Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Paying Attention to Our Dogs

We can all learn when we decide to observe dogs in interaction with people.

A woman pays attention to her Labrador dog's body language

I think most people who use reward-based training methods do so for ethical reasons: they believe it’s the right way to train a dog. They also know it works.

Science is on their side. A recent review of the literature on how people train pet dogs concluded that reward-based training is best for welfare reasons (and it works). Training dogs with aversive methods risks unintended consequences, such as the risk of stress, fear, and aggression. Reward-based training avoids those risks and gives dogs positive experiences.

But what if we can’t recognize signs of fear and stress in our dogs? Then we might not realize when our dogs are not happy.

Here’s where it gets tricky for dog owners, because many people aren’t very good at reading canine body language. Which is not surprising, because it’s not quite the same as ours. You have to pay close attention to pick up on some of the signs.

For example, when you reach out to pat your neighbour’s dog, does she lean in for more petting? Or does she duck her head away from your hand and then yawn and look away while you pet her?

Most dogs prefer not to be patted on the top of the head. They would prefer you to aim for the front of the chest or their side. (By the way, cats have preferences too). Seeing the dog’s body language in context helps you understand what it means (see for more info).

You can do your own mini science experiment and observe other people interacting with dogs. Find a place where lots of dogs go by and watch the interactions. Make a note of whether people seem to be familiar or strangers to the dogs.

Recognizing a happy dog is pretty straightforward, but sometimes people aren’t sure about the signs of stress.

Things to look out for include a lowered body posture, looking away, licking the lips, sniffing the ground, moving away, yawning, tail low or tucked under, and of course a growl.

Sometimes it takes a growl before we notice a dog is unhappy; how much better for all if we spot it sooner?!

Look at your dog's body language to find out if they are happy- or not. This bearded terrier does not look very happy.
Photo: hannadarzy; top, FCSCAFEINE (both Shutterstock)

Nowhere is it more urgent people learn to read a dog’s body language than when a dog and a baby or young child are interacting. Young children are especially vulnerable to dog bites, and it’s essential their guardians know how to keep them safe. Unfortunately, many people believe dogs to be relaxed and friendly when they’re not – and dog owners are worse at spotting an unsafe dog-child interaction.

Once you can read canine body language, it’s a sad fact that so many photos and videos you previously thought were cute now set your teeth on edge because they look like an incident waiting to happen. (Follow Reisner Veterinary Behaviour on Facebook to see lots of examples deconstructed).

We think we know dogs. All of us, as a society, think we know them. But once you start to pay close attention, you realize there’s still a lot to learn.

We need scientists to do the studies because they understand how to design experiments with controls, how to word survey questions so the answers aren’t biased, and how many dogs need to participate. (Lots of dogs, we love all the dogs!).

We can all learn something from scientists’ close skills of observation. Pay attention to dogs – your dog, your friend’s dog, complete stranger’s effervescent Poodles and nosey hounds. Pay attention to the wide waggy tails and wiggly bodies. And start trying to spot those subtle signs of stress. See if it helps your understanding of dogs.

And of course, pay attention to your own dog in a training session. Are you seeing big licks of the lip that mean your dog knows he is about to get a cookie? Does your dog have a happy, relaxed open mouth, as if he is enjoying the session? Is his focus on you, waiting to see what you want him to do next?

If you pay attention, you know when he’s lost interest and it’s time to take a break; you know which of the rewards in your treat pouch is his favourite (or maybe it’s variety?); and you see how much he enjoys working for those rewards.

We can all learn from paying more attention to our canine friends, whether it’s knowing when an interaction is not so safe, better training technique, or even how best to pet a dog.

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Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Laboratory Beagles Do Well in New Homes

Researchers follow lab beagles as they go to live with a family – and find they adjust very well.

Sleeping beagle. Lab beagles can be successfully rehomed
Photo: Sigma_S (Shutterstock)

Laboratory beagles are used for a variety of experiments. A new study by Dorothea Döring (LMU Munich) et al investigates how they behave in normal life once they are rehomed with a family.

As they explain at the start of the paper, “As rehoming practice in Germany shows that appropriate new owners can be found and that the dogs seem to adapt easily, no sound reason exists to euthanize surplus or post-experimental laboratory dogs unless they would experience pain and suffering if kept alive. From a moral standpoint, humans have an ethical obligation to provide healthy animals with appropriate living conditions.”

Although some laboratory beagles are re-homed directly to individuals, most are rehomed via animal welfare organizations that specialize in placing them. The researchers studied 145 beagles that were rehomed by two such organizations from a pharmaceutical company.

The results show the new owners were very happy with their dogs: 92% said they would adopt a laboratory beagle again. Only 9 (out of 145 dogs) were returned to the animal welfare group.

Life for beagles at the lab had involved being kept in an indoor kennel with daily access to an outside run. They had been provided with treats, a wooden bite stick and a sleeping box, and most had been housed on their own. The beagles were used to general veterinary procedures like examinations and blood draws.

All of the dogs were given a behavioural test at the lab facility. After six weeks in their new home, the same test was given to all the dogs that were adopted within a 200km radius (74 of the dogs). They were also observed in interactions with the owner (e.g. inviting the dog to play, taking the dog for a walk on leash). The new owners also took part in a telephone interview 1 week and 12 weeks after the adoption.

The behaviour test included a range of things like leaving the dog alone for 90s, offering food from a flat hand, holding the muzzle closed for 10 seconds, putting a collar and leash on, using a stethoscope to check the dog’s heart rate, and so on. In the second test scenario and observations, a few dogs were not given certain parts of the test for welfare reasons (e.g. if the owner said the vacuum cleaner sent them into a panic, they were not shown a vacuum cleaner).

The initial telephone interviews were good, and by 12 weeks the dogs were showing even more good behaviours. By 12 weeks post-adoption, 94% of the dogs enjoyed being petted by the owner, and 93% were said to tolerate being groomed. 77% were friendly towards children in the family, and only 11% were cautious (none were aggressive).

A few behaviours did get worse over this time period: behaviour towards unknown children, to the family cat, and to the veterinarian. The observations of dogs showed most were friendly to a visitor (a researcher) and to a test dog that was walked by during the leash walk. However, a quarter showed a fear response to the visitor. None were aggressive.

Lab beagles adjust well to family life when rehomed. Frequent R+ training is suggested, as this cute beagle shows off a trick
Regular positive reinforcement training sessions are recommended by the authors.
Photo: Otsphoto (Shutterstock)

Most of the correlations between tests were quite low, which is not surprising (for shelter dogs, test results also do not do a good job of predicting behaviour in a new home). There was a moderate correlation between “persistent following” and reports of separation anxiety.

The presence of behaviour problems was only weakly correlated with the likelihood of people saying they would adopt a laboratory beagle again, showing that people are tolerant and patient with their dogs.

There was an interesting effect of the original source of the dogs, as dogs bred in the research facility did better than those who had come from a commercial breeder.

Obedience training and the use of frequent rewards were both linked to better-behaved dogs. This is no surprise because other studies have found reward-based dog training is linked to a more obedient dog.

Attendance at dog training classes, however, was not linked to better behaviour. It may be that the people who went to dog training classes (rather than just training at home) did so because the dog had behaviour problems, and/or because they had less experience of training a dog. This is something that warrants further investigation.

The main behaviour problems were house soiling (found in 39% of 126 dogs) and separation anxiety (reported in 28% of 125 dogs). Some of the dogs were also afraid of sounds such as the vacuum cleaner.

These results are very promising for the rehoming of laboratory beagles, since they show most dogs are friendly, adapt well, and their new owners are happy with them. This ties in with other studies that tell us most people who adopt shelter dogs would do so again. Dogs that were previously used as breeding stock in a commercial breeding establishment can also become loving family pets even though in that case the risk of behaviour and health problems is much higher.

The scientists make some important recommendations, including that beagles can be rehomed at any age as they did well in their new homes regardless of age. They can be rehomed to families with children, although safety rules should always be followed for interactions between children and dogs. Rehoming via animal welfare organizations that specialize in the placement of lab dogs is sensible. 

The scientists say research facilities should select breeders whose dogs are friendly, well-socialized and not fearful. They suggest giving advice on house training, separation anxiety, and fear of sounds/objects, as well as contact details for behaviourists in case help is needed.

And another recommendation is to have regular dog training sessions using positive reinforcement.

You can read the full set of recommendations at the end of the article, which is open access. 

Döring, D., Nick, O., Bauer, A., Küchenhoff, H., & Erhard, M. H. (2017). How do rehomed laboratory beagles behave in everyday situations? Results from an observational test and a survey of new owners. PloS one, 12(7), e0181303.

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Sunday, 6 August 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club August 2017

The book of the month is How to Tame a Fox by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut.

A fox curled up asleep for the book club's choice How To Tame a Fox by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club book for August 2017 is How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution.

From the inside cover,
"Most accounts of the natural evolution of wolves place it over a span of about 15,000 years, but within a decade, Belyaev and Trut's fox breeding experiments had resulted in puppy-like foxes with piebald spots and curly tails. Along with these physical changes came genetic and behavioural changes, as well. The foxes were bred using selection criteria for tameness, and with each generation, they became increasingly interested in human companionship. Trut has been there the whole time and has been the lead scientist on this work since Belyaev's death in 1985, and with Lee Dugatkin, biologist and science writer, she tells the story of the adventure, science, politics and love behind it all."

To whet your appetite, you can read my interview with Dr. Lee Dugatkin.

Are you reading too? Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the book.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Sensitive Period for Socialization in Puppies and Kittens

Important building blocks for a behaviourally-healthy cat or dog.

A shy puppy hiding under a table on the deck
Let shy puppies hide if they want to. Photo: Anna Hoychuk (Shutterstock)

The sensitive period for socialization is a very important time in the lives of kittens and puppies. This is when their brains are especially receptive to learning about the kind of social world they will live in as they get older.

For both kittens and puppies, the sensitive period for socialization is a time when they need lots of positive experiences with all kinds of people and other animals. During this time they will also habituate to anything they might meet in later life (different sounds, surfaces, etc). If they are well socialized during the sensitive period, they are likely to develop into friendly, confident adult dogs and cats.

Sometimes people aren’t sure how to do socialization, so it’s important to note these should be positive experiences. You can use food to help make positive associations, and insofar as possible give the puppy or kitten a choice. For example, wait for them to approach you instead of forcing yourself on them; let them hide and take their own time to come out if they are shy. This will help to build their confidence.

