30 March 2016

Let's Celebrate! Companion Animal Psychology Turns 4

It’s time to party!

It is four years since I created Companion Animal Psychology. 

I started the blog in order to explore people’s relationships with their pets. One aim is to provide evidence-based information on how to care for and train our companion animals. Another is to bring the best scientific research on people and their pets to a wider audience. While there are many more excellent studies than I’m able to cover, I love to write about research that has the potential to make a difference to animal welfare and to the lives of people who interact with pets. 

The most popular post written in the last twelve months is re-arranging metaphors for dogs, while my most-read post of all time remains whether dogs get that Eureka! feeling?, with 17.6k shares (and still counting). Other popular articles from the last year include how audiobooks can help shelter dogs, six ways to entertain your dog indoors, and make your dog happy: train force free. Cats are not forgotten with proof the internet helps cat adoptions and education about cats may reduce feline behaviour problems
I try to publish every Wednesday, and while I occasionally have to miss a week – like everyone, real life sometimes gets in the way – this is my 208th post.

The past year has seen Companion Animal Psychology chosen by Science Borealis as one of the 2015 editor’s picks, and they kindly published an interview with me earlier this year. I also recently graduated with honours from the Academy for Dog Trainers

I am grateful to all of my readers for the support and encouragement, and all the likes and shares on social media. As always, if there are topics you would like to see covered, please feel free to drop me a note. And why not help me celebrate by sharing your favourite post from the last four years?

Here, it’s time for coffee and cake, and the cats and dogs will get treats too. I hope you all have a marvellous day. Cheers!

Photo: Jaromir Chalabala (Shutterstock.com)

23 March 2016

Canine Stress in the Vet's Waiting Room

Almost 30% of dogs are highly stressed in the waiting room, but owners don’t necessarily know if their dog is stressed or not.

A busy waiting room at the vet  is a stressful experience for dogs

Some dogs show signs of stress in the waiting room at the vet, according to a study by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al, but there are some surprises in the results. 45 healthy dogs and their owners each came for a scheduled appointment at the vet, where they spent 3 minutes in the waiting room. The dogs were videoed while owners completed a questionnaire. Later, a veterinary behaviourist also rated the dogs based on the video.

According to owners, 44% of the dogs experienced ‘low’ stress in the waiting room, 27% were at a ‘medium’ level, and 29% were rated as highly stressed. The behaviourist said 42% had ‘low’ stress, 29% ‘medium’ and 29% ‘high’. It looks like almost perfect agreement – except they didn’t agree on which dogs were stressed.

And here’s where it gets interesting, because the researchers coded the videos for specific stress behaviours. It turns out the owners noticed overt signals of stress, because when dogs tried to hide or to leave the waiting room they were rated as highly stressed. However, owners apparently did not notice other signs.

In addition to these obvious signals, the veterinary behaviourist also rated dogs as highly stressed if they were trembling, had lowered ears and a low tail. The VB’s ratings correlated closely with the amount of time the dogs showed stress signals and the number of signals, but owner ratings did not. 

You would expect a veterinary behaviourist to give more accurate ratings because of their prior training, but this shows the need to educate people about signs of stress in dogs. If owners are missing stress at the vet, where they might expect their dog to be stressed, they are likely also missing it at other times. 

Science shows dogs are even stressed in the vet's waiting room, like this beautiful Briard

When it was time to go to the consultation room, some dogs tried to refuse by not moving. The VB had successfully identified many of these dogs as highly stressed, but owner ratings were not linked to this behaviour.

The videos showed that more than half of the dogs showed at least four signs of stress in the waiting room. The most common were nose licking, panting, lowered ears, crying, grooming, and yawning. Statistical analysis grouped all the signs into five categories: passive avoidance, active avoidance, high anxiety, high arousal, and medium anxiety.

Another interesting finding is that according to the owners, 58% of dogs knew they were going to the vet before they got there.  

