loud, a bug that is stuck deep down in your ear starts buzzing. When you stop laughing, the buzzing stops. You have no way of removing the bug from your ear or squashing it. You try to suppress your laughter to avoid the annoying buzz, but the comedian is just so darn funny, you can’t help but burst out laughing. Would that drive you mad?

It depends. Maybe you get used to it after a while and keep laughing out loud. Or maybe it is so frustrating or even painful that you leave the show, see a doctor and get that buzzing bug out of your ear. Lucky you for being able to seek help.

And Then There is Only Panic

Now assume you get yourself trapped in a secret room in a medieval castle and no one knows you’re there. You yell out for help when all of a sudden a high-pitched sound causes a sharp pain in your ears. You are momentarily confused why your cries for help would seem to trigger this ear piercing tone, but your intense fear to be forgotten and die a slow and horrible death in this room is overwhelming. So, you keep screaming at the top of your lungs despite the pain in your ears and you bang on the door until your hands bleed. Finally, with your voice failing, your ears pounding and your fingers broken, you realise that no one is coming to rescue you. You are all alone.

Hopefully, by that time you wake up and realise it was all just a bad dream. Lucky you.

If the latter scenario sounds fantastically dramatic, just think: How panic stricken does someone have to be to mutilate their own body? Separation anxiety can do that to a dog. They do not bark for no reason. They are screaming for help.

No matter, if your dog barks out of joy or concern, to talk to other dogs in the neighbourhood, raise the alarm or cry for help, it is a valid expression of their personality and their state of mind. If we simply put a lid on it, we may do a lot more harm than we ever imagined.

How To Reduce Your Dog’s Barking Without The Fallout

Make Your Dog Feel Safe

If there is any suspicion of separation anxiety, address this right away. This is a welfare issue and any attempts to suppress your dog’s cries for help will only make matters worse. With the help of a vet or behavioural vet and trainers who are experienced in desensitisation protocols for separation anxiety, you can make your dog feel better and remove the reason for their barking.

The same goes for noise phobias or any fear- and anxiety-related problems. Get help so you can help your dog.

Make Your Dog’s Life More Interesting

Lack of stimulation is a problem for most dogs who spend too much time alone, especially when there is not much going on in their lives even when you are home. Taking your dog to the park or for a walk before you go out for the day and leaving them with food puzzle toys rather than feeding from a bowl is a good start. However, depending on your dog’s individual needs, a 10 minute walk around the block and a toy with dry kibble might not cut it. So, find out what activities it takes to make your dog happy and tired. Sports, games, interactive toys, food puzzles and positive reinforcement training are all good options.

Keep Your Dog Inside

Noises in the neighbourhood are often a trigger for barking. If your dog has noise phobias, this is a serious matter which falls into the same category separation anxiety and requires expert help. Even without a strong fear response, your dog might become distressed or highly aroused from exposure to certain noises. Since, unfortunately, you can’t control the world around your home, this means the dog must have access to the house or a place that muffles the outside sounds.

Consider leaving your dog inside while you’re out, at least during certain times when specific neighbourhood noises in your area are more likely to occur. Many dogs do much better when they can sleep inside the house during your absence. There are less distractions and they are less likely to be woken up by noises. Leaving the radio on or a white noise machine can help too.

Combine this with increasing your dog’s physical and mental stimulation and you have a recipe for success. No need for reach for a gadget that promises you quick relief but doesn’t mention the real price you pay.

RESOURCES

Pierce W.D. and Cheney C.D. 2017, Behaviour Analysis and Learning. A Biobehavioral Approach. 6th edn, Routledge, New York

Before You Stick a Needle in Your Dog or Cat, Turn Them into a Husbandry Junkie

Two weeks ago, I allowed someone to stick a needle in my eye. What’s more, I volunteered for the procedure and was aware through the entire operation which lasted about half an hour. As a result, I can see sharper than I did before, so I’d call that a success.

