28 November 2012

How Many People Use Electronic Shock Collars?

Regular readers of this blog will know that we take a special interest in research on dog training. We were excited to read a new paper by Emily Blackwell that investigates how many owners use electronic collars on their dogs, and whether or not they think they work.

Two cute dogs looking up at a man with a treat bag on his belt
Photo: Ksenia Raykova

Electronic collars deliver a small electric shock as an aversive stimulus, with or without a preceding warning signal. It is useful to know how many people use them, since a recent British report on shock collars found they have the potential to cause harm if mis-used, and recommended controls on their use and design.

The study took place in the UK and dog owners were recruited via questionnaires distributed to people out walking their dogs, at agricultural shows, at vet surgeries and pet shops. The questionnaire was adapted from a previous study by Blackwell and colleagues. It asked detailed questions about people’s experience at owning and training dogs, about the training methods they used, and about any problem behaviours that their dogs exhibited. The response rate was 27% and a total of 3897 people took part from across the UK.  People in Wales were excluded from the analysis on e-collars, since they are banned in Wales.

The proportion of people using a remote-activated e-collar was 3.3%; 1.4% used a bark-activated e-collar; and 0.9% used an invisible fence. The main reasons people gave for using an e-collar were recall and chasing, and barking. Since those using it for barking were often also using it for other purposes, there weren’t enough participants using it only for barking to assess whether or not this worked. However, there were enough people using it for training recall and chasing to investigate further. By training recall/chasing, they mean teaching your dog to come when called, and not to chase off after other things (like joggers, bicycles and sheep).

The researchers compared the 83 owners using an e-collar for recall and chasing to a subset of the rest of the sample that included 123 owners who were using other aversives (positive punishment) and 373 who were using rewards (positive reinforcement) for recall and chasing. There were no differences between these groups in terms of attending puppy classes or other obedience classes; 69% had attended some kind of training class.

People who trained using the e-collars reported significantly less success than expected, and those who trained using rewards reported significantly more success in training their dogs for recall and chasing. 

Another interesting finding is that men were more likely to say they used e-collars than women. It’s not clear why this is the case, and I would be interested to see more research on this.

The study relies on owner reports and so it is possible there are confounding factors. For example, people who use e-collars might feel a need to justify their use, either by saying their dogs are more disobedient than they really are, or by exaggerating their success. Nonetheless, this is a valuable study because it investigates the training experiences of ordinary dog owners. Since there is a potential for e-collars to cause harm, there would be ethical problems with conducting an experimental study of the use of e-collars with ordinary owners and their dogs.

This study joins a growing list that finds a correlation between positive reinforcement and success in dog training. The authors conclude that “more owners using reward-based methods for recall/chasing report a successful outcome of training than those using e-collars.”

What training methods do you use for recall?

You might also like: the ultimate dog training tip and why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs?

Blackwell EJ, Bolster C, Richards G, Loftus BA, & Casey RA (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC veterinary research, 8 PMID: 22748195

21 November 2012

Music for Kenneled Dogs

There are many studies on the effects of music, from what kind of music will make us spend more time and money in shops to the effects that learning to play an instrument has on our brains. Now, scientists at Colorado State University have turned their attention to what kind of music dogs might prefer to listen to in kennels.

A siberian husky puppy is chewing on some headphones
Photo: Nata Sdobnikova / Shutterstock

The study, by Lori Kogan and colleagues, took place at a kennel that housed rescue dachshunds (generally long-term) and also boarded dogs while their owners were away. Being in kennels can be a stressful experience for dogs as they are kept in a small space with limited access to outdoors, and limited human and canine company. Kogan et al wanted to know if music would help to make the kennel environment less stressful.

They compared three different kinds of music: classical music (4 tracks), heavy metal (3 tracks), and some music that was specially designed to be relaxing for dogs (1 track). A period with no music was used as a control. The music was chosen as the most popular in those genres (e.g. Beethoven’s Für Elise, Motorhead’s Ace of Spades). In general, the heavy metal had the highest beats per minute and the psycho-acoustically designed music had the lowest bpm.

In total, 117 dogs took part, of which 34 were rescue dachshunds/dachshund crosses, and the remainder were a range of breeds that were at the kennel for short-term boarding. Although many dogs took part in all conditions, some did not, depending on the length of their stay.

The kennels were set up with speakers so that all of the dogs would be able to hear. The music was played in the mornings on days when the kennel was relatively quiet. Each time, the auditory stimulus (music track or silence) lasted for 45 minutes, followed by a 15 minute period of silence. 

The dogs’ behaviour was rated every five minutes during auditory presentations. The researchers assessed whether or not the dogs were sleeping, if they were shaking or not, and if they were making a noise. Initially they had intended to measure barking vs other vocalizations, but in practice it was sometimes difficult to tell e.g. a bark from a yip, and so they just recorded whether or not they were vocalizing.

There were no differences between the rescue dachshunds and the dogs there for short-term boarding in terms of their responses to the music, so the results were combined for analysis. Dogs spent significantly more time sleeping during the classical music than during the other types of music or no music. There was no difference in sleep time between heavy metal, psycho-acoustic music, or no music. In terms of shaking, the dogs shook significantly more during the heavy metal than the other types of music. The results for vocalization were more complex, and showed less vocalization during some of the classical music, and more vocalization when there was no music at all.

The researchers suggest that dogs might be less stressed in a kennel environment if they were played classical music. They were surprised that the psycho-acoustic music did not seem to affect behaviour, but we cannot draw a general conclusion since they only used one track; it could be that other tracks would have an effect. Similarly, since only a few tracks were used of classical and heavy metal, it’s too early to draw conclusions about the genres as a whole. However, this study does suggest that future research, using a wider range of music, could be very interesting. 

Future studies could also play different tracks in succession, since the mode of presentation used here (one track repeated for 45 minutes) might not be appreciated by shelter staff. Whether or not dogs prefer repetition is another empirical question. But this study certainly suggests that kennels could consider the use of music to help dogs relax. Some boarding kennels and cat hotels already use music and TV to keep their clients happy.

How does your dog respond to music?

Kogan, L., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., & Simon, A. (2012). Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7 (5), 268-275 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2011.11.002

14 November 2012

Attitudes to Rescue Dogs in Australia

Last week, we looked at a study which found that attitudes to cats predicted public preferences for Trap, Neuter and Release programmes, but knowledge about cats and experience with feral cats did not. But does knowledge and experience predict attitudes to rescue dogs?

A recent study by Kate Mornement and colleagues in Australia answers this question. In Australia, 36% of households have at least one pet dog, but as in other countries, a lot of dogs are in rescue and in need of homes. Understanding perceptions of rescue dogs is important as it can help in finding strategies to increase adoptions.

A dachsund surrounded by autumn leaves
Photo: Ondrej83 / Shutterstock

The internet survey had 1,622 participants and included sections on demographics, attitudes to getting a dog, and beliefs about animal shelters and how they operate. Details of the survey were distributed via social networking, and both dog-owners and non-dog owners were invited to take part. Since some large dog and rescue organizations shared links to the survey, the sample included a mix of participants with and without rescue experience. 30% of participants either worked or volunteered at an animal shelter. Over 80% of respondents currently owned a dog, and only 3% had never owned a dog.

The results showed that 76% of respondents were likely or very likely to get a new dog in the future. Most of the participants said it was likely or very likely that their next dog would come from an animal shelter (85%), rescue organization (86%) or council pound (65%), and only 40% said it was likely or very likely that it would come from a breeder. Another interesting finding is that people think the most important attribute for a new dog is friendliness (rather than, say, obedience).

On the whole people had positive views of shelter dogs. Most people agreed with the statement that family and friends would approve of them getting a new dog from a shelter. This is good news, especially since subjective norms (beliefs about other people’s beliefs) play a role in determining whether attitudes predict behaviour.

There were some areas where shelters could improve. About a third of participants said that shelter dogs are likely to have a behavioural problem.  When participants were asked about how shelter dogs should be assessed, aggression was seen as the most important factor, including aggression towards people, dogs, other animals, and around food.  It seems that shelters could do more to explain to the public how they assess dogs, and how they deal with dogs that fail the behavioural assessment. Many participants did not realize that dogs are euthanized if the assessment finds them unadoptable. I think having a wider discussion about this would be beneficial, not least because many people seem to be unaware of the scale of the problem of homeless pets. 

Since the sample included many people with rescue experience, comparisons were made between them and the other participants. Rescue experience made a significant difference to people’s beliefs: people with such experience were significantly more likely to say a future dog would come from a rescue, and to have positive attitudes towards shelter dogs. Mornement suggests that encouraging people to volunteer at animal shelters could give them a better understanding of what shelter dogs are like. Of course, it is also possible that people who already have a better understanding of animal rescue are more likely to volunteer. Nonetheless, since shelters are always in need of extra volunteers, it’s a good approach to take. 

