Cause I said so!

2 black dogs holding the same frisbeeOne of my favorite podcasts is the Brain Science Podcast hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell an emergency room doctor in Alabama. Described as the show for ‘everyone with a brain’, Dr. Campbell interviews authors of books on neuroscience. Of special interest to me was her interview of Jaak Panksepp on affective neuroscience. Dog lovers will appreciate her interview with Kyla Duffy of Happy Tails Books, in her other podcast, Books & Ideas. Kyla is a circus arts performer who takes her high flying act on the road to raise awareness and money for animal rescue, as well as publishing books with stories about rescued dogs.

The latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 70) is an interview with Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. The conversation focused on the fact that scientific reasoning and critical thinking do NOT come naturally. Instead, we all tend to make similar errors, such as mistaking correlation for causation.

Those of working with dogs would do well to make note of this tendency since it happens all the time when we are trying to change behaviors in dogs, as well as trying to figure out why something is successful, or not. I am reminded of a comment made by John Rogerson, a well known trainer from the U.K., who said, “We have all the theories, dogs have all the facts.”

When we are able to stop or change a behavior, it is easy to assume that whatever we did, just prior to the change is responsible for it. However dogs often learn despite what we do, not because of what we do. For example, the unfortunate practice of ‘dominating’ a dog with the use of physical force, is often heralded for producing miraculous changes in a dog’s behavior because of its relation to how wolves and dogs communicate within their own social groups. Yet when we look at the research that has been done, we find that the norm for dogs and wolves is not a social hierarchy maintained through the use of force or aggression. This is not to say that they don’t behave aggressively or that fights over resources do not occur, but that social order is, for the most part, maintained through social conduct which is cooperative rather than competitive.

When we assume that a dog changes their behavior to suit our preference because in the course of ‘dominating’ them we have gained their respect as leader of the pack, we need to consider that what we might have accomplished instead was to have caused the dog to fear us. While fear of retribution or punishment is a popular way of maintaining social order, governments and gangs use it quite effectively, is it really the relationship we want to have with our dogs? Dr. Robert Zapolsky documents how living with constant stress contributes to illness, and that stress can be psychological, as well as physical. The threat of punishment, especially if it is used routinely to manage or control behavior can add to the stress a dog is already experiencing.

We’d expect a chuckle if we were to claim that our dog’s ability to perform well on an agility course was due to the ‘lucky’ red undies we were wearing. Yet again and again we hear theories on why dogs perform behaviors, theories which have no basis in fact. While there are vast areas of animal behavior that we do not have science-based research on, there are many areas in which we do.

While this is not a call for solely using rigid science-based techniques when training dogs, it should be a reminder that interacting with our dogs in ways that we perceive to be the same as the ways they communicate with each other, may not work for the reasons we think they do. Wearing our lucky red undies when training may be the safer bet.


18 comments so far

  1. Kenzo_HW on

    Great post, which gives a lot of food for thought. Actually it is unbelievable that dogs are still around us, despite all our “behavior experiments”. How resilient they are! Wonder who is teaching who here. We humans (and our science) should start listening.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are so right about dogs being incredibly resilient. Amazing to me that they are able to live in so many different environments and with so many different types of people.

  2. George on

    So now I’m off to the store to buy some red underlovelies, only to be worn when training.

    Why do humans feel the need to force our will on animals, is it because of ego? My guess is that’s a lot of the reasoning.

    I watched a woman working with her standard poodle the other evening trying to have the poodle sit, stay on their way walking to the neighborhood dog park where the poodle gets to run, play and chase balls, great fun for the poodle. This poodle would sit, stay until the woman went more than 15 feet from him. When she pasted the 15 feet mark the poodle would get up and start walking towards the woman, who would head back to the dog, make him sit then crack him on the muzzle. Over and over this went on, she didn’t have a clue what this nice dog was telling her, something along the lines of “don’t leave me, I want to go with you.” Therefore this dog put up with getting cracked on the muzzle just to be with her.

