How Can I Tell if My Dog is Afraid?

A guide to spotting fearful body language in dogs, and a chance to test out your skills.

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? A guide to spotting fearful body language in dogs, as shown by this frightened Chihuahua
Photo: Utekhina Anna / Shutterstock

You have to learn to read dog body language if you want to know when or if your dog is afraid.  This is a guide to spotting the signs.

Many people find it hard to tell when their dog is afraid and may even think their dog is okay when that’s not the case. This is very common but it can mean people are risking being bitten without knowing. And we can look after our dogs better if we know how to read canine body language.

Dog Body Language: Signs of Fear, Anxiety and Stress

There are many signs of fear, anxiety and stress in dogs. Things to look for include a tucked tail, ears back, licking the lips or nose, whale eye (wide eyes showing the whites of the eyes), looking away, lifting a paw, trembling or shaking, a low body posture, yawning, panting, grooming, sniffing, seeking out people (e.g. looking for comfort from you), hiding, not moving, a stiff or frozen posture, urinating and defecating.

Some of these are what’s known as displacement activities. For example, sniffing and grooming. Yes, it’s possible the dog is sniffing an exciting smell, but if the dog is scared, the sniffing is likely a displacement activity.

Similarly, a dog may yawn because they are tired, but it could be a sign of stress. If you see a yawn, ask yourself why they might be yawning.

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? A guide to dog body language. Illustrated here by a fearful puppy

Body Language of a Happy Dog

People find it much easier to tell when a dog is happy.

Look for a relaxed body posture, a soft open mouth, relaxed eyes, relaxed ears (whether the dog has prick or floppy ears), a nice loose wagging tail (that sometimes involves the whole body wiggling), and maybe some playful behaviour.

That soft, open mouth is like a dog’s way of smiling. You may see some teeth, but the lips are not drawn back to show lots of teeth and the dog is not snarling or growling.

How to tell if a dog is afraid. A guide to dog and puppy body language, illustrated by a happy black Labrador Retriever puppy
Photo: Mila Atkovska / Shutterstock

Use All the Body Parts When Reading Dog Body Language

One thing to remember is that we can use all of the dog’s body language and not just concentrate on specific parts.

Experts use more body parts when assessing a dog’s body language, and they are more likely to pay attention to a dog’s ears (Wan et al 2012). In terms of recognizing fearful dogs, people said they particularly found the face useful (including ears, eyes and mouth).

Take the Context into Account

As well as looking at the dog’s body language, we should also take account of what is going on at the time, as this will help us determine how the dog is feeling.

There are some situations in which we might expect dogs to be scared, such as at the veterinarian or when there are fireworks, but studies show people still aren’t very good at reading dog’s body language.

30% of dogs are highly stressed in the vet’s waiting room but owners did not always recognize this (Mariti et al 2015). The most commonly-observed signs include nose licking, panting, low ears, grooming, crying and yawning.

Many people also miss signs that their dog is afraid of fireworks (Blackwell, Bradshaw and Casey, 2013).  Signs include trembling or shaking, barking, hiding, and seeking out people.

Another time when people tend to miss fearful or anxious body language is when dogs are interacting with small children. Unfortunately, in these circumstances many people think anxious dogs are actually relaxed and confident, and dog owners performed worse than those without dogs at reading the body language (DeMirbas et al 2016).  People do not supervise dog-child interactions closely enough, fail to recognize the dog’s body language, and especially let their guard down when the dog is the family dog rather than an unknown dog (Arhant et al 2016).

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? A guide to reading dog body language with particular attention to fearful dogs like this one

One time when it can be quite difficult to decide if a dog is afraid or not is leash reactivity, when the dog lunges and growls at other dogs. This can be to make the other dog go away, because the dog is afraid, but it can also be because the dog is frustrated the leash is preventing the opportunity of greeting the other dog. In the latter case, the dog will be prosocial and friendly with other dogs when off-leash, but the behaviour in the moment of growling and lunging can be hard to interpret.

It’s important to figure it out because it would be a real shame to prevent off-leash socializing for a friendly dog who likes to play with other dogs. This is one reason it's important to help people understand signs of play in dogs, like the play bow (see also: bringing play back for sequestered dogs).

As well as knowing whether the dog is usually friendly to other dogs, there are some body language signs. In cases of frustration, the dog may show signs of wanting to approach the other dog before it ‘goes off’, and there may be signs of excitement such as yawning or circling. If it’s fear, the dog may show signs of fear before ‘going off’, such as ears back, a low posture, looking away and a tucked tail (Mills et al 2014).

If you think a dog is afraid, don't try to pet them. See how to pet cats and dogs to learn how to give pets a choice.

Breed and Other Artefacts

When we look at dogs, we see different characteristics depending on the breed. Some dogs have pricked ears while others have floppy ears. Some dogs have lovely long tails while others have tails that are corkscrew or naturally short. Does this make a difference to body language? You bet!

Then there are the cosmetic changes that some people make to their dogs. While ear cropping and tail docking of dogs is banned in BC where I live, these procedures are unfortunately still legal in some places.

The tail is an important part of canine communication. Tail docking can interfere with communication between dogs, and between dogs and people (Mellor, 2018).

When interpreting dog body language, it is harder for us if the dog’s ears are cropped and/or the tail docked. How can you tell if the tail is low or not if it is only a little stub? And it’s harder for other dogs to recognize too, which can put the dog at a disadvantage in social canine interactions.

Dogs in Costumes

When dogs wear costumes, like Santa outfits or Halloween costumes, it can make it difficult to interpret their body language too. The costume can interfere with the dog’s communication.

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Many dogs don't like to wear costumes. See how this Chihuahua's ears are back and he is lifting a paw.

For example, the costume might fix their ears in a particular position, so we can’t tell where they would be if the dog weren’t wearing the costume. And a costume can interfere with movement of the tail or other parts of the body too.

Many dogs don’t like to wear costumes.

It’s not fair to make your dog wear a costume when they hate it. So, if you want them to wear a costume and they don’t like it, you can use it as an opportunity to teach them to like it. This can be good practice at learning to like being handled, which some dogs also don’t like, but which has to happen e.g. at the vet or if the dog has to wear a rain jacket or sweater in winter.

