27 May 2015

Where Do People Get Information About Dog Training?

Can people be blamed for dog training mistakes when there is so much erroneous information out there?

A happy Terrier wears a pink harness and lounges on the grass

Recently I saw a man walking a German Shepherd. Even from a distance it was clear the dog was nervous: his posture was low to the ground and the way he was walking made me wonder what kind of equipment he was on. As I waited at the traffic lights, I got a chance to see: a prong collar, tight, positioned high on his neck.

There are easy alternatives, the simplest being a no-pull harness. I began to wonder: did the man not know there were other approaches? Did he not want to invest time in training loose-leash walking? Or did he think it looks good to have a big dog on a prong collar?

While I don’t know his line of reasoning, we do know something about sources of training information. A recent survey of canine behavioural problems by Pirrone et al (2015) in Italy included a question about where people got information on dog training. 55% of respondents gave the answer, ‘myself’. This was broken down into two groups: 13% of dog owners who got their information ‘instinctively’, and 42% who got it from the web, TV or a book.

The internet is a great source of both information and misinformation about dog training and animal behaviour. The same applies to TV shows and books, some of which are wonderful and others not so much. It’s hard for readers and viewers to separate fact from fiction, especially when there is so much conflicting advice.

The other interesting thing to note about this answer, ‘myself’, is that it suggests most people do not discuss their dog’s behaviour with others, whether that is friends, family or vets. (In fact only 0.5% reported asking other dog owners).

35% of people said they got information from a dog trainer, and 6% from a veterinarian. So are they safe if they ask a dog trainer? Sadly there are no standards in dog training, so responses could vary from dire to excellent. It’s not a surprise that vets came low on the list, as a study by Roshier and McBride found vets can miss opportunities to discuss behaviour problems with their clients, and many clients think this isn’t an appropriate topic for the vet.

An earlier study by Herron, Shofer and Reisner included questions about people’s source of information for particular techniques and also found ‘self’ rated highly. Looking specifically at choke and prong collars, however, 66% said it was recommended by a trainer, while 21% credited themselves and 15% a friend or relative with the idea. In fact this was the second most common piece of advice to be credited to a trainer, after forcing the dog down with a leash at 70%. Both of these methods were categorized as "direct confrontation" by the authors. (More positively, the reward-based techniques of clicker training and teaching ‘look’ or ‘watch me’ were third on the list as trainer-recommendations). 

Dog training methods and side effects
So is it lack of knowledge that causes people to use aversive training techniques? An Australian survey by Branson, Cobb and McGreevy found that only 6% of trainers of working dogs have a formal certification and 52% have no training at all. In other words, half of the trainers who responded to the survey do not even have on-the-job training. These are people training dogs for a range of law enforcement, protection, customs, search-and-rescue, farming, sports, and service roles. 

The same survey found the use of correction and electric shock collars was far more common amongst those with no training certification. Those with better education levels were more likely to use positive reinforcement.

Learning theory is a dog trainer’s bread and butter – or at least it should be. How can you do a good job of training without an understanding of how dogs learn?

Another issue is that people may genuinely not realize when their dog is stressed. Wan et al found experience with dogs is an important factor in people’s ability to recognize fear. 

When Deldalle and Gaunet compared the effects of positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement (which uses aversives), they found dogs in the latter group were more stressed and looked less at their owners. The signs of stress included lowered body posture, lip-licking, and yawning. These could be missed by people who don't know what to look for.

Which brings us back to the beautiful German Shepherd that was showing all three of these signs. There is a real need for better education about dog training. Without it, people will continue to use out-dated, inappropriate and even dangerous methods. 

If you’re looking for a dog trainer, here are some questions to ask from The Academy for Dog Trainers, as considered by three excellent trainers: Maureen Backman, Lori Nanan and Helen Verte.

And here is my own advice on how to choose a dog trainer.

The good news is that the push for humane training methods is gaining momentum. 

