24 April 2013

Discussion of Dogs’ Behavioural Problems at the Vet

Behavioural issues are often not mentioned at the vet, even when they are a problem.

Surprisingly little is known about where people seek advice when their dog has a behavioural problem such as aggression, soiling in the house, or fear of fireworks. One place to try might be the vet, but do veterinarians talk to their clients about behavioural problems during the annual consultation for vaccinations?

A calm golden retriever has its temperature taken by a female vet

A study published in the Veterinary Record by Roshier and McBride recorded vet consultations and transcribed the conversations for analysis. The study was conducted at a vet’s in Nottingham where six veterinarians took part. The receptionists identified people who met the criteria for the study, and directed them to the researcher who was waiting in the waiting room. Of twenty-one people who were asked to take part, seventeen agreed. After the consultation, participants completed a questionnaire about themselves, their dog, and their relationship with their vet.

The consultations were with dogs aged from one to three-and-a-half years who were attending for their annual vaccinations. The time ranged from five to fifteen minutes, with an average of nine minutes per consultation. The researchers identified five main themes to the consultations. One of these was to do with managing the interaction, such as greetings and so on. The medical, husbandry and behaviour themes came up in all consultations, and cost was only mentioned in some of them, perhaps because the costs of the vaccination schedule were already known.

Vets led the consultations in general, but vets and their clients were equally likely to mention behaviour. The questionnaire, completed by clients after the consultation, identified a total of fifty-eight behaviour concerns, of which only ten were discussed in the consultation – the others were not mentioned at all, even though some were rated as ‘a bit of a problem’ or ‘a big problem’. 

It seems that vets sometimes missed opportunities to bring up behavioural topics, and that owners do not necessarily recognize potential behavioural problems in their dogs. Roshier and McBride give the example of an owner who described their dog as calm during the consultation, but problematic at home. However, the vet’s notes on the consultation described the dog as being like ‘a coiled spring ready to go.’ This shows a mismatch between the owner’s and vet’s opinion of the dog, and a missed opportunity to enquire whether the owner needed behavioural advice or support for the dog at home. There were also cases where clients mentioned a behavioural problem but it wasn’t followed up by the vet.

Roshier and McBride discuss two barriers for clients mentioning behavioural problems; a psychological barrier, in which it is embarrassing to mention the problem, and an interactional one, in which people don’t wish to disrupt the flow of conversation. This suggests that vets could make a point of asking about behavioural issues, to give clients an opportunity to mention them. 

It is not surprising that owners were not always aware of problems. For example, a recent paper on fear of loud noises by Blackwell et al found that many owners did not recognize signs of fear in their dogs. This is another reason for vets to discuss behavioural issues, as their training helps them identify potential problems.

Interestingly, the client questionnaires showed that some people thought it wasn’t appropriate to discuss behavioural issues with their vet. When asked who they would ask about a behavioural problem, the most common answer was ‘other’, as in no-one at the veterinary practice. This is interesting, as a study by Meghan Herron of owners seeking help for canine behaviour issues gave themselves (i.e. the owner) as one of the most common sources of ideas for specific interventions, along with dog trainers, rather than vets.

The questionnaire showed that some clients prefer to discuss some kinds of problems with e.g. the receptionist or veterinary nurse, showing that all members of the veterinary team are important. Clients were satisfied with their consultation and gave it excellent ratings.

This is a small-scale study, but a detailed one. It shows that further research is needed to find out where people seek help for behavioural problems. This would help science-based trainers, behaviourists and dog welfare organizations know how to target advice about canine behavioural problems.

Since animal behaviourists often take referrals from vets (or require them), this study also suggests they might be able to develop better ways of working together; if existing behavioural problems aren't discussed, that's a missed referral from the behaviourists' perspective, and a missed chance to solve a problem.

Further research could investigate when people seek advice for behavioural problems, as earlier advice-seeking might resolve problems while they are still 'a bit of a problem' and before they become 'a big problem'.