Even if you think your dog will like the costume, it’s best to use treats when you first introduce it. See the best dog training treats for ideas.

Dog Body Language Practice

It’s Christmas in July! Take a look at these dogs in Santa costumes and see if you can figure out the meaning of the dog's body language.

To make it easier, let’s stick to two categories: ‘happy’ and ‘worried,’ where worried means showing any signs of fear, anxiety or stress. But it's more about seeing if you can spot any signs than assigning a label.

Of course, each photo is just a moment in time and the dog may have been showing different body language before and after (since I’ve been browsing the photos, I can vouch for this). That's the disadvantage of looking at photos instead of video. You can only decide for the specific moment in time captured in the photo.

On the other hand, body language can be fleeting, and with a photo you have time to contemplate the whole picture.

Instead of concentrating on labels – happy or worried – take note of the body language signs you are using to make that decision. Look where the tail is (if it's visible in the photo). Look at the mouth and eyes. Look at the ears, and take into account whether the dog put them in position or if the costume has affected their movement. And don't forget to consider posture too.

If you’re struggling, start by identifying the dogs which are definitely happy, and take it from there, because people seem to find it easier to identify a happy dog.

If you like, you can leave a comment on the body language you see.

Body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Look at this Chihuahua in a Santa hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 1

Body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Look at this mixed breed dog in a Santa hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 2

The dog body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid or happy? Look at this Golden Retriever in a Santa hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 3

The dog body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Look at this dog in a Santa costume (see the tucked tail?)
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 4

Dog body language quiz: Is this dog fearful? A chocolate lab in a reindeer  hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 5

Dog body language quiz: Can you tell if this French Bulldog in an elf costume is happy or stressed?
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 6

Dog body language quiz: Is this Siberian Husky in a Santa hat happy or fearful?
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 7

What if My Dog is Afraid?

This list contains affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase I may earn a small fee at no cost to you.

Getting more practice at reading a dog's body language can help us know when dogs are fearful, anxious or stressed. I recommend:

There are many ways we can help a fearful dog. Often, simply recognizing the fear means we can do something to help, such as by intervening to prevent someone from patting our dog when the dog doesn’t want it, or removing the dog from a difficult situation. Sometimes, it can take a long and gradual training program to make a difference. See eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

A powerful technique to help dogs overcome their fears is desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Because it can be hard to get it right, you might like to find a good dog trainer to help. In some cases, you may also wish to speak to your veterinarian to find out if they advise the use of medication.

Some trainers use a technique called negative reinforcement with fearful dogs. This is an aversive method. To see why I do not recommend it and what I suggest instead, see my post on negative reinforcement in dog training. You might also like seven reasons to use reward-based methods in dog training.

If your dog is afraid at the vet, see my list of resources on less stressful vet visits for dogs and cats. You might also like to check out Fear Free to see if there is a Fear Free veterinarian near you.

And you might be interested in the Husbandry Project from the Academy for Dog Trainers, which is currently recruiting dog owners and trainers to test out training plans aimed at teaching dogs to like vet visits. More info here.

Companion Animal Psychology is open to everyone and supported by animal lovers like you. If you like what you see, maybe buy me a coffee on Ko-fi?

Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happier dogs and cats (according to science). And stay tuned for more posts on this blog!

Arhant, C., Landenberger, R., Beetz, A., & Troxler, J. (2016). Attitudes of caregivers to supervision of child–family dog interactions in children up to 6 years—An exploratory study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 10-16.
Blackwell, E.J.,, Bradshaw, J.W.S.,, & Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour Applied Animal Behaviour Science : 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
Demirbas, Y. S., Ozturk, H., Emre, B., Kockaya, M., Ozvardar, T., & Scott, A. (2016). Adults’ Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language during a Dog–Child Interaction. Anthrozoƶs, 29(4), 581-596.
Mariti, C., Raspanti, E., Zilocchi, M., Carlone, B., & Gazzano, A. (2015). The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic Animal Welfare, 24 (3), 299-305 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.24.3.299
Mellor, D. J. (2018). Tail Docking of Canine Puppies: Reassessment of the Tail’s Role in Communication, the Acute Pain Caused by Docking and Interpretation of Behavioural Responses. Animals: an open access journal from MDPI, 8(6). 10.3390/ani8060082
Mills, D., Karagiannis, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). Stress—its effects on health and behavior: a guide for practitioners. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 44(3), 525-541.
Wan M, Bolger N, & Champagne FA (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23284765

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Companion Animal Psychology News July 2018

Cats high on catnip, the heritage of mutts, and sunk costs for mice - don't miss a thing with the latest news from Companion Animal Psychology.

Companion Animal Psychology News July 2018

Some of my favourites from around the web this month

“It takes patience to let the student run the show.” The pause that refreshes by Patricia McConnell PhD.

 “You know exactly what I'm talking about. There's a dog. Right there, right in front of you.” 10 things to do instead of patting that service dog by Kristi Benson CTC.

“Experts did little better than dog lovers — and nobody did very well — when asked to describe the heritage of various mutts.” What breeds make up this mutt? By James Gorman at NY Times.

Can we ever really know if animals are happy? Anna Brooks tackles an important question.

"Like so many other humans, you might find cats to be mysterious creatures. But believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make friends with a feline, if you know what to do." 10 science-backed tips for getting a cat to like you by Mikel Delgado.

“Whatever is going on in the humans is also going on in the nonhuman animals.” Mice don’t know when to let it go, either, on sunk costs and decision making by Erica Goode at the NY Times.

Should shelters and breeders require literacy in animal behaviour?Marc Bekoff on “the importance of becoming literate in "dog"—learning about the basic behavior patterns and needs of the nonhuman animal one chooses to bring home.”

"A big part of the problem is that breeds like French bulldogs, pugs, and English bulldogs are what's called brachycephalic—bred to have that cute, short muzzle." Are we loving French Bulldogs to death? At National Geographic,  Linda Lombardi looks at the issues facing these brachycephalic dogs.

Photos of cats high on catnip. By Alessia Santoro with images by Andrew Marttila.

Dog photographer of the year 2018 – in pictures. The Guardian highlights the best photos of dogs.

Animal Book Club

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club takes a break in July. In August, we will be reading Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do by Marc Bekoff.

