A dog and an anthropologist walk into a bar

Interview with a dog researcher and animal welfare policy adviser
By Laure-Anne Visele, interview on May 2012, target date for publication September 2012

Behind the scenes with dog pros

This interview is part of a series of talks with dog professionals from around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkersassistance dog trainers, dog scientists, etc. to explore ins and out of a dog-related career.

Want to know what goes on behind the scenes of all the dog-related professions? Are you interested in pursuing a career with dogs? Read on for some piping hot trade secrets.

The dreaded meeting

Isabelle was waiting in the hotel lounge, with her gorgeous greyhound. I walked in, a little nervous. She later told me that she was also a little apprehensive. Why is that? Our (respective) views on Cesar Millan (I am kind of against, she is kind of for). I came determined to focus on what we had in common instead. It turned out to be a lot!

One conversation, two hours, and three cold coffees later, I was flushed with enthusiasm at having met the most inspiring dog lobbyist, and we left each other with the certainty we would work together on one of our many projects!

About Isabelle Sternheim

Isabelle is an anthropologist by training. She uses this knowledge to conduct research on societal issues relating to dogs. She is also a canine welfare lobbyist, and has founded some very impressive initiatives to support her vision.

It’s a little tricky to frame what Isabelle does in a couple of words, so let’s phrase it in ethology terms.

Predisposition:  A scientific education, a passion for dogs, boundless energy.

Motivation and triggers: Driven by:

  • Good science;
  • Demonstrable facts;
  • A frustration with inefficiencies and divisive politics; and
  • An intense dislike for social injustice and animal abuse.

Result behaviour: Isabelle:

  • Sets up dog-related social projects tackling convicts reintegration, training the unemployed, reaching out to autistic children, etc.
  • Runs social research projects on perceptions about popular TV trainers, national animal welfare attitudes, the decline of street dog populations, etc.
  • Gives policy advice on emergency dog population management ahead of international sporting events.
  • Assists dog shelters with policy and material.
Does the woman ever sleep? I think not.

Distributing resources to stray animal foundations and shelters

LV –  You have sooooo many projects going on. Let’s start with the Animal Foundation Platform [only in Dutch at this stage]. How did that come about?

IS –  Animal Foundation Platform was founded in 2010 on the first stray dog conference in the Netherlands. It was set up as an umbrella organization for Dutch foundations working for and with stray animals. Its goal was to enhance the cohesion between foundations and support them financially, with education materials, medical supplies etc, etc. Basic idea is that together you will be stonger and, can have more impact. I became a member of the Board in 2011 and, since May 2012, the Chairwoman.

Our focus changed from Dutch foundations to foundations from all over the world. As our purpose was connection, it made sense to make it international.

The ultimate goal is an international network (community) of stray animal foundations and organizations.

The AFP offers:

  • Veterinary supplies;
  • Financial support;
  • Educational material; and
  • an International network

LV –  How do you get the supplies and the funds?

IS – We get all our funds from donations and fundraising initiatives (auctions, a webshop,…)

We get the medical supplies from a daughter organisation: the Animal Medical Care Foundation. The AMCF collects veterinary supplies that are nearing their expiration date  from surgeries and pharmaceutical wholesalers, and redistributes them to shelters all over the world.

Policy advisor on dog welfare issues

LV –   You also lobby for better emergency response management to street dog populations ahead of international sporting events. Tell me a little more about that.

ISWhenever an international sports event takes place, something awful tends to happen: the panic culling of street dogs. The staff used to carry out the culling are invariably undertrained, and it is often done with no regard for the dogs’ suffering.

We know of dogs being crushed alive in old vans at the scrap yard, or being  burnt alive in some container.

And it’s not just one country. This happened in Ukraine, China, South Africa, … Wherever a major sporting event takes place.

The really shameful thing is that, with a little bit of education and forward planning, we could eliminate such practices. This is what prompted us to start the International Stray Animal Team (ISAT).

We get in touch with planning committees and local government agencies, way ahead of the event, to make sure that streetdog management is an integral item on the planning. We then advise them on the more humane ways of managing the street dog population.

Dogs and politics

LVWorking in dog training, I am baffled at how politically divided this world is. Much more than in my previous corporate career! How do you navigate around that?

ISI have noticed the same thing. This is why I joined the International Association for Canine Professionals. They operate across the whole political and speciality spectrum of dog professionals (groomers, photographers, etc.).

Take dog trainers: they welcome trainers from all political flavours: balanced, positive, or traditional. As long as their practices work in the best interest of the dog.

They offer invaluable advice on business management, fantastic networking opportunities, and they support local initiatives.

Dog research

LVYou did a project for Dog Research on researching attitudes to Cesar Millan. What prompted you to write this paper?

ISA few months back, a Dutch TV personality and dog trainer spoke out against the methods used by Cesar Millan. This triggered a veritable tidal wave of division amongst dog trainers. The debate took some very nasty proportions, with proponents of both sides taking increasingly extreme positions.

As an anthropologist, I wanted to delve deeper into why his approach seemed to generate such passionate dissent. So I designed a survey, which got answered by over 1,000 dog professionals. I then measured approval per population group (by profession and by preferred training methods).

LV – For the sake of complete transparency, I wanted to say: I would place myself in the ‘against’ camp on the basis of some of the methods he promotes (namely flooding and the pack theory).