As humans, we are able to mentally prepare ourselves for unpleasant, painful or outright dreadful things. We can elect to place our health or even life into the hands of experts we trust. We can also elect to be sedated. Our animals are not so lucky. They are frequently subjected to scary procedures and every time they are more afraid, more petrified, more ready to fight or flee. I’m not even talking about sticking needles in their eyes, but standard veterinary procedures such as mouth, ear and eye exams, temperature taking, blood draws, injections, pilling and more. For our animals these can be just as scary.

Unlike us, our dogs, cats, feathered or scaly friends can never rationalise what is happening to them. They will never understand that it is for their own good. When they don’t move on the exam table, it’s not because they are stoic—it’s because they are frozen in fear. If they struggle to get away, they are not stubborn—they are fighting for their life. Their instinctive reactions cannot be overwritten with human logic, but we continue to tell them that everything is going to be OK and then do the equivalent of sticking a needle in their eye. We do it, not because we are mean, but because we believe there’s just no other way.

Well, there is. And it’s worth investing some time and effort into it. The one thing that can make your animal cooperate with veterinary and other invasive procedures is husbandry training. In fact, it escapes human logic that we haven’t adopted the same approach that we use with zoo animals (and have been for decades) for “small animal” practise. Yes, it is easier to hold down a dog against their will than a gorilla, but just because we can take a forceful approach doesn’t mean we should. The emotional fallout and effect on the animal’s well-being can be significant and long-lasting. The “let’s get it over and done with quickly” attitude is understandable and has often worked for veterinary staff, and even the animals’ owners, in the past, but it has never worked for the animal. Now, attitudes are changing.

Humans are becoming increasingly savvy in interpreting their animal’s body language and are less willing to compromise on animal welfare. No one wants to see their animals or patients suffer. But the fallout of coercive handling also goes further than the animal’s well-being: Animals with anxiety can seriously affect their humans’ quality of life, they can be a risk to veterinary staff, their emotional state can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult and people may avoid taking their anxious animals to the vet altogether.

So, arm yourself with a bucket of treats and start doing some mock vet procedures with your dog, giving a treat after each handling. If your dog is already anxious, it’s best to work with a qualified professional to get you on the right track. To see the transformation from a dog who’s scared of the vet to one that strides into the vet practise, tail up and wagging, eager to jump on the table, is quite extraordinary.

Here is me and my good friend Hero practising a few procedures at the vet:

RESOURCES

The Academy For Dog Trainers’ Husbandry Project
Fear Free Happy Homes
Interview with Dr Marty Becker, by Companion Animal Psychology

Is Your Dog a Hippie Dog?

What’s a hippie dog? That was the first question that popped into my head when a friend once asked me why hippie dogs were always so well behaved. The dogs she had in mind were the type that you would see off leash in public areas, typically hanging out with people who were, well, also just hanging out. I went through a hippie phase as a teenager and I remember it was all about being “anti-establishment”, whatever that meant. I think, what I mostly loved about it was the sense of freedom, the sense (or rather illusion) of not being bound by any societal rules. You could say, a hippie dog—not giving a care about leash laws and not forced to follow anyone—is a dog free to choose. So, why do they choose to hang with their people?

Hippie Dogs Are Happy to Stick Around

A common concern I hear from clients is that they worry their dog may run off, if let off the leash, and my first response (although I don’t always say it out loud) is usually “why would they?”. What are the reasons a dog would not stay with the people they consider their family? A dog who has just been adopted from a shelter and not settled into their new home yet is a good candidate for running off into the blue yonder, maybe never to return. So are, one would assume, dogs who are unhappy in their homes, because something causes them serious ongoing or repeated stress. But otherwise, running off is generally a temporary thing, for example to meet other dogs, say hello to people, chase after someone else’s tennis ball or bother the local wildlife. The dog, once satisfied with their adventure, typically returns to their humans. But, just in case you aren’t eager to wait that long or your Kelpie keeps herding the children playing soccer or your friendly Lab disrupts the Tai Chi class or your 50 kilo Bullmastiff makes a beeline for the young family having lunch on a picnic rug, read here how you can get your dog to come back.

