Written by Pamela Gawler-Wright, Director of Training for BeeLeaf Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy

Presented at the NLP Conference in London 2008

A Message From Dibley

I am a 9 month old miniature Labradoodle, owned by BeeLeaf Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy which is a not-for-profit Social Enterprise and UKCP Accredited Training and Accrediting Organisation. I am training to become a Certified Therapy Animal Assistant and I also help the BeeLeaf Trainees to learn Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy. I am here today as part of my training. If I interfere in any way with your learning or comfort, please immediately inform one of my handlers, Pam or Mandy.

Please help keep me safe and able to learn better

You can do this by:

Keeping all bags and bobs, like pens and tissues, out of my reach. The bins have been put up on high surfaces for this purpose. Please don’t put them on the floor.

Remembering not to feed me – it confuses me and gives me an upset tummy. If you want to give me a treat, you can get one from Pam or Mandy and I will do a trick for you to earn it – I am a working dog, you see.

If I do grab something of yours, it is because I am curious and I want you to play with me. Don’t chase me to get your possession back – that just makes me think you like the game and I am very good at dodging people, it’s fun! The best way to get something back from me is to say in a jolly voice “Give it to Pam!” I like this game too and will then give Pam the item and it will be returned. Don’t then put the thing back in my reach again or I’ll think you want to play the game again….playing is something I’m very good at.

Today I am learning:

Four Paw Law
I love being with people and this group is a very exciting place for me, so sometimes I forget things I’ve learned. You can help with this by only petting me if I am sitting, lying down or standing with all my paws on the floor.
If I jump up on you, please help me to learn by immediately looking up and away and crossing your arms. Stay still like this until my paws are back on the ground and then pet me or praise me and I will understand.

There are better ways to get attention than barking

This is hard for me, especially because I am so excited that you are here and I want your attention very much. I have to learn that sometimes other things are going on and I can be quiet and stay involved by watching. This has become even more challenging for me in the last few weeks as, now I am a teenager and my testosterone levels have shot up, I’m really needing to question how I fit in socially.

If I bark, please ignore me, literally do not look at me. My handlers will know if it is a bark because I need something or just because I am learning about my boundaries. When I am quiet you can smile at me and mouth “good boy” and that helps me to understand that that is the better way to get your attention. I have been trained to understand human smiles and eye contact as rewards. Not many dogs know this, but I am very clever.

An example of a human projection of a dog’s projection onto humans – and it works!
VAKOG of a Dog

V is short for Visual, what we see.
A is short for Auditory, what is heard.
K for kinaesthetic, what we feel in a tactile way.
O for olfactory, what we smell.
G for gustatory, what we taste.

To find out more about another person and gain an understanding or their experience of the world, we usually ask questions that help us to understand how they are processing their experience in a sensory way – How does the world look, sound, feel, smell, taste, to that individual?

We can ask these questions of a dog or other animal too. They won’t answer in quite the same way, however a good degree of information is available by observing behaviour and also exploring what biology can reveal to us. The information below varies from breed to breed, and dog to dog, however it gives us a good idea of how the average canine experiences and how that contrasts the sensory experience of a human. It really brings home the fact that we inhabit a shared environment, however our sensory intake determines that we live in very different perceived worlds.


In humans the central area of our eyes, which contains the maximum density of nerve cells and is therefore the area of highest visual acuity, encompasses 1.5 degrees of the retina.

In dogs this area of high nerve cell density is 6 degrees. So a dog does not have to look so directly at something to bring it into focus and this may influence the different “meanings” that humans and dogs attach to receiving direct eye-contact.

This wider central focus area within the eye means dogs have a better peripheral vision than we do and can better calibrate the movement of an object within a wide view. This ability to observe movement within a wider spectrum of stillness is the very quality of visual acuity that psychotherapists work to enhance so as to better notice small movements such as breathing and pulse beat so as to better observe changes in physiological and emotional states.

