Becoming Dog Smart

This week’s blog is an excerpt from Linda Case’s newest Science Dog book,

Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog.”

I grew up in an animal-loving family. As a young child, I had an auspicious start to pet ownership with Beany the Bird, a parakeet who I trained to fly from his cage to land on top of my head. As a pre-teen, Shelley the Sheltie joined our family, followed shortly thereafter by my horse, Hickory. (Clearly, alliteration and I share a long history). I trained Shelley in 4-H and competed with her in 4-H dog shows and AKC obedience trials. By my teen years, my mom was training and showing her own dogs, first a Belgian Tervuren named Tina and eventually a succession of Border Collies. We shared many years of traveling around the east coast and Midwest together to dog shows, training seminars and conferences. I have wonderful memories of those shared adventures and of our love of dogs. I would not change a thing.

Well, okay. I might change one thing.

I started training dogs in the early 1970’s. In those years, established dog training methods involved choke collars, corrections, and very generous use of the word “NO!.” Another popular aversive was that throat-clearing, grandpa-in-the-bathroom, “EEHHHH” sound.


These methods were standard and accepted training practice, originally developed by military trainers during WWII.

Never look ’em in the eye: Here are two examples from those early training years. When I first began training Shelley in 4-H, the club leader strictly informed her budding group of young trainers that we must “never look our dogs in the eye.” Rather we were instructed to stare out into space, at a spot located somewhere above the dog’s head. I guess the premise was that my sweet and gentle Shetland Sheepdog would suddenly revert back to her wolf-like ancestor and launch for my throat should I make the error of making eye contact and thus challenge her status. A few years later, I attended a weekend seminar with my mom in which the presenter, a nationally recognized obedience competitor, instructed his students to yank on a long lead attached to their dog’s choke collar, immediately after yelling “COME!” The collar correction was intended to ensure that their dogs came running as quickly as possible. This was a time during which dogs were assumed to be in a constant battle for dominance with their owners, negative reinforcement and punishment reigned in dog training, and the use of food was viewed as bribery or even worse “cheating.” Luckily, just a few years later, around the mid-80’s, things began to change for the better for dogs – and for trainers.

Thank you, Karen Pryor: After finishing my undergraduate degree, getting married, and adding two Golden Retrievers to our family, Mike and I spent four pre-graduate school years moving around the East Coast as Mike completed his ROTC commitment to the Navy. (They had very generously paid for his engineering education at Cornell, so he owed them a bit of time in return). During our time in Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to become friends with a group of dog trainers who were as passionate as I was about dogs and training. We would meet regularly to train and walk our dogs together in area parks. One day, one of these friends excitedly showed up with a new training book in hand. This book was “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. We all read it. Devoured it, really.

As dog trainers, we never looked back.

The era of reward-based training methods had begun. Karen’s book was based on the science of behaviorism, encouraged positive reinforcement and strongly discouraged punishment. She promoted using food treats as a primary reinforcer and introduced the concept of using a marker word as a conditioned reinforcer. Karen’s seminal book and those that followed caused a paradigm shift in thinking and led to the development of an entirely new philosophy of dog training. Out went confrontational and correction-based methods that assumed dogs must be dominated to be trained and in came a gentler, kinder approach to training that also happened to be firmly grounded in learning theory and the behavioral sciences.

Animal rights, animal consciousness and social cognition: The changes of the 1980’s were followed by another remarkable development – this time in the academic world. After decades of being completely ignored in almost all fields of scientific study, the domestic dog was suddenly becoming a hot topic for scientists in a host of disciplines. It began with programs in canine and feline nutrition (upon which my own graduate studies centered), and was rapidly followed by studies of the evolutionary history and domestication of dogs, by new examinations of canine behavior that challenged previously accepted dog-as-wolf archetypes, and most recently, with studies of the dog’s unique talents in social cognition and emotional complexities. Although not focusing on dogs per se, the 1990’s also witnessed the serious philosophical consideration of animal consciousness, animal welfare and animal rights at universities around the world.

Collectively, these many areas of study expanded our understanding of and appreciation for the inner mental lives of non-human animals and directly challenged many long-held beliefs about how we should view and treat other animals, including dogs. While in graduate school and later, when teaching at the university, I read and studied the work of these scientists and philosophers. I brought their studies to my students for review, for group discussions, and as examples to practice their critical thinking skills. More personally, the evidence for complex animal minds and the arguments for changes in the ways that society has traditionally viewed animals had the effect of further modifying how I lived with, trained, and cared for my own dogs.

AutumnGold: In 1989, Mike and I built a dog training facility on the land adjacent to our home and opened AutumnGold Dog Training Center. I had just started teaching in the Companion Animal Science program in the University of Illinois. I taught undergraduates during the day and obedience classes at our school in the evenings. In its early years, when we were still competing in obedience trials, AutumnGold offered both competitive obedience classes and basic manners classes. Today we employ a group of talented trainers and instructors and teach classes that are primarily designed for pet dog owners. These include puppy and adult manners classes, a set of dog sports (for fun) classes, and a series that we call “LifeSkills” for teaching behaviors that promote harmony between owners and their dogs and help dogs to be well-behaved and comfortable in many situations.


