Dogs Mirror Humans

Do dogs mirror human owners?
Over the years that I have worked with dogs and their owners, I have sometimes been puzzled by the unexpected course a seemingly straightforward training approach to a relatively simple training problem has taken. Most trainers that have noted similar occurrences can readily identify certain factors, such as the owner did not follow through with the instructions they were given or there were certain erratic applications of the advice, coupled with obvious inconsistencies in its application. The question then becomes why? Might it be something other than they simply didn’t understand the instruction?

There is an oft-noted observation that over time many dogs and owners start to look like each other. Indeed this phenomenon has been noted frequently enough that it has been the basis for numerous cartoons and has even been the premise that some rather humorous television adds have been based on. Is it possible that dogs and their owners may come to resemble each other in other ways as well? To take this question even further, is it possible that we sometimes create our dog in our own image?

One of the theories I have is that dogs are often excellent mirrors. They reflect the environment in which they live and in many cases they are in some way a reflection of the owner. Often issues that have been identified as “training issues” are in fact much more than that. In these cases, simply focusing on the dog (who has become the “Identified Patient”) and his behaviour, can lead to a less than accurate understanding of the problem. Some problems are not so much training problems as they are relationship problems and they seem to be the result of the owner somehow placing an ‘emotional load’ on the dog. The resulting “problem” behaviour (what we see) is often the dog’s response to this load.

Humans utilize a range of psychological defense mechanisms in their daily lives and in their interactions with others. Many of these defenses are used without the person’s conscious awareness. The fact that people would use similar dynamics in their interaction with their dogs should come as no surprise. How often does someone for instance, make excuses or explain away certain behaviour? How often does someone deny what is happening around them, the effect it is having on them or they on others? How might an animal (as sensitive as the dog) react to all these inconsistencies, conflicting emotional energies and “cognitive dissonance?”

I am not for a minute suggesting that a dog trainer take on the added burden of psychotherapist to the dog owner, but I do think an awareness of all dynamics involved is important. The dynamics in the relationships between dog and owner, dog and trainer and owner and trainer all contribute in some way to the outcome. Sometimes these observations must in some way be pointed out to the owner.

One possible indication that the training process is touching something personal (in the owner), is mounting resistance to any reasonable suggestions the trainer might make of change to the status quo. Sometimes the owner is heavily invested in maintaining the status quo and despite protestations to the contrary, does not want anything to really change with their dog. Sometimes the dog is an “unwitting player” in the owner’s acting-out stage version of, “What’s wrong in my life.” When the owner is perceived as being defensive, that is probably just how they are feeling. More often than not, these defenses are used to avoid truths, some of which might be quite painful. Sometimes the client sets the dog up as a “surrogate self” onto which they project all manner of their own stuff. It is interesting to note that if given one of these “problem dogs” to handle, the trainer can quickly turn the problem off only to have it reemerge just as quickly once the dog is given back to the owner.

Sometimes in our desire to succeed at resolving a problem, we may miss the fact that the owner does not want resolution. There are instances of owners fearing success and what it might mean. When this dynamic is missed and the owner is pressed harder, it can lead to resentment of the trainer. Resentment can also result from the trainer failing to acknowledge that the problem has been difficult for the owner (a little empathy can go a long way). When interpersonal issues arise between owner and trainer, the dog’s training program might be inadvertently sabotaged because sometimes clients will act out toward the trainer by making the dog fail and thus the trainer fails.

By a process known as “Projective Identification,” I believe some owners falsely attribute unacceptable feelings, impulses or intentions to their dogs. Once these have been projected onto their dog, they then attempt to deal with their own projected issues by attempting to treat them in their dog. This process often induces the very feelings and behaviours in their dog that were first mistakenly believed to be there, making it difficult to clarify the original source of the problem. I believe this to be the case with at least some of the “aggression issues” and also with many of the “fear issues.”

When it comes to resistance, a lack of honesty in rewarding and correcting is one such area where it might be seen. Depriving the dog of a well-earned correction is as wrong as depriving him of a well-deserved reward and it speaks volumes about the owner. After failing to follow through with the appropriate consequence, the owner might rationalize away their failure (to acknowledge their part in the training contract with their dog). They might also deny the behavior approached the threshold at which point action would be called for, but in either case the dog is denied meaningful feedback and a chance to learn the lesson fully.

