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Mar 23 2012

Guest Post: Skeptical dog training

The following is a guest post by Julie Lada, a veterinary student and skeptic who blogs at My DVM Vacation.

Dog training is a hot button issue right now. Dozens of TV, magazine and book personalities are dying to tell you the best way to get your dog to stop jumping up on your guests or going through your trash. In some ways, that is a great thing. Traditionally, dog training consisted of a rolled up newspaper. Getting the issue of dog behavior and training into the public awareness is a huge step for behaviorists and people who are passionate about pet welfare. However, as usual, anytime a topic becomes popular and a profit can be made off of claiming to be an expert, you get bad ideas and bad information being promoted just as heavily as the good. Television shows in particular focus on which host is the most charismatic rather than the most knowledgeable or accurate.

Part of the challenge for me personally, being a vet student and passionate animal behavior geek as well as a skeptic, is the pervasiveness of bad ideas in my field of study. From acupuncture and homeopathy being commonly accepted practices within veterinary medicine to witnessing a colleague perform an “alpha roll” right in front of me, it’s a daily struggle to balance my desire to address these issues with the need to still maintain good relationships and not become known as the token naysayer.

Dog training is one of those topics that must be handled with a delicate touch. A method isn’t purely a method anymore when you’re talking about its application toward an animal that a person feels a strong emotional connection with. The method becomes the person employing it, and its effectiveness becomes intrinsically tied to their value as a pet owner. Like it or not, as any trainer or behaviorist will tell you, the moment you say something like, “Dominance-based training is not as effective as we previously thought and can actually have detrimental effects on an animal” it becomes translated by the person you’re talking to as, “You’re a bad owner and you abuse your dog.”

The problem with any topic in medicine is that bad arguments can be made to sound very persuasive and convincing by using the lingo. The argument behind dominance-based training methods is an excellent example of this (BARF diets are another good example). Advocates such as Cesar Millan point to wolf pack hierarchy models as an example of “natural” applications of dominance-based behavioral conditioning. They tell dog owners to be their dog’s “alpha” by using techniques employed by wolves such as throat holds and alpha rolls. They also attempt to shame owners by telling them that disobedience is a form of dominance which proves that their dog doesn’t respect their status as “pack leader.” The appeal to nature fallacy is something we skeptics are well aware of but it is unfortunately remarkably persuasive with the general public.

A huge, glaring problem with the dominance hierarchy argument is that it makes the assumption that behavior models which we have obtained based on the study of captive wolf packs are reflective of natural behavior in the wild. This is patently false. Firstly, the dominance-based hierarchy suggested by Millan only occurs in captive wolf packs. Wolf packs in the wild consist of genetically related members with the breeding pair being the “alphas.” The frequent displays of aggression and dominance seen in captivity do not occur in a natural setting. Secondly, feral dog “packs” – the aggregates formed by stray dogs – do not display this hierarchy model, so even if it were true of wolves in the wild this model does not appear applicable for domestic canines. (Mech, 1999; Taylor & Francis, 2004)

And then there’s the problem with the word “dominance” itself. Common usage would lead most people to believe that dominance is a personality trait; something a dog just is. A common thing we hear from our clients is, “She’s just so dominant!” Or claim that their dog is trying to be dominant over them. Dominance has a very specific meaning within the context of animal behavior and it isn’t something an animal just is. This is a common misunderstanding and something I’ve even seen my colleagues use. Dr. Sophia Yin, a DVM with a Master’s in animal behavior and a widely renowned expert in dog behavior does a pretty good job of summing it up here. She has written extensively on the topics of dominance, aggression and training and I highly encourage anyone with a dog to spend several hours reading her articles. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior reinforces Dr. Yin’s position with their official statement on dominance theory:

“Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993)… In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify, such as excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been trained instead.”

