Contrafreeloading: Why animals may prefer to work for food


We see the argument put forward frequently that our dogs actually prefer to work for food rather than getting food for free.  At first look, this seems illogical. Why would any animal choose a path of work and effort rather than a path of freebies? 

Foraging, hunting, and seeking are innate behaviours which are surely improved through learning but fundamentally they are instinctive and a great many animals spend a huge chunk of their time just seeking food.  This instinct to seek food is obviously hugely important from an evolutionary standpoint. Fail to find enough food and you may die before passing on your genes; find enough food and you get a shot at passing on those successful food seeking genes to another generation. You end up with a planet full of animals with a reasonably strong instinct to go looking for food.

This still doesn’t quite explain why they would ever choose working for the food rather than eating what is freely provided, does it?  When given the choice, why don’t they all think, oh, I found the food right here in this bowl, I need do nothing more than eat.

Professor Robert Sapolsky explains that dopamine (basically a feel-good brain chemical) rises when an opportunity to gain food appears, not when they actually get the food. This tells us that there may be more of a thrill or a high in the pursuit of something than in actually getting that something.

A note of caution here: This should absolutely not be taken as a reason not to provide reinforcement in training, without success, the thrill of the chase would soon die.

We can see this phenomenon in ourselves. That thing you really, really, really wanted for Christmas as a child. You had to have it! Life would be awful if you didn’t get it! All that energy, all that time, wishing for it, wanting it, praying for it and pestering for it. When you finally got it, maybe it didn’t fulfill you like you thought and your attention soon moved to the next big thing that you just had to have.  As adults we might see the same thing happening with that car or promotion, when we finally get it, our mind soon moves on to seeking something else; seeking seems to be a never-ending thirst.  So much so that the foundation of Buddhist teachings are based on relieving ourselves of this addiction to wanting stuff, because of the suffering it brings to complex human lives.  Animals usually want only the basics, for example, food, water, shelter, and safety, rather than amassing wealth. We, humans, tend to get a little more carried away with our wants.

In our dogs, what we might be seeing during contrafreeloading is that genetic link to their ancestors who had to seek to live, coupled with a dopamine rise during such seeking behaviour. Simply put, it feels good to forage.

However, it isn’t a given that animals will contrafreeload. There are many contributing factors.  For example, animals which already have more than enough opportunity to perform their natural behaviour may not feel the need and animals which are hungry may prefer to dive straight in than contrafreeload.  Maybe some have lost too much of their ancestors behaviour traits through our selective breeding.

My own feelings are that we should be encouraging seeking behaviours in our dogs and giving every opportunity to fill some of the behavioural deficits many face due to their modern living conditions as companion animals to humans. No animal ever evolved by receiving free food in a bowl. Every feed is an opportunity to give them something back; it’s an opportunity to allow natural behaviour and promote the feel-good factor.

The trouble with putting it out there!

It can be tough blogging, you leave yourself open to all sorts of criticisms from all sorts of people. You know, the most common criticism is when I make a spelling error. Oh my, people act like there’s a prize for finding it and shouting the loudest on whatever social media the blog’s shared on. They can’t just pm you and let you know because then they don’t get the prize, apparently. I even once disclosed to the shouter that I’m dyslexic and was then accused of playing the dyslexia card! I didn’t even know there was a card, it was something I’d hidden for the first 45 years of my life. I did get cross with those people and used some words which I should not have used because, ultimately, they are the ones with the bigger problem; so insecure that they must highlight the smallest flaw of others. Well, at least they will have a busy life because we are all flawed in some respect. I have a whole collection. Some have told me straight out that if I misspell a word then I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about. Like you can’t possibly have anything to contribute unless you’re perfect! In fairness, there are a few lovely people who have contacted me privately about spelling errors.

On another occasion, I entitled a blog ‘Dogs should know their place‘ and got hate mail from people who hadn’t even read it. They just went from the title and decided I must be evil. In fact, the blog was about NOT abusing dogs in the name of training. Then there are those who just want to argue to the death about the meaning of a word. There are a lot of nuances in our language so it’s easy to do if that’s how you want to live your life. Then there are those who strongly believe that canine enrichment (a particular passion of mine) is cruel because I’m making dogs work for their food (I blogged about it here) and think its okay to pm their anger to me.

More recently I blogged about behaviour extinction vs negative punishment. This blog received a lot of attention and was heavily criticised by a few individuals.  There are of course some reasonable arguments against my thinking in the blog because extinction is a real thing demonstrated in laboratory conditions, however, its application in the real world in training animals is where it becomes difficult to separate from negative punishment.

