Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Getting a puppy? Ask to see both parents

When you're getting a puppy, it's best to see both parents if possible, according to a new study.

A Rottweiler mother suckles her cute puppies on the lawn


When people get a puppy, a standard piece of advice from many dog welfare organizations is that you should always ask to see the mother. This week, I’m reporting on a new piece of research that investigates whether or not this is good advice.

The study, by Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool, UK, was designed to find out if there is a link between behavioural problems, the age of acquisition of a puppy, and whether or not the owner had viewed the mother and father of the puppy before they brought it home.

It has long been suggested that improper welfare of the mother causes behavioural problems in puppies, and that seeing the mother is one way to ensure that the puppy is being raised in an appropriate environment. (See here for research on the long-lasting effects of puppy mills on breeding dogs).

The study was designed carefully to ensure that other factors – such as the likelihood of an owner seeking behavioural help – would not influence the findings. To do this, members of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors were recruited to identify participants that had been referred for a behavioural problem. These dogs were called the ‘case’ dogs.

Another set of dogs, the controls, were identified from the same veterinary practices that the case dogs came from; this was done so that they would match the case dogs as closely as possible, except that they had not been referred for a behavioural problem. The dogs chosen were ones whose owner probably would refer them if a behavioural problem arose. Both groups of dogs included pedigrees and mutts, and they were fairly closely matched for the type of dog (i.e. hound, gundog etc).

The most common behavioural problems were aggression towards people or towards other dogs. The average age of the case dogs was 2, and of control dogs was 5. This is not surprising, because adolescent dogs are more likely to be referred to a behaviourist. Both sets of dogs were equally matched for neuter status, with 28% being entire and the remainder neutered/spayed.

Puppies that were acquired at 6, 9 or 10 weeks were less likely to have been referred for behavioural problems than those acquired at 8 weeks. This is surprising, although some other studies have found that puppies homed at 6 weeks are less likely to have problems later. It could be that being rehomed earlier allows more time for socialization during the optimal period, but it could also be that if a puppy is in a bad environment (such as a puppy farm) it’s better to remove it at the earliest possible opportunity. No definite conclusions about the best age to get a puppy can be made from this study.

The headline finding is that if people had seen only the mother, the puppy was 2.5 times more likely to be in the case group rather than the control group (i.e. to have behavioural problems). If the owner had not seen either parent, the puppy was 3.8 times more likely to have been referred for a behavioural problem.

Amongst those people who had not seen either parent, reasons that were given included the puppy being brought to their home, the puppy already being in a second home at the time they got it, or they met the breeder at a hotel or some other location. These are all potential signs of a puppy mill, since puppy farmers can go to great lengths to disguise where their puppies come from.

Hence, in many of these cases where people did not see either parent, it is likely the puppy did not originate from a responsible breeder, although we cannot assume that this was always the case. Having said that, it sometimes happens that seeing the mother in a less-than-suitable environment doesn’t put people off acquiring a puppy; I know anecdotally of cases where people have still wanted it, often due to a stated desire to ‘get the puppy out of there’. It would be interesting for future research to follow people through the process of acquiring a puppy to learn more about their decision process.

Westgarth’s study was a retrospective one, looking back at how people had acquired their puppy. It’s possible that people who are better educated about puppy mills also have better knowledge about how to bring up a puppy, and so are less likely to bring up a dog with problems. Nonetheless, the finding is striking.

It is sound advice to say that prospective puppy owners should always ask to see the mother, and even better if they can see the father too.

What's your advice to someone looking to get a puppy?

Reference
Westgarth C, Reevell K, & Barclay R (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems. The Veterinary record, 170 (20) PMID: 22562104
Photo: Stephen Coburn (Shutterstock.com)

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Now where’s my treat?

Trainers often advise owners to use treats to train their dogs, but some owners want to phase them out as fast as they can. Shouldn’t a dog be prepared to work for just verbal praise and affection? That’s the question asked in a recent study by Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne – and they didn’t just test dogs, but wolves too!

A brindle boxer is happy to receive a treat
Photo: LarsTuchel / Shutterstock

The question is interesting for practical reasons, since it’s useful to know how to motivate a dog if you want to train one. But it’s a very interesting question for another reason too. Some scientists have suggested that dogs are uniquely tuned in to human contact; in other words, that in the process of evolving from wolves, dogs have developed special abilities to read human emotions and communication. If this is the case, then social contact with humans should be a valuable reward in training sessions with dogs, but not wolves.

