Malcolm was the perfect companion. He’d been adopted from a breeder after
Malcolm retired from a stellar show-dog career. He was charming and
friendly with people and other dogs. He spent many of his days at work with
his owner, Charles. However, whenever Charles left him home alone,
mayhem resulted. Malcolm barked all day and chewed and scratched up
pillows, furniture, and rugs.
Charles loved Malcolm dearly but was angry and frustrated at the dog’s
inability to stay home alone. He believed Malcolm was vocalizing and
destroying items out of spite because Charles had not brought him along.
Charles tried punishing Malcolm by dragging him over to the destroyed items
and scolding him. When that didn’t work, he put Malcolm in a crate to stop
the destructive behavior, but this seemed to actually make things worse.
When Charles came home to a crate full of urine, he realized Malcolm
might not be “angry”; he might be suffering and scared. Charles decided to
videotape Malcolm’s home-alone behavior. He was horrified to see how right
he was. When he was alone, Malcolm dug at the crate door, urinated on
himself, and whined. He drooled profusely. He didn’t stop until he was so
exhausted that he couldn’t stay awake anymore, a few hours after Charles
left. Charles discovered what veterinary behaviorists already know: many dogs
who destroy or rearrange items, vocalize, injure themselves, salivate
excessively, pace, and engage in other problem behaviors when alone are
experiencing a serious type of suffering—separation anxiety.
It’s great when our dogs run to greet us and seem to follow us around. In fact,
for many people, this is one of their favorite parts of having a dog. After all,
we don’t just fall for their huge eyes and soft coat; unconditional adoration is
pretty heady stuff. For us humans living in a complicated social world, isn’t it
nice to come home to someone who just can’t wait to see us?
Being social and bonding to people has probably been genetically selected
as dogs evolved to become man’s best friend. Some of this increased bonding
may have been due to humans purposely breeding sociable dogs, or it may be
because dogs who were naturally social with people had better access to
protection, food, and other resources. Regardless, people had a hand in
creating a species that is uniquely bonded with us.
These days, this unique bond can undergo stress from busy schedules that
leave sensitive dogs without companionship, and that’s the problem. In
essence, over thousands of years, we may have helped create the anxious little
creatures who today keep pet-sitters in business on Friday nights or keep the
dogs’ family watching TV reruns instead of going out to the movies.
It can be normal for dogs, especially puppies, to show some distress when
they’re separated from attachment figures, such as a dependable dog or human
companions. This distress should be brief (less than a few minutes) and not
too intense (for instance, the dog may whine a little, but then be happily able
to eat). The signs of distress should diminish over time as the dog or puppy
learns the daily schedule and can predict the return of those he is missing.
Dogs with separation anxiety are not just sad or disappointed when they
are left alone. They do not learn to tolerate absences, the way less-anxious
dogs do. Instead, when left alone, they experience extreme distress that
frequently doesn’t improve unless it is treated.
Even people who adore their dogs must leave them alone sometimes.
When people leave their dogs alone, they don’t expect or want to come home
to pools of urine, piles of feces, a shredded couch, or complaints from the
neighbors about the mournful wailing that occurs in their absence. For people
whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety, though, these complaints are part
of daily life. These behaviors put the human-animal bond in jeopardy, leaving
these dogs at risk of abuse, abandonment, and euthanasia.
Rescued dogs are thought to be more likely to have separation anxiety. We
don’t know whether this is due to the trauma of the relinquishment itself, the
time spent in the shelter, or whether their separation anxiety was the reason
they were abandoned in the first place. Many people do not report separation
anxiety behaviors to shelters or rescue groups when they hand over their dog,
because they are afraid the dog will be euthanized as a result. Unfortunately,
this means that there is no accurate count of shelter or rescue dogs suffering
from separation anxiety.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Dogs with separation anxiety have a behavioral disorder and show physical,
physiological, or behavioral signs of distress only in the absence of their
people or when they cannot get to their people because a door is closed, a
the gate is up, or they’re otherwise physically separated. Occasionally a dog will
exhibit signs of separation anxiety only when a specific person is absent or
Most of these dogs are fairly normal when home with their people. They
will not always insist on being in the same room with their people and will
play normally with other pets. When left alone, though, the troubled dog
won’t engage with other pets; normal household dogs may avoid these frantic
dogs when they are in the depths of their distress.
Occasionally a dog is not so normal and becomes a “Velcro dog”—one
who can never, ever be parted from his people. In the worst manifestation, he
may need to be always touching someone. This much less common hyper attached dogs may have no life separate from that of their people.
The most commonly reported behaviors associated with separation anxiety
include urination, defecation, destruction, and excessive vocalization (usually
barking or howling). These are the signs people recognize most easily. Dogs
with separation anxiety may also show many other signs that are usually not
noticed by pet owners without a video of their dog. Drooling, panting,
freezing (becoming immobile), withdrawal, and changes in problem-solving
and other cognitive behaviors are less commonly noted because they are less
apparent and simply can’t be observed if you’re not home. Unfortunately,
dogs displaying these signs may never be diagnosed.
So how can you tell if your dog is exhibiting these less obvious behaviors?
Urine and saliva can evaporate while you are gone, but a small, handheld
black light will make urine fluoresce. If you move the light slowly and low
over the floor or carpeting, the places where the dog has urinated will light
If your dog has salivated, the fur may be stained a rust color (this may not
be visible in dogs with dark coats). If you’re not sure if your dog salivates
when you are gone, run your hands over his legs and chest. If he was
salivating, you’ll feel stiff, stuck-together hair that’s thick with saliva residue.
You may not know if your dog barks or howls all day long unless someone
complains or you notice that the dog is actually hoarse. Voice-activated
recorders are now cheap and will record barking dogs, as will the memo
feature on answering machines. But the best way to learn if your dog is
barking (and the best way to learn if he is pacing, shaking, freezing in place,
and so on) is to videotape him. Videos enable dogs to tell us about their day.
Dogs who are panting, pacing, rigidly sitting in a fixed position, or
whimpering when no one can hear them are profoundly distressed and
suffering. Videos give these dogs a voice and provide you with the behavioral
information you need to help the dog.
Common Signs in Dogs with Separation
* These signs are easiest for owners to recognize.
Videos of the dog when you are gone provide the best information for you
and your veterinarian to share. You will want to video the dog from a few
stationary locations (include at least the door by which people exit and the
dog’s favorite resting place). Also, video the dog when you are home, so you
can compare the happier dog to the distressed one. This is an important step because it will help you identify behaviors you wish to change and those you
wish to reward. The behaviors of concern listed under “Common Signs” will
just pop out when you compare videos.
In general, behavior problems are most easily fixed if they are caught
early. You can video your dog once or twice a year to make sure he’s not
showing signs of separation anxiety. If he is, you can get help immediately
rather than waiting for it to get bad enough for you to see clinical signs.
As is true for most behavioral problems involving dogs, there are a lot of
myths about separation anxiety and its treatment. Here are some of them:
People who travel for their job sometimes say they are gone so much
that their dogs are beginning to develop separation anxiety. Yet breeders
and veterinary staff who raise or work with puppies often tell people to
teach the dog to learn to be alone so that he doesn’t develop separation
anxiety. So which is it?