Help Researchers Understand Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation Anxiety expert Malena DeMartini and Dr. Nathaniell Hall of Texas Tech University are conducting a survey to get a better understanding of separation anxiety in dogs.

The questionnaire is for dog owners, dog trainers, and dog lovers, even if your dog does not have separation anxiety.

Take the survey here. Everyone who completes it will be entered in a draw to win either a copy of DeMartini's book, Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, OR a spot on the online course, 'Mission: POSSIBLE.'

Support Companion Animal Psychology

Companion Animal Psychology has a mission to bring pet owners free information about science-based ways to have happy dogs and happy cats.

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. (Ko-fi does not charge fees).

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

I had two new posts on my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures: Does owner personality affect dog training methods looks at an intriguing new study, while Pet behaviour problems: In the eye of the beholder considers what makes us decide a pet’s behaviour is problematic.

Here on Companion Animal Psychology, Prof. Hal Herzog generously shared his time with me and answered questions from me and the book club on his book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Read the interview here, and if you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it.

I wrote a post about desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training, which explains the basics you need to know to use this technique to help fearful dogs.

And I spoke to Lori Nanan about her online course, Nailed It! which makes good use of desensitization and counter-conditioning to help dogs learn to like nail trims. Check out what she has to say. At the end of the post, you'll find discount codes if you want to take any of the courses available on

This month I answered some questions from Slate about what the What the Fluff? videos tell us about canine cognition. I spoke to HuffPost about how the 'cat lady' trope came to be. And I talked to Fupping about the importance of puppy socialization for their post on things to consider when buying a puppy (scroll down to number 12).

As always, thank you for the kind comments and shares of my posts. It's proving to be a busy summer for me as I'm working hard on edits to my book! Whatever you're up to, I hope you're having fun.

A Better World for Dogs and Cats

These are the latest images from the series about a better world for dogs and a better world for cats.

A better world for cats - part of Companion Animal Psychology News

A better world for dogs - part of Companion Animal Psychology News

A better world for cats - part of Companion Animal Psychology News

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Interview with Lori Nanan

Lori Nanan on training dogs to love nail trims and why slowing down is good for us.

Interview with Lori Nanan, pictured, about helping dogs love nail trims

Recently I wrote about desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training, an important technique to help fearful dogs. Lori Nanan’s course Nailed It! shows people how to use this technique to teach dogs to love having their nails trimmed. I caught up with Lori to find out more. At the end of the post, you'll find special discount codes for Companion Animal Psychology readers on the full range of courses at

Zazie: Why did you decide to write the course?

Lori: It started a few years ago. I had a dog, Rocco, who for his entire life nail care was pretty traumatic. I was never able to make it right and it really kind of ate away at me for most of his life. And when we brought Hazel home, I was sort of determined that that would never be the case for any other dog of mine. So I guess in 2014, 2015 I wrote a blog where I laid out steps that I followed in a training to plan to get Hazel comfortable with my handling of her legs and paws and restraining for toes, getting her to love a nail file – I actually used a nail file at that time – and then being comfortable and relaxed with me filing her nails. And the blog was very successful. I got lots of feedback from lots of people that they were actually able to use it, which was fantastic.

And then at the beginning of 2017 I suddenly got this bug in my ear that I had to take on the next level of challenge which was in my mind using a Dremel. And so I bought a Dremel and it literally sat in the box for about 2 months because I was so afraid to try to use it on her. Then I buckled down and got myself comfortable with it and had success with it. And my initial thought was ‘Okay well I’ll write another blog’. But then the more I thought about it the more I thought there was a bigger opportunity to get this particular information and related information out to people. So I decided to create the course.

"Slowing down is as good for us as it is for the dogs."

As I was creating the course, I had different people testing different implements, taking their own dogs through a plan, just to make sure that it actually did translate as well from nail files to Dremel and then clippers as well. And just like with the blog, these people were able to successfully maintain their dog’s nails and gain an understanding of things like desensitization and counter-conditioning and classical conditioning, and why I felt it was important for a lot of dogs and help people to use those methods rather than operant conditioning and say give me a paw, I clip your nail, you get a treat. That’s the quick and dirty of the whole thing, which has been way more successful than I ever would have imagined. I knew that people had this problem, I just had no idea that there were so many of us.

Zazie: I’ve seen the course materials and it’s fantastic so I’m not surprised so many people are finding it helpful. Why do you think nail trims are difficult for so many dogs?

Lori: There’s a couple of reasons. One of them is an intrinsic evolutionary biology thing about restraint. A lot of dogs don’t like being restrained and that has to do with wild ancestors being prey animals, being injured in the course of being predators, and if you lose a leg, guess what you’re not going to be able to chase prey any more. And that means you’re going to die, you’re not going to be able to reproduce and continue your lineage. So there’s that, that’s just sort of in there in the dog.

Many dogs have bad experiences. We’ve for decades and decades performed procedures on dogs without their consent and sometimes they’re painful, sometimes they’re simply uncomfortable, sometimes the dog isn’t comfortable with the stranger or the person doing it and the procedure might be okay but then they make an association between the two and things can go downhill. One bad experience can cause a lifetime of negative reactions to things.

My Rocco, the very first time I clipped his nails as a puppy I cut the quick, which is the blood supply through the nail, and it was traumatic for both of us. He was definitely afraid of letting anybody come near his paws after that and I was definitely afraid to do it because it was awful. And so it becomes charged for people if they have had that bad experience doing it themselves on their dogs, or had a bad experience seeing a veterinarian do it for their dog. And that one bad experience can really ruin it for a dog for life, unless we get to work in a way that is systematic, gradual, granular, and step-by-step to help them feel comfortable again.

Zazie: You said that you thought it was more appropriate to use classical conditioning rather than a DRI in this case. Can I ask you why you think that?

Lori: I think I’ve seen it probably hundreds of times at this point, where people say ‘My dog used to be comfortable with giving me a paw, me clipping, and then giving a treat’. But I think that for some of the reasons I explained a couple of minutes ago, that becomes too expensive for the dog. The payoff of a treat for a clip is often just not enough, because they’re probably truly not comfortable, they’re just doing it because dogs do those sort of things. They’re pretty good sports in a lot of cases, they go along with things maybe because there’s a payoff but maybe just because they’re good sports and docile and they put up with a lot from us. But I’ve seen it time and time again where people will say my dog used to be comfortable with that, give paw, get clipped, get treat, or my dog used to be comfortable using a scratch board and then getting a treat, and eventually the payoff just is not enough for the dog.