This new book,  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog is a product of my years owning and developing classes for AutumnGold, teaching, researching, and writing about dogs during my work at the University of Illinois, and training, living with and loving a long succession of beloved dogs. It focuses on solid, scientifically acquired knowledge about dogs and attempts to dispel many of the prevailing myths that continue to persist, even among professed dog lovers. It is also a testimony to just how far we have come in our understanding of and empathy for the amazing dogs who are in our care and with whom we are privileged to share our lives with. I hope that you will enjoy reading this book as much as I have enjoyed these many years of training, learning, and writing. Happy Training!


Excitable You

There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error,  that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.



We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to dispositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.

FAE Homer

The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).

The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to  fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”.  Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs(Emphasis mine).

Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.



There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.

Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?

Control Group

Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?

Absolutely nothing


Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:

  • Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
  • Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.

no control group

Wait, there’s more.

The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“.  Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.

Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:


  • My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
  • He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
  • He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
  • She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
  • He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
  • She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).

This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?


  • He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
  • She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
  • He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
  • She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
  • I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).

Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.

Nuff said. Off box.

Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).





How Many Barks does a Nuisance Dog Make?

According to a paper that I read recently, nuisance barking is identified as a major, worldwide behavior problem that affects 1 in 3 dogs, is a frequent cause of neighbor disputes, and is a common cause of relinquishment of dogs by their owners to shelters and rescue groups (1).

Hmmm…. Nuisance barking.

So, once again, it is all about us. Because really, if we asked the dogs to tell us why they are barking, I would venture that the vast majority would NOT say: “Oh, because I want to be a nuisance“.

Rather (and I know you trainers and behaviorists are with me on this one), their reasons, in no particular order, are much more likely to be:

  1. I am bored because I spend too much time alone.
  2. I am stressed because I am uncomfortable being alone.
  3. I feel territorial around my home’s doors, windows, or yard.
  4. I am responding to noises in my neighborhood such as other dogs barking, vehicles approaching or people walking by.
  5. I am responding to the sight of people or other animals outside or near my home.

So, let me begin by saying, up front, that I was irritated by the title of this paper and the authors’ casual acceptance of the term nuisance barking. And yes, I know that the term can function as a way of classifying what people tell others and also how some animal control agencies handle barking complaints. However, if the place at which we begin is by classifying any barking that an owner (or neighbor) does not like in terms of human comfort and perspective, where exactly does that lead us regarding how we think about the dogs who are doing this barking? (Remember the Ben Franklin effect?) I would argue that the term nuisance barking itself is highly pejorative because once such a label is applied you now have a bad dog who needs correcting or a bark collar or relinquishment to a shelter. Because heavens, we certainly cannot live with a nuisance in our lives, can we now?

The good news is that once I got that rant out of my system, I went on to read an interesting study. Here is what they did:

The Study: Study participants were 25 dogs who had been identified by their owners as being guilty of the nefarious deed “nuisance barking.” The researchers were interested in determining the actual frequencies and durations of this type of barking and if there were clear factors in a dog’s life or behavior that were related. They studied this using a bark counter, a device that when mounted on a dog’s flat collar will record the duration, frequency and number of distinct barks throughout a pre-designated period. Each dog was fitted with a counter and barking was recorded continuously over a 7-day period. All of the owners also completed a questionnaire that provided information about themselves and their dog.

Results: A wide range of bark frequencies and durations were recorded.  For example, frequencies ranged from 10 to more than 500 barks in an hour. Dogs barked most frequently when their owner was away and the majority of the dogs in the sample (84 %) were confined to a yard or garden area when the owner was not at home. (Hmmm…..might these two things be related?).


Bark patterns throughout the day suggested that much of the barking was reactive – dogs were responding to one or more stimuli in their environment. When asked, many of the owners could readily identify the cause. The most frequently cited stimuli were the presence of people or other animals as they passed by the dog’s yard. (In other words, many owners already knew exactly what was causing their dog to bark).

Although few significant factors in dogs’ lives were found to influence barking (possibly because of the small sample size), the researchers did find a negative association between the amount of obedience training that a dog had received and degree of barking; dogs who had received training had lower barking frequencies than dogs who had not. A weak association was also found between the number of neighboring dogs and barking; dogs who lived near several other dogs were more likely to bark than dogs who did not. (And there’s a second environmental stimulus…..).

Take Away for Dog Folks: First, let’s forget the “nuisance” label. It is a red herring. Please stop using that word.

Keep Using

Second, it is significant that the owners of the dogs enrolled in this study were able to identify at least one clear underlying cause of their dog’s excessive barking (the presence of passersby near the dog’s yard). Neighboring dogs were apparently also a trigger for some dogs.

Huh. So, it really is not what some owners insist that it is.

Bark at Nothing

It seems to me we have more of an owner problem here than a dog problem. These data suggest that reactive barking is a common cause of excessive barking in dogs who are isolated in yards. And, lo and behold, there are several tried and true methods for reducing territorial or reactive barking in dogs (it really ain’t rocket science). These include:

  1. Reduce the time that the dog spends isolated in the yard.
  2. Train an alternative behavior (response substitution), such as coming away from the barrier (fence, property edge).
  3. Manage the behavior by preventing the dog’s ability to see/hear the triggering stimuli (privacy screens, bring the dog indoors).
  4. Increase the dog’s daily exercise, mental and emotional stimulation so that the dog spends less time isolated in the yard (if necessary hire a dog walker or use a reputable doggy day care).