For a fearful dog, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

Where do you go for advice on dog behaviour problems?

Roshier, A., & McBride, E. (2012). Canine behaviour problems: discussions between veterinarians and dog owners during annual booster consultations Veterinary Record, 172 (9), 235-235 DOI: 10.1136/vr.101125
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17 April 2013

Do Dogs Try to Hide Theft of Food?

Will your dog steal food even if you can see or hear the theft take place? Two new studies investigate whether dogs can take a human’s perspective in deciding whether to take a piece of forbidden food.

A border collie puppy takes chicken from a sandwich on a table
Photo: Anneka/Shutterstock

Earlier work has shown that dogs and other animals seem to have an awareness of human visual attention. For example, Gácsi et al (2004) found that dogs were more likely to beg from an attentive rather than an inattentive human. However, it is not known if dogs understand what a human can see or hear.

One way to test this is to see how dogs respond to different light levels. Juliane Kaminski of Portsmouth University designed three experiments that took place in a room with the windows blacked out. Dogs wore a reflective collar to make it easier to see them, and an infrared camera recorded what happened. The dogs first had to pass a pre-test in which they were taught to leave a piece of food on the ground for sixty seconds. 

The experimenter put food on the ground and told the dog it was forbidden. Then she sat on the floor, looking at a spot on the wall, for two minutes. The lighting was set up in one of four ways: both food and experimenter in the light, both in the dark, only food or only the experimenter in the light. After the time was up, the experimenter got up and took the food (if it was still there). We might think of rewarding the few dogs that didn't steal the food, but that doesn't seem to have fit with the design of the experiment. Each dog took part in each of the four conditions four times and received supplementary training that the food was forbidden at various stages.

Dogs were significantly more likely to eat the food when the room was dark. Dogs took the food more quickly when it was in the dark, but whether or not the human was in the light did not affect the results. 

A second study in which the experimenter left the room showed that dogs took the food almost every time, and took it more quickly when the food was in the light. In a final experiment similar to the first, the areas of the room that were lit up changed without affecting the overall level of light in the room. This time, if the lighting focussed on the food then dogs took longer to get it.

This shows that dogs prefer to steal food if it is in the dark. The sight of a human does not put them off, but if the food is lit up they delay taking it. This could mean they understand that if they can see the food, then the human also can see it. 

Another approach to studying whether dogs can take a human perspective is described in a new paper by Juliane Bräuer of Leipzig University. Instead of turning the lights out, clear vs opaque materials were used to test dogs’ use of visual information, and a second study tested the effects of noise. In all cases, dogs were first trained to remove food with their paw from a tunnel. The food was placed further and further back in the tunnel, and once dogs would get it from the far end they were ready to begin the study.

In the first experiment, one side of the tunnel was clear and the other side was opaque. During the training, dogs were switched between clear and opaque tunnels so they would not have a preference for one or the other. The experimenter began by placing a piece of food in the tunnel in full view of the dog, and giving an instruction. In the first condition, they told the dog ‘No’, the food was forbidden, and then stood in a set location where they could see the tunnel but the dog could not see them. In the second condition, they told the dog ‘No’, and then left the room. In the final condition, they told the dog that it was allowed the food, as a test of motivation.

The dogs’ behaviour was videotaped and analyzed in terms of the length of time before the dog approached the tunnel, and the side which it approached. The results showed no differences between the conditions, and no preference for either the opaque or clear side of the tunnel.

So the dogs did not act differently in the case where the experimenter could see them, but they could not see the experimenter. This suggests they took an egocentric point of view, unlike in Kaminski’s study.

In the second experiment, auditory information was used instead. On one side of the tunnel there was a flat mat that did not make noise, and on the other side there was a mat made of crinkly material that was noisy when the dog trod on it. The dogs were trained using both mats, so they would not have a preference for one or the other. Again there were three conditions: the dog was told ‘no’ and the experimenter stood in a set location with their eyes closed; the dog was told ‘no’ and the experimenter left the room; or the dog was told the food was allowed.

