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Happy Dogs Make for Happy Dog Owners

You can train your dog to "train" you—an interview with Dr. Carri Westgarth.

Key points

  • Bringing a dog into your life can be a huge life-changing decision and it's essential that you're ready for the challenge.
  • Rather than trying to punish bad behavior, it is kinder and more effective to reward the good behavior.
KimLowe, Pixabay free download
Source: KimLowe, Pixabay free download

Books about dogs constantly find their way into my mailbox. Among those that caught my eye is Dr. Carri Westgarth's The Happy Dog Owner. I've always argued that happy dogs make for happy dog owners (aka guardians) and it benefits everyone involved.1 That's basically Carri's message, and I'm pleased she was able to answer a few questions about her new book. Here's what she had to say.

Why did you write The Happy Dog Owner?

In recent years there has been an explosion of scientific research into the health impacts of owning dogs, and also our knowledge about effective canine welfare, behaviour and training. I wrote this book as an easy-to-read resource summarising the scientific evidence and expertise on how to source and train a brilliant dog and how to develop a relationship with your dog that positively impacts your physical and mental health, rather than creating extra stress and upset in your life.

Carri Westgarth, with permission.
Source: Carri Westgarth, with permission.

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

My advice isn’t just based on my personal experiences. I have spent the last 15 years conducting scientific research into how people interact with their dogs, and the positive and negative impacts on their health that occur as a result. I am part of a global network of academic researchers working collectively to better understand how pets impact our lives–and also how us owning them affects their welfare. I have also spent many more years helping hundreds of dogs and their owners: matching prospective owners with homeless dogs and new puppies; teaching obedience and tricks; counselling owners through dealing with problematic behaviours such as aggression; and training official assistance dogs to work with handlers with disabilities such as hearing loss.

These real-life, practical experiences have informed my research questions, and my findings impact the advice I give to people about how to source and train a well-adjusted family pet. With this book, I hope to impart what my colleagues and I have learned about forging robust relationships that foster good animal welfare and owner well-being.

Who is your intended audience?

Firstly, it should be useful for people thinking about getting a dog, to help them decide whether this is the right decision for them, choose the right type of dog for them, and avoid the early pitfalls many owners fall into when sourcing and training a dog. Secondly, anyone who already owns a dog can learn how to improve their relationship with their dog, help guide choices that impact their dog’s welfare, and learn how to maximise the health gains potentially had from dog ownership. Thirdly, if you are wondering about owning or training an assistance/service dog, this book is a great starting point, outlining many of the ethical and practical issues to be considered, and demonstrating how to teach many helpful physical tasks that your dog can do for you.

What are some of the major messages?

We put a lot of expectations on our dogs that they will be wonderful and change our lives for the better. However the science shows this isn’t necessarily the case. The physical health benefits to be gained from owning dogs depends on actually walking them a lot. The mental well-being benefits are actually inconclusive. Owning a dog can enhance our social interactions with other people and help with loneliness, but it doesn’t solve depression and anxiety, especially as dealing with behaviour problems can be extremely stressful. If you are to benefit from owning a dog there is a lot of work you need to put in first in order to create a positive relationship with them.2

There also is a myth that being a good dog owner will solve all problems. Actually your dog’s behaviour and physical health are mostly shaped well before you even lay eyes on them. Genetic tendencies are extremely important, so it matters what the temperament of the puppy’s parents are and you must view them and assess this. For example, our research showed that puppies whose owners did not view the parents were more likely to later to be referred for behavioural problems, The early environment and socialisation at the breeders, as well as those first few weeks after you get them home, is crucial for helping your dog to understand what is normal and okay, and they need not be afraid of. Unfortunately the pandemic was a terrible situation for bringing up a puppy, for this reason, and now owners and behaviourists are having to deal with a lot of very nervous and reactive dogs, and this book provides lots of advice on what to do if you are in this situation.

Another myth is that in order to solve behaviour problems you need to punish the bad behaviour. Using aversive training methods actually makes problems escalate, especially when they are caused by underlying fear, and can cause aggression to develop. It is actually more effective, and kind, to reward the good behaviour, with praise and food treats, but we are terrible at noticing when they are being good and only tend to notice when they are doing the wrong thing. We also often set them up to fail and then wonder why they aren’t behaving the way we want. Therefore, training a dog requires a shift change in natural human responses to what your dog is doing, and some careful actions.3

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

This book is not a thorough examination of all we know about dogs–their cognition, biology, welfare or history. There are many fantastic books out there already that cover these areas. Neither is it an exhaustive review of all the scientific knowledge we have about pets and human health. Rather, it is intended as a guide through the main principles about our relationships with dogs and how owning them affects our physical and mental health. I also provide some key points on how best to look after our dogs according to scientific research.

References

Notes

Marc Bekoff in conversation with Carri Westgarth

1) Dr. Carri Westgarth is Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Liverpool where she conducts scientific research into human health and canine welfare. She is also a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors and has worked as a dog behaviourist, assistance dog trainer, and in rescue kennels. Twitter CarriWestgarth; Facebook https://www.facebook.com/waglab.

2) For example, my friend David suffers from depression and after a while he got a dog, Spikey. Absolutely Spikey helps David cope day-to-day with his depression, giving him comfort, getting him out on walks, and knowing he has a friendly face always there for him. But David’s depression hasn’t gone away since having Spikey–there are other factors influencing this. Dogs aren’t miracles, but they can make our lives better and more pleasant.

3) For example, during the pandemic, my normally sociable pug-chihuahua cross Roxie has become more reactive. Desperate for household visitors, but simultaneously probably anxious at the thought of others encroaching on our personal space again, you can now often find her sat vigilantly by the window, poised to bark at pigeons daring to land on our lawn. There’s no point shouting at her for doing wrong. Rather than trying to punish bad behaviour, it is kinder and more effective to reward the good behaviour. If she sees movement out of the window, and doesn’t bark, she gets told she’s a good girl and sometimes given a food treat. It is also important to set your dog up for success, rather than letting them repeatedly make mistakes and repeat bad habits. For this reason, we use closed doors and baby gates to prevent Roxie from obsessively watching out of the windows in the first place. If she can’t see out all the time, she’s less wound up about what might be out there waiting for her.

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2018.

_____. Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best.

_____. For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise. (Preliminary data show we say "no" or "don't" far more than "yes" or "good dog.")

_____. The Perils of Mislabeling Dog-Appropriate Behavior.

_____. Pandemic Puppy Pandemonium Requires Lots of Time and Love. (Pandemic puppies are all the rage, but adopting a dog is a huge game-changer.)

_____. Are Emotional Support Dogs Always a Cure-All?

_____. Support Animals Aren't a Waste of Time or a Panacea.

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019.

Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2021.

Westgarth, Carri. The Happy Dog Owner. Welbeck, 2021.

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