Why you are your dog’s best friend

(This article was very kindly contributed by distinguished ethologist Professor Johannes Odendaal, who has virtually single-handedly put animal behaviour as a career on the map in South Africa, and who now runs the Ethology Academy ).

For a long time we were told that our dogs are our best friends. This belief was rarely challenged, because we know how we feel about our own dogs. What was questioned was whether the dogs get as much from the companionship as we do. Yes, we do provide food and shelter, but do the dogs really enjoy the emotional bonding in the same way we experience it? I think many people who know dogs well, will say – "of course"! However, there are people in this world who see pet dogs as "slaves". The "slavery" is defined in terms of the assumption that the dog has to do what the owner wants and that for a minimum reward, namely food. What we interpret as "love" from our dogs is actually a submissive serviceability in order to fulfill a basic need.

So, in science we often say, "what is measurable convinces". The question is how on earth does one measure your dogs’ happiness? Does one count how many times its tail is moving from side to side, how far does the tail swing from side to side or how fast does the tail move when the dog wags its tail? No, what we really want to know is simply whether dogs enjoy our friendship as much as we enjoy theirs.

Recently an experiment was conducted to evaluate just that. Physiological reactions indicated that we not only can measure happiness and friendship, but we can also establish who is gaining what from whom. The experiment included 18 people who love dogs and 18 well-tempered dogs. The two groups had to interact in a positive way, i.e., the people had to sit down and stroke the dogs and talking softly to them for a few minutes.

The next question was when does one take blood samples in order to establish whether the chemicals involved in "love" behaviour, did indeed change in the "right" direction. Well, we did know that if you stroke a dog, that your blood pressure would drop. In a pilot study we found that the dogs’ blood pressure will also drop during the same interaction. So a decreased blood pressure could be an indicator that the chemicals have also changed and that is exactly what we found. Baseline values were taken before interaction and after an average of 15 minutes of positive interaction. The blood pressure of both humans and dogs dropped with about 10 %.

From the six neurochemicals investigated, we found that endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, phenylethylamine and dopamine increased significantly and cortisol decreased. The first three chemicals are associated with short- and long-term affiliation, or bonding, between two parties. When this experiment was compared to changes that occur during quiet book reading these neurochemicals increased significantly more during dog interaction, indicating that humans bond better with dogs than books! Cortisol, a stress hormone, has decreased as expected during positive interaction.

The results have the following implications. Love for and from our dogs can be measured in normal physiological terms. Although other studies indicated the same chemicals in affiliation behaviour among members of the same species, this was the first time that results were obtained on an interspecies (across the species) basis. Other studies also only investigated the effect of a single chemical at a time, whilst this study compiled a neurochemical profile of positive human-dog interaction. What is, however, of more importance to us as dog people is that the dog experiences the same positive feelings than we do when we are interacting positively with our dogs. The fulfillment of these social or attention needs, could be the main reason why human and dog relationships are so successful over such a long time and among so many human societies. No wonder the dog is seen as the "prototype" of companion animals. They are not our slaves, we are our best friend’s, best friend.

Bylaw controversy

It looks as though we have a chance to get a really animal-friendly bylaw through in Cape Town.  The Dog Zone supports this effort wholeheartedly and we’ve set up an entire section for discussing items for which legislation is on the cards.  Click on the Dog Bylaw link or see the section here, and add your voice to the petition for an equitable bylaw. This will also get you onto a mailing list so you can be kept up to date with progress.

Model bylaw on cards

It’s clear from recent events that Cape Town is in great shape to end up with a model for well constructed, equitable animal bylaws which take the requirements of all stakeholders into account. Councillor JP Smith, the person behind the intiative, was done a disservice by the Argus, which misreported what he said and sensationalised the issue of removing barking dogs.

In fact, Cllr Smith’s concern was that dogs left tied out and unattended for days would only be discovered if they barked and barked, and that severely neglected animals like this needed to be removed.  He is clearly an animal lover who would like to see animals regarded as sentient in the eyes of the law, and was more than willing to separate the issue of abuse and neglect from that of nuisance barking, which, while often constituting a serious problem, should not require the removal of the dog.

Alan Perrins, CEO of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, came out strongly in support of Cllr Smith in a letter to the Weekend Argus last weekend, and the Dog Zone can only second his endorsement of Cllr Smith’s efforts.