Zazie: So it’s too hard really. One of the things that you focus on in the course materials is that people need to have a 1:1 ratio. I was wondering if you would mind explaining for blog readers why that’s so important.

Lori: It’s really, really, important when we’re doing things like classical conditioning or counter-conditioning or desensitization that we keep the criteria clear for the dog. So we do the thing and this is what happens. We really want the dog to be comfortable with the whole process. It’s a way of ensuring that the dog is comfortable with the whole process that we’re not pushing past where we are currently just because we feel like it. It’s sort of a contract that we’re making with the dog. And any time we break that contract or don’t keep that clear, we weaken the association that we want to make. Which is, touching your arm is not scary, touching your foot is not scary, because we’ve done it in a way that keeps you comfortable every step along the way.

Zazie: Another thing that I really like is you say, you can never go too slow or be too generous. Do you think that’s a message that people find easy or difficult to get?

Lori: In our human world, we are very used to instant results. We’re very used to getting information at the touch of a button, we can make purchases at the touch of a button, we have pizza delivered to our house in 30 minutes or less. We’re used to things happening fast, fast, fast. And so when we ask people to slow down and do things at the dog’s speed, yes it’s absolutely hard.

"We’ve for decades and decades performed procedures on dogs without their consent"

For a lot of us, it’s not a way that we’ve always interacted with our dogs. We just kind of take for granted that they’re going to go along with things. And slowing down is as good for us as it is for the dogs. It helps us be more mindful of what we’re doing and it helps us learn how to pay attention to what’s happening for our dogs. For some reason, I see it all the time and I’ll be honest even with my own pups, we like giving dogs treats, we’re pretty generous with that. But when it comes to working with dogs, people tend to get a little stingy. Being generous for me means okay we’re going to upgrade, we’re not going to use kibble we’re not going to use commercial grade treats from the grocery store. We’re going to use something super delicious that the dog really likes and we’re not going to be stingy about it because this thing matters and that’s what helps the dog make the association between the process and enjoying it.

So I want people to slow down to bio-speed a little bit and be more observant of what’s happening with their dog, and be generous throughout the process because we really need for these associations to be strong. And we also want the dog to like processes like this. In cases that go beyond nail care, like veterinary care, we need the dog to like the process in order for it to go smoothly and successfully.

Zazie: I also wanted to ask you about different ways of clipping nails because you have plans for the nail file, Dremel and clippers. Do you have a personal preference now for one of those?

Lori: I have to admit that based on my experiences with my Rocco years ago, I’ve not been able to get over my clipper fear. So that’s definitely the lowest on my list. I am in awe of people who are comfortable with clippers and I give them major props for that. For me the margin of error with clippers is much bigger. I think the opportunity to accidentally clip a dog is bigger with clippers. The Dremel goes quicker than the nail file, but for me I like the nail file. I use a Dremel currently. Every once in a while I switch back to a nail file. I feel like I do the best job with a nail file and I think it’s the easiest for people to get comfortable with, even for big dogs. I used the nail file on Hazel for 2 years before I switched. You can do a dog’s nails sustainably with a nail file so the Dremel is definitely quicker but it doesn’t have to be just a starter tool. I was able to do it for 2 years. I just bought bulk files from Amazon and worked on Hazel’s nails about 2 times a week. Which is about what I do now, I try to fit in to the schedule. Either a nail file or a Dremel are the easiest for people, and I do recognize that I have a little bit of a bias there.

Zazie: People can find Nailed It! on but I heard that you’ve got some other courses in the works, so what else can people look forward to finding there?

Lori: We currently have a course out with Malena DeMartini called Separation Anxiety: Mission Possible. Malena has written a book on separation anxiety, she’s the expert and she travels the world speaking about it. We also have another course called Pestering Pooches with my friend Kristi Benson which is all about teaching dogs not to jump on guests when they come in the house, not to pester and bug people while they’re eating, and it’s super fun. Kristi’s got a fantastic sense of humour and a fantastic way that she presents information. I’m actually taking Hazel through all of the plans because for her entire life with us so far we’ve kind of allowed her to jump on people because she was afraid of people when we first brought her home and now she loves them. And so we want that to be the way that things are but she could probably be a bit more polite about it. So we’re going through the training plans and it’s actually been a lot of fun. And then we’ve got some other things in the works but they’re a bit further down the line right now.

Zazie: Tell me about your pets.

Lori: Hazel is a 7 year old. She’s considered a pit bull mix, she’s really just a bunch of terriers and bulls that put together have a little bit of a blocky head. Her blocky head is not as blocky as many other pit bull type dogs. We adopted her from Philadelphia Animal Care and Control and she is just wonderful. I call her famous. She’s the face of a lot of things that I do, a great dog for training and just a lot of fun. She really loves people so she’s a joy.

And then we have a cat named MooMoo who my husband adopted the day before we met, about 11 years ago now. And MooMoo is a very sweet and personable cat who happens to not like other cats. So we’re a one cat, one dog family at this point. And I’ve actually trained MooMoo to sit for a verbal cue which feels like a massive accomplishment for me because cats are different from dogs. She works for dried minnows, she likes those.

Zazie: Nice! Thank you so much for your time.

Lori has provided discount codes for anyone interested in the courses at
The discount code is CAP, and it gives 40% off Nailed It! and Pestering Pooches, and 20% off the other courses.
Nailed It
Pestering Pooches
Separation Anxiety: Mission POSSIBLE
It's Tricky: Learning to Train your Dog with Tricks
Leave It: Help for Leash Reactive Dogs
Pearly Whites: A Course in Pet Dental Care
How to Potty Train your Dog: Three Easy Steps from Mess to Success
Edit Yourself: Writing Skills for Dog Trainers

There is also a free course called Where Advocacy and Behavior Meet.

