When Fear of Aggressive Dogs Makes Dogs Aggressive, We Have Our Lizard Brains to Thank

Once We Were Prey and We Adopted a Predator

When we are faced with sharp pointy teeth, like in the picture above, it triggers a primal emotion inside us. Sometimes the feeling can be so fleeting that we don’t even notice it—maybe because our experience or knowledge quickly overrides our initial emotions—but we all have it in us: the fear of predators. The reason is, of course, that we were once prey. Back in the days, before we had the power of stone, fire and steel, fear of predators kept us alive because we avoided them. It’s our evolutionary legacy that, despite having unleashed fire and fury on every creature we fear ever since, we cannot shake this quintessential element of basic survival instinct. And this fear has been exploited, and sometimes fuelled, by authors and script writers, from fairy tales to horror movies to news reporting.

It is entirely reasonable then that we fear our dogs. Even the tiniest handbag dweller can render your hand a useless limb with their little canines. And technically, although only a B-grade horror flick could have an entirely improbable story line where a Chihuahua severs a person’s carotid artery, death by toy dog is a possibility.

Size Matters, Says Our Lizard Brain

The reality is, the little monsters tend to get off scot-free, no matter how much they snarl, snap or even bite. We may even laugh when tiny Cesar bares his teeth at a 50-kilo Bullmastiff. “Little dog syndrome”, we casually say in their defence, while we drag the noisy ball of aggression away. Turn the tables and there isn’t much defensive rhetoric you can come up with. Some people quiver, if your square-headed companion simply sets eyes on their dog. Little do they know that Bullmastiffs—like the boy in the photo—are often the sweetest dogs. The adverse reaction to these dogs is completely understandable, though. Large, powerful dogs resemble our ancient predators so perfectly well whereas little cute fluffballs can hide their deadly teeth behind their button noses and doe eyes. But those miniature fangs are there, waiting for that ankle or finger or carotid artery. This is not to say that small dogs are more likely to be aggressive than big dogs, but because managing a small aggressive dog is considerably easier than wrestling a heavy-weight who’s blown a fuse, small dogs have better survival chances. We keep them alive and we keep them at home or on leash.

Their bigger conspecifics are rarely that lucky, with certain breeds copping it especially hard depending on the current fashion. One day it’s Rottweilers, next it’s Dobermans, then it’s Pit Bulls (more precisely: the American Pit Bull Terrier or any dog that looks vaguely similar) with their mythical “lock-jaws”. Those dogs lose their lives because of an image problem, no matter if they committed any offence or if their offence was ridiculously trivial. There is no rationality behind it other than our ancient deep-seated involuntary fear of predators. But, we modern day humans make plenty of lizard brain decisions, so it’s not really that surprising.

How Our Fears Can Kill Dogs

When dogs interact in play, they show us plenty of predator-style behaviours such as chasing, pouncing, showing of teeth, making contact with teeth and growling. And what do we do, more often than not? We intervene. We pull the dogs apart or restrain them and try to teach them with lots of “no” and “ah-ah” that aggression is bad. We want our dogs to play nice. We want calm and gentle dogs. We don’t tolerate anything that we deem aggressive behaviour. This is our lizard brain talking.

The reason this is so devastating is not only that many dogs lose their lives for no other reason than our fears, but that we often make things worse for them, much worse, with our fears. If we deny dogs to behave in a species-typical manner—and that includes aggressive or aggressive-looking behaviour—we may in fact create aggression problems that weren’t even there in the first place.

If puppies are not allowed to learn how to communicate with their conspecifics, future encounters with other dogs can be challenging, and even dangerous, because of misunderstandings, wrong or missing signals and defensive behaviour. We may raise our puppies to be illiterate in their own language, and all because we thought we could, or should, teach them to communicate nicely and in a way that didn’t worry us.

Just as dogs need to be able to talk to each other in their own language—teeth, barks, growls, tumbling, humping and all— they need the liberty to tell us when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Punishing growling, snarling, snapping or any other form of antagonistic communication, be it directed at humans or other dogs, can create “silent killers”. How often a dog can tolerate being pushed to their limits of how much fear, anxiety and distress they can endure, only the dog knows. We’ll know once that dog bites.

