Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging: making evidence-based fun

A critical thinking blog about all things dogs for owners, researchers and professionals.

I share insights and techniques about the cases I see in my dog behaviour therapy practice (Den Haag), I review dog books, I discuss findings of important research articles, and I discuss 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.

For more about me, visit the homepage.

What the blog is about

This blog shares evidence-based information about dog behaviour in layman’s terms. I am on a mission to spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. So I relentlessly:

  • bust apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales;
  • promote responsible dog ownership;
  • question received ideas.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can use to make intelligent decisions about their dog.

I cover many subjects, from comparative psychology to behaviour modification techniques, training school practices and dog welfare. And then of course, I interview interesting dog pros and tell you about my latest dog book review.

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

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“You are rewarding your dog’s fear” – the small prints

Article by The Hague dog trainer Laure-Anne Visele about rewarding dog fear, published in August 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the 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.

Annoying dog training stereotypes

Being a dog behaviourist, I hear my fair share of received wisdom on dog behaviour. Note how people will share this ‘knowledge’ with you with complete confidence. They watch National Geographic and have had dogs all their life, after all… I have tackled the ones I hear the most through previous blog posts:

One was missing from the inglorious list, though: “Do not reassure your dog. It rewards fear.”

Let’s dress down that little pearl of received wisdom, shall we?

A street dog with a heavy past

My dog has a heavy past. After we adopted him, we had to re-acquaint him to many situations like street noises and other dogs. I have pro-active strategies to mitigate the risk of relapses. Working with fearful dogs day in day out, I am all too familiar with how persistent a beast fear can be, rearing its ugly head after months of no incident.

My strategy is this: if I spot something that might startle him – like a horse – I’ll say our code word for “It’s a friend”. All he has to do then is look at the ‘friend’ and I’ll cheerily say ‘yes’ then toss him a treat away from the horse. He’ll look at the horse again and get the treat again. We keep playing this game until the horse has passed us. He hasn’t been scared of horses in years but we’ve kept playing the game. The fun thing is sometimes he’ll play it even if I hadn’t said the code word. So he’ll put himself in my line of sight then look at the horse then me, as if saying: “Dude, I am LOOKING at the horse. What are you waiting for?” This game is all the more practical that he’ll systematically walk close to me – to play the game – if our paths are crossed by something fast like a bike.

Street dogs can come with a heavy past

Street dogs can come with a heavy past

The picture got more complicated when he was diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction – Alzheimer’s equivalent for dogs. Occasionally, he’ll ‘forget’ that he’s not scared of cyclists and will give a perfunctory bark. He won’t run away in a panic the way he used to but this agitation is annoying. So sometimes I’ll miss it and he’ll be barking at the bike already. What I do then is call him to me (to stop the barking), then wait for him to watch the bike again. I’ll say ‘yes’ when he glances at the bike but JUST before he barks. He comes to his senses again then and just plays the game.

Not rewarding fear but rewarding self-control: When people see me do that, they invariably tell me I am ‘rewarding his fear’… On the contrary. What might not be obvious to the untrained eye is this: I am rewarding looking at the bike and staying quiet.

The small prints: I might be rewarding the agitated barking (NOT the fear, mind, the barking), if I did not wait for him to first look at the bike silently before rewarding him. If you play that game, you have to get the timing right.

Denying your dog protection

Here is another common scenario in the park: I often see a bunch of dog people chatting and laughing on the side of the path as their dogs are ‘playing’ together. More often than not, one of the dogs is being harassed by the rest as the owners benevolently look on. The small dog starts off happy enough then gets a little scared. So he tries to create distance but the dogs give chase. After running and running for a while the small dog, out of desperation, now tries to find shelter under the park bench or behind human legs.

And this is where it happens: the dog – clearly in distressed – gets ignored or laughed at and people keep on keeping on with their merry chat. When sometimes, just sometimes, one person is sensible enough to pick him up and walk away, the owners of the bully dogs shower them with a barrage of the same old misguided advice by the well-meaning but misinformed masses: “They weren’t doing anything, they were just playing. He’ll never fend for himself if you always pick him up. Let them sort it out. You are” wait for it… “rewarding his fear.”

Well-meaning but misinformed masses are not a good source of dog behaviour advice

Well-meaning but misinformed masses are not a good source of dog behaviour advice

Not rewarding fear but giving shelter: I am not suggesting picking up your dog at the smallest sign of stress but if your dog is clearly in distress, do the right thing and help him: pick him up. Failing to do this promotes fear. Let him fend for himself too often and he will develop fear aggression, growling and barking at any and every dog. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather my dog deferred to me when in trouble.

The smallprints:

  • When I talk of helping your dog, I mean doing so smoothly and calmly, not snatching him in a panic and running out of the park shouting and screaming. Of course that would promote fear.
  • When I say dogs in the park ‘harass’ each other, I am not talking of situations when all dogs are clearly enjoying themselves. Watch two energetic Boxers play and you’ll think they’re at each other’s throats when they’re  just having a laugh.

You can’t reward fear in dogs

You’ll sometimes hear dog professionals usher that phrase: “You can’t reward fear.”  What they mean is that emotions can be visualised on a spectrum of very unpleasant to very pleasant. If the dog is experiencing something unpleasant (fear), the theory goes, giving him something pleasant (food) will counter that and mitigate the fear. This is true in theory, but there are small prints.

The small prints:

  • You could encourage your dog to ‘act‘ fearful ( rather than ‘be‘ fearful) if you shower him with food and attention every time he acts forlorn.
  • Your dog might be feeling so fearful that giving him food at the time could add to his stress.

Conclusion

There are valid caveats like do not be hysterical when you protect your dog, do not OVER-protect the dog and do not reward attention-seeking, needy behaviour. But technically, no, there is no such thing as ‘rewarding fear’ and you are making things worse by letting your dog ‘sort it out’.

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Dog book review: Beware the strawman

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

About the review’s 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.

Beware the strawman

Linda Case wrote yet another evidence-based and fun book again. A lot less heady than Dog Food Logic but equally well-researched. This time, it is about evidence-based dog behaviour advice (i.e. what do we really know about dog behaviour, and what is made-up horse manure). I recommend this book for anyone trying to run an evidence-based dog training business, and it is compulsory reading for all my students.

Case - Beware the straw man

This is the review I’ve written for it.

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Interview with Doggo’s Debby van Dongen

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

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

About Debby van Dongen: dog rights advocate and web entrepreneur

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.

On growing a dog business in The Netherlands

LV – How did you start Doggo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting dog welfare through a business directory

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

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

One of Doggo's brilliant mugs advocating for dog welfare

One of Doggo’s brilliant mugs advocating for dog welfare

LV – How do you get tipped?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dog behaviour and dominance

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

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

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

DvD – Exactly!

Dog behaviour seminars in The Netherlands

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

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

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

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

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

DvD – Yes, behaviour therapists can come too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles about dog behaviour

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

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

Unmissable dog pros in Holland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic wand question

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

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

LV – I am all for critical anthropomorphism.

