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Applied Ethology and How It Can Help Your Dog Succeed: An Interview with Kim Brophey | Pupford

December 27th, 2023

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For most of history, humans have regarded dogs as animals with specific jobs.

But in recent history, these animals have become pets only.

Is that to blame for many of the “problems” and “challenges” we face with our dogs?

In this episode, Kim Brophey will help us make sense of why the viewing of our dogs as pets may actually be the root of many “problem behaviors”.

And of course, Kim will break down what you can do today to help your pup be more successful in a human-centric world!

First, let’s define applied ethology👇


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what is applied ethology

The ISAE defines applied ethology this way ⬇️

The study of applied animal behavior contributes to a greater understanding of the interactions between humans and other animals and helps to create a better balance between animal welfare and the requirements that humans have of other animals.

Applied ethologists work on a wide variety of animal species and topics: e.g. the management and welfare of livestock; the interactions between humans and companion animals; the impacts of housing on the behavior and welfare of zoo and laboratory animals.

Simply put, applied ethology is the study of animal behavior in captivity.

Now, let’s meet Kim!


kim brophey applied ethologist and dog trainer

Kim Brophey is an applied ethologist and professional dog trainer with decades of experience.

Here are many of Kim’s top accomplishments, credentials, and works.

  • Applied Ethologist, member of the International Society for Applied Ethology
  • Owner of the awarded Dog Door Behavior Center -
  • Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) / Certified Member - International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
  • Board member - Asheville Humane Society
  • Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
  • Member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)
  • APDT Outstanding Trainer of the Year 2009
  • Author of Meet Your Dog- The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior (2018)
  • TED talk presenter - The Problem With Treating a Dog Like a Pet -

As you can see, Kim deeply understands dogs and I promise you’ll learn a LOT in this episode!


Kim grew up in an area where many dogs roamed free. This gave her real-life exposure to how dogs naturally behave, from a very young age.

She also grew up with dogs and always loved the companionship of animals.


applied ethologists and dogs

As mentioned above, applied ethologists study domesticated animals.

Their goal is to understand how our species colliding with other animals affect animal welfare and how they live.

Part of Kim’s work has been to understand how the changes in our dog’s environment (ie domestication) play a role in their behavior, our interactions with them, and more.


For centuries we have bred dogs to perform specific tasks like assisting with hunting, herding, and rodent control. But, in recent years, many of those task-centric jobs have gone away for dogs!

Of course, those genetics and traits still exist, which can create “problems” (at least in our eyes).

We in a way have, unfortunately, created a “void” in our dogs’ lives. They have an innate desire to, for example, herd livestock.

But now those same breeds aren’t able to.

And when they showcase some of those related behaviors (chasing other animals, nipping at our heels, etc.) we become frustrated and overwhelmed with their “bad behavior”.

Part of Kim’s hope for us humans is to better understand our dog’s deep-seated behaviors and find enriching experiences for them to express those behaviors in a healthy way.


how to give our dogs proper outlets like fetch

One of the best ways to help your dog succeed is to research and understand your dog’s history and “job history”.

If your dog was used to herd, you can try things like Treibball!

For retrievers, focus on using more fetch in your dog’s daily life.

Do you have a terrier? Try creating a dig box for your pup to use every day!

While it may not be a perfect solution, trying to tap into your dog’s natural instincts is a powerful way to improve their mental well-being and behavior.


While there is no simple answer to the questions posed in this episode, one simple step you can take today is to learn more about your dog’s breed and history.

Each breed is unique and has traits, desires, and skills that are used to help them accomplish their “job” historically. By understanding that for your breed, you’ll gain a level of empathy that can allow you to better suit your dog’s needs!

A key to successfully raising your dog is to understand their history. Once understood, you can work to provide outlets, tasks, and training that is unique to your breed.

Their unique traits and desire should be celebrated and used to improve their (and our own) life!

Tell us your dog’s breed in the comments and one thing you’ve found helpful for your specific breed!