    I’ll just bet dogs think humans are stupid, because they are trying to communicate with us like they do with one another and we just don’t take the time to understand.

    Great post, thanks

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks George. Ugh what a story. This is not unusual, especially when people usually call their dogs to them at the end of the ‘stay’. What a trainer would have understood was that the dog had a really good stay until the handler went past 14 feet! We’d reward and build from there.

      Poodles are notoriously clever dogs. Unfortunately this poor dog was not having it made easy for him to figure out what was wanted.

  3. Ginger Campbell, MD on

    Thanks again for sharing my podcasts with your readers, but I should mention that I live in Alabama NOT Georgia.

    With regards to my interview with Dr. Jaak Panksepp: reading his work and talking with him has given me a new perspective on my own dogs’ behavior. As mammals they are wired to need and thrive with physical contact and affection. I can especially see this in the behavior of my rescued German Shepherd Jake, who I got in January 2009. As he as become confident in his new home he has become increasingly affectionate and often seeks my touch. People who work with rescued or other dogs with fear issues need to know that if they are patient even the most fearful dogs can return to this natural state.

    The key is patience, patience, and more patience! (which also means remembering to reward interim progress. I bet if the lady with the poodle described above rewarded her dog for staying at 10 feet, etc, she would be more likely to reach her goals than she is by “bopping” him on the nose.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Oops and sorry about the geographical error! Fixed it.

      I also found that my fearful dog Sunny began to enjoy and solicit handling and continues to use it to comfort himself in what I imagine are stressful situations for him.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the this blog post. I always encouraging dog trainers to check out your podcast. The ipod app makes it even easier to enjoy them.

  4. Mary on

    Great post. The Brain Science podcast is one of my favorites as well.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Appreciate it!

  5. Lizzie on

    I so agree with Dr Campbell, patience is the key.

    What is it with all this ‘training’ of our dogs? They have a brain and even a dog as fearful as Gracie knows how to use hers. Why do we have to get them to behave in a way that suits us, who is it for?

    I imagine that what I’m saying may well upset some people, and it is in no way intended to undermine the sterling job that those who know and understand dogs do for them, so I apologise for my outspokenness. But issues that dogs have are just part of it, beneath the behaviours are animals much like ourselves who need nurturing, affection, and above all a relationship with someone they can trust.

    From what I have observed during my life time it is mostly, if not all, down to inhumane treatment of dogs that gives them their ‘issues’ in the first place.

    It’s about time that the focus is on what the dog needs a little bit more, as opposed to what we want or expect from them.

    • fearfuldogs on


    • George on

      I’m a bit upset, not in what you wrote, but that you wrote it so much more eloquently than I. You are, along with others, so right on.

      Amy, on the shy-K-9 blog, replied to a posting, thanking the person for allowing her dog to “Vote” on if he wanted to go for a walk.

      Many years ago(1970 to be exact) I moved next door to a gentleman, Bill, with a dog (Rusty) who never demanded his dog to much of anything, he just talked to him, and asked him to do something or other. To me this pair was amazing, companionship at it’s finest. I truly learned so much from Bill and Rusty in how to communicate with dogs.

      I have just 2 commands with my two dogs that they MUST do for safety reason more than anything else, come and sit, all others are requests which they can vote on. Unless someone is in competition of some sort or other then train away, however if a top notch companion dog is what is wanted, I would like to suggest, ask then listen to your pooch, amazing results will follow.

      • fearfuldogs on

        I enjoyed Amy’s comment as well.

  6. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    That’s what I’ve been doing wrong. No red undies. :o)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Well you definitely need a pair, for training or not!

  7. Jana Rade on

    I’d say that dogs almost ALWAYS learn in spite of what we do! 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true and we are often wrong about what we think we are teaching them!

  8. Deborah Flick on

    Dogs are always learning though not necessarily what we ‘think’ we are teaching. Nice post. And, thanks for turning me on to Brain Science Podcast.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Great minds thinking alike! Enjoy the Brain Science Podcast, one of my favs.

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