Wednesday, 1 October 2014

What Encourages People to Walk Their Dog?

And is dog-walking a good way to persuade people to take more exercise?

A boy and his dog on a coastal path in England
Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

We know that most people do not get the 150 minutes of exercise per week that is recommended. Could encouraging people to walk their dogs more often help, and if so, how best to go about it? A new paper by Carri Westgarth et al (2014) of the University of Liverpool reviews the state of current research.

Although to some dog owners a daily walk is an essential part of the routine, there are also people who never walk their dog. For example, a 2008 study in Australia (Cutt et al 2008) found that on average people walk their dog four times a week for a total of 134 minutes, and that 23% of dog owners never walk their dog. 

Encouraging more people to take their dog for a regular walk would be good for both the dog and owner.

The research found that as well dog-related and owner-related variables, aspects of the physical and social environment also influence dog walking behaviour.

The dog’s size, age and breed are related to dog-walking, and it seems that dogs that are regularly walked have fewer behavioural problems. This could be due to ongoing training and socializing during the walks, and/or it could be that dogs with behaviour problems are taken for walks less often because their owners simply find it too difficult. Dogs that pull on the leash, bark, behave badly or are fearful or aggressive are walked less often. Helping owners resolve these issues might enable them to take more walks.

As you might expect, the dog-owner relationship is an important part of their model. People who feel a strong emotional attachment to their canine companion, and who feel that the dog provides them with motivation and social support to walk, are more likely to walk their dog regularly. (Here in the CAPB household, the happy anticipation on the dogs' faces when it is time for walkies definitely provides motivation).  

The social environment can encourage or discourage dog-walking. Amongst the influences are feelings of safety in the neighbourhood, fear of loose dogs, and unhappiness with other dog owners not picking up dog faeces. 

The authors suggest a number of aspects of the physical environment that encourage dog walking. They say, “Accessible public open space for dogs and the provision of dog-related infrastructure within walking areas are also important to dog owners (e.g. clear signage, dog litter bags and bins, accessible water sources, fencing around designated off-leash areas, separation from children’s play areas, dog agility equipment, parks not being located near to busy roads and being well-fenced).”

In terms of encouraging more dog walking, the scientists suggest two main approaches. They say, “the evidence currently suggests that dog walking may be most effectively encouraged through: 1) targeting the dog-owner relationship to increase the sense of obligation to walk the dog as well as the emotional support the dog can provide to the owner; and 2) by the provision of dog-supportive physical environments.”

Of course, these health promotion activities would only target people who have a dog, but this is a sizeable proportion of the population. And one advantage to regular dog-walking is that people tend to go out in all weathers.

Cultural differences will also need to be taken into account. For example, in the US and Canada some people take their dogs to a dog park, a typically-fenced area where dogs can run around while their owners tend to stand still and watch. In contrast, these generally do not exist in the UK where dogs are allowed off-leash in many more areas. 

The paper is what is known as a meta-analysis, in which the existing research literature is scoured for relevant studies. One problem the paper identifies is that many studies are small-scale and there is little standardization. Differences in study design make it hard to generalize findings. Future research that uses standardized measures with a strong experimental design will be particularly welcome.

There’s a nice touch at the end of the article. Most journals require authors to state if they have any competing interests that might influence their work. In this case, they state, “All authors own a dog(s).” 

This is a thorough analysis of the literature on dog-walking and touches on more variables than there is space to cover here. The full paper is available (open access) at the link below.

What encourages you to walk your dog?

Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., & Knuiman, M. (2008). Encouraging physical activity through dog walking: Why don't some owners walk with their dog? Preventive Medicine, 46 (2), 120-126 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2007.08.015  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dog?

What’s the scoop on picking up poop? New research by Christopher Lowe et al (2014) investigates.

A Pomeranian dog urinates on the grass
Photo: Jakkrit Orrasri / Shutterstock

The study consisted of an environmental survey of several popular dog walking locations, and an online survey that was completed by 933 participants from across the UK (83% were women).