Train Your Brain and Help Safe Dogs

Unless we accept that our dogs are a predatory species, for whom aggressive displays are a normal form of communication, and train ourselves to understand their language, we will always be slave to our lizard brains and make lizard brain decisions.

We can learn how to control our deep-seated fear of sharp teeth by watching lots of dog-dog play. I had an uncle who was one of those people who picked up a foreign language simply by immersing himself in that language. Mind you, his grammar and writing was shocking, but his communication skills were excellent. When it comes to dog language, we are still trying to figure a lot of things out. At least we have started to realise that we got quite a few things wrong in the past, mostly because we couldn’t resist interpreting their language using our own cultural and grammatical rules.

So, get yourself to a dog park during peak hour and watch. Depending on the attendees, you may see a large range of typical dog conversations. We have made things a little challenging for our dogs by creating such great diversity within the species, so you might come across the occasional problem due to dialect. But most importantly, look for those exposed teeth and snarly faces. Watch the fake fights. How are the dogs moving? Are they jumping around like excited kids? Are they taking turns? Does the one you thought was attacking the other suddenly fling herself on the ground, paws paddling in the air?

Watching dog play, and even the occasional altercation, provides an invaluable opportunity to learn canine language, but only if we free our minds from preconceived ideas. Let the dogs be our teachers. After all, they are the native speakers. If we can see dog behaviour for what it really is and learn to control our fears where they are unwarranted, we can safe lives. The more of us realise that most dogs are neither trying to kill each other nor us, the better we can make rational and compassionate decisions, as befits our species.

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).


Puppy play: Why it matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and resources

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

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

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

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

The story of a backyard dog

Strictly speaking, the dog in this story didn’t live in a backyard. He lived in the dark and narrow space between an old weatherboard house and the neighbour’s fence. He went to sleep in his kennel at one end of the run and to the toilet at the other. There was no grass and nothing to look at but the sky.

When I first saw this dog, he was looking at me through the window. I was about to rent a small room in an old weatherboard house and my landlady immediately assured me the dog “wouldn’t be any trouble”. Two of the other students who lived there were scared of the dog and the third didn’t care. The dog was never taken out and it seemed his only social contact was feeding time when someone would toss a bowl of food into his prison. Maybe he had been part of the family once but when life changed for his people he was no longer included. Maybe he lost a large and grassy backyard when his family built their new double-storey home behind the weatherboard house. Maybe he was banished from family activities when the first baby arrived. Plans to re-home him were soon forgotten and he became invisible. Stashed away behind the weatherboard instead of his family’s new house, he was out of sight, largely unnoticed by the students who lived there over the years. Without his occasional deep and husky bark it would have been easy to forget he even existed.

It was obvious that my landlady had no attachment to the dog. To her he was a deterrent for would-be burglars, nothing more. My landlord however seemed to have some feelings for the dog and maybe even a tad of guilt. I really wanted to believe that the man once loved and cared for his dog. It simply made me feel better to imagine the dog had seen better days, but staying on friendly terms with my landlord also made it easier for me to help the dog. My request to take him for walks was accepted without hesitation and so began his new life.

It didn’t start well. In my naive urge to set this dog free, I forgot to consider what years in solitary confinement can do to an individual. I put him on a lead, walked him a kilometre or so down the road to a creek which ran through large expanses of green grass and lush vegetation and let him off. Before I could blink the dog was running back to the road and heading for home, or so I hoped. I chased after him up a hill and towards a busy intersection where I prepared myself for the worst. When I finally arrived at the house, my heart was pounding from the exercise and the worry that he might never have made it home. To top it off – when I did discover him back in his kennel – I made a rookie mistake by getting angry with him. I was angry that he gave me such a fright. I was angry that he apparently didn’t appreciate my help. I was angry that he spoiled my feel good story. Today I’m angry with myself for having been so selfish and ignorant.

