When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

Science killed another myth today.

This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:

Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.” 

Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.

Sit Ubu

It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.

While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.

However, what does the science say?

Going to try science

Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:

It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer  (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.

These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact. 

science to the rescue

Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).

Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).

Experiment 2:  Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.

Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.

Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.

Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.

Chip Cooper Vinny Ally Aunt Betty Pond


Take Away for Dog Folks

Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.

Cited Studies:

  1. Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
  2. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
  3. Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.



Pretty in Pink

Our youngest dog, Ally, has a ‘bestie”. Her name is Colbie and she belongs to our friend Amanda, a trainer who also works as an instructor at AutumnGold. Ally is a Golden Retriever. Colbie is a Pit Bull Terrier, adopted from our local shelter while Amanda was on staff there.

Ally and Colbie Chasing


Being young girls, both Ally and Colbie wear pink collars, Gentle Leaders and harnesses. For Ally, this is simply a fashion statement. For Colbie, given her breed and the breed-stereotypes that she may encounter, it means a bit more. Amanda purposefully dresses Colbie in pink hoping that such feminine attire will present Colbie as the sweetheart that she is. (Being color-blind, Colbie has no opinion).

Ally and Colbie in Pink


Although Ally does not care about Colbie’s genetic heritage (or that she wears pink), many people do. Breed stereotypes are pervasive and impact local and state breed-specific legislation (BSL), rental property regulations, and shelter decisions regarding adoption and euthanasia. BSLs in the US and UK specifically target Pit Bull Terriers and other bully-type breeds, and either ban ownership of these breeds outright or impose strict restrictions upon ownership. These laws are based upon the assumption that targeted breeds are inherently dangerous and that individuals of the breeds can be reliably identified. There is much controversy (and no consensus) regarding the first assumption and is a topic for another time. In this article, we look at the second assumption regarding reliable breed identification. Is there supporting evidence? It turns out that there is quite a bit of science on this topic – and the results are quite illuminating.

Pit Bull or something else? Prior to the development of reliable DNA testing, the only method available for identifying the breed of a dog whose heritage was unknown was visual assessment. A shelter worker, veterinarian or animal control officer would examine the dog and assign a breed designation based upon physical appearance and conformation. Even with widespread availability of reliable DNA tests, most shelters and rescue groups continue to rely upon visual identification to assign breed labels to the dogs in their care. Given the life or death import of these decisions for some dogs, it is odd that the question of the reliability of these evaluations has not been questioned.

Until recently.

Experts don’t agree: In 2013, Victoria Voith and her co-researchers asked over 900 pet professionals to assign a breed (or mix of breeds) to 20 dogs that they viewed on one-minute video clips. Each of the dogs underwent DNA testing prior to the study, which allowed the researchers to test both the accuracy of visual breed-identification and the degree of agreement among the dog experts. Results: Poor agreement was found between visual breed assignments and DNA results in  14 of the 20 dogs (70 %). Moreover, there was low inter-rater reliability, meaning that the dog experts did not show a high level of agreement regarding breed assignments to the 20 dogs. More than half of the evaluators agreed on the predominant breed in only 7 of the 20 dogs (35 %). Although Pit Bull Terriers were not specifically examined in this study, these results provide evidence that physical appearance is not a reliable method for breed identification.

You say Pit Bull, I say Boxer: The following year, researchers in the US and the UK collaborated and examined the consistency with which shelter workers assigned breed labels to the dogs in their care (2). A group of 416 shelter workers in the US and 54 in the UK were asked to assign a breed or mix of breeds to photographs of 20 dogs. They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to list the specific features that they used in their determination. Of the 20 dogs that were used in this study, more than 3/4 had a bully-breed appearance. (Note: An important difference between  the UK and the US is that all UK shelters are subject to the country’s Dangerous Dog Act, a law that bans the ownership of Pit Bulls. While such bans exist in the US, there is no universal law. Rather, select municipalities or states have various forms of BSL). Results: Perhaps not surprisingly, UK shelter workers were much less likely to identify a dog with a “bully appearance” as a Pit Bull Terrier than were US shelter workers. Instead, the UK shelter workers tended to label these dogs as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, a breed that is allowed in the UK, rather than as a Pit Bull, a breed that is universally banned. Despite this difference, results corroborated Voith’s study in that the researchers found a great deal of variation among shelter workers in their assignments of breed and there was a lack of consensus regarding which of the 20 dogs were identifiable as Pit Bull Terriers.

