29 July 2015

Should Vets Give Treats to Pets?

Do treats at the vet mean fewer bites and a less fearful pet?

A Persian cat being examined at the vet

Many companion animals are scared of visits to the vet. There is an established procedure for treating fear called desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) which involves feeding nice food in order to make something less scary. Yet many vets do not give treats to animals. A new paper by Karolina Westlund (Karolinska Institute) considers this reluctance, and looks at the evidence for and against.

Westlund says, “Veterinarians and veterinary assistants have a choice whether or not to use treats when interacting with their patients; indeed a DS/CC procedure could be started the moment the animal enters the waiting room, and continue during weighing, consultation and examination. Could it be that staff assess the potential costs involved in feeding treats, but not the costs involved in not doing so?”

If your pet has ever had to have a general anaesthetic, you’ll have heard the advice not to feed anything after 8pm the night before. The worry is that something called the gastro-oesophageal reflex might make the contents of the stomach leak up into the trachea, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia. However, this is a rare occurrence (she cites a figure of between 0.04% and 0.26% of postoperative cases). 

Westlund says many vets never give treats to pets during routine vet exams, just in case it turns out the animal needs anaesthesia or sedation. However, she says vets should consider the benefits as well as the risks. Giving treats would help make the animal less stressed, which in itself reduces the need for sedation. It also makes it safer for vets, who are less likely to get bitten. 

Another important benefit she mentions is it can give vets an opportunity to educate owners about how to deal with fear. This will be especially helpful for people whose animals are afraid of other things too (such as fireworks). Also, some people stop taking their animals to the vet altogether simply because the cat or dog is so afraid that it becomes difficult for them to do so. 

Another reason vets can be reluctant to feed treats is in case of causing a tummy upset, but Westlund suggests having a range of treats and checking with owners about food allergies first. Vets may also be concerned about promoting treats given the problems of overweight and obesity in pets. She suggests calling them ‘wholesome treats’ or ‘tasty food’ instead. This also provides another opportunity for client education. 

Westlund concludes that “the benefits to the animal, staff and owner outweigh the risks.” She also makes specific suggestions to help vets with concerns.

For many pets, treats at the vet will help them feel more comfortable. For animals with a bigger fear of the vet and/or being handled, a suitably qualified dog trainer or animal behaviourist would be able to develop a plan to resolve the problem. There is a lot of advice to make vet visits less stressful for dogs and cats

How do your pets find visits to the vet?

You might also like: Less stress at the vet for dogs and cats and eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

Westlund, K. (2015). To feed or not to feed: Counterconditioning in the veterinary clinic. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(5), 433-437.

Photo: 135pixels (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.

27 July 2015

1 Million Thank Yous

I’m delighted to say Companion Animal Psychology has now passed one million page views! Thank you, everyone, for your support and encouragement.

Companion Animal Psychology has passed one million page views!

In case you’re interested to know, the top 5 posts of the year so far are:

As always, if you have suggestions for future posts or there are topics you would really like to see covered, please let me know, either via the comments below or by email. 

Photo: Linn Currie (Shutterstock.com)

22 July 2015

Re-Arranging Metaphors for Dogs

The problems with the wolf pack metaphor go deeper than you think.

Two Basenjis on a sofa looking squashed together

One of the metaphors many dog trainers despair of is that of the wolf pack. According to this, you are supposed to be ‘leader of the pack’ to your dog, who is trying all the time to be ‘dominant’. The way you stop this is to be ‘dominant’ yourself which involves awful things like ‘alpha rolls’. It’s surprisingly pervasive. 

It is not really based on science but on a kind of folk science, of how wolf packs are believed to be, which does not bear much relation to reality.

The obvious problem with this is that being violent to your dog is not humane. Numerous studies show a correlation with the use of aversive training techniques and behaviour problems in dogs (e.g. Deldalle and Gaunet 2014; Herron, Shofer and Reisner 2009; Blackwell et al 2008). There are better ways to train than pinning your dog to the floor or hitting him on the nose.