Hello pup parents, and welcome to today's episode of the Perfect Pup Podcast. My name is Devin. I'm very excited for today's episode. I was just chatting before we start with Kim, and was getting extremely excited about what we're going to be talking about. We're going to be diving into potentially the pitfalls of thinking of our dogs as pets and looking at the welfare of our dogs as a whole, and really just diving into a topic that I don't know much about. So I'm very, very excited to have Kim Brophey on with us. Thank you, Kim, for joining on the podcast.

Kim Brophey: Yeah, Devin, I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Devin: Of course. And like I said, we're going to dive into topics that we really haven't covered on this podcast, so it's going to be a good one. But before we do that, I just want to introduce Kim and just go over who she is so you know who you're learning from.

So Kim Brophey is an applied ethologist, which I'll have her break down a little bit on what that means. She's also a member of the International Society for Applied Ethology. She owns the awarded Dog Door Behavior Center. She is a certified dog behavior consultant, a board member of the Asheville Humane Society. She is a certified professional dog trainer, member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. She's been voted APDT outstanding trainer of the year. She is an author of a book called Meet your Dog, The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior, and is a TED Talk presenter, which I will link to that as well, because you should definitely, without a doubt, go watch her entire TED Talk because it is phenomenal.

Anything I missed there? Kim, anything you want to add or clarify?

Kim Brophey: No, I don't think so.

Devin: Okay. So let's start off first with who you are and why you love dogs and animals. How did you get your start as a dog/animal enthusiast?

Kim Brophey: Well, it's funny because if you talk to a bunch of ethologists that are just regular ethologists, not applied ethologists, and I'll talk about the difference of those things in a minute, but ethologists are generally studying animals in their natural habitat, just observing and documenting behaviors.

So as a kid, growing up in the enormous mega city of Atlanta, Georgia, oddly enough I know many of us are too young to remember these times, but in that massive city, just a few minutes from downtown, the dogs were still loose in my neighborhood. And as a child, I was really intrigued by everything in the natural world. I mean, my parents couldn't get me to read a book that was in a science reading at school, but yet I was reading all the encyclopedias and National Geographic's I could get my hands on. So I think as a young kid, I just had this naturalist tendency in me.

And then growing up in the city, though, my opportunity to observe animal behavior was really limited by whatever species were available in my suburban backyard. So growing up with dogs, they were at my feet. And I had access to them all the time, not just my own dogs, but also the neighborhoods dogs. So in my many wanderings around, in the neighborhood and whatnot as a kid, I had the opportunity to observe a lot of dogs just being dogs. And I think that's where I got really hooked. And it sewed some seeds for what would become a career later on.

Devin: I love it. That's super interesting. I've also been in an... I've lived in an area where dogs were just roaming free. It's a very interesting experience to see them, like you said, just living their own life how a dog would live. So on that note you said you're an applied ethologist. There's a difference between ethologist and applied ethologist. Tell me a little bit more about that. And I guess additionally what are you really focusing on and looking at when you are doing the work of an applied ethologist?

Kim Brophey: Yeah, it's a great question. So first of all, ethology is just the study of animal behavior in their natural environment and habitats. And so from that biological or evolutionary perspective, looking at why animals are the way they are physically, behaviorally, in terms of their sensory capabilities and their processing, their instincts, et cetera, how they fit like a key in a lock to their environment, and all of the things that surround that in the ecosystem.

And then applied ethologists, which again is a field that, we were talking about this before we started, it's really a field that's been present in Europe, but really hasn't had a lot of representation at all, much at all in the United States. So applied ethologists are looking at what happens for animals that are under some kind of direct human control. So captivity, domestication, in terms of when we do meet those crossroads with these animals in captivity or under domestic circumstances, whether it be in zoos, on farms, in laboratories, and then in companion homes, when we have control of those environments and then our behavior is interacting with their behavior, kind of everything that can happen from that point. And all of the challenges, opportunities, et cetera, that arise from our species meeting as it were, our world colliding with theirs.