It was fortunate the dog didn’t suffer from serious anxiety as I could have easily made matters worse. Although I knew that anxiety and depression were real illnesses, I still had a hard time to accept that both could not be overcome with sheer willpower. Probably even more so through personal experience in my family, I saw it as a weakness if someone could not control their negative thoughts and emotions. And as if it wasn’t bad enough to expect humans with anxiety disorders to “face their fears” or “get over it”, I thought dogs – animals who aren’t even capable of analysing their fear and anxiety – should handle their problems the same way! This attitude is still very common these days and, sadly, it often leads to increased anxiety levels and a lower quality of life for our companion dogs.

As it turned out, the dog I was trying to help with my less-than-perfect approach had no deep-seated emotional issues and very quickly started to enjoy his newfound freedom. Over the following months we became best friends. Every day when I returned home and entered my room, he was waiting for me at the window. We went for daily walks together and sometimes hung out on the property when no one else was around. As often as possible I took him to the creek where we ran around together and sat in the grass. At night we would chat through the window before bedtime. Then I had to go away.

My first departure was only temporary but leaving the dog alone for three weeks, to fall back into isolation and despair, was unthinkable. If I ever had any ill feelings towards my landlord for neglecting his dog, it didn’t matter anymore after what happened next. My suggestion to board the dog with friends of mine during my absence was only the beginning. My landlord not only agreed but was also open for me to find a permanent home for his dog. Not long after my return I moved out of the shared house. The dog went to live with my friends before we found him a forever home where he became a member of a loving family, had another dog to play with and quickly claimed a comfy beanbag as his favourite place to sleep. I missed him but I knew he was happy. And that was all that mattered.

From the day I met this dog I knew I needed to find a solution. I could not leave him there to spend the rest of his life in a prison with nothing to do and no one for company. Yet so many dogs live exactly like that. Here, amidst us, scattered around the neighbourhoods are neglected, lonely dogs sitting in barren backyards, waiting for something to happen. Some of them have already entered a state of hopelessness and depression. They are “institutionalised”. But, as you can see from this story, it is never too late to help a dog in need and give them their life back. And no matter how long they have been neglected, they don’t even hold a grudge. I sometimes wonder if we deserve them at all.

Running or power walking with your dog: Take the right path

The dog on the end of my 5-metre lead has her head buried in the long grass on the river bank. While she is busy sniffing intensely at something clearly irresistible, I watch the ducks watching us. A lycra-clad woman strides past at high speed on the bitumen footpath. The dog on the end of her lead, which is kept tight and short, is prevented from lowering his head. As he is pulled along, the dog keeps craning his neck to look back at us while the woman is busy texting on her phone. Spot the difference? I am walking a dog whereas the other woman is exercising with her dog. These are two very different activities and one cannot replace the other.

Ensure your dog is able and willing

It would be a saint who has never pulled a dog along on a lead, if only for a moment, but the fact that I met the same woman 30 minutes later on the other side of the river, still walking in the same manner with a still very uncomfortable looking dog, made me wonder: Just how many of those people I see frequently running or marching along with their dogs in tow truly consider their dog’s welfare and enjoyment? Forcing a dog to exercise with you isn’t so different from using confrontational training methods. It is about making decisions for the dog and assuming they can handle it.

Making decisions on behalf of another individual carries risks. You may have the capability to push through a challenging physical activity without compromising your health because you have direct feedback from your brain. But you cannot know how your dog is coping until you get feedback from them. Unfortunately by then it could already be too late. Dogs do not show pain and discomfort the way we do and by the time you notice something is wrong, it could be dangerously wrong.

But apart from being risky, it is also simply unfair to impose an activity on a dog without making sure they are actually ok with it. You may think it’s good for them, but as humans we have a limited capacity to decide what is or isn’t good for dogs. The best way to make good decisions for your dog is to learn about dog behaviour and welfare from reputable sources that draw from scientific research. Know your dog’s limitations and learn to read and correctly interpret their body language so you can make the right decisions at any time.