Another problem is insidious in the way it affects people’s relationship with their dog. According to some of the people who use this metaphor, you are not supposed to let your dog on the bed or settee, or even get ahead of you on a walk, because then your dog would be ‘dominant’. What if you want your dog to sleep on the bed or cuddle on the settee with you? Isn’t it up to you?

The problem goes deeper still because metaphor is not just a figure of speech. It actually shapes our thoughts. Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say, “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” 

Eva Feder Kittay writes of metaphor as “re-arranging the furniture of the mind.” If we change the metaphor, we change how people think. 

The pack metaphor for dogs is outdated, as illustrated by a happy dog rolling on the carpet
Photo: Stockimo; top, Zanna Holstova (both Shutterstock)

So how might the pack metaphor affect our thinking? Not only are we equating dogs to wolves, but also ourselves as 'leader of the pack'. This is an example of the conceptual metaphor HUMANS ARE ANIMALS.

Being the pack leader seems to be a personal quality, a way of being that is akin to charisma. The pack leader is not a modern, transformational leader who leads by inspiration, but an old-fashioned one who relies on punishment when subordinates step out of line. Or even stares, growls at or pins a puppy preemptively. 

This is especially serious because you must never terrify a puppy; puppies need lots of positive socialization experiences.

The pack metaphor implies that sudden actions to assert dominance will make our dogs behave, when in reality training takes time and effort and food. The idea of a pack leader implies dogs must obey when we should give them choices in life (see The Right to Walk Away). And it seems to blame the victim if someone is having trouble with their dog; ‘they just aren’t assertive enough.’

We feel love and affection for our dogs, but this is missing from the pack metaphor.  And so is fun, because in pack-world you must either never play tug or never let your dog win. 

In contrast the family metaphor, by which we are dog moms and dads, puts love at the centre of our relationship with dogs. It implies we will take the time to teach our dogs how to behave. It implies our relationship is one of nurturing them and that even if we have problems, we will solve them – because we’re family. 

Some readers will say this is not a metaphor for them but literal, even if they are not implying personhood for their dogs. 

It’s time to ditch the language of packs. We need to re-arrange the furniture and consign the pack metaphor to gather dust in the attic. We can pick a different metaphor instead, and talk about the fact it takes a plan and practice and tasty treats to train a dog well. Because dogs are family, and our furry family members need love, training and walkies, not dominance

How do you like to think of your relationship with your dog?

Further Reading

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell E.J. and Casey, R.A. (2009) Dominance in dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4(3), 135-144
Bradshaw, J. (2011) Why dog trainers will have to change their ways. The Guardian 17th July 2011
Donaldson, J. (2009) Are dogs pack animals? The Academy for Dog Trainers Blog 
Eaton, B. (2011) Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?. Dogwise Publishing.
van Kerkhove, W. (2004) A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 7(4), 279-85.

You might also like:
How to choose a dog trainer
Do Dogs Prefer Petting or Praise?
The ultimate dog training tip

Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3(5), 207-217. DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
 Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 58-65 DOI: 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
Kittay, E.F. (1987) Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.

15 July 2015

Great Photos are Important to Dog Adoption

What if the adoption of shelter dogs could be sped up with better photographs?

A Black Labrador outside by a pond sits and looks up

The internet is an important part of animal adoptions. Animal shelters and photographers often have opinions as to what photographs should be like, but are they right? A new study by Rachel Lampe and Thomas Witte (Royal Veterinary College, Herts) studies the effect of photographs of black Labrador Retriever crosses on the length of time before they found a new home.

“Better photos may catch the eye of potential adopters and make the dog’s features and personality more visible," say Lampe and Witte.

Some of the things that photographers expect to make a difference, such as wearing a bandana, having a person in the photograph, having a toy, and having a visible tongue (akin to smiling) made no difference. 

For young dogs, the quality of the photograph was very important. A dog with a great quality photograph was typically adopted within 14 days compared to 43 days for a poor photo. If the dog was looking in the direction of the camera, it helped if he or she was actually making eye contact. Standing dogs were adopted faster than sitting dogs, but there was no difference for laying down.