But beyond the implausibility of the theory behind the use of dominance and physically aversive stimuli in dog training, as well as the misuse of the term “dominance”, there is the added factor that it just doesn’t have a wide range of practical use. Meaning in the majority of cases, it doesn’t work. Several recent studies have confirmed that dominance/positive punishment training methods have a number of negative effects on dogs (including physical injury and death in cases of choke chains and prong collars being used incorrectly) and can actually impair learning ability. These methods also cause fear and escalate aggression in terms of frequency, magnitude and situational aggression – meaning a dog that wasn’t previously aggressive becomes aggressive, or a conditionally aggressive dog begins to display aggression in situations where it previously did not (Husson et al, 2009; Hiby et al, 2004; AVSAB, 2008). This is particularly worrisome for vets and shelter workers. An owner employing dominance-based techniques toward their dog who is aggressive toward other dogs can actually cause that dog to not only be more aggressive toward other dogs, due to the added negative association with pain and fear, but also cause the dog to redirect its aggression toward its owner. In which case the problem goes from being something that could possibly be solved via proper training to what is a probable euthanasia case.

Positive reinforcement techniques such as clicker training are gaining in momentum, and it’s got behaviorists cheering in the streets (or rather, their offices). These techniques avoid the negative associations with pain and fear seen with dominance-based techniques and thus the ramping-up effect on aggression.

Finally, I know that this is a contentious topic and no doubt the comments will be full of anecdotes from those who have used Cesar Millan’s or other dominance-based techniques successfully. A few words on that.

First of all, there are always outliers. I saw something recently that I quite liked and determined to borrow that said that between 80-90% of smokers will develop lung cancer, which means that 10-20 out of every 100 smokers will not develop lung cancer. So you will often hear claims such as, “My father smoked two packs a day for forty years and died in his sleep at 85 years old!” And while true, it does not disprove the fact that overall smoking is highly associated with lung cancer.

Also consider that the effect of fear on the cessation of all forms of behavior is fairly well documented. Simply put, a fearful animal will stop doing anything, including what you wanted them to stop doing. A dog that is fearful of inviting a painful stimulus can appear to an owner to be “cured” of the unwanted behavior. In fact, the underlying issue of why this dog was exhibiting the unwanted behavior is still unaddressed. A dog that is fear aggressive toward strangers, for example, is still terrified of strangers but simply stops reacting. Don’t confuse this with being a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog. An animal that has stopping displaying observable fear signals is still fearful, and the use of punishment can contribute to a more unpredictable animal that will give no warning before attacking (AVSAB, 2007)

Just to sum things up on a personal note… A couple of years ago while in undergrad, I was finishing up a meeting with my animal behavior professor and Millan’s name came up. He told me, “You know, every conference I go to, at some point we behavior types get together for drinks and he always comes up. We take turns bashing him over martinis.” So the next time you’re tempted to watch his show or buy one of his books, do so knowing that Millan is the Ray Comfort of the canine behavior world. And dominance theory is the Crocoduck.

54 comments

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  1. 1
    Brice Gilbert

    Right up my alley. My father has been really into this the past couple years. He’s probably too far gone, but i’ll look into some of these studies and perhaps bring them up from time to time.

  2. 2
    Lindsay

    Yay! So glad to see skepticism turn its eye on dog training. So much bunk out there touted as science, and only science is. Positive reinforcement all the way!

  3. 3
    RedSonja

    Thank you! Want to train your dog/cat/family member effectively? Start with Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor.

  4. 4
    denaturesd

    Thanks for the post. I’m always on the lookout for information like this related to dog training and diet. The cancer factoid is likely misworded. No where near 90% of smokers get lung cancer. It probably comes from 80-90% of lung cancer cases involving people who smoked, which is not the same thing.

  5. 5
    MWM

    THANK YOU!

    I have not watched Cesar Milan. Most of my dog experience has been formed by actual experience (I speak dog) and from Temple Grandin’s books on animal behavior.

    I will definitely look into your sources for more information. I plan to get a dog at the end of the summer and this article has both validated a lot of my views on dog training and given me loads more to think about.

    w00t!

  6. 6
    julielada

    Yeah, I thought the figure seemed off. But between studying for two midterms and typing this monster up, I was too exhausted to go digging for the correct stats. The overall point remains the same, regardless, I think.

  7. 7
    Jenn

    Thank you for this! I got a dog from an animal rescue about a year ago and a training class was included in the adoption fee. I went to the first class and it was all dominance based. Something about it just didn’t feel right to me. I never went back to the class and after reading this, I’m really glad I didn’t.

  8. 8
    Rumtopf

    Awesome read, I totally agree. I used to hang out on LJ pet communities (including one for stupid pet owners) and every time caeser or dominance came up I groaned. I saw it a lot working as a vet nurse, usually when we had to take the dog into another room to sort it out >:C
    As for diets, that is something I wish I(and vets) knew more about. Just saying “commercial is better than raw” doesn’t say much to me, when you have some kibbles made mostly out of grains and the only meat listed as “by products” 5 ingredients down the list, compared to the “premium” grain-free 80% named meat and fish products 20% fruit and veg type kibbles(like Orijen, which is what we feed). I asked vets about it and they tried to push Science Diet on me, but couldn’t tell me WHY.

  9. 9
    Anna

    I’d be really curious to hear more about skeptical animal training as it applies to cats. I have a friend whose cat freaks out and attacks her seemingly at random, but he was a total sweetie when he stayed with me for a week (didn’t like my dog much, but just followed her around and watched her, never attacking). I’d love to give her some fact based training possibilities, especially since she doesn’t think there is anything she can do anymore and is considering handing the poor guy off to me (he was a shelter cat, too :( ) when it’s possible.

  10. 10
    Chris Lawson

    Julie, what I think you’re remembering is the statistic that 80% of lung cancers occur in smokers, and 20% in non-smokers. The statistic you are after is the lifetime risk of lung cancer in smokers, and a quick and dirty search led me to this actuarial paper which estimates the risk at 17.2% for males and 11.6% for female current smokers. (To compare, the rate is about 1.3% in those who have never smoked regularly.) Your argument is still sound, you just hung it on the wrong statistic.

    Forgive me for using this as a launching pad for a statistical exercise that’s off-topic, but I can’t resist these two interesting implications.

    1. The relative risk of lung cancer among smokers is enormous. The relative risk of heart disease is much more modest. But because the population risk of heart disease is much higher than lung cancer, more smokers die of smoking-related heart disease than smoking-related lung cancer.

    2. As smoking rates decline in much of the Western world, we are going to see the fewer smoking-related lung cancers. This means that that statistic of 80% of lung cancers being in smokers is going to fall, and conversely, the percentage of lung cancers in non-smokers is going to increase — even if there is no actual increase in risk to non-smokers. This counter-intuitive finding is much loved by anti-vaccination fools who like to point out that for some childhood infections more vaccinated children catch it than unvaccinated — forgetting that in most parts of the West vaccination rates are over 90%, so a disease has to be >10x more infectious to unvaccinated children for the rates to be equal.

  11. 11
    bean

    In Canada we have Brad Pattison. He teaches a version of dominance training that relies more on effective communication with the dog than on physical dominance displays. I think it looks pretty sound for the most part. His own dogs s,eem to be happy calm and well-educated. He does things like a no-talking rule during initial training to avoid inadvertently reinforcing and confusing the dog. He also does an umbilical training to help ‘ADD’ dogs learn the importance of paying attention to their owners. He promotes physical activity as a way to bond, enhance the dog’s skills and intellect, and to keep the dog stimulated. All around, the psychology of his methods is decent.

  12. 12
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    Anna – I doubt it’s at random, but it’s something she’s unaware of doing.

    We had a cat that “seemingly at random” would attack my mom’s feet. It turned out that it was only when she was wearing a pair of tennis socks with the little fuzzy balls that keep the sock from slipping. She stopped wearing the socks.

    How does she play with him? Using a “teaser” is bad, because it encourages slashing at something in the owner’s moving hands. Many cats will start to bypass the toy and go right for the hands.

  13. 13
    julielada

    I got sucked into the whole raw thing a few years ago, as well. I was beginning to become more skeptical when I realized that a lot of the arguments I was seeing and using in favor of raw were very woocentric and similar to the antivaxxer arguments. Big Pharma = the “big food companies like Hill’s.” Natural immunity = “They’re carnivores, they should eat MEAT!” Etc.

    There actually is a fair bit of research out there that would urge caution regarding BARF diets. The vast majority of all foreign bodies pulled from an exploratory surgery are bones, the risk of salmonellosis in raw-feeding owners is much higher, and in particular the whole “dogs/cats can’t digest grains” thing has been proven false by ileal cannulation digesta analysis studies.

