For the love of dog: The ethical dimensions of canine cognition research

Love makes science better!

I am very pleased to be presenting my first academic conference paper on my research on human-animal relationships at FEMMSS 7.

My paper is called “For the love of dog: The ethical dimensions of canine cognition research,” and it explore how love, as both an emotion and a value, provides a way to refigure the ethical dimensions of research on canine minds and leads to methodological advances in scientific practice. I focus on the work of Gregory Berns at Vanderbilt University who used fMRI to investigate canine cognition.

For those of you who might be attending my paper, here are my slides: for the love of dog for web. For some reason I deleted the bibliography, but since I have to give my paper in a couple of hours, that fix will have to wait until later.

I’ll talk about this more soon, but for now I have to run!


Training Tuesday: April​ 17, 2018

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraThe theme for this week’s training plan is “When the ice melts.” Mother Nature dropped a few centimeters of slush on us last week, which is now frozen solid. Living on a curling rink has put a little hitch in Milo and my training giddy-up. But, this too shall pass. Here’s my weekly report:

Last week’s plan:
• Practice indicating articles in the house
• Do a few steps of focused heeling
• Do some counter conditioning for handling Milo’s paws to make nail grinding easier.

What we did:

I had to rejigger my plan on Thursday because the article indication and heeling went faster than I expected.

Article indication
After one day he responded to an article, in every room in the house, like this:

I think we’re ready for the track.

The focused heeling was fine. I added some more steps.

Paw handling was our biggest challenge.
• The trouble is that I started out using cheese as a reward. When Milo smells cheese, he goes into hyperactive, happy overdrive, which is not the frame of mind I want him to be in for nail trims. I want him happy, relaxed, and still. We switched from cheese to kibble on Thursday, and things went much better.

This coming week’s the plan is:
• Mix up 5, 10, 15, and 20 steps of focused heeling on low-distraction parts of our walks. We’ll move to a field when the ice melts.
• Tracking is on hold until the ice melts. When we start up again we’ll practice on a 100 step track with one right turn, one article on the track, and one article at the end of the track.
• Add touching the (turned off) grinder to each of his nails with lots of reinforcement.
• Keep doing a couple of Rally signs on our walks.

Stay tuned for next Tuesday’s training report!

Who’s got four paws and a CKC Novice Rally Obedience Title?




We arrived early and got a good spot in the corner. This is where we hung out between runs, and where Milo rested while I walked the courses and chatted with the other hoomins.

boy's home

Milo, chilling out between runs.


Can you believe that he earned all this bling? I might have to make a quilt or something.bling c


And here is my angel from heaven barely resisting tearing off this his ribbons.

bling a

I am very proud of my boy! ❤


RV life with a 90-pound dog: The bathroom

Loyalty can have its drawbacks. Milo, being a typical German Shepherd, doesn’t want many friends, but the few he has he loves deeply and keeps close. Really close. All the time.

If I discover that someone is a German Shepherd guardian I can count on three topics of conversation because these dogs shed clouds of fur, were adorable as they grew into their ears, and don’t understand why people close the bathroom door.

dog in bathroom

Milo is no exception. Sometimes I’ll be in the shower, and he’ll just poke his big head in to say:

Just checkin’ that you’re OK. Everything alright? You sure? I’m gonna sit down right here and keep you safe. By the way, you know you’re not gonna smell like nothin’ when you get outta there right? I mean it’s your choice, but it takes a while to get a good smell cookin’ and you’re gonna have to start all over again now.

To avoid this constant bathroom company, you can, of course, close the door.  But you are going to trip over him as you’re leaving. Is he guarding? Is he lonely? After all, you were in there for minutes and lonely dogminutes. Is he just blocking cold drafts? Who knows. But, he will be right there.

My travel trailer has nine square feet of bathroom space. There’s not enough room for Milo to lay down. So, for someone camping alone you’d think that the primary purpose of the bathroom door would be to hide the loo from view when it’s not in use.  Not if you have a German Shepherd.

