This Just In From Dogs: It’s Not All About Us

I would bet a large stack of cool, hard cash that you’ve met a dog who is a friendly neighbourhood “watchdog barker”. These dogs love people: they are immediately friendly with strangers at home and on the street...their feet all tippy-tappy and their tails all wiggley-waggley. But seemingly at odds with their love of all humans, watchdog barkers announce people with a ready helping of real noise: when the doorbell rings, or if someone moseys by the living room window, these dogs bark. If the person comes inside, the barking ends as the friendly neighbourhood watchdog barker completes their standard greeting ritual. This probably involves leaning in for ear scratches or jumping around like a gleeful if bumbling jumping bean (you know the routine). And if the human at the door or on the sidewalk outside walks away, the barking abates on its own, after a time.

Rewards Required?

Many dog behaviours need to be reinforced if we’d like to see them again in the future: sits, downs, stays, coming when called, acrobatic dance routines...when your dog does any of these, they need the paycheque of a treat, or they’ll blandly resign from your proffered job and find another, more lucrative, position (see “gettin’ in that trash can again”, below). There is a subset of behaviours, though, that dogs do even without our reinforcement. In some cases it’s because there is already food reinforcement involved, even if it doesn’t come from our hands: dogs will readily perform the behaviour of “gettin’ in that trash can again”, for example. But food, or any other external reward, isn’t always the end goal. Dogs will gleefully, and with no need for reinforcement, play with us and other dogs, dig with abandon, chase balls and bicycles, and howl in unison with their canine compatriots or ambulances alike. They’ll snooze, they’ll walk, they’ll run, they’ll sniff the cat, and they’ll...ahem…‘empty’... on the lawn. If there is no outside reward or threat making the behaviour happen, the stuff that dogs naturally do can be seen as simply enjoyable for them.

So, I suspect you are probably starting to pick up what I am laying down here, my friends. That gleeful if piercing bark that friendly, social dogs perform with abandon when they see people or dogs...that behaviour needs no reinforcement. Just like you need no reinforcement to stretch languorously in the spring-time sun, watchdog barkers need no reinforcement at all: they just bark. And just like it feels good for you to yawn and stretch in the sun, friendly but barky dogs probably just find the behaviour...you know. Kind of glorious.

Is It All About Us?

A while ago a client was wrapping his head around his dog’s “watchdog barking”. He had set up some training sessions with me and we were working to reduce the amount of time his lovely dog would bark when people approached. (This is not a hard job for a good trainer, and uses nothing even close to old-time corrections). But as we worked together, I kept feeling like I was missing the mark with my explanations of what was going on. My client kept saying that his barking dog was “alerting” his humans. That his dog was “letting them know”. Or, “doing her duty to them”.

Photo credit Nickala Squire from  Carefree Canine .

Photo credit Nickala Squire from Carefree Canine.

But wait. Is that what they’re doing? Is it really all about us? If it were, our dogs wouldn’t bark when we’re not home. Any number of nanny-cam scenarios and complaining neighbours can prove false that fable: watchdog barkers bark, no matter if someone is there to listen. And they wouldn’t bark at us when we pull up in the driveway, which pret’near all of my own dogs do. We don’t need to be told that we’ve arrived home ourselves, after all.

When you walk out into the spring sun and stretch, languorously, are you doing it for someone else? Are you signalling to your spouse that spring has sprung, and the grass is riz? Or are you just doing something that naturally feels good? Now sure, it’s possibly the case that during domestication, humans selected dogs to be avid watchdog barkers, in the same way that we selected dogs to have floppy ears, cute faces, and chocolate brown eyes. Watchdog barking is and was a useful trait, alerting us to intruders. But to say they’re doing any of those things for us is...well that doesn’t make sense, does it? They aren’t floppy-eared for us. They don’t wake up every morning looking like a donkey and quickly head to the bathroom mirror to tame their ears into a perfect flop, anxious that we might see them in their natural state. Their ears just flop. And when they see people or dogs, it’s the same thing. They just bark.

Our dogs are absolutely bonded with us. They’re a part of our family, as furry and fuzzy and floppy as they are. We share our homes and our hearts and heck even our couches with them. But they’re also their own little beasties. They are adult organisms and have their own motivations. Seeing dogs as they really are involves a bit of a switch in our thinking. And I’ll be honest: it might feel like we are losing something special. Dogs are so perfectly suited to be our companions that we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that they exist and behave just to meet our needs. But we gain something much more special in the exchange. We gain insight into how dogs actually work, and the door opens to real curiosity about, and real admiration of, our dogs’ behaviour. But the best thing we gain by seeing them as they really are is the wondrous knowledge that even though they don’t choose to hop up on the couch next to us to please us, they choose to hop up next to us to please themselves. And isn’t that so much better?