The Sensitive Period for Socialization in Puppies

In puppies, the sensitive period begins at 3 weeks and goes on until about 12 or 14 weeks. Our knowledge of this period comes from classic experiments that involved isolating puppies during this time. We don’t know exactly when the sensitive period ends, and it may end at slightly different times depending on the breed.

This means two things for people who get puppies. First of all, because part of the sensitive period occurs before the puppy comes to live with you, it’s important to ensure you get a puppy from a breeder or rescue where the puppy is in a home environment and getting socialization already. Puppies acquired from pet stores are more likely to have behaviour problems such as aggression, and one reason could be that they are missing those early socialization opportunities because the environment they are born into is typically not a home environment.

Second, it means you have to be prepared to continue socialization during those first few weeks the puppy is with you.

The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

Sometimes people want to wait until their puppy has had all its vaccinations before beginning socialization. This is understandable, but unfortunately it means they miss this important period. Because the leading cause of death of young dogs (under 3) is euthanasia due to behaviour problems, rather than infectious diseases, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour recommends that puppies start puppy class at 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should have one set of vaccinations before the first class, and should also be dewormed.

Choose your puppy class with care to make sure the dog trainer will use reward-based methods. Classes should include socialization opportunities with people and play with the other puppies, not just basic obedience. Puppy class usually lasts 6 weeks, and one study suggests that a one-off puppy party does not have as many benefits.

Remember it’s your job to take care of your puppy and ensure those experiences are positive. If other people want to pet your puppy, be sure to give your puppy a choice.

The Sensitive Period for Socialization in Kittens

In kittens, the sensitive period for socialization is between 2 and 7 weeks. This is typically before a kitten comes to live in your home, showing how important it is to get kittens from someone who will have socialized them.

We know this from a study by Eileen Karsh that handled kittens for four weeks from the ages of 3 weeks, 7 weeks, and 14 weeks. When tested at 14 weeks, the kittens that had been handled from 3 weeks of age stayed for much longer when placed on a person’s lap.

Research shows that if kittens are handled by 4 – 5 different people during this time, they will be more sociable as adult cats than if only one person had handled them. When kittens are handled and played with by more people between the third and ninth weeks, they are not just more friendly, but people seem to feel a closer bond with them, so it affects human attachment to the cat too.

Just as for puppies, it’s important the handling is a positive experience for kittens. Again, you can give them a choice (let them approach you). Speaking nicely to them while handling is also a good idea.

Even though the sensitive period for socialization will have passed when you bring your kitten home, it’s important to continue to give the kitten positive experiences. This will help them to generalize what they have already learned.

Most people don’t take their kittens to a class, but some places do offer them – it’s called Kitten Kindy® (as in kindergarten). Kitten Kindy® was created by Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviourist in Australia. Maybe your vet will know of a class near you, since these classes are often held at vet clinics. That means there’s a bonus that the kittens will start to have positive experiences at the vet!

The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens

Kitten class is typically for kittens aged 7 – 14 weeks, and is two or three sessions. Kittens should have had their first vaccination and been dewormed.

Kitten classes should include teaching your kitten to like the cat carrier, how to be handled and groomed, and having the nails trimmed and given medication – all useful skills for your cat. Depending on where you live, it might also include teaching kitty to walk on a harness and leash. If the class includes kittens from other litters, then they get the chance to learn to be around other cats (although they will not necessarily interact).

There should also be lots of useful info on how to provide what your cat needs (scratching posts, enrichment, suitable litter trays, toys and playtime, etc), and how to deal with behaviour problems.

Why is it called a sensitive period?

You may also have heard people refer to a critical period for socialization. A critical period means that if the right exposure doesn’t happen during that window, the abilities will never be developed. It has a sharp beginning and end, and is most likely controlled by genetics.

For example, the critical period for vision in cats is from when their eyes open (between 2-16 days) and 3 months. If they are deprived of visual information during this time, some of the cells in their brain responsible for vision will not develop correctly and even die, meaning they will never develop normal feline vision. One of the classic experiments on this deprived kittens of vision in one eye for the first few months of their life. When they restored vision to that eye, the kittens still did not develop binocular vision.

In contrast a sensitive period has a more gradual onset and offset, during which time the brain becomes more sensitive to the right kinds of experiences, and then towards the end of the period it becomes less sensitive.  Exposure to stimuli during this time affects the developing brain and may also increase plasticity. Of course puppies and kittens don't have identical experiences, and perhaps different kinds of exposures will affect the brain in different ways, but work towards the same goal. Plasticity of the brain means that it may be possible to still develop in some ways if these exposures happen later than they should have, even if the development will never be quite the same.

It is difficult to define the beginning and end of these periods, although research on neurological development is providing a lot more information.

Early brain development is so important because it provides the scaffolding for further development later in life – something that also applies to human babies.

Humans have sensitive periods too

Sometimes people are surprised by the idea of a sensitive or critical period. It’s useful to know that children also have sensitive periods for development, during which important brain development occurs in response to the child’s environment.