I am back in my snit, it appears. It is my contention that dogs and their people are much better served if we stop using anthropocentric classifications for problem behaviors that label dogs as nuisances. Rather, as this study corroborates, dogs bark for reasons and often these reasons are something that we can remove, modify or manage. If we begin the discussion with “I have a nuisance dog who barks too much” we have all the further to go towards changing perspective and identifying the cause so that we can start helping both the dog and the owner.

Because dogs bark. And some dogs bark a lot. Maybe too much. (Just like people talk and some people certainly talk too much…..[you know these people, the nuisance talkers]. For those people in your life, you are on your own). For the dogs, I am with all of the trainers out there who start by finding out why the dog is barking, eliminating or modifying that cause, adding in a bit of training, exercising, and playing, with the ultimate goal of this:

Does not bark at nothing

Happy Training.

Cited Study: Raglus TI, Groef BD, Marston LC. Can bark counter collars and owner surveys help identify factors that relate to nuisance barking? A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2015; 10:204-209.



And Your Little Dog Too……

Little dogs often get a bad rap. People who dislike small dogs say that are yappy, hyper-excitable, nippy (reactive), untrained, and often spoiled (whatever that means) . Indeed, it appears that  even the Wicked Witch of the West had it in for the wee ones.

Ill get you my prettySo, are any of these beliefs true? Are little dogs truly as bratty as some would have us believe? And, if indeed small dogs are found to exhibit more than their share of bad behaviors, are these inherent traits that come along with the miniaturized body type or does the owner shoulder some of the responsibility for junior’s transgressions?

Harley Puppy


Once again, we turn to science for some answers.

Background: When surveyed, owners of small and toy breed dogs have indeed been found to rate their dogs as more excitable, disobedient, impulsive, and in some cases, more likely to bite, when compared with owners of large dogs (1-4). Factors that may contribute to the reported differences between small and large dogs could originate with the dog, with the owner, or via idiosyncracies of the relationship between the two.  In 2010, a group of researchers at the Austrian University of Veterinary Medicine decided to study these factors (5).

The Study: This was a large study. The authors surveyed almost 1300 dog owners in urban and suburban areas who were living with one or more companion dogs. The questionnaire collected information about owner and dog demographics, history of ownership, daily activities, dog care/training practices, and owner perceptions of their dog’s behavior and response to commands. For this study, dogs were classified as “small” if they were reported to weigh less than 20 kg (~44 lb) and large if they weighed 20 kg or more. Following collection of the completed surveys, the researchers used a statistical technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) to identify correlated groups of questions that suggest common underlying factors or themes. Three dog trait factors were identified: Obedience, Aggression/excitability, and Anxiety/fearfulness. Two primary owner factors that were found were Consistency and Training Methods, and the most important owner/dog relationship factor was Shared Activities.

Results: When the small and large groups of dogs were compared, several statistically significant differences were found:

  • The dogs: Small dogs were reported by their owners to be significantly less obedient and significantly more excitable, anxious/fearful, and aggressive than were large dogs. These results confirm those reported by other researchers.
  • The cause? However, contrary to many popular stereotypes about little dogs, it appears that the owners (not the dogs) were an important influencing factor in the expression of these undesirable behaviors……Dorothy, Take Note.
Dorothy and Toto


  •  The Owners: The owners of the small dogs were found to be less likely to train their dogs, less likely to play with their dogs, and were also less consistent in their interactions with their dogs.
  • Correlation: Moreover, significant positive correlations were found between frequency of play and interaction, owner  consistency, and better obedience in the small dogs. While not evidence of causation, these correlations do suggest that it is the owners who have more to do with the reputation of little dogs than the dogs themselves.
  • Training methods: This was the first study to compare the types of training methods used by owners of small and large dogs. No glaring differences were found, but small dog owners were found to use punishment (+P) less frequently than large dog owners. However, one should NOT use this result as evidence that “small dogs need to be punished more frequently”, because the study also found that the frequent use of punishment during training was strongly correlated with an increase in aggressive behavior and excitability in both small and large dogs. Interestingly, greater reliance upon punishment during training was also associated with greater anxiety/fear in the small dogs, but not in the large dogs.
  • Study strengths: Two definite strengths of this study were the number of dog owners that were interviewed and the detailed information that was collected. The large number of questions in the survey allowed the use of a statistical method (PCA) that identifies emerging concepts and that can enhance the reliability of results.
  • Study limitations: Limitations are those observed for all volunteer survey studies. A self-selection bias is expected to occur, since people who are more interested in dog-related topics and therefore probably more committed to their dogs are more likely to respond. Second, results reflect owner perceptions rather than objectively measured behavior. Although owner bias must be considered, it is also true that owners know their dog best and that a researcher would be able to obtain only a short snap-shot of each dog’s behavior and habits. Direct observation by researchers would also indisputably reduce the number of owner/dog pairs that could be included in a study of this type – consider the logistics of attempting to interview and observe almost 1300 owner/dog pairs!
  • Small and large dog categories: A final note regards the size categories that were used in this study. Dividing the dogs into two groups of less than 40 lbs (small dogs) and greater than 40 lbs (large dogs), may have missed some of the idiosyncratic dog and owner characteristics that are commonly reported in toy breed dogs, those of the 10 lbs or less variety. I would have found it interesting if results for toy breed dogs, those that conveniently fit on laps and who are often carried rather than walked, had been reported and compared with larger dogs.

