Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Why You Need to Socialize Your Puppy

The importance of socialization can’t be stressed enough.

A black puppy plays outside as an early socialization experience

These days, more and more people understand that puppies need to be socialized. But sometimes people wonder, how do we know this? It’s based on classic research in canine science.

Many papers contribute to our understanding of puppies. In 1950, J.P. Scott and Mary-‘Vesta Marston published a study of 17 litters, including the earliest age at which they opened their eyes for the first time, began to walk, and engaged in play. They hypothesized there were critical periods in canine development. In 1959, C.J. Pfaffenberger and J.P. Scott noticed that puppies being raised to be guide dogs were more likely to fail their training if they were kept in kennels for longer and missed some early socialization.

Then in 1961, Daniel Freedman, John King and Orville Elliott published research on puppies in Science. They said, “the net result suggests that the seventh week of age was the period in which the pups were most receptive to socialization, and that 2½ to 9-13 weeks of age approximates a critical period for socialization to human beings.”

They studied eight litters of puppies (five of Cocker Spaniels, three of Beagles). It was an isolation experiment in which each mother and her pups were kept in a fenced one-acre field without any contact with people. Food and water was supplied via openings in the fence. 

Every week, certain pups were taken from each litter for 7 days of socialization. The socialization does not match what people do for puppies nowadays; in fact, during their week indoors, the pup was played with, fed and otherwise taken care of, during just three thirty minute sessions per day. 

Pups were taken from their litters for socialization at either 2, 3, 5, 7 or 9 weeks of age. At the end of the week, they were returned to their mum and litter-mates. 

Every day during the socialization there was a 10 minute test of how much time the puppy would spend near the experimenter. The 2-week old pups were too young to really do anything. But by 3 weeks, they were able to interact with the experimenter and “spent most of the 10 minute period pawing, mouthing and biting him and his garments.” At 5, 7 and 9 weeks old it is reported that the pups were initially wary but then warmed up (within one play session, two days and three days respectively).

Socialization of puppies is vital
Photos: Lex-art (top); Zuzule (both
At 14 weeks old, all of the puppies were removed from the field and tested over the following 2 weeks.

Five puppies acted as ‘controls’ and remained in the field with their mother the entire time. The result of not being socialized was terrible. The scientists said, “unless socialization occurred before 14 weeks of age, withdrawal reactions from humans became so intense that normal relationships could not thereafter be established.” One of the control puppies was “petted and fondled” every day for the following three months, and did not really become more sociable in that time. 

It’s interesting to look back at this article because science – and dog training – has improved since it was conducted. Full details of the socialization are not given and the numbers of puppies are small. These days proper desensitization and counter-conditioning would be used for a fearful pup (subjecting it to unwanted petting could make it even more fearful). 

Nonetheless, these results tell us a lot. They tie in with other studies of the time, including raising Chihuahua puppies with cats (Fox, 1969). They relate to what is known about sensitive periods in other animals (including humans). But now that we know how harmful lack of socialization is, the study would not be repeated today.

Socializing puppies is about more than just people. It involves pleasant experiences with unknown dogs, surfaces, places, anything that puppy might come across as an adult. Socialization should start in the home of the breeder, or the foster home if it is a rescue (puppies are available from rescues too). If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder or rescue what they do to socialize puppies, and be prepared to do lots of socialization yourself.

In her book Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson says “it’s advisable to go way overboard covering all the bases before the socialization window closes, especially for spookier breeds or individuals. This means exposing the puppy to as wide a social sphere as possible in terms of human age groups, sexes, sizes, shapes, colours and gaits. The experiences should be positive (play, treats, nothing scary) and include a wide variety of patting, handling and movement by the humans. It also means getting the puppy used to anything it may have to encounter in later life, such as car rides, veterinary exams (make the first one or two fun rather than scary), cats, traffic, soccer games, elevators and pointy sticks.”

There is a balance to be struck in socializing puppies to prevent future behaviour problems and protecting them from disease when they are not fully immunized. This is something to discuss with your vet. The AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization says, “Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals and experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioural problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioural problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond… Behavioural issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

“The importance of a critical period for socialization is hard to overestimate,” says Jean Donaldson. It’s important to get it right. And because dog training is an unlicensed profession, this means you should choose your puppy’s dog trainer with care.