This time, dogs showed a clear preference for the side of the tunnel with the silent mat when the experimenter was in the room. In the other two conditions, they had no preference for the silent or noisy side. 

The authors conclude that “when taking forbidden food from a tunnel, the dogs preferred to be silent, but not to be hidden.” It seems the dogs took an egocentric approach in the visual condition, assuming that because they could not see the experimenter, she could not see them. But in the auditory condition, they tried to hide their approach by choosing the quiet side of the tunnel. Interestingly, this has some similarities to studies with chimpanzees and scrub jays, in which they were shown to avoid making noise when they find a food source.

One explanation is that because the dogs could hear the noise themselves, they could hear what the human could hear; this made the problem easier to solve than in the visual experiment. The set-up of the experiment was complicated, with plywood walls around the tunnel, so it is possible they did not fully understand the visual condition. 

Overall these studies suggest that in some circumstances a dog seems to understand a human perspective, but more research is needed because the design of the study seems to affect the results.

Has your dog ever stolen food?

You might also like Do dogs or hand-reared wolves pay more attention to people?

Bräuer, J., Keckeisen, M., Pitsch, A., Kaminski, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Domestic dogs conceal auditory but not visual information from others Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0576-9  
Gácsi M, Miklósi A, Varga O, Topál J, & Csányi V (2004). Are readers of our face readers of our minds? Dogs (Canis familiaris) show situation-dependent recognition of human's attention. Animal cognition, 7 (3), 144-53 PMID: 14669075
Kaminski, J., Pitsch, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs steal in the dark Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

10 April 2013

Is having many cats an early sign of animal hoarding?

Do people who own more than twenty cats show greater attachment to their pets, or signs of anxiety and depression?

When people have a lot of cats, does it mean they are at risk to become an animal hoarder? Research looks at this question.

In January of this year, 99 live cats and 67 dead ones were removed from a woman’s home near Albany, New York. The cats were living in crates surrounded by faeces, and the woman was subsequently charged with animal cruelty. If situations like this could be predicted, psychological help at an early stage might prevent animals from being harmed. A study published this month by Ramos et al in Brazil investigates whether or not the early stages of cat hoarding can be identified.

Animal hoarders have large numbers of animals for which they do not provide proper care. They are unaware of (or in denial about) the poor state of their animals, and continue to acquire more. Animal hoarders can have psychological problems including attachment disorders, anxiety, and grief. The most commonly hoarded animals are cats.

It is often reported that animal hoarders have previously had normal, healthy relationships with pets. Ramos wondered if there is a stage prior to hoarding, where someone has a large number of well-cared for animals, but could potentially tip-over into a hoarding situation. Hence, this study looked at people who have more cats than is the norm, but who are not hoarders because the animals are in good condition. 

The researchers compared people who own one or two cats to those who own twenty or more. Participants were recruited via leaflets at the university veterinary hospital and a local vet clinic, and thirty participants were in each group. 

The questionnaire included standardized scales designed to assess attachment to pets, anxiety and depression, and hoarding behaviour. A researcher attended the person’s home while the questionnaire was completed, so they could confirm that the cats were in good condition. The group who owned lots of cats had between twenty and a hundred cats, with an average of thirty-six. It is worth noting that although both groups contained equal numbers of men and women, those who owned many cats were significantly older than those who owned only one or two cats, with average ages of 53 and 27 respectively.

There were no differences between the two groups in levels of anxiety, depression, or on the savings inventory which measures acquisition, clutter, and difficulties discarding items. However, owners of twenty or more cats reported being significantly more attached to their cats than owners of one or two cats.

For owners of twenty or more cats, there was a significant correlation between anxiety and scores on the savings inventory which measures aspects of hoarding behaviour. This relationship was not found in owners of one or two cats. There was also a trend for a relationship between depression and scores on the savings inventory for owners of many cats, but it did not reach significance.