DNA vs. shelter staff: A 2015 study surveyed experienced shelter staff members at several Florida animal shelters (3). At each of four sites, four staff members were asked to assign breed designations to 30 adoptable dogs who were housed at their shelter. Collectively, 120 dogs were evaluated by 16 staff members. DNA testing was conducted on all of the dogs. A primary objective of this study was to examine the reliability of shelter staff’s ability to identify Pit Bull Terriers and dogs with Pit Bull heritage and to compare their assessments with DNA results. (Note: The DNA signatures that are used to identify Pit Bull Terriers are those of the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terriers, two breeds that are considered to be genetically identical to the Pit Bull Terrier). Results: Approximately one-third of the dogs who were identified as a pit bull-type breed by one or more shelter staff lacked any DNA evidence of bully breeds in his/her heritage. When inter-rater reliability was examined, agreement among shelter staff was moderate, but still included a relatively large number of disagreements. What this means in practical terms is that a substantial number of dogs in this study were labeled as pit bulls or pit bull types and yet had no such genetic background. Even if the shelter staff agreed on a particular dog’s identification, this would be rather a moot point (for the dog) if they both happened to be wrong.

But she doesn’t look like a Chow Chow: How can this be? How is it possible that a dog who appears to have the characteristic “pittie-type” head shape,  muscular body and other distinctive features tests negative for Pit Bull heritage? The conclusion that many people make from these discrepancies is that DNA testing must be unreliable, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. However, the fact is that it is not uncommon for the results of DNA tests of dogs who have mixed heritage to identify a set of primary ancestor breeds that look nothing like the dog in question.  This occurs because purebred crosses, particularly after the first generation, can result in unique combinations of genes that produce a wide range of features. When several different breeds are involved, some of these features may not be apparent in any of the ancestral breeds.

This occurs for two reasons. First, many of the breeds that we know today were originally created by crossing two or more existing breeds and then selecting for a small set of physically unique traits in subsequent generations. However, the dogs of these breeds still carry genes for a much wider variety of traits, even though the genes are not being “expressed” in the dog’s appearance. When these dogs are then bred to dogs of other breeds the hidden traits may become evident in their puppies. A second reason is that less than 1 percent of the canine genome encodes for breed-specific traits such ear shape, coat type and color, and head shape. So, a dog could be a large part (genetically) of a certain breed, while not showing all of the breeds physical traits, which may have been rapidly lost during cross-breeding with other breeds.

What this means for dogs: These three studies provide valuable evidence that the use of visual assessments to assign breed or breed-mixes to dogs is inaccurate and unreliable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this information is of more than just casual interest for dogs like Colbie because Pit Bull Terriers and other “bully breeds” are most frequently stigmatized by breed stereotypes and impacted by BSL and shelter policies that require automatic euthanasia. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that identifying an individual dog as a Pit Bull may be a matter of life or death for that dog.

It is not an exaggeration because we now have evidence.