As mentioned above, these early experiences provide the scaffolding for future development. In fact you will often hear people use the analogy of building a wall – if some of those early experiences are missing, it’s like some bricks are missing from the first layers of the wall.

Children’s early life experiences are very important. Babies need to have lots of positive experiences with adults, very little stress and good nutrition to help build a strong brain architecture. If they do, then by the time they start school they are in a better position to learn than children who have not had those experiences. Although some stresses (small and brief) are part of normal, healthy development, we now know that chronic stress in early childhood can be very damaging. If you’d like to know more, there is an excellent series of videos from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

What do you think are the implications of these sensitive periods?

Further reading

The books Dog Sense and Cat Sense by John Bradshaw are a great read and include chapters on the science of puppy and kitten development. You can read more about the research on socialization periods here, as well as lots of other interesting facts that will help you understand your dog or cat better.

In The Inner Life of Cats, Thomas McNamee talks to Eileen Karsh about her research on kitten development, and weaves the tale of his own cat in with his account of feline science.

Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson is a great introduction to what you need to know to train your dog. The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis explains how to teach your cat the skills they need to be happy in our world.

You might also enjoy The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, which looks at how psychiatrists and psychologists can use what we know about early human development to help children who’ve been through trauma.

If you’re looking for something academic, these two books cover the early development of dogs and cats (and many other topics besides):

The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People, edited by James Serpell.

The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat by John Bradshaw, Rachel Casey and Sarah Brown.

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Sunday, 23 July 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News July 2017

July’s round-up of the latest news on cats and dogs.

The latest stories on dogs, cats and science

Some of my favourites from around the web 

Dr. Rebecca Ledger uses the Five Domains model for forensic animal behaviour analysis by Kat Littlewood and David Mellor PhD. How the mental experiences of animals can be inferred for animal cruelty prosecutions in Canada.

Remember to play. Trumping animals and their homes: Seeing light in dark times by Marc Bekoff PhD. Some advice on how to maintain hope in the face of depressing news.

What determines a cat’s coat? Brandon Baker speaks to Dr. Margret Casal, associate professor of medical genetics, to find out. An intriguing introduction to the genetics of coat colours.

“What about dogs who are scared of toys that make noise or big/novel objects?” Enrichment for fearful dogs by Erica Beckwith CTC.

Never force your cat when training. Pam Johnson Bennett on ways you can offer your cat choice.

Why kids with pets are better off by Hal Herzog PhD looks at the results of a study of the impact of pets on children that surprised the researchers.

And it’s never too soon to start to help a dog who is afraid of fireworks. Good and bad ways to help, by Julie Hecht.

Pets in the news 

Mog author Judith Kerr to publish new book.

Vancouver bans pet stores selling puppies and kittens, and so does North Plainfield NJ.

The number of overweight pets has increased, according to a new report.

Being friendly is in dog’s nature, say scientists. New research looks at genetic variation in dogs and wolves.


Feline foraging toys: How to implement, motivate and stage the difficulty level. Webinar by Ingrid Johnson for Pet Professional Guild. Weds 26th July, 4pm – 5pm (EDT).

Photos, Videos and Podcasts 

Do you understand your dog? Fascinating podcast with Professor Paul McGreevy.

The Animal Training Academy podcast with Kate Mornement PhD. Kate Mornement talks about how she learned about positive reinforcement training, her PhD research on assessing shelter dogs, and some of her favourite animal training stories.

Do animals need more freedom? Jessica Pierce PhD and Marc Bekoff PhD talk about freedom and compassion for animals

Thai cats. A breeder is working with Kasetsart University in Thailand to save the Suphalak breed of cat. Beautiful photos accompany this story.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology 

Lincoln Animal Ambassadors recently interviewed me for their blog. Thanks to Allison for such great questions!

How strong is children’s attachment to their pets? At Psychology Today, I wrote about how children’s attachment to their pets is linked to friendship and caring behaviours.

What your cat’s nose knows takes a look at the role of chemical signals in your cat’s life. Understanding the importance of scent and pheromones for felines can help us improve their welfare.

Did we evolve to love dogs? This guest post from Kristi Benson CTC has got people thinking.

Rewards, welfare and the animal’s perspective in training. My round-up of the Train for Rewards blog party.

The book club is taking a break this month, but will be back in August with Lee Dugatkin’s How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution.

And the Companion Animal Psychology t-shirt continues to sell well. It is available in many colours, and 100% of the proceeds go to the BC SPCA Maple Ridge, which is my local shelter.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to, and

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

What Your Cat's Nose Knows

There’s a lot more to your cat’s nose than you think.

Close-up of a sleeping cat's nose

Do you ever pay much attention to that cute little nose your cat has? We’re used to thinking of dogs as being all about smells – but it turns out cats are very much into scent too. A literature review by Kristyn Vitale Shreve and Monique Udell (Oregon State University) explains what we know about the importance of olfaction and chemical detection to cats, from what it means for indoor cats to the possibility of trained scent detection cats.

Vitale Shreve and Udell say,
“Importantly, a better understanding of cat chemical signals has critical applied implications, as scent (and marking) plays an important role in many species-typical cat behaviors, problem behaviors, and can also serve as enrichment if properly understood and applied.” 

Ultimately, if cat owners have a better understanding of the role of scent in their cat’s life, they can improve their cat’s welfare.

