28 October 2015

Make Your Dog Happy: Enrichment

Easy ways to provide enrichment for your dog.

Enrichment ideas for happy dogs like this cute Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Although we love our canine friends, many dogs have a relatively boring life in which they spend a lot of time hanging around the house or yard, perhaps on their own. Dogs that are bored or under-exercised can easily find their own entertainment, which might not be so pleasing to their human companions. Luckily there are many easy ways to add enrichment to our dog’s lives.

Dog Walks

If you are one of those people who walks your dog whatever the weather, you may be surprised to learn that not everyone takes their pooch for walks. Estimates vary, but a recent meta-analysis found that only 59% of dog owners walk their dogs (Christian et al 2013). The obvious benefit is physical exercise for both dog and human. Remember to allow for sniffing time, because dogs like to spend time ‘reading’ all the local news with their nose. 

A less obvious reason to take your dog for walkies is that it provides ongoing socialization, as the dog has the chance to observe or interact with other people and dogs. It’s also been shown that walking the dog is a good way for people to make friends (Wood et al 2015).

If you like you can up the pace by taking your dog along when you go on a bike ride, or take up dog sledding, skijoring or canicross.

Easy ways to entertain your dog including food toys, walks and fetch

Food Toys

These are an easy way to make the provision of food more interesting for your canine friend. There are many excellent toys to choose from, including Kongs, Kong Wobbler, Nina Ottosson toys, Slo-Bowl feeders, and many many more. Some are designed for treats while others are suitable for a whole ration of kibble. 

A small study of feeding enrichment toys (the Kong Extreme) for dogs kept in kennels (Schipper et al 2008) found they increased exercise and appetitive behaviours, and decreased barking. 

Chew toys

Dogs love to chew and if they don’t have chew toys available then they might decide to chew on some of your items instead. So it’s better to teach them to chew their own toys.

Dogs can lose interest in toys over time (Pullen, Merrill and Bradshaw 2012), so it’s a good idea to give them new toys from time to time, have toys out on rotation, or play with the toy yourself to make it seem more interesting again.

Hanging out with canine friends

Many dogs are social creatures, and enjoy spending time with their canine friends, or even making new friends. This can be as simple as going for walks with a friend who also has a dog, to going to the dog park or letting your dog spend time at doggy day care.  

However, not all dogs are social. If your dog prefers not to meet other canines, find ways for him or her to have nice times outdoors without having to interact with other dogs. 

Fetch, Frisbee etc

If you teach your dog to fetch you will soon find out if you have a fetch-mad dog or not. Some dogs love it so much they never want to stop! All that running is also great exercise.

Cute little dog loves fetch, one of many ways to entertain your dog


Some dogs love to swim, and again this is good for physical exercise too. There may be ponds or lakes near you that are safe and suitable for swimming, or you might have a canine swimming pool nearby where your dog can take swimming lessons or go for physical therapy. A recent study by Tavares et al (2015) found that some Labradors will choose to spend time in the water over interactions with another dog, and suggests that the opportunity to swim may even be important for their welfare.

Sports and hobbies for dogs

These days there are many options for classes to try with your dog, including agility, obedience, flyball, nose work, Triebball, dock diving, and so on. Many people say they find that dog sports improve their bond with their dog, and that they love meeting fellow dog-lovers through these activities (Farrell et al 2015).

Training for rewards 

Reward-based training is another way to engage your dog’s brain. It’s easy to get started and you can train on your own at home, or take your dog to class (make sure it is a class that uses positive reinforcement, as there are no standards in dog training). See our first post in the ‘Make your dog happy’ series for more information. 

Your dog probably also enjoys just spending quality time with you.

Enrichment is about finding things that your dog will enjoy. Some of the activities listed are also beneficial to the human, and to the human-animal bond. 

What does your dog like to do?

Christian HE, Westgarth C, Bauman A, Richards EA, Rhodes RE, Evenson KR, Mayer JA, & Thorpe RJ Jr (2013). Dog ownership and physical activity: a review of the evidence. Journal of physical activity & health, 10 (5), 750-9 PMID: 23006510  
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  
Pullen, A., Merrill, R., & Bradshaw, J. (2012). Habituation and dishabituation during object play in kennel-housed dogs Animal Cognition, 15 (6), 1143-1150 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0538-2  
Schipper, L., Vinke, C., Schilder, M., & Spruijt, B. (2008). The effect of feeding enrichment toys on the behaviour of kennelled dogs (Canis familiaris) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 114 (1-2), 182-195 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.01.001  
Tavares, S., Magalhães, A., & de Sousa, L. (2015). Labrador retrievers are more attracted to water than to social stimuli: A pilot study Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.041  
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

Photo: Petr Lurch (Shutterstock.com)
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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.

