Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Should Vets Give Treats to Pets?

Do treats at the vet mean fewer bites and a less fearful pet?

Should vets give treats to pets during routine visits to make them less afraid?

Many companion animals are scared of visits to the vet. There is an established procedure for treating fear called desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) which involves feeding nice food in order to make something less scary. Yet many vets do not give treats to animals. A new paper by Karolina Westlund (Karolinska Institute) considers this reluctance, and looks at the evidence for and against.

Westlund says, “Veterinarians and veterinary assistants have a choice whether or not to use treats when interacting with their patients; indeed a DS/CC procedure could be started the moment the animal enters the waiting room, and continue during weighing, consultation and examination. Could it be that staff assess the potential costs involved in feeding treats, but not the costs involved in not doing so?”

If your pet has ever had to have a general anaesthetic, you’ll have heard the advice not to feed anything after 8pm the night before. The worry is that something called the gastro-oesophageal reflex might make the contents of the stomach leak up into the trachea, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia. However, this is a rare occurrence (she cites a figure of between 0.04% and 0.26% of postoperative cases). 

Westlund says many vets never give treats to pets during routine vet exams, just in case it turns out the animal needs anaesthesia or sedation. However, she says vets should consider the benefits as well as the risks. Giving treats would help make the animal less stressed, which in itself reduces the need for sedation. It also makes it safer for vets, who are less likely to get bitten. 

Another important benefit she mentions is it can give vets an opportunity to educate owners about how to deal with fear. This will be especially helpful for people whose animals are afraid of other things too (such as fireworks). Also, some people stop taking their animals to the vet altogether simply because the cat or dog is so afraid that it becomes difficult for them to do so. 

Another reason vets can be reluctant to feed treats is in case of causing a tummy upset, but Westlund suggests having a range of treats and checking with owners about food allergies first. Vets may also be concerned about promoting treats given the problems of overweight and obesity in pets. She suggests calling them ‘wholesome treats’ or ‘tasty food’ instead. This also provides another opportunity for client education. 

Westlund concludes that “the benefits to the animal, staff and owner outweigh the risks.” She also makes specific suggestions to help vets with concerns.

For many pets, treats at the vet will help them feel more comfortable. For animals with a bigger fear of the vet and/or being handled, a suitably qualified dog trainer or animal behaviourist would be able to develop a plan to resolve the problem.

How do your pets find visits to the vet?

Reference Westlund, K. (2015). To feed or not to feed: counterconditioning in the veterinary clinic Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.05.008

Photo: 135pixels ( 

Monday, 27 July 2015

1 Million Thank Yous

I’m delighted to say Companion Animal Psychology has now passed one million page views! Thank you, everyone, for your support and encouragement.

Companion Animal Psychology has passed one million page views!

In case you’re interested to know, the top 5 posts of the year so far are:

As always, if you have suggestions for future posts or there are topics you would really like to see covered, please let me know, either via the comments below or by email. 

Photo: Linn Currie (

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Re-Arranging Metaphors for Dogs

The problems with the wolf pack metaphor go deeper than you think.

2 Basenjis on a sofa

One of the metaphors many dog trainers despair of is that of the wolf pack. According to this, you are supposed to be ‘leader of the pack’ to your dog, who is trying all the time to be ‘dominant’. The way you stop this is to be ‘dominant’ yourself which involves awful things like ‘alpha rolls’. It’s surprisingly pervasive. 

It is not really based on science but on a kind of folk science, of how wolf packs are believed to be, which does not bear much relation to reality.

The obvious problem with this is that being violent to your dog is not humane. Numerous studies show a correlation with the use of aversive training techniques and behaviour problems in dogs (e.g. Deldalle and Gaunet 2014; Herron, Shofer and Reisner 2009; Blackwell et al 2008). There are better ways to train than pinning your dog to the floor or hitting him on the nose.

Another problem is insidious in the way it affects people’s relationship with their dog. According to some of the people who use this metaphor, you are not supposed to let your dog on the bed or settee, or even get ahead of you on a walk, because then your dog would be ‘dominant’. What if you want your dog to sleep on the bed or cuddle on the settee with you? Isn’t it up to you?

The problem goes deeper still because metaphor is not just a figure of speech. It actually shapes our thoughts. Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say, “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” 

Eva Feder Kittay writes of metaphor as “re-arranging the furniture of the mind.” If we change the metaphor, we change how people think. 

So how might the pack metaphor affect our thinking? Not only are we equating dogs to wolves, but also ourselves as 'leader of the pack'. This is an example of the conceptual metaphor HUMANS ARE ANIMALS.

