Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging

Who am I

My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat dog specialist based in the Hague (the Netherlands).
For a detailed bio, click on About me.

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.

So what qualifies me to write about dogs? I have done A LOT OF self-study, but I also have formal qualifications (professional and academic).

What do I write about?

My specialist subjects are:

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

I also write about:

  • Veterinary care;
  • Dog sports;
  • Dog breeds; and
  • Dogs in society (am a bit of a philosophy nut).

To find the articles

  • Click on a category such as ‘Dog breeds’ or ‘Dogs in the news’ (list on the top-right corner), or
  • Scroll down to browse through all articles (latest on top)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, or in disagreement they might be.

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.

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High expectations and puppy training: a match made in hell

Blog post about turning dog owners away from the demons of perfectionism
By Laure-Anne Visele, November 2014

From shameful pup to model student

My colleague at OhMyDog! told me something great last night. A student had walked in ready to murder her pup and asked: “Is that behaviour normal for a pup?”

Three weeks later, and the next set of overwhelmed beginners come in and ask “Is our dog’s behaviour really normal? Shouldn’t our pup be more like hers?” Guess who that model pup was? Yup, the lady who was screaming bloody murder three weeks before.

©Matt Hosford

©Matt Hosford

Dog training first aid

We spot the high-expectation owners immediately. They barge onto the field tangled up in the puppy’s leash, swearing under their breath and ready to sell the dog to the highest bidder. They expected puppy cuteness and deference. They got puppy tantrums and defiance.

They’re embarrassed, frustrated, … conflicted. It’s tough standing in a force-free school when you have canine murder on your mind. We can see them think: “I wanted to walk in like the calm and collected trainer of a Lassie. What the hell am I doing wrong and who gave me this lemon of a dog?”

That’s where our interns swoop in to give ‘dog training first aid’. We trained them in zooming in on the biggest problem, and fixing it quickly. Once the pup is settled, the embarrassment and frustration magically lift and the owner can relax, and take the lesson in.

©nomadic lass

©nomadic lass

That tantrum-to-settle moment is an epiphany for the owners. It gives them a little bit of hope, makes them feel a little bit empowered. So they try a spot of troubleshooting themselves. When it works, they think: “I’ll try doing my dog training homework too. You never know” (yes, we give homework) They try out the results the week after, and blow me down, the pup is performing like a little Ferrari! So they practice some more and, come the third week, the latest newbies come in and ask: “Why can’t my dog be more like yours?” Three short weeks after they were ready to throw in the towel…

A leap of faith

As instructors, we get a kick out of that transformation moment. We know how hard it is to take a leap of faith and change the way you do things; to get away from nagging and getting in coaching mode.

With every puppycidal owner who walks onto our field we take our own leap of faith: “Will we be able to turn this one around?” Time and time again, our students prove to us what their pups prove to them: we were right to invest in them.

Help with dog behaviour in and around The Hague

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague). I also run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus for clients in and around The  Hague.

I graduated in Zoology, certified as a dog training instructor, and got a postgraduate specialization in applied companion animal behaviour.

When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

If you’d like some help with your dog’s behaviour in The Hague or region, get in touch. I use evidence-based and force-free methods so your dog gets the best chance of success. Find out more on my training page.

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

The helpdesk syndrome of dog training

Blog post about the sod’s law of dog training
By Laure-Anne Visele, November 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

I swear he never does that!

That all-too familiar phrase. The one you hear your friend mutter as her dog is humping your leg underneath what’s left of your Sunday best trousers.

I’ve noticed the opposite too: when my clients want to show me the problem all is quiet on the misbehaviour front. It’s like just having called the dog trainer made the problem disappear… Until the trainer in question is out the door. This makes teaching how to stop a dog from jumping up a legendary headache among trainers, as the pups tend to chose that moment to offer the world’s most beautiful unprompted sits…

Training Munchausen by proxy

Owners can describe your dog’s behaviour until their face goes blue, nothing beats letting the trainer seeing it with their own eyes. So we try to set the dog up when it’s safe and ethical. Sure enough, nine times out of ten, sweet nothing happens then and Fido behaves like butter wouldn’t melt.