Take Away for Dog Folks: 

  • For trainers and behaviorists: This study confirms what many of you already suspect – that small dogs are not inherently little jerks, but rather it is their owners’ inclination to tolerate undesirable behaviors and disinclination to spend time training and exercising their dogs that have lead to Toto’s nefarious reputation (Bad Dorothy). Keep on fighting the good fight – promoting fair, consistent, +R-based training to owners of all dogs, including the wee ones.
  • For owners of the little guys: As with certain other aspects of life, size does not matter. Little dogs, just like their big-boned cousins, require regular training and consistency and they thrive on daily exercise and play. And as this research shows, your dog is less likely to become fearful, anxious, or show aggression when trained using methods that emphasize positive reinforcement than when trained using methods that emphasize punishment.  Get out regularly with your Toto to train, walk and play with him. Oh, and avoid the witch. Rumor has it that she doesn’t like little dogs.


  1. Bennett PC, Rohlf VI, Owner-companion dog interactions: Relationship between demographic variables, potentially problematic behaviours, training engagement and shared activities. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 102:65-84.
  2. Guy NC, Luescher US, Dohoo SE, et al.  A case series of biting dogs: characteristics of the dogs, their behaviour, and their victims. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2001;74:43-57.
  3. Kobelt AJ, Hemsworth PH, Barnett JL, ColemanCG. A survey of dog ownership in suburban Australia—conditions and behaviour problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci 200382:137-148.
  4. Vas J, Topal J, Pech E, Miklosi A. measuring attention deficit and activity in dogs: A new application and validation of a human ADHD questionnaire. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 103:105-117.
  5. Arhant C, Bubna-Littitz H, Bartels A, Futschik A, Troxler J. Behaviour of small and larger dogs; Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behavior and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2010; 123:131-142.


Mr. Licks-A-Lot

DogLick   Do you live with a Mr. Licks-A-Lot?

You know what I mean – a dog who, for reasons that he is not readily sharing, will suddenly and obsessively begin to lick the floor, the couch, the wall? Note that I am not referring to the dog who licks you, a behavior that usually communicates appeasement, affection, or in some cases, anxiety. Rather, the Mr. Licks-A-Lot that I am talking about is the dog who directs his obsessive licking primarily at inanimate objects.

Some dog folks, myself included, have associated a bout of this type of repetitious licking with stomach upset; and in the worse case scenario, as a reliable predictor of the impending vomit.  An alternate explanation for excessive licking behavior in dogs is  behavioral – specifically, that dogs who lick (a lot) may be experiencing anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or age-related cognitive dysfunction.  However, neither of these hypotheses had ever been studied scientifically. Until now.

The Study: A group of researchers at the University of Montreal Veterinary Teaching Hospital conducted a case-control study of dogs presenting to the hospital with excessive licking to surfaces (1). At the start of the study,  owners completed a written history of the dog’s behavior, which included the type of licking, its duration, frequency and intensity, and the occurrence of any signs of gastrointestinal (GI) disturbance. They also were required to videotape one or more licking episodes.  Nineteen “licks-a-lot” dogs and 10 non-licking control dogs were enrolled in the study. All 29 dogs underwent complete gastrointestinal, behavioral and neurological diagnostic evaluations. When a gastrointestinal diagnosis was found, treatment specific to the disorder was initiated. When no diagnosis was found, a placebo treatment was used.  All dogs were reexamined 30, 60 and 90 days later.


  • Licks-A-Lot Group: Of the 19 dogs who presented with excessive licking, 10 dogs (53 %) exhibited clinical signs of  GI disturbance, and 14 of 19 (74 %) were diagnosed with a GI disorder.  Problems included several types of inflammatory disease, delayed gastric (stomach) emptying, chronic pancreatitis, gastric foreign body, and giardia infection.
  • Control Group: By comparison, 3 dogs in the control group (30 %) were diagnosed with a GI problem. The difference in GI diagnosis frequency between the Mr. Licks-A-Lot group and the control group was statistically significant (74 % vs. 30 %, P = 0.046).
  • Resolution of Licking: Following treatment, a reduction in both the frequency and the duration of licking behavior was reported in 59 % of the affected dogs. Complete resolution of licking behavior was seen in 9 dogs (53 %). Note: The authors also reported that the study’s internist saw clinical improvement in 4 additional dogs when evaluated at 120 to 180 days.
  • Behavior evaluations: Data collected through behavior profiles and video analysis found no differences in the degree of anxious behaviors shown by dogs in the licking group and dogs in the control group.

