Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging

Who am I

My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat dog specialist based in the Hague (the Netherlands).
For a detailed bio, click on About me.

What the blog is about

In a nutshell, this blog tries to spread good science about dogs, and relates tales from life in the Netherlands’ dog world.

I am on a mission: spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. I am relentlessly:

  • busting apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales; and
  • promoting responsible dog ownership.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can understand. I am hoping to make specialist subjects like diseases vaccination, genetics, more accessible to a broad audience.

So what qualifies me to write about dogs? I have done A LOT OF self-study, but I also have formal qualifications (professional and academic).

What do I write about?

My specialist subjects are:

  • dog training;
  • evolution; 
  • ethology; and
  • canine first aid.

I also write about:

  • Veterinary care;
  • Dog sports;
  • Dog breeds; and
  • Dogs in society (am a bit of a philosophy nut).

To find the articles

  • Click on a category such as ‘Dog breeds’ or ‘Dogs in the news’ (list on the top-right corner), or
  • Scroll down to browse through all articles (latest on top)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, or in disagreement they might be.

You can leave a comment on each article by:

  • clicking on the title for the post you want to read, and
  • completing the comments form at the bottom of the article.

Order an article

I can also write for your magazine, blog or website on demand. If you want to order an article on a canine subject of your choice,  contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss your needs.

To find out more about my dog writing services, go to my Dog writer page.

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Latest book review is out: Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals

Book review announcement on manual for behavioural medicine
By Laure-Anne Visele, October 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals

Overall Clinical 1e‘Clinical…’ is a class is among vets and trainers dealing with dog behaviour problems. It’s a tough read though: it’s thick, it’s dense, and it’s – well – clinical. Over the years, it has gone on to acquire DSM-like fame (the DSM is the diagnostic classification manual for human psychological/psychiatric disorders). More reference material rather than bedside reading, ‘Clinical…’ is a complete must-have for the dog behaviour professional who wants a diagnosis-treatment approach to his/her interventions.

You can read the full review here

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Dog experts and gynecologists

OpEd piece on qualifications in the dog behaviour professions in the Netherlands
By Laure-Anne Visele, Oct 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus.

I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour.

When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Education vs. guts: another polarizing trend

I’ve had this discussion with a big name in the local industry lately. Someone I admire; someone who certifies great behaviourists. I think he was calling for:

  • less certifications / more practice,
  • less seminars / more experience,
  • less head / more heart.

I could hear what he was saying, but it alarmed me. Taken too far, does it mean disregarding certifications, forgetting about new ideas and throwing away skepticism?

Less certifications / More practice

Many dog behaviour pros resist the idea of a protected profession. I get why: the certification bodies churn out many less-than-perfect professionals, so why bother getting certified?

For a long time I wondered the same thing. It’s slim pickings out there when you’re looking for a great certification program. You have a choice between the:

  • Strong on the practical side but oh-so-weak on the theory.
  • Glorified personality cults.
  • Appallingly disorganized but academically top-notch.
  • Great all-round, but not taken seriously in academia/professional community.
  • Oh, and most disagree with each other on core points…

I ended up with a postgraduate program for Applied Behaviourists, It is recognized by insurance companies and universities, and heavily science-focused. Ideal for me as I want to go into research and have a science background.

Having started the course with some experience and having reviewed tons of books, I just wanted a piece of paper to certify my knowledge. I didn’t think I’d learn anything new. It turns out it taught me lots. I came out a better therapist.

Sure my fellow students graduated with too little experience. Having a degree does not make you a fully-fledged professional. But at least you have solid foundations upon which to start your career.


How can having a certification decrease the quality of your services?

  • Experience + degree = two
  • Experience + no degree = one
  • No experience + degree = one
  • No experience + no degree = zero

Our clients and their dogs deserve a two, don’t they? Better to be inexperienced but certified, than neither experienced nor certified, right? And isn’t the best scenario experienced and certified?

I would support market regulation if I never again have to hear anyone say: “My dog hates other dogs more now. The trainer before you told us to jerk his leash every time he barked at one.”

Am not saying every certified pro would avoid that approach, nor that every self-made pro would advise leash-jerking, but most certifications steer away from force nowadays so that’s one more buffer against abuse in training.

Less seminars / More experience

Seminars: it’s as good as the speaker

Like the certification market, the seminar scene is tough to navigate: you have to avoid personality cults and fad techniques. But attending the right seminar once in a while is great for networking, re-framing your approach, and staying on top of developments.

Some people are so seminar-obsessed they need a second mortgage to keep up with the habit. And they have little time to digest it and check it against reality. Does that make them better professionals? Not sure.

Do seminars replace experience? Also not. But even the most senior professional must prove he is keeping up - same with veterinarians, and… gynecologists.

Less head / More heart

The all-books-and-no-experience guy who thinks himself infallible is insufferable, granted. There’s different degrees of reliability and research findings are far from flawless – more on how I feel about that here (in Dutch). You have to weigh the merit of the research paper (that’s four hours of your life you’ll never get again) and one paper gives you absolutely no certainty.  And sure, attending seminars really is just listening to someone else’ fallible opinion so why reject your own fallible judgement for someone else’s?

"Never ignore a gut feeling but never believe it's enough" Kermit the frog (Photo by Kevin Galens, Flickr CC

“Never ignore a gut feeling but never believe it’s enough” Kermit the frog (Photo by Kevin Galens, Flickr CC)

But if psychology has taught us anything, it’s that gut feeling is the least reliable way of evaluating the world. Myths and old wife’s tales rely on gut feelings. We think it’s instinct but most often it’s just confirmation bias.

FallaciesAs an (annoying) skeptic, I treat my gut feeling like a working hypothesis: I try to reject it and if I can’t, maybe I’m onto something. I’ve been through the belief -> check -> discomfirmation cycle so often that I need reliable evidence for even the obvious things before I consider them fact. Like Matt Dillahunty says “I try to believe as many true things as possible, and reject as many false things as possible” The hardcore skeptic road is arduous: it’s frustrating, it’s slow, it’s unpopular, it’s confusing, and it’s not… instinctive.

So I boringly present every diagnosis like this: “This is my interpretation based on X. Those are signs of Y, which would mean that Z is most suitable for you and your dog.” It doesn’t sound as snappy as calling out my first impression, which was “Stop treating your dog like a spoiled kid”. Sometimes the gut feeling was right and the dog is just unruly and in need of boundaries. But first I’ll try to rule out the alternatives before I call it. More often than not, when you scratch beyond the surface, you see a dog who’s scared out of his wits and who is suffering.

So pro-experiencers also think formal training is good, but they feel experience counts for a lot more and that what was taught should be discarded if it doesn’t match with what is felt. That’s where I say “Wow there. Can we slow this down a minute?”

Why the post?

I get nervous with calls for more instinct and less education in a profession that is already so unregulated, and that deals with aggression cases. Sure, experience matters. A lot. But let’s not start putting down the ones who are trying to complement that with book knowledge.

You wouldn’t trust the still-wet-behind-the-ears junior obstetrician to handle a complicated delivery. But you won’t trust it to the local witch doctor either, right? No matter how experienced he is.

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Latest dog book review is out: How the dog became the dog

Shout-out about book review on dog’s evolutionary history
By Laure-Anne Visele, October 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run a behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, and got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

How the dog became the dog

Gargantuan survey of the body of knowledge on how dogs evolved, by Mark Derr. I have read it with a mix of pleasure and drudgery. It gets very technical, but offers a masterly critique on the relevant research. It approaches the topic from multiple disciplines like archaeology, molecular biology, history, and sociology. Very ambitious work.

You can read the full review hereDerr - How dog became dog

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Dog jealousy: not a myth after all?

