30 May 2012

Why Do Some Owners Not Walk Their Dogs?

There are two factors that explain why some people don't walk their dog.

Dogs like walking, so why do some dog owners not walk their dogs?

In an earlier post, I looked at whether people could be encouraged to take more physical exercise by focusing on the benefits to their dog of going for a walk. It seems they can. But it surprises me that some people don’t walk their dog every day. To me, taking a dog for a walk is one of the lovely things about having a dog, but apparently not everyone feels that way.

A study by Hayley Cutt looks at the reasons why. Public health officials are always looking for ways of encouraging people to exercise, and as Cutt puts it, “one such under-used resource lies patiently, wagging its tail in eagerness to be physically active.”

Participants in this study were a subset of people taking part in a longitudinal survey of a neighbourhood in Perth, Australia. The dog-owners were asked to complete a questionnaire about their dog, how often they walked the dog, and the quality of their relationship.

The study used the framework of the Theory of Planned Behaviour, which psychologists have found a very useful way of looking at the relationship between attitudes and behaviour.

On average, dog owners reported walking the dog four times a week for a total of 134 minutes. This isn’t necessarily the total time the dog was walking for, since some people said that at times their partner walked the dog instead.

Not surprisingly, owners who walked their dogs spent significantly more time walking each week than those who didn’t, and also got significantly more total physical exercise. The proportion of dog owners who did not walk their dog at all was 23%.

The two main factors which meant that owners were not likely to walk their dog were that they felt the dog did not provide motivation to walk more, and that the dog did not provide social support to walk more. A dog can provide social support through companionship, but also because it makes walking more sociable – other people are more likely to talk to someone with a dog. 

Although most owners felt attached to their pet, attachment was not enough to encourage them to walk the dog. The authors suggest that further research investigates whether aspects of the dog – such as size and breed – are related to the perceived motivation and social support to walk the dog.

This intrigues me because they did find that owners of toy or small dogs were the least likely to take them for walks. I wonder if owners of medium and large dogs are more likely to feel that their dogs need exercise, and hence feel more motivation to walk them?

How about you? What makes you feel motivated to walk your dog?

P.S. How to encourage people to walk their dog. Walking the dog is just one way pets help people make friends

Cutt, H. Giles-Corti, B. and Knuiman, M. (2008) Encouraging physical activity through dog-walking: Why don’t some owners walk with their dog? Preventive Medicine, 46, 120-126.
Photo: Jan Faukner (Shutterstock.com)

25 May 2012

Preventing Dog Bites in Children

This is National Dog Bite Prevention Week in the US, so I thought I’d look at two recent studies that investigate dog bite prevention in children. Both studies are based on interviews with parents and children, after the children had been admitted to a hospital emergency department.

How to stop children from being bitten by dogs

A study by Ilana Reisner et al asked children who had been bitten by dogs about the circumstances of the bite. They wanted to know things like whether it happened inside or outside, and what the dog and child were doing immediately prior to the bite. Most indoor dog bites happened in the dog’s home (whether or not it was also the child’s home), and most outdoor dog bites happened near to the dog’s home.

They identified two main circumstances for dog bites; younger children tended to be bitten inside the home, often by a dog that they lived with, whereas older children tended to be bitten outside, by dogs they did not know. For the younger children, there was often some interaction between the child and the dog prior to the bite, which was usually initiated by the child.

They suggest that children should not approach a dog that is lying down or stationary, and that adults need to pay close attention to interactions between young children and dogs in the home. Preventing the outside dog bites is more difficult, since the dogs were not under control or supervision at the time. They wonder if a proactive approach of people reporting dogs that regularly escape their yards or lunge aggressively from behind fences would help with this. Obviously, ensuring that dogs actually stay in their yards would play a major part in preventing this kind of bite.

