Thursday, 19 October 2017

Lock-In for Love

You can help the animals at the BC SPCA Maple Ridge by donating to Lock-In for Love.

A cat looks up and says Help post bail, my dinner can't be late

The animals are getting worried.

On Sunday, October 22nd, staff, volunteers and local celebrities will be locked into kennels with a furry friend.

They have to raise bail money to get out.

All of the funds raised will help the BC SPCA Maple Ridge.

But what if they don’t raise bail? The animals are worried their dinners may be late…

You can help now by going to the Lock-In for Love webpage, click the name of one of the fundraisers in the scrolling bar on the right, and donate.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Two New Posts: Dog Walking and Favourites

Two posts look at dog walking behaviour and my personal favourite blog posts.

One puppy whispers to another about two new blog posts

This week I have two new posts for you.

At my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures, I look at some new research on the links between dog ownership, dog walking, physical health, and the human-animal bond.

“What I was excited about were the associations we found between the strength of the bond with the dog and dog-walking behaviour,” said Dr. Jessica Bibbo, one of the authors of the study.

Read the full story here.

And in a guest post for Dr. Jo Righetti’s Pet Problems Solved, I share my five favourite Companion Animal Psychology articles. These are the posts I wish everyone would read about cats, dogs, and how best to care for them.

Find out which ones I chose here.

Photo: atiger/Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Shelter Cats Like a Box to Hide In

Cats like somewhere to hide - and research shows a cardboard box can be the simple solution.

A cat hides in a cardboard box - important enrichment for cats because they like places to hide

How do we know what types of enrichment are most important to cats? A new study by Dr. Jacklyn Ellis (University of Prince Edward Island) et al tests shelter cats’ preferences. The results show the importance of a simple cardboard box for kitty cats.

What is environmental enrichment for cats?

Environmental enrichment involves adding something to the cat’s environment that is good for its welfare. Enrichment can be especially important for cats in shelters since the environment is stressful for them, away from their familiar home and with the presence of unknown cats and people, and perhaps with dogs in earshot too. But it's important for our cats at home too.

There are many ways to provide enrichment for cats, including vertical space, olfactory enrichment, food and even cognitive enrichment with clicker training.

How do we know what cats like?

How do we know which types of enrichment cats like best? For example, we know that cats like to be high up, and we also know that cats like to hide, but which is most important to them?

One way to find out is to investigate whether a particular enrichment leads to better physical and behavioural health, as with Gourkow and Phillips (2016) study of clicker training shelter cats.

Another way is to give cats a choice between enrichment items, and see where they choose to spend their time. The study by Dr. Jacklyn Ellis et al uses this method to see which of three types of enrichment shelter cats prefer.

This is a choice test, in which the animal is placed in one chamber with access to other compartments that contain different items, to see which one(s) they access the most. It’s also possible to do a motivational test to see how hard an animal will work to access a particular compartment. These methods have been used with a wide range of animals, including goldfish to see if they prefer real or artificial plants (answer: goldfish like both real and artificial plants).

The study of shelter cats and enrichment choices

The current study aimed to investigate which type(s) of enrichment shelter cats prefer out of a choice between a hiding box, a shelf to perch on, and a prey-like toy (the Mouse Chaser). Since we already know that cats like to hide, to perch in high up places, and to play with toys, it’s interesting to see which one they like best.

Fluffy cat hiding in a box - cardboard boxes are important enrichment for cats since they provide hiding spaces
Photo: sarikosta; top, kmsh. Both Shutterstock.

26 domestic cats from an animal shelter took part in groups of 3 at a time. On average, the cats had been at the shelter for 6 days. While they took part in the study the cats were housed in a lab that was set up with three choice chambers (one per cat). The cats could not see the other cats, although they could hear them.

The choice chamber consisted of a central space that contained the cat’s food and litter, with four compartments leading off. One was empty as a control, while the other three compartments contained the hiding box, perch, and toy. Access to the compartments was via a cat flap, and after time to acclimate to the central space the cats were taught how to use the cat flaps using wet food, treats or petting as rewards. Once they’d got the hang of that, the experiment itself began.

The cat flaps were set up so that a record was automatically made every time the flap was opened. The researchers measured how often each compartment was accessed over a period of 7 days, and how much time the cats spent in there.

Results of the study

The results show that although there were no differences in how often each chamber was accessed, the cats spent significantly more time in the compartment with the hiding box.  This suggests the hiding box was important to them.

There was also an effect of light, with compartments being visited more often during light hours than dark, and in particular between 8am and midday, suggesting the cats were more active during this time. However light and dark did not affect the amount of time spent per compartment. Individual cats differed a lot in terms of how much time they spent perching on the shelf.

There were no effects of age, sex or whether the cat was a stray or a surrender on the frequency of visits to the compartments. However, cats that had been strays spent less time in the control (empty) compartment than cats that had been surrendered by their owners. The researchers suggest this may be because stray cats either prefer to avoid empty spaces, or to spend more time in close proximity to their resources (given they are used to having to find them for themselves).

The researchers raise the question of whether the hiding box was enrichment or in fact actually a necessity. Some scientists say enrichment is about providing something that brings positive welfare benefits, rather than prevents poor welfare.

The scientists write,
“These authors may contend that the much greater allocation of time to the hiding box may be evidence that not providing an opportunity for these individuals to hide is failing to cater to their basic needs.”
The layout of the room was such that only one of the choice chambers gave cats a view of whether or not a person was approaching; the other chambers could be accessed from more than one angle. In this chamber, the cats tended to spend more time in the compartment from where they could see someone approaching, suggesting they value time with a person.