What's interesting is that the emphasis of applied ethology is, as opposed to something like applied behavior analysis or applied animal behavior as a discipline, the emphasis is more on welfare and less on behavioral output in the traditional sense of how we're used to modifying behavior for our own interests and goals. And like we were talking about briefly before as well, a lot of us, we just were born into a world where dogs equals pets. Dogs are in our mind, as we've been taught by definition, pets. That's why they're here. And yet for the 10 to 40,000 years that humans and dogs have been living together and coexisting and working together really just the last 40 years has that become the common normal way of living with dogs.

So in much of the world dogs are still free roaming in other places. And also, in much of the world, dogs are still being used for the things that they were historically used for, so guarding flocks, moving and managing livestock, for protection, personal protection, territorial protection, for hunting, tracking, vermin control, et cetera. There's just a variety of things that dogs have done throughout history that frankly we might even owe our survival, as a species, to on some level quite arguably from that anthropology perspective.

So in our minds, it's like, "Well, we bring them into our homes, and we do all these nice things for them. And they are our pets, and they are babies, and that's what they're for. And they're here to make our lives better and more enriched and fun. And for the kids and whatever." We don't think about the fact we have interrupted a natural relationship of checks and balances between the environment and the organism where they can solve their own problems and make sure that they're handling life circumstances well, and that they have the best opportunity to adapt and survive in meaningful ways, that makes sense to them and feel good.

I think we have a hard time digesting the reality that our pet dogs, the average pet dogs are captive, they're captive. Because we rotate between fences, and leashes, and crates, and houses, and the autonomy that any wild animal would enjoy, that we enjoy, that street dogs all over the world enjoy, even if they may have some compromised physical welfare compared to some of our pet dogs, the behavioral welfare, the psychological welfare, the emotional welfare is often far greater than what our dogs are experiencing as we've put them as square pegs in round holes in many cases.

So we have dogs that we humans developed to be very specific in those behavioral ways I described, but we don't like those behaviors anymore. We don't want them to protect us from our friend coming over. We don't want them hurting the children in the backyard. We don't want the terrier digging up our rose garden. So we aim to train away behaviors that we humans have bred into them for hundreds of years, in some cases thousands of years. And then we get frustrated when it doesn't work, because we keep continuing this mantra of, well it's all how you raise them, isn't it? Like puppies are just blank slates and they'll be what we want. So we just pick the color and shape and size that we think is cool. And there's kind of a whole reality check that needs to happen, culturally for us, if we really do want to help our dogs and also have an easier time living with them going forward.

Devin: Wow. That's very interesting. So you're saying we have for example... I'm going to use the example of retrievers. I have Labrador retrievers. For thousands and thousands of years, these Labrador retrievers and lots of retriever types were bred to retrieve, whether it was hunting or whether it was helping with bringing in fishing nets or X, Y, and Z different jobs that they had. And now I live in an apartment with my labs and they don't have opportunities to do that. And that can, what you're saying is, cause a negative, I guess, expense on their mental welfare. Am I understanding that?

Kim Brophey: Yeah.

Devin: I'm kind of oversimplifying it, but is that what you're saying?

Kim Brophey: Yeah, and I love your choice of words there as an expense. I mean Labradors and many of the gun dogs, in the gun dog group, are more modern breeds than some of the other breeds. And so it may be that it doesn't have thousands of years behind the selective breeding. But those hundreds of years behind the selective breeding for basically this highly cooperative partner hunting of game birds and out in the outdoors. And so essentially with a gun dog, it's easier for us to meet some of their needs relative to some of the other breeds, right? Because there are some types of dog where we really have no tolerance for what we bred them to do in our modern world anymore.

And so finding acceptable alternatives like so what is considered in say zoology enrichment in the environment? So we're providing healthy outlets of expression for behaviors. That's easier for something like a Labrador, because we could just be playing fetch. There is other ways that we can fill that cup, and also just through cooperative efforts, through cooperative hiking, and adventures, and things like that. It can hit the nail on the head for them in a way that is like, "Okay, so now I feel like I'm in my zone, I'm doing what I was developed to do. It just feels right." Every organism when they're doing what they're niche is, what they were artificially or naturally selected, is the case in most natural species to do, they get dopamine for engaging in the behavior. So it's kind of internally self-reinforcing like, yes this is what I'm supposed to do, this feels right. And they experience a lot of frustration when those, what are called, modal action patterns or instincts don't have a place to go.