Please stay involved in the campaign to get really constructive debate going around the proposed bylaw.  This site is supporting the effort to the hilt.  We have set up an entire section devoted to the topics which affect dogs and dog owners (we’d love to do the fish, boa constrictors, birds and bees as well but there just aren’t enough hours in the day!).  We will be setting up discussion forums, adding articles, and inviting various interested parties to author content on the subject.

Please sign the petition if you haven’t already and pass it on to people you know.  It will get you onto a mailing list and keep you informed, and means we can communicate quickly and effectively if something controversial comes up. 

Brief Bio

Caroline Barnard, who owns and runs the Dog Zone, has had Dobermanns for 32 years.  She worked her first Dobe at  a club run by South African Police Dog Unit reservists, and handled him right through police training, including obedience, obstacle work, tracking and attack training which included crowd control, attack over obstacles, attack under continuous fire and multiple assailant work, as well as exercises such as pulling an assailant out of a getaway car and water attacks.  She drew the line at bomb detection work, being only 15 at the time!

CarolineHer original qualifications were in Pure Mathematics (an Honours Degree from the University of Cape Town) and she taught and tutored Mathematics for some years before moving into Information technology, in which she specialised in data management, including a stint with IBM, and which still pays a fair portion of the rent.

During this period she became interested in psychology, and completed Psychology I and II at UNISA, both with distinction.  She also spent three years as a Lifeline counsellor, and was (and still is) a keen amateur classical singer who used to sing in the CAPAB ad-hoc Opera Chorus.

At this stage she also began breeding Dobermanns (which she still does very occasionally) in syndication with Barbara Preece and her late partner Sharlene Sutherland of Sharbara Dobermanns.  Caroline handled Ch Pandemonium Falstaff "Slug", the male she kept from her first litter, through to a Best Puppy in Show in Port Elizabeth in 1998.  He took 3rd place in KUSA National Puppy in the same year, and she went on to take Reserve Supreme Puppy with him at the very prestigious Vets Choice Supreme Puppy competition in 1998 (pipped to the post by a Toy Poodle!)

After opting to reduce her involvement in corporate Information Technology, she moved to McGregor, where she completed her Certification in Companion Animal Behaviour (with the highest marks in her year) through the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (Onderstepoort).  She ran a small behaviour practice in McGregor and as far afield as Worcester, Swellendam and Barrydale, as well as consulting via the internet. 

She served on the committee of the Dobermann Club of the Cape as the consultant behaviourist and editor of Dobe Capers, the club magazine, for several years.  Her article on Sauer, the South African Police Force Dobermann who set the World Tracking Record over 80 years ago, has been reprinted in UDC Focus, the magazine of the United Doberman club of America.

She is a keen clicker trainer and ran a clicker class in McGregor with a group of underprivileged children from the local orphanage, as well as several adults who saw a chance to get their dogs to behave a bit better!

She is fascinated by learning theory and behaviourism, although she objects to the neo-behaviourist notion of the dog as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and her original dog behaviour website, http://www.clickermagic.com, has been cited as a source in various dog and academic internet publications, including the proceedings of an international conference on, of all things, Polar Bear husbandry!

She also enjoys ethology, behavioural genetics, behavioural pharmacology, and cognition, and believes in a multi-disciplinary approach to resolving dog behaviour problems.  Being involved in the guarding breed world, she has gravitated naturally to specialising in aggression cases. 

She currently runs a small weekly clicker workshop and operates a limited practice (as time allows) and is interested in finding unusual case study material.  She is also extensively involved in developing this site as an educational resource.  She has bought a property which is ideal for use as a behaviour facility in Kalbaskraal, near Cape Town, and plans to offer remedial socialisation and growl classes in addition to her other activities.   She also hopes to be able to start an M.Sc. degree in canid cognition in the next year or two.

She is an accredited member of SABCAP (the South African Board of Companion Animal Professionals.)  

On a more personal note, she is a Royal Air Force brat and Dobermanns are inextricably linked with her family history.  Her first Dobermann, Billy Black, was named after a brown and tan Dobe called Billy Brown, who was owned by her father, the late Squadron Leader Barny Barnard of the Royal Air Force (Transport Command).  Billy Brown was given to Barny and his younger brother Flight Lieutenant Philip Barnard, also of the RAF (Fighter Command) by world-famous Battle of Britain Hurricane ace Group Captain Billy Drake.  

Her love of dogs is an expression of a wider commitment to green politics, feminism and respect for the miraculous nature of all life, not just human life.  She feels this is most beautifully expressed by the following quote from The Outermost House, Henry Beston’s wonderful account of a year spent living in a beach cottage on Cape Cod in the 1920s:

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.  Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.  We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.  And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth." 