About Lori Nanan:
Lori Nanan is the owner of, a company which creates online courses for dog owners and professionals, as well as marketing and support services for reward-based dog trainers. She also works for The Academy for Dog Trainers as a project manager and is the founder of the nonprofit Your Pit Bull and You. Lori lives in New Hope, PA. with her husband, Paul, their cat MooMoo and a dog, Hazel, who is the love of their lives and serves as inspiration for everything they do.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list, or subscribe to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training?

A user-friendly guide to desensitization and counter-conditioning for fearful dogs.

How to do desensitization and counter-conditioning to help fearful dogs like this little Maltese hiding under the bed
Photo: Alzbeta / Shutterstock

Whether you want to use counter-conditioning to get your dog to like other dogs, or desensitization to teach your dog that alone-time is okay, this guide is for you. It explains what these technical terms mean – and, importantly, the tips you need to know to get it right.

First, we’ll look at how to spot a fearful dog, because these techniques are often used to help resolve different kinds of fear.

Sometimes, desensitization and/or counter-conditioning are used alongside medication. If you are concerned about your pet or want to know if medication might help your dog, speak to your veterinarian.

Recognizing signs of fear in dogs

It can be difficult to recognize signs of fear in dogs, and people often miss it, even in situations where we know many dogs are afraid (e.g. fear at the vet or in response to loud noises).

This means many dogs are not being helped with their fears because their owner does not realize their dog is afraid. Another issue is that when dogs are afraid of fireworks, people may do their best to help their dog cope at the time – and then forget about the problem until a night like Halloween or 4th of July is coming up again.

When is the best time to start to help your dog get over their fear of fireworks? It’s actually right now, because this is something that takes time.

Some of the signs of fear to look for in your dog are a tucked tail, ears back, lip licking, looking away, lifting a paw, trembling or shaking, a lowered body posture, yawning, grooming, sniffing, seeking out people (e.g. looking for comfort from you), hiding, not moving, urinating and defecating.

For more information and some practice at spotting signs of stressed body language, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?

Desensitization and counter-conditioning for dogs. The poster shows a fearful Jack Russell hiding under a blanket

Systematic desensitization

Desensitization means very gradual exposure to the scary thing, starting at a very low level and building up very slowly. It should be systematic, which means you have a plan to build up gradually. At every step on the way, you dog should be happy and comfortable.

If instead you notice your dog is even a tiny bit scared, you need to immediately go back to an easier stage of the plan. If you jump ahead too fast and frighten your dog, then you might be doing sensitization (making it worse) instead of desensitization!

As an example, suppose your dog is afraid of fireworks. You find a recording of firework sounds (such as the recordings from Dogs Trust that come with a booklet explaining what to do). You can’t start by playing the sounds at anywhere near normal volume, because you already know that frightens your dog. Instead, you start at a really low volume – maybe even barely audible.

Then gradually over time, always making sure your dog is comfortable, you keep turning up the volume a notch. Then another notch. And so on. Over time, assuming you get it right, your dog will learn to tolerate the sounds.


Counter-conditioning is a type of classical conditioning. Have you heard about Ivan Pavlov and his dogs, how when he rang a bell the dogs salivated because they had learned it predicted they would be given food? Then you’ve heard of classical conditioning!

Classical conditioning involves automatic responses, like salivation, changes in heart rate, or nausea. These are involuntary reactions (not behaviours).

Most classical conditioning uses a neutral stimulus (like the sound of a bell). In counter-conditioning, we are trying to teach the dog to like something they already don’t like or are afraid of.

For example, suppose you have a dog that is afraid of other dogs, and you want to teach her to like them. In counter-conditioning, every time another dog appears, you would give your dog some very delicious food. Over time, she will learn that other dogs predict yummy food, and so she will learn to like other dogs.

Did you notice I said every time another dog appears? That’s because we want to have what’s known as a 1:1 ratio. If instead, sometimes when another dog appears your dog gets food, but sometimes when another dog appears they don’t, this won’t work very well.

Therefore, if you’re counter-conditioning something you might run into outside training sessions (like other dogs), you need to have a plan to either manage it (so it doesn’t happen) or to always have treats on you so you can still do counter-conditioning on those occasions too.

Open bar/closed bar

Jean Donaldson’s open bar/closed bar technique is a great way to do counter-conditioning. What it means is that when the scary thing appears (e.g. the other dog, or the sounds, etc…) the bar is open: treats will keep on flowing. Yay! It’s like a party! (Hopefully that’s what your dog will think).

Then when the scary thing stops (e.g. the other dog goes away, the sound stops, etc.) the bar is closed and the flow of treats stops. Now, nothing happens – the party is over.

A positive conditioned emotional response

Learning to recognize a positive conditioned emotional response is an essential part of doing desensitization and counter-conditioning, because you can’t move on to the next step until you’ve got a +CER.

Look for signs that the dog is happy and expecting food, such as a wagging tail and a happy, open mouth.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are often used together. Trainers often abbreviate it to dscc.

If we stick to the example of a dog who is afraid of other dogs, we can use desensitization by keeping a suitable distance from the other dog. We should also take account of other aspects of the experience (for example, a moving dog might be more scary to your dog than one that is still, so a moving dog would need to be further away).

At the same time, we can use counter-conditioning by feeding delicious food as soon as your dog notices the other dog. Using these two techniques together works really well.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning is a good alternative to negative reinforcement because it does not involve aversive experiences for the dog.

There are some cases where we might use desensitization on its own. An example is to help a dog with separation anxiety get used to being left alone for gradually-increasing periods of time. The good news is that new technology can help in separation anxiety cases, because it enables you to see video of your dog at home to check she really is okay.

If your dog has separation anxiety, as well as speaking to your veterinarian, I recommend trainers with a certification called CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer). They are specialists in resolving this problem, and many offer distance consults.

And at times when desensitization is not possible (or, due to a mishap, went wrong), you can still use counter-conditioning on its own.

Some common mistakes

There are some common mistakes that people make with desensitization and counter-conditioning. If you’re thinking, “I tried it and it didn’t work,” see if any of these might apply.

Not using good enough food

A common mistake is to not use good enough food. For counter-conditioning, I recommend using good food like chicken, cheese, or roast beef. For more ideas, see the best dog training treats.