And this year, a study by Cinnamon Dixon and colleagues, looked at knowledge about preventing dog bites, and whether more education would be beneficial. Participants included children presenting with dog bites as well as those presenting with other conditions. Children and their parents were given questionnaires about education about dog bites, demographics (for the parents), and a knowledge test about how to interact with dogs. For example, a photo of a dog eating from its food bowl was accompanied by the question “Should you pet this dog?” (the correct answer is no).

Almost three quarters of the parents currently owned a dog, and a prior dog bite was reported in almost a quarter of the children. Although almost all of the parents passed the knowledge test, only 57% of the children did, suggesting that more education for children would be useful.

No link was found between a previous dog bite and children’s scores on the knowledge test, which could mean that families are not learning from a dog bite situation.  The questionnaire showed that parents would welcome some kind of formal education for their children on preventing dog bites.

Both of these studies focus on the child, but there are implications for dog owners. Make sure you carefully supervise all interactions between young children and your dog, and teach the child about how they should behave around dogs. If you leave your dog in the yard, make sure it can’t escape, and train it not to snap or lunge at passers-by. Don’t keep it permanently chained, as that can lead to aggression. And of course, there is no substitute for a well-socialized and well-trained dog.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has lots of useful information about preventing dog bites, including statistics, advice, and a podcast with Victoria Stillwell, 

What are your tips for preventing dog bites? Who do you think should teach children about dogs?

P.S. An evaluation of the Blue Dog project's influence on parents and a new approach to dog bite prevention.

Dixon, C.A., Mahabee-Gittens, E.M., Hart, K.W. and Lindsell, C.J. (2012) Dog bite prevention: An assessment of child knowledge. The Journal of Pediatrics, 160, 337-341.
Reisner, I.R., Nance, M.L., Zeller, J.S., Houseknecht, E.M., Kassam-Adams, N. and Wiebe, D.J. (2011) Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury Prevention, 17, 348-353.
Photo: Parinya Feungchan (Shutterstock.com)

23 May 2012

Walking a Dog: Good for You and the Dog

We all know that owning pets is said to be good for you. One of the benefits of owning a dog is taking it for walks. And walking – like any other form of exercise – is good for your health.

It surprises me that some people don’t walk their dogs, because having to go out in all weathers is one of the things I like about having dogs. However wet and windy it is outside, it’s (usually) not so bad once you actually get out there. And walking helps prevent canine obesity as well as human obesity. Dogs that are left on their own in a yard to exercise are more likely to be obese than dogs that have an exercise regime, according to a study by I.M. Bland et al in 2009. When dogs are left in a yard, even if that yard is more than an acre in size, they just don’t seem to do enough exercise.  

A recent study looked at whether people could be persuaded to do more walking for the sake of their dog. It’s a different approach than telling people it’s for their own good. In a study published earlier this year, Ryan Rhodes and colleagues from the University of Victoria, Canada, did a randomized trial of a dog-walking intervention. People were recruited for a study on dog-walking, and randomly assigned to either a control or an intervention group. The control group were told to keep up their normal dog-walking regimen, while the intervention group were given lots of literature on the benefits of dog-walking for their dog and tips on a dog-walking regime. Both groups were followed up at six and twelve weeks.

One finding was that simply taking part in a study on dog-walking led to more dog-walking, even in the control group. Perhaps people took part because they felt motivated to walk the dog more. However, in the intervention group, the amount of dog-walking was significantly increased. One of the nice things about this study is that they took subjective measures (how much time people reported walking their dog) as well as using pedometers to track how many steps people took. Both of these measures were significantly higher in the intervention group, and this is important because otherwise we wouldn’t have known for sure if people actually walked as much as they said they did.

So, if people can’t motivate themselves to exercise for their own benefit, maybe they’ll go for a walk for the sake of their dog. 

How often do you walk your dog? And do you still go out in bad weather?

Bland, I.M., Guthrie-Jones, A. Taylor, R.D. and Hill, J. (2009) Dog obesity: owner attitudes and behaviour. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 92, 333-340.
Rhodes, R.E., Murray, H., Temple, V.A., Tuokko, H. and Higgins, J.W. (2012) Pilot study of a dog-walking randomized intervention: Effects of a focus on canine exercise. Preventive Medicine, 54, 309-312.

