27 December 2014

The Posts of the Year 2014

A pretty Chinese Crested Dog with balloons in the background
Photo: Jaromire Chalabala / Shutterstock

We wish all our readers a happy and healthy 2015!

These are our most-read posts of the year. There's been a lot of competition at the top of this chart! Which stories were your favourites? And which topics would you like to read more about in future? Please let us know by leaving a comment below, or on twitter or facebook.

1. How Does a Dog's Brain Respond to the Smell of a Familiar Human?

New fMRI research shows that the smell of a familiar person elicits a strong response in the canine brain.

2. Do Dogs get that Eureka! Feeling?

Does successful problem-solving make dogs happy? Research by McGowan et al investigates if dogs prefer their rewards to be earned. This post was our Companion Animal Science News of the Year for the Science Borealis Blog Carnival.

3. Dog Training, Animal Welfare and the Human-Canine Relationship

Observations of dogs at training classes using either positive reinforcement or punishment support the idea that using rewards in training is good for the dog-owner relationship.

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

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?

5. Is it Important to Attend Puppy Class?

Is a one-off puppy party a good alternative to a 6-week puppy class? Research by Kutsumi et al (2013) finds it doesn't have the same benefits.

6. Do Children Benefit from Animals in the Classroom?

Researchers investigate whether an eight-week program involving a guinea pig in class leads to improved social skills and a reduction in problem behaviours

7. Is Cruelty to Animals in Childhood a Predictor of Later Criminal Behaviour?
A GSD puppy against a yellow background

How many children are cruel to animals? Is it linked to criminal behaviour as an adult, and does it persist through the generations?

8. Do Puppy Tests Predict Adult Dog Behaviour?

A new study tests border collies as neonates, puppies, and adult dogs, to find out if personality tests predict adult dog behaviour.

9. The Adolescent Dog: One Last Chance?

A synthesis of the latest research on social influences on development suggests adolescence is an important time for mammals – including dogs.

10. Are Deaf Dogs and Blind Dogs Just Like Other Dogs?
Pretty black and white dog with big floppy ears

Dogs that are deaf and/or blind can make great pets, according to a survey that found they are rated as less aggressive and less excitable than other dogs. Enrichment is important, such as with toys, training, or flyball classes.

21 December 2014

Season's Greetings

Christmas time pets
Photo: gurinaleksandr / Shutterstock

Season's Greetings from Companion Animal Psychology Blog!
We wish you Happy Holidays and all the best for a wonderful 2015.

Animated Christmas Reindeer Gif

17 December 2014

Picking a New Dog is a Complex Choice

It’s not a case of ‘any puppy will do’ - the whole package counts.

A thoughtful Chinese Crested dog against the greenery in the park
Photo: DragoNika / Shutterstock

Surprisingly little is known about how people choose a new dog considering how popular they are. While it’s a personal choice, it has wider implications – humane societies would really like to know how to increase adoptions from shelters and decrease purchases from puppy mills. Could relocation programs, where dogs are brought in from out of town, be part of the solution?

A new paper by Laurie Garrison and Emily Weiss (ASPCA) surveyed 1009 people who had either acquired a dog in the last year or were planning to get a dog. People were shown fake profiles of dogs and asked to say how likely they would be to choose it.

The results showed people take many factors into account, and while specific details are important – such as wanting a puppy and not wanting a senior – they can be mitigated by other aspects of the dog.

The authors say, “People considered the entire set of features and made trade-offs based on the combination. A positive feature such as puppy was often overridden by the relative influence of one or more of the six other features in the profile. Sometimes a negative feature such as senior dog was overcome by the relative positive influence of the other features.” 

“Overall, these results show that people have complex preferences, and which features are important vary widely across people. If an animal shelter has a great variety of dogs available, it is more likely that the set of features of a particular dog will match an adopter’s preferences.”

The dog’s profiles were mostly not what people were looking for. The least popular dog had only 4% of people say they would choose it. Preferred attributes were a black or dark-coloured puppy of a medium-sized, unusual breed, from a shelter, originating from the local community and at high risk of euthanasia. 

Some people were prepared to drive a long way for the right dog, with 40% willing to drive 60 miles or further. Some of those who had obtained a puppy from a breeder had travelled more than 90 miles.

In common with previous research, the survey found a difference between the number of people who would consider adopting from a shelter and the substantially lower number who actually did so.

Amongst people who would not consider a shelter, the main reasons were they wanted a purebred dog and they thought the shelter would not have the kind of dog they wanted. 

The authors say increasing the variety of animals available at a shelter and publicizing this would encourage more people to consider it. It also might mean that some people would be prepared to wait for the right kind of dog to appear at the shelter, since they would know the choice of animals was always changing. However, since people  had a preference for a local dog, it may be necessary to explain why dogs are brought in out-of-state or out-of-country.

