31 July 2013

The Importance of Food in Dog Training

Studies show dogs respond better to training when the reward is food.

Golden Retriever thinking about a bone

It goes without saying that food is vitally important and also one of life’s luxuries. Many people routinely use food such as chicken or treats to train their dogs, while others are offended by the idea and think their dog should obey commands for praise or affection. Who is right?

Several scientists have looked at this topic recently. Last year we reported on a study by Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne that compared the use of a food reward to petting and praise in training. In a series of five studies, they looked at dogs that have owners, dogs that are in shelters (and hence potentially deprived of affection and petting), and hand-reared wolves. Amongst all three groups, food was a better motivator than petting and praise.

One of the striking things about comments on this story was that some people seemed to confuse food and love; they felt that if your dog wanted food then it didn’t love you, or didn’t love you enough. But food and love aren’t mutually exclusive; just because a dog loves sausage doesn’t mean they don’t also love their family.

In fact, Yuta Okamoto and colleagues in Japan suggest that using the right positive reinforcement in training will ultimately lead to a better relationship with your dog.  

Maybe some dogs are more interested in food than others. You know how some dogs wolf down their food, while others are slower eaters? Okamoto et al took a group of 34 dogs that lived in a kennel environment. They divided them into those who did not finish a bowl of food and had leftovers, slow eaters who took their time to finish it, and fast eaters who finished it quickly. 

Then they put the dogs to work, asking them to ‘sit’ every 5 seconds for three 5 minute periods, each time with a short break in between. They gave a food reward every time the dog sat. Then, for another set of three sessions, instead of using food, the handler said “good” and stroked the dog if it sat as requested. 

The dogs in the Fast group responded well to food as a reinforcement, and when the handler switched to praise and petting the rate of response began to drop off substantially. The group of Slow eaters, on the other hand, did maintain a good set of responses when the reward was changed to praise and petting. Finally, the Leftover group was not particularly motivated by either food or praise and petting.

However, although there were differences between the three groups, all of the dogs had a better response when food was used as a reward compared to praise and petting. So this study suggests that although there may be individual differences in how motivated dogs are by food, they are still all motivated by food. 

While these two studies combined praise and petting, a new paper by Megumi Fukuzawa and Naomi Hayashi compared food to praise (“Good boy/girl”) or petting. Fifteen dogs took part; six were pet dogs and nine lived at the university.

They were first given some basic training in a sit/stay. For the experiment, the dogs were divided into three groups according to the type of reinforcement used, and trained to “come” using a standardized plan that had four stages. Only once a dog had completed a stage with 75% of trials correct could it move on to the next stage.

Dogs came significantly faster when called if they were trained using food, compared to either praise or petting. In terms of the number of trials needed during the main training, there were fewer differences in reward types. 

Interestingly, during the baseline training on sit/stay, which used the same reward as for the experiment, dogs in the food group needed fewer trials than those in the other two groups. The authors suggest that the reward type is most important for the early training sessions. 

The design of this study utilized a training plan with progression once the dog reached a 75% success rate. The dogs required significantly more sessions to reach the criterion during the first distance of 1m, compared to the following trials at 2m, 3m and 4m. In other words, the later stages of training were easier. 

The authors say that “in training that used 3 types of reinforcement – food, stroking and praise – it was food that shortened the time taken to complete the response to the command. However, this difference occurred only in the early training stages and not later in the training process.”

One proviso for all of these studies is that the number of participants is very small. It would be better to use larger numbers of dogs, especially since there are many different breeds and dogs come into the studies with different histories of being trained (or not). In research with human participants, there are guidelines about how many people should take part and perhaps canine scientists should also begin to use such guidelines in future research. 

However, it is very interesting to note that even with such small numbers of dogs (and wolves) there is a clear preference for food as reinforcement in all three studies. Therefore it makes sense to use food in training. For more on this topic, see the ultimate dog training tip.

What kind of food is the best motivator for your dog?

P.S. Make your dog happy: train force free and do dogs get that Eureka! feeling?

Feuerbacher E N, & Wynne C D L (2012). Relative efficacy of human social interaction and food as reinforcers for domestic dogs and hand-reared wolves Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129 DOI: 10.1901/jeab.2012.98-105  
Fukuzawa, M., & Hayashi, N. (2013). Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8, 221-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.067  
Okamoto Y, Ohtani N, Uchiyama H, & Ohta M (2009). The feeding behavior of dogs correlates with their responses to commands. The Journal of veterinary medical science / the Japanese Society of Veterinary Science, 71 (12), 1617-21 PMID: 20046029

24 July 2013

Are Negative Personality Traits Linked to Cruelty to Animals?

