Friday, 24 February 2017

Irresistible: Emotions affect choice of breed despite welfare issues

Knowing a breed of dog may have health problems does not stop people from wanting one, because emotions get in the way. 

A cute French Bulldog puppy lies down and looks up

A new Danish study by Peter S Sandøe (University of Copenhagen) et al investigates the reasons why people acquire particular small breeds of dog and how attached the owners feel to their pet. The research helps explain why some breeds are popular despite a high incidence of welfare problems. 

The study looked at people in Denmark with French Bulldogs, Chihuahuas, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Cairn Terriers.

The results suggest that even knowing a dog of a particular breed is likely to have health problems may not stop people from getting one, because of their emotional response to the breed. 

Lead author, Peter Sandøe told me in an email,
“In all, this study prompts the conclusion that the apparent paradox of people who love their dogs continuing to acquire dogs from breeds with breed-related welfare problems may not be perceived as a paradox from the point of view of prospective owners of breeds such as Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs.  
Thus apparently available information about the problems in these two breeds has not served to prevent their growing popularity because fundamental emotional responses to the phenotypic attributes of these breeds are highly effective positive motivators.”
Some owners did not prioritize health when getting their dog. As well, for owners of CKCS and Chihuahuas, those whose dog had more health/behaviour problems had a stronger attachment to the dog.

French Bulldogs and Chihuahuas were chosen for the study because of their tendency to have problems related to their conformation (or appearance). Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were chosen because they also tend to have health problems, but not related to what they look like. Finally, Cairn Terriers were picked because they are relatively healthy, so they make a good contrast.

There were differences in how people acquired the breeds. People with Chihuahuas were most likely to say there “wasn’t really any planning”, and they were also less likely than CKCS owners and French Bulldog owners to have put time into learning about dogs from books or dog professionals before getting it. Cairn Terrier owners were also less likely to have learned in this way, and more likely to rely on prior experience with the breed.

People were most likely to get Cairn Terriers and CKCS as puppies from breeders. (In Denmark most dogs come from small breeders with between 2 and 4 breeding bitches). Although breeders were still the most common source of Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs, these breeds had a greater tendency to be acquired from a previous owner (22% of Chihuahuas and 15% of French Bulldogs) or other sources. 

A cute little Chihuahua puppy is held in her owner's arms

The researchers found that the dog’s distinctive appearance, breed attributes and convenience were all motivations in getting a dog. Personality was also important.

These motivations varied by breed. Distinctive appearance and personality were particularly important for owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and French Bulldogs. For Chihuahua owners, these were less important, but convenience played a bigger role. Owners of Cairn Terriers were less motivated by appearance and more by breed attributes. 

Interestingly, these motivations were also linked to attachment. People who were motivated by distinctive appearance and breed attributes were very attached to their dog. 

The scientists say it’s possible that appearance is directly linked to levels of attachment, because facial features that are baby-like may induce parenting behaviours in the owner. This has also been suggested by previous research (see e.g. children’s preferences for baby-like features in dogs and the role of eyebrow movements in adopting shelter dogs).

The scientists say the motivations to acquire a dog can be seen as intrinsic (as for Cairn Terriers) or extrinsic (for the three other breeds, where cuteness, baby-like features and fashion play a role).

The researchers also collected data on health and behaviour problems. French Bulldogs had the highest levels of problems and the greatest expenses. Although only 67% had visited a vet in the last year for a health check, 29% had had a sudden illness or injury, and almost 9% had a chronic illness. 12% of French Bulldog owners had spent the equivalent of more than US$760 on vet bills in the previous year. 

Chihuahuas were the most likely to have a behaviour problem (10%) and to have dental problems (33%). Most Cavalier King Charles Spaniels had been for a health check (81%), 19% had had a sudden illness or injury, and 5.5% had a chronic illness. Cairn Terriers had fewer problems and the lowest expenditure at the vet.

A Cairn Terrier sits in a flower-filled meadow

Interestingly, owners of Cairn Terriers had the lowest levels of attachment, and Chihuahuas the highest, with French Bulldog and CKCS owners in between. For example, if we take the statement, “I would do almost anything to take care of my dog”, 70% of Chihuahua owners strongly agreed. For French Bulldog owners it was 62%, CKCS owners 56%, and only 43% of Cairn Terrier owners.

But perhaps this reflects decisions that owners had already had to make about their dog. The scientists wondered if health or behaviour issues would affect people’s desire to get another dog of the same breed. 