Quick review of a research paper on dogs and jealousy (Harris & Prouvost, 2014)
By Laure-Anne Visele, Sep 2014

About the author

IMG_6639I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) and run my own canine behaviour therapy practice at Canis bonus.

I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour.

When I am not training or rehabilitating dogs, I obsessively review dog books and write about dog behaviour for my own blog and other websites.

Healthy skepticism


By Bright Strangely, Flickr CC

Until recently, you would be accused of anthropomorphism if you dared call a dog ‘jealous’.

Good little skeptic that I am, I steered clear of the jealous label no matter how close to jealousy the dog’s behaviour really seemed. There just wasn’t enough peer-reviewed experimental research backing up their ability for such a cognitive feat.

So even if it looked and felt like jealousy, I wouldn’t allow myself to definitively interpret it as jealousy. A typical question I got from clients was this: “Is my dog being jealous when he squeezes in between me and my kid?” And my only answer was: up till now, there’s not been very good evidence that they can feel jealousy. It may just be that he’s coming in for a ‘group hug’ or be motivated by some other reason we can’t fathom.

But in July 2014, Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost published a paper that’s changed my answer to: “You know what? It’s quite possible.”

Research design

Plush dog

By PDPicx, Pixabay CC

Harris and Prouvost see jealousy as an evolutionary adaptation to secure a valued relationship spanning beyond just romantic bonds. As most dogs rely on just one human care-giver, it would make sense if they evolved jealous feelings (and the associated behaviour) towards that human.

Prouvost and Harris tested this by borrowing a classic child psychology set-up: have the prized person interact with a ‘rival’ child or doll and see if the kid protests, tries to restore contact with their person and/or to block the doll’s access to that prized person.

The July 2014 dog study tried to find differences between dogs in two different groups:

  1. Usurper conditions: The owners interact with a fake dog;
  2. No-usurper-conditions: The owners interact with a random (non dog-like) object.

That design seemed reasonable in capturing the simplest components of jealousy. I was still on board.

The results

Two big trends came out: in the usurper set-up, the dogs displayed a lot of more of this:

  • Attention-seeking behaviour: nose pushing, squeezing themselves between their owner and the usurper; and
  • Aggression towards the object.


Diogenes dog skepticism

By Tony F, Wiki Commons

They concluded that dogs could show some primitive form of jealousy.

The anthropomorphism paranoia was still nagging me so I tried to think of alternative explanations, one more twisted than another. But in doing so, I was breaking the Occam’s razor rule: the simplest explanation is, if not the most plausible, at least the most elegant. In other words, I was bending over backwards to try to find an elusive alternative explanation when perhaps, just perhaps, things were just as they seemed. Perhaps dogs who appear to behave jealous are being jealous

After careful consideration, I am going to accept Harris and Prouvost’s conclusions as the best reasonable explanation to date. If convincing research comes out in support of another explanation, I’ll evaluate that one on its own merits too. The beauty of the scientific method: go where the evidence is and review your opinion to fit the latest facts.

In other words, Harris and Prouvost may definitely be onto something.

Possible improvements

Experimental set-ups can always be improved upon, and this one is no exception. The sample size was quite small, and their body language interpretations were a little speculative (e.g. raised tail was logged as aggression).

Still, it didn’t change the basic fact that dogs behaved differently when their owners interacted with a (plush) dog. That fated plush dog was in fact my biggest problem with their design. Using real dogs would have been a lot more representative of a real-life situation. They addressed that point openly in their paper, though, so kudos to them for their intellectual integrity and let’s see that point addressed in future research. That’s science for ya: a bunch of delightfully pedantic kids keeping each other in line.

But putting all criticism aside, my money is on Harris’ and Prouvost’s conclusion: I think other papers will confirm their findings. Anyone want to bet?

Torturing babies

One last little nugget for y’all: that same set-up (mom is engaged with a doll, rather than with any other object) was done on six month-old human babies to make them jealous. So, if you have a baby at home and fancy feeling sciencey, try it out. Just don’t blame me if you get social services at your door: blame Harris and Prouvost.


The original paper is free, short and jargon-free. Even if you’re not sciencey, give it a go and see what it feels like to read from the original research paper.

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Geriatric zootherapy: fighting elderly isolation one dog at a time

Interview with Caroline Kilsdonk, geriatry zootherapist
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Aug 2014. Release date Sep 2014


I am a dog trainer and canine behaviour therapist. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got my postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.


This portrait is part of a series of talks with dog professionals around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkers, assistance dog trainers, and university lecturers. I have these chats to get you a fly-on-the-wall view of what goes on in the world of pet professionals and their various specializations.


Caroline has a lot of hats on: she is a trained vet, wife, mother of four, bioethics Masters student and zootherapist. Caroline lives in French Canada with her family and two dogs.

Our paths met through Human Side of Dog Training, an on-line peer-coaching group where trainers help each other navigate delicate client-trainer interactions. When I discovered she shared my addiction to learning, behaviour and philosophy, I grew even more intrigued. And then I found out what she does: zootherapy. I HAD to have a chat.

Read on as Caroline shares the special moments. If it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, let me promise you this: you’ll never forget to call Grandma again.



LV: So who’s living at the Kilsdonks’ at the moment?

CK: There’s my husband and myself, and then there’s my 24-year old son and his wife who are living with us temporarily. My other son is also visiting (he studies in the Netherlands). And then there’s my two daughters (20 and 16 years old).

LV: How about the furries?

CK: There’s our two giant poodles: Leeloo (four years old) & Laïla (three years old). They’re sisters. I also regularly foster another poodle (Marylin). Then she tags along to the zootherapy visits.


LV: You trained as a vet and now you’re a zootherapist. Can you talk me through?

01 not psychotherapyCK: I graduated in veterinary medicine in 1992, then worked in clinics. I also taught veterinary technicians at a College for a few years. That’s the period I had my kids and my husband was finishing off his studies so we were really busy.

LV: How did you train to work in zootherapy? What sort of knowledge did you pick up before you started?

CK: I graduated in (human) gerontology [medical and psychological aspects of aging] and followed in zootherapy certifications. I also attended hundreds of hours of conferences, congresses and seminars on animal behaviour. So I am straddling the human and animal worlds.

LV: Did you get trained in counselling skills? You deal with people at their most emotionally vulnerable. That must be tough.

CK: We did get some counselling training, to teach us how to offer psychological support. But I am very mindful of not overstepping any boundaries when I work. I am not a psychotherapist. It’s more like informal counseling, being a good ear.

LV: So how did you get your first real-life experience in zootherapy?

01CK: I organized dog-child interaction workshops at primary schools. It wasn’t therapy but it got me to see how the dogs experienced it.

When I saw how much they enjoyed it, I volunteered as zootherapist in long-term geriatric care. After a while, they offered to remunerate me. And then word of mouth did the rest and three other centers asked for my services.

LV: So what is your job title? What do you call your job when people ask?

CK: I find it tricky. The word ‘therapist’ makes it sound like I offer psychotherapy. ‘Therapy’ is central in that it promotes the well-being of the persons we see, but it’s not psychotherapy. I don’t have access to medical files of the people or anything, I am not a formal part of the therapeutic team.

LV: So where do the visits fit within the processes of the care centres?

CK: Part of it is that the dogs fit with the homely, convivial atmosphere the centres try to create. Care centres are ‘Milieux de vie’ [live-in care centres rather than medical establishments]. They do their utmost to make it feel like home for the residents – not like a hospital.

LV: Is it a protected profession?

CK: No. Anyone can call themselves a zootherapist.

And there’s no pure definition of it. So I am very careful not to exaggerate any benefits or cross any boundaries. I like this new Québec law that was passed two years ago. It states that you may not call yourself a psychotherapist unless you are a member of the relevant professional board. That has clarified things a lot.


LV: Are you studying anything on the side right now? Knowing your penchants, I won’t believe you if you say no.