Branson, N., Cobb, M., & McGreevy, P. (2009). Australian Working Dog Survey Report Australian Animal Welfare Strategy Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of two training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9 (2), 58-65 : http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004  
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  
Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Mazzola, S., Vigo, D., & Albertini, M. (2015). Owner and animal factors predict the incidence of, and owner reaction toward, problematic behaviors in companion dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.004  
Roshier, A., & McBride, E. (2012). Canine behaviour problems: discussions between veterinarians and dog owners during annual booster consultations Veterinary Record, 172 (9), 235-235 DOI: 10.1136/vr.101125  
Wan, M., Bolger, N., & Champagne, F. (2012). Human Perception of Fear in Dogs Varies According to Experience with Dogs PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051775
Photo credit: Terry Watt (Shutterstock.com)  
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. 

20 May 2015

Pets: Building Community One Friend at a Time

Even indoor pets help us get to know other people, according to new research in four cities in the US and Australia.

Two female friends walk three dogs along the beach

It’s easy to see how people who regularly walk their dog can get to know others. They might strike up friendly conversations about dogs, or learn to avoid certain people because of the way their off-leash dog charges up with unwanted “friendly” advances. It’s less obvious for people who don’t walk their dogs, or who have pets that are always indoors. But a new study by researchers at the University of Western Australia and Harvard University finds that pets are an important way of getting to know and make friends with other people.

Lead author Lisa Wood told me in an email, 
There is growing evidence that social isolation, loneliness and lack of social support are common issues in today's cities and suburbs, and these can take a negative toll on  our health and wellbeing. Companion animals can however be an antidote to this, as they often create opportunities for us to meet other people. Animals can break the ice between strangers and are a great social leveller, as people of all ages and races can feel that they have something in common.   
“Whilst it might just start with saying hello to someone with a companion animal, our research indicates that this often leads to friendships and can strengthen sense of community.  Pets can introduce us to people we wouldn't have met otherwise, and this broadens our networks of social support. Such social connectedness and social support is good for our health as individuals and as a community.”  

The most common ways of getting to know other people were being neighbours and via local streets/parks. But for pet owners, their pet was the third most common way in San Diego, Nashville and Perth, and the fourth most common in Portland. (It’s important to note this question was asked before any questions about pets, so these responses were not primed by the researchers).

Among the 59% of people who had a pet, about half said they had got to know someone through their pet. And compared to other pet owners, those with dogs were 5x more likely to have met someone this way. 

One person said, “Lots of folks in this neighbourhood own and walk dogs. The dogs insist on meeting and greeting, and their humans follow suit. It has caused me to be more social than is my inclination.”

A ginger cat looks out of a window
But some of the ways in which pets facilitated getting to know people are surprising. For example, one person said, “Their children are interested in seeing the snake and we never let children come in without parent permission. So before anyone can see the snake or handle the snake we need to have met the parents and had it okayed with them.”

While a cat owner had an interesting situation with socks: “The cat steals people’s socks from their houses, and then I return them. It’s a good way to get to know people. They all think it’s hilarious.” 

42% of pet owners had received some kind of social support, such as emotional support or borrowing an item, from someone they met via their pet. Again, this was more likely for dog owners. 

This is an important finding because social support from other people has important psychological and physical benefits. While previous research shows that animals themselves can provide social support, this study found that animals play a role in facilitating social support from other people.

One of the ways even indoor pets can help to build friendship is through the discovery of common interests. Learning that someone else has an animal too can show they are similar to us, in much the same way people can bond over music or gardening.

2692 people took part in the survey in Perth in Australia and San Diego, Portland, and Nashville in the US. The American cities were chosen for their similarities to Perth in terms of climate, geography, density and housing type. Because summer is a time when people are more often out-and-about with their pets, the survey was conducted in autumn, namely April – June for Perth and September – December in the United States.  

Dogs were the most common pet, then cats, fish and birds. 

Some of the great things about this study are its large sample size, the design of the questionnaire and the mixed-method approach that included the chance for people to share personal experiences. Since the cities were chosen for their similarity, it will be interesting to see if these results are also found in other locations, both rural and urban. 

The results suggest that urban planners, local councils and community organizations should take account of the role of pets in building community.

Have you made friends through your pet?

