Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Happy Canada Day! and Summer Reading

Happy Canada Day! The best blogs for summer reading

Happy Canada Day! The photograph shows a Boston Terrier on a kayak in Banff National Park.

If you’re looking for some reading to enjoy on a lazy summer’s day, here are some favourites from around the internet.

Dog Training 
Caveat emptor is only effective if the buyer is actually aware of what to beware,” writes Maureen Backman in Caveat Emptor: Bringing Consumer Protection to Dog Training 

Does your dog's jumping up cause you to forget your manners? asks Sylvie Martin of CrossPaws Dog Training. 
Not All "Choices" are Equal. It matters what the choices are, says Eileen Anderson.

Given a choice between petting and verbal praise, what does your dog choose? Less Talk More Touch, explains Erica Feuerbacher, PhD, in this guest post for Do You Believe in Dog. 
Stanley Coren, PhD, looks at a 2004 study in Effectiveness of Rewards and Punishments in Dog Training 
Marc Bekoff, PhD, reviews Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s new book in The Kindness of Dogs: New Book Explains Why Cesar’s GottaGo 
Make yourself a cup of tea before sitting down to read this long and thoughtful post from Simon Gadbois, PhD. 51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance”and “Punishment”

Separation Anxiety?
Dr. Meredith Stepita has written a series about separation anxiety for the Decoding Your Pet blog. It starts with The Great Imitator? 
Is it useful to label separation anxiety as mild or severe? Malena DeMartini writes about this question in How Serious is it and Does it Matter? 
On Separation Anxiety  by Lori Nanan at Your Pit Bull and You writes about the heartbreak of separation anxiety in dogs, and the dedication of owners in finding a solution.

Dog Bite Prevention:
Can dog bite prevention actually prevent dog bites? Julie Hecht writes about what we know about preventing dog bites, with a list of resources. 

And in This Dog Bite “Fact” Could Get You In Trouble, Julie Hecht sheds light on a problematic myth. She says "Taking dog bites seriously means not painting some dogs in rosy, "that dog could never bite" glasses and others in tinted "biter" glasses."

“Muzzles don’t have to mean a prison sentence for a life bereft of enrichment.” In Elevating Muzzle Training to a Higher Standard by Maureen Backman at the Muzzle Up! Project.

What are the legal liabilities if you adopt a dog from a 'rescue' that doesn't do behavioural assessments, and the dog subsequently bites someone? "nothing quite prepares the owners of these unvetted aggressive dogs for what's to come" writes Dr. Rebecca Ledger in the Vancouver Sun

Wider Reading:
Why Don't Dogs Like Cats? John Bradshaw, PhD, asks whether dogs and cats are natural enemies and explains how to socialize kittens and puppies so they are friends.

“it appears that, much like dog owners, veterinarians are markedly under-diagnosing obesity in their canine patients” writes Linda Case in Weigh In On This

 “The message from wildlife officials is that residents in coyote country need to adapt.” Coyotes Create Dangers and Divisions in New York Suburbs by Lisa W. Foderaro 

“Even those who have spent their lives working with animals have to decide whether their future will include pets” Retirees deciding whether new lifestyle will include pets  by Sue Manning.  

Sadly our pets have short lives. In Encounters With Dead Pets: A Study of the Evolution of Grief  Hal Herzog, PhD, considers whether there is an evolutionary purpose for the experience of grief.

Did you know half of cats in America don't have regular trips to the vet? Your Cat's Visit to the Vet Starts at Home, says Ingrid King

And do you also wonder why cat videos are so popular? Bethany Brookshire, PhD, explains a recent study in The Guilty Pleasure of Funny Cat Videos

"likely the best PR campaign for cats is carried out by cats themselves" says Steve Dale in The Real Truth About Cats

Catch up on Jessica Perry Hekman's visit to the fox domestication project in Novosibirsk.

"The turnspit [dog] was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it cooked evenly" Some 16th century canine history covered by The Kitchen Sisters in Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur

Ever wondered why wet dogs smell? Find out in this video from the American Chemical Society. (Thanks to Malcolm Campbell's Morsels for the Mind for this and the above link)

Patricia McConnell, PhD, asks Why Do Dogs Roll in Disgusting Stuff? like fox faeces.

