29 April 2015

Different Dog Breeds, Different Sensitive Period?

A study of three breeds finds differences in the sensitive period, and shows socialization should begin before you even take your puppy home.

The sensitive period for socialization of puppies may end at different times for different breeds, ending later in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels like this one

Puppies have a sensitive period between 3 and 12-14 weeks old in which they must be socialized. This means positive introductions to new people, dogs, places, etc. If not, they will be fearful as adult dogs. A fascinating new study by Mary Morrow (Ohio State University) et al investigates whether this period is the same for three breeds of dog: Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Yorkshire Terriers, and German Shepherd Dogs. 

These breeds make a particularly interesting comparison. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Yorkshire Terrier are both members of the Toy group, although Yorkshire Terriers are still “terriers by nature” according to the breed standard. The German Shepherd is a Herding dog, and the GSD puppies were chosen from breeders with international working dog lines.

The results show that Yorkshire Terriers and German Shepherd Dogs have an earlier onset to the sensitive period. This means socialization needs to start in the home of the breeder (or the foster for rescue pups). People are increasingly aware of the importance of socializing puppies when they get them. But before committing to a new pup they should ask the breeder: “What are you doing to begin socialization before I take the puppy home?” 

Dr. Joy Pate (Penn State University), one of the authors, says “Socialization is clearly important for all breeds of dog. What our study shows, is that timing of exposure to novelty is not only important, but varies by breed. In breeds with earlier onset of adult patterns of fear-related avoidance behavior (the GSDs and YTs in our study), it is critical that they be exposed to novel experiences earlier than some other breeds. In the case of these two breeds, this means by about 40 days, which is before they have left the breeder.” 

“Therefore, development of a confident, emotionally competent animal depends not only on the new owner and trainer, but on the environment of the breeder. Although this is important for all breeds, for those with earlier onset of fear-related behaviors, there is a shorter window to provide necessary stimulation and exposure to novelty.”

She goes on to say, “We think that the important message here is that, while exposure to novelty and 'socialization' are necessary for development of stable adults of all breeds, the timing of this critical window is breed-dependent.

The timing of the sensitive period for socialization in puppies varies with breed

Fear-related avoidance behaviour began at 39.4 days (±1.6) for the German Shepherd, 43.6 (±2.48) for the Yorkshire Terrier, and 54.8 days (±2.74) for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

One potential explanation for the results has to do with neoteny (child- or baby-like features). Of these three breeds, the CKCS is the most neotenous whereas the GSD is closer in appearance to the wolf. 

In their paper, the scientists say, “Just as dogs and domesticated foxes have longer critical socialization periods than wolves and non-selected foxes respectively, perhaps more neotenous breeds of dog such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel would also have a longer socialization period.” Further research with more breeds would be needed to confirm this.

Puppies were tested once a week from the age of 4-5 weeks until 10 weeks (or until they went home, if earlier). There were four behavioural tests. The control group puppies experienced the same thing but without the actual test. For example, they were placed in location for the noise test for the same amount of time as the test puppies, but did not experience the loud noise. 

Testing took place close to but out of sight and sound of the other puppies in the litter. There were four tests each week: a novel item, being placed on a seesaw, hearing a sudden loud noise, and being put on a step so they would feel like they were on a ledge. The novel item was a toy duck that walked whilst making a noise and shining light from its eyes.

In early testing the puppies did not show fear. For example, in the novel item test, a 31-day-old Yorkshire Terrier puppy stays still while the toy duck marches right up to her. At 38 days, the video shows her back away from the approaching duck and then run to hide behind the human’s legs.

The age of onset of the fear period in GSDs is similar to that found by Ray Coppinger  in earlier work. There were differences between the three breeds in the proportion of puppies that responded fearfully. From 6 weeks old, there were also differences in mobility. Most of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels did not begin testing until 5 weeks old because they did not respond at 4 weeks. The breeders said that CKCS develop later and open their eyes later than other breeds. 

Saliva was also collected from the puppies and tested for cortisol, although only the GSDs and CKC Spaniels took part in this because of difficulties getting samples from the Yorkshire Terriers. Cortisol could be detected in the saliva from 4 weeks old. Among the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies, changes in cortisol from before to after the test were greatest amongst the puppies that had a fear response.

