29 May 2013

Interactions between shelter dogs: some new research

A whippet and a small mixed-breed dog running through a puddle

Some animal shelters house dogs in pairs or small groups. This can enrich their lives, but it could also potentially be a source of stress if the dogs are not well-matched. A new paper by Irena Petak, of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, examines the communication patterns between dogs housed in groups.

At the Dogs Trust in Salisbury, England, there is a sanctuary for long-term residents.  There is a ‘mountain area’ with an artificial mountain and three kennels, and a tree area with grass and trees. There is also a small introductory pen for new dogs who are coming in to the sanctuary. The sanctuary is enriched with a sand box, tunnels through the mountain, ramps and toys for the dogs to play with. During the day, the dogs are allowed to run free in the enclosure, and at night the dogs can choose one of the three kennels to go into. 

At the time of the study, there were twelve dogs in the sanctuary and two in the introductory pen. All of these dogs were neutered males who had been re-homed several times. The time they had spent at the sanctuary varied from one week to seven years, and their estimated age varies from seven to twelve years.

The dogs were observed for 162 hours, during the day-time, over a period of seven weeks, always at times when the care-takers were not there so the dogs could interact as they wished. Interactions during this time were recorded, although a few were missed because it was a large area (for example, sometimes trees were in the way).

The results showed that dogs interact with the other dogs in different ways. This is as expected, but it emphasizes the need to be careful in selecting dogs to share housing, as different dogs have different preferences. 

The interactions between pairs of dogs were grouped into proactive neutral, proactive aggressive, and reactive scent-marking (reactions to the scent-marking of other dogs). Aggression was characterized by things like growling, snarling, mounting, attacking and chin resting.  Group interactions were classified as vocal, visual or olfactory, according to the behaviour of the dog that initiated the interaction.

The most common type of interaction was proactive neutral, followed by reactive scent-marking. Aggression was the least common type of behaviour. Individual differences included one dog that tried to initiate many proactive neutral interactions, a couple of dogs that were responsible for most of the aggression, and one dog that didn’t really interact with the other dogs. There were also two dogs who barked the most, and often other dogs barked in response to hearing them. Some dogs were more active than others in exploring the environment and participating in social behaviours.

There was an interesting pattern in that the dogs who started olfactory interactions with other dogs tended also to receive this kind of behaviour at other times. On the other hand, dogs who initiated visual or vocal group interactions were not also the recipients of such behaviour.

There was a typical pattern to interactions between two dogs. It was “usually initiated by one dog approaching another dog and was followed by sniffing body parts. Recipients frequently did not try to stop the initiator from sniffing them and did not try to sniff the initiator.” There was also a lot of scent-marking and sniffing of places where other dogs had urinated. The frequency of scent-marking and sniffing was such that Petak suggests that olfactory communication should be considered as enrichment activity.

The patterns of interactions between the dogs are very complex, and do not support the idea of a dominance hierarchy in dogs. The scent-marking that was observed also cannot be linked to dominance or aggression. 

It is interesting that the two dogs that most often initiated aggression were also most likely the recipients of it. This suggests that some dogs can have relationship problems over a long period of time. However, it should be remembered that these encounters were rare, and not serious.

The results suggest it is important to match dogs carefully, and this would apply to group-housed shelter dogs and to people adopting a second dog as a friend for one they already have. Matching activity levels is important, as if one dog is too boisterous it may make the other dog unhappy. Similarly, if one dog vocalizes a lot, this may stress another dog.

This study shows that housing dogs in groups enables them to engage in normal, social behaviours.  Many shelters already house dogs in pairs or groups, and other shelters may wish to follow suit.

For anyone interested in reading the full paper, it is freely available for a limited time (along with some other papers about animal shelters) thanks to a collaboration between the ASPCA, the Animals and Society Institute, and the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.  Just click on the link below.

Do you have more than one dog? If so, how do they get along?

Petak, I. (2013). Communication Patterns Within a Group of Shelter Dogs and Implications for Their Welfare Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (2), 118-139 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.741001

22 May 2013

Dogs can haz brainscanz and EEG?

A beagle is looking up against a white background
Canine cognition is a hot topic these days, using experiments and brain imaging as research tools. The trouble with brain imaging work is that it is invasive, to the extent that animals may have to be sedated or anaesthetized for the study. All that changed with the amazing work of Gregory Berns et al and the first-ever fMRI study on awake, unrestrained dogs last year. Now Miiamaaria Kujala et al in Finland have shown that it is also possible to do a non-invasive EEG with dogs.