What sort of animal bylaw will we get?

An article recently published in the Cape Argus described proposals for an alarming and draconian new animal bylaw in Cape Town, which would amongst other things give the city the right to impound dogs which bark excessively on seven days notice, and have them destroyed.  It also raised thorny issues such as dangerous dog legislation, and penalties for using attack dogs. Unsurprisingly, the article caused widespread concern and fury amongst animal lovers for a variety of reasons.  

It said that there would be a workshop on 26 September at which stakeholders would be able to give presentations, but did not clarify what further participation procedures there would be, only that there would be some further public participation. 

The only stakeholders mentioned at this stage were the SPCA and the Carthorse Protection Agency.  Where, one wonders, is the Kennel Union of South Africa?  Where is the South African Veterinary Association? Where are the representatives of the South African Board of Companion Animal Professionals? Where are representatives of breed and working dog clubs, especially those involved in training for protection sports?  Where are the representatives of the guardian breed clubs – Dobermanns, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Belgian Shepherds Malinois and many others?  Where are representatives of the SAPS Dog Unit, who are perhaps best qualified to give input on whether an animal is fit to be used for personal protection or not?

It failed to address issues such as:

  • while excessive barking can constitute a severe nuisance, barking is natural behaviour for dogs and expecting to be able to legislate severely limited barking in suburban areas with a high dog population is unreasonable
  • excessive barking tends to occur communally.  If the yappy Maltese on one side of the fence sets off the three Great Danes on the other side, it is the Danes who will be heard (and removed under the proposed legislation), but which dog is the "problem"?
  • dog ownership is extremely therapeutic for people. (See "The Human-Animal Interaction Movement in South Africa" on this page.) For many people, a dog is a beloved family member, and removing the animal and destroying it for barking is likely to be as traumatic and devastating to the owner as removing a child and executing it for excessive shouting and screaming
  • there are no dangerous breeds, only dangerous individuals, although some breed profiles tend to produce more aggressive specimens than others.   Any legislation in this regard needs to be developed in consultation with canine aggression experts.
  • in a country where crime is rife and illegal gun ownership out of control, a properly trained personal protection dog (a creature which is several orders of magnitude removed from an unpredictably aggressive backyard menace) is a very viable option for self-defence, especially for women (and a few  dogs like this allowed to be walked on Table Mountain would solve the mugging problem in a New York second – I’ve already had this suggested to me by someone who does nature guiding!).
  • while uncontrolled breeding and ownership of poorly cared for animals needs to be combated vigorously, at the same time programs which expose children at risk to animals and increse their sensitivity to living creatures are a vital component of the fight against crime.  Gangsters initiate children as young as 10 years old by making them cut the legs off living dogs with pangas, so that later on they will be able to do this to a human being (source: NICRO).  Programs which give these children the opportunity to interact with and even train animals are thus a valuable inoculation against later violent crime, and should be one of the focal points of animal work in poorer communities

In short, the article described a proposed bylaw which appears short-sighted, confused and likely to cause more problems than it solves. 

Whatever the eventual form the law takes, it’s important for animal lovers to get involved in the process and give their input.  You can start by signing our petition here (this will automatically add you to a mailing list so you can stay up to date with developments).

On speaking to the chairman of the Safety and Security portfolio, Mr J P Smith,  an animal lover himself, it transpired that he felt the article in the Argus was sensationalist and inaccurate, and he told me that there would be a long and detailed public participation process before the bylaw eventually came into effect in about a year’s time.  He also stated his view, very reasonably, on the petition as follows:

"Your petition is unnecessary at this stage – it is premature. We do not even have a first draft of the animal by-law yet and it will be at least a year before we do (i.e. Sep 2008) – there will be at least 5 months of public input taken. What we do have is the existing 10 different by-laws applicable to different parts of the City (prescribing different offences and penalties in each), all of them already dealing with the things you express concern about, just rearely enforced. Much of this could be dumped in the new by-law depending on the input during the public participation. The by-law would not just involve dogs, but deal with humane treatment of working animals such as cart horses (hence the involvement of the Cart Horse Association and others). Responsible organisations that have made contact with me, have been invited to attend the workshop or make a submission. Please do not raise undue panic at this stage as it will confuse the issues and spread partial information and prevent us from having a meaningful discussion about the proposed by-law which would make it possible to empower animal rights groups and would serve your interests if you harnessed the process properly. The workshop is a purely internal Council meeting between 3 different committees to get the ball rolling on the by-law drafting process. At least Cape Town is informing you about this timeously and inviting participation, unlike Johannesburg that simply steamrollered their by-law through. Please engage us responsibly as well. E-mail me any submissions that you want made at the workshop or contact me during office hours on: 021 – 487 2001"

