Tagged: dog behaviour

Aggressive behaviour in dogs: a survey of UK dog owners

Aggressive dogs represent a serious risk to human health, tragically causing fatalities in some cases. The development of aggression can also impact on the welfare of dogs themselves, often resulting in the break-down of the human-pet bond, euthanasia or relinquishment. Research into factors which influence the development of aggression is therefore very important. One type of research commonly used is epidemiology. This type of study looks at populations of dogs with the aim of identifying common factors which might help explain the development of aggression. A number of approaches have been used in epidemiological research, varying both in the types of population studied and the factors measured. These different approaches add to the understanding of the problem and give us valuable new insights. For example, a number of studies have investigated the occurrence of dog bites by looking at information on hospital admissions1,2. Interesting recent research has also looked at potentially preventable husbandry factors in a series of fatal dog bite cases in the USA3 (nicely summarised and discussed in these blogs4,5). This type of study is crucial in informing us about the specific circumstances in which the most serious aggressive incidences occur.

Other populations of dogs that have been studied include cases referred to specialist behaviour clinics6,7 or dogs relinquished to shelters8. These studies highlight the impact on dog owners, with aggression being the most common reason for people to seek specialist help, and an important reason for abandonment. The great value of these types of study is that they can include a detailed evaluation of the specific circumstances or contexts in which aggression occurs.

A further epidemiological approach is to use more general populations, such as owners visiting first opinion veterinary practices8, or surveys of dog owners in the general population9,10. These populations provide information about factors which may be important across a broader range of dogs or dog owners. We took this approach in two recently published papers investigating aggression in UK dogs. Our interest was to examine potential risk factors for dogs showing any aggression either to other dogs11 or people12. Dog owners were asked to fill in a questionnaire about one of their dogs. We asked them whether their dog barked, lunged, growled or bit in a number of situations. These were: when meeting other dogs when out for walks; with other dogs within a household; when meeting unfamiliar people when out of the house; when meeting unfamiliar people entering the house, or when with family members. We were interested in how common it was for aggression to occur in these different situations, and whether the same dogs showed aggression in multiple situations. We also went on to look at potential risk factors for aggression by comparing the characteristics of dogs which showed aggression with those which did not – and I’ll come back to that part in a later blog post.

Cross breed dog growling towards the camera

How common is aggression in UK dogs?

Questionnaires were distributed to just under 15,000 dog owners in a range of different situations: veterinary practices, dog shows or similar events, agricultural or horse shows, directly to dog walkers, pet stores, and a range of other locations. Just under 4000 questionnaires were returned to us completed (thank you so much lovely dog owners!), and these gave us an idea of the proportion of dogs showing aggression. The most common context in which aggression occurred was towards other dogs on walks (22% of respondents)11, and the least common was aggression to family members (3%)12 – numbers and percentages for all the situations we investigated are shown in the table below.

Situation in which aggression occurred



Towards family members12



Towards unfamiliar people entering the house12



Towards unfamiliar people when outside the house12



Towards other dogs when out on walks11



Towards other dogs in the household11



Although we distributed questionnaires as widely as possible, it is important to interpret these numbers with a bit of caution, because the owners who participated were not necessarily representative of the total UK dog population. For example, those not registered with a vet or who lived in remote areas were unlikely to have seen the survey. However, these numbers give us an idea about the relative prevalence of different types of aggression – and particularly highlight that aggression between dogs is a worryingly common problem, something that those working in dog behaviour are probably well aware.

Do individual dogs show aggression in multiple situations?

There is a common perception that aggression is a fixed characteristic of particular dogs – people often think that dogs are either ‘safe family dogs’ or ‘nasty / vicious dogs’ based on traits inherent to the breed or the dog itself. However, our studies highlighted that dogs were rarely aggressive in more than one situation: co-occurrence of aggression between contexts was remarkably low. This tends to suggest that dogs learn to show aggression in particular situations through learning. Hence, whilst some characteristics of personality may be important in the development of aggression, the unique learning experiences of each individual dog is also likely to be very important.

This has two important implications: dog owners and members of the public need to be aware that any dog could potentially show aggression, even where it has never done so in other situations. Secondly, dogs which have shown aggression in one situation are not necessarily ‘dangerous’ when in other contexts – an important factor in the assessment of animals, for example in re-homing centres.


