Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Adolescent Dog: One Last Chance?

A synthesis of the latest research on social influences on development suggests adolescence is an important time for mammals – including dogs.

A JRT counter-surfing in the kitchen
Photo: dezi / Shutterstock

Most people are familiar with the idea of a sensitive period for puppies that ends around 12 or 14 weeks. Is it possible that adolescence is also an important period for brain development and future behaviour?

Social experience plays an important role in shaping animal behaviour throughout development according to Sachser et al (2013). They consider the way the environment influences the mother and, in turn, the behaviour of her offspring (e.g. through stress hormones). This ensures the offspring is prepared for that environment as adults. 

While the paper looks at the prenatal period right through to adolescence, it is the section on adolescent animals that is of most interest. They write that “the adolescent phase may provide a last chance for correction if the future environment deviates from that predicted in earlier phases.”

Most developmental research has focussed on pregnancy and the period shortly after birth. During this time, maternal hormones and behaviour have a large impact on the development of offspring. However, some parts of the brain are still plastic (i.e. able to change and develop) into adulthood. This includes the hippocampus and amygdala.   

The scientists say, “There is increasing evidence that adolescence, that is, the gradual transition from childhood to adulthood, also represents an additional sensitive period (beyond the prenatal and early postnatal periods) in which behavioural profiles are routinely and profoundly shaped by social events.”

The potential for change during adolescence is necessary, they argue, because sometimes there will be a mismatch between the conditions in which the offspring is born and experiences very early life, and the environment in which it matures. In particular, they suggest future studies should examine the effects of this kind of mismatch, in order to find out more about this stage of development.

One example of the influence of the social environment in adolescence can be found in guinea pigs. If they spend their adolescence in colonies that include both males and females, they develop good social skills. As adults, they are able to get on with other guinea pigs in the colony without being aggressive; they are also able to become part of a new colony with unfamiliar guinea pigs. However, if they spend adolescence as part of a male-female pair, they become aggressive to unfamiliar males. Thus, the adolescent experiences have shaped adult behaviour. 

The research considered by Sachser et al is mainly about mice, guinea pigs and wild cavies, but these ideas are thought to apply to the mammalian brain in general. They tie in with work on plasticity in the human brain. For example, Dr. Bruce Perry (2006) says that “important neurodevelopmental processes continue to take place throughout childhood and adolescence as the brain’s systems become more complex. Major cortical restructuring and myelination continue into early adult life.”

Writing about the implications for dogs, Riemer et al (2014) say,  “… a major reorganisation of the central nervous system occurs during puberty, and there is growing evidence that adolescence can be considered as an additional sensitive period (beyond the prenatal and early postnatal periods), with profound effects on future behaviour (reviewed in Sachser et al 2013). There is evidence that steroid-dependent adolescent brain and behavioural development can be modified by social experience. Thus, experiences after the first sensitive period of socialisation, and in particular during adolescence, will also play an important role in determining the adult animal's behaviour.” 

This is good news for poorly socialized adolescent dogs, as it means there is still an important window of opportunity in which to improve their behaviour. This is an age at which many dogs are surrendered to rescue organizations because they are no longer cute puppies and their increased size means their behaviour has become problematic. A better understanding of development during this stage would therefore benefit many dogs.

So does this research mean we don’t need to worry about puppy socialization anymore? Absolutely not! This is the most important time for ensuring your puppy will grow up to be a calm, friendly adult dog. (For suggestions, see this excellent article by Paws for Praise on ‘five things you can do to bite proof your puppy’).

However, if you have an adolescent dog that hasn’t been socialized, it means it would be a good idea to build positive socialization experiences into their training plan.

Not enough is known about canine development, and more research is needed to confirm the biological and behavioural changes that take place during adolescence. We look forward to learning more about this important stage of development. The papers by Sachser et al (2013) and Riemer et al (2014) are open access and can be read at the links below.