That being said, I cannot abide it when passionate conviction is an excuse to drop common courtesy AND logic. I am completely open to changing my mind in light of new facts.

ISThat’s exactly how I see it too. We should be able to respectfully disagree with each other. So, in a sense, with this project, I am trying to get to this divisive subject with facts and logic, rather than personal attack.

But did you know that I got hate mail for doing this?

LVFrom ‘gentle’ trainers?! The irony is unbelievable!

It’s funny, I got hate mail too, but from Cesar Millan fans. The most reasonable was this one.

The thing is, no matter how compelling someone’s arguments are, I stop listening the second someone makes it a personal cruisade. Passionate defenders or attackers are incapable of resisting the temptation to distort, so there is no way I will get objective and balanced information. When it gets heated, I just tune out and leave as fast as I can.

ISExactly. Why is it so many people around this issue cannot discuss it like mature adults?

I also got a lot of mails steadfastly questioning the validity of my research, accusing me of biased respondent selection and leading survey questions.

LVI have briefly read some of the questionnaire and no alarm bells went off for me.

But I did have a couple of reservations with the paper. It implied that the good stuff in Cesar Millan’s method (encouraging calmness, assertiveness, exercise, and consistency) was proprietary to him. But these have been central to dog training for years.

Another point was that quantification of approval was done based on how many of Cesar Millan’s tips the respondent agreed with. I am on-board with 7 of his 10 messages, but have concerns with three of them. Does that make me a 70% approver? I don’t think you can weigh these points uniformly.

But I really appreciated the initiative. I thought the sample size was more than respectable, and I loved the academic standard. But above all, I loved the spirit behind it: when anger and division kill logic and fact, let’s take a step back, and look at it objectively.


So, how did you make sure that your sample was a balanced representation of all views, in particular in the dog trainer/behaviourist population?

ISI made a concerted effort to approach respondents from organisations that are openly against his methods – and I continue to.

Standardisation in the dog behaviour professions

LVIn your paper, you refer to the radicalisation of opinions in the dog training world as a ‘religious schism’. I think that is a very apt analogy.

To what extent do you think that this is due to the lack of standards in dog training certifications? Surely if most dog trainers were certified by the same (highly qualified) institute, there would be less room for dissent?

ISI agree totally. But I have followed some of these courses, and I was quite disillusioned. Critical thinking was discouraged. Only 100% orthodoxy to the curriculum was tolerated.

LVTell me about it. I have approached a few institutes myself, and I so often stumble upon patchy and biased curricula. It’s very frustrating, as these courses don’t come cheap.

One did truly impress me, though: Omgang Hond, with the O&O. It is to Dutch trainers what passing the Bar is to UK lawyers, with a bit of boot camp thrown into it. Not for the faint-hearted but what a great qualification.

Getting to the bottom of the current state of certification bodies in the dog professions could be a very nice research project for you, no? Comparing grasp of the latest science; openness to critical thinking; and customer service. We need to shake things up on that front.

ISDefinitely something worth looking into!

Social research projects about dogs

LVSo what’s your latest work in social research?

ISI am currently working on a study looking at local cultural beliefs about dogs in different countries. I am looking for correlations between local beliefs and welfare practices. We approached women (animal) welfare professionals in countries with acute welfare problems for a series of interviews (from Mexico, Bosnia, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, …). These interviews are free-flow. So it’ll be a qualitative analysis, not quantitative.

I have also done a historical study of street dogs in the Netherlands: two hundred years ago, we had a lot of stray dogs and today, hardly any. I was wondering why, and if we could use these reasons to help in countries that still have an acute stray dog problem.

The factors that came out were:

  • Improvement of the local economic circumstances and living conditions of the average Dutch family
  • Growing influence of dog defence lobby organisations from the 1920’s onwards, leading to increasingly specific animal protection legislation
  • An outbreak of rabies, which resulted in the mass culling of stray dogs.

Social welfare projects

LVSo, as if the research projects weren’t enough, you are also involved in social projects involving dogs, aren’t you?

ISAt the moment, we are in the starting phase of the Doctor Dog project. The idea is to teach the unemployed or imprisoned dog handling skills in therapeutic settings, like for the care of the elderly, or for autistic children.

I am combining that with an education project aimed at members of cultures where dogs are viewed very negatively. One of the people I talked to said that, on the streets of Amsterdam, he lived in constant fear. With his dog phobia, he felt like there were heavily armed terrorists  (i.e. dogs with teeth) all around him.


The best way to get through is to be sensitive about the cultural context, though, to listen to their story. There is no point in judging and forcing information down their throats.

Two of a kind

LVWow, you’ve certainly got your plate full!

ISYes, you could say that, but it gives me energy.

Contacting Isabelle

  • Dog Research: active research projects.
  • If you are woman from a country where dogs are considered dangerous and/or dirty, and you work in animal welfare, please go to this link to help with Isabelle’s study.
  • If you would like to take part of the Cesar Millan survey, follow this link.
  • Animal Medical Care FoundationDonation of veterinary supplies
  • Animal Foundation Platform: Umbrella organisation for shelter supplies, donations, logistical support
  • Doctor Dog: Social projects using dogs to assist with prison inmates, the elderly, the unemployed, and autistic children


I love to read your comments, so leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Are involved in dog research in the context of social science;
  • Are involved in social projects involving dogs; and/or
  • Are involved in the management of stray dogs, or in animal welfare.

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