  1. De Keuster, T., Lamoureux, J., Kahn, A., 2006. Epidemiology of dog bites: a Belgian experience of canine behaviour and public health concerns. Vet. J. 172, 482-487.
  2. Morgan, M., Palmer, J., 2007. Dog bites. Br. Med. J. 334, 413-417.
  3. Patronek, G.J., Sacks, J.J., Delise, K.M., Cleary, D.V. and Marder, A.R. (2013). Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013 Dec 15; 243(12):1726-36. doi: 10.2460/javma.243.12.1726.
  4. National Canine Research Council (2013). Potentially Preventable Husbandry Factors Co-occur in Most Dog Bite-Related Fatalities
  5. Cattet, J. (2013) New study sheds light on serious to fatal dog bites
  6. Bamberger, M., Houpt, K.A. (2006). Signalment factors, comorbidity, and trends in behavior diagnoses in dogs: 1,644 cases (1991-2001). J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 229, 1591-1601.
  7. Fatjo, J., Amat, M., Mariotti, V.M., de la Torre, J.L.R., Manteca, X., 2007. Analysis of 1040 cases of canine aggression in a referral practice in Spain. Journal of Veterinary Behavior-Clinical Applications and Research 2, 158-165
  8. Guy, N.C., Luescher, U.A., Dohoo, S.E., Spangler, E., Miller, J.B., Dohoo, I.R., Bate, L.A., 2001. Risk factors for dog bites to owners in a general veterinary caseload. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 74, 29-42
  9. O’Sullivan, E.N., Jones, B.R., O’Sullivan, K., Hanlon, A.J., 2008. The management and behavioural history of 100 dogs reported for biting a person. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 114, 149-158.
  10. Hsu, Y., Sun, L., 2010. Factors associated with aggressive responses in pet dogs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 123, 108-123.
  11. Casey, R.A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G.J. and Blackwell, E.J. (2012). Inter-dog aggression in a UK owner survey: prevalence, co-occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. doi: 10.1136/vr.100997
  12. Casey, R.A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G.J. and Blackwell, E.J. (2013). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003

Should fearful dogs be comforted on fireworks night?

There is lots of good advice around about how to cope with dogs that are frightened of fireworks. However, one common element seems to be “ignore your dog if he is showing signs of fear during fireworks night, or you will REINFORCE HIS FEAR”. Words to this effect appear all over the place. But this statement doesn’t make sense from a scientific perspective, and potentially creates problems from a dog welfare one. In this blog, I explain why.

Attention does not reinforce the fear response

Lots of dogs become frightened of fireworks – our research has suggested that almost half of owners report behavioural signs indicative of anxiety or fear to loud noises, and 82% of these react to fireworks1,2. Fireworks are very loud, very bright and completely unpredictable for dogs – so it is unsurprising that so many develop a fear response. In trying to find a behavioural strategy to cope with the fear induced by the noises, dogs will try a range of different behaviours3. These might include hiding behind the sofa, running about, or climbing in a cupboard. Many dogs react by going to their owner and seeking reassurance. They do this because the social contact with their owner reduces their stress and helps them to cope with the scary noises. Social contact therefore helps mitigate their fear response to the noises – not reinforce it.

Owner giving their anxous dog a cuddle

Attention reinforces a coping strategy

Although giving attention will reduce a dog’s anxiety in the short-term, it is not necessarily a good thing in the long-term. Cuddling a fearful dog reduces their stress, but in doing so teaches him or her that coming to their owner is a good strategy to cope with loud noises. In other words, giving attention doesn’t reinforce the fear, but does reinforce the coping strategy of seeking attention. This is fine as long as the owner is at home and accessible – but will make things much worse for the dog if the owner is out when loud noises subsequently occur. This means that by reinforcing attention seeking as a way of coping with loud noises, owners are setting up their dog to be even more distressed if noises happen when their dog is alone.

So to cuddle or not cuddle on fireworks night?