Being the pack leader seems to be a personal quality, a way of being that is akin to charisma. The pack leader is not a modern, transformational leader who leads by inspiration, but an old-fashioned one who relies on punishment when subordinates step out of line. Or even stares, growls at or pins a puppy preemptively. This is especially serious because you must never terrify a puppy; puppies need lots of positive socialization experiences.

The pack metaphor implies that sudden actions to assert dominance will make our dogs behave, when in reality training takes time and effort and food. The idea of a pack leader implies dogs must obey when we should give them choices in life (see The Right to Walk Away). And it seems to blame the victim if someone is having trouble with their dog; ‘they just aren’t assertive enough.’

We feel love and affection for our dogs, but this is missing from the pack metaphor.  And so is fun, because in pack-world you must either never play tug or never let your dog win. 

In contrast the family metaphor, by which we are dog moms and dads, puts love at the centre of our relationship with dogs. It implies we will take the time to teach our dogs how to behave. It implies our relationship is one of nurturing them and that even if we have problems, we will solve them – because we’re family. 

Some readers will say this is not a metaphor for them but literal, even if they are not implying personhood for their dogs. 

It’s time to ditch the language of packs. We need to re-arrange the furniture and consign the pack metaphor to gather dust in the attic. We can pick a different metaphor instead, and talk about the fact it takes a plan and practice and tasty treats to train a dog well. Because dogs are family, and our furry family members need love, training and walkies, not dominance. 

How do you like to think of your relationship with your dog?

Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3 (5), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008  
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 58-65 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004  
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Kittay, E.F. (1987) Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Photo: Zanna Holstova (

Further Reading
Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell E.J. and Casey, R.A. (2009) Dominance in dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4(3), 135-144
Bradshaw, J. (2011) Why dog trainers will have to change their ways. The Guardian 17th July 2011
Donaldson, J. (2009) Are dogs pack animals? The Academy for Dog Trainers Blog 
Eaton, B. (2011) Dominance in dogs: fact or fiction. Dogwise Publishing.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Great Photos are Important to Dog Adoption

What if the adoption of shelter dogs could be sped up with better photographs?

Good quality online photos improve the adoption of shelter dogs

The internet is an important part of animal adoptions. Animal shelters and photographers often have opinions as to what photographs should be like, but are they right? A new study by Rachel Lampe and Thomas Witte (Royal Veterinary College, Herts) studies the effect of photographs of black Labrador Retriever crosses on the length of time before they found a new home.

“Better photos may catch the eye of potential adopters and make the dog’s features and personality more visible," say Lampe and Witte.

Some of the things that photographers expect to make a difference, such as wearing a bandana, having a person in the photograph, having a toy, and having a visible tongue (akin to smiling) made no difference. 

For young dogs, the quality of the photograph was very important. A dog with a great quality photograph was typically adopted within 14 days compared to 43 days for a poor photo. If the dog was looking in the direction of the camera, it helped if he or she was actually making eye contact. Standing dogs were adopted faster than sitting dogs, but there was no difference for laying down.

In adult dogs, a photo taken outside led to an average adoption time of 37 days, compared to 51 for a photo indoors. Blurry and small photos led to a longer wait for a home. None of these made a difference to younger dogs, however. It’s also worth noting that for adult dogs, eye contact and standing or sitting did not relate to adoption time.

The study focused on one breed of dog so that only aspects of the photographs would have an effect. They identified 468 black Labrador Retriever crosses that were adopted via Petfinder in the United States during a period of about 18-months in 2011 and 2012. They split the dogs into young (255) and old (213) dogs.

Even though this study only looked at one type of dog, Lampe and Witte say, “these positive photo traits would apply to dog photos at large. This information can begin to be used to easily and cheaply help shelters increase the impact of their online advertising of dogs and to decrease how long the dogs stay in shelters.”

One of the nice things about this study is the large sample size and the fact the dogs came from across the United States. However, an even bigger sample size might have made a difference to some results. For example, only 10% of the dogs were wearing a bandana. Also it may be that some shelters put bandanas on dogs they think will be hard to adopt. So if you’re taking photos and you think a dog looks good in a bandana, go ahead. It seems like the most important thing is to focus on getting a great photo.

Future research that looks at the whole animal adoption experience, including the number of clicks on online photos, would be very helpful.

What are your tips for photographing dogs?

Lampe, R., & Witte, T. (2014). Speed of Dog Adoption: Impact of Online Photo Traits Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.982796
Photo: c.byatt-norman (