Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging: making evidence-based fun

A blog about dogs and dog behaviour for critical owners and professionals.

I share news of the dogs I treat, review dog books, explain research articles, and investigate controversial issues. Bursting with pop science, scathing rants, vivid analogies and tongue-in-cheek illustrations.

Who am I

IMG_6610My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat in The Netherlands. I run an evidence-based dog behaviour therapy practice (Canis bonus) and dog training school (OhMyDog!) in The Hague. I graduated in Zoology (University of Newcastle), then specialized in applied companion animal behaviour (postgrad dip). When I am not working on rehabilitating dogs with behaviour problems, I relax by examining ideas in the pet and behaviour world critically. I am also quite a passionate advocate for critical thinking on the human scene.

For more about me, visit the homepage.

What the blog is about

In a nutshell, this blog tries to spread good science about dogs, and relates tales from life in the Netherlands’ dog world.

I am on a mission: spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. I am relentlessly:

  • busting apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales; and
  • promoting responsible dog ownership.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can understand. I am hoping to make specialist subjects like diseases vaccination, genetics, more accessible to a broad audience.

What do I write about?

I share the ups and downs of the dogs I treat and explain the hidden sides of the techniques.

I also break down the finer technical or academic points on:

  • dog training;
  • ethology; and
  • canine first aid and care.

And then of course, I interview interesting dog pros and tell you about my latest dog book review.

Oh, and whatever takes my fancy, as long as it’s mildly dog-related and I think you’ll enjoy it.

To find the articles

  • Click on a category (panel to the right) such as ‘Dog behaviour’ or
  • Enter your search terms in the search bar (top right)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, (or contrary). You can leave a comment on each article by:

  • clicking on the title for the post you want to read, and
  • completing the comments form at the bottom of the article.

Order an article

I can also write for your magazine, blog or website on demand. If you want to order an article on a canine subject of your choice,  contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss your needs.

To find out more about my dog writing services, go to my Dog writer page.

Canis bonus in blog directories

Laure-Anne Viselé

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Using jealousy in dog training

Blog post about using jealousy to your advantage in rehabilitating a dog. March 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. Where relevant, references and picture credits are at the end of the post

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

IMG_6639

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.

A jealous shepherd

Tank was referred to me through the veterinary practice for which I give behaviour consults. He was a young Swiss shepherd with debilitating fears which were turning into aggression. With such a large dog, you don’t let fear take a hold so the owner did the responsible thing and got help.

The owner was, unfortunately, already skilled and knowledgeable. She had already aptly applied a lot of the best practices I would have advised. This would not be a quick fix, and we needed an angle.

Tank lives with his big brother Bouncer. They are full brothers: they share the same early environment, the same mother, the same father, and the same owners. Yet Tank and Bouncer could not be any different. Where Tank was – typical Swiss Shep – flighty and retiring, Bouncer was more ‘I-love-you-so-much-I-could-explode’ towards total strangers.

We held a couple of exposure therapy sessions with fake guests, and, whilst Tank was responding well, things weren’t moving as quickly as I wanted.

What Tank and Bouncer did have in common was their jealousy of each other. They both wanted to be first in line for the next treat or compliment or game. And boom, that was it. We had our angle. From that point on, we started deliberately having the guests pay tons of attention to Bouncer and barely any to Tank. They would greet Tank and speak to him gently when he came closer, but that was about it. Bouncer, however, was showered with praise, cuddles and games. Bouncer couldn’t believe his luck. He was besides himself with joy every Thurday afternoon.

The beauty of it is that, within a couple of short sessions, Tank was pushing his nose against the guest for the next game of ‘toss-the-treat’. The instructions to the guest were clear: do not pay any attention to Tank unless he himself is requesting it in a relaxed way. We also made sure that whatever reward the guest gave Tank was tossed far away from them, so that it would always be Tank’s choice to return to the guest.

In this video, we show Bouncer (the brave one) playing with a brain game whilst Tank (the shy one) looks on.

We are now at the point where the owners can continue the exposure therapy themselves, as our sessions have allowed Tank to experience, again and again, the feeling of being close to a guest of his own volition. We have manipulated Tank’s feelings towards guests so that he sees them more as fun commodity than imminent danger.

This demonstrates the art side of behaviour therapy. It’s not all about clinical science and dry theory. There is a huge think-on-your-feet element, and that’s what keeps me excited about the job.

Disclaimer: No two cases are the same so please do not use jealousy in your behaviour therapy unless you know that you can safely do so.

(video and names shared with explicit permission from the dogs’ owner)

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Logical fallacies in dog training

Blog post about logical fallacies in the dog training world. March 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

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

IMG_6639

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.

Dog training fallacies

This post is part of a blog series about evidence-based dog behaviour advice. I introduced the concept briefly in the first post. In this article, I zoom in on the fallacies and biases that get in the way of giving rational advice about dog behaviour. If you are a dog trainer, I hope you, like me, will try to be conscious of these and try to find ways to avoid falling into their traps too deeply. If you are a consumer, this post will give you the tools to spot common problems so you can get your dog effective treatment and not fall for some vague ideology.

There are about a million fallacies and biases but I had to pick, so took the ones that I most often see in my work:

  1. Argument from ignorance
  2. Burden of proof
  3. False balance
  4. Argument to authority
  5. Confirmation bias
  6. Argument to tradition
  7. Einstellung

If you have suggestions for more examples in the dog world, let me know. I could integrate them to a part-2 if I have enough. Enjoy the read!

Dog of the gaps

The God of the gaps is a concept in theology. It boils down to: we shouldn’t believe in God just because we can’t think of a compelling explanation for creation. By the logic of “If it is not God, how do you explain the universe?”, we could plug anything from magic leprichauns to quantum healing whenever we’re stuck. This fallacy is called an argument from ignorance.

Dog of the gap arguments are rampant in dog training. We love plugging one-size-fits-all explanations instead of saying: “I don’t know”. This one is a classic: “Your dog is mounting other dogs. He’s being dominant” (if you’re curious about evidence-based explanations to dry humping, check Julie Hecht’s article). It’s compelling to say “You need to be the dog’s alpha-meta-mega-pack leader” but it doesn’t make it true. Sometimes, “We don’t know why” is the only honest answer.

mind the gap

By that logic we could plug anything from magic leprichauns to quantum healing whenever we’re stuck.

Sticking the dominance label willy-nilly can be misinformation, and abuse at worst. I overheard a trainer describing a dog’s destructive behaviour as ‘vengeful’ and ‘dominant’. This failed the dog on so many level it broke my heart. If the owners take the trainer seriously, they will fail to get the dog the rational treatment he needs to treat his condition (likely separation panic). They also run the very real risk of abusing their dog in trying to be alpha-mega-meta-super pack leader. Don’t get me wrong, dominance is a complex concept and it has a (tiny) place in dog behaviour diagnostics, but too many trainers plug it in whenever they please.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Be wary of a dog trainer who only talks of alpha wolves, dominance and pack leaders. It is a red flag that they need more training in behaviour diagnostics. If you want help finding a good dog behaviour consultant, this article is pretty good.

Bone of proof

I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to engage everyone who annoys me with the latest pseudoscientific idea. That’s not true: I have plenty of inclination, but my accountant would kill me if I spent my whole time on crusader-for-truth mode. Skepticism doesn’t pay the bills.

my accountant would kill me if I spent my whole time on crusader-for-truth mode. Skepticism doesn’t pay the bills.

The good news is it’s not my job to disprove every wacky claim that makes it to my desk, it’s the job of the person making the claim to back it up with solid evidence (not anecdotes, gut feeling, a tirade or claiming personal revelation). This concept is called ‘burden of proof‘ and Betrand Russell illustrated it nicely: if he told you there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, and told you you had to believe him until you could disprove it, you’d know it’s nonsense, right? This is true to any claim, and the more out-there the claim, the more solid the evidence needs to be.

Note to the discerning dog training client: If your dog behaviour professional suggests a paranormal or alternative treatment (something that has failed the test of scientific scrutiny) like mind-reading or crystal healing, ask them for solid evidence that this approach is effective for your dog’s behaviour problem. If their only argument is that it’s not been disproven, you might suggest they read Paranormality and close the door on your way out.

