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Blogs On Dogs

Dogs, Cats, and Descartes


I went to a lecture during which photographs of dogs and cats were presented on a screen and students were asked to state what emotion the animal was showing. It was easy enough with the snarling dog or the cat, ears back and fur standing on end, arching it’s back in the presence of a Rottweiler. Far more speculative were those in which subtle emotions–thoughtfulness, worry–were brought into possibility. Photographs of animals are deceptive as an animal’s face may coincidentally assume an expression we associate with human emotion and we, as masterful readers of human emotion, then impute our species-specific ideas onto the animal in question.


Anthropomorphic guesswork is fun. It’s what makes us spend hours laughing at photographs of cute puppies on the internet or watching (as I do) William Braden’s ingenious youtube channel, HenriLeChatNoir, during which we listen to the existential reflections attributed to Henri the cat, whose indifferent expressions are paired with such statements as, “None of the (Halloween) costumes are truly scary. No one dresses as crippling self-doubt.”


It turns out, however, that among the great array of people studying animals, a group that includes psychologists, neurologists, behaviourists, ethologists and zoologists for a start, the question of animals and emotions is greatly disputed. During the presentation we saw a clip from Animal Planet about a cat that adopts a clutch of newly hatched ducklings the very day she gives birth to her own kittens.


The story is remarkable because one would have expected the cat to kill and eat the ducklings, which is exactly what might have happened if her kittens had been old enough to consume solid food. Instead, the oxytocin surge experienced by all mammals upon giving birth was timed within this particular mother cat so that she extended her maternal drive to the ducklings and reared them as her own. The lesson for us students was that the cat, under the influence of oxytocin, showed specific behavioural patterns far outside what we normally attribute to this predatory species. But there were no emotions, as we humans understand emotion, behind its behaviour.


Oxytocin is huge part of all mammals’ lives, including humans. It has been demonstrated to reduce fight/flight behaviour, reduce anti-social behaviour , counteract the stress hormone cortisol , and predict bonding behaviour with young. It is also the thing that makes sex so important among human couples, as both men and women experience oxytocin surges that facilitate bonding during and after making love.


When dog ethologists wish to strip away the possibility of dogs having any real emotions they may go the route of Ray Coppinger whose 2001 book argues that what we assume to be emotions in dogs are genetically programmed motor reflexes or biologically-drive hormone surges. He tells a story about his dog, Lina, who gave birth to a puppy in a field and returned to her nest in the barn to deliver the rest of the litter, leaving the puppy alone and calling in distress. Even though the puppy was calling for her and would shortly die, Lina had not yet experienced the hormonal surge that follows birth, so did not feel the need to retrieve her pup (though Ray did).


He also tells the story about another dog, Tilly, who made no effort to attend to her puppy when it made a similar distress call at a few weeks old. Were Ray’s dogs heartless mothers? He argues that the retrieval motor pattern switches on following birth (but not during it) and switches off in the mother dog at around day fourteen of her pups’ lives. Pups can cry all they want outside of these times, but a mother dog doesn’t feel anything. She takes orders from her hormones, not her heart.


“Scientists are sometimes accused of not being aware that animals have emotions or can think. On the other hand, scientists warn people that they should not be anthropomorphic, giving animals human characters,” writes Coppinger, who does not believe a dog has “a mind”, but a kind of neurological control system preserving its life and whatever system will push its genes into the next generation.


So, what are we pet owners to make of this? Do we believe that our pets don’t care about us, but are only showing biologically driven responses to our care-giving? Do they not care about their own young, have absolutely no feelings about them at all, but are subject to whatever hormones are at play?


Scientists seem determined to shame us for imputing human-grade emotions on animals. It should make us all uncomfortable, however, to realize that many of the same arguments used by scientists (and farmers) to prevent us from having too much empathy for animals are similar to those advanced years ago about human children. Until late last century the same scientists that would have laughed at those of us who won’t eat animals (because animals have feelings) would have laughed at us for assuming human babies had feelings–even physical sensations–which is why operations were performed without anaesthesia on human infants until the late 1970’s.