Eight footpaths in Lancashire, in the north of England, were visited in March/April 2010 to check for dog waste. This included a mix of urban and rural locations, and covered the path as well as about 3m either side. A tow path along the canal had 40 dog poos in the space of 25m; at a nature reserve, a path by a railway embankment had a wall along it with a pile of bagged dog faeces on the other side. On a footpath at a reservoir, the researchers found 269 bags of dog waste in 1000m.

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture, as one path with no trash cans or dog waste bins had very low levels of faeces. In order to understand more about this, the researchers designed a questionnaire. 

Ethan Prater / Creative Commons
Now you are probably thinking that people might not be honest in their statements about how often they pick up after their dog, and you have a point. This is an issue for any questionnaire research because people want to present themselves in a good light. The researchers tried to get round this by advertising it as a survey about dog walking, rather than poop scooping, so as to get a more balanced set of participants. And the results are still interesting, so read on…

First of all, the not surprising result is that 98% of dog owners agreed that owners should pick up after their dog if it poos on the pavement, and 97% agreed with this for parks and playing fields. 

However, they did not necessarily think they should always have to pick up after their dog. Only 56% agreed that, regardless of the location, people should pick up. In particular, when it came to countryside or to farmland with livestock, a significant minority thought that dog owners should not have to clean up their dog’s waste (34% for open countryside, 45% for farmland).

People thought the most important reason for picking up after dogs was that it was “the right thing to do”. Reducing the spread of disease and parasites were the next most important reasons.

The proportion of people who said they pick up after their dog in this survey is higher than the 63% found in observational research by Westgarth et al (2010). However, even if people have been overly optimistic about their habits, many of them still indicated that it depends on the context, and that there are some places where they don’t. 

vastateparkstaff / Creative Commons
A small number of participants admitted to sometimes picking up the poo, but then discarding the bag by leaving it somewhere such as the side of a path. This can be a significant problem because it is unsightly and even biodegradable bags take time to decompose; it can cause additional difficulties for landscape workers, such as if a bag bursts while strimming; and it preserves the faeces for longer.

The researchers say, “The path audits suggested that visibility was a key factor in the behaviour of dog walkers with respect to dog waste and that some owners may only clean up after their dogs when obliged to (e.g. in the presence of others). It was considered that given the opportunity these dog walkers would seek to discard the bagged dog waste as quickly as possible and respondents considered that this was also an important factor influencing this behaviour.” It seems that some dog owners are motivated by being seen to do the right thing, rather than actually doing it.

This study shows that a number of factors influence whether or not dog owners clean up dog waste, including the location, environment, visibility, location of trash cans, perceptions of the area, as well as social and personal factors. Future research on the social psychological elements would be especially useful for designing campaigns to change behaviour.

Is dog waste a problem in your neighbourhood?

Lowe, C., Williams, K., Jenkinson, S., & Toogood, M. (2014). Environmental and social impacts of domestic dog waste in the UK: investigating barriers to behavioural change in dog walkers International Journal of Environment and Waste Management, 13 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJEWM.2014.060452  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., Pinchbeck, G., Gaskell, R., Dawson, S., & Bradshaw, J. (2010). Dog behaviour on walks and the effect of use of the leash Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (1-2), 38-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.007

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Does Your Cat Sniff New Food?

New research investigates which feline behaviours show that cats find food tasty.

A pretty grey Persian cat with amber eyes and a pink tongue
Photo: FreeBirdPhotos / Shutterstock
There are certain things we can take for granted when feeding the cat: the pitiful miaows that become increasingly strident, the anticipatory purring when you move towards the cat food, and the way the cat wraps herself around your leg as if you’re her best friend ever. But when you put the food down, is there any guarantee she will eat it? 