One individual contacted me and said they were concerned about the blog as it was wrong and inaccurate and dangerous. I offered to link to any objective counter-argument they would like to make. Did they take me up on the offer? No, they instead chose to berate me on social media, never mentioning the offer, instead portraying me as uneducated, only interested in my own view and claiming special insight over those with a PhD. They also took the opportunity to educate me on my obvious lack of knowledge about innate behaviour. The same innate behaviour I’m currently writing about for my second degree in behaviour (I’ll probably let my lecturers decide that one). Then the usual thing happens of people patting them on the back for righting the wrongs of the universe.

You know, bloggers are real people, usually real people with a passion for something or another. I left school without a single qualification and spent most of my life convinced that I lacked average intelligence. At 46 I somehow managed to get a place at Bishop Burton College studying canine behaviour. I don’t really know why I did that because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get past the first assignment but by this stage in my life I had a collection of midlife crisis to my name; I guess it was just another. I actually did quite well, graduating the foundation degree with distinction and deciding to continue studying, now in my 5th year. Not a single assignment ever came easy, each began with a feeling of absolute certainty that I couldn’t do it, but such is my obsessive nature (and perhaps some hidden desperation to prove myself) I kept going, even achieving a 100% grade in the advanced dog training module. I’m not really allowed to mention that because of course, that’s then showing off! I’ve even sarcastically been referred to as the ‘special one’ for daring to be proud of that achievement.

Even writing this now, I can hear the detractors, “well if he can’t take a bit of criticism he shouldn’t write blogs” Why shouldn’t I? are only the emotionally hard and the toughest of the tough allowed to have a passion or an opinion and anyone else is fair game to receive hurtful comments? It’s not just me, I see it all the time. Some really well-known trainers and promoters of positive reinforcement, as soon as they are not perfect, BASH BASH PROD PROD BASH.

We don’t need to be cruel or harsh, it’s not a race to the bottom, we can raise counter-arguments without being personal or joining witch-hunts. At the other side of every Blog, Tweet or Facebook post is an individual with flaws and feelings and insecurities. You don’t need to shout about a few spelling errors, be thankful you can see them. You don’t need to be personal, being wrong doesn’t make someone a shitty person. You don’t need to agree with me, I have friends who are passionate about homeopathy, I couldn’t disagree with them more but we are still friends. I love being wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn something new. What I don’t love so much and find difficult is the constant personal digs which come with raising your head above the parapet. I really wish we could all just comment with goodwill or move on.

Will I be giving up any time soon? No

Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice (Steve Jobs)

Extinction, really? is it?

I tend to struggle with the concept of behavioural extinction. Despite its place in many textbooks and journals, it doesn’t sit well in my mind.  

A note for the non training theory geeks: In this context, punishment simply means to reduce the likelihood of something reoccurring, negative means to take something away, and environment refers to anything outside of the individual.

The textbooks I’ve read agree that extinction occurs when a previously reinforced behaviour no longer elicits reinforcement, thereby decreasing the likelihood of the behaviour (apart from extinction bursts) until it is eventually extinct.

The textbooks also agree that negative punishment is the process of removing a stimulus which results in the behaviour being less likely to occur in future.

What’s the difference?  The two things people are quick to point out on hearing my difficulties are;

  • The literature on extinction usually infers that it’s about previously reinforced behaviour. Negative punishment literature doesn’t emphasise this point.  However, I don’t see a difference here because the whole function of operant behaviour is to seek appetitives and avoid aversives, thereby, exercising some degree of control over the environment. The behaviour in both contingencies has been previously reinforced either intentionally or unintentionally. If it’s not been previously reinforced then how do we explain it occurring at all?
  • Negative punishment is contingent on something being removed, whereas the extinction contingency is based on nothing of significance changing in the environment. How can you have no significant change in the environment? The behaviour has been previously reinforced and now when it occurs, NOTHINGNESS!  Isn’t that in itself a change in the environment? Isn’t the passing of time a significant change in the environment? If there is nothing of significance happening, then how can we say it effects change?  Something significant must be happening! Extinction is to remove or block the previously reinforcing stimuli.  To my mind it is clearly negative punishment. Lets assume that  you can have no significant change in the environment, we’re still left with removing something the animal wanted versus not giving something they expected, is there any real difference?

Furthermore, has the behaviour really undergone extinction or merely been punished and therefore less likely to occur in future?  Spontaneous recovery of the behaviour may occur through processes such as disinhibition, reinstatement, reacquisition or renewal, so it’s not really extinct is it?  We don’t see Spontaneous recovery of the Dodo. Now that’s extinction! To my mind, extinction is simply negative punishment in a different hat. 

By its very nature extinction will evoke stress (evident by extinction bursts), when there are stress free and kinder methods available to us. Let’s not dress it up as something it isn’t.


I believe the nearest thing to behavioural extinction is through the natural process of change whereby a particular behaviour stops being appetitive and therefore loses its reinforcing ability. For example, 50 year olds don’t enjoy sitting on there mother’s knee as they did during early childhood, but the change was almost certainly gradual.

