29 June 2016

Reward-Based Training is for All Our Pets

And it can teach us about ourselves too. Highlights from the first Train for Rewards blog party.

Portrait of a little dog and a tabby cat

Recently, I invited fellow bloggers to join me in writing about reward-based training of our companion animals. I did not know how many (if any) would want to join in. So when the big day came and 25 other bloggers joined me in sharing posts on this topic, I was delighted.

I was especially pleased that dogs, cats and horses were all represented, because dogs aren’t the only animals that need training.

Reward-based training for dogs, cats, horses...

“Nobody bats an eye if you talk about dog training, but mention cat training one time and the couch delivery guys give you a look and refuse your offer of a glass of water (obviously spiked with a crazy cat training potion). The perception that cats are untrainable is false, and it can hinder happy unions between cats and their people. Dogs and cats learn every day, and through training, we can harness the associations they make — even explicitly create associations — and improve lives,” wrote Julie Hecht on her Scientific American blog Dog Spies.

If you’re in doubt that cats might sometimes need training, just ask yourself what happens when you get the cat carrier out to take your cat to the vet. If your cat goes in willingly as soon as you open the door and say ‘in’, give yourself a huge pat on the back. But if your cat runs to hide under the sofa and can only be shoved in backwards, scratching you in the process, after you’ve spent ten minutes chasing him around the room, you might want to check out this post by Dr. Sarah Ellis for Katzenworld Blog on how to train your cat to like their carrier. It has the solution to every carrier-training problem and has videos too.

We can expect increased interest in cat training with the upcoming publication of Drs. John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis’s book, The Trainable Cat.

Hopefully this will have a knock-on effect: if we can train cats with rewards, why do some people still use physical punishment on dogs? It makes me think of Lili Chin’s poster about wild animals: “if we can teach wild animals without force or punishment, we can also train our best friends without force or punishment.”

Lili Chin poster of wild animals who have been trained with rewards
Poster by Lili Chin used under Creative Commons licence

To make this very point, Debbie Jacobs put together a compilation of videos of animals being trained (an alligator, mice, a parrot, rabbit…).

The Importance of Choice and How it Feels to Train an Animal

Other posts also have relevance across species. Dr. Dorothy Heffernan wrote about her work with a fearful horse, and the importance of agency  – giving him the choice whether or not to interact with her. “We can teach children so that they can take control… and we can also teach our horses in such a way that they have more control.  We can teach them to tell us when they’re ready for us to do things, rather than making that decision for them, and the magical thing about this is that if we do it right, it doesn’t make them less likely to participate, it makes them more willing and interested to work with us.”

I have been doing something similar with a fearful dog recently – giving him the choice of whether or not to interact with me, and rewarding him every time he does.

In order to do this, writes Heffernan, “we have to give up some of our own control, some of our own agency.  We have to step back and acknowledge that another animal – a member of another species – has feelings and opinions about what we want to do to them…”

Mikel Delgado also considered what it feels like to train another animal, in this case her cat. “…it has been surprising to me how I have responded to the training process. I’ve read a lot about training methods; I’ve studied learning theory; I train my clients to train their cats. But I was a bit underprepared for what it actually feels like to train an animal when the training doesn’t happen as easily as the lazy trainer within me had hoped it would.” The problems – and solutions – she lists, such as breaking the training down into small increments, apply whatever species we are training.

Skills, Preparation, and a Feeling of Magic

If you want to see video of a trained cat, check out Dan Raymer’s cat Alice doing a trick. Notice how she gets a piece of chicken every time she sits pretty.

“This is what positive training is all about. It’s a means to physically show your dog that he or she made a choice you like. It’s as simple as ‘sit – gets a treat’. Or as complicated as teaching the dog to search for a lost person,” writes Karen Wild.

Rewards can also be used to facilitate toilet-training, as Joan Hunter Mayer reminds us.

Some tasks are easier than others, but one of the things about training is that it’s a skill that can be learned. Although the concept is easy, some aspects take practice; and don’t forget the preparation that goes into a dog training session, writes Helen Verte: "Take the time you need to prepare before you add the dog" (I especially enjoyed the video of Dudley’s face as he waits hopefully for his reward…).