Dogs have far fewer eye rods and cones than humans and therefore probably have less depth of field vision and see a lesser variation in colour than we do. It is believed that dogs see the world in a range of yellows, greens and greys. This makes it difficult for them to differentiate amongst still objects – you can “hide” from a dog by being still and merging into the wider picture of other still objects.


With our weaker peripheral vision, humans have developed a greater auditory acuity for the direction of a sound, so that we can quickly direct our best eyesight towards something coming towards us. We can locate the direction of a sound to within 1.5 degrees. For a dog the acuity for direction of sound is much more vague and the greater visual localisation compensates for this.

However, in other aspects of hearing the dog far surpasses the human. The average human can hear sounds of up to 20,000 hertz, a dog can hear up to 40,000 hertz. A dog can hear sounds much further away than we can and through a greater pitch range.

So, although dogs find the vowels and consonants of human speech quite bewildering, they are extremely sensitive to the pitch, resonance of undulation of our voice. We can say a word in two different intonations and the dog cannot recognise them the same. And we can also say two different words in the same tone and the dog responds as if they were the same word. So dogs really have an advantage in responding to process not content when it comes to the deciphering of human verbal communication!


Dogs use their kinaesthetic sense much as we do, for assessing temperature, comfort, pain, weight. They experience much communication through touch and exertion of their bodies, much as humans do. This makes us great companion species, as we both love to snuggle, get stroked, be pawed, romp and cuddle.

Consider other aspects of being in the kinaesthetic experience of being a dog. Well, being a dog like Dibley. We are not considering some of the human created shapes of dog who cannot physiologically function to the standards of canines who could survive in the wild.

You don’t have two hands – your mouth is the body machinery you use to pick things up, carry, dissect, manipulate. And your mouth and nose are very near to the ground, making smelling and scavenging easier. Your teeth are your strongest weapon and also part of your friendly socialising apparatus with other dogs. Your teeth and tongue can communicate love, annoyance, care-giving, greeting – and of course, your nose is extending in all first introductions.

You have four legs. You are the fastest long-distance runner on the planet (exceeding in marathon distances horses, cheetahs, deer). Your body is wonderfully athletic – you can jump with ease three times your own body height. Running, jumping, catching airborne objects and twisting in a wrestle with a friend give the dog what can only be interpreted as immense pleasure and fun.

And then there is that other utterly expressive appendage, your tail. What complex and varied messages this conveys to the whole world! It is a transmitter of all spontaneous emotions. With these movements being outside of the dog’s conscious thought all these messages are instant and without the censorship or contrivance that obscures much human emotional communication.

We cannot entirely understand a dog through some academically pieced lexicon of a dog’s more subtle movements and their correspondent internal process (Behavioural Manifestation of Internal Event) although some people sell books claiming we can. The inability of a dog to dissociate, strengthening their power to stay utterly in their body, in the moment and spontaneously responding with their body to events of the moment, make them wonderful communicators to humans. Being in communication with a dog calls upon a more instinctive response from us requiring that we sublimate more cognitive functions of meaning-making.

Estimates of a dog’s olfactory sensitivity place it between 10, 000 and 1,000,000 times more sensitive than ours.

This means that a dog has a sensitivity towards different smells similar to our sensitivity towards variations in colour. The air to a dog is full of information of what is happening now and what has happened previously in this space and up to 5 miles away.

A dog’s world is a complex layering and movement of different smells. It is the way a dog catches up on the news and gossip in his neighbourhood, entertains himself and chooses direction of journeys.


With such a developed sense of smell, dogs don’t need too great a sense of taste and their gustatory anatomy suggests that they have a fairly bland sense of taste and derive their relationship with foods mainly through their fragrance, of course, and texture which provides enjoyable kinaesthetic experience. They are however frenzied by sweet flavours which do not exist overly in their natural diet, although they eat berries which have more of a sour flavour. The presence of sugar in human processed food can be compulsive eating to a dog which actually can do the dog a great deal of harm.

