Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Earliest Memories of Pets

Do our earliest childhood memories of pets influence our attitudes to animals?
Childhood memories of pets influence adult attitudes to animals

Think back to your first memory of a pet, whether it was your own or someone else’s. Is it a happy memory, or a sad one? Were you interacting with the animal, or just watching? And is it possible that early memories like this influence your attitudes as an adult?

This question was posed by Philip Marshall (Texas Tech University) et al, who compared earliest memories of a pet, a friend and an automobile. 223 people answered the questionnaire, and the results show significant differences in the types of language used, and a fascinating link with attitudes.

Memories of pets contained more references to both positive and negative emotion than memories of cars. The scientists say, “although pet memories were less positive than friend memories, in terms of overall affective language, memories of pets were more similar to memories of friends than they were to memories of the inanimate automobile.”

One reason pet memories contained less positive emotion than those of friends is that some early memories of pets were unhappy ones. For many children, their first experience of loss is with the death of a pet. The authors say, “Put simply, not all pet memories were joyful, with some focussing on pets having been given and then taken away, dying and being buried by the family, and similar other tragic events.”

The questionnaire also assessed how much people like pets. Similarities between memories of friends and pets were highest for those whose questionnaire results showed they like pets a lot. 

The authors say, “people who like pets as adults remember pets in the same way that they remember friends, in terms of negative emotion and social language.” In contrast, people who do not like pets had pet memories that were more similar to cars, and different from friends, in the use of these categories of language. 

For example, the use of impersonal pronouns such as ‘it’ and ‘that’ was more common among people who do not like pets. 

Recollections of pets in childhood
One participant wrote, “I have always considered my pets to be my friends.” The scientists say that while this was literal for her, for some participants it was probably more of an abstract relation. This is a fascinating topic for follow-up research.

The memories were also examined to see if they involved interacting with the pet (rather than simply observing). People whose memories were more interactive had more positive attitudes to pets, and were more likely to rate their own memory as positive. References to ‘I’ and ‘we’ occurred more often in the memories of people who also like pets more. 

The authors say, “Interactions with a pet are probably more likely to lead to greater bonding and satisfaction with the pet, and, in the long term, to more positive attitudes. Indeed, it is difficult to see how bonding with a pet (in childhood or as an adult) can attain substantial levels in the absence of interaction.”

Most pet memories (83%) were based on the participant’s own pet. The questionnaire included written accounts of the earliest memories of a pet, friend, and car, a set of questions about those memories, and a standardized questionnaire to measure attitudes to pets. The memories people wrote down were analyzed using computer-based text analysis.

The average length of the memories was the same for all three categories. Women wrote more than men for friends and pets, but not cars. 

One drawback the authors acknowledge is that some of the written accounts were very short. They excluded the shortest accounts from the analysis. Also, while they had chosen the car as an inanimate object that would not have much meaning for participants, they soon realized it does actually have a lot of meaning for some people. In some ways this makes it a particularly interesting comparison.

Examples of people’s memories are tantalizingly absent from the paper (especially since the word ‘phenomenological’ appears in the title).

The study does not show causality. It is possible that people’s recollection of their early experiences with pets is framed by their adult attitudes. It’s a fascinating question and we look forward to further research on this topic. The full set of results is very detailed, and you can read more in the article which is open access (registration required). 
What are your earliest memories of a pet?

Marshall, P.D., Ireland, M.E., & Dalton, A.A. (2015). Earliest memories of pets predict adult attitudes: phenomenological, structural and textual analyses Human Animal Interaction Bulletin, 3 (1), 28-51
Photos: Happy person (top) / Steve Design (both

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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Why Do People Relinquish Large Dogs?

When someone gives up a large dog to a shelter, what are the usual reasons?

Pit bull types were the most common breed in the study of why people surrender dogs

Research by Emily Weiss (ASPCA) et al looks at why people relinquish large dogs – and whether there are interventions that could have helped the animal stay in its home. The results show that people issues, rather than dog issues, are given as the main reason. They also highlight that owners have many good things to say about their dog, even as it is relinquished.

In the US, large dogs are at a greater risk of euthanasia than other dogs in shelters. This is partly because smaller dogs tend to be adopted more quickly. The researchers decided to focus on large dogs because they might benefit the most from schemes designed to prevent animal relinquishment.

For the purposes of this study, dogs were considered large if they looked like they weighed at least 40 pounds. People who surrendered dogs at shelters in Washington, DC, and New York City were asked to take part.

The scientists say, “our results refute a common myth that all people who relinquish their dogs do so without thought or care for the dog. Most people in our study took a long time to think before they relinquished the dog.”

Another common myth not supported by this study is the idea that it must be the dog’s fault it was relinquished. The scientists say, “The majority of people said that something had recently changed in their household that contributed to the decision to relinquish their dog, and when asked what had changed, the majority of responses had to do with people or housing issues. Very few were dog-related issues, such as behaviour or the cost of caring for the dog.”

In both cities, the top three reasons why people relinquished their dog were “people issues” (including the person’s health, finances and child-related issues), moving, and landlord issues. Behaviour issues and the dog’s health/expense came in fourth and fifth place.

The two things people liked most about their dog were its behaviour with people and its temperament/personality. People were also asked what information would be useful to share with someone thinking of adopting the animal. The responses include positive things, such as “loves to swim and play” and “likes to cuddle with me,” as well as negatives such as “not housetrained” or “chews on wire and wood.” 

The most common tactic used to find another home for the dog was asking friends and family. The person relinquishing the animal had been responsible for the decision, often with input from other family members. 

People came up with a wide range of options that may have helped them keep the animal, including low-cost support such as training, vet care and daycare, which was mentioned by 58% of participants in Washington DC and 48% in NYC. It’s interesting that training is included here, even though behaviour was not cited as the main reason people gave up their animal. In fact in NYC, after the main reason for relinquishment, behaviour was the most common secondary reason. 

Pet-friendly housing was mentioned by a quarter of participants in Washington, DC, and a fifth in NYC. Overall, just over half of people said they would have been able to keep their animal if some kind of appropriate help was available. This leaves plenty of scope for the development of programs aimed at preventing relinquishment, but still leaves a sizeable proportion who think they would have given up their dog anyway.

The two shelters that took part were the Washington Humane Society and the New York Animal Care and Control Bronx Pet Receiving Centre. People who were relinquishing large dogs were approached to take part after all the shelter paperwork was complete and the dog had been led away by shelter staff. 157 people took part, and there was no ‘typical’ stereotype of a person as they included a range of income & education levels. 

For the majority of participants, this was their only dog, but about a quarter had another dog (that they were keeping). Most of the dogs were not neutered (66% in NYC and 82% in D.C.) and most were of a bully-type, whether purebred or mixed. 

There were some differences in responses between the two shelters which suggests that intervention programs will work best if targeted to the local community.

If you have ever voluntarily surrendered a dog, you might be interested to take part in this online survey by the University of Lincoln. You can find more information about the study in this article by Julie Hecht

Weiss, E., Slater, M., Garrison, L., Drain, N., Dolan, E., Scarlett, J., & Zawistowski, S. (2014). Large Dog Relinquishment to Two Municipal Facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C.: Identifying Targets for Intervention Animals, 4 (3), 409-433 DOI: 10.3390/ani4030409 
Photo: InBetweenTheBlinks /

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