“Watch ya doin’ in here?”

“None of your business.”

“Want some company?”


“I bet you actually do.”

“No, Milo, you won’t fit.”

“Sure I will. Watch. I’ll just back in over here, like this, humph.”

“Seriously Milo, get out.”

“Just a sec, I think I got it. Now I’m gonna skootch sideways like this, and wiggle my back end this way, and my front end that way.

“Milo, you’re testing my last nerve.”

“Wait, I almost got it. One little hop. There! Done! You see, no problem. We’re both in here. And we even get some lap time.”

Of course, training is an option, but it would require that I not laugh. I’m just glad he can’t open doors.

Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park: Great for people, stinky for dogs

In Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park the Boardwalk and Portage Trails offer spectacular views of the falls, and even when you can’t see them, their gentle murmur follows you as you hike.kakabeka 1 These trails are cleverly integrated into the landscape in a way that invites you to notice the waterfall, not the path or the people. The people we did meet were vocal about Milo’s handsomeness and good manners, which is enough to make me love walking barefoot on hot city pavement. Add lovely scenery to this sort of Milo admiration and you, or at least I, are in store for a pleasant afternoon.

kakabeka 2

The park has a dog beach/ off-leash area on the river above the falls. There is a people beach as well. The people beach is unremarkable, and the dog beach is icky. Milo left tracks three inches deep in smelly mud, slimy algae (I hope it was algae) clung to the entire shoreline, and the water was not deep enough to wash any of that green muck off. Milo and I walked there, took one look, and left. This did not please Milo in the slightest. He wanted to swim. Mud, slimy scum, stinky water–for him they are features, not bugs. I tried to convince him that he should blame the beach rather than me for his unfulfilled desire to swim, but he was too irritated to listen to reason.

danger at kakabeka

“Danger!” It means nothing to Milo the AwesomeDog, literally.

It is easy to get to Kakabeka Falls, the park is just outside of Thunder Bay, and the Trans Canada Highway runs right through it. If I were visiting again, I wouldn’t camp. I’d buy a pass and spend an afternoon checking out the falls and the trails. This park made me feel a little bit like Chevy Chase at the Grand Canyon because really, there is only so much time you can spend looking at a waterfall.

“My method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals

brown cartoon dog, standing on hind legs, with a surprised expressionI bet if a person gave their puppy an excruciating correction every time he laid a foot on the carpet, they could train that dog to stay off the rug in a heartbeat. But, I wouldn’t train a puppy that way. And even if I found a hundred scientific papers demonstrating the success of this method I still would not use it, nor would I recommend it to anyone else. I think it’s wrong. It goes against my values.

Often, when we latch onto the ‘scientificness’ of a training method, we’re trying to justify and recommend its use. Why should you use this method? It must be good. Science says so!

What kind of ‘good’ are we talking about?

The connection between science and goodness is complicated. While we’ve used scientific knowledge to cure disease, improve public health, and build bridges, we’ve also used it to build bombs and torture people.

When we’re talking about the scientific goodness of a dog training method, we’re not talking about moral goodness. Rather, we’re talking about practical goodness or effectiveness. Practical goodness or effectiveness demands the question, “Good at what?” In this sense, a person can be a good doctor or a good torturer (or a good dog trainer). It just means that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it well. This kind of goodness is relative to a set of goals.

By praising a training method for being scientific, we’re justifying it, or recommending it, because there is scientific evidence demonstrating that it meets a set of training goals better than alternative methods.

This doesn’t say anything about what your training goals should be. That is up to you.

What kind of goals are we talking about?

Generally, we want our dogs to be happy and perform their jobs well. But, there is a wide range of specific goals we could pick. Here are just a few ways our goals can vary:

Goals vary with respect to projects

Is someone working on rehabilitating a rescue dog, or training a lap dog, a protection dog, or a guide dog? They’ll definitely teach these dogs different behaviours and might teach these behaviours using different methods. Teaching a good strong bite isn’t a goal of most people training lap dogs. Specific goals depend on the projects a person and their dog are working on.