What are your tips for socializing a puppy?

Donaldson, Jean (2005, 2nd edition). Culture Clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and domestic dogs. Dogwise.
Fox, M. (1969). Behavioral Effects of Rearing Dogs With Cats During the 'Critical Period of Socialization' Behaviour, 35 (3), 273-280 DOI: 10.1163/156853969X00242  
Freedman, D., King, J., & Elliot, O. (1961). Critical Period in the Social Development of Dogs Science, 133 (3457), 1016-1017 DOI: 10.1126/science.133.3457.1016
Pfaffenberger, C., & Scott, J. (1959). The Relationship between Delayed Socialization and Trainability in Guide Dogs The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 95 (1), 145-155 DOI: 10.1080/00221325.1959.10534251  
Scott, J., & Marston, M. (1950). Critical Periods Affecting the Development of Normal and Mal-Adjustive Social Behavior of Puppies The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology, 77 (1), 25-60 DOI: 10.1080/08856559.1950.10533536

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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

What Do Young Children Learn From Pets?

Is a better understanding of biology something children can learn from dogs and cats?

Young children's interactions with pets are mostly social

Young children are very interested in animals. One study even found children aged 11 – 40 months would prefer to look at an animal behind a glass screen (even if the animal is fast asleep) rather than play with a toy (LoBue et al 2013). Now researchers are asking whether this interest in animals means that children with a cat or dog know more about biology than those without.

The study, by Megan Geerdts (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) et al, was in two parts. First of all, the scientists needed to know how preschool children actually interact with cats and dogs. Although this is observed by parents every day, it seems it hasn’t been recorded in enough detail for science. So the researchers observed 24 preschool children in a free-play session with their pet, and asked their parents to complete a questionnaire about their child’s daily experiences with the animal. Then, in the second part, they tested 3 – 5 year old children with and without a pet on their knowledge of biological concepts.

First of all, the children’s interactions with pets were mostly social. They were not really involved in taking care of the animals, which is not surprising given their age. A study of older children (age 7 – 13 years old) by Muldoon et al found they also mostly had social interactions with their pets, and left the care-taking to their parents. 

Children typically interacted in reciprocal ways that would elicit a response from the animal, such as holding out a hand to be sniffed, trying to engage in play or giving the pet a command. The questionnaires completed by parents confirmed that interactions were social, and children were not involved in care-taking behaviour. They interacted with cats and dogs in the same way, but girls interacted more than boys.

A happy young girl cuddles her black cat
So, if a young child’s experiences of spending time with a pet are of being sociable with it, would you expect them to learn much about biology from this? It’s not like they are dealing with the biological end of things – feeding, grooming, cleaning, making sure the animal has peed and pooped. And yet they did show a better understanding of biological concepts.

The way this was tested is pretty neat. If you were to ask something like “People have a heart. Does your cat have a heart?” you couldn’t rule out the possibility that some children might have learned about hearts at their pre-school or playgroup and have existing prior knowledge. So the researchers used a made-up word that none of the children would have come across before.

96 children aged 2 - 6 took part in the second study. One group were told, “People have andro inside them. Andro is round and green and looks like this!” The child and experimenter drew a picture of andro together. Then, the child was asked whether various animals, plants and inanimate objects also had andro inside. Another group did the same thing, but instead of being told that people have andro, they were told that dogs have andro.

Then the children were asked questions about their own cat or dog (if they had one) and the experimenter’s cat or dog (if they didn’t). The questions were about whether or not the cat or dog had various psychological and physical properties, including emotions, sleep, food, and parents.

A control group of adults did the same study, but they skipped drawing a picture of andro. Adults were equally likely to relate properties from humans to dogs as vice versa (i.e. if a dog has andro, so does a human). 

Half of the children had a cat or dog, and just like in the first study, their parents said their interactions were mostly social. Amongst 3 year old and 5 year olds without pets, they were more likely to relate properties from humans to dogs, rather than vice versa. If 5 year olds had pets, they were more likely to relate properties from dogs to humans than their peers without pets.