What was your dog like as an adolescent?

Perry, Bruce D. and Szalavitz, Maia (2006) The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. NY: Basic Books.
Riemer, S., Müller, C., Virányi, Z., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2014). The Predictive Value of Early Behavioural Assessments in Pet Dogs – A Longitudinal Study from Neonates to Adults PLoS ONE, 9 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101237  
Sachser, N., Kaiser, S., & Hennessy, M. (2013). Behavioural profiles are shaped by social experience: when, how and why Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368 (1618), 20120344-20120344 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0344

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Do Puppy Tests Predict Adult Dog Behaviour?

A new study follows dogs from neonates to adults to find out if puppy tests predict adult behaviour.

Golden retriever puppy nose to nose with its mother
Photo: Mikkel Bigandt / Shutterstock

Lots of people want to know if a puppy’s behaviour will tell you what it will be like as an adult dog. From people choosing a pet dog from a breeder’s litter, to organizations training service, police or military dogs, making the right choice of puppy could really help later on. But there have long been concerns that puppy personality tests don’t necessarily predict adult behaviour. So Stefanie Riemer et al of the Clever Dog Lab tested border collies as brand new puppies, older puppies, and adult dogs, to investigate.

Most previous studies have looked at dogs bred to be working dogs. This study is especially interesting for pet owners because it looked at pet dogs. 

99 neonate Border Collie puppies were tested between 2 and 10 days old. 93 of them, and a further 41 dogs, were tested at 40 – 50 days old. Finally, once all the dogs had found homes, 50 of them were tested again when they were between 1.5 and 2 years old.

The first two testing sessions took place at the breeders' homes, and the final session was conducted at the lab with the owner present. 

The neonate tests included how hard the puppy would suck on the experimenter’s finger, how active the puppy was and how much noise it made when it was isolated from the mother. The puppy tests had 11 subscales that included a greeting test, a brief simulated veterinary exam, and how much the puppy would explore in a new room. The adult tests were part of a wider study, and included greeting and exploration tests, as well as response to a threatening approach.

The results showed very little correlation between tests at the different ages. In fact, the only significant correlation was on the exploration test for puppies and adults. 

The scientists say, “there was a lack of correspondence between the behaviour of neonates and the same dogs during the puppy and adult test, implying a lack of validity of this tool for making predictions regarding future behaviour. The results furthermore indicate low predictive validity of the puppy test conducted at 6–7 weeks of age, as activity during room exploration was the only behaviour that was significantly related between the puppy test and the adult test.”

A useful note for future research is that the strength of sucking in neonates was related to weight, and so this needs to be taken into account if this test is used. One problem the scientists note is that the tests were structured to the age of the puppy, and so were not the same at each age. Identical tests would be more likely to correlate.

The finding that puppy behaviour does not predict the behaviour of an adult dog will disappoint many. But the flipside is there is much that owners can do to influence the behaviour of their dog, which surely is a good thing.

The scientists say this is not really surprising, given how much puppies change in the time from newborns to becoming an adult dog. Many people are aware of the idea of a sensitive period when it is important to socialize puppies, and it should be noted that the puppy tests took place during this period. 

In addition, Riemer et al say, “environmental differences can be expected to have a greater effect on behavioural variability in our sample of pet dogs compared to the working dogs of previous studies, which tend to be kept under more uniform conditions and follow standardised training regimes. Given that dogs are highly responsive to their social environment, the role of the owner should not be forgotten.”

The pups in this study came from breeders and spent their early days with their mum. The results might be different for puppies from other sources. For example, Franklin D. McMillan et al (2013) found that behavioural problems were more likely in adult dogs if they had been obtained from a pet store instead of a breeder. Similarly, Carri Westgarth et al (2012) found that if neither parent was seen when obtaining a pup, it was 3.8 times more likely to be referred for behavioural problems. So the source of a puppy is important for adult behaviour, even if personality tests aren’t. 