Actually there's a lot of documentation in zoo animals on what is called zoochosis, which is what happens when environment does not afford an animal, in captivity, the opportunity to express those natural instincts. They start developing stereotypical repetitive OCD behaviors and a lot of maladaptive dysfunctional expressions. And we see a lot of those behaviors in the pet dog population. But again, your characterization of the expense or the cost of that taps right into what's a cornerstone principle in evolution and ethology, which is the economy of behavior or neuroeconomics. And there's a bunch of different ways you can think about the economy of it, but what's putting a deposit in? What's making a withdrawal? What does the environment afford the individual? That economic language, I think, is a nice concrete way to think about what we're taking versus what we're giving. And a lot of the times we're taking without realizing how much we're taking and we're not giving because we don't know what needs to be given.

Devin: That leads me into my next thought, which is maybe we pivot away from retrievers and talk about one that is less easy to meet those needs. Let's say like a herding breed, like you said, in today's society we don't want our dog chasing after cars. We don't want our dog thing after kids that are running by. We don't want them chasing after other animals. So how can we give our dog outlets? I will say too, that there is a part of this that feels, I don't know what the right word is, but maybe like, man did we corner ourselves into a situation where there may not be a real solution? Or are there things that can be done to help these dogs meet just their basic needs like you're saying?

Kim Brophey: You said the difficult part out loud. The truth is that at the end of the day, having the conversation that needs to be had culturally, because if we just keep punting and procrastinating having this difficult conversation about the dog population in the face of our modern conditions, and how well those things work or not, it's just going to get more complicated and escalate and snowball. But it immediately does beg that question of the gene pool itself. Like why do we keep breeding so many border collies, and cattle dogs, and Australian shepherds if lots of people think they're cool and really pretty, but at the same time we don't want 50% or more of the behavior that just typically comes along with that phenotype, with that type of animal?

And so sure are there ways we can provide healthy outlets? Are there alternatives? Yes, there is things like treibball, which is like a big ball that you can help to direct the herding instincts onto, for herding dogs. There's a variety of different games that you could create where the dog feels that they're getting some sense of satisfaction of creating order out of chaos. However, given the fact that most of those dogs are bred to work a 12 to 18 hour day in a farm, are we taking this much off of that frustration block by doing that? Because it's like how much patience and time frankly do most pet families have to go work treibball with their dog or to provide any other healthy outlets? The reality is people are busier and busier. They don't want a dog that's a full-time job.

Something like a herding dog is meant to be a pretty much full-time companion to that shepherd or the farmer. So confining them to pet conditions and then doing something maybe for 10, 30 minutes, hey even an hour a day, is just taking a little bit of that edge off for the dog. So then it does beg the question of if we are putting the square peg in the round hole, how big can we make the round hole to fit the square peg, or do we need to start saying, maybe we need to start making round pegs? That's one of the arguments that my hero and good friend, who's passed a few years ago now, Raymond Coppinger, he has been talking about that for decades. That if we expect a dog to behave like a pet we should be breeding for pet characteristics, not preserving all of these breeds out of our romantic affinity for them.

Yes, they're gorgeous and impressive and can do all these really cool things, but unless you're planning on doing competitive sports, or competitive herding, or treibball, or some other appropriate substitute, that's going to satisfy those instincts for the particular type of dog you get, we're really going to feel the frustration for us and for the dog. The challenges are going to outweigh the benefits, again with that economical language like the withdrawals are too high and the deposits aren't enough.

