28 January 2015

How Can We Improve Working Dog Programs?

A new paper suggests ways to develop the welfare and performance of working canines.

How to improve the welfare and performance of working dogs
A search-and-rescue dog takes part in a training exercise

Have you ever stopped to think about the amazing variety of jobs that dogs do: herding sheep, chasing criminals, sniffing out cancer, assisting people with disabilities, supporting the military in the field, detecting explosives or narcotics, visiting sick people in hospital, pulling sleds, search and rescue, and so on. They bring a wide variety of skills, and work in diverse locations from cities to forests, mountains and farms. Yet there is no one body that investigates and evaluates the training and welfare of working dogs.

A new paper by Mia Cobb (Monash University) et al examines the role of working dogs and proposes a new canine performance science. Just as human athletes benefit from performance science, the same could be true for our canine friends. There’s a financial imperative too; for example, training an assistance dog can cost up to $50k. 

Each working dog organization does its own thing, and there is a high failure rate of dogs trained for specific roles. The authors say, “around half of all dogs being bred, or considered to work or race, fail to become operational.” In some cases the outcome for dogs is still good, as with a failed service dog that finds a home as a pet; but in other cases, unwanted dogs may be euthanized. 

The section of most interest to readers of this blog is that on training. There are currently no required standards for the training of dog trainers (something that is also true of pet dog trainers). There is also no industry-wide consensus on the qualities of a good dog trainer, although research shows the importance of timing and consistency. The paper points to a need for accreditation of dog trainers, and the use of training protocols that follow quality assurance principles. 

Knowledge of learning theory is also key. The authors say, “a trainer with a sound theoretical education and ability to practice the basic principles of reinforcement may be of more benefit than an informally trained specialist who has worked only with one breed, or even one select working dog role within a breed.”

Some organizations have a canine breeding program and are involved in how the puppies are raised from the very beginning. Other organizations take rescue dogs and train them. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. For example, we know that early socialization is important for puppies, and a breeding program can ensure that dogs are socialized to everything they might encounter in later life. 

The authors point out that at the moment there aren’t standard definitions of behavioural traits such as ‘drive’. This adds to the difficulties of identifying specific traits in puppies. Advances in genetics may also be helpful (for example, if it is possible to identify and breed for particular features). Knowledge of a dog’s lineage can also be used to ensure greater genetic diversity and prevent problems due to inbreeding. 

While some working dogs live in a home or come home with their handler at night, others are housed in kennels. Dogs in individual kennels may be more likely to be stressed by the environment and miss out on species-specific company compared to those in group housing. In the course of their work, they may have to spend long periods of time in difficult environments such as the back of a truck or in the midst of a crowd. It’s hard to get a picture of how working dog welfare compares to that of pet dogs, since there is so much variety and limited research to draw on.

Guide dogs/seeing eye dogs are one type of working dog
Although all these factors are important on their own, the real gains will come from looking at the picture as a whole. It is also likely that improvements in animal welfare will bring associated benefits in terms of improved performance. 

The general public is very concerned about some aspects of animal welfare, such as animals in captivity. The authors say it is only a matter of time before more attention is paid to the welfare of working dogs. Hence the time is right for their suggestions. The paper is a thorough examination of ways to improve both the welfare and performance of working dogs. No aspect is left out, from the equipment used to handle a dog to the amount people are willing to spend on veterinary care. 

This research demonstrates the exciting potential for canine performance science, something that will surely be of benefit to pet dogs as well.

The paper is essential reading for anyone interested in working dogs, and is open access via the link below. The first author, Mia Cobb, has kindly answered some questions on her research for us, so please come back on Sunday to read what she has to say.

Cobb, M., Branson, N., McGreevy, P., Lill, A., & Bennett, P. (2015). The advent of canine performance science: Offering a sustainable future for working dogs Behavioural Processes, 110, 96-104 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.10.012
Photo credits: deepspacedave, Mikkel Bigandt & Jeroen van den Broek (all Shutterstock)
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21 January 2015

Do Dogs Prefer Petting or Praise?

