Joël Dehasse: Dog psychiatrist and psychologist

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

Meet Joël Dehasse

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

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

The pack theory and dog behaviour problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punishment for dog behaviour problems

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

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

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

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

JD – Punishment as a whole.

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

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

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

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

Kerr on punishment

JD – Right.

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

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

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

The Activity Needs model for dog behaviour problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JD – If the limitations are instinctively programmed, yes.

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

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

Systemic therapy to treat dog behaviour problems

LV – Tell me more about the systemic therapy approach.

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

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


Systemic therapy treats the system, not just the dog

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

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

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

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

Homeopathy for dog behaviour problems

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

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

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

Chiens hors du commun

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over-the-counter remedies for dog behaviour problems

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

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

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


DAP is based on the pheromones released by the nursing mother

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

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

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

LV – And pheromone therapy for dogs?

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

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

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

Difficult conversations for a dog behaviourist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difficult conversations

Difficult conversations

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

LV – Can you give me an example?

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

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

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

LV – In theory, though, right?

JD – Not just in theory. It happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JD – [laughs] Something like that.


Further reading


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

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

Illustration credits

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