Sunday, 22 October 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News October 2017

Make sure you  haven't missed a thing with the latest newsletter from Companion Animal Psychology.

A dog and cat read the latest newsletter from Companion Animal Psychology

Some of my favourites from around the web this month

Kate Mornement PhD has written a great series about enrichment, starting with Wild at Heart: Why enrichment is essential for your pets’ well-being and with lots of ideas for enrichment for dogs  and for cats.

"Laterality is an ancient inherited characteristic and is widespread in the animal kingdom, in both vertebrates and invertebrates." I’ve always wondered: can animals be left- and right-pawed? Janice Lloyd and Richard Squires at The Conversation.

"If a cat is on an elevated surface and there are small objects on there as well, he often can’t resist the urge to use his paw to push something over the edge." Something many cat owners want to know: Why does my cat like to knock things off the table? By Pam Johnson-Bennett

How can you tell if your cat is happy and likes you? Susan Hazel PhD answers a Curious Kids question for the Conversation.

"Cats are trainable and can be quite easy to medicate. It is all about finding something that motivates them to make it worth their while." Food rewards for training and medicating cats by Ingrid Johnson at Fundamentally Feline

"These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead." The Hurricane dog training challenge by Michael Baugh. How to prepare your dog for emergencies.

Do you have a counter-surfing dog? Then this post by Kristi Benson is for you. The case of the disappearing doughnut: What to do with a counter-surfing dog.

"The results suggest that people with favorable attitudes towards pets are also more likely to be influenced by news reports touting the idea that animals make good therapists." Hal Herzog PhD on Why do people think animals make good therapists? 

"Go slowly and go at his pace. You never know, your dog might surprise you by how well he knows the game." Tips on travel with dogs, including anxious ones, from Julie Naismith.

The Domestic Dog is the book we've been waiting for since 1995. Julie Hecht reviews the second edition of The Domestic Dog, edited by James Serpell.


Restricted activity for dogs. Webinar by Sian Ryan for Pet Professional Guild. 9th November 2017 2-3pm EST.

Photos, videos and podcasts

Britain’s pub dogs – in pictures.

Photographer Marcel Heijnen captures the secret lives of Hong Kong’s market cats in captivating series at Creative Boom: “the series is as much about the concept as it is about the beautiful animal.”

"Inside a new exhibit that gives dogs, cats, and chickens the full-on natural history museum treatment." See the world’s most ordinary animals as you never have before at Atlas Obscura. Photos by UCL Grant Museum of Zoology/Oliver Siddons, Text by Sarah Laskow.

Cute photos of dogs trying their best to look like people from William Wegman’s latest book.

8 photos of cute dogs in chic homes.

Undercats by Andreas Burba. Cats photographed from under a glass table.

The sorrow and grace of abandoned cats. Photos by Sabrina Boem, text by Ellyn Kail.

10 art installations for dogs and cats at an art exhibition for pets in Singapore.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

This month’s book for the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace by Kathy Sdao. "What if the secret to great dog training is to be an expert 'feeder' rather than a strong leader?"

The animals at my local shelter are getting worried because staff and volunteers will be shut in kennels with a furry friend today and only let out once they’ve raised bail. Lock-In for Love raises funds for the BC SPCA Maple Ridge and you can donate here.

My Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures looks at some new research that finds dog ownership is not linked to health benefits – but walking the dog is, and people walk their dog more if there is a stronger human-animal bond.

I wrote a guest post for Dr. Jo Righetti about my 5 favourite Companion Animal Psychology articles. Are you surprised at the ones I chose?

Here on Companion Animal Psychology, my post about Clare Browne et al’s research on dog training books has been very popular. While the results may not be a surprise to people reading this blog, the dog owning public is still buying books that may not give them the best advice.

Two posts about shelter cats have also been very popular. It turns out that even old and shy shelter cats can learn tricks such as spin or nose-touch a target. While research on which enrichment item shelter cats prefer suggests that a hiding place may actually be a basic necessity, rather than enrichment. Luckily a cardboard box can make a suitable hiding place!

Stay up-to-date and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology today.

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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.

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

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