Researchers ask, “What’ in a Name”? A recent paper published by researchers in Clive Wynne’s dog lab at the University of Arizona describes an ambitious series of experiments in which they examined the impact of breed labels on the perceptions of potential adopters and on the eventual outcome for the dog (4). The studies were carried out online and at animal shelters in Florida and Arizona. Participants were asked to rate photographs, videotapes, or live dogs in their kennels. In some conditions the dogs were provided with a breed label and in others they were not. Results: Two major findings came out of these studies. The first showed that stereotypes about Pit Bulls are alive and well and the second showed how this stigmatization ultimately affects dogs:

  1. People rated an image of a “pit-bull-type” dog as less approachable, friendly and intelligent and as more aggressive when compared to an image of either a Labrador Retriever and a Border Collie. In another experiment, labeling a dog as a Pit Bull negatively influenced the perceptions that people had about the dog. When visitors rated a dog who was labeled as a Pit Bull, the dogs were found to be less attractive in terms of perceived approachability, friendliness, intelligence, aggressiveness and adoptability compared with when the same dog was not so labeled.
  2. Dogs who had been labeled as Pit Bulls had  length of stays in the Florida shelter prior to adoption that were over three times as long as the stays of dogs who were matched in appearance, but had been labeled as another breed or breed-mix. When breed labels were removed from the profile cards of dogs offered for adoption, adoption rates for Pit Bulls increased significantly, length of stays prior to adoption in the shelter decreased, as did euthanasia rates. Interestingly, not only pit-bull-type dogs benefited from removing breed labels from the kennel cards. Dogs from working breeds who were available for adoption, in particular Boxers, Dobermans and Mastiffs also showed an increase in adoption rate.

Take Away for Dog Folks

There is a lot to ponder here. We have learned that breed identification using a dog’s physical appearance, even when conducted by experienced dog experts, is flawed in two distinctive ways. First, experts cannot agree consistently about how to label an individual dog. One person’s Boxer-mix is another’s Pit Bull and is yet another’s Bulldog/Lab mix. Second, DNA tests do not consistently confirm breed assignments that were based upon physical appearance. Labeling breeds for purposes of shelter retention, adoption and euthanasia is a highly dubious process, and one that is most critical for Pit Bull Terriers and other bully breeds.

We have also learned that potential adopters react to a Pit Bull label in ways that may adversely affect the outcome for the dog.  Labeling a dog as Pit Bull may increase her length of stay in the shelter, reduce her chances of adoption and increase her risk of being killed – simply because she was assigned a (possibly incorrect) label that changed the perceptions of potential adopters. And last, we have evidence that removing breed labels from the cage cards of adoptable pit-bull-type dogs (and many other dogs) increases their chance of adoption, reduces the length of their stay in the shelter, and increases their chance of simply staying alive.

Pretty in Pink for sure. But, I say, it is time that wearing pink becomes a simple fashion statement for Colbie, just as it is for her pal Ally.

Colbie Play Bow

Cited Studies:

  1. Voith VL, Trevejo R, Dowling-Guyer S, Chadik C, Marder A, Johnson V, Irizarry K. Comparison of visual and DNA breed identification of dogs and inter-observer reliability. American Journal of Sociological Research 2013; 3:17-29.
  2. Hoffman CL, Harrison N, Wolff L, Westgarty C. Is that dog a Pit Bull? A cross-country comparison of perceptions of shelter works regarding breed identification. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2014; 17:322-339.
  3. Olson KR, Levy JK, Borby B, Crandall MM, Broadhurst JE, Jacks S, Barton RC, Zimmerman MS. Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. The Veterinary Journal 2015; 206:197-202.
  4. Gunter LM, Barber RT, Wynne CDL. What’s in a name? Effect of breed perceptions & labeling on attractiveness, adoptions & length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs. PLoS ONE  2016; 11:e0146857.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146857.

NEW BOOK! This essay is excerpted from my newest Science Dog book, “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog“.





New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.



I Feel Your Pain

Many people who live with multiple dogs have had the pleasure of experiencing two dogs who become great friends. Call the relationship what you will – bonded pair, social partners, housemates, doggy pals – I personally prefer friends, but hey, tomato/tomato, agreed? Regardless of what you label it, it is without question that dogs are highly social, that they bond with others in their social group, and that some dogs bond very strongly to each other.

dog friends


The emotional lives of dogs: It is (finally) accepted by scientists that dogs, like many other species, express a wide range of basic emotions. These include, but may not be limited to, fear, anxiety, jealousy, pleasure, playfulness, and happiness. (I would also add joy and silliness to these, but then, I live with a Toller).

