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Empathy and Irony

As We Move Away from the Operant, Towards a More Empathic Approach, Are We Fulfilling the Emotional Needs of Our Dogs?

In recent times, we have experienced a definite shift in the dog training industry, where both guardians and canine professionals alike are becoming more concerned with the emotional experience of animals. We are more aware than ever that dogs are, of course, thinking and feeling beings, and their emotions really do matter. Considering the progress we have made, it is madness to think that it was only in May of last year that our government introduced a bill which formally recognises animals as sentient beings under UK domestic law. Animals to be formally recognised as sentient beings in domestic law - GOV.UK (

There are growing numbers of guardians wanting to better understand their dogs, which has brought about an increase in the provision of online resources which offer support, advice, and guidance for those with fearful, anxious, and reactive dogs. I have great admiration for those that run these social media groups, pages and websites which promote the importance of empathy within a dog-centred approach to training and care. They highlight the necessity of learning how to read and understand canine body language; they explain how to implement management strategies to keep your dog feeling safe, and they guide you in how to meet his individual needs. They also provide us with moral support in times of difficulty, taking care of both ends of the lead in order to minimise stress for all parties. There are some highly dedicated individuals who go above and beyond with the time that they give freely and the knowledge that they share so generously in order to advocate for dogs everywhere, ensuring that those in need can access these invaluable resources.

Observational skills of guardians appear to be improving, which means that signs of stress and anxiety are recognised much earlier. There is also a greater understanding of the role and impact of pain and discomfort upon behaviour. The message is loud and clear that we need to look beyond the behaviours that we see, giving consideration to their function and the emotions which drive them, rather than simply trying to stop our dog from doing the things which we dislike or find inconvenient. We are being educated in how to train and handle our dogs in a kind and ethical way, and we are learning about the fallout from the use of aversives, as well as outdated beliefs and methods.

Amongst some notable people leading this movement is the wonderful Andrew Hale, whose social media group, entitled Dog Centred Care, offers a wealth of information. Andrew does a terrific job of encouraging an emotions-led approach and teaching how we need to be better at being available to the emotional truth of our dogs, creating an orientation towards care. Andrew developed the acronym C.A.K.E, which represents compassion, awareness, knowledge, and empathy. These principles form the perfect basis for providing care for our dogs, and, of course, for humans, too.

The C.A.K.E. approach is particularly crucial when it comes to caring for our fearful, anxious, and reactive dogs. They really need our kindness and understanding; they need us to learn how to meet their needs so that we keep them feeling safe, and they need us to see things from their perspective, and advocate like crazy for them. We are often reminded that our sensitive dogs are not deliberately giving us a hard time; they are having a hard time, but if we lack these qualities, how can we succeed in helping them *feel* safe if we cannot empathise with them? How can we gain a deeper understanding of the needs of our favourite furry companion if we are unable to appreciate the extent of their struggles? How can we give them the best possible life with us if we cannot view things from their perspective?

Empathy is such an important quality, yet despite the progress we have made, there are an ever-increasing number of cases where it seems to be in short supply. It is ironic that, at this time of change within the industry, when we have some phenomenal, passionate people leading the fight against the obsession with behaviour to bring about a new model for guardianship and training, elsewhere we are seeing an increasing apparent disregard for emotional welfare. Often, I see social media posts which astound me; however, what is often most upsetting is the absence of protestations from those who should advocate for these dogs. Frequently, when advice is offered, there is a very black and white approach taken, where the only consideration given is how to tackle the immediate problem.

A Facebook post I came across just recently is a classic example of this. The poster wrote of a crate being used to contain a dog which panics when his foster carer leaves him alone for long periods, and the dog tries to break out of the crate. The one-year-old dog has a long history of repeated crate-escapes in his previous home, therefore his inability to cope when crated and alone was well known. This pup was described as "biting, pawing, and rocking the crate" in his panic to escape, yet apparently, he is a "healthy, happy dog". The poster said that, following a period of absence where the dog failed to break out of the crate, this was considered a success.

I'm not anti-crate; they have their uses, such as safely transporting dogs in the car; preparing them in the event of having to be kennelled at the vet; having to restrict movement following injury, etc. However, confining a dog in this way, with no thought to his emotional and physical well-being, is a gross misuse of crating. There is an enormous risk of injury to the dog, and the level of panic he must feel is unbearable to think of. I struggle to understand why this dog was placed in a foster home where they weren’t able to meet his needs. What also makes me sad is that this dog's welfare was not commented upon at all; the focus of the advice was solely how to achieve good behaviour while crated. Considering this dog’s history, I feel this is definitely an occasion where we should not teach something just because we can. I can’t imagine how many times this dog was crated and fought to get out; he must have suffered a good deal of trauma. The idea of continuing to attempt to crate this dog just would not enter my mind.

Instead, we should look to identify the root cause, and try to understand why this behaviour might be occurring. There is a stark absence of questioning whether it is ethical to even try to modify certain behaviours; physical and emotional well-being of the dog should come first and foremost. We must ask ourselves: just because we can teach something, is it in the dog’s best interests to do so? We must always choose the most appropriate course of action for each individual dog and find the most ethical pathway in each case.

A similar example I came across recently was a discussion on nail care. Despite suggestions of cooperative care training and the use of a scratch board, others were quick to dismiss these in favour of recommending a hammock-type contraption for suspending fearful dogs in the air to enable easy access to their nails. There were reviews shared of this product, which contained descriptions jokingly given of anxious dogs trying to bite to save themselves from this situation; this was justified by stating that it only took a few minutes or so to do it. Again, I cannot understand why this would be considered a feasible option when there are much kinder, more ethical ways of achieving the same result. Treating a dog in this way is so very damaging to their trust in us, not to mention causing them further anxiety on top of something they already find stressful. Just because we can, it doesn’t mean that we should.

From the wonderful Good Guardianship | Facebook

Operant protocols seem to have become synonymous with counter-conditioning. I’m not sure why this is the case; perhaps it is because there is such misunderstanding surrounding respondent conditioning, amongst both guardians and professionals. It might simply be that it is easier to understand, teach, and carry out when thinking in terms of rewarding behaviours. Or, maybe it is due to this obsession with behaviour, and an inability to get to grips with the idea of feeding treats with nothing to reward. Perhaps it is the inevitable pitfall of those wanting a quick fix to improve the human experience of dog guardianship. What I do know is that there are very few who advocate for “true” classical counter-conditioning because it directly addresses the emotional experience of the fearful dog. When correctly carried out, it is an extremely effective way of creating long-term positive change, and it increases confidence and resilience, while also equipping the dog with coping skills.

When care is taken to work towards achieving a positive conditioned emotional response to a trigger, the need to ask our dog to disengage becomes redundant because it happens organically. When he spots that trigger and his head shoots round excitedly in anticipation of the treats, we can clearly see that he has made the connection between the trigger and the food, and that his emotions are changing. However, if we don’t take this step before asking for behaviours, we really have no way of gauging whether his feelings towards the trigger have truly changed. Yes, one could argue that Pavlov is “always on your shoulder”, but I believe emotions should be the primary focus, and not come second to achieving behaviours.

You can read more about counter-conditioning and systematic desensitisation here:

We still have a long way to go, but we must give thanks to those who care deeply enough to promote the importance of the emotional experience of animals, and speak out to advocate for them. I hope that one day, this new wave of compassion, awareness, knowledge and empathy will spread far and wide, and will eradicate all traces of harmful, outdated beliefs and techniques, along with a disregard for emotional welfare. Emotions really do matter, and until we fully grasp this, we must do as Maya Angelou advised:

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