Well, with fireworks night imminent in the UK – it is very important to not ignore a frightened dog that is already reliant on owner attention. It is the wrong time to try to change a coping strategy when there are fireworks crashing and whizzing outside – this will just cause the dog to be distressed. Owners need to give dogs which seek reassurance as much attention as normal FOR NOW, get through the fireworks season, and THEN think about changing their dog’s coping response.

Dogs which choose to move away and hide, on the other hand, should be left alone – their strategy to cope with noises is different and they may become more anxious, or even aggressive, if approached when trying to hide.

Other aspects of owner behaviour

Dogs are very sensitive to their owners, so acting differently from normal can increase anxiety. This means that dog behaviour can be influenced by owners reacting to fireworks. It is best for owners to try to do normal things at normal times. Jumping up and down checking for fireworks can direct dogs’ attention to what is going on outside. Where owners are overly concerned about their dog, this can also impact on their dogs’ anxiety.

Changes needed in the longer term

In the long-term, it is important to change a dogs’ coping behaviour away from seeking attention. Teaching dogs to hide in an enclosed ‘den’ area when they are worried ensures that they have coping strategy that doesn’t depend on the owner being present. Dogs also need to learn that firework noises are not scary, with a programme of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. More information about what to do for dogs with noise fears is available on my web-site4.

As ever, prevention of noise fears by habituating young puppies to household and potentially aversive sounds like fireworks is important to reduce this problem in the future5.


  1. Blackwell, E.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. and Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
  2. Fear responses to noises (noise phobias) in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/noise-fears-in-dogs.html
  3. Signs and development of noise fears in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/17-signs-and-development-of-noise-fears-in-dogs.html
  4. What do I do if my dog is frightened of loud noises?: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/18-what-do-i-do-if-my-dog-is-frightened-of-loud-noises.html
  5. Habituation of puppies to household and potentially aversive noises (an except from the supporting materials for the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding’s Breeder Standard): http://vetbehaviour.info/images/PDFs/Dog-Advisory-Council-Prevention-of-Noise-Fears.pdf

Dogs and fireworks: noise phobias or noise fears?

Fear responses to loud noises are common in the owned dog population, and a considerable welfare problem. Our research at the University of Bristol suggests that almost half of owners report some behavioural signs of fear in their dog in response to loud noises, although the owners interviewed didn’t always realize that these signs are indicative of a negative emotional state1,2

The behaviours shown are variable, ranging from trembling and shaking, barking and seeking comfort from owners1,3. In some cases, these signs can be extreme and impact on owners lives – in which case they may seek help from their veterinary surgeon or behaviour specialist. In many other cases, the behaviours are more subtle and less obvious to owners – but these dogs may be just as stressed3.

A picture of fireworks

The focus for ‘behaviour problems’ has traditionally been on those behaviours which cause a problem for people, rather than those situations which cause a problem for animals4. Literature addressing dogs’ responses to loud noises tends to focus on those cases in which dogs show the most obvious, active or extreme responses – and this is probably why the phrase ‘noise phobia’ e.g.5 is used to describe them. But is that really the best term to describe dogs’ fear responses to loud noises?

Why not ‘noise phobia’?

1. Firstly, phobias in human literature are defined as ‘irrational fears’.6 Fireworks are very loud, bright and startling things. They are also unpredictable –occurring suddenly and for no good doggy reason at all. So showing a fear response is pretty adaptive and ‘rational’. They are also largely uncontrollable: although many of the behavioural signs that dogs show in response to loud noises are attempts to control their exposure3, they are mostly ineffective in escaping the noises and achieving relief. These characteristics –salience, unpredictability and uncontrollability – are important factors influencing the likelihood of an increased response (sensitisation) rather than adaptation (habituation) to a stimulus. Is it therefore irrational for dogs to react to fireworks? Absolutely not, any more than fears after traumatic events are not ‘irrational’ in humans7 – and it shouldn’t be surprising that so many dogs react as they do.

2. The term ‘phobia’ suggests an extreme or long-lasting response. But not all animals that are fearful of noises show an obvious response – some may react with more subtle signs. Dogs’ responses to loud noises are variable in the same way that separation responses vary between individuals8. Just because a dog isn’t leaping about or tunnelling into cupboards doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t scared of loud noises, and it is important that terms describing these behaviours include the full range of signs.