Chippy Wet and Happy


What about empathy? Seeing that dogs are highly social and that they bond closely to their companions, it is not a big jump to ask whether or not they are capable of feeling concern for others. At its most basic, empathy refers to the ability to share the emotions of another individual. However, there is debate over whether or not the expression of empathy must involve the capacity to take the perspective of the other, a level of cognition that requires at least a rudimentary “theory of mind”. One approach to resolving this debate has been to classify empathy into several types, each requiring different levels of cognitive complexity.

  • Emotional contagion, at the lowest level, refers to simply being affected by and sharing another’s emotional state. This form of empathy has been found to exist in a wide variety of species, including dogs.
  •  The next step up, sympathetic concern is expressed through comforting behaviors. The subject not only feels the other’s emotions, but attempts to provide comfort to alleviate the other’s distress. This level of empathy as well has been demonstrated in a wide range of species. Chimpanzees, some species of birds, and dogs all have been shown to demonstrate comforting behaviors towards others in distress.
  • At the peak of the cognitive scale is empathic perspective, which requires the capacity to understand and appraise a situation from the other individual’s perspective.  An example of this is prosocial helping. a talent that dogs have indeed been found to be capable of  when they are made aware of their owner’s goal. (We looked at this research in “Lend a Helping Paw“).

All about us: So, one might be inclined to stop here, seeing that there is certainly evidence of empathic responses in dogs. But herein lies the rub. All of this work has examined not if dogs respond empathically to other dogs, but rather, how dogs recognise and respond to the emotional state of humans. This is all very cool work, for sure, but it is rather odd seeing that all of the research with other species such as Chimpanzees, Bonobos, birds, and even elephants have examined empathic responses among con-specifics – members of their own species. Most of the results in those animals have also reported that individuals are much more likely to demonstrate empathy (at any level) for a close relative or a member of their social group than for an unfamiliar individual.

Do dogs care about their friends? Do we know anything about how dogs react to the distress of other dogs? If they do show empathy, will they react more dramatically to a known dog friend versus an unfamiliar dog? Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria and at the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest Hungary asked exactly these questions (1).

The Study: Sixteen pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same home for at least one year were included in the study. Within each pair, one dog was randomly assigned to be the subject and the other to be the “distressed” partner. The partner’s stress whine was pre-recorded and used during the experiment. Each subject dog was studied under three conditions, spaced apart by 2-week intervals: (1) the whine of their (absent) household partner; (2) the whine of an unfamiliar dog; and (3) a recording of computer-generated sounds with a cadence and frequency similar to dog whines (the control). The subject dog’s physiological response (heart rate and salivary cortisol levels) and behavioral response (stress signals) were recorded before and after listening to the recorded sounds, which came from behind an opaque screen. At the end of each period, the partner dog was immediately brought into the room, apparently from behind the screen (the reunion phase) and the subject dog’s behavior upon seeing his or her housemate was also recorded. (You can imagine how this would feel…..”Dude! What were they doing to you back there??!!!”)

Results: The dogs in this study definitely reacted to the distress calls of another dog. Upon hearing a distressed dog calling, the dogs spent significantly more time gazing towards the source of the cries and moving closer to the source than they did when exposed to the non-dog control sounds. This should not be surprising to anyone who lives with more than one dog, certainly. This study also provided a few interesting nuances regarding how dogs express their concern for other dogs:

  • Dogs care about other dogs: The dogs expressed more anxiety and stress behaviors when they listened to the recorded cries of their housemate  or an unfamiliar dog compared to when they were listening to the control sounds.
  • Expressing their concern: When dogs were reunited with their partners, they spent more time with their friend and showed more affiliative (loving) behaviors towards their partner after having heard a recording of the partner’s whine compared to when they had heard an unfamiliar whine or the control sounds.
  • Feeling stressed: Hearing their friend whining also caused dogs’ salivary cortisol levels to remain elevated during the testing conditions, suggesting that physiological stress was elevated when compared with the control condition.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  This study, the first to directly measure dogs’ empathic response to other dogs, provides evidence that dogs are capable of the first level of empathy, emotional contagion. The dogs were clearly affected by and shared the distressed emotional state of a dog who they could hear but not see. The study also showed us that dogs recognize and respond to the distress of a friend more intensely than they do to the distress of a dog who they do not know and that they show strong affiliative behaviors towards their friend upon being reunited. These behaviors suggest that not only do dogs recognize the vocalizations of their friends (which has been demonstrated in other studies) but that they express the second level of empathy – sympathetic concern.

Anecdotes about dogs who love each other and who express distress and concern for their friends abound. Personally, I too carry the belief that dogs, as highly social beings, care for and are concerned for the welfare of their canine buddies. Now we have a bit of research to support this, continuing to expand our understanding of who our dogs are and about what matters to them in their lives.

Empathetic Dog


Cited Study: Quervel-Chaumette M, Faerber V, Farago T, Marshall-Pescini S, Range F. Investigating empathy-like responding to conspecifics’ distress in pet dogs. PLOS-One 2016; 11 (4):e0152920. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152920.


Just Show Me A Sign

Like many dog trainers, I use both verbal and gestural (hand) signals as cues with my dogs. With our students at AutumnGold, we introduce both verbal and physical cues at the same time, but generally emphasize verbal signals because this is what most pet owners prefer to use with their dogs.

AG Down Stay


All of our classes include instructions for fading gestural cues in favor of  verbal cues for owners who wish to use primarily verbal signals. Students are taught to “lead with the verbal cue and follow with the gesture“, thus establishing a classical relationship (verbal signal predicts gesture signal). This connection allows the trainer to gradually fade the hand signal and eventually to rely primarily on the verbal command.

On the other hand (literally), hand signals are a lot of fun to teach and come in handy in a wide variety of exercises. For these, we offer a dedicated “hand signals” class, for students who are interested in teaching their dog distance signals and hand cues for direction or jumping. This is great fun for dogs and their people and is also helpful for students who are interested in competing in dog sports.

Chip Agility Jumping  Chip Down Signal                      CHIPPY SHOWS OFF HIS HAND SIGNALS FOR JUMPING AND DOWN

However, like many dog training practices, the use of verbal versus hand signals with dogs has not been formally studied. Until recently, that is.

Enter Biagio D’Aniello and his team of scientists at the University of Naples (among others) in Italy. I have written about this group’s research on previous occasions. They work with retrievers who are trained for water rescue work and are reporting new information regarding the dog’s communication skills and ability to learn through observation (see “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Doggie See, Doggie Do“).

This time around, the researchers asked whether dogs who are trained to respond equally to verbal and gestural cues show a preference for one type over the other.

The Study: A group of 25 certified water rescue dogs were enrolled. The group included 10 Golden Retrievers and 15 Labrador Retrievers, composed of 12 males and 13 females. Per training protocols for water rescue, all of the dogs had been trained to respond to both verbal and gestural cues. The dogs were tested in four behaviors; sit, down, stay and come. The study was conducted in three phases. Phase 1: The four basic commands were given using gestures only. Phase 2: Commands were delivered using a verbal cue only. Phase 3: (Here is where things get tricky). Both forms of a command were given, but incongruently (i.e. they conflicted with each other). For example, the verbal command for “sit” was paired with the gesture for “down”, the verbal command for “come” was paired with the gesture for “stay”, etc. The frequencies of correct responses were recorded in the first two phases, and a “preference index” that indicated the percent of correct gestural responses was calculated for the third phase.


