30 October 2013

Stereotypes and Breeds of Dog

Photo: dezi / Shutterstock

Can social psychological theories of stereotypes about people also explain people’s attitudes and stereotypes of different breeds of dog? That’s the fascinating question posed in a new study by Tracey Clarke, Jonathan Cooper and Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln.

Some jurisdictions have breed-specific legislation that bans particular breeds of dog, usually those of pit bull type. This includes the UK, where this study took place. Stories of attacks by this kind of dog also often get significant media attention. One question behind this research is whether people’s beliefs about certain breeds of dog are influenced by stereotypes.

The “contact hypothesis” is a well-known and well-tested idea in social psychology. It says that our attitudes towards other groups of people – such as those of a different race to ourselves – are influenced by contact with that group. In particular, if people have positive contact with members of another group then their attitudes to that group are very likely to improve. One interesting thing is that it does not even have to be actual contact – imagined contact (such as imagining a positive first meeting with a stranger) is enough to bring about a change in attitudes (Crisp and Turner, 2009).

If applied to dogs, we might expect that people with less contact with dogs would be more likely to believe stereotypes about the behaviour of particular breeds.

Although there is some evidence for breed-specific behavioural traits there is also wide variation, with some studies finding that breed type is more important, and that differences within a breed are very large. People who are more knowledgeable about dogs might be more aware that behaviour is not just influenced by genetics. For example, they might know the importance of early socialization for puppies, know more about dog training, and have a better understanding of the consequences of abuse and neglect.

The researchers developed a questionnaire that assessed people’s level of contact with dogs in three ways: how many dogs they lived with (0, 1, 2 or more); the role that dogs played in their life (e.g. pet, family member, or no role at all); and the amount of knowledge they said they had about dogs. Of these, they expected the last one to be the least useful, since it is difficult for people without much knowledge to accurately assess how much they know (or don’t know).

The questionnaire also asked about people’s attitudes regarding the link between dog breed and behaviour. One hundred and sixty-six people took part, most of them from the Greater London area in the UK. The researchers used a sampling method designed to get participants who had different experiences with dogs, and to include men as well as women (it is much harder to recruit men than women for this kind of study and so they deliberately included a soccer team in their target audience).

The majority of participants (57%) were dog owners and 41% were not dog owners. The role that a dog played in people’s lives was family member (43%), pet (16%) or ‘no role’ (27%). The reason the numbers don’t quite add up is because some participants did not answer this question. In terms of knowledge, 63% said they were knowledgeable and/or experienced about dogs. 

The results found a link between people’s knowledge about dogs and their assessment of a link between breed and behaviour. In particular, people who said they were knowledgeable about dogs were more likely to disagree with the statement that “some breeds of dog are more aggressive than others”, and to disagree that “there are sound and valid reasons for breed-specific legislation”.

There was a link between ownership of dogs and attitudes, in particular to the two statements mentioned above. Also, people who said the role of dogs in their life was ‘family’ were more likely to disagree with these statements than those who said a dog was a ‘pet’ or had ‘no role’ in their life. They were also less likely to agree that a dog’s appearance is linked to its behaviour.

This suggests that the contact hypothesis can also be applied to people’s relationships with dogs. The authors say, “Those with little experience of dogs …are more likely to have stereotypical images of breeds, as are those for whom the dog occupies a more instrumental role in their life (as a pet rather than a family member)”.

As the scientists note, stereotypes about breeds could become self-fulfilling, as people avoid certain types of dog and those dogs therefore have a different social environment than other dogs for which such stereotypes don’t exist. The contact hypothesis also says that people will generalize to others who look similar to a particular group. In terms of dogs, this means that attitudes towards bull breeds could be generalized to other dogs that are also short-haired and muscly.

The researchers say “The image of the muscular and powerfully built bull terrier type appears to have entered the public consciousness as the stereotype of a dangerous dog that poses a threat to public safety, despite such a generalization being scientifically unsound. The negative labelling of breeds such as the American Pit Bull Terrier and other breeds of similar appearance leads to simplistic social perceptions of their behavior.”