Can we compare our human rationale for such barbarism toward our own infants to whatever is behind the thinking of stressed mother hamsters who eat their perfectly healthy newborns in an act of filial cannibalism? Probably not, as the hamster mother may not truly think about what she is doing as she is unlikely to have as developed a mind as we do. However, the fact that we would operate on infants without anaesthetic creates a problem for us–how can we claim to be more disposed to a cohesive way of thinking, believing, feeling and acting if in our history we have regularly cut open babies without giving them anaesthetic? Indeed, we might conclude from everything we do to one another and to the species and environment around us that our minds are clouded, our influences primitive.


The divisions insisted upon by scientists seem arbitrary. We know that the presence of noradrenaline in our brains is part of what makes you and me (as well as foxes and rabbits) feel anxious. We also know that a glut of glucocortisoids is a marker for when we feel depressed. I may be depressed because I am lonely–the same reason the dog left on its own for fourteen hours daily feels depressed. The dog and I may even share the presence of corticosteroids in our brains. But according to the scientists, we cannot compare our feelings. I have a “mind” but the dog does not.


It is easy to dismiss the emotional lives of animals because their range of display is not an exact match for our own and because it means those who eat meat can feel less guilty about consuming them as food. However, before we decide that animals’ emotional lives are absent, or so profoundly reduced that only silly people would compare them to that of humans, it’s worth thinking about how much of our own behaviour is governed by hormones.


I admit to having had no interest in babies before I gave birth to my daughter. At nine months pregnant, I looked at others’ newborns and felt nothing whatsoever, just as I have no interest in babies now that my own children are grown. Nonetheless, I gave birth, fell in love with my daughter, and have adored both my children ever since. Did the release of maternal hormones following my own children’s births give a temporary rise to patterns of maternal care until more complex social bonds could be established between us? Or do I just love my children? Or does it matter? We are separating out emotions from the presence of certain neurochemicals as though these things can be separated–is that wise?


The neuroscientist and author, Antonio Demasio, explains in his 2006 book, Descartes Error, that “Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it.” Descartes flawed legacy to us was in his argument that the mind and body are somehow separate, and that our minds drive our bodily behaviour.


Is the insistence of a separation between true emotions and the neurological processes governing them an analogous error to that of Descartes? Is it correct to imagine that neurotransmitters and hormones that influence the behaviour of animals are separate in kind from the emotions that govern human behaviour? After all, the brains of all mammals are remarkably similar in structure.


Damasio is not writing about dogs when he says, “Brains can have many intervening steps in the circuits mediating between stimulus and response, and still have no mind, if they do not meet an essential condition: the ability to display images internally and to order those images in a process called thought.” However, some might think this is a good summation of why a mother dog appears to love her young, but is only following innate motor patterns. I’m not going to take up the argument, but I will say that even if we conclude that the mother dog’s behaviour toward her pups was entirely instinctive and without any cognitive thinking, we cannot necessarily conclude that dogs have no “mind.” The logical extension of the observed behaviour in the mother dog (not picking up her puppy) does not explain everything about a dog’s “mind” any more than the influence of oxytocin on my behaviour as a young mother explains everything about my mind. It’s a little bit of observational data, not a conclusion in itself. And nobody ever tested me out with a duckling.



Blogs On Dogs

Less Barking, Please…!

 (first published by Huffington Post, October 25, 2016)

All dogs bark. Even the Basenji, a Central African breed known for its unusual silence, will yodel or howl.

Two of my dogs are the adorable, if loud, German Spitz. The other two are a recently adopted pair of Shetland Sheepdogs, a famously vocal breed. In days gone by, I might have attributed their collective noise levels to their breeds’ tendencies alone.

In fact, there isn’t a single, clear reason they bark so much. Dogs don’t necessarily bark because they are ill behaved or under-exercised or “highly strung.” They don’t always bark for attention or out of boredom or because they are distressed. They certainly don’t bark because they feel they are being dominant or “in charge of the pack”, though if you believe I am wrong about this, and that my dogs are trying to gain status, you might want to read this short article by Victoria Stilwell, or this book by Barry Eaton to give you a different perspective.


Dogs bark for a variety of reasons—all of which I am desperate to understand. Most importantly, however, they bark because they are dogs.

Puppies can begin barking as early as two weeks old and advance their repertoire of vocalizations into adulthood until different barks mean anything from greeting to distress to hunting, tracking, alarm, warning, excitement or a solicitation for play. Just to make matters more confusing, a barking dog may be trying to communicate more than one message at a time.