The study involved five separate experiments, four with dogs and one with hand-reared wolves. Two different types of dog were included: those who lived in homes with their owners, and those in a shelter. It might be expected that shelter dogs, starved of the usual amount of human contact, would respond especially well to social interaction as a reward. On the other hand, if a relationship with someone is needed for that interaction to be valuable, dogs with owners would respond more.

The experiments all used the same task: a simple nose-touch to the hand. In the food condition, the dogs and wolves were rewarded with a small piece of food. For the dogs, it was a piece of Natural Balance (except for one dog with allergies, who was given a small piece of potato instead). For the wolves, it was a small piece of sausage, because this is what the wolf trainers recommended.

In the social condition, dogs were rewarded with 4 seconds of social contact – petting either side of the head combined with verbal praise. (One of the wolves did not like physical touch, so he just received praise). This is only a short time of social interaction, but the length of time it took coincided with the length of time taken to give a treat.

If the dog or wolf touched the experimenter’s hand, the hand was removed to shoulder height and then the reward was given (food from the other hand or the social interaction). For the owned dogs, the owner carried out the experiment, and for the wolves at Wolf Park, a trainer did the experiment in each wolf’s pen, with another trainer present for safety reasons.

The results showed that across all three types of animal – shelter dogs, owned dogs, and wolves – food was a better reinforcer than social interaction. Although there were individual differences between animals, the use of social interaction as a reward did not lead to many nose touches. On the other hand, when food was used as a reward, many more nose touches were recorded, and the time interval between them was shorter.

The wolves did more nose touches than the dogs, and in fact the best performing wolf produced 33% more nose touches than the best performing dog. It’s not known if this is because of a wolf’s greater intelligence, or because they had some prior training that was useful (but some of the owned dogs had also had relevant prior training from their owners in their normal lives).

The results are fascinating. Instead of suggesting that dogs have developed special abilities to understand humans, it seems that our special relationship might come about because of ongoing reinforcement. The authors say, “…domestication has not necessarily resulted in dogs being more sensitive to human behavior than wolves. The comparison with wolves confirmed that the relative effectiveness of social interaction for hand-reared wolves was the same as for dogs.”

Of course, only a brief period of social interaction was used in this study, and it might be that longer periods would work better. If this were the case, though, I would have expected the dogs to nudge the experimenter to ask for more fuss. And while the food reward for the wolves was sausage, which might be a better motivator than the treat given to the dogs, it’s still the case that social interaction did not really motivate the wolves or dogs.

So next time someone says they want to phase out treats in dog training, this study provides evidence that it would be a good idea to stick to the treats after all.

If you want to know more about how to use food to train your dog, check out my article on positive reinforcement in dog training.

From your dog’s point of view, what’s the best reward in a training session? For my dogs, sausage is definitely a favourite.

Reference
Feuerbacher EN, & Wynne CD (2012). Relative efficacy of human social interaction and food as reinforcers for domestic dogs and hand-reared wolves. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 98 (1), 105-29 PMID: 22851794

You might also like: 
Do dogs prefer petting or praise?
The importance of food in dog training
How do hand-reared wolves and dogs interact with humans?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Why Don’t People Want Pets? Part 2: Dogs


The AHA/PetSmart Charities study on barriers to the adoption of dogs has some interesting findings (see last week for the results on cats). The survey included previous owners (people who had owned a dog/cat before, but at least 12 months ago) and non-owners (who had never owned a dog/cat as an adult). 

The most common source of a dog was from family, a friend or neighbour (38%), with 22% going to a shelter and 16% to a breeder.  As with cats, the main reason they no longer had the dog was because it had died or had to be put to sleep, and the second-most common reason was because the pet was given away, often because of housing requirements (e.g. the landlord said no pets). More than half of previous owners had had the dog for over ten years, and a quarter for between five and ten years.

Amongst previous dog owners, the main reasons for not getting a new dog were vet costs (30%), general costs (29%), lack of time (27%) and travelling (26%). Amongst those who had never owned a dog, the main reasons were cleaning (30%), lifestyle (30%) and general expense (29%). No time (25%) and vet expenses (24%) were also cited. These are sensible reasons, and things that everyone should consider before getting a dog. Only 12% said that they didn’t like dogs.

A yellow labrador sitting on a country road with a big stick in its mouth
Photo: Jaromir Chalabala / Shutterstock

A fairly high number of previous dog owners said they would consider getting a dog as a pet (45%), compared to a quarter of those who had not previously owned a dog. Of both groups, more than half say they would go to a shelter or rescue group to get their next dog; a higher number than for cats. Younger people were more likely to consider a dog, as were those who had owned a dog within the last five years.