If you just got a dog, someone may tell you not to “spoil” the dog by
letting him sleep in your bed because then you won’t be able to leave
If you have a busy life, someone will tell you that your dog destroys
things because you are on the go too much to have a dog. If you have a quiet life, other “experts” will suggest that the dog is destroying the
house because you don’t have enough to do and you “spoil” the dog,
making him “too bonded” to you.
If you have just one dog, people tell you that, of course, the poor dog
shrieks while you are gone because he’s lonely and because you focus
too much on him. If you have more than one dog, people tell you that
you have too many pets, so there’s no way to pay enough attention to the
dog with the problem.
If you change from working at home to working in an office, you may
hear that your dog urinates on the rug out of “spite” because he is angry
that you leave.
If your dog is “remodeling” your house, people may say your dog is
bored and needs a job or more things to occupy him—even though he
never plays with or eats the food from his food toys until you come
Dogs need “limits.” You should crate your dog, regardless of his
reaction, when you are gone.
Rescuers, shelters, and rescue sites often speak of Velcro dogs. These
Velcro dogs are portrayed as good pets for people who really want
attention from their dogs: “He’ll always be by your side, and you’ll
always know where he is.”
These contradictory characterizations often cause confusion and frustration
for dog owners, resulting in either failure to get help in managing this
condition or, worse yet, getting the wrong type of help, and not focusing on
addressing the underlying anxiety.
Data collected from trials to approve medications for the treatment of
separation anxiety have helped to clarify what we do know—and can be
surprising. The results put to rest many concerns arising from the rampant
misinformation on separation anxiety.
Who the dog lives with or what the families do does not matter. Solo dogs
and those who lived in multidog and multi-pet households were equally
represented in the medication trials. Also, separation anxiety is not
contagious: dogs who lived with a dog who had separation anxiety did not
develop it themselves.
Marital status and whether the family had children had nothing to do with
whether there were separation issues. Dogs with separation anxiety were just
as likely to come from homes where everyone worked outside the home as
they were to come from homes where someone was usually or always home.
Research also showed that separation anxiety is not caused by dog owners
but is due to many factors. Some clients doted on their dogs, and others had
dogs who were just part of the general business of the household. As has been
shown in other studies, “spoiling” the dog did not affect whether separation
anxiety developed. Some owners of dogs with separation anxiety allowed the
dogs to sleep in their bed; some did not. Some people fed premium dog food,
some did not. Some people barely groomed their dogs, others had clothes for
them. The clothed dogs may have occasionally looked embarrassed, but
dressing up the dog did not cause the separation anxiety.
There is no breed disposition for separation anxiety. The proportion of
purebred and mixed-breed dogs did not differ from that of the general animal
hospital population to which the affected group was compared. No breed was
found to be more likely to have separation anxiety.
Dogs who were adopted as adults, strays, or rescues were not more likely
to have separation anxiety when compared with the numbers of adults,
rescues, and strays in the overall hospital population. There appeared to be no
one “right” breed or source of dogs that would guarantee dogs free of
More exercise and activity is not all they need. The vast majority of these
dogs are neither understimulated nor deprived; they are not bored, either.
Separation anxiety even affects dogs who have dog doors and access to the
outside world! Videos reveal that affected dogs ignore the invitations of other
dogs to play with them, do not use food toys, and do not eat food that they
would otherwise gobble. Dogs who dig their way through walls and doors or
who escape by breaking windows not only injure themselves physically,
sometimes severely but after doing so often seek out someone—anyone—
who is home or who will sit with them?
These dogs are not distressed because their owners are not “dominant”
enough. There is no research supporting the idea that owners cause separation
anxiety in their dogs.
Myths that seek to place blame interfere with the dog getting help—an
accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Dogs with separation anxiety
are distressed. They are not angry and behaving spitefully. Instead, they are
behaving in a frantic manner that they cannot control.
These dogs are not punishing you for leaving them alone. Instead, they are
responding physically and behaviorally to the profound distress—and
sometimes panic—they feel when they are separated from their people.
Malcolm, the dog at the beginning of the chapter, was punished for his
destructive and vocal behaviors because his owner felt he was being spiteful
—until he realized how much Malcolm was suffering.
Separation anxiety: Significant distress that accompanies a dog’s
anticipation of being separated from family members and that
continues when he is left alone. Some clinical signs are vocalization,
destruction, house soiling in dogs who are otherwise housetrained,
drooling, panting, and pacing. Many of these dogs exhibit clinical
signs of panic when they are left alone.
Panic: A sudden, intense feeling of terror, accompanied by strong
physical signs, such as a racing heart, agitation, stomach upset,
escape behaviors and panting. Panic may occur even if there’s no
specific, identifiable trigger.
Desensitization and counterconditioning: Treatment processes that
are meant to be gentle and gradual and incorporate learning. These
techniques involve exposing the dog to the situation that causes fear
or distress, but at such a low level that the dog does not react with
distress, and then gradually increasing some aspect of the exposure
the dog finds distressing (this is desensitization). At the same time,
the dog is taught behavior that is favorable and fun and is
incompatible with exhibiting the undesirable behavior (this is
Anxiety: Apprehensive anticipation of dangerous, dreaded, or fear-inducing
situations. Anxiety is usually recognized in dogs by signs of
hypervigilance (the dog is easy to startle and is excessively watchful),
restlessness, increased muscle tension and trembling.
You’ve had a long day at work. You’re looking forward to getting home and
relaxing with your dog. You hope the new crate you bought for your dog is
comfortable. It should be. It’s large, and you put it in an airy spot; it has a
blanket, a water dispenser, his favorite chew toys, and a food puzzle toy filled
with the peanut butter he loves.
You chose the crate because, as your hours at work grew, you were
beginning to come home to destroyed books and papers. And then the edge of
the sofa was chewed. Your dog is young, your hours long; maybe the dog is
just looking for something to do while you are gone. Someone recommended
the crate and the toys. Your dog seemed to enjoy going in the crate for treats
during the weekend, but this is the first day he was left alone, locked inside.
You open the front door and—the dog jumps on you! You look around and
the house is a complete mess. Not only are books and papers chewed, but
pillows and cushions are shredded. And the crate? The blanket is strained
through the bars, the water dispenser upended, the food toys have been
ignored, and the bars of the crate are bent so the door hangs open.
And your poor dog! His gums are bleeding and he broke a tooth. His nails
are broken and a pad is cut. There is blood on the rugs. What is wrong with
your best friend? Can it be fixed? You love your dog but you must go to
work. So you call t
Common Patterns of Behavior
Many dogs with separation anxiety show some common patterns.
Your dog may fit one of these categories:
The dog is distressed only if left totally alone but does not have a
the problem if he’s at doggie daycare or with a pet-sitter.
The dog is distressed only if left by one special person or a few
people and is not helped by daycare or a pet-sitter.
The dog is home with a person or people but becomes distressed
when he is denied access to them (such as by doors or gates).