©Beverly & Pack (Flickr CC)

©Beverly & Pack (Flickr CC)

I can practically hear my client frantically thinking: “She’s going to think I have training Munchausen by proxy. Go on, Fido, misbehave already!”

It’s like when you call PC support only for your PC to magically start working again. And the second helpdesk guy is out the door, Mr. computer goes all “error 50210″ again. And don’t get me started on Doctors’ midnight house calls.

Aherm, this is a class for REACTIVE dogs

I had to chuckle today when I was on the client end of the deal. I was having my own dog screened for a reactive dogs class and he just wouldn’t show any reactivity. The problem I’d like fixed is tiny but I figured it would be a nice way of getting back in a class environment. It’s just that he chases everything and everyone away if I lie down on a blanket in the grass to read a book in the park. The second I stand up, he’s an angel. But for some reason, he feels the need to defend me when am lying down.

The trainer was trying to play the stranger but Rodge was having none of it, ingratiating himself to him no matter what angle he approached us from. I was amused by catching myself having that exact same thought my clients sometimes admit to me: “He’s not going to believe me and I am looking verrrrry weird right now.”

©eleni boulasiki (Flickr CC)

©eleni boulasiki (Flickr CC)

I suspect what’s happening is that the trainer is never a fresh stranger as they’ve spent a bit of time chatting with the owners before the test. And I also hope that most trainers are pretty on-target with putting dogs at ease. We tend to automatically offer appeasement postures in response to signs of stress in the dog, sometimes without even realizing it.

It got me thinking: “Maybe there’s a market for fresh strangers”. It’s a good job opportunity for someone who doesn’t mind being jumped on, barked at, or knocked over. The good news is it’s for the good of canine-kind. The bad news is… am not paying you!

Dog behaviour problem? Get in touch

If you’d like some help with your dog’s behaviour and you’re located in The Hague or region, get in touch. I use evidence-based and force-free methods so the dog gets the best behavioural care possible. You can find out how it all works on my training page. And of course, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to offer your services as a fresh stranger!

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Latest dog book review is out: 101 dog tricks

Book review announcement on Kyra Sundance’s “101 dog tricks”
By Laure-Anne Visele, November 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

101 Dog Tricks

Kyra Sundance is a famous dog trainer and I was curious about her tricks book. I loved that it was illustrated and very very very well designed. It used too much prompting for my liking though (pushing the dog’s rump down for a sit, instead of luring him there or just capturing a spontaneous sit). Still, it had tons of tricks, it was well-illustrated and extremely well explained.

Check out the full review here. Happy reading!

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Latest book review is out: Do as I do

Book review announcement on “Do as I do”
By Laure-Anne Visele, October 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Do as I do

“Do as I do” is Claudia Fugazza’s baby. She’s a dog training cum ethology researcher – the bee’s knees when it comes to understanding applied dog behaviour. She refined a dog training technique that cuts teaching time to a fraction of what it used to be.

The technique couldn’t be more elegant: you show to your dog what you’d like him to do, then ask him to imitate you. This is revolutionizing the service dog industry, among other training sectors: you could teach the dog to empty the washing machine by showing him, instead of painstakingly breaking it down into its component behaviour and teaching each part separately.

The book is tiny, so you should be done in a day or so. It teaches you how to teach your dog this wonderful skill, as well as the history behind the discovery of the technique in research. A little dry, but light on jargon and definitely accessible to motivated dog owners. The book also comes with a DVD to demonstrate the techniques. Anyone who’s anyone in dog training has already started cross-training to DAID, so don’t be left behind and get reading!

You can read the full review here.

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Latest dog book review is out: When pigs fly

Book review announcement on ‘When pigs fly…” dog training manual
By Laure-Anne Visele, October 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

When pigs fly: Training success with impossible dogs

Killion When pigs fly“When pigs fly” was written by Jane Killion, an internationally successful  dog trainer. She promotes capitalizing on what hyper dogs find intrinsically rewarding to turn them into best-in-class obedience champions. She also uses minimal prompting of the dog and prefers catching the dog in the act of performing the desired behaviour instead – having created a clever set up beforehand of course. Very ambitious program, but great chapters explaining the clicker and other training concepts and techniques for beginners. I recommend it.

You can read the complete review for ‘When pigs fly’ here.

