Why Science Matters to Our Dogs and Cats

Science – and science blogging – can help animal welfare in important ways.

Science and science blogging can help animal welfare for dogs like these Aussies
Photo: Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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We wish our companion animals to lead a charmed life and always be happy. We want our dogs and cats to have a wonderful relationship with us. But we can’t achieve this if we don’t know what they need and how we should interact with them.

Last year, some readers took part in a survey of who reads science blogs. The preliminary results are out, and it’s got me thinking about why science – and science blogging – matters for our companion animals.

One of the findings of Dr. Paige Jarreau's study is that in general (and regardless of level of education, gender, age and consumption of other online science info) people who consistently read science blogs were better able to answer the knowledge questions about science that were included in the survey (a few of you sent me comments on those at the time).

“This finding is a promising indicator that science blogs may be promoting greater scientific knowledge or science literacy – at least for some readers,” writes Dr. Jarreau.

I find this encouraging because there are many ways in which science (and social science) can improve animal welfare and our relationship with our companion animals.

In order to help our animals be happy, we need to understand their needs – and also how well their guardians understand those needs. For example, cats benefit from environmental enrichment. But although guardians are good at providing some of these (e.g. playtime, feline-friendly spaces like windows, and scratching posts), they miss other important aspects such as providing water separately from their food bowl, using scents, and – a surprising omission, since it’s easy to fix – the use of food toys that make the cat work for their food. Discovering gaps in people’s knowledge and communicating easy ways to make things better is one thing science blogs can do well. (If you’re a dog person, there are some tips on canine enrichment too).

Science matters to our pets - like this cat and dog in file drawers

Another example of how science matters comes from dog training. Because dog training is unlicensed, sometimes all the education a dog trainer has (apart from high school) is that they grew up with dogs. We wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids; we would expect them to get a qualification and experience.

This lack of education partly explains the fact some people still use out-dated, antiquated training based on the metaphor of wolf packs applied to dogs. There are also many wonderful dog trainers with education and expertise; people need to choose carefully so as to get the right kind.

The problem is that using aversive dog training techniques has risks, and positive reinforcement is a better choice.  For example, dogs trained using negative reinforcement (e.g. teaching sit by pulling the leash and pushing the dog’s bottom down, only stopping when the dog sits) gaze less at their owner and are more likely to show signs of stress. Dogs taught recall using electronic shock collars show signs of stress and don’t perform any better than those taught with positive reinforcement. A higher frequency of punishment correlates with higher aggression and excitability.

For dogs with behaviour problems, the use of aversive techniques can sometimes lead to aggression, while rewards-based training has a positive effect. People who use only positive reinforcement report better trained dogs. Plus, dogs like to work for rewards.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that using aversive methods can have unwanted consequences. We’ve known for some time that it’s not a good idea to use physical punishment with children. Just this month, a new study (Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) looking at 50 years of research found spanking children is linked to many detrimental outcomes. Prof. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor told UT News,
“The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”
Dogs are not children, and the scientific literature on dogs and training methods is nowhere near as vast or sophisticated as that on children and parenting strategies, but there are some parallels.

One thing we know about people’s knowledge of dog training is that it often comes from themselves. Hopefully science blogging can help to increase awareness, as people read and share articles that promote positive reinforcement in dog training.

Here, the bad news from Dr. Jarreau’s study is that many readers of science blogs do not share the articles they read. If we want people to pay attention to science-based dog training, we need to share information about it.

Another way science can help companion animals relates to work that shows how much pets can mean to people. For example, research shows that homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without but that having a pet on the street brings disadvantages too such as the problem of finding a shelter that will take pets. Knowing about the importance of pets and the difficulties their homeless owners face can lead to policy decisions that will ultimately help both pet and human.

The main reasons people gave for reading science blogs were “because it stimulates my curiosity”, “as an educational tool” and “for information I don’t find in traditional news media.”

Dr. Jarreau also writes that, “there appears to be a small but avid cluster of science blog readers who read blogs to feel involved in an online community.”

One of the things I’ve gained from writing this blog is a sense of just how many people are passionate about science and committed to animal welfare. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful to all of my readers. 

If you like this post, then I think you will also like my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which has a foreword by Dr. Marty BeckerModern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

I read all of your comments here and on twitter, facebook, instagram and email, and try to use them to make this blog even better. I'm very pleased that interest in science and our companion animals continues to grow.

Now go share some science stories. Let’s keep spreading the word!

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Gershoff, E., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology DOI: 10.1037/fam0000191
For other references, please click the relevant links.

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