The attachment a dog feels to their people plays a factor in staying within range, no doubt. However, I have seen dogs behave in a way that people call loyal despite not having a good relationship with their humans or not having a happy home. I assume this sort of loyalty is a behaviour favoured by evolution: to stick with what one knows, because there’s usually less danger involved. In particular dogs who are anxious and lack confidence are prone to fear what they don’t know and less likely to explore and venture far. On the other hand, any sudden scare can send them dashing off across the road. The behaviour of hippie dogs though is not fearful at all. Quite the opposite, these dogs are as chilled as a cucumber and nothing seems to faze them. My guess is, they follow their people around because they want to, not because they are afraid not to. A positive relationship, built on trust and reinforcement of desirable behaviours, instead of force and coercion, is certainly a good idea, if you want your dog to stick around of their own free will.

Hippie Dogs Have Seen It All

But there’s more, of course. Hippie dogs don’t seem to get excited about much at all (and don’t say it’s probably the drugs!). You don’t see them run across the road, if they spot another dog on the other side, they don’t chase after the cat on the fence, they don’t jump up at people and they don’t bark at the garbage truck. The crucial component which makes a hippie dog is, I suspect, their stellar socialisation. Genetic makeup matters too of course, but if we are lucky and our dog has happy little genes, then the environment the dog grows up in is the biggest thing we have to focus on. Hippie dogs seem to have seen it all. They are not afraid of new people or novel things, because apparently their early environment was so rich with everything our crazy human world has to offer that they feel comfortable wherever they go. The rarer something is the more attention the dog will pay to it, so a dog with an impoverished socialisation is more likely to get overexcited or anxious when they see other dogs and people than a hippie dog for whom other dogs and people are nothing special.

Make Your Own Hippie Dog: Socialise, Handle with Care, Train with Kindness

So, would you like to have a hippie dog? I have to be honest: I highly suspect that the hippie dog is a mythical creature. Or maybe they are extinct. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping you from trying. You and your dog may end up a lot happier.

By the way, the hippie dog has an evil twin. Well, to be fair, they aren’t actually evil. Most of them are just scared most of the time. Guard dogs are on high alert, if anything in their environment raises their suspicion—which is almost everything. They were either trained or bred to fear what they don’t know, or both. In Australian states trained guard dogs are automatically classified as dangerous dogs. Any dog who ferociously barks at or goes after strangers—no matter if trained, born or raised that way—is potentially useful as a guard dog but makes a lousy family pet. They also tend to have a pretty lousy life (imagine going through life constantly looking over your shoulder in expectation of danger). Guard dogs and other stranger danger dogs don’t relax around people they don’t know, they have a limited environment where they feel comfortable and they have a very narrow, or non-existent, social circle. They are the exact opposite of the hippie dog.

The bottom line is, if you want a companion dog you can take everywhere and be social with, do not put the fear in your dog. If you already have a fearful dog, do everything you can to help them fear less. If you want protection, get an alarm system. Let’s populate the world with hippie dogs. Ok, we don’t have to call them that.

What “No” Really Means to Your Dog

No has to be one of the most uttered exclamations by anyone living with dogs and, dare I say, kids. Of course, we have to control those little critters who seem to have nothing better to do than throw us challenge after challenge and make our lives difficult. They just don’t listen, do they? And, if our authoritative no doesn’t suffice, let’s just increase the volume and— voilà!—now we have their attention. For a few seconds at least. Then we’ll start over like a broken record.

Or maybe we belt out a formidable NO!! with such ferocity that everyone ducks for cover and gives us peace for the rest of the day. Ah, finally, we get the respect we so crave.

Except it’s all but a fleeting dream.

The Loud No

Yelling at someone to make them change their behaviour is not exactly what I would call a teaching method. It has—together with other forms of intended positive punishment—fallen out of favour with educators for good reason. Aggressive behaviour doesn’t just affect the well-being of our dogs, but ours as well. Like a quick meal at the nearest junk food outlet, it gives us instant relief but, if repeated, it gradually makes us worse.

Despite the short-lived benefits of raising one’s voice, the immediate result—in case your dog stops whatever they were doing—can be reinforcing. It’s easy to convince yourself that your strategy has worked. Let’s say you catch your dog chewing on the carpet. You yell NO! and the dog slinks away with tail low and quietly lies down on their bed. Success!