Pica is eating non-food items, something many cats (and other animals) do. In Here’s Looking at Chew, Mikel Delgado reviews a recent study investigating pica in cats. 

Since it’s Canada Day, if you want to catch up on some Canadian research on people and pets, you could start here with these links from the Companion Animal Psychology archives:

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth on research by Michelle Lem (University of Guelph)

Are Seniors More Satisfied with Life if they have Pets?  on research by Chelsea Himsworth (UBC) and Melanie Rock (Calgary University)

Homeless Cats in Canada on a report by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.

And Should you take your dog to the dog park? on a study by Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier et al (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

Enough Reading, I Want To Take Part in Some Science!!!
Then Julie Hecht has all the links you need in this list of canine science projects looking for participants. Mail Your Dog’s Poop for Citizen Science 

Photo: C_Gara (

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Going for a Song? The Price of Pet Birds

The price of birds for sale in pet stores in Taiwan sheds light on legal (and illegal) trade, with consequences for native wildlife. 

Golden parakeets (conures) were the most expensive bird for sale

Taiwan is an interesting place to study birds. Songbirds are kept for singing competitions, and there is a tradition of taking caged birds out for a walk (‘bird walking’). As in other Asian countries, birds and other animals are set free in order to make merit (prayer release), potentially adding significantly to the numbers of alien birds living wild. There is a lot of trade with other Asian countries, and some birds have been obtained illegally. A new study by Su Shan (Institute of Zoology) et al investigates the birds for sale in pet shops in Taiwan, and the factors that affect their price. 

The price of the birds is a measure of the market, because easily-obtained birds are assumed to be cheaper. The bird trade is very lucrative in Asia and checking the price is one way to find out which birds are being bought and sold. The authors say, “species that are for sale in large numbers, are native to Taiwan, and with healthy wild populations available for international trade (as assessed by CITES) all fetch a relatively low price in Taiwan.”

This is good news because Su et al say the birds released for prayer are likely the cheaper birds, therefore releasing native rather than alien species. However the higher price of alien species does not guarantee they will not be released into the wild. The paper says more than 200 million prayer release animals are set free in Taiwan each year.

The researchers visited 72 pet shops, including 32 in Taipei City, and recorded which species were for sale, how many there were, and at what price. Sometimes many birds were kept in a cage, with cages stacked high. Nonetheless they were able to identify almost all the bird species, except for three very similar white-eyed birds where the shopkeeper’s identification could not be relied upon due to questionable legality.

Taiwan's native birds are threatened by alien species
There were over 26,000 birds for sale, of 217 species. The most expensive birds were Golden Parakeet (Guaruba guarouba), retailing at US$8,000, and Major Mitchell's Cockatoo Cacatua leadbeateri) at $7,500. All of the most expensive birds were alien species. The cheapest bird was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) at only 86 cents each.

To the surprise of the researchers, the complexity of the bird’s song did not increase the price, perhaps because parrots are very expensive, especially if trained to mimic speech. Larger birds also cost more to acquire and care for, and the authors point out that parrots may be a “once in a lifetime purchase”. 

A bird’s plumage also affects the price, with grey birds being cheaper, and yellow the most expensive. The authors say, “Cultural factors may be key in driving such colour preferences. For example, the colour grey has associations with low value in Asian countries (e.g. China and Japan)… In traditional Chinese culture, nature is composed of five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – and each element has a colour and compass point associated with it. Yellow exemplifies the earth and represents the centre of the compass, and is therefore of high importance.” Therefore a yellow bird can fetch a higher price.

Since the majority of birds for sale were alien species (68%), this is a threat to Taiwan’s native wildlife. The authors consider several ways to reduce the threat, including discouraging prayer release. Alternatively, they suggest altering practices so that it includes conservation as an aim. 

Su, S., Cassey, P., Vall-llosera, M., & Blackburn, T. (2015). Going Cheap: Determinants of Bird Price in the Taiwanese Pet Market PLOS ONE, 10 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127482 
Photos: Tupungato & red-feniks /

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Emergency Planning Is For Pets Too

Failure to include pets in emergency planning puts human lives at risk.