Over time cats may change their preferences, and as seen with the perches in this study, each cat is an individual. Since only one toy was used in the study, it may be that different types of toy, having a variety of toys, and/or toys that involve interaction with a human might be preferred by particular cats.

The scientists conclude that,
“Although the frequency in which the cats visited each compartment did not differ, they allocated more of their time to the compartment with a box that provided a hiding opportunity. This may be because hiding satisfies a basic need for cats housed short-term in caged conditions.”
Although the study took place in a lab, which may be less stressful than the shelter, it shows that hiding places were still very important to the cats.

Hiding places for shelter cats and owned cats

Many shelters already provide a hiding space for cats. One example is the BCSPCA’s Hide Perch and Go, which provides a hiding space, a perching space and can be used to transport the cat. Another is the Feline Fort from Cats Protection that includes a step and table as well as hiding place and is easy to disinfect.

The research is only about shelter cats and not owned cats, but it has implications for cats at home, who benefit from hiding spaces too. Providing a safe space is one of the five pillars of a healthy feline environment (Ellis et al 2013). Cats are prey animals and can be taken by coyotes etc, and as solitary hunters if they got injured it would have serious consequences for future food acquisition. So cats feel safer when they have places to hide, which may be enclosed, high up, and in a quiet area.

Why not take a look around your home and see which spaces are available for your cat to hide in. Under the bed and under the settee can be good hiding places, but they are still quite large areas, and cats prefer to have smaller cat-sized hiding places where they can feel more enclosed.

The hiding place used in this study is easy to replicate at home, since it was a cardboard box with a hole cut in one side to provide access. Other options include cat trees with enclosed hiding spaces, cat tunnels, cat carriers, or even access to a suitable shelf or cupboard in your house (so long as they can't get trapped there). Leaving the cat carrier out and making it a nice comfy hiding space also has benefits when it comes to taking your cat to the vet.

If you have multiple cats in your home, each one needs access to hiding places without having to compete with the other cats.

The full paper is open access and can be read via the link below.

What kind of hiding places does your cat spend time in?

To stay up to date on what science tells us about our cats and dogs, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology by email

Ellis, J. J., Stryhn, H., Spears, J., & Cockram, M. S. (2017). Environmental enrichment choices of shelter cats. Behavioural Processes.
Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., ... & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230.
Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. J. (2016). Effect of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival. Preventive veterinary medicine, 131, 103-110.
Sullivan, M., Lawrence, C., & Blache, D. (2016). Why did the fish cross the tank? Objectively measuring the value of enrichment for captive fish. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 174, 181-188.

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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

A cat, a pumpkin and some autumn leaves to wish you Happy Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada.

I am thankful for so many wonderful and kind blog readers, and so many great stories to write about.

Wherever you are, I hope you're having a lovely weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Can Dog Training Books Be Trusted?

Researchers assessed five best-selling dog training books for scientific accuracy – and found big variations in the quality of information they provide.

Only some dog training books are scientifically accurate; a terrier rests on the settee

If people are going to spend their money on a dog training book, you would hope they would get advice that is useful, easy to follow, up-to-date and accurate. Unfortunately, some dog training books fall short, according to a review by Dr. Clare Browne (University of Waikato) et al of five best-selling books.

There is a silver lining in this story: some dog training books contain very good information.

But the review found some popular dog training books include information that is inconsistent, scientifically inaccurate or unclear; suggest the use of punishment-based methods despite their association with negative outcomes; and use anthropomorphisms and references to leadership that may interfere with dog owners’ understanding of their pet’s behaviour. This is bad news for animal welfare. It’s also bad news for owners who may struggle with their dog’s behaviour due to following poor advice.

Dr. Clare Browne told me in an email,
“Good dog training books should have information that readers can understand and apply, but the information must also have a scientific basis. This review showed that not all of these popular books (that remained highly-ranked on large retailers' websites for years) meet these functions. This is a concern, because people who read some of these books may not be getting the best information in terms of training efficacy and animal welfare.” 
The review is framed in terms of what dog guardians need to know in order to train their dogs. Given that behaviour problems are a risk for dogs being surrendered to animal shelters, the scientists say, “if people’s training attempts are more successful, fewer dogs may be relinquished.”  There can be real-life consequences to following dog training advice.

The researchers selected five books based on their popularity. The books were initially chosen based on a search of three major online booksellers (Amazon UK and US and Fishpond NZ) in 2009; subsequent searches in 2012 and 2014 showed their continuing popularity.

The books included in the review are: Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier; The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell; It’s Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell; Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor; and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by Monks of New Skete.

The two books that come out of the review best (the silver lining) are It's Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell and Don't Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor.

The researchers say It’s Me or the Dog has current information about dog behaviour and training, and provides the information in a way that’s accessible and easy for dog owners to follow. The researchers found Don't Shoot the Dog! contains great information and in-depth coverage of learning theory as applied to any species, including humans, although it is not specific to dogs. Both books have an emphasis on positive reinforcement.

Dog treats from the cookie jar are the best way to train your dog, but many popular dog training books aren't evidence-based
Photo: Michael Kraus; top, picsbyst (both Shutterstock)

The Dog Listener is based on the idea that dogs have a hierarchical structure and often compares dogs to wolves. Cesar’s Way is in part autobiography of Cesar Millan, and is based on the ideas of dominance, energy, and being the “pack leader”. How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend is based on the idea that humans should be the “alpha” and includes a lot about positive punishment.

So are these five books evidence-based? The scientists compared what the books say to what science tells us about how to train a dog.

The books were read thoroughly as well as searched for explanations of aspects of learning theory (e.g. positive reinforcement, positive punishment) and for information relevant to human-dog communication (e.g. body language, tone of voice, and timing). As well as general information, the researchers explicitly looked at how the books suggested people teach their dogs ‘sit’, ‘lie down’ and ‘come’.