  1. Just a sign, please: When gestures alone were used, all of the dogs responded correctly to all four commands, with the exception of a single error (one dog missed a “down” signal). In contrast, when verbal cues were used, the dogs made a total of 18 errors. The most common mistake was failing to lie down in response to the verbal command “down”. These results suggest that dogs who were trained using both verbal and hand signal cues (and when no attempt was made to emphasize one type of signal over the other), the dogs responded more consistently to gestures than to verbal cues.
  2. Location, location, location: While dogs showed an overall preference for gestures over verbal commands, this preference was not found when the verbal command to “come” was paired with the hand signal “stay” and the owner was located a distance away from the dog. In this case, the majority of dogs (56 %) responded to the verbal command. This difference suggests that although the dogs tended to pay more attention to hand signals than to verbal commands, this preference may be overridden by the preference to stay in close proximity to the owner.
  3. Girls may be more visual: An interesting result of this paper was the sex difference that was found. Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue. (Note: Although there is a bit of previous research suggesting that female dogs concentrate more on visual cues than do males, the small numbers in this trial coupled with the method of scoring lead the researchers to interpret this result with caution – in other words, this may be a “statistical hiccup”).

This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals. The study also suggests that context is an important factor, in that having a preference to be close to the trainer may override a preference for gestural signals, leading a dog to choose the signal (verbal or gestural) that leads to proximity.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The finding that dogs (usually) respond better to hand signals than they do to verbal cues is probably not surprising to most trainers. This certainly supports our understanding of dogs as being highly responsive to body language and non-verbal cues. Still, it is always gratifying to find scientific data that supports one’s (previously unsupported) suppositions.

This is Data

Do hand signals have enhanced saliency? However, is it possible that there is more to the differences found in this study than is explained by the dog’s proclivity for reading body language? This paper lead me to think more deeply about these two types of signals; specifically about the type of hand signals that we choose to use.  The majority of hand signals that we use in dog training are far from being  arbitrary signals. Rather they are structured in both form and function to direct the dog’s attention or body to part or all of the targeted behavior. For example, a commonly used hand signal for “down” is  a sweeping motion from the dog’s “nose to his toes”. During training, this gesture easily doubles as both a lure when food is held in the hand and as a vehicle to deliver positive reinforcement when the hand delivers a food treat once the dog attains the down position. A reliable response to the hand signal alone is achieved by gradually removing the lure from the signaling hand and switching to +R from the opposite hand. We are then left with a hand signal that has, well, enhanced saliency for the dog, if you will. A second example is the use of body language and hand signals to inform a dog about the direction to run or jump in agility training. The physical signal itself has inherent meaning to the dog (we all get this). This signal is then enhanced by pairing it with food or an opportunity to tug. Contrast these gesture examples to the variety of verbal cues that we use with dogs (sit, down, come, etc). All of these, of course, are completely arbitrary from the dog’s point of view. We could just as easily use the word “down” to train a down command as the word “pumpkin” or “fluffy butt”. While we do enhance saliency by pairing these terms with reinforcers, they cannot be structured in the same way that gestures can to be naturally obvious (salient) to the dog.

So, in addition to dogs being highly attentive to body language (I think we all agree on that), it also seems that the hand signals that we select function to naturally attract our dog’s attention and direct behavior. The trainer “beefs up” this attraction by pairing the signal with positive reinforcement. Therefore, gestural cues may always have one step up over verbal cues when comparing the two (when the owner is in close proximity). Here is an idea – try training a sit using a down hand signal or teaching an agility dog to jump in the opposite direction from which you are pointing. In addition to this being a bit of a training challenge (more than a bit, I suspect), I would hypothesise that when arbitrary gestural signals are compared with verbal cues, we might see a leveling out of the preferences for gesture versus verbal signals. Just an idea……any researchers biting?

