How Hungarian Dog Owners Perceive "Dominance" Between Their Dogs

New research investigates how Hungarian dog owners with two or more dogs describe “dominance” in the dogs’ relationship, and which pairings are most likely to involve conflict.

How Hungarian dog owners perceive dominance relationships between dogs. Photo shows two retrievers playing in the sea
Photo: Gerard Koudenburg/Shutterstock

“Dominance” is a loaded word in dog training. A new scientific paper by Enikő Kubinyi and Lisa Wallis (Family Dog Project, Eötvös Lorand University) begins by noting how contested the term is in ethology and psychology, before reporting on an investigation into the factors that influence Hungarian dog owners’ use of the term to describe the relationship between two of their dogs.

They say the results show the Hungarian public’s use is broadly in line with that of ethologists. They also found that when two dogs in the same household are male and female, a spayed female dog is more likely to be considered dominant and to behave in ways that might cause conflict between the two dogs.

Dominance means different things in different circumstances, and it’s important to note this study is not about dog training, but about how people describe canine-canine relationships. Amongst canine scientists, while some refer to dominance hierarchies in dogs, others argue that these apparent hierarchies can be better explained by the value of resources to dogs, dogs’ personality, learning, or age.

Amongst ordinary people, the word dominance is often used to mean the dog has misbehaved, and unfortunately is linked to the use of aversive training methods such as positive punishment, which has risks to animal welfare and may provoke an aggressive response (see: seven reasons to use reward-based dog training for more).

This study, however, focused on the use of the word to describe which of two dogs that live together is the ”boss”.

Dog owners with at least two dogs at home were asked to answer a questionnaire about two of their dogs. This included saying which of the dogs was the “boss” (i.e. dominant), and which of the dogs was the first or most likely to do certain things, or if they were similar.

The results show that 87% of people described one of their dogs as the “boss”, while 10% said they were similar (the remainder did not know). Dogs perceived as dominant were more likely to: win fights; be first to get treats like a marrow bone; have the best resting place; be in front when defending the group; be more aggressive; be in front during walks (presumably off-leash); to be the older of the two dogs; to eat first when they are given food at the same time; be considered smarter; be the first to bark, or bark more, at strangers; pee over the other dog’s pee; be more impulsive; and receive more licks to the mouth from the other dog.

Interestingly, a few of these are like personality traits (being smart, impulsive, and aggressive), and age is included in the list too.

Not correlated with dominance were: which dog was first to greet the owner; spay/neuter status; physical condition; being heavier; whether the dog was male or female; how obedient the dog was; and retrieving the ball more often in games of fetch.

The questions where people were most likely to rate their dogs as similar included the dogs’ physical condition, who greeted the owner first, how smart the dogs were, which dog had the best resting place, and which dog would get a treat first. It seems possible some of this relates to management practices (providing multiple, comfortable dog beds, and ensuring dogs do not have to compete over marrow bones, for example).

The researchers acknowledge that one of the limitations of the research is the large amount of missing data, as many owners did not complete the full set of questions. While 1,151 people completed the questionnaire, some of the analyses were based on a much smaller sample.

It could be that people found the questions hard to answer because they did not pay enough attention to the dogs’ relationship, but I have to wonder if the option of saying the extent to which something applied would have been easier for people to complete than choosing if they were similar or different (this would also have allowed for different statistics).

As participants were recruited via an ethology Facebook page, they are not a representative sample of Hungarian dog owners. There are cultural differences between how people keep dogs in Hungary and north America, and so the results are not likely to generalize to the US.

Nonetheless, understanding how people perceive the relationship between dogs that live together is important. The results don’t answer the question as to whether dominance (as used by dog owners) is simply a social construct or reflects actual differences in canine behaviour. The researchers suggest future research include behavioural observations so as to directly compare dog owners’ usage of the term dominance to that of ethologists.

This study found that in mixed-sex pairs of dogs, a spayed female is most likely to be considered dominant. The scientists suggest that not spaying the female dog (but neutering the male) may help dogs get along, and say further research on the effects of hormones on canine behaviour is needed.

The researchers say,
“Since humans are ultimately responsible for choosing the social partners (human and conspecific) of their dogs, they have a duty to try to ensure that social relationships are as amicable as possible, in order to keep chronic stress levels, and therefore welfare at an acceptable level.”
Earlier research in the US – that instead used the term rivalry – found that low-rivalry dogs are more influenced by another dog. More research on how co-habiting dogs get along would be welcome. Studying the factors that are linked to affiliative behaviours between co-habiting dogs would be especially interesting.

Dr. Marc Bekoff interviewed Drs. Kubinyi and Wallis about the study here.

P.S. If you are a pet blogger, consider taking part in this year's Train for Rewards blog party.

Kubinyi, E., & Wallis, L. J. (2019). Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance. PeerJ, 7.