    I’d ask you to head over to Skeptvet for a more detailed look as well as ask yourself a couple of questions. Why are grains bad? Why are meat by-products bad? And be really, brutally honest about what sources you’re using to answer those questions.

  14. 14
    notscarlettohara

    Fellow vet student weighing in here, and my experience with the whole food question is that, when talking in general about all dogs, there is no “best” food. Just get all your nutrients and don’t let ‘em get fat – after that it’s personal preference combined with your individual dog’s needs. If your dog’s allergic to grain, yeah, a mostly grain food would be a really poor choice. But if your dog handles it just fine and you’re on a budget, then why not? Maybe a high-quality almost entirely meat food tastes better, so if you have a picky eater, go with that. Or if you just want him to have the good stuff and can afford it, that’s fine too. I tend to prefer companies like Purina and Science Diet, but more because they sponsor a great deal of research and charity work than because their food’s any better. (But my dogs apparently think Science Diet is gross and won’t eat it, so there you go.)

    Most vets discourage raw and homemade diets more because it’s really difficult to do them properly, rather than because there’s anything inherently “bad” about them. It requires a lot of fairly esoteric calculations and adding appropriate supplements, and is best done with supervision of a nutritionist. And raw diets have the added risk of food-borne illness, more for people than for dogs (i.e. not cleaning up the kitchen properly after preparation, then making your own dinner). And it’s expensive, and time-consuming. And for the people going on about how “natural” it is… you should really be feeding them intestines and rumen contents. That’s actually the most nutritious part, and what the wild animals go for first.

    Cat food’s a whole different ball game, along the lines of maybe eating canned food causes kidney failure, and maybe it prevents it, with just a little bit of research supporting both sides. So I’ll withhold judgment until more work’s been done.

  15. 15
    notscarlettohara

    …And totally didn’t see Julie’s comment first. What she said, too.

  16. 16
    julielada

    Anna, if you refer back to up to the blurb I posted from the ASVAB, most undesirable behaviors in our pets are actually things that we have unintentionally rewarded. The classic example is dogs jumping up on us when we come home. To us, shouting, “No! Stop! Get down!” and pushing them away with our hands is a clear message, but to them it’s simply attention and we actually end up reinforcing the behavior.

    I suspect what has likely happened with your friend is that the first time her cat “attacked” her she somehow wound up doing something that reinforced it. I know it’s a struggle for me when I take in new foster kittens, because inevitably they all want to attack my legs and feet under the covers at night. I have to lay there not moving or making a peep while they chomp on my toes or their claws dig into my skin because if I move it becomes a game and I actually reinforce the behavior as play. Eventually, if I tough it out, they get bored and stop.

    I would tell your friend to try and discern a pattern in the random attacks and to avoid situations where they happen. Also to stand completely still when they do happen if she can and not give the cat any indication that she is playing back.

  17. 17
    julielada

    Going to echo what notscarlett said regarding why we recommend Science Diet. The Hill’s company goes above and beyond in terms of the amount and quality of research that they do into their food. They have multi-year long studies which they are in no way required to do and establishes a much more sound basis for how an animal will do long term on one of their diets than the AAFCO trials.

    Regarding what wild canids go for first, I think it’s the opposite. Common knowledge suggests that these are what wild canids consume to get “pre-digested” plant nutrients, but actually the intestines and stomach contents are avoided. David Mech, who I cited above, has written on the topic of observing wolves take the stomach of a large herbivore and shake it violently and stomp on it to remove as much of the contents as possible before eating it. I believe what is actually the choice delicacies are things like the liver, which is incredibly nutrient dense, and the kidneys and brain, which are incredibly energy dense (fatty).

  18. 18
    Annaj

    Thank you! Haha, I included the ‘seemingly’ because I know something is provoking this behavior, we just haven’t figured out what. She does use teasers, so I’m passing that along ASAP.

