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"Are You Being Fair to Right-Minded Dog Owners?"

Queries that make me think more deeply about dog-human relationships.

Key points

  • Looking at a collection of posts written by various Psychology Today bloggers showed there was more negativity than positivity.
  • The negativity was unintentional, with a purpose of educating and making dogs' and humans' lives better.
  • Radically favoring "good dog" over "bad dog" is the best way to ensure that dog-human relationships will be safe and a win-win for all.

My colleagues and I, who pen a lot of essays for Psychology Today and other outlets on the basics of dog behavior, the nature of dog-human relationships, and "all things dogs" often write about the pros and cons of living with dogs: how we treat them and what we can do better.For the past few months, I've kept track of the emails I've received from Psychology Today readers, and many seem to think we tend to focus more on the negative rather than on the positive of some aspects of dog behavior and dog-human relationships.1

Here are a few examples:

Louisa wrote: "Are you being fair to right-minded dog owners/guardians? Some of us try the hardest we can to do the right thing, but sometimes we don't. I feel there is too much criticism and not enough praise." ["You" refers in different amounts to the six people mentioned in note 1 and a few others.]

Eduardo wrote: "I appreciate what you and others write about dogs and people. But we need some more positive feedback because it's not that easy trying to live with a dog."

Nuria wrote: "I learn a lot about dogs from the blogs you and others write but can you write more about the good we do and not the bad? I think you're often being too hard on people who are trying to make their dog's life a good one."

Dyrk wrote: "I regularly read your and other essays but I sometimes get the feeling you're too critical of people who are trying to give their dogs the best life they can."

Toby wrote: "I understand why you want dogs and humans to have better relationships but I think reprimanding people as I often feel you and others are doing or implying isn't the best way to have them work to improve their interactions with their own and other dogs." [I agree.]

Henrietta wrote: "I know you like to use the word 'captive' to refer to the lives of some dogs but I think that's too critical. I realize you carefully explain what you mean to lessen the blow but maybe you can use others words."

Some of the "negative" topics on which we and others write include how dogs are fed, how they're restrained, walked, and yanked along as if they don't care if they're being injured or deprived of sampling odors and sounds, how people "helicopter" and control their behavior without taking into account what the dogs need and want, how some people think "tough love" is a good way to teach dogs about what we want them to do, how we don't greet them when we reunite or say goodbye when we leave, how we ignore what they're asking of us, how we don't praise them by spontaneously saying "good dog" even if they haven't done anything to earn the praise, and how we interfere when they're play-fighting even if it's not vigorous or dangerous.

The "positive" pieces focused mainly on stories from people who had rescued dogs, including senior canine citizens, and how wonderful an experience it had been, and the "neutral" pieces were more informational with no point of view.

Are we really being too hard on people who live with dogs?

I went back and looked at the pieces the six of us wrote along with a few others and learned that 52 percent could be considered negative or critical (I don't think this was intentional), 5 percent were positive, and 43 percent were neutral, meaning they were informative but not judgmental. So, to a certain extent, it seems as if we're being more critical than positive or neutral.

When I respond to people who write to me that we're being too negative or critical, I often begin, "Yes, but we're trying to help people understand that if they treat their companion dog(s) better the dog would be happier and feel safer and their relationships with their canine companions would be better—a win-win for all." Some of their perceptions were correct and now I use what I learned and temper what is perceived as criticism with a clearer explanation of why I'm taking this perspective. Looking at the pieces on which I focused for this pilot project, my best estimate is that around 85-90 percent of the "negative" pieces do temper their criticisms.

The psychology and benefits of favoring praise over criticism from a dog's point of view

Just this morning, as I was outlining this post, I talked with five people at a local coffeehouse who know what I do for a living. When I told them what I was trying to accomplish, they all agreed that it would be best for a dog's well-being if criticisms of their humans were peppered with strong praise. Lonnie, a practicing psychologist, offered that by doing this people who really are trying their hardest to give their dog a good life might feel empowered to do much more.

There always are trade-offs in our interactions with dogs and from a dog's point of view, at a bare minimum, balancing "good dog" with "bad dog" is the best way forward. However, a 50:50 balance isn't good enough for our canine companions with whom we can't have the detailed discussions that are needed to explain why we're doing what we're doing.

Dogs need to feel safe and secure and a positive imbalance is a great way to accomplish this. (They have more than enough legal problems because globally, dogs are cast aside and legally marginalized as unfeeling property.)

I favor a radical imbalance and liberal use of praise for dogs and their humans. I'm sure that favoring praise over criticism will make dogs feel better—more secure and safer—and improve our relationships with these highly emotional, sentient beings. I learned a lot from looking at what I and others have written and will be very careful when writing about all aspects of dog-human relationships for the benefit of all concerned—the dogs and their humans.


1) In addition to what I've written, I've focused on the writings of Psychology Today bloggers Stanley Coren, Mark Derr, Hal Herzog, Jessica Pierce, and Zazie Todd and also some essays published elsewhere.

Todd, Zazie, Reasons to Be Positive About Being Positive in Dog Training. Companion Animal Psychology, 2019.


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