Getting the timing mixed up

Your aim in counter-conditioning is to teach your dog that the scary thing predicts good stuff like great food. Have you ever had the experience of doing counter-conditioning, and then finding that when you offer your dog food, she starts looking round to see where the scary thing is? That means the timing was wrong and the dog now thinks food predicts something scary!

The thing to look for is when your dog notices the other dog (or whatever the scary thing is), and feed then. You have to pay attention to your dog in order to get this right.

Going too fast

This is probably the most common mistake of all: starting at too hard a level and going too fast for your dog.

Learning how to do desensitization and counter-conditioning will teach you to slow down, because you have to go at the dog’s pace. This will vary from dog to dog, but it will usually be very slow at the start. Then hopefully it will speed up along the way. But this dog training technique is not for the impatient!

Signs you are going too fast include the dog having a harder mouth when taking treats or only sometimes being interested in treats. Also watch out for any signs of worried body language such as a low tail or low posture. If you see any of these, go back to an easier step in the plan.

Not reading the dog’s body language

Learning how to read a dog’s body language is a skill that times time to acquire. To use desensitization and counter-conditioning, you need to be able to recognize when a dog is afraid (so you know these techniques are relevant, and so you notice if you accidentally go too fast). If the dog is afraid, you risk making things much worse instead of better.

You also need to be able to recognize when you have got a positive conditioned emotional response – a happy reaction to the previously-scary thing. It’s only when you see this that you can move to the next step in your plan.

Using a clicker

When we use a clicker in dog training, it’s to mark a behaviour that will be rewarded. In counter-conditioning, we are not teaching a behaviour; instead, we are trying to change the dog’s emotions. So there is no behaviour to click.

Even if you love using a clicker when doing operant conditioning (teaching a behaviour), put it away when doing counter-conditioning.

But I only want to feed the dog for being good

Sometimes people only want to feed the dog for being good. But the thing is, counter-conditioning isn’t about behaviour; it’s about changing the dog’s underlying feelings. So it does not matter what your dog is doing.

Sometimes we make a mistake and get too close to the scary thing. We’ve all done it! For example if you get too close to another dog and your dog lunges and growls at it. Sometimes people compound this mistake by telling the dog off for lunging and growling, but this won’t help and might make things worse.

Instead, you should get your dog further away from the other dog and then offer the yummy food anyway. The reason is that in counter-conditioning they should get the food every single time they see the scary thing. If they don’t, it’s basically an extinction trial that is starting to undo your training.

This can be quite difficult to do in public with other people looking on. But you shouldn’t feel embarrassed for doing the right thing for your dog.

So if your dog goes over threshold, get away as fast as you can and then feed them anyway. Of course, you might also like to say sorry to the owner of the dog yours just growled at as you move away, but you don’t have to get into a discussion.

The other thing you need to do is make a mental note that next time, you need more distance. Think about whether there were other things going on that might have made it more difficult for your dog – this is known as trigger stacking. And then plan to do better next time.

Remember, you’re trying to teach your dog – but it’s also a learning experience for you.

What about a DRI instead?

Sometimes dog trainers will choose a DRI (differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour) instead of counter-conditioning, with the aim of getting a classical conditioning side-effect. You can read more about this, and about the factors that will help you decide which to do, in my post on negative reinforcement. (Look for the section on alternatives to negative reinforcement).

A word on punishment

If you have a dog that is fearful or afraid, it’s important that you stop using punishment on your dog. Punishment is stressful and there is a risk it will make your dog’s fear worse, or even make your dog afraid of you. Punishment may suppress behaviour, but it does not teach your dog what you would like them to do instead. For more information, see my post on positive punishment in dog training.

If you are using any kind of punishment (including prong and shock collars), stop. This is an important part of helping a fearful dog.


Desensitization and counter-conditioning are powerful techniques that we can use to help dogs learn to like something they are afraid of. They can be used in many dog training situations, from fear of loud noises to fear of being left alone, fear of implements like nail clippers and stethoscopes, and fear of strangers.

These techniques are more advanced than obedience training, and it will take practice (and a good plan) to learn to get them right. Hopefully this article has helped explain the basics. You can also check out eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

If you need help with your dog’s issues, see my article on how to choose a dog trainer.

Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.

Further Reading

Interview with Jean Donaldson about The Culture Clash

Dogs Are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson.

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. Systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is one of the key skills taught in this book, and there are plenty of examples of its use with cats.

From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias by Marty Becker, Lisa Radosta, Wailani Sung, Mikkel Becker, edited by Kim Campbell Thornton. Lots of tips, including sections on desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in plain English how dogs learn and how best to teach them by Pamela Reid.

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An Interview with Prof. Hal Herzog

Hal Herzog on our complicated relationship with animals – and what it says about being human.

Interview with Hal Herzog, pictured here with Snakey, about our complicated relationship with animals

Prof. Hal Herzog’s fascinating book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals was the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for June 2018. I was thrilled to interview him about the book – and book club members asked some questions too.

Zazie: Many people have said the book is fascinating, and some have said it’s disturbing as well.

Hal: Oh good! Well that’s what I was going for!

Zazie: I think it’s because of what you refer to as “flagrant moral incoherence” when it comes to animals. Why is our relationship with animals so complicated?

Hal: That’s the whole theme of the book really. There’s a couple of answers to that. One is that when it comes to thorny moral issues, most of them are complicated. One of the reasons why I study human-animal relationships is I think they offer a window into how we think about ethical issues generally. So I think the same principles apply. The same complications, quandaries, and paradoxes, occur in our relationships with other people as well. So one reason it’s hard to think straight about animals, one reason it’s hard to think about animals ethically, is it’s hard to think straight about many things when it comes to ethics.

The other is that you have a lot of variables affecting how we think about animals. One is you have this conflict between logic and intuition, you have the fact that the way we think about animals is determined both by biological instincts and also our ability to think rationally, and other factors such as the words we use, that is language. And what cognitive psychologists call mental heuristics, which are quick and dirty rules of thumb which don’t always lead to truth, which sometimes lead to erroneous judgments.