Do dogs feel guilt?

There has long been discussion over the ability of dogs to feel guilt, but what is guilt? Guilt is a feeling of regret that you have acted in a way which doesn’t fit your morals and goes against your own ethical values. Ethical and moral values are constantly changing along with society.  For example, particular sexualities were once considered morally wrong. Today, that idea isn’t accepted by the majority of people and it now seems very strange that people ever felt that way. A further example is how people felt towards slavery, whereas today it’s outrageous to think slavery ever happened.  The point is, morals are very much based on measuring oneself against the ever-shifting standards of society.

Are dogs really likely to set their standards of right and wrong based on what they think all the other dogs would think of them? or are they more likely to act on what works and what doesn’t work? What’s safe and what isn’t safe?

The idea of right and wrong, good or bad, are very much human concepts, and just like morals, they are in constant flux.  How might a dog comprehend what the human thinks is an acceptable standard or choose to behave in ways they know to be wrong, then feel guilt and regret over their actions?

Let’s take an example:  The dog rips up a cushion.  When the dog’s carer arrives home, the dog doesn’t greet them as normal, holds back or is conflicted as to whether to move forward or stay back, holds head down and ears back, crouches and moves slowly.

Photo courtesy of Linda Ehrenworth

What’s going on?

There are two possibilities:

  1. The dog knows that his behaviour is morally reprehensible and regrets his earlier actions.
  2. The dog associates a ripped up cushion and the carers return with being reprimanded or with a human who huffs and puffs and isn’t in a friendly mood.

We should keep in mind that all learning occurs through association and that dogs are experts when it comes to reading our body language. The way I take my final sip of tea and the way I press the final keyboard key are both cues which Mr B (my canine companion) has learned by himself through association. I don’t know how my final sip differs from the others but he certainly does and he knows I might be about to get up out of the chair. There’s absolutely no doubt that they pick up on your mood, simply by slight differences in movement.

So, do dogs feel guilt? I don’t think so……Do you?


Humans are from Mars, Dogs are from Pluto.

Dogs love to sniff; hardly a revelation I know but just think about it for a moment. Dogs really really love to sniff. It’s compulsive, it’s innate, it’s part of what they are, they’re furry, sniffy, wagging machines. They sniff anything and everything. Sniffing is largely how they evaluate the world around them.  They sniff pee and poo and grass and trees and people and novel things and each other and just about everything else on the planet.  They are genetically programmed to sniff. They’re so good at sniffing, they can detect odours in at least ten thousand times lower concentrations than humans can (Walker et al. 2006).  We’ve frequently employed this amazing ability for explosive detection, fire-scene investigation, detection of illegal drugs, tracking criminal suspects, finding human remains, discovering trapped people in earthquake disasters, identifying wood rot, seizure alerts and even identifying cancer in human urine.

This video shows just how important the sense of smell is to dogs. It’s not unique, I’ve seen many similar videos where dogs rely on their olfactory ability to remember/recognise their human companion after a period of absence.


That sniffing is a major part of being a dog, is indisputable. Why, then, do we humans constantly drag them away every time they stop to sniff?  Largely, I think it’s because we simply don’t share their superb sense of smell and so often don’t have an appreciation of its importance to the dog.  How things smell doesn’t play a major role in our lives. Sure, we like the smell of baking bread and hate the smell of poo, but we don’t sniff everyone we meet and we don’t notice the millions of different scents as we walk our dogs down the street. When it comes to sniffing, humans are from Mars and dogs are from Pluto.

Zoos around the world are going to great lengths to provide suitable enrichment to prevent boredom and behaviour problems.  In a comprehensive literature review of enrichment for captive animals, Wells (2009), found enrichment of an animals dominant sense to be the most beneficial to the their welfare.  For dogs (and many other mammals), this means providing opportunities for them to use their magnificent sense of smell.  I argue that dogs are jut as likely to suffer boredom and behavioural problems as zoo kept animals if they don’t receive appropriate mental stimulation.

So rather than pulling dogs away when they’re sniffing, we should be actively encouraging such behaviour. We should be proving ample enrichment at home, for example, hiding food for a treasure hunt, using snuffle mats and Pickpockets or teaching them to find a scent

Mr B with his snuffle mats

Above all else, we need to at least try to comprehend life from the dogs point of view and allow them to behave as dogs, not four legged humans. Try to enjoy letting them sniff, it’s fantastic mental stimulation and it’s going someway to fulfilling their needs. So maybe stop calling it going for a walk and start calling it going for a sniff.

Mr B going for a sniff

Just as us humans are obsessed with how everything looks, dogs are obsessed with how everything smells.



