27 February 2013

Fear of Loud Noises: A Common Problem in Domestic Dogs?

Do you have a dog that cowers at the sound of thunder, or comes running to you for comfort when the neighbours set off fireworks? A new study by Emily-Jayne Blackwell, John Bradshaw and Rachel Casey (University of Bristol) investigates how common this problem is.

The study involved a questionnaire completed by 3,897 dog owners, and a structured interview with a smaller set of 383 dog owners. Dog owners were recruited in a variety of ways, including at dog shows, veterinary clinics, and whilst out walking their dogs. A wide variety of breeds took part, including 16% cross-breeds.

A chihuahua looking frightened with its paw lifted

The questionnaire asked for demographic information about the dogs and their owners, and then asked the question ‘Does your dog show a fearful response to noises?’ Questions were also asked about other behavioural problems the dog might have, such as soiling in the house, chewing, and hiding from unfamiliar people. 

The structured interview with a smaller sample of owners asked more detailed questions about their dog’s response to noise, including asking specifically about thunder, fireworks and gunshots, and sensitivity to other noises such as the vacuum cleaner.

In the total sample, 25% of owners reported that their dog showed fear of noises. However, in the structured interview sample, half of owners (49%) reported a fearful response. The most common responses to noises were trembling/shaking (43%), barking (38%) and seeking out people (35%). 

The difference between the two samples is surprising, and shows that the wording of the question is important. All participants were asked if their dog was fearful of noises, but in the structured interview, participants were also asked about specific behaviours that are signs of fear. Interestingly, some participants who said their dogs were not fearful still reported that their dogs did things like trembling/shaking, hiding or seeking out people in response to loud noises. 

This ties in to a recent study by Michele Wan that found that ordinary dog owners are not very good at recognizing fear in dogs. It will be important for future questionnaire studies to include specific identifiable behaviours instead of just relying on owner reports of fear.

Dogs that responded badly to fireworks tended to also react to thunder and gunshots. They were also more likely to be older. Dogs that responded to thunder were more likely to be owned by males (although this may be a response bias), would also react to fireworks, gunshots and loud noises on TV, and tended to be afraid of traffic. Dogs that were afraid of gunshots tended to also react to fireworks and cars back-firing, and were more likely to be male and older.

This suggests that a fearful response to loud noises might link to other loud noises, but is not a sign of a generally fearful dog. 

There were conflicting results about exposure during the first four months. This is an important socialization window, as puppies that are exposed to things during the first four months are usually calm around them later in life. This is why dog trainers tell new puppy owners to socialize the pup to lots of different people, wheelchairs, people with canes/sunglasses/hats etc. during this time. In this study, exposure to thunder during the first four months was associated with a later fear of thunder and gunshots, but had a protective effect for fireworks. This is surprising, but since it relied on memories long after the fact, it may not be an accurate picture.

Less than a third of owners had sought advice about their dog’s fear. Of those that did, the most common was to ask the vet, showing that veterinary practices are important in referrals for behavioural advice. It is surprising that so few owners sought help, especially given that dogs can be desensitized to loud noises. Perhaps the frequency of fireworks, thunder and gunshots was low enough that owners did not feel concerned. However, the study took place in the UK where fireworks are common on Bonfire Night (5th November) and surrounding nights. 

I think for dog owners there are two lessons to take from this study. One is that trembling, shaking, hiding, seeking people and barking can all be signs of a fear response to a loud noise. The other is that help is available and a dog does not have to suffer. If your dog cowers in response to fireworks, perhaps now is the time to do something about it, as there is plenty of time to fix it before next Halloween/Bonfire Night. The ASPCA has a useful factsheet about fear of noises.

And you might also like my posts, eight tips to help fearful dogs and what is desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training.

How does your dog react to loud noises such as thunder or fireworks?

Blackwell, E.J.,, Bradshaw, J.W.S.,, & Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour Applied Animal Behaviour Science : 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004

20 February 2013

How Do Kenneled Dogs React to Familiar and Unfamiliar Dogs?

Environmental enrichment is an important thing for kenneled dogs, as it can alleviate boredom and improve animal welfare. Enrichment can occur in many ways, including the availability of suitable toys, the design of the kennel, the kind of food that is fed and possibly even music. This week we look at a study by Anne Pullen, Ralph Merrill and John Bradshaw that investigates whether spending time with other dogs is beneficial.

The twenty-two dogs that took part live at the Waltham Pet Nutrition Centre, where they had either been born or lived since the age of nine weeks. The dogs are housed in pairs in kennels, with daily training and exercise, and kennel staff in sight all day. The dogs’ usual routines and clicker-training sessions continued during this study. Three breeds of dog were chosen: Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers and Miniature Schnauzers. 

