Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Research Resources for Animal Shelters and Rescues

There’s a growing evidence base on ways to increase animal adoptions and reduce relinquishment.

Research on increasing animal adoptions & reducing surrenders

Over the last few years, there have been many studies of direct relevance to those involved in animal shelters and rescues. From considering what people look for in a new pet, how to increase adoptions, and what goes wrong to cause people to surrender animals, there’s a lot of useful information.

I’ve covered many of these stories here at Companion Animal Psychology, and I thought it would be helpful to put them all in one place. Whether you want a better understanding of why so many companion animals end up in shelters, or to take action to improve adoption rates, you'll find plenty of food for thought here.

Great photos are important to dog adoption (and it may not be the features you expect that make a difference).
Proof the internet helps cat adoptions (and again, what helps in photos may not be what you expect). 

Dogs that need training or have behaviour problems are less likely to be adopted, but those who are friendly – to people, children, cats, or other dogs – are more likely to be adopted. It’s important to include a dog’s good features in profiles. What do people look for when adopting a dog? 

It’s the whole package that counts. Picking a new dog is a complex choice

A foster program for bunny rabbits led to a significant decline in euthanasias 
A community approach to shelter animal adoptions looks at the significant improvements in adoption rates in communities taking part in the ASPCA Partnership program 
The Adoption Ambassadors program gets dogs out of the shelter while they are looking for a home. How about that doggy at the hair salon? 

Although many people say they will get their next animal from a shelter, there are also many misperceptions about rescue animals. People who are involved in rescue have more positive attitudes, suggesting that increasing volunteer programs will encourage more people to adopt rather than shop: Attitudes to rescue dogs in Australia.
Homing and re-homing Fido: How many newly-adopted pets are still kept 6 months later (the answer is 90%). The riskiest time is that soon after adoption, suggesting retention strategies should be aimed at this period. If people ask the shelter for advice (rather than friends and family or the vet), that pet is especially at risk of return.

At the shelter, most people make a decision to adopt before interacting with the dog, but two particular behaviours may change their mind. Adopting shelter dogs: Should Fido lie down or play? 

“Shelters are at or near capacity to care for the cats that arrive at their doors.” Homeless cats in Canada.
A survey of homeless pets in the UK also considers the significant economic costs of caring for them. 
It’s no surprise that puppies were adopted faster, but in this study coat colour made no difference to a dog’s adoption time. What influences a dog’s length of stay at a no-kill animal shelter? 

The biggest risk factor for cats being euthanized at a shelter is being considered feral on admission, something that might change if this assessment was delayed. Homeless cats: lessons from Australia.
Why don’t people want pets – cats and dogs.  

Why do people surrender dogs to animal shelters? Many owners said a behavioural problem was a contributing factor, but moving house is another common reason. 

People think carefully about the decision to surrender dogs to shelters, and try other avenues first. Why do people relinquish large dogs? 
Two studies look at the effect of recession on companion animals. It’s especially tough for senior animals. 

Can street dogs become good pets reports on a study in Turkey. 

Housing dogs in groups enables them to engage in normal, social behaviours, but the dogs need to be matched. Interactions between shelter dogs

In case you prefer to go straight to the journal articles, the links are included at the end of each piece. 

Photo: gurinaleksandr (

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Cluck Click! Training Chickens Reveals Their Intelligence

Teaching a trick to a chicken increases beliefs that chickens are intelligent and can feel emotions.

Clicker training chickens increases positive attitudes to them

Learning how to train chickens changes student’s attitudes towards them, according to a new study by Susan HazelLisel O’Dwyer (both University of Adelaide) and Terry Ryan (Legacy Canine). The chickens were trained to do a specific task (such as pecking on a red but not green circle) in order to get food. Survey responses before and after the class show more positive attitudes after the clicker-training session.

Lead author Susan Hazel told me in an email, “I believe that the main reason for the students’ change in attitudes to chickens was that they realized chickens are smarter than they thought (they learn the colour discrimination tasks very fast) and also when you work with the different chickens you see their personalities.” 

“Some chickens are fast and other chickens still learn quickly but just respond more slowly,” said Dr. Hazel. “It wasn’t so much of a surprise that students were more likely to believe that chickens were intelligent, are easy to teach tricks to, and that they have individual personalities. It was more surprising that this carried over to students more likely to believe chickens could experience boredom, happiness, and frustration.”

Some of the differences are quite striking. Before the class, only 7% of students thought it would be easy to teach tricks to a chicken, but after the class this went up to 61%. Beforehand, 49% thought chickens are intelligent, but afterwards 77% agreed. Most of the students thought chickens had individual personalities before the class (84%), but this went up to 95% after. There were some gender differences, including that women gave higher ratings than men for chicken intelligence. 

