Interview with Jean Donaldson

This interview with Jean Donaldson was conducted by Gill Minter in December 1999.

Gill: How did you first get into Dog Behaviour and Training?

Jean Donaldson: I was always fascinated by dogs, as far back as I can remember but didn’t get my own to train until I was 12. I competed in dog sports (obedience, Fly ball, tracking) for many years and instructed at a local obedience club. While at university, I studied animal learning and found much of it at odds with the way dogs were being taught at the club. I also attended numerous seminars and would come back keen to share what I had learned. The club was not interested, however, and I found it more and more difficult to tow the party line. I was gravitating towards positive reinforcement and science-based techniques but they were not ready to change. Finally, ten years ago, I went out on my own

Gill: I know you have written two books, “The Culture Clash” and “Dogs are from Neptune.” Are you considering a third book or video at sometime? If so, can you tell us more please?

Jean: Not immediately, however I may eventually put out something else.

Gill: Can you explain to us your idea or how you view “pack status”?

Jean: I’m much less married to it than most dog people. Put it this way: there are a number of theories about the social structure of dogs and wolves and one or more of them may be close to the mark. The interesting thing is the certainty with which each individual promulgates their own version. It’s all a bit religious. Whether one is true or not is not so much the issue – but rather is it helpful from a behaviour mod standpoint? It gets tedious how these theories are used as bases for training techniques, often to justify the use of aversive. I submit we can get further faster by focusing our attention on the vast body of literature on animal learning. Give me two dog people, one who is a great ethnologist and one who understands and can apply learning theory and I’ll bet my house the behaviourist can train rings around the ethnologist every time. Take “rank reduction” programs. Each intervention is better explained (and more efficiently executed) from an animal learning standpoint. Operant and classical conditioning are just not as sexy as alphas and body language it would seem.

Gill: When taking on a new dog, but that dog is a rescue adult dog, how long would you say it takes to show its true character in your home?

Jean: Three weeks or more.

Gill: What should an owner do about a young pup aggressively mounting a little older pup?

Jean: I would encourage owners to not get their knickers in a twist about it, with the caveat to watch for normal social development otherwise (i.e. plenty of affinitive and play behaviour around dogs) and make sure the puppy encounters a wide social sphere. If owners are simply uncomfortable witnessing it (because of sexual or dominance or aggression related overtones), a distraction technique early on to interrupt the behaviour is not harmful. I would also encourage people to seek other opinions than mine on this as I recognize I’m way at the low-interventionist end of the spectrum here.

Gill: I see you are working at a shelter/rescue society now. Are you rehabiliting dogs with behavioural problems so they maybe rehomed? If so, how do you find this working for you within a kennel environment?

Jean: This is exactly what I’ve recently embarked on. It’s too early to comment but I have increasing reservations about the kennel environment in general. The mental health of the dogs seems inversely correlated with their length of stay in kennel. Part of what I hope to address is how to mitigate this, both in the dogs needing rehab and in the dogs who come in -without- severe behaviour problems. Part of the answer may be well-executed group-housing, part may be the development of a competent foster-care network for the dogs with the greatest need and part may be environmental enrichment efforts such as food delivery systems and regular training, all on top of whatever direct rehabilitative efforts are attempted.

Gill: Why does a dog turn its bum to you during play, or put its bum on you?

Jean: Great question. I really don’t know but I would guess it’s affinitive rather than bossy. Lots of ethological speculation about hip checking, calming etc. out there I’m sure.

Gill: What method do you use to train a dog to learn to walk on a loose leash?

Jean: My favourite is cessation of movement and/or backwards penalties (take steps backwards to annoy dog) for pulling and click – treat – forward – movement or just click-forward-movement for slackening off. This can be done with or without prompting the dog back into position (i.e. one can coach or simply wait for dog to stop pulling). A program like this must be “protected” from real life forcing owners to allow pulling in order to get from A to B in a hurry. Therefore, get dog used to wearing a halter (Halti, Gentle Leader or Snoot Loop brands) and use this when one is not able to work the “red-light-green-light” task (tight leash = brakes or red light, slack leash = accelerator or green light).

Gill: What are you feelings/views on clicker training?

Jean: Hard to over-rate this system. Makes a conditioned reinforce user – friendly, focuses owners on delivering consequences rather than chanting antecedents and has virtually limitless applications. Amazing some people still think it’s a gimmick or side-dish. I’m a convert. The other thing is that free-shaping is good mental exercise for dogs, who are in such need of problem-solving in their lives.

Gill: How can you treat a dog, male, that is marking indoors?

Jean: I am very much with Ian Dunbar that leg-lifting is a housetraining issue and should be trained as such. Airtight management, meaning crate – training and active supervision is imperative along with a reward regime for all outdoor urination (implying, of course, that the owner accompanies the dog outside so reward can be well-timed) and, finally, set-ups to catch the dog for mistakes indoors: interrupt the START of the behaviour, hustle him outside and then reward if he goes here. That said, let’s also neuter him and give him plenty of reward-based training and enviro-enrichment.

Gill: If you have 2 or more dogs living in same home and interpack aggression starts, which is becoming a daily occurrence, how best should you handle this?