  19. 19
    Annaj

    Thanks so much for your time and advice. I’ve passed it along, and unfortunately it doesn’t sound like she’ll do it (believe it or not, her boyfriend is telling her that it’s mumbo jumbo). But At least I’m thinking I should make more effort to arrange things to take the fellow in. :(

  20. 20
    julielada

    So the boyfriend things that the official position of the largest veterinary behavior association is bunk, but his insight is, what? That the cat is just vicious?

    I forgot to tell you to have her reward the behavior that she DOES want. So when the cat is being calm, give him lots of attention (if he likes being petted, etc.) or treats (again, if he’s a food-motivated cat). But honestly, it sounds like you’re going to wind up taking him in, and that’s probably in his best interests. Unfortunately from your description whatever pet they get to replace him will likely wind up with behavior problems as well.

  21. 21
    Zenjack

    Yep my dogs are so scared of their prong collars that they just pretend to get excited when we go for walks. There is very much two modes of thought to this and the posters bias is as deep as anyone on the other side of the fence. Proper training depends methods depend greatly on the animal in question. The sooner we learn this the better off we’ll be.

  22. 22
    MrPopularSentiment

    My take-away is: “Don’t be a douche… even to dogs.”

  23. 23
    Fundog

    We from the Duck Company ™ , advise Duck !

  24. 24
    Sili

    Any recommendations on how to make cats get along?

    The stray I took in more than a year ago, still doesn’t get along too well with the cat I had already. And subsequently the ‘old’ cat doesn’t trust the new one, so now he’s making sure to get in his licks beforehand.

  25. 25
    julielada

    Unfortunately, that’s really not my forte. I’d advise you to look into Sophia Yin and see if she’s got anything to say, or maybe ask your vet for a recommendation for a behaviorist who specializes in cats.

    The only thing I can think of is to reward any positive interactions between the two. It really works well if your cats are food motivated. My cat loves Greenies, for example. Anytime they’re close to one another without any growling, hissing or physical altercations, reward with treats or affection. I’ve also found laser pointers to be a good bonding tool because while they’re chasing the OMFG RED DOT OF AWESOME they forget that they hate each other.

  26. 26
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    I inadvertently trained one cat to attack another one. If they were on a dispute, I would pick up the male and pet him to calm him down.

    The BF noticed it and commented, “You are rewarding him for being aggressive.” DUH!!!! I started picking him up and dropping him in the bathroom for a time out and he stopped picking fights.

    Exactly what does your friend count as an “attack”? It might be perfectly normal cat behavior that she is interpreting wrong.

  27. 27
    ttch

    Regarding dog training, a lot of dogs either can’t hear or can’t make sense of what they do hear because of an auditory processing disorder. In the latter case a clicker or a whistle can get their attention but words and calls mean nothing. Either way, teaching using hand signals can make the difference. See one woman’s account:

    My Dog Probably Isn’t as Stupid as I Think

  28. 28
    julielada

    Totally. I use both a hand signal and a command for everything. Usually all I have to do is lift my hand and their butt is already heading for the floor.

  29. 29
    Anna

    Unfortunately, the boyfriend thinks that swatting at him is working. :( I tried to explain that the cat probably sees this as playing with him if it isn’t hurting him and if it IS hurting him, besides being a terrible thing to do to an animal, his behavior will likely only become more unpredictable because he’ll be afraid. But she’s been settling more and more into the idea that you can’t teach cats (even though she herself taught this very cat to come when a kissing sound is made by rewarding him with treats).

    The boyfriend also has his own cat and touts her as a darling. The two (humans, though the cats too) have also recently moved in together. The whole situation would be comicly like a bad step-family situation if it didn’t involve living beings, which is why I want to take him in. I really need to convince my allergic mother and my couch-obsessed father. :(

  30. 30
    Anna

    He jumps on her while she’s doing stuff (the latest one I heard about was while she was on the computer) and claws and/or bites her, particularly around the shoulders.

  31. 31
    Rumtopf

    Thanks for the info! I did go and have a read of the BARK diet link in the OP. I’ve not really ever been swayed by the raw diets, exactly for the reason that I never saw any real research and they come with risks(and the cost and inconvenience). I’m more interested in comparing kibble qualities.