Devin: Very interesting. So I think with a lot of things in life, it can feel... Yeah, like you're saying, we may be putting ourselves into a situation where there's not a great way out. I do think, like you're saying, at a bare minimum, and maybe I'll pose this as a question, I'm sure there are people listening right now who have Australian shepherds, or who have breeding, or they have terriers who like to dig and X, Y, and Z different behavior, what do you recommend for these pup parents? Because at the end of the day a lot of people listening right now or watching, they are probably in a state of frustration. And a lot of that can be tied back to maybe the breed does not fit for what is being given to them. So how can pup parents go about trying to find solutions for this? Or what do you recommend when you bring dogs in and you're working with them, what do you recommend to these pup parents to help their dogs live a more fulfilled life?

Kim Brophey: Well, the first and most important thing, that's really easy to gloss over and move past, but is in my experience of working with families and dogs for 20 plus years so critical and sometimes transformative frankly, is learning about the type of dog that you have, their history and what they were used for. And then changing your perception and your expectations for your dog's behavior based on seeing it through a new lens where you realize that a lot of what they're doing that might be making you mental and making you think that there's something seriously wrong with your dog might just be completely typical for that breed. And yet it might not be on any of the sites that you saw when you were trying to pick your puppy, because remember there's a conflict of interest there.

People are advertising to sell dogs, the same way someone might advertise to sell a car. They're not going to tell you all the things about it you're not going to like, or that aren't going to work well. They have an investment and therefore a motive in giving you the good side. Basically most of that stuff, I'm not saying all breeders, but most people that are selling dogs are really going to tell you all the high points and tell you that their breed is the perfect family pet, because that's what's going to bring in the dollars. And so shifting our understanding and expectations, sometimes often for my clients, it's like you just took this huge weight off their shoulders.

And then instead of judging what the dog is doing like misbehavior, like we've been told like it should be solved through more obedience training. They go, "Oh my gosh, you didn't ask to have that instinct. You didn't ask to feel this way in the conditions. You don't know why you're compelled to chase the children's ankles through the yard. It just happens to the dog as much as it's happening to us and to the kids." So that moment is as transformative as it would be for any relationship. Because then we can say, "All right, now I have acceptance." Rather than just this struggle and this misunderstanding, that's just toxic to that relationship and living together.

We can say, "All right, I get it. Now what?" And depending on what that dog was bred to do, that now what, might look like, "All right, I'm going to just dedicate a section of the backyard to the terrier. I'm going to build a dig pit. I'm going to put all sorts of cool stuff in there for him to find, and we're going to have a dig party every day. And you know what, I'm just going to wash his paws every time he comes in. And that's my compromise, that's my deposit in the bank account." So with some breeds, it's easier than others to do that, to find ways to do it. But with a lot, there are simple adjustments we can make to how life is unfolding or how they might be experiencing life unfolding so that things are at least moving in the right direction. We figure out what is malleable and what isn't malleable, and we do what we frankly for now.

Devin: I love that a word that's spinning in my head right now is empathy, right? Understanding that our dogs are unique, not just in the sense of one dog to another, but their breeds in particular. I think that's such a phenomenal approach to just trying to understand truthfully where our dogs are coming from, just like how we would with humans. If we have an interaction with a coworker who is challenging, you feel like you're always butting heads, sometimes just understanding their history, understanding where they came from. Understanding why they maybe have a distrust for certain things in a company, right? It's all about understanding where they're coming from. I love, love, love that.

I think like you said, and this is more just my own opinion, I do think that there is this curse of, and I hate to just blame it on social media, but there is this curse of people see these dogs that seem to be perfectly well behaved, and they're like, "Well, that dog is doing it. I can do it." But it's like, well does that dog live in an open area where they can run miles and miles every day, and you're trying to have them in a city, right? There's just so many differences and nuances to each breed. I really do love that. Yeah.

Kim Brophey: Yeah. And then remembering too, that a lot of the stuff we're seeing on social media is just the snapshot that someone is choosing to show us. It's like, you might see a picture of your friend and their family looking like they're happy and they're on the verge of the divorce, right? Because people present what they want you to see.

And the reality all is that a lot of the people, that are professionals, working with dogs have very difficult times living with their own dogs, because they're also living in modern pet conditions. So they might show a video that then inspires everyone to strive to that standard, only to find out that 90% of that person's day with the dog is a struggle. And then they've taught these particular behaviors that just look so tight and clean and tidy and perfect, and everything else is a mess.

