It is a fairly common practice among dog trainers who teach group classes to “borrow” one of their student’s dogs to demonstrate a training technique or learning concept. Opinions of this practice vary. Proponents say that it helps owners to observe their own dog being handled by an instructor or responding to someone else, while opponents argue that it can appear as instructor grandstanding, may embarrass the owner, and can confuse or even frighten the dog. First, make note that this is not an issue that I feel so strongly about that I would march on Washington about it or wear a sandwich board in protest on a busy street corner. (Although I can come up with a few catchy sign phrases, were I so inclined).
However, I do place myself firmly in the “don’t take my students’ dogs to demo” camp. My reasons are not as much to do with embarrassing the owner (which admittedly can happen), as they are concerned with the dog’s welfare and comfort level and with being consistent regarding my own personal beliefs about our relationships with dogs.
Here is what I mean: When out and about with my own dogs, I neither enjoy nor tolerate a stranger approaching us to say hello to my dogs, and then instead of greeting them politely and spending some time getting to know them through petting and chit-chat with me, the person instead barks out some command. Although these commands are usually benign (sit or “shake” seem to be popular), they grate on me and annoy my dogs. And of course, if my dogs do not instantly snap-to and comply, the person barks again, more loudly. Fun times.
Not only is such human behavior unpleasant to be around, I see no reason at all that my dogs should be arbitrarily required to listen to someone who they do not know and have absolutely no relationship with. Therefore, since I personally do not want other people deciding that my dogs are required to listen to them, why would I foist such a practice upon my own training school students and their dogs? Instead, the policy at my training school is for instructors to use our own dogs for demonstration purposes or if our dogs are not present for the class, we enlist the aid of the invisible dog, “Muffin” (who always listens).
What do the dogs think? I have not yet found any research that examines how dog owners feel about having someone else train, work with or command their dog. However, a study was recently published that asked how dogs feel about this (1).
The Study: The researchers were interested in finding out if the presence or absence of a dog’s owner and the familiarity of a tester influences a dog’s behavior and performance during various types of cognitive testing. They were particularly interested in teasing out context-specific effects. In other words, do dogs react differently to familiar versus unfamiliar handlers depending on what you are asking of them or the situation in which they find themselves? Here is how they studied this:
- Dogs and Handlers: A group of 20 adult, well socialized dogs and their owners participated in the study. In addition, each owner selected a friend or relative who their dog knew well (familiar person). The unfamiliar person was one of the female researchers, who had not previously met any of the dogs. (Because gender has been shown to have a significant effect upon behavior, this factor was controlled in this study by enrolling only female owners and friends).
- Tests: A set of eight behavior tests was administered to each dog. Some of the tests measured the dog’s response to separation from the owner or other stressors, and others examined the dog’s response to obedience commands or handling (see the complete paper for details). In addition, two locations were used; an unfamiliar, indoor testing area and a familiar outdoor area. Each dog was tested by their owner, the familiar person, and the unfamiliar person. (Note: Because of several logistical constraints, this was not a completely balanced study design).
Results: Both the human handler’s familiarity and the context (type of test and setting) significantly influenced dogs’ behavior and response to commands. While the dogs consistently discriminated between their owner and the unfamiliar person and always preferred the owner, discrimination between the owner and the familiar person was affected by context. Here are the highlights:
- Choice and confidence: Unsurprisingly, when allowed to choose between their owner and the other two handlers, dogs consistently showed clear preference for their owner. They also showed a greater tendency to interact with others when the owner was present, a phenomenon that has been observed in other studies and is referred to as the “secure base” effect. It appears that owners provide their dog with a feeling of security and enhanced confidence, which in turn encourages the dog to explore new situations and people. In the absence of the owner, dogs’ behaviors tended to be more inhibited.
- Stressful situations: Dogs distinguished strongly between their owner and the other two testers (familiar and unfamiliar) in situations that were stressful, such as separation or the approach of a threatening human. Most compelling? The presence of the friend could not sufficiently substitute for the presence of the owner in any of these settings.
- Play: Although most of the dogs would play with all three testers, they spent more time playing with their owner and orienting to the toy (ball) that the owner was holding than they did with either the familiar or unfamiliar tester. During play, the dogs did not show a preference for the familiar over the unfamiliar person, but reacted similarly to both.
- Response to commands: Overall, dogs responded most consistently to the owner rather than the other testers for basic commands of come, sit and down. However, the average time that it took for dogs to respond to commands (called latency) was not different between owners and the familiar person. In contrast, dogs took significantly longer to respond to commands if they were given by the unfamiliar person.
Take Away for Dog Folks: Given these results, let’s return to the question of whether or not it is helpful for an instructor to take a student’s dog from them to demonstrate a technique or to help them to train their dog. Certainly in many cases, an instructor becomes well-known to the dogs in his or her class and is recognized by most of the dogs as a friend. (This is especially true if the instructor regularly carries yummy treats in her training pouch and is very generous with those treats). Still, even knowing this, the results of this study suggest that dogs perform best when they have their owner close at hand to act as their secure base. When a bit stressed (as group classes can often be), it really does not matter if the person who takes the dog is familiar or not (or is a better trainer than the owner). Dogs still prefer to be with and respond best to their owner. So, if you are in the habit of taking others’ dogs from them to demonstrate or train, keep in mind that even if you are more skilled, even if you can train the behavior faster, and even if the dog performs well for you, this may not be the dog’s preference. And if we are in the business of building strong bonds between dogs and their people, this may be something to consider.
Reference: Kerepesi A, Doka A, Miklosi A. Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog-human interactions. Behavioural Processes 2015; 110:27-36.