Cat food manufacturers have teams of cats that work as food testers, to make sure new foods are as tasty as can be. This study, by Aurélie Becques et al (in press) took place at the Panelis Diana Pet Food Division. Here, cats are housed in groups in an indoor environment with access to the outdoors. Two such groups of cats (17 cats in total) took part in this study.

The cats are given free access to kibble for twenty hours of the day, to mimic the most common way of feeding cats in the home. They are fed via a feeding station, which only one cat can enter at a time. The length of time they spend in the station and the amount of food they eat is all measured. A video camera captures their behaviour.

The study investigated feline behaviour when eating a Very Palatable Kibble (VPK) compared to a Less Palatable Kibble. In fact, both kibbles were the same (Royal Canin), but different coatings were applied. The coatings were both made of poultry fat and had the same number of calories, but one was previously shown to be very tasty to cats and the other less so. Both sets of cats had in fact been fed these two foods at some point in the past. 

To further enhance the tastiness of the Very Palatable Kibble, it was mixed with some tuna. This combination was something the cats had not experienced before. It also had the effect of making the VPK slightly less calorie dense.

The cats were given a two day test of each type of food. Since this is a working cat food testing environment, in between the sessions reported here, they were given a different food according to the current rotation.

The results showed that when cats were offered the Very Palatable Kibble, they ate more each day (81g on average compared to 53g). Because cats made different numbers of visits to the feeding station each day, the researchers compared the first three visits and the last visit of each day. With the exception of the last visit on the first day, the cats ate more of the VPK every time they went to the feeding station.

Cats are good at regulating their food intake, and so it is surprising that they ate more calories when fed the VPK. However, since the study only had two days per food, it is possible the cats would have adjusted their food intake over time.

Whether the cat was eating in a sitting or standing position, the speed at which it ate, the length of time from approaching the bowl to starting to eat, and the total amount of licking, was the same for the two foods. Previous research has suggested that licking the lips and grooming the face is associated with finding food tasty, whereas cats lick their nose when they don’t like it so much. The researchers sometimes couldn’t tell whether the cat was licking its lips or its nose, especially at night when it was dark, so this remains a question for future research.

Sniffing behaviour turns out to be an indicator of a new food’s perceived tastiness. On the first day of LPK, the cats spent a lot more time sniffing the food on the first two visits to the feeding station. 

The researchers say, “One may have expected that the novelty of the diet should have caused more sniffing. On the contrary the cats tended to sniff more LPK, a diet that they have already experienced, than VPK that they have previously experienced but without the addition of tuna. The tuna was very odorant and it seemed that this odor was attractive enough to elicit eating in a short lapse of time. On the other hand the longer duration of sniffing the LPK diet may correspond to a hesitation to consume a less palatable diet.”

The researchers say the cat’s behaviour is an indication of how tasty it finds the food. So if you offer a new food and your cat is sniffing at it, it’s probably not a good sign.

Is your cat fussy about food?

Becques, A., Larose, C., Baron, C., Niceron, C., Feron, C., & Gouat, P. (2014). Behaviour in order to evaluate the palatability of pet food in domestic cats Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 159, 55-61 : 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.07.003

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Are Deaf Dogs and Blind Dogs just like other Dogs?

Do dogs that are deaf and/or blind have specific behavioural traits? New research sets out to investigate – and finds they are very similar to dogs with normal hearing and vision.

Beautiful black-and-white senior dog
Photo: Amy Rene / Shutterstock

No one knows exactly how many dogs have hearing or vision problems. Congenital deafness and/or blindness occur in several breeds. In some cases this is related to coat colours – for example the double merle gene in Australian Shepherds is linked to deafness and blindness – and at other times not, as with inherited cataracts in many breeds. Very little is known about how dogs with inherited or acquired vision or hearing disorders behave, which was the motivation for this study by Valeri Farmer-Dougan et al (in press) of Ilinois State University.