Kristi Benson Comments
If You Don't Talk To Your Kids About Positive Reinforcement Training, Who Will?

Kids these days.

Young people are exposed to a lot of information on their devices, aren’t they? A whole world of bits and bytes, right at their fingertips. And let’s face it: not all of it is good. No one is vetting the information on the internet, and popularity does not equate with truth. Now, I don’t want to alarm you, dear parent. So gird thine loins: there is a good chance that your offspring of the human variety will, at some point in their tender years, come across positive reinforcement training.

OK, OK, hold on. Take a deep breath. There is no need to go log in to your parental control panel on the ol’ smartphone in a panic. Just wait. You need to arm your kids with the truth, so they can face this issue standing on their own two feet, like the curious juvenile bipeds you know them to be.

Here’s how.

You need to sit down with your child and gently, but directly, tell them the truth about positive reinforcement training. Answer their questions fully and without judgement—it will likely not be the first time they have heard the phrases lure-reward, or conditioned emotional response, or even…and I hope the censors don’t bar me for this one…clicker.

You need to tell your kids that positive reinforcement training works to change a dog’s behaviour, and it does so using only things that dogs enjoy, like food treats and tennis balls. You need to tell your kids that dogs who are trained using positive reinforcement training will come to enjoy the training, and come to enjoy other things too, that come along for the ride: the trainer, the training location, the treat bag used, and so on. You need to tell your kids that it is absolutely true that positive reinforcement training works to train any behaviour.

Yes, any behaviour.

And you need to tell your kids that it’s OK that they’ll love positive reinforcement training just as much as the dog. It’s completely natural, and not embarrassing in any way, that they’ll want to give their dog more and more treats. It’s fine that they enjoy having a well-trained dog. There is nothing shameful about generosity and behaviour change.

Do this soon, I urge you. Very soon. Because, my baffled readers, we need to face this thing head-on.

If you don’t talk to your kids about positive reinforcement training, who will?

Cover photo: Jolka100 | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Photo: Enjoylife25 | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Kristi BensonComment
Good Audiobooks to Listen to Whilst Walking with Dogs: an Occasional Series

I listen to audiobooks as I walk with my dogs. I put in one ear bud only, leaving my other ear available to catch any of the things I want to be sure to hear during a walk. Like the gleeful bark of a dog who has found a skunk, or the gleeful bark of a dog who has found a beaver, or the gleeful bark of a dog who has found...well, you get the picture. I walk my motley crew of dogs loose, generally out to the lake on the north end of our property for a nice exploration of the lake edge environs (this is a nice short walk for those lazy days), or in a loop around our farm, starting at the lake edge and continuing west on cattle trails ducking through the aspen and willow, up and over the small spruce-covered hillocks in the centre of our farm, then on to the slow, muddy, meandering creek that makes its way across the southern pasture. In the summer it’s a verdant rich parkland with lady slippers and towering aspens and secret tiny meadows. In the winter, it’s monochrome and quiet and due to my post-workday walk scheduling, perpetually twilight. 

In other words, it’s a beautiful, enchanting place. But the soundscape? It’s pretty monotonous, if you encounter it day after day after day. And if you enjoy stories and learning (and who doesn’t?), then an audiobook adds oh-so-much joy to what might be a lovely, but in the way of things, eventually kinda boring, chore. 

You might reasonably expect me to listen to dog training books. I am a dog trainer, and my life is pretty gloriously overrun with all things canine. But I’m going to let you in on a secret and I hope it doesn’t make you run from me screaming: I abhor many dog training books. Dog training books are typically so chockablock full of bad information that I can’t make myself stick around for the good tidbits and hidden jewels. I can’t help but imagine every other poor dog owner swimming through the terrible information page by page, struggling to understand and change their dog’s behaviour. I became a dog trainer as a second career after more than a decade as a (dog-owning, but not dog-training) anthropologist, so I actually know how it feels to read a million dog training books and still be bereft of good information to help my real actual dog.

(See a list of dog training books I do recommend below.)

I do like many of the popular science books about dogs…so much so that I seem to have listened to the audiobooks already, at least once. And although I’m absolutely risking further shock and dismay here, I don’t love most of the books about canine ‘cognition’. Sure, it’s fascinating and glorious stuff. But…those books, too, make me imagine every poor dog owner swimming in not terrible but terribly arcane information, struggling to understand and change their dog’s behaviour. Amygdalas and wolf/pointing studies won’t help anyone with their dog who pulls on leash or jumps up at the door. No, they won’t. Nope. 