3. ‘Phobia’ also suggests a response to a lower level of noise than would normally be adaptive. Dogs’ response to noises will vary with their individual characteristics, but also importantly with learning experiences. With repeated exposure, sensitisation leads to an animal responding to noises at a progressively lower threshold. Although a dog may start by reacting to a loud firework going off next door, this can develop over time into a response to a barely audible noise in the distance. Hence, cases which appear to be more serious (or ‘irrational’) and occur at low levels of noise have often just been developing for longer.

Does it matter what we call it?

I’m sure that my students would agree that I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to terminology in behavioural medicine – but how we describe things impacts on perceived meaning. This is particularly important where terms have potential welfare implications (as with ‘dominance’), so care should be taken with descriptors and definitions.

Many owners don’t understand that an initial startle response to a firework going off next door can develop into an extreme ‘phobic’ response to a car door being slammed down the street, through the normal processes of learning. By using the term ‘phobia’, the focus is on the extreme, low threshold and apparently ‘irrational’ responses. However, the key message is to encourage owners to recognize the early signs of anxiety or fear in their dogs – and to seek help for these before the problem develops further. Owners need to understand that by recognizing and acting on subtle signs of anxiety in their dogs, treatment of noise fears is likely to be easier and more successful. And maybe it would help to do this if our terminology didn’t imply that only the most obvious presentations are a problem?


  1. Blackwell, E.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. and Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
  2. Fear responses to noises (noise phobias) in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/noise-fears-in-dogs.html
  3. Signs and development of noise fears in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/17-signs-and-development-of-noise-fears-in-dogs.html
  4. Behaviour problems in dogs and cats: http://vetbehaviour.info/behaviour-problems.html
  5. Tuber, D.S., Hothersall, D. and Peters, M.F. (1982). Treatment of fears and phobias in dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 12, 607-623.
  6. Seligman, M.E. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behaviour Therapy, 2, 307-320.
  7. Davey, G.C.L. (1995). Preparedness and phobias – specific evolved associations or a generalized expectancy bias. Behavioral and Brain Science, 18, 289-297, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00038498
  8. How puppies become anxious ‘home alone’ dogs: https://behaviourvet.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/how-puppies-become-anxious-home-alone-dogs/

How puppies become anxious ‘home alone’ dogs

With the recent Channel 4 documentary ‘Dogs: Their Secret Lives1 in the UK raising awareness of the welfare issues of ‘home alone’ dogs and separation related behaviours (SRBs), I am sticking with this theme for my next blog. Identifying and appropriately treating affected dogs with validated and tailored treatment programmes is important2,3,4; but considering the extent of this worrying welfare problem, prevention is paramount.

Giving puppies the right experiences of being left alone from the start goes a long way to preventing separation related behaviours (SRBs) or separation anxiety later in life. As is so often the case when considering the prevention of problem behaviours, putting in time and thought during the early life of a puppy is beneficial in the long-term.

Research suggests that puppies show behavioural responses to separation from 3 weeks of age5, and increased cortisol (a physiological indicator of the stress response) on separation from 5 weeks6. The process of getting puppies used to short periods of separation should therefore start with the breeder. Initially puppies need to be picked up and just momentarily held away from littermates. The gradual process of habituation to being alone should then continue when puppies go to their new homes, and there are various resources describing how to go about this1,7,8,10. The aim of this blog is to illustrate why following these guidelines is so important for the long-term welfare of dogs.

Taking a “dog’s point of view” of being left alone is perhaps the best way to consider this. I would like to use the example of ‘Frodo’ a Jack Russell terrier, and I invite you to imagine him arriving for the first time in his new home at 10 weeks of age. He has just been picked up from the breeder’s house and brought home to his new family. He has settled in pretty well considering the complete change in his world, and has started to learn about his new social group – the members of the Mitchell family. He has been with the family all afternoon and enjoyed all the attention, but now it is bedtime, and Frodo is settled into an indoor kennel in the kitchen and left alone. This is the first time he has ever been all alone, having always been with littermates or mum before. He is worried, and reacts by scrabbling about at the door of his kennel and crying loudly. Mr Mitchell hears his cries and comes back to settle him down again. Frodo settles down when he has company, but when Mr Mitchell heads off to bed again, he starts to cry straight away, bringing his owner back to the kitchen.