Of course, when people say ‘not the right kind of dog’ it’s possible they are referring to stereotyped beliefs about shelter animals.

For example, in an Australian survey Kate Mornement et al found that about a third of respondents thought shelter dogs have a behaviour problem. In this case campaigns that emphasize the positives might help – for example the dogs are vaccinated, have had a behavioural assessment, behaviour and training advice is available, and highlighting the benefits of adult dogs.

This study did not look at friendliness, which some research has found to be the most important factor when considering a dog (Mornement et al 2012; Siettou et al 2014). Another drawback is that the sample is not representative of the US population as a whole, tending more towards the northeast and to have a higher income and education level than average. 

The findings will be very useful to humane societies looking to increase canine adoptions. The authors say relocation programs make a wider variety of dogs available at the shelter, which may also benefit animals already there, since more people will come down to look at the dogs. 

The results show our choices in dogs are as individual as we are. What do you look for when choosing a dog?

Garrison, L., & Weiss, E. (2014). What Do People Want? Factors People Consider When Acquiring Dogs, the Complexity of the Choices They Make, and Implications for Nonhuman Animal Relocation Programs Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18 (1), 57-73 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.943836
Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2012). What Do Current and Potential Australian Dog Owners Believe about Shelter Practices and Shelter Dogs? Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 25 (4), 457-473 DOI: 10.2752/175303712X13479798785850  
Siettou, C., Fraser, I., & Fraser, R. (2014). Investigating Some of the Factors That Influence “Consumer” Choice When Adopting a Shelter Dog in the United Kingdom Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 17 (2), 136-147 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.883924
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.

10 December 2014

The Companion Animal Science Story of the Year?

Dogs love learning. Eureka!

Two border collies doing a trick in the snow

Science Borealis challenged Canadian science bloggers to write about the most important science news of the year in their field. It’s incredibly tough to choose one single study. Every week we cover fascinating research about people’s relationships with their pets, and every one of those studies deserves to be chosen. But there was one paper that really captured our readers’ imagination. It’s one of our most shared stories of the year and it was picked up by the Daily Mail too!

The paper, by Ragen McGowan et al (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), suggests that dogs experience intrinsic motivation when they complete a task. It’s an important finding because the feel-good factormatters for animal welfare. And it mirrors a trend towards positive psychology in humans which aims to find out what makes people happy.

I asked Dr. McGowan about the implications of the research for ordinary pet owners. She said,
It has long been our impression that our pets have rich emotional lives and that their experiences affect them profoundly in ways similar to how humans are affected. We are now starting to be able to back this up scientifically, which is very exciting.  

Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task... do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that dogs may also experience this 'Eureka Effect.' In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs. 

“Thus, providing your dog with opportunities to solve problems (e.g., cognitive puzzle toys, or a game of hide and seek with treats in your yard) or learn new behaviors can be quite rewarding for your dog. Many pet owners understand the importance of keeping their dogs physically active; our research helps to emphasize the importance of keeping dogs mentally active as well.”
A puppy learns a trick with a keyboard
We’re used to reading about dogs compared to wolves, or to young children, but the idea for this study came from an experiment with cattle. It turns out that cattle are more excited when they solve a problem to earn a reward than if they just get the reward without mastering a task. The aim of the research was to find out if this also applies to dogs.

The study separated the process of earning a reward from the giving of the reward. Dogs took part in matched pairs. There were six pieces of equipment – including a “dog piano” – and each dog was trained on three of them; their partner was trained on the other three.

A handler took the dog into a room with two pieces of equipment, one the dog was trained on and one they didn’t know. The task for the dog was to do what they had been trained to do – push or press something in order to make a noise, after which a door would open to a runway that led to the reward.

At other times, the dog was in the same room with the equipment but operating it made no difference; the door would open only after the exact length of time it had taken their partner to solve the problem.

What the dog had to do
A wooden lever attached to a wheel with spokes that click when it turns
Press the lever to make the spokes click
A paddle lever attached to a bicycle bell
Press the paddle lever to make the bell ring
A stack of three boxes that are fixed in place and a fourth box on the top
Push the top box off so it falls to the floor
A tall plastic obelisk that is weighted
Push it over so it hits the floor
A cardboard tube fixed to the floor with a ball on top
Push the ball off so it falls to the floor
A child’s keyboard
Press a key to make a noise
Each dog learnt 3 of these tasks, while their matched partner learned the other 3.

When dogs were in the experimental condition, they pulled their handler towards the room and wagged their tails. On the other hand, when in the control condition – even though they still got a reward – they became less keen to enter the room and often had to be persuaded. They did not wag their tails as much, and often chewed on the equipment, suggesting frustration.

