29 January 2014

The Street Dogs of Bangkok

If you’ve ever been to Bangkok, you will have noticed stray dogs and cats loitering on the street corners. Some are well fed, but many are scrawny, flea-ridden, and have old injuries. While many sleep away the day, others are tricky for pedestrians to navigate. New research by Nikki Savvides investigates the relationship between people and street dogs in the capital of Thailand.

A soi dog on the street
Photo: Krisdayod / Shutterstock
Thai people’s attitudes to animals are shaped by Theravada Buddhism, including a belief that killing animals is wrong. Although most Thai people eat meat and fish, there is a vegetarian festival in the month of October, when for ten days people ‘gin jeh’ (eat vegetarian). There are spirit houses outside most buildings, where Thai people light incense and make offerings of flowers, food and other items. Acts of kindness towards animals, such as feeding strays or releasing birds from cages, are a way to ‘make merit’ (tam bon) for the next life. Stray dogs and cats are sometimes taken to Buddhist temples where the monks will feed them.

Estimates of the number of stray dogs in Bangkok range from 100,000 to 300,000. In 2007, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority brought in regulations requiring pet dogs to be registered, micro-chipped and vaccinated against rabies. Clinics offer free chips and vaccinations, although it is not clear what effect this has had on strays. Some stray dogs are sent to a facility in Uthai Thani, which has space for 8,000 dogs and is always full.  

Savvides’ research is based on two weeks as a volunteer for Soi Cats and Dogs in 2008, and three subsequent visits to Thailand. SCAD was a Western-run organization that aimed to improve the welfare of soi dogs and cats. Savvides reports that it ceased operations in 2012 due to a lack of funding (in fact it became part of the Soi Dog Foundation, see later). Some of the dogs that SCAD cared for were adopted into new homes, mainly by Westerners, but the vast majority were treated for veterinary ailments, spayed/neutered and returned to the streets.

Savvides says the descriptions of dogs that might be adopted were anthropocentric, giving them names and writing about their history and personality so they were no longer anonymous soi [street] dogs. Before and after photographs show “the transformation of soi dogs from monstrous-looking creatures devoid of hair and muscle tone to sleek, well-cared for animals.”

The paper says that although 20% of people in Bangkok own pet dogs, they do not seem to want to adopt soi dogs. She gives several reasons for this, including their generally poor state of health, lack of training, and sometimes fearsome behaviour on the streets. In addition there is a fear of rabies. Although rabies is not as common in Bangkok as in some other parts of Thailand, it does occur. For example, in 2010 the owner of a pet stall at Chatuchak Market died of rabies after contracting it from one of the puppies she had for sale  and in 2012, a rabid rabbit was sold at the same market.
As part of her volunteer work, Savvides helped with a stall for the charity at a pet show at an expensive shopping centre. As well as pet food and basic accessories, many luxuries were for sale including Swarovski crystal jewellery for dogs, designer haircuts and pet portraits. In this place of conspicuous consumption, the soi dogs seemed out of context.

Savvides also writes about what she calls ‘community dogs’, stray dogs that are looked after to a greater or lesser extent by people who live in the neighbourhood. Working people eat at street stalls on their way home, and often give some of their food to the dogs. Many people buy food specifically for the dogs that live on their soi. This might be because they feel sorry for or fond of the animals, but is also a way to ‘make merit’. Savvides says that at Siriraj Hospital, visitors will feed the stray dogs in the hope that if they make merit like this, their family member’s health will improve.

She says, “On each trip I ate dinner most nights at one of Bangkok’s many food markets, which were always home to a number of soi dogs. I observed market stall owners feeding dogs scraps, mainly rice but sometimes fish heads and off-cuts of meat. Women and men selling noodles, soups, and fried chicken at the markets put out bowls full of food on the streets every evening. Some hand fed the animals. I saw people tending to soi puppies, ensuring that they could eat without being bothered by larger dogs.”

Although Savvides believes these cultural practices are specific to Bangkok, I have seen similar interactions with soi dogs in other parts of Thailand.

The Soi Dog Foundation has sterilized over 60,000 cats and dogs since it was founded on Phuket in 2003.   Although some dogs live at the shelter and can be sponsored or adopted, most are spayed/neutered, treated for veterinary conditions and returned to the street. The SDF says that “killing animals or rounding them up and placing them in dog pounds has no effect whatsoever on the overall population, as the fertile remainder will always rapidly breed to fill the void. It has been scientifically proven that spaying and neutering 75% to 80% of a population of a species will see a reduction in numbers.”

