The art of shutting up: When not to give dog training advice

A perceptive and mean-spirited person might describe me as a cross between a pathological helper and a know-it-all. (A nicer person would call me “empathetic and well informed.”) If I see someone with a problem, it takes a lot of work for me to refrain from telling them how to fix it, or jumping in and fixing it myself.

One of the hardest life lessons I’ve learned is how NOT to do this. I call this lesson The Art of Shutting Up.

This weekend’s mild temperatures meant that the field at Masters N’ Hounds where Milo and I usually play was muddy. The first time he gleefully skidded out in the mud, I said, “Jiminy Cricket, aren’t you a mess.” (I didn’t use those exact words.)

But, it was a gorgeous day, and Milo needed a bath anyway, so I decided to let him enjoy the mud, and that we’d stop by the dog wash at PetValu on our way home. Problem solved.muddy german shepherd puppy

Years earlier, at a different park, Milo already found mud irresistable.

Skip ahead to PetValu where Milo, enjoying handfuls of treats and praise from the employees who were already his friends, gets started on a gentle shampoo.

All was well until another muddy dog, a lab, and its two people moved into the dog wash station beside us. It quickly became apparent that all three of them needed help.

  • The dog didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
  • It was afraid (ears back, tail between its legs, head down).
  • It wouldn’t get into the tub, so its people picked him up, and when he started to squirm, they dropped him.
  • When they finally got him into the tub and wet him down, they started to bicker about the right way to wash him.
  • He took advantage of their fight and jumped out of the tub, trotting over to say “Hi” to Milo and me.
  • When I asked them to remove their dog, they gave me death stares. (I didn’t even say “Jiminy Cricket,” just “please remove your dog.”)

The minute they walked in it was clear that the situation was not ideal so I put Milo’s bath into super-speedy mode. Poor Milo only got the most cursory blowout before I hustled him out of the store and into the truck.

As I was leaving, I thought to myself that I could teach those folks a lot about how to bathe a dog. I could tell them that they should have taught their dog to like baths before it was an emergency that it get one and that they should use lots of rewards and take baby steps.

Instead of explaining to these strangers what they should have done, or offering to help, I practiced the art of shutting up. For me, the art of shutting up involves recognizing when speaking is not going to do any good or isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Here are some situations where I try to practice the art of shutting up:

1) When the people I’m talking to aren’t in a position to hear me or when I’m not in a state of mind to be clear and kind
Those people struggling to bathe their dog were obviously stressed out, and so was I. I would have had a hard time being kind and they would have had a hard time learning anything.

2) When speaking up is contrary to other important goals and commitments 
At that dog wash, my primary responsibility was to take care of Milo. Stressed out dogs do weird things, and I didn’t want Milo around that poor stressed out pup and its people. Also, my goal that day was to spend some fun and relaxing time with Milo, not to teach strangers about dog husbandry.

3) When I lack knowledge of the context of the situation 
It is entirely possible that those people already knew everything that I could have told them, and that they were just having a terrible day. How was I to know?

The week before a squirrel was teasing Milo. It got Milo all jazzed up and he gave a mighty tug on his leash in a futile attempt to catch it. A bystander suggested that if Milo pulls like that all the time, I should use a head halter on him. I politely thanked her for the advice in a tone of voice that clearly suggested that she put a sock in it. She had no context for her comment. She didn’t know me or Milo, and she didn’t know that he rarely pulls like that. In fact, we do use a halter sometimes, but this was not one of those times. This lady could have made the situation better by saying nothing at all.

german shepherd sticking out tongue

Milo’s response to a stranger suggesting he wear a halter.

Sometimes the art of being well spoken is about knowing when not to speak.

Are dogs smarter than cats? A new​ scientific​ study doesn’t say one way or the other

After the announcement of a neuroscience experiment on carnivore brains headlines like these leaped onto the internet:


Milo and I, as well as Hoss the Cat, share Grumpy Cat’s assessment of these headlines.