It reminds me of the contact hypothesis in social psychology. This says that contact with members of another group reduces prejudice since it increases knowledge, reduces anxiety about the other group, and increases empathy for them (see Pettigrew and Tropp 2008 for a metanalysis). Perhaps the same process applies to contact with rescue dogs. For people, it seems that the emotional aspects (anxiety and empathy) are more important than knowledge for prejudice reduction. I would be interested to see future research explore which aspects of experience with rescue dogs improve people’s attitudes towards them. 

This is a fascinating and valuable article for those working in dog rescue. If you would like to read the full paper, the journal has free trial access until the end of the month; follow the link from the reference list below and sign up for the free trial.

Do you have any experience with rescue dogs? And if so, has it changed your perceptions of them?

You might also like: Research resources for animal shelters and rescues and the ultimate dog training tip.

Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2012). What Do Current and Potential Australian Dog Owners Believe about Shelter Practices and Shelter Dogs? Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 25 (4), 457-473 DOI: 10.2752/175303712X13479798785850
Pettigrew, T., & Tropp, L. (2008). How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Meta-analytic tests of three mediators European Journal of Social Psychology, 38 (6), 922-934 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.504

07 November 2012

Public Opinions on Feral Cat Management

What should be done about feral cats? A recent survey in Athens, Georgia, investigated people’s preferences for three different methods: catch and euthanize, trap neuter and release (TNR), and the establishment of a feral cat sanctuary. Opponents of catch and euthanize schemes argue that it is inhumane to kill cats, and simply creates a cat-free area into which new feral cats will move. Trap, neuter and release programmes involve catching the cats and neutering or spaying them before releasing them; the cats continue to live in the same place, but are unable to breed. The third option in the survey was to “capture and place feral cats in a sanctuary just for them”.

Athens was an interesting place for the study, since the issue of feral cats had been in the local news for some time. A new law was passed just prior to the survey, which effectively meant that TNR was the only option for dealing with feral cats. Previously, anyone who fed stray cats was deemed to be their owner.

Two ginger kittens curled up together on some straw outside a barn
Photo: Shutterstock

People were selected at random and mailed a card which asked them to take part in a survey on the internet. Questions were about knowledge of cats, experiences with feral and owned cats, beliefs about wildlife in the area, and opinions on different options for managing the feral cat population. There were 298 respondents which was a response rate of about 10%.

About 60% of people had seen a feral cat in the last year, and 28% reported seeing a feral cat almost every day. Half of people said that feral cats were “a nuisance”, and 65% felt that something needed to be done about them.  The idea of cat sanctuaries had the most support, with 56% of people agreeing this was an acceptable management strategy; in contrast, 49% said TNR is acceptable and 46% said euthanasia is acceptable.

This level of support for euthanasia reminds me of the American Humane Association's recent survey which found that cats have an image problem - 35% of non-cat owners said they just don't like cats. The survey in Athens found most people recognize that feral cats have a hard life; only 10% agreed that "feral cats live a healthy, happy life". On a more positive note, about a third of participants had adopted a feral cat at some point.

So how did the public rate different management strategies? When questions compared catch-and-euthanize to TNR, TNR was seen as less effective but the most humane, and also the method on which people would prefer tax dollars to be spent. The survey does not seem to have asked whether the cat sanctuary option was considered effective, humane, or a good use of tax dollars.

The study also looked at whether people’s attitudes to cats, knowledge about cats, and experiences of feral cats would predict their views on management practices. Attitudes were important, but knowledge and experience were not. People with positive attitudes about feral cats were more likely to support TNR. Beliefs that were important in predicting support for TNR were those about cat rights, preventing cat euthanasia, healthy ecosystems, and protecting wildlife. Those who felt protecting wildlife and having healthy ecosystems were important were less likely to support TNR, perhaps because they perceived cats as a threat to wildlife. Those who felt cat rights and preventing cat euthanasia were important were more likely to support TNR.

The researchers say that although cat sanctuaries were the preferred option, there are few examples of these in practice, and they would be more expensive than TNR. Given the recent passage of TNR legislation in Athens, they were surprised TNR was not the most supported option, and say that public support for policies cannot be assumed. 

The survey found widespread support for more education about feral cats. This suggests that public education should be part of any feral cat management strategy. 

Do you have stray/feral cats in your neighbourhood?

Loyd, K., & Hernandez, S. (2012). Public Perceptions of Domestic Cats and Preferences for Feral Cat Management in the Southeastern United States Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 25 (3), 337-351 DOI: 10.2752/175303712X13403555186299

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