Two very cute kittens next to each other on a settee
Scientists have long wondered if there is a link between cruelty to animals and other criminal acts. However, not much attention has been paid to the link between personality and attitudes to animals. Now a team of scientists led by Phillip Kavanagh at the University of South Australia have investigated whether negative personality traits are associated with negative attitudes to animals.

The paper focusses on three personality traits that are known as the “Dark Triad”: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Narcissists think they are special, better than other people, and lack warmth. Machiavellianism involves a propensity to deceive other people and to be detached from moral standards. Psychopathy includes interpersonal factors such as lack of empathy as well as lifestyle factors which include impulsiveness and juvenile delinquency. 

The personality traits were assessed using standardized tests, or shortened versions of these tests. There were four questions about whether participants had ever been cruel to animals. Participants also completed a set of questions about their attitudes to animals, with questions which ranged from hunting animals for food to how they feel about deliberate cruelty to animals. 

The questionnaire was completed by 205 women and 22 men who responded to a request for participants on Facebook or via email. Most were Australian. 

Scores on the three personality traits were linked to both attitudes to animals and behaviours to animals. People who scored highly on the “Dark Triad” had more negative attitudes to animals, and were more likely to have shown cruelty to animals. Gender and age were also important: men and younger people were more likely to have negative attitudes and show cruelty. 

Some people started but did not complete the questionnaire, suggesting that it was onerous (perhaps especially since it was asking people to reflect on negative topics). Although it would be interesting to have more demographic information about participants, it’s good that the researchers invited ordinary people to take part, instead of just targeting students. The relatively small proportion of men is an issue, but one that is common in research. 

It should be remembered that, as far as is known, the people who completed this survey were normal. It would be very interesting for future research to include both normal and clinical populations, and to see if there are risk factors that make someone more likely to move from the normal to clinical end of the spectrum. A larger sample with a wide age range would be especially interesting, since other research suggests that cruelty to animals is more prevalent amongst young people. 

These results show a connection between negative personality traits and negative attitudes to animals. Psychopathy was the most important predictor, which suggests that empathy plays a role in how we feel about animals. It also suggests that empathy for people and empathy for animals go hand-in-hand.

Kavanagh, Philip S,, Signal, Tania D,, & Taylor, Nik (2013). The dark triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes and dark behaviours Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.05.019
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17 July 2013

A Community Approach to Shelter Animal Adoptions

A cute white terrier laying on the beach, looking at the camera

Every community has groups of people dedicated to animal welfare and to looking after stray and unwanted animals. What happens if all these people work together? In the USA, the ASPCA has a Partnership program for communities and a paper that evaluates it has just been published, led by Emily Weiss of the ASPCA.

One of the ground rules of the Partnership program is that shelters that take in at least 80% of the animals in a particular community must agree to be involved. This means that things can really happen at a community level, and it is also means there is enough data about the outcomes for animals in shelters for the program to be evaluated. The program makes grant funding available for projects, and it also includes coaching from the ASPCA about how to measure and track animal outcomes.

The study looked at six communities across the US who took part in the program between 2007 and 2011. The communities were Austin – Travis County, Texas; Buncombe County, NC; Charleston County, SC; Cleveland, OH; Spokane County, WA; and Tampa – Hillsborough County, FL.

It’s a sad fact that not all animals taken in at shelters go to new homes. Some are found to not be adoptable or are euthanized for various reasons including ill-health and lack of space for them. The number of animals that are adopted to new homes, returned to their owners, or sent to a shelter that guarantees adoption, is known as the Live Release Rate. This is the measure that the ASPCA tracked over the five years of the study.

The good news is that on average the Live Release Rate increased from 41% in 2007 to 65% in 2011. In other words, there was an average rate of improvement of 62%. The figure ranged from 18% improvement In Cleveland, to 96% in Austin. 

The biggest improvements were made for cats, which in 2007 only had a live release rate of 31%; by 2011 this had gone up to 59%. The average rate for dogs increased from 52 to 72% over the same period.

The percentages of animals returned to their owners remained steady throughout. This seems to be a more difficult problem to solve. In fact, the authors cite earlier research which suggests that many apparently lost pets have actually been abandoned.
The communities that took part in this project are very different, suggesting that the program can work in many different areas. One of the nice things about it is the flexibility for communities to decide the projects they wanted to work on. They could apply for funding for things like spay/neuter programs, adoption promotions, community engagement strategies, fund-raising activities, better ways of matching prospective adopters with pets,  and so on. 