The researchers counted how many times particular topics were mentioned as well as the quality of the information (e.g. how well the books defined positive reinforcement compared to a scientific definition).

The tallies for how many times positive reinforcement and positive punishment are mentioned are very interesting. Pryor mentions R+ 46 times and P+ 7 times, and Stilwell mentions R+ 52 times and P+ 9 times. This shows the strong emphasis these authors have on positive reinforcement. Fennell mentions R+ 30 times and P+ 4 times. Millan & Pelltier are the only ones to mention P+ more often than R+ (21 times vs 16 times, respectively). Monks of New Skete mention R+ 59 times and P+ comes up 58 times.

Both the Millan & Peltier book and Monks of New Skete use the word ‘correction’ to refer to some positive punishment, and Monks of New Skete reserve the word ‘punishment’ for more harsh punishments (e.g. jerking on the leash is described as a correction, but shaking and hitting the dog are referred to as punishment). As the scientists point out, inconsistencies in descriptions of reinforcement and punishment may be confusing to dog owners.

In terms of how the books covered learning theory (essential information if you want to train a dog), there was a lot of variation. The researchers say Pryor’s book provided the most comprehensive information, with a primary focus on positive reinforcement. Three of the books did not explain either reinforcement (Millan & Peltier), punishment (Stilwell), or both (Fennell), although they did have examples of them in the book. Monks of New Skete did explain both, but they advise starting with a low level of positive punishment and then increasing it over time. The scientists point out this is not consistent with the scientific literature; studies show that animals can habituate to punishment administered in this way, such that over time high intensity punishment will not stop the behaviour (although it might have been effective if used from the beginning). This is very harsh and not good for animal welfare.

"advising the dog guardian public to use physically aversive training techniques, as suggested in some of these books, may not be the most prudent course of action in terms of safety and animal welfare."

The timing of delivery of reinforcement and/or punishment is crucial, but the scientists found that only Pryor and Stilwell emphasized timing and gave clear, replicable advice.

Although all of the books referred to the use of classical conditioning (except for Pryor, which has a different focus), Stilwell was the only one to explain it.

Only three of the books contained instructions for how to teach dogs to 'sit', 'lie down', and 'come' (it's worth noting the other two do not describe themselves as dog training books, even though they are popular as such). Stilwell contained clear instructions using non-coercive methods; Fennell was also non-coercive, but the researchers felt the instructions sometimes lacked detail. Monks of New Skete had instructions that were easy to follow, but they suggested physically putting the dog in position (negative reinforcement). The researchers say, “this is surprising, as since the 1980s there has been a shift away from physically coercing dogs during training.”

The researchers found Pryor has great information, but by definition, since the book is about any animal, it was not specific to training dogs.

The level of detail about the cues people should use when teaching dogs also varied across the books.

The researchers discuss the literature on dog training methods which suggests potential risks to animal welfare from using confrontational techniques. They say,
“Although a causal link has not been established, it could be argued that punishment-based techniques have been shown to be associated with fewer benefits than reward-based training methods and in fact, have been associated with significant negative effects (e.g., aggressive responses). Considering all of this, advising the dog guardian public to use physically aversive training techniques, as suggested in some of these books, may not be the most prudent course of action in terms of safety and animal welfare."  
This is an important study since it is the first time scientists have investigated the type and quality of information available in best-selling dog training books. It is careful, thorough, and methodical – and to be frank, the results are alarming.

It is especially concerning that books that recommend aversive methods continue to be so popular, given the scientific literature suggests a risk to animal welfare from using these methods (as well as a potential risk to human welfare if the dog is aggressive in response). It shows just how much work needs to be done to teach people how best to train their dogs.

It also shows that as well as choosing a dog trainer wisely, it is important to choose dog training books carefully. Unfortunately many people will be guided by what is on the most popular lists.

In light of the books consistent position on the best-selling lists, the scientists say,
"this indicates the books’ on-going popularity and that they probably contribute significantly to the type of information that is accessed by dog guardians."
This review is a valuable contribution to the literature  on dog training and animal welfare. Given the level of detail, it is not surprising it only considers five books. It would be very interesting to see these methods applied to other popular dog training books too.

You can follow the first author, Dr. Clare Browne, on Facebook.

If you want to read more about the research on dog training methods, you might like to start with a summary of a recent literature review, or you can check out my dog training research resources page.

In addition to It’s Me or the Dog and Don’t Shoot the Dog, my own recommendations for dog training books are Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson, Train Your Dog Like a Pro (also by Donaldson), The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller, The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, and Plenty in Life is Free by Kathy Sdao.

Which dog training books do you recommend?

Browne, C. M., Starkey, N. J., Foster, T. M., & McEwan, J. S. (2017). Examination of the Accuracy and Applicability of Information in Popular Books on Dog Training. Brill. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341453

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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club October 2017

"What if the secret to great dog training is to be an expert 'feeder' rather than a strong leader?" The book for October is Plenty in Life is Free by Kathy Sdao.

Pomeranian reading outdoors in Autumn because the book club choice is Plenty in Life is Free

The  Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for October 2017 is Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace by Kathy Sdao.

From the back cover,
"What if the secret to great dog training is to be an expert 'feeder' rather than a strong leader? A skilled reinforcer rather than a strict enforcer? 
"Over the past two decades, countless dog trainers across the world have embraced the liberal use of positive reinforcement. Often accompanying this trend, however, is an underlying emphasis, inherited from more coercive models of dog training, that each human in the family must be the dog's leader. Adopting the role of leader through the use of "Nothing in Life is Free" training protocols, however, can result in stifling rules that constrain people's ability to share affection with their dogs, Strict reward-rationing regimens also tend to put the burden on dogs to "earn" all their privileges instead of placing the primary responsibility on the humans to be generous, precise, creative "feeders" (i.e., reinforcers)."