Dog Training methodology

Dog Training Methodology

We don’t fix your dog, we mend your relationship.

I am often asked by dog owners and prospective clients what Dog Training Methodology and tools I use when dog training, or helping to modify unwanted behaviours. This little article will provide you with most of the answers.

Operant Conditioning

Dogs just like humans and every other species on the planet learn from consequences. When we are dog training or modifying behaviours, we use the principles of operant conditioning. Mother nature utilises all 4 quadrants of operant conditioning for all life on the planet. Without all 4 quadrants, no animal could have survived. If man could magically remove any of the 4 quadrants from nature, life would instantly fall into chaos, and all life would very quickly cease to exist.

The 4 quadrants of operant conditioning.

Positive Reinforcement (R+) – Giving the dog something to encourage a behaviour to be repeated, such as praise, treat, toy, play
Negative Reinforcement (R-) – Taking something away from the dog to encourage a behaviour to be repeated. For example, we can remove something uncomfortable when the dog displays the required behaviour, such as leash pressure
Positive Punishment (P+) – Giving something to discourage a behaviour being repeated. For example, we can give a leash correction paired with the unwanted behaviour
Negative Punishment (P-) – Taking something away to discourage a behaviour, for example removing attention when the dog displays unwanted behaviour

My preference (and the preference of all dog trainers that have a balanced approach to training) is to utilise all 4 quadrants, as required. The majority of training incorporates positive reinforcement, after all, we are usually teaching a dog behaviours that are desirable. You cannot encourage desired behaviours unless your dog understands it produces a pleasant or desirable consequence.

Understanding Punishment

Many mistake punishment as getting angry at your dog, and therefore considered abusive. Anger is never incorporated into your dogs training. Anger has no place in training or even owning a dog. The term punishment in operant conditioning simply means its a consequence that the dog finds unpleasant paired with the current behaviour. For example, say your dog is playing with a rose bush and gets pricked by a thorn, which creates some discomfort for the dog. The dog after being pricked a couple of times very quickly learns to avoid playing with the rose bush. An example of negative reinforcement is, your dog is laying in the sun and starts to get uncomfortable due to getting too hot, so the dog moves to the shade where it is cooler and therefore more comfortable. The dog learns that it’s more comfortable to lay in the shade. The dog should always associate the discomfort with the behaviour, and not as anger being projected by the owner. When we get angry at a dog, all we are doing is conditioning the dog to avoid us, and not necessarily the unwanted behaviour.

operant conditioning quadrant dog training adelaideThe emotive removal of 2 of the operant conditioning quadrants

Some trainers prefer to use what is generally termed positive-only, purely-positive or force-free training methods. What this means is that they have chosen to remove 2 of the quadrants of operant conditioning from their dog training. The 2 quadrants they remove are positive punishment (P+) and negative reinforcement (R-). By doing this, they have removed the quadrants that help a dog to very quickly learn what behaviours to avoid. This choice, in my opinion (and by all other balanced trainers), is more emotive based than based on any logic. Removing these 2 quadrants does nothing more than slow down your dogs learning ability extremely, as the dog now has no idea what behaviours to avoid. So in cases where this methodology may work, the process is extremely slow, as it requires many more repetitions to teach the dog.

Competitive motivators

Trainers that remove those 2 quadrants (P+ & R-) from their training methodology have little understanding of competitive motivators, and therefore, find it extremely difficult to what we term ‘proof the training’ around distractions. An example of a competitive motivator is when a dog finds rushing over to another dog or person a stronger motivation than say receiving a treat. Whereas with proofing we lower the motivation to carry out the undesirable behaviour by applying P+ or R- so that the motivation to please its owner or receiving a treat is then the stronger motivator. So unless we include all 4 quadrants in our training, we have no way to override competitive motivators. And as suggested above, if we could remove the 2 quadrants these groups refuse to use in training from nature, all life on the planet would fall instantly into chaos, and therefore very quickly cease to exist. As how would animals know what behaviours or situations to avoid? They wouldn’t.