The results showed many similarities between dogs with a hearing or vision impairment (HVI) and those without. This shows that HVI dogs can make good family pets. In fact, the non-HVI dogs were rated as more aggressive and more excitable than those with HVI. There were also some differences in specific behaviours: non-HVI dogs were more likely to chase rabbits, and to eat faeces or roll in it, whereas the HVI dogs were more likely to bark too much, lick a lot, or chew unsuitable objects. 

The scientists say, “The increased chewing, excessive barking and increased self-licking reported in the HVI dogs may be due to differences in sensory input compared to non-HVI dogs. Indeed, all the excesses in behaviour appear to be self-stimulatory in nature.” Because they asked owners about any other health issues, they do not think health is the cause of this difference. Instead, they think the dogs are making up for the lack of input from their ears or eyes with behaviours that engage their other senses. 

This suggests that owners of dogs with hearing or vision problems should make an explicit effort to make sure their dog has enough sensory input. Farmer-Duggan et al suggest enrichment with toys, including vibrating toys, Kongs, and chew toys, as well as training sessions to engage the dog’s brain. Many such dogs can also attend agility, flyball, obedience or even dog dance classes.

The HVI dogs were more likely to have had formal training, perhaps because their owners thought they would need it more, or perhaps because their owners were more likely to think training is important in general. The lower levels of aggression and excitability in this group could be due to this training, and this is something that future research can investigate. Owners of HVI dogs made adjustments to their training, for example in using more hand signs and physical prompts for deaf dogs. 

The survey was completed by the owners of 461 dogs. The hearing-impaired and vision-impaired dogs (HVI) were considered as one group since there were no differences between them. 98 dogs were deaf or had a hearing impairment, 32 dogs were blind or partially-sighted, and 53 dogs were both deaf and blind (183 dogs in total). The remainder were a comparison group of dogs without such impairments. 

The survey asked owners to complete the C-BARQ, a widely-used tool to assess the behavioural traits of dogs. In addition, there were questions about the breed, training methods used, and information about any disabilities the dog had.

There are implications for vets, who should be aware of potential problems with chewing, licking and barking in deaf and/or blind dogs. But the results are also encouraging because they do not support the idea that such dogs exhibit problem behaviours in general. 

Blind and deaf dogs are excluded from many rally and obedience programs (with notable exceptions). The authors say, “Given that no evidence was found for increased aggression, it seems that HVI dogs could successfully participate in these additional socialization opportunities. Opening up these opportunities would increase the available activities for HVI dogs. Increased opportunities for training and competition increase the general health and well-being of all dogs.”

The authors conclude that “Through cooperative partnerships between veterinarians, behaviorists and owners, HVI dogs can, indeed, be excellent and well-loved companion dogs.” These results will be especially helpful to owners and potential owners of dogs with hearing or vision impairments.

The Canine Inherited Disorders Database has further information on congenital blindness and deafness in dogs.

Do you know a dog with a hearing or vision impairment?

Farmer-Dougan, V., Quick, A., Harper, K., Schmidt, K., & Campbell, D. (2014). Behavior of Hearing or Vision Impaired and Normal Hearing and Vision Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris): Not the same but not that different Journal of Veterinary Behavior

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Adopting Shelter Dogs: Should Fido Lie Down or Play?

 If you go down to the shelter today, will you bring home a dog? A new study by Alexandra Protopopova and Clive Wynne (2014) finds that interactions between dogs and potential adopters predict the likelihood of adoption.

A beautiful little dog lies down, looking at the camera
Photo: Alexey Shinkevich / Shutterstock
Every year in the USA, 3-4 million healthy, potentially-adoptable, homeless animals are euthanized (AHA and PetSmart 2012). Many would be saved if there was a better understanding of how to increase adoptions from animal shelters. Previous studies have looked at whether it is possible to train dogs to behave in ways that will increase the likelihood of adoption, but so far there is a lack of consensus. Protopopova and Wynne’s study is a welcome addition to the literature since it focusses on interactions between dogs and potential adopters.