No dog in that fight

This one is a classic: “You won’t give my side of the story equal consideration. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, aren’t they?” Sure people are entitled to their opinion; they are just not entitled to their own facts. You can cling to a belief that goes against the biggest weight of evidence, but then your position is verging on ideology, not fact. A second side to the issue doesn’t magically pop up the second you decide that the majority of qualified specialists are wrong about their topic of expertise. You may feel genuinely hard done by, but you are engaging in the false balance fallacy: the idea that every story necessarily has two sides.

not quite friends

 

Take the raw food disputes raging in the dog world. I have no dog in that fight. I couldn’t care less either way. I just compared the weight of evidence on either ‘sides’ and it became clear that one was science and the other was an naturalistic ideology with a bee in its bonnet. Apples and pears, not two sides of the same story.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Look for a dog behaviour professional who welcomes your critical questions, rather than demand you believe them out of ‘fairness’ for both sides of an issue. Dog behaviour practitioners, myself included, are entitled to tell their clients about their beliefs and ideologies, not to present them as fact.

Famous TV dog trainers

We often get accused of jealousy when we call out an argument to authority – propping up the merits of a claim purely on the basis of who made it. Sure I am more opened to something if the person saying it has experience, qualifications and a track-record of scientific integrity but I still won’t buy into it uncritically. I don’t take things to be true just because a particular person said it, no matter how impressive their career. Never mind when the person is a TV trainer whose only discernible credentials are a compelling back story and great charisma.

Note to the discerning dog training client: When you ask your dog trainer or behaviourist why they are advising a particular method, beware of the fan boy. You want the reason to be based on something more solid than “because Cesar said so”.

25 years’ experience in dog training

I have caught my fair share of scandalized looks when I push back against something if it was said by an experienced trainer. It’s like twenty-five years’ experience is some kind of anti-skepticism kryptonite. You can have a hundred years’ experience for all I care, I still hold you to the same ethical and rational standards as the rest of my colleagues.

Experience is REALLY important, don’t get me wrong. I am just calling for caution when having so much experience becomes an excuse for being held to lower standards.

Experience is REALLY important, don’t get me wrong. I blush when I think back of the rookie mistakes I made and I am still learning every single day – probably will until I retire. I am just a tiny rookie in comparison to the elephants of our industry and they have so-ho-ho much to teach me. I am just calling for caution when having so much experience becomes an excuse for being held to lower standards.

Hiring a trainer purely on the basis of their long experience can backfire because they may have been making the same tired old mistake for twenty-five years. These three powerful enemies make it tough to get out of your professional comfort zone:

  • Confirmation bias: Rejecting compelling evidence against a a belief you hold dear. The more of a vested interest you hang on to your belief, the more powerful the effect. It is impossible to avoid it and unless you work hard at questioning your assumptions, it takes a more and more powerful hold the longer you practice.
  • Argument to tradition/status quo bias: Blowing up the merits of an approach just because “We’ve always done it that way.” It is SO tough to constantly take a step back and re-evaluate our work habits, particularly when we’ve been using them for years.
  • Einstellung: Entrenched mental shortcuts that make solving a problem from a fresh angle extremely difficult the longer we have been holding these assumptions. Einstellung is like a deeply worn groove that gets worn deeper and deeper each time you make the assumption. To the point that it holds such a powerful hold it becomes tough to approach the problem with fresh eyes anymore.

 

conservative club

Another potential danger of placing experience above all else is historical: the dog training professions have been undergoing a slow, but revolutionary shift towards animal-friendly methods in the past twenty years. Depending on when they were first formed as a dog trainer, they may be on the ‘wrong’ side of that historical gap. If your veteran also happens to be conservative, he may advise unnecessarily invasive and stressful techniques.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Hiring a trainer with twenty-five years’ experience has tremendous merits, but be sure that the trainer in question is not hiding stale methods behind all that experience. Ask them to demonstrate they have kept up with modern techniques, and push back if the approaches they suggest are unnecessarily stressful for the dog.

Conclusion

I hope that before you take the post as a personal attack you remember what I am trying to say: we are all susceptible to these fallacies and biases. You, me, all of us. As professionals whose role it is to educate the public, we owe it to our customers and the dogs they care for to give them the purest advice we can; advice that hasn’t been distorted by our all too human personal preferences, entrenched habits or vested interests.

Comments

Did you recognize one of the fallacies or biases in yourself or your trainer? Have I forgotten important ones that are relevant to dog training? If you found the post thought-provoking, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

References

Illustration credits

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dog food – Make room for the expert – Guest post by Caroline Kilsdonk

Article about critical thinking and the public health risks of raw feeding dogs
By veterinarian and (geriatry) zootherapist Caroline Kilsdonk, February 2016. Translation: Laure-Anne Visele
Illustration credits at the end of the post

The article below is a translation of a Caroline Kilsdonk blog post: “Laisser la place à l’expert” (in French). In this post, Caroline reminds people to exercise caution towards the human health risks of raw-feeding dogs, she questions expertise-cum-arguments-from-authority and she encourages us to base our advice on well-established fact rather than compelling personal experience. Caroline touches these hot button issues with her characteristic intellectual honesty.

About the author: zootherapist in Canada

caroofficielle1Caroline Kilsdonk is a veterinarian, mother of four, zootherapist, bioethics Master’s student and talented blogger. Her intellectual output fascinates researchers and laymen alike.

She shares her moving reflections on bioethics, science, the dog-man relationship, zootherapy, and much more, in her (French-speaking) blog: Raison et compassion. To find out more about Caroline’s work in zootherapy, read her interview on Canis bonus.

About Canis bonus: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639Laure-Anne Viselé is the canine behaviour therapist at Canis bonus and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

Laure-Anne graduated in Zoology, completed her certifications in dog training instruction, and got a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you are based in Rijswijk, Delft, Den Haag or region and need ethically sound and evidence-based advice on your dog’s behaviour, you can get in touch with Laure-Anne here.

Make room for the expert

I have followed dog food trends with great interest over the past few years, particularly the controversies surrounding raw food. Many are convinced of a raw diet’s benefits and, once converted, some tend to strongly encourage others to follow suit with non-veterinary consultants encouraging their clients in that direction without hesitation.

Preacher

“…once converted, some tend to strongly encourage others to follow suit…”

I never intervene on the respective benefits of kibble vs. raw food – or, for that matter, on the kibble vs. a homemade cooked balanced diet. It is a complex matter with many variables like the quality of the kibble in question and the health of the individual dog (are there relevant digestive or dermatological issues for example?). And I have grown wary of even mentioning the (real) risks to the dog’s health. The raw food question has become so emotionally charged that discussions can quickly go awry. The one point where I do intervene is this: I ask people exercise caution when using raw meat, particularly in the presence of young children or elderly/sick persons. Strangely, even this message can be taken badly.

Shouting

“The raw food question has become so emotionally charged that discussions can quickly go awry”

I am a doctor in veterinary medicine, I have recently completed postgraduate courses on zoonoses, and I am studying for a Master’s in bioethics (taught in a public health school). My background demonstrates a solid scientific education and a will to keep up with the latest developments as well as a concerns for ethics in (human and animal) public health.

Is my background enough for you to accept what I say uncritically? No.

What does that tell you about my competence in giving dog food advice? Is my background enough for you to accept what I say uncritically?

No.

No academic background guarantees that someone is telling the truth on any given subject. I could have a PhD in canine behaviour and still tell you that socialising pups is useless based on personal anecdotes. I could say I have seen dozens of ex-puppy farm dogs growing up into happy, healthy family dogs. Whilst this is possibly true, it would be obvious to you that it does not constitute enough evidence; possibly because you are already convinced of the benefits of socialisation… Let’s take another example.

Let’s say that someone has a Master’s in animal nutrition (often focusing on cattle feed, by the way, which, is a long way away from feeding carnivores). Let’s say they tell you that raw feeding your dog presents no risk purely based on the fact that they have fed their own dogs raw for years with no problem. Why would you accept that uncritically?

Citation needed

Saying that raw feeding doesn’t carry risks should be evidence-based.

We have precious little data supporting the possible benefits of raw food and the arguments I often hear in favor of raw food have little grounding in science. I know better than to emit an opinion on these «advantages» as long as we don’t know more. The risks of raw food, on the other hand, are undeniable: well-known, documented, and published. Of course you are a grown-up, you are sound of mind, so you are free to make these decisions for your dog even if it brings certain risks to him or her. Where I have a bigger problem is when many people encourage others to also start feeding their dogs raw, without warning them against the risks.

Anecdotes can have a certain value as long as you don’t try to draw universal conclusions from them

Allow me to share a personal anecdote to illustrate (anecdotes can have a certain value as long as you don’t try to draw universal conclusions from them). For about six months, I participated in a dog training Facebook group. I gave some of my time to participate in exchanges, share scientific articles, and answer questions. One day, a member asked about the necessary precautions to take when feeding raw food to their dog. I succinctly and politely suggested caution with people whose immune system are possibly compromised. The group administrator then called in the group’s “expert” who promptly intervened by sharing their personal experience stating that their dogs were healthy (or, more accurately, symptom-less) and yet raw-fed. They concluded that our opinions just differed.

My response was this: “No. When I say there are risks to human health, that is not a matter of personal opinion. No personal anecdote or personal experience to the contrary carries any weight against the thousands of scientific papers and position papers that have been published.” [see reference section for details] The administrator then asked me in private to make room for the expert, to which I promptly complied: I left the group!

What does an «expert» need to merit our trust?

  • He has solid knowledge of the fundamentals of the topic
  • He knows the individual case well.
  • He does not base his advice on personal experience.
  • He is open to revising his position in light of new information.
  • He does not adopt a black-and-white stance, and is capable of nuance.
  • He does not go counter to science (such as opposing any form of vaccination)
  • He can call for caution on certain points (like certain types of vaccines at a certain age)
  • Whilst it is entirely reasonable to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism towards individual research findings, totally ignoring thousands of valid research studies boils down to rejecting the scientific method. To say “I am against all vaccination” is the equivalent to claiming that “There are no risks inherent to raw feeding.”
subjective venn

An expert does not base his/her advice on personal experience

I do not believe myself to be an expert in canine nutrition. When I intervene on a point, I endeavour to inform myself and not let personal beliefs taint my objectivity. Of course no one can show perfect objectivity, but at least we have to try to be neutral.

I hope my message will get through and that you will exercise caution with the health of those around you who are more vulnerable. If you are a dog consultant and promote raw food, I hope that I have sensitized you a little towards exercising caution around the human health issues.

* The objective of this text is to transmit a message of caution to protect people with fragile health. I do not aim at one person in particular, which would not be my style.

Illustration credits

Further reading

Caroline’s blog (in French): Raison et compassion (reason and compassion)

Organisational position statements on raw food:

Other Canis bonus articles by/with Caroline:

Other related Canis bonus articles:

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , , , , | 1 Response

Dog book review: Dog Food Logic

Shout out about new dog book review by Canis bonus. February 2016
Review author: Laure-Anne Visele

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

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.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (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.

Dog Food Logic

Linda Case wrote an evidence-based and fun book again, this time telling fact from fiction on dog food. I recommend every dog owner reads this so they can take sound decisions about what they feed their dog, rather than listening to Joe-next-door-who-knows-a-lot-about-dogs for that important decision.

Case - Dog Food Logic

This is the review I’ve written for it.

Posted in Dog writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What is ‘evidence-based- in ‘Evidence-based dog behaviour therapy practice’?

Blog post about evidence-based dog behaviour therapy. February 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

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

IMG_6639

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.

Evidence-based dog behaviour practice?

Our dog training school in The Hague (OhMyDog!) has publicly stated its evidence-based standards. That’s fine and dandy, only we’ve found that the general members of the public don’t know what it means. Mmmmh, so much for an effective communication strategy. Worst still, when we explain what it means, some people take it to be an insult, a dogmatic stance, scientific arrogance or worse, an ideological position.

If it’s such an ingrate task, why do we bother promoting the concept? Because dog behaviour is our passion. And it irks us to see it dragged in the mud by con-artists or misguided amateurs, with often devastating consequences to the dogs and the families involved. Dog behaviour advice professions are largely unregulated (to my deepest regret), so we are passionate about protecting the consumer by giving them the tools to critically evaluate the advice they get and do right by their dog.

Skeptical face

Try as I might, it’s hard to make that face look like polite nodding.

The conversation can turn heated when we tackle it with someone with strong vested interests in something that is being criticized by evidence-based practitioners. It can be hard to explain that there are no reasonable grounds for believing that latest celebrity endorsement, alternative treatment, or paranormal intervention without coming across as jerks. But how else do you politely say something is tosh?

I am going to be writing a series of posts about the specific aspects of the evidence-based concept over the next few weeks to clear up some of the misconceptions that often get us in trouble. This will hopefully give evidence-based practitioners some communication tools to educate effectively without insulting. It will also, I hope, give people who are not familiar with the concept handy critical thinking tools. The first post is out: it concerns logical fallacies in dog training.

Enjoy!

Illustration credits

Further reading

  • Canis bonus: Post 2 of the Evidence-based series: Fallacies and biases in dog training.
  • Canis bonus: My Pinterest board on running an evidence-based practice and fighting pseudoscience in the dog behaviour world: Woo Fighters
  • Good Thinking Society: The Good Thinking Society, a UK-based skeptics enquiry foundation, investigate and exposees paranormal and alternative claims.
  • OhMyDog!: OhMyDog!’s blog post on what it means to run an evidence-based dog training school.
Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

Dog book review: K9 Behavior Basics

Shout out about new dog book review by Canis bonus. February 2016
Review author: Laure-Anne Visele

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

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.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (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.

K9 Behaviour Basics book review

I have finally gotten the time to read Gerritsen, Haak and Prins’ “K9 Behavior Basics”. I had been wanting to get a few hours of concentration to read through this one for the longest of time.

What got me interested was the fact that Simon Prins was involved. Simon Prins is a somewhat of a R+ figure head, a pioneer in the training of police dogs who tirelessly campaigns for humane and rational methods for the training of police dogs in The Netherlands.

So I put everything else aside and did a marathon-read it this week-end. It was worth it: it turned out to be an interesting book with much food for thought.

This is the review I’ve written for it.

Gerritsen_Haak_Prins K9 Behavior Basics crinkled

Check out the sorry state of the book… This is what you get for cramming an entire book’s worth of reading in one day.

 

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Joël Dehasse: Dog psychiatrist and psychologist

Interview with veterinarian and animal behaviour specialist Joël Dehasse by Laure-Anne Visele.
Interview conducted September 2015; Article published January 2016
Full illustration credits and references at the end of the post.

Meet Joël Dehasse

Joël Dehasse is a veterinarian who specialises in treating dog behaviour problems in Belgium and Joel DehasseSwitzerland. Aside from his medical degree, he has extensive training in system therapy, a well-established school of psychotherapy. Dr. Dehasse has authored many science popularisation books and research papers on dog behaviour, and is a highly sought after lecturer.

Read below for my interview with Dr. Dehasse about the pack theory, homeopathy, and punishment. A fascinating discussion with a fascinating professional.

The pack theory and dog behaviour problems

LV – I have just turned the last page of one of your books, Tout sur la psychologie du chien [“All about dog psychology”]. I am impressed with how you managed to steer clear of over-simplification and how you tackled complex topics like pack theory. Most authors either reject it outright or present it as a cure-all. You framed it as one of the many theoretical models.

JD – As behaviour is an imprecise science, we need those theoretical models but each one has its advantages and limitations. So yes, the Hierarchy Model is just out of many. It is not the be-all-and-end-all of dog behaviour.

LV – Absolutely! Presenting it as the ‘one true model’ is so reductionistic.

JD – That’s right. I framed the many individual models used to explain dog behaviour into one meta-model, and the Hierarchy model is just one of these individual models; one I have found to be one of the least effective in practice, I might add.

Tout sur la psychologie du chienIn the book, I look at the areas of applicability, strengths and weaknesses of each model. I also look at their ethical dimension. Working in positive reinforcement is more ethical than, say, a rank reduction program [régression sociale dirigée in French: attempts to reduce the dog’s social status to obtain behaviour improvements].

LV – The Hierarchy model is by far the most well-known among non specialists. It has enormous public appeal. Some of my clients are so vested in it that I sometimes re-frame my explanations into that language to get my message across and avoid fruitless discussions.

JD – Adapting your language to the client’s worldview is an effective communication tool. In my case, only a minority of my clients are still deeply vested in the Hierarchy Model. It might make a difference that I work in Switzerland a lot where most canine instructors have abandoned the pack theory and old methods relying on punishment.