Regardless of taste, dogs go through an oral fixation period from about 6 months to 18 months old, when chewing is a vital part of releasing neauro-transmitters and other genetic recipes to enable the shaping of the cognitive and social brain. Considering that the mouth serves many of the functions for a dog that hands do for humans it is not surprising that the mouth and oral experience takes a dog through this extended and intense period of fixation and exploration.

Values and Beliefs

“We should be careful about anthropomorphizing too much — not everything done by other animals necessarily has the same origins or reasons as similar behavior seen in humans. At the same time, though, we don’t want to engage in a circular anti-anthropomorphizing where we deny that an animal can develop moral reasoning skills because we “know” animals have no such abilities and we “know” this because we don’t see it – a neat, self-referential circle that gets us nowhere but does allow us to puff up our egos the way we once did in the confident assumption that only humans can use language or make tools, both now long dead dogmas of animal research. It seems to me that the most reasonable way to approach this matter is to recognize that if any animals possess any moral reasoning skills, it’s only going to be at rudimentary levels compared with humans — much the way language and tool-making skills are very rudimentary. So, whatever we’re looking for, it’s not going to be highly complex.”
Austin Kline
It would be wrong to suppose that because we do not have sufficient neuroscience to locate how a dog can have cognitions and abstractions that the dog is incapable of any thought or decision-making. Behavioural observations suggests that dogs do have a very active values system informing motivation and prioritisation, in some ways very similar to that of the human, in some ways starkly contrasting.

A dog does not, we believe, have the quality of meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) to self observe and create ego templates and concerns. However the most intelligent of dogs (Dibley has been measured as being in the top 98% in Dog IQ) do behave in a fashion that presents the possibility of creating internal visual representations requiring computing associations and therefore having expectations of how one thing can lead to another (cause and effect) and how one thing should be accompanied by another (complex equivalence).

Observation of dogs in groups, particularly of individual dogs and groups of dogs in relationships with humans, does suggest a rudimentary sense of justice, particularly in emotionally balanced dogs. Dibley can be observed demonstrating a sense of “fairness” when playing with dogs of different sizes, adjusting his physical approach to a puppy or a grown mastiff, or to an able bodied or frail person, to a baby who pulls his ears.

He also has a strong sense of who owns what – he will return something of yours that he borrowed to play with no more protest than a bit of a fun chase. Once you catch him he gives it up; “Fair Cop”. However, if you try to take from him something that he found in the wider environment, he seems to want to assert a legitimate sense of ownership and can be quite vocal and assertive in the face of any attempt to take his found “possession” from him. This resource finding, borrowing and guarding behaviour is observable in wild dogs, but even more pronounced in relationships with humans where humans become the source of many important things in a dog’s life, like food, play, intimacy and personal freedom.

Observing Dibley’s behaviour offers a very obvious suggestion of a values system at work. Like humans’ value system, the hierarchy is constantly changing according to context, state and the availability of any particular valued experience. Dibley’s favourite things are constantly rotating around a particular set of values. If I were to map his values system it might look something like that overleaf.

A Few of My Favourite Things




Dibley also demonstrates the beginnings of a rudimentary belief system in the form of expectations or presuppositions, which are undoubtedly formed through his own experiential narrative or what event follows what. Some of the basic presuppositions or expectations his behaviour suggests are:Human beings are safe.Human beings are a good source of things that I like.Some of the things I like have to be searched for, but they are out there somewhere, even if I don’t know what I’m looking for.

Some dogs are good to be around. Some dogs are not.It is good to do things that are likely to get me what I want.If I do certain behaviours around some people I will get something that I want.Behaviours that do not get me something I want are not worth doing.I can make human beings do things I want if I persevere with some behaviours.Of course it is not being suggested that Dibley has a verbalised sense of such presuppositions or that he even knows about having any form of belief. A rudimentary form of expectation based on previous experience and therefore actions designed to gain particular results is however demonstrated in his behaviour and learning ability.