The dog experiences schedule changes. For example, the daily
schedule changes from fixed to erratic, or early to late. He can
be alone without problems for six hours but not for eight hours.
For dogs with other coexisting anxiety-related conditions, the dog experiences the same or similar signs when exposed to a
scary event (such as fireworks or thunderstorms).
How Do We Begin?
Seek professional advice if you think your dog is suffering from separation
anxiety. Your veterinarian is a good place to start; she can first make sure that
there are no medical problems that may be contributing to the distress. Then,
by taking a behavioral history, she can determine whether the diagnosis of
separation anxiety is appropriate for your pet. If your veterinarian is not
comfortable treating separation anxiety, she can refer you to a veterinary
behaviorist for diagnosis and treatment or call one for a consultation.
If your dog has been diagnosed with separation anxiety, there are many
simple and effective treatments that you can start right away. These include
avoiding absences when possible, teaching your dog to be comfortable while
alone, teaching your dog to relax in general, and relieving anxiety with
medication if your dog must be left alone. If you begin working on all of
these at once, you should start to see improvement, in all but the most severe
cases, within four to eight weeks. Some dogs may improve to the point at
which they are able to be calmly left alone, regardless of the type of absences
they experience. Others will have improvements in the number, intensity, or
frequency of clinical signs but may require some form of management over
the long term.
Make Sure You Have the Right Diagnosis
Get a video of your dog when he’s home alone and share it with your
veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. This is critical to making sure you’re
not barking up the wrong tree on your treatment plan. Ideally, be prepared to
record for several hours. If you can’t get a video, don’t let that stop you from
seeking help for your dog.
Why? Treatment for separation anxiety isn’t likely to hurt your dog even if
you’ve got the wrong diagnosis. But if you aren’t treating the real problem,
your dog might not improve.
Get a Pet-Sitter
In a perfect world, dogs with separation anxiety would never be left home
alone until their separation anxiety had been successfully treated. You don’t
necessarily need to hire a traditional pet-sitting service for this. Use some
creative thinking to find company for your dog when you have to be away.
Why a sitter? Throughout the treatment, your dog will improve gradually.
However, life will inevitably require you to be away. If you leave your dog in
a situation where he is anxious, his improvements may be slower or his
clinical signs may worsen. Everyone needs to get out once in a while. We all
have family and work commitments. When you must be away, first find
company for your friend, then go and have a great time knowing he and your
home are safe.
If you’re not sure how to find company for your dog, ask your friends and
family. Many are happy to pet-sit for free or for a smaller charge than
traditional pet-sitting services. If your dog does well at daycare, this is
another option. Some offices will let you take your pet to work, and some
dog walkers will keep your dog for an entire day of canine bliss.
Make Greetings and Exits No Big Deal
Greet your dog calmly and only when he’s relaxed and quiet. Ignore jumping,
barking, licking, and general frantic cuteness. Be vigilant about your own
pattern of responses and make sure your response to any behavior from the
dog can only be helpful to him. This will ensure you are only rewarding
(through petting him, talking to him, and looking at him) calm, relaxed
Leave quickly, quietly, and calmly. Don’t make a fuss. Get your stuff
ready long before you need to leave—at least a couple of hours, if possible—
so that you aren’t rushing around during the last several minutes before your
departure. If you interact with your dog, do so in a relaxed way. Speak
calmly, and if you pet him, pet in long strokes or a couple of gentle scratches
rather than roughhousing.
Talking to your dog in an excited or worried tone or petting him in an
agitating fashion can get him worked up. When you are about to leave,
keeping cool can help him be as calm as possible.
Make sure your dog has adequate exercise. For some dogs, a long walk or
game of fetch an hour or so before absences can be helpful. For others, a
leisurely sniff walk is equally effective and desired.
Exercise alone won’t cure separation anxiety, but adequate exercise and
mental stimulation can improve your dog’s overall health and lower anxiety.
Additionally, it can help him rest while you are gone. However, don’t go
overboard; you can wind up with a dog who is in better shape and needs even
more exercise to help him to relax.
Don’t punish your friend for mistakes that happen while you are gone, even if
you think he looks guilty. Current research indicates that the “guilty look”
can appear simply in response to your angry and frustrated body language.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that sheepish behavior is an effort to make
up for destroying your couch. Your dog is likely just using dog language to
avoid a threat.
When you punish, remember that you are punishing what is happening
right now, not what happened forty-five minutes ago or even five seconds
ago. Since signs of separation anxiety happen while you are gone, it’s
impossible to punish at the right moment. But even if you were able to punish
at exactly the right moment, it’s a bad idea because punishment can increase
anxiety and fear and make it harder for animals to learn.
Punishment does not make fear go away. In fact, it may make your dog
afraid or conflicted about your return. Can you imagine what would happen if
you were in a similar position? Let’s say you were home alone and so frantic
about a missing friend that you couldn’t sleep or eat. Would it really help
your anxiety if your missing friend showed up and yelled at you for worrying
and skipping your meals? Probably not. You’d probably feel a mixture of
relief that your friend was back and confusion about why she was so angry.
What a mess!
Reward Calm Behaviors
When you are home, encourage calm behaviors from your dog by talking to
him in a quiet voice or giving him a short, calm petting session (long, smooth
strokes) whenever he isn’t showing signs of agitation, tension, or fear. Keep
in mind that many dogs get excited if you speak to them in high-pitched,
repetitive tones or pet them in short, quick strokes. Go for whatever helps
your dog relax.
Not all dogs with separation anxiety shadow their owners or hang out close
to them when they are home. But it’s great for those dogs who do so to be
rewarded for resting and staying at a distance sometimes.
Make Departures Fun
Although you shouldn’t get your dog amped up just before you go, it’s a
great idea to give him something to do while you’re gone. Scent games (such
as finding hidden items) and food-filled puzzle toys are excellent options for
keeping dogs busy while you’re away. Set them out just as you are leaving.
Whether or not your dog has separation anxiety, this type of departure routine
can be a great enrichment for dogs.
Many dogs with separation anxiety won’t play with toys or eat while they
are home alone. But if your dog will eat or play when alone, put something
fun out for him every time you leave. Whatever game or toy you are planning
to use, it can be helpful for the dog to learn to enjoy it when you are home for
several sessions before you set it out for him when you are leaving.
Separation anxiety is not about boredom, but keeping your friend busy can
help him learn that it’s not scary when you leave—in fact, it’s pretty darn
fun. For those dogs who don’t eat while you are gone, it’s still a great idea to
leave an easy food puzzle toy. If your dog begins playing with a toy while
you’re gone when he hadn’t before, you can tell he’s likely starting to feel
better about being left alone.
But be careful: if you only set up these games or food puzzle toys when
you are leaving, these toys can actually become one more departure cue for
your dog. This means some dogs might associate the presence of the toy
with your departure. Instead of playing with the toy happily, they may get
anxious as soon as they see it since it means you’re leaving.
Cue and Treat
There are many cues that let your dog in on the big secret that you’ve got to
leave. In fact, it’s probably easier to keep a secret from your spouse than
from your dog. That’s because dogs pick up so quickly on nonverbal cues.