French Bulldog owners were actually the most likely to say “yes, for sure” they would get the same breed again (29%). Only 10% of French Bulldog owners were keen to get a different breed next time, compared to 25% of Chihuahua owners. (This number is higher than the percentage of Chihuahua owners who "for sure" wanted the same breed again, 17.5%). 

For three of the breeds (Cairn Terrier, CKCS and Chihuahua), health and behaviour issues did not have an effect on the likelihood of wanting the same breed again. But for French Bulldog owners, health/behaviour issues reduced the number who said they wanted the same again, from 31% for the majority with no issues, to 20% for those with one problem and 12% for those with two problems.

Data from Swedish insurance company Agria, obtained by the researchers, provides sobering information about the median age of death, as shown in the table (just 2.5 years for male French Bulldogs and 3.8 for females). 

The median age of death of four dog breeds
Reproduced from PLOSOne under Creative Commons licence

French Bulldogs are very popular but they are brachycephalic, i.e. short-muzzled, which can cause breathing difficulties (including brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome) and eye problems. But the French Bulldog can also have what is known as a screwed bobtail (a short curly tail). Sometimes this malformation affects the spine and causes spinal problems. 

Chihuahuas are very small and this tiny, frail shape can cause many problems, including an extremely high risk of injury, knee problems (patellar luxation), and aggression because of fear.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels suffer health problems as a result of being bred from a very small stock. They are prone to heart problems and to a neurological condition called syringomyelia, in which fluid-filled cavities build up on the spinal cord. Early signs include excessive scratching, generalized pain, and weakness in the limbs.

The scientists sent questionnaires to a representative sample of owner of the four breeds, and 846 people took part. This study is well-designed and has an excellent response rate (up to 45% for the owners of Cairn Terriers). It incorporates small breeds with very different types of health problems and lifespans, which makes the results so interesting.

The results suggest there is a real challenge for people trying to promote improved welfare, since it seems that factors other than good health are important contributors to the decision to get a puppy. People’s motivations to get each breed were different, and in some cases the features of the breed that potentially cause problems also tug on our heart strings. Care-giving might also increase the attachment bond.

If people love their dogs, it makes sense they would want the same breed again. 

This important study makes a valuable contribution to animal welfare. It would be very interesting if the researchers could follow up with the owners at a later date to see if the desire to get the same breed again changes over time. 

The paper is open access

What factors did you take into account when choosing your dog?

Sandøe P,, Kondrup SV,, Bennett PC,, Forkman B,, Meyer I,, Proschowsky HF,, Serpell, JA,, & Lund, TB (2017). Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. PLOSOne
Photos: Patryk Kosmider (top); Joy Brown (middle); Marina Plevako (bottom). All

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Function of Play Bows in Dog and Wolf Puppies

New research casts doubt on an old explanation for the play bow – and suggests it’s all about more play.

A Border Collie does a play bow in the snow

The play bow is a glorious signal in dogs. The bum goes up and the elbows go down, leaving the rear end sticking up, usually accompanied by a lovely happy face (as pictured above). Not just reserved for other dogs, our canine friends will play bow to us too.

Traditionally, it was believed that the play bow serves as a signal to say something like, “I’m just playing, it’s not real!”, because many of the behaviours dogs perform in play – chasing, growling, biting, nipping, etc – can also be aggressive. But recent research with adult dogs has thrown that into question.

In 2016, Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere (University of Michigan), Julia Espinosa and Barbara Smuts looked at play bows between adult dogs. If the play bow functions to say “I’m only playing!” then you would expect to see more ‘offensive’ behaviour that could potentially be misinterpreted either just before or just after the play bow. They did not find this. Instead, both the bower and the bowee were typically still before the play bow happened. Afterwards play resumed in the form of chase sequences or both dogs rearing up.

In other words, the play bow seemed to function as a signal to make play start again after a pause.

Byosiere et al concluded,
“the fact that both bowers and partners were often stationary before play bows and highly active after them (in the form of synchronous interactions or runaway/chase dynamics) supports the hypothesis that bows most often functioned to reinitiate play after a pause.”
But that study only looked at adult dogs. And in fact, dogs are not the only animal that play bows: coyotes, foxes, lions and wolves have all been seen to play bow. A new study by Byosiere et al investigates the role of play bows for dog and wolf puppies.