You see, the research paper that triggered this brouhaha about dogs being smarter than cats wasn’t about dogs being smarter than cats. This research was conducted in Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s lab at Vanderbilt University. These scientists took the brains of a ferret, banded mongoose, cat, raccoon, hyena, lion, brown bear, and two dogs, dissolved parts of those brains in a detergent solution, and used that solution to determine the number of neurons the brains contained. Researchers then compared the number of neurons in some parts of a creature’s brain to the size of the creature’s brain and the size of the creature itself. They did not do any intelligence testing of any sort. All of this ‘dogs are smarter than cats’ talk is based on the assumption that the number and density of neurons are correlated with intelligence (in this case it’s good to be dense).

This is a very cool experiment, and the researchers found some surprising results, which by the way, had nothing to do with comparing dog and cat intelligence. Here are some of the things they found:

  1. A lot of people tend to assume that predators are smarter than prey animals. From this assumption, a person might predict that predator species will have more cortical neurons than prey species. If there’s a correlation between neuronal density and intelligence, the results of this study contradict this prediction. This study found that predators had about the same neuronal density as their prey.
  2. Scientists expected to find a correlation between how big an animal is and how many neurons it has —bigger animals have bigger brains. This study found that the correlation generally held for small and medium-sized animals but not for big animals. Animals larger than a Golden Retriever had fewer neurons than these scientists expected. Perhaps, these researchers speculate, because neurons are so energetically costly. Think of neurons as race cars in that they take expensive fuel and burn it really fast. It might be the case that large animals cannot afford to have lots and lots of neurons because they lack sufficient fuel.
  3. There is a general belief that domestication makes animals stupider. These scientists did not find decreased numbers of cortical neurons in the domestic species they looked at. So again, if there’s a correlation between neuronal density and intelligence, this study contradicts the idea that domestication results in decreased intelligence.

When scientists find unexpected results or results that contradict things lots of people assume are true, is when science gets exciting and important. These three findings are the best parts of the study, but you would never know it from the headlines racing around the internet.

To be fair, these scientists did find about twice as many cortical neurons in the brains of a Golden Retriever and a small mixed-breed dog than they did in a cat. This is indeed a striking difference. They also found that bears had way fewer and raccoons had way more cortical neurons than expected for their body size. These findings about the bear and the raccoon are way more scientifically interesting than the cat-dog business.

Even though the headlines miss these exciting bits of the research, I am concerned, cranky even, other reasons.

The study did not measure intelligence. It measured the number and density of neurons in one or two individuals of several species. There is a big difference between the number of neurons a species has and how smart or brainy or intelligent that species is. There are many questions left to answer before we start casting aspersions on the intelligence of cats, or on making any inferences about intelligence at all. I would like to know if there are differences in how well those different neurons work, how big they are, and how they are connected to one another. And even if I had the answer to those questions, I would still feel uncomfortable using that data to draw conclusions about the intelligence of a species. Many news stories about this experiment contain buried disclaimers warning us about making assumptions about intelligence. However, they make the very assumption they warn against throughout the story and rely on it to create catchy headlines to interest people in this research in the first place.

Intelligence is not a thing, it is many things. Or more accurately many different kinds of capacities or skills. Some creatures are good at living in social groups, some are good at making tools, some are good at solving puzzles, and some have great spatial memory. There are many different ways to be intelligent. If you are going to talk about intelligence, you have to be very clear about what you mean.

The reporting of this research bugs me not only because the reasoning is sloppy or because Hoss the Cat is getting an unfair deal, although both of those things are true. It bugs me because it has the potential to hurt people.

There are lots of interactions between human and nonhuman research in areas like medicine, public health, psychology, and neuroscience. Research papers about human neurobiology, psychology, and intelligence draw on animal studies all the time. Sloppy reasoning about cats and dogs can lead to and support sloppy reasoning about people. Sloppy reasoning about people has been used and is still used in some circles, to justify sexist and racist conclusions about humans.

So, let’s be more careful. One way to do this is to distinguish between what the data clearly says and what we interpret the data to mean. Once we do that we can start figuring out where we are making assumptions and deciding whether those assumptions are justified. In the case of the density of neurons in cat’s and dog’s brains, the data tells us that, in the sample of two dogs and one cat, the dogs had more neurons in some parts of their brains than the cat did. It does not measure intelligence. The media stories about this research assume a connection between numbers of neurons and intelligence. It might turn out to be true that the number of neurons in some parts of the brain is, for example, related to a species’ ability to solve spatial problems. But this study does not give us data that supports this assumption.