LV – That’s interesting. I used to assume that people who had abandoned the Hierarchy Model also abandoned compulsion-based methods but I found that was not necessarily the case. Some proponents of the Hierarchy Model advocate for non-confrontational methods only, and vice and versa. And some people cling to the Hierarchy Model against all odds.

JD – And why not? Ideas profoundly shape the way we think and the way we practice. It can be hard to change them, particularly if we have held them for decades.

Punishment for dog behaviour problems

LV - How do you communicate with dog owners who have a punitive mindset?

JD – I frame it like this: dogs do live in a structured, hierarchical social group and Man is a punitive species. Punishment feels good to us. It is inevitable.

…if you must do it [punishment], then at least do it without anger.

LV – What is inevitable: verbal punishment or physical corrections?

JD – Punishment as a whole.

My stance is this: if you must do it, then at least do it without anger. Mother-dogs physically correct their pups by grabbing their muzzle or pinning them to the ground. So you can be effective with punishment if it is sudden and unpleasant enough. And most importantly, if  the dog has had a chance to offer an alternative behaviour that can get rewarded immediately.

LV – So if the dog offers a type of post-conflict reconciliation ritual?

JD – Not necessarily. The core principle here is counter-conditioning [The dog responds in a way that is incompatible with performing the problematic response].

LV – So the dog can compare the consequences of the unwanted behaviour and the desired behaviour, giving them the chance to perform some simple heuristics like: “When I did A, human did this. When I did B, human did that. B is better for me.”

Kerr on punishment

JD – Right.

Punishment alone – without the counter-conditioning element – is a limited educational tool because it only leaves the dog one option: repeat the unwanted behaviour in the owner’s absence. He hasn’t learnt to replace the habit with a less problematic one.

LV – Which brings me to the concept of choice. The dog’s choice is central to a lot of my interventions, letting them experience with that choice moment and its various outcomes. I find it brings much more profound, stable, reliable changes to let the dog try to work things out, rather than micromanage through pure command-response training.

JD – Oh absolutely. Rewarding the dog’s initiative can be a powerful tool. It teaches the dog to offer behaviour as a question: “What happens when I do this?” instead of blindly following orders.

The Activity Needs model for dog behaviour problems

LV – So if not the Hierarchy model, what theoretical model do you apply the most in your practice?

We know there is a pathology there for these dogs. We know they can’t help but be hyperactive and we have to respect that.

JD – I find the Activity Needs model very effective, as well as medication for some cases. For many dogs, activity budgets bring improvements practically immediately.

LV – So the idea here is to address the dog’s needs rather than resist them?

JD – That’s right. Genetic research (Wam et al, 2013) revealed that the D4-receptor appeared in modified form in some Labradors, Huskies, and German Shepherds among other breeds. There was a correlation between this modified form and hyperactive tendencies in the dogs concerned. We know there is a pathology there for these dogs. We know they can’t help but be hyperactive and we have to respect that.

LV – By allowing them to engage in the problem behaviour?

Mon chien est heureuxJD – If it is an instinctively programmed need failing to satisfy it brings the dog into a state of frustration which is likely to make things worse. Take a chase-obsessed Border Collie: chasing is a need for him. He will do it whether he sees a sheep or not. The sheep is just an opportunity, it is not the cause.

LV – So it centers around accepting some dogs’ limitations, not trying to change them?

JD – If the limitations are instinctively programmed, yes.

A while back, I saw someone about his German Shepherd. The owner wanted to do classic Mondioring [a protection dog sport] but the dog did not have any bite. My answer was simple: you can’t shape what’s not there.

I tackle the Activity needs model and practical solutions for it in my book Mon chien est heureux [“My dog is happy”, red.]. It gives concrete tips on satisfying dogs’ activity and stimulation needs.

Systemic therapy to treat dog behaviour problems

LV – Tell me more about the systemic therapy approach.

JD – I approach each case by analyzing the system as a whole, not just the dog. I look for resistance factors, things that can get in the way of improvement or that contribute to the problem. This can be important aspects of the dog’s genetic predisposition, his or her personality or moods. But I also look at relevant factors in the owners, like indeed their own personality and moods, among other things.

LV – This approach stems straight from your training in systemic therapy, right?

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Systemic therapy treats the system, not just the dog

JD – That’s right. I look at the whole picture and not just the dog. Say I find myself facing a depressive owner and a hyperactive dog. The system is currently a bad fit. In that case, I might prescribe medication regardless of whether the dog is pathologically hyperactive or not, to give the system a chance to function again. With a poor fit, it’s harder to open up the owner to the idea of respecting the dog’s needs.

My role is to treat a system, and the dog is my tool for bringing change into that system.

LV – So the decision to prescribe psychopharmacology is not solely a question of the severity of the problem in itself?

JD – No, not just that. I make the call based on the whole system. My role is to treat a system, and the dog is my tool for bringing change into that system. As a veterinarian, I cannot change the owner with medication – although I can help there too as a homeopath.

Homeopathy for dog behaviour problems

LV – On the subject of homeopathy, it is perhaps controversial of me to say so, but I am involved in the scientific skeptic movement and the books’s uncritical coverage of homeopathy and ESP [Extra Sensorial Perception] surprised me. Take ESP, for example. You mentioned this was based on research?

JD – Yes, it is based on a series of experimental studies I have collected and read on the topic. I cover the sixth sense of dogs in my book: “Chien hors du commun” [“Extraordinary dogs“]. The conclusion was that we could indeed demonstrate that dogs have non-traditional senses.

But about homeopathy. Why frame it as unscientific? You could even argue it is the first of the medical sciences. It is based on experience.

Chiens hors du commun

LV – I don’t think we’ll meet in the middle on this topic as the majority of meta-analyses are critical about its efficacy and conclude the results to be placebo-based.

JD – Other meta-analyses do demonstrate it to be effective, though. There is such a stigma against homeopathy in the orthodox scientific literature that positive meta-analyses are harder to find. Scientific journals are largely funded by advertising from the pharmaceutical industry so being critical of homeopathy is the path of least resistance.

But, as a scientific skeptic, you are interpreting thoughts from a materialistic worldview, right? Thoughts are created by the brain and do not exist outside of the brain?

LV – I find it a little reductionistic. One is a mirror of the other. If you look hard enough, you will find a neurological correlate for every mental phenomenon, so in principle, yes. But ideas can transcend their origins: where they come from does not reduce their beauty or value.

Homeopathy

JD – Sure, things are a lot more complicated than that. But globally, would you say that thoughts can exist independently of matter?

LV – No, I would say they can only emerge from matter.

JD – My problem with this is the placebo effect. How can a belief affect the brain if only the brain can create beliefs and thoughts?

But you have to talk about homeopathy in an experimental context, not in terms of mechanics. Leaving the meta-analyses behind, the important question is: Does it work in practice or does it not?

LV – I don’t necessarily see an inconsistency there. A thought – a neurological phenomenon – can trigger an emotion (like relief, joy, love) – another neurological phenomenon – which itself can correlate with improved health outcomes. Thinking you are getting effective treatment, for example, could trigger a sense of appeasement, which could improve your physical condition. Why is this problematic?

JD – I still have a problem with it. It does not convince me.

LV – I shouldn’t have broached the subject. It can be quite divisive.

JD – Oh not at all. It’s an interesting topic. But you have to talk about homeopathy in an experimental context, not in terms of mechanics. Leaving the meta-analyses behind, the important question is: Does it work in practice or does it not?

Over-the-counter remedies for dog behaviour problems

LV – What you think of over-the-counter anxiety remedies like Zylkène? [an anxiolytic nutraceutical] Have you had good clinical results?

JD – With casein as its working ingredient it basically has the anxiolytic properties of warm milk. I have to say Zylkène has had zero efficacy in my practice. But then again, I tend to see the most severe cases. I am sometimes the fourth line of support after the owners have seen a trainer, their vet, a behaviourist (of various levels of competence).

LV – And what is your experience of the efficacy of DAP [Dog Appeasing Pheromone]?

New_born_pups

DAP is based on the pheromones released by the nursing mother

JD – In the dogs I see, it is the same story. I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work, but the effects I see in practice are too limited to have any value to the owners who come to me for help. So the Béata study [Béata, 2007] that looked into its efficacy intrigued me.

LV – So the efficacy of pheromone therapy, in your experience, has been so minor as to have next to no clinical relevance in your patients?