Take Away for Dog Folks: This study is the first to show that gastrointestinal disturbances may be the underlying cause of  excessive licking of surfaces in dogs. Almost three-quarters of the dogs in this study were experiencing an undiagnosed GI disorder and more than half showed a complete cessation of licking behavior once the medical problem was resolved. The authors speculated that licking behavior may reflect feelings of nausea and/or abdominal discomfort in dogs. This new information does not eliminate the possibility that the underlying cause of excessive licking is behavioral in some cases. Rather, it suggests that the presence of an undiagnosed gastrointestinal disorder should be considered when a dog presents as a Mr. Licks-A-Lot and that we should avoid focusing on behavioral causes only when presented with this type of problem.

P.S. Fly biting and Sandifer Syndrome?


Pilot study: The same group of researchers published a case report that examined a possible connection between fly biting behavior in dogs and gastrointestinal disturbances (2). They studied 7 dogs who were presented for exhibiting snapping/jumping at imaginary flies using the protocol described above. All seven dogs showed sudden head-raising and neck extension movements immediately prior to jaw snapping and the behavior was most pronounced or only occurred immediately after eating.  Like excessive licking, fly snapping behavior in dogs is often classified as having a behavioral rather than a medical cause. Most commonly, it has been classified as a form of epilepsy (especially in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels) or as obsessive compulsive disorder. In this study, all seven dogs were diagnosed with a gastrointestinal problem and were subsequently treated.  When reevaluated 30 days following the start of treatment, fly-biting had completely resolved in four dogs and had partially resolved in one dog.

Possible cause? The authors compare the behavior of these dogs with Sandifer Syndrome, a problem seen in human infants that is believed to be caused by gastroesophageal reflux or delayed gastric emptying. It was postulated that the characteristic movements of raising the head, extending the neck, and in dogs, snapping/gulping air serves to reduce esophageal or gastric discomfort. Although preliminary, this case report suggests that just as with excessive licking behaviors, gastrointestinal disease should be considered as a potential cause of imaginary fly biting behavior.


  1. Becuwe-Bonnet V, Belanger M-C, Frank D, Parent J, Helie P. Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2012; 7:194-204.
  2. Frank D, Belanger MC, Becuwe-Bonnet V, Parent J. Prospective medical evaluation of 7 dogs presented with fly biting. Canadian Veterinary Journal 2012; 53:1279-1284.



Thyroid on Trial

Every day, we are bombarded with new information about dogs that arises from a variety of sources – via the internet, through our smart (or not so smart) phones, from our colleagues, friends and family, and of course from our neighbor Joe next door (who happens to know a lot about dogs). In this day and age of information overload, it should come as no surprise that deciding which information is trustworthy and which to view with a healthy dose of skepticism is increasingly difficult. Lucky for dog folks everywhere, science comes to the rescue once again.

science to the rescue

Even within science however, all evidence is not created equal. Though not quite as dramatic as walking on water, the construction of a handy “evidence pyramid” helps us to sort the various categories of scientific study and to rate the types of information that they provide.


Interpreting the Pyramid: First, keep in mind that this graphic presents only scientific evidence and does not include the host of other types of information that we come across each day, such as anecdotes, testimonials, stories/experiences, and (non-expert) opinion. (For a review of all of these types of evidence, see my new book, Dog Food Logic).  As you move from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, the amount of information (published literature) decreases, but its relevance and reliability generally increases. Starting at the bottom:

  • Editorial and expert opinions: Experts in a field will often produce textbooks and review papers that can provide a good foundation about the chosen topic. This information presents a helpful summary, but because it is not reporting results of a scientific study, cannot provide evidence that supports or refutes a new scientific hypothesis.
  • Case reports: These are individual reports, usually published by a practicing veterinarian, of one or more dogs with a condition who are found to respond to a particular treatment. People are often surprised that case reports are not regarded as stronger scientific evidence. However, while case reports may generate new hypotheses, they cannot be used as strong support for an existing hypothesis because of their anecdotal nature and the lack of control groups (remember our Steve Series).
  • Case-controlled and cohort studies: Case controlled studies occur when the researcher finds cases (dogs, in our example) that have the condition under question and then matches and compares those cases with other dogs who are similar, but lack the condition.  Similarly, cohort studies compare large groups of dogs with or without a condition, over time. While providing a type of control, results of these studies are limited because showing a statistical relationship (usually correlation) between two groups does not mean than one factor necessarily caused the other.
  • Randomized controlled trials (RCT): This type of study is the most important and reliable source of scientific research. It includes methodologies that use the scientific method, reduce the potential for bias (via randomization, blinding, and the use of placebos) and allows for comparison between intervention groups and carefully selected control groups.
  • Systematic Reviews:  At the pinnacle of scientific evidence, this is is a specific type of review in which experts in a field assess all of the relevant studies and the data (called a meta-analysis) that address a particular topic.  Systematic reviews require enormous commitments of effort, time, and money and are only possible once a hypothesis has been studied in  depth. Therefore, these studies are few in number, especially for many topics of that are important to dogs. (For a good source of a few systematic reviews in canine health see Best Bets for Vets).


