In a recent post, Marc Bekoff considered the question, “Are you being fair to right-minded dog owners?” which was put to him by some of his readers.
The readers Bekoff quoted pointed out that people try their best for their dogs.
One person, Eduardo, said, “We need some positive feedback because it’s not that easy trying to live with a dog.”
As a result, Bekoff did a preliminary analysis of recent articles by several Psychology Today bloggers (including myself) to see if we tend towards the more negative or positive end of the spectrum.
Source: Valeria Boltneva
The unfortunate news is that of the posts he looked at, 52 percent could be considered negative, while only 5 percent were positive (the others were more neutral).
As Bekoff noted, the negativity is unintentional, “with a purpose of educating and making dogs’ and humans’ lives better.”
I want to thank Bekoff for his analysis and for sharing these comments. His piece highlighted the need to pay attention to how we write about people and their pets.
It prompted me to think about how we care for dogs and how that has changed over the years. There is a lot to be optimistic about.
So here are three things that people with pets deserve praise for. Given that I write about dogs and cats, I include cat guardians in this list too.
Learning more about their dog or cat
Anyone reading Bekoff, myself, or the other Psychology Today bloggers whose work he considered is presumably here because they want to learn more about their pet or the human-animal bond. This is important for several reasons, including:
- It’s good to stay up to date. What we know about dogs and cats changes all the time thanks to canine and feline science research.If someone gets their first new pet in, say, 10 or 15 years, a lot will have changed in that time (even as it builds on what went before).
- It’s important to find good sources. There’s a lot of outdated information about dogs and cats, and sometimes it can be hard to sort through it to find what is good advice and what is not (or even harmful).My fellow Psychology Today bloggers are just as keen on providing evidence-based information as I am, which means that if we say something, we’ve got the references to back it up.
Training their pet with rewards such as food treats
Many people regularly used aversive methods to train their dogs for a long time. Not anymore.
Nowadays, almost all dog guardians use reward-based methods to train their dogs for at least some time (e.g., Woodward et al., 2021).
This is great because we know that positive reinforcement is effective and is best for the dog. (See AVSAB position statement on humane dog training). The more often you train your dog with rewards, the better.
You’re probably wondering where cats fit in. Of course, cats learn from positive reinforcement too. While it’s true that most cat guardians haven’t tried deliberately training their cats, many will have inadvertently done so.
Does your cat come running when you rustle a treat packet, say “Treats!” or open the door to the cupboard where the cat food lives? If so, you’ve trained your cat to come when called (or signaled) to get a food reward. Bravo!
Doing activities that the pet enjoys
Enrichment is another area where many dogs and cat guardians can give themselves a pat on the back. Nowadays, people know the importance of providing plenty of exercise and enrichment for their pets.
This comes in many forms: taking your dog for a walk (and sometimes your cat, depending); doing scent enrichment such as smell walks or nose work with your dog (cats can do nose work too); putting food in a snuffle mat or other food puzzle toy to make mealtimes more interesting and so that your pet has to work for their food; teaching your pet to do tricks; and so on.
The important thing is to find activities that you and your pet enjoy and will keep doing over time.
The benefits include having fun with your pet, seeing your pet engage in normal behaviors for their species, and the pet being less likely to have behavior issues.
What Cat and Dog Guardians Are Getting Right
These are just three examples of what most cat and dog guardians get right. What Eduardo said is correct; it’s not that easy living with a dog. Or with a cat, for that matter.
You’ll find plenty of tips for positive things to do for your dog and cat in my books, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.
If you’re more interested in the communication side of things, I’ve written elsewhere about the value of positive messages on dog training and behavior.
In the spirit of the post that sparked this one, I’d like to thank Bekoff for a helpful and thought-provoking post—just one of many such posts he’s written here and elsewhere that make a difference to our understanding of animals. Like his other regular readers, I have learned much from his posts and books.
Sometimes it’s hard to be positive, and there can be many reasons to write a more negative post (including those pesky social media algorithms).
But it’s important to remember that everyone is trying to do their best for their pets and that there are many reasons for hope in dog training and animal behavior.
Of course, there are many more things that most people get right, but I wanted to share these three things that pet guardians can feel proud of.