Each year the chickens are named according to a theme. This time it was members of the Royal family, and the brightest chicken was one called Margaret. Students had a clicker attached to the handle of a scoop containing chicken food. When the chicken got something right, the trainer pressed the clicker (making a sound to signal to the chicken they did the right thing) and then let the chicken eat from the scoop. 

The practical class lasted for 2 hours and included time training chickens and other activities. Chickens were chosen because they are easy to care for and handle in the class – and they are unforgiving of their trainer’s mistakes. The class used a technique called shaping which involves rewarding closer and closer approximations of a task to reach the final behaviour. Students worked in pairs to practice shaping on each other before training the chickens. 

The class was taught to small groups of students each week over an 8 week period. The specific task that chickens were taught varied over time depending on what they already knew; for example initially they were taught to peck a circle, and later to discriminate between a red and a green or yellow circle. Students had up to three sessions to teach their chicken what to do; each session was 5 sets of 45 seconds each.

94 students completed all of the before and after survey questions. The practical was part of a class in Principles in Animal Behaviour, Welfare and Ethics taken by students reading for a BSc in Animal Science or Veterinary Bioscience. It turned out to be an excellent way to teach them about force free training. 

Dr. Hazel told me, “The other stand-out has been how much students learn about training animals… Rather than saying ‘my chicken was stupid’ they now say ‘my reflexes were too slow’ and I think from chats with students in their second year that this translates to other animals they go on and train, like dogs.”

One of the neat things about this paper is that it does double-duty as both a research study of the effects of learning to train chickens on beliefs about them, and as a model of how to run such a practical class for students. The details of how the class was run are included in the paper, and are based on a chicken workshop run by Terry Ryan in South Australia in 2012. 

Students were taking a lecture course alongside the clicker training practical. It’s possible that students who took the practical later in the term were also influenced by their greater knowledge; however no such patterns were detected in the data.

This study shows learning to train an animal leads to more positive attitudes towards it. The change in views was also apparent from student comments. One said, “I never thought that chickens would be intelligent enough and learn quite so quickly.”

Some dog trainers attend chicken-training workshops to improve their skills. Have you ever trained a chicken?

Hazel, S., O'Dwyer, L., & Ryan, T. (2015). “Chickens Are a Lot Smarter than I Originally Thought”: Changes in Student Attitudes to Chickens Following a Chicken Training Class Animals, 5 (3), 821-837 DOI: 10.3390/ani5030386
Photo: Gillian Holliday (

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Make your dog happy. Train force free.

We can promote animal welfare by making learning a rewarding experience.

Force free dog training is good for animal welfare. Humane train.

By now, many people are familiar with the idea that using aversives to train dogs can have side effects. Studies show a correlation between aversive techniques (such as hitting, pinning, leash jerks and shock) and behaviour problems like aggression (Herron et al 2009; Casey et al 2014). One study found dogs in a training class that used aversives showed signs of stress and were less likely to look at their owners than in a similar class that used positive reinforcement instead (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014).

Rewards bring benefits: dogs with a history of reward-based training are better able to learn a new task (Rooney and Cowan, 2011). Nicola Rooney and Sarah Cowan say this may work “by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” If you are used to training with rewards, you know that look of happy anticipation on your best friend’s face. (Incidentally, the same study found dogs previously trained with punishment were less playful with their owner and less likely to go up to a new person).

There’s increasing recognition that good animal welfare includes giving animals positive experiences that cause positive affective states. In other words, it’s about making animals happy. Training your dog gives them control: “If I do this behaviour, I’ll get a nice reward.” They enjoy it and become better learners.

Last year I wrote about a study by Ragen McGowan et al that found dogs prefer to work to earn a reward, rather than just be given the reward. The study had an ingenious design in which dogs were taught a set of tricks using some novel equipment. Sometimes they got the reward for doing the trick; other times they just got the reward anyway. 

Dr. McGowan told me, “Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task… do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that many dogs also experience this ‘Eureka Effect.’ In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs.”

Giving dogs opportunities to learn is good for them. You don’t have to pick a complicated task; begin with sit or shake paw before you build up to difficult tricks. 

If you’re new to training, it’s easy to get started. All you need is food that your dog likes: chicken, cheese, hot dog, peanut butter cookies, tuna fudge, roast beef... See what your dog prefers (and adjust meals as necessary). If you like, you can use a clicker. 

Training is like any other skill: it takes patience, practice and consistency. If you want to improve your technique, you could sign up for classes with a local force free trainer. Be warned: you might find you and your dog have a new hobby! 