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Invitation to the 2019 Train for Rewards Blog Party

Join the pet blogging community in supporting reward-based training of dogs, cats, and other companion animals. #Train4Rewards

Invitation to the 2019 Train for Rewards blog party

Are you a blogger? Do you support reward-based training for dogs and other animals? Would you like to take part in the fourth annual #Train4Rewards blog party?

You are invited to write a blog post about reward-based training of dogs or other companion animals, post it on your own blog on the set date, then come and share a link to it here. Bloggers from anywhere in the world are invited to take part.

In the past, posts have covered the training of dogs, cats and horses. Posts on the training of rats, mice, ferrets, rabbits, and fish are all welcome too.

Read on to find out more.

On Friday 14th or Saturday 15th June:

1. Publish a post on your blog in support of the #Train4Rewards blog party. It can be words, photos, video, a podcast, or a combination, and relate to any kind of companion animal.  I’ve put some suggestions below to get you started.

Double-check your post to make sure the tone is friendly and supportive to people who might not know anything about positive reinforcement training – we want to be encouraging and upbeat.

2. Include the #Train4Rewards button in your post and make it link to the blog party page (see below for more info).

3. Add your blog to the list on here. The list will be open from 5am PST on 14th June until 8am PST on 16th June. Don’t miss the deadline!

The small version of the Train for Rewards blog party button
The small version of the blog party button

On Sunday 16th June:

1. Check out the full list of participating blogs on Visit the other blogs, and leave comments to show support for your fellow bloggers.

2. Share your blog post on social media using the hashtag #Train4Rewards.

3. Share your favourite posts from other participating blogs on social media, also using the hashtag #Train4Rewards. You don’t have to share all the posts (unless you want to), so pick the ones you like best and share those. You can spread this out throughout the day.

4. Feel proud of your contribution to improving animal welfare. Reward yourself with a piece of cake, a bunch of flowers, a walk in the woods, or whatever makes you happy.

Invitation to the Train for Rewards blog party. Photo shows strawberry shortcake and tea.
Photo: Jill Wellington/Pixabay

Ideas for posts

Blog posts can be about any aspect of reward-based training and can use text, photo, podcast or video, so feel free to use your imagination. This year, the blog party coincides with Father’s Day, so that might give you some ideas too.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • What you enjoy about training using positive reinforcement
  • How to use positive reinforcement to teach a behaviour or solve a behaviour problem
  • How to train your cat to go into a carrier
  • A video of your dog, cat, rabbit, rat or ferret doing tricks
  • Reviews of books or videos that are about reward-based training
  • The key thing that made you become a crossover trainer
  • Photos of dogs (or other animals) enjoying a training session
  • The best treats to use as rewards
  • Recipes for training treats
  • An ode to your bait pouch, written by your dog
  • Why you love your dog trainer

The train for rewards blog party button
The regular Train for Rewards blog party button (800 x 800 pixels)

How to get the most out of the blog party

1. Bring your best post. It’s like wearing a beautiful dress to a party. The people who got the most out of previous years’ blog parties wrote great new posts. If you must use an older post, you should update it. People are more likely to share new content.

2. Take time to edit. It’s generally best if you can set aside the first draft of your post for a day or two, and then come back to edit. Re-writing is always an important part of the writing process.

3. Use a great photo. When you add your post to the list here, you will get the chance to choose the photo that will appear as your thumbnail. Everyone will have the Train for Rewards button, so if you have your own photo it will make yours stand out more. Also, photos really help with sharing on social media.

You can use your own photo, and we love to see photos of your own pets. Or you can find one that is available for free use or pay for a stock photo (just make sure you’re following copyright rules). Several sites have free photos available, including Pixabay, Unsplash, and Stocksnap.

The blog party rules

What is allowed: anything that celebrates the reward-based training of companion animals.

What is not allowed: training that uses pain, including but not limited to choke and prong collars, electronic shock collars, alpha rolls, or other aversive techniques; blog posts of a commercial or spammy nature.

I reserve the right to remove posts if they are inappropriate and/or not within the spirit of the blog party. Please keep posts family-friendly. No discussions will be entered into about posts that break the rules.

If you want, you can let me know that you are planning to take part. I look forward to reading your posts!

Technical details of adding the button: 

The button is already available on this page, and the url it should link to will be added to this page nearer the time.

You can download the photo by right-clicking on it.

Ideally, you should make the blog button link to the blog party; if you prefer, you can include a text link as well or instead. Without a link somewhere in your post, it will not be possible to add it to the link-up.

Please make sure the link to the blog party is a nofollow link.  Google does not like it if people use follow links in blog parties and can apply penalties, which no-one wants. Typically, to make a link you just click the ‘nofollow’ button when you add it.

Technical details of adding the link to your blog post to the blog party:

You need to post the specific permalink to your blog post, not the main url of your blog.

If you have several pictures in your post, you will have a choice of thumbnails. Choose the one you want.