This reasoning is similar to that used by Trap, Neuter and Return groups for feral cats in Western countries, but here is applied to dogs as well as cats.

Savvides believes that scholars have been too focussed on the relationship between people and dogs that live in the home. She says, “Western theory on human-dog relationships has shaped a narrative for dog-keeping practices in which the animal lives in an individualised, pseudo-familial relationship with the human in the home.” This seems to ignore research on working dogs and shelter dogs, as well as the interest in domestication, and the street dogs of Moscow, for example, although it is certainly true there is still much to learn about the human-animal bond.  

She also says, “No doubt there are a myriad of practices currently in existence in different cultures that defy any current understandings of human-dog relationships. Those between humans and soi dogs in Bangkok are one such example.”

A fat dog laying down on a street in Bangkok
Photo copyright Graeme Oldham

I was especially interested to read this paper since I used to live in Bangkok. The photograph shows a dog called Judy in the Sathorn area. As you can tell from the collar, she is an owned dog. During the day, she would wander out of her property to visit the street stalls set up on the sidewalk. She was unperturbed by the crush of children coming out of the nearby school in the afternoon. I often saw her being given bits of hot dog and other food by the vendors.

Thinking about the community where you live, do you notice differences in the ways people live and interact with dogs?

Savvides, N. (2013). Living with Dogs: Alternative animal practices in Bangkok,, Thailand Animal Studies Journal, 2 (2), 28-50. Available with open access at http://ro.uow.edu.au/asj/vol2/iss2/3/

22 January 2014

Me and My Dog: Is the Feeling Mutual?

You know you love your dog. Those gorgeous eyes that gaze up at you, the way she runs to greet you when you get home from work, and that cute way she drops the leash in your lap when it’s time for walkies. It’s all adorable. But does your dog feel the same way about you?

A big dog kisses its owner
Photo: Poprugin Aleksey / Shutterstock
A new study by Therese Rehn et al (2014) investigates whether or not there is a link between how an owner feels about their relationship, and how the dog feels. Twenty dog-owner pairs took part. The people were aged from 17 to 69 years old, and the dogs were mostly around four years old. The dogs were companion animals and had all lived with their owner for at least six months.

Of course it’s easy to find out how owners feel about their dogs: you ask them. The researchers used a questionnaire called the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS). Since the study took place in Sweden, it was translated into Swedish.

But you can’t just ask a dog. Instead the researchers used a measure of attachment called the Strange Situation. This test was originally developed for use in children, and more recently has been used to assess canines. It involves a fixed series of interactions in a room; the dog is sometimes with the owner or a stranger, and sometimes alone. 

In this case, the researchers assessed differences in how the dog behaved when just with the owner, compared to with the owner and stranger present, and they also looked at how the dog greeted the owner when they came back into the room after a short separation. None of the dogs had separation anxiety, so that wouldn’t affect the results.

The results showed no correlation between the owner’s overall ratings of the relationship and the way the dog behaved during the Strange Situation. This is surprising. So, at least using these measures, the quality of the relationship isn’t the same for human and dog. It would be interesting to see whether any of the other standard tests for attachment (e.g. Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale) would relate to the dog’s behaviour in this test.

However, there were some interesting results. The MDORS includes a subscale that measures dog-human interaction. Owners with high ratings on this scale had dogs that initiated a lot of contact with the owner when greeting after an absence. Also, owners who interacted with their dog a lot had dogs that played less on their own, perhaps because the dog got lots of playtime with the owner.

When children take part in the Strange Situation, the results are used to say what kind of attachment style they have. In the case of the dogs, the differences in how the dog behaved with just the owner present, compared to the owner and stranger, were used to assess attachment style. Dogs that had a lot of physical contact on reuniting with the owner tended to change their behaviour the least when the stranger was present.

This is difficult to interpret in terms of attachment style. It might mean the owner did not provide a secure base for the dog to feel comfortable exploring near the stranger, which would be an insecure ambivalent attachment style. Or, it could be that the dogs were so well socialized that the presence of a stranger did not make much difference to them. This would be called an insecure avoidant attachment style. 

Of course, it could be that attachment is different in dogs and children. The best way to interpret these results in terms of canine-human attachment is a question that warrants further research.

There is some good news for owners. The dogs played more and explored the room more in the presence of their owners. They also greeted their owner more than they greeted the stranger, and spent more time close to their owner. The researchers say this shows that “the owner is a unique person to the dog from whom it seeks comfort, security and reassurance.” 

Do you think your dog loves you?

