Does your dog misbehave? If so, the problem may be no more than a simple matter of miscommunication.
“Dogs are not ethical,” said Dr. Laura Donaldson, the official behavior and training consultant for Cayuga Dog Rescue. Laughing, she adds “They are opportunistic.” Donaldson won a Maxwell Medallion for best magazine article on dog behavior and training this past year for a feature article in Chronicle of the Dog Magazine, “The Cognitive Revolution and Every Day Dog Training: The Case of Look at That.”
A Maxwell Medallion is a high honor in the field of animal cognition study, that is national in scope and highly competitive, given by the Dog Writers Association of America. The DWAA is an organization dating back to 1935 that is dedicated to promoting journalistic excellence on all things canine, and Donaldson said she is proud to represent the Ithaca area at such a high level in her field.
Regarding the award, she said that it was “wonderful” to receive such positive validation from her peer community. However, it seems that for the average dog owner, and the dog training community at large, there are still a lot of antiquated thinking and practices that need to be unlearned before more progress can be made in the relationships people have with their dogs. “Dog risk assessment is really bad,” Donaldson said. “They have a distorted perception of their environment, and that is where we can really help them if we can understand.”
She continued to describe how the more negative methods that people use to communicate with dogs, such as jerking leashes and raising their voices, are detrimental to dogs’ mental health.
Moreover, there is also a plethora of everyday objects and noises that upset dogs and that most dog owners are likely unaware of.
For example, Donaldson mentioned that plastic shopping bags are actually a very common stressor for dogs. Between the shuffling noise they make, and the way they reflect light erratically, plastic bags are difficult for dogs to process. She used this example to illustrate the training method she outlines in her article. Essentially, conventional dog training would use counter conditioning to help a dog overcome a fear of a shopping bag. This technique involves simply giving the dog positive experiences in the presence of a plastic bag. While this methodology is highly effective in humans, it is only about half as effective in dogs. Instead, Donaldson focuses on what is referred to as modified counter conditioning, which involves not only giving the dog positive experiences in the presence of a stressor, but actively drawing their attention to the stressor as well, rather than relying on the dog to notice it incidentally. Dubbed the “Look at That method,” Donaldson was careful to point out that modified counter conditioning has not yet been tested in an ideal experimental setting, but nevertheless, the anecdotal results have been extremely positive. In her own words, “If it works for the dogs, it works for me.”
As for the next steps in her research, Dr. Donaldson is interested in continuing to explore the cognitive disconnect between people and dogs. She specifically mentioned the possibility of studying the effectiveness of interactive games, and comparing it with that of more conventional obedience models. Donaldson also has tentative plans for a book in the near future. In the meantime, her hands are full with her consulting practice.
Speaking more broadly about the future, she said, “I love writing, I love research, but right now I really just want to help people in their everyday lives with dogs.”