If you make a mistake or want to choose a different thumbnail, you can delete it and start again, any time up to the deadline.

Blog posts will be displayed in a random order, so you do not have to be the first to add your link – just don’t miss the deadline of 8am Pacific time on Sunday 16th June.

Companion Animal Psychology News May 2019

Insect-detecting dogs, the challenges of science with cats, and spider's brains...

Companion Animal Psychology News May 2019;  photo shows banner

Some of my favourites this month

“Three very good dogs – named Bayar, Judd and Sasha – have sniffed out the endangered Alpine Stonefly, one of the smallest animals a dog has been trained to successfully detect in its natural habitat.” Sit! Seek! Fly! Scientists train dogs to sniff out endangered insects by Dr. Julia Mynott.

“The cats performed as well as the dogs. But, foreshadowing a headache that would plague the field of feline social cognition, several cats "dropped out" of the study, according to the research paper. Some stopped paying attention. Others simply walked away from the testing site.” Cats rival dogs on many tests of social smarts. But is anyone brave enough to study them? This post by David Grimm is a must-read.

“Many trainers advise against these types of collars altogether, in part because the risk of injury to dogs is significant.” Should dogs be shocked, choked or pronged? is a powerful essay by Dr. Marc Bekoff and Mary Angilly.

Do you show videos to your cats? At Lifehacker, Nick Douglas has compiled a set of videos of songbirds to keep your cat entertained.

“The changes wrought on dogs in the Victorian era were revolutionary.” How the Victorians engineered the dog breeds we love today by Joey Watson and Ian Coombe.

"Wouldn’t they [patients in the ER] benefit from a bit of canine attention and affection?  After all, many of them are stressed out." Do therapy dogs belong in hospital emergency rooms? by Dr. Hal Herzog.

Did you know that a spider’s brain can be up to 80% of its body? They aren’t companion animals, but bizarre brains of the animal kingdom from Charlotte Swanson at Science World is an interesting read.

“This type of barking is truly a product of (generally mistaken) human intervention.” Let’s tell it why it is: Why demand barking isn’t by Kristi Benson CTC.

"But what does “well balanced” mean in relation to a dog’s behavior? It doesn’t refer to a dog balancing a cookie on their nose." A well-balanced companion by Dr. Joan Forry.

“In coaching sessions and workshops, I've talked with many pet professionals who struggle with their own sense of worth and a feeling that they need to earn their place at the table. I can relate; I've felt that way too.” In Worth, Colleen Pelar talks to Kathy Sdao about imperfection, compassion, and contra-freeloading.   

A beginner’s guide to the catio trend has lots of photos of cat patios.

Animal Book Club

This month the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Animal Madness: Inside Their Minds by Laurel Braitman. It’s an intriguing history of madness in the animal kingdom, and what it tells us about ourselves.

Cover of Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman, this month's book

All of the books we've read are available in my Amazon store:

Support Companion Animal Psychology

Companion Animal Psychology is supported by animal lovers like you. If you like what you see, you can buy me a coffee on Ko-fi, or even make it a monthly thing.

This month I’d like to say a special thank you to Sandy C and Connor and two anonymous people for their kindness. You are amazing, and your support really makes a difference.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

This month, I was absolutely thrilled to interview Cat Warren about her book, What the Dog Knows. This was the book club choice for April and I highly recommend it. A young reader’s edition is coming in October.

I looked at a study that investigated whether dogs prefer to receive their favourite food or a variety of foods as a reward in training.  With results showing individual differences, both in terms of favourite food and preference for consistency or variety, it goes to show that you need to know what the dog you are training prefers.

Eight ways to help your cat go to the vet is full of useful tips including training your cat to go in a carrier, and how to get them in there when you haven’t done that training.

Most recently, I wrote about three important ways to give your pets choices. Do you do all three of these?

Over at my Psychology Today blog, Fellow Creatures, I wrote about cat owners, personality, and pet parenting style as well as how training methods affect the service dog-military veteran relationship. It turns out those who use positive reinforcement more often have a closer bond with their PTSD service dog, although the results do not say anything about causality.

Pets in Art

This month’s pets in art is by the famous French painter, Georges Seurat. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte took two years to complete and is from 1884/1886.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte painting by Seurat

The catalogue entry from the Art Institute of Chicago says, “With what resembles scientific precision, the artist tackled the issues of color, light, and form. Inspired by research in optical and color theory, he juxtaposed tiny dabs of colors that, through optical blending, form a single and, he believed, more brilliantly luminous hue.”

The painting shows people relaxing on the banks of the river Seine on a nice day, except those at the front of the painting are in shadow, and there is a stillness to the human figures. I feel like the dogs have more movement. As well as several dogs, in the right you can see a lady walking a monkey on a leash. The monkey has significance, as well as the woman with a fishing rod, according to this Mental Floss article.

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Three Important Ways to Give Your Pet Choices

Do you do these three things for your pet?