An EEG measures brain activity by placing electrodes across the scalp. These pick up oscillations in electrical activity, which can be measured for changes. One common use of EEG is in assessing epilepsy in dogs (and people). We aren’t talking about veterinary EEGs here, however, but those designed to learn something about how a healthy brain works.

If animals have to be anaesthetized for an EEG to occur, it’s a problem because a drowsy brain does not function in the same way as an alert brain. Awake animals are typically restrained. For example, Hanlu Ma et al (2013) anaesthetized cats and surgically implanted metal tubes through which electrodes could be inserted. After the cats were given a couple of weeks to recover from surgery, the electrodes were used to test the cats’ responses to meows and to human voices making vowel sounds. 

The cat’s body was wrapped in a cotton bag and its head was immobilized while the sounds were played. The cats were trained for this (though the paper doesn't say how) and monitored for signs of distress. The results showed which parts of the brain were activated, and found no significant difference in response to meows and vowels.

In this study, the cats were awake. But it is still invasive, since they had to be operated on and were restrained for several hours at a time. Could there be another way?

Since dogs are easily trainable using operant conditioning, Kujala et al in Finland thought it might be possible to train dogs for EEG. Using positive reinforcement, they trained eight beagles to take part in their study.

The beagles were purpose-bred for laboratory work and live in a group kennel environment. First of all they took part in training. For the study, their heads had to be shaved, cleaned and prepped so that electrodes could be applied. They wore seven electrodes on the head, one in each ear, and a ground electrode on the back. Then they had to lie still and look at a TV screen while measurements were taken. At the same time, they also wore eye-tracking equipment.  

A beagle with its head on the head rest, looking at the computer screen
A beagle in the study. Source: PLoS One
The experiment itself took place in twenty-minute sessions over four days for each dog, so that they did not get too tired. Of course, it took much longer to train the dogs to get used to the laboratory and the equipment in the first place, with twice-weekly training sessions over one and a half years.

The dogs were shown photographs of human and dog faces, mostly the right way up but with some upside-down. They were shown a batch of photos, then had a short break in which they were rewarded with some food, then led to settle down and watch another batch. The authors point out that the experimental set-up is very similar to that used in human studies. 

The results showed a change in a type of electrical activity called the beta range (15-30Hz); oscillations in this band were suppressed when the dog was looking at a face, compared to the rest period. This probably reflects the activity of a part of the brain called the occipital cortex. In addition, the researchers found a suppression of activity at the 2-6Hz range. This coincided with the beginning of looking at an image, and was noticed most in the sensors at the front of the head. The authors say this may relate to eye movements as the dog looks at an image that has just appeared on the TV.

There were individual differences between the dogs which is not surprising, as this is also the case for humans. 

The authors conclude that “the study opens the possibility to implement cognitive neuroscience studies with dogs and to examine the evolutionary background and divergence of brain function associated with cognition.”

This is similar to the study by Gregory Berns et al that was published last year. They trained two dogs – Callie the rescue feist and McKenzie the agility-loving border collie – to take part in an fMRI. They began training the dogs using a mock-up of the equipment before moving on to the real version. After two months, they were able to take part in the fMRI study. Each dog had to keep absolutely still; if they moved by as little as 3mm, it would make the data useless. 

Callie during training and McKenzie in the actual fMRI study
Source: PLoS One
The picture shows Callie during a training session (A) and McKenzie during the study itself (B).
The study found that the reward centre of the brain lit up when the dog saw a hand signal that meant a treat would soon be forthcoming. 

These EEG and fMRI studies are a tremendous achievement on the part of both the humans and dogs that took part. So how were the dogs trained? They did not use electric shocks or ‘corrections’ or punishment. Instead they relied on positive reinforcement.  (You will have noticed ongoing positive reinforcement in the EEG study, with pauses in which the dog was given a treat before returning to the experiment).

These two studies were designed to find out about the canine brain, but they also show the effectiveness of training using positive reinforcement.

Some people (even some dog trainers) try to argue that positive reinforcement is not the right way to train a dog. And yet, it has been used to train dogs to take part in an EEG study and in fMRI without the need for sedation or restraint. Isn’t that amazing?! 

Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2012). Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038027
Kujala, M., Törnqvist, H., Somppi, S., Hänninen, L., Krause, C., Vainio, O., & Kujala, J. (2013). Reactivity of Dogs' Brain Oscillations to Visual Stimuli Measured with Non-Invasive Electroencephalography PLoS ONE, 8 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061818
Ma, H., Qin, L., Dong, C., Zhong, R., & Sato, Y. (2013). Comparison of Neural Responses to Cat Meows and Human Vowels in the Anterior and Posterior Auditory Field of Awake Cats PLoS ONE, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052942

15 May 2013

Why do people surrender dogs to animal shelters?

Five to seven million companion animals arrive at animal shelters in the US each year, and about half of these are animals being surrendered by their owners. Why do people surrender their pets? To find out, a new study by Jennifer Kwan and Melissa Bain compared dogs being relinquished at three Sacramento animal shelters to those dogs that were there simply to receive their vaccinations.

A cocker spaniel in the bluebell woods on a sunny day
The experimenter spent time at the shelters during the hours when relinquishments could take place, and when vaccination clinics were available. She approached people to ask them to complete the questionnaires, which were available in English or Spanish. A total of 129 people took part; 80 relinquishing owners, and 49 continuing owners. 

Some people were not approached to take part because their dogs seemed to be aggressive, and the experimenter would have had to hold them while the owner completed the questionnaire. In addition, if relinquishing owners seemed particularly upset or arrived requesting euthanasia of the dog, they were not asked to take part, so as not to exacerbate their distress. It is possible this had an effect on the results.

The questionnaire asked about demographic information, attachment to the pet, behavioural problems, and, in the case of relinquished dogs, the reasons why. Participants could rate potential reasons for relinquishment as ‘not a reason’, ‘somewhat of a reason’ and ‘strong reason’, so it was possible for multiple reasons to be given. The results from the three shelters were combined for analysis. 

Relinquished dogs and ‘continuing’ dogs were equally likely to have attended training classes. The relinquished dogs were significantly more likely to live as outside dogs all of the time, and were significantly older; amongst the male dogs, they were significantly more likely to be intact.

Relinquishing and continuing owners were equally likely to have used punishment-based techniques in training their dogs. There was a correlation between the use of prong and choke collars and problems in loose-leash walking. However, it is not possible to know if these were only employed because of difficulties training loose-leash walking, or if they contributed to the problems, for example by misuse or by owners assuming they didn’t need to train if using them.

Dogs in the relinquished group were significantly more likely to have problem behaviours than those that were being kept. Sixty-five per cent of relinquishing owners said that a behavioural problem was a contributing factor, and about half said it was a relatively strong influence. Aggression was the most common behavioural problem given as a strong reason for relinquishment.

Attachment to pets is a construct that includes knowledge about the pet’s needs, feelings of closeness to the pet, and time spent with them. Attachment scores were significantly lower for relinquishing owners compared to continuing owners. Although not surprising, this is the first time it has been shown using a standard measure of attachment. It would be interesting to know how attachment changes and develops over the duration of an owner’s relationship with their pet. 

About a third of owners said they were ‘very satisfied’ with their dog’s behaviour. Those who were not so satisfied also had significantly lower scores for attachment, suggesting a link between behaviour and attachment to dogs.

Although moving house was a common reason for animal relinquishment, many people had other pets that weren’t being relinquished. This doesn’t mean they gave incorrect information; many rental properties have rules about the number, height or breed of pets. This is also a potential reason for the numbers of pit bulls in the relinquished group, because they are often listed as one of the restricted breeds. While it is surprising to learn that people might relinquish some pets and choose to keep others, it is useful to know as future studies can make a point of learning about kept animals as well as relinquished ones.

The most interesting finding of this study is the frequency of behavioural problems as a reason for relinquishment. This is not surprising, but it underlines the need to help owners find better ways of preventing problems in the first place and managing them if they arise. Surprisingly little is known about people's information-seeking regarding behaviour and training issues, and unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation.

What are your favourite books or other resources for dog owners? (N.B. Please avoid posting active links because urls usually end up in the spam folder. Thank you!)

Kwan, J., & Bain, M. (2013). Owner Attachment and Problem Behaviors Related to Relinquishment and Training Techniques of Dogs Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (2), 168-183 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.768923

08 May 2013

On Puppies, Pet Stores, and Behaviour Problems

Research finds puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behaviour problems than those from non-commercial breeders.

Puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behavior problems - but this cute puppy is sleeping

If you buy a puppy from a pet store, could you be getting more than you bargained for? It has long been thought that puppies from pet shops might have behavioural problems. A new study by Franklin D. McMillan et al investigates this by comparing puppies from pet stores to those from non-commercial breeders.

The puppies that are for sale in pet shops originate from commercial breeding establishments, also known as puppy mills or puppy farms. These are large establishments that breed puppies for profit.

The ASPCA says they “usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. To minimize waste cleanup, dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is not unusual for cages to be stacked up in columns.”
A large number of dogs took part in this study: 413 dogs that were bought as puppies from pet stores, and 5,657 that were obtained from breeders. Although predominantly in the US, some were in other countries. Dogs from breeders were likely to have been obtained at around the same age as dogs from pet stores, and also to be purebred dogs, so they are a good comparison group to the pet store dogs.

Participants answered an online questionnaire that included the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioural Assessment and Research Questionnaire). This is a standardized questionnaire that assesses 14 behavioural factors as well as a number of miscellaneous items. 

The pet store dogs were significantly worse than breeder-obtained dogs on twelve of the fourteen scales (on the other two scales, they were about the same). The biggest differences were in terms of aggression. Looking only at entire/intact dogs, those obtained from pet stores were three times more likely to display aggression directed at their owner, and almost twice as likely to show aggression to other dogs they did not know, compared to dogs obtained from a breeder.

This is terrible, because aggression can have serious consequences for both dog and owner. 

Other problems that were found significantly more often in dogs from pet stores are aggression to strangers, aggression to other dogs in the household, fear of dogs, separation problems, and touch sensitivity.  They were also more likely to have miscellaneous problems such as soiling in the house and mounting. They were more excitable, energetic, attention-seeking and, if they were not working dogs, they were also rated as less trainable.

Puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behavior problems, especially aggression; illustrated by a cute Siberian Husky puppy
Photo: ingret; top photo, watchara (both Shutterstock)

The authors suggest several reasons for these findings. They say “the formative stages of the puppy’s life in the CBE [commercial breeding establishment] are periods where stress may exert an impact on brain development.”

The puppies are likely stressed by their environment both prenatally and during the first eight weeks of their life. They may experience stress during transit when they are shipped to the pet stores. They also miss out on important early socialization experiences because they are not able to get used to a normal household environment during this time.

It is possible that other factors play a role, since people who get puppies from pet shops may be different from those who go to breeders; for example, they might be less knowledgeable about puppies and the importance of early socialization, or tend to use different training techniques. These were not assessed in the current study. 

This is not the first research to find problems with dogs from puppy farms. An earlier study of dogs that were used as breeding stock at CBEs and then re-homed found they had significantly more health and behavioural problems than a sample of non-puppy mill dogs that were matched for age, breed and gender.  And a study by Carri Westgarth last year showed that it’s best to see both parentsbefore purchasing a puppy; if neither parent was seen, puppies were 3.8 times more likely to have a behavioural problem than if both parents were seen. 
Some places have banned the sale of puppies in stores. You can help by not purchasing anything from pet stores that sell puppies.  It’s also important to know that puppies from puppy farms are not just sold in pet stores; they are widely available via free ads and the internet, sometimes with semi-convincing cover stories about new pups that suddenly need to be re-homed.

Warning signs include wanting to meet at a neutral location (instead of where the pup was raised); the same puppy photo appearing in different adverts; and the same phone number appearing in adverts for many different puppies. For more information, see my post on how to choose the right puppy.

If you want to know more about puppy mills, you can read a closer look at puppy mills by the ASPCA, information from the BC SPCA, or join the Dogs Trust battery farmed dogs campaign. And please share the results of this research, so that people understand buying puppies from pet shops has risks of behavioural as well as health problems.

Are puppies for sale in pet stores near you?

McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006  
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems Veterinary Record, 170 (20), 517-517 DOI: 10.1136/vr.100138
Photo: ingret (Shutterstock.com)
P.S. Why you need to socialize your puppy

01 May 2013

Describing Dog Training: Weasel words or clear descriptions?

Dog training is an unlicensed profession. Sometimes it surprises people to learn there is a science to training, the origins of which can be traced back to Pavlov and Skinner. When studying how ordinary people train their dogs, scientists have to map between technical terms and everyday language. How do they do this?

Positive reinforcement and punishment in dog training

You’ve probably heard the phrase that “dogs do what works”, as explained by Jean Donaldson in her wonderful book Culture Clash. What this means is, the behaviours that are rewarded get repeated, and the ones that don’t get rewards tend to disappear (this is called extinction).