P.S. Reading to dogs may improve literacy and are dogs good for our health?

Wood, L., Martin, K., Christian, H., Nathan, A., Lauritsen, C., Houghton, S., Kawachi, I., & McCune, S. (2015). The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support PLOS ONE, 10 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122085
Photos: 938738673 / OksanaAriskina (both Shutterstock.com)  

13 May 2015

6 Reasons to Love Canine Science

Recent years have seen a blossoming of the field of canine science. Here are some reasons to love it.

Because dogs are amazing, and science proves it!

We love our dogs, and fMRI studies show how important people are to dogs (their caudate lights up on smelling a familiar human, Berns et al 2014). Dogs can learn to follow pointing gestures,  will try to comfort a crying stranger and respond to the sound of a baby crying. Chaser the border collie knows 1000 words. And we mustn’t forget how amazing the dog’s nose is (part of a series of four by Julie Hecht). Canine science even studies how dog's close relations, hand-reared wolves interact with humans (Gácsi et al 2013) and even get attached to them (Hall et al 2015).

It helps us train our dogs better

Dog training relies on well-established techniques of operant and classical conditioning, but more recent research specific to dogs and their owners can also help improve our training technique. Many studies show an association between the use of punitive techniques and behaviour problems such as aggression (e.g.  Casey et al 2013; Herron et al 2009; Rooney and Cowan 2011). Studies also show the importance of timing, that dogs prefer food over petting and praise (Feuerbacher and Wynne 2012), that the type of treat matters, and even that dogs love to work to earn a reward (McGowan et al 2014).

It’s important for canine welfare

Science can help improve the welfare of dogs in many ways. It tells us the importance of socializing puppies (e.g. Morrow et al 2015; Freedman et al 1961), can help increase the rate of adoption of shelter dogs (e.g. Siettou et al 2014; Protopopova and Wynne 2014), explain how anti-depressants work in dogs and learn how to recognize signs of abuse in order to better help neglected dogs in future. It can tell us how to improve the welfare and performance of working dogs and even about providing enrichment for wolfdogs and wolves in sanctuaries.

… and important for our welfare too

Strictly speaking, a lot of this research is psychology, psychiatry or medicine, but there’s plenty of it investigating if dogs (and other companion animals) are good for our health, whether that’s the physical benefits of getting out for a walk with a dog, animal-assisted therapy for adolescents with psychiatric problems, or how to avoid getting bitten by the family dog (because dogs don’t bite out of the blue). And it’s not just dogs that have benefits – it could be guinea pigs in the classroom  (O’Haire et al 2013a, 2013b) or even a therapy llama. Also – and this goes back to how amazing dogs are – specially trained dogs can warn their owners of hypoglycaemia (Rooney et al 2013) or impending migraines.

The story of dogs is our story too

The story of how dogs evolved from wolves takes us back to our own pre-history, and so it tells us the story of how we came to be here. On a shorter timescale, our interactions with animals shape our story too: children with pets have a better understanding of biological concepts, and our earliest memories of pets may influence adult attitudes to animals.

You and your dog can take part

Canine scientists everywhere are looking for participants for their research. Some want dogs to attend their lab, e.g. to be trained to go in an MRI at Emory University, while others just need you to fill out a questionnaire from the comfort of your own sofa, as with this University of Lincoln study described by Julie Hecht. If you want to find a study to take part in, people who often tweet links to studies include this blog (@CompAnimalPsych), Mia Cobb and Julie Hecht (@DoUBelieveinDog, @DogSpies) and Fernanda Fadel (@ferrufa). And we can all watch SPARCS next month.  

These are six reasons, but we’ve only scratched the surface. What do you love about canine science?

