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Dog Training Requires Respecting the Deep Emotional Lives of Dogs

Exploring the affective dog behavior approach.

Key points

  • Non-caring attitudes and practices can do serious harm to dogs. While dogs can adapt, they also may develop emotional scars. 
  • Affective dog behavior is an educational program that establishes connection with dogs over changing their behaviors.
  • The affective dog behavior approach helps dogs want to be social again—on their terms and in their time.
  • "Problem behaviors" can be reduced or eliminated once the dog feels heard, wanted, or acknowledged.

Dogs have rich and deep emotional lives. Science clearly shows that dogs are sentient, feeling beings.1 When I learned about the rigorous science—cognitive ethology and affective neuroscience—and psychology behind an educational approach called Affective Dog Behavior (ADB)—the importance of tapping into what's happening in their heads and hearts and focusing on their unique personalities—and their support of Linda Michael's The Hierarchy of Dog Needs "translated into dog" based on Abraham Maslow's groundbreaking work, I wanted to learn more about it. Here's what Scott Stauffer, who coined the term K9 Life Coach, had to say.2

Marc Bekoff: Why did you develop Affective Dog Behavior?

SS: The usual way in today’s dog training, whether reward- or punishment-based, is that behavior is strictly assessed on what you see and then [you] use the particular approach to shape the dog by changing the dog’s behavior.

 Lisa Kalfas, with permission.
Minnie happily launching into a zoomie.
Source: Lisa Kalfas, with permission.

Though I followed the same path early in my career, I had questions that took me deeper into the brain of the animal. I found many answers in neuroscience, particularly in Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, as well as in the mental health field. The science is already there—we “just” have to translate it into “dog.”

For this reason, we—Diana Kastner and I—developed Affective Dog Behavior (ADB) to be an educational program based on a continuously updated collection of scientific research and bring it into the dog industry. We realize the importance of at least the basic science of the brain and its practical application to be made more accessible.

MB: Who are your intended clients?

SS: Anybody who doesn’t feel connected to their animals. Anybody who wants to help others connect to their animals. People who don’t feel safe with their dogs and dogs that don’t feel safe with them. In short, anybody who wants to learn about emotions and the emotional canine brain, be it dog trainers, doggie daycare staff, rescue staff and volunteers, dog sitters, dog walkers, or private individuals.

MB: What are some of your major messages and do you have any particular methods you weave into your approach to training?

SS: Emotions affect behavior! Understanding basic human and canine neurobiology can greatly help us in working with other species. Since the canine brain and human brain are very similar, Affective Dog Behavior is all about mental health, emotional and physical safety, and social and emotional connections.

We do not use rigid protocols or particular methods in our approach, as they are mostly created with the human, not the dog, in mind. Additionally, dogs have their own individual "protocols" for dealing with the ups and downs of life, and most human protocols don't consider the dog's internal processes. Ideally, your dog will look to you to feel safe—if a dog is triggered, it means he does not feel safe in that moment. We can't undo the past by protocol, but we can help dogs feel safe in their way with our emotional support and recover together afterward.

MB: Why is positive force-free dog training the only way to go?

SS: We don’t need to make life more challenging by forcing our dogs into anything, or intentionally causing pain, harm, or any other added stressors. However, we do have a responsibility to assure our dogs’ safety, and that may, at times, entail that we are either in verbal or physical control when leash laws or common sense call for it.

Although sometimes we must do things our dogs aren’t particularly fond of, there is never the time, place, or need to purposely inflict pain or flood a dog. Such practices as well as non-caring attitudes—“you’ll get over it”—can do serious harm and damage a relationship. Dogs are adaptable, but they are not immune to emotional scars.

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

SS: One major difference is that Affective Dog Behavior is not a training program but an educational program. We put more emphasis on connection than on changing behaviors, simply because many so-called problem behaviors either become less of an issue or are greatly eliminated once the dog feels heard, wanted, or acknowledged. The need for connection is innate, and even millions of years of evolution have not undone something that has served social animals so well.3

We look at internal processes to learn why and how behaviors happen, and the importance of all of the primary seven primary emotional systems identified by Jaak Panksepp. We understand that when a dog goes into a non-social state of fear or rage it is due to an unmet need, and this state is only temporary before the brain will go back to being more social. Thus, we help the dog want to be more social again on their terms and their time. None of these internal processes can be switched off, and coping is up to the individual, yet easier with a friend. If dogs are being coerced to suppress their emotions, they don't have much room to express themselves.

Not only do we utilize the latest science to understand behaviors, but we use it to bring back our own emotionality with dogs, which has been somewhat lost since we became too focused on “assimilating” dogs to our lifestyle. We are not just about dogs: Connection is two-fold, and we need to include humans. Both parties have the same need to feel safe.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing lives of dogs they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

SS: Understanding more can create empathy and I am sure that people have the best of intentions. They nurture their relationships with dogs to the best of their knowledge, which is usually influenced by societal expectations, by what they have been taught, or what they have picked up over the years. Therefore, we need to do more for education.

As trainers, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, adding new knowledge as it becomes available.4 After all, we can only help our human and canine clients if we have answers that make sense to them!


In conversation with Scott Stauffer and Diana Kastner.

1) For more on the rich and deep emotional lives of dogs click here. Denying or ignoring what we know about dogs' emotions is anti-scientific and, frankly, absurd—Trainers Worry About False Claims That Dogs Lack Emotions and Stripping Animals of Emotions is "Anti-Scientific & Dumb".

2) Scott Stauffer is the creator of Affective Dog Behavior and co-founder of K9 Life Coaching, LLC. During most of his 25 years as a K9 Life Coach*, Scott has worked with groups of people and dogs, and has gained many years of extensive experience in doggie daycares and as a dog walker of “problem” dogs ... the kind of dogs that were expelled from groups and daycares. Not only has he learned from dogs and developed a unique, emotions-based approach to handling dogs and humans, he self-educates in the fields of Affective Neuroscience, Social Neuroscience and Neuroscience; a combination of which is the foundation of Affective Dog Behavior. His approach developed from my own unmet needs; the trauma and lack of connection in my childhood. After two years in juvenile detention, he was struggling. he was sleeping on couches, living in cars while living with a dog. It hurt not to feel heard, wanted, or acknowledged, and it was dangerous for my health. But knowing his dog would listen helped him feel safe and, in turn, he could help him feel safe. What people noticed was his relationship with my dog, not any cues or tricks he knew. That’s what got him hired because, ultimately, what others notice most is how we live our lives with our dog.

3) This knowledge is still rooted in the consciousness of many indigenous peoples today. They know that we need community and traditions to heal, and much of what Affective Dog Behavior embraces has been part of indigenous ways for thousands of years.

4) Woridwide, dog training is unregulated and anyone can call themselves a dog trainer—Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon; Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It.

Bekoff, Marc. A Hierarchy of Dog Needs: Abraham Maslow Meets the Mutts.

_____. Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities.

_____. Dog-Human Relationships From the Dog's Point of View.

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

_____. Canine Science Shows Dogs Aren't Merely Unfeeling Property.

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

Brophey, Kim. Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior. Chronicle Books, 2018.

_____. When We Go to the Dogs, There’s Much More Than Meets the Eye.

Davis, Kenneth and Montag, Christian. Selected Principles of Pankseppian Affective Neuroscience, Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2019.

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