25 October 2015

A Conversation with Carri Westgarth

Carri Westgarth and Francine Watkins new paper explores the perspectives of victims of dog bites. The results give important new insights into dog bite prevention. Carri kindly agreed to answer questions about her research on dog bites, dog walking, and puppies, and her own companion animals. 

A conversation with Carri Westgarth

How did you get interested in studying dog bite prevention?

Carri as a child; Top photo: Carri with her dogs Jasmyn and
Ben, and her friend's dogs Alfie and Zephyr
My mum might say it started as a toddler when she dashed upstairs to get a nappy and left me with two Jack Russell’s, one elderly and blind in one eye (sorry mum – she never has forgiven herself!).  I still have the scar on my forehead and a nice little bald patch. I initially wanted to be a vet, didn’t get into vet school, but after a zoology and genetics degree, worked various jobs in rescue and assistance dog training until I came back into academia. 

Through all this I developed a fascination with the relationship people have with their pets. I love animals (well at least my own) but am also perplexed as to what we put up with for the sake of what we get out of them. 

There are two sides to this relationship, a major issue being dog bites. My current research fellowship allowed me to study again, this time for a Masters of Public Health. I needed a topic for my dissertation, and for once I wasn’t bounded by what I could get funded. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity to pursue this topic, and I convinced Francine, a Public Health expert, to collaborate with me.

Your recent study involved detailed analysis of interviews with 8 women who had been bitten by a dog. Why is it so important to understand the victim’s perspective?

Carri at work. Photo: McCoy-Wynne
Once I actually looked around at the research on this, I couldn’t believe how little there was. As canine-minded professionals, we all think we know why people get bitten (because people do stupid things to dogs). So we try to educate them to make them less stupid at reading dog body language. 

However, nobody had ever asked victims why they thought they were bitten, and why they do stupid things to dogs. How can we begin to understand how to change people’s behaviour, unless we find out why they behave in this way?  I am very excited that I now have a new PhD student who will be taking the research further.

One of your findings is that people have a belief that “it won’t happen to me”. What do dog bite prevention campaigns need to do to get people to pay attention to their message?

This project has to be the most mind-blowing research experience I have ever had. Once I began talking to dog bite victims, I discovered that many of them were not necessarily doing stupid things to dogs at the time. If they were, they may well even recognise this. However, one of the key findings is that there was often a belief that ‘it wouldn’t happen to me’. As explained so eloquently by one of my interviewees, even though she knew she shouldn’t do that with that dog, the dog had even bitten her before, she still did it because she had some sort of trust with the dog, and with her own experience. She just didn’t think it would actually happen this time. 

Carri with Jasmyn
Therefore, we can try to educate people all we want, but if they don’t think THEY will get bitten, or THEIR dog will bite, they won’t take in that information or act on it. We need to develop messages that also address this somehow – show that it COULD happen to YOU! 

Some educational campaigns already illustrate that most bites happen in the home with the family pet, which is good. We might also be able to lend ideas from other campaigns which incorporate this approach, such as drink driving advertisements.

You said that "Reducing the damage caused when a dog does bite, through careful pet dog selection and training, is something we should aim for." How do we do this?

We might not always be able to prevent a dog bite from happening, unless people and dogs never interact (which would be terrible!). But I now appreciate more fully that injury prevention is also about damage limitation (think about car seat belts). There are two halves to addressing dog bite risk and maybe we don’t emphasise this side enough with current dog bite prevention initiatives. 

Roxie does agility
As well as educating ourselves about dog body language, we can also make choices about which dogs we own as pets and how we manage them within our particular families. I recognise that this may be a contentious area, but realistically we can be asking ourselves, who would we prefer to be bitten by? I think having a toddler and two dogs in the house has really made me think about this. Putting aside their personalities and capacity to enjoy children, and my ability to supervise and separate as appropriate, our bigger dog could simply do more damage than the small one, were one of them put in a position where they felt the need to bite him. Therefore I need to be mindful of this in how I manage them together. 

There is a role for breeders and shelters here to supply dogs to society that not only are less likely to bite, but will not cause a great amount of damage if they do bite. We can also train our dogs as puppies to control the strength of their bite, known as bite inhibition.