JD – In the animals I see, yes. Take Feliway [appeasing pheromone treatment for cats, red.]. It reduces urine marking in 90% of the cats studied. But, it reduces it to such a small degree – often going from ten times per day to nine – that it does not help the owners in a meaningful way.

LV – And pheromone therapy for dogs?

JD – Dr. Schroll and I conducted a large-scale experiment during the three-week yearly summit for Austrian police and military dogs [Schroll et al, 2005]. They have a barking problem every year, with dogs who bark all night and are exhausted for the day events.

So we gave an active DAP collar to half the dogs, and a depleted one to the other half. We found no difference in barking between the two groups. There was a difference, though: dogs in the DAP group showed lower cortisol concentrations [a physiological measure of stress].

LV – It is a cautionary tale for research findings: are good results on physiological proxies enough to declare a treatment effective in clinical practice? If these results fail to translate into meaningful real-life outcomes, then decreased cortisol is indeed another “It doesn’t work” story for the long-suffering owners.

Difficult conversations for a dog behaviourist

LV – We often find ourselves having difficult conversations with our clients in this line of work. You discuss some tools to facilitate this aspect of the profession in All about dog psychology. Did you draw from you training in systemic therapy to develop these points?

JD – I learnt a lot from systemic therapy, yes, but also from years of practice. What I focus on the most is to listen without judging, and to detect a system’s resources and points of resistance.

LV – I imagine you did not develop these skills overnight? I find it the most challenging aspect of the job.

JD – No, it certainly didn’t grow overnight. I have followed years of training and I still learn a lot from my consults. Sometimes we have to work hard on ourselves before we can get to that place of empathy, before we can understand the other and their suffering. If we haven’t learned to respect ourselves, it’s hard to respect others in that way.

LV – There is such a huge human dimension to the job. It really isn’t all about the dogs, is it?

…it would not be appropriate to take sides. The best we can do is to listen to both parties with respect, then try to open a line of communication between them.

JD – Absolutely. All the work I do is with people, really. I coach people so they work with their dog. I have no idea what I’m doing in veterinary medicine, really [laughs]. I am more like a psychologist or a coach than a vet.

LV – I find myself caught in complicated family dynamics at times and work hard to remain within my professional boundaries and not tackle topics that are the realm of social workers. How do you protect yourself there?

JD – Why shouldn’t I work on these subjects?

LV – Speaking for myself, I do not feel equipped. I am not trained to tackle them.

Difficult conversations

Difficult conversations

JD – But we do touch them, no matter what. If we change one element – the dog – we change the whole. Having said that it would not be appropriate to take sides. The best we can do is to listen to both parties with respect, then try to open a line of communication between them.

LV – Can you give me an example?

My role was to make him acknowledge his wife’s fear. The problem was not so much the dog in this instance, but two owners with vastly different visions of the problem.

JD – A couple came to me with their AmStaff cross. The dog had lived with a flock of sheep for a year without incidents but he jumped over the fence one day and killed a sheep. This family had two young children and the mother could not shake off the thought that this could happen to the children. Her partner on the other hand did not recognize the risk at all.

My role was to make him acknowledge his wife’s fear. The problem was not so much the dog in this instance, but two owners with vastly different visions of the problem. The dog’s situation was simple enough: his predatory motor-patterns had started to emerge at adolescence and he targeted a sheep. Could he conceivably target the children? Yes.

LV – In theory, though, right?

JD – Not just in theory. It happens.

A family saw me with their four-year-old St Bernard female because she had attacked the family’s little girl after years of sociable interactions with the kids. The family was at the beach and the dog froze, staring at the running girl. She then took chase, grabbed the girl by the neck and shook her. The beach context was enough for the dog to no longer recognize the little girl as a social partner.

LV –But this is highly unlikely for dogs who aren’t predisposed.

JD – This dog had never hurt a fly. She had never showed even a hint of predatory tendencies. She wasn’t necessarily predisposed. It can happen.

LV – Wow, this really gives me food for thought. So how did the AmStaff situation resolve itself?

So I feel it’s our role to encourage people to communicate, to be mediators.

JP – The husband was able to recognize his wife’s fear. They talked, and he committed to taking safety measures.

LV – And there hasn’t been an incident with the children?

JP – No. It was a year ago. The chance was small to start with but with some simple ground rules – like not allowing the children to play outside unsupervised – their mother could live with the risk.

So I feel it’s our role to encourage people to communicate, to be mediators.

LV – Talking of difficult conversations, everyone’s problem is urgent but there are only 24 hours in a day. How do you reconcile your desire to respect the client’s sense of urgency with a healthy work-life balance?

JD – I can relate to the experience. I’ve just had people call me with a dog who barks constantly when left alone. He’s had the problem for seven years but today it’s urgent. The owner is exhausted. He’s reached his coping limit.

LV – How do you prevent the job from eating you alive? You have a family, a partner, friends.

JD – It can be hard to say no but I have learned to be strict with these boundaries. I still give week-end seminars once in a while, but most week-ends and evenings are for my family.

LV – And catching up reviewing research papers whilst watching television with one eye, right?

JD – [laughs] Something like that.

References

Further reading

Contact

If you are based in French-speaking Switzerland, France of Belgium, you can consult Joël’s site for one of his animal-assisted personal development or animal behaviour therapy workshops.

If you are based in Belgium (Brussels) or Switzerland (Vaud), you can make an appointment for a behaviour consult for your cat or dog at his practice.

Illustration credits

Posted in Dog pros: a day in the life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ouch! When pain is behind your dog’s behaviour problem

Blog post about detecting pain in dogs. January 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References at the end of the post

About author: certified dog trainer 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.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (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.

Ear infection turns angel dog into devil hound

About a year ago, Milti’s owner called me in a panic. Milti, her young terrier, had always been really sociable and cuddly. But a few weeks before, he snarled and snapped in the air when she was petting him. She thought no more of it, but it started happening more and more. It reached the stage when she was careful to even approach him if he was in his basket; not to mention that putting his harness had turned into an all-out war. After a few weeks of trying the usual punishment-based methods, she was at her wit’s ends. She called me: “Did I raise him wrong ? Is he turning into a vicious dog? Is there anything you can do?”

Poorly boy

This dog is clearly uncomfortable

As soon as I heard the aggression had popped up suddenly, I suspected something physical might be underneath it all. I asked a few questions about the history of the aggression, and I did a couple of stimulus-response tests to zoom in on the problem area. Inkling confirmed: Milti did not want anyone to come near his ears.

His owner was skeptical, though. She lived with the dog and knew him more than anyone. If any one would have picked up on the pain, it would have been her. Besides, she said, he’d not been whining or touching his ears or anything. But I insisted she went to the vet’s. Two days later, she called, ecstatic: the vet had found a nasty ear infection.

I showed her some zoo handling techniques to get Milti to collaborate with the ear drop treatment without confrontation, and once the pain had cleared, worked on making him comfortable with his harness again.

Today, Milti is back to being his old love bug self again.

Spotting pain in your dog

“How could she have missed an ear infection!?” I hear you ask. Quite easily, actually. Everyone knows the obvious signs like whining or limping but most of the time it’s more subtle, particularly for internal or chronic pain or in the early stages of the problem.

We use a mix of clinical experience and formal indicators to spot pain in dogs. In my clinical experience, the frequent signs are:

  1. He does not distribute his weight evenly between all four paws, as if avoiding to lean on one fully.
  2. He pants for no apparent reason. This can, by the way, be a sign of severe pain (or stress, but that’s another story).
  3. His shoulders are slouched. He walks like a depressed dog, like he is carrying all the problems of the world on his frail shoulders.
  4. He moves more carefully than usual: stiff and slow. As if he was walking on eggs. He can still run and be his crazy self, mind, but it takes more encouragement, and he seems worse afterwards.
  5. He occasionally struggles to stand up. Now people spot that, but assume it’s normal (particularly for older dogs). The thing is, age is no reason to leave the pain untreated.
  6. He tenses up or even snaps or growls when you touch him on one particular spot.
  7. He avoids kids fooling around although he used to be the light and soul of the party. He seem to avoid situations where he could get shoved or pushed.
  8. He is not as excited to go on a walk anymore, or to have a game of fetch, as if using unnecessary movements sparingly.