A miniature schnauzer is nose-to-nose with a golden labrador

Each dog that was observed (the ‘focal dog’) was tested separately with a familiar and an unfamiliar dog. The familiar dog was the one it happened to share a kennel with, and hence spent time with for most of every day. The unfamiliar dog was chosen so that it matched the familiar dog in terms of breed and gender and, if possible, coat colour. The unfamiliar dogs were housed in kennels in another block and so, although the researchers can’t guarantee they have never met, they have certainly hardly ever met.

The experiment took place in a field that was usually used for exercising the dogs. Prior to the study, no dogs were exercised in it for a while, so that any smells would have time to settle down. The focal dog and the other dog (either familiar or unfamiliar) were taken separately to the field so that they met just inside the gate. The handlers let them off the leash and stepped back out of the field while the dogs were videotaped for 15 minutes.

The analysis looked at the dog’s behaviour in three minute intervals. The first three minutes were different, because they involved greetings between the dogs, and the other three-minute intervals were all very similar. So for the statistical analysis, they compared the first three minutes with the 9-12 minute interval.

The behaviour of the focal dog was categorized as following, being followed, making an escape attempt by trying to leave the field, interacting with the other dog, or none of the above. They also looked at the distance between the dogs, categorizing it as in contact, less than five body lengths, or more than five body lengths apart.

When the two dogs were unfamiliar, a lot more time was spent in contact and interacting during the initial three minute ‘greeting’ phase. This time was generally spent sniffing the face and the rear end. The familiar dogs did not spend so much time doing this, probably because they already had lots of opportunities to smell each other.

During the later time period, the focal dogs were followed more often when they were with a familiar dog rather than an unfamiliar dog. When the dogs were familiar, they stayed closer together, spending significantly more time during five body lengths of each other compared to the unfamiliar dogs. This suggests that, although they were not directly interacting with each other, they liked to explore the field in the company of the familiar dog. The unfamiliar dogs were perhaps wary of each other and so didn’t feel as comfortable together.

There were some breed differences during the initial greeting period, with the miniature schnauzers spending more time in contact with either the familiar or unfamiliar dog than the other two breeds. However there were no breed differences during the later period.

These results show that familiarity affects how dogs behave towards each other, both during an initial greeting and after a period of time. It may be beneficial for kenneled dogs to spend time with another familiar dog. This could be difficult to achieve at a rehoming centre where dogs frequently come and go and may not be as well socialized as the dogs in this study. However, some shelters have supervised play groups for the dogs in their care, so it is possible.

These results may also apply to pet dogs, suggesting they may like to spend time in the presence of other familiar dogs. Of course some people have more than one dog at home. However, it is known that many pet dogs only have limited regular interaction with other dogs. Perhaps owners could consider ways to increase their dog’s interactions with other friendly dogs, such as meeting up at the park with a friend and their dog.

Does your dog have doggy friends? How often do they meet, and what do they do together?

Pullen, A., Merrill, R., & Bradshaw, J. (2013). The Effect of Familiarity on Behavior of Kenneled Dogs During Interactions With Conspecifics Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1), 64-76 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.741003
Photo: LeicherOliver / Shutterstock.

13 February 2013

Do dogs have stable personality traits?

We often talk about people having particular personality types, such as extroversion/introversion. Is it true that dogs have particular personalities too, and are they fixed or do they change over time? A new study by Jamie Fratkin (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues takes a look at this.

The question is useful to many people. Trainers of guide dogs, police dogs and other service dogs would really like to be able to spot suitable candidates at a young age, so as not to waste time training an animal that isn’t going to make it into their program. Rescues and shelters would like to know that the tests they use to determine whether a dog is adoptable will predict its behaviour in a new home.

The study is what’s called a meta-analysis. This is where researchers take a large number of studies that have previously been conducted and pool the results statistically, to see if conclusions can be drawn from the field as a whole. In order to do this, the studies have to be selected carefully – if they are measuring different things, it’s not possible to combine them.

A happy cockapoo leaps through the snow
There is a widely-known test called C-BARQ (Canine Behavioural Assessment and Research Questionnaire) that has eleven dimensions for pet dogs, and eight for guide dogs. However, it’s not the only test used in this kind of research. So for the purposes of their analysis, Fratkin et al used a set of eight personality traits that was identified in earlier work (Jones and Gosling 2005), and which are thought to apply to all dogs.

The traits are: submissiveness, reactivity, fearfulness, responsiveness to training, activity, sociability, aggressiveness and 'other'. Reactivity was incuded with fearfulness, and 'other' wasn't included since it tended to mean non-personality factors, leaving six dimensions in total.

There are some fancy statistics involved in this kind of analysis, and they had to write to the authors of some papers to get more details on the numbers. They found thirty-one studies to include, relevant to the question and with enough information for the analysis. Sometimes they had to map personality traits onto the Jones and Gosling framework in order to be able to compare them. 

They found that personality in dogs is moderately consistent. There were several factors which influenced the results. Personality results were most consistent when the same test was used at different time intervals, rather than different tests, and when the time interval between tests was shorter. Also, they found that personality is more consistent in adult dogs than in puppies. There was no difference between working dogs and pet dogs, however.