Why not join us in reading the book? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

You can also follow Kathy Sdao on twitter.

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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Even Shy Shelter Cats Can Learn Tricks

Researchers show that even old or shy cats can learn new tricks like high five or sit.

Scientists clicker trained cats to do tricks, like this kitten doing a high five

If you think training cats is all the rage lately, you might be right. Recently I wrote about a study that found the best way to train cats was with food (rather than click-then-food or just click). Now another study, by Dr. Lori Kogan (Colorado State University) et al, investigates training shelter cats to do four different behaviours.

Not only did most of the cats learn the tricks, but it shows this is possible even in a shelter setting which is inevitably stressful for the cats.

100 shelter cats were taught to nose-target either a chopstick or the trainer’s finger, to spin, to sit, and to high-five (touch the trainer’s hand with one of their front paws). The trainers took the traditional clicker training approach, in which the click is a bridge that marks the behaviour and predicts a food reward.

Fifteen 5-minute training sessions took place over a 2 week period, at the end of which the cats were assessed to see how well they performed the behaviour on cue:

  • 79% of cats could nose-touch the target
  • 60% could spin
  • 31% could do a high-five
  • 27% could sit on cue.

This was significantly more than could do those behaviours prior to the training sessions. And when you include the cats who had learned to ‘almost’ do the behaviour – for example, almost sat but did not quite have the tailbone on the floor – you realize just how well the cats did. Considering the training was time-limited and took place in a stressful environment, some of the cats probably just needed a little more time.

Even old and shy cats can learn tricks, like this old ginger-and-white cat sitting
Photo: Juli Hansen; top, Sue McDonald. Both Shutterstock.

I asked Cheryl Kolus DVM, one of the authors of the study, what she would like shelter staff to know about the findings. She told me,
“I think the most important thing for shelter staff is that they can now reference the scientific literature that proves shelter cats can be clicker trained if they need to get buy-in from management about starting a clicker training program. 
“A couple other important things to note is that even if a cat appears fearful initially, many are still trainable, and that the social interaction can really help a cat adjust positively to the shelter environment.”
There are some really interesting findings to do with food motivation and shyness too. The cats that were rated as more highly food motivated at the start of the session did better than those who were not at the two behaviours of high-five and nose-touching the target. Cats who were rated as shy prior to the training did just as well at training as those that were not. And the age and sex of the cat did not make a difference either.

This shows that any cat (even those that are shy or older) can take part in a training programme.

The cats had two training sessions a day using a standardized plan, and one trainer took the morning shift while another trainer did the afternoons. For the duration of the study, the cats were housed in a separate unit within the shelter at which they were based. Cats were trained in their cage or in a small or larger room, depending how comfortable they were with the situation and what else was happening in the unit at the time (e.g. the presence of volunteers spending time with the cats).

Food motivation was assessed prior to the training by offering each cat a lid with chicken baby food on and a lid with canned tuna. This was also used as a preference test as whichever food the cat went to first was then used as their reward during training. After the scientists had made some choices for cats who seemed unsure, 62% of the cats got canned tuna and 38% got chicken baby food.

Some cats were not very interested in these foods, and they were offered a variety of different foods including cat treats during the training sessions, until the trainers found one the cat liked. A few cats seemed uninterested in the food but very keen on petting and so got petting as a reward instead.

You can see the second author, Cheryl Kolus, demonstrating how to teach a cat to touch a target in this video.

Other research has found that training sessions for shelter cats are linked to more contented cats with better physical health, as assessed by behavioural signs such as normal grooming and by levels of Immunoglobulin A in stool samples.

The authors of this study suggest that clicker training could be a useful enrichment program for shelter cats. The results show that any cat can be trained, and age or shyness should not be considered exclusion criteria for training sessions. The researchers also showed flexibility in training the cats where they felt comfortable (in their cage if necessary). They say training sessions may help cats cope with the stressful environment of a shelter – and they may also help make potential adopters more interested in the cats.

They also point out that positive interactions with humans may help simply by encouraging the cats to come to the front of the cage or out into the room, where they are more visible to potential adopters.

Although studies that trained shelter dogs have not necessarily resulted in increased adoptions (see here and here), it may be different for cats, since it is quite unusual for a cat to have a party trick. It could make for some great “adopt-me” videos. I look forward to seeing future research on this!

The paper is open access and you can find it via the link below.

If you want to know more about training cats, you might enjoy my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book (with John Bradshaw), The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat. And Cheryl Kolus DVM has some helpful resources including videos (such as the one above) on her website.

Kogan, L., Kolus, C., & Schoenfeld-Tacher, R. (2017). Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats. Animals, 7(10), 73. doi:10.3390/ani7100073

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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News September 2017

Make sure you haven't missed a thing with the latest favourites and news from Companion Animal Psychology

A dog and cat reading the news about cats and dogs

Some of my favourite posts from around the web this month

"When you have a frenzied dog barking, growling, screeching, and lunging at the end of a lead, the idea that the dog is simply frustrated by an inability to investigate that other dog is not the first thing that comes to mind." Dog play and cognitive biases by Lisa Skavienski at Your Pit Bull and You.

Puppy-farmed dogs show worse behaviour, suffer ill health and die young – so adopt don’t shop by Catherine Douglas.

“Ever heard the phrase “you get the dog you need”? Or even the thought that some dogs are “special” or universally arranged to land in our lives at the right time? The idea that some of our dogs will be game-changers over the course of our career.” Game changers by the Cognitive Canine.  