For formal behavioural indicators of pain, I use the Colorado canine acute pain scale. This can be useful to bring to your vet’s to explain why you want to have a pain examination.

Colorado Vet Uni Pain Scale

I think my dog is in pain. Now what?

It’s plain wrong to let your dog suffer for starters but aside from that, pain or discomfort make them grumpy, less tolerant, more unpredictable. We call it ‘lowered aggression threshold’. This can spell 

So if you have the slightest inkling that your dog might be in pain, have it checked out at your vet’s earlier rather than later…. The vets will be grateful for your early action, believe me… When it comes to pain aggression, prevention is better than cure.

 a personal disaster along the lines of: “He bit me in the face out of the blue” or worse, he did this to your kid. Rough players, kids, and serial huggers are at particular risk of being at the receiving end of an ‘out-of-the-blue’ pain aggression attack. I don’t need to tell you how devastating that worst case scenario is: a trip to the emergency room for you, a broken bond with the dog, and (too often unjustifiably) euthanasia for the dog.

Pain aggression doesn’t need to go that far to be taken seriously, though. Here’s another reason I like to tackle it immediately: it can develop into ‘learnt’ aggression. When aggression has ‘emancipated itself’ from its original cause (the pain) and appears out of habit. Dogs with chronic pain, for example, can have learnt to be defensive of the space around them even when they are not in pain. Waiting until the aggression is no longer clearly traceable to pain makes a diagnosis and treatment trickier for the veterinarian and the behaviourist.

So if you have the slightest inkling that your dog might be in pain, have it checked out at your vet’s earlier rather than later. Be as precise as possible (keep a diary with dates, signs, antecedents, duration) to help them in their diagnosis. The vets will be grateful for your early action, believe me. They, like me, wish people didn’t wait so long to come see them. Once the pain has been cleared, clear up any remaining aggression with your behaviourist.

When it comes to pain aggression, prevention is better than cure.

Further reading

The Animal Welfare Hub has put together a series of excellent on-line tutorials about dogs and pain. If you are a behaviour therapist, or another dog professional, I strongly advise you follow these:

I also keep information on dogs and pain on a Pinterest board I curate.

Posted in Veterinary care and canine first aid | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to apply for a dog training internship?

Blog post about increasing your chances when applying for a dog training internship. January 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

About 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.

Embarrassing dog training application letters

I blush when I think back of the application letters I sent when I was starting out. It was Cesar Millan this and childhood dogs that. The very things I skip over on applications that fly across my desk nowadays.

For internship positions, best stick to honesty and modesty.

So I get it. I’ve been there. Chance is if you’re applying for an internship position, it’s because you want formal experience. But you don’t think you have enough formal experience to be considered for the position so you beef up your time with dogs. But the thing is, more often than not, that backfires. For internship positions, best stick to honesty and modesty.

Want to apply for an internship at a dog training school or a dog shelter? Here are the pitfalls to avoid.

Experience: I have had dogs all my life

Don’t… Please don’t…

To illustrate my experience with dogs, let me adjoin this picture of me when I was 8

“To illustrate my experience with dogs, please find attached a picture with my dog when I was 8 years old”

… talk of your childhood dogs in your formal application letter.

It tells us you’ve lived with a dog before, and that’s good, but that’s about it. That’s kind of like applying for a daycare position on the basis that you looked after your brothers and sisters when you were little.

All childhood dogs really tell us is that your parents, not you, have experience with raising dogs. Yes, even if they were vets, breeders, trainers. Allow me to put my biologist’s hat on here: experience is not genetically transmitted (if you forget epigenetics, but I digress).

So not only are childhood dogs largely irrelevant, but it can backfire in the following ways:

  1. The more ink you devote to childhood dogs, the more attention it draws to your lack of professional experience. That’s ironic as the reason you brought it up in the first place was to beef up your experience.
  2. It could look look like you don’t value formal experience. Again, quite ironic as you are applying in the hope of gaining formal experience.

So one short line about having had dogs all your life is fine and relevant, but don’t wax lyrical.

Experience: helping with problem dogs

The potential pitfall here is that you are tempted to inflate this and end up inadvertently admitting to unethical professional conduct, admitting to having intervened in a case outside of your competence.

Having cared for a problem dog, on the other hand, is hugely relevant – again, provided you were the primary care-giver and it wasn’t your parents’ dog.

‘Project’ dogs are often the single most critical factor leading civilians to a dog behaviour specialist profession. So by all means, (briefly) write about how the problem has helped you grow and, most importantly, how it has made you realize how much you still could grow.

When it comes to experience with other people’s problem dogs, I would be more cautious. You may be admitting to having played apprentice sorcerer with another person’s dog. Admitting to having worked on a case falling outside of your competence could land you in hot waters. One candidate is not another, of course, and some come to us very experienced and with a successful track record of behaviour therapy interventions. But if you show off about having played gung-ho with a dog’s behavioural health, you might be in for a frosty welcome.

Experience: semi-professional experience

Any type of semi-professional experience with dogs is relevant. We often get applications from part-time dog walkers who are getting a taste for the profession before committing further. People who have been informally walking a few of their neighbours’ dogs for money, for example, can bring rich and varied experience to the table.

But whatever you do, don’t go too far the other way and make it look like you’re Dog’s gift to dog training because you’ve been walking your aunt’s dog a few times a week for the last two years.

Self-Education: Watch the documentaries and Google ‘research’

Telling us that you avidly watch dog behaviour documentaries and you do your own research on the internet isn’t terribly relevant. All it tells us is that you’re interested in dog behaviour. As you are offering us your time free of charge so we can have you stand outside in the cold, getting slobbered on by strangers’ dogs, we kind of assumed that was a given.

Beside giving us little in the way of relevant information, it could actually harm your application:

  1. Presenting forums and ‘info-docu-tainment’ (thank you, Tom & Cecil) as a valid source of expertise makes us wonder if you realize quite how much there is to learn (you won’t even scratch the surface if you read research papers 24/7 for the rest of your life, never mind watching Discovery once a week).
  2. Saying you do a lot of research ‘on the internet’ without mentioning sources makes us question whether you have the critical thinking skills to distinguish reliable sources from the romance, marketing, quackery and (dare-I-say-it?) pseudoscience that form 99% of the dog-related information out there.
  3. Focusing too much on informal sources of information brings attention to the very thing you are trying to compensate for: the fact that you have no formal education on the subject.
  4. But worst of all, it can give the impression that you grant as much respect to self-education as you would paper credentials. It’s fine that you haven’t yet invested on a formal education on the subject – after all, you are still trying it for size – but don’t be the “I-have-a-degree-from-the-University-of-Google” guy to people who have made that investment. It’s insulting to the professionals who didn’t take shortcuts and did jump through the hurdles of formal education, often at great personal and financial cost.
Dinosaur

“I know a lot about animal behaviour. I watch National Geographic without fail”

Saying you are a life-long fan of a particular TV program or you love a particular method can work your way if you use it to demonstrate:

  1. that dog behaviour is a long-standing passion for you, not a temporary whim.
  2. that you get your information from reputable sources (e.g. ‘The Eotvos University family dog project‘ or the ‘Quick and dirty tips do to happy, well-behaved pet‘).
  3. or that getting information from laysources has raised a lot of questions for you, and that you now want to get into it more seriously.

But whatever you do, do not present your informal interest as formal education. We know it’s not, and we hope you know that too.

Values: Read up on the dog school’s culture

Make sure you understand the school’s values before you send your application, so you don’t accidentally bring attention to a potential point of dissent too early in the process. You don’t have to agree with everything the school says, but it’s best to bring up controversial points waaaaay later in the internship, so you can ask intelligent questions about it once a rapport has been built and once you’ve got some experience.

The easiest way to get a feel for a training school’s culture is to enroll with your own dog. You can also write to them and ask if you can come take a look one evening. But as a minimum, take the time to read through the values they profess on their website. OhMyDog!’s core values, for example, are evidence-based and force-free. Basing your application for your life-long admiration for Cesar Millan might then be a slight mismatch.

Reading: Do your homework for brownie points

If the school recommends reading material on their website, try to read the books before the interview, and jot down your remarks and questions. You will come across as committed, prepared, and a critical thinker. And it is also a great way to get a feel for the school’s culture.

Stick to the school's reading list, or make your sources VERY technical and objective

‘I am not familiar with the books you recommend, but I have all the copies of Pluck and Luck!’