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Latest book review is out: Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals

Book review announcement on manual for behavioural medicine
By Laure-Anne Visele, October 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals

Overall Clinical 1e‘Clinical…’ is a class is among vets and trainers dealing with dog behaviour problems. It’s a tough read though: it’s thick, it’s dense, and it’s – well – clinical. Over the years, it has gone on to acquire DSM-like fame (the DSM is the diagnostic classification manual for human psychological/psychiatric disorders). More reference material rather than bedside reading, ‘Clinical…’ is a complete must-have for the dog behaviour professional who wants a diagnosis-treatment approach to his/her interventions.

You can read the full review here

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Dog experts and gynecologists

OpEd piece on qualifications in the dog behaviour professions in the Netherlands
By Laure-Anne Visele, Oct 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus.

I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour.

When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Education vs. guts: another polarizing trend

I’ve had this discussion with a big name in the local industry lately. Someone I admire; someone who certifies great behaviourists. I think he was calling for:

  • less certifications / more practice,
  • less seminars / more experience,
  • less head / more heart.

I could hear what he was saying, but it alarmed me. Taken too far, does it mean disregarding certifications, forgetting about new ideas and throwing away skepticism?

Less certifications / More practice

Many dog behaviour pros resist the idea of a protected profession. I get why: the certification bodies churn out many less-than-perfect professionals, so why bother getting certified?

For a long time I wondered the same thing. It’s slim pickings out there when you’re looking for a great certification program. You have a choice between the:

  • Strong on the practical side but oh-so-weak on the theory.
  • Glorified personality cults.
  • Appallingly disorganized but academically top-notch.
  • Great all-round, but not taken seriously in academia/professional community.
  • Oh, and most disagree with each other on core points…

I ended up with a postgraduate program for Applied Behaviourists, It is recognized by insurance companies and universities, and heavily science-focused. Ideal for me as I want to go into research and have a science background.

Having started the course with some experience and having reviewed tons of books, I just wanted a piece of paper to certify my knowledge. I didn’t think I’d learn anything new. It turns out it taught me lots. I came out a better therapist.

Sure my fellow students graduated with too little experience. Having a degree does not make you a fully-fledged professional. But at least you have solid foundations upon which to start your career.


How can having a certification decrease the quality of your services?

  • Experience + degree = two
  • Experience + no degree = one
  • No experience + degree = one
  • No experience + no degree = zero

Our clients and their dogs deserve a two, don’t they? Better to be inexperienced but certified, than neither experienced nor certified, right? And isn’t the best scenario experienced and certified?

I would support market regulation if I never again have to hear anyone say: “My dog hates other dogs more now. The trainer before you told us to jerk his leash every time he barked at one.”

Am not saying every certified pro would avoid that approach, nor that every self-made pro would advise leash-jerking, but most certifications steer away from force nowadays so that’s one more buffer against abuse in training.

Less seminars / More experience

Seminars: it’s as good as the speaker

Like the certification market, the seminar scene is tough to navigate: you have to avoid personality cults and fad techniques. But attending the right seminar once in a while is great for networking, re-framing your approach, and staying on top of developments.

Some people are so seminar-obsessed they need a second mortgage to keep up with the habit. And they have little time to digest it and check it against reality. Does that make them better professionals? Not sure.

Do seminars replace experience? Also not. But even the most senior professional must prove he is keeping up – same with veterinarians, and… gynecologists.

Less head / More heart

The all-books-and-no-experience guy who thinks himself infallible is insufferable, granted. There’s different degrees of reliability and research findings are far from flawless – more on how I feel about that here (in Dutch). You have to weigh the merit of the research paper (that’s four hours of your life you’ll never get again) and one paper gives you absolutely no certainty.  And sure, attending seminars really is just listening to someone else’ fallible opinion so why reject your own fallible judgement for someone else’s?

"Never ignore a gut feeling but never believe it's enough" Kermit the frog (Photo by Kevin Galens, Flickr CC

“Never ignore a gut feeling but never believe it’s enough” Kermit the frog (Photo by Kevin Galens, Flickr CC)

But if psychology has taught us anything, it’s that gut feeling is the least reliable way of evaluating the world. Myths and old wife’s tales rely on gut feelings. We think it’s instinct but most often it’s just confirmation bias.