So what do I “read” as I walk with my dogs? I love both novels (murder mysteries and spy thrillers...please don’t judge), and non-fiction. I particularly love non-fiction books which give me insight into my world, filled with fascinating creatures of both the two-legged and four-legged variety. Since the readers of my blogs are also dog lovers, I have decided to start a new series of articles, to share my favourite non-fiction audiobooks to listen to whilst walking dogs, highlighting how they shed light on the four most important things, in my opinion, to understanding dogs: dogs, humans, learning, and science. 

Here is my invitation: if it is safe for you to enjoy a story as you plod with your dogs, open your library’s app on your phone and get ready to join me! I’ll post my first book recommendation and review over next few weeks. The first book on the list is both clever and hilarious, because what is the point of having a dog if you can’t laugh with them as they frolic?

Dog training and popular science-type books I recommend include all the books written by Jean Donaldson and John Bradshaw. Watch Companion Animal Psychology’s page to pick up a copy of Zazie Todd’s new book when it is published, as well.

Photos: Cover—Tomasznajder | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images; Lower—Cynoclub | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images


Kristi BensonComment
5 Great Ways to Reframe Your Laziness As Canine Enrichment

Dogs need enrichment, and that’s a fact. ‘Enrichment’ refers to opportunities for an animal to practice their natural behaviours, to give their brains and bodies a workout. Dog enrichment typically includes food puzzles, scent games, sniffari-style walks, and other things that dogs love and that, frankly, everyone and their dog already does. You want to be different? You want to be better? Well, join me, one and all. Here are five ways to enrich your dog’s life through abject lazitude on your part.

n.b.: only do these activities if they are safe and reasonable for your dog. obvo.

One: Laundry Scent Games

Did you pull weeds in the garden for a good hour today? (Or maybe was it just half an hour? Ok fine, ten minutes.) It’s likely the case that your pants will be dirty from sitting and kneeling in the garden, to say nothing of that large root-beer stain. Technically, you should march those pantaloons right to the laundry facilities, right? Wrong! Hold your horses there, tidy one. Don’t you care about enrichment? If yes, well then those pants, (and perhaps all your other really dirty clothing items), are best left on the floor. Your dog needs to seek and find them, to experience the joy of the novel scents, and then finally, enriched and delighted, make a bed in them, circling and pawing until everything is just perfect.

Two: Hunt for MY Dinner

This dish was actually delish, but the picture fit.

This dish was actually delish, but the picture fit.

Did your spouse give you an extra helping of Nanna’s Blandest Recipe Ever and you don’t want to get in trouble by dumping those dumplings in the trash? Wait until your spouse’s attention is diverted as you’re stacking dishes in the kitchen (or better yet, divert it yourself: a kitten video is almost always a good option), and then toss a few of those (…what are those things?) on the floor for your dog to eat. Aim somewhere out of your spouse’s line of sight, of course. Although some may interpret this as throwing food on the floor, you and I know that you’re meeting your dog’s need to scavenge and/or hunt. Brava, you!

Three: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Did you finish the last of the yogurt, eating it directly out of the container whilst standing at the fridge? Normally you’d rinse the container out carefully and set it to dry, ready to recycle.*** And when I say ‘normally you’d do that’, I was referring to those people who want their dogs to suffer. You, as someone oriented towards your dog’s enrichment needs, will immediately provide the yogurt container for your dog to clean out. They’ll lick up all that delicious dairy and perhaps even bury the container in your dirty laundry for good measure, nosing root-beer stained jeans carefully on top. Now we’re looking at a happy, enriched dog: instant food toy, plus opportunity to ‘cache’ and bury.

***HA! normally, you’d stack with the other dishes at the sink waiting to be washed.

Four: The Gift Of Time

You’re out on a walk and your dog perks up and wants to investigate that thing, that thing that is oh-so-important to dogs. It’s a [candy wrapper|mystery stain|biological waste|possibly a crime scene|obviously totally gross]. Normally, you’d put your Basic Obedience Class Grad training to the test here, with a nice ‘leave it!’ or a short stint of ‘watch me’ or something else useful that you’ve trained. But not today, my lazy friends. Today is not the day for blind obedience. Today is the day for enrichment. You pull out your phone and open your favourite thing to do and let your dog sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff to their heart’s content. “Who am I to judge another creature’s joy?” you can say, rather stridently, to the man who walks past you with a questioning look.