This is fair enough, and bodes well for a well-constructed and equitable piece of legislation.  But it doesn’t mean that we as members of the animal-loving community can rest on our laurels and leave the process up to council.  It is our city, and our law, and we will get the law we deserve, so let’s ensure that we get involved and stay involved, for our own sakes and for those of our animals, who need us to speak for them.

Sign the petition here.

We’ll publish progress as and when we learn about it, email signatories on important issues, and also look at developing some tentative solutions like community anti-barking behavioural protocols.

Distraction-proofing with Premack and P-

All training, whether clicker or conventional, tends to work a lot better in the living room than on the training field.  The reason for this is that new and exciting out-of-door environments offer a lot of external reinforcers to dogs.  Basically, they just get distracted, and proofing, or teaching the dog to continue to work with distractions around, is an essential part of every exercise.  The presence of other dogs can be a particularly difficult distraction to overcome, but there is at least one surprisingly simple and fast approach to solving this problem.  The article contains a couple of video clips so is best read via a fast connection.

Partridge, aka Puttle, my 8-month-old Dobermann pup, loves other dogs, and doesn’t get to see them often enough (he lives with several other Dobermanns but is very sociable and loves to meet and play with other dogs).

He’s the kind of pup who, when there are other dogs around, hangs out at the end of the lead, gasping with excitement and trying to get at them so he can play, and he ignores anything I say or do completely.

Or rather, that’s what he did at the last class we attended.  The instructor’s solution was to make me walk him up and down against a wall, away from the other dogs, luring him every step of the way to keep him on the left, and body-blocking him when he tried to move towards where the fun was.  It worked in that he moved along at heel, but he wasn’t enjoying it and neither was I, and I was clicking for sloppy heeling, which bugged me.  Like a lot of clicker trainers, I regard heeling as perhaps one of the most difficult behaviours to train well (and guess where most competitors lose their points!). So there is a very strong case for leaving formal heelwork until late in the dog’s training, and merely teaching youngsters to walk on a loose lead.  

So this afternoon we took a different approach to distraction-proofing.  Here’s what we did:

The first concept we made use of was the Premack principle.  David Premack theorised, correctly, that a more frequently occurring behaviour should reinforce a less frequently occurring behaviour.  Now this sounds a bit abstruse, so let’s try to reduce it to more familiar terms.

If we give a dog a treat which he likes every time he sits, he will tend to sit more often (this is how clicker training works at the most basic level).  So as time goes by, the dog sits more and more, and, as dogs are pretty basic creatures, we can assume that this is because they are starting to enjoy sitting because of its history of being rewarded.

Now suppose we ask the dog to walk at heel for two paces and then sit.  The heeling is not currently a high-frequency behaviour (the dog isn’t doing a lot of heeling), but according to Premack, the sit, which happens often, will reinforce the heeling, which happens less often, and we will start getting more heeling.

This sounds very odd until, like Donald Griffin, we allow ourselves to use the heretical phrase "the dog thinks"!  The dog does a bit of heeling, then he is asked to sit, and he thinks this is a good thing because he is used to getting rewarded for sitting, so he is more likely to heel some more.  So we can use one behaviour to reinforce another behaviour, as long as the last one is consistently rewarded, and this is in fact how very complex exercises are trained.

Now in Puttle’s case, the behaviour he is trying to engage in the most is greeting and playing with other dogs, so I can use this to reinforce a behaviour I want, like responding to his name with attention.

And I can also punish non-attention by removing what he wants, i.e. access to another dog.  This is negative punishment, the removal of something pleasurable to the dog, and is extremely powerful, especially with a dog who is primarily reward-trained.  I already have a conditioned negative punisher (a sharply spoken, rather growly "aah-aah!") installed.  This is a bit firmer than a non-reinforcement marker (NRM), which is a neutral "uh-uh".  The NRM says: you won’t get clicked for that so try something else.  The conditioned negative punisher says: I do not like that and something you do like is about to disappear as a consequence.