FallaciesAs an (annoying) skeptic, I treat my gut feeling like a working hypothesis: I try to reject it and if I can’t, maybe I’m onto something. I’ve been through the belief -> check -> discomfirmation cycle so often that I need reliable evidence for even the obvious things before I consider them fact. Like Matt Dillahunty says “I try to believe as many true things as possible, and reject as many false things as possible” The hardcore skeptic road is arduous: it’s frustrating, it’s slow, it’s unpopular, it’s confusing, and it’s not… instinctive.

So I boringly present every diagnosis like this: “This is my interpretation based on X. Those are signs of Y, which would mean that Z is most suitable for you and your dog.” It doesn’t sound as snappy as calling out my first impression, which was “Stop treating your dog like a spoiled kid”. Sometimes the gut feeling was right and the dog is just unruly and in need of boundaries. But first I’ll try to rule out the alternatives before I call it. More often than not, when you scratch beyond the surface, you see a dog who’s scared out of his wits and who is suffering.

So pro-experiencers also think formal training is good, but they feel experience counts for a lot more and that what was taught should be discarded if it doesn’t match with what is felt. That’s where I say “Wow there. Can we slow this down a minute?”

Why the post?

I get nervous with calls for more instinct and less education in a profession that is already so unregulated, and that deals with aggression cases. Sure, experience matters. A lot. But let’s not start putting down the ones who are trying to complement that with book knowledge.

You wouldn’t trust the still-wet-behind-the-ears junior obstetrician to handle a complicated delivery. But you won’t trust it to the local witch doctor either, right? No matter how experienced he is.

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

Latest dog book review is out: How the dog became the dog

Shout-out about book review on dog’s evolutionary history
By Laure-Anne Visele, October 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

How the dog became the dog

Gargantuan survey of the body of knowledge on how dogs evolved, by Mark Derr. I have read it with a mix of pleasure and drudgery. It gets very technical, but offers a masterly critique on the relevant research. It approaches the topic from multiple disciplines like archaeology, molecular biology, history, and sociology. Very ambitious work.

You can read the full review hereDerr - How dog became dog

Posted in Dog writing, Science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dog jealousy: not a myth after all?

Quick review of a research paper on dogs and jealousy (Harris & Prouvost, 2014)
By Laure-Anne Visele, Sep 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run my own canine behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus.

I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour.

When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Healthy skepticism


By Bright Strangely, Flickr CC

Until recently, you would be accused of anthropomorphism if you dared call a dog ‘jealous’.

Good little skeptic that I am, I steered clear of the jealous label no matter how close to jealousy the dog’s behaviour really seemed. There just wasn’t enough peer-reviewed experimental research backing up their ability for such a cognitive feat.

So even if it looked and felt like jealousy, I wouldn’t allow myself to definitively interpret it as jealousy. A typical question I got from clients was this: “Is my dog being jealous when he squeezes in between me and my kid?” And my only answer was: up till now, there’s not been very good evidence that they can feel jealousy. It may just be that he’s coming in for a ‘group hug’ or be motivated by some other reason we can’t fathom.

But in July 2014, Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost published a paper that’s changed my answer to: “You know what? It’s quite possible.”

Research design

Plush dog

By PDPicx, Pixabay CC

Harris and Prouvost see jealousy as an evolutionary adaptation to secure a valued relationship spanning beyond just romantic bonds. As most dogs rely on just one human care-giver, it would make sense if they evolved jealous feelings (and the associated behaviour) towards that human.

Prouvost and Harris tested this by borrowing a classic child psychology set-up: have the prized person interact with a ‘rival’ child or doll and see if the kid protests, tries to restore contact with their person and/or to block the doll’s access to that prized person.

The July 2014 dog study tried to find differences between dogs in two different groups:

  1. Usurper conditions: The owners interact with a fake dog;
  2. No-usurper-conditions: The owners interact with a random (non dog-like) object.

That design seemed reasonable in capturing the simplest components of jealousy. I was still on board.

The results

Two big trends came out: in the usurper set-up, the dogs displayed a lot of more of this:

  • Attention-seeking behaviour: nose pushing, squeezing themselves between their owner and the usurper; and
  • Aggression towards the object.


Diogenes dog skepticism

By Tony F, Wiki Commons

They concluded that dogs could show some primitive form of jealousy.