    My understanding of the grains thing wasn’t that dogs and cats couldn’t digest them(I didn’t know that was a claim, lol), it was high carbohydrate content which apparently can cause problems with weight control or issues like diabetes(similar to humans living on mostly starchy foods)so a pet food with more protein(meat-based is stressed, not sure about this either) and less carbohydrates was better. I have also read that high carb content foods can cause severe illness in ferrets here, but ferrets are a bit different with their silly short gastrointestinal tracts. Our ferrets get orijen cat kibble and frozen thawed day old chicks, mice, quails etc a couple times a week. I readily admit to not being great at working out which sources are bunk, though I now note that this one links to BARFdiet sites but no studies, so weh. I’ll definitely have a better, more honest look at these claims, for sure, so thank you again. Sh** just got real.

  32. 32
    Rumtopf

    BARK diets? Now those sound legit!

  33. 33
    Rumtopf

    Thank you for your input. That’s generally how I see dog diets at the end of the day, if it works and the dog is healthy, you’re alright. Heck, there are some dogs that couldn’t tolerate a long term high meat content diet. The hortaya borzaya aka short haired borzois come to mind, as the dogs were fed table scraps and grain gruels by their breeders since the breed’s development(interesting evolution-wise methinks c:).

    I know our 8 year old GSD wouldn’t touch science diet. I got given a returned bag of it at work a couple years back and she seemed utterly offended at the sight of it, lol. Luckily, the staffy wotsit eats anything so it didn’t go to waste. They have probably updated the recipe by now. They both get excited over the Orijen like I’m giving them a bowlful of treats, so that’s a good sign. We rotate the flavours and the food’s pretty cost effective(13kg lasts 6+ weeks). Both dogs had noticeably improved coats and lost that “dog” smell after switching and… uh, a bit creepy-dog-person TMI but their poop is the best thing ever. Solid, small, doesn’t smell much and they don’t poop so much compared to the James Wellbeloved(Iams quality for comparison) they were fed before.

    The closest we get to raw diets is with our ferrets, ignoring the odd chicken wing or turkey neck the dogs get on special occasions. Their base food is orijen cat kibble and the raw stuff is whole carcass, fur/feathers and all, fed twice a week. It’s generally understood that ferrets dietary requirements are similar to cats but need more protein and fat, every ferret keeper I’ve met here in the UK feeds raw carcass(especially the ones that are used for rabbit ferreting). As I wrote above, I’m looking into all this again.

  34. 34
    Rumtopf

    I accidentally taught our dogs hand signals by unconsciously doing them alongside vocal commands. Seriously handy at night when you need them to do stuff without waking everybody up.
    Also, I keep hearing that dogs will look at your hand when you point, rather than the direction you point in, but our smarter dog will look to/go to where I’m pointing while I’m looking at her. Is she awesome, do we underestimate dog intelligence(or perhaps I’m giving her another cue without knowing it, but that’s still cool I guess :Y)?

  35. 35
    MrPopularSentiment

    @Anna – This is what pisses me off so much, as a cat person. It seems to just be in the public consciousness that cats are mean-spirited, untrainable, aloof, etc. But these are all symptoms of a cat being subjected to bad parenting! When a cat is being properly socialized and taken care of, they are extremely friendly and affectionate, and they do respond to requests. I’ve had cats all my life, most of them adopted from farms or shelters, some taken from people who swore up and down that the cat was just “evil” and couldn’t be lived with. Every single one of them has turned into an affectionate companion in just a few weeks.

    Cats want to love and be loved. They do not want to be dominated or “shown who’s boss.” Act like a jerk and they will act like jerks back.

  36. 36
    julielada

    Actually, from what I’ve read, intelligence has little to do with it. I don’t want to go digging for the study at the moment, but I remember reading about one where they took chimps and dogs and tried an experiment where they hid a treat and then pointed at where it was. The dogs figured it out, but the much more intelligent chimps didn’t. They theorized that it was because dogs have spent such a large part of their social evolution with us that they actually do know what a lot of our behavioral cues mean.

  37. 37
    julielada

    Again, the focus on ingredients vs. nutrients is misleading and it’s why I said that BARF and other nutrition info on the web can sound very convincing. If the carbohydrate, protein and fat content is the same, regardless of their source, it won’t matter. It’s the calories and the amount being fed that makes the biggest difference.