In adult dogs, a photo taken outside led to an average adoption time of 37 days, compared to 51 for a photo indoors. Blurry and small photos led to a longer wait for a home. None of these made a difference to younger dogs, however. It’s also worth noting that for adult dogs, eye contact and standing or sitting did not relate to adoption time.

The study focused on one breed of dog so that only aspects of the photographs would have an effect. They identified 468 black Labrador Retriever crosses that were adopted via Petfinder in the United States during a period of about 18-months in 2011 and 2012. They split the dogs into young (255) and old (213) dogs.

Even though this study only looked at one type of dog, Lampe and Witte say, “these positive photo traits would apply to dog photos at large. This information can begin to be used to easily and cheaply help shelters increase the impact of their online advertising of dogs and to decrease how long the dogs stay in shelters.”

One of the nice things about this study is the large sample size and the fact the dogs came from across the United States. However, an even bigger sample size might have made a difference to some results. For example, only 10% of the dogs were wearing a bandana. Also it may be that some shelters put bandanas on dogs they think will be hard to adopt. So if you’re taking photos and you think a dog looks good in a bandana, go ahead. It seems like the most important thing is to focus on getting a great photo.

Future research that looks at the whole animal adoption experience, including the number of clicks on online photos, would be very helpful.

What are your tips for photographing dogs?

More posts about Labrador Retrievers:
Are all Labrador Retrievers the same?
The Labrador Lifestyle
If you lead a Lab to water, should you let them swim?

Lampe, R., & Witte, T. (2014). Speed of Dog Adoption: Impact of Online Photo Traits Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.982796
Photo: c.byatt-norman (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.

08 July 2015

Six Ways to Entertain Your Dog Indoors

Easy ways to tire out your dog when walks are limited.

How to entertain your dog with tug, tricks, and food toys

Lately my dogs have been getting fewer walks due to unusually hot weather and smoke from forest fires. You can beat the heat by walking in the early morning or late evening, and sometimes there is better air quality just down the road. But there are times when there’s no choice but to limit walks. Then what do you do? These ideas will help you to entertain your dog.

Feed your dog creatively

Your dog’s food does not have to arrive in a bowl, and getting creative with feeding is a lot of fun. Food dispensing toys like KONGs, the Pickle Pocket, or the Nina Ottosson puzzle toys can keep a dog busy. I think everyone has their favourite way of stuffing a Kong (feel free to share yours in the comments). 

The key with many of these toys is to get the difficulty level right for your dog so she doesn’t get frustrated or bored. Make it easy in the beginning, and only increase the difficulty gradually.

Feeding creatively doesn’t even require toys. If you have access to a garden, you can scatter your dog’s kibble on the lawn and let her hunt for it in the grass. Inside, scatter it on a rug or other surface.

Chew toys

Chew toys like the Nylabone, Goughnuts, Planet Dog Orbee Ball, or antlers will also keep your dog occupied. Be careful not to give your dog anything that might splinter or hurt them.

Easy ways to entertain your dog with tug, tricks and toys

Train your dog

Training with positive reinforcement engages your dog’s brain and can tire her out. This could be a good time to catch up on basic obedience training such as down or stay, or you could teach tricks such as play dead, wave, or say your prayers. If you want ideas for tricks, check out Kyra Sundance.

Don’t expect your dog to work for kibble – find something tasty she will want to work for. Small cubes of chicken work great! See the best dog training treats if you need some ideas.

Reward your dog quickly when she gets things right. Training works best if you follow a plan so you can break the behaviour into stages, starting with something that is easy and slowly building up. If you find your dog is struggling to keep up, make it easier for her and go back to an earlier stage.

Keep training sessions short and let your dog take a break if she gets tired. Dogs like learning and one study even found that dogs prefer to work to earn a reward than just receive the reward (McGowan et al 2014).


Put your dog’s nose to work! I sometimes do basic nose games with the dogs at the shelter where I volunteer. It is loads of fun, and you can do this in your living room. It works best if you have a second person to hide the treats, but if not, just make sure your dog can’t see where you put them.