Jean: If the fights are injurious, I would opt for a management style approach. If the fights are non-injurious, that kind of frequency (daily) still warrants intervention in my opinion. If the problem is over resources, these can be managed between training sessions while the following is put into place: a consequence mixed with classical conditioning program. I use this in preference to an ethologically based “support the hierarchy” or other “let’s try reading the dog’s mind” program. Consequence simply means time-outs/instant loss of privilege for initiation of fighting and potent reinforcement (attention, bait etc.) for tolerance of nemesis dog especially in proven contentious contexts. Classical conditioning component teaches dogs that their chances of good stuff happening are greatly elevated when nemesis dog(s) are around. This is the “bar open” technique. Must selectively reward dogs in each others’ presence and pointedly close treat/affection etc. bar when dogs alone. This gets gradually at underlying ill-will and inadvertent effect of tense and punishing owner predicted by dog proximity.

Gill: What’s your favourite dog book and why Jean?

Jean: My all time favourite is How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks (Dunbar) because it is not only theoretically sound but entertaining and tip-dense. If only people did a good job on their puppies, we’d all be partly out of business. It’s also hard to not mention Don’t Shoot the Dog, which has made believers out of countless aversive or mixed/eclectic trainers. What a great day it was for dogs when Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor were born.

Gill: How would you go about choosing a good dog training class, what would you be looking for if it was a pet dog in need of basic training?

Jean: The public are not yet fully informed that there are two “streams” in beginner dog training – straight obedience with content trickled down from people who compete in the sport of obedience and pet dog training, which focuses on manners and is more client need centred (human skill set addressed as well as dog’s, not to mention exercise and command content more appropriate and tailored). So, quite aside from the issue of methods – it’s a given that the trainer should be well-versed in positive reinforcement techniques and not just advertising their use as a marketing ploy (i.e. go and observe a class or two before signing up) – there is now the question of orientation. Is it a pet training specialist or a competitive sports obedience person supporting themselves/their club by offering public classes?

Gill: If a person is interested in dog training and behaviour where do you personally feel is a good place for them to start and why?

Jean: With their own dog (obedience, tricks, sports, bigger, better, flashier tricks, more refined cues, more distance, there is no end to how polished one can make one’s own dog) and with shelter volunteering, for the tremendous variety of cases. Then, attend seminars, read books and join APDT. Apprenticing with a trainer is also a good idea if that is supplemented by the other stuff, to avoid too narrow a viewpoint. There is currently a dearth of good formal education programs but hopefully that will change.

Gill: Someone has a Border Collie that is difficult on walks because it wants to chase everything, bikes, joggers, cars etc. It launches itself at them. At home it will nip the back of the owners ankles at times and they are not sure how to handle the situation.

Jean: Two-pronged. Develop a legal predation outlet – ball, tug or Frisbee played without fail daily and intensely. Then, it would be DRI again – teach a “watch me” command and gradually proof it up to higher and higher distractions, culminating, in this case, with moving objects. For the ankle-nipping, if they could be taught to anticipate the usual contexts and “re-program” the dog to an alternative target, it would be a great start. Goes like this: dog darts out from under coffee table when person walks by 7 times out of 10. Practice walking by coffee table and commanding dog to “find your squeaky hedgehog.” Then coach dog on find and play vigorously with dog for 15-20 seconds with toy (flip at him, make him chase and retrieve etc.). Rehearse over and over until dog views context as command to target hedgehog. Counter condition likewise other tricky situations. When this is accomplished, can begin to apply penalties to any misfires (“oh, you nipped my ankle – two minutes in laundry room for you! Too bad!”) or, if owner quick, interrupt with verbal reprimand before dog makes contact (i.e. catch intention – then redirect to hedgehog or other target).

Gill: Play biting or teaching bite inhibition to a puppy – some say ignore play biting and walk away, others shout “Ouch” and then continue giving pup attention – what do you think works best, as books seem to vary so much on what to do?

Jean: Although there are some puppies for whom expression of pain is sufficient, many, many find this actually stimulating or don’t read it as well. Therefore, I usually advise “ouch” followed up by time-out penalty (thirty seconds in crate or other penalty box or everyone in room abandons puppy). This gives owner more legwork (and so is a compliance bug sometimes) but has a terrific success rate. The consequence must be sufficiently potent.

Gill: Have you ever seen a case of a Cocker Spaniel with what is termed Rage Syndrome? If so, what’s your feelings on this behaviour?

Jean: I have seen aggression in Cockers and Springer’s that is harder to pin down diagnostically and probably would be labelled Rage by people who are into that concept. Most of those cases turned out to be handleablility or hand-shyness issues with subtle triggers, along with poor bite inhibition. I think the bite style of certain breeds wins them the label as much as the harder to pinpoint triggers.

Gill: How would you go about introducing a new dog into a household where a resident cat lives?

Jean: With great prudence, especially if there is any cause for concern (breed – Huskies, Jack Russell’s, Pits for instance, individual characteristics – maniacal chasers) vis a vis predation. Practice focus breaking and supervise like crazy. Set precedent right away – cat is 1) off limits and 2) no big deal – “there are way more exciting things for you in this context” (train nervous system early on). If dog gentle and cat fairly relaxed and/or socialized to dogs, I’d be less interventionist but always careful. Cats, if panicked, can behave way too much like prey animals and trigger reflexes in the dog. If a puppy or an adult dog socialized to cats, much less cause for concern. Best policy is one of gradually decreasing vigilance, contingent on good news.

A big THANK YOU goes to Jean for taking the time to answer so many questions.

Please visit Jean Donaldson’s Web Page at: