Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Where Do People Get Information About Dog Training?

Can people be blamed for dog training mistakes when there is so much erroneous information out there?

Where do people get information about dog training?

Recently I saw a man walking a German Shepherd. Even from a distance it was clear the dog was nervous: his posture was low to the ground and the way he was walking made me wonder what kind of equipment he was on. As I waited at the traffic lights, I got a chance to see: a prong collar, tight, positioned high on his neck.

There are easy alternatives, the simplest being a no-pull harness. I began to wonder: did the man not know there were other approaches? Did he not want to invest time in training loose-leash walking? Or did he think it looks good to have a big dog on a prong collar?

While I don’t know his line of reasoning, we do know something about sources of training information. A recent survey of canine behavioural problems by Pirrone et al (2015) in Italy included a question about where people got information on dog training. 55% of respondents gave the answer, ‘myself’. This was broken down into two groups: 13% of dog owners who got their information ‘instinctively’, and 42% who got it from the web, TV or a book.

The internet is a great source of both information and misinformation about dog training and animal behaviour. The same applies to TV shows and books, some of which are wonderful and others not so much. It’s hard for readers and viewers to separate fact from fiction, especially when there is so much conflicting advice.

The other interesting thing to note about this answer, ‘myself’, is that it suggests most people do not discuss their dog’s behaviour with others, whether that is friends, family or vets. (In fact only 0.5% reported asking other dog owners).

35% of people said they got information from a dog trainer, and 6% from a veterinarian. So are they safe if they ask a dog trainer? Sadly there are no standards in dog training, so responses could vary from dire to excellent. It’s not a surprise that vets came low on the list, as a study by Roshier and McBride found vets can miss opportunities to discuss behaviour problems with their clients, and many clients think this isn’t an appropriate topic for the vet.

An earlier study by Herron, Shofer and Reisner included questions about people’s source of information for particular techniques and also found ‘self’ rated highly. Looking specifically at choke and prong collars, however, 66% said it was recommended by a trainer, while 21% credited themselves and 15% a friend or relative with the idea. In fact this was the second most common piece of advice to be credited to a trainer, after forcing the dog down with a leash at 70%. Both of these methods were categorized as "direct confrontation" by the authors. (More positively, the reward-based techniques of clicker training and teaching ‘look’ or ‘watch me’ were third on the list as trainer-recommendations). 

So is it lack of knowledge that causes people to use aversive training techniques? An Australian survey by Branson, Cobb and McGreevy found that only 6% of trainers of working dogs have a formal certification and 52% have no training at all. In other words, half of the trainers who responded to the survey do not even have on-the-job training. These are people training dogs for a range of law enforcement, protection, customs, search-and-rescue, farming, sports, and service roles. 

The same survey found the use of correction and electric shock collars was far more common amongst those with no training certification. Those with better education levels were more likely to use positive reinforcement.

Learning theory is a dog trainer’s bread and butter – or at least it should be. How can you do a good job of training without an understanding of how dogs learn?

Another issue is that people may genuinely not realize when their dog is stressed. Wan et al found experience with dogs is an important factor in people’s ability to recognize fear. When Deldalle and Gaunet compared the effects of positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement (which uses aversives), they found dogs in the latter group were more stressed and looked less at their owners. The signs of stress included lowered body posture, lip-licking, and yawning. These could be missed by people who don't know what to look for.

Which brings us back to the beautiful German Shepherd that was showing all three of these signs. There is a real need for better education about dog training. Without it, people will continue to use out-dated, inappropriate and even dangerous methods. If you’re looking for a dog trainer, here are some questions to ask from The Academy for Dog Trainers, as considered by three excellent trainers: Maureen Backman, Lori Nanan and Helen Verte.

The good news is that the push for humane training methods is gaining momentum. 

Branson, N., Cobb, M., & McGreevy, P. (2009). Australian Working Dog Survey Report Australian Animal Welfare Strategy Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of two training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9 (2), 58-65 :  
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  
Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Mazzola, S., Vigo, D., & Albertini, M. (2015). Owner and animal factors predict the incidence of, and owner reaction toward, problematic behaviors in companion dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.004  
Roshier, A., & McBride, E. (2012). Canine behaviour problems: discussions between veterinarians and dog owners during annual booster consultations Veterinary Record, 172 (9), 235-235 DOI: 10.1136/vr.101125  
Wan, M., Bolger, N., & Champagne, F. (2012). Human Perception of Fear in Dogs Varies According to Experience with Dogs PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051775
Photo credit: Terry Watt (  

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Pets: Building Community One Friend at a Time

Even indoor pets help us get to know other people, according to new research in four cities in the US and Australia.

People who walk dogs are 5x more likely to make friends via their pet

It’s easy to see how people who regularly walk their dog can get to know others. They might strike up friendly conversations about dogs, or learn to avoid certain people because of the way their off-leash dog charges up with unwanted “friendly” advances. It’s less obvious for people who don’t walk their dogs, or who have pets that are always indoors. But a new study by researchers at the University of Western Australia and Harvard University finds that pets are an important way of getting to know and make friends with other people.

Lead author Lisa Wood told me in an email, “There is growing evidence that social isolation, loneliness and lack of social support are common issues in today's cities and suburbs, and these can take a negative toll on  our health and wellbeing. Companion animals can however be an antidote to this, as they often create opportunities for us to meet other people. Animals can break the ice between strangers and are a great social leveller, as people of all ages and races can feel that they have something in common.”  

“Whilst it might just start with saying hello to someone with a companion animal, our research indicates that this often leads to friendships and can strengthen sense of community.  Pets can introduce us to people we wouldn't have met otherwise, and this broadens our networks of social support. Such social connectedness and social support is good for our health as individuals and as a community.”  

The most common ways of getting to know other people were being neighbours and via local streets/parks. But for pet owners, their pet was the third most common way in San Diego, Nashville and Perth, and the fourth most common in Portland. (It’s important to note this question was asked before any questions about pets, so these responses were not primed by the researchers).

Among the 59% of people who had a pet, about half said they had got to know someone through their pet. And compared to other pet owners, those with dogs were 5x more likely to have met someone this way. 

One person said, “Lots of folks in this neighbourhood own and walk dogs. The dogs insist on meeting and greeting, and their humans follow suit. It has caused me to be more social than is my inclination.”

Even indoor pets can help people make friends
But some of the ways in which pets facilitated getting to know people are surprising. For example, one person said, “Their children are interested in seeing the snake and we never let children come in without parent permission. So before anyone can see the snake or handle the snake we need to have met the parents and had it okayed with them.”

While a cat owner had an interesting situation with socks: “The cat steals people’s socks from their houses, and then I return them. It’s a good way to get to know people. They all think it’s hilarious.” 

42% of pet owners had received some kind of social support, such as emotional support or borrowing an item, from someone they met via their pet. Again, this was more likely for dog owners. This is an important finding because social support from other people has important psychological and physical benefits. While previous research shows that animals themselves can provide social support, this study found that animals play a role in facilitating social support from other people.

One of the ways even indoor pets can help to build friendship is through the discovery of common interests. Learning that someone else has an animal too can show they are similar to us, in much the same way people can bond over music or gardening.

2692 people took part in the survey in Perth in Australia and San Diego, Portland, and Nashville in the US. The American cities were chosen for their similarities to Perth in terms of climate, geography, density and housing type. Because summer is a time when people are more often out-and-about with their pets, the survey was conducted in autumn, namely April – June for Perth and September – December in the United States.  

Dogs were the most common pet, then cats, fish and birds. 

Some of the great things about this study are its large sample size, the design of the questionnaire and the mixed-method approach that included the chance for people to share personal experiences. Since the cities were chosen for their similarity, it will be interesting to see if these results are also found in other locations, both rural and urban. 

The results suggest that urban planners, local councils and community organizations should take account of the role of pets in building community.

Have you made friends through your pet?

Wood, L., Martin, K., Christian, H., Nathan, A., Lauritsen, C., Houghton, S., Kawachi, I., & McCune, S. (2015). The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support PLOS ONE, 10 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122085
Photos: 938738673 / OksanaAriskina (both