Body Language is a Dog’s First Language

Dogs are experts at body language; if you’ve ever watched a slowed down video of dogs interacting you will be amazed at all the subtle communication going on. That is, if you know what to watch for.

Learn to read subtle canine body language

It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

  • Closed mouth
  • Look away or turn away
  • Lip licking
  • Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
  • Shaking off as if wet
  • Yawning when not sleepy
  • Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
  • Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
  • Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
  • Scratching
  • Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
  • Sniffing

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language:

Dog’s Using Subtle Body Language to Avoid Greetings (to say “No, thank you” to the greeting opportunity)

Dog Body Language (by Fear Free Pets)

Understanding Dog Body Language Part 1 ;

Understanding Dog Body Language Part 2

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed?

In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

On of the biggest mistakes people do when a dog growls

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me

Dog Food Myths

Although many of the resources consulted for this article are written by or endorsed by veterinarians, the information presented is not intended to replace veterinary care or advice.  Please gather information from a variety of reputable resources and consult a veterinarian you trust regarding your dog’s diet, health, and well-being, especially before making changes to the diet of pets that suffer from diabetes or other conditions.

“the pet food industry is one of the most lucrative industries in the world, it is also one of the most deceptive industries worldwide”

house of Paws Pet Boutique, blog post “Has finding a good pet food become a mystery?”

When it comes to feeding our dogs, many of us have trouble separating fact from fable, and much of our confusion can be blamed on misleading marketing.  Pet food companies, in their efforts to push their products, have inundated us with exaggerations and marketing claims that many of us have accepted as fact, to the detriment of our pets. Many people recognize that advertising claims should be “taken with a grain of salt” but what about so-called “experts?”  Surely they would be resources for current, unbiased information. Or would they?

The information here is only a start; there is so much more to learn, and as with all subject areas and experts, there are conflicting opinions. I encourage people to do their own information gathering from a variety of reputable, unbiased, well-supported resources.

Dog Food Myth #1:  Dogs should never eat human food. 

The belief that human food is unhealthy for dogs, although widely held, is highly inaccurate.  As most of us are aware, there are some human foods that are harmful to dogs (i.e. chocolate, grapes, xylitol, onions, etc.) and there are some foods that are unhealthy to humans as well as dogs (processed food, junk food, candy, overly salty or fatty foods, etc.).  This is the main argument for the standard answer by the pet food industry when it recommends that people should not feed dogs table scraps: human foods that are unhealthy for dogs. What isn’t said when pet food companies and the salespeople communicate the message “don’t feed your dog table scraps” is that a lot of healthy human food is also healthy for dogs. 

Low Standards in the Pet Food Industry

Dog-safe “human foods” are better for dogs than the ingredients in most commercial dog food because of the low standards in the pet food industry.  Human grade-meats, especially organic, pastured raised, grass-fed, are far superior to the questionable sources of protein in most commercial dog food.  This was aptly illustrated in the CBC documentary Pet Food: A Dog’s Breakfast  wherein an old pair of boots, in theory, could meet the minimum standards for protein in pet food. The CBC website no longer has an active link for the documentary, but there seems to be copies of it on numerous YouTube channels if one wanted to watch it.

The book Not Fit for a Dog! : the truth about manufactured dog and cat food (2009) (written by three veterinarians) also exposes the poor quality ingredients in manufactured pet food and suggests a strong association with commercial pet foods and many common health and behavioural problems in dogs and cats.  In the section entitled “Better Nutrition, Fewer Health and Behaviour Problems” the authors state that they know this is true because these problems “are ameliorated and often eliminated after the afflicted animals are fed … organically certified, biologically appropriate … whole food diets … that are neither highly processed nor full of synthetic additives/supplements” (p.144).  In other words, the problems lessen or go away when the pets are fed better food.  The authors, all veterinarians, are so certain of this they’ve included some recipes for homemade dog and cat food. What recent science is revealing is that the health of the gut — the microbiome — directly affects the health and the behaviour of the whole animal (including humans).

Is Kibble a Healthy Product?

Compounding the problem of poor quality ingredients are the processing methods of most commercial dog foods, especially extruded kibble.  During processing, the ingredients are subjected to high temperatures that degrade most of the original nutrients.  There is also evidence that the high temperatures can create dangerous cancer-causing compounds, and tests have shown that most dry dog foods contain these (See some recent research on this in the 2021 book The Forever Dog: Surprising New Science to Help Your Canine Companion Live Younger, Healthier, and Longer).

The quality of the ingredients and the processing methods are not the only problems with most manufactured pet food.  Another problem is the high starch content, especially in lower-priced pet foods.  Grains and other starches can be cheap sources of protein and are necessary in the production of kibble, which requires a lot of starch. While it seems that dogs can digest some grains, cats have no known need for carbohydrates and they don’t digest them well.  This is one reason why many sources recommended that cats be fed canned food rather than kibble; the canned food tends to have more protein, less-grain based protein, and more moisture. Some veterinarians believe that the high amounts of grain in pet foods lead to obesity, diabetes, arthritis and food allergies.

In their book See Spot Live Longer: How to help your dog live a longer and healthier life! authors Steve Brown and Beth Taylor detail how grains might be the worst offender when it comes to the major ingredients in manufactured dry dog foods.  The low-quality grains used are often infested with storage mites and dangerous molds, and how we store the dry food in our homes often encourages the growth of the mites and molds. Storage mites are being linked to skin allergies in dogs, and molds produce mycotoxins that can affect the immune system resulting in long-term health problems or in extreme cases, immediate death.  Brown and Taylor caution pet owners who purchase kibble to upgrade to the best quality they can find and afford, purchase only enough that can be used in a week, keep it in its original package, put the bag in an airtight container (if the bag isn’t sealable), and store it in the freezer, if possible.  More information on the problems with storage mites and molds and how to store and handle kibble to help reduce these problems can be found in their book. Dr. Karen Becker and Rodney Habib have a video explaining how to store kibble to avoid these problems.