The anthropomorphism paranoia was still nagging me so I tried to think of alternative explanations, one more twisted than another. But in doing so, I was breaking the Occam’s razor rule: the simplest explanation is, if not the most plausible, at least the most elegant. In other words, I was bending over backwards to try to find an elusive alternative explanation when perhaps, just perhaps, things were just as they seemed. Perhaps dogs who appear to behave jealous are being jealous

After careful consideration, I am going to accept Harris and Prouvost’s conclusions as the best reasonable explanation to date. If convincing research comes out in support of another explanation, I’ll evaluate that one on its own merits too. The beauty of the scientific method: go where the evidence is and review your opinion to fit the latest facts.

In other words, Harris and Prouvost may definitely be onto something.

Possible improvements

Experimental set-ups can always be improved upon, and this one is no exception. The sample size was quite small, and their body language interpretations were a little speculative (e.g. raised tail was logged as aggression).

Still, it didn’t change the basic fact that dogs behaved differently when their owners interacted with a (plush) dog. That fated plush dog was in fact my biggest problem with their design. Using real dogs would have been a lot more representative of a real-life situation. They addressed that point openly in their paper, though, so kudos to them for their intellectual integrity and let’s see that point addressed in future research. That’s science for ya: a bunch of delightfully pedantic kids keeping each other in line.

But putting all criticism aside, my money is on Harris’ and Prouvost’s conclusion: I think other papers will confirm their findings. Anyone want to bet?

Torturing babies

One last little nugget for y’all: that same set-up (mom is engaged with a doll, rather than with any other object) was done on six month-old human babies to make them jealous. So, if you have a baby at home and fancy feeling sciencey, try it out. Just don’t blame me if you get social services at your door: blame Harris and Prouvost.


The original paper is free, short and jargon-free. Even if you’re not sciencey, give it a go and see what it feels like to read from the original research paper.

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

Geriatric zootherapy: fighting elderly isolation one dog at a time

Interview with Caroline Kilsdonk, geriatry zootherapist
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Aug 2014. Release date Sep 2014


I am a dog trainer and canine behaviour therapist. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got my postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.


This portrait is part of a series of talks with dog professionals around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkers, assistance dog trainers, and university lecturers. I have these chats to get you a fly-on-the-wall view of what goes on in the world of pet professionals and their various specializations.


Caroline has a lot of hats on: she is a trained vet, wife, mother of four, bioethics Masters student and zootherapist. Caroline lives in French Canada with her family and two dogs.

Our paths met through Human Side of Dog Training, an on-line peer-coaching group where trainers help each other navigate delicate client-trainer interactions. When I discovered she shared my addiction to learning, behaviour and philosophy, I grew even more intrigued. And then I found out what she does: zootherapy. I HAD to have a chat.

Read on as Caroline shares the special moments. If it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, let me promise you this: you’ll never forget to call Grandma again.



LV: So who’s living at the Kilsdonks’ at the moment?

CK: There’s my husband and myself, and then there’s my 24-year old son and his wife who are living with us temporarily. My other son is also visiting (he studies in the Netherlands). And then there’s my two daughters (20 and 16 years old).

LV: How about the furries?

CK: There’s our two giant poodles: Leeloo (four years old) & Laïla (three years old). They’re sisters. I also regularly foster another poodle (Marylin). Then she tags along to the zootherapy visits.


LV: You trained as a vet and now you’re a zootherapist. Can you talk me through?

01 not psychotherapyCK: I graduated in veterinary medicine in 1992, then worked in clinics. I also taught veterinary technicians at a College for a few years. That’s the period I had my kids and my husband was finishing off his studies so we were really busy.

LV: How did you train to work in zootherapy? What sort of knowledge did you pick up before you started?

CK: I graduated in (human) gerontology [medical and psychological aspects of aging] and followed in zootherapy certifications. I also attended hundreds of hours of conferences, congresses and seminars on animal behaviour. So I am straddling the human and animal worlds.

LV: Did you get trained in counselling skills? You deal with people at their most emotionally vulnerable. That must be tough.

CK: We did get some counselling training, to teach us how to offer psychological support. But I am very mindful of not overstepping any boundaries when I work. I am not a psychotherapist. It’s more like informal counseling, being a good ear.

