26 June 2013

Are seniors more satisfied with life if they have pets?

An older woman shakes paw with her spaniel
It’s widely assumed that pets add quality to our lives. We hear all the time that they can lower blood pressure, encourage us to get more exercise, and provide comfort if we are sad. There’s some truth to this – but is it always the case? A new study of people aged 65 and over investigates whether pet ownership is linked to higher satisfaction with life.

The study analyzes data from the Canadian Community Health Survey – Healthy Aging conducted by Statistics Canada. The survey collected data from more than 30,000 Canadians aged over 45 in 2008 and 2009. Chelsea Himsworth and Melanie Rock (Universities of BC and Calgary, respectively) looked at the data for those sixty-five or over, to see what effect pet ownership had. In total, 11,973 people had answered the questions that were needed for this study.

The majority of the seniors lived with someone else and most of these were married or co-habiting. Over 90% of them were white, and just over half were female. Over 90% reported having a chronic health condition. The average family income was less than 40,000 dollars a year. 

The survey asked if people had a household pet that provided them with companionship, and 27% said yes to this.

A set of questions called the Satisfaction with Life Scale was used. Previous studies with pets have tended to use a measure of quality of life; this is the first time the Satisfaction with Life Scale was used instead. It was chosen because it is a broad measure of satisfaction, that accounts for any medium-term changes that may be taking place without being affected by the mood of the moment. There are five questions in total and the results are added together. Then, people are divided into those who are satisfied and those who are not.

Himsworth and Rock analyzed the data to take account of variables including whether or not seniors lived alone, their marital status, and so on.  Education level and income were not linked to aspects related to pet ownership.

The results show that amongst older people who are married, co-habiting or living with someone else, those who own a pet are less satisfied with life. Amongst those who live alone but are not divorced, pet ownership was not related to life satisfaction. However, for seniors who are divorced and live alone, owning a pet was linked to greater satisfaction.

This is a very interesting set of results because it suggests that pet ownership in seniors should be seen in the context of broader family life. Amongst those who own pets, seniors’ relationships with other people affect the likelihood of them being satisfied with life.

The study is very large in scale and the sample is representative of the nation as a whole. However, because it is a one-off survey it raises many questions. For example, we don’t know about the timing of the acquisition of pets; had people who got divorced acquired a pet after the divorce, for example, as a way of helping them adjust? Amongst married seniors, is the one who acquired the pet also the one who takes responsibility for looking after it? Are some seniors more concerned than others about veterinary bills and what might happen to their pet if they could no longer look after it?

The question about pets was worded to ask about pets that provide companionship. It would be interesting for future research to ask seniors about attachment to their pet, to see what effect the quality of that relationship has.

The results of this study are fascinating, but also hard to interpret. Since sharing our lives with pets can add to our satisfaction with life, further research is needed to investigate the factors that affect this, and the way our relationships with other people also play a role. 

Does your pet get along with other members of your family?

Himsworth, C., & Rock, M. (2013). Pet Ownership, Other Domestic Relationships, and Satisfaction with Life among Seniors: Results from a Canadian National Survey Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 26 (2), 295-305 DOI: 10.2752/175303713X13636846944448

19 June 2013

The end for shock collars?

Something puzzles me about the arguments made by shock collar advocates. On the one hand they claim the e-collar doesn’t hurt, and on the other they say it’s a last resort to prevent ‘dead dogs’ due to recall and chasing problems. Surely the second justification casts doubt on the first? Two new scientific studies funded by the UK’s DEFRA address both arguments, and conclude that e-collars are unnecessary and detrimental to animal welfare.

Shock collars (including invisible fences) are already banned in many countries because of welfare concerns. The DEFRA studies aimed to investigate the welfare of dogs trained using e-collars. The results will surely add to calls for shock collars to be banned in England and Scotland (they have been illegal in Wales since 2010), and elsewhere. 

Beautiful red border collie does a trick
The first study (Defra AW1402) included extensive pilot work, an investigation of the electrical resistance of wet and dry dogs (conclusion: wet dogs get zapped more), and a comparison of the features of several purchased shock collars. 

Only a handful of instruction manuals stated that vocalizations indicate the shock is too high. They did not explain all features well, particularly the warning tone or vibration which is meant to precede a shock (not all models had a warning tone). Most manuals suggested use of the continuous shock option that is stopped when the dog does the required behaviour, rather than a momentary stimulus (for quadrant enthusiasts, this is using the collar as negative reinforcement (R-) rather than positive punishment (P+)). One of the collars, bought over the internet, turned out to be a counterfeit with no cut-off for the continuous shock, and two of the genuine collars had faults.