Failing to include pets in emergency planning puts human lives at risk

“There is no other factor contributing as much to human evacuation failure in disasters that is under the control of emergency management when a threat is imminent as pet ownership.” So say Sebastian Heath (FEMA) and Robert Linnabary (University of Tennessee) in a review of the ways in which pets should be included in emergency planning. 

Emergency management has five stages: planning, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. It is important to include pets at all stages so that people with pets are more likely to evacuate if necessary. The human-animal bond can also encourage people to prepare for disasters, since they may be motivated to plan for their pet even if not for themselves.

Strong emergency planning also entails having a good start point, which is not currently the case for animals in the US. Shelters and rescues struggle to cope with the existing number of strays and unwanted pets, with millions of cats and dogs euthanized annually. One consequence is there is no spare capacity that could be utilized in an emergency. Another is that in a disaster, organizations would have to assume stray pets are unwanted, rather than separated from their people, because this is already the case during normal times.

One thing everyone can do to help mitigate disasters is simply not to have more animals than you can care for. The authors suggest this is backed up by local bylaws prohibiting too many pets. If people are struggling to provide proper care for their animals, they will struggle even more during an emergency. Once people have three or more pets, the proportion who will evacuate falls substantially (unless they also have children). Another reason is that during an evacuation, you might have to care for the animals on your own at the shelter.

Many emergency shelters will not take pets. Heath and Lannabary say, “Although most evacuees are able to find a place to stay on their own, prior identification of a pet-friendly shelter where owners can find temporary shelter for themselves and housing for their pets provides further encouragement to pet owners to evacuate with their pets.” 

They suggest emergency planners provide free leashes and cardboard pet carriers to those who have to evacuate, and that shelters have a designated area for working dogs (like search and rescue dogs) to rest between shifts. In the US, the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Mass Evacuation and Sheltering, due to be implemented in 2017, includes a section on service animals and pets.

Communication following emergencies should include positive stories of people who have successfully evacuated with their pets, as this will encourage others to follow suit. Failing to evacuate pets can lead to dangerous attempts at rescue. In one chemical spill, about 20% of evacuees later tried to return to rescue pets they had left behind. 

News stories about disasters typically focus on the response, rather than the whole picture. Heath and Linnabary say, “Stories of the plight of animals in disasters are common in the media and often described as being solely the result of the disaster. However, disasters rarely create new situations, in most cases, disasters simply expose underlying systemic vulnerabilities.”

Following a natural disaster, there is often an outpouring of support. Heath and Linnabary say it is important to have plans to ensure support is appropriate, for example that monies go to organizations that will account for how it is spent, and that items donated are ones that will be useful. Requests should come via official channels and they also point out that, in the absence of an appropriate official response, other organizations will step in, sometimes in ways that suit their own ends rather than the local community.

Many people are willing to help animals in a disaster. Emergency planning should include a volunteer coordinator who can assess the suitability of volunteers and match them to tasks, as well as training for relevant people within the community (such as animal shelter and veterinary staff). FEMA has credentialed courses for Animal Emergency Responders specializing in e.g. companion animals, equines, or livestock, and other useful courses on topics such as Animals in Disasters. 

If you live in an area prone to natural hazards such as wildfires or earthquakes, you can make plans for such events that include your pets, such as having an emergency preparedness kit for your animals. Here are some useful suggestions from The Red Cross, the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team, and the Humane Society of the United States.
One of the lessons of this paper is that solving existing vulnerabilities for companion animals is important for resilience in an emergency. The full paper is essential reading for anyone interested in emergency planning. It is open access, available here .

Have you thought about how you would look after your pets in an emergency?

Heath, S., & Linnabary, R. (2015). Challenges of Managing Animals in Disasters in the U.S. Animals, 5 (2), 173-192 DOI: 10.3390/ani5020173
Photo: eAlisa / 

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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A Short Break

Isn’t this the prettiest kitten? Ragdoll cats are said to be especially good with children, and it’s certainly the case that the Ragdolls of my acquaintance are friendly to people of all ages.

I’m taking a short break from the blog but will be back next week. See you then.

Photo: cath5 /

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 (