Walker, D., Walker, J., Cavnar, P., Taylor, J., Pickel, J., Hall, F. and Suarez, J. (2006) ‘Naturalistic quantification of canine olfactory sensitivity’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 97 (2-4) pp. 241-254

Wells, D. (2009) ‘Sensory stimulation as environmental enrichment for captive animals: A review’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 118 (1-2) pp. 1-11



Should we allow animals to say NO?

If we are asking an animal to do something then we generally expect them to do it.  There’s a really strong feeling (and I’m not only talking of aversive trainers) that humans are in charge and animals have to do as we say.  I argue that it doesn’t have to be this way.

I first came across the notion of allowing an animal to say no during a university lecture 3 years ago. A lecturer mentioned that Ken Ramirez was working on a no behaviour so that animals could indicate a no signal rather than feeling compelled to follow a behaviour cue or ignore it.  At the time, this puzzled me, why would we want an animal to say no? I thought this to be quite bizarre!  Over the following year, as my brain pondered the information, my attitude softened somewhat;  although I considered it ethically sound, I still believed that teaching animals a no (I don’t want to do that) signal would be complex and too much for most trainers or clients, who, after all, are looking for compliance.

I was wrong. It took a Susan Friedman seminar to show me that I’d been overthinking the concept. We can teach animals a way of saying no very easily.  I think we can do it simply by having an awareness and respect for what they are trying to tell us rather than the, you will do it because I said so, attitude.

Why does it matter so much for animals to say no? It matters because it is important to the animal. If it’s important to them then, as good guardians, it should also be important to us.  It’s incredibly arrogant for us humans to dismiss the feelings of an animal and remove its ability to make choices.  It may sound like a whimsical idea but the whole function of behaviour is to allow animals (including humans) the ability to perform rewarding (reinforcing) behaviours and avoid aversive stimuli. To remove choice is akin to ignoring the past 4 billion years of evolution;  every life form ever known responds to appetitive or aversive stimuli.

As we can’t all be the training genius, Ken Ramirez, how might us mortals allow animals to say no?

Imagine you pick up a puppy (or small dog) and he struggles. Our impulse is often to hold the puppy more tightly.  In actual fact, if we were to put the puppy down at the first hint of a wriggle he would learn that to get down he only needs to give a slight wriggle.  In the long run, the ability to get down when he wishes is more likely to make him not mind being picked up.  Contrast this with the dog who is tightly held on to; he may become very averse to being picked up because he knows there is no way out.  This may well result in behaviour problems, such as nipping the human.


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

There must be hundreds of similar applications where we actually get more of what we want by allowing the animal to say, no thank you, I’m not too comfortable with this. Of course, we need to keep our animal friends safe and that must be our priority, but if we can safely give a choice then I think it’s our duty to do so.

Until next time, take care of yourself and take care of your animal companions.





Pet owners may be attracted to the use of homeopathy as a natural alternative to conventional treatments.  The lack of side effects compared to the possible side effects of modern medicines is indeed appealing.  Practitioners of homeopathy believe that particular substances, when repeatedly diluted, may be used to treat the underlying cause of particular symptoms.  The substances chosen are those which at toxic levels would cause the same symptoms as those the diluted version cures.

The problem is, these substances are not only diluted, they are completely removed. The typical dilution rate of a homeopathic remedy is 30c. What does that mean? It means 1 to 1060  or  1/10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000.  This does not leave a single molecule of the original substance; it’s just water and a greater dilution than one drop in all the water on earth. Don’t believe me? Have a listen Richard Dawkins.


There are some trials which suggest homeopathy to be effective for animals, for example, Yaramis et al. (2016) found them effective for treating horses. However, they didn’t use a control group and the reported changes could, therefore, simply be caused by the act of observing the horses or some other confounding factors.  Large scale, double-blind studies have found no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy (Cracknell and Mills, 2008). This was also the finding of Shang et al. (2005) in their meta-analysis of homeopathy.

Homeopathic supporters make a reasonable argument when they state that the lack of scientific evidence does not necessarily mean that homeopathy isn’t helpful; additionally, if there are no known side effects, what harm could it possibly do?

I think the harm comes in two forms.

  1. It may be harmful when people are given false hope and pay for a treatment which is highly unlikely to work.
  2. It may be harmful to dogs if the owner chooses to use it in place of evidence-based treatments. For example, Vockeroth (1999) claims homeopathy to be as effective as conventional treatments in the treatment of bloat (Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus).  Actually, bloat is a torsion of the stomach lining, requiring emergency surgical intervention to save the dog’s life.

I appreciate that some people are far more optimistic than I am and absolutely believe in homeopathy with complete integrity.  However, I implore you to consider it only as complementary to conventional treatment rather than an alternative to it.

Would I use homeopathy?………yes, but only for thirst!