3 things all owners should do for their pet. Photo shows white GSD.
Photo: Anetapics/Shutterstock

I just went to brush my tabby cat, Harley, at the usual time of day. He was up in his cat tree and, unusually, did not come down. No matter; I can try again later as he loves to be brushed. Surprisingly, my tortoiseshell cat Melina came running to be brushed. She stood to be brushed, then laid down on her side, all the while purring away. Then when she'd had enough, she hopped up and walked off.

It made me think of my post about the importance of choices for pets, the right to walk away. That post has been enduringly popular and so I decided to revisit the topic of choices for dogs and cats. Choice, control, and routine, are important ways to look after our pet’s welfare and help them feel safe.

I'm not the only one who thinks choices are important. In 2017, when I asked experts how to make the world better for dogs, Mia Cobb picked up on the issue of choices. She said we should,
“ask ourselves at every step, "is this what my dog wants to do, if given a choice?" Not all situations where our dogs would choose differently are avoidable (e.g. temperature taking at the vet clinic) but people should consider dogs and the way their lives are lived from the canine perspective.”
And when experts told me about how to make the world better for cats, Dr. Naomi Harvey referred to choices for pet cats.
“Many cats are capable of great affection, and if given a choice would choose to be in your company rather than alone, which can mean their welfare is easily compromised when left alone for long periods or are shut outside all day.”
Now we can’t do everything our pet dog or cat would like, although it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if we did (would it mean not going to work?!). But there are important ways in which we can give pets the chance to make up their own minds.

Here are 3 choices all pet owners should give their dog or cat

1. The Choice to be Petted – Or Not

We get pets because we love them, and they have cute faces and soft fur that we just want to smoosh…

But not all pets like to be smooshed… or hugged, or even touched.

And insisting on hugging or petting a reluctant dog or cat is not fair on them and can result in a bite or scratches for you.

It is especially important to teach children how to pet cats and dogs and to give the animal a choice, because children are at greatest risk of dog bites. While most people know they need to supervise children and pets closely, many fail to recognize signs of anxiety in interactions between young children and dogs.   (If you want some tips, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?).

Always call the animal to you, and if they prefer to stay away, let them. And always give them the chance to move away from being petted if they prefer.

If you stop petting and they want more, they will let you know.

2. The Choice to Go to a Safe Space

When life gets busy and there is a lot going on, it can be stressful for dogs and cats. This is where it can help them to have a safe space to go and hide or keep quiet if they wish.

For dogs, a safe space might be a crate with a nice bed in it, or a dog bed in a quiet room to which they always have access. Make sure it is big enough to allow them to stretch out and turn around. If there are children in the house, you can use a pet barrier or pet gate to keep the dog separate from the children.

Three important choices to give your dog or cat. Photo shows kitten hiding
Photo: MrThanatsit/Shutterstock

Cats like hiding places. Ideally they will have nice cat-sized hiding places, and the best is probably high up since cats like high up places too. A cat bed on a shelf, a cat tree with several levels, or a simple cardboard box might do the trick. (Or if your cat is like my tortoiseshell, the chance to burrow into the pile of clean clothes that are waiting to be ironed). If you have multiple cats, they each need their own spaces to go.

The rule is that the safe space belongs to the pet and no one in the household will disturb them when they are there.

This means they always have a space where they can chill out and relax.

3. A Choice to Train – or Not

Another way we can give dogs and cats a choice is in whether to take part in training or not.

When we use reward-based methods that rely on positive reinforcement, training should be fun.

But it’s up to us to motivate the dog (or cat). Typically, that means using food in training such as great dog training treats.

And if the dog wanders off? That’s fine. Maybe they got tired, maybe something else is more interesting, or maybe we need to use better treats next time. Or perhaps it was too hard and they need the training broken down into easier steps.

It is better to train several short (e.g. 5 minute) sessions a day rather than one long session in which the dog gets bored.

And this applies to cats too. Yes, cats can be trained – training cats to like their carrier can help with vet visits,  and this often means the cat will choose to go in their carrier (perhaps it can be one of their safe spaces?). As well, training tricks can help shelter cats to be more content.

Training isn’t about forcing your dog or cat to perform (or stop) particular behaviours. Think of training as a way to provide enrichment and to help your pet cope with everyday situations.

Summary: The Importance of  Choices for Dogs and Cats

We decide almost everything for our pets. Giving them choices can help us look after their welfare because it helps them avoid situations they find stressful and find more opportunities to do the things they like

How do you give your dog or cat choices?

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?

See also: Five fun things to do to make your dog happy today and five things to do for your cat today.

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Fellow Creatures: Two Recent Posts

I have two recent posts at my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures.

The first post looks at links between a cat owner's personality and their cat's health and behaviour. In particular, when owners have a neurotic personality, this is associated with negative outcomes for their cat. Read more in cat owners,  personality, and pet parenting style.