How cats process chemical signals 

You probably already know cats have two different systems that are important organs of olfaction and chemical detection.

First of all, of course, there’s the nose: the two nostrils that allow scents in to the nasal cavity. Then there’s the vomeronasal organ (more easily called the VNO if you prefer). This is in the hard palate in the roof of the mouth. When you see a cat with their mouth open in a grimace, called the Flehmen response, they are utilising their VNO to make sense of chemical signals.

Beyond that, we don’t know as much as you’d think, showing the urgency of more research in this area. For example, we know that a part of the brain called the caudate is used in processing smells, and in many species it is also activated in anticipation of rewards. In dogs, we know that the caudate is activated in response to the smell of a familiar human. We don’t yet know if this occurs in cats or not.

And while we know the vomeronasal organ has three types of detectors, only one of them has ever been investigated.

The VNO detects what are known as pheromones – chemical signals that carry meaning for that and other cats. Cats release different types of pheromones from glands on their bodies, and while the purpose of some is not known, we know a lot more about others and synthetic versions of some are available (you’ve heard of Feliway).

The importance of scent and pheromones to cats

Medical detection cats? 

Cats are able to tell the difference between many different scents. Vitale Shreve and Udell say their size, agility, and ability to fit in small spaces means that cats may make excellent scent detection animals. For people who are afraid of dogs, cats might make good medical detection animals. Of course, more research is needed, not just into a cat’s sense of smell but also into the practicalities.

How cats use chemical signals 

Cats have scent glands on the head between the eyes and ears, on the side of the forehead, in the cheeks, under the chin, at the corners of the mouth, between the pads on the paws, at the base of the tail, in the ano-genital area, and around a female cat’s nipples. These glands produce pheromones.

Pheromones are used in social communication. As solitary animals, cats can use scent to mark their territory so other cats know to stay away, without them even needing to meet. When cats live in groups, they can maintain a ‘group scent’ that means familiar cats all smell similar. When you see cats rub against each other’s bodies, it is believed they are maintaining this group scent.

Pheromones are also used in sexual activity. When a tomcat rubs his head near a sexually intact female, he leaves F2 pheromone.

In addition to pheromones, cats deposit scent by scratching and with saliva, urine and faeces. 

Scratching leaves scent from glands in the cat’s paws, and over time may build up on the scratched object. It may become an “olfactory reference point” for the cat, and so providing appropriate places for cats to scratch and leave their scent is important.

The importance of scent to kittens 

Kittens are born with their eyes and ears closed. They use the feeling of warmth, their sense of touch and chemical detection to find their nest. The nest is full of chemical signals – secretions from the mother cat’s glands mark the area, and hair, saliva and urine from the kittens all add to the mix. This nest odour is thought to reduce stress in the kittens, have a calming influence and improve their well-being.

A  mother cat nursing her little kittens
Photo: Rashid Valitov; top, Dziewul (both Shutterstock).

Did you know that within a litter of kittens, by the time they are one or two days old (and until about 32 days) each one has its own preferred nipple on the mother? The scientific term is “teat constancy.” Pheromones are released from glands around the nipples. We don’t know if each nipple has its own characteristic odour, or if saliva from the kitten adds its scent to the nipple.

As the kittens are able to move around more, “teat constancy” subsides and kittens will nurse from other female cats as well as their mother.

Scent in social relationships between cats 

Olfaction plays an important part in social relationships between cats. The authors say that in one study, sniffing accounted for almost a third of the behaviours observed. Cats often sniff each other at the start of social interactions.

Male and female cats respond differently to smells from other cats; the Flehmen response and urine spraying are more common in males, whereas female cats pay more attention to skin secretions than to urine. Chemical signals seem to play both a sexual and a social role.

Chemical signals are also used in marking territory and there are several theories about how this works. It may be that marking is used to tell other cats to stay away, but an alternative idea is that it helps the cat feel at home within their own territory. This is another area where more research is needed.

What this means to you as a cat owner 

Cat owners should recognize that chemical signals are important to cats, even if we are not always able to detect them ourselves.

Some of these signals help to make cats feel safe and secure – which means that if we get rid of them with too much cleaning, it may make our cats more anxious. The authors suggest the use of cleaning products should be limited near the cat’s rest areas, scratching posts and litterboxes. If we remove their scent from these areas, they may choose different areas for these activities instead, which we may be none too happy about.

You may notice that in places where your cat rubs frequently, the furniture or wall is marked and paint may even be rubbed off. Your cat gains comfort from these areas smelling like him- or her-self, so if you can hold off cleaning or re-painting as long as you can, your cat would prefer it.

A calico cat sniffing a tree branch
Photo: Kristi Blohkin (Shutterstock).

Adding the cat’s own scent to new furniture or new environments may help it to feel calm and relaxed. This may be especially important in rehoming centres, where the cat is faced with a completely new and stressful environment.

The idea of scent as a reference point within the environment may be especially useful for people with blind cats.

Providing scents to cats can be an enrichment activity, especially for indoor cats. Catnip is an obvious example, and while many cat owners are aware of this there are other substances such as silver vine that fewer people have heard of. Sarah Ellis has a lovely idea in her book, The Trainable Cat (co-authored with John Bradshaw) of a sensory box – bringing things from the outside in for the cat to experience. Remember too that cats can get used to things, so rotating scents or bringing in new scents is a good idea.