Although this is a fairly small survey, it opens up a very promising line for future research to investigate perceptions about aggressive behaviour in dogs. It also shows that people’s knowledge about dogs in general is important in shaping their beliefs about BSL. This study used a relatively simple classification of knowledge and contact; having demonstrated that it makes a difference, future research could look more closely at these variables.

Some owners of so-called ‘status' dogs are very keen to improve attitudes towards certain breeds. See, for example, the wonderful work of Your Pit Bull and You in changing stereotypes about both pit bulls and dog training. The results of this research suggest that positive contact with any kind of dog will have an effect on people’s attitudes towards Breed Specific Legislation.

How have your prior experiences with dogs shaped your current attitudes towards them?

Clarke, T., Cooper, J., & Mills, D. (2013). Acculturation - Perceptions of breed differences in behavior of the dog (Canis familiaris) Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1 (2), 16-33  
Crisp RJ, & Turner RN (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions? Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. The American psychologist, 64 (4), 231-40 PMID: 19449982

23 October 2013

Do Children Prefer Baby-Faced Animals?

Photo: Hriana/Shutterstock
It’s widely known that adults find a baby-face attractive, whether on a human baby or an animal such as a puppy or kitten. There’s a neural basis for this, which makes us want to care for babies and things that resemble them. A new study by Marta Borgi and Francesca Cirulli (2013) asks if young children show the same preference as adults for neoteny in cats and dogs.

Several research studies have found that children are attracted to animals. For example, LoBue et al (2013) found that young children have apreference for live animals over an attractive set of toys. In this study, children spent more time interacting with the animals, and also more time talking about them, than the toys.

The new study asked children aged three to six about their preferences for dogs vs puppies, cats vs kittens, and dogs or cats with baby-face features vs those without. Each child sat at a laptop with the experimenter, who asked them to choose which of two photographs they preferred. The photographs showed the heads of animals as well as some showing babies or inanimate objects. 

Children showed a strong preference for infantile features in cats, preferring the kittens or the cats with baby-like features over cats without them. However, they didn’t prefer infantile features in dogs. Nonetheless they still preferred teddy bears with infantile features than those without.

The children also tended to prefer dogs to cats. When the researchers looked at pet ownership in the home, they found that children who lived with a cat were more likely to show a preference for cats than those who didn’t. It could be that children learn about cats through having regular contact with them, and are less likely to prefer them if they are unfamiliar to them. However, the number of children with a cat as a pet was quite small. Future research could investigate further the role of childhood pets in shaping children’s understanding of companion animals. 

Children preferred the photos that showed animals (dogs and cats) to those that showed either human infants or teddy bears.

Girls were more likely than boys to choose photos of dogs with infantile faces, but the same did not apply to photos of cats or teddy bears. 

Overall, these results show that even young children are able to recognize infantile features in animals and inanimate objects (teddy bears). They also show that, in general, children have a preference for animals with infantile features over those without. So a preference for neoteny seems to start early in life.

The authors acknowledge some flaws with the set of photographs, for example some had coloured backgrounds, although they were chosen as they had been used in previous research with adults. Their paper says they are already developing a more standardized set of photographs. This study also only used one measure of neoteny, called the Facial Index, and future studies could include other features (such as big eyes).

Do you prefer kittens to cats, and puppies to dogs?

Borgi, M., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Children's preferences for infantile features in dogs and cats Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1 (2), 1-15

16 October 2013

Homeless Cats: Lessons from Australia

A pretty calico cat sat on a cushion, looking at the camera
Photo: joyfuldesigns/Shutterstock
Although there are many un-owned cats, surprisingly little is known about the cats taken in by shelters and rescues. Without this information, it is difficult to design strategies to tackle the problem. A study in the Australian Journal of Veterinary Medicine by Alberthsson et al investigates the source and characteristics of cats admitted to RSPCA shelters in Queensland from July 2006 to June 2008.