Dog behaviour certifications and degrees

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

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

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

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

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

0 kp Mug 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LV – Did you seek professional help?

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

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

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

LV – How is she doing now?

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

Debby & Canela

Debby & Canela

More Doggo articles

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

References

Important Doggo links

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

Dog park bullies

Article by The Hague dog trainer Laure-Anne Visele about dog park etiquette, published in August 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the 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.

Unpleasant dogs

I was walking in one of The Hague’s off leash areas (Meer en Bos) with a friend and we went through a couple of nasty encounters with other dog handlers the other day. It got us wondering: why do people react so poorly when their dog’s behaviour is being questioned? We also discovered an instant fix to stop ourselves going down that route.

Dog encounter turns bad

My friend and I were chatting whilst walking in the woods when her dog, Flo, got chased by two boisterous Ridgeback crosses. We kept an eye on it, as you should with one-sided rough play. After a couple of minutes, she’d clearly had enough so we called on the two dogs’ handler for help. No luck.

  • We looked back at the dogs’ guardian: nothing. He just stood there, smiling benevolently at the scene.
  • We called Flo back so we could walk away together. The big dogs only harassed her more: staying at our side, she was less of a moving target.
  • We asked the guy to call them off, whilst we distracted her with food so she wouldn’t focus on the bullies too much – to stop the encounter from escalating. His response? He berated us for intervening and (weren’t we lucky girls?), regaled us with a lecture on dog behaviour. “You are rewarding her fear with the food,” he said pontifically, followed by the tired old: “You need to let them work it out.” [Read the Dogs and play section of this post to see why it is tosh].
kid bullies

Let them work it out…

He (eventually) called his dogs but, low and behold: Mr. Dog Expert couldn’t get them to come back to him. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little smug: our own dog had kept her perfect heel that entire time. It was clear they had no intention of coming back to him, so he started shouting at them. Yes, that’ll work… (to see why THAT is tosh, read this one).

We finally got them off Flo’s face after another five minutes of this circus… We couldn’t believe her patience and self-control throughout this sorry episode. She was uncomfortable, but did not break her temper – or obedience. She could finally get on playing tag with CONSENTING other dogs and we could relax again. It was short-lived…

This is what consenting dog play look like

This is what consenting dog play look like

Encounter at the dog pond

A couple of minutes later, still incredulous about what had happened, we reached the water’s edge. And there he was… This grouch of a Jack Russell. We knew he was trouble the moment we saw him. His idea of a welcome was to walk to Flo high and stiff, growling. We couldn’t move away as he quickly manoeuvred himself between Flo and us. She tried to avoid him politely, but he inched closer into her personal space, still growling. Each time she tried to walk around him, he would block her path. She looked at us for help. 

No, I won’t call my kid over, he’s not doing anything

We tried a bunch of stuff to get out of the sticky situation. Result? It only got stickier:

  • We looked at the dog’s handler, a lady in her fifties. Her reaction was baffling: she stood there, watching, like this was the most normal thing in the world.
  • As Flo was getting increasingly uncomfortable, we had to ask the lady if she could please call her dog away for a second so we could get Flo past him. Her answer? “No,” followed by the oh-so-helpful “He’s not doing anything”
  • I lost my patience at that stage, and asked firmly that she please put her dog on leash for a second. She answered with an angry tirade along the lines of: “This is an off-leash area. Off-leash dogs are allowed here. My dog has as much right to be here as yours. This park is opened to every dog…”
A right charmer...

A right charmer…

At that stage I stopped being diplomatic and told her: “Yes, well-behaved dogs that is.” Being a behaviour therapist, I knew it was childish and unfair to put this down to misbehaviour. Clearly her dog suffered from fear aggression, likely pain-related if the way he walked was anything to go by. But I wasn’t exactly in my most benevolent state of mind.

What is it about walking your dog that turns you into such a selfish idiot?

It got us thinking: are we ever like that when our own dog’s behaviour is off-colour? Do we ourselves underestimate others’ discomfort when our dog is being annoying or scary? What was causing what we assumed to be perfectly civil people to be so unempathetic when their dog’s behaviour was being called into question? Was it defensiveness? Denial? Ignorance? One thing was for sure: we would need to be on our toes so we NEVER acted like this ourselves when our own dog was being annoying.

So I came up with this simple formula: replace the word ‘dog’ with the word ‘kid’.

Let’s replay the whole sorry scene and see how it works, shall we?

Kid encounter turns bad

My friend and I were chatting whilst walking in the woods when her daughter, Flo, got chased by two boisterous teenagers. We kept an eye on it, as you should with one-sided rough play. After a couple of minutes, she’d clearly had enough so we called on the teenagers’ Dad for help. No luck.

  • We looked back at the person: nothing. He just stood there, smiling benevolently at the scene.
  • We called Flo back so we could walk away together. The big boys only harassed her more: staying at our side, she was less of a moving target.
  • We asked the guy to call them off, whilst we distracted her with a lolly so she wouldn’t focus on the bullies too much – to stop the encounter from escalating. His response? He berated us for intervening and (weren’t we lucky girls?), regaled us with a lecture on child behaviour. “You are rewarding her fear with the food,” he said pontifically, followed by the tired old: “You need to let them work it out.”
Shouting

Our professor of dog behaviour demonstrating his flawless recall…

He (eventually) called his sons but, low and behold: Mr. Child Expert couldn’t get them to come back to him. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little smug: our own kid had stayed by our side as soon as we’d asked. It was clear they had no intention of coming back to him, so he started shouting at them. Yes, that’ll work…

We finally got them off Flo’s face after another five minutes of this circus… We couldn’t believe her patience and self-control throughout this sorry episode. She was uncomfortable, but did not break her temper – or obedience. She could finally get on playing tag with CONSENTING other kids and we could relax again. It was short-lived…

Encounter at the pond

A couple of minutes later, still incredulous about what had happened, we reached the water’s edge. And there he was… This grouch of a little boy. We knew he was trouble the moment we saw him. His idea of a welcome was to walk to Flo high and stiff, mumbling insults at her. We couldn’t move away as he quickly manoeuvred himself between Flo and us. She tried to avoid him politely, but he inched closer into her personal space, still insulting her. Each time she tried to walk around him, he would block her path. She looked at us for help. 