98 puppies took part in the study (33 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels from 7 litters, 33 German Shepherd Dogs from 5 litters, and 32 Yorkshire Terriers from 9 litters). Eleven breeders participated and the puppies were tested at their homes. Among each breed, 14 puppies were controls and the remainder took part in the experimental condition. 

This study provides important confirmation that breed differences in the sensitive period exist. Although we still have much to learn about socialization, the implication is very clear – it needs to start early. Unfortunately, many puppies miss out on important socialization opportunities.

Morrow, M., Ottobre, J., Ottobre, A., Neville, P., St-Pierre, N., Dreschel, N., & Pate, J. (2015). Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002
Photos: JLSnader (top) / Vera Zinkova (both Shutterstock.com).

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22 April 2015

Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help Adolescents with Psychiatric Problems?

A new study finds that a dog might be just what the doctor ordered.

A Golden Retriever lays on the grass before therapy session

Can animal-assisted therapy can help adolescents who are in hospital because of an acute psychiatric crisis? A new randomized controlled trial investigates. 

The study, conducted by M.C. Stefanini et al (University of Florence) randomly allocated patients to either an animal-assisted therapy intervention or no intervention. Both groups continued to receive psychiatric treatment as usual, and those treating them did not know which group they were in. The results are very promising.

The intervention group had better school attendance, higher levels of global functioning, and spent less time in hospital compared to the control group. The scientists say, “One possible explanation for this success is the role of the animal as a catalyst in the therapeutic process. Animals may represent a valid help in therapeutic contexts thanks to their ability to catalyze social interactions and to create a more relaxed environment.”

The animal-assisted therapy involved a 45 minute session once a week. Activities included getting to know the animal and its handler, grooming, cleaning, basic obedience, and agility. It took place in the garden when the weather was nice, and in a room inside when it was wet. As well as individual sessions with the animal and handler, there were group sessions with others taking part in the program.

Every session was video-taped and coded. The recordings show that over time, the adolescent interacted more with the dog and showed it more affection, showed more social behaviour with adults and peers, and withdrew less.

More research is needed to understand how animal-assisted therapy works, but Stefanini et al say “the young patients who feel fragile, needy and dependent on others in the hospital context, can experience themselves as caretakers of someone else in the AAT environment. This experience can improve their sense of self-agency and self-cure, and these positive effects are not only limited to the human-animal bond, but can be extended to the patient’s global functioning and to the entire process of care.”

34 patients took part, of whom 17 were assigned to each condition. There were no differences between the groups in terms of functioning, school attendance, hospital care, or demographic variables at the start of the study. The most common diagnosis was an eating disorder (65%), followed by mood disorder (21%) and schizophrenia (9%). More than half had another psychiatric diagnosis as well, and about a quarter had previously had psychiatric treatment. Patients were excluded from the study if they were afraid of dogs or allergic to them.

The assessments, including a standardized global functioning scale, took place on admittance and again after three months. The children’s global functioning scale is an assessment of the extent to which they can take part in everyday activities, and whether or not they have impairments such as self-harm, suicidal thoughts or aggression. 

One limitation to the study is the small sample size and the fact that only one hospital was involved. In future research, it would be nice to also see a control sample that undertook an activity similar to animal-assisted therapy but without the presence of an animal (e.g., equivalent time spent in the garden or indoors with an appropriate adult from outside the hospital). 

Although many people believe that animal-assisted therapy can help people with psychiatric problems, there have been limited studies using randomized controlled trials, so this study is a valuable addition to the literature. A recent paper by Kamioka et al found 11 randomized controlled trials, but was unable to do a meta-analysis because of differences between them. Nonetheless they concluded that “AAT may be an effective treatment for mental and behavioural disorders.”

The dogs that took part in this study were from the Guide Dogs for the Blind in Tuscany, and trained following the Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) guidelines. If you think your dog or other pet might be a suitable candidate for animal-assisted therapy, you can find out more by visiting their website. Animals must meet the pre-requisites, which include being healthy, house-trained, knowing basic obedience and with no history of aggression. Even llamas, alpacas and pot-bellied pigs can become therapy animals.

Do you find that your pets provide emotional support at difficult times?