All eleven RSPCA shelters in Queensland took part. During this time period, a total of 33,736 cats were admitted. Of these, 54% were kittens, defined as three months or under.

The source of the cats was defined as brought in by a person, which included owner surrenders and cats that people had found as strays, or brought in by a member of staff. The vast majority (85%) were brought in by the public.

The sad outcome is that 65% of the cats were euthanized. There were significant variations between shelters in euthanasia rates. While the researchers point out that socioeconomic factors of the area in which a shelter is located may influence euthanasia rates, a policy of transferring cats between shelters could solve this.

In addition, it is likely that there are differences in policy and practise between the different shelters, and it is important to find out what works at the shelters with lower euthanasia rates. Indeed, the ASPCA Partnership program in the US, that takes a community approach to improving euthanasia rates, has been very successful (Weiss et al 2013).

The biggest risk factor for euthanasia was being considered to be feral. However the researchers point out that this is assessed on admission, at a point when the cat is likely very stressed. A different method for assessing it (or a delay in assessment) might result in more cats being deemed adoptable.

Other risk factors for euthanasia include being a Domestic Short-hair or Longhair. Those cats with medium hair, purebreds and other breeds were less likely to be euthanized. 

Kittens were less likely to be euthanized than cats, but because more kittens were brought in, the total number of kittens euthanized was higher. This suggests that strategies aimed specifically at reducing the number of kittens taken in at shelters would be useful. Because most other studies define kittens as six months or under, it is hard to compare these numbers with other countries/shelters.

Thirteen per cent of the cats had been spayed or neutered before coming in to the shelters, but amongst owner surrenders the number is 34%. The report says the majority of owned cats in Australia are spayed or neutered, suggesting that those arriving at shelters are a particular subset of the overall feline population. 

Shelters have different record-keeping systems, and sometimes records were not kept in a helpful way. For example, in this study microchip numbers were often recorded without noting whether it was a pre-existing microchip or one that the shelter had implanted. Shelters can be very busy places and staff are often pushed for time, but good record-keeping is important to allow tracking of outcomes.

The authors suggest one way to reduce the number of un-owned cats would be for vets to routinely spay or neuter at an early age, instead of at six months as is widely practised. What do you think?

Alberthsen C, Rand JS, Bennett PC, Paterson M, Lawrie M, & Morton JM (2013). Cat admissions to RSPCA shelters in Queensland, Australia: description of cats and risk factors for euthanasia after entry. Australian veterinary journal, 91 (1-2), 35-42 PMID: 23356370  
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: 23795686

09 October 2013

Preventing Dog Bites in Children: An Evaluation of the Blue Dog Project's Influence on Parents

A young girl sits on the lawn and shakes hands with a dog
Photo: Sofya Apkalikova/Shutterstock

An assessment of how parents behave when an unknown dog is near their child shows much still needs to be done to prevent dog bites in children.

Children are at greater risk of dog bites than adults. The Canada Safety Council estimates that 460,000 Canadians are bitten by dogs every year, of whom 75% are children under the age of ten. If bitten, children are more likely than adults to be hospitalized because of their small size and the closeness of their face to a dog’s mouth. 

The Blue Dog Project was designed to increase children’s knowledge about dogs and alter the behaviour of both children and their parents. While earlier studies show it successfully increases children’s knowledge, little is known about whether parents are more cautious around dogs as a result. Barbara Morrongiello (University of Guelph, Ontario) et al set out to evaluate its effect on the behaviour of a parent when their child is in the presence of an unfamiliar dog. 

The study took place in Guelph, Ontario and in Birmingham, Alabama. Parents with a child aged between three and six years old were recruited to the study and randomly assigned to one of two conditions. All parents came in to the lab with their child, then had a period of three weeks at home in which they had to watch a DVD with the child, and then came into the lab again.

