Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy
An interview with Zazie Todd, the author of a wonderful book about dogs.
Posted Mar 10, 2020
I recently received my long-awaited copy of Dr. Zazie Todd's new book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Todd is a fellow Psychology Today writer, positive dog trainer, and social psychologist.
Having long followed Todd via her Companion Animal Psychology blog, I knew I would really like Wag, and indeed I did. I was thrilled she could take the time to answer a few questions about her book and dogs in general because she knows an incredible amount about these fascinating nonhumans. Our interview went as follows.
Why did you write Wag?
I wrote Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, because I wanted to help people have a better relationship with their dog. Everyone loves their dog, but there are a lot of misunderstandings about what dogs are like and how we should treat them. Ultimately, I was inspired by my own dogs, Ghost and Bodger.
I wanted to write something that explains what we know from canine science—which is absolutely fascinating—and is full of positive tips that people can use in their everyday life. I also asked a range of experts (including you!) about the one thing that would make the world better for dogs, and those answers are included in the book. Each chapter ends with a set of tips to apply the science at home, and at the end of the book, there is a checklist for a happy dog.
Please tell readers about your background and fields of expertise. You wear many hats, and you wear them well.
My background is in social psychology. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham and spent several years working as an assistant/associate professor before moving to Canada. I have an MFA Creative Writing from UBC. I’m an honors graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, which was an amazing place to study dog training and behavior modification.
Then I set up my business, Blue Mountain Animal Behaviour. And I’ve been writing my blog, Companion Animal Psychology, since 2012. So I have a research background and a lot of practical experience of working with dogs and talking to people about their pets. For me, it feels like everything has come together!
Over the past few years, a good number of books on dogs have been published. How does yours differ?
There are some really wonderful books about dogs (and other animals), and I enjoy reading some of them through my Animal Book Club. Wag is a little different because it focuses on how we can give pet dogs the best possible life, and it’s both scientific and practical. It covers everything from getting a puppy or dog right through to the end of a dog’s life, with sections on going to the vet, dogs and children, enrichment, dog training, and so on.
Who is your main audience?
Wag is aimed at anyone who loves dogs, whether they are new to dogs or have known dogs all their life. I think that dog trainers and veterinarians will also find it useful because it explains many things they might like their clients to know about dog behavior and training!
What are some of your main take-home messages?
Stay up-to-date on what we are learning about dogs. Unfortunately, there is a lot of outdated information out there, and frankly, some of it puts people at risk of a dog bite and therefore the dog at risk of euthanasia. So it’s important to learn about dog body language and dog behavior.
Socialize your puppy during the sensitive period (3 until 12-14 weeks) by giving them a wide range of positive experiences. Around a third of puppies are not getting enough socialization. A good puppy class can help. But remember to be careful, because bad experiences that frighten the puppy are not socialization!
Use food to train your dog, because dogs like to work for food, and positive reinforcement is very effective.
Give your dog opportunities to sniff, e.g., by taking them on a "sniffari" and letting them follow their nose. It’s great enrichment.
Supervise very closely when dogs are around children. Studies show that people let their guard down when the dog is familiar and don’t intervene when they would if they didn’t know the dog—you should intervene! In particular, don’t let small children approach a dog that is lying down or sitting still, because this is a risky scenario for a bite.
If you see a change in your dog’s behavior (e.g., if they suddenly start toileting in the house), take them to the vet to check in case there is a medical cause. Don’t assume that your dog is grumpy or spiteful, but get them checked out.
I'm especially interested in putting myths about dogs to sleep once and for all.
I'm often asked something like, "Why do so many people, including those who clearly don't know all that much about dogs, feel free to write about these amazing beings as if they're authorities on the subjects at hand? Why do you think this is so?"
You do such an amazing job of dealing with myths about dogs and I thank you for it! The thing is that dogs are so familiar, and I think that means people don’t pay as much attention to them. We expect a lot from dogs in terms of them fitting into our lifestyle and don’t always see it from the dog’s point of view.
I know a lot of people get a shock when they bring a puppy or dog home for the first time and realize that it’s a lot more work than expected (at least until you’ve all settled into a routine—but puppies really are hard work!). We have an idealized view of the relationship with people and their dogs and tend to ignore the harder side of things.
For example, behavior problems are the leading cause of death in dogs under the age of 3, and having a dog who is fearful or reactive can be incredibly stressful for the owner as well as the dog. But we don’t hear so much about that. So when people have issues with their dog, it’s a shock. I want to encourage people to learn more about dogs because it can make such a difference to both the dog and their person.
Can you briefly tell readers why you favor positive, force-free training? You bring a unique perspective to this topic as one who knows a lot about dog behavior and also does hands-on training.
I love positive, force-free training because it works! It is also fun for the dog, which makes it more fun for me. And it doesn’t have the risks associated with using aversive methods, such as leash "corrections," yelling at the dog, shock and prong collars, which research shows may cause fear, anxiety, stress, aggression, and/or a worse relationship with the owner. There is more on this in Wag, and I think people will especially enjoy reading about the science on the rewards that dogs prefer.
What are some of your current projects?
I hate to be a tease, but I’ve got an exciting new project that I’ll be able to share with you soon. As well, I have some upcoming events, including some book talks, the Pet Professional Guild Summit, and two specialty seminars at Ottawa Humane Society.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
If you complete the checklist at the end of my book, please let me know how you found it and which sections you found most useful. Thank you! You can find my email address on my website.
Bekoff, Marc. "Bad Dog?" The Psychology of Using Positive Reinforcement.
Todd, Zazie. Seven Reasons to Use Reward-Based Dog Training.