Other ways to make your dog happy may include petting, walks, hiking, swimming, paddling, fetch, tug, puzzle toys, chew toys, agility, nose work, playtime with other doggie friends, rolling in stinky stuff (the dog, not you!), and so on… If you want to give your dog 'lightbulb' moments, pick something that involves problem-solving, like training for food rewards. Otherwise, any activity you both enjoy will make your dog happy.

It’s important to understand the risks of using aversive methods, especially if you are contemplating using them, but it’s only part of the story. The other part is that training can be enjoyable – for you and your canine friend – and that's good for your dog's welfare. 

Learning should be a rewarding experience. Let’s make it so!

If you’d like a photo of your happy dog to feature on Companion Animal Psychology, tweet it to me with the hashtag #makeyourdoghappy, or share it under this post on Facebook. The best will be included in a future post. Please make sure you have copyright of the photo before posting.

Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003
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  
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007

You might also like:
Where do people get information about dog training?

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

If You Lead a Lab to Water, Should You Let Them Swim?

A new study tests whether Labrador Retrievers choose the pool.

Labs love water; what are the implications for good animal welfare?

Labrador Retrievers were bred to retrieve from water, and it’s widely known they love to swim. But, how much? And, given their sociability, do they prefer to swim rather than mix with a person or another dog? A study by Sara Tavares, Ana Magalhães and Liliana de Sousa (Universityof Porto) gave Labs a free choice, and says the results are important for good animal welfare.

The study involved ten Labrador Retrievers who live on a farm in Portugal. The dogs were housed in groups of 2-3 in kennels (except when females were in heat, when they were isolated temporarily). They had play sessions together, and sometimes had access to a swimming pool, but it wasn’t on a regular schedule. 

On 3 separate occasions, dogs were given a free choice: taken to the pool area and left there with one other dog to play with, the water to swim in, or a human to approach. The human was someone they had seen once before, but was in a closed area so they were visible but physically inaccessible to the dog. The person spent one minute gazing at one of the dogs and then a second minute gazing at the other dog. Then the dogs were taken away.

At all times, the dog’s handler was hidden away, just in case help was needed to assist a dog in getting out of the pool. Each dog was observed for 6 minutes in total across the 3 trials. Video recordings enabled the researchers to time how long each dog spent interacting with the water, the other dog, or the person. 

Guess what? The water won! Dogs approached the water more, and spent more time interacting with the water, than either the person or other dog. Every single dog approached the water.

There were differences in how each dog played in the pool: 6 touched it with their muzzle, 5 put their front legs in the water, 4 of them went for a swim, and 1 pawed at the water from the side of the pool. This suggests there are individual differences in what dogs like to do at the pool. (It’s worth noting that before the study, the owner said 2 dogs loved to swim, 2 were not interested in the pool, and the rest were in between).

So what does this mean for animal welfare? It’s increasingly recognized that welfare is not just about preventing harm, but also ensuring positive experiences (Mellor and Beausoleil, 2015). The researchers say it “raises the hypothesis that regular swimming water contact may be an important feature for the welfare of these dogs.” 

Labrador Retrievers  are built to swim, with webbed toes, a unique tail shaped like an otter’s, and a water-resistant coat. Before being bred in England, they originally came from Newfoundland, where they retrieved nets and fish from the sea. So this raises questions about providing opportunities to swim for Labradors (and other water-loving breeds). 

There’s a more general principle too: If there’s something your dog enjoys – like to swim or to fetch or play tug – isn’t it nice if they can do it?

Of course, not all pet owners can provide a swimming pool for their dog, but there may be other ways to allow access to water for splashing in. 

One drawback to the study is that the dog couldn’t reach the person if they wanted to, and this may have stopped from attempting it. Also the person’s gaze was fixed, and not responsive to the dog, so it wasn’t like a normal interaction with a person. So although we can conclude these dogs like water, we can’t assume they like it more than people.

The dogs were 2-13 years old. One was a trained assistance dog, and one other was in the process of assistance dog training. This was a preliminary study, and future research with more Labradors is needed (won’t that be fun for the dogs?!). It would be interesting to compare breeds, too.

Does your Labrador Retriever get free play time in the water?

Photo: Bhakpong (
Mellor, D., & Beausoleil, N. (2015). Extending the 'Five Domains' model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states Animal Welfare, 24 (3), 241-253 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.24.3.241 
Tavares, S., Magalhães, A., & de Sousa, L. (2015). Labrador retrievers are more attracted to water than to social stimuli: a pilot study Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.041