Dog Food Myth #2: Feeding a dog human food encourages unwanted behaviours.

Dogs are opportunists.  Counter-surfing, garbage diving, begging, stealing from plates, food guarding, nipping: these are all normal dog behaviours that will continue if allowed.  It’s not a matter of if you let your dog eat human food or not; it’s a matter of training your dog.  If you don’t want your dog begging at the table, don’t feed your dog at the table; put the dog-safe table scraps in his bowl.  And since most dogs find human food far superior to their regular dog food or dog treats, you can use human food to train desirable behaviours to counteract undesirable ones.

Contrary to this myth, it can be argued that the feeding of commercial dog food encourages unwanted behaviours.  A dog that is voracious will have little self-control around food, and a lot of manufactured dog food lacks the quality protein to keep a dog sated.  The authors of Not Fit For a Dog! believe feeding manufactured pet food can lead to a variety of unwanted behaviours such as  “constant food soliciting/hunger; increased aggression/irritability/hyperactivity” (p.145). As well, there is strong evidence that commercial dog foods are largely responsible for many of the medical conditions that can require dogs to be put on medications that cause an increase in appetite (i.e. Prednisone).

Dog Food Myth #3: Dry food helps keep a dog’s teeth clean.

This is based on the idea that hard, dry kibble will help scrape the teeth clean.  This sounds logical, but it turns out to be lacking in evidence. Some debunk this myth by referring to the impossibility of a pet’s pointed teeth crunching the kibble enough for the scraping action to have any effect beyond the tips of the teeth. This is supported by the observation that when pets regurgitate their kibble, many of the pieces are still whole, having made it into the stomach without being crunched up.  Crunching kibble and dog biscuits does not dislodge plaque from dogs’ teeth and small bits of the gooey, starchy food can remain stuck to the teeth and contribute to plaque buildup.

Pet Food Marketing is Powerful

There are certainly other pet food myths circulating, but these are three of the most common ones.  How do these ideas become so widely believed, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back them up?  It looks like these myths were born largely because of the efforts of pet food companies to increase their profits.

Convince dog owners to feed only commercial pet food

One of the “problems” the pet food industry faced was people supplementing their pets’ food with table scraps.  Back in 1964, dog food companies began issuing press releases about dog care that promoted feeding dogs only commercial dog food and warned about the dangers of feeding table scraps.  This information appeared in newspapers and magazines and on radio stations.  Years later, dog food companies stressed the “science” of canine nutrition which was too complicated for the average person in the kitchen. These marketing strategies worked and the mantra “never feed your dog human food” was widely embraced.

Promote kibble because it’s cheaper to make than canned

The pet food companies also wanted to increase kibble sales since it is cheaper to manufacture kibble than canned food. Hence the claim kibble “helps” keep a dog’s teeth clean was born, despite a lack of data to back it up.  Vague words are popular tools in advertising.

For more information about the history of pet food marketing, visit the Carnivora website “Pet Nutrition History”; it contains excerpts from The Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston.  As well, read the first chapter in Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs: the definitive guide to homemade meals by Lew Olson.

What can pet owners do to improve pet food?

One doesn’t need a white lab coat and a science degree to feed a dog a well-balanced, species-appropriate diet, but it isn’t as simplistic as cooking them some hamburger and steaming some veggies.  There is a lot to learn, and despite the “bad apples”, there are pet food companies that do provide quality products. Educate yourself about pet nutrition and learn how to read pet food labels. Try starting with small changes and see the results.  Find an option that works for you and your pet.

Recommendations for small changes to your pet’s food (from the resources used in this article):

  • Try feeding some homemade “complete and balanced” dog food recipes. There are some excellent recipe books out there as well as some pet food software that can make things very easily adaptable for using a wide variety of dog-safe human food.
  • Change from kibble to canned, especially for cats.
  • Supplement kibble with some fresh, human-grade meats and steamed or finely chopped raw vegetables (focusing on leafy greens) (NOTE: always cook squash/pumpkin).
  • Upgrade your kibble. Look for brands with single source meats and fats, whole grains, and less toxic preservatives. The better brands are made from human-grade ingredients, and they often have packaging that will keep out moisture and air.
  • Feed a variety of foods from different animal proteins and rotate them on a daily basis.  Don’t mix them together; rotate them. (The idea behind this is to provide a wider variety of nutrients and to help build a more diverse microbiome in the gut to improve the health of the gut and prevent food sensitivities and allergies developing)
  • Avoid senior, “lite”, and diet pet foods because these are higher in carbohydrates and fibre and have reduced protein and fat; according to several resources, older and overweight dogs need fewer carbohydrates and better quality fats and proteins. NOTE: Senior dogs with kidney problems are often put on reduced protein diets. The authors of See Spot Live Longer claim that certain studies about aging dogs and protein consumption were misinterpreted which led to the belief that decreasing a dog’s consumption of protein could prevent further kidney damage.  The authors claim that these studies suggested that dogs with kidney damage should be fed better quality protein, not less protein (p. 159).

Gather Information From Reputable Resources

There is so much information out there for pet owners, and much of it is conflicting. All pet parents can do is gather plenty of information from reputable, diverse, un-biased resources — not ones that are all drawing from the same sources — and then make the best decision possible based on the information they have at the time. When pet parents know better, they can do better. When pet parents are educated, consumer demand will shift and pet food manufacturers will have to adapt to keep up with the educated consumers. Pet parents need to be very cautious about the slick marketing by pet food manufacturers and the sellers of the commercial pet food.

“Bad” Dog or Stressed Dog?

infographic with three batteries labeled Mental, Emotional, Physical. The question at the top reads Do Your Dog's Batteries Nee Re-charging?