You need small pieces of really nice food such as chicken, cheese, or meatballs (without onion). You also need several cardboard boxes or egg boxes to spread out around the room. While you distract the dog, your friend hides a piece of food in one of the boxes. Then your dog is free to hunt for it. If she wanders away from the boxes just gently make a noise to attract her back. She will soon get the idea that she is meant to search for the food.

As she gets better at finding the food, you can make it more difficult by turning boxes on their side or using different containers. The same principle applies as for training – keep it easy enough for your dog to stay interested.

People get into dog sports such as nosework for a range of reasons, including personal satisfaction and the experience of working with your dog (Farrell et al 2015). If you get the nosework bug, you can find out more or locate a class at k9nosework.com.

Playing tug with your dog

Is tug the best game ever from your dog’s perspective? It’s a great way to burn off some energy! 

In what must be one of the most enjoyable research studies ever, Nicola Rooney and John Bradshaw (2002) played tug with 14 Golden Retrievers. Each dog played 40 times; half of the time they were allowed to win and the other half they lost. The dogs were more involved in the game when allowed to win, so go on, let your dog win the game from time to time!

There are some rules to ensure safety. In Train Your Dog Like a Pro, Jean Donaldson lists four rules:

1. The dog should only take the rope when you invite them to. This means no one will get jumped on by an over-enthusiastic dog if they pick up the tug toy by accident. 

2. The dog should drop the rope when asked (some people prefer the cue “out” to “drop”). Let’s face it, “drop” is a really useful thing for your dog to know and this is a great opportunity to practise it often. 

3. This is an important one: no teeth! If you feel your dog’s teeth on you or your clothes, stop play immediately. Your dog will learn that this is not allowed.

4. Stop and re-start the game from time to time to keep practising the rules.

The cup game

All you need is three paper or plastic cups and some tasty treats. Turn the cups upside down, hide a treat under one of them, shuffle if you wish, and then let your dog choose a cup. Lift the one she chose (unless she already knocked it over). If the treat is there, she’s allowed to eat it! If not she gets another choice.

Need more ideas?

Some of these ideas work if your dog can’t walk for veterinary reasons, but others don’t. Use common sense and consult your veterinarian. The book, No walks? No worries!: Maintaining wellbeing in dogs on restricted exercise by Si├ón Ryan and Helen Zulch has lots of tips for dogs on restricted exercise.

How do you keep your dog entertained when walks aren’t possible?

Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and happy cats.

Donaldson, Jean (2010) Train Your Dog Like a Pro. Howell Book House.
Farrell, J., Hope, A., Hulstein, R., & Spaulding, S. (2015). Dog-Sport Competitors: What Motivates People to Participate with Their Dogs in Sporting Events? Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 28 (1), 61-71 DOI: 10.2752/089279315X1412935072201
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
Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2002). An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog–human relationship Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 75 (2), 161-176 DOI: 10.1016/S0168-1591(01)00192-7
Ryan, S., and Zulch, H.  with photographs by Baumber, P. (2014) No walks? No worries!: Maintaining wellbeing in dogs on restricted exercise Dorchester: Hubble & Hattie.
Photos: Mike Focus (top) & Dora Zett (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.

01 July 2015

Happy Canada Day! and Summer Reading

Happy Canada Day! The best blogs for summer reading

Happy Canada Day! The photograph shows a Boston Terrier on a kayak in Banff National Park.

If you’re looking for some reading to enjoy on a lazy summer’s day, here are some favourites from around the internet.

Dog Training 
Caveat emptor is only effective if the buyer is actually aware of what to beware,” writes Maureen Backman in Caveat Emptor: Bringing Consumer Protection to Dog Training 

Does your dog's jumping up cause you to forget your manners? asks Sylvie Martin of CrossPaws Dog Training. 
Not All "Choices" are Equal. It matters what the choices are, says Eileen Anderson.