Zazie: I think that’s why it’s such an interesting book, is that there are these inconsistencies. The next question is from book club member Sarah McLaren and this question relates to the section about cruelty to animals in childhood, because we hear a lot about the supposed link between cruelty to animals in childhood and later criminal behaviour, but your book includes examples from completely normal people, and I think a lot of people found that quite hard to read about. So the question is, I wonder if there was ever any correlation between the action of those children who were cruel to animals and the actions of their parents? Were they children who had harsher discipline or a family without animals?

Hal: I don’t know the answer to that. I didn’t ask them about that specifically so I don’t really have a good answer to that one. My guess is probably we saw the same sorts of variation in their parents as you do in most other people. That’s to say, some of them were probably exposed to cruelty when they grew up and some of them probably were not, probably in about the same ratio as other people. The other thing that I think is interesting is what we consider cruelty, for example oftentimes people forget that hunting is a form of animal abuse. I remember when Obama was President he declared October National Hunting and Fishing Month. And so we have these forms of institutionalized cruelty. Not only did he say it was National Hunting and Fishing Month, he said take your kids outdoors for hunting and fishing. And we don’t think of that as sort of institutionalized cruelty. My own view is that probably the vast majority of people that are engaged in hunting and fishing are not wantonly cruel in other aspects of their lives. They compartmentalize that. I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that hunting and fishing are about killing and hurting animals.

Zazie: Interesting, thank you. This question is from veterinarian Dr. Carol Haak. She says, in the process of doing research for the book, did you find your position of feelings on any particular issue change? Or did you remain mostly in the troubled middle?

Hal: I remained mostly on the troubled middle. I’m a little bit different than a lot of other researchers, probably most researchers in the field, in that a lot of them are drawn to the field because their lives are tied up with animals and they’re animal-lovers. I’m an animal lover too, but I’m not an animal protectionist historically. I’ve got a PhD in Animal Behaviour and I’ve always been fascinated by animals, but I was really drawn to the field not because of my love of animals, it was because I saw this way of looking at some very complicated ways of human psychology. Interestingly, the thing that I changed my mind about most in writing the book wasn’t about ethical issues, it was about the role of evolution and culture in human nature.

Zazie: Oh wow.

Hal: Yeah, I really made a major change in that while I was writing the book. For many, many, years I’ve considered myself an evolutionary psychologist and I still do, but I really strongly believed that most of our behaviour was determined by biological factors that shaped the minds of our ancestors. And I no longer believe that. And the reason why I no longer believe that, the real key to changing my mind on that, is I studied how people choose breeds of dogs for pets. And what I realized is that the role of culture was really much more important than I had realized. That came up in a couple of areas. One was popular culture change, which was the dog breed study. I think if I had to write it over again I would change one thing, and that was I did not realize the importance of culture in how much meat we eat. The degree to which we eat meat, I was thinking everybody’s like Americans and everywhere in the world people are eating a couple hundred pounds of meat per capita per year. And that’s just not true. There are places where people eat 10 pounds of meat per year per capita. In most places in Europe, people eat maybe 150 or less pounds of meat per year. Really the United States is an outlier when it comes to meat consumption. So my argument that humans are natural meat eaters, I don’t believe that. On the other hand, I believe that culture plays an enormous role in the form and frequency that meat eating takes.

"I wanted to get at this issue of how you wake up in the morning and get through the day trying to be a good person in a world which is incredibly morally complicated."

Zazie: That’s really interesting. I wanted to ask you a related question because you write a bit about lapsed vegetarians in the book, and I’m a lapsed vegetarian but I also had a mostly-vegetarian upbringing. So I wanted to ask you about the role of culture in influencing whether or not people eat meat or become vegetarian. Why do you think there are there so many lapsed vegetarians?

Hal: I think that’s really a great question. One is that a lot of vegetarians aren’t really serious about it. So it might be when you look at those percentages – I’ve written a blog about that – it looks like about 85% of vegetarians and about 75% of vegans go back to eating meat. In some cases because they weren’t really serious vegetarians to begin with, they might have done it for a little while, a couple of weeks and then they stop. But more interesting were people that were vegetarians for many years. For example, my daughter was a vegetarian for 20 years. In her case she went back to eating meat for health reasons. And I’ve done some studies and other people have done some studies as well, and there’s not one reason why people go back to eating meat. There are several reasons. One is health, if you feel like your health is going down. Another is social pressure. Less common is that they miss the taste of meat. What we found was very few of the ones that we talked to had changed their ethical stance toward meat. So it wasn’t like they suddenly opened their eyes and said ‘oh, my belief that we shouldn’t eat animals because they’re sentient creatures, that view was wrong’. Hardly anybody felt that way. So they managed to start eating meat but yet still basically keep their moral stance with animals intact.

Zazie: You referred already to your work on the popularity of dog breeds. This question is from book club member Patience Fisher.  She says, I liked how you used the baby names and fashion to illustrate the rise and fall of trends, including choosing dog breeds. I have read that in fashion, there are a few trend-setters that can jump-start this process, which is why the fashion industry gifts their items to celebrities. But it's not just them -- there are also the popular kids and other more local trend setters. I think the same with the dogs – you’re more apt to get a breed you've actually met, especially if it was owned by someone we admire, like a trainer.

Hal: I expect that’s true. I’m almost certain that would be true because from what we know about cultural change, the first part of the question was exactly right, there are influencers definitely. So for example when Paris Hilton gets a Chihuahua, it makes it more likely that other people are going to get Chihuahuas. One of the biggest trends that I see with dogs is the fact that more and more people are getting dogs that are rescue dogs from animal shelters or that have been abused. You see this a lot in celebrity interviews, or movie stars, where they’ll be talking about their dogs and they will almost always say it was a rescue animal. And I think those sort of testimonials have a big impact.

Zazie: Another question from Patience Fisher. She says, I find this book interesting but troubling. I'm wondering if you had trouble sleeping or eating while researching it, and if any of that still haunts you?