What it’s like to be a dog. Marc Bekoff interviews Gregory Berns about his new book.

“Next time you see someone walking a dog in a muzzle, offer them a smile. They are being responsible dog owners who are trying to help their dogs and keep everyone safe.” To muzzle or not to muzzle by Emily Levine at Decoding Your Pet.

Just because the Kong Pawzzle is for dogs, doesn’t mean cats won’t like it. Food Puzzles for Cats gets some felines to try it.

“If a stressed cat is an unhealthy cat, then a happy cat is more likely to be a healthy one. What can cat owners do to make their cats not only less stressed, but more happy?” Happiness is key to cat health by Catalyst Council.

If you’re thinking of adopting a cat, here are some things to think about from Ingrid Johnson

Photos, videos and podcasts

Pet rescues in Harvey’s wake via the Atlantic.

Expressive portraits reveal the quirky human-like qualities of different dogs. Dog portratis by Alexander Khokhlov.

Dr Lisa Radosta on making your family home Fear Free.

The Pet Professional Guild World Service interviews Dr. Ilana Reisner about her upcoming presentation for PPG on dog bites and children.

“These little felines represent your community in addition to just the cute photo we see.” Will the Bodega cats of instragram be put out of business by the latest tech start-up, asks the Guardian.


A court in Oregon has upheld a decision ordering a family to have their dogs “debarked”. This procedure is illegal in many countries.

How the chaos of Hurricane Katrina helped save pets from flooding in Texas by Karin Brulliard for the Washington Post.

A proposed bill in California would ban the sale of animals from puppy mills or mass breeding operations.


The Dog Breeding Reform Group is holding a seminar at the University of Surrey on tackling inherited and conformational problems in dogs. 22nd October 2017.

Managing compassion fatigue: How to care for yourself while caring for animals and people. Webinar by Dr. Vanessa Rohlf for the Pet Professional Guild, Thursday 28th September 2917,  5pm - 6pm (EDT).

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

I’m delighted to say that Companion Animal Psychology has been nominated for the People’s Choice Award: Canada’s Favourite Science Blog. Please vote for me here.

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry by Nicholas Dodman.

Gina Bishopp wrote a fantastic guest post about what it means when dogs lick their lips or look away: Do dogs use body language to calm us down?

An interesting new study finds the best way to train cats is with food.

And I also published a list of the resources that you will find on this website, from the people and blogs to follow, to a list of dog training research resources that will satisfy your inner dog training geek. Check out the list and let me know what you find helpful.

Lately there’s been some interesting research on dog walking, including a recent study by Carri Westgarth et al, covered here by Robert Bergland.  Bergland says, "Although most dog owners said the primary reason they walked regularly with their non-human "significant other" was the well-being of their dog, the symbiotic feedback loop of improved psychological and physical health created an upward spiral of wellness for all parties involved."

It has set me thinking about what I enjoy about walking my dog. One of those things would be getting outside whatever the weather, but sometimes my dog Bodger sticks his head out the door and decides he doesn’t want to go any further. This is especially the case in heavy rain and of course it’s his choice. But most of the time we are both happy on a walk, him sniffing here, there (and everywhere), and me just enjoying the fresh air. What do you enjoy about taking your dog for walkies?

As always, you can reach me on twitter, Facebook or by email (companimalpsych at gmail dot com). Until next time,


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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Resources at Companion Animal Psychology

From the people and blogs to follow to dog training research, there are lots of resources for dog and cat people here at Companion Animal Psychology.

Useful resources on dogs, cats & science illustrated by a cat poking its head out of a box
Cardboard boxes are a useful resource for cats; resources for cat and dog people in this post. Photo: isumi1 (Shutterstock)

In the five and a half years that I’ve been writing Companion Animal Psychology, I’ve built up a sizeable back catalogue of blog posts about science and our pets. I’ve also made a number of resources for readers who want to know more. Since there are many new readers lately, I thought I’d make a list so you can find everything.

Resources for dog and cat people at Companion Animal Psychology blog

Dog Training Research Resources

The science of dog training is a source of fascination for many dog trainers, and it makes an important contribution to animal welfare too. Research in this field looks at topics such as the methods ordinary people use to train their dogs (and how obedient they think their dog is as a result), the potential effects of different dog training methods on fear, anxiety, stress and aggression in dogs, as well as fascinating topics such as how dogs respond to praise, petting and food.

This page lists scientific studies on dog training along with links to the papers. And because many scientific articles are behind a paywall, I’ve also listed blogs where you can read about those articles – not just on this blog, but also posts by the likes of Dr. Patricia McConnell, Julie Hecht, Dr. Sophia Yin and Dr. Stanley Coren.

The list of dog training research resources is one of the most popular resources on this website and I update it regularly. Hopefully you will find it useful.

A Jack  Russell gets a treat - evidence-based dog training

A cat training research resources page is a new work in progress.

Less Stress at the Vet

I’ve published many blog posts about studies that show dogs and cats find vet visits very stressful. So I put together a list of useful resources to help cats and dogs have less stress at the vet.

From general advice on going to the vet, to training plans to help your dog or cat accept medication or restraint, you’ll find lots of useful links here to posts and videos by Dr. Andy Roark, Dr. Sarah Ellis, Laura Monaco Torelli, Chirag Patel, Pam Johnson-Bennett, Dr. Mikel Delgado, Dr. Jeannine Berger, International Cat Care, Kathy Sdao MA, the Muzzle Up! Project, Fear Free, and many more.

This is a post to bookmark and come back to, but remember it’s never too early to start training your pet to like trips to the vet.