Given a choice between petting and verbal praise, what does your dog choose? Less Talk More Touch, explains Erica Feuerbacher, PhD, in this guest post for Do You Believe in Dog. 
Stanley Coren, PhD, looks at a 2004 study in Effectiveness of Rewards and Punishments in Dog Training 
Marc Bekoff, PhD, reviews Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s new book in The Kindness of Dogs: New Book Explains Why Cesar’s GottaGo 
Make yourself a cup of tea before sitting down to read this long and thoughtful post from Simon Gadbois, PhD. 51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance”and “Punishment”

Separation Anxiety?
Dr. Meredith Stepita has written a series about separation anxiety for the Decoding Your Pet blog. It starts with The Great Imitator? 
Is it useful to label separation anxiety as mild or severe? Malena DeMartini writes about this question in How Serious is it and Does it Matter? 
On Separation Anxiety  by Lori Nanan at Your Pit Bull and You writes about the heartbreak of separation anxiety in dogs, and the dedication of owners in finding a solution.

Dog Bite Prevention:
Can dog bite prevention actually prevent dog bites? Julie Hecht writes about what we know about preventing dog bites, with a list of resources. 

And in This Dog Bite “Fact” Could Get You In Trouble, Julie Hecht sheds light on a problematic myth. She says "Taking dog bites seriously means not painting some dogs in rosy, "that dog could never bite" glasses and others in tinted "biter" glasses."

“Muzzles don’t have to mean a prison sentence for a life bereft of enrichment.” In Elevating Muzzle Training to a Higher Standard by Maureen Backman at the Muzzle Up! Project.

What are the legal liabilities if you adopt a dog from a 'rescue' that doesn't do behavioural assessments, and the dog subsequently bites someone? "nothing quite prepares the owners of these unvetted aggressive dogs for what's to come" writes Dr. Rebecca Ledger in the Vancouver Sun

Wider Reading:
Why Don't Dogs Like Cats? John Bradshaw, PhD, asks whether dogs and cats are natural enemies and explains how to socialize kittens and puppies so they are friends.

“it appears that, much like dog owners, veterinarians are markedly under-diagnosing obesity in their canine patients” writes Linda Case in Weigh In On This

 “The message from wildlife officials is that residents in coyote country need to adapt.” Coyotes Create Dangers and Divisions in New York Suburbs by Lisa W. Foderaro 

“Even those who have spent their lives working with animals have to decide whether their future will include pets” Retirees deciding whether new lifestyle will include pets  by Sue Manning.  

Sadly our pets have short lives. In Encounters With Dead Pets: A Study of the Evolution of Grief  Hal Herzog, PhD, considers whether there is an evolutionary purpose for the experience of grief.

Did you know half of cats in America don't have regular trips to the vet? Your Cat's Visit to the Vet Starts at Home, says Ingrid King

And do you also wonder why cat videos are so popular? Bethany Brookshire, PhD, explains a recent study in The Guilty Pleasure of Funny Cat Videos

"likely the best PR campaign for cats is carried out by cats themselves" says Steve Dale in The Real Truth About Cats

Catch up on Jessica Perry Hekman's visit to the fox domestication project in Novosibirsk.

"The turnspit [dog] was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it cooked evenly" Some 16th century canine history covered by The Kitchen Sisters in Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur

Ever wondered why wet dogs smell? Find out in this video from the American Chemical Society. (Thanks to Malcolm Campbell's Morsels for the Mind for this and the above link)

Patricia McConnell, PhD, asks Why Do Dogs Roll in Disgusting Stuff? like fox faeces.

Pica is eating non-food items, something many cats (and other animals) do. In Here’s Looking at Chew, Mikel Delgado reviews a recent study investigating pica in cats. 

Since it’s Canada Day, if you want to catch up on some Canadian research on people and pets, you could start here with these links from the Companion Animal Psychology archives:

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth on research by Michelle Lem (University of Guelph)

Are Seniors More Satisfied with Life if they have Pets?  on research by Chelsea Himsworth (UBC) and Melanie Rock (Calgary University)

Homeless Cats in Canada on a report by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.

And Should you take your dog to the dog park? on a study by Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier et al (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

Enough Reading, I Want To Take Part in Some Science!!!
Then Julie Hecht has all the links you need in this list of canine science projects looking for participants. Mail Your Dog’s Poop for Citizen Science 

Photo: C_Gara (Shutterstock.com)

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