Category Archives: Dog Behavior

The Neurological Benefits of Counter Conditioning Leash Reactive Dogs

Counterconditioning and desensitizing dogs when on leash also has neurological benefits © Can Stock Photo/Amaviael

Counterconditioning and desensitizing dogs when on leash also has neurological benefits © Can Stock Photo/Amaviael

Creating new and better associations for dogs on leash when exposed to fearful/stressful stimuli is crucial, as it is better for all involved for the dog to be less stressed and less fearful. The goal is potentially a positive association is created, or at least less stress. When this can be achieved via counter conditioning and desensitizing dogs to these intrinsic stimuli, and many times they can be, then life is better for the humans and the dogs that have stress when on leash. This is something that, among dog trainers knowledgeable in the ways of DS/CC, is widely known.

What is less known, is how the process of counter conditioning affects the neurological processing that leads to behavioral and emotional changes, be they towards the dog feeling less fear and stress, or perhaps a positive conditioned emotional response. This blog will discuss the topic of the neurological benefits that accompany counter conditioning and desensitizing dogs when on leash.

It will also ask questions along the way and at the end. Please, anyone in the neuroscience community that may read this blog, I would greatly appreciate any insights and or answers you can supply. If there are additions, subtractions, clarifications, links, etc…all can be added or subtracted to have this blog be as accurate as it can, please let me know. Thank you. Let’s begin.

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Talking to Dogs

Koala, a black Labrador, rests on her hammock-style dog bed
Photo by Deni Elliott

A newly published study finds that dogs pay attention to both the way we talk to them and to what we say. Alex Benjamin and Katie Slocombe’s ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they term “dog-directed speech,” or DDS, which is similar in tone and affect to baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study had played recorded human voices using baby talk and regular speech. The content of the speech was supposedly of interest to dogs: greetings and expressions of “good boy!” and “come here!” Puppies in this study showed greater interest than adult dogs. The earlier study had serious flaws, though, primarily that the dogs heard the voices while alone in a room. It’s not surprising that adult dogs didn’t respond to a disembodied “come here” or praise.

Benjamin and Slocombe’s study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. While they also used recorded speech, so that all dogs got the same stimuli, a matching researcher (gender-wise) was in the room and the dogs were able to approach and interact with the human. In the first experiment, the stimuli were:

  • DDS (higher pitched, more emotional speech) with dog-directed content
  • Human-directed speech with human-directed content (assumed to be uninteresting to dogs)

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Thunderphobia in Dogs

Thunderphobia is the fear of thunderstorms and it can be severe enough to make a dog’s life miserable.  It may be more common than you know.

At least 20% of dogs suffer noise phobias including thunderphobia, according to ethologist Dr. Karolina Westlund, Ph.D.  There are about 80,000,000 dogs in the United States and if 20% suffer thunderphobia the scale of the problem is enormous.

It may be even greater, as Zazie Todd, Ph.D. wrote in Companion Animal Psychology in 2013.

“Dogs that responded badly to fireworks tended to also react to thunder and gunshots. They were also more likely to be older. Dogs that responded to thunder were more likely to be owned by males (although this may be a response bias), would also react to fireworks, gunshots and loud noises on TV, and tended to be afraid of traffic. Dogs that were afraid of gunshots tended to also react to fireworks and cars back-firing, and were more likely to be male and older.”

Thunderstorms worried Jake
Thunderstorms worried Jake

Of the five Labradors I lived with, Jake suffered thunderphobia from the day we adopted him at 18 months of age.  He fell into the 20% category of unlucky dogs.

It changed our life in that we had to become proactive pet guardians and change our own behavior in order to get him through storms.  He was also fearful of distant fireworks and low flying planes.  The noisy world was an unpredictable and scary place for poor Jake.

That was years before I knew anything about training and behavior but we took him to the basement to avoid the flashes of lightning and played music to mask the thunder, playing games with him to keep him in a happy state of mind until the storm passed.

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Quality of Life for Blind/Deaf Dogs

By Debbie Bauer

I receive a lot of great ideas for new blog posts – Thank you so much for those.  I’m always looking for ideas to write about that will be useful to each of you as readers.  One idea that truly intrigued me was to discuss what quality of life a blind and deaf dog can have.  I think it caught my interest because I had never thought about my dogs not having a good quality of life.  I began to think about how we measure quality of life and why.

I have had many dogs in my life over the years, and there have been times when I have made the decision to have them euthanized when they no longer had a good quality of life.  Of course, this was always based on my opinion, the veterinarian’s opinion, and the fact that I knew those dogs very well.  Pain is perhaps the biggest reason I would make this decision.  If the pain could not be controlled and if it was affecting the dog’s daily activities.  If she no longer showed any interest in the activities that she used to love – then, in my opinion there is a loss of quality of life.

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The Opposite of Force


by Eileen Anderson

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants

I think I’ve figured something out.

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place.

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. I think we have grabbed hard onto the concept of choice because it seems like the opposite of force.

  • Instead of pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of restraining the dog for nail trims, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of pulling the dog away from the fire hydrant by his leash and collar, I let him sniff, or I give a cue for another behavior that I will strongly reinforce. He has a choice.

But there is a semantic mismatch here. Force and choice are not opposites.

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