Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Shortlisted for Canada's Favourite Science Blog

Companion  Animal Psychology is shortlisted for the People's Choice Award: Canada's Favourite Science Blog. Vote for your favourites!


Badge for the People's Choice 2017 Canada's Favourite Science Online contest



I am thrilled to have been short-listed for the People's Choice Award: Canada's Favourite Science Blog.

You can see the shortlist and vote here on the Science Borealis website. Voters can select their three favourite blogs and three favourite science websites (so you have six votes in total). It's a great way to show support for your favourite science sites and blogs and find new ones to follow too.

You can follow the contest on social media via the hashtag #CdnSciFav. Every day from now until the close of voting on 14th October, Science Borealis and SWCC will be promoting the short-listed blogs and websites on social media. The contest is part of Science Literacy Week (#scilit17) here in Canada which celebrates science with events across the country. 

Three finalists in each category will be announced during the week of October 23rd, and the winners will be announced at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov 1-3) and on social media.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Do Dogs Use Body Language to Calm Us Down?

Are lip licking and looking away signals of discomfort and expressions of peace in the domestic dog?

Guest post by Georgina (Gina) Bishopp (Hartpury College, UK)

A worried dog licks its nose - a sign of stress
Photo: StudioCAXAP


A study by Dr. Angelika Firnkes (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich) et al., 2017 has found that the domestic dog uses appeasement gestures both when feeling threatened and during greetings with humans. For the first time it has now been shown that dogs will use at least two of these signals, the lip lick and look away, to appease their human social companions. Turid Rugaas (2005) had previously described a set of behaviours in dogs, including the lip lick and looking away, through years of working as a behavioural consultant, that she described as ‘Calming Signals’. Rugaas (2005) explained that the dogs would use these ‘Calming Signals’ when feeling uncomfortable and attempting to prevent aggressive responses from their conspecifics and humans. For the first time scientific research has supported this theory in relation to dog-human communication as described by Rugaas.

Many of these behaviours can also be described as appeasement gestures and have been shown to occur during close range dog to dog interactions, (Mariti et al., 2014), almost exclusively when dogs are interacting, (Gazzano et al., 2010). Furthermore, after an aggressive interaction the receiver of the aggression was more likely to show one of these ‘Calming Signals’ and when this occurred aggressive displays from the receiver decreased, (Mariti et al., 2014; Gazzano et al., 2010).

116 dogs over the age of 13 months were accompanied with their owners to perform a standardized behavioural test, (Firnkes et al., 2017). This sample size is good compared to a lot of dog behaviour research where samples tend to be a lot smaller. The human testing the dogs was unfamiliar and subjected the dogs and owners to various stimuli.

The situations that the dogs experienced were either environmental (such as passing a jogger), involved contact (i.e. person walking directly towards dog), or were threatening (i.e. threatening stare at the dog). It is worth noting that the contexts described as threatening were kept safe by using leads and muzzles, and all of the stimuli were very realistic and likely to be experienced by many dogs during their lives (such as a person kicking away a football).

Looking away occurred significantly more in socially direct situations, such as the ‘friendly salutation’ or ‘threatening stare’ stimuli, suggesting that this behaviour is used as a social signal. Lip licking also occurred in a similar way, however did not occur as often as was expected during the ‘threatening screaming’ and ‘physical threat’ [the test human pretended to strike out at the dog] situations. Both did however occur more frequently during friendly interactions after an initial threatening situation, again supporting the theory that these behaviours are used to signal peace and conflict avoidance.

The theory laid out by the authors of this paper for the lack of lip licking and looking away during the very threatening situations is that it is possible that by this point the dogs believed that appeasement was no longer appropriate. Instead they showed clearly submissive behaviour such as the flattened ears, a drawn-in tail and bent joints. This study highlights room for future research to explore the possibility that these behaviours are not intended as signals but are in fact physiological stress responses to the threatening stimuli. This is due to lip licking also occurring during stress responses in dogs to human threat in previous studies.