Kamioka, H., Okada, S., Tsutani, K., Park, H., Okuizumi, H., Handa, S., Oshio, T., Park, S., Kitayuguchi, J., Abe, T., Honda, T., & Mutoh, Y. (2014). Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22 (2), 371-390 DOI: 10.1016/j.ctim.2013.12.016 
Stefanini, M., Martino, A., Allori, P., Galeotti, F., & Tani, F. (2015). The use of Animal-Assisted Therapy in adolescents with acute mental disorders: A randomized controlled study Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 21 (1), 42-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.01.001 
Photo: SebiTian (Shutterstock.com)

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15 April 2015

Earliest Memories of Pets Shape Adult Attitudes

New research suggests our earliest childhood memories of pets influence our attitudes to animals.

A happy boy with a ginger-and-white cat on his lap

Think back to your first memory of a pet, whether it was your own or someone else’s. Is it a happy memory, or a sad one? Were you interacting with the animal, or just watching? And is it possible that early memories like this influence your attitudes as an adult?

This question was posed by Philip Marshall (Texas Tech University) et al, who compared earliest memories of a pet, a friend and an automobile. 223 people answered the questionnaire, and the results show significant differences in the types of language used, and a fascinating link with attitudes.

Memories of pets contained more references to both positive and negative emotion than memories of cars. 

The scientists say, 
“although pet memories were less positive than friend memories, in terms of overall affective language, memories of pets were more similar to memories of friends than they were to memories of the inanimate automobile.”

One reason pet memories contained less positive emotion than those of friends is that some early memories of pets were unhappy ones. For many children, their first experience of loss is with the death of a pet. 

The authors say, 
“Put simply, not all pet memories were joyful, with some focussing on pets having been given and then taken away, dying and being buried by the family, and similar other tragic events.”

The questionnaire also assessed how much people like pets. Similarities between memories of friends and pets were highest for those whose questionnaire results showed they like pets a lot. 

The authors write 
“people who like pets as adults remember pets in the same way that they remember friends, in terms of negative emotion and social language.” 

In contrast, people who do not like pets had pet memories that were more similar to cars, and different from friends, in the use of these categories of language. 

For example, the use of impersonal pronouns such as ‘it’ and ‘that’ was more common among people who do not like pets. 

One participant wrote, “I have always considered my pets to be my friends.” The scientists say that while this was literal for her, for some participants it was probably more of an abstract relation. This is a fascinating topic for follow-up research.

An Asian girl cuddles her pet guinea pig

The memories were also examined to see if they involved interacting with the pet (rather than simply observing). People whose memories were more interactive had more positive attitudes to pets, and were more likely to rate their own memory as positive. References to ‘I’ and ‘we’ occurred more often in the memories of people who also like pets more. 

The authors write, 
“Interactions with a pet are probably more likely to lead to greater bonding and satisfaction with the pet, and, in the long term, to more positive attitudes. Indeed, it is difficult to see how bonding with a pet (in childhood or as an adult) can attain substantial levels in the absence of interaction.”

Most pet memories (83%) were based on the participant’s own pet. The questionnaire included written accounts of the earliest memories of a pet, friend, and car, a set of questions about those memories, and a standardized questionnaire to measure attitudes to pets. The memories people wrote down were analyzed using computer-based text analysis.

The average length of the memories was the same for all three categories. Women wrote more than men for friends and pets, but not cars. 

One drawback the authors acknowledge is that some of the written accounts were very short. They excluded the shortest accounts from the analysis. Also, while they had chosen the car as an inanimate object that would not have much meaning for participants, they soon realized it does actually have a lot of meaning for some people. In some ways this makes it a particularly interesting comparison.

Examples of people’s memories are tantalizingly absent from the paper (especially since the word ‘phenomenological’ appears in the title).

The study does not show causality. It is possible that people’s recollection of their early experiences with pets is framed by their adult attitudes. It’s a fascinating question and we look forward to further research on this topic. The full set of results is very detailed, and you can read more in the article which is open access (registration required). 
What are your earliest memories of a pet?

Marshall, P.D., Ireland, M.E., & Dalton, A.A. (2015). Earliest memories of pets predict adult attitudes: phenomenological, structural and textual analyses Human Animal Interaction Bulletin, 3 (1), 28-51
Photos: Happy person (top) / Steve Design (both Shutterstock.com)

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08 April 2015

Why Do People Relinquish Large Dogs?

When someone gives up a large dog to a shelter, what are the usual reasons?

A happy pit bull dog in front of a mural

Research by Emily Weiss (ASPCA) et al looks at why people relinquish large dogs – and whether there are interventions that could have helped the animal stay in its home. The results show that people issues, rather than dog issues, are given as the main reason. They also highlight that owners have many good things to say about their dog, even as it is relinquished.