In this first scenario, Frodo finds being alone new and scary, but also learns that crying is an effective ‘strategy’ to resolve his anxiety – because it is successful at regaining social contact. He has not learnt to be OK on his own, but has learnt an active response to address this incredibly scary problem that works for him. As time moves on in this example, Mr Mitchell may get fed up of coming down and reassuring his new puppy, and stay in bed with ear plugs in. Because crying has always worked before, Frodo may carry on crying for a long time, and maybe also start howling. He will become more and more anxious, waiting for someone to come. Eventually Mrs Mitchell might wake up and come to settle him down. So Frodo learns that even if he has to cry for a long time, it will eventually work – in other words it is worth persisting with crying even if it doesn’t work immediately. Frodo is already well on the way to developing an active SRB. He may go through life always being anxious about being left alone, persistently crying and howling in an attempt to resolve his distress – because he has learnt that, at least sometimes, this will work to get back with his social group.

Imagine now, in a parallel universe (scenario 2), that he managed to get the door of his indoor kennel to ping open by scrabbling at it on that first occasion he was left alone, enabling him to run into another room to find his human family. Because scrabbling worked to resolve his situation, he would be more likely to scrabble at the door the next time he was put in the kennel – and if the door fixing was still dodgy, he might get out again. In this scenario, Frodo might develop an active destructive response to being left alone which persists throughout life.

Because these behaviours – howling and destruction – are a ‘problem’ for owners, advice in the past has commonly been to make sure that the first signs of such responses are not reinforced. Prevention advice used to focus on not ‘giving in’ to crying or scrabbling, but leaving the puppy alone to make sure that these responses were not rewarded by owner return. This approach meant that these behaviours would not become ‘successful’ and less likely to become SRBs. That is true, but there is a considerable problem with this approach. Behavioural signs may not be so obvious, but nothing has been done to stop the puppy being anxious about being left alone.

Puppy in crate looking anxious

Now imagine Frodo in his kennel in yet another parallel universe (scenario 3). This time his owners have heard that they should completely ignore any responses to being left alone.  The family go off and leave Frodo in his kennel, they all put in earplugs and go off to sleep. He is terrified, trapped in his kennel. He cries and cries, and scrabbles and scrabbles, but nobody comes. He tries again, crying and scrabbling. He gets so anxious that he toilets in his bed. He gets exhausted after a time, and gives up trying to get out or to get attention – finding that whatever he does there is no way of controlling his situation or resolving the cause of his anxiety. He goes quiet, terrified and shivering in his wet bed and waits…and waits… (better stop there, before I make myself cry!)

In this scenario, no problem behaviours are reinforced, but Frodo is still very anxious about being left – possibly more so as he has no active strategy that he can try to have some control over his environment. Although Frodo may not have an obvious ‘problem’ SRB as he grows up, he is very likely to still be anxious when left alone – and may remain so for life. He is likely to end up as one of the dogs which show more subtle signs of anxiety and perhaps physiological signs of stress (termed the ‘inactive anxious’ group in our research9) when he is left alone – worried about being alone but having no active coping response to help him deal with this.

Perhaps we should finish by leaving poor Frodo in a more positive universe. This time (scenario 4), his owners had better advice, and have trained him gradually to be comfortable in his indoor kennel from the time that he first arrived7. They made sure they were at home for the first couple of weeks after Frodo arrived, and used this time to teach him very gradually to tolerate being on his own in the indoor kennel, before they went back to work. On the first night they put the kennel close to them in their bedroom, and over the following days they gradually moved the kennel slightly further away, in small increments, as long as Frodo remained settled. By the fifth night he was calmly sleeping in the hallway. Things are heading in the right direction for a separation related behaviour free future!


