30 March 2013

Happy Birthday!

A dog and cat with party hats and a cake with one candle

Companion Animal Psychology Blog is celebrating its first anniversary! Thank you to all our lovely readers for the encouragement and support.

We will continue to publish every Wednesday at 5.30am Pacific Time (1.30pm in the UK). See you on Wednesday!

27 March 2013

What about the rabbits?

Rabbits are popular pets because they are intelligent and fun, will cuddle with you, and can learn to use a litter tray. But while everyone knows there is a crisis of homeless dogs and cats, what about rabbits? A recent study by Amelia Cook and Emily McCobb (Tufts University) set out to see how many pet rabbits end up in animal shelters, and what happens once they are there.

Two children with two pet rabbits and a basket of easter eggs on the grass

Four animal shelter sites in Rhode Island and Providence took part, some with more than one physical shelter location. Cook and McCobb looked at the records for a six year period from 2005 to 2010. They excluded any rabbits that were found to be wild or that were already dead on intake (unfortunately some were dead on arrival). A total of 5,408 live domestic rabbits were taken in at the shelters during this time.

Rabbits had the third highest intake level of companion animals after cats and dogs, but the fourth highest level if you also include farm birds (such as chickens and geese).

Owner surrender was the most common reason for a rabbit entering a shelter (77%), followed by strays (16%). The main reason people gave for surrendering their rabbit was that they were either unable to care for it or not interested in doing so (27%). The next most common reasons were housing issues (e.g. landlord not allowing a pet rabbit) at 22% and having too many rabbits (also 22%).

The majority of the rabbits were adults (aged 1 – 6) and 81% had not been spayed or neutered at the time of intake. However, the fact that ‘too many rabbits’ was one of the most common reasons for owner surrender suggests that there are many accidental litters. This underlines the importance of spay/neuter for pet rabbits. The shelters that took part in this study have a policy to spay/neuter rabbits prior to adoption, but this is not the case at all shelters. 

A big grey rabbit with a daisy between his ears, sat on a woman's lap
Only 3% of the rabbits were admitted for a rabbit-related problem. This ties in with another study that found that although 29% of rabbit owners reported a behavioural problem (such as inappropriate toileting or not being cuddly enough), most of them were not dissatisfied with their pet as a result. 

This study made an exciting finding about the use of foster programs for rabbits. Although three of the sites did not make much use of a foster program, the fourth site actively increased fostering during the six years of the study. The foster program for rabbits led to a significant decline in euthanasia rates.

Seasonal patterns in rabbit intake are often reported. One of the sites in this study had a sudden high intake of rabbits due to a hoarding situation. Animal hoarders are people who take in more animals than they have space for and are able to care for. Often they feel a strong connection to the animals and a need to provide for them, and don’t realize or notice that the animals are in poor health, stressed, and needing veterinary care. They continue to acquire new animals despite the deteriorating condition of the ones they already have. The sudden influx due to the hoarding case had to be taken out of consideration when looking for seasonal patterns.

Only the two largest of the four shelters had a significant spike in intake, in October and July respectively. This is surprising because it is widely reported that abandoned Easter bunnies cause an annual increase in the shelter rabbit population. It could be that patterns are different depending on the shelter, that the length of time before rabbits become unwanted is variable, or that when the intake is relatively low fluctuations due to other factors are more apparent. The shelters did not have records of whether rabbits had been Easter presents.

The average number of rabbits taken in each month ranged from 8 at one shelter to 310 at another. Over the time period of the study, 23% of the rabbits were euthanized and 59% were adopted. The length of stay ranged from 1 to 634 days, with an average stay of 3 months or less.

Cook and McCobb also noted that the shelters took in quite a few pet birds, suggesting this is an issue that warrants further research.

This study emphasizes the importance of spaying and neutering pet rabbits, and shows that some owners are not prepared to look after their pet. The House Rabbit Society has some excellent resources on how to care for rabbits, including a leaflet on which vegetables and fruit to feed them.

Do you have a rabbit? Where did you get it from, and what kind of rabbit is it? 