Hal: No, and the reason for that is that I’ve been dealing with these issues for 30 years. As I described in the book in the chapter on cock fighting, I originally started thinking about these issues seriously when I started hanging out with cock fighters. When I first started going to cock fights, I had exactly that experience. When I went to my first cock fight I was very, very, troubled by it. It kept haunting me and I could not sleep at night. I had sentences going through my head about what I’d seen at the cock fights. It wasn’t just the chickens dying, it was also that the whole scene was so strange and bizarre. Being around people who on the one hand had obviously enormous respect for animals and really knew a lot about them – cockfighters I wouldn’t say loved their animals but had this enormous respect for them – and at the same time were engaged in this blood sport where they’re killing them, and then once the animal’s dead they just threw it in a pile. I just could not wrap my head around that and I became more and more intrigued by them. The other thing is I found myself liking these rooster fighters. They were very nice to me and my wife and I had just moved to the mountains and were intrigued by our rough Appalachian neighbours. And so I sort of worked my way through that.

"Human-animal relationships offer a window into how we think about ethical issues generally."

And I also had trouble when I did the study with slaughtering for college students and I spent three days helping them slaughter animals. And the same thing, I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t write about it in the book but I did a study with circus animals, and the same thing happened. I was very disturbed by hanging out with these circus animal trainers and seeing how much they cared for the animals, and on the other hand how it’s impossible to justify if you think about the ethics of it. So there have been a number of times in my career where I have had these experiences but I had already dealt with it by the time I was writing the book, does that make sense? I had already come to grips with the issue.

Zazie: So a related question. Were there any bits of the research that were particular highlights for you and that you particularly enjoyed?

Hal: Yeah, absolutely. The chapter that I enjoyed writing the most was the chapter on meat, because I learned so much. A lot of the chapters I knew a lot about the material already because I’d written in the area or I’d done research in the area. But the chapter on meat, I had not, and I was just fascinated, for example by the woman I open that chapter with who is a former vegetarian who is eating raw liver for breakfast. The other highlights came when I was writing the last chapter. The book originally didn’t have a last chapter. So when I talked with the publisher, Harper Collins, it turned out that he had been an animal rights person when he was younger and he understood what the book was about at a very deep level, which a lot of people did not when I would first talk about it and the proposal. He understood it and he looked at me and he said, ‘You know your book really needs a last chapter, doesn’t it?’ And I knew that deep in my heart and I said, ‘Yeah’. But I did not know how I was going to end it until I was more than half way through the book and that’s when I ran into Michael Mountain. When we went out and spent a weekend at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, it was a real highlight, hanging out there. And then meeting that woman Judy Muzzi In a bar in South Carolina and going out with her on the turtle rescue mission, those were real highlights too.

Zazie: I like what you say in the last chapter about what it means to be human and what Anthrozoology can tell us about being human and I wondered if I could get you to say a bit more about that?

Hal: I think that’s really why I wrote the book. At one time I was interviewed by a guy that has a radio talk show named Frank Stashio. I walked into his office and he said, ‘Ah, Dr. Herzog, I’ve just finished your book. It’s not really about animals, is it?’ And I wanted to kiss the guy, because he totally got it. On some levels the book is about animals, but I really wanted it to be deeper than that. I wanted to get at this issue of how you wake up in the morning and get through the day trying to be a good person in a world which is incredibly morally complicated. I’m constantly torn by the cultural and moral issues that we’re dealing with now, particularly related to the political system we’re in, and I think these are played out in our relationships with animals. One of the things about the study of human-animal relationships is people are so passionate about their relationship with animals. So if you take an issue like the debate over breed specific dog legislation, the partisans on both sides of that issue are so passionate. You know the issue really well. On the one hand you’ve got people who think pit bulls are the most misunderstood creatures on earth, on the other you’ve got people who think they are the devil incarnate, and it’s so hard for them to reach common ground. And that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with in our political situation. Pit bull legislation is particularly interesting in this regard because the underlying theme in some ways is race. And so we see these really big themes about human nature played out on this arena of how we think about other species.

Zazie: So if you were to pick one particular human-animal issue that you think is the most important, or the most important at the moment, would you pick pit bulls or would it be something else that you would pick?

Hal: No it would not be pit bulls. The most important one in terms of the grand scheme of things would be meat eating, because we’re talking about pitting human nature, our desire to eat meat and in some ways our need to eat small amounts of meat, versus the knowledge that as more and more people decide to eat animals we have an environmentally unsustainable position. So we’re not only talking about millions and millions of animals killed for our dining pleasure, we’re also talking about the environmental cost of raising these millions and millions of animals. And then you’ve also got political issues for example in China, in India, in parts of Africa, where people have not had the luxury of eating meat. As they get wealthier they want to eat the stuff that we’ve been eating. So do we have the right to tell them, no you can’t eat that? So I think if you look at suffering, the environmental cost of the human-animal relationship that would be one of the biggest. And I think another big one would be the ethics of our relationship with pets. What right do we have to take an animal, the descendants of wolves, breed them in ways which cause them harm, intentionally breed them with harm, bring them into our home and not only do we feed them what we want to feed them we decide that they don’t have the right to a sex life and we cut off their reproductive organs. And we do this because of our personal pleasure, because we really want to love these animals. In some ways there are parallels between our love for pets and our love for meat, in that they both involve our preferences for what brings us joy, at in some cases a cost to the animals, but with meat always a cost to the animals.

Zazie: That’s really interesting, thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Hal: Well just thanks to you for picking the book and to the members of the book club for reading it and thinking about it, discussing it. Their questions are very thoughtful.

Zazie: Thank you!

You can read more about the book on Hal’s website , follow Hal on Twitter and read Hal’s blog Animals and Us at Psychology Today.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list or subscribe to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.

Bio: Hal Herzog is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University. He received a BS in psychology from the American University of Beirut and a M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Tennessee. Trained in animal behavior, for the past 30 years his research has focused on psychological and social aspects of human-animal interactions. These have included studies of public attitudes towards the use of animals, the decision-making processes of animal care and use committees, the roles of emotion and logic in moral judgment, the psychology of animal activism, and the impact of pets on human health and happiness. His articles have appeared in journals such as Science, the American Psychologist, Ethics and Behavior, the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, Anthrozoƶs, Society and Animals, Animal Behavior, the American Scholar, and Biology Letters. His articles and op eds have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and Wired Magazine. His book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals (Harper) has been translated into nine languages, and he writes the blog Animals and Us for Psychology Today magazine. In 2013, he was given the Distinguished Scholar Award by the International Society for Anthrozoology.  He lives near Asheville, North Carolina with his wife Mary Jean and their cat Tilly.

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