  1. http://dogs.channel4.com
  2. Blackwell, E. J., Casey, R.A. and Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2006) Controlled trial of behavioural therapy for separation-related disorders in dogs. Veterinary Record 158 (16): 551-554
  3. Butler, R., Sargisson, R.J. and Elliffe, D. (2011). The efficacy of systematic desensitisation for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 129, 136-145
  4. http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/14-separation-related-behaviour/13-what-should-i-do-if-i-suspect-separation-related-behaviour-in-my-dog.html
  5. Scott, J.P. (1967). The evolution of social behaviour in dogs. American Zoologist, 7, 373-381.
  6. Nagaswa, M., Shibata, Y., Yonezawa, A., Morita, T., Kanai, M., Mogi, K. and Kikusui, T. (2013) The behavioural and endocrinological development of stress responses in dogs. Developmental Psychobiology, 9999, 1-8.
  7. http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/14-separation-related-behaviour/15-preventing-the-development-of-separation-related-behaviour-in-puppies.html
  8. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/vetscience/services/behaviour-clinic/separation/
  9. BehaviourVet WordPress blog: Left ‘home alone’: a welfare issue for dogs
  10. http://www.rspca.org.uk/allaboutanimals/pets/dogs/company/separationrelatedbehaviour/prevention

Left ‘home alone’: a welfare issue for dogs

Research over the past ten years with my colleague Dr Emily Blackwell and others at University of Bristol has highlighted just how common it is for dogs to have a negative response to being left home alone. Problem behaviours that dogs show when left alone are often described as separation anxiety, although we generally prefer to use the term ‘separation related behaviour’ (SRB). This is because dogs can show these behaviours for a number of reasons, and SRB is a ‘catch-all’ for dogs showing these signs (i.e. without implying that the cause is anxiety). Signs of SRB include barking, howling, destruction and toileting.

Our research has included owner surveys, where we have asked owners whether their dogs do things like bark, howl or scratch at the door when they are left at home alone. In these studies between 13% and 18% of owners reported that their dog showed some kind of separation related behaviour (SRB)1,2,3.

These surveys give us an idea of the problem – but they rely on owners knowing that their dogs show SRBs when they go out. This means that dog owners are only likely to report SRB if they come back to find some evidence of destruction, see that their dog has toileted, or hear from a neighbour that their pet was barking or howling. Suspecting that this was actually the tip of the iceberg in terms of what was going on for dogs themselves, we did a small study with the Blue Cross4 some years ago. This involved video recording dogs whose owners thought were fine to be left home alone – and found that a surprising proportion showed signs of SRB.

Picture of a German Shepherd dog looking anxious when left home alone

Building on this work, we have recently done a project which is featured in Channel 4’s ‘Dogs: Their Secret Lives’5. In this study, we video recorded 40 dogs in two Bristol postcodes when their owners went out of the house. We also collected saliva samples from the dogs both before and after they were left. This was to measure whether levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with the stress response, increased after dogs were left alone.

We expected to see quite a few dogs showing signs of SRB that owners were not aware of. We also thought there would be quite a few dogs showing more subtle signs of anxiety. But we were surprised by the numbers of dogs showing these signs in the group: the majority of the dogs in the population – over 80% –  showed some negative response when left by their owners.

Two of the dogs in the study were excluded from the analysis because they were out of sight of the cameras for most of the time we filmed. But, as shown in Figure 1 below, only five of the remaining 38 dogs did not show behavioural or physiological indicators of stress when left alone. The rest of the dogs were divided into two groups. The first group was dogs which showed obvious behavioural signs – these included those that might be classified as having SRB, because they showed ‘problem behaviours’ such as barking or howling – but also included dogs which showed other ‘active’ responses, such as running between the window to look out and the door to listen for their owners’ return. Thirteen (34%) of the dogs were in this group. The other group of 18 dogs (47%) included those who did not show obvious or active behavioural signs – but clearly showed more subtle behavioural indicators of stress, such as postural indicators of anxiety.

Grapg showing the number of dogs in each group

Figure 1: The proportion of dogs which showed obvious, subtle and no signs of stress when recorded home alone

This was a small study, and more research is needed before the findings can be extrapolated to the wider dog population, but it does highlight the extent that being left alone can be a problem for dogs.

The numbers of dogs affected, together with the impact on the well-being of each individual animal, convinces me that this is one of the major welfare issues for domestic dogs in the modern world. I was therefore happy to see that is was made one of the top eight welfare priorities by the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding6 (usually known as the Dog Advisory Council) in 2011. I am also pleased that Channel 4 is highlighting the extent to which this is a welfare issue for dogs in their documentary. It is an important problem, and rather sadly, one that is largely preventable if puppies are given appropriate early experience of being left alone.