Rehn, T., Lindholm, U., Keeling, L., & Forkman, B. (2014). I like my dog, does my dog like me? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 150, 65-73 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.10.008

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15 January 2014

Dangerous Dogs: Time for a Rethink?

What are the risk factors for aggression in dogs? New research suggests it’s time to stop thinking of dogs as either ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’. In most cases canine aggression seems to be a learned response to a particular situation, not a personality characteristic, since a dog that growls or bites in one situation may not do so in other contexts.

A large survey in the UK (Rachel Casey et al, University of Bristol) investigates canine aggression towards family members, towards unfamiliar people in the house, and to unfamiliar people outside. The researchers described aggression as “barking, lunging, growling or biting.” Thus the survey incorporated a range of behaviours that are considered aggressive, instead of just looking at biting.
A humorous beware of dog sign shows a dog biting someone
Photo: chingyunsong / Shutterstock

A total of 3897 questionnaires were completed out of 14,566 that were distributed to dog owners. The average age of dogs was 4 years old, with a range from 6 months to 17 years. 

Aggression towards family members was reported by 3% of dog owners. 7% reported aggression towards unfamiliar people coming into the house, and 5% towards unfamiliar people out and about. Hiding or avoiding family members was reported by 4% of owners; hiding or avoiding unfamiliar people was more common at 10%.

One of the most interesting findings is that the three different contexts in which aggression occurred did not seem to be related. For example, a dog that was aggressive towards family members was typically not aggressive to unfamiliar people, whether in the home or outside. This suggests we should reconsider how we think of dangerous dogs. 

Lead author Dr. Rachel Casey says, “Dog owners and members of the public need to be aware that any dog could potentially show aggression if it is anxious or feels threatened, even when it has never done so before. On the other hand, dogs which have shown aggressive signs in one situation are not necessarily ‘dangerous’ when in other contexts – an important consideration in the assessment of animals, such as in rehoming centres.”

Puppy classes had a protective effect. Dogs that had attended puppy class before the age of 12 weeks were significantly less likely to be aggressive towards unfamiliar people in the home or outside. Attendance at obedience classes, however, was a risk factor: dogs that had been to obedience class were more likely to be aggressive towards family members. It could be that people are more likely to take their dog to such a class if it is already showing aggression, or it could be related to the training method that was used.

Owner’s choice of training method was important. The use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement was a risk factor for aggression towards family members or unfamiliar people outside. In everyday language, these are punishment-based training approaches (for a fuller explanation of the technical terms, see this post and video by Eileen Anderson). 

Other surveys have also shown that the use of punishment-based training is linked to increased owner-reported behaviour problems (Hiby et al 2004; Herron et al 2009; Rooney and Cowan 2011). Blackwell et al (2008) found that owners who used only positive reinforcement were significantly less likely to report problems with attention-seeking, aggression or fear in their dogs, whilst those who used positive punishment were more likely to say their dogs were aggressive or fearful. Arhant et al (2010) found that a greater frequency of punishment was associated with more aggression and excitability in dogs, while higher frequency of rewards correlated with higher obedience.

These results are correlations, and do not prove causality. For example, it could be that people are more punishing towards their dogs because the dog misbehaves. However, it is possible that using these methods causes increased aggression. Further research on this topic is needed.

Dogs obtained from rehoming centres were more likely to show aggression towards owners, as were those obtained from ‘other’ sources (mainly pet shops and internet sites). The major UK rehoming charities work hard to rehabilitate dogs in their care, but aggression to an owner is difficult to assess in a kennel and may also be the reason a dog was initially given up. This result is also different from Blackwell et al (2008) who found that dogs from rescue centres were no more likely to be aggressive, fearful or attention-seeking than those from other sources.

It’s worth noting that dogs from re-homing centres were not more likely to be aggressive to unfamiliar people, showing the effectiveness of behavioural assessments and rehabilitation for this.

There are some other interesting results. Aggression towards unfamiliar people inside or outside the home increased with the dog’s age. Female spayed dogs were less likely to be aggressive in the three different contexts, but for male dogs there was no effect of neutering, in contrast to other studies. Dogs belonging to older owners were less likely to show aggression to the owner or an unfamiliar person in the home. The gender of the owner did not have an effect, except that women were less likely to report aggression to unfamiliar people entering the home.

The researchers also tested the effects of breed group compared to crossbreed dogs. Aggression to unfamiliar people entering the house was less likely amongst Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, other types of retriever, Setters, many types of Terrier and Boxers. No breeds had an increased risk of aggression in this context. Aggression to unfamiliar people outside the house was more common amongst German Shepherds and Belgian Shepherds compared to crossbreeds. Breed had no effect on the risk of aggression to family members.