Know your dog’s fears and keep them safe

It is not just about the physical side of things. Of course not every dog is suited for fast walking or running. Breed, age and health are the usual suspects, but there’s more. An often neglected factor is your dog’s mental health. For example, if your dog is fearful of strangers, is afraid of other dogs, suffers from general anxiety or has a noise phobia, they won’t enjoy the exercise if it exposes them to any of their triggers. Worse, they may become more sensitised, making their problems worse. If your dog is not comfortable amongst crowds or in certain environments, change the time or location of your exercise regime.

Do not force your dog to “face their fears” as this will almost certainly backfire. While there is clearly the benefit of exercise on mental health, you need to be well informed to keep your dog feeling safe. Dogs who are not relaxed in specific situations need to be systematically desensitised (and ideally counter-conditioned), not thrown into the deep end. Humans may be able to handle “being pushed” as they can rationalise what is happening (although this too can go horribly wrong). A dog will simply be terrified if they are over-exposed to the things they fear. Don’t risk it. Always let your dog decide if they want to be part of a certain activity.

Give your dog “sniffing time”

Dogs need the – ideally daily – opportunity to experience the outside world from a dog’s perspective. At the very least they need to explore and sniff at things and they may need time to find a good toilet spot. But to stay mentally and emotionally happy, dogs also need to be allowed to follow their natural impulses, as long as it’s safe. Be it rolling in the grass or splashing in a puddle, there are many things that are important activities for dogs but are often dismissed or disliked by us.

If your idea of “taking the dog for a walk” is to power along at a steady pace without stopping, then you are ignoring your dog’s needs. Your dog will be much happier to exercise with you if you also give them the opportunity to do their own thing. This may mean separating “walking the dog” from “exercising with the dog” and do each at different times of day. Or you could start at “sniffing speed”, during which you proceed at your dog’s pace and stop when they want to sniff or have a toilet break, before you switch gears when your dog is ready.

If you find your dog frequently wants to stop while you are running or power walking with them, don’t just drag them along. Instead, consider if your dog is really suited to be your exercise partner or if there might be some other activity you can share and that your dog is more comfortable with.

Teach your dog to keep a loose leash

Problems can also arise when your dog is so enthusiastic that they charge ahead and pull you along. It is unpleasant and the resulting lopsided running style can cause injuries over the long term for both of you. If your dog hasn’t learned to run on a loose leash and pay attention to you, they are likely to change direction or change speed without warning. I once somersaulted through the air because my dog darted right in front of me at high speed. Another time I delivered a similar shock to a dog when she suddenly slowed down causing me to accidentally step on the slack leash. Fortunately we all got away without injuries but it’s best to avoid the chance of collisions and other accidents to begin with.

Before you take your dog running, teach them loose leash walking. Then spend some short runs to practise the same at higher speed, using the same rules as for walking. Praise your dog profusely as long as they keep the leash loose (you don’t need treats here if your dog was trained well to walk on lead), give a warning when they speed up (e.g. “easy”) and stop when the leash tightens. It is a good idea to use cues, such as “let’s go”, “slow down”, “this way” to alert your dog of your intentions. If you want your dog to be your successful running partner, invest some time to develop their skills. Be fair, be a team player.


Increased exercise is one of the great benefits that humans get from having a dog. Those pleading canine eyes and a wiggly butt are much harder to ignore than a “note to self”. Dogs are the perfect allies to combat our sedentary way of life and help us get fitter, healthier and even more social. But if we are too focussed on our own agenda, we can easily overlook that our dogs may not be having fun at all. No matter if you take your dog for a leisurely stroll, a power walk or a run, always make sure it’s right for both of you.




Running With Your Dog: How to Train Fido to Run at Your Side, by Dr Sophia Yin
Turning Your Dog Into Your Workout Partner, by Dr Karen Becker, in Huffington Post
Ready, Set, Go: Running With Your Dog, by Mikkel Becker, vetstreet
Loose Leash Walking, by Lousiana SPCA

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