LV: So how did you get your first real-life experience in zootherapy?

01CK: I organized dog-child interaction workshops at primary schools. It wasn’t therapy but it got me to see how the dogs experienced it.

When I saw how much they enjoyed it, I volunteered as zootherapist in long-term geriatric care. After a while, they offered to remunerate me. And then word of mouth did the rest and three other centers asked for my services.

LV: So what is your job title? What do you call your job when people ask?

CK: I find it tricky. The word ‘therapist’ makes it sound like I offer psychotherapy. ‘Therapy’ is central in that it promotes the well-being of the persons we see, but it’s not psychotherapy. I don’t have access to medical files of the people or anything, I am not a formal part of the therapeutic team.

LV: So where do the visits fit within the processes of the care centres?

CK: Part of it is that the dogs fit with the homely, convivial atmosphere the centres try to create. Care centres are ‘Milieux de vie’ [live-in care centres rather than medical establishments]. They do their utmost to make it feel like home for the residents – not like a hospital.

LV: Is it a protected profession?

CK: No. Anyone can call themselves a zootherapist.

And there’s no pure definition of it. So I am very careful not to exaggerate any benefits or cross any boundaries. I like this new Québec law that was passed two years ago. It states that you may not call yourself a psychotherapist unless you are a member of the relevant professional board. That has clarified things a lot.


LV: Are you studying anything on the side right now? Knowing your penchants, I won’t believe you if you say no.

CK: I am studying for a Master’s in Bioethics. And then of course I am following a few courses on Coursera.

LV: I am so addicted to Coursera! My friends and family even held an intervention: I have a sponsor keeping me in line. How many are you doing right now?

CK: [Silence, then, in a hush…] Five.

Caroline and her dogLV: At the same time?! [I hushed back, after having looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was listening] I am doing three at the moment.

CK: [Starts laughing, then, speaking like a true addict] In my defense, I have just been following the lectures and not doing the assignments. I’ll keep doing that as long as I’m doing my Master’s. And whatever research I do as a result of Coursera I can always re-use for my studies.

LV: Oh it IS useful. And we’re NOT being unreasonable. [laughs] But seriously. Your background makes you a great candidate for getting board-certified as a vet behaviourist. Have you contemplated this?

CK: I wouldn’t want to specialize in one thing just yet. I want to keep a wide perspective at the moment.


LV: Aside from your studies, do you work in animal-assisted therapy full-time?

02 cant fakeCK: No. With the kind of personalisation and emotional intensity I put in each person, I want to keep it part-time. I really prepare for each visit.

So I am combining it with studying for my masters [Bioethics], and doing some consults on dog behaviour [mainly giving advice on introducing a new dog to the family]. I am also giving myself the space to progressively explore and set my limits.

LV: Do you always do individual visits? Or do you also organize group events?

CK: Most of the time I visit individual persons in their rooms.

LV: Do you specialize in particularly kinds of zootherapy? For Alzheimer patients, for example.

02CK: I’ve been doing this for less than two years so I can’t really consider myself specialized.

LV: So the patients and dogs have a good experience, what types of skills do you need as a zootherapist?

CK: If you’re working in geriatric zootherapy, the major skill is empathy, listening. That’s another thing I’ve been reading a lot about. Teaching empathy is paradoxical as it has to be genuine. You can’t just fake it or apply it from theory or the patient will feel it. So ideally, a natural disposition to empathy is essential. And it has to be balanced as you can fall into the other extreme and end up carrying the others’ problems on your shoulders.

03 go slow for the dogsAnd of course empathy isn’t just important towards the patient, but also towards the dog. You can read a lot from the dogs’ body language. It’s important you’re ready to start slowly and not ask too much of the dogs.

And then of course it helps me a lot to have some understanding of the major health problems for people living with the sequels of a stroke, or dementia, or Parkinson’s. When I have a strong suspicion it’s playing a role, I can adapt my way of communicating.


LV: I have no doubt the visits give the patients an all-too-rare break from their loneliness. Do you know how long the beneficial effects of a visit last? Has this been researched?