Cats can be trained to go on leash walks to give them access to the outdoors. Alternately, safe enclosed ‘catios’ can give them outdoor spaces if it is not possible for them to have regular outdoor access. Simply leaving a window safely ajar can let them sniff the breeze.

Scratching is important to cats, and so they need to be provided with suitable scratching posts. When such posts are available, cats will use them – and you can reinforce this behaviour by rewarding them (e.g. with a cat treat) for scratching them.

If your cat is not using the litter box appropriately (peeing outside the box, urine spraying, pooping in the wrong place), then in addition to taking your cat to the vet to check for a medical problem, also consider that stress might be playing a role. Make sure you have enough litter boxes, that they are big enough and located in quiet areas, and take steps to reduce stress in all aspects of your cat’s life. Vitale Shreve and Udell note the unfortunate possibility that if litter box issues are a result of anxiety, the scent from them may make the cat feel more comfortable, and completely getting rid of that scent may cause more anxiety… Since humans are not likely to tolerate this scent, it emphasizes the importance of reducing stress in all other areas.

It’s worth thinking about where a cat’s scent glands are when stroking your cat too. A study by Sarah Ellis et al (2014) found cats prefer to be stroked around the head in the areas where the scent glands are, and suggests it may be a bit like allo-rubbing.

Of course, always give cats a choice of whether or not to interact with you or with particular scents.


It turns out that scent and chemical communication matters a lot to cats, and that cats can differentiate between many different smells. While we need more research on different aspects of how cats produce and utilise chemical signals, we can use what we already know to help make cats feel more comfortable and secure, and even use scent as enrichment.

Shreve, K. R. V., & Udell, M. A. (2017). Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 187, 69-76.

Further reading

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Rewards, Welfare and the Animal's Perspective in Training

Taking the animal’s perspective, and other highlights from the Train for Rewards blog party.

A cute dog and cat look expectant for their reward

Recently, 28 other blogs joined me in the Train for Rewards blog party to celebrate what we can do with reward-based training of our companion animals, and to encourage people to give it a try.

There were some truly brilliant posts. Thank you to everyone who took part and helped to make it such a success for the second year in a row.

It’s no surprise that most posts were about dog training, but cat training and the training of a pet pig also featured this year. And there were some common themes.

Animal welfare

The benefits to animal welfare when we use reward-based training methods instead of aversive techniques was a common theme.

Changes in how we think about animal welfare – to include positive experiences instead of just trying to reduce the bad – have implications for how we train animals, Kat Littlewood writes.

She says, “positive reinforcement is a ‘modern’ approach to learning and training, as it provides specific information to the animal about the exact behaviour that is required. In doing so, it enhances the human-animal bond.”

And as animals earn rewards, they experience positive emotional states, she says, and this is good for their welfare.

The benefits of reward-based training for both cats and their humans are also considered by Julie Hecht. She writes about training cats to like their cat carriers, something that really helps when taking them to the vet and would also come in handy in case of emergency. “It’s a shame these videos probably won’t go viral,” she says of the videos that illustrate her post, and it is. If you have a cat who is afraid of their carrier, be sure to check out that post.

A happy white Poodle raises a paw for a reward
Photo: Jagodka; top, Africa Studio (both Shutterstock)

If instead you have a dog you would like to train to go into a carrier, Malena DeMartini breaks down the steps she used to train her dog Tini to go into her travel crate. Getting Tini used to the travel crate will mean she can go places when a new train arrives in the neighbourhood, which is better for her welfare than being left at home for long periods.

Types of reward

Several posts, including my own, looked at the kind of reward that is useful in training dogs and cats.

Dr. Kate Mornement sums up why we should think about what to use as rewards. “Food is innately reinforcing and it works exceptionally well in training to teach dogs (and all animals) desired behaviours. But not all food is equal. Just because you think the treats you're using are rewarding to your dog (or other animal), doesn't mean they are the most rewarding or effective treats to use.”

The idea of testing different rewards and observing your dog or puppy’s response is also considered by Sydney Bleicher and by Jessica Ring, who uses the idea of the “Yum-o-meter.” (Cheese shreds get a good rating from all three dogs in this post). And Heather Fox took a close look at what she needed to do to make nosework training rewarding for her dog.

In Tell Me What You Want (What You Really Really Want) Casey McGee compares what humans might need to persuade them to do something (like run 3 miles in flip flops) to what a dog might need as a reward for the kinds of things we ask of them. She encourages us to think about how expensive different behaviours are from the dog’s perspective. Which brings us to…

Thinking about it from the animal’s perspective

The stubborn dog myth is considered by Helen Verte. You know those times when a dog does something wrong, like pee in the house, and the owner thinks it is because they are stubborn or spiteful? Not so. The reason is “Not to get back at the owner, or to carry out any other evil plan. They’re dogs. Their brains are made to react to a stimulus.”

Similarly, the Academy for Dog Trainers shared a cartoon that looks at house-training issues from the dog’s perspective. It’s a touch of humour that helps explain why some problems occur.

Sylvie Martin takes it on step further by asking “Seriously, who wants to be a pet?