If you have already read a lot on dog behaviour before the interview, be sure to mention the most technical books you’ve read (handbooks, textbooks and research-based papers tend to be the most reliable).

Beware of name-dropping famous trainers or talking about the latest en-vogue methods. It could betray a lack of understanding due to inexperience. And, you could be treading on the schools’ toes if they happen to have sworn allegiance to an ‘opposing’ trainer or method.

As an evidence-based school, we stay clear of such politics, but if you quote famous trainers, we’ll be wondering whether you conflate success with merit, fame with efficacy. If you can offer an intelligent critique of various methods, it’s a different kettle of fish, but again, you could be treading stormy political waters. Best steer clear of famous names until you have been at the school for a while.

I have no formal experience or education with dogs: what do I write?

It’s OK not to have tons of experience or education for an internship position. Of course, the more you have, the more likely you will be to be taken on (one of our interns was doing her PhD’s in dog cognition and another had been a full-time trainer for years… That’s hard to beat). But in general, interns are there to learn, to get their hands dirty, to get familiar with the team.

Want to be an attractive intern? Tell us:

  • You’ve been passionate about dog behaviour for a long time (What we hear: it’s not a temporary fad).
  • You are avidly reading from technical/academic texts but are conscious of the limits of self-education, and want to take it to the next level (What we hear: you’re not a diletante).
  • You would love to come and absorb as much knowledge as you can (What we hear: you are open and modest).
  • You’ll be a fly on the wall, you won’t get in the way, and you’ll help out (What we hear: You will make our lives easier, not harder),
  • You’re thankful for the opportunity (What we hear: they know coaching interns takes extra time, and energy, and it’s good to be appreciated).

Dog training internship: don’t worry about it

Forget about what I’ve said if you’ve already applied and fell for these pitfalls. 99% of the applications we get do – including the ones I sent myself back in the days.

If the training school is not too insecure about their values, they’ll likely welcome people from all walks of life provided the interns don’t jeopardize the quality of the students’ experience. So not all interns have to be the perfect fit, on the contrary. A little diversity is fabulous.

But one thing is for sure: if I get two applications on my desk and have to make a choice, I know which one would get my heart racing faster and wonder if that could be my next head trainer.

Want to give it a go? Do you live in The Hague? See if you can’t put my advice into practice and apply for an internship position with us.

Illutration credits

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Meet Anouck Haverbeke: interview with a veterinary ethologist

Interview with veterinary ethologist Anouck Haverbeke, Conducted February 2015, published December 2015.
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References at the end of the post

Anouck, veterinary ethologist

Anouck was one of my lecturers at the Postgraduate dip. in Applied Companion Animal Behaviour. She is a board-certified veterinary behaviourist and has a doctorate in ethology. To top it all, Anouck is perfectly quadrilingual – and I mean perfectly – in Flemish, French, English and Spanish. It’s fair to say that Anouck is a biiiiig hitter in Eureopean behaviour medicine for companion animals.

Anouck passport size

Anouck runs Vet Ethology, a behaviour therapy practice for horses, cats and dogs in Overijse, Belgium (close to Brussels). Anouck is also a regular animal behaviour and welfare speaker on the international lecture circuit. Her current research interests focus on veterinary olfactory aromatherapy (i.e. investigating the efficacy of essential oils to improve the human-animal relationship).

I wanted to let my readers find out more about Anouck’s work, as she is one of the most qualified behaviourists in the region, and an immensely approachable person.

Ethologist? Vet behaviourist? Two hats, one woman

LV – So you have one husband, three kids, one Labrador, four horses, countless bees, and until recently, chickens. That’s quite the family. No cats?

AH – It’s not for lack of wanting them, but my husband is allergic…

LV – Ouch. So, you live with quite a few species, and you are also treat a bunch of them. With your impressive animal behaviour CV, what do you call yourself: ethologist or vet behaviourist?

AH – I am just a veterinary specialist in animal behaviour. I don’t really call myself an ethologist, eventhough I have a PhD in ethology.

LV – You have invested years of your life and significant funds in your education. How do you feel when owners of dogs with serious behaviour problems take advice from their friends or television, often with disastrous consequences?

Bees

It’s not all about mammals, Anouck also keeps bees

AH – I explain to them that we have been studying the particular behaviour problem their animal is showing rigorously, and that we have investigated what interventions is most likely to be effective for it. But at the same time I tell them I understand their doubts. I tell them that they can see working with me as an experiment. If it doesn’t work, at least they will know they will have tried. 

… they can see working with me as an experiment. If it doesn’t work, at least they will know they will have tried. 

LV – That’s a nice approach. Because if you start making arguments about the hierarchy of evidence, or try to make the case for evidence-based behavioural medicine through some other angle, you risk distancing people or losing them in the technicalities. In my experience, clients resist when you try to try to speak from a position of authority, no matter how logical it might be.

AH – Yes, absolutely. And, about people taking advice from the layman, it reminds me of new mothers being assailed with conflicting child rearing advice from all corners. What I try to do instead is empathise with how the the person herself is experiencing the situation. I give them the choice because, in a way, they have the answer. They ultimately know what approach is the best fit for them. Sure we can bring scientific evidence forward, but people know what’s right for them.

A typical day at the animal behaviour practice

LV – Take me through your process. What steps do you go through on a typical case?

AH – We start with a short phone conversation, then I send them a questionnaire. Once I have processed their answers, we meet face-to-face. That is when I make my recommendations and explain them. I also share my prognosis of the case – some problems can be handled quicker than others.

LV – On average, how many consults does it take for the owners to be able to take it further without further help?

AH – It really depends on the problem. For house soiling, for example, it’s more about changing the environment so they usually don’t need to come see me again. And for cats, it’s generally just one consult.

But for dog aggression cases it can be five or six sessions. If it is training-related, I really want to give the owners solid skills to become independent from me as quickly as possible.

LV – Are there cases where the prognosis is so poor there is little justification in proceeding with treatment?

AH – They are quite rare but they do exist.

LV – Talk me through a case that really struck you, positive or negative. A case that’s stuck with you.

Anouck's extremely placid Labrador. He even came to a lecture!

Anouck’s extremely placid Labrador. He even came to one of our lectures!

AH – This case in particular really touched me. Three years ago, a lady came to see me about her Dobermann cross. Her trainer had sent her to me. I went to her home and to see her work with the dog at the training club, and they were using quite harsh training methods. I witnessed the dog biting her when she was trying to put on his Gentle Leader.

LV – You go to their place? That is fantastic. Most vet behaviourists see clients at the practice only, and never get to see the dog in his or her environment. But do continue.

AH – It was plain to see that the lady was actually getting afraid of her dog. So I asked her to stop using confrontational training techniques and we started focusing on the relationship instead. That was the core issue, and that was the turning point.

I called her recently and she did not only tell me that she had grown much closer to her dog, but also to the people around her.

… she had grown much closer to her dog, but also to the people around her.

What I loved about this case was how well it illustrated something I see a lot: a dog helping their person become aware of a problem, focus on it, and grow. She said “Thank you, the work we did together was amazing”. That’s why I love this job. We’re not just working on the animals. The animals are also helping us help the owners.

Aromatherapy for animal behaviour problems

LV – You have been working hard on a project using aromatherapy to help alleviate behaviour problems. Tell me about that.

AH – The research literature provides much evidence for essential oils working directly on the limbic system (in the amygdala, to be precise). This has been demonstrated in zoo animals (Wells, 2009), kennelled cats (Ellis, 2009), horses (Ferguson et al., 2013), and kennelled dogs (Graham et al., 2005).

I had been using them to decrease behaviour problems and improve the animal-human relationship for five years when I took the project further and started developing my own blends. We now have nine blends in diffuser and spray form.

Arhomani

LV – There is a lot of push-back on aromatherapy from the scientific skeptics community, do you intend on conducting your own research?

AH – Yes. We have applied for funding for a postdoctorate study to demonstrate the positive effect of aromatherapy on kenneled dogs’ welfare.

LV – How will you measure effectivity?

AH – We hypothesize a decrease in stress-related signal, the dogs’ activity, salivary cortisol, and anxiety- and aggression-related behaviour problems and a decrease in the dog’s postural confidence indicators. We also hypothesize that treatment will have a positive effect on the behaviour of the dogs’ human handler (increased emotional stability, decreased anxiety), which would improve the relationship of the treated animals with their handlers, providing a secondary factor for welfare improvement.  