We tried a bunch of stuff get out of the sticky situation. Result? It only got stickier:

  • We looked at the kid‘s grandma, a lady in her fifties. Her reaction was baffling: she stood there, watching, like this was the most normal thing in the world.
  • As Flo was getting increasingly uncomfortable, we incredibly had to ask the lady if she could please call the boy away for a second so we could get Flo past him. Her answer? “No,” followed by the oh-so-helpful “He’s not doing anything”
  • I lost my patience at that stage, and asked firmly that she please grab the kid by the hand for a second. She answered with an angry tirade along the lines of: “This is a free country. Kids are allowed on this pond’s edge. My grandson has as much right to be here as your daughter. This park is opened to every kid…”

‘They don’t like my dog’s behaviour? Their problem’

These aren’t isolated encounters of blaming the victim. I can tell you a few just off the top of my head:

  • Someone with whom I sometimes walk my dog regaling me with this (in his mind) ‘amusing’ story: a kid with Down Syndrome ‘got his knickers in a twist about the dog’ and was so panicked he ran into barbed wire. “Couldn’t he see my dog was just playing? People just get hysterical. You should have seen the kid flailing and wailing. Like my dog was going to kill him or something. My dog was only playing chase. If he’d stopped moving she would have lost interest.”
  • Someone who, upon seeing my shock at her dog snatching and bursting a couple of kids’ ball, defiantly tells me that people shouldn’t bring kids into an offleash area. She then proceeded to put the burst ball in the bin, in front of the two crying kids, and walked away without as much as an apology…
  • A dog owner who lets her two enormous and boisterous dogs walk out of sight and takes her sweet time walking to hysterical cries around the road bend. “I know what it is,” she explained. “It’s that family. No wonder the kids have a phobia of dogs. You should see how the mom reacts.” When we passed the bend, sure enough, her dogs were ‘playfully’ circling the two crying kids and their screaming mom. The dog owner never even increased her pace to get there, nor called her dogs back to her. She just walked past saying to the poor woman and her two kids: “They’re just playing, it’s OK” without a care in the world.
Because that's who you want to see charging at your kids'ball...

Because that’s who you want to see charging at your kids’ ball…

In what screwed up world is it ever OK for your dog to scare someone else, or someone else’ dog? I don’t even care if the person who is scared is being unreasonable – which they are not in the stories I shared, I’d like to point out.

This could all be resolved with one simple rule: Check before letting your dog approach someone, or their dog. Not every dog and not every person likes or trusts your dog. Nor should they have to.

You’re told off? Don’t be a dog: smile, apologize and move on

If your dog is making someone uncomfortable, imagine the situation with kids instead of dogs before you brush them off as being precious. Just smile, apologize, and get your dog to come back to you for a second.

cliches

Do the right thing. Don’t share a tired old cliche as an excuse for your dog’s behaviour

Do the right thing: do not argue, lecture, or shame the person asking for your help. Being in an off leash area does not mean your dog – or you for that matter – get to be an off leash bully.

Illustration credits

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Den Haag dog behaviourist gets interviewed by Bristol dog trainer

Shout-out about Nick Benger’s interview of Den Haag dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, September 2016

About Nick: certified dog trainer and dog behaviour graduate in Bristol

Nick Benger is a professional dog trainer in Bristol, England.

Nick BengerNick has a degree in Canine Behaviour and Training from the University of Hull and is the host of the popular Dog Talk Podcast which you can find on his website.

As a result of podcasting Nick is in constant correspondence with leading figures in the industry. Nick has been mentored by some of the most respected people in the dog training world.

A regular attendee of seminars all over the country Nick is well-versed in the most current and progressive methods of training.

As such, Nick is regularly referred to by other dog behaviour professionals.

About Laure-Anne: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

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 trainer interviews dog behaviourist

It is time to turn the tables on interviewing dog professionals. This time, it’s Laure-Anne’s turn to be quizzed by a colleague.

More and more dog professionals are following Nick’s podcasts because of his sharp, thought-provoking and honest questions.

Tune in to find out about the life behind the scenes of a dog trainer and behaviourist in The Hague.

*Note: Unfortunately we had some technical issues on this podcast which result in our voices going out of sync later into the recording, making it seem like we interrupt each other. I hope this doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the podcast.

Dog Talk

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Dog book review: Paranormality

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

About the review’s 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.

Paranormality

Paranormality is a great pop science book. Written by Psychology Professor Richard Wiseman, it reviews the research into paranormal claims and how each and every one of them got systematically debunked. It does not concern dog behaviour per se, but it is a great tool to fight off science denial in general.

This is the review I’ve written for it.

Wiseman - Paranormality

 

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Sloppy puppy class: doing more harm than good?

Dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele lists do’s and don’ts of puppy class design. Written in August 2016.
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the 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.

Early puppy classes: good or bad?

I was talking to Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy – Vet Behaviourist at Animalytics and Wagenrenk – about what she thought of our stance on early puppy classes at OhMyDog‘s (my dog training school in The Hague). Our position had always been to take on very young pups whilst tightly managing the risk of disease (see Hard choices section below).

I’d had the occasional push back from first line vets but had assumed it was because they had a purely medical, not medical-behavioural perspective. The medical-behavioural perspective gives you a more complicated risk picture. Solid epidemiological research like this one, and position statements by well-established institutions like the American Association of Veterinary Behaviourists inspired our guidelines so we felt we were on solid grounds.

This was earth-shattering for me. Early puppy classes are an orthodoxy among modern dog trainers.

Given that Valerie was also a behaviourist, I didn’t think for one second that she would take a medical stance yet she exclaimed: “That is FAR too young.” Not only was it too risky in terms of disease risk, but many puppy classes did more harm than good on the behaviour front.

This was earth-shattering for me. Early puppy classes are orthodoxy among modern dog trainers. Had I fallen for bandwagon thinking? The school’s evidence-based vision was being put to the test. We now had to cast aside the popularity, economics, tradition, and comfort of that idea and examine our policy critically. We had to do the right thing.

I made a list of her concerns and asked more colleagues (vets, behaviourists, trainers) to chip in. We ended up with a list of do’s and don’ts against which to check our current standards. The following post shows you the results.

Puppies socialisation traumatisation classes

Don’ts: Many dog training schools pressure owners to push the pup in at the deep end. “Bring them to kids’ birthday parties,” they say, or “Take him to the shopping mall on a Saturday.” One of the worst ones is: “Let every passerby pet him.” All fine in theory but horrendous in practice: more pups than not come out of this deep end approach with solid aversions, and some with a downright phobia.

There's a fine-line between constructive exposure and trauma

There’s a fine-line between educational exposure and trauma

We brain-wash our students with our socialisation mantra: ‘the pup notices but does not mind’

Do’s: We ourselves noticed that our students also confused socialisation/habituation (i.e. gradual and positive introduction) with flooding (i.e. deep end stuff). We changed our program to make this point central: we have tattooed the socialisation mantra tattooed in their heart: ‘the pup notices but (altogether now) Does – Not – Mind‘ (thank you for the great one-liner, Temple Grandin). We show our students the signs that it’s time to take a break long before the pup has had enough, and we break it all down into small steps. So it’s a firm No Flooding approach for OhMyDoggers.