16 May 2012

The Cat at the Window

Why do cats like to look out of the window?

Why do cats like to look out of the window, like this pretty white cat with a red collar? Windows provide important enrichment and there are ways you can improve them from the cat's perspective.
Photo: Diane N. Ennis / Shutterstock

I think all cats like windows. Even outdoors cats will still spend time sitting on a window ledge, watching the world outside. For indoor cats, windows become even more important. Since cats that live exclusively indoors can easily become bored or frustrated, it is important to provide environmental enrichment for them.

In a review of enrichment practices, Sarah Ellis (2009) says that windows with an interesting view provide important visual enrichment for cats. Of course, it’s what the cat finds interesting that counts. It’s possible that being unable to reach or interact with things on the other side of the window could cause frustration.

As with any enrichment practice, you have to take the cat’s perspective.

How much time does the average domestic cat spend at a window? In a survey of 577 cats by Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, caregivers reported that their cats spent less than five hours a day at the window, with the median time reported as two hours.

This doesn’t surprise me, since even an indoor cat will have other activities to keep her busy: napping, grooming, playing with toys, sitting on someone’s lap or next to them on the settee while they watch tv, interacting with fellow cats and any other pets in the home, and so on. I was surprised to read that almost 16% of the cats were reported as spending more than five hours a day looking out of the window.

Does your cat like to look out of the window? Here's what they look at, and why they like to spend time there

This study also asked what the cats did at the window. The most common activity was watching birds, small wildlife or foliage. Reported less often, but still common, were watching other cats, people, vehicles and insects.

This is useful information since it helps us work out what will provide visual enrichment, from the cats’ point of view; it suggests that they would prefer a green outlook that is attractive to birds and other wildlife.

There are several ways you can make windows more interesting for your cat. If you feed the birds in winter, you could position a bird table in sight of the window so the cat can watch birds coming to feed. A bird bath would also encourage birds to come.

In summer, if there is a window close to an outside light, you could put the outside light on at dusk and leave the curtains open for a while. The cat can watch the moths and other insects that are attracted to the light. My cats love this and one of them will even come to find me if I have forgotten to turn the light on for him. He leaps up at the window trying to catch insects on the other side, so it’s a great game for him and gives him some exercise as well.

"The most common activity was watching birds, small wildlife or foliage."

Another idea is to make sure that cats have a choice of windows, or to let them use a window ledge that is high up, since cats like to be in an elevated position. And if the window can be safely left open, the cat can enjoy the scents that drift in on the breeze - cats have amazing noses.

If you want to provide extra enrichment for your cat, you will find lots of enrichment ideas here. It is a great idea to give your cat food toys, provide different scented items such as catnip and silver vine, and make sure they have a good scratching post.  

Does your cat spend much time at the window? What does your cat like to watch?

Stay up to date and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

You might also like: How to pet cats and dogs and 5 things to do for your cat today.

Ellis, S. (2009) Environmental enrichment: Practical strategies for improving feline welfare. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 901-912.
Shyan-Norwalt, M.R. (2005) Caregiver perceptions of what indoor cats do “for fun”. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 8(3), 199-209.

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09 May 2012

What's your favourite command?

There are certain commands that all dogs are supposed to learn, like 'sit' and 'heel'. If you go to a basic obedience class, these are the ones that will be taught. I like to teach my dogs hand signals as well as the verbal command, and in some cases they seem to respond more to the hand signal than the spoken word. Even within these basic commands, it's not like there is a specific set that every dog knows, and one person's exact command will be different  than another ('down' vs 'lie down', for example).

