25 June 2014

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

…Or does mom do it all?

A happy young girl with her pet rabbit
Photo: Samuel Borges Photography / Shutterstock
How should children learn to take some responsibility for family pets such as dogs and cats? New research by Janine Muldoon et al (University of St Andrews) investigates children’s perspectives of the division of labour in relation to their pets.

The exploratory study involved focus groups with children aged 7, 9, 11 and 13. The researchers planned equal numbers of boys and girls, but constraints meant that 30 girls and only 23 boys took part. 

The main ‘caring’ activity that children took part in with their pet was playing with it. Some of the children were very honest in admitting they did not otherwise take care of the animal. For example, one 13-year old girl, Isla*, said,

“She (mum) cleaned it and I just played with it.”

The older children suggested they played in a way that included what the animal wanted, compared to when they were younger when they treated it more like a toy. The children were vague, however, on other aspects of animal care, even when saying they had responsibility for it.  

While playing with animals is fun, it does not give a full picture of what it is like to look after a pet, or help children develop their abilities. The researchers say, “While most parents understandably want to safeguard their children and their animals, refusal to let children take responsibility where they want to (with support) ultimately sends the message that they are not competent enough.”

Both boys and girls agreed that the owner of the pet should be the one to look after it. However, when it came to who actually looks after the pet, while girls tended to pick mum, dad, or children, boys were more likely to say children and less likely to say dad. Girls were more likely to suggest there should be some kind of shared responsibility within the family. Gendered role expectations are apparent in the answers. For example, when asked who should care for pets, one boy, Ewan* (age 13), said:

“I’d probably say the person who it belongs to, because it’s their responsibility and mums because that’s what they normally do.”

Many children said they were not allowed to do some aspects of pet care, either because they were not able to or because of issues to do with the animal, such as it behaving in a way they would find difficult to manage. They also wanted to avoid some responsibilities, especially the “disgusting” jobs. Boys in particular did not want to do the job of cleaning up.

Rural children seemed to have more responsibility for looking after their animals than children who did not live in a rural area. 

The results show a tension between some children not taking enough responsibility for pet care, and others who reported that their relationship was less positive if they were involved. The challenge is to teach children how to care for animals – other than playing with them – in a way that is age-appropriate. 

The researchers say, “our findings are strongly suggestive of a role for educators in developing a model of care that specifies the sequence of activities children can be encouraged to engage in to move towards more comprehensive care. Guidance for parents on how to manage the process of allowing children more and more responsibility may be particularly useful. A fine balance needs to be struck between educating children on the full gamut of caring for a pet, while supporting them so they feel responsibility is, and should be, shared and not solely in their hands.”

When you were a child, did you help care for the family pet(s)?

Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2014). 'Mum cleaned it and I just played with it': Children's perceptions of their roles and responsibilities in the care of family pets Childhood DOI: 10.1177/0907568214524457

You might also like: What Pets do Children Have, and Which do they Prefer? 
Are Young Children More Interested in Animals than Toys?
*Not their real names.

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18 June 2014

The Effects of Canine Personality and Joint Activities on the Dog-Owner Relationship

How do owner characteristics and canine personality influence the relationship between dogs and their owners? A study in Denmark by Iben Meyer and Bjørn Forkman (University of Copenhagen) investigates.

An older woman and her dog paddling and playing on the beach
Photo: Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock

The study of 421 dog owners aged 18 to 75 used data from dog personality tests taken between six months and two-and-a-half years earlier, and a questionnaire of owners that included the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale. The dogs were all pedigrees since these were the dogs that had taken the personality test for the Danish Kennel Club. Several breeds took part, including Golden Retrievers, Icelandic Sheepdogs, Danish Broholmers, Boxers and Rottweilers.

The canine personality test was the Dog Mentality Assessment, which gives dogs scores on five personality traits. The researchers analyzed the DMA sub-scales to give the five traits used in this study: chase proneness, non-social fear, playfulness, social fear and sociability.
However, only one of these traits (social fear) predicted scores on the dog-owner relationship scale. People whose dogs were fearful or aggressive in response to the tests with social stimuli gave higher ratings for the emotional closeness of their relationship with their dog than those whose dogs were not fearful/aggressive. The other traits were not related. 

The scientists suggest this could be because dogs that are fearful demand a lot of attention and support from their owners, and hence people perceive the relationship as closer. However, more research is needed to investigate this further.

The feeling of emotional closeness was related to the dog’s actual test results for social fear. The owners may or may not perceive the dog as fearful, since people sometimes are not very good at recognizing fear in dogs. The researchers also looked at the perception of fear. 15% of the owners said they thought their dog had a problem with fear. Owners who thought their dog was fearful reported a higher cost of the dog-owner relationship than those who did not. This may be because people find fear difficult to deal with. 