Five: Dog TV

Your dog gets up on the back of the couch to look out the window and take life in (honest and slightly cringe-inducing truth here: in my house, this is sometimes the kitchen table.) Another person might say ‘hm, time to re-arrange the furniture, do some training, or close the drapes’. Another person who wants to deprive their dog, that is. What you—the lazy enricher—will do is sit back and enjoy your dog’s own enjoyment. You won’t re-arrange the furniture, nor will you get up and close the drapes (who has the time for that?) so nothing is acting as a magnet pulling your dog up on the couch. If you do anything at all, you’ll put a nice cushy blanket on the back of the couch so your dog’s perch is extra comfortable and you don’t have to spend all that effort vacuuming the couch later.

Enrichment matters, friends. And since it must work for your dog, it may as well work for you.

Possession is Nine-Tenths of Canine Property Law: What To Do If Your Dog Resource Guards
She flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

She flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

Sitka likes to “dispatch” mice in our pasture. She’s a perfect and perfectly sleek greyhound/husky cross, fast and joyful. She’ll carry the mouse around for a while after the deed is done, the whole thing hidden in her long and delicate mouth (sometimes the tail will be sticking out…how delightfully macabre). Then she’ll put the mouse down, sigh, and take a break, stretched languorously on her side with the spoils of her hunt just inches from her snout. Often, one or more of my other dogs can be found waiting nearby, their blinkingly innocent faces full of hope. They’re not as successful in the fields as Sitka is (she’s all speed and lithe vulpine grace, that one), but they seem to want Sitka to know that they, too, like mice. If a dog manages to get too close—a Sitka with a mouth full of mouse has a rather large ‘personal space’ bubble, I’ll have you know—she’ll react. A rumbling growl and the slightest twitch of her lip into a snarl, pearly white enamel clearly visible.

Yes, it’s true. Sitka guards her booty from one and all.

Do your dogs guard stuff from each other? Bones, chew toys, food, beds…dogs can guard a stunning array of stuff. I’ve had clients whose dogs guard their owners; I’ve had clients whose dogs guard scents on the ground. My own dogs guard stolen Kleenexes and farm-related…“matter” which shall remain, mercifully, unnamed. Sometimes when dogs guard against each other, the guarding is lackadaisical: a halfhearted growl as another dog sneaks in and absconds with the goods. Sometimes the guarding is ferocious: a snaking run across the room and an explosive dog-dog brawl at even the slightest suggestion of a “hey, want to share?”

Sitkas are queen bees when it comes to lolling.

Sitkas are queen bees when it comes to lolling.

It can seem inappropriate when our dogs guard from each other, and it’s tempting to try and stop guarding from happening. Sharing is caring, right? I mean us humans don’t guard stuff from each other, we don’t show our teeth and vocalize when a dinner companion reaches across the table to snatch a fry from our plate, do we? [Editor’s note: not sure this example proves the point.] This feeling of “hey, dog, don’t do that” is especially the case if it seems somehow unfair from our human perspective. Once, my beautiful all-white sled dog Sugar snagged a mouse from (literally) right under Sitka’s nose. After this outrageous bit of canine thievery, Sugar then proceeded to guard the mouse from Sitka herself. It was, to say the least, nervy.

Luckily for those of us with Dogs Who Guard Stuff, this behaviour is beautifully normal. If no-one is getting hurt and no-one is getting scared, you can just sit back and watch it happen. I will never tire of watching the wordless conversations between Sitka and my other dogs when she’s staking her claim. Recently, our very fearful dog Walter started guarding slobbered, ripped, and chewed up dog toys from other dogs, and we (quietly) celebrated! How exhilarating, to see him comfortable enough to be a dog!

If it’s time to change your dog’s guarding behaviour, because it really gets on your nerves or one of your dogs is getting hurt or scared, there are a few ways of handling it. The easiest thing is to separate your dogs when they have “hot” items. If you’re handing out chewies, do it with your dogs in their own crates or in separate rooms. This simply prevents the problem behaviour from occurring. You can also prompt the guardee away from the situation. Happy talk, trill, or use your recall cue, and then reward them with a cookie (have a canister of biscuits nearby for ease) to encourage an ‘it pays to walk away’ behaviour in the future. I use both of these techniques frequently, since not all my guarding dogs are as blasé as Sitka (I’m looking at you, Timber). It might be tempting to yell at the guarding dog to share, goldarnit, but this is unlikely to help, and may actually make the guarding worse.

Side note: when I say “all my guarding dogs”, I mean all my dogs. They all guard. Every single one.

If these easy fix-its aren’t enough, I would encourage you to call in a credentialled, force-free dog trainer. We can help you set your dogs up for success, and we can help reduce guarding by using one or more of a few standard techniques: we can get right to the root of the issue by changing the guarding dog’s underlying emotional state (a la “Oh, I actually like it when another dog approaches me when I have a mouth full of mouse!”), and we can change the behaviour of the guarded-against dog (a la “I used to accidentally walk by my canine sister when she had mouse breath. Now I head to my own bed and get a treat”).