Thyroid Gland

An example: I recently came across a great example of a hypothesis about canine health and behavior that progressed from a few initial case reports, through case-controlled studies and culminated recently with the gold standard – the completion of a randomized, controlled trial. The issue had to do with a common endocrine disorder in dogs, hypothyroidism, and its potential relationship with aggressive behavior.

Background information: Thyroid hormone is produced by the thyroid gland. The active form of this hormone regulates cellular metabolism and so has effects in virtually all body systems. The condition of hypothyroidism refers to a reduction in thyroid hormone production and resulting clinical signs.  Hypothyroidism generally develops in middle-aged or older dogs and certain breeds show a genetic predisposition. Documented clinical signs of hypothyroidism include lethargy, decreased interest in exercise, weight gain, changes to coat quality and hair loss, and skin problems such as seborrhea, hyperpigmentation and secondary bacterial infections.

anxiety              defensive threat                       Is there a relationship between hypothyroidism and aggression in dogs?

Hypothesis: In recent years, it has been speculated that certain types of aggressive behaviors in dogs may be related to suboptimal or low thyroid hormone levels. Starting with case reports, this hypothesis has gradually worked its way up the evidence pyramid:

  • Case reports:  Two case reports were published in 2002 and 2003. Together, they involved a total of 5 dogs with owner-directed aggression, who were subsequently also diagnosed with hypothyroidism. The dogs responded to thyroid hormone replacement therapy with a reduction in aggressive episodes, leading to the hypothesis that some cases of aggression in dogs may be associated with hypothyroidism (1,2).
  • Case-controlled studies: A case-controlled report was conducted a few years later (3). Records of over 1500 dogs were reviewed. Of these dogs, 61 per cent were classified as either hypothyroid or with suboptimal thyroid function. A statistically significant correlation was found between thyroid dysfunction and dog-to-human aggression in this group of dogs (p < 0.001). However, two subsequent case-controlled studies failed to find a connection between thyroid hormone levels and behavior problems (3,4). Conflicting results – jury still out.
  • The RCT: Most recently, in 2013, the connection between suboptimal thyroid hormone levels and aggression in dogs was examined using the Gold Standard of designs – a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study (5).  Dr. Nick Dodman and his colleagues at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine enrolled a group of 40 dogs, all of whom were exhibiting owner-directed aggression and were also diagnosed with suboptimal or low thyroid hormone levels. Following screening and a 2-week pre-treatment (baseline) period, the dogs were randomly assigned to either the treatment group (thyroxine replacement therapy) or to the control group (placebo). Neither the researchers nor the owners knew which group each dog was assigned to. Dogs were medicated twice daily for a period of 6 weeks. During both the baseline period and throughout the study period, owners recorded the number and type of aggressive episodes that their dog exhibited.



  • Enrollment and attrition: The highly specific inclusion criteria for the dogs in this study (aggressive dogs that had borderline or low thyroid function) coupled with difficulties associated with working with dogs with aggression problems led to a relatively small initial sample size (n = 40). In addition, attrition was high, due to owner non-compliance or other problems.
  • Frequency of aggressive behavior within groups: The frequency of aggressive episodes significantly decreased in both groups from baseline levels over the six-week experimental period. The change in the control group demonstrates a significant placebo effect in this study.
  • Treated group vs. placebo group: Owner-measured aggression did not differ between the treated group and the placebo group during the first five weeks of the study period. During the final week of the study (week six), dogs who were treated with thyroxine and had normalized serum thyroxine levels showed slightly lower frequencies of aggression when compared with dogs who were receiving the placebo, but this difference was not statistically significant  (P = 0.08).

Take away for dog folks:  This type of design is truly the “gold standard” of experimental studies for several reasons:

  • Methodology: An RCT design reduces bias and allows relevant comparisons because a matched control group is used, treatments are randomly assigned, and neither the experimenters nor the subjects (in this case the owners of the dogs) know which treatment each dog is receiving. In addition, the inclusion of a placebo treatment (as opposed to simply not treating the control group at all) allowed the researchers to measure and account for a placebo effect (which clearly was important in this study).
  • Clinical trials using dogs in homes: This study was a clinical trial, meaning that it was conducted with owned dogs living at home with their owners. This differs from studies conducted with dogs living in kennels (typically at a university setting or at a pet food company’s kennel). If you remember back to The Steve Series, a cornerstone of the scientific method is selecting a study sample that is representative of the population that you will make conclusions about. Therefore, while we can control many of the “variables of life” with kenneled dog studies (making those studies much easier to conduct and to detect differences) , such a sample is by definition, less representative of the population of dogs than is a sample that includes dogs living at home.