Then there are commands that are more specialist. For example, a sheepdog will learn basic commands like 'come bye' and 'away'. As far as I know, come bye means to go left or circle the flock clockwise, whereas away means to go to the right or circle in an anti-clockwise direction. A sled dog will learn 'gee' and 'haw' for right and left, 'easy' to slow down, and so on. Show dogs will learn commands and routines specific to their acts, and many people will teach their pets a 'bang bang' command, accompanied by pointing two fingers at the dog, after which the dog will roll over and play dead.

People also have idiosyncratic commands that they teach or develop for their pets in response to situations that occur in daily life. I've taught my dogs that 'excuse me' means move out of my way. I was thinking about visitors to my house who might not be used to dogs, and what they would say if the dog was in their way. So I trained 'excuse me'. It's one of my favourite commands. I like it because it makes my dogs seem so polite, and it gets used several times a day because they do have a habit of laying down right in the middle of the room or doorway, where it's awkward to step over them.

There's also the question of which are the dogs' favourite commands. It's definitely not 'excuse me', because that involves getting up and moving when they are settled down nicely in the doorway. For one of my dogs, it's 'pull', because he loves to play tug of war. When we say 'pull', he pulls even harder and puts more effort into winning the game. He loves it. As for our other dog, he looks very proud when asked to 'shake a paw'. I don't think that's his favourite command though. I think his favourite is whatever command I happen to say when I have a treat in my hand. He loves his treats!

How about you? What's your favourite command? And what is your dog's favourite?

02 May 2012

How Often Should I Train My Dog?

If you want a well-behaved dog, you have to teach it how to behave. It's often advised to train the dog frequently, for example to have three short training sessions a day. On the other hand, if you go to training classes, they are usually once a week (though of course you can practise at home). But how often is it advisable to train a dog? Is it better to train frequently or less often, and should the sessions be short or long? This is the question posed by Demant et al (2011).

How often should a dog be trained for the best results? Dogs like this lovely Jack Russell in the park are very trainable.
Photo: dezi / Shutterstock.com

For the study, they used 44 dogs that lived at a laboratory, so that they could control extraneous factors. The dogs were all the same breed (beagles), were housed and fed in the same way, and were trained by the same trainer (who they had not met before the study began).

The dogs were trained to go to a basket and stay there.  This is a complex task, and for the purposes of the training, it was broken down into 18 steps, starting from habituating to the trainer and basket, progressing through going to the basket and putting all four paws in, and gradually increasing the time in the basket and the distance of the trainer from the basket. All of the dogs went through the same training sequence, and in order to progress from one stage to the next, they had to get it right eighty per cent of the time.

The dogs were divided into a group that was trained 1-2 times a week, and a group that was trained daily. In addition, some dogs received one training session at a time (made up of six trials at one stage of the task), and others received three at a time (i.e. three stages of the task, with six trials at each); in other words, the duration of the training varied. At the end, the dogs were tested on their ability.

The results showed that it is better to train once or twice a week rather than every day. In addition, it was also better to train for a shorter duration than a longer one. Four weeks later, all of the dogs were tested, and regardless of the group they had been in, they were able to recall the command.

The authors suggest several reasons why training once or twice a week is better than daily. One idea is that it gives more time for rehearsal; it's known that sleep is important to learning, and having longer gaps between training sessions allows for more rehearsal during sleep. It allows more rehearsal during wake time as well. Another idea is that the shorter infrequent sessions require more cognitive effort, and hence lead to better retention in long-term memory, whereas during daily, longer sessions the behaviour can be almost automatic.

Of course, the results might be different for different kinds of task. But this result ties in with other animal learning studies that suggest that shorter, less frequent sessions are better for training. This is perhaps counter-intuitive, but it seems that the answer to how often you should train the dog is once or twice a week.

You might also like my user-friendly guide to positive reinforcement in dog training and my post on how to choose a dog trainer. I also keep a list of dog training research resources (research on dog training and places where you can read about it for free).

Demant, H., Ladewig, J., Balsby T.J.S. and Dabelsteen, T. (2011) The effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and long-term memory in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 133, 228-234.

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