A dog and cat at the vet - resources for less stressful vet visits
Photo: flywish (Shutterstock)

Animal Book Club

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is coming up to its first anniversary. The club reads one book a month (except for January and July, when we take a break). Although the Facebook group is full, anyone can read alongside us each month.

My own personal highlights from the books so far are The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis, Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, and How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. But I’ve enjoyed every book we’ve read so far and each one brings something unique to our understanding of companion animals and our relationship with them.

The title of each month’s book is published in a blog post on the first Sunday of every month.

A puppy reads a book for the animal book club

Pet People to Follow

There are many brilliant scientists, bloggers, dog trainers, animal behaviourists, veterinarians, organizations and general pet people who not only produce great content themselves on their blogs but also share great content on their twitter and Facebook feeds.

So back in January I put together a list of the Pet People to Follow in 2017 complete with their social media handles. You will find lots of interesting new people to follow on this list – and please add your own suggestions in the comments on that post.

A beagle follows its nose, and these are the best pet people to follow for great info on dogs and cats

Pet Blogs to Follow

My pet blogs to follow list is dedicated specifically to bloggers who write thoughtful, scientific, modern posts on dogs, cats or the human-animal bond. It updates every time someone publishes a new post, so you will always find something new to read.

From time to time new blogs are added or a blog will fall off the list due to technical problems or not posting in a while.

The proviso is that it will only work on desktop (it does not work on mobile at this time).

A cat looking at a computer with a list of the best pet blogs to follow
Photo: Renata Apanaviciene (Shutterstock)

The Train for Rewards Blog Party

Many studies point to risks to animal welfare when people use aversives to train dogs (see a summary of a literature review or the dog training research resources page for more). So I started the Train for Rewards blog party in 2016 to celebrate what we can do with reward-based training and encourage more people to give it a try. I was delighted so many bloggers decided to join!

You can read the 2016 Train for Rewards posts here (along with a summary of the highlights).

The 2017 Train for Rewards blog posts are here (along with a summary).

The Train for Rewards blog party takes place on 16th June. If you are a blogger and would like to take part, look out for the invitation in late May.

Companion Animal Psychology News

I have started a monthly newsletter which keeps you posted on what is happening here at Companion Animal Psychology, along with links to some of my favourite blog posts, articles, podcasts and photos of the last month, and upcoming events that might be of interest to readers.

The newsletter is typically published on the third Sunday of every month. You can read the August newsletter here which includes a couple of photos of dog-friendly pub signs from my recent trip to England.

Beautiful white cat sleeps on a book - useful resources for cat and dog people
Photo: Africa  Studio (Shutterstock)

Research Resources for Animal Shelters and Rescues

Animal shelters and rescues face many challenges in trying to increase adoptions, provide good welfare for animals, and reduce surrenders and euthanasia rates. This page lists all the posts where I have written about studies that are directly pertinent to animal shelters.

A cat and dog asleep, dreaming of resources for dog and cat owners

All About Dogs and All About Cats

Here at Companion Animal Psychology, I write mostly about dogs and cats, but also from time to time about other animals such as rabbits or fish.

Now that there’s a lot of material, I made a couple of summary pages where you can find links to some of my most popular posts about dogs and cats. So you can make a cup of tea or coffee and sit down to read all about dogs or all about cats.

Essential guides for cat people and dog people are highlighted at the top of each page. This is where you will find links to articles on how to choose a dog trainer, my ultimate dog training tip, how to provide environmental enrichment for your cat, and the secrets of your cat's nose.

If you know a new dog or cat owner, they’ll find plenty of useful information there.

A happy dog rolls in the grass... Lots of resources to help you have a happy dog
Photo: Dora Zett (Shutterstock)

Guest Posts at Companion Animal Psychology

I only recently started to accept guest contributions, and I’ve been lucky to publish some cracking guest posts from Kristi Benson, Gina Bishopp, Jane Gething-Lewis, and James Oxley and Clare Ellis.

You can find links to all guest posts here.

If you’re thinking of submitting a guest post, please pay careful attention to these guidelines.

Interviews with Scientists and Authors

I’ve been very lucky to conduct some interviews with some amazing scientists and authors about their research or books. You can see a full list of interviews here. Again, you'll find plenty to enjoy.

Companion Animal Psychology cat loves dog logo

And Finally, the T-shirt…

If you like what I do here at Companion Animal Psychology, maybe you would like to support my favourite shelter by buying the Companion Animal Psychology t-shirt? The gorgeous ‘cat loves dog’ design is by Lili Chin and features my dog and one of my cats greeting each other.

The design is available on t-shirts in various colours, a hoodie, sweatshirt, and pillow.

100% of the proceeds go to the BC SPCA Maple Ridge.

Follow and Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology

As always, you can follow me on twitter, Facebook or pinterest, and you can subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to make sure you never miss a post.

For the time being, there is a search box in the sidebar that you can use to find posts on particular topics. When Google brings in the next Chrome updates, I will have to remove the search box as it is not https. That was partly the impetus for making a post that lists where to find useful pet resources on this blog.

I’m always open to suggestions for blog posts, so if you have particular topics you’d like to see covered you can email me on companimalpsych at gmail dot com.

Make your dog happy: "I love to go for walks"

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Shortlisted for Canada's Favourite Science Blog

Companion  Animal Psychology is shortlisted for the People's Choice Award: Canada's Favourite Science Blog. Vote for your favourites!

Badge for the People's Choice 2017 Canada's Favourite Science Online contest

I am thrilled to have been short-listed for the People's Choice Award: Canada's Favourite Science Blog.