LV – How do you see these results being applied, if the study supports your hypothesis?

AH – We hope aromatherapy will become widely used to help puppies and adult dogs acclimate in their new homes after an adoption. There is also enormous potential for managing service dogs, for preventing behaviour problems in pet dogs. And we are hoping aromatherapy won’t be limited to dogs, but will also start being used more widely with cats, horses, exotic animals, and other captive animals.

From generalist to veterinary behaviourist

LV – When did you decide to specialise in behaviour?

AH – As a first-year vet student, I already knew. Ethology fascinated me in a way that no other topic did.

LV – Did they already have an ethology module at the Ghent Vet Faculty in when you were an undergrad? I know formal knowledge on applied ethology is not a standard part of the average Dutch generalist vets’ bag of tricks.

AH – Yes, they did. But it was just thirty hours in the first year. Things have probably moved on quite a bit since then. Actually, I focus more and more on opening the world of behaviour to generalist veterinarians: I teach Veterinary Behavioural Medicine with two training institutes (Improve International and 2Learn). Behaviour is steadily gaining more importance among veterinarians, particularly in the past few years. It’s really encouraging.

So my love for ethology stuck through vet school and by the time I was about to graduate, I knew I really wanted to do a PhD in Ethology. But places were scant.

LV – Nothing’s changed there… I have been trying to find a PhD position for my own canine cognition research for years, but funding is extremely dry and places close to home are few and far between.

But with such a fascination for ethology, what did you end up writing your grad school thesis about?

0 Anouck horse

AH – I co-authored a paper on the correlation between grooming and lowered heart rate in horses. I went to Madrid to do that research, together with prof. Miguel Ibañez. He is the one who said to me: “The best way to become a better human is to study the way animals live and work together”. 

The best way to become a better human is to study the way  animals live and work together (Prof. Miguel Ibañez)

LV – So once you graduated and there were no ethology PhD spots right away, what did you end up doing with your time?

AH – I did interim postings as a GP vet for about four months, then I got the opportunity to go to Congo for eight months. I got to live in the field, with fifty chimps. It was real applied ethology, and I had the time of my life.

LV – Wow! That’s hard to top. What did you do afterwards?

AH – I worked as a GP vet again, but in Paris this time. It was tough, though, as my then-boyfriend/now-husband was in Belgium. And I missed Belgium a lot.

Researching positive training methods in military dogs

LV – So that’s when you came back and started the PhD?

AH – Yes, in 2002. It focused on the impact of dog training techniques on the welfare of working dogs.

LV – Tell me about that research.

AH – The Belgian Ministry of Defense asked how they could optimize their training methods to improve the welfare and performance situation of their dogs. I designed a program focusing on improving the human-dog collaboration using more positive methods. I also designed environmental enrichment steps, and trained the handlers’ in the principles of learning and operant conditioning. The funny thing is, we didn’t just see the dogs’ welfare improve, but the handlers’ too. They were much more satisfied with their work with the dogs once we’d switched to more positive methods.

LV – What was the situation before your proposed changes?

AH – Many of the dogs were trained with an e-collar. Many were under-trained, fearful, aggressive or understimulated. Many even only got to go out of their kennels every four days or so.

LV – Oh, those are not welfare-optimal conditions, indeed.

So how did you measure the effectiveness of your program?

GSD 2

Working dogs need to be stable, not stressed out and fearful

AH – We had the dogs pass the standard military certification test before and after the study (a year later). We also took cortisol and ACTH measures, and we looked at posture at behaviour and posture by filming the dogs in their kennels before and after. We also conducted Netto and Planta’s MAG aggression test (see references).

LV – What behavioural measures did you analyse in your footage?

AH – We looked at stereotypies, and common stress signs like yawning, panting, or lip-licking. And we looked at the dogs’ posture.

LV – Did you find the handlers were apt at reading their dog’s body language?

AH – Actually many described fearful dogs as ‘dominant’ and ‘courageous’. This was extremely relevant, as scared dogs are not reliable service dogs, and can even be dangerous on the front lines.

LV – Did you have any control over your training protocol being consistently applied? Did you have oversight of what training methods were being used outside of your recordings?

AH – We couldn’t control that but we kept a close watch on the dogs’ posture and on the dog-handler relationship and we saw improvement in many cases.

LV – Was there a control group?

AH – Yes. We asked 50 teams of dog-handler to implement our environmental enrichment measures, to train more positively, to train more often, and to attend the workshops.

The control group was 50 dogs-handler teams who were asked to just keep doing what they had always been doing.

LV – Could you observe an effect?

AH – Yes. The dogs in the intervention group started carrying themselves more confidently, had higher obedience scores, displayed less aggressive behaviour, and showed lower levels of stress across all measures. They also seemed to cope better with stress than the dogs in the control group, and, when they did get stressed, they recovered more quickly.

Psychopharmacology and complementary medicine

LV – As a non-veterinary behaviourist, I sometimes see animals who need a psychopharmacological adjuvant in parallel with behaviour therapy. This is difficult as I am not a licensed veterinarian, but most generalists are not trained in psychopharmacology.

AH – Yes, that’s a delicate situation. I can relate in a sense. I had a colleague refer a patient to me and I was astonished about the medication this dog was on. It it had been up to me, this dog would have been on no medication at all.

LV – It can be tricky. Sometimes, I see vets prescribe tranquilizers for panic for example, or downright refuse to even contemplate psychopharmacological treatment… And as much as generalists need to become more comfortable with psychopharmacology, many vet behaviourists have the reputation of being too quick to go for the pills.

Where would you say you fall on this spectrum? Do you have clear guidelines for what makes a dog a suitable candidate for psychopharmacological treatment?

AH – I restrict the stronger psychopharmacological adjuvants to only very, very, very difficult cases. In 95% of my cases, I use either only training or a combination of training with over-the-counter treatments. And the patients I see tend to show profound behaviour problems.

LV – Over-the-counter products like Zylkène? [feeding supplement with reasonably well-supported evidence for its anxiolytic efficacy, red.]

… I would not continue using them [complementary and alternative medicines, red.] if they weren’t working. But I see amazing results with it.

AH – Yes, for example. I will prescribe phytotherapy, homeopathy, aromatherapy, flower essences… It really depends on each dog and their owner.

LV – The use of complementary and alternative medicine is a stark contrast with the stance of many veterinary behaviourists. How do you deal with criticism about the lack of demonstrated efficacy of homeopathy in formal research, for example?

AH – I can only tell you that I would not continue using them [complementary and alternative medicines, sic.] if they weren’t working. But I see amazing results with it.

Training

LV – So you use principally training and the learning principles to help patients. What sort of methods do you typically use? I assume a lot of counter-conditioning and desensitization, then putting an incompatible response under strong operant control?

AH – Yes, those are the main lines of approach.

LV – And do you collaborate closely with dog trainers?

AH – I work with four or five trainers, maximum. I love it when a good trainer can take over and keeps me informed. But I really need to trust that person first. When the trust is there, it’s amazing what we can achieve together.

LV – Oh absolutely. In my view, the best behavioural care an animal can get is when a trainer and a veterinary behaviourist team up. But not everyone can afford it.

AH – Yes absolutely. For me, though, an intervention is 95% training, and I advise on the training aspects too.

0 Vet Ethology

LV – But the animal needs a formal diagnosis and analysis process, which is where the behaviourist comes into it, right?

AH – Yes. But, in my work, I am responsible for the diagnosis, treatment and training advice myself. It allows me to follow the owner and their animal for longer and that really improves the prognosis. But again, when I do trust a trainer, I am happy to work with them and pass the training part to them.

LV – A lot of people really have no idea about what to expect of a behaviour specialist. What is the misconception you hear most often? 

…it’s a science-based subject that helps you better understand the animal world, and so improve the animal-human relationship.

AH – I hear this one a lot: “Ah, you’re a shrink for animals then?”

I never really know how to answer that. In a way, it doesn’t really matter: I know what I do. But if they’re interested, I explain that it’s a science-based subject, that it helps you understand the animal world better, which improves the animal-human relationship.

Getting in touch with Anouck

  • Behavioural consults for cats, horses, and dogs: Vet Ethology
  • Veterinary aromatherapy products: Arhomani

References and bibliography

(Citations to all of Anouck’s publications can be found here)

External references:

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