For example, in Buncombe County, they initially had low rates of returning lost/stray animals to owners, and did not have a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats. They implemented a new TNR scheme, handed out 2000 vouchers for free spay/neuter in neighbourhoods where there were high levels of stray animals, and had a new policy that all stray animals went to one location so people would know where to look for lost pets. They also developed a new adoption process that, instead of beginning with an intimidating questionnaire, started as a friendly conversation and made it much easier to match pets to people. You can read more about their success here

At the start of the study, some shelters did not identify puppies/kittens separately from adult dogs and cats, and did not have clear definitions of stray vs owned cats. Of course, the small number of communities involved makes statistical comparisons between them impossible. Nevertheless, this is very useful – and encouraging – data because of the range of communities involved and the way the data was checked.

This study focussed on the animals, but it would be interesting to also know if staff and volunteer attitudes and experiences changed as a result of the program.

The ASPCA Partnership program is on-going, and you can learn more about it here.

The authors conclude that the program “provided communities with the opportunity to experiment with new programs and procedures and to adjust their strategies based on results. For many organizations this level of flexibility was new, liberating and energizing. Despite the great diversity in approaches, resources, and size and location of communities, the one unifying factor in the path to success was the commitment among organizations to work together to achieve change.”

What one thing would you like to see your community focus on to improve adoption and welfare for lost or un-owned animals? And if you have any success stories, please share them below. 

Weiss E, Patronek G, Slater M, Garrison L, & Medicus K (2013). Community partnering as a tool for improving live release rate in animal shelters in the United States. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 16 (3), 221-38 PMID: 2379568

10 July 2013

Cats And Their Owners Are More In Sync Than You Think

Is your cat in tune with you? Scientists study the behaviour of cats in homes and when they are most active.

A pretty white cat is sleeping on the settee

We all know that cats like to sleep a lot, but there are conflicting reports about the time of day when they are most active. Some scientists say they are most active at night, others in the day-time, and yet others say they are most active at twilight (i.e. crepuscular). Could it be that they are all right – depending on the cat and how it is kept?

Many studies of cats are actually on laboratory cats. So Giuseppe Piccione and colleagues at the University of Messina, in Italy, decided to study the behaviour of cats in homes, and see how they varied.

Ten pet cats took part in the study. They were divided into two groups. Group A lived in a relatively small house, with access to a small garden between 8 and 9am. Group B, in contrast, lived in a large house with a very large garden to which they had continual access, and were shut out of the house overnight.

The owners of all ten cats followed the same daily pattern: they left for work at 9.30am, came back at 1.30 in the afternoon, left again at 3.30 and returned at 8pm. The cats had free access to water. All of the cats were fed dry food at 8am, and at 9pm the Group B cats got dry food whereas the Group A cats got wet food. The study took place in summer, when the sun rises in Messina, Italy, at 5am and sets at 9pm.

All of the cats wore a special recording device on their collar for ten days, to measure their activity levels. The scientists calculated how active each cat was overall, and how active they were at night vs how active they were during the day.

The results showed that the cats in Group A were most active during daylight hours. On the other hand the cats in Group B, that were shut outside overnight, were most active during the night time. In Group B, there was a daily rhythm to their activity levels, which didn’t exist for Group A. However, in Group A, the cats were most active when the owners were at home and interacting with them. 

The scientists say these results show a “high influence of human presence and care on the amount of activity in cats.” We know that some other domestic animals (such as dogs) adapt their activity levels according to how they are kept, but this is the first time it has been shown for cats in the home. So the time of day when they are most active is not hard-wired genetically, but varies according to their lifestyle.

There were relatively few cats in this study. While this is typical of the field, it would be nice to see higher numbers of participants in this kind of research. Future studies could investigate a wider range of housing situations. It would be interesting to see if cats change their habits if their owner’s lifestyle changes, but of course this would be hard to study in a real-life situation.

We are used to thinking of cats as their own creatures, but this research shows they adapt their lifestyle according to that of their owner and the place where they live. 

What is your cat’s daily routine?

Piccione, G.,, Marafioti, S.,, Giannetto, C.,, Panzera, M.,, & Fazio, F. (2013). Daily rhythm of total activity pattern in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) maintained in two different housing conditions Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8 (4), 189-194 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2012.09.004

03 July 2013

What Pets Do Children Have, And Which Do They Prefer?

Children have different relationships with dogs than cats.