The manuals assumed people were using the collars to teach general obedience, but some also mentioned particular problem behaviours. The scientists conducted a survey that found almost all dog owners who use shock collars use it for problem behaviours, particularly recall and/or chasing. Owners were not able to explain properly how they had used the collar in training. Particularly worrisome is that “some end-users either fail to read the instructions, misunderstand or deliberately disregard the advice in the manuals.” (p25)

Owners reported that 36% of the dogs vocalized (e.g. yelped) the first time the e-collar was used, and 26% of dogs vocalized on later use(s) of the e-collar. Six per cent of owners said they started at the highest shock level the first time they used the collar, and either stayed at this level or adjusted down from there. The scientists say that “some of the reported use was clearly inconsistent with advice in e-collar manuals and potentially a threat to the dog’s welfare.” (p25)

The scientists collected saliva and urine samples from the dogs that had been trained using e-collars and a matched sample that had not, plus an extra set of controls. The samples allowed them to check for physiological signs of stress at various points in data collection. They also did behavioural and training tests on the dogs, including to the fitting of a dummy (inactive) e-collar and having both owner and researcher conduct training sessions. 

They tested whether there were differences between when the dogs were not wearing the dummy collar compared to when they were were, with an extra control group of dogs who never wore the dummy collar.

In the e-collar-trained dogs, salivary cortisol increased significantly when they were wearing a collar, compared to dogs trained only using positive reinforcement. The researchers say this “suggests a negative association with anticipation of stimulus application.” (p28). The e-collar-trained dogs also had a significant increase in tense behaviour, compared to the other dogs. They were very attentive to their owner whilst wearing the collar, to the extent that the researchers could not do the training task with some of these dogs. During training, the control group (including those trained using positive reinforcement only) were significantly more attentive to their trainer than the e-collar dogs. 

The first study concluded that “for a subset of dogs tested, the previous use of e-collars in training are associated with behavioural and physiological responses that are consistent with significant negative emotional states; this was not seen to the same extent in the control population. It is therefore suggested that the use of e-collars in training pet dogs can lead to a negative impact on welfare, at least in a proportion of animals trained using this technique.” (p4).

"...dogs have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces reception of shocks"
Because so many owners used the shock collars in a way that was not consistent with the manuals, the second study (DEFRA1402DWa) was designed to investigate what happens when a shock collar is used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This includes a warning cue prior to the shock, so that it can be cancelled if the dog responds to the warning, and checking the level of shock to use for each dog. The Electronic Collar Manufacturer’s Association assisted with the design of the training protocol, and suggested the trainers who used the e-collar, who were also experienced in using other methods of training such as rewards.

Three groups of dogs were tested, with 21 dogs in each group. All of the dogs were referred because the owner said they had problems with recall and chasing (e.g. of sheep, cars, bicycles). This issue was chosen because it is one for which those trainers who use shock collars often recommend them.

Group A were trained using e-collars by dog trainers who had completed industry training. Group B were trained by the same trainers, but not using any shock and using lots of positive reinforcement. Group C were trained by members of the UK’s APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) using no shock and lots of positive reinforcement

The APDT (UK) has a code of conduct which states that “coercive or punitive techniques and/or equipment should not be used, recommended, advertised or sold by members” and this includes the shock collar which they describe as an “abusive device”. (N.B. APDTs in other countries have different policies).

Groups B and C were both control groups, as neither was trained using shock collars. The reason for two controls? Group B is a useful control because they are the same trainers as Group A, but they are not blind to the purposes of the study, so it is possible they could unintentionally affect the results. Also, since they usually rely on shock collars they may not be as experienced in using reward-based methods as the trainers in Group C, who never use shock collars. 

All of the dogs were evaluated on a number of standardized tests prior to the start of training, and the dogs in each group were closely matched. Of course, researchers can’t shock people’s dogs without their permission, so for Groups A and B the dog owners were allowed to express a preference. Only two owners did this, one wanting their dog to be in the shock collar group and one wanting it not to be. It’s to the credit of the experimenters that they did not just swap these two dogs; in fact each one was swapped with another well-matched dog, to ensure matching between the groups.

Each dog was trained over a period of five days, although occasionally the trainers declared training complete after four days. The training took place in a field with a livestock pen in it; although the field used for Group C was different than for Groups A and B, the set-up was closely matched. At the end of the training, owners were brought in to have the training explained to them, so that they could continue as necessary at home. All of the training sessions were video-recorded, and various other measures (such as salivary cortisol) were taken during and after the training.