You might also like: Why science matters to our dogs and cats and canine science is better than common sense

Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2015). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors Behavioural Processes, 110, 37-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011
Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003
Freedman, D., King, J., & Elliot, O. (1961). Critical Period in the Social Development of Dogs Science, 133 (3457), 1016-1017 DOI: 10.1126/science.133.3457.1016
Gácsi, M., Vas, J., Topál, J., & Miklósi, �. (2013). Wolves do not join the dance: Sophisticated aggression control by adjusting to human social signals in dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145 (3-4), 109-122 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.02.007
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
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
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
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
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
O'Haire, M., McKenzie, S., McCune, S., & Slaughter, V. (2013). Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities with Guinea Pigs in the Primary School Classroom Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 26 (3), 445-458 DOI: 10.2752/175303713X13697429463835
O'Haire, M., McKenzie, S., McCune, S., & Slaughter, V. (2013). Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities with Guinea Pigs in the Primary School Classroom Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 26 (3), 445-458 DOI: 10.2752/175303713X13697429463835
Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. (2014). Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 157, 109-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.007
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007
Rooney, N., Morant, S., & Guest, C. (2013). Investigation into the Value of Trained Glycaemia Alert Dogs to Clients with Type I Diabetes PLoS ONE, 8 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0069921
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.

06 May 2015

Loss of a Dog: The Importance of Social Support

New research finds that losing a pet dog is a stressful life event.

A pug fast asleep

Sooner or later, all pet owners have to face the realization that the lives of our animals are far too short. Grieving for a lost pet is further complicated by some people who fail to understand what a pet means. Comments like, “It was just a dog” can be very hurtful. A new study by Lilian Tzivian (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) et al investigates the psychological effects of pet loss.

The study compared 103 dog owners who had been bereaved in the previous 2 – 4 weeks with 110 owners who currently have a dog, and who had not suffered a pet loss in the previous two years. The cut-off of two years was chosen to ensure that people in this group were not grieving an earlier pet. 

Amongst the bereaved owners, 89% had had their dog euthanized due to illness, and 9% due to an accident.

Although the results will not surprise those for whom pets are family, they may surprise others who do not have an attachment to a pet.The recently-bereaved owners had higher levels of stress overall.  They also had lower ratings for quality of life. 

The authors write, 
“The levels of Quality of Life in three of the four Quality Of Life domains (Physical, Psychological and Relationship) of current owners were significantly better than the levels among bereaved owners. These findings reflect the negative contribution to well-being of losing a dog…”

Social support was found to be an important factor affecting quality of life, with lack of social support proving negative for bereaved owners. 

The scientists write, 
“In the case of mourning for a person, social support is very common and expected, but when a pet dies people do not always grasp the depth of the bereaved owner’s sadness. Lack of social support in the case of death of a companion animal may strongly affect owner’s grief reactions.”

They also say that the dog himself (or herself) may have previously been a source of social support to the bereaved owner.

The study involved standardized questionnaires that measure stress and quality of life. The Physical quality of life questionnaire measures ability to function, sleep and work, while the Psychological scale measures feelings, self-esteem and enjoyment of life. Relationships refers to people’s friendships and relationships with other people. Only the Environmental aspect, to do with finances, physical safety and the home was unaffected in bereaved owners.

All of the participants were female and living in Israel. In an earlier study, the researchers had few male participants and so they decided to concentrate on women. Although many studies include more women than men, this raises interesting questions about whether the expression of grief over a pet is perceived as more acceptable for women than men.

All of the dogs lived indoors and were kept as pets, not working dogs. The bereaved owners were recruited via veterinary clinics who verified the pet loss, whereas the other group were recruited by different sources. Although many demographic variables were similar across both groups, there were some significant differences. The bereaved owners tended to be older and more were parents. Amongst the current owners there was a higher proportion of students and more had never been married.

This is in fact a limitation to the study. Because the two samples were not matched, differences could potentially be due to other factors. However this does not affect the finding that levels of social support were important amongst bereaved owners.

The study is a useful step in understanding the effects of losing a pet on people’s psychological health. The results confirm what many pet owners already know, that losing a pet is a stressful life event. Perhaps this will help those who don’t have a special bond with animals to understand.

What kind of support have you found helpful when coping with the loss of an animal?

Tzivian, L., Friger, M., & Kushnir, T. (2015). Associations between Stress and Quality of Life: Differences between Owners Keeping a Living Dog or Losing a Dog by Euthanasia PLOS ONE, 10 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121081
Photo: Muh (Shutterstock.com)

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