Interview with Doggo’s Debby van Dongen

The Hague-based dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele interviews Doggo’s founder, Debby van Dongen. Conducted in January 2016. Published in September 2016

This post is part of a series of interviews of interesting dog professionals. Laure-Anne Visele, dog behaviourist in Den Haag, grills her colleagues from all over the world about their lives behind the scenes.

About Debby van Dongen: dog rights advocate and web entrepreneur

Debby van Dongen is the founder of one of The Netherlands’ most visited dog websites: Doggo.nl. She also organizes seminars by the world’s leading figures in dog behaviour.

Debby lives with her boyfriend Jan-Jaap, their two young children (five and seven) and her twelve-year old rescue dog, Canela.

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Debby and her family hosting the Doggo stand at Animal Event 2014

 

I’d seen a few Doggo articles on dog care and behaviour and was impressed by the balanced views and well-researched contents. In no time, Doggo has become the darling of forward-thinking trainers in The Netherlands, to the point that anyone who is anyone in the Dutch dog world would do well to have an entry in their business directory.

Read on to find out how a graphic design and art graduate turned into one of the Netherlands’ most promiment dog welfare advocates and dog entrepreneurs. Meet Debby van Dongen.

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

On growing a dog business in The Netherlands

LV – How did you start Doggo?

DvD – At first it was just a side project to my day job in web design. I wanted to get my hands dirty on SEO [website writing techniques that promotes search engine ranking] and dogs were my passion so I combined the two and started a directory of dog businesses. That was back in 2008.

LV – How did Doggo become as influential as it is today? Did it happen overnight?

It think it’s because I approached it with passion and integrity. I passionately want dog owners to get responsible, reliable information.

DvD – People do say Doggo is influential, thank you for saying that. But to answer your question: no, it wasn’t overnight. It took a while to climb up the ranks in Google. The scale of it today has taken me by surprise. I never thought it would become so big.

LV – Do you still work on it part-time?

DvD – The balance between web design work and Doggo work has turned on its head: Doggo is now my day job and I take on other design jobs if they seem particularly interesting.

LV – How do you explain Doggo’s huge success?

DvD – It think it’s because I approached it with passion and integrity. I passionately want dog owners to get responsible, reliable information. This drive gives it a more objective feel than a website that is sponsored by, say, a big pet food corporation.

Protecting dog welfare through a business directory

LV – I second you on the factual integrity of Doggo articles. I am also impressed by its uncompromising stance on animal welfare. I screened the Doggo directory for dog training schools near The Hague with a poor animal welfare record and could not find them. How did you manage to sort the wheat from the chaff?

DvD – I consider it Doggo’s raison d’être: a list of responsible companies; companies who treat animals with respect. If I promoted questionable companies I would have failed in that goal. When I get tipped that a school that we list works with choke, prong or e-collars I first validate that information. If it pans out then I’ll take the school out of the directory.

One of Doggo's brilliant mugs advocating for dog welfare

One of Doggo’s brilliant mugs advocating for dog welfare

LV – How do you get tipped?

DvD – We have a link for people to report dubious practices.

LV – Once you decide to remove a school do you tell them they’ve been removed? I imagine that’s a difficult conversation, no?

DvD – We do not tell them. By getting a listing with us, they agree in advance to be removed without notice if a credible source reports that they are not treating animals with respect.

LV – So what happens if the information comes in the form of a bad customer review? That’s not always easy to validate. I guess that makes for tough conversations with the school’s owners, no?

DvD – I do get e-mails from business owners asking me to remove a bad review. Sometimes they say it’s a lie.

LV – The business’ claims are not necessarily outlandish. If someone has a chip on their shoulder, what better way than making up a bad review?

… it’s one person’s word against another’s. The business has two options: either live with the bad review or remove the listing. I am not going to censor reviews.

DvD – That’s true but it’s one person’s word against another’s. The business has two options: either live with the bad review or remove the listing. I am not going to censor reviews.

LV – What about businesses that get overwhelmingly bad reviews. Do you systematically remove them?

DvD – Actually I leave those in together with the bad reviews. It forewarns potential clients. When I read four or five bad reviews for a breeder for example I know to steer clear of them; and so do readers.

LV – Animal neglect and abuse is still committed on a grand scale in the name of training. One of our trainers came back in tears after shadowing another school. They advised the handlers to hang the pups by their choke collar and jerk hard as soon as the pup ‘stepped out of line’.