The study took place at the Alachua County Animal Services in Florida. A researcher observed 250 interactions between dogs and potential adopters. About a third of the people saw more than one dog, and some dogs were seen by more than one person, so this involved 154 potential adopters and 151 dogs. The dogs were almost all mixed-breeds and a range of ages, sizes, colours etc. Interactions took place in one of an indoor room, outdoor concrete pen, or outdoor grassy area.

The interactions typically lasted 8 minutes. The researchers say “Our results suggest that adopters make a decision to adopt prior to interacting with a dog, but this decision can be reversed based on the dog’s behavior outside of the kennel.”
In fact, out of the many canine behaviour variables that were looked at, only two made a difference to whether or not a dog was adopted. If the dog ignored an attempt by the person to initiate play, or if it did not lie down near to the person, then it was not likely to go home with them. Future research can investigate whether training specific to these two behaviours will make a difference to adoption rates.

Some of the behaviours that had no effect included jumping, mouthing, licking, leaning on, obeying commands (or not), and taking food (or not). This includes a number of agreeable and less agreeable behaviours that were surprisingly unimportant.

Potential adopters were asked about the decisions they made. The scientists say, “To the best of our knowledge, no previous research has asked people to report on why they did not adopt a particular dog after an interaction. We found that shelter visitors reported behavior as the main reason for not adopting. Specifically, the two most common responses were that the dog was not attentive and too active.”

Another interesting finding is that almost half of visitors said they did not intend to adopt a dog on that visit to the shelter, even though they had asked to meet a dog. About 10% of those with no intention to adopt nonetheless went home with a dog. Of those who intended to adopt, 59% actually did. This suggests there is potential to increase adoption rates amongst both groups of visitors.

Why do people visit an animal shelter if they don’t want to adopt? On the one hand they are taking up staff time and potentially stressing the animals who are required to interact with a complete stranger. On the other hand, perhaps shelters could design educational programs for such people as part of their community outreach (if the programs were entertaining, they might also be fund-raising).

There was an effect of location, with interactions in the small outdoor concrete pen most likely to lead to adoption. Other shelters could investigate whether different locations (e.g.  indoor adoption room, outdoor pen or on-leash walk) have an effect on their adoption rates.

This is a valuable study that improves our understanding of the factors affecting adoption or non-adoption of dogs at a shelter. Protopopova and Wynne conclude that “as long as the dog spends time lying in proximity to and not ignoring play initiation by the adopter, the likelihood of adoption is high.” The next step is to find out how to make this happen more often, whether by targeted training or simply more interaction with humans.

If you’ve adopted a shelter dog, what led you to choose one dog in particular compared to the others available?

Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. (2014). Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 157, 109-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.007

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Summer Break / Summer Reading

Golden retriever puppies play on the beach
Photo: otsphoto / Shutterstick

Companion Animal Psychology Blog is taking a summer break. Meanwhile, on twitter and facebook we continue to share links to the best writing about companion animals and their people. Why not join us?

If you’re looking for some summer reading (and listening and viewing), these are some of our favourites:

We’re delighted that some CAPB stories now appear in Pacific Standard, including Dog Training, Animal Welfare and the Human-Canine Relationship 

Wild behaviour: The science of cats in boxes is explored in this Human Animal Science podcast with Sandra McCune.

We can’t resist this video from Japan of a cat falling asleep on a watermelon

Suddenly It’s Different is a beautiful post by Helen Verte of Love Wags a Tail.

A Contract with Your Dog by Maureen Backman at Mutt AboutTown 

In Husbandry for Paws: The Finale Heidi Steinbeck of Great Shakes Dog Training demonstrates how to trim a dog’s nails.  