Stills from the videos were assessed by reviewers who were blind to the aims of the study, and to which group the dogs were in. You are probably thinking it will have been obvious which dogs were in the shock group, as the collars are visible, but the researchers thought of that: they had some e-collars de-activated, so that dogs in all three groups wore a collar (and therefore looked the same), but only Group A had the active collar.

So as you can see the design of the study was very careful to make sure that any results would be due only to the method of training. The dogs also returned to the training centre for further tests and observations three months after the training period, to assess any longer-term effects.

When examining the results, the researchers had to combine variables (where appropriate) and adjust the statistics to take account of the fact that they were conducting a large number of tests.  They also double-checked that the groups of dogs were matched on physiological variables; here the only difference was that dogs in Group C (APDT trainers) had higher levels of salivary cortisol at the start of the study, potentially indicating that they were more stressed before the study began.

Some of the results showed differences in training style. The dogs spent more time sitting, interacted less with the environment, and the trainers issued more commands, for Groups A (e-collar) and B compared to Group C (APDT rewards-based). Lip licking associated with food was higher in Group C than for Groups A and B (this makes me wonder if fewer treats were delivered to Group B although this is not reported on).

The results also showed some welfare concerns. The dogs in Group A (e-collar) were more tense, yawned more (a sign of stress) and spent less time interacting with the environment than the dogs in Group C (APDT rewards-based). For dogs in Group A, the number of yelps and other vocalizations increased with higher levels of shock. 

At three months after the training, dogs in Group A had higher salivary cortisol levels than dogs in Groups B and C when they arrived at the training centre, which may suggest the anticipation of e-collar use. Most owners from all groups were satisfied with the results of the training. 

The report says “the study did find behavioural evidence that use of e-collars negatively impacted on the welfare of some dogs during training even when training was conducted by professional trainers using relatively benign training programmes advised by e-collar advocates.” (p4) They also found that the e-collar was not more effective than rewards-based training for recall and chasing, even though this is the scenario that e-collar advocates particularly recommend it for.

Unfortunately we can’t say that no dogs were harmed during the course of this research, as the findings are clearly that e-collars can have negative welfare consequences. However the research was conducted following ethical guidelines, dogs were monitored carefully, and for ethical reasons intentional misuse of the e-collar was not studied. While the owners who used e-collars did not follow manufacturer’s guidelines, it is worth noting that the three dog trainers who took part in pilot work on sheep chasing did not follow the guidelines either. 

Previous studies have also found welfare issues with the use of e-collars (e.g. Schilder and van der Borg 2004; Schalke et al 2007; Herron et al 2009). A large survey of 3,897 dog owners in the UK (Blackwell et al 2012) found that 3.3% reported using an e-collar in training. Amongst the owners of dogs who had had recall and chasing problems, those who had used e-collars reported significantly less success than those who had used rewards-based methods. 

The first Defra study found wide variability in how e-collars were used, and showed that owners either did not read or did not follow the advice given in the manuals. There were significant negative welfare findings in some dogs trained using the e-collar. The second study, designed to use the e-collars by trained professionals, according to industry standards, and for only a short period of time, also found a negative effect on animal welfare.  

In addition, excellent results were achieved by using reward-based training, which shows the e-collar is unnecessary. Of course, the many people who have already trained a strong recall using positive reinforcement will not be surprised by this. However, it will surprise some shock collar advocates, and they should be encouraged and supported to learn modern dog training techniques.

These studies will increase the pressure on governments to ban the use of e-collars, particularly in the UK where taxpayers funded this research. Since dog training is an unlicensed profession, owners should check the credentials of dog trainers carefully, especially since trainers who use shock collars may not make this clear on their website. In the UK, the APDT is against aversive methods (see here for their statement on this research), and around the world (including the USA) the Pet Professional Guild is committed to force-free training. Check out my article on how to choose a dog trainer.

2018 update: A scientific review by Masson et al calls for shock collars to be banned in Europe and outlines the reasons why.

What do you think about these results? Do you think shock collars should have warning labels? Or do you think they should be banned?