No reputable trainer nearby? Feel free to get in touch with me and we’ll figure something out. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here with some popcorn, watching my dogs be hilarious and wonderful. You’re absolutely welcome to join me…but you’ll have to get your own popcorn, my friend. No sharesies.

This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2019", with Companion Animal Psychology.

Let's Tell It Like It Is: Why Demand Barking Really Isn't

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Demand Barking”, and if you happen to have a dog, or have been within twenty meters of a dog, you’ve probably heard the real thing, too. Demand barking occurs when dogs have learned that barking serves to get them what they want. It’s not the same as the other types of barking that dogs use to communicate: alarm, fear, play, and so on.

Trainer Jackie Johnston knows what I’m talking about.

This type of barking is truly a product of (generally mistaken) human intervention. It starts out this way: our dogs bark, for whatever reason or motivation, and we, without thinking, reinforce it. And by reinforce, I mean that we provide attention, we provide a chew toy, we provide door-opening services…anything that the dog happens to want in that moment in time. The dog, like all creatures great and small, notices reinforcement. They notice that their behaviour got them what they wanted. In the future, when they want patting, door opening services, and so on, they’ll be more likely to try barking again, for this reason. And when they bark, well, we notice. Barking is annoying to us humans, so we pay attention to it lickety-split. The dog gets another dose of reinforcement, and the learning process continues unabashed. Although the barking is the important part to us, the patting or door-opening is the important bit to the dog: it’s the very reason they bark.

If you have a demand-barking dog and this is sounding all too familiar, try to set aside your feelings about how very truly personal it feels. It feels like they’re trying to bark up a migraine on purpose, but…they’re not, I promise. Demand barking is simply an example of dogs learning and working. To wit: when we train a dog to sit, we use the exact same teaching system. The dog sits, either by happenstance or through us luring, and then we reinforce. We repeat the operation, always providing reinforcement after the sit. The dog, like all creatures great and small, notices the reinforcement. In the future, the dog is more likely to sit to get that treat. The treat is the important bit to the dog: it’s the very reason they sit.

Random aside: Have you ever asked your dog to sit and then when they do sit, called it demand sitting?

Humans learn to perform various tasks for essentially the same reasons as dogs, which won’t surprise you at all. We go to work for the reinforcement of a paycheque, for example. We walk to the fridge for the reinforcement of cheesecake. We’re more complex than dogs (except maybe Timber, he’s a very complex dude), but the same principles apply. We work in order to get the stuff we want in the world.

Random aside: Have you ever referred to what you do at the office as demand working?

Request barking

Since demand barking is a beastie we create by reinforcing it, it doesn’t seem appropriate to call it “demand barking”, does it? “Demand” seems to imply that the dog doesn’t have a right to ask for the patting, door-opening, or whatnot. But we’ve just trained them that barking is how we want them to ask. Some trainers use the much less value-laden term “request barking” for this reason, and I do appreciate this term. But I have to admit, it also misses the mark a bit, doesn’t it? When you go to the office and work your tail off, are you request working? No, you’re just working. You’re putting in an honest day in order to earn an honest dollar. And when dogs sit in order to get a treat, or bark in order to get a door opened, they’re putting in an honest day to earn their very honest dog dollar.

So what can we call demand barking? I hang my head in shame here, because I’m pretty sure I’ll probably continue to refer to it as demand barking. It’s just easy, and it’s not that bad of a term (is it? I don’t need much convincing, here…the language we use to talk about our dogs matters). But among my dog training friends, I like to use the phrase “operant barking”. Operant behaviour is simply behaviour that animals learn to do, then choose to do, based on what consequences it produces: sit is an operant behaviour that usually results in treats, affection, and so on. A dog learns to push on the dog door, and this operant behaviour results in access to the outside. And so on. The word operant is used because the dog is operating on their environment to get the things they need to survive and thrive.

So the next time your dog barks in order to earn some reinforcement, nod your head sagely and say “ah ha! That’s operant barking, I’ll have you know!” in a very scholastic tone. Then call in a dog trainer, because that’s the most piercing thing ever in the history of migraine-inducing sounds, and dog trainers are supremely good at reducing that particular operant behaviour. We trained our dogs to do it, after all. We can certainly train them to do something else, instead.

Update: five minutes after I went live with this blog, I thought of the term “On Demand Barking”. This shifts the meaning to be “getting what I paid for” instead of “my dog is demanding”. I may use this phrase from now on with my clients!

Kristi Benson Comment
Dog Grant Me The Serenity To Accept The Things I Cannot Change

Although modern dog training techniques and methods are sophisticated and efficient, there are certainly some limits to what we can do. For many dog owners, a training journey is about acceptance as much as it is about action.

Don’t get me wrong: we can often make huge gains in a bunch of ways. We can get even the most cue-deaf dog to do a ‘come when called’ behaviour. We can get a dog to sit instead of jumping on guests, we can get a fearful dog comfortable at the vet’s office, and we can offer comfort and peace to a dog who is worried about strangers. We can switch up your snarling, food-guarding dog to be one who enjoys and even joyfully anticipates having their bowl of food touched. And we can help your dog who, upon seeing another dog across the street on a walk, becomes a barking and lunging Tasmanian devil.

But all that said, we can’t always meet the expectations that our clients have about their dogs. In these cases, we, as the pet professional in the room, work to educate and find solutions that are both achievable for the dog in question, and work-able for the humans involved.

Some of the things that typically involve compromise rather than a behaviour-change resolution include:

  • Predatory behaviour.

  • Profound fearfulness.

  • Bite pressure: a dog who bites with maiming force.

  • Energy level or “calmness”.

  • Scrapping, if our clients want “never again”.

Let’s unpack each of these a bit more.

Predatory behaviour

Dogs are domesticated social carnivores and some of them have behavioural remnants of their wolf ancestors: they try (and sometimes succeed) to hunt for their dinners. Predatory behaviour in dogs has many manifestations and can be both playful or “for real”. It ranges from gentle play to intense play to chasing cars to herding sheep to the full meal deal: finding, chasing, killing, and consuming. Predatory behaviour is not aggression, it is simply dogs getting something to eat.

If this describes your dog, what can you expect from your trainer? If your dog rips apart stuffed toys with gleeful abandon, we’ll counsel you to simply provide more stuffed toys. We won’t generally train a dog to stop committing stufficide, because it’s harmless, enriching, and…well, hilarious fun. Trainers want dogs to get more of what they love, not less of it. For the same reasons, we’ll counsel you to sit back and enjoy the stalking, chasing, and biting games your dogs play with each other. Nature made play to be enjoyable and enjoyed, and it’s not our place to police our dogs’ preferences if no-one is getting hurt.

If your dog chases bikes, we’ll probably recommend a training protocol to reduce this behaviour: we’ll train your dog to ignore bikes or do a recall instead of chasing, for example. And we’ll probably counsel you to use a fence or leash to make sure everyone is safe if and when the situation demands it. This is because behaviour change is, just like my grade in high school biology, never 100%. Good trainers won’t offer guarantees: we can only alter the likelihood of x, y, z happening in situations a, b, and c. So for a dog who might get injured on the street or scare some innocent cyclist, a leash will provide safety and security.

Further to the “no behaviour change is 100%” thing, those dogs who are truly predatory must generally be prevented from carrying out these normal, but unacceptable, behaviours. A dog who kills cats isn’t evil, but shouldn’t be allowed to kill cats: prevention is key, and leashes and fences are usually the solution. This is a question of ethics too, of course. My dogs kill and consume mice, for which I neither train nor restrict access to inside my house…or outside my house, all of which is prime mouse habitat. And in other cases, 99% is good enough. My dogs have been trained, through habituation, reinforcement, and time-outs, to refrain from chasing cattle. They still occasionally get a bit too interested in a cow and I have to actively call them away, but this is a level of predatory behaviour I am OK with.

Profound fearfulness

We can often make great strides in a profoundly fearful dog’s quality of life by preventing them from experiencing whatever it is they’re scared of. We can also usually chip away at their fears, to make them less scared. When a client and their veterinarian find a good fit for the dog, medically, this can really help. But a dog who is abjectly fearful will likely never become a social butterfly or truly comfortable in situations that naturally confident dogs take in stride, like crowded, noisy public settings. Abject fearfulness generally stems from poor breeding choices, lack of socialization, or sometimes from fear-evoking events in a dog’s life, including confrontational training.

If you have an abjectly fearful dog, your dog trainer should be a supportive ally on your dog’s care team, and should help you feel capable and understanding when it comes to keeping your dog feeling safe.

Bite pressure: a dog who bites with maiming force

Although the specific practical science is slim, the best thinkers in our field suggest that dogs’ ability to bite in social situations (fights, guarding, or out of fear) is a part of the suite of behaviours ethologists call ritualized violence. The vast, vast, vast majority of the time when a dog bites in a social situation, she does so with much less force than when she bites a prey item (i.e., her food). Dogs who bite outside of food-acquisition situations really are communicating, not killing.

And again, although the science is slim, it appears that dogs have a bite pressure, or confined range of bite pressures, that is stable in healthy adult dogs. In other words, a dog who bites and causes a small bruise will likely continue to bite and cause small bruises in the same context in the future.

The other side of this coin is that if dogs bite with maiming force in a social situation, this is not something that qualified dog professionals can “train out”. By maiming force, I mean the removal of flesh, broken bones, or deep punctures causing extensive bruising. Luckily, dogs who bite with maiming force are rare…no matter what the news reports imply (some experts believe that some dogs with good bite pressure might bite with increased force in real “panic” situations as well…we could use some good science on this topic).

If your dog bites with maiming force in very particular situations, your dog trainer will talk to you about prevention. If your trainer suggests they can change your dog’s bite pressure, be wary: in my opinion, the suggestion that this is a possibility is dangerously incorrect, in the absence of science supporting any behaviour modification success. But prevention can work: muzzling dogs is a wonderful way to simply, and wholly, prevent bites. Dogs can be trained to enjoy wearing muzzles, giving everyone breathing room. If a dog bites with maiming force during dog-dog altercations, then it is often easiest to have the dog avoid contact with other dogs, and have their sociability needs met in other ways.

Energy level

Trainers like to think of ourselves as behaviour-change machines, but the truth of the matter is that if you have an enthusiastic and energetic dog, you’ll need to provide more exercise and enrichment (on top of any short-term training to be done). We can absolutely help identify exercise and enrichment opportunities that will work in our clients’ busy lives, but we won’t be able to wave a magic wand that will turn a young field-line retriever into a lazy couch potato. Happy, contented tiredness is a state earned every day through brain and body work-outs, not a trained trick.

“No More Scraps Ever”

Dogs are animals, and animals fight. For clients who have scrappy dogs, there are a few training options (depending on when and where the fights happen) that can reduce the frequency of fighting. But for infrequent, non-injurious fights? Your friendly neighbourhood dog trainer may recommend simply accepting that this natural, normal, and non-worrisome behaviour may happen here and there. In fact, your friendly neighbourhood dog trainer may push back a bit if you feel very firmly about “no more scraps ever”, since the only way to achieve 100% would be to remove all dog play from your dog’s life. For a friendly and social dog (i.e. most dogs), being jailed away from dogs forever because they occasionally show non-injurious and species-typical conflict resolution behaviour isn’t a good training protocol, it’s a welfare issue.

Expectation vs. reality

Dog training isn’t always about getting a dog to do (or not do) a certain behaviour, although training on that level tends to be the fun stuff for us trainers. Frequently, dog training is about finding peace and compromises that allow a dog to fit in more smoothly with her human family members, so that everyone—canine and primate—can live a life of comfort and joy.



Empty Promises

Are your cues just empty promises?

A few days ago, Yoenne said something really profound. She said “I don’t want to be making any empty promises”. She was talking about calling in our cows, who were out in a back pasture lounging in the warm rays of the early spring-time sun. She has trained our cows to come when called, using the same techniques that I use when I’m training my dogs or my clients’ dogs to come when called: we pair the cue with a delicious reward; add in a dollop of practice practice practice in increasingly difficult scenarios; et voila: we get a trained dog (or a trained cow). The animals—dog, cow, it matters not—learn to the do work of the recall for the paycheque of the food, as reinforcement. Yoenne had been considering calling the cows to her to check on them, but she didn’t have any food (the usual paycheque for cow recalls is either grain or hay cubes, both of which cows adore). So instead of calling them in, she walked out to see them.

Shouldn’t they just do it?

Us humans (myself included) have a set of very natural, but plum wrong, feelings about dogs doing stuff for us. When we ask our dogs to do something, it feels like they should just do it because they love us and they’re part of our family. This is a bit of transference of human stuff to dogs, though…when we ask members of our human family to do stuff for us, it’s often reasonable to expect that they will. Human families are complex and our evolutionary history has made it wise and reasonable for us to do stuff for each other for free. But dogs, like cows, are their own animals. They have their own motivations and must meet their own needs, in their own way. Humans understand, and benefit from, “should”. Dogs? Not so much.

A cue is a promise

A cue, to an animal, is a sort of promise. It’s a promise that if they do x, y, or z; something is going to happen. Once a cue is delivered, it’s up to the animal to decide if doing x, y, or z is worth their while at this particular moment in time. It’s our job, as the humans in the equation, to make sure the promise isn’t an empty one: we don’t ask for our dogs (or cows) to do something over and over without ever signing a paycheque. It’s also our job as the humans in the equation to make sure the promise isn’t a threat: do this or else. When we make a promise with our dogs (and if we want our dogs do the work of that recall, or down-stay, or standing still for the leash to be snapped on…) we better hold up our end of the bargain. No one likes an empty promise—not a cow, not a person, and not a dog.