A study reported by E.L. Flint and her colleagues at Massey University in New Zealand reported that the average dog at home with an owner barks three times a day, with the duration of barking for each episode lasting just under a minute. We all know that if one dog barks, another is likely to bark. So if I have four dogs that each display perfectly average periods of barking, I should expect almost twelve minutes of barking a day. Twelve long, awful minutes. You might say that it would be unreasonable for me to expect anything less, in fact.

Punishing a dog by yelling at him or threatening him for doing a perfectly normal dog activity isn’t fair (anyway, force-free methods are more effective and kinder), but does this mean I have to live with a lot of barking?

Maybe not. I can modify the barking in two ways: reducing frequency and reducing duration. I may even be able to reduce both—and wouldn’t that be bliss?

A few things are working well for me right now and have definitely reduced the frequency or duration of my dogs’ barking over the past week:

  • I have abandoned dog bowls for Kong toys and they now have Kongs filled with a portion of their dinner several times a day. This keeps them occupied and their attention is less focused on noises outside the home. Result: happy, quiet, engaged dogs for 15-30 minute stretches of time.
  • I take them out of the house on walks when the postman is likely to arrive. Result: mornings are more peaceful and they get less opportunity to “practice” barking.
  • I reward them with high value food treats for going quiet when I say, “shh.” This was going great until one of them figured out that if he barked, then went quiet, he got a reward. I am modifying my training of this clever, back-chaining dog but the result on my other three: shorter duration of barking (down to a few seconds).
  • If I hear a noise outside, I throw treats onto the floor before my dogs have started barking. This diverts them from barking. Result: less frequent barking.
  • I practice ringing the doorbell and throwing treats onto the floor before the dogs start to bark. Result: less reactivity to the doorbell, itself, as a trigger for barking.
  • I drop treats onto the floor when the dogs are lying quietly and not looking at me. Result: they “settle” faster and stopped staring at me constantly, waiting to be rewarded for being quiet. The way you do this is nicely demonstrated by Emily Larlham in one of her early teaching videos here.


My next step is to enlist the help of one of the behaviourists at the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology where I am studying, because there is nothing better than an experienced dog behaviourist to help you think outside the box about your own dogs.

I am sure they will come up with even more effective ways of reducing the barking in my house. I may make a few mistakes and have to rethink, too. But that’s okay—it’s how we learn.

With Halloween just around the corner, you might wonder what I’m going to do about all the barking as children arrive to my door dressed in costumes. The answer? I’ll leave the sweets on the doorstep and take my dogs to the pub…

(Labrador photo by Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay)

Blogs On Dogs

How I Got Interested in Dog Behaviour

 (first published by Huffington Post, September 20, 2016)

We bought a puppy, the most adorable puppy. We named her Gemma and took her home, discovering she was carsick along the way.


Lots of puppies get carsick. But she also cried and howled. The only way to keep her from trying to escape through the closed windows was to hold her on my lap.


While she loved us (and we loved her!), she was terrified of many things: garden gnomes, statues, and umbrellas. She cowered and tried to flee when strangers approached her. She ran away from the vacuum cleaner. She barked at the hair dryer.




This wasn’t a puppy-farmed dog. Or a rescue or an abuse case. And her breeder told us there was nothing wrong with her at all. It was me. I was making the puppy nervous and “sending signals down the leash.”


But I rarely had time to “send signals.” I was too busy holding onto Gemma as she fled from London joggers, from anyone wearing a hat, and (ironically) from the plastic Golden Retriever that serves as a collection box for the Guide Dogs. Especially that.


When people came to the house, she backed away, barking furiously. She didn’t look like a cute puppy then, but a dangerous, terrified animal.


Training class was impossible. She was too scared to walk into the village hall. I carried her over the threshold. The trainer made the same “you are making her nervous” remark the breeder had, then slipped a choke chain over her head. He tried to peel her from my lap. My adorable puppy started growling.


I felt a total failure. Gemma was getting worse; it was only a matter of time before she was biting.


This was 1992, pre-internet, but I came across an ad in the back of a dog magazine for a woman whose profession I’d never heard of. She was an animal behaviourist. Was that a kind of doggy shrink? I rang her in desperation and explained the problem.


“How old is she?” the behaviourist asked.


“Only eighteen weeks,” I said. “Still very young!”


“That’s not so young. When you can get here?”