A new study asks dogs to make the choice.

Close-up of a happy white Pomeranian dog

A lot of people like to think they can reinforce their dog with verbal praise such as “Good girl!” But does it mean anything to the dog?

We know that, given a choice, dogs prefer food over petting or praise (Feuerbacher and Wynne 2012; Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013; Okamoto et al 2009), and this is why food is so useful in dog training. A new study by Erica Feuerbacher (Carroll College) and Clive Wynne (Arizona State University) takes food out of the equation and investigates whether dogs prefer petting or verbal praise.

In a series of two experiments, shelter dogs and owned dogs were given a choice between petting and praise. The results showed that dogs prefer petting. Now before you say this is not surprising, remember we just said many owners expect their dog to be obedient in exchange for a simple “Good boy!” It doesn’t sound like such a good deal from the dog’s point of view, does it? 

In the second experiment, the scientists compared verbal praise to nothing happening. And in fact, “vocal praise was nearly indistinguishable from no interaction.”

If saying “Good dog!” is always followed by a treat, it will come to have some meaning for the dog since it predicts a food reward. However, without this conditioning, it doesn’t have any significance. Yet this is something many dog owners seem to forget.

It’s interesting to compare this to cats. In a 2013 study, Saito and Shinozuka found that, although cats can recognize their owner’s voice and distinguish it from someone else, they do not pay much attention to their speech. They (and many commentators) speculated that it might be different for dogs.

However, Feuerbacher and Wynne say, “Our results suggest, however, that without specific conditioning human vocalizations are as meaningless for dogs as for cats.” They say it is likely conditioning that causes both dogs and cats to recognize their owner’s voice.

A woman gives tummy rubs to a relaxed Golden Retriever
In both experiments, shelter dogs and dogs with owners took part. The authors thought that shelter dogs might appreciate petting more than owned dogs, since they don’t have their own human and are probably starved of human interaction. The shelter dogs did not show any particular interest in praise, but in the beginning they were more interested in petting than the dogs with owners. 

A total of 114 dogs took part, with a wide mix of breeds and crosses. In the first experiment, dogs were offered a choice between two people, one who was offering petting and one who was offering vocal praise. After 5 minutes, they swapped roles for a further 5 minutes. Even when it was the owner offering praise, dogs preferred petting from a stranger.

In the second experiment, with a different set of dogs, one person alternated between offering petting or praise or, in a different version, they alternated between petting and no interaction with the dog. Sessions were videoed and the researchers analyzed the amount of time each dog spent in proximity to the people or in contact with them.

Petting is important to dogs, say the scientists, as it supports social behaviour and helps build attachment between human and canine. For shelter dogs in particular, it may help to reduce stress. 

The study also investigated whether there was a limit to how much petting the dogs liked. In this condition dogs were petted as long as they were in reach.

Guess what? The dogs liked it! They chose to remain close to the person and be petted for the full duration. 

The dogs in this study were all social dogs, and the results would be different for dogs that are fearful. Dogs also have preferences for where they like to be petted, namely the side of the chest and under the chin (Kuhne et al 2012). Choosing to pet them in a different place would be less preferable to the dog.  

This study adds to our understanding of the role of petting in the relationship between people and dogs. It also shows that verbal praise is fairly meaningless to a dog, unless it has been conditioned.

The full paper is currently open access (see the link below). 

How long is it before your dog tires of being petted?

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.

Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (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 (1), 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: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (4), 221-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.067
OKAMOTO, Y., OHTANI, N., UCHIYAMA, H., & OHTA, M. (2009). The Feeding Behavior of Dogs Correlates with their Responses to Commands Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 71 (12), 1617-1621 DOI: 10.1292/jvms.001617
Saito, A., & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus) Animal Cognition, 16 (4), 685-690 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0620-4
Photos: Felix Rohan (top) and Mat Hayward (both Shutterstock.com)
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14 January 2015

Do Hand-Reared Wolves get Attached to their Humans?

Researchers test the bond between captive wolf pups and the humans who rear them.