Challenges: In-home clinical trials with dogs are wrought with enormous challenges, all of which make it difficult to demonstrate real effects when they exist and which can require larger sample sizes to detect any true differences. These include:

  • Variations in daily life: Every owner lives with his/her dog in ways that are idiosyncratic to that person’s demographics, lifestyle, and values. These differences all impact an owner’s perceptions of his dog’s behavior (in this example, displays of aggression) as well as a tendency to show a placebo effect (see below).
  •  Dog differences: Generally speaking, the differences among pet dogs enrolled in a clinical trial are going to be greater (spread more widely around the mean) than those among a group of kenneled dogs. The most obvious difference is the variability in living situations and daily routines among households. These are not present when studying a group of dogs who are housed under the same conditions and experience the same daily routines. For a researcher, this means that being able to identify a treatment effect (in this case, a measurable reduction in aggressive episodes in dogs treated with thyroid hormone), is much more difficult when studying dogs in homes compared with studying dogs in kennels.
  • Owner perceptions and compliance: When the owner is the data collector  in a study (which is sometimes the only feasible approach with in-home studies), there will be error (variability) introduced by the different perceptions among owners as well as by varying levels of compliance. Extreme non-compliance usually leads to removal from the study, but this too is a problem since removing subjects from an already limited sample will further reduce the power of the experiment (i.e. the ability to detect a true difference when it exists).


  • Placebo effects: Just as in studies with human subjects, the placebo effect is a real effect that must be accounted for in dog studies. When owners are aware that their dog is enrolled in an experimental trial, even though they are blinded to the treatment that their dog is receiving, the mere participation in the study will affect their perspective of their dog’s behavior and their judgement of possible effects or side effects of the treatment (that their dog may or may not be receiving). Including a placebo control group in a study that includes subjective measures of behavior (such as measuring the number and intensity of an aggressive response) is even more important since subjective scales are generally less reliable than objective measures.

Bottom line? The RCT that examined the effects of thyroid hormone replacement therapy on borderline or frankly hypothyroid dogs with owner-directed aggression showed a slight numerical reduction in aggression that was not statistically significant. As a result, the researchers concluded that thyroid replacement therapy could not be wholeheartedly recommended as a treatment for aggression in hypothyroid dogs and that additional studies of this type may be helpful to further examine this potential connection.

Personally, I think that this is also an excellent example of the progression of science from a set of initial case reports, followed by case-controlled studies, culminating in a randomized, controlled, clinical trial. An examination of the final  study illustrates the enormous commitment of labor, time, and money that is required when conducting clinical trials as well as the importance of including placebos and double-blinding in scientific studies. Kudos to the investigators – not only for conducting what was clearly a very challenging clinical trial, but also for reporting informative negative results in a peer-reviewed journal.

Control Group


  1. Fatjó J, Stub C, Manteca X. Four cases of aggression and hypothyroidism in dogs. Veterinary Record 2002;151: 547-548.
  2. Dodds WJ, Aronson LP. Behavioral Changes Associated with Thyroid Dysfunction in Dogs. Proceedings 1999 American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association Annual Conference, pp. 80-82.
  3. Carter GC, Scott-Moncrieff JC, Luescher AU, Moore G. Serum total thyroxine and thyroid stimulating hormone concentrations in dogs with behavior problems. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2009; 4:230-236.
  4. Radosta LA, Shofer FS, Reisner IF. Comparison of thyroid analytes in dogs aggressive to familiar people and in non-aggressive dogs. Veterinary Journal 2011;192:472-475.
  5. Dodman NH, Aronson L, Cottam N, Dodds JW. The effect of thyroid replacement in dogs with suboptimal thyroid function on owner-directed aggression: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2013;8:225-230.


Is it time for the extinction of extinction?

doghumangreeting7      dog-jumping-up      jumping on boy

Each of these photographs shows a dog jumping up on a person…..with the person appearing to be quite happy about the interaction. Yet, jumping up to greet is a frequently cited complaint that dog owners make to dog trainers. While I am sympathetic to owners’ frustrations,  the underlying cause for jumping up in most cases is simply a dog who is exuberantly saying “Hello! How are ya! How about some lovin?” And of course, a contributing cause is that, as seen above, we are frequently inconsistent in our responses; some of the time we enjoy it and encourage it, and in other circumstances (such as when Muffin knocks over Grandma or places muddy paws on a visitor’s white dress) we are not quite so happy about it.


Although trainers’ opinions certainly vary, my general view of jumping up is that “Yeah, dogs do this. Yeah, many owners dislike it and would like to stop it and we can help them with that. However, in the overall scheme of things, having a dog who is a bit too friendly and exuberant really isn’t such a terrible problem to have now, is it“? So, my training school’s approach to the  problem is to first frame it in terms of what it actually is…….a dog being friendly. Maybe even an overly excited, young, goofy maniac of a dog, but still, he is just trying to say hello, albeit with an enthusiastic demeanor.

shepherd%20kissesI AM A GOOD DOG AND I LOVE YOU!

We then address ways to modify a dog’s behavior to reduce jumping up to greet. One approach with unwanted behavior is to train the dog to offer an alternate response that is incompatible with the undesired behavior, a technique called “response substitution”. For example, in the case of jumping up to greet, we teach Mr. Exuberance to “sit for his lovin'” rather than to jump up for it. First the owner, then visitors, crouch to greet and reinforce with treats and affection, eventually shaping the behavior to achieve sitting for greeting with folks staying in an upright position as they reinforce sit or simply “keep four feet on the floor”.

       d4823cb48f61c777c765a12db5c7448b    Nov19CatHandlingDogClass35                                                                              Photo used with permission (Sophia Yin, DVM, MS )

An alternative approach is extinction. Extinction refers to purposefully and consistently preventing reinforcement of the unwanted behavior until the dog stops offering the behavior (i.e. the unwanted behavior is extinguished). Using the example of jumping up, this means removing the person. Because greeting the dog (providing petting, love, interaction) is what positively reinforces and thus maintains jumping up, extinction involves telling the owner to ignore the dog by turning her back, backing away, or walking away from the dog whenever he attempts to greet by jumping up. (Note: In this particular example, extinction is almost indistinguishable from negative punishment).