One thing some people struggle to learn is the idea that we can use rewards to teach a dog (or other pet) to do something we want, instead of focusing on the 'bad' behaviours. "Wouldn’t it be much better if you showed your dog how they can succeed from the start? This is easily achieved by first teaching your dog behaviours that you approve of. If these behaviours are incompatible with the behaviours you don’t like, bingo!" says Sylvie Martin.

It’s great to see a happy, motivated dog working to earn a reward. “Some people find it magical to see the intensity for which a dog will work to eat—it is, after all, a very basic motivation," says Jean Donaldson (Academy for Dog Trainers).

She wasn't the only one to refer to a feeling of magic. One perhaps surprising thing about training a dog or other animal is the way it can teach us something about ourselves, too. Being open to learning is an important part of training, says Dr. Helen Spence in her post Unleash the magic. “I believe that learning to train this way is not only enriching for our animals, it is highly enriching, even life changing, for us as individuals.”

And if you’re not sure where to get started with using rewards for your dog, Kristi Benson’s four things humans do that dogs love will give you some ideas.

Summary and an Invitation

A happy Siberian Husky puppy curled up with a heart pillow
Reward-based training is for all our companion animals. At a basic level, it’s accessible to all and can already have a profound effect on our pet’s behaviour. It can feel, at times, either frustrating or magical. As we learn the technical aspects, we not only become more proficient trainers, we also learn something about ourselves.

I’ve only touched on some of the themes here. If you haven’t seen all the posts yet, it’s well worth checking out the Train for Rewards Blog Party.

Thank you to everyone who took part, whether by writing and/or sharing the posts.

Several people have already asked me if I’ll do it again sometime. Don’t you think there should be one day a year when we celebrate what reward-based training can do for our companion animals? Let’s do it all again on June 16th 2017!

In the meantime, if you use rewards to train your pet and would like a photo to be considered for inclusion in a future Companion Animal Psychology post, share it with me on twitter with the hashtag #Train4Rewards, or under this post on Facebook. (Please ensure you have copyright of the photo). Thank you!

Photos: Rosie love (top) and Africa Studio (both Shutterstock.com).

22 June 2016

How Many Cats Are Stressed at the Vet?

New research shows just how stressed cats are at the vet, but there’s a lot we can do to help.

A ginger moggie feeling stressed at the veterinarian

A recent study found 30% of dogs are very stressed in the waiting room at the vet, and it turns out things are even worse for cats.

It comes as no surprise to learn many cats are stressed by visits to the veterinarian. A new study by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al explores the scale of the problem, and has important suggestions for both cat guardians and vets on how to make things better.

The survey found some cats are so stressed the vet is not able to examine them properly. 789 of the 1,111 cats in the study were reported to have been aggressive to a vet at some point. 24% had bitten or scratched their guardian at the vet.

Many cats had areas that were off-limits for being touched by the vet, including the tummy, tail and genital area. Only 32% of the cats let the vet touch them anywhere.

When it came to vet procedures, cats were none too happy about these either. 34% would not tolerate injections, 32% objected to temperature taking, and 23% would not allow the taking of a blood sample.

Some cats were reported as being afraid of everyone in the waiting room (33%), whereas for 26% it was the dogs they were especially afraid of.

In fact, most owners reported cats were stressed at every stage: when entering the vet, while waiting, when moving to the consultation room, during the examination – and sometimes for some time after returning home. 78% of people thought their cat knew where they were going before they got there, and only 27% of the cats were said to be calm in the waiting room.

A cat being examined at the vet

Food can help animals to have a more positive experience at the vet. 869 of the cats in this study were offered food by the vet, but only 23% of them ate it. 47% of cats refused the food and 29% were reported to be suspicious of it.

The cats who were calm in the waiting room were significantly more likely to take the food, and cats who ate the food were more likely to be calm on the exam table as well as back at home.

This shows that food is an important part of the solution, but it’s essential to help cats feel relaxed enough to be able to eat it.

10% of the vets jumped straight into the examination without even stroking or talking to the cat first. A number of people had changed vet because they were unhappy about the abilities of the vet (28%) or the way the vet behaved with the cat (14%).

So what can be done to help cats at the vet? Dr. Mariti told me in an email, “My first advice would be for the vets: make sure you are protecting your patients' welfare. This is a duty of vets and it avoids the risk of losing clients (as mentioned in the paper).