Blackwell, E., Bolster, C., Richards, G., Loftus, B., & Casey, R. (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods BMC Veterinary Research, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1746-6148-8-93  
Defra AW1402 (2013) Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs. University of Lincoln / University of Bristol / Food and Environment Research Agency.  Final report prepared by Prof. Jonathan Cooper, Dr. Hannah Wright, Prof. Daniel Mills (University of Lincoln); Dr. Rachel Casey, Dr. Emily Blackwell (University of Bristol); Katja van Driel (Food and Environment Research Agency); Dr. Jeff Lines (Silsoe Livestock System).
Defra AW1402a (2013) Studies to assess the effect of pet training aids, specifically remote static pulse systems, on the welfare of domestic dogs; field study of dogs in training. Final report prepared by Prof. Jonathan Cooper, Dr. Nina Cracknell, Jessica Hardiman and Prof. Daniel Mills (University of Lincoln).
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011  
Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J., Ott, S., & Jones-Baade, R. (2007). Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs in everyday life situations Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105 (4), 369-380 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.11.002  
Schilder, M., & van der Borg, J. (2004). Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85 (3-4), 319-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2003.10.004
Photo: Ksenia Raykova (Shutterstock.com)
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12 June 2013

Homing and Re-homing Fido: How many newly-adopted pets are still kept six months later?

When people adopt a new pet, why do some of them re-home the pet before six months is up? And how many actually still have the pet in the home? These are the questions asked in a new survey for the American Humane Association, funded by PetSmart.

A black-and-white kitten and a spaniel at the window of a house in summer

Every year in the US, 3 to 4 million homeless dogs and cats are euthanized. Understanding how many pets are not kept, and the reasons why, is essential to finding ways to solve the problem of pet overpopulation. The problem is not unique to the US. A sizeable proportion of animals arrive at shelters as owner surrenders (e.g. rabbits (Cook and McCobb, 2012); cats (CFHS, 2013), and there are animal welfare issues, as well as economic costs (Stavisky et al 2012).

The AHA survey is the second phase of a three-part study. The first part investigated barriers to the adoption of dogs and cats, and the next stage will consider possible interventions.

The survey took place in three mid-sized cities that have both an animal control shelter and a private shelter: Charlotte, N.C., Denver, C.O. and Fort Worth, Texas.  People who had adopted a cat or dog from either the shelter or animal control about six months earlier were contacted and asked to take part. The response rate varied from 33% in Fort Worth to 60% in Charlotte. This may not sound very high, but is actually good for this kind of survey, and highlights one of the problems of conducting research on real-life issues.

In total, 572 people took part. Approximately half of the participants had adopted a cat and half had adopted a dog; half of the pets were male and half were female. Most of the homes did not have children living in them, although some did. For almost a quarter of the participants, this was the first time they had owned a pet as an adult.

Six months after adoption, 10% of the pets were no longer in the home. Of these, 42% had been returned to the shelter; the rest had been lost, died, or given to someone else. Nearly two-thirds of the animals that were not kept were given up within two months of the adoption. In fact, a quarter had left within two weeks of being adopted.

This tells us that any policies or interventions designed to improve retention rates need to be aimed at the very beginning period after adoption. One possibility might be to improve the information that goes home with the pet when it is first adopted, or for the shelter to keep in touch with new adoptees during the first couple of weeks.

Some animal behaviour problems were related to surrender, including soiling, barking, being disobedient, destructive, or unfriendly to humans. This ties in with other research. For example, a recent study found that behavioural problems are a common reason for dogs to be surrendered (Kwan and Bain 2013). Most shelters already identify potential behavioural issues and provide advice at the point of adoption, but perhaps there could be ways to improve it or encourage people to follow it. Kwan and Bain's paper also found that people who surrender dogs have lower attachment than people who are keeping their pets, suggesting that advice could emphasize building the bond between a new owner and their pet.

Another interesting piece of information from this survey relates to where people turned if they needed advice on their new pet. People who asked friends and family, or their vet, were very likely to keep the pet, but those who asked the shelter were much less likely to keep it. At first glance this may sound like the shelters were not giving good advice, but the likelihood is that the shelter was a ‘last resort’ for advice before returning the pet, or something people felt they ought to do before returning it.

If shelters are aware that these calls for help mean the pet is at risk of return, they can concentrate on helping the person find a solution. For example, it may be difficult for shelter staff to find the time to spend on these calls during a busy day, so perhaps one member of staff should have responsibility for this and specialize in providing counselling. 

There were no differences in retention rates of pets who had a visit to a vet compared to those who didn’t. Also – and this will surprise some people – there was no difference in retention rate between people who had spent a long time on research before the adoption, and those who acted on impulse. It's possible that some people do research because they already have doubts about adopting an animal.

Sleeping on the bed was a good sign, as these pets were more likely to be kept than those who slept somewhere else in the house. (Interestingly, sleeping outside was not a risk factor for surrender).

Animal shelters and rescues want to find good homes for animals, and usually have a contract that specifies they should be returned to them if they are not kept. While a rate of ten per cent of dogs and cats no longer being in the home six months after adoption is high, it should be remembered that there are no comparative figures for animals obtained from other sources, such as pet stores or internet ads. Many dogs and cats are acquired from places with no return policy or option, which leaves them in a vulnerable position should something go wrong. This is especially worrisome since a recent study found that puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behavioural problems.