Puppy classes are faaaaaaaar too long

Don’ts: Many puppy classes last an hour and ask the pup to stay perfectly still throughout. They expect the dogs to patiently wait their turn and to rise up to the occasion the second it’s time their turn to perform. To make matters worse, many schools host ten to twelve pups per class, leaving them over-stimulated and frustrated out of their furry little minds.

tantrum

Tantrums are a sign the class is far too long for the pup

Do’s: We too were running into over-stimulation and under-stimulation problems at the beginning, so we adjusted our policies to pro-actively manage the pups between turns:

  • Our classes have a maximum six pups per member of staff.
  • Our puppy classes last forty minutes.
  • We have behaviour coaches – whom I trained in behavioural first aid – who try to swoop in as soon as a pup shows a subtle sign of stress. The coach then increases distance, demonstrates a focus game, or adds a visual barrier.
  • We have a mountain of brain toys and games to keep the high-drive pups happily focused between turns.
  • We explicitly instruct our students that their pups do NOT have to sit between turns and won’t start the central explanation until every pup is happily settled on their mat with a chew toy.
  • We enforce a mandatory distance between pups so that they do not feel threatened by the proximity of other pups whilst waiting for their turn.
  • We ask each handler to bring a familiar, comfortable blanket and to let the pup take a nap at any point in class.
  • We alternate between intense and calm exercises.

Puppy fight club

Many students contact us hoping the puppy class will be a giant puppy playground, and hoping this will force the shyness out of their dog. We have to rain on their parade because we take a very serious approach to puppy play.

bully

Kids aren’t exactly the best social skills teachers. Pups aren’t either.

Don’ts: Many schools allow all the pups in class to play together with barely any supervision or intervention. “Let them sort it out,” they say. This is a disaster waiting to happen: you wouldn’t rely on boisterous two-year-old boys to teach your toddler social skills, right? Leave the little Hooligans to their own devices and it will end in tears. They’ll get more and more excited and the whole thing will turn into a pushing, shoving, biting, snatching, and growling frenzy.

When it comes to teaching pups social skills, the Puppy Fight Club approach will only teach the boisterous ones to perfect their bullying, and the shy ones to perfect their fear.

fight club

First rule of puppy club: no fight

Do’s: Teaching the pups social skills is absolutely part of our program, but it is not a free-for-all. It takes controlled exposure and careful re-direction to teach the young ‘uns decent social skills. So we do have puppy play sessions, but it is a structured and closely supervised exercise:

  • We match the pups by size and play style.
  • We don’t let the whole class play at once and only allow a few pups ‘in the arena’ at a time.
  • We sprinkle the field with visual barriers and interesting objects to break the focus on the other pups.
  • We alternate the attention and recall exercise with the play exercise, so the pup keeps their guardian on their mind throughout the session.
  • We keep the play sessions extremely short and get a ‘fresh’ pup after a couple of minutes.
  • We show the students when to intervene – again, long before things get out of hand.
  • We transition to and from play mode smoothly.

The whole thing will turn into a pushing, shoving, biting, snatching, and growling frenzy

In short, these sessions have an explicit educational objective and they are not organised as a wild romp for their own sake.

Hard choices: Medical versus mental health

The reasoning behind opening our doors to very young (therefore not fully vaccinated) pups lies on two main arguments:

  1. Euthanasia for behavioural reasons is the number one cause of death in otherwise healthy dogs.
  2. Failing to appropriately habituate/socialise pups to city dog situations at this sensitive age predisposes them to develop behaviour problems.

Don’ts:

  • Some puppy schools have no vaccination policy in place, or do not follow up on them. A piece of advice here: if a school lets you join without showing proof of vaccination, move on. If they have such a cavalier attitude to their students’ health, where else are they cutting corners?
  • Some puppy schools overfill their classes with ten to twelve pups, and place them extremely close to each other
  • Some puppy schools give their puppy classes in public areas which are visited by many non-school dogs, so they can’t make sure that all dogs treading the grounds are vaccinated.

Do’s:

At OhMyDog, conscious of the fact that we opened our doors to very young pups, we had already managed the risks quite pro-actively:

  • All the school’s dogs have to be on schedule for their vaccinations (including kennel cough).
  • Only our students’ dogs step foot on the field, no outside dog.
  • I get up-to-date disease and vaccination information from the veterinary clinic where I give my behaviour consults, and I train the staff accordingly.
  • We do not accept pups who are sick on our grounds (e.g. diarrhoea, etc.)
  • We operate a stringent hygiene policy: no dog is allowed to relieve themselves on the field and if they do, it gets immediately cleaned up.
  • The pups do not interact physically with each other outside of one short segment of one lesson every eight weeks.

Given that pathogens can stay active on the ground for weeks, we know our policies are not perfect, particularly after speaking to European veterinarians who made it clear that the American Veterinary Association’s policies were not a perfect match for us. So we also upped the recommended age of joining from eight to ten weeks.

When handlers who prefer waiting get in touch, we give them a thorough guide with socialisation/habituation milestones and methods so they can start BEFORE they physically bring the pup to classes. After all it is important to start puppy socialisation early, not necessarily puppy class.

Puppy class 2.0

Phew. After giving our classes this health check, we only needed to change one policy: we moved our recommended starting age from eight to ten weeks.

If you thought designing a responsible puppy class was just about having fun with cute fur balls, think again!

Illustration credits

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Dog book review: Elke pup een goede start (A good start for each pup)

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

About the review’s 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.

Elke pup een goede start (A good start for every pup)

Martine Burgers’ and Sam Turner’s first volume is becoming a bit of a classic in The Netherlands. It is an illustrated, complete, week-by-week guide to raising a happy, well-behaved and healthy pup.

This is the review I’ve written for it.

 

 

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

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When a skeptic talks to an animal communicator

Scientific sceptic Laure-Anne Visele interviews animal communicator Marieke Akgul. Conducted in January 2015. Article by Laure-Anne Visele, published in September 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post

Marieke, animal communicator

Marieke lives Mariekewith her husband and their five cats close to Groningen (North of the Netherlands). What intrigued me was that part of her job is to, like me, helps answer people’s questions about their animal’s behaviour. There is a difference in our approach, though, and a sizeable one at that: she does it through animal communication, and I do it through evidence-based behaviour therapy.

My leaning towards scientific scepticism is no secret. I love going on excursions with fellow skeptics to paranormal fairs to explore their claims. That’s where I met Marieke. She was hosting the DierenDialoog booth. She was so transparent about her work, so nice to talk to and so understanding of the idea that it could raise skepticism that we arranged this follow-up interview.

Read on for a conversation between scientific sceptic and animal communicator.

About the 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.

It started with a beluga whale

Laure-Anne Visele – How did this all start for you? What led you to the conclusion that you could communicate with animals?

Marieke Akgul  – I’ve always felt different. Even as a kid I’d always reacted differently to things. I sensed I had a gift but you know how is it when you grow up: you try to blend in. I only found out much later that I was high-sensitive.

LV – When was that?