Every dog uses different cues to tell him that you are heading out, but
some common ones are picking up keys, handling handbags or backpacks,
putting on jackets or shoes, wearing work clothes instead of weekend clothes,
putting on makeup, and approaching the door. You can change the meaning
of these actions by doing them at random times when you are home, so your
dog learns they don’t necessarily mean you’re leaving. With practice, your
dog will learn that these cues could mean anything. Picking up the keys could
tell your dog that you are going to watch TV, do the dishes, take a nap, or do
anything but leave. What we are using here is habituation: the dog stops
responding to a situation just by being exposed to it many times.
It’s smart to work on departure cues because you won’t be able to avoid all
of them. So you might as well teach your dog that they sometimes mean
something besides an absence. Ideally, they should mean something fun. If
you don’t do this work, then every time you pick up your keys or put on your
work shoes, you’re setting your dog up to be anxious about your departure.
To make the most progress, practice only when your dog is relaxed, and
make sure you’re not leaving for at least a couple of hours after your practice
sessions. Also, try to limit the number of cues you perform before an actual
absence by getting things ready far in advance or keeping trigger items out of
sight whenever possible. Watch your dog for any signs of distress: panting,
worried facial expression, or pacing. If you see these, you are doing too
For calm dogs, you can bump up your plan a bit by teaching the dog that
these cues mean treats. For instance, pick up your keys, jingle them, and toss
a small treat. Don’t talk or make a big deal out of it. Repeat up to ten times a
day, as long as he is interested in eating the treats.
When your dog hears your keys and looks over at you excitedly for a treat,
you know you have done the job. Now start practicing on a different cue. Just
make sure that when you do leave, you toss a few treats for him. If your
training has worked, he’ll gobble them right up. The dog has just learned that
keys mean treats.
Teach Your Dog to Relax
Anxious dogs can actually be taught to be more relaxed. You can teach your
dog to relax using massage (there are books and DVDs on dog massage).
Once you notice that your dog is taking deep breaths and has relaxed muscles
during the massage, start to say the word “relaaaaax” (speak low and slow).
Gradually, you can start saying “relaaaaax” earlier and earlier in the process.
Eventually, the word itself becomes a cue for your dog to relax, because he’s
learned a wonderful massage is coming.
Another way to teach your dog to relax is to work with him on basic cues,
such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “look,” for three to five minutes in the
morning and three to five minutes at night. At first you will reward him every
time your dog performs the cue. But once he has the idea, switch to only
reinforcing the most relaxed versions of each cue. For instance, if you ask
him to sit and he sits in a nice, relaxed way, that will be the sit you reward.
You are looking for soft muscles all over his body, slow tail wags, sighs,
blinking eyes, deep breaths, and so on.
If your dog can’t be taught to relax with you at home, how can he learn to
relax when you’re not there? Having some scheduled time to focus on
relaxation can help him be calmer throughout the day. This means he may be
less hypervigilant overall about your departure cues and absences. Once your
dog learns to relax on cue, you can very carefully incorporate distractions
(such as you approaching the door and returning to your dog) into your
Practice Your Departures
Many people get the idea from reading about separation anxiety that it is easy
to teach a dog to be comfortable with your departures by leaving the dog over
and over for longer periods each time. However, several veterinary
behaviorists no longer routinely recommend this technique. Often, these
types of departures are done improperly and quickly exceed the dog’s
comfort level, and so instead of being helpful, they make some dogs worse.
If you decide that you want to try working with departures, video the dog
while you are practicing. If you see any signs of anxiety, you are moving too
far, too fast. For instance, your dog should continue to happily engage with
his toy while you are practicing your departures. If he looks up and abandons
his toy, you’ve gone too far, too fast. It’s a good idea to use a video camera
or a baby monitor for all practice departures, so you know what is happening
in your absence.
Here are some guidelines for practicing departures.
Step 1: Get an easy food puzzle toy, meaning that it’s pretty easy for the dog
to get highly valued treats to fall out or to lick out something gooey. Stuff the
toy with yummies your dog really, really loves; this calls for the heavy
artillery, like all-natural peanut butter or liver snacks.
Put the food toy on the ground with your dog and let him eat the food, then
pick it up when he’s finished. Repeat at least once daily at any time of day for
at least seven days straight. This toy will only be available for practice
departures until your dog can happily stay alone; never use it when you go to
work or will be gone long enough to upset your pet. When your dog is
eagerly looking forward to this treat and can settle in with it for several
minutes (at least ten minutes, but up to thirty would be better), you can start
practicing some departures.
Step 2: Get out the food toy, put it down in front of your dog, and walk
toward the door. Do not touch the door, but get close to it. Come right back
and sit down. As long as your dog is ignoring you and eating his treat, repeat
up to five times. If you do these repetitions within a few minutes of each
other, you can leave the toy down. If you are only practicing this one at a
time, then pick up the toy when you return from the door. The goal here is for
the dog to associate the special toy with you leaving but coming right back.
(If you have a dog who guards his food, removing it may not be possible in
this exercise.) When you can approach the door without your dog showing
signs of distress at least ten to twelve times over several days (for instance,
you practice three to five times a day for ten days and he shows no distress at
least ten to twelve times you do this), you can actually touch the doorknob
and wiggle it on your next session, repeating the same technique as before.
Step 3: Add another small increment of going out: turn the doorknob the
whole way, for instance. After ten to twelve repetitions over several days,
during which your dog is able to concentrate on his food puzzle toy, you may
increase the intensity slightly. Do the same at each tiny stage of the process
of going out the door. Increase the intensity in very small stages over the
course of several days to weeks, repeating as before.
Opening the door but not going out
Opening the door, going out, and coming right back in
Opening the door and walking out for one second, then coming right
Opening the door, walking out for two to four seconds, then coming in
Opening the door, walking out, closing the door, and coming in
Opening the door, walking out, closing the door, and staying outside for
a few seconds, then a minute, then a few minutes, then several minutes,
and eventually up to sixty minutes
Once you can stay out of the house for at least fifteen to thirty minutes
without any signs of anxiety, you can leave the area entirely using your car,
or, if you live in an apartment, going downstairs, but quickly return before
your dog can become anxious.
Many dogs who can be left alone for an hour or two can be left alone the
rest of the day, but some cannot. How do you know? Video!
Keep Things Quiet Inside
Use a white-noise machine or classical music to keep your dog from being
startled by noises outside the home. Some dogs are easily startled even when
they’re relaxing—for instance, they may jump at noises from outside. When
this happens, some dogs who have been resting can get anxious and start
exhibiting signs of distress. Background noise can keep this from happening.
Also, just as classical music is relaxing for us, studies show that it can be
relaxing for dogs as well.
Put Your Dog to Work
Ask your dog to sit whenever he wants food, petting, play, the opportunity to
go outside—whenever he wants something you can provide. Structuring your
interactions helps anxious dogs predict their social environment. When the
social environment is predictable, dogs may feel less anxious. So, before you
pet your dog, give him the “sit” cue, and as soon as he sits and looks calm
and attentive, pet him in a way you both enjoy.