    That isn’t to say that the form of the food doesn’t matter at all. For instance, renal disease and dehydration have been linked in a few studies to dry cat food.

  38. 38
    Texas Aggie

    Thanks for the article with citations. We have seven dogs that all came off the street, and my wife thinks what’s his face is god. I can assure you that dominance doesn’t work half as well as petting when they’re good and a yoghurt container of water thrown at them when they aren’t.

    How do you use positive reinforcement to stop a dog from barking at everything that moves including the dogs two blocks away barking at who knows what? Barking itself is a rewarding behavior that makes the dog feel good so how do you extinguish it?

  39. 39
    Texas Aggie

    I read the same study and it does NOT apply to any dog I’ve ever known. You point at food on the floor and they look at either your face or your hand. You have to grab their head, point it in the right direction and then they’ll see it and go for it.

  40. 40
    julielada

    Actually the water container thing is an aversive stimulus, and would fall under the heading of positive punishment.

    The only way I’ve heard of to get a dog to stop barking when you don’t want them to is to reward them for barking when you do. i.e. Teaching them how to “speak.” You start off by using the “speak” command each time they bark and reward it with a treat. This seems REALLY counter intuitive, but if you follow through it does end up working most of the time. If you slack off and don’t see it through, though, you just rewarded your dog for barking at the neighbor’s dog and it’ll be twice as hard to break the behavior.

    After you’ve established a link between the “speak” command and the act of barking, you stop giving treats for inappropriate barking. Usually the dog will turn to look at you and they’ll quickly realize that this barking isn’t being rewarded. Once they calm down, take them into another room and go through the “speak” command a couple of times with treats.

    Usually they’ll figure out relatively soon that barking only gets rewarded when accompanied by the command.

  41. 41
    julielada

    Btw, the key to this is that you never, ever reward inappropriate barking. Not by looking at them, talking to them or touching them. Remember, dogs are kind of like eternal 3-year-olds. ANY attention is good attention.

  42. 42
    Eric O

    I don’t own a dog and I probably never will due to allergies, but I found this article fascinating. I always just accepted the idea of dominance training without question, mainly because I never heard anyone argue against it.

    Thanks for writing this. It was a big eye-opener.

  43. 43
    Gus Snarp

    Great guest post. I think pet care and training may be one of the strongest hold outs of unskeptical thinking. Mainly because, like with parents and children, it is deeply, deeply personal, and anytime you give even the slightest hint that anyone is doing it wrong, no matter how mild you mean it, no matter how much you are trying to focus on a tiny specific, they feel like they’ve been told they’re a bad parent.

    I find it interesting that there’s someone out there who hates every possible training method, you can always find someone to tell you whatever you are doing is wrong. It’s unlikely that most people who teach dog training are going to be up to date on the science. Luckily I took my dog to a local training club, where everyone was really interested in learning the best ways to train. Even there, there are multiple opinions, and some people into dominance type training. They also host classes from outside the club on all sorts of things, so I think the core club members are really learning a lot. The main focus of the classes was on rewarding positive behavior and not giving attention for unwanted behavior, on having fun and the dog having fun, and never on hurting the dog. So all in all, it was pretty good.

  44. 44
    Gus Snarp

    I wonder if my dog has trouble hearing commands. He can hear very well, the slightest sound of the treat container and he comes running, and that’s translated pretty well to coming when called. But he doesn’t seem to differentiate between “sit” and “down”. “Down” took forever to train. Working with both hand signal and verbal was the key. He doesn’t always get the verbal command, but when he sees the hand signal he knows the difference and responds immediately.

  45. 45
    Gus Snarp

    I have a friend whose cat goes totally nuts when you pet her, she starts out acting like she wants to be petted, but will quickly turn to hissing, biting, and scratching. Especially if you pet her anywhere behind her head. Turns out her husband would play with the cat and tease it all time in a way that really encouraged this behavior. The husband’s gone, but the cat still seems, to a human, like she’s possessed. I have one cat that’s terrified of humans, including me, which bugs me because she’s never been given a reason to be afraid, and she used to not be. I think it’s just that our multi-humnan, multi-cat house stresses her out. There was also an emergency vet visit that I think started the whole thing.