All of the puppies in this study were hand-reared, which means that the dogs and wolves have all grown up in a similar environment. The wolf pups were born in captivity and hand-reared in small groups; and the dog puppies were born in an animal shelter in Hungary and also hand-reared in the same way as the wolves.

The study analysed videos of dog-dog and wolf-wolf play in which at least one of the dogs or wolves was a puppy. The researchers coded play bows that were performed by the puppies during a play bout. The dog puppies were 2 – 5 months old, and the wolf puppies were 2.7 to 7.8 months.

It has been suggested before that the play bow is a visual communication signal, which means that it would be performed when the bower is in sight of the bowee. The results found this was the case, as previously found by Horowitz (2009).

A cute white puppy does a play bow outside
Photo: Cryber; top, xkunclova; below, Warren Metcalf (all

In the wolf puppies, every one of the 69 play bows coded was performed while the two were in visual contact. In the dog puppies, all but one of the 136 play bows was performed in sight of the other dog. And in the one case where the other dog was not looking, the bowee barked, suggesting they knew they needed to get their partner’s attention.

As described for the adult dog study, if the play bow is a signal to say “I’m just playing”, you would expect to see more ‘offensive’ behaviour immediately before or after it. This was not the case for either wolf or dog puppies prior to the play bow. After the play bow, the dog partners (i.e. the bowees) showed more offensive behaviours, which is contrary to this hypothesis.

The scientists also looked specifically at bites, and found there were no bite-shakes immediately before or after the play bows. This is surprising, because earlier work by Bekoff (1995) found that play bows were associated with bite-shakes. The difference might be because Bekoff looked at younger puppies. In fact there were few bites and nips in the videos of dogs and wolves used in this study.

Another possible reason for a play bow might be so that the bower is well-placed either to run away from or chase the other dog. In Byosiere’s earlier study with adult dogs, there was no evidence of it being used to attack the other dog in play, but it seemed possible it was used to escape.

In fact for the dog puppies, their partner (bowee) was more likely to play-attack them than the other way around. This was not found in wolves.

Two young wolves playing in the snow

However, both wolf puppies and dog puppies were more likely to run away after the play bow, suggesting it positions them to escape.

As mentioned above, Byosiere’s study with adult dogs found that play bows tended to occur after a pause and serve to re-start play. This was the case for dog puppies, as both bower and bowee tended to be stationary before the play bow. In wolf puppies, however, this was not confirmed, although the bowees did tend to be still before the play bow.

Finally, it has also been suggested that play bows might serve to synchronize behaviours between the two partners after the bow. However, this was not found to be the case for either wolf or dog puppies.

The results of both studies are summarized in the table.

Dogs play bow in order to re-start play after a pause, science suggests
Reproduced from PLOSOne under Creative Commons Licence

The scientists write,
“Taken together, findings from this study and the previous study on adult dogs suggest that play bows do not occur at random and do not, therefore, simply enhance the play atmosphere in a general way. Instead, their association with particular behaviors before and after the play bow suggests strategic use of this play signal to accomplish immediate goals, including continuation of play by enticing the partner into a runaway/chase interaction.”
This study finds that the play bow is a visual signal for both dog and wolf puppies, but it does not serve to stop ‘offensive’ behaviours from being misinterpreted, as previously thought. In dogs, it seems to re-start play after a pause, however in wolf puppies the function is less clear. The authors suggest it may be that the intent is still to re-start play, but that it is less likely to be successful in wolves.

This is a fascinating study that will no doubt have many of us paying more attention to what happens before and after our dogs play bow.

The study of wolf and dog puppies is open access and can be read via the link below, while you can find the adult dog study via Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere’s Researchgate profile.

What do you like about watching dogs play?

You might also like: Do hand-reared wolves get attached to their humans? and 6 reasons to love canine science.

Bekoff, M. (1995). Play Signals as Punctuation: the Structure of Social Play in Canids Behaviour, 132 (5), 419-429 DOI: 10.1163/156853995X00649
Byosiere SE, Espinosa J, & Smuts B (2016). Investigating the function of play bows in adult pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Behavioural processes, 125, 106-13 PMID: 26923096
Byosiere SE, Espinosa J, Marshall-Pescini S, Smuts B, & Range F (2016). Investigating the Function of Play Bows in Dog and Wolf Puppies (Canis lupus familiaris, Canis lupus occidentalis). PloS one, 11 (12) PMID: 28033358
Horowitz A (2009). Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play. Animal cognition, 12 (1), 107-18 PMID: 18679727
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Sunday, 19 February 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News February 2017

The latest news on cats and dogs from Companion Animal Psychology.