One of your earlier studies found that it’s important for people to see one or both parents before choosing a puppy. Can you tell me a bit more about why this matters?

Roxie's first birthday
That study found that dogs whose owners had met both parents of the dog when they selected the puppy, were much less likely to then be referred to a counsellor for behaviour problems later in life. We cannot rule out whether those owners were simply more experienced with dogs, but it plausibly backs up the notion that you should observe carefully that the parents of your puppy are friendly and sociable when you pick it. The best evidence of risk factors for aggression also points to genetics – aggression is inherited. So how you pick your puppy is also important for dog bite prevention; again we can make choices here that have an impact.

You also research dog walking, including your current project on “understanding dog ownership and walking for better human health.” How does the relationship between a person and their dog affect dog walking?

It’s great to be able to talk about the positive aspects of dog ownership too, because on the whole pets are more beneficial to our health than damaging. Studies have shown us that both adults and children who are more attached to their pet are also more likely to walk with it – great for the health of both people and animals. 

Carri at work. Photo: McCoy Wynne
However we don’t know what comes first; the relationship makes a person walk a dog or the relationship is built through walking the dog. I am exploring this at the moment, and I think it is probably a bit of both.

You’re a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and sometimes take animal behaviour cases or teach dog training classes. How does this experience influence your research?

Completely, and I feel all the practical experience I gained from working ‘dog jobs’ really feeds into my understanding of the minds of dog owners, and the usefulness of my research in policy and practice. Sadly I don’t have much time to do the practical side anymore, but when I became a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors I obviously talked to many people bitten by their dogs. These conversations were what gave me clues as to the complexity of the issue of dog bite prevention. It also showed me how much people love their animals and would do anything for them, because of the huge benefits they bring to their lives (once we have fixed the training problems!). The dogs and owners that I have worked with are my inspiration.

Tell me about the companion animals in your life.

Currently we are at two dogs, a cat and two axolotls, as well as there being many other dogs and cats in the ‘extended’ family. Jasmyn is a rescue stray spaniel-type crossbreed who has lived in 13 houses with me in her 13(ish) years; we’ve seen it all together. Roxie is our firstborn, a bit of a ‘designer dog’ (yes I will admit it!), a four year old pug crossed with a chihuahua and pomeranian mix (according to DNA testing). At the time she was going to be our third dog and we needed a dog who was small (to fit in the car) and cuddly (I was broody), but also agile and robust (to do agility and cope with two big dogs). Sadly Ben the reject farm collie passed away a few years ago. 

Left-to-right: Roxie, Jasmyn and Ben
Having a small dog after big ones (Jack Russell’s are honorary big dogs) has been a revelation, and I don’t think I will ever go back. The yapping is annoying but she is just as much ‘dog’ in an easier-to-manage package. And she fits in my lap more comfortably.

I would like more pets, but my husband says I don’t have the time! He’s probably right. I spend a lot of time thinking carefully about what our next dog might be though.

Thank you Carri!

You can follow Dr. Carri Westgarth on twitter and her dog walking project is also on facebook

Bio: Carri Westgarth studied Zoology and Genetics at the University of Liverpool before working in an animal rescue shelter and then as an Instructor for the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. She then returned to the University of Liverpool to complete a PhD funded by Defra, post-doctoral research funded by WALTHAM, and now holds a personal fellowship from the UK Medical Research Council. Based in the Institute of Infection and Global Health and also the School of Veterinary Science, her main research focus is the relationship between people and their dogs, and how this impacts their physical activity. She also has a Masters degree in Public Health and is interested in all public health issues surrounding companion animal ownership, including risk of dog bites. Carri has also spent time teaching dog training classes and conducting behavioural consultations and is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. Recently she became a Board Member of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Her mission is to maximise welfare and wellbeing for pets and their people.

Photos: Carri Westgarth unless otherwise stated.
Westgarth, C., & Watkins, F. (2015). A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog-bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.035 
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems Veterinary Record, 170 (20), 517-517 DOI: 10.1136/vr.100138

21 October 2015

A New Approach to Dog Bite Prevention

Strategies to prevent dog bites need to get past the belief that ‘it won’t happen to me.’

How to prevent the risk of dog bites illustrated by a worried Dachshund in her owner's arms

4.5 million people a year are bitten by a dog in the US, of whom 885,000 need medical attention (Gilchrist et al 2008). In England in the last year, there were 7,227 admissions to hospital for injuries due to dogs, over 3000 more than a decade earlier. Developing a better understanding of how to prevent dog bites is essential. 