Cook AJ, & McCobb E (2012). Quantifying the shelter rabbit population: an analysis of Massachusetts and Rhode Island animal shelters. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 15 (4), 297-312 PMID: 23009621
Photos: Kzenon (top) and kazoka (Shutterstock.com)

You might also like:
Taking care of your pet rabbit
Behavioural problems in rabbits, rodents and ferrets
Do children help care for the family pet?

20 March 2013

Frustration in Pet Dog Training

Does your dog ever seem frustrated when you are trying to train him? A new study by Adriana Jakovcevic and colleagues looks at frustration behaviours in pet dogs during training sessions. They looked specifically at something called extinction. This is when the dog has a behaviour that you want to get rid of (i.e. extinguish) for one reason or another.

Basset hound lies down on the road and yawns widelyDogs do things that get rewarded and so the way to extinguish a behaviour is to stop rewarding it. For example, many people find jumping up annoying, but actually reward it by patting the dog or speaking to it when it jumps. Hence, the dog keeps jumping. When you stop rewarding the behaviour, it will stop.

The experiment involved teaching dogs a new behaviour (looking at the experimenter) using positive reinforcement, and then trying to extinguish it. Forty-five pet dogs took part. They were tested individually, either indoors in a confined area, or outdoors in an open space on a 2m lead. Eighteen dogs were tested outdoors, and a further twenty-seven were tested indoors for the purposes of this study.

A container of dried liver treats was put on a shelf where the dog could see it but couldn’t reach it. First of all, the dogs were given a ‘warm-up’ to get used to the room and the experimenter, who gave them three treats during this session.

Then the dog was taught that if it looked at the experimenter, she would give them one of the liver treats. This acquisition phase included three trials of 2 minutes each, with a 2 minute gap in between. At the beginning of each trial, the experimenter called the dog’s name to get their attention, and then gave a treat; thereafter she rewarded the dog each time it looked at her.

Then the extinction phase began, and also consisted of three 2-minute trials with a gap in between. Now, when the dog looked at the experimenter, it was not rewarded.  As before, she stayed in the same place looking at the dog during each of the trials, and left the area in the gap in between trials.

All sessions were video-taped and the dog’s behaviour was analyzed. It’s worth noting that the dogs did not show signs of great stress, such as yawning, crouching low, or a low tail, at any time. Throughout the whole study, dogs’ tails were in the middle, or neutral, position.

Across the acquisition phase, dogs increased their gaze at the experimenter, showing that they learned the behaviour. By the third trial all of them stayed close to the experimenter. 

During the extinction phase, however, 44% of the dogs moved away from the experimenter, almost all of them (98%) turned sideways to her, and some even laid down (29%). During the extinction phase, dogs were more likely to walk around, sniff, and vocalize (especially whining). This shows that the dogs experienced frustration.

Now some readers are probably thinking this is a good thing, meaning that if the dog is frustrated then the procedure is obviously working to get rid of the (now-unwanted) behaviour. However, the authors point out that stress can affect learning. They say that being able to recognize these behaviours in a dog can help people decide whether to continue with the training procedure, take a break, or try a new approach. 

Another useful point to come from this relates to times when people are trying to teach a new behaviour. Often, things will be going well for a bit, and then the dog will spontaneously stop producing the behaviour. This means it doesn’t get the reward – hence potentially becoming frustrated. Knowing the signs to look for can help a dog owner know when to take a step back and make the situation easier for the dog, thus helping it to learn more quickly.

The acquisition and extinction phases of this study were shorter than would typically occur in real-life. However, one of the nice things is that since it took place in a location familiar to the dog, with a typical training situation, it does generalize. The behaviours shown during extinction were turning sideways, laying down, walking around, sniffing, and vocalizing. Knowing that these are indicators of frustration can help people to improve their training skills. A good trainer is always paying attention to their dog.

How do you get on with training your dog(s)? Have you ever noticed any of these signs of frustration?