Reactive and Destructive Dog Behaviours

Consider this scenario:

For the past two weeks Fido’s person has been very busy working on home renovations and yesterday evening she invited some friends over.  When the doorbell rang, Fido ran to the front door, barking loudly as usual; Fido’s person yelled at him to stop but he kept barking.  She chased Fido away from the door to let the guests inside, but Fido ran up to meet the guests anyway. Fido has always been very excited when guests come over, but he seemed more excited than usual and started jumping up on the guests.  The people yelled at him to stop, but he continued jumping and started mouthing and nipping at clothing.  Fido’s person scolded him angrily, grabbed him by his collar, and put him in the spare bedroom. He whined and barked for 30 minutes and then was quiet.  A few hours later, after the guests left, Fido’s person opened up the bedroom door to find Fido sitting on the bed “looking guilty” next to a ripped up pillow.  She began to scold him. Fido turned his head and “ignored” her.  Fido’s person stepped toward the bed, intending to grab his collar and send him outside.  Fido crouched and urinated on the bed.

Is Fido a bad dog or a stressed dog?

Overly reactive and destructive behaviours are common symptoms of a stressed dog, and the disruption of home renovations can certainly affect our pets.  Add to this the excitement of guests, the tension of yelling and scolding, plus the frustration or anxiety of being alone or separated from family members, and it’s no wonder Fido behaved the way he did.  What could Fido’s person have done differently to help him?

Management is essential to improving a dog’s behaviour

An important first step is to try to prevent the rehearsal of the unwanted behaviours by managing the situation (the dog’s environment and access to things in the environment).  Set up the dog for success by recognizing his weaknesses and planning accordingly. Fido would have been better able to handle the excitement of guests if he had experienced a few days of things being back to his normal routine; the noise, chaos, and even smells of renovations can be highly stressful.  Since her dog normally gets excited by guests, Fido’s person could have prevented unwanted behaviours by having him on a leash when the guests arrived; or Fido could have been in a cozy, comfortable kennel in another room in the house, enjoying a special treat.  (Dogs can be trained to love being in their kennel, and this should be trained in advance before testing it out in a difficult situation.)  Leaving Fido in a highly amped up state in a room with nothing to occupy him is just asking for trouble, especially in the context of the stressful evening.

Avoid aversive, coercive, punishment-based dog training methods

Another step to improving a dog’s behaviour is avoiding aversive or punishment-based training methods.  When possible, take measures to help the dog make good choices that can be rewarded, and if the dog makes poor choices, don’t punish. This doesn’t mean you let the dog do what it wants. It means that punishing this behaviour will cause more problems. When Fido was barking and jumping up on the guests, yelling didn’t help stop his behaviour.  A highly aroused dog is unlikely to “register” what his person is saying is unlikely to respond appropriately; the dog is likely to understand the emotional state of the human with the raised voice, but the dog might end up becoming more stressed and agitated by the yelling human. Who knows, the dog might think that his person is upset and “barking along” for the same reason the dog is.  Yelling, scolding, intimidation, and physical altercations usually increase the stress levels of both the dog and the person, and this can result in an escalation of the unwanted behaviour, new undesirable behaviours, and a weakening of the trust and bond the dog has with the person.

Learn how to “speak dog”

The third step to preventing problem behaviours is learning how to “speak dog.” Dogs communicate mainly through body language, and humans tend to ignore or misinterpret many of the subtle and quick signals.  When Fido’s person entered the bedroom, Fido instantly read her body language (anger) and responded with an appeasement behaviour (ears back, eyes soft).  When Fido’s person started to yell, he offered another calming signal (look away/head turn).  When that didn’t seem to work, Fido offered a “louder” signal: submissive urination.  He was doing all he could to reduce the tension and avoid a conflict.  From Fido’s perspective, the ripping of the pillow was not connected in any way to his owner’s anger.  Dogs are not mind readers and unless two events occur in close proximity, dogs will not make the connection.  Yelling while pointing at the ripped pillow or rubbing the dog’s nose in it might make the human feel better (punishment can be rewarding to the punisher), but it will not communicate anything to the dog except that his owner is unpredictable and violent and should be feared.

“F Responses” Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fidget, Fawn, Fool Around

Acknowledging a dog’s limitations, planning a response rather than reacting, and understanding dog communication can go a long way to helping a dog through a stressful event, but what about dogs who are “bad” all the time?

Excessive barking, marking, hyperactivity, destructive behaviour, aggressive displays, and house training problems can all be signs of stress, but by recognizing the earlier, subtle signs, many serious behaviour problems can be avoided.   Most dogs in their early stages of anxiety or uncertainty will do things like avert their eyes, blink frequently, lick their lips or nose, wrinkle the skin around their forehead and eyes, stop to scratch, tuck under their tail, and turn their head away from the thing causing stress.  They may also do things that seem out of context like yawning when they are not sleepy, panting when they aren’t hot or tired out, “shaking off” as if after a bath, and drooling when food is not present and there is no mouth injury.  Stress-related behaviours can also include whining, excessive grooming, tail chasing, and attempts to hide or escape.  Each dog is different and may favour some behaviours over others.  The important thing is to recognize the signals for what they are and manage the situation to help reduce the dog’s anxiety before it leads to unwanted behaviours.

In some cases, stress signals can escalate to threat signals (i.e. closing the mouth, freezing, lip lifting, showing teeth, growling, deeper barking, whites of the eyes showing, nose bumping, snarling, snapping the air) and then to a bite.  Often a growling, snarling, lunging dog is acting out of fear, showing an aggressive display because fleeing is not an option (i.e. he is on a leash, tied up, cornered, injured).  His earlier warning signals have been ignored or misinterpreted; now he is highly stressed, well beyond his threshold.  Unfortunately, a common consequence of this is that the dog eventually learns to stop giving the early warning signals because they haven’t been effective; instead, the dog learns to go straight to threat signals because that’s what has been working from the dog’s perspective. (Consider how responding with punishment to these anxiety-based behaviours is likely to cause more stress and make matters worse.)