In the US, large dogs are at a greater risk of euthanasia than other dogs in shelters. This is partly because smaller dogs tend to be adopted more quickly. The researchers decided to focus on large dogs because they might benefit the most from schemes designed to prevent animal relinquishment.

For the purposes of this study, dogs were considered large if they looked like they weighed at least 40 pounds. People who surrendered dogs at shelters in Washington, DC, and New York City were asked to take part.

The scientists say, “our results refute a common myth that all people who relinquish their dogs do so without thought or care for the dog. Most people in our study took a long time to think before they relinquished the dog.”

Another common myth not supported by this study is the idea that it must be the dog’s fault it was relinquished. The scientists say, “The majority of people said that something had recently changed in their household that contributed to the decision to relinquish their dog, and when asked what had changed, the majority of responses had to do with people or housing issues. Very few were dog-related issues, such as behaviour or the cost of caring for the dog.”

In both cities, the top three reasons why people relinquished their dog were “people issues” (including the person’s health, finances and child-related issues), moving, and landlord issues. Behaviour issues and the dog’s health/expense came in fourth and fifth place.

The two things people liked most about their dog were its behaviour with people and its temperament/personality. People were also asked what information would be useful to share with someone thinking of adopting the animal. The responses include positive things, such as “loves to swim and play” and “likes to cuddle with me,” as well as negatives such as “not housetrained” or “chews on wire and wood.” 

The most common tactic used to find another home for the dog was asking friends and family. The person relinquishing the animal had been responsible for the decision, often with input from other family members. 

People came up with a wide range of options that may have helped them keep the animal, including low-cost support such as training, vet care and daycare, which was mentioned by 58% of participants in Washington DC and 48% in NYC. It’s interesting that training is included here, even though behaviour was not cited as the main reason people gave up their animal. In fact in NYC, after the main reason for relinquishment, behaviour was the most common secondary reason. 

Pet-friendly housing was mentioned by a quarter of participants in Washington, DC, and a fifth in NYC. Overall, just over half of people said they would have been able to keep their animal if some kind of appropriate help was available. This leaves plenty of scope for the development of programs aimed at preventing relinquishment, but still leaves a sizeable proportion who think they would have given up their dog anyway.

The two shelters that took part were the Washington Humane Society and the New York Animal Care and Control Bronx Pet Receiving Centre. People who were relinquishing large dogs were approached to take part after all the shelter paperwork was complete and the dog had been led away by shelter staff. 157 people took part, and there was no ‘typical’ stereotype of a person as they included a range of income & education levels. 

For the majority of participants, this was their only dog, but about a quarter had another dog (that they were keeping). Most of the dogs were not neutered (66% in NYC and 82% in D.C.) and most were of a bully-type, whether purebred or mixed. 

There were some differences in responses between the two shelters which suggests that intervention programs will work best if targeted to the local community.

If you have ever voluntarily surrendered a dog, you might be interested to take part in this online survey by the University of Lincoln. You can find more information about the study in this article by Julie Hecht

Weiss, E., Slater, M., Garrison, L., Drain, N., Dolan, E., Scarlett, J., & Zawistowski, S. (2014). Large Dog Relinquishment to Two Municipal Facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C.: Identifying Targets for Intervention Animals, 4 (3), 409-433 DOI: 10.3390/ani4030409 
Photo: InBetweenTheBlinks / Shutterstock.com

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01 April 2015

Companion Animal Psychology Turns Three!

Companion Animal Psychology is three years old

It’s three years since I started this blog. There’s been a post (almost) every week since – this is post number 156. I’ve covered topics as diverse as how to stroke a cat, an animal's right to walk away, issues with the use of shock collars, what young children learn from pets, and the meaning of pets to homeless youth. Highlights of the last year include an interview with Mia Cobb about her research on working dogs, and our most-read post of all time, Do dogs get that Eureka! feeling

At the heart of it all is a fascination with the human-animal bond, and a concern for the welfare of humans and their companion animals. If you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, please sign up to follow by email via the box in the top right.

One of the things that makes it all worthwhile is connecting with you, the reader, whether that’s directly through the blog or via social media. Thank you to all of you for your tweets, likes, comments and shares! 

We'll be celebrating with a glass of wine tonight. Whatever your beverage, cheers! 

Photo: Linn Currie (Shutterstock.com)

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