    But cat’s are more tractable than many people think. Mine mostly come when called, though I don’t really work with them much any more so they’re not that good at it. Even the scaredy cat used to come when called. It’s all about figuring out what motivates them. She’s food motivated and we found a treat she went nuts for. Another one the motivation was brushing, she comes when called, but responds best to the sound of flicking brush bristles.

  46. 46
    Icaarus

    Thanks for the info, Some day I will get a big dog, and now I know that I need to do a lot more research first.

  47. 47
    julielada

    Beware the sheer amount of bullshit on the web regarding large breeds and calcium. You’ll find a lot of websites that claim that you have to supplement large breed puppies with extra calcium to support their extreme growth needs. It’s bunk, and actually supplementing too much calcium can cause bone proliferation problems. You’ll also come across claims that you have to feed an adult dog food to slow down their growth to prevent abnormalities. This is slightly closer to the truth, because excessive caloric intake is actually what can cause growth abnormalities. However, feeding an appropriate large breed-specific puppy food is a lot healthier.

  48. 48
    Amoeba

    I’ve heard from the pet forum I visit that a good method to train a cat to not bite you is to give a small high-pitched yelp when they do, simulating an “ow quit that hurts” cry from a littermate. I’ve employed this tactic with both my cats (yelping, but not pulling away so they don’t register it as play) and they are both very good about never biting.

    But that’s anecdotal with a small sample size. Any thoughts?

    By the by, I can confirm that clicker training is great for cats. Mine can stand up, spin around, and high-five.

  49. 49
    julielada

    I have heard of that, but I’ve never tried it myself and I haven’t seen any data on it, so… Try it out and see?

  50. 50
    Caron Laukitis

    Thanks for the great dog training tips :), I’ve been trying to teach things to my dog for quite a while now but I was unsuccessful. Ill be sure to try some of your tips.

  51. 51
    Allan Wilder

    It’s always best to be your dog’s best friend, not just their “owner”.

    I’ve recently began seriously researching how to best train dogs, and am currently learning how to breed them.

    I’m a busy guy, so I was looking for a website that could teach me how to breed dogs part-time so that I could earn some extra money. This is what I found.

    http://www.ehowtobreeddogs.com/

    You’d be surprised at how much bad information about raising puppies and breeding dogs that there is on the Internet. This website showed me all the right steps on how to breed dogs, helping me avoid the misleading information from other aspiring dog breeders.

  52. 52
    julielada

    I know this is a couple of weeks old, but if you ever have any questions on how to train specific behaviors feel free to get ahold of me at my blog.

  53. 53
    Franklin Tribeska

    I think the complete dismissal of Millans skills is downright ignorant, non-skeptical and non-scientific. Why would I state that? In my mind it partly comes down to operational definitions. When I say that, I absolutely mean that somebunall academics assume that everybody else have and employs the same vocabulary as themselves – and assign the same meaning to words. Have a look at his show….again. Mute the audio if you have to (so your not exposed to him saying “dominance” etc etc etc.) Behavioural analysts that dont find a wide varity of behavioural approaches in millans material should imho seriously reflect on whether they should even comment on any form of dog training… as experts on behaviour. I am not going to go into whether Millan should employ a different vocabulary or explanations for what he does… and from whatever place it comes from, what Millan actually does should count more than what we attribute him. Furthermore, the case examples we are shown on his show, not only exemplifies dogs with behaviour issues, it just as much shows the downright ignorance and lack of knowledge among our population of dog owners..

    Millan has some serious skills (yes I could have written that more elegantly, but this is a blog comment, not a proposal for behavioural brain) when it comes to aggressive (and yes potentially dangerous) canines (as does a whole variety of different dog trainers and handlers) I double dare you to brush that of as anecdotal on the basis that they do not employ the “proper” approach.

    And..as for anecdotes… the summing up on a personal note at the end of your post counts as what…?

  54. 54
    Dan

    Training should be about rewards and discipline with dogs not punishments. While it’s best to prevent bad behavior to start with, if your pet is misbehaving, make sure he does it right the second time.

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