Our knowledge of operant conditioning has its roots in the work of B.F. Skinner, who coined the phrase in 1937, but applied behaviour analysis is still an active field today; for example, it is used to help children and adults with autism.

Operant conditioning relies on punishments and reinforcements. Reinforcement makes a behaviour increase, whereas punishment makes a behaviour go down in frequency. Either can be positive or negative, and this is where it gets technical, because the terms don’t map intuitively into everyday English.

Positive reinforcement means that something good (reinforcing) is added, such as when a dog is given chicken. Negative reinforcement means that something is taken away, such as a painful stimulus or an unpleasant vibration that stops when the dog does what you want it to do. Positive punishment is essentially what we mean when we talk about punishment in everyday language; something unpleasant is added, such as when a dog gets a bop on the nose or an electric shock. Finally, negative punishment would be something like a time-out; the dog is losing its freedom to play or explore.

When conducting surveys of dog-owners, scientists can’t just ask ‘do you use negative punishment?’, because this is a technical term that unfortunately even some dog trainers don’t understand. So they have to phrase the questions in everyday language.

One way of doing this is illustrated by Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw (University of Bristol) in 2004. They decided to ask about the training of specific behaviours. This is helpful because some people might use one method for teaching ‘sit’, and another for teaching walking to heel.  They asked open-ended questions so that participants could write in their own words how they had taught various commands, and how they responded if the dog did something like stealing food or chewing a household object.

The scientists themselves then classified these techniques into the quadrants of operant conditioning. Actually, they categorized them as reward-based, punishment-based, and miscellaneous.

Dog training methods: Positive reinforcement vs punishment

Another approach is to ask participants to rate specific statements on a scale. This is what Arhant et al in Vienna did in a large survey published in 2010. They used a five-point scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (very often) for owners to rate how often they used particular techniques, including food, praise, play, scolding, startling with a noise, and a jerk on the leash.

Although participants don’t get to use their own words, the advantage is that better statistics can be applied to this kind of data. 

In fact, when Arhant et al looked statistically to see how the different training approaches related to each other, they didn’t end up with four quadrants. They categorized the approaches as punishment (technically speaking, positive punishment), rewards, and ‘reward-based responses to unwanted behaviour’. This last category included negative punishment such as time-outs, as well as comforting a fearful dog.

We can see that the main distinction drawn in these studies is between reward-based and punishment-based approaches.

So, does it matter which quadrants are used in training? Well, Hiby et al’s study found that although many people use rewards, many of them also use punishment. There was a positive correlation between the frequency of using rewards-based training and ratings of general obedience; in other words, dogs trained using rewards were rated as more obedient. There was no correlation between obedience and punishment. 

Arhant et al found similar results. Again, many owners reported using punishment in training, although they did not use it very often. More frequent use of punishment was linked to higher scores on aggression and excitability. In contrast, more frequent use of rewards was linked to more obedience, less aggression, and less anxiousness.

These results (and others) don’t prove a causal connection, but they do suggest it is more effective to stick to the positive reinforcement and negative punishment quadrants in operant conditioning, and not to use positive punishment. One of the risks of using positive punishment is that it might inadvertently cause aggression. A study by Meghan Herron found many owners report an aggressive response to the use of punishment.

Unfortunately it is not always easy to know what methods trainers use. The language of dog training can be full of weasel words. Instead of talking about punishment, some trainers refer to ‘corrections’ or to a ‘balanced approach’. Shock collars are described as remote collars, as if nothing happens at the other end (but of course it does, or else how would they work?). These seem to be ways of avoiding saying they use punishment. This is why scientists need to be careful in how they phrase questions, and also why owners need to look at the details when choosing a dog trainer.

Luckily, the use of positive punishment in training is old-fashioned, and more and more trainers (and owners) are taking a force-free approach. A force-free dog trainer will only use the positive reinforcement and negative punishment quadrants; sometimes, to avoid confusion, they will only mention positive reinforcement. Ask your dog trainer carefully about the approach they use, so that you know you will be happy with the way they treat your dog.

How do you train your dog? And, if you have had dogs for a while, how has your training changed over time?

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

Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123 (3-4), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Donaldson, Jean (2012/1996) Culture Clash. Dogwise Publishing.
Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness, and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69
Photos: Jeffrey B. Banke (top) & Lukas Gojda (both Shutterstock.com)

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