And so there's a lot more of that going on than people realize where professional dog trainers are having tremendous difficult living with their own dogs. And it's like this secret that a lot of folks hide behind the curtain, because they know that they're going to be judged for their dog's behavior, but their dogs are also in those captive situations.

So I think a couple of things about what you just said, captivity is a big deal. We don't like to look at our dogs as captive, but they are. They don't have the choice to go do something. They don't have the choice to come and go as they please. They don't have the opportunity to just follow their instincts where they're taking them. All of that is chosen for them through what we provide for them. And if we try to put ourselves in those shoes, it gets clear really quick that would be pretty unhappy.

I've used this example before, and it may seem a little dark, but frankly I think about The Handmaid's Tale. And I think about the fact that, sure the women can go to the store with their friend, and go get whatever groceries for the house. They have the freedom to do that, but they're under this mind control and the threat of, don't get outside the box. Be obedient. Be nice to your captors. The set of expectations isn't as far apart as frankly it should be.

But then as you say, too, understanding those differences genetically, like historically we've called that, in recent decades anyway, kind of like breedism. I've literally been called a breed racist, for even talking about the fact that genetics matter. When for all intents and purposes, we have different subspecies of dogs. Behaviorally, phenotypically, they are incredibly diverse. And yes, most of that variation is the result of changes to their regulatory DNA, not the protein coding DNA. So people think, "Yeah, but if you look at the protein coding DNA they're 99.9% the same." That's also true for us and chimpanzees, and clearly there's a lot of differences there in our regulatory DNA.

And so embracing the fact that the differences matter, and rather than whitewashing or homogenizing all dogs as it's all how you raise them, embracing the diversity, celebrating what they're bringing to the table, that humans painstakingly bred into them. If we are going to maintain them, then we need to understand what we created in the first place. So my book, unfortunately right now is sold out, but there will be more hard copies in May. There is an audible version, an audio book, as well as an ebook version of Meet Your Dog. That's a great place for families to start, just to understand the particular dog that they have better.

Devin: I love it. I am certainly going to link to all of those places that the book, your TED Talk, your website, all the different places, so people can learn more from you and with you. Because I think my big takeaway from this episode is that I think we all need to learn more about our dogs. And we need to learn more beyond, how do I get my dog to sit, or how do I get my dog to walk nice on a leash? And we need to dig a little bit deeper and be willing to put in the time and effort. Because at the end of the day we did choose, in 99% of the cases, individuals listening, you chose to get a dog. You made that decision to bring a dog into your home, which there are so, so many benefits. And obviously I'm an advocate and you are an advocate for dogs. We all dogs, but when we make that decision we need to be willing to dig a little bit deeper and better understand our dogs.

So I've learned so much. I'm certain my listeners have as well. Is there anything else Kim? Any advice or tips you want to give to people who may be struggling with their dogs or just feeling overwhelmed or overcome with dog behavior right now?

Kim Brophey: I would conclude with the thought, for people to ponder on, that behavior problems, rather than being an obedience or lack of training issue, are evidence of compromised welfare. That's a lot to swallow. So we've been told that it's an obedience and it's a training issue. And the truth is until we made dogs captive, there wasn't a need for professional dog trainers for your average family dog. Think about that. The whole reason we have so many dog trainers and need dog trainers in the first place is because they're a fish out of water. That's a lot to swallow, but it is so important.

We're experiencing their dysfunction, their own welfare crisis as behavior problems. And we've been told that training is the solution. So I would leave folks with the thought, be curious as to what that behavior is an expression of underneath that surface and work to get to the bottom of it, to really meet your dog where they're at.

Devin: I love it. It's a great thought. Let's end the there, because I'm going to go think about it and I'm sure my listeners are as well. But again, thank you Kim for coming on. This has been super insightful. Like I said, I'll link out for everyone to go learn more from Kim. If you have not already, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It's extremely helpful for more people to hear this and to gain this understanding that we all just were able to gain. So other than that we will catch you on the next episode.


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