When dogs have “too much Christmas”

Sometimes dogs overreact because of too much excitement.  Many dogs are over-stimulated by the sight of people or other dogs and they become impatient or frustrated by their inability to get closer to them; sometimes these dogs learn that lunging and pulling can get them closer. In many cases, these dogs need more distance and time to become desensitized to the sight of the trigger, but their humans are not aware of this and allow them to get closer before the dog is ready.  In many cases dogs with reactive behaviours can be rehabilitated; to do this handlers must recognize and respond to the early calming signals to keep these dogs below their threshold while controlling access to the triggers in the environment.

When reading a dog’s signals, it’s important to look at these behaviours in context. For example, when a dog exposes his belly, sometimes this is an open invitation to a belly rub; but sometimes this is a sign of fearful submission, and if you bend down to try to give the dog a belly rub you may get bitten. Tail wagging is another misunderstood signal. Is the dog wiggling his whole body when he’s wagging his tail? Is his body very forward and stiff when he’s wagging his tail like a flag up in the air? Tail wagging signals the dog’s level of excitement. Whether the tail is held high or low is a clue to the emotions behind that excitement (i.e. fear, friendliness).  Look at the whole picture to “read” a dog, and consult reputable resources or trainers if possible.

Chronic stress affects a dog’s health

Along with behavioural problems, dogs that are experiencing chronic stress often have physical symptoms such as allergies, skin conditions, poor coat condition, body odour, excessive shedding, poor or extreme appetites, and digestive problems (diarrhea, constipation, gas, sensitive stomach).  It’s important to take note of digestive problems, as these are often both a symptom and a cause of stress.  The digestive system is essential to the health of the immune and nervous systems; too much stress is one factor that can lead to gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in the gut flora that can cause hypersensitivity and cognitive and behavioural problems, adding to a dog’s stress levels.  A healthy gut is essential to reducing stress and improving a dog’s diet is an important step.

Reducing your dog’s stress

A dog’s stress levels can be reduced through other changes as well.  Reducing or removing stressors in the environment can help, even something as simple as closing the curtains or turning down the volume on the television. Massage can be helpful, as well as a variety of tools such as Thundershirts, Bach Flower remedies, and specifically designed music.  One of the simplest ways to reduce a dog’s stress levels is to let the dog get sufficient good quality rest or sleep.  In a study of stress in dogs, the most stressed dogs were the ones who got fewer than 17 hours of rest or sleep per day.  Exercise and activities seem to induce stress when they interfere with a dog’s rest.  High performance or highly stimulating activities, although fun, can also be stressful for dogs, and the study suggests that dogs require a lot of rest afterward. Think of a dog at daycare sleeping the entire next day at home. Be careful with sudden changes in routines, as these can be stressful; for example, an over-scheduled dog athlete needs to slowly reduce his schedule.

It’s difficult not to become upset when the dog is destroying our home or when our lives are turned upside down because of our dog’s unwanted behaviours.  We can improve things by learning to pay attention to what our dogs are telling us and by making changes to help reduce their stress.

As Easy as ABC

Two young children sitting at a wall-mounted easel, drawing on white paper with markers.
Wall-mounted easel (made by Kustom Kitties Canada)

This image illustrates a principle that is true for good teaching: provide the learner with an opportunity to perform a natural behaviour in a context that is preferred.

Young children like to draw on walls. Instead of punishing a child for doing a self-reinforcing behaviour that is very natural, why not create the conditions to help redirect that behaviour to a desirable location? Provide a wall mounted easel, a place to hold art supplies, and a couple of chairs.

This image illustrates the power of using antecedent arrangements to influence behaviour. (Antecedents are the factors that influence a behaviour before it occurs.) To change an undesirable behaviour, good teaching involves understanding what factors are causing the undesirable behaviour and then setting up the environment to encourage a preferred behaviour — a behaviour that can then be reinforced with attention and praise. The new behaviour is more likely to be repeated again, and the old behaviour is less likely to be repeated because it has become less reinforcing.

It’s as easy as ABC (Antecedent — Behaviour — Consequence).

Good Dog Trainers are Good Teachers

Good teaching — whether it’s teaching children, adults, or dogs — starts with A) an understanding of the learner and B) a desire to be kind. Good teaching (and dog training) requires clear communication, creating conditions so the learner can succeed, and being able to support the learner in the learning process. Gone are the days when students were strapped, swatted with rulers, or forced to stand in the corner or wear a dunce cap. Society no longer accepts this type of treatment of students, and years of good science proves how detrimental this is to the learner.

The dog training industry is changing to reflect this as dog training and behaviour professionals are catching up to advancements in teaching excellence. Dogs deserve the best in dog training.

An experiment

I understand that dogs are not children and that there may be some major differences in what people believe is appropriate, ethical, moral, and legal when raising and teaching children as opposed to raising and training dogs. However, it is interesting that if one looks at history, it wasn’t so long ago when there were very few laws protecting children; and if I recall what I read many years ago from a book about the history of animal welfare laws (its title escapes me because it was so long ago), I believe that the first animal welfare law in the USA (to protect horses) was enacted before child welfare laws. And one of the arguments to create child protection laws was the fact that surely there should be at least the similar protections for children as there were for horses.