Kristi Benson Comment
Is Training Your Dog Unnatural?

Recently, I was working with a lovely dog. A dog who is, and I will state this for the record, perfection. Sweet, cute, and dear, with a black button nose and an ever-hopeful gaze. The kind of dog who ambles up to guests to say hello and snoozes on dog beds in Instagram-worthy poses. He’s sheer perfection. Sheer perfection, that is, until some unsuspecting human puts him on on leash and walks him by another dog. At that point…sweet gourd of holy ablutions does that dog go bananas. He’s like the Tasmanian devil of cartoon fame: a blur of fur and teeth, with feet sticking out here and there. After one of our training sessions (during which the doe-eyed Tasmanian devil is learning to walk much more sedately past other dogs), his owner looked at me and sighed. “I wish we could just let dogs live a natural life.” She shifted her treat bag on her waist and looked wistfully out across the street. “You know, allow dogs to be dogs. None of this training, none of this making them fit into our lives.”

I understand why she feels this way, of course. When you’re training a dog using a good plan and good treats, the dog is so keen to work it feels almost criminal. But although I understand, I don’t actually agree. I don’t agree that there is anything unnatural about training (and I also don’t agree that there is anything unnatural about dogs cohabiting with humans, but that’s a conversation for another day). Humans didn’t invent training to coerce dogs into living one way or the other. As long as there is no coercion involved, dogs aren’t being forced to learn. They’re simply doing what they’d be doing in a magical human-free dog world: changing their behaviour to make good things happen for dogs.

Learning (and the resulting behaviour change) isn’t something that happens solely when the humans are around, treats in one hand and leash in the other. All animals, from snails to dogs to hippos, are learning all the time. In fact, the ability to learn—to change one’s behaviour based on information received in real time from the environment, and based on how things went in previous, similar experiences—is as natural as breathing. And what’s more, and I do not say this lightly, learning is just as vital to staying alive as is breathing.

It’s pretty easy to see examples of dogs learning all around us. They learn to lay on the couch in the mid-morning to catch the sun’s rays, they learn to lay on the floor by the back door to stay cool, they learn that the fire hydrant on 3rd Street always has the most interesting smells, they learn what it means when you pick up the leash, and they learn that when the TV gets turned off it’s time to head to bed. None of these were training protocols created by humans to change dog’s behaviour, and most don’t involve reinforcement or punishment from humans, either. Instead, it’s just dogs, working their environments. I repeat: it’s dogs, working their environments to get the best deal for dogs.

Dogs also learn to avoid things, and we can see this happening in real time, too. They learn to avoid the cranky cat, they learn to stay away from the couch mid-afternoon when it’s blisteringly hot, and they learn that the best place to get away from the vacuum cleaner sound is by hiding in the basement. They learn that if they play-bite too hard with their canine brethren, there won’t be any more play for a few hours.

Humans didn’t invent learning. Animals evolved with the ability to learn so they could make the most of their lives (and of course go on to make a bunch more baby animals). If an animal didn’t learn to avoid risk, or didn’t learn to obtain the things they enjoy and need to survive, they wouldn’t last long individually or as a species. All this is to say that if we look at training from the dog’s perspective, they’re working us for food, affection, access to spaces they enjoy, and so on…just like they’d work the environment food and all the good stuff. It’s all the same to dogs.

So, not only did humans not invent learning…it’s a bit of human hubris to suggest that we are doing something different to dogs than the kind of “learning” that dogs do to fit in with the other aspects of their environments. We just saw, then codified, and now use the way that dogs happen to learn, so that both ourselves and our dogs can share a peaceable, fun, cross-species lifestyle. And if you’ve spent much time watching nature shows, you’ve probably seen how the environment “trains” animals: it ain’t always pretty. If you’re committed to training in such a way that avoids painful and scary consequences, you’re a kinder trainer than nature, and by spades.

In the words of my mentor, Jean Donaldson, when we’re training dogs we’re just surfing a system that evolution created. Training, from our dogs’ perspective, is just learning. They like it, we like it, it’s enriching, and if done well and thoughtfully, it makes our dogs’ lives better…to say nothing of our own lives. A truly sad situation is a dog who isn’t getting the feedback they need (environmental or human-orchestrated, they don’t care) to live the most fulfilled and comfortable life they can. This is what happens to many dogs who don’t get training to change their house-training habits or their recalls or their jumping up.

Training, that is, learning, isn’t unnatural. A life without learning, without challenge, and without change would be the truly unnatural thing.

Kristi Benson Comment