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

Jakovcevic, A., Elgier, A., Mustaca, A., & Bentosela, M. (2013). Frustration Behaviors in Domestic Dogs Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1), 19-34 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.740974

13 March 2013

Do Dogs Find Their Owners Presence Supportive When a Threatening Stranger Comes Near?

How does your dog compare to a toddler? Recent animal research is comparing the abilities of dogs with young humans. A brand new study by Márta Gácsi et al in Hungary investigates whether dogs have the same response as infants to a test called the Strange Situation.

An Asian girl with a poodle in her arms, outside in the gardenIn humans, attachment theory explains how children need to develop a strong attachment to at least one caregiver. If they don’t, their social and emotional development will be disrupted. As infants begin to crawl, the caregiver is a ‘secure base’ from which to explore. 

Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation as a way of investigating attachment. This is a standardized procedure in which the infant is in a room with their caregiver when a stranger comes in. Following a strict protocol, the baby is left alone with the stranger, then comforted by the caregiver, left all alone, then joined by the stranger again. An infant that is securely attached will be upset when the caregiver leaves the room, but is happy to see them return and easily soothed. 

Attempts to replicate the Strange Situation with dogs have led to mixed results, probably because a well-socialized dog is happy to see a friendly stranger. So Gácsi et al designed this study to include a threatening approach from a stranger, to make it more difficult for the dog. 

They measured the dog’s physiological response in terms of heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV), as HRV can be an indicator of stress even when HR is unchanged. To do this, they had to shave three small patches of the dog’s fur and attach electrodes.

Thirty-two medium or large pet dogs took part in the experiment at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. After the heart rate monitor was fitted in a waiting room, the dog and their owner were left alone in the experimental room for ten minutes. This gave the dog time to explore and get used to the surroundings. The room was fitted with video cameras so that the dog’s behaviour could be recorded.

The experiment itself had two conditions that were counter-balanced. In other words, half the dogs first experienced the threatening approach from the stranger when they were with their owners, and later experienced it without their owners. The other half of the dogs first experienced the threatening approach without their owners, and the second time they had their owner present. 

The stranger was a female experimenter who approached slowly, staring at the dog, as this is something dogs find threatening. However, because movement can affect HR, if the dog moved around or barked she stopped and waited until the dog settled down again. The data from the time when the dog was moving was discarded. At the very end, the stranger had a friendly interaction with the dog, so as to finish on a positive note.

The dogs’ heart rate increased during the threatening approach, and it increased most when the owner was absent. Heart rate variability, also a sign of stress, increased most when the owner was absent and the stranger was not approaching.

A man with his grand-daughter, little dog and cat, seated outside
Of course, some dogs react more strongly to separation from their owner or to the sight of strangers. So Gácsi also did an analysis comparing reactive to non-reactive dogs. Dogs were defined as reactive to separation if they whined or barked while the owner was gone. For these dogs, HRV increased during separation, but less so when the stranger approached. 

Dogs were defined as reactive to the threatening approach if they growled or barked at the stranger. For these dogs, HR increased significantly when they saw the stranger, but less so if their owner was present, or if they had previously seen the stranger when the owner was present. Interestingly, the non-reactive dogs actually had no overall HR increase during the threatening approach. It turns out that some of these dogs had a slight increase (stress) and some had a slight decrease in HR (because they were interested in the stranger), and these balanced each other out.

These results show some similarity to the behaviour of infants during the Strange Situation. During the threatening approach, the increase in dogs’ heart rate was not as great if the owner was with them. In the reactive dogs, there was a protective effect if they first met the stranger when the owner was present; this made them less stressed when subsequently meeting the stranger without the owner present (though still not at baseline).

The presence of the owner had a ‘secure base’ effect, similar to that of a caregiver with an infant. The authors say “our results contribute to earlier findings that dogs and humans provide social support for each other in stressful situations.”

This relates to studies of social referencing. Infants look to their caregiver for information about a new object, and alter their behaviour accordingly (i.e. approach or avoid). Studies of dogs with a strange object have found similar results

One drawback to the current study is that, because the measurements were affected by movement, if the dog moved the stranger had to pause her approach and the data during that time could not be used. So it was not a natural approach, and the total time the dog was in the presence of the stranger varied depending on the dog’s response. Nonetheless, it shows that the presence of the owner provides some security for the dog if they are threatened by an approaching stranger.