You can see the shortlist and vote here on the Science Borealis website. Voters can select their three favourite blogs and three favourite science websites (so you have six votes in total). It's a great way to show support for your favourite science sites and blogs and find new ones to follow too.

You can follow the contest on social media via the hashtag #CdnSciFav. Every day from now until the close of voting on 14th October, Science Borealis and SWCC will be promoting the short-listed blogs and websites on social media. The contest is part of Science Literacy Week (#scilit17) here in Canada which celebrates science with events across the country. 

Three finalists in each category will be announced during the week of October 23rd, and the winners will be announced at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov 1-3) and on social media.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Do Dogs Use Body Language to Calm Us Down?

Are lip licking and looking away signals of discomfort and expressions of peace in the domestic dog?

Guest post by Georgina (Gina) Bishopp (Hartpury College, UK)

A worried dog licks its nose - a sign of stress
Photo: StudioCAXAP

A study by Dr. Angelika Firnkes (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich) et al., 2017 has found that the domestic dog uses appeasement gestures both when feeling threatened and during greetings with humans. For the first time it has now been shown that dogs will use at least two of these signals, the lip lick and look away, to appease their human social companions. Turid Rugaas (2005) had previously described a set of behaviours in dogs, including the lip lick and looking away, through years of working as a behavioural consultant, that she described as ‘Calming Signals’. Rugaas (2005) explained that the dogs would use these ‘Calming Signals’ when feeling uncomfortable and attempting to prevent aggressive responses from their conspecifics and humans. For the first time scientific research has supported this theory in relation to dog-human communication as described by Rugaas.

Many of these behaviours can also be described as appeasement gestures and have been shown to occur during close range dog to dog interactions, (Mariti et al., 2014), almost exclusively when dogs are interacting, (Gazzano et al., 2010). Furthermore, after an aggressive interaction the receiver of the aggression was more likely to show one of these ‘Calming Signals’ and when this occurred aggressive displays from the receiver decreased, (Mariti et al., 2014; Gazzano et al., 2010).

116 dogs over the age of 13 months were accompanied with their owners to perform a standardized behavioural test, (Firnkes et al., 2017). This sample size is good compared to a lot of dog behaviour research where samples tend to be a lot smaller. The human testing the dogs was unfamiliar and subjected the dogs and owners to various stimuli.

The situations that the dogs experienced were either environmental (such as passing a jogger), involved contact (i.e. person walking directly towards dog), or were threatening (i.e. threatening stare at the dog). It is worth noting that the contexts described as threatening were kept safe by using leads and muzzles, and all of the stimuli were very realistic and likely to be experienced by many dogs during their lives (such as a person kicking away a football).

Looking away occurred significantly more in socially direct situations, such as the ‘friendly salutation’ or ‘threatening stare’ stimuli, suggesting that this behaviour is used as a social signal. Lip licking also occurred in a similar way, however did not occur as often as was expected during the ‘threatening screaming’ and ‘physical threat’ [the test human pretended to strike out at the dog] situations. Both did however occur more frequently during friendly interactions after an initial threatening situation, again supporting the theory that these behaviours are used to signal peace and conflict avoidance.

The theory laid out by the authors of this paper for the lack of lip licking and looking away during the very threatening situations is that it is possible that by this point the dogs believed that appeasement was no longer appropriate. Instead they showed clearly submissive behaviour such as the flattened ears, a drawn-in tail and bent joints. This study highlights room for future research to explore the possibility that these behaviours are not intended as signals but are in fact physiological stress responses to the threatening stimuli. This is due to lip licking also occurring during stress responses in dogs to human threat in previous studies.

In this way, I think when a dog looks away or licks its lips they are not signalling to you that they want you to completely back away but are looking for a response that indicates that you too are not looking to aggress. In this way the better human response may be to reduce potential threat through looking away themselves and lowering to the ground, so as not to arch over the dog. In this way the assumption is not being made that dogs showing these signals are overtly stressed by the stimuli or do not want to engage with the stimuli, however that these dogs want to interact with the stimuli in the most peaceful way possible.

Either way, these behaviours are clearly important elements of healthy dog communication with both conspecifics and human caretakers and should not be ignored by those interacting with these animals.

Have you ever experienced lip licking or looking away in your dog? How do you interpret this behaviour?

About the author:

Photo of Georgina (Gina) Bishopp
My name is Georgina (Gina) Bishopp and I am a 23-year-old MRes Animal Behaviour and Welfare student at the University of West England, Hartpury College campus. Since graduating from my first degree (BSc Animal Science with Care and Management) I have worked for the Blue Cross and am now at the RSPCA, primarily working with dogs and cats. I own a horse and have ridden since a child, experiencing every different kind of horse training and management as I have tried to understand which method is best for the horse. Now I use a blend of tradition and new age techniques, and only those that are supported by current scientific understanding of horses themselves or other mammals (including the dog). My academic focus has primarily been with companion animals, primarily dogs, and equines, however my interests are very broad and extend to wildlife and zoo animals welfare as well.

Other posts by Georgina Bishopp: The importance of science in horse training.

Gazzano, A.; Mariti, C.; Papi, F.; Falaschi, C; Forti, S. (2010). Are domestic dogs able to calm conspecifics by using visual communication? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 5 (1).
Firnkes, A., Bartels, A., Bidoli, E., Erhard, M., (2017). Appeasement signals used by dogs during dog-human communication. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research.
Mariti, C.; Falaschi, C.; Zilocchi, M.; Carlone, B.; Gazzano, A. (2014). Analysis of calming signals in domestic dogs: Are they signals and are they calming? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(6).
Rugaas T. (2005) On Talking Terms With Dogs Calming Signals. Legacy by Mail, Inc. USA.