CK: I am studying for a Master’s in Bioethics. And then of course I am following a few courses on Coursera.

LV: I am so addicted to Coursera! My friends and family even held an intervention: I have a sponsor keeping me in line. How many are you doing right now?

CK: [Silence, then, in a hush…] Five.

Caroline and her dogLV: At the same time?! [I hushed back, after having looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was listening] I am doing three at the moment.

CK: [Starts laughing, then, speaking like a true addict] In my defense, I have just been following the lectures and not doing the assignments. I’ll keep doing that as long as I’m doing my Master’s. And whatever research I do as a result of Coursera I can always re-use for my studies.

LV: Oh it IS useful. And we’re NOT being unreasonable. [laughs] But seriously. Your background makes you a great candidate for getting board-certified as a vet behaviourist. Have you contemplated this?

CK: I wouldn’t want to specialize in one thing just yet. I want to keep a wide perspective at the moment.


LV: Aside from your studies, do you work in animal-assisted therapy full-time?

02 cant fakeCK: No. With the kind of personalisation and emotional intensity I put in each person, I want to keep it part-time. I really prepare for each visit.

So I am combining it with studying for my masters [Bioethics], and doing some consults on dog behaviour [mainly giving advice on introducing a new dog to the family]. I am also giving myself the space to progressively explore and set my limits.

LV: Do you always do individual visits? Or do you also organize group events?

CK: Most of the time I visit individual persons in their rooms.

LV: Do you specialize in particularly kinds of zootherapy? For Alzheimer patients, for example.

02CK: I’ve been doing this for less than two years so I can’t really consider myself specialized.

LV: So the patients and dogs have a good experience, what types of skills do you need as a zootherapist?

CK: If you’re working in geriatric zootherapy, the major skill is empathy, listening. That’s another thing I’ve been reading a lot about. Teaching empathy is paradoxical as it has to be genuine. You can’t just fake it or apply it from theory or the patient will feel it. So ideally, a natural disposition to empathy is essential. And it has to be balanced as you can fall into the other extreme and end up carrying the others’ problems on your shoulders.

03 go slow for the dogsAnd of course empathy isn’t just important towards the patient, but also towards the dog. You can read a lot from the dogs’ body language. It’s important you’re ready to start slowly and not ask too much of the dogs.

And then of course it helps me a lot to have some understanding of the major health problems for people living with the sequels of a stroke, or dementia, or Parkinson’s. When I have a strong suspicion it’s playing a role, I can adapt my way of communicating.


LV: I have no doubt the visits give the patients an all-too-rare break from their loneliness. Do you know how long the beneficial effects of a visit last? Has this been researched?

CK: I did a literature survey on this04 evidence for zootherapy benefits for a paper I had to write. Although many studies have shown positive outcomes, long-term benefits are not yet fully demonstrated by neuroscience. But you can connect the dots between, on the one hand, research on dogs’ empathy and sensitivity to human emotions and communications, and on the other other hand, research on the humans benefits from social relationships. I am presenting a short segment on this at a social neuroscience conference in Denmark: about how pet-assisted therapy can help combat loneliness in long-term care. My invitation to the social brain conference of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies shows scientists are interested in zootherapy and I’m really happy about that.

A sessionWe do know that zootherapy lowers blood pressure, depressive thoughts and anxiety, and that it causes a release of oxytocin [a feel-good hormone], though. I have a scientific mindset so I have wondered about these things a lot. What is beyond doubt is that reducing loneliness correlates to better health outcomes: less chronic pain and less depression.

But let’s put science aside for a moment: do we really have to prove that having good company makes people feel good? I am not trying to cure cancer, so I am not sure it [zootherapy] needs that much evidence. I am one of the most skeptical persons there is when it comes to pseudo-treatments but for me social bonds defy scientific scrutiny.

05 big thingLV: We can get silly with our need for evidence, that’s true. Who could deny the obvious boost they get from the visit?

CK: The people we visit report that they like it, that they feel good when we are there. For me that’s a positive outcome. They say they “love those dogs” and they “can’t wait until the dogs come back.” And for some patients it’s a really big thing. They have the dogs’ pictures in their rooms and they tell their families about it; they know what day we’re coming and some of them wait for us at the door.

LV: Oh there’s no doubt it’s a hugely positive experience for these residents. I presume not everyone would get the same out of it. You’d have to be a bit of a dog person, right?

03CK: It depends so much on the relationship. It’s like the studies that ask whether it’s positive to have a pet dog: it depends on the dog, the person… For some it can be a burden and for others it’s positive. The residents I visit are the ones for whom it’s positive.

LV: So you’ve just left a patient’s room and it’s clear you’ve made their day. Do you get the feeling you might have also made their week, or even their month, easier?

CK: Anecdotally, I’d say yes, absolutely. As far as evidence is concerned some studies did show the long-term benefits of weekly zootherapy sessions: with clearly reduced feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. But for the more cognitively impaired people, the benefits may not last very long, but they are impressive in terms of their anxiety and panic in some situations.

LV: And then there’s the ones who remember and really enjoy it, but who can’t express it, right?

06 game build-upCK: Even the people who can’t talk well know how to communicate perfectly with the dogs. They create their own type of interaction, they invent their own games. And the interesting thing is: the dogs remember at the next visit, so the game builds up each time they see each other.


LV: I attended a zootherapy lecture by a psychotherapist and zootherapist. She visits patients with different kinds of conditions. She said each of her dog was at ease with a different kind of patient. One could handle agitated patients, and the other functioned better with the more depressed ones. Do you see these differences between your girls?

07CK: My dogs definitely react differently to different patients. They are fabulous at sensing how to behave appropriately in different situations.

Different patients have different styles, and the dogs remember it from visit to visit: you can tell the instant the dogs walk into the room. Some old ladies are playful and like to get the dogs a little bit excited, so the dogs carry themselves accordingly. Whereas in palliative care, the dogs seem to get a sense that everything is more calm, so they just interact calmly and affectionately.

LV: And do you see differences between the dogs’ temperaments? Is one better suited for certain types of patients?

CK: Absolutely. Eventhough all three are close kin (and obviously the same breed), they have very different temperaments. Their individual personality gives them an advantage in specific situations. I try to schedule around that so that I can, from time to time, spend more time with certain patients when I have one or the other dog.

  • Younger patients would like to play all day, for example, so we’ll stay longer with Laila. She could keep playing all day.
  • Leeloo is more sensitive to people’s emotions. She is the first one to turn up at home if someone is upset too.
  • Marilyn is the affection seeker. She comes close and pushes the person’s hands with her nose. People love it.

07 dont forceLV: That same lecturer said she had to retire a couple of dogs as they were getting burnt out. Do you have those concerns about Leelo and Laila?

CK: I am not very directive with the dogs. I let them express what they need at any one time. I haven’t trained them to always do something specific when we’re at work. I have mostly just socialized them really well.

I always know if they want to get closer to the person, and if they feel good about it. Many residents can’t bend over so I’ll often ask the dogs to climb up on a chair. But I don’t just ask one dog, I ask all the dogs. The one who feels like it the most is the one who’ll climb up. They get to decide.

I think that not being directive of the dog is good. It wouldn’t have the same value to people if I forced the dogs to do it. The same goes for me actually. The residents sense that the relationship is reciprocal, that I want to be there.

05LV: It must be so refreshing for them to not to feel patronized. That someone wants to be there and interact with them and to treat them as equals.

CK: They see me half way between a friend and a care provider. I am not asking questions or giving them advice, because there’s not so much distance between us. They speak very freely with me: I am not part of the healthcare system so they can complain about things, air their frustrations. They feel they can say anything. I am just neutral.

LV: So what are the main stressors on the dogs? Are they affected by the death of a patient, for example?