The relationship between owner personality and cat behaviour. Photo shows person stroking cat under chin
Photo: Yerlin Matu/Unsplash

The second post looks at a recent study of the relationship between military veterans with PTSD and their psychiatric service dog. The results show just close the human-animal bond is, even for veterans with severe symptoms. At the same time, the bond is closer in those who use more positive reinforcement to train their dog. Training methods affect the service dog--veteran relationship.

Training methods affect the bond between veterans and their service dogs. Most of the dogs are Labradors, pictured
Photo: danielle828/Pixabay

Interview with Cat Warren

Cat Warren on working with her cadaver dog, Solo, and her bestselling book, What the Dog Knows.

Interview with Cat Warren about her book, What the Dog Knows. Photo shows Warren with her dog Rev
Cat Warren with Rev

Cat Warren’s New York Times bestseller, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, was the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for April. I interviewed Warren about her wonderful book, training scent detection dogs, and caring for working dogs’ welfare.

The Young Readers Edition of What the Dog Knows will be published in October.

Zazie: What inspired you to write this book?

Cat: You know, this goes back a little because the book first came out in 2013. I really conceived of it in 2009 and it was quite literally, Solo and I had done a very hard search that day and it had taken all day and I was just exhausted. And he had worked long and hard and honestly. My legs were covered with seed ticks, and I was on the couch with my husband and I looked at David and said, “You know what, I think I want to write about this so I don’t forget.” So that was the beginning of it. And then it turned into a reporting project and a research project, which I love, but it also turned into a thing where you watch somehow more carefully and you pay more attention, just like when you video when you’re doing dog training and then you look at the video afterwards. You see so much more. And so in a way it sort of did double duty. I think that it made me more aware, as I was training and handling Solo, and simultaneously there was that kind of joy in reaching out to really good handlers and trainers and scientists, and finding out things I didn’t know. So that was a two-fer!

Interview with Cat Warren about  What the Dog  Knows. Photo shows book cover

Zazie: That’s fantastic. One of the things that interested me in the book is how you talk about where to search. I was wondering how your work with Solo has affected how you think about landscapes?

Cat: You know it’s such an interesting issue and it’s been a few years. I’ve got a new pup who’s about 11 months old and I think that he will really enjoy this work. I’m giving him a little longer because he’s a little slow to develop in some areas. But I don’t think I’ll look at landscapes the same way again. And that’s not because you look out at a landscape and think “There’s a dead person out there”. Instead when you look out at a landscape, immediately your mind starts to go to “how would I approach this if I were to be searching it?” And so I’m always kind of looking at points of access in a terrain, at where there are gaps, and I still pay attention just subconsciously to wind direction and things like that. Inevitably it does change the way you look at the world. And it doesn’t make it feel like a more dangerous place to me. I really don’t feel that way, even after years of doing this work. It actually is a way to appreciate nature. I know that sounds strange but it’s like a very thoughtful walk in the woods where you’re paying attention to things that normally you wouldn’t be paying attention to.

Zazie: When you’re training, how important is it to train to try and avoid false positives, and to talk about that kind of training?

Cat: I think that in so many ways training itself is greatly an effort in avoiding false positives. It’s such an interesting and controversial thing although it shouldn’t be. We know how in tune dogs are with us and to some degree when you’re working with any dog, you want that dog to be in tune with you and vice versa. Whatever dance you’re going to, you want that partnership. And many, many, times it involves having a dog be deeply aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and that dog is trying to adjust and vice versa to you. With search and scent work, yes you want to have that but you also have to have the additional thing, as you would with a herding dog, where the dog has permission not to “follow the leader” but to be the leader. The dog becomes a more independent appendage, because otherwise why use a dog, right? The dog needs to be able to move out and move places where you might not be able to get to, etc., and so the whole issue of false positives is that you’re working with the dog so that it becomes independent enough of you that it’s not always looking towards you to make decisions about “have I found this scent or not?”

"The fact is that R+ training has made me a better handler."

I see dogs, young dogs, uncertain dogs, dogs that are being exposed to new scent, they’ll sometimes check back with their owner, saying “Is this it?” And if you’re introducing a new scent, it’s fine if the dog is going to do that to actually say “Why yes, that is, and how smart you are for finding it”. But what I see also a lot and I think what creates a lot of false positives, and it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, is I see even fairly experienced search and rescue people do this thing in training where the dog comes into the area where you’ve got the source, and the dog kind of goes somewhere near and does a sort of half an alert, and then the handler will say “Show me, show me”. It sort of gives it away. So instead of the dog going “I’ve got it and I’m going to do a down right by this source” or a bark, the dog’s just in the area then the handler has them narrow it down by basically saying “hey yeah, you’ve got it just get a little closer”. Does that make sense? And it easily creates false positives. And I understand the enthusiasm of the handler to want to say, “Show me, show me, show me,” but ultimately that will create false positives as well.