A role for individual preference and reinforcement history? I also pondered what the influence of an individual’s preference might be in this type of testing. All dogs tend to have certain exercises that they enjoy more than others. Some of these exercises may be inherently reinforcing for the dog while others may simply be preferred because they have a strong reinforcement history with the trainer (i.e. the exercise has been practiced and reinforced more frequently). In the case of this study, we might expect that dogs trained for water rescue work would be highly bonded to their owners and would also have a very strong reinforcement history for the “come” command. It would be interesting to explore verbal versus gesture preferences in dogs who are trained for different types of work, who may have different behavior preferences and reinforcement histories. Such a test would be analogous to the study that this same group did with dog’s looking back for help, in which they found some very interesting differences.

In practice: From a practical viewpoint, as a trainer, these results suggest to me that we should be doubly careful when fading hand signals in favor of verbal cues, especially when training a dog’s less preferred behaviors. While this research suggests that dogs are asking us to “just show me a sign”, it also seems that their responses will be influenced by a number of factors, including looking for the cue that tells them what they want to hear!

Dottie Come when Called


Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. The importance of gestural communication: A study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5.

I Bow for Your Play

At AutumnGold we have an informal group of trainers and dog friends who get together regularly to do a bit of dog training, go for group walks, and give our dogs free time to play. During play time, we take care that the dogs who are loose together know one another well, are  comfortable together and demonstrate good play manners. We include plenty of “calling out of play” and play pauses to keep things safe and tension free. One of the most enjoyable things about these sessions is that they give us a chance to watch our dogs having fun together and to observe the many ways in which dogs communicate during play.

And there are certainly a lot of ways.

Play 1Play 2

Play 4  Play 5

While many of us learn a great deal from watching our dogs play, there is also a substantial body of science on this topic. Researchers have long been interested in the expression and functions of animal play in a variety of species. Specific studies of play in dogs are not as numerous, but several scientists, such as Marc Bekoff, Nicola Rooney, John Bradshaw and Alexandra Horowitz have published work that examines play behavior in young and adult dogs.

Most recently, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan focused their work on a very specific component of canine play (1).

Play Bow 2


The play bow is a common and highly stereotyped play signal in dogs (and several other canid species as well). However, the precise meaning of this posture is not completely understood. Marc Bekoff’s earlier work with puppies and young adults suggested that dogs tend to bow prior to making a move that might be misconstrued by their play partner, such as feigning a bite or attack, as a way to clarify playful intent (2). In other words, the play bow is analogous to a dog saying “Hey, dude. Just wanted to remind you that this is all play. I just mention this because the next thing that I plan to do is well…..bite your ear. Remember this is all play, ‘kay?” Other possible functions of play bows are as visual signals to reinitiate play after one or both of the play partners have paused, as strategic moves that allow a dog to position himself ready to either pounce upon or dodge his play partner, or, because play bows are often offered simultaneously, as a way to synchronise play behavior.

Play Bow 1


The Study: Because it is quite possible that play bows are highly flexible signals and may have multiple functions, the researchers searched for evidence for all of the aforementioned possibilities. They presented four hypotheses regarding the function of the play bow: to clarify play intentions, to reinitiate play after a pause, to position oneself for escape or attack, or to synchronize play behaviors. They also studied the role of the play bow as a distinctly visual signal, which if true, would mean that play bows are only offered when a dog is within the visual field of his or her play partner.

The team analyzed a set of videotaped play sessions of 16 dogs playing as pairs. The dogs were playing in large enclosed backyards or a public area. All of the dogs were well socialized, played well together, and varied in their degree of familiarity with one another. Some had just recently met while others were well-acquainted friends. Play behaviors were coded according to a previously developed ethogram of adult dog behavior and were independently recorded by three reviewers. The number of play bows, their context, and each dog’s behavior before, during and after play bows were recorded. Results: A total of 414 play bows occurred during 22 separate play sessions. Four play pairs were responsible for the majority of the play bows (76 %). By comparison, no other pair accounted for more than 5 percent of total bows, suggesting that play bows vary dramatically among individuals and play pairs. There was no indication of an influence of age, sex or size influencing the number or form of play bows. However, this may be due to the relatively small sample size and are factors that could be examined in future work.