Ease Suffering from Antianxiety Medications
Many dogs with separation anxiety benefit from medication that both eases
the anxiety at the neurochemical level and helps the dogs learn new and
calmer behaviors. Talk to your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist as soon
as possible to decide if antianxiety medication should be coupled with
behavior modification as part of your individualized treatment plan.
While Malcolm, the dog in our first example, got better without
medication, even though his separation anxiety was severe, the process took
several months. During that time Malcolm suffered during absences, even
though Charles was working intensely on behavior modification. This
suffering was needless, given that serious side effects of antianxiety
medications are rare.
Separation anxiety rarely improves immediately. It can cause significant,
prolonged suffering while people implement behavior modification. Stress
about neighbor complaints, threats of eviction, household destruction,
concern about the dog’s welfare, and many other issues make the time of the
essence in these situations. Some dogs with separation anxiety will be given
away or euthanized without appropriate treatment and speedy improvements.
Appropriate antianxiety medications could have relieved Malcolm’s
suffering immediately and helped his behavior modification plan work faster.
After all, no matter how hard you work on behavior modification when your
dog repeatedly feels such intense panic when you’re absent, it’s difficult for
him to learn that being alone can actually be just fine. Unless you can
guarantee that you will not have to leave your dog alone during treatment
(and sometimes even if you can guarantee it), the antianxiety medication should
be considered so your dog doesn’t have to suffer while you are gone.
Avoiding Pitfalls and Staying on Track
Practice your behavior modification strategies every day. It takes only a
a minute or two to fill food toys (they can be filled in advance and stored in the
fridge for when you need them), a minute to work on teaching your dog that
keys mean treats, three to five minutes of basic relaxation work twice daily,
and barely any extra time to set up some music and structure your
interactions. You don’t have to do everything every day, but practice
something every day so that you can keep your plan moving along.
While implementing a behavior modification program, do your best to
avoid leaving the dog home alone, if at all possible. If you must leave your dog alone and vulnerable to separation anxiety, it’s important to discuss
antianxiety medication with your veterinarian so your dog doesn’t have to
Don’t get a new pet to treat your dog’s separation anxiety unless you
really, really want another pet. Sometimes a companion pet will help only
temporarily, or not at all.
Be careful when you are practicing departures. Don’t push the program too
fast or you could accidentally make your dog more anxious about being alone
and, especially, about the process of being left. The goal of practice
departures is for your dog to be calm the entire time. If your dog starts to
show signs of separation anxiety while you are practicing departures, you are
moving too fast. Take a couple of days off. Just give him the food puzzle toy
without leaving, as you did in the beginning, and then restart your work at
least a few steps back from the point at which your dog became agitated.
Pacing, panting, whining, barking, and rearranging things are all signs that
you are moving too fast.
Make sure to check in at least weekly with your veterinarian or a veterinary
behaviorist. If your dog is not making progress, your veterinarian needs to
know. The goal is to avoid suffering. Give all medications as directed by your
veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. If you feel your dog is experiencing a
side effect, contact the veterinarian immediately to discuss other options.
Dogs like Malcolm can be helped, and they can become calm and happy.
With a well thought out plan for behavior modification and a medication plan
prescribed by a veterinarian, most dogs with separation anxiety can improve,
and you might actually be able to go to the movies on a Friday night once
more without coming home to a disaster zone and a frantic fuzzball.
Dog Basic Training
Would be able to adapt to novel tasks. But there was only one way to
find out for sure.
Helen, eager to see how Callie would do with the training, helped me
load her into the car, and the three of us headed to CPT with the head coil to
see Mark work his magic.
Helen entered with Callie, while I placed the head coil on the floor.
Mark looked at it and nodded. “This should be easy. Did you bring
From puppy training, I knew that soft treats are best. You can cut them
up into tiny pieces so the dog doesn’t fill up too quickly. And the dog can
consume them easily without getting distracted by crunching on a hard
biscuit. The only treats I could find around the house were some hot dogs that
had been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. I had no idea how long they’d
been there, but they smelled okay, and Callie loved them. I handed Mark a
baggie full of sliced-up hot dogs.
“First,” he said, “let’s start with the clicker.”
A training clicker is a small device about the size of a USB flash drive
that, unsurprisingly, makes a loud click when pressed. Dogs can hear the
clicker from across the room. The advantage of using one is that it always
makes the same sound, which is not the case with vocal commands. Because
it’s almost impossible to screw up, the clicker is a useful tool for beginners
like me. Its operation is simple: when the dog does something correct, you
click. For this to work, however, you first have to teach the dog that a click
equals a reward. This is classic classical conditioning. Just like Pavlov.
Callie tracked the bag of hot dogs as I handed it to Mark. Then she
dutifully sat at his feet, tail sweeping the floor. Mark clicked and immediately
gave her a piece of hot dog. Callie got even more excited. She could barely
At this point, what Callie was doing was unimportant. Mark
periodically clicked and handed her a reward. He was establishing the
association of each click with a transfer of reward, making it a conditioned
stimulus. It didn’t take long. A dozen click-rewards, and Callie understood
the association. With the meaning of the clicker established, Callie was ready
to learn a behavior. I could immediately see how the clicker was going to
make this easier.
Mark explained another advantage of using the clicker. “We are going
to shape her behavior. Initially, anything Callie does that is close to the
desired behavior will be rewarded. The clicker makes it absolutely clear to
her that she has done something correctly. This way, she won’t get
conditioned to just my voice or your voice.”
The clicker gives instantaneous feedback, making it clear to a dog that
she has done something good without wasting time fumbling for the treats.
Unlike a human, a dog’s memory for what she has just done appears to be
very limited. The longer the interval between the desired behavior and the
subsequent reward, the less likely the dog will make the association. This
phenomenon is called temporal discounting. Research in rats suggests that a
reward given four seconds after a desired behavior is roughly half as effective
as one given immediately. If the handler is deeply involved with the dog,
using hand signals and vocal commands, he might not be able to give a
reward for a while. This is especially true of complex behaviors. The clicker
solves this problem by giving instantaneous feedback.
Mark was beginning to lure Callie into the head coil. Reaching into the
coil with a hot dog in one hand and the clicker in the other, Mark had already
succeeded in getting Callie to place her nose inside. Each time she did so,
Mark clicked, praised her, and gave her a bit of hot dog.
With every click-reward, Mark pulled the food back a little bit, shaping
her behavior gradually. Within ten repetitions, he had Callie crouching in the
coil with her snout poking out the other end. Some gentle pressure on her
rump indicated that she should lie down in the coil. As soon as she did, Mark
clicked and exclaimed, “Good coil!” Callie wagged her tail and licked the hot
dog from his hand.
I couldn’t believe how quickly Mark had gotten Callie where she
needed to be.
“How is the positioning?” he asked.
Callie was lying down in a sphinx position in the coil. Her paws hung
over the near edge. She would need to move back a little bit.