But the best example of thinking about training from the dog’s perspective is in Melanie Cerone’s reflections on her own experiences as a crossover trainer, and how the benefits of reward-based training can be seen in her dog’s tail and face. (That video will surely make you happy).

And this beautifully-observed post by Megan O-Connor illustrates how low-level anxiety can affect a dog’s training session.

I’ve only touched on the main themes here. If you want to know more about how to use treats in training your dog, Tracy Krulik has you covered. Other posts looked at how to use habituation, the history of dog training, personal reflections on how using rewards changes the trainer, and more.

I highly recommend making a cup of tea or coffee and sitting down to read all the posts.

What did you learn from this year’s Train for Rewards blog party?

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Happy Canada Day!

A photo-essay of dogs and cats to celebrate Canada's 150 years. Happy Birthday, Canada!

Two dogs play in beautiful Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada
Two dogs playing at Lake Louise. Photo: Ravensfoot (Shutterstock).

A beautiful white dog and red maple leaves
Beautiful dog and red maple leaves in BC. Photo: Bad Monkey Photography.

A border collie in front of an expansive Alberta skyline.
A border collie and expansive skies in Alberta. Photo: Hai Diec (Shutterstock).

A cat enjoys the sunshine through the window & views of Vancouver
A cat enjoys the sunshine and views of Vancouver. Photo: Marianne Catafesta (Shutterstock)

A dog looks out at the sea and a lighthouse in Nova Scotia
A dog looks out at the sea and a lighthouse in Nova Scotia. Photo: Greg and Jan Ritchie (Shutterstock)

A Wire Fox Terrier on the Confederation Trail, Prince Edward Island
A Wire Fox Terrier on the Trans Canada Trail, PEI. Photo: VJ Matthew (Shutterstock)

A woman and her dogs in David Balfour park, Toronto, Canada
A woman and her dogs in David Balfour park, Toronto. Photo: Danilo Silveira (Shutterstock).

A fluffy cat sits on a table outside near a Canadian flag
A fluffy cat sits on a picnic table near a Canadian flag. Photo: Panksvatouny (Shutterstock).

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Did We Evolve to Love Dogs?

Is part of the reason dogs manage to wrap their paws around our hearts because we're predisposed to love them?

Guest post by Kristi Benson CTC.

A woman and her German Shorthaired Pointer relaxing in a field
"...a tendency in people to seek relationships with the natural world." Photo: Paddlepooch (Shutterstock).

Biophilia means, simply put, a focus on life and living things. Some researchers would even say it’s a love of living things. It has been used to refer to a tendency in people to seek relationships with the natural world: our love of greenspace, of potted plants, of well-tended trees on city boulevards, and maybe even (did you guess where this was going?), our love of animals, wild and domestic alike.

Considering you are reading a blog dedicated to spreading welfare-boosting, scientifically valid information about companion animals, it will not come as a surprise to you that many people find animals to be irresistibly compelling. Naturalist E.O Wilson suggests that this biophilia, this love of living things, has evolutionary roots in humans. That is, he suggests that our long-ago ancestors who loved living things—or at least paid greater attention to them—were more likely to survive than those who did not. Survival means reproduction, so our animal-loving forebears were more likely to pass along their animal-keen genes than people who, due to life’s genetic lotto, were not similarly inclined. Although other biologists and philosophers have questioned the utility, correctness (and lack of falsifiability) of the construct, it is interesting to ponder the idea that we evolved to love living things, and that part of the reason dogs manage to wrap their paws around our hearts is because we’re predisposed to love them.

When I went to school to become an archeologist in the 1990s, it was the vogue to say that everything we humans did, we learned to do from scratch during our lives. Children were considered to be born as blank slates, and learning and culture—and oh, what a fantastic adaptation culture is, when you think about it—explained the totality of our behaviour. We rolled our collective eyes at any inkling of a biological explanation for human behaviour (we had our reasons). As time, and science, (and ethics) have marched on, we have revised our models. There is now evidence that humans, like all the animals we share so much of our DNA with, have both learned and intrinsic behaviours. And it’s even much more richly complicated than that. Our genes provide the scaffolding upon which our life experiences (or even the life experiences of our parents) mould our adult behaviour. All behaviour is the product of complicated interactions between our genes and our experiences.

Did we evolve to love dogs? Thoughts on how much we love dogs
Photo:Stockwithme (Shutterstock).

As we would expect with a behaviour strengthened by evolutionary processes, interest in living things and animals is seen in many cultures and in many places around the globe, although it may look different in different places. In many areas, knowledge of the natural systems that support life continues to be vital to survival. I have been fortunate enough to work with Indigenous communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories, in particular the Gwich’in of Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Tsiigehtchic, for almost 15 years. Many of the projects I have worked on include recording and mapping information about animals and ecological systems. To say there is a breadth of knowledge about the natural world held by people who live close to it is an understatement. Gwich’in Elders even talk about a time, deep in the mythological past, when people and caribou shared the same language and could even change their animal forms.

The ability and desire to understand the natural world is, and has been, an enormous benefit to people who need to both comprehend and predict natural ecological cycles and animal behaviour. It makes good sense that a love of natural things could provide a survival boost. Both animals and people must be knowledgeable to ‘make a living in the world”.