CK: I did a literature survey on this04 evidence for zootherapy benefits for a paper I had to write. Although many studies have shown positive outcomes, long-term benefits are not yet fully demonstrated by neuroscience. But you can connect the dots between, on the one hand, research on dogs’ empathy and sensitivity to human emotions and communications, and on the other other hand, research on the humans benefits from social relationships. I am presenting a short segment on this at a social neuroscience conference in Denmark: about how pet-assisted therapy can help combat loneliness in long-term care. My invitation to the social brain conference of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies shows scientists are interested in zootherapy and I’m really happy about that.

A sessionWe do know that zootherapy lowers blood pressure, depressive thoughts and anxiety, and that it causes a release of oxytocin [a feel-good hormone], though. I have a scientific mindset so I have wondered about these things a lot. What is beyond doubt is that reducing loneliness correlates to better health outcomes: less chronic pain and less depression.

But let’s put science aside for a moment: do we really have to prove that having good company makes people feel good? I am not trying to cure cancer, so I am not sure it [zootherapy] needs that much evidence. I am one of the most skeptical persons there is when it comes to pseudo-treatments but for me social bonds defy scientific scrutiny.

05 big thingLV: We can get silly with our need for evidence, that’s true. Who could deny the obvious boost they get from the visit?

CK: The people we visit report that they like it, that they feel good when we are there. For me that’s a positive outcome. They say they “love those dogs” and they “can’t wait until the dogs come back.” And for some patients it’s a really big thing. They have the dogs’ pictures in their rooms and they tell their families about it; they know what day we’re coming and some of them wait for us at the door.

LV: Oh there’s no doubt it’s a hugely positive experience for these residents. I presume not everyone would get the same out of it. You’d have to be a bit of a dog person, right?

03CK: It depends so much on the relationship. It’s like the studies that ask whether it’s positive to have a pet dog: it depends on the dog, the person… For some it can be a burden and for others it’s positive. The residents I visit are the ones for whom it’s positive.

LV: So you’ve just left a patient’s room and it’s clear you’ve made their day. Do you get the feeling you might have also made their week, or even their month, easier?

CK: Anecdotally, I’d say yes, absolutely. As far as evidence is concerned some studies did show the long-term benefits of weekly zootherapy sessions: with clearly reduced feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. But for the more cognitively impaired people, the benefits may not last very long, but they are impressive in terms of their anxiety and panic in some situations.

LV: And then there’s the ones who remember and really enjoy it, but who can’t express it, right?

06 game build-upCK: Even the people who can’t talk well know how to communicate perfectly with the dogs. They create their own type of interaction, they invent their own games. And the interesting thing is: the dogs remember at the next visit, so the game builds up each time they see each other.


LV: I attended a zootherapy lecture by a psychotherapist and zootherapist. She visits patients with different kinds of conditions. She said each of her dog was at ease with a different kind of patient. One could handle agitated patients, and the other functioned better with the more depressed ones. Do you see these differences between your girls?

07CK: My dogs definitely react differently to different patients. They are fabulous at sensing how to behave appropriately in different situations.

Different patients have different styles, and the dogs remember it from visit to visit: you can tell the instant the dogs walk into the room. Some old ladies are playful and like to get the dogs a little bit excited, so the dogs carry themselves accordingly. Whereas in palliative care, the dogs seem to get a sense that everything is more calm, so they just interact calmly and affectionately.

LV: And do you see differences between the dogs’ temperaments? Is one better suited for certain types of patients?

CK: Absolutely. Eventhough all three are close kin (and obviously the same breed), they have very different temperaments. Their individual personality gives them an advantage in specific situations. I try to schedule around that so that I can, from time to time, spend more time with certain patients when I have one or the other dog.

  • Younger patients would like to play all day, for example, so we’ll stay longer with Laila. She could keep playing all day.
  • Leeloo is more sensitive to people’s emotions. She is the first one to turn up at home if someone is upset too.
  • Marilyn is the affection seeker. She comes close and pushes the person’s hands with her nose. People love it.

07 dont forceLV: That same lecturer said she had to retire a couple of dogs as they were getting burnt out. Do you have those concerns about Leelo and Laila?

CK: I am not very directive with the dogs. I let them express what they need at any one time. I haven’t trained them to always do something specific when we’re at work. I have mostly just socialized them really well.