The scientists say, “it is important to note that these [breed group differences] account for only a very small proportion of variance between groups. In other words, although breed seems to be a contributing factor influencing risk, other factors have a much greater influence.”

The questionnaire results may not be representative of the UK population, since it was not a randomized sample. Nonetheless this valuable study has important consequences for the welfare of both dogs and humans, and will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the factors that cause canine aggression to people.  As well as finding that aggression is often context-specific, it is a reminder that any dog can bite. It’s hard to think of our best friends as potentially nasty, but instead of thinking of dogs as either ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’, a more nuanced approach is needed. 

You can read Dr. Rachel Casey’s blog about the study here.
Has your dog ever shown aggression and, if so, in what context?

Arhant, C., Bubbna-Lititz, 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, 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003 
Blackwell, E.J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R.A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3, 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008  
Casey, Rachel A.,, Loftus, Bethany,, Bolster, Christine,, Richards, Gemma J.,, & Blackwell, Emily J. (2013). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003  
Herron, M.E., Shofer, F.S., & Reisner, I.R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117, 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011  
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 .  
Rooney, N.J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner-dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132, 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007
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08 January 2014

Do Dogs with Baby Expressions get Adopted Sooner, and What Does it Say about Domestication?

Cute eyebrow movements by dogs influence people’s choice of canine companion.

Owner holds up her siberian husky puppy to the camera
Photo: MrGarry / Shutterstock
Theories about the domestication of dogs from wolves suggest that baby-like faces are a by-product of humans selecting for other features. But is it possible they were deliberately selected? A new study in PLoS One by Bridget Waller et al (University of Portsmouth) investigates.

Selecting animals for behavioural traits can end up having unexpected effects on physical characteristics, as shown in the silver fox study by Dimitri K. Belyaev in Siberia. Young foxes were tested to see how they responded to a person, and the least fearful ones were chosen for breeding.

Eventually, after forty generations of breeding, the foxes became tame and domesticated. Even though they were selected for behaviour, they had physical changes such as floppy ears, curly tails, blue eyes, different coat colours, less of a ‘foxy’ smell, and a longer socialization period. (You can read more in this blog by Jason Goldman on Scientific American).  
This is why the physical appearance of dogs could simply be a by-product of selection for friendly behaviour. Dogs have a wide variety of physical features, many of which are puppy-like – closer to a wolf puppy than an adult wolf. However the scientists wondered if people may have selected for appearance as well as behaviour during domestication.

The study focussed on dogs' eyes, since large eyes are seen as a baby-like feature.

Using sophisticated facial recognition software, the scientists were able to track a movement known as AU101, in which the inside of the eyebrow is raised, making the eye appear bigger. This is shown in the photograph below of a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

A Rhodesian Ridgeback demonstrates the raised eyebrow
Source: PLoS One

A preference for neoteny can even be found in young children, as Borgi and Cirulli (2013) showed in their study using photos of dogs, puppies, cats, kittens, and teddy bears with or without infantile features.  Studies of people’s preference for baby-face features typically ask people to make a choice between two photographs. However, Waller et al felt that choosing dogs from re-homing centres is more similar to the domestication process, since it involves selecting a dog that will live in your home. 

They enlisted the help of four re-homing centres in the UK, run by Portsmouth City, Wood Green, the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA. Because differences between breeds can be large, they selected 29 dogs from the bull breed group (Staffordshire Bull Terriers, mastiffs, and mixed bull breeds).

Each dog was filmed for two minutes while the experimenter stood by the kennel and held out a hand towards the dog. The video was analyzed for facial expression, tail wagging, and time spent near the front of the kennel. 

Two dogs were excluded from the results because they had to wait an unusually long time to be adopted (82 and 87 days). The final sample of 27 dogs had an average age of two (ranging from 7 to 96 months).
Surprisingly, the amount of time spent wagging the tail or at the front of the kennel did not make much difference to the length of time that elapsed before dogs were adopted.  

The eyebrow movement, however, did. If dogs made this eyebrow movement 5 times within the 2 minute period, they were adopted in 50 days (on average), compared to 35 days if they did it ten times, and 28 days for 15 times.

The number of times the eyebrow movement was made when the experimenter was there was considered to be typical of what they would do when potential adopters were first looking at the dog. Testing how many times it was actually made when dogs were adopted would increase the accuracy of the model. And there are also many other factors that could affect adopters’ decisions, including the other dogs present at the centre at the time. 

