Showing posts from October, 2012

Social Referencing in Dogs

When human infants see something they are unsure of, they look to their caregiver to see what their reaction is. This is called social referencing. It has two components: first of all, a look from the object to the caregiver; and second, a reaction to the object (approach or avoidance) that is influenced by the caregiver’s response. This is well established in infants at twelve months of age. Do dogs do the same thing?

Two recent papers by Merola and colleagues set out to investigate, using a method similar to infant studies. They needed a slightly-scary object; something that will make a dog feel cautious, but not so scary that it will turn and run away. They decided to use an electric fan with streamers attached. 
In the first paper, published in Animal Cognition, the owner brought their dog into the room with the fan. The fan was at the far end of the room, and as soon as the owner closed the door, the fan was turned on by remote control. The owner stopped at a specific mark on the…

Homeless Pets: A UK Survey

The problem of pet overpopulation and homelessness is well known. Getting accurate figures for the number of homeless pets is a more difficult undertaking, since many organizations are responsible for stray and homeless animals. The results of a survey in the UK were recently published, and provide useful information about the scale of the problem, the wait times for animals to be accepted into rescue, and the likely outcome of their stay.

The survey was conducted by Jenny Stavisky and colleagues at the University of Nottingham. They sent a questionnaire to all the rescue organizations they could identify in the UK. They used a snowballing technique, asking each organization to suggest other groups that they should contact. They identified over 2300 contacts, and got an excellent response rate of close to 40%. In some cases, the head office of an organization provided some information, while other details came from the branches.

The results show that during 2010, the organizations in…

Behavioural problems in rabbits, rodents and ferrets

Many people keep rabbits, rodents and ferrets as pets. A study published last year by Normando and Galli (Padua University) is the first to investigate the kind of behavioural problems they have and how it affects owners’ feelings of satisfaction with their animals.

Participants were recruited via an Italian rabbit forum, the University of Padua, and local veterinary clinics. The survey was completed by 193 people about a total of 371 pets. The pets included 184 rabbits, 59 mustelids (mainly ferrets, but also including two skunks), and 128 rodents (including guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, rats and other rodents). 

Most owners reported no problems, but 29% of rabbit owners, 53% of mustelid owners, and 20% of rodents had a behavioural problem. For rabbits, the most common problems were inappropriate toileting, destructiveness, and not being cuddly enough. The most common problem with ferrets was being aggressive, followed by house-soiling and disobedience. For rodents, the…

CAWC report on shock collars

In September, the UK’s Companion Animal Welfare Council published a report on the scientific evidence on the use of shock collars in dog training. They use the term ‘electronic pulse training aids’ or EPTAs, because the collars do not necessarily induce a ‘shock’ but may sometimes be used only to induce a tickling sensation. I will use the everyday term here. The report included the use of collars as a training aid as well as invisible fences designed to administer an electric current if the dog crosses a boundary.

The independent review was chaired by Professor D.S. Mills, and looked at the scientific evidence, accepted submissions from interested parties, and undertook a small-scale survey of their use in the UK. The ten peer-reviewed studies discussed in the report looked at the use of shock collars for a surprisingly wide range of behaviours, including chasing, barking, and preventing acral lick dermatitis (‘hot spots’). The report discusses many problems with the literature. For …

Canine Neuroscience

The main problem with the neuroscience of dogs is that they would have to be sedated to be in the scanner, and then their brain wouldn’t be doing its normal stuff. Until now.

A team of scientists led by Gregory Berns at Emory University has successfully trained two dogs to go into the fMRI scanner and keep still long enough for a brain scan. Prof Berns says he got the idea from realizing what military dogs are trained to do – if a dog can parachute out of a plane with its handler, he thought, then surely it could do an fMRI.
The dogs are Callie, a two-year-old feist (small hunting dog), and McKenzie, a three-year-old border collie. And while McKenzie does agility, Callie had only had basic obedience training, and is a rescue dog. (If anyone ever tries to say negative things about rescue dogs, tell them about Callie!).

The dog training was complex and took place over several months. A mock-up of the scanner was made for each dog, including a replica head coil, a tube of the same size a…