I always know if they want to get closer to the person, and if they feel good about it. Many residents can’t bend over so I’ll often ask the dogs to climb up on a chair. But I don’t just ask one dog, I ask all the dogs. The one who feels like it the most is the one who’ll climb up. They get to decide.

I think that not being directive of the dog is good. It wouldn’t have the same value to people if I forced the dogs to do it. The same goes for me actually. The residents sense that the relationship is reciprocal, that I want to be there.

05LV: It must be so refreshing for them to not to feel patronized. That someone wants to be there and interact with them and to treat them as equals.

CK: They see me half way between a friend and a care provider. I am not asking questions or giving them advice, because there’s not so much distance between us. They speak very freely with me: I am not part of the healthcare system so they can complain about things, air their frustrations. They feel they can say anything. I am just neutral.

LV: So what are the main stressors on the dogs? Are they affected by the death of a patient, for example?

CK: Honestly I don’t think so. They see an individual patient maximum one hour in their week. They might notice that we’re passing the door of a room we used to visit, but that’s about it.

08 mindfulWhat used to be a major stressor was working in larger centres. Everyone would stop us in the hallways and it’s not like me to just pass by. In the end, we’d meet with dozens of people by the time we’d reached the patient’s room. Now we stick to smaller centres – less than a hundred residents. The dogs can almost feel at home there.

[Looking behind Caroline’s back on the Skype video, I saw a tall man (one of Caroline’s sons) kneel down to allow a giant ball of curly fur to work her way up into his arms. Caroline saw me smile, turned around and said:] Yes, we are very close to our dogs in this family.

LV: Your visits are extremely focused on the here and now. Do you feel more mindful in the sessions?

06CK: A nurse told me that I had a warm voice and a calming influence on the patients. That made me think: “This is so not me at all.” Normally my thoughts are popping up all the time. So maybe when I visit I have to slow down and be in the moment; I have to be mindful. Maybe it has a calming effect on me.

It is probably one of the reasons I love doing this so much. I know it’s not purely altruistic. I happen to find satisfaction in something that provides well-being for others. I think it’s a really good step when our own interest matches the common good. I know you love philosophy too.

LV: Oh yes, altruism is a central philosophical questions. And biological and psychological. It’s a fascinating concept. But the job must be emotionally taxing, no?

CK: I am conscious of that possibility, but I am not doing it full-time so it doesn’t drain me.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to approach it with the intensity I do full-time. It’s just not realistic for people who want to earn a living out of it. I also don’t want the dogs to have to be efficient. I want to keep it at this level so we all keep getting something out of it, so it’s not a duty.

LV: Can you think of a work moment that particularly touched you?

CK: That’s such a difficult question. There are too many. Just thinking of the non-verbal ones, there’s this man whom I can’t speak to because he has completely reverted to his mother tongue (Spanish). But his smile when he sees us come in… The way he communicates with me, the way he thanks me. He sends me these little kisses, he kisses the dogs.

And there’s this lady I’ve been seeing for more than a year and a half now. Her husband has my phone number to tell me when she’s close to the end.

And there’s this old man very advanced dementia. They way he looks at the dogs with this wonderful caring face… And he’s so gentle with them. When he sees me he holds my hand; he pets the dogs. Just looking at him is very emotional for me. He has this therapeutic doll and usually when I leave, I clean the patient’s hand with gel. Last week I told him “I’m going to wash your hands.” He probably didn’t hear because, as I got my hand closer to him, he held out his therapeutic doll’s hand for me to wipe. These dolls give them a sense of security. It’s like a presence, and it’s something to care for. It’s very similar when they hold the dogs. Some of them sit in a rocking chair and they want to cradle the dogs, gently rocking them. Rocking a baby is a very comforting thing to do.

But there are too many of these touching moments – every day – to choose one.


08LV: I want to give you a soapbox, a chance to correct a common misconception. What comes to mind?

CK: People often underestimate the contribution of the human part of the team. They assume the dog is the sole therapeutic factor.

LV: And that you’re a glorified leash holder?

CK: Yes. But I see it as a triad, with myself as the intermediary between the dog and the patient. I facilitate communications between them. Sometimes the communication first flows between the patient and the dog, and then the dog is the facilitator. So zootherapy is a triad: the patient, me, the dogs.


Caroline keeps contact details, pictures and diaries of her work on Caroline et les chiens (in French)

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