CK: Honestly I don’t think so. They see an individual patient maximum one hour in their week. They might notice that we’re passing the door of a room we used to visit, but that’s about it.

08 mindfulWhat used to be a major stressor was working in larger centres. Everyone would stop us in the hallways and it’s not like me to just pass by. In the end, we’d meet with dozens of people by the time we’d reached the patient’s room. Now we stick to smaller centres – less than a hundred residents. The dogs can almost feel at home there.

[Looking behind Caroline’s back on the Skype video, I saw a tall man (one of Caroline’s sons) kneel down to allow a giant ball of curly fur to work her way up into his arms. Caroline saw me smile, turned around and said:] Yes, we are very close to our dogs in this family.

LV: Your visits are extremely focused on the here and now. Do you feel more mindful in the sessions?

06CK: A nurse told me that I had a warm voice and a calming influence on the patients. That made me think: “This is so not me at all.” Normally my thoughts are popping up all the time. So maybe when I visit I have to slow down and be in the moment; I have to be mindful. Maybe it has a calming effect on me.

It is probably one of the reasons I love doing this so much. I know it’s not purely altruistic. I happen to find satisfaction in something that provides well-being for others. I think it’s a really good step when our own interest matches the common good. I know you love philosophy too.

LV: Oh yes, altruism is a central philosophical questions. And biological and psychological. It’s a fascinating concept. But the job must be emotionally taxing, no?

CK: I am conscious of that possibility, but I am not doing it full-time so it doesn’t drain me.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to approach it with the intensity I do full-time. It’s just not realistic for people who want to earn a living out of it. I also don’t want the dogs to have to be efficient. I want to keep it at this level so we all keep getting something out of it, so it’s not a duty.

LV: Can you think of a work moment that particularly touched you?

CK: That’s such a difficult question. There are too many. Just thinking of the non-verbal ones, there’s this man whom I can’t speak to because he has completely reverted to his mother tongue (Spanish). But his smile when he sees us come in… The way he communicates with me, the way he thanks me. He sends me these little kisses, he kisses the dogs.

And there’s this lady I’ve been seeing for more than a year and a half now. Her husband has my phone number to tell me when she’s close to the end.

And there’s this old man very advanced dementia. They way he looks at the dogs with this wonderful caring face… And he’s so gentle with them. When he sees me he holds my hand; he pets the dogs. Just looking at him is very emotional for me. He has this therapeutic doll and usually when I leave, I clean the patient’s hand with gel. Last week I told him “I’m going to wash your hands.” He probably didn’t hear because, as I got my hand closer to him, he held out his therapeutic doll’s hand for me to wipe. These dolls give them a sense of security. It’s like a presence, and it’s something to care for. It’s very similar when they hold the dogs. Some of them sit in a rocking chair and they want to cradle the dogs, gently rocking them. Rocking a baby is a very comforting thing to do.

But there are too many of these touching moments – every day – to choose one.


08LV: I want to give you a soapbox, a chance to correct a common misconception. What comes to mind?

CK: People often underestimate the contribution of the human part of the team. They assume the dog is the sole therapeutic factor.

LV: And that you’re a glorified leash holder?

CK: Yes. But I see it as a triad, with myself as the intermediary between the dog and the patient. I facilitate communications between them. Sometimes the communication first flows between the patient and the dog, and then the dog is the facilitator. So zootherapy is a triad: the patient, me, the dogs.


Caroline keeps contact details, pictures and diaries of her work on Caroline et les chiens (in French)

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Latest good review: And still it’s a good dog

de meester lieve hondMy latest book review is out. ‘And still it’s a good dog’ is a book written in Dutch. The authors, a historian and a behaviour veterinarian, interviewed owners of dogs with serious behaviour problems about what they went through.

It shares their stories of personal growth and heart break. It talks of the intolerance of the public and the courage of the owners.

For the full review, click here.

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Latest dog book review: Zoobiquity

Natterson Horowitz - ZoobiquityMy latest book review is out.

Taster: The book was written by a cardiologist and psychiatrist with a growing obsession for comparative medicine: Alexandra Natterson Horowitz. The central question is: “Do animals also get…?” (fill in the blank with every imaginable human disorder). The resounding answer to that question is yes again and again. So pick this one up if you’re curious about sexual problems and addiction in animals, or breast cancer in cows or post traumatic stress in apes.

For the full review, click here.

More book reviews

Like the main page: If you like what I do, please let me know by clicking ‘like’ on the main page (not on this individual review). Each ‘like’ feels great and makes me want read and review more.

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It’s scientifically proven that… I don’t know

Shout-out about guest post on the Sedrick Vangronsveld dog training blog
By Laure-Anne Visele, August 2014

About the author

I am a canine behaviour therapist and dog trainer. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.

It’s scientifically proven…

Sedrick Vangronsveld is a Belgian colleague of mine. He is a certified dog behaviour therapist and has practiced for years alongside being a veterinary technician. Check him out if you’re in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and need an evidenced-based and ethical approach to your dog problems.

Sedrick asked me to write a short article on his website so I tried my hands at writing in Dutch. It took a bit of grammatical polishing up, but am happy with the results.

Check it here if you want to read about one of my pet peeves: people who quote fake scientific findings to back up their claims. Oh, and it talks of getting married to your dog trainer and getting breast-fed by a she-wolf. What can be better?



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Dirty secrets: my dog is not perfect

Confessions of an imperfect dog trainer
By Laure-Anne Visele, Aug 2014

About the author

I am a dog trainer and canine behaviour therapist. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.

Business card

My dog Rodgie is my business card. If he behaves like an idiot, I look like one. We’ve had our fair share of idiot moments. At the beginning, I would roll up my sleeve to ‘fix’ the latest gem but they just kept coming.

Still, we fixed quite a few over the years:

  • A crippling can’t-leave-the-house fear of traffic. He now barks excitedly when it’s time to go.
  • Running away from small dogs (across streets and back home, no less). He now calmly checks them out and just walks a few meters away if he doesn’t like it.
  • Less than perfect toilet training. He is now flawless.
  • Crying the entire meal to get a morsel. Still a work in progress, but we’re down to a couple of whines on special pizza night.
  • Refusing to budge out the front door because something scary could be out there. We now had to teach him to wait before bolting out the door.
  • Eating horse manure. He now does a beautiful leave it: he’ll look at it, then look at me for his reward for not eating it. Part of me feels the fool and part of me feels he’s adorable.
  • Rolling over in cow dung (don’t ask me why he never ate those but horse manure is fair play). He now stops instantly if I ask him – even at a distance and even if he’d started to dive in. I’ve never managed this with another dog: generally if they’ve started, you might as well get the mop and bucket because they won’t stop until they’re good and covered.
  • etc.

So we’ve achieved a lot together since he came from the shelter. And our bond is incredible and I love that he’s a complex being.

Nasty perfectionism

IMG_6639But yeah, he is still rather… imperfect. Particularly for a dog trainer’s dog.

I remind myself of what I tell my students: “Be happy with the dog you have.” So Rodge will execute the fanciest move but has needed what feels like a hundred thousand gazillion hours of training to get off the couch reliably when we ask at a distance – it’s still a work in progress.

Here’s another one of his sins: jumping up. If am around to remind him on time, he won’t do it, but without the reminders, he’ll try whenever someone reaches in their jacket when we’re out on a walk.

It started when this guy who regularly gave him food, dangling it up. That means my dog jumped to get it, and was repeatedly rewarded for doing so. I asked the man to quit it but it looks like that guy too needs a hundred thousand gazillion hours of training to get the hint.

Behaviour change can be a huge undertaking with Rodge as he has some learning issues. I picked a dog with baggage and knew what I was getting into, but yeah, we don’t undertake a new training project lightly anymore. So I got lazy and let some imperfections slide. Frankly, after 5pm, the last thing I want is to train my own dog. I want to kick back and not think about training until the next day.