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Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Best Way to Train Cats is With Food

Using food alone is the quickest way to train cats to touch a target, according to this pilot study.

How to train cats, like this beautiful white cat with blue eyes
Photo: Esin Deniz (Shutterstock)

You can train cats to go up to a target and touch it with their nose. This in itself will be news to many people, but researchers at Massey University have investigated the best way to train cats to do this. It involves food.

There’s a lot of interest in training cats at the moment, not necessarily to perform obedience behaviours like sit and stay, but to help them in their daily lives. You can teach your cat to like going in their cat carrier so trips to the vet don’t have to begin with you getting scratched-up arms. And you can use positive reinforcement to help teach your cat where they are allowed to scratch (along with provision of the right scratching post, of course).

Erin Willson et al picked the behaviour of touching a red wand target with the nose, and set about training 9 cats to do this. They divided them into three groups: one that was rewarded with food alone, one that used a bridging stimulus (a beep followed by the food reward), and one that used a secondary reinforcer only (a beep – previously associated with food – but no food).

The first two of these conditions will be familiar to dog trainers who use positive reinforcement, since they equate to the use of food only or to click-plus-treat. The last condition may have some of you thinking back to an interesting talk by Simon Gadbois at SPARCS about the clicker and the emotions of seeking vs liking (you can read a nice summary and discussion on Patricia McConnell’s blog).

The scientists concluded that both food alone and the bridging stimulus (beep plus food) worked, but that food alone was faster. The secondary reinforcer only (beep but no food) did not work. In fact cats in this group began scratching and biting the experimenter.

This is only a small study so there weren’t really enough cats to draw firm conclusions about training methods.  Nonetheless the results are very interesting, and it is really nice to see cat training getting the attention of researchers.

The study used a Treat & Train, which is an automatic food dispenser. The red wand target comes with the machine.

12 cats from the university’s feline unit took part in the study. They were aged 2 to 12 years.

Use food to train cats, like this calico cat sitting pretty for a treat
Photo: Kristi Blokhin (Shutterstock)

3 of them took part in what is called an extinction procedure. First they were taught that the beep from the Treat and Train machine meant food was about to arrive. The next day they heard the beeps without any food arriving, to see how long it would take for their response to the beep to extinguish (in other words, until they stopped approaching for food). The median response was 11 trials. This was important information for one of the conditions in the experiment.

9 cats were trained to nose-touch the target using a standardized plan. This was a shaping procedure, so cats were initially rewarded for just looking at the target, then for getting progressively closer until eventually they were expected to touch it with their nose.

The cats were divided into three groups. A beep is meaningless to a cat, so two of the groups (the bridge group and the secondary reinforcer group) were taught to associate the beep from the machine with food. Food is a primary reinforcer because it naturally has value to cats.

The food-only group got to hang out with the machine without any beeping, so that time with the machine would not be a factor.

During the training sessions, the food-only group was rewarded with food from the Treat and Train whenever they performed the correct behaviour. The machine was set up not to beep.

For the bridge group, the beep of the machine was used as a bridge, something that marks the right behaviour and fills the time until the arrival of food. In this condition, the beep is always followed by food. When the cat performed the correct behaviour, the machine beeped, and then food arrived.

For the last group, the beep was used as a secondary reinforcer. In other words, when cats performed the right behaviour, they heard the beep but did not get food. These cats were given some additional beep-food pairings to maintain this association and prevent its extinction (that’s why the first part of the experiment was important).

All of the cats in the food-only group and the bridging stimulus group (beep plus food) learned the behaviour. The group reinforced with food-only was faster at learning the task, but took the same amount of trials as the bridge group.

None of the cats in the secondary reinforcer (beep-only) group learned it. As mentioned above, the cats in this group began to scratch and bite the experimenter. Perhaps they were frustrated that they could not figure out how to get the food. (This reminds me of the study of the Eureka effect in dogs, where dogs became reluctant to enter the experimental area when they could not make the reward happen).

So if you are planning to train a cat, you should use food. (Incidentally, food is also important when training dogs).

The experimenters used a piece of Hill’s kibble as the reward.  If you’re training a cat at home, you might find other kinds of food more motivating; see my interview with Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat for some ideas.

The results of this study are broadly in line with Chiandetti et al’s (2016) dog training study, which found no difference between use of food only, clicker-plus-food, or verbal-marker-plus food (that study did not test a secondary-reinforcer-only option).

The cats were assigned to groups in the order they happened to participate, and it turned out three older cats were assigned to the secondary-reinforcer-only group. We don’t know if age and gender of the cats would make any difference to trainability and this would be another topic for future research.

The authors conclude,
“the use of a primary reinforcer, alone, or a bridging stimulus (followed by a primary reinforcer) appeared to be efficacious for training cats to perform a novel task. However, the primary reinforcer, alone, may be a more time efficient method. The use of a secondary reinforcer, alone, may not be efficacious.”

Incidentally, learning to touch a target with the nose may seem like a trick, but it has its uses. Some people train their dogs to touch a target (such as their hand) and hold in place. It’s called a stationing behaviour because it keeps the dog still at a station, and can be useful during veterinary examinations.

This is a fascinating study and I hope to see lots more research on cat training in the future.

Have you ever tried to train a cat? If so, how did it go?

Further Reading on Cat Training

If you want to know more about how to train cats, you might like these books.

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. (This is a must-read for all cat owners).
Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor - also available as part of a kit: Karen Pryor, Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats Kit.
Cat Training in 10 Minutes by Miriam Fields Babineau.
Trick Training for Cats by Christine Hauschild.

Willson, E. K., Stratton, R. B., Bolwell, C. F., & Stafford, K. J. (2017). Comparison of positive reinforcement training in cats: a pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

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