Finally, every week Malcolm Campbell publishes a list of the best science writing on the web in Morsels for the Mind. There are always plenty of great animal stories. On his own blog, we especially enjoyed Seeing eye to eye – humans, dogs and squid stare across an evolutionary divide 
Companion Animal Psychology Blog will be back on 3rd September.  

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Effects of Owner Experience and Housing on Argentine Dogos

An Argentine Dogo dog sits in the garden
Photo: Lakatos Sandor / Shutterstock
What are the effects of an owner’s prior dog experience and the dog’s housing on behaviour problems? A survey of people with Argentine Dogos investigates.

Some previous research has suggested people who are first-time dog owners are more likely to have a dog with behaviour problems, perhaps because they don’t have enough experience. Also, sometimes people say breed experience is helpful. The aim of this study was to investigate this by looking at only one breed of dog, the Argentine Dogo.  

This breed was chosen because it was affected by dangerous dog legislation in Italy and, as the researchers put it, “was publicly blamed for posing a risk to human society.” Hence, it is an interesting choice for investigating the relationship between dogs and their owners.

The survey, conducted by Silvana Diverio (Perugia University) and Gabriella Tami, was completed by 94 owners who between them had 181 Argentine Dogos. Participants were recruited via the Italian Dogo Argentine Club and at dog shows. Given the method of recruitment, it’s not surprising that 23% of participants were breeders. In fact the participants had 22% of all the registered Argentine Dogos in Italy, with an additional group of unregistered dogs.

Questions asked about the owner’s prior dog experience, prior experience with the breed, and whether the dog lived in the owner’s apartment or was housed in a kennel. Questions on behaviour problems included aggression (“baring teeth, growling, snapping and biting”) and fear (“dog showing low posture with low or tucked tail and ears back or down, eventually trembling and/or attempting to escape”).  The survey was part of a wider study into Argentine Dogos and their owners in Italy.

One interesting feature of this study is that 79% of the owners with prior breed experience had obtained their dogs in order to breed them. The breed-experienced owners were significantly less likely to keep their dog in the house and less likely to take it to dog training classes than owners who had no prior experience with Argentine Dogos. The ‘naïve’ owners typically got their dog for reasons of companionship.

The dogs belonging to owners without prior dog experience were more likely to be destructive, to be afraid of other dogs, and to mount people – but they were also more likely to be obedient. These owners were more likely to take their dogs to training classes, and this is probably why their dogs were more obedient. It’s possible the reported problems reflect the fact that the dogs were living with their family, and hence more likely to be in situations where these problems might be observed, or it could be that inexperienced owners are not as good at socializing their dogs.

The results for owners who were new to the breed were similar to those of people who were new to dogs in general. Again, these owners were more likely to take their dogs to training classes and to say their dogs were obedient. And while they were more likely to report fear of children, their dogs were also reported as friendlier to strangers and unknown dogs, compared to the dogs belonging to breed-experienced people.

The dogs of breed-experienced owners were more likely to live in kennels. The authors say, “Aggressive and protective behaviors may simply result from the reduced opportunities that these confined dogs have to interact with people. Dogs who lived in kennels were also likely to be associated with breeding and with being owned by an expert owner. Expert owners reported lower participation in obedience training classes.”

The types of behaviour problems also changed with age, with younger dogs more likely to be reported as destructive and older dogs more likely to be reported aggressive to other dogs. 

The study is correlational and does not show causality. In addition, the inter-relationship of variables makes it tricky to pinpoint the effects of experience with dogs. Perhaps rather than showing the effects of experience, the results reflect the fact that attendance at dog training classes, and living in proximity with the family (rather than in a kennel), are positive for dogs’ behaviour and welfare. 

This is an interesting study and shows that more research is needed into the effects of owners’ general dog experience and breed experience. 

What breed was your first dog, and why did you choose it?

Diverio, S., & Tami, G. (2014). Effect of owner experience, living environment, and dog characteristics on owner reports of behavior of Argentine Dogos in Italy Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9 (4), 151-157