So, how do you feel ten minutes later or the next day when your dog is chewing on the carpet again? It may be time to revise your strategy.

Here is the problem: If your dog is highly motivated to engage in an activity such as chewing, be they a puppy, a recreational chewer or a dog seeking stress relief, they keep doing it. To counter this strong motivation, your threatening behaviour—in the form of yelling—has to be severe enough to have even the slightest chance of success. But even then, the dog’s behaviour is usually only suppressed for a finite time or as long as you are around.

Attempting to punish your dog’s behaviour with aggressive methods could even have the opposite effect, for example if the dog chews out of anxiety. Your aggressive behaviour gives the dog an even greater reason to be anxious, so they chew the carpet even harder to relieve their stress.

Now imagine your dog is anxious around the kids next door and growls at them. I’m sure you would be grateful that your dog makes their feelings known (so you can change them for the better) rather than turning those feelings into direct action. If you silence your dog’s voice by threatening them, what you fear might happen is far more likely to happen.

 

The Stern or Firm No

So how about we dial down the decibels and employ what is often referred to as the stern no or the firm no? Surely, this establishes our leadership and authority without the nasty side effects.

You might be in luck, if your target is human, of good hearing, sufficiently intellectually mature and dependent on your goodwill. Without the latter, well, at least you have a chance to start an argument. Try this with a toddler, a dog or a lizard and you can expect tantrums, disappearance acts or just plain indifference. Just like the loud no, the stern no is intended to stop the dog from doing something by exerting some sort of authority, so the tone tends to be threatening, regardless of the decibel level.

I suppose once upon a time commanding voices were thought to teach our children such grand values as respect, authority, discipline, obedience and loyalty. It seems odd that—while we have long realised that young children aren’t capable of grasping these concepts—we believe members of another species do a better job. Alas, a threatening voice does not teach your dog morality. They just learn to avoid you.

 

The Conditioned, or Learned, No

Because the word no, said in a resolute voice, has such a clear meaning to us humans, it is not really surprising that we use it with other animals as well. But, of course, a dog has no idea what the word no means unless—over time—they recognise a pattern and learn what happens after the no.

Let’s say your dog stalks your cat, prompting you to say no. Then, because your dog ignores you and starts chasing or pestering the cat, you get hold of the dog and put them in the laundry for a two-minute time-out. If you consistently repeat this pattern, your dog will learn that your no predicts time alone in the laundry, unless they leave the cat alone.

Time-outs can be highly effective, as long as you manage to deliver them consistently in a matter-of-fact way, without scaring the dog with either your voice or your actions. Once your dog has learned the pattern, they have a choice to avoid the negative punishment, i.e. the time-out. If you can pull this off, your no will take on the meaning of a warning. Congratulations. This is no simple procedure.

Reward-based dog trainers avoid the word no precisely because it has a default meaning to humans. It is almost impossible to deliver the word in a neutral tone, especially when your dog is about to do something you don’t approve of. To avoid slipping into the loud or stern category, it’s best to choose a more pleasant word or phrase as a warning (“gentle”, “easy”, “nope”, or how about the Aussie classic: “oi”), give a learned cue for cease & desist (“leave it”) or ask the dog for an alternative behaviour (come, sit, touch, fetch).

 

The Overshadowed No

In reality, the word no is rarely delivered in a neutral tone nor on its own. Its delivery is forceful and it is often accompanied—rather than followed—by some form of action, such as rushing towards, staring at or leaning over the dog, throwing things at the dog or worse. Your actions overshadow your words just like your tone of voice does. So, the word itself is entirely irrelevant. You could use any verbal uttering, because your dog responds exclusively to your body language and noisiness.

 

The Most Appropriate No in Dog Training

The most appropriate use of the word no in dog training is the one where you simultaneously slap your forehead because you left your puppy alone with what used to be your precious new throw rug (management fail); or when you finally realise your dog never sits longer than a split-second because you consistently rewarded them after they stood up (sloppy training mechanics); or when your dog does an instant U-turn away from a sweet-smelling possum carcass after hearing your irresistible voice and you realise you left those super tasty treats at home (badly missed opportunity).

 

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

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.

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

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