During the study, the waiting room was empty except for a person operating the video camera. Few of the dogs had previously been hospitalized or had a painful condition, but 76% were said by the owners to have some situations when they got stressed.

If your dog is afraid at the vet, you can comfort them (the idea that you shouldn’t is a myth). You might also like to take tasty treats (like chicken or cheese) to the vet with you, to help your pet have a positive experience. There is also a Fear Free vet movement started by Dr. Marty Becker

Does your dog find vet visits stressful?

Mariti, C., Raspanti, E., Zilocchi, M., Carlone, B., & Gazzano, A. (2015). The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic Animal Welfare, 24 (3), 299-305 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.24.3.299
Photos: Monkey Business Images (top) and Aleksandr Junek Imaging s.r.o. (Shutterstock)
You might also like:
Should vets give treats to pets?
Discussion of dogs’ behavioural problems at the vet
The surprising history of veterinary medicine for dogs and cats

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16 March 2016

The Effects of Seeing Animal Abuse on Children's Mental Health

For children who live in a situation of domestic violence, also witnessing animal cruelty may negatively impact resilience.

Portrait of a sad pug

New research by Shelby McDonald (Virginia Commonwealth University) et al (2016) looks at the effects of seeing animal abuse on children’s psychological health in a context where they already witness intimate partner violence. Last week I reported on a study by McDonald et al (2015) that found a quarter of children whosemothers experience domestic violence also see their pet threatened or abused, and that most often the child says the motivation is to control the mother. Since pets are often sources of social support for children, this may be especially traumatic; the effects of this are the focus of the new study.

Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at risk of psychological problems, and yet some children are surprisingly resilient. One aim of McDonald’s (2016) study was to explore patterns in how children function when there is a family context of domestic violence. Secondly, they wanted to find out about the risk factors for not doing well, and specifically whether being exposed to cruelty to pets in the home worsens children’s mental health.

An ethnically-diverse sample of 291 children aged 7 – 12 took part. They were recruited through their mother’s use of domestic violence services in one state in the US, and they all had a family pet at home. On average, the women had been experiencing domestic violence for nine years.

Each mother and child completed questionnaires. The child’s exposure to animal cruelty was assessed via questions that asked the mother whether her partner had “ever threatened to hurt or kill a family pet” and if he had “ever actually hurt or killed a family pet.”

The results found that children could be grouped into three categories depending on how well they were coping: Resilient, Struggling, and Severe Maladjustment. Children in the group with the most problems (Severe Maladjustment) were much more likely to have experienced animal cruelty in the home. This shows how important it is to have a better understanding of how exposure to animal abuse affects children. 

Dr. Shelby McDonald told me, “we examined six domains of adjustment among children exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV): social problems, attention problems, internalizing behavior, externalizing behavior, empathy, and callous/unemotional traits. Our results provided support for three distinct profiles of socioemotional functioning in our sample: Resilient (66%; n=191), Struggling (28%; n=83), and Severe Maladjustment (6%; n=17). 

In the context of human-animal interactions research, the most important thing to note is that children exposed to animal cruelty were 3.26 times more likely to be in the “struggling” group and 5.72 times more likely to be in the “severe problems” group compared to the reference group of resilient children (however, these estimates must be interpreted with caution due to the large confidence intervals).  

“This finding pertaining to the significance of children’s exposure to animal cruelty is important and suggests that the identification of animal maltreatment among families receiving IPV services has important implications for the mental health and well-being of children. Including questions about companion animals in assessments for families impacted by IPV may help distinguish children at greater risk for psychological maladjustment. 

“Despite the fact that approximately 68% of households in the United States report owning a companion animal and a notable 85% consider pets to be a member of the family, routine integration of questions about pets in the family are not consistently implemented in clinical settings or community agencies that provide family services. 

“Questions about animals in the household can be easily integrated into intake and assessment procedures in a variety of settings (e.g., child protective services, schools, mental health clinics, crisis hotlines, domestic violence shelters) in order to expand the ecological lens from which practitioners approach working with family systems.”

