Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Companion Animal Psychology Turns Three!

Companion Animal Psychology is three years old

It’s three years since I started this blog. There’s been a post (almost) every week since – this is post number 156. I’ve covered topics as diverse as how to stroke a cat, an animal's right to walk away, issues with the use of shock collars, what young children learn from pets, and the meaning of pets to homeless youth. Highlights of the last year include an interview with Mia Cobb about her research on working dogs, and our most-read post of all time, Do dogs get that Eureka! feeling

At the heart of it all is a fascination with the human-animal bond, and a concern for the welfare of humans and their companion animals. If you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, please sign up to follow by email via the box in the top right.

One of the things that makes it all worthwhile is connecting with you, the reader, whether that’s directly through the blog or via social media. Thank you to all of you for your tweets, likes, comments and shares! 

We'll be celebrating with a glass of wine tonight. Whatever your beverage, cheers! 

Photo: Linn Currie (

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Can Street Dogs Become Good Pets?

From free-ranging dog to new home. It sounds like a fairy-tale, but how does it work out?

A smiling dog in its home

A recent survey by Yasemin Salgiri Demirbas (Ankara University) et al investigates how well free-roaming urban dogs fit into a family home once they are adopted. The results show the dogs adapt well to their new homes.

The scientists say, “Every year in Turkey, thousands of free-ranging dogs are brought to dog shelters. These dogs are mongrel dogs with stray origins.” There is often a bias against adopting dogs that have been stray in case they have behaviour problems, and they can spend a long time waiting for a home. The researchers wanted to know if people’s misgivings are well-founded.

75 homes that had adopted a free-ranging dog completed the survey. Some dogs came from a shelter or vet, but others were picked up on the street. This, they explain, “may be because of the pattern where in developing countries such as Turkey people encounter free-ranging dogs in everyday life, so they do not need to put any extra effort to adopt these dogs.” There was no difference in behaviour of the dogs who came directly from the street rather than via another source.

Most of the dogs were acquired as puppies; 40% under 3 months old and 21% between 3 and 6 months at the time of adoption. 

First, the good news. Most homes reported no difficulties with house-training or leash-training. And although 75% of the dogs were said to show fear at first, 69% became more confident and easy-going over time. Common things the dogs were afraid of were sudden noise, thunder, vacuum cleaners, and sudden movements (things many dogs from other sources are also afraid of). 

The most common behaviour problem reported was hyper-attachment to the owner (59%), such as following the owner around the house or wanting to be in constant contact. Some dogs were like this from the beginning, and others developed it over time. The authors say “This finding is not surprising because it is known that dogs adopted from animal shelters or through rescue routes are more likely to exhibit separation-related problems.”

A happy dog snuggled up on the settee
Photos: Yanaskaya (top) / Adya (both
Differences in terminology make comparisons tricky, and it’s worth noting that separation anxiety and hyper-attachment are not synonymous (Sherman and Mills 2008). In Linda Lord et al’s (2008) study, problem behaviour when left alone was reported in 16% of shelter dogs one month after adoption. Following the owner round the house was reported in 65% of pet dogs by Emily Blackwell et al (2008) (and most of these dogs came from a breeder).

Another common behaviour problem reported at the time of adoption was destructiveness (32%), which declined over time to 13%. 32% of dogs were said to stray. Although aggression was not common initially, it increased in the period following adoption, suggesting some dogs initially inhibited this behaviour in their new home. At the time of the survey, 12.5% of the dogs were said to show aggression. Of these, most were aggressive to cats (which might be considered predation) or towards other dogs.

A few of the dogs were kept on a chain. Although many had access to at least some of the house, 39% were not allowed inside. The scientists say more research is needed on animal welfare and to find out whether these dogs are treated the same as other pet dogs.

There’s an interesting finding in terms of how owners perceive the human-canine relationship. Only 4% of the owners said the relationship should be based on dominance and force. However (64%) “stated that the owner should be a leader in a hierarchical order when interacting with his or her dog. They, however, reported that the hierarchical order should not be based on dominance.” More research is needed on how people understand the human-canine relationship.

The authors say, “one may assume that urban free-ranging dogs have a rather shy and fearful character in comparison to their conspecifics. Such dogs may have the tendency to display fearful behaviour in novel situations. They may, on the other hand, show considerable improvement when living in a stable family environment.”

It’s possible that people whose dogs did not do well did not complete the survey, so it may not show a full picture. The finding that dogs improve over time in their new home ties in with Frank McMillan et al’s similar finding for adult dogs re-homed from commercial breeding establishments

The scientists conclude that urban free-ranging dogs adapt well to their new homes. This will be reassuring to anyone thinking of adopting a similar dog. It’s especially good news given that some of these families quite literally picked a dog from the street, without going via an organization that temperament tests the dogs or provides ongoing behavioural support. 