One group watched The Blue Dog DVD. This is a cartoon in which various scenes are shown, such as a dog sleeping in its bed. The child is asked how they should respond to the dog. If they make the wrong choice, the blue dog becomes growly, but if they pick the right choice then the dog and child in the animation have a nice, positive interaction. The DVD comes with a guide with advice for parents about dogs and children.

The alternate DVD was about fire safety and also used a cartoon format. Diaries completed by the parents showed that each group spent the same amount of time studying the DVD (about an hour).

On each of the two visits to the lab, the researchers set things up so that the child would meet an unfamiliar dog. The dogs were of assorted breeds and all had passed the Canine Good Citizen or the Delta Society Pet Partnership.  The dog’s handler was in the room, but sat in a corner and pretended to be busy; parents were not told this person had a connection to the dog. In the second session, a different dog was used so that it was still unfamiliar.

The child went into the room first, without knowing a dog would be there. The parent followed a few minutes later, having been informed there was a dog in the room because a lab member had brought one to work that day. 

The researchers studied how the child interacted with the dog, whether the parent encouraged or discouraged interaction, and whether the parent stayed within arm’s reach or not. This distance was chosen because a parent could not expect an unfamiliar dog to respond to their voice, hence for reasons of safety they should stay close. 

Both groups of parents behaved the same in the first encounter, as you would expect. Most parents were within reach of their child at the first and subsequent interactions with the dog, and they were more likely to pay continuous (rather than non-continuous) attention. 

In the second session (after the DVD work), parents from both groups were less likely to be within reach of their child than they had been in session one. There was no difference in their attention levels.

The researchers also found that in both sessions, parents tended to begin by encouraging their child to interact with the dog, becoming more protective later on. When the child was being cautious, parents tended to encourage approach. They also modelled approach and interaction, which is significant because one of the ways children learn is through copying others.

Unfortunately the Blue Dog intervention did not have an effect on parent’s behaviour. Parents were just as likely to encourage their child to interact with the dog, which is risky behaviour, and those in both groups became more lax at the second session.

It is possible that because the study was about child safety, parents assumed that a dog in such a laboratory would be calm and well-behaved. If the study were repeated, perhaps the researchers could pretend the dog was linked to another lab down the hall or something similar. Nonetheless, because the dog was unfamiliar, parents should have shown more caution. (It’s worth mentioning that caution is also necessary with familiar dogs; young children in particular are at risk of being bitten by a dog they live with (Reisner et al 2011)).

The dogs were well-behaved, but this does not seem to have been a factor in how parents behaved, because they did become more protective during the interaction. 

The authors say, “Over time, parents seemed to adopt a ‘watchful-waiting approach’ in which they watched the child-dog interaction from a beyond-reach distance. This supervision strategy is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent a dog bite injury given the size of the child, their proximity to the dog, and the parent’s minimal readiness to intervene from a distance.” 

These results are disappointing, because even though the DVD is designed for children, it also aims to change parent’s behaviour. This is a common problem in health intervention research: unfortunately, even when interventions are shown to increase knowledge (like this one), it does not necessarily translate into less risky behaviour. This study is an important one which shows the need to consider parents’ perceptions of risk as part of the wider picture of improving children’s safety around dogs.

What do you teach children about interactions with dogs?

Morrongiello BA, Schwebel DC, Stewart J, Bell M, Davis AL, & Corbett MR (2013). Examining parents' behaviors and supervision of their children in the presence of an unfamiliar dog: does The Blue Dog intervention improve parent practices? Accident; analysis and prevention, 54, 108-13 PMID: 23499982 
Reisner IR, Nance ML, Zeller JS, Houseknecht EM, Kassam-Adams N, & Wiebe DJ (2011). Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury prevention : journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 17 (5), 348-53 PMID: 21444335

02 October 2013

Can Cats and Coyotes Co-Exist?