This study makes a valuable contribution to the literature on behaviour and personality tests in puppies and dogs, and also shows the need for more research on development in puppies.

What do you look for when choosing a puppy?

McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363  
Riemer, S., Müller, C., Virányi, Z., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2014). The Predictive Value of Early Behavioural Assessments in Pet Dogs – A Longitudinal Study from Neonates to Adults PLoS ONE, 9 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101237  
Westgarth, C., Reevell K., & Barclay R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems The Veterinary Record , 170 (20)

You might also like: Do Dogs Have Stable Personality Traits?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Sub-Optimal Choice in Dogs: Cheese or Cheese and Carrot?

Evidence suggests dogs do not always make the best choice. A new study finds that far as food choice is concerned, they use the same heuristic previously demonstrated in humans and monkeys.

A white dog nibbles on a carrot that it holds between the paws
Photo: Igor Sokolov (breeze) / Shutterstock
Earlier research has found that if people are asked to estimate the value of a set of 24 good condition dishes vs a set of 40 dishes (of which 31 are in good condition), they tend to think the former is more valuable. The broken dishes seem to detract from the fact the second set has more dishes in good condition. This is known as the ‘less is more’ effect.

This effect has been demonstrated in monkeys, too. Monkeys like grapes and they also like slices of cucumber, although not as much. If given a choice between a grape vs a grape and a slice of cucumber, they tend to choose the grape.

Does the same hold true for dogs? Kristina Pattison and Thomas Zentall (University of Kentucky) set out to investigate.

The experiment took place in a plain room at the University. Since some dogs can be nervous in a new environment, dogs were given 5 minutes to investigate the room, and then offered a piece of cheese, a piece of carrot, followed by a piece of cheese with a piece of carrot. Dogs had to eat all of these items in order to qualify to participate. 

In the experiment, dogs were given a choice between a slice of cheese or a slice of cheese and a slice of carrot. After demonstrating that she had both items, the experimenter held her hands out with the items in the palm, and the handler released the dog. As soon as the dog touched one of her hands, the experimenter closed the other hand so the dog only had access to the hand it had chosen. The dog was allowed to eat the item(s), then went back to the handler to repeat the experience.

Ten pet dogs took part, including five mixed breeds, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a Siberian Husky, a Belgian Tervuren and a Golden Retriever (the researchers don’t say what the other dog was). 

The dogs showed a significant preference for a single piece of cheese rather than a piece of cheese and a piece of carrot. On average across all the dogs, cheese plus carrot was chosen only 27% of the time. 

One of the ten dogs actually showed a consistent preference for cheese plus carrot. Interestingly, this was a dog that was adopted as an adult rescue, having previously been a stray. The authors hypothesized that he may have had a greater motivation for choosing two items of food over one.  In fact, they point out that the dogs in this study and the monkeys in the monkey study all had relatively little motivation, since they are well-fed and not starving.

Some dogs have a preference for going to the left or right hand, and these dogs were weeded out in pre-tests. In addition, since it was theoretically possible that dogs have a preference for a single item rather than two items, there was another test in which dogs were given a choice between one slice of cheese and two slices of cheese. They picked two slices of cheese 95% of the time.

Why would people and dogs make this kind of choice? The authors say, “The less is more effect, first demonstrated in humans, is an affect heuristic that results in a preference for the qualitative over the quantitative evaluation of options. Its function appears to have been the rapid evaluation of alternatives. It is likely that in many cases it is relatively easy to judge the qualitative value of alternatives but perhaps more difficult to judge their quantitative value, and when rapid decisions are necessary, such heuristics may be quite functional. For example, within-species competition may favour rapid decisions because hesitation may result in losing food to a faster competitor.”

Given the small sample size, further research is needed to see if this fascinating result applies widely.

The nice thing about this experiment is that it is relatively easy to replicate at home. Why not give your dog this choice a few times, and report back?