In this way, I think when a dog looks away or licks its lips they are not signalling to you that they want you to completely back away but are looking for a response that indicates that you too are not looking to aggress. In this way the better human response may be to reduce potential threat through looking away themselves and lowering to the ground, so as not to arch over the dog. In this way the assumption is not being made that dogs showing these signals are overtly stressed by the stimuli or do not want to engage with the stimuli, however that these dogs want to interact with the stimuli in the most peaceful way possible.

Either way, these behaviours are clearly important elements of healthy dog communication with both conspecifics and human caretakers and should not be ignored by those interacting with these animals.

Have you ever experienced lip licking or looking away in your dog? How do you interpret this behaviour?

About the author:


Photo of Georgina (Gina) Bishopp
My name is Georgina (Gina) Bishopp and I am a 23-year-old MRes Animal Behaviour and Welfare student at the University of West England, Hartpury College campus. Since graduating from my first degree (BSc Animal Science with Care and Management) I have worked for the Blue Cross and am now at the RSPCA, primarily working with dogs and cats. I own a horse and have ridden since a child, experiencing every different kind of horse training and management as I have tried to understand which method is best for the horse. Now I use a blend of tradition and new age techniques, and only those that are supported by current scientific understanding of horses themselves or other mammals (including the dog). My academic focus has primarily been with companion animals, primarily dogs, and equines, however my interests are very broad and extend to wildlife and zoo animals welfare as well.

Other posts by Georgina Bishopp: The importance of science in horse training.

References
Gazzano, A.; Mariti, C.; Papi, F.; Falaschi, C; Forti, S. (2010). Are domestic dogs able to calm conspecifics by using visual communication? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 5 (1).
Firnkes, A., Bartels, A., Bidoli, E., Erhard, M., (2017). Appeasement signals used by dogs during dog-human communication. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research.
Mariti, C.; Falaschi, C.; Zilocchi, M.; Carlone, B.; Gazzano, A. (2014). Analysis of calming signals in domestic dogs: Are they signals and are they calming? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(6).
Rugaas T. (2005) On Talking Terms With Dogs Calming Signals. Legacy by Mail, Inc. USA.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Best Way to Train Cats is With Food

Using food alone is the quickest way to train cats to touch a target, according to this pilot study.

How to train cats, like this beautiful white cat with blue eyes
Photo: Esin Deniz (Shutterstock)


You can train cats to go up to a target and touch it with their nose. This in itself will be news to many people, but researchers at Massey University have investigated the best way to train cats to do this. It involves food.

There’s a lot of interest in training cats at the moment, not necessarily to perform obedience behaviours like sit and stay, but to help them in their daily lives. You can teach your cat to like going in their cat carrier so trips to the vet don’t have to begin with you getting scratched-up arms. And you can use positive reinforcement to help teach your cat where they are allowed to scratch (along with provision of the right scratching post, of course).

Erin Willson et al picked the behaviour of touching a red wand target with the nose, and set about training 9 cats to do this. They divided them into three groups: one that was rewarded with food alone, one that used a bridging stimulus (a beep followed by the food reward), and one that used a secondary reinforcer only (a beep – previously associated with food – but no food).

The first two of these conditions will be familiar to dog trainers who use positive reinforcement, since they equate to the use of food only or to click-plus-treat. The last condition may have some of you thinking back to an interesting talk by Simon Gadbois at SPARCS about the clicker and the emotions of seeking vs liking (you can read a nice summary and discussion on Patricia McConnell’s blog).

The scientists concluded that both food alone and the bridging stimulus (beep plus food) worked, but that food alone was faster. The secondary reinforcer only (beep but no food) did not work. In fact cats in this group began scratching and biting the experimenter.

This is only a small study so there weren’t really enough cats to draw firm conclusions about training methods.  Nonetheless the results are very interesting, and it is really nice to see cat training getting the attention of researchers.

The study used a Treat & Train, which is an automatic food dispenser. The red wand target comes with the machine.