MA – It was in 2005. I got to swim with Beluga whales whilst on holidays. I was alone out there with the Belugas when and then I heard: “Do you know where my family is?” I said “I don’t know but I can bring you back.” So I held the whale and guided it back. I am scared of the smallest fish yet this felt completely natural. I looked at the trainer and saw that look in his face. He looked at the Beluga, then back at me. He knew something real had just happened.

pix Beluga

Marieke’s first AC experience was with a Beluga whale

LV – What did you do after that experience?

MA – Nothing. I was too scared of the paranormal to pursue this. As a high-sensitive a horror movie is like reality to me. These things could really happen because of my ability.

LV – So when did you take it to the next step?

MA – When my cat, Maya, died. I needed answers. It felt like a part of me had died with her. I started to read more about it and I learnt to open up to the signal. As a high-sensitive, it came relatively easily to me. First I heard my cat Joey talk to me.

LV – What did you hear?

MA – Numbers. It was all about what time it was, that it was time for him to go out. “Eight”, he’d say. I would check and it was eight o’clock. It was the right time each time he said a number. To the nearest minute.

How Marieke explains her experience

LV – Does this rest on the assumption that a cat can read time?

MA – No, not time. Moments. Everything is a process with its own flow; its own cycle. Animals are connected to us, to each other, and to these cycles. They grasp some concept of time through their connection with us. He knows it’s eight o’clock because I know it’s eight o’clock. And I need a clock to tell me this but the cat just knows what time it is.

LV – Do you have a particular process to communicate with the animal?

cat eyeMA – People send me a picture of their animal with a question. I then look at the picture to connect with the energy of the animal. If I feel its energy – its lifeline – it is still alive and I can sense where it is. Every individual animal has its own distinct frequency. I need to tune in to that frequency to connect.

Then I use my heart to send out a question and I get the answer back in my heart, and my heart translates it into images, movies, feelings. My head then translates these into words. It took me years to fine-tune it, to calibrate what image belongs to what emotion or thought. I am still developing in it.

LV – How does a communication moment go?

MA – It is like an interview conversation, like a Q & A. I ask more and more precise questions to get to the answers my clients need.

LV – How do you think it works?

MA – For missing animals cases, I think the animals who live in my house form a beacon of light which amplifies their missing friends’ ability to connect with me. Somehow that really works. Maybe it isn’t me, but the animals communicating through me.

The need for evidence

LV – These are things you believe to be true but how do you demonstrate to yourself, and to the world, that they are? How do you rule out the possibility that you might be mistaken?

MA – Because I experience it so frequently. I have spoken to so many animals professionally. At the last count it was 273 cats, 114 dogs, 25 rabbits, 13 parrots, and 4 reptiles.

LV – But those are still four hundred personal experiences. How do you validate your feelings objectively?

Drug dependence

As hard as it is, we need objective measurement

MA – There has been almost no records of people scientifically investigating animal communication.

LV – Oh I can put you onto these experiments if you want. It’s been tested. The book Paranormality (see reference section), for example, reviews some of the most interesting of these experiments. We could even run your own work through scientific testing. I am a trained scientist. I would love to design a protocol for us to go through.

MA – That would be very interesting! But if an animal is connected to a human who doesn’t believe, the animal may not communicate. Take this lady who called me: “I don’t believe in this, but I have this problem with the dog. Can you help?” I tried to make a connection but the dog didn’t tell me a thing. He didn’t want me to know anything.

LV – That argument makes it immune to scrutiny so what evidence do you need for yourself to know it is real? A problem being resolved after your intervention is open to many fallacies and biases. Take post hoc, ergo propter hoc for example. Just because it got solved after your involvement does not mean it got solved because of your involvement. Many other untested explanations exist and many other things, besides your communication, happened in that period that you chose not to attribute to the solution. How do you exclude the effect of other alternative explanations, or the effect of time for that matter?

MA – What convinces me is that I do it so often and I get the same results every time. I make sure to include verifiable information in the report I type for the owners when I make contact with an animal.

LV – You must be fast typist!

MA – Yes!

LV – How long is the report, typically?

MA – It’s three to eight pages long. It depends on how long the conversation was.

LV – So what type of validating information do you collect for the owner? Can you give me an example?

MA – I include specific, verifiable things like ‘a big red pillow’. I try to ask the animal about their habits or preferences: like hating the neighbour’s cat, loving fish, or loving the family’s kid, or what their nickname is. There was this dog who had a nickname only the owner and the dog knew, for example. I like to go through this verification process for myself too, not just for the people.

The owners get back to me with the same feedback: so many things rung true to them. They totally recognized their animal in the report.

LV – So the reports fit the owner’s perception of their animal’s personality? By the way, the concept of personality in animals isn’t considered scientific heresy. Personality traits have been recognized, measured and observed in many rungs of the animal kingdom, not just humans. If you are interested in finding out more about this body of research, look into coping styles and personality research in animals. It’s very interesting work.

pix Cognitive biases

Cognitive bias: The many patterns different people saw in the same picture of moon

But the owners finding matching personality traits in the reports is opened to confirmation bias. If you say enough things, some will be a match, and the reader will remember the hits and disregard the misses. That’s also how stereotypes are born and that is what astrologers, soothsayers and mediums (consciously or not) rely on.

MA – I see what you are saying, but take this interesting case. The owner recognized the dog’s idiosyncracies, his level of sophistication, immediately from the way he structured his sentences in the report. The owner found it unmistakable.Every animal has its own set of words, intelligence shown, structure of sentences, etc., not just this dog. And it fits with their owners’.

He [the owner] had contacted me after he’d left his dog in the care of his ex-girlfriend and found out years later that she’d put him up on Marktplaats [the Dutch e-Bay]. When I spoke to the dog, he told me that he had passed away but that he had had a happy life. He said such sweet things that his huge man of an owner cried when he was reading the report. The dog said he didn’t blame him at all. After all these years, it was such a healing experience for the owner. He could get closure. All these emotions could finally break free.

I know it’s not verifiable but in his heart he knew it was real. We have to follow our intuition. And it tells us whether or not something is true.

LV – Unfortunately intuition is a notoriously unreliable evaluation tool. It is too open to errors like cognitive biases and motivated thinking. This is why scientifically evaluating things is necessary to validate a claim.

MA – But if I read something, I get a sense of whether it’s true or not.

LV – Oh don’t get me wrong. I am sure that you have a fine intuition about animals’ emotions and their needs. And I am sure that these sensitivities bring valuable information to the owners in many cases. The problem is how do you ever know whether you’re right without external validation?

Animals and emotions

MA – It’s interesting you should say ‘emotions’. A lot of people see their animals as one-dimensional creatures with no capacity for emotions.

LV – No modern animal behaviour scientist would deny that many animal species are capable of experiencing emotions. My dog behaviour therapy practice relies on much of this research in anthrozoology and comparative psychology, for example.

pix Emotions

Emotions are not just the dominion of human animals.