In fact, exciting things can happen when we take the same data and pair it with a different hypothesis and a different set of assumptions. Let’s start by considering one of the interesting conclusions this experiment suggests. It appears to disprove the long-held hypothesis that predator animals are smarter than prey animals. Here’s the argument against that hypothesis:

  • If predators are smarter than prey, [our hypothesis]
  • and the number of neurons is correlated with smartness, [an assumption]
  • then we would expect predator species to have more neurons than prey species. [a prediction]
  • In the experiment, we did not find that predators have more neurons than prey species. [the data]
  • So, our hypothesis about predators being smarter than prey is false.

But, look what happens when we flip things around and use the data to test the assumption I made in the above description of the experiment:

  • If the number of neurons is correlated with smartness, [a new hypothesis]
  • and predators are smarter than prey, [a different assumption]
  • then we would expect predator species to have more neurons than prey species. [the same prediction]
  • In the experiment, we did not find that predators have more neurons than prey species. [the same data]
  • So, our hypothesis about the number of neurons being correlated with smartness is false.

The point is that an experiment and a set of data can be objective and accurate, but can still be used to prove many different things depending on the assumptions that go along with it. We can use the same data to disprove the assumption, OR to disprove the hypothesis. Pay attention to the assumptions and look for independent ways to test them!

And, give your cat a break, she still might be a super genius.


Hoss the Cat benefits from positive dog training

Nothing is more alluring to Hoss the Cat than an open book, the scratching of a pen on a notepad, or my fingers tapping away on a keyboard. His mission, which he chose to accept, is to get between me and whatever I’m trying to do.

He’ll saunter up and lay down on my hands as I’m writing. I pick him up and set him on the floor, and within 4 seconds he’s right back on my computer. Like the turning of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, Hoss effortlessly cycles from keyboard to floor and back again.

It’s reminiscent of Milo the AwesomeDog’s desire to be underfoot when I’m cooking. After realizing that yelling at Milo to back off was entirely ineffective, I embraced a positive training approach to that problem. Now Milo has a comfy bed, where he receives lots of yummy treats, in the kitchen. Rather than being underfoot, he chooses hangout on that bed because I make the bed a more desirable place for him to be.

I tried the same strategy with Hoss the Cat with great success. Hoss now has a soft bed, on a corner of my desk that works for both of us.

Here’s how it worked:

Step one: Add cat bed to desktop. 


There is lots of room for Hoss the Cat to make himself comfotable.

Step two: Add cat.

cat on desk

Hoss the Cat immediately made himself at home.

Step three: Give cat time to consider whether this state of affairs is to his liking.


Hoss contemplates the consequences of abandoning the keyboard.

Step four: Realize that your clever plan has backfired because cat distracts you from work by being adorable.


cat bed wins


It ends up that all the creatures benefit from a positive approach to training.


Guidelines for responsible blogging about class discussions

The whole time I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been developing a university level class on the philosophy of companion animals called Animals in our Lives. It is not an animal rights class, it is a class on the philosophy and science of human relationships with animals. I have a great bunch of students, and the class has been going very well. So well in fact, that I want to blog about some of the things we’ve discussed.

I haven’t written about my classroom before and I want to be careful to treat my students fairly and with respect.  How does a person write ethically, responsibly, about what gets said in a classroom?

I have two concerns and, sadly (or at least complicatedly), they pull in different directions.

  • First, the classroom is not a public space, and I need to protect my students’ privacy. I won’t name them on my blog.
  • Second, one of the most important aspects of academic integrity is to give credit to people for their ideas.

This gets complicated because often, perhaps even most of the time, ideas develop during discussions and so they are not really any individual person’s idea. And, in the cases where an idea is an individual person’s, it is very easy to forget and sometimes hard to notice, who the original author of the idea was.

It took a little longer than I would have liked for me to realize that the first step for treating my students with respect was to explain my worries and ask them what they thought was the right thing to do.

