Positive Is a Perception: Empathy to Understand the Perception of the Other

Dec 16, 2015 | Business & Consulting

Communication requires empathy and understanding. Graphic © Can Stock Photo

Communication requires empathy and understanding. Graphic © Can Stock Photo

Two things happened to me recently that set me off thinking about positive reinforcement from the recipient’s perspective.  Firstly I read a very negative review of positive reinforcement training through a Facebook blog. The writer was suggesting that positive reinforcement is a misnomer and, from the dog’s point of view, it is not positive. Secondly I’ve had a lot of folks asking me ‘what is a high value and low value treat?’ (wanting me to specify food/other primary reinforcement into categories).

All this set me off thinking about how we need to take an empathic stance when we work with positive reinforcement. By that, I mean – we need to place ourselves in the dog’s shoes, not any dog but the dog sat in front of us, and ask ourselves ‘what does this individual dog find reinforcing?’

When clients ask me to tell them what ranks as a low/high value treat, in the past I’ve reeled off what I perceive to be low and high value treats (i.e. kibble ranking low and cheese and sausages in my category of ‘high ranking’).   I’ve now stopped doing this and I return the question with;

“Well what does your dog like beyond everything else?’?

I want them to engage empathically with their dog or horse, to think who is that animal/what are her likes/dislikes.

When you think about it, the truth is ‘positive’ is a perception. What is extremely reinforcing to one dog may not be reinforcing to another dog at all.   One of my Schnauzers can’t stand turkey, she will literally turn her nose up at it and walk away; historically I would have rated any fresh chopped up meat as ‘high ranking’ but this isn’t the case for Freya.

We have to really ‘know’ the animal in front of us and it’s really useful to put this to clients, to them thinking beyond just ‘training’ the dog to do stuff for them on cue.

Kathy Sdao’s wonderful book, Some Things In Life Are Free, tackles this paradox beautifully.

At risk of sounding like I’m advertising for Kathy, if you haven’t read the book, or seen her seminar DVD’s, I highly recommend them. Kathy is an expert trainer, at the top of her game, her scientific knowledge is rock solid, yet within this book she also presents an insightful (and beautiful) empathic awareness of the animals she works with. She also makes you stop and start to reflect very carefully on what you are doing and why as a trainer.

One particular highlight of the book is on page 32 under the title ‘emotional bids’. I was deeply heartened to read that a trainer and behaviourist so much for experienced than I, with both humans and animals within the training equation, feels that although;

“We professional trainers sometimes stop short of discussing two-way communication because our clients don’t seem interested………..many dog owners actually want more, but don’t even know how to ask for it”.

Sdao feels: “The best ultimate goal is to foster communication between owners and dogs”.

Of course communication is a two-way street, it requires empathy and understanding, a deep awareness I feel we can overlook if we become exclusively focused on the science of operant conditioning to the exclusion of all else.

Sdao goes on: “To facilitate this, I simply cannot suggest that all interactions be so regimented that the client is forbidden from responding to her dog’s gentle request for attention (e.g. a slow approach followed by soft, prolonged eye contact) with, “Hi there” and a kiss on the nose.   This spontaneous moment of affection violates NILIF because the owner ‘gives in’ to the dog’s attention-seeking without asking the dog to ‘sit’ first. But this seemingly trivial exchange, this bit of bonding, is a vital component of communication in an emotionally open and honest way”.

I am quoting Sdao slightly out of context here, to clarify, NILIF refers to the ‘nothing in life is free’ approach within the sphere of positive reinforcement, an approach the book argues against.

This brings me back to my original point; how positive is a perception. We may think a situation and approach is positive for the dog (or other animal) but is that their perception of it? As Sdao’s book explores, if nothing in life is free – is that a positive experience for the dog, despite the fact we are utilising positive reinforcement techniques? We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the animal on the receiving end and wonder ‘is it possible this is not positive for him/her?’

If we were to work exclusively with ‘operant conditioning’, and exclude the moments of spontaneity, as Kathy Sdao refers to above, we are in grave danger of turning what we perceive as ‘positive’ and therefore ‘good’ into something actually negative, and even punishing, to the dog or other animal on the receiving end.   As Kathy observes we can easily fall into the trap of actually becoming passive aggressive.

In order to ensure we don’t become regimented in our approach, we need to engage with empathic listening. Of course, with other animals it’s not so easy (and empathic listening with humans isn’t that easy either J) we have to listen with all our senses and awareness.   As Risë VanFleet explains: “Empathy refers to one’s ability to see things from another’s point of view”.

She goes on to observe that: “Empathy suggests more than a mechanical restatement of what the other person has said and emphasizes that the listener is truly trying to see what the other person’s experience really is.”

I love this statement because, as a healthcare professional as well as animal trainer, I recognise that listening is more than just ‘listening’ as a process of hearing something. Empathic listening requires us to listen and then do something with that information. As Rise van Fleet explains, we need to have a receptive attitude.

Beyond just ‘hearing’, we need to process what we’ve ‘heard’, reflect upon it and use our own experiences of the world to try and grapple with what it might be like to the other person/dog/horse….. We then use that awareness to try and help!

I’ve started to think that learning to deepen our relationships with other animals through empathic awareness doesn’t just strengthen our bond with our animal friends, it also makes us better at human to human relationships too!


Sdao, K. (2012). Plenty in Life is Free. Reflections on dogs, Training and Finding Grace. Dogwise Publishing.

VanFleet, R. (2013). The Human Half of Dog Training. Collaborating With Clients to Get Results.