Although the study does not prove a causal relationship between children's experiences of seeing animal cruelty and poor mental health, it has important implications for practice. The full paper is available via the link below or researchgate and is essential reading for anyone working in this field. 
McDonald, S., Graham-Bermann, S., Maternick, A., Ascione, F., & Williams, J. (2016). Patterns of Adjustment among Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: a Person-Centered Approach Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma DOI: 10.1007/s40653-016-0079-y

09 March 2016

Children's Experiences of Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse

24% of children whose mothers experience domestic violence also see threats to or abuse of companion animals, research shows.

A beautiful but sad black and white kitten with wide eyes

Every year in the US, 1 in 15 children is exposed to intimate partner violence, according to a national survey. Research by Shelby McDonald (Virginia Commonwealth University) et al finds many also witness abuse of pets in the home, potentially adding to the impacts on their behaviour and mental health.

The researchers interviewed children age 7 – 12 whose mothers had used domestic violence services in the past year. Of 242 children, a quarter had seen someone threaten to or actually injure/kill a pet. They analyzed the data from this group to find out more about the animal abuse these children saw. 

The results show the patterns of animal abuse that children describe as happening in the home, the different family members involved, and the reasons children give as to why it occurs. For children who witness this, it may be especially traumatic, since pets can be a form of social support during difficult times.

Dr. Shelby McDonald told me, “Children experience close bonds with companion animals and rely on pets as a way of managing stress. In the context of high stress, unpredictable environments such as a households experiencing family violence, pets may serve as security-providing attachment figures, offering comfort, consistency, and support to children who are coping with adverse environments. 

“In addition, positive interactions with pets and caring for pets in the home may provide important opportunities for children to build self-esteem, develop empathy, and increase social interactions with peers and members of their community. 

“Thus, the presence of a pet in the home may function as a protective factor that helps buffer the impact of IPV [intimate partner violence] on the child.  Certainly, the protective impact of having a beloved pet in the home would likely be compromised if the pet were being abused in the context of multidirectional family violence.”

The researchers found three contexts in which animal abuse occurred. Most commonly, the mother’s partner threatened or hurt the pet as a way to frighten and control the mother. For example, one boy said, “When my mom and I do not clean well or get up early, he [dad] gets angry and starts kicking the dog with his boot and starts throwing him against the wall time and time again.” 

Children seemed to recognize this kind of behaviour was aimed at upsetting their mother, and sometimes themselves too, as in the example above (‘my mom and I’). For women in these situations, seeing their child upset at abuse of the family pet may add to negative feelings and self-blame. 

At other times, violence was used by the mother, their partner or siblings as a way of punishing the pet for misbehaviour. For example, one girl said, “My dad kicked the dog when it tried to bite visitors to my house.” There was a wide range, from pulling the leash too hard to inflicting serious damage. The authors say that since physical punishment is common for children in households with domestic violence, it is no surprise to see it applied to pets. Also, physically punished pets may become aggressive, potentially leading to more harsh treatment. 

This shows children drawing a distinction between perceived punishment (that they might consider justified) and abuse (that wasn’t justified). This is interesting because at this age children are developing ideas about fairness, and it is believed children’s understanding of interpersonal violence is important for long-term outcomes.

The third context was siblings abusing the animal, for example, “my little brother just got mad and threw the cat down the stairs.” Some children said they had sometimes hurt their pet too.

78% said they had protected or tried to help a pet. Sometimes they took preventive action to keep animals away from their mother’s partner, such as putting the pet in their room. Some children said they directly intervened, e.g. one boy said, “When my dad was trying to hurt my dog, I grabbed my dog and said ‘No, Dad, no.’”

Children’s interventions show pets are important to them, but many domestic violence shelters do not allow pets. The researchers say children may need help in coming to terms with not having been able to help or save their pet, and that humane education programs to teach them how to properly interact with animals may also be beneficial.