Does Extinction Work? However, actually putting this technique into practice presents some problems. It is associated with what traditional behaviorists (of the Skinner “can’t talk about internal emotional states” ilk) refer to as an “extinction burst”, and what trainers typically refer to as “frustration and emotional distress”. In practice this means that the dog increases his bid for attention by following the owner and jumping more emphatically, becoming more active and frantic, barking and whining, nipping or mouthing.  Generally, you end up with a mess – a dog who went from jumping and happy to jumping and distressed and who may have added one or two new and equally undesirable behaviors to his repertoire.

Why we need data: Which all begs (pun intended) the question – Does extinction work well as a practical training approach with dogs? If it does effectively reduce unwanted behaviors, does it come at the cost of unnecessary emotional stress and the risk of creating new problems? Regardless of my personal opinion of using extinction in dog training, all that I really could say about its use has come from personal experience with my clients and their dogs and discussions with other trainers.  And despite the existence of an effective alternate technique (response substitution),  ignoring a dog who jumps up (extinction) continues to be frequently recommended to pet owners by a wide variety of trainers, behaviorists, bloggers, veterinarians and authors.

Published Study: Until recently, there were no data that specifically examined the use of extinction with pet dogs. However, building on work from a previously published study, a group of researchers recently asked the question “Does the use of extinction with dogs produce an aversive emotional state [even while it may effectively reduce the targeted behavior]?” (1,2). In other words, does the use of extinction in dog training cause emotional distress?

Study Protocol: Altogether, 45 dogs who lived as companions (i.e. in homes with people) were studied. The protocol included three phases: The first was a warm-up during which the dog met the trainer and became accustomed to the training area. The second was the training (acquisition) phase. The trainer used dried liver treats to positively reinforce “gazing behavior” (looking into the trainer’s face) each time that the dog offered it. Three sessions lasting 2 minutes each were completed with each dog. The liver treats were kept in a container, located on a shelf, next to the trainer. The third stage was the extinction phase. The experimenter continued to stand near the shelf but now ignored the dog when he/she offered the previously reinforced gazing behavior. Three extinction sessions were conducted for each dog. Each session was video recorded and rated by an impartial observer following the sessions.



Study Results: While using extinction significantly reduced the targeted behavior (gazing), it also led to an increase in behaviors that are associated with frustration. These included withdrawing from the trainer, lying down, increased movement (ambulation), whining, sniffing (often considered to be a displacement behavior), and avoiding the trainer. The researchers note that these results are especially relevant given the common use of extinction for discouraging unwanted behaviors in pet dogs.

Take Away for Dog Folks: For trainers, this study (and the researcher’s previous work) showed that extinction can effectively reduce a previously reinforced behavior in pet dogs. The results also showed that, while effective, extinction causes stress and potentially leads to displacement behaviors that can be problematic. I finished reading this article thinking about two important differences between the study protocol and the use of extinction in everyday life with the dogs who live with us:. These are:

1. The trainer in this study, while friendly and pleasant to the dogs, was unfamiliar and had no previous relationship or enduring bond with the dogs.

2. The targeted behavior, “gazing” was trained for a very short period (6 minutes!), and so had a very short and weak reinforcement history.

Together, these two facts suggest that the behavior that was trained (gazing) and subsequently extinguished was not a persistent behavior that held a lot of significance to the dog. It had an almost ridiculously short reinforcement history and involved a person who really held no importance to the dog. Yet, extinction still caused frustration and emotional distress in the dogs in this study. Wow. Soap Box time……..


So, one can imagine the degree of frustration felt by a dog who loves his people (and visitors) and who has a long history of being reinforced for showing what he considers to be just normal doggy affection (jumping up), when suddenly, all of the positive stuff abruptly stops. His pals begin to ignore him completely, turning their backs, walking away, not speaking to him, whenever he attempts to say hello.

Personally, I found the results of this small study compelling if simply to suggest that it may be time to consider the extinction of extinction in dog training. This is certainly not a difficult call, given that we have available other, more effective and less stress-inducing approaches, such as response substitution. Although training a dog to sit for greeting takes a bit more time, patience, and tolerance (jumping up is NOT the end of the world, after all), certainly it is preferable to using a technique that causes emotional distress to the dog, has the potential to cause other problems, and removes yet another opportunity to interact positively with our dogs. Nuff’ said. Off soap box. (Read the papers to learn more!)


1.  Bentosela M, Barrera GT, Jakovcevic A, et al. Effects of reinforcement, reinforce omission and extinction on a communicative response in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Behavioral Processes 2008;78:464-469.

2. Jakovcevic A, Elgier AM, Mustaca AE, Bentosela M. Frustration behaviors in domestic dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2013; 16:19-34.

Excerpted from: “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact & Fiction(2015).

Beware Straw Man Cover