MA – That’s interesting! It certainly matches what I observe. There is no doubt in my mind that animals experience emotions. But many animal ‘lovers’ think their pets only need good food and a long walk to lead a happy, satisfying life.

pix Elephant consciousness

Research validates what we all knew: animals are not mere input-output machines

LV – That’s so true. Well-meaning people fail to provide their companion animal with their most basic emotional and cognitive needs. This can cause so much silent distress – until behaviour problems arise.

MA – To me, this opens the possibility that animals have a soul. Take altruism in animals. If you believe that some animals try to help you, then they must know you need help. They also have to understand the consequences of their actions.

LV – I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘soul’ but I can echo some of your observations there. Animal empathy and altruism are rich areas of research and the jury is most certainly still out. There is growing support for the idea that your average family dog snuggling up to you when you’re upset, for example, could actually be trying to comfort you. If you are interested in theory of mind and consciousness research in dogs, I can point you to the work of Adam Miklosi or Brian Hare, among others. And you’ll love books like Animal madness and How we know what animals think and feel.

Owner – dog emotional contagion

MA – I think the biggest reason animals don’t understand Man so well is animals only grasp the ‘now’. We project into the past and the future but animals don’t. If you reminisce about something negative, the animal interprets this as you experiencing something negative right now. This can cause behaviour problems. Imagine your dog attacked another dog in the past and now you have approached every dog you have met on a walk with apprehension since then. Your dog will sense this.

pix Emotional contagion

Animals and empathy: a rich area of research

LV – Agitation by the human guardian can complicate an existing problem, no doubt. Our animals look to us for clues about the safety of a situation, about how alert they should be.

MA – Absolutely. From the owner’s perspective, it’s: “My dog attacks other dogs.” From the dog’s perspective it’s: “My human is so low on energy, so anxious, right now. He is asking for trouble. This is prompting the other dogs to attack us. So I have to preempt this before they attack my human.”

LV – Something close to that heuristic might indeed play a role in fear aggression, but I wouldn’t necessarily frame it as explicit reasoning on the dog’s part. I find it more prudent to couch it in this context: the dog’s adopts a ‘the best defense is offence’ coping strategy. If the human handler is exhausted or stressed out, their dog may feel more vulnerable and might perceive other dogs as a threat sooner, lowering their threshold of aggression. Having the human handler relax in the problem situation can be an instrumental part of solving fear aggression problems.

MA – When I communicate to these dogs, they tell me they are trying to ask their owner to project more confidence. Once I have explained this to the owner, the positive changes I see give me this incredible feeling.

LV – I would argue that you are a more effective agent for change than I am in some ways. Framing the problem as a direct communication from the dog can be extremely compelling to the owner. More compelling than reviewing the possible scientific explanations or simply saying: “We don’t know what your dog is thinking, but we know what has the best chance of working in these cases.”

Example Case 1: Two over-pressured Malinois

LV - Tell me about one particular cases of change that you found interesting.

MA – One of the nicest examples of change was with two Malinois. They were extremely well-trained but their owner tried to controlled their every movement. He wanted to completely own them. He was frustrated at their poor performance in trials in light of how well they performed in practice sessions. He was a very black-and-white type of man.

LV – What did you get from communicating with these dogs?

MA – They told me: “Why does he ask us to do these things twenty, forty times? He knows we can do it. On the big day he acts all nervous and it makes us nervous too. We don’t get why he needs a piece of paper telling him we can do it?”

LV – So what happened in that case?

MA – I told them to humour their owner on the day and just go through the motions. I explained he needed the piece of paper to give him confidence. They couldn’t wrap their head around why but they did it.

Purring: science versus protons

MA – I am curious: how is purring interpreted scientifically?

LV – As in many things in the scientific literature, there is no clear consensus. A conservative explanation is that it is a type of sound that communicates the cat is experiencing comfort (or feeling very ill).

MA – My cats explained it to me: everything is a vibration. Your chair, for example, is vibrating through neutrons. Purring carries soothing vibrations through the cat’s entire body and if you touch them when they are purring, then it goes through your body too. It helps calm your body down. It is like an anti-depressant for themselves (and people touching them). That’s why cats purr after a car accident or when they are really sick: for self-reassurance.

LV – Again our two worlds meet in a sense. Petting a (purring) cat has been demonstrated to lower many people’s blood pressure and caring for a cat can alleviate many depressed patients’ symptoms. And, although I am not sufficiently well-read in that area of research, purring as a self-soothing sound is a conceivable idea. You could check the anthrozoology literature to find out more. I do not think we have good grounds to implicate vibrating protons though.

A shared struggle: Getting people to change their ways

LV – So what’s the toughest part of your job?

MA – I find it hard to bring people to a place they can change.

LV – You and me both. Getting the people to change is often key but it can be hard to do.

MA – I had this family contact me, for example. They’d taken in a stray dog from Greece but didn’t have time to take him for a daily walk. They wanted him to do his business in the garden. He’d lived on the street all his life and then became permanently constrained to a house and garden at the age of six. He told me “I am not going to pee in that garden. It is my territory. I am not soiling it.” I told them what he said and asked if they could get up earlier to take him out. They refused. He had to listen, they said. I just couldn’t let this him go so I spoke to him three of four more times after that. He kept saying the same thing. In the end, I told the owners: “Either find him a new house or find a trainer that he clicks with.”

LV – Lack of mental and physical stimulation can indeed cause chronic stress, thus behaviour problems, in animals – particularly ones that were used to roaming freely. And adult dogs do tend to avoid soiling their home range. So our reasoning might, again, have followed similar lines in this case, if you remove the animal communication element.

Example Case 2: A cat tied to fireworks

LV – Talk to me about another case that you found interesting.

MA – This week, I had a cat who ran off on New Year’s Eve [fireworks during Dutch New Year’s eve is famously traumatic for pets]. Her owners had tried to find her for three weeks. I made contact with her and helped her get over her trauma. She explained that she had gotten burnt, that she had had fireworks tied to her back. She communicated this through sounds and colours… And panic. When her fur caught fire, she said, she ran away. I explained to her that not all people were like that. I explained what had happened. The following Friday, her owners called me back to say she’d come back. They found her on the front lawn in a state of shock.

LV – Were there burn marks on her?

MA – No. But she was in such a state of shock that she was no longer the same cat. Her energy had changed.

LV – How can you attribute her return to your intervention? Or validate that she did get abused with fireworks?

MA – The cat confirmed it to me two days after I’d spoken with her. The owner also believed it. I also said she would return, and she did.

Animals as teachers

LV – What happens in the process when an animal dies?

MA – I instantly know the animal is dead, or dying. As soon as I make the connection.

LV – What does that do to you emotionally?

pix Cat rubbing legs

Animals remind us to slow down. And it’s a good thing

MA – It’s a fact of life. I feel how they are preparing for a new life. I know they are looking forward to going and starting something new. They feel positive in these moments because they were able to teach their owners a lesson during their time together.

Almost all animals are here to help us grow. Take a shy person and her shy dog, for example. Some dogs transform themselves to teach their owners. This shy dog became more outgoing to give the owner an example.