For puppies, aggressiveness and submission were the most consistent personality traits. Interestingly, fearfulness, activity, sociability, and responsiveness to training were the least consistent in puppies. For adult dogs, most of the traits were consistent. The exception was submissiveness (for which not enough studies were available). The authors suggest that hormonal changes in puppies may be responsible for some changes as they mature into dogs. This is something that future research could investigate.

One thing to take from this study is that if you think you have a ‘naughty’ puppy that doesn’t respond to training, keep trying, because it doesn’t mean the puppy will be the same as an adult dog. There isn’t enough information to show how this trait develops, but it would be interesting to see how different training regimens cultivate responsiveness to training. And it would be fascinating to know more about how personality develops.

How would you describe your dog’s personality?

Fratkin, J.L., Sinn, D.L., Patall, D.A., & Gosling, S.D. (2013). Personality consistency in dogs: A meta-analysis PLoS ONE, 8 (1)
Jones, A., & Gosling, S. (2005). Temperament and personality in dogs (Canis familiaris): A review and evaluation of past research Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95 (1-2), 1-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2005.04.008

06 February 2013

Are young children more interested in animals than toys?

At what age do children develop a fascination with animals? A brand new paper by Vanessa LoBue et al investigates young children’s interest in live animals. A set of three studies looked at young children in a naturalistic play environment in which they could choose to interact with animals or toys.

The animals were always in an enclosure, so the children could only look at them and not physically touch them. One obvious difference between animals and toys is that the animals move. It would be very difficult to control for this, so for the purposes of this research animals were chosen that did not move much. For example, since hamsters are nocturnal the hamster mostly slept through the interactions.

The first study was an exploratory one involving children aged between 11 and 40 months. The animals were a blue and red Betta fish and a tan Sentinel hamster. They were positioned in containers on opposite walls. In the middle of the room was a selection of toys, including a doll, an airplane, fire trucks, building blocks and rattles. The children were given 5-10 minutes to play whilst their parent sat in a corner of the room, engaged in paperwork. The parent and experimenter didn’t initiate interaction with the child, but answered questions if asked. Sessions were videotaped and then analyzed.

A young boy looks at an orange fish in an aquarium

The results showed that children interacted more frequently with the animals than the toys, and spent more time interacting with the animals than the two most popular toys. The nature of the interactions was also different; they gestured towards the animals more, talked about them more and asked more questions.

The second study was similar, but this time as well as the fish and hamster there was a black Tarantula and an orange and black California Mountain King snake. These two animals were chosen because they might be seen as harmful or scary, although again they were safely in containers. There were four toys, so there was an equal  number of toys and animals this time. The children, aged 18 – 36 months, were given five minutes to play on their own as before, and then the parent joined them for a further five minutes.

The results showed that children interacted with the animals more often than the toys (as did their parents), and were as interested in the snake and spider as the hamster and fish. In total the children spent less time with the animals but the opposite was the case for the parents. Both adults and children were more likely to gesture towards animals than toys, but there were no significant effects for children for mentions or questions about the animals. However, the adults were significantly more likely to talk about or ask questions about the animals, showing that they directed their child’s attention towards them.

The final study utilized a more controlled design. The animals that took part in this study were the hamster and fish, as well as a green gecko. Similar soft toys were found, and were paired in separate displays (e.g. live hamster and stuffed toy hamster). In this study, it wasn’t possible to physically touch either the animal or the toy.

Infants aged 18 – 33 months took part. The experimenter first showed the child one display, then after a short delay they invited them to show it to their parent. They then moved on to the second display, and then the third one. The children spent more time interacting with the real animals than with the toys, especially when their parent was there too.

In the first experiment, the paperwork completed by the parents included a questionnaire that revealed all the children had experience with fish but not necessarily with hamsters. There was no difference between how children responded to the fish and hamster, so the authors assume the results are not due to novelty. However it would be useful if future studies controlled for novelty, since fish differ in ways that may be salient for children. The researchers obviously couldn't control for animacy, but they did a good job of controlling for movement, since the animals hardly moved at all.

Taken together, these results suggest that young children are very interested in live animals, compared to toys, even when the animals are not moving and cannot be touched. In addition, their parents help to direct interactions towards the animals more, by talking about them, gesturing towards them and asking questions. And, as the authors put it, people “may find these results surprising, as they suggest that children prefer snakes and spiders to a group of highly attractive toys.”

Although children of various ages took part in the study, these results suggest that children’s interest in animals begins at an early age, and is encouraged by their parents.

Did you have any pets as a child, and if so, what?

LoBue, V., Bloom Pickard, M., Sherman, K., Axford, C., & DeLoache, J. (2013). Young children's interest in live animals British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 31 (1), 57-69 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2012.02078.x

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