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.

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