The face of a wolf puppy peers over a person's shoulder

We all think our dogs form attachments to us, but previous studies with wolf pups have suggested they don’t attach to their caregiver in the same way. While a 16-week old puppy is already attached to its owner, scientists found the same is not true of a 16-week old wolf. However, the way the wolf pup is raised and the age of testing may have an effect. New research by Nathaniel Hall (University of Florida) et al investigates. The results show wolf pups can form attachments to humans after all.

Ten wolf pups from two litters took part in the study (although one pup was ill and not able to take part in all of the tests). From the age of 10 days old, the wolves were raised by two humans who were with them round the clock until 1.5 – 2 months. After this, the caregivers were present 16 hours a day. The research took place at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana.

In children, attachment is tested by the Strange Situation, a set protocol that includes episodes of presence and absence by the caregiver and a stranger. Previous research has used this method on dogs (e.g. Rehn et al 2014; Gácsi et al 2013). The wolf pups were tested using a modified version of this that took account of order effects. They were tested at 3, 5 and 7 weeks of age, using the same caregiver but a different stranger each time.

As part of the wolves’ socialization, they were regularly introduced to new people and to different environments, so it is not surprising they did not find being in a new room in the presence of a stranger threatening. This contrasts to studies with young children, in which the absence of the caregiver is generally experienced as threatening. 

There were differences in the way the pups behaved to the caregiver compared to the stranger. “Pups were more likely to greet the caregiver with whines and ears back upon reunion than they did the stranger,” say the scientists. “In addition, the pups showed an effect of reunion in Episode 6 [return of the caregiver], seeking greater proximity and physical contact with the caregiver than the stranger.”

However, this latter effect was only observed in one order of the Strange Situation, when the caregiver returned after the pup had been alone in the room; in the alternate order, this effect wasn’t found, probably because the pup had already had a chance to re-unite with the owner before Episode 6 began.

The results show the wolf pups do seem to show something that could be called attachment. However, the sample is small, and the authors caution that the age of the pups, the way they are raised (including the amount of time spent with their two caregivers), socialization, and the way the caregivers behave towards the pups could all have affected the results. 

So what does this tell us about domestication? The results cast doubt on the idea that dogs are unique in their ability to form attachments to humans. Further research is needed to get a better understanding of what is the effect of genetics and what is the effect of early socialization and rearing. 

It’s not necessarily a question of one or the other. The authors say, “our results highlight that the ability to form attachments to humans likely preceded domestication, but domestication may have changed the ease at which these attachments could be formed, the conditions under which they are shown, and how they are maintained as adults.”

This paper finds that, contrary to many expectations, a non-domesticated animal can form an attachment to the human that raises it. The fact that it was only apparent after a short period of isolation, and not in the presence of a stranger, suggests differences between wolves and dogs that warrant further investigation.

The paper is open access if you would like to read the full text

Gácsi M, Maros K, Sernkvist S, Faragó T, & Miklósi A (2013). Human analogue safe haven effect of the owner: behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs. PloS one, 8 (3) PMID: 23469283  
Hall, N.J., Lord, K., Arnold, A-M.K., Wynne, C.D.L., & Udell, M. (2015). Assessment of attachment behaviours to human caregivers in wolf pups (Canis lupus lupus) Behavioural Processes , 110, 15-21
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
Photo: Geoffrey Kuchera (Shutterstock.com).

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07 January 2015

Does It Matter What Age You Neuter Your Kitten?

New research investigates whether age of neutering affects feline behaviour – and looks at punishment and other variables too.

What age should you neuter your kitten? Kittens like these two are cute, but should you neuter at 6 months old? Research finds earlier neutering does not cause problems, good news for shelters that like to neuter kittens early
Photo: NCAimages / Shutterstock

There are so many cats without homes that some shelters neuter kittens early, at 8 – 12 weeks old, so they are neutered prior to adoption. This is the only way they can guarantee that a kitten will be neutered.