And take cats. They often walk in front of us. It is irritating but it is them reminding us that we are not living at our natural rhythm, that we are too rushed. It’s their way of slowing us down and bringing us back to a state of natural peace. They’re helping – but it irritates us!

LV – That’s the effect with most unrequited help gets, to be honest.

MA – [laughs] Yup. It certainly is!

LV – Again, I am with you on animals being useful examples for us. Only I don’t make the leap that they teach us consciously. Their ‘in-the-now’ approach can remind us to be more mindful, to live more for the moment. I do not have sufficient reason to see them as conscious teachers though. Just inspiring examples.

Advising around the euthanasia decision

LV – So what is a typical case for you?

MA – I get a lot of calls for behaviour problems and for missing animals. And then I also get more spiritually minded people wanting to know if their animals had a past life, what they can learn from the animal, what the purpose of the animal’s life is… That sort of big questions. A lot of owners also want help deciding whether it is time to let their animal go. They want a confirmation from the animal that they are ready to go.

LV – Do you ever say no to a planned euthanasia?

MA – Sometimes. It sometimes happens that the owner says it is time to let go but that the animal gets pretty mad. In most cases the animals are more OK with death than we are, though. Sometimes the animals just ask to die in their owners’ arms, in their home rather than at the vet’s.

But humans imagine animals experiences pain the same way they do. They don’t. So owners can be in too big of a rush to end the pain when really the animal can live with it and is not suffering that much. Animals have a higher sense of pain than us.

I had a rabbit once, and her hind quarters were paralyzed. She told me: “I don’t know what it is. It feels funny. It’s just not working.” I asked “What do you want us to do?” and she said: “Just leave me here”.

LV – Ethically, you’re treading dangerous waters here. If you’re wrong, it will have biiiiig consequences. Literally life or death, and a lot of potential suffering.

MA – I know. And I know where my line is. With my rabbit, I had it confirmed by the vet. It turns out she had a tumour in her belly that was blocking the pain. The vet said it was unbelievable the rabbit didn’t seem to be suffering given the size of the tumour. So for any kind of medical situation I always advise people to check with their vet.

[Note to the public: Please note that rabbits in distress can go into tonic immobility. It is also a typical prey animal strategy to hide your pain, as rabbits routinely do when live-castrated. If you suspect something is awry, please do not conclude that your rabbit is in no pain because it is not showing apparent signs of distress.]

”Where is the harm?”

LV – I am glad we are talking of harm. I often get asked: “Where is the harm in alternative medicine?” One of my biggest issues is that it can lead us to fail in our duty of care to our animals. Do you work with cases involving medical issues?

MA – I had this case of a cat with a thyroid problem. The cat told me “I don’t have the problem, my owner does. She’s projecting. Please get her to get this checked.” The owner did get it checked and sent me a mail saying her blood work was clear.

So I told the cat: “You made a fool of me. Why did you say these things?” This big macho cat then said sheepishly: “I don’t like that I am diminished, impaired. I hate that my body is not working as it should. If we get this checked, I am probably going to have to get an operation and take medication for the rest of my life. I hate medication.” It’s hard when that happens, when the owner says: “That’s not right”. But in general, animals do not lie.

LV – If I was that owner, I’d think. “Hang on a minute. You can’t just change your story when it didn’t work out. That’s too easy.”

MA – Yet somehow something about the rest of my conversation with the cat resonated with the owner and told her that I was telling the truth.

LV – Regardless of medical issues, you also give behaviour advice without being trained as a behaviour therapist. Isn’t there a chance you are delaying the dog getting the qualified care he or she needs? What happens to these problems if they go to you, instead of a trained specialist?

MA – It depends on how profound the problem is. But I have really good results with common problems.

About the risk of con artists

LV – What do you call yourself?

MA – I call myself a communicator. I thought about it for a long time, and I don’t like the sound of medium. Whenever I see one on TV, I turn it off.

LV – So you see it too right? That infuriating fakeness. The cheap con tricks? The staging?

pix Elixir

Quacks, con artists, and miracle peddlers: how to detect charlatans in an industry with unverified claims?

MA – I have a love-hate relationship with it. I often participate along with the show so I know when it’s fake.

LV – This is another issue I see with lack of scientific validation: the market becomes wide open to people who consciously deceive their audience, con artists. That’s why I find it so important to rigorously validate claims, particularly in a therapeutic setting.

MA – Absolutely. Animal communication can be a gold mine for dishonest people. I was at this pet fair once and these people showed me a picture of a huge Rottweiler on their phone. So I said: “He is a sweet dog to everyone and everything. But he is quite smart and cheeky and once you say ‘yes’, he’ll demand the privilege again and again.”

They said they’d talked to another communicator before, who had sent them twenty lines of generic stuff like “You have to be firm with him”. So I said: “He’s just really smart. He needs to use his mind a lot is all.” They were happy with my interpretation. They said I really knew what I was doing.

And I was at another fair and started talking to this high-sensitive medium doing Reiki. She said she’d seen lots of people claiming to be animal communicators, but that she was happy to finally see someone who knew their stuff.

I try to be as sincere and open and transparent as I can in my work.

LV – That’s the sense I got. Whilst we do not agree on the need for validation, it’s certainly been a pleasure talking to you!

Illustration credits

References

Getting in touch with Marieke

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Want to be a professional dog trainer? Advice to the newbie

Blog post about making the right career choices in dog training. July 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. Where relevant, references and picture credits are at the end of the post

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

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

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

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

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

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

So you want to be a dog behaviourist?

I met young V. (twenty years old student) when I was giving her mom a behaviour consult about their three dogs who weren’t getting along. She is finishing a Bachelor’s in law, and asked me what it would take to re-train as a dog behaviour consultant. If you are curious about the advice I gave her, read on.

The finances of dog training

It’s not like full-time dog training/behaviour vacancies come out in droves, so there’s a big chance you’ll have to start your own business.

Before I went full-time, I had a cushy corporate job with a regular income and my laptop, car, phone, pension, and education all paid for. I’d combined dog training with my corporate career for years, so when I started full-time, I figured “How hard can it be?” It turned out it took way more grit than I’d banked for.

The good news is: it’ll scare some business sense into you faster than years of working in Corporate ever could. It’s amazing how struggling to make your mortgage will sharpen your interest into tax law and marketing. The bad news is: it’s like a child. The love, the work, the worry… They – never – end. I (personally) would not have had the broad shoulders for this straight after graduation. I am glad I started off with a corporate career.

Sisyphe

My advice is this: only go pro once you’ve built your business chops in a mainstream company for a while, and once you’ve saved up a VERY big fund for rainy days.

Self-education in dog training

The obvious first step in building some solid knowledge on dog behaviour is to read tons of books.

Like anything else, though, dog training books are a buyer beware market. Too many churn out dangerously pseudoscientific ideas. I am a compulsive dog book reader, so I had to suffer through my fair share of these. To save you the pain, here is a shortcut to what I consider to be the must-read books for any aspiring dog behaviourist.