So just to sum this up, the area of false positives is that whole area where dogs and people have all of these strengths with exchanging oxytocin, bonding together, the dog being able to read you incredibly carefully. And so for search work in training you have to work constantly to either not know what’s there because somebody else has put it out for you, or to have nothing out there so that the dog learns that it will have to work for a long time and there may not be something there. So in training it’s so important to do that, because on searches 9 out of 10 times you’re not finding anything. And so the dogs have to be in a sense conditioned to not go “every 5 minutes I find a hide and I get a reward”. People who do obedience have the same problem. They give treats and encourage when they’re training in obedience, and then they go into the show ring and the dog’s got to work for 10 minutes solid with no treats.

Zazie: Now I have a couple of questions from a book club member, Marie-Ange Saintagne. Her first question is, “thinking back, what would you done differently with Solo now? The book was published in 2013, and with the new science on dog behavior, I was wondering if you would now change some training methods or approach at all.”

Cat: Yes, absolutely. The good thing about dog training and dog training methods is how far they’ve come. And so I can indulge in guilt post-facto of methods that I used that formerly were called balanced methods and that we now know are not the most scientifically sound practices that worked for dogs. And certainly Solo was truly a resilient dog, but while he was 90% positively trained, I used a pinch collar on him, not when we were searching but to get him to the search area. He was a big dog, pulled hard, and I was a small woman and it was like, okay, a pinch collar. At that time it was like no big deal, right. Everybody used pinch collars. Well, I would be horrified today to use a pinch collar. I have an 85lb puppy who is still pulling like the dickens, and I’m working on him. But with my last dog from the Czech Republic, the guy who’s now got epilepsy, I use a flat fabric collar and sometimes there’ll be a little bit of a martingale but it doesn’t work as a choke, it just keeps it from sliding over the back of his ears. It’s a good example. The fact is that R+ training has made me a better handler.

Interview with Cat Warren about  What the Dog Knows. Photo shows cover of Young Reader's Edition

And then secondly I think that foundations are really important. So right now I have a lot of people pressing me to go ahead and get Rev started on cadaver, and I want his and my relationship to be rock solid and I want him to be fully confident. There’s no reason to put him on scent at 11 months. He’s got a great nose. That’s going to be the least of it. I want him happy and confident and sure of himself in lots of arenas before I actually bother training him on cadaver scents. Because he’s got a good nose. He likes to use it.

And then the final thing is, scent work isn’t for every dog. Not every dog was meant to be a cadaver dog or a something else dog. Solo was a happy accident. He loved the work, he was incredibly resilient, I made tons of mistakes, he got past them because of the kind of dog he was. He was arrogant, he was full of himself, and he was really happy. With subsequent dogs, the degree to which I’ve had to learn to be a better, more nuanced trainer, and to pay attention when there’s hesitation or fear, I’m better now at reading it and better at dealing with it. You know, a dog that doesn’t want to go up and down stairs, the canine division is just like well you just ignore him and pull him up there somehow. Damn the torpedoes, right. And that’s not the way it works.

Zazie: I have a second question from Marie-Ange. She says, “I am very interested in working dogs and ethics: what were you doing to balance Solo's professional activities? Did you consider that cadaver search was fulfilling all of Solo's basic needs? What about providing special support for intense physical and mental training such as recuperation to allow cortisol level to decrease, massage, etc?”

Cat: If you’re talking about for instance law enforcement canines, it’s a huge issue where some of them are basically working every day. With Solo, we probably did 7 or 8 searches a year, maybe once a month, so there was always plenty of recovery time. I think it’s a really interesting question. I think that dogs can get physically exhausted and mentally exhausted by both training and searching. I think that we need to be cognizant of both those issues, and they’re separate and different issues. I mean in North Carolina, temperature can play a huge role. There are dogs that are doing searches where you really shouldn’t have them out working for more than 6 minutes in a particular condition before you bring their body temperature down and hydrate them and let them rest. For a lot of search dogs and the issue of stress and cortisol, you’re going to be paying attention to it because a stressed out dog doesn’t want to work. So there’s this point at which, if you’re pressing your dog and you’re not reading if the dog is showing signs of stress, then you’re not really searching successfully. Cadaver is one of those things that’s a little different than live finds in that with cadaver searches you’re actually going out, you’re working fairly small sectors, you’re bringing the dog back, cooling them down, resting them, playing with them, and then taking them back out.

"I don’t think I’ll look at landscapes the same way again. And that’s not because you look out at a landscape and think “There’s a dead person out there”."

And one of the other things that I did about stress levels is that I was fortunate that I mostly worked with law enforcement who knew me or knew of me. And I would bring along a jar that had some decomposition in it, where I would set it away from the search site, letting police know where it was. And then if we went out and for 15 or 20 minutes searched unsuccessfully in the area, I could just circle around the area where I had put the hide, on the way back to the car. And then, “Look at this! Oh my god you’ve done it!”