Thresholds – discomfort and pain

When we apply what is termed an aversive (P+ or R-), the discomfort level is dictated by the dog, and not the trainer. We never apply more pressure or discomfort than required. In other words, we only take the discomfort to a level that the aversive applied is just above the dogs threshold of discomfort. This level can change dependant on the situation and the dogs current arousal and emotional state, and is always paired with the dogs current undesirable behaviour. As an example, we have all had the experience of cutting ourself whilst busy focused on an activity, and haven’t realised we have cut ourself until we notice the cut bleeding. The cut in that instance was below our threshold of discomfort, and therefore we didn’t feel it. Whereas the same cut when we are in a more relaxed state, causes instant pain the moment we cut ourself, because it was above our threshold of discomfort in that moment.

Applying an aversive that is paired with an undesirable behaviour is never carried out with negative emotions such as anger or frustration. It is simply used to condition a dog to avoid an undesirable or dangerous behaviour. In other words, its the behaviour that triggers the unpleasant consequence from the dogs perspective.

Dog Training Tools

I am asked by many people what tools I use to train dogs with. Firstly the tool is dictated by the dog and the abilities of the owner. My go-to tool is generally a slip lead, for the majority of dogs I train, and for the majority of dogs the only tool required.

For me, the deciding factor on what tool to use is based on what is the most comfortable for the dog. So the tool we choose to use should apply zero discomfort unless pressure is applied. This is why I do not use halter-type collars or no-pull harnesses, as these in my opinion, apply continuous levels of discomfort, even when the dogs owner is not applying any pressure. So if there is no pressure applied, there should be zero discomfort for the dog.

My number one priority when helping a dog and its owner work through behavioural issues or obedience, is to help get the quickest results with the least amount of stress for dog and owner. Positive reinforcement is, of course, the most used quadrant, as without it we cannot have a dog that ‘wants’ to carry out a behaviour.


Positive Reinforcement methods

I tend not to use a lot of food in my training, as I prefer to condition a dog to work for its owner than have a feeding response triggered each time the dog hears a command, sees a particular item such as a collar and leash, or guided to carry out a particular behaviour. That is not to suggest I never use food. The dog and situation we are dealing with dictates whether I include food in my training or not. My biggest issue with using food as the primary reinforcer when training companion dogs, is that through the process of classical conditioning, each time we for example say a command such as “sit” then immediately reward with food, we actually condition an involuntary feeding response in the dog. In other words the dogs digestive system is involuntarily triggered into action whenever it hears that particular sound. Once we have created this involuntary feeding response in the dog, then it takes a lot of work to wean the dog off food, when we decide not to use food any more. I also feel in most cases, when we are using food as the primary reinforcer, training becomes a lot more mechanical and less emotional. The dogs entire focus is on receiving the treat, and the trainers focus is about handing over food, and therefore emotion tends to becomes less of an influence on our training.

I do prefer to use praise and emotional energy when reinforcing or rewarding a desired behaviour. Dogs are very attuned to the energy we project, so we can use this to our advantage. By using praise/affection to reinforce a behaviour, we are in my personal opinion helping to develop a stronger bond with our dog during training.

I do realise a lot of trainers (even balanced trainers) prefer to use food as a primary reinforcer, especially since clicker training has become so popular. This of course is a personal choice, and as I have stated previously, I do at times use food if I deem it is the best way to motivate a particular dog. However, my preference is not too. My aim when training companion dogs and maintaining discipline is to condition a calm state of mind in a dog, and not a dog that is overly aroused because a feeding response has been triggered by a command or a particular situation.


We also need to understand that dogs are very attuned to our own emotional state and the types of energy we are projecting, and therefore these have a major influence on our relationship with our dog. Therefore, modifying a dogs behaviour is never just about working with the dog. We need more of a holistic approach, which means understanding the dog/owner relationship, and the dogs environment, if we are to be successful. In many cases, modifying certain behaviours can be as simple as being aware of our own emotional state and the body language we are displaying.