I bundled the puppy into the car and drove three hours north, during which Gemma cried and shook and destroyed the car’s interior.


I spent many days at the centre and many months learning about desensitisation, habituation, “operant conditioning”, and “backward chaining.”


I stopped forcing Gemma to confront “scary” objects but approached and retreated before she became frightened. I taught my friends to hold out treats, not to make direct eye contact with her, to let Gemma come in her own time.


I did not use a choke chain or give “corrections.” I rewarded behaviour I wanted and ignored that which I did not. It sounds so easy, but it wasn’t.


I’d imagined I knew something about dogs–after all, I’d grown up with dogs–but it turned out I knew almost nothing. The first step in rehabilitating Gemma had been to admit as much.


Slowly, Gemma grew in confidence. In years to come, she came to be as friendly and well-adjusted as any other dog. Well, almost. Every so often, she’d cower in front of a stone garden ornament, crawling on her belly as though trying to avoid enemy fire, and we would remember she had once been a nervous puppy.

May0071358. Marti Leimbach for DT Features. Picture shows US author Marti Leimbach, picture taken at her home in Berkshire, UK. Picture to illustrate a Margarette Driscoll interview. Picture date 07/07/2016

I’ve been thinking about Gemma today as I sit among dog behaviourists at the Centre Of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE), an organisation headed by internationally recognised dog experts. This time, however, I am not a desperate client seeking help, but a student of the science that saved my puppy. I am studying to be a certified pet behaviourist.


Things have advanced even since my days with Gemma. I’ve learned that there is no “dominance” hierarchy in dogs. When you hear popular dog trainers talk about dog dominancy, they are referring to a system of beliefs about dogs without much science to support it.


According to the experts at COAPE, dogs derived from wolves that broke away from the wild and began living in villages, scavenging human food and waste. Their loose social order has no fixed dominance hierarchy; they are not competing with me (or anyone else) to be alpha. There is no alpha.


But what about Darwin and evolution and survival of the fittest? It’s true that the proliferation of genes was key to the survival of Canis familiaris, or the modern dog, but it turns out the best way to spread genes isn’t by forming a pack and then competing for the position of “top dog.”


Possibly the weirdest thing I’ve learned today is how quickly significant changes in behaviour and appearance can occur in animal. Careful breeding of wild foxes created an animal that resembled a dog in temperament and physical type in just ten years. Foxes to dogs in ten years?


If they hadn’t shown me the slides, I’d never have believed it.


Once again, I thought I knew about dogs but Day One at the Centre Of Applied Pet Ethology has blown away most of what I believed to be true about them.


Frankly, I can’t wait for Day Two.


Blogs On Dogs

I Bake For Dogs


Three days ago, the Cat Protection League posted their amazing video on how to make cat treats out of tinned cat food. I’ve posted it at the bottom of this blog because you’ll want to see it. They did a great job and the treats look fantastic.


I am grateful to CPL for the video, but also that they did not cook their cat food in my house, because cat food stinks even when it is in the tin, let alone when you heat it up.


But not so with Forthglade dog food, as I discovered while stealing the CPL’s great idea on treat-making, and applying it to my dogs, who need training treats.


Forthglade is a high quality, cooked dog food. Human grade meat cooked slowly to retain maximum nutritional benefits, it’s a good food. It looks like this if you buy it from Tesco’s:



Today, I made treats out of the Forthglade. I got a cookie tray, like this:


I did not cut the food up on a chopping block as described in the Cat Protection League video but cut it up in its original packaging, then moved the pieces onto the tray with a fork.  Much easier, plus you don’t have to have a butcher’s block that smells like cat food (or dog food in this case).


I lined the tray, then placed the treats on the top, and put them in the oven for about 25 minutes.


Forthglade makes food that would satisfy the palettes of meat-eating humans, so the place smells like lamb stew, not dog food. Having said that, I’m a vegan so I opened the windows.

I’m not a great baker, so I kept my expectations low. But guess what? The little treats cooked into nutritious dog treats! No grains, no fillers…just meat and vegetables in a little quadrangle of goodness.


I can even hold them in my hand:


The real test is whether or not my dogs like the treats. Let’s see…

To see how the Cat Protection League does it, follow these directions, but don’t worry about the butcher’s block. And don’t be surprised if half the neighbourhood cats arrive through your open windows….