They will give you a taste for the fundamental aspects of the profession, they are written for the layman, and they are well-researched. If you just have time for one, pick my old time favorite: Benal’s.

  • Dog trainer’s guide (Jolanta Benal): Essentials of dog behaviour problems, causes and interventions
  • Human half of dog training (Ries van Fleet): Essential human coaching aspects of dog training
  • Animal madness (Laurel Braitman): A look into comparative psychology (i.e. what psychiatric disorders have been observed in animals)]
  • Animals make us human (Temple Grandin): A short review of important aspects of animal cognition, with the usual unique Grandin insights.
  • Ethical dog trainer (Jim Barry): Invites you to think hard about the big ethical questions of the dog training profession, written by a university-trained philosopher and professional dog trainer.
  • Bad science (Ben Goldacre): Not written about dogs specifically, but nonetheless an essential tool in detecting pseudoscientific claims. You can also read its little brother, Beware the strawman (Linda Case): it’s another critical thinking book but this one is just about dogs.
  • So you want to be a dog trainer (Nicole Wilde): A book about the daily professional realities of being a dog trainer, with tons of tips and suggestions. How to run a dog business (Veronica Boutelle) is a complete toolkit to starting your dog business. It gets more specific than Wilde’s, so maybe just read this one once you start seriously contemplating starting the business.

Once you’ve read the essential books, it’s a good idea to patch up on the broader topics like neuroscience or behavioural genetics. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to be a good dog behaviourist, but a solid grasp of neuroscience helps. So you might want to patch up your knowledge of these topics through on-line courses and more technical texts. If you look hard enough on Coursera or Udemy, you are bound to find good modules in neuroscience, animal welfare, diagnostics, comparative psychology, and behavioural genetics. Each module will cost you a few hours a week, but it’s a great investment. If you look at my profile, you can find a few good courses examples. And yes, I am more than a little addicted to Coursera.

Academic background for dog training

I am happy that more and more trainers combine experience, passion, AND academic training. The dog behaviour professions are growing from obscure art to transparent science. You can get the critical thinking skills you need to run an evidence-based practice through other means, but I – personally – got there thanks to my academic training.

Don’t get me wrong: many science graduates are asses, and many fine thinkers aren’t science graduates, but a serious scientific degree is a solid brick in the wall of your credentials.

If you still have a choice of degree, then invest in a one that is related to behaviour or to animals like ethology, zoology, veterinary medicine, neuroscience, or (bio)psychology. It will give you a massive boost if you do go into dog training, and if you don’t, then you still have a solid degree to fall back on.

book of knowledge

Before you pick a programme, grill the university’s career officer mercilessly about the job prospects:

  • Zoology and ethology, for example, tend to lead to specialized research/academic jobs, which are few and far between.
  • Neuroscience and psychology, particularly if you pick cognition modules (the golden child in behaviour right now), can open a lot more doors in corporate as well as university jobs.
  • Veterinary medicine will pretty much guarantee you an income or at least research prospects. And then, the best route towards becoming a dog behaviour practitioner would be to study to become a board-certified vet behaviourist.

If you already have a Bachelor’s and it is neither animal- nor behaviour-related, you can always study for a part-time postgraduate degree as you work. Having been there, I can tell you, it’s hard going, particularly if you have a family, but it’s definitely worth it.

Professional dog training certifications

Dog training and behaviour advice are not protected professions here (Netherlands), but I find it more ethical to get a solid professional certification before you start out. Real families and real dogs would suffer if you gave overconfident, gung-ho advice. These certifications also get you to network with flesh-and-blood colleagues, and give you fresh perspectives from different people. Self-education might give you insular tendencies if you don’t watch it. The main goals of these professional certifications, though, are to give you the skills you need to start practising, and to put a recognized piece of paper in your hand.

This is the catch: these programmes are often run by non-academics, and tend to have glaring holes in the theory. You’d be wise to ask highly educated alumni what they thought before committing to one. You’d also be well-inspired to ask established professionals how respected the qualification is. Don’t do your research and you might end up with the well-meaning amateurs, the ideologues, or the big empty names. A university-bound applied programme like a postgraduate (e.g. I did a postgraduate in applied companion animal behaviour) reduces the risk that they botch up the theory, but be sure to grill them about how much real-life exposure you’ll be getting with their programme.

As a bare minimum, you should come out of your certification programme(s) with:

  • The learning principles (operant/classical conditioning),
  • Fundamental ethology,
  • Essential research findings in dog ethology and cognition,
  • Practical experience in people coaching,
  • Effective and ethical behaviour modification protocols for common dog behaviour problems,
  • Practical experience in dog training,
  • Tools to critically evaluate statements and research findings

If you can’t find the whole package, consider combining an academic specialization in dog behaviour with a well-recognized professional certificate. It’s hard work, but you can combine it with paid work so you’re not bleeding yourself dry doing it.

Dog trainer: experience required

It took me years of practice before I could shape client relationships in a way that promotes compliance. I had to get a ton of rookie mistakes out of the way before I became effective. I wish I had shadowed more people before starting out.

Luckily, nothing is easier than getting a dog training internship if you approach it with modesty and enthusiasm. This post gives you the run-down on on how to apply for a dog training internship (if you are in Den Haag , why not apply to OhMyDog?). Approach different schools and behaviourists, and be sure to experience different cultures and ideologies.

experience

To make the most out of the experience, take notes of what impresses you, what  you’d do different, what you’ve learnt. Watch you don’t get high and mighty, though. What seems like orthodoxy to you now may take on a different light after a few years of practice. And these people could turn out to be precious networking contacts later in your career, even if you disagree with them. I took the holier-than-though attitude, and I regret it. It’s one thing knowing the best practices and the latest research, but it’s not everything. Building positive relationships with colleagues in the region is also important.

If you are lucky enough to find a school or practice where you feel comfortable, ask if you can join the team in the longer term. You won’t be making a living out of it, but many people are perfectly happy leaving it at that: combining their day job with volunteering at their favorite training school once a week. It’s a great compromise if you want to work with animals, but don’t want to run your own business.

How many credentials for dog behaviour?!

This mix of experience, professional training and academic education might seem excessive, and it probably is. Many great dog behaviour consultants don’t have that background. In this unregulated field, how far you decide to push your professional training is a question of personal choice. I personally felt the self-tuition route alone left me open to partisan thinking, so I followed the academic route.

My advice is this: grow into the best behaviourist you can be with the resources you have. And whatever you do: steer clear of ideology and stick to facts.

Picture credits

  • Sisyphe: Shared by Giorgiomonteforti. Attributed to Hine Lewis Wickes (1874). Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC-PD).
  • Book of knowledge: Photo by Dorothy Zeidman. Scuplture by Donald Lipski, 1985; Copyright: Donald Lipski. Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC BY 3.0).
  • Experience: Picture by NY Photographic. Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC BY-SA 3.0).
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