A new paper by Carri Westgarth and Francine Watkins (University of Liverpool) suggests new directions for dog bite prevention. They interviewed 8 women about their experience of being bitten by a dog. Four of the participants had received medical attention for their bite, and six had also been bitten by a dog before. The results show that dog bites are a complex phenomenon. 

Dr. Westgarth told me, “the most important finding is the belief that it wouldn't happen to them, or that dog bites are just one of those things that happens and it's no big deal. People won't see the need to engage with (or apply) dog bite prevention initiatives without tackling these barriers, no matter how much 'dog behaviour' education we try to give.”

People blamed the owner, not the dog. For example, one participant said, “Yes, I’m to blame. I still hold that my reactions to his [dog] aggression are what caused the bite.”

In two cases, the person was not aware a dog was present until they were bitten (e.g. they were out jogging and a dog ran up and bit them).

Participants did not expect a bite. One spoke of how she felt as the situation with the dog ramped up: “A little bit nervous, because it was like two dogs jumping around there. But I still at that point didn’t think I was going to get bitten... Not for a moment did I think I was going to get bitten.”

Another person knew she was taking a risk, but still didn’t expect a bite: “Basically as he was asleep, I was reaching to grab the remote from near him and, I should have known better, and I knew he’d go for me but you kind of expect that when you’ve got that trust bond with your dogs that they maybe wouldn’t, even if you do something to upset them.”

If people don’t believe they are at risk of dog bites, then they are not likely to change their behaviour, say Westgarth and Watkins. 

A person teaching bite inhibition to a puppy to prevent risk from dog bites

Dog bites were also seen as one of those things that ‘just tend to happen’. For two participants the risk of bites was high, but they did not feel they could do much about it. One said of her dog, “She didn’t want me to do what I was doing. And she’d already told me not to. But I carried on.” This low self-efficacy is another barrier for dog bite prevention programs to overcome.

Reflections after the bite suggest people had learned from the incident. One said, “It just makes me more aware of what people have said to me, you know when I was younger, you know you don’t just go straight up to a dog and pat it on its head.” But despite this, the people who had been bitten by their own dog did not see a behaviourist or change the way they interacted with the dog.

Westgarth and Watkins say, “Rather than assigning fault to victims or owners and targeting ‘high-risk’ individuals, the focus should be on intervention at the population level: on creating a primary environment where dog bites are less likely to occur in the first place and minimising damage caused when dogs do bite.”

Strategies they suggest include focussing on realistic situations in education campaigns and using social contacts or social media to spread information. A wider focus for dog bite prevention includes borrowing ideas from other injury prevention campaigns, looking at where people get dogs and puppies, breeding, the importance of socialization and acquired bite inhibition, and dog training. 

For example, if puppies are taught bite inhibition (how not to apply too much pressure with their jaws), this reduces the amount of damage they will cause if they ever put teeth on skin.

Like the participants in this study, a tendency to “assume safety” around an unknown dog has also been found in parents (Morrongiello 2013) which is especially worrying because children are most at risk. These results are also consistent with a US report by Patronek et al (2013) into the very rare cases of fatal dogbites. Such cases were multi-factorial, typically with five (potentially preventable) contributing factors, including husbandry.

The paper is open access and can be read via the link below. I’m delighted to report that Dr. Carri Westgarth agreed to answer some questions about her research

Gilchrist, J., Sacks, J., White, D., & Kresnow, M. (2008). Dog bites: still a problem? Injury Prevention, 14 (5), 296-301 DOI: 10.1136/ip.2007.016220
Morrongiello BA, Schwebel DC, Stewart J, Bell M, Davis AL, & Corbett MR (2013). Examining parents' behaviors and supervision of their children in the presence of an unfamiliar dog: does The Blue Dog intervention improve parent practices? Accident; analysis and prevention, 54, 108-13 PMID: 23499982  
Patronek, G., Sacks, J., Delise, K., Cleary, D., & Marder, A. (2013). Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009) Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 243 (12), 1726-1736 DOI: 10.2460/javma.243.12.1726  
Westgarth, C., & Watkins, F. (2015). A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog-bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.035
Photos: ARENA Creative (top) and Tomasz Nieweglowski (both Shutterstock.com)

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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.

Companion Animal Psychology...

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, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk. (privacy policy)