Five year olds and adults were more likely to say properties applied to other living things rather than to plants and inanimate objects. Three year olds tended to apply things equally to plants and inanimate objects. Having a pet made no difference to these results.

But in both age groups, if a child had a pet, they were more likely to say animals had biological properties compared to children that don’t have a pet. This effect was not found for psychological properties.

This study shows that children who have social experience with pets are less likely to be anthropocentric in their reasoning. The scientists say, “our findings help to support the hypothesis that treating animals as social creatures may help children to analogically understand animals as more similar to humans in other ways, including biologically.”

What do you think children learn from their pets?

LoBue, V., Bloom Pickard, M., Sherman, K., Axford, C., & DeLoache, J. (2013). Young children's interest in live animals British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 31 (1), 57-69 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2012.02078.x  
Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2014). 'Mum cleaned it and I just played with it': Children's perceptions of their roles and responsibilities in the care of family pets Childhood DOI: 10.1177/0907568214524457  
Geerdts, M., Van de Walle, G., & LoBue, V. (2015). Daily animal exposure and children’s biological concepts Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 130, 132-146 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.10.001
Photos: elista (top) / Patricia Marks / both


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Why Do People Take Part in Dog Sports?

Is it for themselves, for the dog - or a bit of both?

A poodle jumps in agility

People can participate in dog sports (like agility) at any level, from local classes to national and international events. A study by Joey Farrell (Lakehead University) et al investigates what motivates people to take part in dog sports, and why some compete much more often than others. 

They recruited people at events where at least two different sports were taking place, from a list of agility, rally, field, obedience and conformation (showing pedigree dogs). Although there is a chance to win titles, it turns out this isn’t the main reason why people take part. Feeling immersed in the activity and the chance to meet like-minded people are both important to competitors.

The scientists say that “people who are frequently active in dog sports tend to participate with a high level of self-determined motivation, which is related to personal satisfaction. Open-ended survey data reinforced, however, that individuals begin and remain engaged in dog sports for a variety of reasons, including enjoyment of learning or training with dogs, as well as externally driven factors (e.g., prizes and titles).” 

Some of the participants took part in more than 12 events per year. In comparison to those who participated less than 6 times a year, they scored higher on a scale that measures intrinsic motivation to experience. This is typified by statements such as ‘because I like the feeling of being totally immersed in the activity.’ They also scored higher on a scale that measures a type of extrinsic motivation, typified by the statement ‘because in my opinion, it is one of the best ways to meet other people.’

Four other types of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation did not vary between the two groups.  Intrinsic motivation relates to one’s own internal desires and interests. Extrinsic motivation refers to external factors such as rewards and titles. None of the participants scored highly on lack of motivation, which is not surprising.

The statistical results were supported by comments from participants, who wrote about the special bond that develops with the dogs, and how much they like meeting other people who feel the same way about dogs as they do. 

For example, one person said, “when you work with the dog as a team in a sport, you and the dog develop a very special relationship.” Another said, “I like the connection that develops with a dog during training and I like being around people who feel as I do about dogs. It enables me to connect with people from all walks of life.” 

The 85 participants completed a survey that included the Sports Motivation Scale, a set of questions that investigates intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to take part in sports. It was adapted to apply to dog sports. Open-ended questions were included that gave people chance to write about why they started the sport, why they continue and what they enjoy about it.

Just over three-quarters of the participants were in the age range 45-74, and 80% were female. They didn’t stick to just one sport, as most of them participated in 2 – 5 sports. Obedience was the most popular, with 85% taking part, followed by conformation (69%) and agility (64%). So although the sample is not representative it does include people who are keen competitors.

The researchers acknowledge that other factors, such as available time and ability to travel to events, also influence their participation in these sports. Just as with dog walking, since some of these events involve burning calories (for both the human and the dog), a better understanding of why people participate will help encourage dog owners to have more active lifestyles.

What joint activities do you do with your dog?

Farrell, J., Hope, A., Hulstein, R., & Spaulding, S. (2015). Dog-Sport Competitors: What Motivates People to Participate with Their Dogs in Sporting Events? Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 28 (1), 61-71 DOI: 10.2752/089279315X1412935072201

Photo: Reddogs /