The Dog’s StoryThe evolutionary history of the dog has been subject to much guesswork, romanticism and departure from evidence. Genetic, anthropological, archaeological and zoological study dismisses the popular myth that hunter-gatherer man (the gender-specific is not an error) claimed wolf cubs from unguarded litters and trained them to be hunting companions has been proven to be utterly impossible. Wolves are less trainable than lions, cheetahs or parrots and any experimental replication of such a feat has been a hideous failure. Mesolithic men would not have had the resources or the foresight to bring up and breed wolves in captivity for the number of generations that it would take for them to make the huge evolutionary jump from Canis lupis to Canis familiaris.Fuelling this inaccurate account is the common truism “Dogs share 98.8% of DNA with wolves, so we should remember that Fido is a wolf with tale manners.” Not so. In terms of the level of DNA specification that wolf and dog composition has been measured, the domestic dog is about as similar to the wolf as we are to chimpanzees. Dogs may be no more a sub-species of wolf than we are a sub-species of gorilla, although the coupled species almost definitely have shared ancestry.Far more likely is the explanation that dogs domesticated themselves, following the last ice age, when human ancestors left caves and began living in settlements that created waste products offering a scavenger’s paradise. A particular genetically endowed trait, known as short flight distance, meant that the ancestors of dogs could eat contentedly near to humans passing by, while wolves, who have an extremely far flight distance, could not flourish on humans scraps as they had to run as soon as humans were near, leaving their meal and the opportunity to procreate and spread their genes, literally on the scrap heap.Interestingly, the genetic recipes that cause shorter flight distance, and therefore greater trainability, also come in a collection of inherited traits that take just eight generations to emerge, such as a pied coloured coat, long floppy ears and the characteristic doggy yapping bark.Also, anthropological studies show it is far more likely that women and children of a tribe will adopt and domesticate animals, having the motivation and routine required to feed and care for a young animal than men in a tribal community seem to have time for. Economic biology, the study of the translation of resources into life-supporting mechanisms suggests that, in calorific terms, it would have benefited neither species to have hunted together and that this activity is a far later development in the dog-human symbiosis, providing each less with food and protection and more with fun and adventure, a high value in both species.Therefore, the notion that to understand and communicate with dogs we should treat them as if they are wolves is one of the most erroneous concepts around, despite its recent popularisation through various celebrity-based and anthropomorphic TV shows professing to be on dog training. We also need to take into the equation that most dogs, including Dibley, are the result of intensely selective breeding intervention by humans for the purpose of exaggerating certain traits. Many of these traits have been those that make dogs better workers for humans, however, increasingly these breeding choices have been based on the human being’s highly visual sense of aesthetics, favouring colour, body shape, facial attributes that have no purpose for the dog and in many cases disable and sicken them through unnaturally created mutations.Dibley is a combination of the most intelligent breed, Poodle, and one of the most obedient breeds, Labrador. This means he ahs also inherited the Poodle’s obstinacy and the Labrador’s unbelievable scavenging instinct causing it to ingest no end of indigestible objects – Dibley’s most dangerous meal so far has been a £2 coin which sat in his system for two days and caused a nasty ulcer that might have killed him without treatment.As a survival ploy, dog’s adjustment to human capriciousness has been highly successful. Dogs now out number wolves by 10,000 to 1. The fact that dogs would not have evolved to the current biological status without the intervention of human beings, however, makes them totally dependent and vulnerable to their relationship with humans. If dogs disappeared tomorrow, humans would be sad but not endangered. If humans disappeared from the planet, most members of Canis familiarus would die in a matter of days and it is questionable whether those who would survive would be able to live and procreate in numbers that ensured the survival of the species. This dependency is a crucial ingredient in any informed analysis of the human-dog relationship.