Pattison, K., & Zentall, T. (2014). Suboptimal choice by dogs: when less is better than more Animal Cognition, 17 (4), 1019-1022 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-014-0735-2

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Thank You x Half a Million

We’re thrilled to have had over half a million page views here at Companion Animal Psychology Blog. Thank you to all our readers!

A happy collie dog chases a blue balloon at the beach
Photo: asharkyu / Shutterstock

We’ll be back to our usual schedule next week. Meanwhile, these are our top stories of the year so far:- 

Is training with positive reinforcement beneficial for the canine-human bond and better for animal welfare?

Does successful problem solving make dogs happy?

Cute eyebrow movements by dogs influence people’s choice of canine companion. 

If there are any topics you'd like to see covered in future, please leave a note in the comments.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

…Or does mom do it all?

A happy young girl with her pet rabbit
Photo: Samuel Borges Photography / Shutterstock
How should children learn to take some responsibility for family pets? New research by Janine Muldoon et al (University of St Andrews) investigates children’s perspectives of the division of labour in relation to their pets.

The exploratory study involved focus groups with children aged 7, 9, 11 and 13. The researchers planned equal numbers of boys and girls, but constraints meant that 30 girls and only 23 boys took part. 

The main ‘caring’ activity that children took part in with their pet was playing with it. Some of the children were very honest in admitting they did not otherwise take care of the animal. For example, one 13-year old girl, Isla*, said,

“She (mum) cleaned it and I just played with it.”

The older children suggested they played in a way that included what the animal wanted, compared to when they were younger when they treated it more like a toy. The children were vague, however, on other aspects of animal care, even when saying they had responsibility for it.  

While playing with animals is fun, it does not give a full picture of what it is like to look after a pet, or help children develop their abilities. The researchers say, “While most parents understandably want to safeguard their children and their animals, refusal to let children take responsibility where they want to (with support) ultimately sends the message that they are not competent enough.”

Both boys and girls agreed that the owner of the pet should be the one to look after it. However, when it came to who actually looks after the pet, while girls tended to pick mum, dad, or children, boys were more likely to say children and less likely to say dad. Girls were more likely to suggest there should be some kind of shared responsibility within the family. Gendered role expectations are apparent in the answers. For example, when asked who should care for pets, one boy, Ewan* (age 13), said:

“I’d probably say the person who it belongs to, because it’s their responsibility and mums because that’s what they normally do.”

Many children said they were not allowed to do some aspects of pet care, either because they were not able to or because of issues to do with the animal, such as it behaving in a way they would find difficult to manage. They also wanted to avoid some responsibilities, especially the “disgusting” jobs. Boys in particular did not want to do the job of cleaning up.

Rural children seemed to have more responsibility for looking after their animals than children who did not live in a rural area. 

The results show a tension between some children not taking enough responsibility for pet care, and others who reported that their relationship was less positive if they were involved. The challenge is to teach children how to care for animals – other than playing with them – in a way that is age-appropriate. 

The researchers say, “our findings are strongly suggestive of a role for educators in developing a model of care that specifies the sequence of activities children can be encouraged to engage in to move towards more comprehensive care. Guidance for parents on how to manage the process of allowing children more and more responsibility may be particularly useful. A fine balance needs to be struck between educating children on the full gamut of caring for a pet, while supporting them so they feel responsibility is, and should be, shared and not solely in their hands.”

When you were a child, did you help care for the family pet(s)?

Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2014). 'Mum cleaned it and I just played with it': Children's perceptions of their roles and responsibilities in the care of family pets Childhood DOI: 10.1177/0907568214524457

You might also like: What Pets do Children Have, and Which do they Prefer? 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Effects of Canine Personality and Joint Activities on the Dog-Owner Relationship

A new study in Denmark by Iben Meyer and Bjørn Forkman (University of Copenhagen) investigates the influence of owner characteristics and canine personality on the relationship between dogs and their owners.