Some people have wonderful memories of the pets they had as a child, running through meadows with the dog or playing dress-up with the cat. Others never particularly cared for the animal or spent time with it. Why do some people have such apparently idyllic relationships with their childhood pets, while others don’t?

An Asian boy with his Alaskan Klee Kai puppy in a field in summer

A fascinating new study led by Dr. Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool investigates pet ownership amongst 9 and 10 year old children. The study took part in a deprived area of Liverpool where there is relatively high unemployment. It was part of a wider study that all local primary [elementary] schools are invited to take part in; hence a large number of children completed the survey and they are representative of this area, if not of the UK as a whole.

Just over a thousand children took part, and demographic information was available for 90% of these. Questions were asked about the main home, but almost a third of children reported also spending some time at another home (e.g. through divorce). Almost all of the children lived in a house, rather than an apartment or other type of home. 84% of the children were white (UK), 2% were Black (UK), and the remainder were other or mixed ethnicities. 12% were only children and 43% were the youngest of siblings. 

Sixty-seven per cent of the children said they had a pet, and the most common pet was a dog, followed by cats and rodents. Girls were more likely than boys to own all types of pet, apart from rabbits. Of those who didn’t currently own a pet, just over half had had a pet in the previous five years. 

Type of pet
Children who own it (%)
Other (e.g. fish, snake)

The children who owned dogs reported that their families had between 1 and 9 dogs. They were asked to describe the breed of up to three dogs in the home. The most common types of dog were Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Shih Tzus, and mixed breeds.

Two per cent of children reported living with a Pit Bull or Pit Bull cross, even though they are illegal in the UK. While the researchers say this fits with some anecdotal evidence, they also note that it was children who described the breed and it has not been verified. Looking at bull-breeds as a whole, including Staffordshire Bull Terriers, 10% of the children were living in a house with a bull-breed dog. Given the media hype about bull breeds, this is surprising. The researchers found that households in more deprived areas of the sample were more likely to have a bull-breed dog. The prevalence of bull breeds could be because they are perceived as 'status' dogs, but could also be partly due to the fact the Kennel Club says of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier that “his genuine love for children is well known.” 

The age of pet dogs ranged from 0 to 20 years old, with most being around 3 or 4. Sixteen per cent of them were ‘outside’ dogs that mainly lived in the garden or yard. The children also reported how often their dogs were walked: 42% were walked once a day or more, 37% a few times a week, 17% less than once a week, and the remainder were not walked at all.

The children with pets were asked which was their favourite; just over half chose a dog and 15% chose a cat, although it should be remembered that more children owned dogs than other pets.  They were also asked questions on attachment such as whether they confide in the animal and whether it sleeps on their bed. Children showed more attachment to dogs compared to cats. This suggests they may have different relationships with dogs and cats.

This is very interesting, especially since a survey last year of Americans found that those who had owned a dog as a child were more likely to own one as an adult, but the same did not hold true for cats. Perhaps children’s attachment to their pets predicts later experiences with animals? Other research has shown that even very young children are interested in animals (LoBue et al 2013), and that children are more attached to dogs if they are perceived as more trainable (Hoffman et al 2013). It would be interesting to see more research on children’s attachment to pets of various species.

Even though girls were more likely to have pets than boys, both girls and boys had equally strong relationships with their pets. This makes me wonder why more boys didn't have pets.

One lovely finding of this study is simply that children like to talk about their pets and were very happy to tell the researchers all about them. Another finding relates to the questions about attachment, which were from a widely-used, standardized test. The questions asked whether the pet sleeps on the bed and whether the child grooms them, neither of which is possible for fish, and apparently some children commented on this. Perhaps the question about sleeping should be changed to whether the pet sleeps in the child’s bedroom, rather than on the bed. In any case, it seems to have under-reported on children’s attachment to fish.  

This paper is packed with fascinating information. It is open-access and you can read it by clicking the link below.

The children in this study tended to show more attachment to dogs than cats, and were more likely to pick a dog as their favourite pet. Which animal do you think makes the best childhood pet?

AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Available online at www.americanhumane.org/aha-petsmart-retention-study-phase-1.pdf
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
Lobue V, Bloom Pickard M, Sherman K, Axford C, & DeLoache JS (2013). Young children's interest in live animals. The British journal of developmental psychology, 31 (Pt 1), 57-69 PMID: 23331106
Westgarth C, Boddy LM, Stratton G, German AJ, Gaskell RM, Coyne KP, Bundred P, McCune S, & Dawson S (2013). Pet ownership, dog types and attachment to pets in 9-10 year old children in Liverpool, UK. BMC veterinary research, 9 PMID: 23668544

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