At first, contemplating that our warm and fuzzy feelings towards dogs may be a product, or byproduct, of our evolutionary history (and even further, based on how useful this knowledge was to the survival of our ancestors) seems a bit… discombobulating. Doesn’t it feel like our affection towards our dogs should be in a special, different package? Certainly not in the same utilitarian category of “useful traits” as binocular eyesight or tool use or blinking or internal, air-breathing, lungs.

But I say, grasp firmly to the coolness of our evolution. How great is it that we even evolved? That we exist, unlike hadrosaurs and the passenger pigeon and all the trilobites? Humans, like dogs, cats, northern pig-tailed macaques, horseshoe crabs, and amoeba, are the product of our long evolutionary history. Without evolution there would be nothing human about us, just like without evolution and it’s human-directed best friend, domestication, there would be nothing dog about dogs. Evolution has tinkered both dogs and humans into existence.

And better yet: if dogs evolved or were domesticated to have a particular focus on humans, as some recent research on dog cognition suggests, then humans evolving to have a particular focus on living things like dogs could just be one more special thing we share. Like a spot on the couch, a love for leftover pizza, and snoozing after a long day.

Also by Kristi: Digging into our common ground with dogs.

About Kristi Benson CTC

Kristi Benson outside with two of her dogs

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC).  She lives and works in the Parkland Region of central Manitoba Canada, where she teaches dog obedience classes and helps dog owners in private consultations – both in-person and via video chat – for a full range of dog problems, from basic obedience to aggressive behaviour. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, and for fun she runs them with a dog-powered scooter and on skis.

Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

If you would like to propose a guest post, please read our guidelines first.

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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News June 2017

Favourite posts, photos and podcasts of the last month.

June 2017 news about dogs and cats

Some of my favourites from around the web

“None of us see animals clearly.  They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them.” What animals taught me about being human by Helen MacDonald

Can dogs help solve our childhood obesity problem? Hal Herzog PhD on childhood obesity and dog ownership.

Sniffing kitten butts for science  to find out how mother cats recognize their kittens, by Mikel Delgado PhD.

Should we call these canine behaviours calming signals? By Karen London PhD at The Bark. Be sure to also read the comment from Dr. Chiara Mariti, and this piece by Marc Bekoff  PhD that has been updated to include Dr. Mariti's comments.

"Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: My dog used to love to play with other dogs, and then one day she didn’t." Tracy Krulik on dog-dog reactivity.

“Making a fearful dog's life better is a long game.” Living with and loving a fearful dog, by Casey McGee at Upward Hound.

If you need a cheerful story, read this: It takes a village… love hope and a lucky Penny by Lori Nanan from Your Pit Bull and You.

Pets in the news

Important new position statement from International Cat Care on declawing in cats  “The operation to declaw does not just remove the claw, but also the end bone of the toe (equivalent to removing the end of a finger to the first joint in humans).”

Earliest evidence for dog breeding found on remote Siberian island.

Animal abuse in some form is present in 89% of domestic violence cases.

Canada needs laws to prevent the euthanization of healthy pets, says lawyer.

Diabetes-sniffing cat Charlie is a lifeline for his owner.

The Economist wonders whether emotional support animals should be allowed in the cabin of planes.

A massive study of ancient and modern cat genomes reveals an interesting history.

Sadly, a ban on the docking of puppy’s tails has been scrapped in Scotland after MSPs vote to allow exemptions. You can read Dogs Trust’s response here.

And senior nurses in the UK say pets should be allowed to visit their owners in hospital.


But my dog isn’t food motivated. Webinar by Kathy Sdao for Doggone Safe 28th June 2017

A brief history of corporal punishment by Jean Donaldson for Doggone Safe 5th July 2017

Dr. Clive Wynne Behavioural solutions to behavioural problems. 29th July 2017 in Melbourne, Australia

Photos, videos and podcasts

Dog photographer of the year 2017.

Cones of fame turns dreaded collars into fashionable accessories that help shelter dogs find homes.

Why do dogs have whiskers? Featuring Dr Jessica Hekman.

Adorable animal photos by Gerry Slade help rehome unwanted pets in Bury.

Why are some animals pets and others are lunch? Featuring Dr Hal Herzog.

Learn to sniff like a dog and experience the world in a new way. The Invisibilia podcast from NPR spoke to Dr. Alexandra Horowitz.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

There’s still time to purchase a Companion Animal Psychology t-shirt. 100% of the proceeds go to help animals at the BCSPCA Maple Ridge. Thanks to everyone who has bought one!

29 blogs took part in the Train for Rewards blog party, which was on its second year of celebrating and encouraging reward-based training. Dogs, cats, and even a pet pig featured in the posts. As well as enjoying the posts themselves, it’s a chance to find new bloggers to follow. Don’t miss it.

My interview with Dr. Christy Hoffman has had a wonderful response, and I also published a post about her recent research (with Dr. Malini Suchak) on dog rivalry.

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology book club has been reading The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions by Thomas McNamee. The book club takes July off, but stay tuned to find out August’s pick.

And finally, I chatted to Colleen Pelar and Julie Fudge Smith at Your Family Dog Podcast about how to make happy dogs even happier.

If you’re not already a subscriber, why not sign up to follow Companion Animal Psychology by email?

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