This result suggests that behavioural advice on how to manage and treat fear in dogs would help to improve the canine-human relationship for this group of owners. See eight tips to help fearful dogs and what is desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training. (There is also plenty of useful advice on www.fearfuldogs.com).

If there were children in the home, the dog-owner relationship was rated as less close and had less dog-owner interaction. If the dog was kept for companionship only then the relationship was perceived as less close than if the dog took part in activities with the owner, such as agility, dog shows, hunting and herding.  In this study, only 10.5% of owners kept the dog for companionship only, while 57.5% took part in working dog training and 26.4% in dog shows.

The researchers were surprised to find that people who owned more than one dog reported higher levels of emotional closeness than those with only one dog. However, it could be that people only acquire a second (or third…) dog if they have a close relationship with the first dog. Those with a less close relationship may feel less inclined to get another dog.

One caveat is that the results only accounted for a relatively small proportion of the variance, and so there are likely other factors at play too. In addition, since all the dogs were pedigrees and almost all were acquired from a breeder, the results may not generalize to all dogs and their owners.

The results suggest several ways to improve the relationship between dogs and their owners. The researchers say, "In general, information about the positive consequences of engaging in different activities with the dog could benefit many dog-owner relationships, and more information to dog owners on how to handle fear-related behavior problems could benefit not only the fearful dogs but also the owners' perception of the relationship with their dog. Interestingly, dog personality does not seem to have a large impact on the owner's perception of the dog-owner relationship."

Are you and your dog emotionally close?

Meyer, I., & Forkman, B. (2014). Dog and owner characteristics affecting the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.03.002

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11 June 2014

Do Dogs Get that Eureka! Feeling?

Does successful problem solving make dogs happy, or does simply getting the reward make them happy too?

A very happy mini-Aussie... Successful problem-solving makes dogs happy and gives them 'eureka' moments
Photo: Mackland (Shutterstock)
New research by Ragen McGowan et al (University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden) investigates whether dogs enjoy the experience of solving a problem in order to obtain a reward, or if it is just the reward itself that makes them happy.

Rather unusually, the idea came from a study that found cattle who completed a task to earn a reward seemed to be happier than those who just received the reward. The design of McGowan et al’s study is very similar, but adjusted for dogs.

The results show that when dogs solved the problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more and were more eager to repeat the experience than if they were just given a reward. The study also found that food was a preferred reward over time with another dog and petting from a familiar human.

Six matched pairs of beagles took part (12 dogs in total). Each dog was an experimental dog for half of the time, and a control dog for the other half of the time.

The study used six pieces of equipment. When manipulated correctly by the dog, each made a distinct noise that would show the task was complete. The equipment included a dog piano that had to be pressed to play a note, a plastic box to be pushed off a stack so it would noisily hit the floor, and a paddle lever that would make a bell ring. 

Before the experiment, each dog was trained on three of the pieces of equipment while their matched pair was trained on the other three. The paired piece of equipment was present during training sessions, but the dog did not get rewards for interacting with it.

In the experiment itself, both pieces of equipment were again present, but the situation was new. 

The experimental room had a start arena with the equipment, and a gate to a runway that led to the reward. An experimenter was hidden away, ready to open the gate at the appropriate time. An assistant led the dog into the start arena, then turned their back and did not interact with them further. When the experimental dog performed the behaviour it had been trained to do, the gate opened to give access to the ramp leading to the reward.

When it was the dog’s turn to be a control, it did not matter what it did with the equipment. The gate opened after the length of time it had taken the matched experimental dog to solve the puzzle, so the dog spent the exact same amount of time in the start arena as their pair. They also got the exact same reward their pair had obtained. In other words, the only difference between the conditions was whether or not their manipulation of the equipment would have an effect on the gate opening.

The experimental dogs were keen to get to the start arena and usually went into the room ahead of the assistant. On the other hand, the scientists noticed that the control dogs “were initially eager to enter the room during their first two or three test runs, but soon grew reluctant to enter the test room. By the end of the test sessions, these dogs would enter the start arena only after some coaxing from the handler.” 

There were other signs that dogs in the control condition were less happy than those in the experimental condition. They were less active in the start arena. They would sometimes bite or chew on the equipment, which dogs never did in the experimental condition. Once the gate had opened, they were quicker to enter the runway and leave the start arena than dogs in the experimental condition. There were no differences in mean heart rate, however.

There was more tail wagging when dogs were in the experimental condition, which also suggests they were happier.

When the reward was food or time with another dog, the control dogs were quicker to exit the start arena. There was no difference between experimental and control dogs if the reward was petting by a human they knew. But dogs in both conditions were more active when expecting a food reward, suggesting this was preferred. This is consistent with earlier studies that found dogs prefer food to petting (Okamoto et al 2009; Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013;  Feuerbacher and Wynne (2012), who also looked at hand-reared wolves) 

When dogs were controls, they still received a reward but they did not have any control over their environment. Perceived lack of control is stressful for humans, so perhaps it is for dogs. In fact towards the end of the study, some of the dogs were successfully manipulating the item they had not been trained on, although of course this had no effect on the gate. 