The full report from the AHA is available to read at the link below, and has a list of suggested strategies for animal shelters and rescues that includes working to reduce barriers to pet ownership and offering behavioural support to improve the relationship between people and their pets.

Have you ever adopted a pet on impulse?

American Humane Association (2013) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Phase II: Descriptive study of post-adoption retention in six shelters in three US cities. Available online at: http://www.americanhumane.org/petsmart-keeping-pets-phase-ii.pdf
Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (2012) Cats in Canada: A Comprehensive Report on the Cat Overpopulation Crisis. Available online at the CFHS http://cfhs.ca/athome/cat_overpopulation_crisis/.
Cook, A., & McCobb, E. (2012). Quantifying the Shelter Rabbit Population: An Analysis of Massachusetts and Rhode Island Animal Shelters Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 15 (4), 297-312 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2012.709084  
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  
Stavisky, J., Brennan, M., Downes, M., & Dean, R. (2012). Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK: results of a 2010 census BMC Veterinary Research, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1746-6148-8-163

05 June 2013

Is attachment to pet dogs linked to their behaviour?

A woman is fast asleep while her beagle lies near her on the bedSome people are more attached to their dogs than others.  Recently, we wrote about a study that found that people who relinquished their dog to animal shelters had lower attachment to them than people who were keeping their dog. This week, we discuss a new study by Christy Hoffman et al that asks whether there is a link between a dog’s behaviour and how attached the owner is to the dog.

The study involved a questionnaire that was completed by 60 adults and 92 children from sixty dog-owning families. As far as we know, this is the first study to look at attachment in children as well as their parents. The families completed the questionnaire as part of a wider long-term study of childhood and adolescence.  Most of the adults were female (88%), and they ranged in age from 30 to 62. The children were from 11 to 18 years old. On average, families had owned their dog for almost five years.

The dog’s behaviour was rated using a widely-established questionnaire called the C-BARQ.  Participants also answered questions about their attitudes to pets in general, their responsibility for the dog (such as feeding and walking it), and their attachment to the dog. A small group of participants completed the questionnaire again a few months later to check for test-retest reliability. 

For both children and adults, more positive feelings about pets in general, and taking more responsibility for the care of the dog, were both linked to higher attachment to the dog. This is not surprising. After controlling for this statistically, the authors found that attachment to the dog was higher if the dog was rated as higher on the scales for trainability and for separation problems. In other words, attachment is higher if the dog is well-behaved and likes to spend time with its humans. 

Interestingly, there was no effect of the dog’s stranger-related aggression or fear on attachment.  However it should be noted that all of the dogs scored well on this and so none of them presented serious problems.
Adults were more attached to their dog if it was rated highly for attention-seeking, but this made no difference for children. Children’s attitudes to pets and levels of attachment were both strongly correlated with those of their parents. There was moderate agreement between children and parents about how trainable the dog was, and on some but not all of the other categories of the dog behaviour questions.

The study also looked at the effect of demographic characteristics, although because of the sample size they classified race as either Caucasian or not Caucasian. In terms of dog excitability there was an effect of race; amongst Caucasians, attachment was lower for more excitable dogs, whereas for non-Caucasians there was no effect of excitability on attachment. However, the authors say it may not be race that is the important factor here, but other differences such as whether dogs were kept mainly in the house or yard. There were no gender differences in attachment.

This study looked at the relationship between attachment and dog behaviour at one point in time; it isn’t possible to draw conclusions about the direction of the relationship. For example, it could be that taking responsibility for the dog’s care is a process that leads to higher attachment, but it is also possible that those who don’t feel particularly attached pass on responsibility to other members of the family. 

It is very interesting that perceived trainability was linked to attachment and this raises lots of possibilities for future research. A recent meta-analysis of whether dog personality traits are stable over time found that responsiveness to training was one of the least stable traits in puppies, but was more consistent in adult dogs. Further research into this trait is warranted, and it should also be remembered that humans can learn to improve their training abilities. 

Would you say your dog is very responsive to training, or not so much?

Fratkin, J., Sinn, D., Patall, E., & Gosling, S. (2013). Personality Consistency in Dogs: A Meta-Analysis PLoS ONE, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054907
Hoffman, C.L., Chen, P., Serpell, J.A., & Jacobson, K. (2013). Do dog behavioral characteristics predict the quality of the relationship between dogs and their owners? Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1 (1), 20-37

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