Together, we came up with a set of guidelines:

We decided that for the purposes of blogging about this class:

  • In general, the ideas that arise in class discussion are authored by the group. Therefore, when I blog about an idea that we discussed in class, I will say that the idea arose in class and I will bring the blog post to the students’ attention, so they can see what I wrote.
  • If they feel that the idea I wrote actually arose from an individual student, they just have to let me know, and I’ll edit or remove the post. A student can let me know themselves, or they can speak up for another student, or they can leave an anonymous note in my mailbox in the philosophy department.

I think this should satisfy my concerns about protecting students and giving them credit for their work.

If you have any other suggestions, please tell me. I care about being a good teacher of people as well as a good teacher of dogs.

Warm puppy: More camera fun

My last post focused on using my new AF-S NIKKOR 35MM F1.8G ED camera lens to document Milo’s snowy shenanigans. Is it dopy that it bugs me that those pictures look so cold?

I have to admit that I prefer being cozy and taking cozy looking pictures, which the new lens does a good job on as well. (It helps to have a handsome model.)

I’m taking a photography workshop next month, and hopefully, my pics will continue to improve.  You can be the judge.

Any tips or tricks for taking good dog pics with a shallow depth of field? I would love to hear them.

Snow puppy: Playing with my new lens

I treated myself to an AF-S NIKKOR 35MM F1.8G ED lens, which on my Nikon D3400 camera gives me a 50mm look. Today was my first try using it to take pictures of Milo in the snow. It is going to take me a while to learn how to make the most of the new equipment, particularly when it is bright, and cold outside.

How do you manage pictures of your pups on bright snowy days?

snow puppy


Consent, respect, and dog safety

The woman walked straight up to Milo and me, grabbed Milo by the fur on both sides of his head, kissed him on the nose, and nuzzled his head with her face. That’s right, with her face.

Of all the dumbass things to do…

toothy darling

Raise your hand if you think it’s a good idea to grab this guy by the head and rub your face on his nose.

If I freaked out, it could have been the match that set off that powder keg, so I shoved a handful of liver treats in Milo’s maw and chirped, “OK, that’s enough cuddling.”

The woman backed off with her face still attached to her skull while Milo concentrated on getting all of that liver out from between his molars—it was a big handful of treats—and all was well.

Think about the fight or flight response. When a dog is on a leash, flight is not an option. This is one of the reasons why some dogs act more aggressively when they’re on a leash than when they aren’t.

Never approach a dog when they don’t have the option of saying “no thanks” and leaving.  It is about respect, and consent, and common sense.

Ideally, if you meet Milo and me on a walk and you want to say hello to him, the scene plays itself out in one of these ways:

Scenario 1
You: “Can I pet your dog?”
Me: “Not today, thank you for asking.”
And Milo and I walk on.

When this happens, don’t give us the stink eye, because you know what? Although there are lots of reasons why we may not want to interact with you, neither he nor I have to give you a reason. I always appreciate it when people ask rather than, say, walk up and grab Milo’s face. But, if you ask and give us one bit of grief for saying “no,” you aren’t really asking. That is not cool.

Scenario 2
You: “Can I pet your dog?”
Me: “Milo sit” (with me between him and you).
Me some more: “Thank you for asking. Let’s see if he wants to say hello. If, when I release him he walks up to you, you can scratch him under the chin or on the side of his body.”
Me, to the dog this time: “Milo, would you like to say hello?”

This scenario can end in two ways:
Ending a: If Milo wags his tail and walks over to you, you get to share some personal time together.
Ending b: If Milo doesn’t happily walk up to you, I’ll say, “I guess not today. Thanks again for asking.” And Milo and I walk on.

In an ideal world if you and Milo interact, three of us—you, me, and Milo—all have to consent.

I won’t let him go bounding up to you and sniff your crotch or demand to be petted, and I won’t let you pet him if I don’t want you to and if he doesn’t want you to. The interaction will start when he walks up to you, and it will end when any one of the three of us wants it to. He tells us that he wants it to end by moving away. Milo is more fun and makes friends faster when he gets to consent.

If you want to pet a dog, but you’re wondering what doggie consent looks like, I recommend that you go over to Sara Reusche’s post at Paws Abilities. She gives a great step-by-step description of how to determine if a dog consents, and continues to give consent, to a social interaction.

This way everyone gets treated with respect, and everyone stays safe.