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

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Is it Important to Attend Puppy Class?

Is a one-off puppy party a suitable alternative to a six-week puppy class? Research says you can’t skip the socialization if you want a well-rounded adult dog.

A malamute puppy climbs on a wall while another pup watches
Photo: Zuzule / Shutterstock

A study by Ai Kutsumi et al (2013) of the Azabu University Graduate School of Veterinary Science compares four groups of dogs: those who attended a six-week puppy class, those who went to a one-hour puppy party, those who attended a six-week adult dog training class, and those who didn’t attend any puppy or training class at all. 

142 dogs took part and the groups were about equivalent in terms of age, gender, and breed mix. The dogs were aged between 6 months and 3 years at the time of testing. The study included a questionnaire and a 30-minute behaviour test at the dog’s home.

Dogs who attended the 6-week puppy class or the adult dog training class scored significantly better on response to commands, showing that dogs can learn obedience commands at any age. Dogs who had been to puppy class were significantly more likely to give a positive response to a stranger than those who had been to just a one-hour puppy party or not attended any classes at all. They also tended to do better than those who had only been to adult dog training. This shows that the socialization aspect of puppy class is important for the dog’s future behaviour.

The scientists say, “the behaviour test showed that participation in puppy class contributes to improving the positive response of the dog to strangers. This indicates that if an ordinary companion puppy participates in a puppy class for socialization at about 4 months of age, the dog is likely to remain friendly to non-family members at an acceptable level.” 

The one-hour puppy party arose because puppy class is not that popular in Japan, according to the scientists. However these results show that it is not a substitute for the socialization that occurs during a 6-week puppy class.

The puppy class, adult class and puppy party all took place at the SIRIUS Dog Training School Japan. The puppy class curriculum included basic training commands as well as bite inhibition, house training, and socialization with the other puppies and their owners. The puppy party was equivalent to just the first session of puppy class. The adult dog training class covered basic obedience for dogs aged from 5 months to 2 years. All of the classes were force-free and used positive reinforcement, and class sizes were small (4-8 puppies and 2-5 adult dogs). 

The results also showed links between behaviour tests and scores on the Japanese version of C-BARQ, a questionnaire designed to assess behaviour traits. If dogs had a C-BARQ score that suggests fear of strangers, they gave a less positive response to a stranger in the behavioural test. Also, there was a correlation between Trainability scores on the C-BARQ and the results on the behavioural test for response to commands. The researchers say this means that C-BARQ scores can be useful in detecting signs of problems that require intervention.

In addition, ongoing socialization with people and dogs, and more frequent training sessions, were all positive for the dog’s behaviour.

The results of this study show that attending puppy class is important for socialization with other puppies and people. Although a 1-hour puppy party might sound like an attractive option, it does not have the same beneficial results for the dog’s future friendliness.

If you've ever taken a pup to puppy class, or you're a dog trainer, what do you like best about puppy class?

KUTSUMI, A., NAGASAWA, M., OHTA, M., & OHTANI, N. (2013). Importance of Puppy Training for Future Behavior of the Dog Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 75 (2), 141-149 DOI: 10.1292/jvms.12-0008

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Attentive Look of a Dog in Training

Researchers investigate the body language of a dog that is performing well in training.

A mixed-breed dog with brown eyes sits and looks up at the camera
Photo: Markus Balint / Shutterstock
A new study puts dogs through the first stage of a basic training task and analyzes eye contact and posture in the most successful dogs. The research by Masashi Hasegawa et al (Azabu University School of Veterinary Medicine) is motivated by a desire to improve people’s training abilities by helping them recognize the posture associated with successful learning. 

One of the neat things about this paper is that the study was done with completely untrained dogs. For obvious reasons, many canine science studies use well-behaved pet dogs of the kind that is calm when taken to a strange location like a university laboratory. While these studies are valuable, not all dogs are well-socialized and it’s important that research considers all kinds of dogs. What better dog for a study of dogs-in-training than one that is totally untrained?!

The dogs live at a place called the World Ranch in Osaka, Japan. 46 dogs took part, aged 1 to 6.5 (average 3 years), and a wide mix of breeds. 

Training was carried out by someone previously unknown to the dogs, in sessions of 5 minutes each that took place in the dogs’ exercise yard. The handler used food to lure the dog into a sit position. He only did this when he had the dog’s attention, but he did it as many times as he could in the 5 minute session. After this, there was a 3 minute rest, followed by a test in which the hand signal was performed on its own (without food) 20 times. Every time the dog sat on request, whether in the training session or the test, it was given a piece of food.

Each dog had three sessions like this a day, for three days, to make a total of nine sessions. The sessions were videoed so that the dogs’ body language could be analyzed.

The results showed a positive correlation between the number of trials in the training session and the number of correct responses in the tests. In other words, practice makes perfect: the more practice a dog had, the better it performed on the test. In addition, the age of the dog was not linked to the number of correct responses; dogs could learn at any age.

The dogs were divided into two groups for further analysis: those that had performed especially well on the tests, and the rest. This meant the body language of dogs that are successfully learning could be compared to those that are performing less well.

The high-achieving dogs had their eyes wide open, their mouths closed, their ears forward, and their tails were high but not wagging. Surprisingly, the researchers consider this in terms of dominance, the open eyes being seen as dominant but the other aspects of the posture not. It does not make sense to consider the relationship between dog and trainer as one of dominance; the dog is trying to understand how to earn the treat, and if it hasn’t figured it out yet then it shows a need for the trainer to make it clear.

The most interesting finding is that the wide eyes occurred mostly when the dog looked up at the handler’s face, showing that gaze from the dog to the handler is important in training. This is in line with Braem and Mills (2010), who also found a positive association between dogs looking at the handler and their performance in learning. Deldalle and Gaunet (2014) found that dogs trained using positive reinforcement gaze more at their owners during the sit command and when walking on leash than dogs trained using negative reinforcement, demonstrating a better relationship between dog and owner in the R+ group.  

This study only looked at the stage of using a lure. Dogs did not progress beyond this, even though they responded to the lure many times. One Papillion had 194 trials! (That must have been a happy dog). Even starting with a completely untrained dog, it is possible to teach ‘sit’ quickly. It would be nice to see the research repeated using an incremental training plan that progresses via hand signal to a verbal command. It's also possible body language will change in response to continued training, and future research could follow dogs as they learn a set of commands.

In fact the initial lure, although exactly where you would start, is too difficult for some dogs. When this is the case, it would be more appropriate just to expect their head to follow the lure, without going into a full sit at the beginning.  

We should be able to say that any dog training book will explain how to teach your dog the basics, but sadly this is not the case. Some books still recommend the use of unnecessary aversive techniques; if a book suggests hitting your dog, jerking the leash, or doing a so-called ‘alpha’ roll, discard it and choose another book instead! 

For an excellent example of how to fade the food lure when teaching sit, see this post on fading food lures and adding a verbal cue by Lori Nanan at Your Pit Bull and You. If you’re a keen trainer and want to get into the techie details, you’ll like Train Your Dog Like a Pro by Jean Donaldson. 

What’s your favourite dog training book and why?

Braem, M., & Mills, D. (2010). Factors affecting response of dogs to obedience instruction: A field and experimental study Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (1-2), 47-55 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.004 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
Hasegawa, M., Ohtani, N., & Ohta, M. (2014). Dogs’ Body Language Relevant to Learning Achievement Animals, 4 (1), 45-58 DOI: 10.3390/ani4010045

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