Some of my favourite posts from around the web this month

"Cats, on the other hand get a raw deal. Especially stray ones." Our cat in Havana by Will Grant.

Memory wins when dogs sleep. Julie Hecht on how sleep helps learning in dogs.

"I will never forget the first time a patient died at the clinic." Compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout in the animal care profession by Dr. Vanessa Rohlf.

Opening the heart's floodgates, with a paw. Beautiful piece by Amy Sutherland about match-making people and dogs at a shelter.

The need for transparency in training and behaviour. Daniel Antolec writing for the Pet Professional Guild blog about the problem of false representations in the dog training and animal behaviour industry.

I can’t control neurodegeneration: on acceptance and letting go. Maureen Backman’s diary of life with her senior dog Earl.

International Cat Care on the problems faced by ‘designer’ cats: Manx, Munchkin and Scottish Fold.

Does good welfare equate to happiness? Monkeys, happiness and winning debatesLauren Robinson's post about her PhD research on monkeys is of wide interest to anyone who cares about animal welfare.

Pets in the News…

Trump shutting down the USDA animal welfare info as reported by TeenVogue.  Some information has since been put back, but not the missing puppy mill reports, says ASPCA.

DNA saves a dog in Michigan from the death penalty.

The sale of puppies under 8 weeks old is to be made illegal in the UK, as illegal puppy imports ‘more than treble’ in 3 years.

Breed-specific legislation is not working for dog control, says Prince George’s top bylaw officer. Prince George wants to follow Calgary’s lead and draft new laws based on responsible ownership rather than breed. Meanwhile, Laval has new animal control bylaws that do not include BSL
And Surrey skips breed ban, puts more teeth into updated dog bylaw. The BC SPCA says it’s the best bylaw in the province.

86,000 Hong Kongers get minor injuries from domestic animals every year and cats are the most common culprit followed by dogs. Playing with the pet was the most common activity immediately prior to the attack.

And Scottish hospitals see 80% increase in dog attack victims.

Taiwan animal euthanasia ban comes into force  following the suicide of veterinarian Chien Chih-Cheng last year

French Bulldogs are increasingly popular in the UK, and that’s a welfare issue, explains Pete Wedderburn.

Dogs Trust joins the Sort Our Shelters campaign to license shelters in Scotland.

Upcoming Events

The Delta Institute Dog Behaviour Conference 7 – 9 April 2017 in Sidney. Keynote speaker Dr. Alexandra Horowitz; other speakers include Dr. Julie Ashton, Dr. Vanessa Rohlf, Dr. Melissa Starling, Dr. Bradley Smith and Dr. Gaille Perry.

Summer internships at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale.

Measuring animal welfare and applying scientific advances: Why is it still so difficult? UFAW International Symposium 27 – 29 June 2017 Royal Holloway, University of London UK.

UFAW Animal Welfare Student Scholarships Deadline 28th February.

Photos and Video

I love this photo series by Italian photographer Marianna Zampieri of hard-working cats on the job. You can follow her on Facebook

This Vanity Fair article has a trailer for the documentary Kedi about the street cats of Istanbul.

Jane Sobel Klonsky’s photos of senior dogs and their people, from the book Unconditional: Older dogs, deeper love, are featured in this article in The Oregonian.

Fashion’s most stylish dog, Hector Browne, at New York Fashion week.

Just your average video of two blind cats enjoying themselves… via Slate.

Alexandra Horowitz on the alpha dog myth.

Research Studies

These two research studies are currently looking for participants:

US Pet Owners: This survey aims to investigate the use of the internet by U.S. pet owners to find pet health information. It will take 5 - 10 minutes to complete. More information is available on the first page of the survey

UK Pet Owners: This survey aims to investigate the use of the internet by UK pet owners to find pet health information. It will take 5 - 10 minutes to complete. More information is available on the first page of the survey.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal.

My article, “Dominance” training deprives dogs of positive experiences, has struck a chord this month. Many thanks to Marc Bekoff for mentioning this post in his round-up of “hot” dog articles. You should check out the other articles he mentions too.

Several friends of Companion Animal Psychology have shared photos of their happy dogs with me, and it makes me very happy to see all these photos.

If you want to stay up-to-date with the science about dogs, cats and the human-animal bond, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology. Subscribers can send me their comments simply by hitting the reply button – it comes straight to my in box.
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