This study is the first to investigate differences between owners of many cats and owners of one or two cats. It suggests that, amongst people who own twenty cats or more, there is a significant relationship between anxiety and hoarding behaviour. However, it is important to remember that the people who took part in this study were not animal hoarders, as their cats were well cared for.

Ramos also suggests there may be cultural reasons for owning large numbers of cats, since cats are very popular in Brazil, but many cats don’t have homes and live on the streets. Cats that are taken to animal shelters are often euthanized. Hence, people who care about cats might acquire street cats in order to give them a home. Certainly, some of the participants who owned many cats said they had taken in strays. Ramos says, “if many people acquire cats in such a way, it may also become a cultural norm and therefore not be considered inappropriate or inadequate in terms of animal care.”

These results are very interesting because they show differences in levels of attachment to cats between owners of many cats and owners of one or two cats. Amongst owners of many cats, the relationship between anxiety and hoarding behaviours is in the same direction as that found in a clinical population. Without follow-up, however, it is not known if these people will develop hoarding behaviour or not; they may simply continue to have many well-cared for cats. 

This study opens up a new direction for research in understanding animal hoarding. Future studies should have a larger sample, and aim to match the two groups on other variables such as age.  A longitudinal study of owners of many cats would help to investigate the factors that lead to a change from having many well-cared for animals to hoarding them. This would be challenging to do, as animal hoarders are often reluctant to let outsiders see their animals. 

What do you think should be done to help prevent animal hoarding?

You might also like: 5 things to do for your cat today (essential tips for cat lovers).

Fitzgerald, Bryan (2013) Extreme cat hoarder faces animal abuse charges. Times Union, obtained online 8th April 2013. 
Ramos, D., da Cruz, N.O., Ellis, S.L.H., Hernandez, J.A.E., & Reche-Junior, A. (2013). Early stage animal hoarders: Are these owners of large numbers of adequately cared-for cats? Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1 (1), 55-69.
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
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03 April 2013

How do Hand-Reared Wolves and Dogs Interact with Humans?

The question of how dogs evolved from wolves is complicated, but it is clear there are important differences that could arise from genetics, domestication, experience, or a combination of these.  A study just published by Marta Gácsi in Budapest investigates whether dogs and hand-reared wolves behave the same during a changing social situation with a human.

The wolves that took part in the study were hand-reared by humans from birth, spending the first few months of their life in a house with their caregiver. The wolves attended dog training (usually puppy class) while young. Now they live at a wolf park but are regularly visited by their caregivers, and take part in experiments and other activities such as education programs. Thus, the wolves are highly socialized and accustomed to human contact.

An adult wolf standing in the snow
In the first experiment, 13 wolves and 13 pet dogs took part. They were put on a lead and tied to a tree, so they had some freedom of movement but could not escape. Their owner or caregiver stood passively nearby. The unfamiliar experimenter first made a friendly approach to the animals. This was followed by a threatening approach to all but one animal (a wolf who had not responded well to the friendly approach). Finally the experimenter made sure that things ended well by calling the animals to her and petting them if they had been disturbed by the threatening approach.

The results showed that all of the dogs and most of the wolves responded to the friendly approach in either a passive or friendly manner. Dogs wagged their tails, and many wolves licked the experimenter’s face or hand. With the threatening approach, the dogs were significantly more likely to look at their owner than the wolves. This ties in with another study (Gácsi et al 2013) which found that owners have a ‘safe haven’ effect for dogs when a threatening stranger approaches

Five of the pet dogs barked or growled at the experimenter when she was threatening, or tried to attack her. None of the wolves did, but this was not a significant difference. In fact the wolves did not seem particularly interested, opting instead to sniff the ground, walk away, or stay lying down. Wolves looked away from the experimenter within the first two seconds of her approach, which was significantly earlier than the dogs.