Have you ever adopted a shelter dog or free-ranging 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
Salgirli Demirbas, Y., Emre, B., & Kockaya, M. (2014). Integration ability of urban free-ranging dogs into adoptive families' environment Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 222-227 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.04.006  
Lord, L., Reider, L., Herron, M., & Graszak, K. (2008). Health and behavior problems in dogs and cats one week and one month after adoption from animal shelters Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 233 (11), 1715-1722 DOI: 10.2460/javma.233.11.1715  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006
Sherman, B., & Mills, D. (2008). Canine Anxieties and Phobias: An Update on Separation Anxiety and Noise Aversions Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38 (5), 1081-1106 DOI: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.012

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Right to Walk Away

What can pet owners learn from the way scientists give animals choices in research?

A cat walking away from a small child

When people take part in research, scientists must ensure they give informed consent. When the participants are pets, owners give consent on their behalf: they understand the risks of the research and they have the right to end their participation at any time (e.g. if they feel their dog is stressed). We can’t ask animals about their feelings, but scientists have several ways they give the pets a choice.

In Sarah Ellis et al’s recent (2015) paper on feline stroking preferences, cats were stroked in their own homes by two different people and were free to walk away at any time. 18 out of 34 cats walked away at some point during the first study, and 3 out of 20 in the second study, showing the importance of the choice.

Sometimes scientists offer dogs a piece of food before starting an experiment, or wait for the dog to approach a person or location. Dogs are first given time to get used to the experimenters and the new surroundings. Then if they don’t want the food or approach, it could be because they are stressed (stressed animals are often not interested in food). It’s not unusual for a few dogs to drop out of a study for this reason.

In Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne’s (2015) experiments to test whether dogs prefer petting or praise, dogs were given time to get used to the location and experimenter, and shown that one person was offering petting and another praise. Then the dog was taken to the starting position. They write that four dogs “were dropped from the experiment because they did not approach either alternative in the first 5 min period.” 

Just as in Ellis’s study with cats, dogs could walk away from petting at any point in the study. Because the study was about choices, they write that, “When providing petting, the assistant petted and scratched the dog with one hand on the side closest to the assistant so that the petting did not interfere with the dog’s ability to move away.”

Dogs aren’t only dropped from studies due to lack of interest or stress; sometimes they are actually excluded for being too confident. An example is Isabella Merola et al’s (2012) study of whether pet dogs look to a person (their owner or a stranger) for social support when stressed by something. The scientists chose a fan with streamers attached as the slightly-scary object. Of the 90 dogs that took part, 25 were excluded from the study because they confidently approached the fan. 

Social referencing paper PLoS One doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047653.g001
A dog looks at the fan with streamers in Merola et al's experiment

Note that dogs were never forced to go near the fan; they were free to move around the room so they could approach, or not, as they wished. At the end of the study, dogs were given food near the fan so they would not be frightened of fans in future.

What is the relevance to ordinary pet owners? Try to ensure that your dog or cat (or rabbit or …) has the opportunity to make choices. If they don’t want to interact with you at a particular time, that’s fine. Wait, and try again later. 

While to many this may seem obvious, to others it’s a revolutionary idea. One of the (many) problems with outdated dominance views of training is the emphasis on forcing animals to do as you wish. Not only is this ethically questionable, it can backfire in several ways. It is potentially dangerous for the person and animal, and risks creating fear and a poor human-animal relationship.

The puppy has a choice whether to interact or not
Photos: Shapiro Svetlana (top) & Adya (Shutterstock)
Choices are especially important for fearful animals, for whom enforced interactions might only make the fear worse. If your puppy is shy in class and wants to hide, let her, and she will come out in her own time. If your dog is afraid of fireworks, comfort him if he would like it or let him hide if he prefers – and later on, figure out a plan to help him with this fear. If your cats prefer to hide under the bed when young children come to visit, that’s fine too – let them stay in their safe place until things are back to normal, if that’s what they want.

If pets don’t want to be trained at a particular moment in time, that’s okay – but consider how you can motivate them in future. Some people are surprisingly reluctant to use food, but think about how much dogs like to eat! You could use high value food such as your dog’s favourite treats, pieces of hot dog, cheese, fish, or even steak. 

Dog training is an unlicensed profession, so there is no requirement for dog trainers to follow the same ethical standards as scientists. Ask your dog trainer how they motivate dogs, and if the answer is not food, you might like to exercise your own right to walk away.

How do you give your pets choices?

Ellis, S., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002  
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019  
Merola I, Prato-Previde E, & Marshall-Pescini S (2012). Dogs' social referencing towards owners and strangers. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23071828

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How many dogs is enough for canine science?
Describing dog training: Weasel words or clear descriptions?
Do dogs prefer petting or praise?