DvD – These things upset me so much. To think that it still happens here in this day and age… It’s a horrendous thought. This emphasises the reason why I started Doggo.nl in the first place. We’re not there yet. There is still a lot of work need to be done. But spreading the right information is essential.

Dog behaviour and dominance

LV – I know that you are an avid reader of research papers and academic textbooks on dog behaviour. Now that you’ve gathered so much knowledge about dog behaviour do you get wound up when people perceive themselves an expert after watching a few National Geographic documentaries or because they’ve “had a dog all their lives”?

DvD – Oh so much so! I have to bite my tongue when people authoritatively declare their dog dominant for some obscure reason. It really winds me up.

LV – I used to be passionately anti-dominance but the more research papers I read, the more complicated the picture gets for me. Now my take-home message is this: “It’s not complete nonsense academically, but that’s irrelevant to raising your dog.”

DvD – Exactly!

Dog behaviour seminars in The Netherlands

LV – Doggo also organizes seminars from the cream of the cream of dog behaviourists. What seminars do you have up your sleeve right now?

DvD – In 2016, I hosted seminars with Karen Overall, Susan Friedman and Geert De Bolster. And over the next few months: Alexandra Capra in June 2017 and Daniel Mills in September 2017. I’m also working on other events behind the scenes. People are requesting Dutch speakers so I’m working on that as well.

LV – Who is your target audience for the Karen Overall one?

DvD – We planned it for veterinarians. I feel passionately that we need to get vets on board with behaviour. I still hear stories of vets advising you pin a pup to the examination table to make him submissive far too often.

LV – Getting behaviour advice from a non behaviour-trained vet is a recipe for disaster, if you ask me. I welcome any initiative that would help bridge the knowledge gap there. So can non-vets also attend the Overall seminar?

DvD – Yes, behaviour therapists can come too.

LV – You picked just the right speaker for this agenda: Karen Overall spans the veterinary and behaviourist worlds. She takes a very rigorous approach to behaviour, so she won’t generate resistance from the veterinarians who think of behaviour as an unscientific discipline. That, and she will mitigate the perception that abandoning dominance leads to permissiveness.

DvD – Yes, many people think you’re a softie if you are not following the dominance model, so I really hope she gets into that topic.

LV – Her position on dominance crossed over in her 2014 book, actually. So who better to advocate for that change in thinking than her? Tell me about the Geert van Bolster seminar. I heard he was a fantastic instructor for behaviour therapists.

Instead of asking ourselves: “How do I get a dog to do what I want?”, he [Geert de Boolster] wants us to reflect on what the dog wants.

DvD – Geert van Bolster is one of the best trainers I know in the region – in Europe even. He has years of experience so he has also lived through the cross-over from dominance first-hand. He was one of the first to cross over at the time. He is also a proficient clicker trainer. But he is exploring another shift right now. He is questionning the very premises of dog training. Instead of asking ourselves: “How do I get a dog to do what I want?”, he wants us to reflect on what the dog wants.

LV – Choice is very hot on the animal scene right now. At our dog training school in The Hague (OhMyDog), we started to focus on the dog’s autonomy in 2014. It felt so foreign to people a couple of years back. We still get many people wanting nothing but blind obedience out of their dog. Animal autonomy is a tough sell in our industry. Organising seminars by supporters of the idea is definitely going to help spread the word. Hopefully the concept will gain more traction.

DvD – Sabrina Brando wrote a piece on Doggo on this subject, actually. It is an interesting article.

LV – On a related note, what do you think of the late Sophia Yin’s efforts to promote low-stress veterinary procedures? I would love to see more work done on this topic.

DvD – Yes. This is something we want to really focus on over the next few years. Karen Overall has written some protocols about it, and has tackled these during her own seminar too. I am working together with her to see if we can translate these into Dutch.

Articles about dog behaviour

LV – You also regularly publish articles on Doggo. Are there some that are particularly close to your heart, that feel particularly important to you?

DvD – We publish all these articles to promote an idea that will help the welfare of dogs, so it’s really hard to choose [the linked articles are written in Dutch]. I wish every dog owner knew everything that was said in every one of them. take this latest one, for example: 10 myths about dogs that every dog owner should know. It was translated from an article by Muriel Brasseur. I also found this one so important: Dementia in dogs. It will stop people from thinking their dog is peeing inside on purpose, and punishing him for it. It also helps them get the right help and do the right thing for their ageing dog. And then of course there is this one on recognizing when your dog is in pain or suffering.

