Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Invitation to the Train for Rewards Blog Party

Join the blog party to celebrate rewards-based training of our dogs and other companion animals. #Train4Rewards

Positive reinforcement training for dogs and cats
Planning for the Train for Rewards Blog Party

Are you a blogger? Do you support rewards-based training for dogs and other animals? Would you like to take part in the #Train4Rewards blog party?

You are invited to write a blog post about rewards-based training of dogs or other companion animals, post it on your own blog on the set date, then come and share a link to it here. Bloggers from anywhere in the world are invited to take part.

Read on to find out more.

On Wednesday, 15th June:

1. Publish a post on your blog in support of the #Train4Rewards blog party. It can be words, photos, video, a podcast, or a combination, and relate to any kind of companion animal.  I’ve put some suggestions below to get you started.

Double-check your post to make sure the tone is friendly and supportive to people who might not know anything about positive reinforcement training – we want to encourage them to get interested.

2. Include the #Train4Rewards button in your post, using the code displayed underneath it. (See below if you need more info on how to do this). The button will appear closer to the time so watch this space.

3. Add your blog to the list on The list will be open from 5am PST on 15th June until 8am PST on 16th June. Don’t miss the deadline!

On Thursday 16th June:

1. Check out the full list of participating blogs on Visit the other blogs, and leave comments to show support for your fellow bloggers.

2. Share your blog post on social media using the hashtag #Train4Rewards.

3. Share your favourite posts from other participating blogs on social media, also using the hashtag #Train4Rewards. You don’t have to share all the posts (unless you want to), so pick the ones you like best and share those. You can spread this out throughout the day.

4. Feel proud of your contribution to improving animal welfare. Reward yourself with a piece of cake, a bunch of flowers, a walk in the woods, or whatever makes you happy.

Ideas for posts

The benefits of positive reinforcement dog training
Blog posts can be about any aspect of rewards-based training, so feel free to use your imagination. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

What you enjoy about training using positive reinforcement

How to use positive reinforcement to teach a behaviour or solve a behaviour problem

How to train your cat to go into a carrier

A video of your dog, cat, rabbit, rat or ferret doing tricks

The key thing that made you become a crossover trainer

Photos of dogs (or other animals) enjoying a training session

The best treats to use as rewards

Recipes for training treats

An ode to your bait pouch, written by your dog

Why you love your dog trainer

What is allowed: blog posts that celebrate the rewards-based training of companion animals.
What is not allowed: training that uses pain, including but not limited to choke and prong collars, electronic shock collars, alpha rolls, or other aversive techniques; blog posts of a commercial nature.

I reserve the right to not include posts if they are not within the spirit of the blog party. Please keep posts family-friendly.

If you want, you can let me know that you are planning to take part. I look forward to reading your posts!

Technical Details

How to add the blog party button to your blog post: Copy the code that is displayed underneath the button. Put the code in the html part of your page. In blogger, click the html button on the top left; in wordpress, the html button is on the top right. Position the code where you would like the button to appear e.g. if you want it at the bottom of the page, put it underneath all the other html code; if you want it at the top, put it at the top.

If you want to centre it, put <center> at the beginning of the code, and </center> after it.

When you go back to your compose field, you will see the button in your post.

If you choose to also include a text link to the blog party (this is not required), please make it a nofollow link.

How to add your blog post to the Train for Rewards list:
You need to use the specific permalink to your blog post, not the main url of your blog. If you have pictures in your post, you will have a choice of thumbnails.

If you make a mistake or want to choose a different thumbnail, you can delete it and start again any time up to the deadline.

You will need to provide your email address in order to add your link, but this will only be used (if necessary) to communicate with you about this link-up. You will not be added to any email lists. If you would like to receive blog posts by email, you should subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Dog Attacks on Guide Dogs: The Personal and Financial Cost

A new report finds there are 11 dog attacks on guide dogs every month in the UK, on average.

Severe consequences of dog attacks on guide dogs
The lifetime cost of a guide dog for the blind is approximately US$75,000

Guide dogs provide essential assistance to people who are blind or partially sighted. When other dogs attack guide dogs, the consequences can be severe. The charity Guide Dogs has been keeping records of these attacks, and a new paper by Rachel Moxon (of Guide Dogs) et al details the problems faced over a 56 month period from 2010 to 2015.

During this time, there were 629 attacks. 68% of the victims were qualified Guide Dogs (almost three-quarters of which were in harness at the time of the attack). 20% were dogs in puppy walk (aged up to 1.5 years), 8% were dogs in training, and the remainder were retired, breeding dogs, or buddy dogs.

“Within the current study, 20 dogs were withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme as a direct result of a dog attack,” write the authors, “20% of qualified guide dogs required time off from working and 13 dogs were withdrawn from working as a guide. The implications for the guide dog owners of these dogs are likely to be long-term and complex affecting not only their mobility and physical health, but also their social and emotional well-being.”

Because 50 incidents had 2 or more attacking dogs, there were a total of 689 aggressing dogs responsible for these attacks. The person with the guide dog described the attack as being due to lack of control of the aggressing dog (29%), caused by the aggressing dog (22%) or unprovoked (19%). The attacking dogs were usually with their owner (46% off-leash and 31% on-leash), but in 22% of cases the dog was off-leash with no owner present.

97% of the attacks occurred in public areas, just over a quarter of them in places where you expect to see off-leash dogs. At the time of the attack, 56% of the victim dogs were in harness and working, 26% on leash and 18% were loose.

Most of the Guide Dogs are yellow or black. More dark-coloured dogs and fewer light-coloured dogs were attacked compared to the average numbers of those dogs, but it’s not known why.

43% of the dogs had injuries, and three quarters of these needed to see a vet; some dogs with no injuries also visited the vet to be checked over. Dogs were more likely to be injured if they were off-leash at the time of the attack, rather than in harness or on-leash. Only 6 owners of attacking dogs paid for vet bills. In 5 cases, vets kindly treated the dogs for free.

There was an impact on working ability for 42% of the dogs, with 22% having to take some time off work. 20 dogs had to be withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme, which included 13 qualified dogs, 6 that were in training and 1 puppy. The authors say, “Dogs were withdrawn because the dog attack impacted their behaviour and their ability to safely guide a person that is blind or partially sighted.”

The charity estimates the cost of withdrawing these dogs to be over £600,000. It costs £39,700 to breed and train a guide dog and the charity typically spends a further £13,000 to support the ongoing relationship with the handler until the dog retires.

The attacks also had significant effects on the handlers. 59 handlers and 28 other people were injured in the attacks. In 71% of cases, the handler said it affected their emotional well-being; feelings of anxiety, being shaken and upset were the most common reactions.

"The guide dog harness is designed to be visible and should have been apparent to the owners of aggressors who were present in 76.8 per cent of  attacks," write Moxon et al. “It is feasible that a proportion of these attacks could have been avoided if the aggressor was put on a lead when the owner saw a guide dog in harness.”

You should never distract a guide dog in harness because they are working. Even if your dog is friendly, it would be helpful to put him or her on leash if you see a guide dog, so they can work without distractions. Or, as Julie Hecht puts it, “only you can prevent sniffing of guide dogs’ butts.”

Under UK law, the owner of a dog that attacks an assistance dog may receive a fine and/or up to three years in prison.

Moxon, R., Whiteside, H., & England, G. (2016). Incidence and impact of dog attacks on guide dogs in the UK: an update Veterinary Record, 178 (15), 367-367 DOI: 10.1136/vr.103433
Photos: Pornchai Chanachai (top); Jeroen van den Broek (both

P.S. How we can improve working dog programs and differences between show and field Labrador Retrievers.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Behaviour Problems in Puppies from Pet Stores

Dogs originally bought from pet stores are more likely to be aggressive to their owner compared to those from responsible breeders, even after owner-related factors are taken into account.

Puppies from pet stores more likely to be aggressive to owner

Research by Frank McMillan et al (2013) found that dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores are more likely to have a whole range of behaviour problems than those from responsible breeders, including 3x more likely to be aggressive towards their owner. Pet store puppies come from commercial breeding establishments, otherwise known as puppy mills, which are run for profit and not animal welfare.

Since well-informed people are less likely to go to pet stores, one potential confound is that the owners of pet store puppies may know less about how to raise a dog. A new study by Federica Pirrone et al (2016) takes owner factors into consideration too.

The results show 21% of the dogs that were obtained as puppies from pet stores were aggressive towards their owner compared to 10% of those obtained from breeders. Owner-related factors did not account for this.

Three other behaviour problems – house soiling, body licking, and separation-related distress – were also more common in dogs obtained from pet stores, but it turned out these were linked to owner-related factors. These included only taking the dog for short daily walks (20 minutes or less), not going to dog training classes, not having owned a dog before, not knowing about the existence of veterinary behaviourists, and punishing the dog when returning home.

Most puppies sold in pet stores in Italy, where the study took place, come from commercial breeding establishments (puppy mills) in Eastern Europe, where conditions can be extremely poor (“filthy conditions with little food or water” is how the Daily Mail described one Polish puppy farm).

The responsible breeders from whom puppies in the study were obtained are members of the Italian Kennel Club and follow a code of ethics that includes providing socialization opportunities that are essential for puppies.

The scientists suggest several possible reasons for increased aggression in dogs that originate in puppy mills: epigenetic factors due to the mother being stressed in pregnancy, lack of socialization, the stress of the early environment and its negative influence on learning ability, and a lack of information provided by pet stores to new owners.

Increased aggression to owner in dogs obtained from pet stores
The study included 349 dogs that were acquired from breeders as puppies and 173 dogs that were bought as puppies from pet stores. They were all over 1 year old at the time of the study. No effect of breed or breed group was found.

It’s worth noting the list of potential behaviour problems relied on owner report, and was not based on any official diagnoses. Owner-directed aggression did not include food guarding or toy guarding, which were separate questions and were not linked to origin of the puppy. Stranger aversion was also a separate question and not linked to origin either, which ties in with research by Casey et al (2014) that found aggression towards family members is typically not linked to aggression to strangers.