Normally, cats are neutered at 6 – 8 months old. Kittens, like puppies, have a sensitive period that is an important socialization opportunity; if not properly socialized during this time, they will be more fearful as adults. Therefore some people worry that early neutering could cause behaviour problems because it happens during the socialization window.

To find out, Natalie Porters et al (2014) of Ghent University in Belgium studied a sample of 800 shelter kittens. Half of the kittens were assigned to an early neutering group, and half to be spayed/neutered at the traditional age. There were approximately equal numbers of male and female kittens in each group.

The people who adopted the kittens were asked to take part in the study. They completed a daily diary for the first 30 days as a short-term follow-up, and were surveyed on several subsequent occasions up til 24 months later. 480 cats were included in the final analysis, which is a very high rate of participation from the owners.

The questionnaires asked about potentially undesirable behaviours such as inappropriate elimination, fearful behaviour, aggression, destruction, sucking on fabric, and vocalizing too much. Whether or not these behaviours are actually problematic depends on the owner’s viewpoint, so if the cat did any of these things, the owner was also asked to say if it was a problem. (Unsurprisingly, inappropriate elimination was always considered a problem).

The results are good news for shelters that want to spay/neuter kittens early: behaviour problems were not more common in cats where this was done at an early age compared to those who had the op at a more traditional age.

The short-term follow-up found that if owners reported use of physical punishment, their cats were 12 times more likely to show inappropriate elimination. In the first 30 days after adoption, if owners used verbal or physical punishment, they were also more likely to report play-related aggression, destructive behaviour and a fearful response to noises or movement.

This is in line with studies in dogs that find punishment is linked to behaviour problems (e.g. Herron et al 2009). However, because the data is correlational, it doesn’t tell us what the cause is. For example, it’s possible that the new kitten pees on the carpet and then gets punished; or that the kitten is punished, becomes stressed or fearful and then pees on the carpet. Perhaps people who use punishment for misdemeanours don't know how to house-train a cat, and so learning to use the litter box proceeds at a slower pace.

"if owners reported use of physical punishment, their cats were 12 times more likely to show inappropriate elimination."

Incidentally if your new kitten needs help with house-training, put them in the litter box just after eating and scratch in the litter with your finger to give them the right idea. They may need to be restricted to one room until they’ve got the hang of things. There’s an excellent chapter on litter problems in kittens and cats in Pam Johnson-Bennett’s book Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat--Not a Sour Puss.

The short-term follow-up also found that cats in multi-cat households were less likely to be fearful or to be aggressive in play, and cats whose owners spent more time with them were less likely to be fearful or eliminate inappropriately. Kittens who were friendly to a stranger prior to adoption were less likely to be fearful or aggressive to family members later on. This suggests that it’s a good idea to choose a kitten that is friendly to you, instead of shy or fearful, when you meet it for the first time.

Over the long-term, physical and verbal punishment were linked to increased destruction and more non-play-related aggression to people. However these cats were also less fearful, which may be that owners of fearful cats sensibly did not punish them. Being in a multi-cat household was linked to less destruction.

But there is a puzzling finding that when cats had 2 or 3 positive interactions with the owner during the day, they were rated as more likely to show destruction, fear or play-related aggression (e.g. attacking hands whilst playing). Is it that the owner was around more to notice these behaviours, or that from the cat’s perspective the interactions were not quite so positive? In Strickler and Shull’s recent study, cats whose owners played with them for at least 5 minutes a day were less likely to have behaviour problems.

This is an excellent study because it involved a large number of cats and followed them up over both the short and long-term. The authors say, “from a behavioural point of view, pre-pubertal gonadectomy can be recommended for shelter cats.”

The findings about punishment, multiple cats in the household, and time spent with the owner are all worthy of follow-up. We would love to know more about how aspects of daily life with the owner affect feline behaviour.

Is your cat spayed/neutered, and if so what age was it done?

Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011  
Porters, N., de Rooster, H., Verschueren, K., Polis, I., & Moons, C. (2014). Development of behavior in adopted shelter kittens after gonadectomy performed at an early age or at a traditional age Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 196-206 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.05.003  
Strickler, B., & Shull, E. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 207-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.005

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