An older woman and her dog paddling and playing on the beach
Photo: Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock

The study of 421 dog owners aged 18 to 75 used data from dog personality tests taken between six months and two-and-a-half years earlier, and a questionnaire of owners that included the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale. The dogs were all pedigrees since these were the dogs that had taken the personality test for the Danish Kennel Club. Several breeds took part, including Golden Retrievers, Icelandic Sheepdogs, Danish Broholmers, Boxers and Rottweilers.

The canine personality test was the Dog Mentality Assessment, which gives dogs scores on five personality traits. The researchers analyzed the DMA sub-scales to give the five traits used in this study: chase proneness, non-social fear, playfulness, social fear and sociability.

However, only one of these traits (social fear) predicted scores on the dog-owner relationship scale. People whose dogs were fearful or aggressive in response to the tests with social stimuli gave higher ratings for the emotional closeness of their relationship with their dog than those whose dogs were not fearful/aggressive. The other traits were not related. 

The scientists suggest this could be because dogs that are fearful demand a lot of attention and support from their owners, and hence people perceive the relationship as closer. However, more research is needed to investigate this further.

The feeling of emotional closeness was related to the dog’s actual test results for social fear. The owners may or may not perceive the dog as fearful, since people sometimes are not very good at recognizing fear in dogs. The researchers also looked at the perception of fear. 15% of the owners said they thought their dog had a problem with fear. Owners who thought their dog was fearful reported a higher cost of the dog-owner relationship than those who did not. This may be because people find fear difficult to deal with. 

This result suggests that behavioural advice on how to manage and treat fear in dogs would help to improve the canine-human relationship for this group of owners. (If you have a fearful dog, there is plenty of useful advice on

If there were children in the home, the dog-owner relationship was rated as less close and had less dog-owner interaction. If the dog was kept for companionship only then the relationship was perceived as less close than if the dog took part in activities with the owner, such as agility, dog shows, hunting and herding.  In this study, only 10.5% of owners kept the dog for companionship only, while 57.5% took part in working dog training and 26.4% in dog shows.

The researchers were surprised to find that people who owned more than one dog reported higher levels of emotional closeness than those with only one dog. However, it could be that people only acquire a second (or third…) dog if they have a close relationship with the first dog. Those with a less close relationship may feel less inclined to get another dog.

One caveat is that the results only accounted for a relatively small proportion of the variance, and so there are likely other factors at play too. In addition, since all the dogs were pedigrees and almost all were acquired from a breeder, the results may not generalize to all dogs and their owners.

The results suggest several ways to improve the relationship between dogs and their owners. The researchers say, "In general, information about the positive consequences of engaging in different activities with the dog could benefit many dog-owner relationships, and more information to dog owners on how to handle fear-related behavior problems could benefit not only the fearful dogs but also the owners' perception of the relationship with their dog. Interestingly, dog personality does not seem to have a large impact on the owner's perception of the dog-owner relationship."

Are you and your dog emotionally close?

Meyer, I., & Forkman, B. (2014). Dog and owner characteristics affecting the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.03.002

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Do Dogs Get that Eureka! Feeling?

Does successful problem solving make dogs happy?

A happy miniature Australian Shepherd
Photo: Mackland / Shutterstock
New research by Ragen McGowan et al (University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden) investigates whether dogs enjoy the experience of solving a problem in order to obtain a reward, or if it is just the reward itself that makes them happy.

Rather unusually, the idea came from a study that found cattle who completed a task to earn a reward seemed to be happier than those who just received the reward. The design of McGowan et al’s study is very similar, but adjusted for dogs.

The results show that when dogs solved the problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more and were more eager to repeat the experience than if they were just given a reward. The study also found that food was a preferred reward over time with another dog and petting from a familiar human.

Six matched pairs of beagles took part (12 dogs in total). Each dog was an experimental dog for half of the time, and a control dog for the other half of the time.