It’s common to see posts by professional dog trainers who are very vocal about using shock collars, prong collars, etc. and often these trainers are very vocal in their opinions against force-free training/trainers. As an experiment in understanding the mindset of trainers who think differently from me, read a long post by an established and I’m sure very talented trainer. As I read the long post and the comments I couldn’t help but think about how the trainer’s words and the comments by the supportive dog owners might sound if they were used to describe children instead of dogs. Might those who expressed those beliefs about dogs, dog training, and dog trainers change their minds? Would the change reveal underlying biases, leaps in logic, contradictions, and cognitive dissonance of the writers and the readers?

Here is an example of a paragraph I revised. The original was from a trainer who promotes the use of shock/prong/choke collars. The trainer was outraged by the “stories and propaganda” that was being spread about these training collars.

“Leather straps and rattan canes have been the most common recipients of this bad press. And sure, you could definitely mess up a child with either of these tools – if that was your intent – just like you could with any object. But I see far more messed up kids who show up in my school who have parents who refuse to let their child be strapped or spanked.

I acknowledge that the people who expressed these opinions might not hold the same thoughts today — people are allowed to change their minds. We are all doing our best based on the information we have at the time.

I find it interesting to look back at the struggle to get corporal punishment removed from public schools — the resistance and the time it took — and compare it to what is happening in the dog training industry. I suspect that the momentum is building in North America, as it did in Europe years ago.

“Fake Conferences” in the Dog Training Industry

The unregulated dog training industry is a breeding ground for fraud and fakery. This has been a major problem for consumers looking for dog training help, but it’s also a major problem for dog trainers who are looking for educational/professional development opportunities — in particular, the problem of “fake” conferences.

What is a “fake” conference?

A “fake” conference has two main elements. Firstly, the purpose of a “fake conference” is to make a profit, and sometimes the organizers try to disguise this by making the conference look like it’s organized by a not-for-profit. To get enough interest for people to pay to attend, the organizers need to get some big names (or people that sound like they are experts). This leads to the second element of a “fake” conference: dubious content. A “fake”conference may a few big names listed as key speakers, who may or may not have agreed to present, or who may have initially agreed to present but then withdrew but their names yet remain on the list of speakers. There may also be presenters whose content lacks high standards of peer review, meaning, the conference organizers did not make the effort to screen the content to any reputable industry standards.

How to spot a “fake” conference?

Certainly, attendees don’t want to waste their money, and professionals who might be targeted to present at a “fake” conference certainly don’t want to damage their reputations by doing so. But how can one identify a “fake” conference before paying the fees, agreeing to present, or arriving at the conference and realizing your mistake?

Look carefully at the conference website. It’s not always the case, but the design of the site can provide clues that it’s not a reputable conference. Some examples of “red flags” include typos or poor grammar/spelling, images that are poor quality or looked stretched, links that don’t work, and contact information that is difficult to find and/or incorrect.

Examine the speaker’s list. Do you recognize any names? Can you find their websites? Do their credentials seem legitimate or do they have exaggerated claims and vanity awards? Why not try to contact them to confirm they are speaking? (Or, in the case of some “fake” conferences, let them know they have been listed as a speaker without their consent.)

What about the name of the conference and the name of the organizer? Do you recognize it as a well-established conference? Is the name of the conference very similar to a popular conference in the field? Does the organizer seem to be a business that arranges a lot of conferences?

Protecting yourself from fraud and fakery isn’t always easy, especially with more sophisticated schemers. Here are some helpful links so you can learn more about the problem of “fake” conferences, how you can avoid them, and how you might help to prevent the growth of this problem in our industry.

Inside a “Fake” Conference: A Journey Into Predatory Science

Predatory Conference Scammers are Getting Smarter

9 Signs a conference is fake

Seven Telltale Signs that a Conference is a Scam

“Fake news. Fake journals. Fake conferences. What we can do”

What to Do About Fake and Predatory Conferences

Proposed Criteria for Identifying Predatory Conferences

(Photo by Charles Deluvio on UnSplash)

Training Your Dog to Be Alone

book cover: Teach Your Dog How to Be Alone

This is not like other dog training books

This is a user manual for preventing separation anxiety and for teaching a dog how to be confident enough not to have to follow people from room to room. This is a life-saver for people who wish to be able to have a shower or use the bathroom without the dog having to come along, too. Contact a reputable professional to help dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety.

“Loved the book. Very straightforward. Can be read in an afternoon. Great practical advice and easy to follow steps.” — Jacqueline Paul Surdu, Regina, SK

“I have been using some tips from your book and working with Odie to go to his crate on his own with great success. This morning I was gathering things to head out the door he just knew and went to his crate without me saying a word. Almost too easy for a pup that is anything but easy“ — Stephanie Bank, Regina, SK

If you are interested in purchasing a printed copy, contact me through email.

Can E-collars Be Used for Positive Reinforcement Training?

Is it possible?

Can an e-collar be used for positive reinforcement training?

It is possible but only under these conditions:

  1. the dog is conditioned to have a positive emotional response to the collar (including the sight of the collar and the wearing of the collar even if it’s not activated)
  2. the collar is never used as a “correction” (giving the dog a “stim” as a consequence to doing an undesirable behaviour or stopping the “stim” as a consequence of doing the desired behaviour)
  3. the collar never causes any level of discomfort to the dog. Ever.

Let’s unpack that.

Conditioning a dog to have a positive emotional response to the e-collar requires several components. Firstly, the collar must be set to deliver a sound, vibration, or extremely minimal level of “stim” so the dog does not experience any physical or emotional discomfort. The dog is the one who decides if the sound, vibration, or “stim” causes discomfort or anxiety. It doesn’t matter if the human doesn’t think the experience is uncomfortable or worrisome; what matters is the dog’s perspective. (Even the clicker in clicker training can be an aversive to a dog if they don’t like the sound.)