Goals can vary in terms of mastery: reliability and precision

Trainers can have different goals about the level of mastery their dog needs to attain.

When someone asks a pet dog to heel, they usually want it to walk in the general vicinity of their left side. In an obedience competition a dog that gets a step ahead or behind the handler, or drifts away from parallel to the direction the handler’s facing, loses points. In some cases, precision is more important than others.

Or, imagine teaching a dog ‘out.’ ‘Out’ means drop whatever is in your mouth. When a pet dog hears “out” it usually means “drop that ball.” When a police dog hears “out” it can mean “let go of that person.” In some cases, reliability is more important than others.

Teaching new behaviour is different from extinguishing an entrenched, self-rewarding behaviour

Milo doesn’t really care if he is standing or sitting. I used marker training to teach him to sit on command. It went like this:

Carla: “Milo, sit.”
Milo sits.
Carla: “YES!” Gives Milo a cookie.

Milo learned an easy way to get cookies. Sometimes he walks up and offers a sit and an intent gaze. He’s clearly saying, “Hey lady, I’m sitting here, and I’m short on cookies.”

On the other hand, I had to teach Milo not to chase bikes. He has huge prey drive, which means that, to him, chasing is its own reward. When he chases, he is giving himself his favourite cookie, a cookie better than prime rib.

Teaching Milo to sit and teaching him not to chase are two very different goals that required different methods.

But, aren’t some methods effective at achieving a bunch of different goals?

Yep. Lots of people successfully train agility dogs, protection sport dogs, and pet dogs using clicker training (aka marker training). Clicker training is all the rage. I use this method with Milo whenever I can.

But, funnily enough, there isn’t as much scientific evidence demonstrating clicker training’s effectiveness when applied to dog training in general, or to specific training goals in particular, as you might think. There is scientific theory showing that we expect it to work, but not direct scientific evidence showing that it does with dogs. The evidence that it works in a wide range (but not all) situations doesn’t come from scientists, as much as it comes from expert trainers with a track record of practical success.


The bottom line

Just because scientific evidence shows that a method meets one set of training goals, it doesn’t mean that it must meet a different set of training goals.  

And, even if scientific evidence shows that a training method meets a set of goals, a person can decide not to use, or recommend it, if it conflicts with their values.

You can’t decide what the scientific evidence is, but you must decide on your goals and values.


Note: In these posts on scientific dog training, I’m setting a high standard for calling a dog training method scientific. I’ll explain why in my fifth “My method is scientific” post, “Responsible use of science.”

  1. “My method is scientific” 1: “That’s right, I said ‘SCIENTIFIC’!”
  2. “My method is scientific” 2: What does this even mean?
  3. “My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training
  4. “My Method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals
  5. “My method is scientific” 5: Responsible use of science

On the road in what? Buying a SUV for Milo and me.

Once I decided that Milo and I would be taking a travel trailer on this trip, it was clear that we needed to go car shopping. My 2006 Honda Civic served me well for 11 years, but it was getting old and tired, and even in its heyday would not have been up to pulling a trailer. Not to mention the fact that it was neither big nor safe enough for Milo, and its years of being a dogmobile left it smelling really bad.

I read reviews, blog posts, and articles in Car and Driver about the best vehicles for dogs and their people. All that research didn’t help as much as I had hoped. But, it did make me realize that I needed a clear idea of what would make a good vehicle for Milo and me.

I wanted to be on the road with Milo in a vehicle with:

  • A tow package –no surprise here, it needs to tow the trailer that would be our home for the next few months.
  • Room for a really big dog crate. Milo needs to be safe and comfortable.
  • Excellent climate control. Milo is not the only one who needs to be safe and comfortable.
  • Leather seats. Not because they are fancy, but because I know first hand the impossibility of picking dog hair out of upholstery.
German Shepherd Dog with its tongue hanging out standing in the driver's seat of a blue SUV.