The collected data suggested the following regarding the function of play bowing for adult dogs during play:

  • Both bowing dogs and their partners showed an increase in active play behavior following a play bow, supporting the hypothesis that play bows function to reinitiate play following a pause.
  • The type of behaviors that dogs showed prior to and immediately following play bows tended to be similar within pairs, suggesting that play bows also help play partners to synchronize behavior. These results are corroborated by another recent study showing that dogs who use play bow mimicry tend to play together longer than those who do not (3).
  • More than 98 percent, virtually all, of the play bows occurred when the two dogs were within each others’ visual fields, providing strong support for the hypothesis that play bowing is an intentional visual signal that dogs only use when they know that their partner can see them and respond.
  • Although the researchers did not find support for Bekoff’s theory of  the play bow as an intention clarifying signal, they note that his work was primarily with puppies and young dogs, and used a different methodology. It is possible that the bow serves this function for young dogs while they are initially learning to play and to inhibit their bite, but is less necessary for adult dogs.
  •  Of the 16 dogs in this study, a single individual, a Belgian Tervuren named Tex, played with five different dogs and was responsible for more than 40 percent of the total play bows counted in the study. In contrast, several dogs showed just one play bow in a session or did not bow at all.

Take Away for Dog Folks

For dog folks, play bows are a welcome sight during paired or group play among adult dogs because we seem to intuitively grasp their use as a non-threatening and friendly signal. This new research, coupled with the earlier work of Marc Bekoff, suggests that bowing during play is not a random event that is just part of play, but rather that it is used to communicate specific information. For adults, this seems to be an invitation to continue play –  “Hey pal, let’s start playing again!” – as well as perhaps a way to coordinate and synchronize movement “Okay Charlie, let’s bow together and when I say GO, you shall zig and I shall zag”. And for young dogs and perhaps some adults, it may also serve to clarify playful intent.

An additional important piece of information from this work is that play bows may be highly individual. Just a few pairs in the study used multiple bows and a single dog, Tex, apparently was bowing all over the place. I bet many of you are nodding right now. Because anecdotally, many of us have seen this in our own dogs or in dogs we work with. In the play group at my school, Colbie, a young Pit Bull, is a champion play-bower. She offers not only multiple play bows during paired and group play sessions, but she offers them at record speed, seemingly as an invitation to chase. My five-year-old Golden, Cooper, also bows during play, but (again anecdotal here), he seems to bow most frequently when he plays with dogs who he knows well such as his housemates, and is less likely to play bow during group play.

Coop Ally Colbie Play


Ally, on the other hand, prefers to chase and to be chased.

Colbie and Ally Chase

Ally and Colbie Chasing

Like all good research, this new study stimulates thought and additional questions to ask about the play bow. For example, what factors might influence a dog’s frequent use of the bow – is it age, personality traits such as level of confidence or degree of playfulness, degree of familiarity among the dogs? Are there possibly learned components, such as training the play bow on cue? Does the use of a play bow ever “end badly”? In other words, do some dogs misinterpret this ubiquitous signal?

Lots to learn, and I am looking forward to seeing more from this team of researchers. Until then, play on, dogs, play on.



Cited Studies:

  1. Byosiere SE, Espinosa J, Smuts B. Investigating the function of play bows in adult pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Behavioural Processes 2016; 125:106-113.
  2. Bekoff M.Play signals as punctuation: The structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 1995; 132:5-6.
  3. Palagi E, Nicotra V, Cordoni G. Rapid mimicry and emotional contagion in domestic dogs. Royal Society of Open Science 2:150505; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos/150505.