In the experimental condition, however, dogs were able to solve the problem and make the gate open.  I am not sure if it is problem-solving, the fact it gave them control, or a combination of both that made dogs happy.

The researchers say, “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward. These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

Because differences in behaviour were found in the start arena, they relate to the dog learning that it can open the gate by manipulating the equipment. The scientists call it a “Eureka moment”.

What kind of opportunities do you give your dog to problem-solve and make decisions in his or her everyday life?

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  
McGowan RT, Rehn T, Norling Y, & Keeling LJ (2014). Positive affect and learning: exploring the "Eureka Effect" in dogs. Animal cognition, 17 (3), 577-87 PMID: 24096703  
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

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04 June 2014

Is Cruelty to Animals in Childhood a Predictor of Later Criminal Behaviour?

Does cruelty to animals as a child predict interpersonal violence in adulthood?

Portrait of a cute German Shepherd Puppy in a garden
Photo: Rita Kochmarjova / Shutterstock
New research by Kelly Knight, Colter Ellis and Sara Simmons (Sam Houston State University) investigates how many children are cruel to animals and whether it persists through generations. The study is especially valuable because it uses a sample that is representative of the US population and tracks families over the years.

There are two main theories about childhood cruelty to animals. One theory is that if children are cruel to animals they will grow up to be violent adults. This is called the “graduation hypothesis”. It rests on the idea that there is something wrong with the individual and that they ‘graduate’ from animal abuse to interpersonal violence. This seems to be the theory we hear about most in the popular press. Although there is some evidence to support it, it may not be the whole story.

An alternate theory is that if a child is cruel to animals, it is a sign they have been subject to maltreatment of some kind and/or live in an environment of domestic violence. In other words, it could be a sign that something is wrong in the child’s life to cause them to behave this way.

It is a difficult topic to research. One of the problems is that many studies focus on a criminal or at-risk population. For example, if you study people who have been in trouble with the law and you find that many of them were previously cruel to animals, it is valuable information. However there might be other people who were also cruel but did not grow up to be criminals, and who would not feature in your sample. Retrospective studies could also miss other important factors, such as the context provided by the family in which the person grew up.

Knight et al’s study uses data from the National Youth Survey Family Study, which ran from 1977 until 2004. There were 12 waves of data collection over three generations.  By the end, the first generation to take part were grandparents. Since they had not been asked about animal abuse they were not included in Knight’s study.

There were 1,614 participants (1067 children and 547 parents). The children were the third generation in the overall study, and were interviewed in 2003 – 2004. Their parents had been interviewed many times over the years. In 2003, they were asked if they had been cruel to animals when they were children. The study also used data from an earlier interview in the late 1980s, when the parents (then aged 24-30) were asked about interpersonal violence. 

About 3% of the parents said they had abused animals as a child. This number is higher than found in other surveys. The average age at which they said they started was 12. About 3% of the children reported animal cruelty, and 11 was the average age at which they said it began.

The results showed that people who reported being cruel to animals as children were more likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence as adults. This supports the graduation hypothesis. However, and perhaps surprisingly, they were also more likely to be victims of violence than those who had not been cruel to animals. 

At the same time, the results showed that if the parents were perpetrators of violence then, fourteen years later, their children were more likely to say they had been cruel to animals. This supports the idea that the family context plays a role in children’s violence to animals. 

There was no link between the parents’ animal abuse and children’s animal abuse. In other words, cruelty to animals did not continue through generations of the same family.

Other variables such as gender, ethnicity, marijuana use and depression also came into play, showing that the picture is complex.

The researchers say, “The implications of these findings are that early animal abuse is not only a risk factor for later involvement in IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] violent perpetration but also violent victimization.” 

There are some limitations to the study, including the fact that only one question was used to assess animal abuse, and it relied on the person to define their own actions. But the size of the sample, the fact it is representative of the US population, and the way it tracks families across the generations are extremely useful. The results improve our understanding of the links between interpersonal violence and cruelty to animals, and will help design better programs for children and adults who are victims of violence. 

The researchers say, “The practical implications of this research for victim services, specifically, involve improving knowledge of the various pathways to and consequences of IPV [Intimate Partner Violence], which can then be used to inform policy and program recommendations. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that thorough measures of animal abuse are warranted in future studies of problem behavior.”

It seems the links between animal abuse and interpersonal violence are more complicated than previously thought. Developing a better understanding will benefit both children and animals. 

Knight KE, Ellis C, & Simmons SB (2014). Parental Predictors of Children's Animal Abuse: Findings From a National and Intergenerational Sample. Journal of interpersonal violence PMID: 24777142

You might also like: Are Negative Personality Traits Linked to Cruelty to Animals?
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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