Gácsi et al suggest several possible explanations of the wolves’ behaviour, including “that wolves did not consider this test as representing a conflict or competitive situation. Thus, their gaze-averting behaviour may be due to their ignorance of the human’s behaviour or their general tendency to avoid human gaze”. However, looking away and sniffing the ground during the threatening approach could be interpreted as displacement signals (Handelman, 2008). Also, since the wolves’ behaviour did change, it suggests they were not ignorant of the human behaviour after all. 

The second experiment involved the experimenter trying to engage the animals in an object-guarding game with her belt-bag, by offering it to the animal and then playfully pretending that she was going to pull it away. Later she stopped being playful and tried to nicely take it back. This took place a few days after the first experiment, with the same set of animals (though some were excluded e.g. due to lack of interest in the belt-bag). The location was similar, and as before the owner or caregiver stood nearby but did not respond.

Of the nine dogs that could be persuaded to join in the game, six showed guarding behaviour by barking at the experimenter and one also growled. When the game ended, all of the dogs let the human take her belt bag back. This shows flexibility, because they ceased their aggressive display.

Five wolves took part in the guarding game. Three were friendly (licking the experimenter or wagging their tails), and two were not (one growled and the other attacked). As for attempting to get the belt-bag back at the end, that wasn’t going to happen! As the authors put it, “Even the owner could not take away the object from one wolf.” None of them let the experimenter take her bag back.

There were also differences in gaze toward the owner; as in the first experiment, many dogs looked to their owner when the experimenter tried to take the bag, but wolves did not.

The third and final experiment tested food guarding with a meaty bone. Since it would not be safe to try and take a bone from a wolf, only pet dogs took part. A different set of dogs were used; thirteen Belgian Malinois that had had some defence training but did not work in protection. Their owners all said they could take a bone away from the dog*. The reason for choosing these dogs is that they are bred to be guard dogs and to work closely with their owners. 

The Belgian Malinois did the approaching stranger experiment, the object guarding experiment, and then a food guarding experiment with the bone. The dogs were friendly or passive to a friendly approach, and threatening or avoidant to a threatening approach. This response could be because they were trained as guard dogs. Most of the dogs looked towards the owner during the game and guarding episodes.

During the object and food guarding, the Malinois growled or barked at the human. However they all allowed the human to retrieve her bag or bone later. It’s also worth noting that some of them gave the bag to their owner or the experimenter before guarding it. During the guarding situation, most of the dogs made a high-pitched noise, usually just before they began guarding.

Taken together, these experiments show that dogs change their behaviour in response to a change in the human’s behaviour from playful to serious, or friendly to threatening. It’s also very interesting that most of the dogs looked to their owner. Other recent work has shown that dogs show social referencing; they look to their owner and change their behaviour accordingly when confronted with a strange object (Merola et al 2012). However, the wolves showed very little gaze towards humans during this study.

The number of wolves and dogs that took part is small. This is not unusual for work with hand-reared wolves, as they are in short supply. However, larger numbers would be better, especially since Gácsi et al (2013) showed that dogs have individual differences in how they behave towards a stranger’s approach. The small numbers meant it was not always possible to test for statistical significance.

This fascinating study shows behaviour differences between dogs and wolves. This is also the first time scientists have compared wolf-human play to dog-human play. The question of why wolves and dogs differ like this requires further research. Is it that dogs have evolved to pay more attention to humans? Or do they learn to pay more attention through their extensive experience with people?

If you're interested to learn more about how wolves and dogs interact with humans, you might like to read 'Now where's my treat?'.

Gácsi, M., Vas, J., Topál, J., & Miklósi, �. (2013). Wolves do not join the dance: Sophisticated aggression control by adjusting to human social signals in dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.02.007  
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
Handelman, B. (2008) Canine behaviour: A photo illustrated handbook. Woof and Word Press.
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012). Dogs' Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers PLoS ONE, 7 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047653  

*Don’t try this at home. If your dog guards food or other resources, seek help from a qualified professional.

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