Isn’t this a pretty blue?

Also, it had to be:

  • Not a minivan.
  • Blue.
  • Quiet and comfortable to drive.
  • Reasonably priced and fuel-efficient.

With this figured out, I was off test driving small and medium sized SUVs. Once I actually drove a few vehicles, I learned a few more things:

  • First, “fold-flat rear seats” often do not fold flat. “Flat” can mean angled, slanted, or having a ridge across the storage compartment. Also, while “fold-flat” in a base model of a vehicle can mean “fold-with-a-ridge,” it might actually mean flat in a higher trim model. You need to see that it is actually flat with your own eyes, because a dog crate on an angle or wobbling over a ridge is not OK. Of course you can prop the crate up, or add shims, or do something fancy with duct tape. But it seems wrong to spend a huge amount of money on a vehicle that you must immediately jerry-rig to get it to do what you bought it for in the first place.
German shepherd standing in the back of a blue SUV with its rear hatch open.

Space for Milo’s crate and then some

  • Second, storage compartment dimensions can be deceiving. Slanted roofs, oddly-shaped doors, and wheel wells might change how big a thing (for example, a dog crate) it can conveniently hold. I ended up bringing my crate to the dealership and setting it up in the vehicle to make sure that it fit the way I wanted it to. The sales person was not thrilled about this test, but I asked politely and was careful not to scratch the paint.


  • Finally, while most vehicle sales people are efficient, polite and helpful, others are down right rude. When I asked about monthly payments at one place the  salesperson actually said, “It isn’t worth my while to figure that out unless you are interested in buying.” That’s right, he wouldn’t even tell me the price. Needless to say I moved on and bought a vehicle from an efficient, polite and helpful salesperson. The good ones are out there and are worth searching for.

At the end of the day (actually week) I drove home a Ford Escape. I love it. Milo and I have been happily motoring around in it for a few months. The new car smell is slowing being replaced by big dog smell. That, sadly, seems inevitable.

I was surprised to find vehicle shopping fun. It helped to be clear about what I wanted and what I needed, and to keep in mind that this was getting me one step closer to being on the road with Milo.

a large black and tan German shepherd sitting next to a blue SUV

just a dog and his truck

Training outcomes: May 28 – June 3

I learned more than Milo did this week.


We worked on stays at home and on a field where we regularly play and train. I ended up using medium rather than small distractions. They included: opening the fridge, throwing a toy around in front of him, dropping a chicken wiener in front of him, and at one session another dog came to our field and played frisbee with its person for a while.

He didn’t break a single stay! Next week we’ll try for three minutes.

Cleaning up his toys

For this trick Milo goes through the house collecting his toys and putting them in his toy box. We’ve been working on this for a while.

We didn’t make any progress for the first part of the week, so I took some time to sit back and think about what we were doing.

I realized I was messing up by asking him to do figure out two things at once. I was asking him to (1) get the idea that he has to clean up all of his toys, and (2) get the idea that he needs to clean up his toys in all the rooms. So, I scaled back to laying out a few of his toys in one room, and gradually increasing the number of toys (all in the same room) that I was asking him to clean up.  After he gets the hang of cleaning up all the toys in one room, we’ll add rooms one at a time.

This trick is teaching me to break up training into little bits, use my markers more accurately, and discipline myself about when I use words and when I use gestures as cues.

Milo did better after I cleaned up my act. Next week, more toys, but still in the living room.

Heel Position

This is going fine.  The next week it will be correct position for three steps.

I didn’t get finished with The Power of Training Dogs with Markers., so that stays on my training to-do list as well.

What we did:

clean position 1min sit-stay clean position 1min down-stay
Saturday   x   x   x   x   x   x
Sunday   x   x   x
Tuesday   x   x   x   x   x   x
Wednesday   x   x   x   x   x   x
Thursday   x   x   x
Friday   x   x   x   x   x   x