“We’ll want her head in the center.” Mark nudged her back an inch and
“You can shape her behavior at home too,” he said. “I think she’ll do
really well with this.”
A woman walked into CPT with a border collie.
“This is Melissa Cate,” Mark said. “Melissa runs some of our agility
classes at CPT. She’s interested in volunteering her dog for the MRI.”
“Mark told me about the Dog Project.” Pointing to her dog, she said,
“This is McKenzie.”
McKenzie was Melissa’s three-year-old border collie. Melissa had
begun agility competitions a few years earlier with her boxer, Zeke, who had
reached the highest ranks. Zeke was now eight years old and slowing down a
bit, so Melissa had gotten McKenzie as a puppy to keep competing in agility.
They had been going strong ever since.
McKenzie was leggy and lean, about thirty-five pounds, with a long,
thin head that would easily fit in the head coil. She trotted over to me and
stared long and hard. She quickly realized that I was not a herdable animal
and moved on to check out Helen.
Callie zoomed over and assumed a play bow with her front legs flat and
her rump in the air, tail wagging like a vibrating string. We let the two dogs
off-leash and they ran around the room. Callie did orbits around McKenzie,
who seemed indifferent to the newbie dog.
It was time for McKenzie’s try with the head coil. With a dog treat,
Melissa had no trouble coaxing her into the coil. Nibbling the food out of
Melissa’s hand, McKenzie appeared unaware of the coil altogether. In agility
competition, the dogs run through a serpentine tunnel, and McKenzie was
completely comfortable in an enclosed space.
After a few minutes, Melissa commanded McKenzie to lie down.
“Platz,” she said, using the German word for “down.” Mark explained that
German words are commonly used in dog training because of the popular
Schutzhund competitions. These began as training programs and tests for
German shepherds but evolved into a full-fledged sport involving tracking,
obedience, and protection phases.
With McKenzie lying down in the head coil, Melissa backed away to
the other side of the room. McKenzie didn’t budge. In fact, she stayed
motionless for a solid minute. When I saw what a well-trained dog like
McKenzie could do, I knew we could really do this. If the dogs would go into
the head coil, they would go into the MRI.
The Scanner Dilemma
H I L E A N D R E W A N D I W E R E pretty sure we could figure out how to
scan a dog’s brain, we had neglected to consider a minor, though
important, detail: Where? The Dog Project needed a home.
The lab had been captivated with the “big question”—figuring out what
goes on in a dog’s brain. Details like the type of brain scanner, or where to
find it, were just that: details. Up until this point, I hadn’t been concerned.
The best part of being a scientist is when the ideas are coming so fast and
furious that you can’t even write them down. You don’t have time to worry
about details. They just get in the way.
But eventually, we had to confront the practical aspects of pulling this
off. And the first detail was finding an MRI facility that would let us bring
dogs into its scanner.
Yerkes National Primate Research Center, located about a mile from the main
Emory campus was our first choice for MRI scanning. Nestled in a valley
lined with southern pines, Yerkes seemed ideal. It was a short drive from the
lab, so we could easily move our equipment there. And because it was off the
main street, it was also quiet and peaceful. The last thing we wanted was to
scare a potential canine subject with a trip through a busy intersection. From
a dog’s perspective, I imagined Yerkes would look like a walk in the woods.
Yerkes also specialized in the study of animals—primarily monkeys.
Andrew and I congratulated each other on our good fortune. We had come up
with the idea of scanning the brain of a fully awake dog, and one of the
premier facilities for the study of animals turned out to be right in our
backyard. In fact, there are only eight such facilities in the United States.
Yerkes even had an MRI scanner dedicated specifically to the study of
animals. A friend and colleague of mine, Leonard Howell, was director of the
Yerkes Imaging Center and invited us to take a look at how they scan
Although the Yerkes MRI center is unusual in the sense that it was
purposely built for the study of how primate brains function, it is actually not
that unusual to have such a facility at a veterinary school or even at a high tech
veterinarian hospital. Any and all medical diagnostic tests performed on
humans are now also done on animals. The challenge with obtaining an MRI
of an animal, however, is that the subject must remain absolutely still. In a
veterinary setting, this means sedating the animal with medication. But
sedating an animal means that you can no longer study how the brain
Leonard had pioneered a new approach to studying monkeys’ brains.
Instead of sedating the monkeys, he had figured out how to scan their brains
while fully awake. This was a big deal for neuroscientists. When you
administer drugs that render the subject unconscious, you change brain
function in a major way. How this happens is not really understood. While
the unconscious state is interesting for its own sake, most neuroscientists
spend their time trying to figure out how the conscious brain works. Having
conscious subjects, animals or human is critical.
Working with monkeys is a dangerous business. Monkeys are mean.
Not if-you-don’t-give-me-food-I’ll-ignore-you mean. More like if you don’t give
your-face-for-dessert mean. This presents certain logistical problems for
scanning their brains, especially if they are to remain fully awake.
What’s more, because they are closely related to humans, diseases can
pass between the species with ease. For instance, HIV, the virus that causes
AIDS is believed to have originated in African chimpanzees. Monkeys
harbor a strain of the herpes virus that is fatal to humans, which can be
passed along if, for example, one spits on you, which monkeys often do. The
monkeys also have to be protected from us. If humans can catch diseases
from monkeys, the opposite is also true. Monkeys are particularly susceptible
to tuberculosis. For all of these reasons, scientists must take extraordinary
safety precautions to work around monkeys.
Andrew and I made special arrangements to see how Leonard and his
team scanned the brains of fully awake monkeys. After registering at the
security desk, we were escorted through a series of keyed doors and
deposited in a changing room.
“You need to gown up,” Leonard’s assistant instructed. “From this
point forward, everyone must be fully protected. This means gown, face
mask, and eye shield.”
The so-called eye shields covered our faces entirely and were
claustrophobic. They also had a tendency to fog up. The face masks were the
surgical type. The combination of shield and mask made a speech about as
effective as talking into a pillow.
Our first stop was the training lab. Three oven-sized stainless steel
boxes lined one wall. They resembled small refrigerators, but the hasp-type
handle suggested something akin to a pottery kiln.
“These are the training boxes,” the assistant said. Opening one revealed
a sterile interior with white enameled walls and a cubby for devices allowing
tubes and wires to snake out to various pieces of monitoring equipment.
On the other side of the room sat an upright tube constructed from PVC
plumbing material. A foot in diameter and three feet tall, the top end was
capped with clear Plexiglas. A four-inch slot was cut in the center of the cap,
and a plastic shelf sat below the slot.
The assistant explained, “This is the restraint device. The monkey has a
collar around its neck that fits into the slot. With its head poking through, it
rests its chin on the shelf.”
Andrew pointed to a pair of hoses that were attached to the bottom of
the device. “What are these for?”
Pushing the resulting image out of my mind, I asked, “How do you get
the monkeys to go in there?”
The assistant pointed to a metal rod on the wall. “That affixes to their
collar, and then we can steer them into the device from a safe distance.”
So far, none of this was looking appropriate for the Dog Project. I kept
silent, though, still eager to learn anything that might be useful for us. The
device kept the monkey from escaping, but it wasn’t clear what would keep
its head still.