Sure his quirks make dinner invitations with colleagues embarrassing as it doesn’t make me look all that professional. But at this stage, I am thinking of the huge list of serious behaviour problems we tackled so yeah, unless I constantly do a ‘leave it,’ my dog will smell inside your handbag if you leave it on the ground. He’ll probably steal food if there is any in there too. Live with it.

Accepting beats feeling guilty

So I learnt to accept some of these imperfections. I figured it would beat feeling guilty and frustrated. He won’t be a ‘teacher’s child’ as Bina Lunzer put it, and I can live with that.

When I come clean, most people tell me this thing in Dutch: “The plumber’s pipes are always the most clogged.” My Dutch is iffy but you get the gist.

Taking it less seriously lifted a huge weight of guilt and frustration, so, paradoxically, I felt more energized to roll up my sleeves once more and tackle at least the most mortifying ones.

I was in this ‘pick-your-battles’ mindset when the most sinister problem yet started rearing its ugly head.

When you don’t feel safe at home

When I first got him, he was petrified of men. After months of hard work, he would happily trot to complete strangers hoping for a treat. At night, he was still a little jumpy, but nothing extreme. But then he gradually started slipping back.

Rodge-portrait-binsHe would get startled if my husband came back home in the dark. At first, he would come to his senses if my husband then spoke to him.

But then it degraded and he wouldn’t recognize my husband’s voice and he’d keep alarm-barking. It was like he’d forgotten who my husband was. It only happened at night, and at first very sporadically, so we decided to wait and see.

We used the usual Desensitization and Counter-conditionning, of course, hoping things would then get better. But they didn’t. We tried BAT training (look it up, it’s really interesting) but that totally backfired as we botched it up – see the screwing up bit. We even started working with SATS (Synalia Alliance Training System, really interesting stuff too) but it became clear I was making a huge mess of things.

Screwing up and getting urgent

Being so emotionally involved, I made tons of bad calls: my timing was as off and I didn’t instruct my husband properly. My husband not being a trainer, he ended up rewarding at the most inappropriate times. So, we were well on our way to creating more problems for ourselves than we were fixing.

It kept slipping slowly down this nasty slope until one night, Rodge lunged and barked when my husband tried to put on his leash to go for their nightly walk. Something had to give. Now. The problem had officially become very urgent, and I went from dull worry to a sheer panic.

We had let things slip so much that my husband could not move an inch at night without the dog getting startled and barking at him alarmingly. And then it started happening every – single – night.

Can you imagine how the atmosphere was getting at night? With my husband who’s not allowed to move in his own home for fear it would trigger another fit?

An emotional journey

I went through all the stages my clients go through:

  • I trivialized it
  • I hoped against all hope it would get better by itself
  • Because it worsened gradually, I failed to see how badly things had slipped.
  • I didn’t even consider getting help. Isn’t that insane? I hadn’t considered it a possibility.
  • It took me forever to pluck up the courage to contact a colleague for help.
  • During the consult, I was petrified they would judge me – they didn’t. They were wonderful. But still I was petrified.
  • During the consult, I was hell-bent on not believing the techniques would work. I was so scared of another disappointment I felt I had (wait for it) “tried everything.” These are the very words every single client tells me.
  • After the consult, it took me A MONTH to open up the recommendations report: I was worried that if it didn’t work, we had to contemplate the heart-wrenching next step. So I finally opened the report and immediately closed it again. It took me a few attempts before I finally read it thoroughly and converted it into a list of actions.  SEVERAL DAYS to read a report? For an urgent problem?
  • When I finally had processed the report, I half-heartedly put one recommendation into place and quickly declared it wouldn’t work as I wasn’t seeing instantaneous results.
  • After a few days of this, I had to resort to asking the behaviourist to kick my behind as I was still paralyzed. How crazy is that?
  • Now that I’ve started putting some of this stuff in motion, I feel more hopeful, my husband feels more in control, and we both feel a little bit empowered towards kicking this thing’s butt.

I was trained to help clients through these stages yet, insanely enough, I was going through them myself.

What a lesson this has been: now I know what I ask of my clients. I have always been empathetic to their struggles, but I didn’t realize how theoretical my understanding was until I got a taste of the real deal.

What now

Rodge-coloursI took him to a vet behaviourist who confirmed what I already knew: he is declining cognitively and he is a very anxious dog to start with. There’s only so much you can do with behaviour modification alone.

He is going to get the full works to see if any other physical factor is contributing to this decline, and we are going to put him on meds to take the edge off the anxiety and dampen the progress of dementia.

And of course, we ARE going to seriously roll up our sleeves and put the behaviour modification recommendations into place now that it doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle anymore.

We have turned a critical page as I have had to seek professional help for my own dog’s behaviour for the first time in my career. But at least we’re going in the right direction now, and we’re being supported by wonderful professionals.

I hope we can accompany him in the last chapter of his life with as much calm and harmony as possible, and restore some trust in our home.

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Quick and Dirty interview with Jolanta Benal

Interview with Jolanta Benal
By Laure-Anne Visele: Interview date Dec 2013. Release date August 2014

About the author

I am a dog trainer, canine behaviour therapist and budding researcher. I graduated in Zoology, certified in dog training, then got my postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour. When I am not training dogs for OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague) or helping rehabilitate them, I read and write about dog behaviour.

About the interview project

This portrait is part of a series of talks with dog professionals around the world. I’ve interviewed behaviour-curious vets, certified dog walkersassistance dog trainers, and university lecturers. I have these chats to get you a fly-on-the-wall view of what goes on in the world of pet professionals and their various specializations.

About Jolanta Benal

qdtJolanta used to write and host the famous The Dog Trainer’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and weekly column. She has also written one of the best dog books I have ever read, and Dog knows I do my homework (Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy and Well-Behaved Pet). Jolanta is also one of New York’s most reputable behaviour trainers.

Read on for our chat about dog training in the Big Apple, the ups and downs of the trainer-vet relationships, and the role of critical thinking in dog training.

A day at the Benals’

LV: So tell me about your family life.

JB: My wife, Sarah, is a hospice physician. I could gush about her, but this is supposed to be a dog-related interview, right? [laughs]

LV: Certainly is. How about the furry side of the family?

hot dog hot cat july 17 2012

JB: Our dog Juniper turned twelve in December. He’s a giant pain in the butt. He is the king attention-seeker and he is so comical that it always works for him. He brings objects from around the house hoping we’ll trade him for a bite of what we’re eating. “Do you like this shoe? What about this squeaky toy? How about this other shoe? This plastic bag? No?” By the time we’re done eating, the floor is littered with his offerings.

He is unruly and sets a bad example for other dogs. I suppose this means I set a bad example for trainers, but the entertainment is endless.

LV: Any other animals?

JB: We’ll say “several” cats, mostly old. My dog Izzy found one of them, Stella, hiding under a park bench. Stella has never shown the slightest gratitude, either toward Izzy or toward any other dog. Juniper particularly likes our cat Button because she allows him to smell her anus.

LV: Did you adopt them all, or have you bought some of them?

JB: All our animals are adopted.

About podcasting

LV: How did you get the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast gig [a weekly podcast about dog behaviour]?

JB: It was the purest, most insane stroke of luck. My clients knew someone who worked for QDT, and knew they were looking for a dog trainer. I auditioned and got the gig.

LV: How much competition was there?

JB: [laughs] None, as far as I know. I always think “Thank goodness!” It could easily have been an intimidation-based kind of trainer.

LV: You’ve turned me onto other QDT programs as well. I really like Grammar Girl, and the Get-it-Done guy. I understand from my personal efficiency-obsessed friends that Stever Robbins [GID guy] is an absolute guru. So how does QDT get it so right when they pick their hosts?