These results show that dogs enjoyed completing the task to earn the reward more than just getting the reward itself.

Science Borealis Blog Carnival 2014
There are all kinds of ways to give dogs the chance to problem-solve, including rewards-based obedience training (using positive reinforcement), agility, learning tricks, puzzle toys, nose-work, and many other enrichment activities. What is your dog’s favourite?

If you’d like to read more about the experiment, we first covered it here. You can find other stories from the Science Borealis blog carnival on their website or by following #SciBorBlogCarnival on twitter. And if you're not yet following us, please find us on twitter (@CompAnimalPsych) or Facebook.

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
Photos: Anna Tyurina (top); Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova (both Shutterstock.com)

03 December 2014

Learning More About the Canine Victims of Animal Abuse

New research investigates the effects of abuse on domestic dogs.

The effects of abuse on dogs, illustrated by two sad puppies cuddled up together on the street
Photo: GeorgeMPhotography / Shutterstock

The paper, by Franklin D. McMillan (Best Friends Animal Society) et al, looks at the behaviour profiles of 69 dogs with a very strong suspicion of abuse, and compares them to 5,239 pet dogs. The abused dogs scored significantly higher on various problem behaviours including aggression and fear to unfamiliar people and dogs, attachment problems, attention-seeking, and repetitive behaviours. At the same time, there was no single profile that reflected all abused dogs.

The research is an important first step in understanding the effects of abuse on domestic dogs. The scientists say, “Animal abuse is a world-wide problem causing an incalculable degree of animal suffering. A better understanding of the characteristics of abused animals is essential for developing the most effective interventions at every chronological point: before, during (in cases of chronic abuse), and after the abuse occurs.”

Dogs may be affected differently by abuse due to factors such as their personality, the characteristics of the abuse, their age at the time and how long it goes on for. For example a dog that has been injured at close quarters by a human may be more likely to be fearful of other humans than one that has been shot from a distance and did not realize what happened. Emotional neglect is known to be especially harmful to children, and the same may be true for dogs. 

The scientists asked people with dogs “for which a history of abuse is suspected or known” to complete an internet survey. Out of the 1,122 people who responded, 149 cases were selected and the responses examined by a team of 5 experts. Only when at least 4 of the experts agreed that the dog had been abused was it selected for the study. This was to ensure that the evidence of abuse was sufficiently strong.

The descriptions of what was done to the dogs make for heavy reading. They include a Spaniel cross that was “found chained to a cement block in an empty field; when found, had broken leg (at least 2 months old) and broken teeth”; a Labrador Retriever that was “abandoned, beaten and shot in hindquarters and scrotum with a shot gun”; and a Maltese whose owner “kept dog in spare bathroom for 2 months with no window, no fresh air and no company or anyone to play with. [The dog was] suffering from malnutrition.”

Although the dogs in both samples had been rehomed at least once, it is possible the abused dogs had changed homes more and this may have contributed to some of the increased problems. For example, separation anxiety is more common in dogs rehomed via shelters than in those who have always been in the same home throughout their life.

The paper draws parallels between these results and other research which looks at the effects of abuse on children. Attachment problems are known to be more common in children who have suffered abuse, and this study found them to be more common in abused dogs also. 

The authors say, “abused dogs demonstrated higher levels of 12 characteristics; of these characteristics, 8 have been identified as being among the most common behavioral reasons people report for relinquishing their dogs to animal shelters: aggression and fear directed toward unfamiliar humans and dogs, attention-seeking behaviour, hyperactivity, persistent barking, and stereotypic behaviours.”

If the risk factors for abuse are similar to those for animals that are relinquished to shelters, campaigns could be designed to simultaneously prevent both abuse and surrenders. However the data is correlational and so it is not possible to interpret what is a risk factor for abuse and what is the effect of abuse.

The C-BARQ questionnaire was used to assess the dogs’ temperaments. One limitation of the study is that the samples were self-selected and the owners of the abused dogs knew the purpose of the research. The secretive nature of abuse makes it difficult to investigate.

The report ends on an optimistic note. In a follow-up survey of 53 of the dogs, 96% of the new owners said they were “very satisfied” with the adoption of their canine friend. This shows that abused dogs can still be suitable for adoption, and can still develop a satisfying bond with a new owner, despite what they have been through.

This is an important paper because a better understanding of the characteristics of abused dogs will help with rehabilitation and also in designing programs to prevent maltreatment from happening in the first place.

If you have a fearful dog, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe

McMillan, F., Duffy, D., Zawistowski, S., & Serpell, J. (2014). Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18 (1), 92-111 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.962230

You might also like:
Why Do People  Surrender Dogs to Animal Shelters? 

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