So that’s a real advantage. And live finds people do that for their dogs.  They can have a team mate hide or someone else, and that helps get the dogs joy up. But it’s also so interesting. It is a stress reliever in a way.

I will say, a lot of people got the wrong message from the dogs of 9/11. This notion got out there in the mainstream media that dogs mourn when they find somebody who’s dead. And the fact is that with cadaver dogs, that’s not the case. Now it is true that for an inexperienced cadaver dog that’s finding a whole body, that can be stressful if they aren’t accustomed to doing that. For the same reason that puppies can be frightened the first time you lie on the floor, and the puppy goes wait a second I knew you a second ago but now you’re lying on the floor. So that can cause a certain type of stress. But the dogs of 9/11 were live find dogs who weren’t finding anybody alive. And the stress between the handlers and the dogs was simply that they were working far too long, far too hard, and there was absolutely no reward there. And then it got out that dogs are stressed or dogs mourn if they find somebody dead. If they’re cadaver dogs and properly trained, they’re going to feel the opposite.

Zazie: If someone has a dog that they think would benefit from having a job, what advice would you give them?

Cat: I think that all dogs benefit from the kind of mental work that a job entails. I’m of the opinion that there are so many wonderful sports out there for dogs that provide 95% of what a particular dog might need. So my advice is go out and find one of those really serious sports. One of the things with getting a cadaver dog up and running is that it is such a crapshoot. I’ve had two failures. I have a dog who just ultimately didn’t really enjoy the work, and was not quite resilient enough to do the work, and then Jaco who was from the Czech Republic was brilliant at it but started having seizures. So finding something else that the dog enjoys and that you enjoy is critical.

"Solo was a happy accident... He was arrogant, he was full of himself, and he was really happy."

And I would also say, if people want to think about a dog in search and rescue and everything else, try to connect up with a team that will allow you to volunteer with them, or come along or observe, because for lots of teams they actually want you to be a ground pounder before you ever run a dog. In other words to have all those search and rescue skills and the devotion to search and rescue under your belt before you even think about a dog. So what I think is, if you’ve got a dog like that, see if canine nose work is something they would enjoy, or herding, or Treibball, or agility. None of those activities shut off the option of the dog becoming a cadaver dog or a search and rescue dog.  Those are all really complementary activities.

Zazie: I found the book absolutely fascinating and I know the book club did too. It’s a great read. So I would like to know what you are working on now?

Cat: There are two answers. Right now, the Young Reader’s Edition of What The Dog Knows is coming out in October. I completely rewrote the book and we’ve added 130 illustrations and photos, and scientific sidebars. I wanted to communicate some of the complicated interesting stuff to kids, because that’s where you get the next generation. So that’s coming out in October from Simon and Schuster.

And I’m playing around, frankly, with the idea of working on a book on farming in an era of climate change. It’s far away from dogs, but it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. So I may do another dog book. What’s nice is to watch all the great stuff that’s coming out. I’m just reading Clive Wynne’s book that’s coming out in October on dog cognition stuff. I just feel like there’s so many good people writing about animals these days.

Zazie: I agree, it’s brilliant.

Cat: It’s a little daunting, actually! And I just signed up for your blog.

Zazie: Thank you!

Cat: And I’ve also got involved with Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, which has been a great resource, and a resource I would suggest to anybody. I know there are so many people who are isolated a little bit. Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is such a good way to go ahead and be able to take classes and get good instruction, even if you’re far away from a good trainer.

Zazie: Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

Cat: I’m really happy that people enjoyed the book and I do think it’s important to give that notion of feeling like training each dog and learning. I’m kind of amazed when I look at what I’m doing with Rev, and go “oh my god”. This is such a different dog but also my handling and training techniques have changed so much. And that’s the joy with working with animals. It’s like it’s always new.

Zazie: Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure to chat to you.

What the Dog Knows is available in my Amazon store and in bookstores near you. You can find a full list of interviews at Companion Animal Psychology here.

About Cat Warren: 

What the Dog Knows, published by Touchstone in 2013, was a New York Times and National Indie bestseller, and won a number of awards, including being longlisted for the prestigious PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. It has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, German, and Spanish, was a best seller in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, and was selected by BBC radio in 2018 as a nonfiction book club pick.

Cat Warren is a professor at North Carolina State University, where she teaches science journalism and creative nonfiction. Before starting her academic career, she was a newspaper reporter across the United States, from California to Wyoming, to Connecticut, and won numerous journalism awards for that work. She lives with her husband, David, a retired philosophy professor, and their two German shepherds, Jaco and Rev, in Durham, North Carolina.  For more information, visit

You can follow Cat Warren on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

This interview has been very lightly edited for length.

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Companion Animal Psychology Book Club May 2019

“A lovely, big-hearted book…brimming with compassion and the tales of the many, many humans who devote their days to making animals well” (The New York Times).