The assistant pulled a pink block of foam from a shelf.
“This is how we immobilize the head,” he explained. “First, we make a
mold of the monkey’s head, which is then used to make a positive cast with
plaster. From that, we use a gel-type material to make a soft cast, which fits
snugly around its head. We cut holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. This gets
clamped to the restraint device.”
“And the monkeys cooperate with this?” I asked.
“They learn,” he replied. “We shape their behavior through rewards. It
takes about six months to train a monkey to go into the restraint device.”
“What are the boxes for?” Andrew asked.
“Those are conditioning boxes. Once the monkeys are trained to go into
the restraint device, the whole rig is placed in the box. We then train them
with lights and sounds.”
“Trained for what?” I asked.
“To get addicted to drugs.”
Right. Leonard’s research group was studying the biology of drug
addiction. To understand addiction, you need to look at the whole process,
from the first time somebody uses a drug to the point he becomes addicted.
Because it is unethical, obviously, to get people addicted to drugs, Leonard
uses monkeys as a stand-in.
The assistant continued. “Once they are trained to associate cues with
drugs, we take the whole rig to the MRI scanner so we can see what is going
on in their brains while they are craving drugs. Are you ready to go down to
I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Because the MRI’s strong magnetic field affects computer equipment, the
control room is partitioned from the main scanner room. When we entered, a
young woman draped in a surgical gown was staring intently at a computer
screen with several brain images.
She was not pleased to have visitors.
“Who are you?” she snapped at me. “Have you had a TB test?”
I honestly couldn’t remember when I had last been tested for
tuberculosis. Fortunately, Andrew distracted her.
“I have!” he announced cheerfully.
Leonard’s assistant explained that we were there to observe MRI scans
of monkeys. The monkeys being scanned that particular day was from a
different research lab. Because they had not gone through Leonard’s
behavioral training, these monkeys had received a heavy dose of sedation.
One monkey, surrounded by three veterinary technicians, was in the scanner
when we entered, attached to monitors that reported vital signs like heart rate,
breathing, and body temperature. Another monkey was on a cart, recovering
from anesthesia. I almost walked right by it, until it started twitching with
muscle spasms as the sedation wore off.
We took the opportunity to explain what we were trying to do with the
Dog Project. The vet techs were not enthusiastic.
“You’re going to have to monitor them,” one said. “Vital signs and core
“How do you do that?” Andrew asked.
“Why would we do that to a dog that isn’t even sedated?” I asked.
“It’s standard operating policy to fully monitor all animals undergoing a
procedure,” she replied.
“But we’re not doing a procedure,” I protested. “The dogs will be
trained to go into the scanner willingly.”
She wasn’t buying it. “Who is going to be with the dogs?”
“Us, the dog trainer, and the owner.”
She shook her head. “I suppose you two are okay because you’re
university employees, but no outside visitors.”
Although it was clear there was no convincing this woman, I pressed
on. “Look, would you volunteer your dog to be in an experiment without
“I suppose not. Even so, you’ll have to convince the review
Andrew and I had seen enough. It surprised me that one of the nation’s
premier animal research facilities wasn’t more encouraging about the Dog
Project. But we were more determined than ever to find the right home for it.
When I got home that night, Callie and Lyra greeted me with unusual
attention. Instead of jumping up and down as they usually did, they sniffed
my feet intently. As I walked through the house they trailed me from a
respectable distance, focused on my feet.
They knew. I had tracked the monkey stink home with me.
Logistical problems aside, I realized there was no way we could do the
scanning at Yerkes with all those monkeys.
What It’s Like to Be a Dog
As with most scientific developments, it started as a series of random
thoughts and inferences that eventually led to an aha moment. While
Newton’s death planted the seed of an idea, it was my own discomfort around
groups of people that helped it grow.
For the past fifteen years, my lab has used brain-scanning technology to
understand how the human reward system works. The main tool that we use
is magnetic resonance imaging or MRI. About the size of a car, an MRI
scanner is pretty much a large tube wrapped in miles of wire. When
electricity is sent through the wire, it creates a powerful magnetic field that
can be used to see inside of a person’s brain. A standard MRI, like what you
would get if you went to a hospital, takes a picture of your brain. Scientists
soon discovered that if you took several pictures of the brain in rapid-fire, you
could see the brain in action. This is called functional MRI, or fMRI, and it
opened the black box of the human mind. With fMRI, we can measure
activity inside the brain while a person is actually doing something, like
reading or doing math or even while experiencing different types of
emotions. This allows scientists to figure out how the brain actually works
(hence the functional in fMRI).
As the leader of a research lab, it is one of my duties to hold an annual
lab party. You would think that this would be an enjoyable activity.
Inevitably it is a source of stress in our household. The dogs don’t help either.
Like me, the dogs were never properly socialized to large groups of
people, something for which I take full blame. Since we don’t have parties
often, it seemed unreasonable to make the dogs learn how to behave in such
situations. Nevertheless, one cannot completely abdicate these social
necessities, as with our once-a-year gathering of lab members.
Ignoring my antipathy, Kat and the girls threw themselves into the
preparations for the annual party. They brought all the chairs out of the
dining room and created a semicircular seating arrangement in the family
room. Nothing unusual about this, presuming that the guests are able adults
who can manage conversation while eating and drinking without tables to
place their food upon. It does not, however, account for dogs either
underfoot, in the case of Callie, or swishing big, fluffy tails around, in the
case of Lyra.
If everyone was a dog person, these parties wouldn’t present a problem.
In recent years, I have certainly become more selective in allowing people to
work in the lab, and this includes my asking whether he or she is a dog
person or, second best, a cat person. But can you really trust someone who
doesn’t have a pet? Despite my best efforts to fill the lab with animal lovers, I
have no control over spouses and partners.
Kat wanted to lock Lyra and Callie in the bedroom when the guests
arrived. The dogs weren’t accustomed to being locked up, so I feigned
ignorance and let them have free run of the party. As guests arrived, Callie
would give a perfunctory woof. Lyra just grinned and wagged her tail
excessively as the people filed in.
I could trust the dog people in the lab to keep an eye on the dogs and
prevent them from swiping food, so I slipped out to help Kat in the kitchen.
She was dishing up the hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks. The team, while
diverse in terms of background, was predominantly American, with the
exception of one lab member from India. It was at the moment I stepped into
the kitchen when he arrived with his wife.
Their entrance was marked in dramatic fashion by an ear-piercing
“Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee!”
I rushed out of the kitchen. My colleague’s wife, wrapped in a lovely
sari had backed herself into a corner, shrieking like a bird at the mere sight
of the dogs.
This behavior baffled Callie, so she paid no further notice to her and
moved on to look for food droppings. Lyra, on the other hand, found these
vocalizations highly stimulating. She tracked right to the sound and starting
jumping up and down and barking in what appeared to me to be a request to
play. But the grimace of terror on the woman’s face indicated no such desire.
I grabbed Lyra by the collar and led her to the bedroom.