Determining if a dog is experiencing physical or emotional distress can be very difficult, and even very experienced trainers often miss the signs, even with their own dogs.*  The human MUST be extremely good at reading the very subtle changes in the dog’s body language (e.g. nose licks, yawning, look aways, tightness around the mouth, dilated pupils, slowing down of movement). Dogs have been known to hide their pain, and dogs can show pain or emotional distress in ways that humans misinterpret as “obedience” or “good manners.” For example, dogs that are stressed can shut down emotionally and even “freeze” (Fight/Freeze/Flight response), and dogs in pain can appear more quiet, calm, or still, and some may appear more alert. Some trainers even purposefully use aversive tools and techniques to “rev up” or “activate” their dogs, perhaps not realizing this might be due to discomfort and stress.

If the dog’s experience of the stimulus of the e-collar (the sound, vibration, or extremely mild “stim”) is not negative in any way, then pairing it with a reinforcer like food (or a conditioned reinforcer) can condition the dog to have a positive emotional response to it. The sound/vibration/extremely mild “stim” can then be used as a marker for a desired behaviour, and with correct timing of the human with the remote, will communicate to the dog that the behaviour “correct.”

BUT, if the e-collar’s sound/vibration/’stim” is later used at an intensity that causes the dog any physical or emotional discomfort, the dog’s positive emotional response will quickly degrade. Even after one experience. Instead, the dog will develop a negative emotional response to the sound/vibration/”stim” (and possibly to the collar itself, as well as any other associations the dog may have connected to the experience, including the location, the trainer, the activity).

Cognitive Dissonance Can Make Us Blind to Logic

I just finished listening to a podcast where the hosts discuss how e-collars work. They clearly point out that the device causes enough discomfort to cause the dog to stop a behaviour (or to avoid doing a behaviour) because that’s how aversive tools work, but they insist that they are not causing their dogs physical pain when they use it. Their defence is that they don’t register it as painful when they give themselves a “stim,” and they don’t see any evidence in their dog’s behaviour to indicate it’s painful.  (Emotional distress is not acknowledged as a consideration.) Yet they spend a fair amount of time pointing out that one person’s experience of the “stim” of an e-collar can be very different from another person’s experience of the same level of intensity. They acknowledge that the anticipation that the device will cause pain: “An e-collar has the value you give it. If you go into it thinking that the e-collar is a pain tool, it’s gonna deliver you pain no matter what comes out of it. Even if it’s nothing.” Now read that substituting the word “dog” for the word “you.” They recognize from the human end that the anticipation of pain/discomfort can result in actually feeling it, but they do not acknowledge that this can happen from the dog’s viewpoint, as well.  (Note: the anticipation of pain/discomfort is also called “fear“.)

As studies on dogs advance, especially with advances in neuroimaging and functional MRIs, perhaps we’ll have more science-based information on how dogs experience emotional and physical “pressure” when aversive training methods and tools are used, rather than relying on the opinions of dog trainers who insist the dogs are not feeling any physical or emotional distress.

*I remember seeing a video a “balanced” trainer posted online trying to demonstrate how gentle a prong collar was to a dog. (This trainer also promoted the use of shock collars, but not in this particular video. The video isn’t up anymore.) It was obvious to me the dog was showing signs of stress (head hanging low, appeasement behaviours). This same trainer attended a dog class with me — her dog was in a flat collar for the class — and I noticed her dog never really looked happy in the class. Except when the owner asked me to hold onto her dog’s leash while she left the area to use the washroom. That’s when the dog visibly relaxed. My heart broke for this dog and I wondered if the owner even realized how her aversive methods affected her dog, even when the dog was not wearing an aversive collar. I’m sure she loves her dog and would find it very distressing to know that her aversive methods could be causing her dog distress and ruining their bond and relationship. 

Can E-collars be used to reinforce a desired behaviour?

So, can e-collars be used for positive reinforcement training? It is highly unlikely, even with the most skilled trainers on this planet. And certainly not for the average dog owner who is bound to make a lot of training mistakes, even under the guidance of the best dog trainer in the world; this is a big reason why e-collars should not be sold without a licence, but that is a topic for another day. This should make one consider why a trainer would continue to use an e-collar, which leads to another related topic: how using punishment can be reinforcing to the punisher.

No More Fights at Dog Parks

Small white dog sitting in grass while a large breed dog is approaching with very forward body language. The small dog has ears pinned back and is leaning away from approaching dog.
Photo by Izumi on Unsplash

5 High Risk Behaviours at a Dog Park

  • letting your dog walk unleashed from vehicle to the dog park entrance. This is a high risk area for encounters with dogs in a high state of nervous system arousal. Your dog and other people’s dogs are not at their best for making good choices.
  • Standing still or sitting inside the dog park, especially near the entrance/exit and amenities like water stations, shaded areas, play structures. It’s best to keep dogs moving along to avoid congestion and forced interactions with incompatible dogs
  • looking at your phone. You need to pay attention to dog body language and behaviours — from your dog and other dogs nearby in the park. Your phone is a dangerous distraction and can take your attention away from noticing early signs of trouble.
  • tossing a toy near the entrance or other area that is high risk (congested and/or dogs are generally amped up in that area). Your dog might be the best trained dog there with the best social skills, but that doesn’t mean other people’s dogs aren’t going to have a conflict with your dog. Some dogs might be very possessive or highly amped up by balls, squeaky toys, or sticks.
  • Not interrupting mounting behaviours (humping). Humping leads to a dog fight 50% of the time. Humping is often a sign that a dog is too amped up, doesn’t have appropriate social skills, or has learned that it’s fun to do. Humping at the dog park is unlikely to be a mating behaviour (unless there is a female dog in heat, coming into heat, or coming out of heat — yes, there are some people who don’t know this is a really bad idea).

How to Prevent a Fight at the Dog Park?