This study shows that puppies from puppy mills are more likely to be aggressive to their owner as adult dogs, regardless of various things the owner might or might not do. It also shows that a range of owner-related factors are linked to other behaviour problems. This is useful information for educational campaigns, which are important because there is a lot of erroneous information about dog training. Other research also suggests it is important to attend a good puppy class.

Good advice for people intending to get a dog is to make sure not to get a puppy from a pet store, sign up for good dog training classes, and make sure the dog gets enough walks as this is important for ongoing socialization as well as exercise. And, of course, learn as much as you can about how to take good care of and train your dog.

P.S. How to choose a puppy in 4 easy steps and why you need to socialize your puppy.

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
McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359
Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Pastorino, G., & Albertini, M. (2016). Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 13-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.007
Photo: Anucha Pongpatimeth (

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Why Science Matters to Our Dogs and Cats

Science – and science blogging – can help animal welfare in important ways.

Science and science blogging can help animal welfare

We wish our companion animals to lead a charmed life and always be happy. We want our dogs and cats to have a wonderful relationship with us. But we can’t achieve this if we don’t know what they need and how we should interact with them.

Last year, some readers took part in a survey of who reads science blogs. The preliminary results are out, and it’s got me thinking about why science – and science blogging – matters for our companion animals.

One of the findings of Dr. Paige Jarreau's study is that in general (and regardless of level of education, gender, age and consumption of other online science info) people who consistently read science blogs were better able to answer the knowledge questions about science that were included in the survey (a few of you sent me comments on those at the time).

“This finding is a promising indicator that science blogs may be promoting greater scientific knowledge or science literacy – at least for some readers,” writes Dr. Jarreau.

I find this encouraging because there are many ways in which science (and social science) can improve animal welfare and our relationship with our companion animals.

In order to help our animals be happy, we need to understand their needs – and also how well their guardians understand those needs. For example, cats benefit from environmental enrichment. But although guardians are good at providing some of these (e.g. playtime, feline-friendly spaces like windows, and scratching posts), they miss other important aspects such as providing water separately from their food bowl, using scents, and – a surprising omission, since it’s easy to fix – the use of food toys that make the cat work for their food. Discovering gaps in people’s knowledge and communicating easy ways to make things better is one thing science blogs can do well. (If you’re a dog person, there are some tips on canine enrichment too).

Science is important for the welfare of our pet dogs and cats
Another example of how science matters comes from dog training. Because dog training is unlicensed, sometimes all the education a dog trainer has (apart from high school) is that they grew up with dogs. We wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids; we would expect them to get a qualification and experience. This lack of education partly explains the fact some people still use out-dated, antiquated training based on the metaphor of wolf packs applied to dogs. There are also many wonderful dog trainers with education and expertise; people need to choose carefully so as to get the right kind.

The problem is that using aversive dog training techniques has risks, and positive reinforcement is a better choice.  For example, dogs trained using negative reinforcement (e.g. teaching sit by pulling the leash and pushing the dog’s bottom down, only stopping when the dog sits) gaze less at their owner and are more likely to show signs of stress. Dogs taught recall using electronic shock collars show signs of stress and don’t perform any better than those taught with positive reinforcement. A higher frequency of punishment correlates with higher aggression and excitability. For dogs with behaviour problems, the use of aversive techniques can sometimes lead to aggression, while rewards-based training has a positive effect. People who use only positive reinforcement report better trained dogs. Plus, dogs like to work for rewards.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that using aversive methods can have unwanted consequences. We’ve known for some time that it’s not a good idea to use physical punishment with children. Just this month, a new study (Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) looking at 50 years of research found spanking children is linked to many detrimental outcomes. Prof. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor told UT News, “The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”

Dogs are not children, and the scientific literature on dogs and training methods is nowhere near as vast or sophisticated as that on children and parenting strategies, but there are some parallels.

One thing we know about people’s knowledge of dog training is that it often comes from themselves. Hopefully science blogging can help to increase awareness, as people read and share articles that promote positive reinforcement in dog training. Here, the bad news from Dr. Jarreau’s study is that many readers of science blogs do not share the articles they read. If we want people to pay attention to science-based dog training, we need to share information about it.

Another way science can help companion animals relates to work that shows how much pets can mean to people. For example, research shows that homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without but that having a pet on the street brings disadvantages too such as the problem of finding a shelter that will take pets. Knowing about the importance of pets and the difficulties their homeless owners face can lead to policy decisions that will ultimately help both pet and human.

The main reasons people gave for reading science blogs were “because it stimulates my curiosity”, “as an educational tool” and “for information I don’t find in traditional news media.” Dr. Jarreau also writes that, “there appears to be a small but avid cluster of science blog readers who read blogs to feel involved in an online community.”

One of the things I’ve gained from writing this blog is a sense of just how many people are passionate about science and committed to animal welfare. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful to all of my readers. I read all of your comments here and on twitter, facebook and email (subscribers just need to hit the reply button), and try to use them to make this blog even better. I'm very pleased that interest in science and our companion animals continues to grow.

Now go share some science stories. Let’s keep spreading the word!

Gershoff, E., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology DOI: 10.1037/fam0000191
For other references, please click the relevant links.
Photo: Christian Mueller (