Animal Book Club May 2019

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology book club is reading Animal Madness: Inside Their Minds by Laurel Braitman.

From the back cover,
"Will zoo gorillas laugh if you make faces at them? Can a dog develop Alzheimers? Are some cats as anxious as their owners? Will a parrot feel better on antidepressants? Can a goat cheer up a horse? Laurel Braitman, a historian of science, answers these questions and many more as she takes the reader on a tour of the inner lives of animals, showing the surprising ways their emotional and mental health so often mirrors our own. Animal Madness tells the compelling history of our efforts to make sense of animal minds, from Charles Darwin to today's Harvard psychiatrists' work with gorilla patients. But it also tethers that history to accounts of her rescue dogs and their progress toward happiness, of contemporary elephants whose hearts are healed by new love, and of canine and human war veterans working to overcome PTSD together."
You can find this book, and much more, in my Amazon store:

Animal Book  Club May 2019: Animal Madness, cover shown

Are you reading Animal Madness too? Leave a comment to let me know what you think of the book!

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In Training, Pay Your Dog with the Food or Foods They Love, Science Says

Should you use your dog's favourite food or a variety of treats as rewards in training? Scientists find it varies, depending on the dog, but in the long term variety is better.

Dogs have individual preferences for rewards, but in the long term variety helps in dog training. Photo shows puppy running.
Photo: Dora Zett/Shutterstock

When training dogs using positive reinforcement, it is important to use good dog training treats in order to motivate the dog. But is it better to use the same food reward every time, or do dogs prefer variety?

A study by Annika Bremhorst (University of Bern) et al, published in Scientific Reports, tested 16 pet dogs to find out if they prefer variety when it comes to reinforcement.

Previous studies have shown that dogs prefer food as a reward compared to petting or praise (see do dogs prefer petting or praise and the importance of food in dog training for summaries of some of these studies). Scientists have also shown that dogs run faster to receive a better quality food reward (sausage compared to kibble).

In this study, dogs were first of all offered three different types of high value food to see whether they preferred sausage, cheese (Gouda), or a liver treat. First the dogs were given one of each to eat. Then the dogs were shown all three treats in inaccessible containers with wire mesh so they could see and smell the food types but not reach them. Whichever one they spent most time looking at was considered their preferred reward.

Sausage was the most commonly preferred (44% of the dogs), followed by cheese (31%) and liver treats (25%).

The dogs were then pre-trained to touch a target with a paw, and to run from their handler to the target. For the pre-training, dogs received positive reinforcement in the form of semi-moist dog food.

The main study then used several training blocks to test whether they preferred to continually receive their preferred reward all the time or a variety of all three high value rewards.

The apparatus involved a wall with an experimenter hidden behind. In front of the wall, and separated from each other by a screen, were two targets, each with a food-dispensing tube and a bucket to receive the food. Dogs were released by their handler and had the chance to run to either target.

Dogs have their own preferences, but variety of dog training treats is best. Photo shows portrait of happy dog
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

Depending on the target, when they touched it they either received their preferred reward every time, or one of the three rewards (variety).

The results showed that 6 dogs preferred to continuously receive their preferred reward, 6 dogs preferred variety, and 4 dogs had no preference. This is interesting because it was expected that all of the dogs would prefer variety.

However, over time, it seemed that preference for variety was increasing. This means that over longer training periods or multiple sessions, variety is probably better.

Sometimes in experimental studies, dogs have a preference to go to one side rather than the other (e.g. to always go to the right). This cannot be ruled out in the current study, but does not seem to be the case given the increasing selection of variety over time.

Interestingly, the number of calories in the treats was not the deciding factor for dogs, given that most of them preferred the piece of sausage, which had the least calories.

The scientists write,
“The findings of the present study are of importance for training of both pet and working dogs. Dogs are sensitive to reward quality and will adjust their operant behaviour accordingly”
They also write,
“although some individuals may prefer a single, favourite food reward in the short term, introducing variation in food reward types may maintain dogs’ motivation in operant tasks over a longer time period.”
These results suggest that those of us who use human food in dog training are doing the right thing, as human foods were the most commonly preferred rewards. Of course it is up to you to find out what the dog you are training likes best.

And similarly, it is up to you to find out whether your dog prefers to always receive the same fantastic reward, or to get a variety of great rewards over time. Using the best rewards will lead to better results in training, so you should pay your dog with treats they love.

Since people are increasingly using reward-based training methods, studies like this one are important to find out the best ways to motivate dogs.

What type of food reward does your dog prefer?

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?

Bremhorst, A., Bütler, S., Würbel, H., & Riemer, S. (2018). Incentive motivation in pet dogs–preference for constant vs varied food rewards. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 9756.

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The Bond Between A Horse And His Rider

Different riders recognize that they have an exceptional bond with their ponies, and they are correct. Different steeds and their riders ent...