A dog park is a very stressful, intense environment for dogs. It’s not the place to teach your dog social skills or to get over their fear of other dogs. It’s quite the opposite. A dog park is often the best place for a dog to learn that being rude or being a bully is fun or that other dogs are scary. Some people whose dogs behave aggressively or rudely will purposefully take them to a dog park in the hopes that other dogs will train their dog. Some dog owners will take their dogs to a dog park as a test to see if their dog is still aggressive towards other dogs.

The most effective thing is not to go to the dog park. The dog park might seem like a great idea but consider carefully the dog you want to take there. Would you take a young child to a swimming pool if that child was afraid of water or disliked swimming? Would you enjoy yourself if you accompanied a friend to an amusement park but you had a strong dislike of amusement parks (the rides, the sounds, the smells, the crowds, etc.)? Not all dogs are highly social. A dog doesn’t have to enjoy all other dogs.

What Should Dog Park Users Start Doing ASAP?

There are a few simple things dog park users can do immediately to help reduce the chances that their dogs are involved in a dog-dog conflict. Most of them may seem like common sense.

Avoid crowded conditions

This should be obvious: when there are more dogs present, the odds are in favour of a conflict because there are more opportunities for a conflict to occur. But the connection between crowded conditions (dog density, if you will) and inter-dog conflicts (fights between two or more dogs) is more complex.

An important part of the way dogs avoid conflict is by avoidance: dogs will move away to avoid conflict. Well socialized dogs that are not stressed out are naturally Conflict Avoiders. If the conditions are crowded — as in, the size of the entire dog park is small (dog runs) or if an area of the dog park is congested — the dogs have less room to move away from a conflict. When a dog cannot avoid a conflict they are more likely to become a victim of the aggressor they cannot appease/avoid, or they are more likely to aggress towards the other dog. And the recipient might not be fully responsible for the stress the aggressor is reacting to: the recipient might be the nearest target. This is a big reason why crowded dog parks or congested areas in the dog park are so dangerous for people and children, as well as dogs.

Don’t hang out near the dog park entrance or exit

The entrance to the dog park is a very intense location for many reasons. Firstly, when a dog first arrives to the dog park, their nervous systems are highly aroused with the anticipation of what they will get to experience. If the previous experiences were intense, the dog’s nervous system will already be responding as if they have already experienced the thing they are anticipating. And if the dog has an intense feeling about vehicle rides, then they are doubly “amped up.” Their nervous systems are primed to react intensely — like an engine primed with fuel waiting for a spark or flame.

Secondly, people tend to stop moving once they are inside the dog park. Sometimes they do this because they meet friends there and start chatting. Or they think that once they are inside the dog park they don’t have to pay attention to their dog and instead they will look at their phones. When a dog owner loiters, often their dogs will be nearby.

Often the dog parks are designed in such away to encourage people to stop and linger in the area right after entering — seating, water stations, and other dog park amenities are often placed near the entrance, which is a terrible idea for a dog park. It might make sense for a people park, but it doesn’t make sense for a dog park. We need to design them for dogs to use safely, and a big part of that is discouraging crowded conditions.

When dogs are hanging around the entrance to the dog park, they are more likely to mob new comers trying to enter the park. Now we have a dog fight ready to happen: amped up, excited dogs in crowded conditions all trying to meet the new dog arriving (who is also amped up before even entering). Can you imagine trying to enter a public recreational area and being mobbed at the entrance by a crowd of strangers who are greeting you intensely — perhaps in an overly friendly way or perhaps in a very assertive way (and even threatening way). Now imagine you were attached to someone and had to follow them into this chaos.

And to make this area even more of a powder keg ready to explode, many dog parks have the entrance near the exit. Or worse, the same gate system. Now there are tired dogs (who may be overstimulated) leaving the dog park encountering a crowd of dogs ready to get the party started.

Do your dog a favour and use an alternate entrance or exit. Avoid the congestion Avoid dog parks that are too small for the number of dogs there. Avoid going at peak use times.

More tips for avoiding dog fights at the dog park

Here is a short article in the Whole Dog Journal entitled “5 Tips for Avoiding Fights at the Dog Park” and an article from the APDT Chronicle of the Dog Summer 2020 (see page 44) outlining some simple ways park users can change their own behaviours to drastically reduce the risks. 

Changing Human Behaviour to Affect Dog Behaviour

Problematic dog owner behaviour at dog parks is not rare; one only has to look at the posts on a dog park social media page to get a glimpse into the problem.  But how much can dog owner behaviour influence dog-dog conflicts at dog parks? A lot, actually. Even something like bringing a dog in an e-collar can be dangerous.

Education and Accountability of Dog park Users

One of the biggest factors influencing dog-dog conflicts at dog parks is the behaviour of human park users, and the two most effective ways to change the behaviours of park users are Education and Accountability.  Many dog parks rely on Bylaw enforcement to address the unwanted behaviours of dog owners, and there is a place for this: holding people accountable through heavy fines can be effective, but it requires a lot of resources (money) to enforce the Bylaws. And as anyone who studies the science of behaviour knows, punishment and coercion are not the most effective methods to changing future behaviours. It’s essential that Cities put efforts into helping to educate dog owners and give them some tools to help them change their behaviours.

Dog owners need to be educated in how to read dog body language — particularly canine stress signals — and how to use dog parks in ways that will mitigate the risks to all the dogs present.

3 Ways to Educate Dog Park Users

Here are three simple and effective ways to educate of dog park users:

  • posters at the park illustrating dog-body language to watch for. Here are some good examples of dog park signs). Any municipality in Canada wanting the rights to use this artwork for dog parks (for no charge) can contact the Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
  • Dog Park Ambassadors (volunteers who use the parks frequently) that have been trained by the City to help educate park users about A) the rules and Bylaws for using the park safely; B) dog behaviour/communication as it relates to dog parks; and C) how to interact with people at the park to help keep the experience positive.
  • free dog training lessons for dog park users taught by Certified Professional Dog Trainers hired by the City. (Calgary’s award winning Responsible Pet Ownership model used CPDT certified trainers to help avoid the problem of improperly trained and unethical dog trainers. The CCPDT is the leading certification program for the dog training industry.)