12 cats from the university’s feline unit took part in the study. They were aged 2 to 12 years.

Use food to train cats, like this calico cat sitting pretty for a treat
Photo: Kristi Blokhin (Shutterstock)


3 of them took part in what is called an extinction procedure. First they were taught that the beep from the Treat and Train machine meant food was about to arrive. The next day they heard the beeps without any food arriving, to see how long it would take for their response to the beep to extinguish (in other words, until they stopped approaching for food). The median response was 11 trials. This was important information for one of the conditions in the experiment.

9 cats were trained to nose-touch the target using a standardized plan. This was a shaping procedure, so cats were initially rewarded for just looking at the target, then for getting progressively closer until eventually they were expected to touch it with their nose.

The cats were divided into three groups. A beep is meaningless to a cat, so two of the groups (the bridge group and the secondary reinforcer group) were taught to associate the beep from the machine with food. Food is a primary reinforcer because it naturally has value to cats.

The food-only group got to hang out with the machine without any beeping, so that time with the machine would not be a factor.

During the training sessions, the food-only group was rewarded with food from the Treat and Train whenever they performed the correct behaviour. The machine was set up not to beep.

For the bridge group, the beep of the machine was used as a bridge, something that marks the right behaviour and fills the time until the arrival of food. In this condition, the beep is always followed by food. When the cat performed the correct behaviour, the machine beeped, and then food arrived.

For the last group, the beep was used as a secondary reinforcer. In other words, when cats performed the right behaviour, they heard the beep but did not get food. These cats were given some additional beep-food pairings to maintain this association and prevent its extinction (that’s why the first part of the experiment was important).

All of the cats in the food-only group and the bridging stimulus group (beep plus food) learned the behaviour. The group reinforced with food-only was faster at learning the task, but took the same amount of trials as the bridge group.

None of the cats in the secondary reinforcer (beep-only) group learned it. As mentioned above, the cats in this group began to scratch and bite the experimenter. Perhaps they were frustrated that they could not figure out how to get the food. (This reminds me of the study of the Eureka effect in dogs, where dogs became reluctant to enter the experimental area when they could not make the reward happen).

So if you are planning to train a cat, you should use food. (Incidentally, food is also important when training dogs).

The experimenters used a piece of Hill’s kibble as the reward.  If you’re training a cat at home, you might find other kinds of food more motivating; see my interview with Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat for some ideas.

The results of this study are broadly in line with Chiandetti et al’s (2016) dog training study, which found no difference between use of food only, clicker-plus-food, or verbal-marker-plus food (that study did not test a secondary-reinforcer-only option).

The cats were assigned to groups in the order they happened to participate, and it turned out three older cats were assigned to the secondary-reinforcer-only group. We don’t know if age and gender of the cats would make any difference to trainability and this would be another topic for future research.

The authors conclude,
“the use of a primary reinforcer, alone, or a bridging stimulus (followed by a primary reinforcer) appeared to be efficacious for training cats to perform a novel task. However, the primary reinforcer, alone, may be a more time efficient method. The use of a secondary reinforcer, alone, may not be efficacious.”

Incidentally, learning to touch a target with the nose may seem like a trick, but it has its uses. Some people train their dogs to touch a target (such as their hand) and hold in place. It’s called a stationing behaviour because it keeps the dog still at a station, and can be useful during veterinary examinations.

This is a fascinating study and I hope to see lots more research on cat training in the future.

Have you ever tried to train a cat? If so, how did it go?


Further Reading on Cat Training


If you want to know more about how to train cats, you might like these books.

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. (This is a must-read for all cat owners).
Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor - also available as part of a kit: Karen Pryor, Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats Kit.
Cat Training in 10 Minutes by Miriam Fields Babineau.
Trick Training for Cats by Christine Hauschild.

Reference
Willson, E. K., Stratton, R. B., Bolwell, C. F., & Stafford, K. J. (2017). Comparison of positive reinforcement training in cats: a pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk. (privacy policy)

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