The study used six pieces of equipment. When manipulated correctly by the dog, each made a distinct noise that would show the task was complete. The equipment included a dog piano that had to be pressed to play a note, a plastic box to be pushed off a stack so it would noisily hit the floor, and a paddle lever that would make a bell ring. 

Before the experiment, each dog was trained on three of the pieces of equipment while their matched pair was trained on the other three. The paired piece of equipment was present during training sessions, but the dog did not get rewards for interacting with it.

In the experiment itself, both pieces of equipment were again present, but the situation was new. 

The experimental room had a start arena with the equipment, and a gate to a runway that led to the reward. An experimenter was hidden away, ready to open the gate at the appropriate time. An assistant led the dog into the start arena, then turned their back and did not interact with them further. When the experimental dog performed the behaviour it had been trained to do, the gate opened to give access to the ramp leading to the reward.

When it was the dog’s turn to be a control, it did not matter what it did with the equipment. The gate opened after the length of time it had taken the matched experimental dog to solve the puzzle, so the dog spent the exact same amount of time in the start arena as their pair. They also got the exact same reward their pair had obtained. In other words, the only difference between the conditions was whether or not their manipulation of the equipment would have an effect on the gate opening.

The experimental dogs were keen to get to the start arena and usually went into the room ahead of the assistant. On the other hand, the scientists noticed that the control dogs “were initially eager to enter the room during their first two or three test runs, but soon grew reluctant to enter the test room. By the end of the test sessions, these dogs would enter the start arena only after some coaxing from the handler.” 

There were other signs that dogs in the control condition were less happy than those in the experimental condition. They were less active in the start arena. They would sometimes bite or chew on the equipment, which dogs never did in the experimental condition. Once the gate had opened, they were quicker to enter the runway and leave the start arena than dogs in the experimental condition. There were no differences in mean heart rate, however.

There was more tail wagging when dogs were in the experimental condition, which also suggests they were happier.

When the reward was food or time with another dog, the control dogs were quicker to exit the start arena. There was no difference between experimental and control dogs if the reward was petting by a human they knew. But dogs in both conditions were more active when expecting a food reward, suggesting this was preferred. This is consistent with earlier studies that found dogs prefer food to petting (Okamoto et al 2009; Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013;  Feuerbacher and Wynne (2012), who also looked at hand-reared wolves) 

When dogs were controls, they still received a reward but they did not have any control over their environment. Perceived lack of control is stressful for humans, so perhaps it is for dogs. In fact towards the end of the study, some of the dogs were successfully manipulating the item they had not been trained on, although of course this had no effect on the gate. 

In the experimental condition, however, dogs were able to solve the problem and make the gate open.  I am not sure if it is problem-solving, the fact it gave them control, or a combination of both that made dogs happy.

The researchers say, “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward. These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

Because differences in behaviour were found in the start arena, they relate to the dog learning that it can open the gate by manipulating the equipment. The scientists call it a “Eureka moment”.

What kind of opportunities do you give your dog to problem-solve and make decisions in his or her everyday life?

Feuerbacher E N, & Wynne C D L (2012). Relative efficacy of human social interaction and food as reinforcers for domestic dogs and hand-reared wolves Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129 DOI: 10.1901/jeab.2012.98-105  
Fukuzawa, M., & Hayashi, N. (2013). Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8, 221-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.067  
McGowan RT, Rehn T, Norling Y, & Keeling LJ (2014). Positive affect and learning: exploring the "Eureka Effect" in dogs. Animal cognition, 17 (3), 577-87 PMID: 24096703  
Okamoto Y, Ohtani N, Uchiyama H, & Ohta M (2009). The feeding behavior of dogs correlates with their responses to commands. The Journal of veterinary medical science / the Japanese Society of Veterinary Science, 71 (12), 1617-21 PMID: 20046029

You might also like:
Now where’s my treat?