JB: I have no idea. The woman who does Nutrition Diva  is a science-based nutrition person. No fad diets out of Monica. And the Math and Science guys are pretty good too.

LV: Don’t tempt me to subscribe to those too! I really have a bad podcast addiction.

JB: Here’s a dirty secret: I cannot listen to podcasts. I can read so much faster that I get nuts listening to someone talk about something.

dogtrainer_275x221LV: Here’s my dirty secret: I don’t listen to music. Whenever I’m on the road it’s podcasts all the way. Drives my husband and kid crazy.

So, how much work goes into writing the scripts? Please tell me you’re not ad-libbing the podcasts?

JB: [laughs] I write abjectly slowly. Each podcast takes about 6-8 hours from start to finish. Sometimes I’m really lucky with a topic, and the words just flow out.

You can write about puppy nipping off the top of your head. But I did one last week about Jean Donaldson’s bite threshold model. It was difficult to represent it in my own language because I’m so used to thinking about it in her terms.

LV: Six to eight hours of work for a five minute broadcast! It is worth it, the podcasts are excellent, but I had no idea it was so much work.

JB: And I get a lot of technological help. There’s a producer too.

LV: So, are you proud of them? Do you realize how good they are?

JB: I work hard on them and I get a lot of positive feedback. So I feel that they’re doing the job I want them to do.

About science communication

LV: I can’t believe the reliability, and breadth and depth of the podcasts (and how hilarious they are). And don’t get me started on the breath-taking reference section of your book. So how much background research goes into your writing?

JB: I read a lot and I spend a lot of time on Google Scholar.

LV: It struck me that you use peer-reviewed papers to back up what you write. Most people don’t get within a mile of research articles. It seems to intimidate them. So did you get any formal science training?

JB: No, I have no formal academic training. I took an online Harvard course on learning theory and dog behaviour a few years ago, but that’s it [and Jolanta has an impressive string of professional credentials: CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, PMCT-2]. I discovered Google Scholar a few years ago and have used it all the time since then. It’s got to the point that I have been asked to prepare and present an on-line course for raisingcanine.com about finding and assessing journal articles.

Raising canine

LV: Well you certainly have the knack of making the driest scientific concepts come to life. How have you learnt to communicate science like that?

JB: The podcast has been good for practicing saying accurate things  in a way that laypeople have no trouble understanding. And I have the gift of an editor who’s very intelligent but neither scientist nor dog person. If she gets confused, I know I need to clarify.

About writing

LV: So how did you get the book deal?

JB: The idea was always that there was eventually going to be a book if the podcast worked out.

LV: You’re so lucky! That’s a dream of mine.

JB: It was an extraordinary piece of luck. When I get tired of doing the podcast week after week, I think: it gets several hundred thousand hits a month and still a lot of the mail I get starts with ‘I am the alpha to my dog and yet he…’ Then I think I can’t give up that platform. That’s the tricky part: we need someone who’s sciencey AND a good writer.


LV: I enjoyed reading the book so much [it is now compulsory reading for our interns at the training school]. Your writing is colourful and conversational yet fact-based. Where in the world did you learn to write like that?

JB: It’s just how I write. I was an English major in college, and I used to work in copy editing. That makes you aware of what other people are doing wrong both grammatically and in terms of clarity and presentation.

LV: I’ve even been shamelessly using some of your catchphrases and sending links to my clients about your articles on dog behaviour issues. What impresses me the most are the analogies you make between dog behaviour and the human experience. This triggers empathy in clients as it helps them put themselves in the dog’s shoes and reframe the problem.

JB: And for emotional things, I think it’s valid. The parts of a dog’s brain that govern emotions are quite a lot like our own. When it comes to some topics, I get more nervous about anthropomorphizing because dogs so often get into trouble when we do that. If I peed on someone’s pillow, it would be anthropomorphizing for sure. “That MUST be why the dog is doing it.”

LV: [laughs] I would say that’s where the analogy breaks down for sure.

JB: So I make empathetic analogies, but I am sometimes wary of whether it’s appropriate.

LV: I guess that, the more you find out about dog behaviour, the more you realize how little you know. That makes you cautious.

JB: Oh yes. When I had a dog for a year, I knew everything. I was such an expert then. [laughs]

About dog training in New York

LV: I am curious, what does a typical week look like for you?

JB: Sunday and Monday are devoted to the struggle with my script.

Tuesday to Thursday, I usually see clients. And sometimes Saturday too. I find behaviour work emotionally taxing, so I don’t schedule more than three clients a week or I’ll be completely exhausted. If I’m seeing manners people, who just need help with their dog coming when called or whatever, I can see much more.

Other than that, I’m also some kind of a house wife: grocery shopping, picking up dry cleaning, walking the dog, and doing the cooking. My wife’s a doctor, so her hours are very long.

Jolanta training Juniper and Pasha

Jolanta training Juniper and Pasha

LV: How are things for trainers in New York? Here in The Hague, it’s only a few of us who work with dogs full-time. The market is really tough for full-time work.

JB: When I was visiting the Netherlands, I was struck by how few dogs there were compared to here.

LV: My husband wouldn’t necessarily agree there. Whenever I see a dog, I drop everything to go gush. He’s complaining it’s near-constant thing. [laughs] But I keep hearing from fellow expats how dog-friendly the Netherlands are. Dogs are welcome in restaurants, doctor’s waiting rooms, etc.

As a society, their attitude to dogs tends to be great. But when it comes to investing money in their pets’ behavioural health, the market doesn’t seem to be as mature as it is in the US. Too many people here will still abandon the pet the instant things stop working out perfectly.

JB: There are people on both ends of the spectrum here.

Some don’t even have money to spend on themselves. I do some work for Pet Help Partners from the Humane Society. It helps keep animals out of shelters through free and low cost behaviour and training advice. The dogs in that context are often, by yours or my standards, maltreated. They don’t get much exercise, they don’t get much time outside, people hit them to discipline them. A lot of those people operate out of how limited and constrained their own lives are and how little information is available to them. I can’t even send them to my podcast, because they don’t have internet at home.

And then, you have the ones who spend all kinds of money on the animal, but not necessarily appropriately: “Have this lovely designer jacket.” And there’s a fad now for shock collars. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk and I’ll see three dogs with shock collars, sometimes with a prong collar underneath!

LV: What do they use it for?

JB: I have no idea why. I always wonder why they can’t hurt their dog with just one of those devices? Why two? I would say that people aren’t so utilitarian about their dog, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that their dogs’ lives are better. People ‘accessorize with pets.’

LV: So, what’s your proudest moment?

JB: I love a lot of small moments. When I see a client really understands why it’s more helpful to be a gentle, supportive guiding force to their dogs. Why it’s helpful to become their ally rather than their master. And when I can ameliorate a dog’s conditions, reduce a dog’s fear….

"Be an ally, not a master"

“Be an ally, not a master”

LV: What is the most fun part?

JB: I love it when manners training, like recall practice, is fun. I have a thing about incorporating games into the routines. I love watching the dog come galloping joyfully instead of that awful slow, head down, gaze averted, lumbering by aversively trained dogs.

LV: This is a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question, but how many sessions does one case require generally?

JB: A lot of people will see me just once. Sometimes it’s because things are ‘good enough’ now as far as they’re concerned. And that’s OK. But usually, we’re talking about five to six sessions, mainly because I see serious behaviour problems.

Working in a city environment, forget about D&C [Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization, a technique to help reduce dogs' reactivity to particular things]. If a dog is scared of garbage trucks here in New York, there’s no such thing as predicting when one will come.This makes behaviour modification extremely challenging. Particularly for dog-dog reactivity, because of the high dog density in New York. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for that dog is making it an indoor dog. Even with lots of anxiety medications on board, that dog can’t leave the apartment without being over threshold. I have this conversation with rural and suburban trainers, and they have no idea.