Use positive reinforcement with dog owners

Education can help empower dog park users to use the dog parks in ways that help make them safe and positive for everyone, and adding “perks” can further motivate and reinforce dog owners for their “good” behaviours.

Changing behaviours and a “dog park culture” will take time and an effective approach. Simply relying on Bylaw enforcement to punish dog park users is not effective or efficient. 

Why E-collars are a Very Bad Idea for Dog Parks and Dog Daycares

Keep Away from Dogs Wearing E-collars

If you are at the dog park and you see a dog wearing an e-collar, keep your dog away from that dog.

To be clear, e-collars are a bad idea in general, but especially for situations where there are groups of dogs.

A dog wearing an e-collar is very likely to redirect its frustration, fear, panic, pain, and/or rage towards the nearest dog (or person).

If your doggie daycare uses e-collars, find another doggie daycare, even if the daycare assures you that they will honour your request not to put one on your dog. Not many doggie daycares will be open and honest about their use of e-collars, so check the fine print of anything you sign and ask several staff members to be sure.

Clear evidence shows shock collars cause problems, even when used by expert trainers

It has been established in the scientific community and the professional dog training industry that e-collars are not recommended because of the negative repercussions even if they are used “properly.” Many reputable professional organizations have Position Statements against the use of e-collars:

But, despite the science and the opinions of these professional organizations, there are still trainers who insist they know how to use them without any of these proven negative outcomes. They insist they are right and the science and highly educated professionals are wrong. Why?

A quick, temporary fix can make things worse

Part of the problem is that an e-collar can sometimes provide a quick fix by temporarily suppressing the unwanted behaviours. Suppressing the behaviours is not fixing the problem. It can make things worse including training a dog to aggress without warning.

Unfortunately, from the person’s perspective, the superficial, temporary instant result causes the person to be more likely to use the collar again in the future. This can be a big problem because it teaches the person to use the collar sooner rather than putting in the effort to try to actually train the dog to do a different behaviour, or trying to find out the underlying reason for the unwanted behaviour in the first place. Basically, an e-collar can make the trainer a lazy trainer. Yep. I said it.

There is so much more that I could write to explain why e-collars are a bad idea. But why take my word for it. Take the word of the professionals, including the professional organizations linked above.

The Humane Society of the United States states: “The least humane and most controversial use of the shock collar is as a training device. The trainer can administer a shock to a dog at a distance through a remote control. There is a greater chance for abuse (delivery of shocks as punishment) or misuse (poor timing of shocks). Your dog also may associate the painful shock with people or other experiences, leading to fearful or aggressive behavior.”

I will never use the Shock Collar Again!

It does not matter if the shock collar doesn’t bother you

It DOES NOT MATTER if the zap does not feel painful to you. What matters is how the dog feels about it. Fact: If the zap causes the dog to stop doing a behaviour, then the zap is causing discomfort. Putting the e-collar on your arm or neck or any body part to test it to see if the zap hurts is not a reliable test. The recipient decides what is discomfort. Just like the recipient decides what is pleasant.

Heat Stroke in Dogs

Dachshund wearing sunglasses panting in the heat outside in summer
photo credit Mel Elias

This is general information only gathered from various resources and is not intended as veterinary advice.  Please consult a veterinarian if you have concerns about the health of your dog. 

Dogs at the most risk

Dogs that are at higher risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke include breeds with shorter snouts (e.g. Shih Tzus, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs) and those with weaker bodies like older dogs, young puppies, and ill dogs.

Dogs cool themselves by panting to maintain their normal body temperature (101 to 102.5 F ; 38 to 39 C). Dogs can sweat through their noses and pads but this doesn’t do much to cool them. Overheating can cause severe tissue damage in minutes, affecting important organs like the brain, kidneys, liver, and the digestive system.

Heatstroke occurs when the dog’s temperature reaches 109 F (42.8 C) or above.


Symptoms can include:

  • Heavy panting (often accompanied by a refusal to drink)
  • spoon-shaped tongue can be an early sign of dog overheating
  • Excessive thirst
  • Glazed eyes
  • Vomiting and bloody diarrhea
  • Bright or dark red tongue, gums
  • Staggering
  • Elevated body temperature (104ºF and up)
  • Weakness, collapse
  • Increased pulse and heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Excessive drooling
  • Unconsciousness

What to do

Move dog out of heat and to the shade or air conditioning. Keep offering water. Sometimes dogs are panting too heavily to want to pause for a drink, but keep it available for when the dog wants it.

If the dog can stand and is conscious

  • give small drinks of water (too much too fast can cause vomiting)
  • Take temperature. If the dog is 104 F (40 C) or lower, continue to monitor temperature
  • contact vet for further instructions even if dog seems recovered

If dog cannot stand, is unresponsive, or is having seizures

  • confirm the dog is breathing it has a heartbeat
  • stay with dog (don’t try to immobilize a dog having seizures, just supervise to keep the area around the dog clear to avoid injury to the dog and anyone nearby; time the seizure and observe details that your vet may ask you about)
  • notify vet that you are bringing in the dog
  • begin to cool the dog gradually with COOL water (NOT COLD water) by placing wet towels or gently pouring COOL (NOT COLD) water on belly area, back of head and the underside of neck. Do not pour water into dog’s mouth.
  • Take dog’s temperature. If it is at 104 F (40 C) or lower, STOP THE COOLING PROCESS (to avoid risk of blood clotting or temperature dropping too low)
  • Take dog to vet ASAP even if the dog seems to be getting better