The study also shows there are individual differences in how dogs respond to separation from their owner and to a threatening stranger. Some of the dogs were interested in the stranger despite her threatening manner of approach, whereas others reacted by growling and barking. How does your dog respond to strangers?

Gácsi, M., Maros, K., Sernkvist, S., Faragó, T., & Miklósi, �. (2013). Human Analogue Safe Haven Effect of the Owner: Behavioural and Heart Rate Response to Stressful Social Stimuli in Dogs PLoS ONE, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058475

06 March 2013

What influences a dog's length of stay at a no-kill animal shelter?

Are some types of dog adopted more quickly from animal shelters than others? A study by William Brown and colleagues at Keuka College looked at two no-kill shelters in New York State in order to answer this question.

A brindled pit bull on a red/pink couch

A no-kill shelter is one that will only kill animals that are too ill or too bad-natured to be adopted; some of them will even work with animals to try and resolve behavioural problems before assessing them again. There are very few no-kill shelters in the US; most shelters and municipal animal controls will euthanize dogs for reasons such as lack of space. 

Brown et al looked at the shelter records from January 2008 until sometime in either 2010 or 2011 (different for each shelter). This gave a total of 203 dogs that had been adopted in that time. They categorized the dogs according to the information on the record cards, looking at age, breed, size and colour. 

The colours were very descriptive (e.g. apricot, butterscotch) and so they reduced them to nine standard colours, sometimes collapsing this to light, medium and dark for statistical reasons. Age was classified as puppies under six months, puppies between six months and a year, and adult dogs (12 months or over). The age of adult dogs was estimated by shelter staff. Size ranged from XS to XL, and dogs were categorized into breed groups (e.g. hounds, guard dogs, terriers etc).

The average length of stay during this period was 35 days. Puppies were adopted fastest, with a stay of 23 days for puppies under six months and 33 days for the older puppies. Adult dogs had an average wait of 42 days before they were adopted. This won’t surprise anyone; it is widely known that puppies are adopted quickly.

The results for coat colour will be a surprise, however, since it is sometimes suggested that black dogs are adopted last. That was not the case in this study: coat colour made no difference to length of stay. There was also no effect of gender of the dog.

There was an effect of size, with the XS dogs being adopted soonest, followed by the small dogs. The medium-sized dogs were the ones with the longest stay. The authors say that the XL dogs (such as St Bernards) were quite unique and likely were adopted out because of this. Some people may also have had size restrictions imposed by their landlords or condominium councils that meant they could only have a small or extra-small dog.

Breed also played a role, with giant breeds having the shortest stay and guard dogs having the longest. Amongst puppies, the lapdogs were adopted soonest, with an average stay of just 13 days. Of course there is probably an interaction between breed type and size!

The authors suggest the characteristics of dogs that get adopted soonest may vary with the shelter location. The two shelters in this study were in a primarily rural location with some built-up areas. The results may well be different in a city. Shelter managers may learn over time which kinds of dogs go fastest, and networked groups of shelters can ‘swap’ dogs to locations where they are more likely to find a home. 

This study found that coat colour made no difference to adoption rates, which contradicts the belief that black dogs are adopted more slowly. It will also surprise some people that dogs referred to in earlier work as "fighting" breeds (such as pit bulls) were not the breed type to be adopted last. In some kill shelters, the majority of these dogs are euthanized, but this study suggests that – at least in some locations – it is possible to find them homes.

Did you get your dog from a shelter? What characteristics did you look for?

You might also like: Great photos are important to dog adoption and large study finds no evidence for 'black dog syndrome'.

Brown, W., Davidson, J., & Zuefle, M. (2013). Effects of Phenotypic Characteristics on the Length of Stay of Dogs at Two No Kill Animal Shelters Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1), 2-18 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.740967

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