You can find more information and advice about separation related behaviour in dogs by following this link to my web-site: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/separation-related-behaviours.html


  1. Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell, E.J., Rooney, N.J. and Casey, R.A. (2002). Prevalence of separation related behaviour in dogs in southern England. In: Proceedings of the 8th ESVCE Meeting on Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, Granada, Spain. Eds. J. Dehasse, E. Biosca Marce. Publibook, France. Pp 189-193.
  2. Bradshaw, J.W.S., McPherson, J.A., Casey, R.A. and Larter, I.S. (2002). Aetiology of separation related behaviour in the domestic dog. Veterinary Record, 151, 43-46.
  3. Unpublished data on separation related behaviour prevalence, collected as a comparison for the occurrence of noise associated fears, reported in: Blackwell, E.J.,  Bradshaw, J.W.S. and Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145, 15-25.
  4. http://www.bluecross.org.uk/1958-2791/alone-at-home.html
  5. ‘Dogs: Their Secret Lives’ screened on Monday October 14th at 8pm, http://dogs.channel4.com
  6. Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding: The first eight welfare priorities

‘Learning theory’ terminology: classical and operant conditioning

Understanding how animals learn is key to interpreting animal behaviour. We tend to think of learning as something that happens when we deliberately train animals (e.g. in teaching dogs to ‘sit’ or ‘come’). But actually learning happens all the time – everything that a dog or cat experiences throughout their life will impact to some extent on subsequent behaviour.

There is a lot of talk about ‘learning theory’ in animal training and behaviour. It is one of the central facets of most of the courses you will see in this area, a common topic in discussions and forums, and the topic of hot debate when applied to methods of training dogs. But, it is a topic that has very confusing terminology – so my aim here is to disentangle the meaning of some of the key terms which lead to common misunderstandings.

I think misunderstanding of terminology occurs because there is a lack of appreciation of the historical context. Terms commonly used today in animal training were first described back in the early 1900’s. Around that period, the founders of ‘behaviourism’, such as Watson and Thorndike, were doing controlled experiments to record what happened to behaviours with different interventions. At that time there was very little knowledge about what happened inside the brain, and the animal was essentially a ‘black box’ – which things happened to and responses occurred. The terminology coined at the time, therefore, did not imply anything about the animal itself – it’s perception of the events, how it felt, or why it responded as it did.  Nor did it imply any judgement as to what was done to the animal. The terms just described what happened and the behaviour seen.

The problem has been that the terms derived from this ‘black box’ approach have been retained, and are sometimes used to describe much more than they were originally meant to. Considerable developments in cognition and neuroscience have enabled us to appreciate how the processes of learning actually occur in the brain – and it is difficult to not infer some of this knowledge when using the original ‘learning theory’ terms.

Associative learning

Associative learning is the process whereby things that occur close together become associated. Associative learning is divided into two types: classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning and operant (or instrumental) conditioning.

Classical conditioning is an association between an important event and one which reliably predicts it. It’s called Pavlovian conditioning because it was first described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who noticed that dogs in his study on saliva would start to anticipate food (and produce saliva) on hearing the researcher go into the food preparation area. He tested this by ringing a bell before feeding them – and after a few presentations they started to salivate on hearing the bell. Clearly dogs don’t normally go around salivating when they hear bells – the response was due to them learning that the bell was a reliable indicator of the imminent arrival of food. This type of learning is clearly a huge evolutionary advantage – identifying events which indicate the approach of a predator gives an animal time to get away. Equally, reacting to early indicators of food means getting to the resource first.

Operant conditioning is the association between the action of an animal and its consequence. If a dog sits, and gets a treat, he or she will make an association between the action and the consequence. If the consequence is perceived by the animal as good (e.g. the treat) then the behaviour is more likely to occur again, the next time the animal is in the same situation. If the consequence is perceived by the animal as bad (e.g. a cat jumps on the work surface and a pan falls over making a loud clang), then the behaviour is less likely to occur again in the same context. This is again eminently sensible and clearly an advantage for survival – if an animal can learn to avoid repeating actions with bad outcomes and repeat those with good, it’s more likely to make its way successfully in the world.