For people who had not owned a dog as an adult, having had a dog as a child, or another pet that wasn’t a cat or dog, made them more likely to consider a dog in the future. This is interesting because having a cat as a child had no effect on whether a non-cat owner would consider getting one, and having a dog as a child made people less likely to consider a cat. This makes me wonder if there is any difference in the relationship between a child and a dog, and a child and a cat. Certainly it seems to be perceived that way, since more than half of potential dog owners have a child in the household. Another possibility is that people become ‘a dog person’ as a child and this perception doesn’t change over time.

One of the most useful things about the study is that it may help to target campaigns for cat and dog adoption. For example, promotions of cat adoption are most likely to be successful if aimed at young adults, whereas dog adoptions could be aimed at adults under 65 since a wider range of people would consider a dog.  Those over 65 did not seem keen on acquiring a new cat or dog. Campaigns to increase the availability of pet-friendly housing would also help, since this was a major reason for giving up a dog. Rescue organizations will be reassured by the finding that more than half of those who would consider a dog say they would go to a rescue or shelter to acquire the animal. 

I am especially intrigued by the findings relating to children. Is there something special about the relationship between a dog and a child? Do you have special memories of a dog you knew as a child?

Reference
AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Available online at www.americanhumane.org/aha-petsmart-retention-study-phase-1.pdf

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Why Don’t People Want Pets? Part 1: Cats

The American Humane Association is investigating how to increase the adoption and retention of animals from shelters. It’s a pressing question because, in the US, 3 to 4 million animals are euthanized every year even though they are healthy and adoptable.

The first part of the study, funded by PetSmart Charities, looked at the reasons why people choose not to have a cat or dog. They interviewed people who had previously had a cat or dog but don’t have one now, and those who have never had a pet as an adult. The results make depressing reading, especially for cat lovers. This week I will focus on what the results mean for cats, and next week I will look at what they say about dogs.

A tabby cat dozing on a table
Photo: wjarek / Shutterstock

People who had previously owned a cat were most likely to have got the animal from a friend, family or neighbour. About a fifth (18%) had got their cat from a shelter. A sizeable number of cats had arrived as strays (22%). For most of the people in this sample, their cat had died of natural causes or been put to sleep; some were still grieving for their pet. The second most common reason for no longer having the cat was giving it up because it wasn’t allowed at the place of residence (e.g. because the landlord said no pets).

Amongst people who had previously owned a cat, the main reason for not having one now was travelling too much (28%) and cleaning up (25%), although vet costs and general costs were also important (25% and 24% respectively). It has to be said that these are sensible reasons why a pet might not fit into one’s lifestyle, and an awareness of the costs is important, especially since companion animals have suffered from the effects of the recession too.

The really bad news for cats comes from people who had never owned one before.  The main reason they gave was that they “just don’t like them” (35%). The other main reasons were the smell of a litter box (29%) and lifestyle (22%). 

When asked how likely they were to consider having a cat, only about a third of previous owners would consider one. Amongst those who had never owned one, only 10% said they would consider one, whereas 61% said ‘definitely not’. Young adults (18-34) were most likely to consider another pet, and seniors generally did not want to. 

Both groups of people were quite likely to say that they would go to a shelter for a pet. Future research could use the theory of planned behaviour to assess how likely these good intentions are to make it into reality, depending on people’s attitudes and subjective norms about animal shelters.

This survey provides valuable information for animal rescue organizations about how to target adoption messages, and what the barriers to increased adoptions are. It would help if more housing was pet-friendly, since that was a major reason for cats being given up. These results also show that cats have an image problem. I find this hard to understand – how can someone not like cats? 

I wonder if people without ‘cat experience’ find them difficult to understand.  If this is the case, then campaigns should aim to make cats more familiar, and to counter the widespread misperception that cats cannot be trained. The smell of a litter box was also mentioned as a barrier, although if the box is kept clean any smell should be minimal. The fact that costs were cited by previous owners suggests they have a more realistic perception of the responsibilities of ownership compared to those who have never owned a cat. Of course, if people don’t want or can’t afford an animal, they are absolutely right not to get one; but with so many cats in shelters and in need of a home, it would help if more homes were available. 

So, let’s hear it for the cats. What do you like about your cat?

Nest week's post is about what the survey found about why people don't want dogs.

Reference
AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Available online at www.americanhumane.org/aha-petsmart-retention-study-phase-1.pdf
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