LV: What is the most problematic side of the job for you?

JB: It’s miserable when I am called too late, for a dog that lives in a tiny apartment with an extensive bite history and a baby two weeks away. I can only responsibly tell people that they have to re-home the dog right now, or euthanize it. That’s hard. Because you see the people in untenably dangerous situations. Or when the baby has just become mobile, and then gets in trouble with the dog. People love the dog and they want me to guarantee that the baby will be safe with the dog. Then they want to know if there’s a way they can adopt out the dog. And I have to say: “Well, that’s problematic.”

And this also makes me miserable: when a shelter group inappropriately re-homes a dog with a significant behaviour problem and then blames the owner…

And I see people with the euthanasia word in front of their faces. And they’re just horror-struck as they can’t believe it’s come to this. I see a fair bit of that because I get referrals from the local veterinary behaviourist. It’s so upsetting.

About vets and breeders

LV: You get referrals from the vet behaviourist! Good going.

JB: There’s a few of us in New York who get referrals from her E’Lise Christensen. There’s a whole little posse of very smart trainers here. We have good colleagues.

LV: So how do you collaborate with her?

JB: She deals with the medication side of things, and she formulates the behaviour plans. I typically refer to her in cases like a mature dog with abrupt behaviour change. Or a dog with a really generalized anxiety.

When we refer cases to each other, we keep each other in the loop. We copy each other on every communication and we often talk. I love working with her. She’s smart, she knows her science backwards and forwards, and she has the vet skills I can’t bring to the table. I always feel that, when we’re working together with a dog, the dog is getting the best behavioural care a dog can get. But it’s only the wealthiest who can afford to have both of us together.

Jolanta training dogs outside

Jolanta training dogs outside

LV: If you work together with a vet behaviourist, does it get reimbursed by insurances?

JB: Oh no. Maybe the vet behaviourist would be partly reimbursed through the pet insurance, but very few people have that. People have to pay out of pocket.

LV: So what’s your relationship with GP [General Practitioners] vets?

It’s mixed. Some refer to just me, and some refer to both me and the local force-based trainer, on the theory that different dogs need different methods. And I hate it when GP vets prescribe behaviour meds, because they’re not necessarily trained on that side of things.

What I find disappointing, is that, although the vet behaviourist will consult with the vets for free about what behavioural medication would be best for a particular case, most of them refuse to call her.

LV: And breeders?

JB: They’re not always being reality-based: “Our entire principle for breeding dogs is based on Naziism.”

LV: Yup, the old eugenics vision.

JB: How can you not notice that closing the gene pool leads to catastrophe? Wake up!

LV: And the extremes in phenotypes… But some breeders get pretty prickly. I know people who’ve received threat letters for speaking out.

Dog welfare

LV: If you had a magic wand and could convince the general public of one thing, what would it be?

JB: I would love for people to rethink their assumptions about dogs’ welfare. I feel like most dogs live a life of quiet desperation. With a bit of luck, they’ll get four short walks, and they mostly won’t get to do in terms of mental stimulation, physical exercise, or even sniffing time. They just get yanked along when they sniff too long at the same pile of leaves.

The longer I do this work, the less interested I become in precision training, and the more I want to know whether the dogs’ basic behavioural needs are met. I’ve become obsessed about things like playing with dogs, feeding dogs out of interactive toys, doing five minutes of clicker training a day, letting a dog sniff and poke around on walks . All these little things that make a difference to the dog’s quality of life.

LV: I brought the concept of enrichment from my zoology training to my dog training without a second thought. It’s only occurring to me now that this isn’t necessarily how every think. In terms of welfare, dogs are just another captive animal.

JB: Yes. There is a book called “Environmental enrichment for captive animals.” It’s mostly towards zoo and lab animals but he discusses domestic pets as well. When I started thinking of dogs as captive animals the top of my head just about blew off. It got me thinking about their behavioural needs, and how often those are not met.

If I could do one thing for all dog owners, I would invite them to think about their dog’s own species-specific behavioural needs. Not the human ideas of what a dog should want but what dogs do want from a dog’s life. I would lose so much money as a behaviour consultant if dogs had their needs met.

izzy and yogurt cups 4

Using captive animal enrichment techniques

LV: Chance had it I had to attend lots of different lectures lately, but many happened to concern undomesticated species (some rodents, parrots, ferrets, etc.) It struck me that these therapists approached all their cases by spotting the critical differences between the behaviour needs  of that species in the wild and the behaviour possibilities of the individual captive animal. In most cases, the animals were living in severely impoverished conditions. So the focus wasn’t so much psychopathology or training, like it is for dogs, but on welfare.

It’s switched on something in my brain and now I try to start each case with the ethological needs. If you sort that out, you’re halfway there.

JB: Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly!

One of the things in this book that blew me away, was this: you can buy a hutch in a pet store that is smaller than the minimum size requirements for lab rats!

LV: It’s not so paradoxical, really. The cynical explanation is that lab cages are better designed because the research community is finally accepting that chronic stress introduces confounding factors. So their keepers profit from improving welfare.

Most pet store rabbit hutches don’t even allow rabbits to stretch to their full length. The lecturer was saying: “My first step for a rabbit with aggression, is to x-ray its spine. 99% of the times, the vertebrae have come glued together from a lifelong inability to stand.”

JB: That is a hard thing to accept. All of us who love animals cringe at the life of lab animals. And when you find out that in some respect some of these animals’ lives might be better than a pet’s…

LV: I see your point. The cognitive dissonance is huge between the quality of care that owners feel they are providing and reality.

JB: This reminds me of this case I wrote about: ‘Poor little rich dog.’ He was a tiny little shy Maltese presented to me for ‘aggression.’ His owner would bring him to these crowded shops where everyone would try to pet him. She lived across the street from Central Park, but she just parked her dog in his play pen all day with all these toys and no one to interact with him.

The idea that there was something wrong with the dog that needed to change… No! He needed to have a life that was appropriate for a dog. His aggression, as far as I was concerned, was totally appropriate.

LV: There’s that beautiful question of whether something is normal, appropriate. Is it really an aberrant reaction? Or is it an adaptive response to an aberrant environment? So what happened to poor little rich dog?

JB: I recommended that one of the ‘servants’ take him out to the park every day, and that he no longer got taken to all these shops. I never heard back.

LV: Rise van Fleet’s book, “The Human Side of Dog Training” has really helped me for these cases. It’s helped me get way more compliance and follow-through even from people with whom I find it hard to connect.

I used to get on my scientific and moral high horse but now I sneakily get them there without even mentioning the contentious points. After three sessions, they’ve flipped on their deeply held misconceptions about dogs without even realizing it. That book has revolutionized my practice.

About dog behaviour ‘experts’

LV: I loved your post on behaviour ‘experts.’ How do you deal with Joe Public assuming their gut feeling weighs as much as your expertise because they’ve “lived with dogs for twenty years?” It’s insulting to see years of studying and experience get valued so little. Imagine a paediatrician having to compete with old wives’ tales like we do all the time…

JB: I come across this too. There is no licensing to regulate training and behaviour work. So a layperson has no way of evaluating claims. I can say till am blue in the face that I read the science and that I’ve studied this and that but Joe Schmoe down the block can just say: “I have twenty years’ experience and this reward-based cookie bribing stuff is nonsense.

Or the people who call themselves “balanced trainers.” They’re reward-based up to a point, then they break out the choke chain. The assertion that “Of course, you have to let the dog know what they did wrong” sounds so plausible to people.

LV: They have human intuition on their side.

JB: They do. I have several arguments that I hope make sense to people. For example, when their dog is barking and lunging at other dogs. They’ve been told to yank on the dog’s neck and force him to sit. People tend to stay on board at least as far as: “If you know nothing else, you know the dog is not at ease. From that, it would seem to follow that if you add to the dog’s unease, you’re not being productive. But if you find a way to help the dog through the situation, you can be productive.”