This important study shows more research is needed on the effects these experiences have on children. Further research by the same team investigates the risk factors that affect how well children cope with witnessing animal abuse.

The full paper is available via the link below or on researchgate.

McDonald SE, Collins EA, Nicotera N, Hageman TO, Ascione FR, Williams JH, & Graham-Bermann SA (2015). Children's experiences of companion animal maltreatment in households characterized by intimate partner violence. Child abuse & neglect, 50, 116-27 PMID: 26520828
Photo: m.sava8 (Shutterstock).

02 March 2016

Reading to Dogs May Improve Literacy

A new review of existing research finds reading to dogs may help children’s literacy – but the quality of evidence is weak.

Canine reading programs can help literacy
Photo: waldru/Shutterstock
That’s the conclusion of a new paper by Sophie Hall et al (University of Lincoln). They searched the literature for studies that investigate the effects of programs in which children read to dogs, and conducted a systematic review of 48 papers.

They write, “The evidence suggests that reading to a dog may have a beneficial effect on a number of behavioural processes which contribute to a positive effect on the environment in which reading is practiced, leading to improved reading performance.”

It sounds very promising: if children read out loud to dogs, they have a captive and non-judgemental audience. Such programs are becoming increasingly popular, so it’s important to know if they really work – not least because, as very inexpensive programs, it could be a cost-effective way to improve literacy. 

Reading sessions, with volunteer dogs and handlers, take place in schools, libraries, and other locations.

“I only like to read if I am in a good mood. I am usually in a good mood on Saturdays because I have a chance to read to Lucky,” is what one 10-year-old told Intermountain Therapy Animals, who have trained over 3000 canine teams since 1999.

The review highlights several ways in which canine reading programs might help. Dogs can provide social support in themselves and also increase support from other people (the social support hypothesis). People’s affiliation with nature might lead to increased engagement when reading to a dog (the biophilia hypothesis). 

Other mechanisms may include reduced anxiety, increased confidence and more motivation.

Reading to dogs can improve literacy in children, according to this research. Photo shows boy reading to his dog
Photo: Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

The scientists classified the research according to established guidelines (called PRISMA). They were inclusive in identifying papers to include, and much of it was not of good quality. Some of the problems they identified were small sample sizes, lack of a control group, not enough information about the children who took part (e.g. if they are normally developing), failure to use standardized tests to assess reading ability, and not saying how long the reading intervention lasted.

So what kind of research is needed? The authors say there is a particular need for randomized controlled trials. These are the ‘gold standard’ for knowing if an intervention works or not. They only identified one for their review, which found accuracy and reading comprehension were better in children who read to a dog rather than a teddy bear or adult, or a control group that did not read to anyone. 

The finding that reading to dogs appears to be helpful, but we don’t know what might cause this, is another reason for more research.

The researchers also highlight the need to take account of individual differences between children (some of whom might not like dogs, be allergic to them or frightened of them), and to find out which young readers could benefit most from such programs.

The full paper is open access via the link below, and includes a diagram outlining the different ways reading to dogs may help children.

If you are interested in volunteering your dog for a reading program, several organizations run them, including Reading Education Assistance Dogs (Intermountain Therapy Animals, international), The Bark and Read Foundation (Kennel Club, UK), Classroom Canines (Delta Society, Australia), and many others. Dogs should be friendly, up to date with vaccinations, able to sit while patted by a stranger, and take treats gently. Delta Society has a checklist to see if your dog might be a good candidate. 

Hall, S., Gee, N., & Mills, D. (2016). Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature PLOS ONE, 11 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149759

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01 March 2016

Interview with Zazie Todd, PhD, on Science Borealis

"...there's no need to use aversive methods in dog training."

I was recently interviewed by Lindsay Jolivet for Science Borealis. You can read the full text of the interview here.

Thank you to Science Borealis for featuring Companion Animal Psychology.

Companion Animal Psychology...

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