So I now have the building blocks of an exercise to teach Puttle to pay attention to me when there is another dog around.  It goes like this:

We borrow another dog and handler, in this case Puttle’s auntie, Shady Lady, and her person Sandy.  Sandy and Shady hang around us at the right distance, and Puttle, quite predictably, charges out to the end of the lead to talk to Shady.

I call Puttle gently, and depending on his response, one of two things happens.  If he is attentive and turns towards me, I click.  If he ignores me and continues to focus on Shady, I say "aah-aah!".

The instructions to Sandy, who is handling Shady, are explicit.  If she hears a click, she stays hanging around where she is so that Puttle can choose his primary reinforcer: he can opt either for a treat or for more interaction with Shady.  This is important: imposing our version of what the reinforcer should be on the dog can weaken the "charge" on the clicker, whereas allowing him to pick the reinforcer he wants (within practical limits – humping the pedigreed poodle down the road is not usually an option!) strengthens the reinforcing power of the clicker. And remember, by the time he gets clicked, he has already done what we want, so he is not being allowed to have his own way, simply to spend his "salary" as he chooses.

But if Sandy hears me say "aah-aah!", she immediately turns round and walks off, taking Shady with her, i.e. inflicting a negative punishment on Puttle.  So Puttle loses not only the opportunity to earn a treat but also the opportunity to hobnob with another dog – a double whammy! 

The videos are not great quality and there is a lot of wind noise, but you can just about hear the clicks.  In the  two clips, which are pretty much contiguous in time, I am on the left with Puttle and Sandy is on the right with Shady.   The footage speaks for itself.  After two negative punishers, Puttle got it right literally every time, and it took seconds to achieve.   Even with Sandy calling him and nudging him, he continued to respond to his name with attentive behaviour and a sit.  And he opted for the treat rather than for playing with Shady, which is a very good sign; it says he’s setlling down and enjoying work more than almost anything else.  (He’s not quite old enough to have discovered poodles though………) 

Clip 1:


You may have noticed that on the first attempt to call Puttle in, there was what looked like a collar correction.  In fact what you were seeing was an oppositional reflex called thigmotaxis, on the part of both the canine and the primate, i.e. me.  When he pulled reflexively against the end of the lead, so did I, and this is one of the reasons loose lead walking is such a tricky thing for many people to train; when the dog pulls the owner, the owner pulls back, and generally doesn’t even realise that he or she is doing it! 

Clip 2:


And at this stage, that’s what I want from him.  I don’t care how many commands he "knows".  What I care about is being able to get his attention, improve his focus, and get him offering behaviour for me to shape, and to achieve that we’re doing a variety of apparently nonsensical exercises like Doggy Zen and Unrolling the Yoga Mat.  But what we’re really doing is creating the groundwork for being able to teach him anything new, fast, accurately and reliably.


A test article

  This is a test article to ensure that submission and editing of articles via the front end works.  Usually you write a brief introductory teaser to the main article body here……. 

…and then write or paste the main body of the article here.  (If you paste it, make sure it is unformatted)

Use the buttons at the top to save, apply or cancel.  Use the insert image and insert page break buttons below the editing box to add images to the article.

Use the images tab at the bottom to select, order and format images (they must already have been uploaded to the server).

About the Dog Zone

This part of the site contains administrative data about the site and information about me, and will probably never be finished…..

In Progress Items

For various technical reasons, the easiest way for me to write new articles is online, using the content management system’s editor (and thanks to high speed mobile broadband, it’s cheap and easy to do this!).

Once I get past a certain stage, I publish the article in progress so that I can see how it is formatting and how readable it is by using the site front end.  I indicate articles that I am still working on by starting them with the phrase (In Progress), including the brackets.

This means that if you find an article which starts like this, please don’t write to me to tell me that it doesn’t make sense, looks peculiar, has empty pages or peters out in the middle of nowhere.  I already know.

However, as I’m more than capable of starting seventeen articles and finishing two, I’ve made a rule for myself that says I’m not allowed to have more than one In Progress item on the site at any one time, so if you find two or more, feel free to send me a note and rap me over the knuckles.

I’ve also made myself a rule that says I can’t leave an In Progress item untouched for more than three days.  I either have to continue working on it or take it off the site for the time being.  So if you see something In Progress that looks as though it’s gathering dust, feel free to rap me over the knuckles for that, too!

All this is positive punishment, of course.  Alternatively, you could send me a rave email to tell me how fabulous the article is when I finish it and take the (In Progress) marker off.  The rate of reinforcement might be a bit low, though :P