Unmissable dog pros in Holland

LV – You know the who’s who of the dog welfare scene in The Netherlands. Who are the influential dog professionals you work with? Who are the professionals you’d like everyone to have heard about, like Monique Bladder? I find Monique to be one of the most gifted science communicators we have in the profession.

DvD -I agree! I always find it important to promote her seminars. She does great work in advancing the cause of dogs in The Netherlands.

But there are so many really good people with whom I collaborate. I wouldn’t know how to pick just one or two. There’s Sam Turner, Judith Lissenberg, Geert De Bolster, Sabrina Brando and many more wonderful people out there that work hard and have this incredible passion for dogs and promoting welfare.

Vol I of Sam Turner's and Martine Burger's illustrated series

Vol I of Sam Turner’s and Martine Burger’s illustrated series

Sam Turner and Martine Burgers, for example, have written this three-volume book series. They are maybe a little too technical for some audiences but they are excellent, superbly illustrated. Everyone should have these on their bookshelves if you ask me. They are used in several schools already.

LV – Oh yes, I am reading Sam’s books right now, actually, for my collection of dog book reviews.

The magic wand question

LV – If you had a magic wand and you could use it to convince every dog owner in the world of one thing, what would it be?

DvD – I think it would be that dogs are individuals too. I would love for everyone to be aware that dogs have feelings and emotions; that they can – just like us – be sensitive being. Frans de Waal and Jaak Panksepp say the same thing by the way. People accuse them a lot of anthropomorphism, but they say we share the same roots as animals, so why would you assume we are so radically different from them?

LV – I am all for critical anthropomorphism.

Dog behaviour certifications and degrees

LV – As you write about complex issues of dog behaviour professionally, do you have an academic background or a formal certification on the subject?

DvD – No, I have just had a problem dog and did a lot of digging to help her.

LV – Are you not worried about the pitfalls of doing your own research, particularly considering the internet is such a notoriously unreliable source of information. How do you avoid falling for distortions like bandwagon thinking, motivated thinking and cognitive bias?

DvD –Information about dog behaviour get so distorted. Particularly when the emotions of the author play a role. That is what I strive for with Doggo actually: to give information based on evidence rather than emotions or hearsay.

LV – Hear hear! As an incorrigible scientific sceptic, I am totally behind that. But, not getting your knowledge from a formal academic qualification, how do you know the information you are gleaning is reliable?

0 kp Mug 01

DvD – I get my information from a variety of sources: books, textbooks, research articles, talking to people, attending seminars. Certifications is a tough topic because some of the best trainers I know don’t have formal qualifications.

LV – And being certified doesn’t guarantee you know what you’re talking about. But that piece of paper could improve the standards of dog behaviour professionals, that’s one reason I am behind protecting the profession.

DvD – It can do that, that’s true. At least if you have a certificate your potential clients have a general idea of whether you are likely to be qualified or not.

LV – That’s my thinking, yes. But indeed it’s complicated. Particularly when you factor in the quality of the certification program. I have sampled a few and I have experienced quite a few disappointments.

DvD – I have heard concerning feedback about many certifications too. So the certification question is definitely not black and white.

LV – But you mentioned you had a problem dog. Tell me about that.

DvD – Yes, Canela. We adopted her from Spain. I thought I knew everything back then. So we knew she had a past but we figured we could handle it. After all, I had ‘had dogs all my life’ [laughs].

LV – The more you know and all that… When I’d just graduated from Zoology, I thought I knew it all. I only started how little I knew when I specialized: suddenly I was knee-deep in complex behaviour cases and more research papers than I could read in a life time. So what behavioural problems did Canela show?

DvD – She had many problems when she came to us: she’d fight with any dog given a chance, she obsessively chased cats, she wasn’t house-trained, and she destroyed everything she got her mouth on in the house.

LV – Did you seek professional help?

DvD – Kind of. I did what most people would do and joined the local dog training school. I didn’t know what to look for in a school at the time. They were animal-friendly enough, but gave superstitious advice like don’t let the dog pass the door in front of you and that sort of things. We took all their courses from basic to advanced but it didn’t resolve the problems.

LV – Is that when you started digging deeper into dog behaviour?

DvD – Yes, I started going to seminars and reading more and more technical texts. But my main teacher has been Canela herself.

LV – How is she doing now?

DvD – She has turned into the best companion ever. It takes time, patience and trust, but we connect!

Debby & Canela

Debby & Canela

More Doggo articles

When asked to shout out about other Doggo articles Debby would like visitors to read, she also listed these candidates:

References

Important Doggo links

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