LV: That’s a nice angle.

JB: I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I will say that a lot of people seem to be very happy to hear that they don’t have to yell or hurt their dogs.


“…happy to hear they don’t have to yell at or hurt their dog”

LV: Oh absolutely. I love to see the look of relief on their face: “So you mean I don’t have to keep hurting my dog?”

So how do you cope with the “I-have- 25-years’-experience-and-this-cookie-stuff-is-bribe-and-the-dog-should-respect-you” jocks?

JB: I point out that other professionals have to keep up with the literature in their field. It’s all very well to have a doctor with twenty five years’ experience, but if he has not been reading the medical journals for the past twenty five years, you’re not going to get very good medical care.

LV: Absolutely! If tradition was all we needed, we’d still be bloodletting. So what do you call yourself? ‘Behaviourist,’ ‘trainer?’

JB: I don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t say “behaviourist” because that label is preferred by people with a doctorate degree, or vet behaviourists. And I am neither. I usually say that I am a trainer specializing in behaviour problems. What do you call yourself?

LV: I say “I am a zoologist and I deal with dogs that have behaviour problems.” No offence to dog trainers, but because the profession is unprotected, anyone can call themselves that and it shows. I don’t want my services to be associated with that of the less qualified or scrupulous trainers.

JB: I wish I had something I could call myself that make it clear I actually try to learn things.

LV: Yeah, exactly. “Am good with dogs and I grew up with them” just doesn’t cut it and it’s an insult to the profession that this could act as any kind of serious credential.

About dog cognition

[warning, it gets a little speculative and technical]

LV: I’ve often read that a dog who has destroyed the couch doesn’t know he’s the one who did it a few moments later. I wonder: could it really be that they have no sense of their own agency? That seems hard to swallow. It’s convenient, but I haven’t found any research to back this up.

JB: Let’s back up. What is “destroy” to the dog? Likely, the dog has no opinion on the couch’s aesthetic value, and can’t conceive of this object’s value is to you. But he might know “I performed x activity and now there’s fluff all over the floor.”

Existential question: "Do dogs know how much my Ikea futon costs?"

Existential question: “Do dogs know how much furniture costs?”

LV: I used to tell people this example to illustrate why it was useless to punish the dog hours after the facts, but I don’t think it’s a fair example.

JB: These are two different questions. He might “know” he did it, but he won’t know there is a link between that and the punishment. The other question is: “Is it really effective to deliver a scolding hours after the fact? Does it decrease the likelihood of the behaviour happening again?”

LV: On the contrary: the delayed punishment is likely to increase the problems, as it introduces unpredictability in the dog’s life and…

JB: … and that increases the anxiety that led to the behaviour in the first place. I think answering the question about agency doesn’t get near answering the question about responsibility and value, and the relationship the anger has to the behaviour. But this is a pretty subtle conversation to be having.

About pseudoscience

JB: That’s another thing am going to be talking about in my science presentation for Raising Canines. One of the things people hate about science is the uncertainty. Science is all about questioning your conclusions. You don’t get definitive answers and people hate that.

LV: I am passionately involved in the skeptics scene. And it gets frustrating to get back down to earth and deal with average levels of credulity again. Whether something is accurate or based on a valid argument ranks so low for most people when they’re trying to work out whether to believe something.

"Why do my dogs (and cat) do that?" Keep it simple - you can't read their mind.

“Why do my dogs (and cat) do that?” Keep it simple – you can’t read their mind.

JB: People start speculating about what’s going on in a dog’s head and invariably wonder whether the dog is doing something to spite them. And I say “Look. I’ve been living with the same person for going on twenty five years. We’re the same species. We’re the same sex. We both speak English as our native language. We have similar ethnic backgrounds. We have similar educational attainments. Nevertheless, I often have no idea what she’s thinking. So what are the odds that you know what your dog is thinking?” That sometimes penetrates.

LV: So what drives you nuts when it comes to lacking in healthy skepticism?

JB: One thing that drives me banana crackers is advocacy of “alternative medicine” on trainer lists. When I hear someone who’s working with anxious dogs recommending Rescue remedy®… It violates the principle of not doing any harm. Because you’re forcing this quackery on people and in the mean time the animal is suffering.

LV: Although the placebo by proxy effect… But what sort of a justification is that hey?

JB: I really like the Skept Vet blog for addressing these questions.

About TV trainers

LV: So how do you handle the die-hard fans of pseudo-sciencey TV trainers? I used to get caught in hot situations as these characters seem to breed that kind of strange, aggressive loyalty in their fans.

JB: Honestly, I try to stay away from it or I’ll spend a lot of time unproductively angry. It is essentially a religious attachment and therefore not amenable to rational discussion.

The one thing that I find useful, for people who haven’t thought about it a lot, is to ask them to watch with the sound off. To point out that we listen to a narrative, and that the words override what we can see.

LV: Do you think that people can detect distress signals in dogs?

JB: If they’re not being told what that something is “calm submission” they’re capable of noticing that it’s actually terror. I find it extremely difficult to watch these episodes but every so often I force myself. In such and such an episode, I’ll say “Did you notice that puddle under the dog’s hind quarters. He urinated in fright.”

LV: I am still caught off guard by perfectly rational people saying: “But it works!” And I think, “Yes, like magic and time travel do on TV. You DO realize it’s edited, right?”. But then I get told I am just being jealous. Sigh.

About dog food recalls

LV: As soon as people become vested in an idea, truth becomes less important. I have similar reservations about people who get unconditionally supportive of one fad diet or another.

JB: My idea is: dogs evolved as scavengers on the periphery of human settlements, and they are really good at getting the nutrients they need out of rubbish. But I have to confess, I feed homemade food, and I feed raw. I started out that way not because of a particular ideology, but because the person who introduced me to clicker training fed that way. But I’m so half-arsed about it. And my dog is so healthy. I just throw a bunch of vegetables and yoghurt and meat at him. And leftover pasta and Chinese food (with the sauce washed off). And his kibble in his treat toy and… I don’t care. He’s an omnivore.

But these claims that are made for raw feeding. I am sorry, but plenty of dogs have been perfectly healthy on the most revolting supermarket dog food.

Books and dogs...

Books and dogs…

LV: Am not so sure on this one. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t though. I have concerns about both BARF and commercial kibble. All these recalls are scary and I have zero trust left in the major commercial brands, never mind the minor supermarket ones. But at the same time, I can’t be bothered to do enough research into this to start putting together my dog’s balanced diet myself. Nutrition is not my specialty and I am not about to get a PhD in this just to find out what to stick in his dish. So I read the label and buy the best brand I can afford – and feed him leftovers.

JB: The recalls seem to be associated with products manufactured or sourced in China. China has is notoriously terrible for food preparation supervision. The whole meat jerky thing has been frightening. The US FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) has been attempting for years now to figure out what’s going on with meat jerkies from China. There have been several hundred deaths of dogs and cats over a decade or so. With GI [Gastro-Intestinal] problems, kidney failures, etc. They haven’t been able to identify a particular disease-causing agent or specific toxin.

I did a blog post about the jerky. I don’t think it’s a fake scandal.

LV: And how about the ash content? Wherever I look, it’s 6% at least. And that’s on the really expensive food. Am sure all that ash can’t be good.

JB: Well there’s a scientific statement if I ever heard one!

LV: [laughs] On that note, you can quote me!


After listening to so many of her podcasts, it was incredible to hear Jolanta’s voice ‘live’ down the telephone line. The conversation got more lively by the second as we discovered our shared passion for evidence and our common irreverence for dogma. If you live in New York do yourself and your dog a favour and book an appointment. The rest of us world citizens will have to “make-do” with her hilarious and informative podcasts.

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More about Jolanta

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