Reinforcement and punishment

It is the terminology used in operant conditioning that can cause confusion. Based on the ‘black box’ interpretation of learning theory, if the chance of a behaviour occurring increases, it is known as ‘reinforcement’. Where an action decreases the chance that a particular behaviour will occur it is known as ‘punishment’. Hence, in learning theory terms if you do something to a dog which results in the increase of a particular behaviour, it is reinforcement. If you do something which leads to a decrease in that behaviour, it is called punishment. No matter what you did!

‘Punishment’ is particularly confusing, because in general use it has the implication of doing something very unpleasant to a person or animal. But when used in the context of learning theory it’s just a decrease in behaviour.

More confusion arises with the further addition of descriptors. The early behaviourists also split the categories of ‘reinforcement’ and ‘punishment’ into those which occurred when something was added (termed ‘positive’) and those which occurred when something was removed (called ‘negative’). So, if you add something and the behaviour increases – it is positive reinforcement. Taking away something which causes an increase in behaviour is negative reinforcement. Similarly, negative punishment is a decrease of behaviour when something is removed, and positive punishment is a decrease in behaviour when something is added (Table 1). And that is all it means. Remember this is ‘black box’ stuff – there is no implication about what is done nor how the animal feels – just a description of whether something is added or removed, and whether the behaviour increases or decreases.

Table 1: The Four Categories of Operant Conditioning

Behaviour increases Behaviour decreases
Something added Positive reinforcement Positive punishment
Something removed Negative reinforcement Negative punishment

A few examples might help with this, and highlight some of the misunderstandings. Let’s say you are leading a horse in from a field with a halter and it pulls forward on the lead rope. If you hang on to the halter, putting tension on the rope, the halter will tighten on the nose and around the head. To avoid this, the horse slows down and walks next to you again, and the halter loosens off. By putting tension on the rope you added something (positive) which decreased a behaviour (pulling) – so the pulling behaviour was positively punished. BUT, if you think about this a bit more – you have also done some negative reinforcement here. By releasing the pressure on the halter as the horse comes level again, you have negatively reinforced not pulling (or walking next to you).

Positive reinforcement and negative punishment are similarly linked. So, for example, you might train your dog to sit down when you come into the house by giving him attention when his bottom hits the floor. This is positive reinforcement – adding something which results in an increase in the behaviour. But removing the attention when the dog is wriggling about instead of sitting is negative punishment – you are removing attention to reduce the wriggling behaviour. The term used will therefore depend on which behaviour you are talking about.

A dog being trained to sit down using positive reinforcement

A dog being trained to sit down using positive reinforcement (with ‘standing’ or ‘jumping about’ being negatively punished)

So, if you read that a trainer only uses positive reinforcement, you should realise by now that this is actually impossible! You can’t positively reinforce some behaviours without negatively punishing others. It’s very likely that such trainers mean that they have a philosophy of rewarding desired behaviours  rather than using aversive methods for undesired ones. That’s great – but the use of the term ‘reinforcement’ is confusing and its best to check what they do actually mean. Similarly some trainers might say things like ‘we never use punishment, only negative reinforcement’. Your alarm bells should be ringing again here, because clearly in order to negatively reinforce one behaviour, you must inevitably positively punish another. For example, trainers who use a lunge line to move a horse away are both negatively reinforcing moving away and positively punishing standing still.

Hopefully this blog has helped a bit with the basic terminology used in learning theory. ‘Punishment’ and ‘reinforcement’ have very specific and limited meanings. Misunderstandings occur where further meaning is applied to these terms, for example through implying what the animal might feel or to lead people into thinking something is ‘positive’ for animals when it may not actually be so. In my opinion, the use of these terms is somewhat outdated, and it would probably be better to move on to less ambiguous terminology. But as people still use them, it’s important to know what they do, and particularly what they don’t, mean.

In future blogs, I’ll come back to other terms used in learning, and discuss a bit more about the factors that influence what, how and when animals learn in the real world. I’ll also look at the controversial topic of using reward or aversion based training methods in companion animals.