What happens when cats and coyotes inhabit the same area?

Two cats with bright yellow Fall trees behind
Photo: taviphoto/Shutterstock

In parts of north America, some people keep their cats indoors because of the risk of predation by coyotes. Outdoors cats must co-exist with them, if they can. Yet very little is known about the risk to cats from coyotes, and the extent to which populations overlap. A fascinating study of free-roaming cats in Chicago (Gehrt et al 2013) provides answers to these questions.

Chicago is one of the largest cities in north America with a human population of over 8 million. The study took place from 2008 to 2010 at various locations in the northwestern suburbs, including public parks, conservation areas, and a private wildlife reserve. The research team were already collecting data on coyotes in this area, making it the perfect location for a study of how cats manage to co-exist with coyotes.

Free-roaming cats, rather than pet cats, were the focus. Traps, baited with canned cat food, were set up at the study locations and checked at least once, usually twice, a day. One of the sites was close to a cat colony, where a local Trap Neuter and Return group kept an eye on the cats. Any cats that appeared to be owned – for example, because they were in excellent condition, or wearing a collar – were released and excluded from the study.

Cats that were considered ‘feral’ were sedated, weighed, measured, and blood samples were taken to test for four infectious diseases: feline leukaemia (FeLV), FIV, feline heartworm, and toxoplasma gondii. Then they were fitted with radio collars and released in the evening, after they had come round from the sedative.
The scientists tracked the cats at night using the radio-collars. This is the time of day that free-ranging cats are most active (although we know that owned cats adapt their routines to those of their owners). 

Forty-three cats were captured for the study, almost all of them adults, and an equal number of males and females. 

Most of the cats were of reproductive status, with five of the females being pregnant or lactating, and three other females having recently had kittens.  21% of male and 28% of female cats were sterilized, and these were mostly found near the site where the TNR group maintained a colony. The researchers did not sterilize any of the cats themselves, just in case any turned out to be owned cats. 

Tests for disease found the cats were very healthy, with few getting positive results for the four infections. However, more than half had been exposed to Toxoplasma gondii at some point. This is higher than found in studies in other parts of the US. Other wildlife in the Chicago area was also found to have a high rate of T gondii exposure, including raccoons, skunks and coyotes.

Thirty-nine of the cats were fitted with radio-collars. It is sad to note that 20% of them (eight cats) died during the course of the study, although this is actually a much better survival rate than the scientists expected. Three were apparently killed by coyotes, two died after being hit by a vehicle, one died of disease, and it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of death of the other two deceased cats.

Another surprising finding is that almost a quarter of the cats were kidnapped, “removed from the system by cat advocates” who were opposed to the study. It is not clear what happened to these cats. Another 28% were legally adopted or removed, the transmitters expired for 13% of the cats, and there was no data on the remaining ten per cent.

Data showing the range of cats and coyotes is fascinating. In general the cats avoided the areas where the coyotes lived. While coyotes were mainly found in woods and natural landscapes, the cats lived mostly in urban landscapes. One single cat lived in an area surrounded by coyote habitat, and this was one of the cats that was sadly predated by a coyote.

One important finding to be drawn from this is that studies that estimate predation by feral cats probably overestimate it significantly if they fail to take account of coyote distribution. This is because the coyotes were living in the areas with most wildlife and the cats tended to stay in the more urban areas, around people.

This study suggests that coyotes are the reason cats tended to stay in urban landscapes, but it does not prove this is the reason. However, the authors note that other studies in areas without coyotes, do find free-roaming cats in natural landscapes.

This study shows that free-roaming cats are at risk from predation by coyotes, and owned cats would also be at risk. Are your cats indoors-only or allowed outside, and do you have coyotes where you live?

Gehrt, Stanley D., Wilson, Evan C., Brown, Justin L., & Anchor, Chris (2013). Population ecology of free-roaming cats and interference competition by coyotes in urban parks PLoS ONE, 8 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075718

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