“Sorry, girl. You can’t play tonight.”
What did Lyra think was the reason that woman was screaming? If Lyra
were a person, I could have simply asked her. How else could I find out what
was going through her mind?
To truly know what a dog is thinking, you would have to be a dog.
The question of what a dog is thinking is actually an old metaphysical
debate, which has its origins in Descartes’s famous saying cogito ergo sum
—“I think, therefore I am.” Our entire human experience exists solely inside
our heads. Photons may strike our retinas, but it is only through the activity
of our brains that we have the subjective experience of seeing a rainbow or
the sublime beauty of a sunset over the ocean. Does a dog see those things?
Of course. Do they experience them the same way? Absolutely not.
When Lyra was jumping and barking at the woman wrapped in purple,
with a red dot on her forehead, Lyra experienced the same things at a
primitive level that I did. Purple. Red. Screaming. Those are the sensory
primitives. They originate in photons bouncing off dyes, pressure waves in
the air around the woman’s vocal cords. But my brain interprets those events
one way and Lyra’s brain another.
Observing Lyra’s behavior doesn’t tell us what she was thinking. From
past experience, I knew that Lyra barked and jumped in response to different
things. She barks when we’re eating. In that context, a natural assumption
would be that she wants food too. But she also barks after dropping a tennis
ball at my feet. I had no comparable frame of reference for what had attracted
her to the screaming woman that night at the party.
The question of what it is like to be a dog could be approached from
two very different perspectives. The hard approach asks the question: What is
it like for a dog to be a dog? If we could do that, then all the questions about
why a dog behaves the way it does would become clear. The problem with
being a dog, though, is that we would have no language to describe what we
felt. The best we can do is ask the related, but substantially easier question:
What would it be like for us to be a dog?
By imagining ourselves in the skin of another animal, we can recast
questions of behavior into their human equivalent. The question of why Lyra
harassed the party guest becomes: If I were Lyra, why would I bark at that
woman? Framed that way, we can form all sorts of speculations for dog
Many authors have written about the dog mind, and some have even
attempted to answer the types of questions I have posed. I will not review this
vast literature. I will, however, point out that much of it is based on two
potentially flawed assumptions—both stemming from the paradox of getting
into a dog’s mind without actually being a dog.
The first flaw comes from the human tendency to anthropomorphize or
project our own thoughts and feelings onto things that aren’t ourselves. We
can’t help it. Our brains are hardwired to project our thoughts onto other
people. This is called mentalizing, and it is critical for human social
interactions. People are able to interact with each other only because they are
constantly guessing what other people are thinking. The brevity of text
messages, for example, and the fact that we are able to communicate with
less than 140 characters at a time work because people maintain mental
models of each other. The actual linguistic content of most text exchanges is
minimal. And because humans have common elements of culture, we tend to
react in fairly similar ways. For example, if I watch a movie that makes me
sad, I can use my own reaction to intuit that the people sitting around me are
feeling the same way. I could even start a conversation with a complete
stranger based on our shared experience, using my own thoughts as a starting
point. But dogs are not the same as humans, and they certainly don’t have a
shared culture as we do. There is no avoiding the fact that when we observe
dog behavior, we view it through the filter of the human mind. Unfortunately,
much of dog literature says more about the human writer than the dog.
The second flaw is the reliance on wolf behavior to interpret dog
behavior, termed automorphism. While it is true that dogs and wolves share a
common ancestor, that does not mean that dogs are descended from wolves.
This is an important distinction. The evolutionary trajectories of wolves and
dogs diverged when some of the “wolf-dogs” started hanging out with protohumans.
Those that stuck around became dogs, and those that stayed away
became modern wolves. Modern wolves behave differently from dogs, and
they have very different social structures. Their brains are different too.
Interpreting dog behavior through the lens of wolf behavior is even worse
than anthropomorphizing: it’s a human anthropomorphizing wolf behavior
and using that flawed impression as an analogy for dog behavior.
Wolf analogies have led to many flawed training strategies based on the
idea that the human must be the “pack leader,” an approach most commonly
associated with Cesar Millan. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis for
using the wolf’s social structure as a model for the dog-human relationship.
Dogs can’t talk, and we can’t transport ourselves into a dog’s mind to know
what its subjective experience is. Where I see a happy golden retriever
playfully jumping up and down, someone else might see a hungry dog
planning to eat her for dinner. So what can we do to better know a dog’s
Although I hadn’t yet made the connection at the party, I would soon
realize that the solution had been right in front of me all along: brain imaging.
Because all mammalian brains have substantially similar parts, a map of
canine brain activation could be referenced to its human equivalent. For
instance, if we saw activation in the reward center of the dog brain, that could
be interpreted through human experiments that result in similar activity. With
human experiments, we have a reasonably good idea of what happened to
create a particular pattern of brain activation. We know, for example, that
activity in the visual part of the brain can be caused either by photons hitting
the retina or by the person mentally imagining a scene with his eyes closed.
Similarly, if we observed activity in the visual part of a dog’s brain, and the
dog wasn’t looking at anything, we could reasonably assume that it was
forming a mental image of something. Dogs might have imaginations too!
The mapping between the brains of different species is called a functional
homology. It means that a subjective experience like imagination can map
onto both a human brain and a dog brain. The patterns of activity in the two
brains would illustrate how to transform one type of brain into the other.
Philosophers dismiss the question of what it is like to be a dog as
unanswerable, but functional homologies between dog and human brains
could provide the missing link. Although brain imaging wouldn’t tell us what
it is like for a dog to be a dog, it could provide a road map—a brain map—of
what it would be like for a human to be a dog, without the bias of the human
interpreter. If it worked, brain imaging could end up being a canine neural
translator. We could go way beyond the question of why Lyra was being
obnoxious at the party. If we could map our thoughts and feelings onto the
dog brain, we could get right to the heart of the dog-human relationship: Do
dogs love us?
It all comes down to reciprocity. If the dog-human relationship is
predominantly one-sided, with humans projecting their thoughts onto the dog
vacuously staring up at his master in the hopes of receiving a doggie treat,
then the dog is not much better than a big teddy bear—a warm, soft,
But what if the dog reciprocates in the relationship? Do dogs have some
concept of humans as something more than food dispensers? Simply knowing
that human feelings toward dogs are reciprocated in some way, even if only
partially, changes everything. It would mean that dog-human relationships
belong on the same plane as human-human relationships.
None of these questions can be answered simply by observing dogs’
behavior. They go to the heart of dogs’ subjective experience of the world
and, in particular, their subjective experience of us.
My colleague and his wife didn’t stay long. Even with the dogs locked away
we could hear Lyra barking in the bedroom above the din of the party.
Nobody was surprised when they were the first to say good-bye.
Once they left, I let the dogs out. Lyra ran to the remaining guests and,
in her state of excitement, puked up something foamy and green. The partiers
watched in disgust as Callie darted over to slurp it up.
From the chorus of “Oooh, gross!” it was clear even the animal lovers
were aghast at our dogs’ behavior. An exodus ensued.
And that is why we no longer hold lab parties at our house.
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