The researchers say the human version of the facial gesture studied here indicates sadness. Even though tail wagging did not have much effect, there was a tendency for dogs that wagged their tails a lot to be at the shelter for longer. So it is possible that sadness, rather than cuteness, influenced people’s choices, although it could also be that sadness is a component of baby-like features. This warrants further research.

This is the first time baby-like features have been shown to affect people’s choice of a dog, something that requires time and investment from the new owner. The researchers say, “Our real world data show that domestic dogs who exhibit paedomorphic characteristics are preferentially and actively selected by humans as pets from rehoming shelters.

This therefore supports the hypothesis that paedomorphic characteristics in domestic dogs arose as a result of indirect selection by humans rather than only being a by-product of selection against aggression.” In other words, people may have shown a preference for dogs with infantile features during domestication.

What characteristics first attracted you to your dog?

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Borgi, M., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Children's preferences for infantile features in dogs and cats Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1 (2), 1-15 
Waller BM, Peirce K, Caeiro CC, Scheider L, Burrows AM, McCune S, & Kaminski J (2013). Paedomorphic facial expressions give dogs a selective advantage. PloS one, 8 (12) PMID: 24386109
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01 January 2014

Do Children Benefit from Animals in the Classroom?

Many school classrooms have an animal, whether it’s a fish, rabbit or guinea pig. A new study in Australia by Marguerite O’Haire (University of Queensland) et al investigates whether an eight-week program involving a guinea pig in class leads to improved social skills and a reduction in problem behaviours.

A boy strokes a black-and-tan guinea pig on the table at home
Photo: waldru / Shutterstock
Schools that wanted to take part in the project were divided into two groups, one that received the program and one that was wait-listed. This meant the two groups could be compared. The children were aged between 4 and 12 years old. Teachers and parents completed questionnaires about children at the start and end of the program.

Eighty-two guinea pigs took part in the study. Guinea pigs were chosen because they are friendly, easy to look after, and would likely be happy in the school environment. Each classroom received two guinea pigs, because they are social creatures and need the company of a conspecific.

The researchers chose classrooms that included children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In the Animal Activity schools, children were put into a group of three – two typically-developing children and one with Autism Spectrum Disorder – and given responsibility for looking after the guinea pig for eight weeks. 

The program facilitator taught the whole class about guinea pig care, and then visited the school twice a week to spend twenty minutes with each trio of children. Activities included preparing food, cleaning the cage, weighing and brushing the guinea pig, and providing enrichment by building mazes and making toys. They also read fiction and nonfiction about guinea pigs and drew pictures or took photographs of them. At weekends, a child took the guinea pig home to care for it with their family.

The results showed that at the end of the program teachers rated children in the Animal Activity group as having better social skills and fewer problem behaviours than those in the wait-listed group. Parents rated them as having better social skills. The researchers say, “These findings suggest that an Animal Assisted Activities program in the primary [elementary] school classroom may be a feasible way to improve teacher perceptions of social functioning, compared with current classroom practices.”

The authors acknowledge the possibility that the animal itself was not the cause of children’s improved scores. In fact there are several differences between the two groups of children. It could be that the small-group activities with an adult were responsible, and/or that spending time with a peer with Autism Spectrum Disorder was beneficial for their social skills. 

Of course, the raters knew whether or not children had taken part in the guinea pig activity, but there was no difference in ratings between the classes where the teacher decided to keep the guinea pig compared to when they did not. Future studies could use an independent assessor who was blind to the experimental condition.

In a separate paper, the scientists report the effects for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. These children also improved in social skills and social approach, and showed less social withdrawal, if they were in the Animal Activity group compared to the wait-listed group. In addition, parents said their children were more interested in attending school if they were in the Animal Activity program. This is an important finding because children with ASD can find the classroom a difficult and isolating place.

The activities the children engaged in with the guinea pig sound like a lot of fun. Although they were not directly asked for their opinion, it seems likely that the children enjoyed the program very much. Although further research is needed, these studies suggest that animal activities in the classroom may be beneficial for typically-developing children as well as those with special needs.

At the end of the program, the guinea pigs were all adopted, either by the family of one of the children who had taken part, or by the teacher who wanted to keep the animal in the classroom.

Do you like the idea of animals in the school classroom?

O'Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, McCune S, & Slaughter V (2013). Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities with Guinea Pigs in the Primary School Classroom. Anthrozoos, 26 (3) PMID: 24265514  
O'Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, McCune S, & Slaughter V (2013). Effects of Classroom Animal-Assisted Activities on Social Functioning in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.) PMID: 24156772

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