“In addition, vets are those who prepare the clinic and can make it as much cat-friendly as possible, and those who advise cat/kitten owners. Vets behaviour is also relevant, the adoption of a "less is more" approach would be beneficial in most cases. So their role is crucial in the protection of cat welfare.

“To the owners, I would suggest to familiarize kittens with manipulations, in a gentle, gradual and progressive way, associating any handling with positive emotions and stimuli. Also positive associations with anything related with the travel, especially the carrier, can help; the appropriate use of pheromones may be beneficial, but I would stress the importance of avoiding the association of the carrier with the visit to a vet clinic. Some vets suggest the use of towels to gently "wrap" the cat in, it seems to calm the cat during the visit and to reduce the need of physical restraint.

“Owners should try going to the clinic with an appointment, in order to avoid long staying in the waiting room (usually the car is better). When getting to the clinic, they should avoid contact with other animals and, if unavoidable, they should put the carrier as high as possible (shelves, chairs), in order to give the cat the opportunity to feel a bit safer.

“Visits to the clinic as a kitten without any interventions, just to familiarize with the place and the vet, should be encouraged.”

Cat guardians completed the survey whilst in the waiting room of one of 20 veterinarians in Tuscany, Italy. The answers were about vet visits in general, rather than that specific visit. The cats were mostly moggies (75%), with equal numbers of males and females, and typically went to the vet once or twice a year.

For those who have trouble with vet visits, there are some useful resources on taking your cat to the vet.

Mariti, C., Bowen, J., Campa, S., Grebe, G., Sighieri, C., & Gazzano, A. (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Cats' Welfare and Behavior Regarding Visiting Veterinary Clinics Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2016.1173548
Photos: Magdalena Lieske (top) and bmf-photo-de (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 and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

16 June 2016

The Train for Rewards Blog Party is now on

There is a fantastic set of posts by some brilliant bloggers in the Train for Rewards blog party. Check it out now!

Seven Reasons to Use Reward-Based Dog Training

Reward-based training is the best way to train dogs. Here's what it means, and seven reasons to give it a try.

A happy dog waiting for a reward

What is reward-based dog training? Put simply, it's using rewards to train dogs - giving rewards for good behaviour and withholding rewards for behaviours we don't like.

Instead of using ideas like respect or dominance to train dogs, reward-based training looks at what motivates dogs and uses that in a humane manner to improve your dog's behaviour.

Whether you're new to training or an experienced pro, here are seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.

1. Positive reinforcement is recommended by professional organizations

Many professional organizations have spoken out against the use of punishment in dog training because the scientific evidence shows that it carries risks.

For example, Dogs Trust recommend the use of rewards in dog training. “In order to be effective and to gain the best results, all training should be based around positive rewards. Positive reward training works because if you reward your dog with something he wants as soon as he does what you ask, he is far more likely to do it again.”

In their advice on finding a dog trainer, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour says “AVSAB endorses training methods which allow animals to work for things (e.g., food, play, affection) that motivate them rather than techniques that focus on using fear or pain to punish them for undesirable behaviors. Look for a trainer who uses primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys, and play. Avoid any trainer who advocates methods of physical force that can harm your pet such as hanging dogs by their collars or hitting them with their hands, feet, or leashes."

Some organizations (such as the Pet Professional Guild and the APDT (UK)) and some dog training schools (such as the Academy for Dog TrainersKaren Pryor Academy, and the Victoria Stilwell Academy) have a code of practice that requires their members to use kind, humane methods instead of aversive techniques.

If you are looking for a dog trainer, whether for puppy class or behaviour problems, see my article on how to choose a dog trainer.

Reasons to use positive reinforcement in dog training

2. People report better results with positive reinforcement

Several studies have found that people who use positive reinforcement to train their dogs report a better-behaved dog than those who use aversive techniques.

In a study by Blackwell et al (2008), the dogs of people who used only positive reinforcement training were less likely to have behaviour problems. They suggested this could be because dogs don’t associate punishment with their behaviour, but instead with the owner or the context, and hence may become fearful and anxious.

Another study (Hiby et al 2004) found if dog owners used punishment (whether or not they also used rewards) their dogs were more likely to have problem behaviours. People who only used reward-based methods reported more obedient dogs

These results apply to dogs of all sizes. In a study that compared small and large dogs (Arhant et al 2010), those whose owners used more punishment were reported to have more problems of aggression and excitability whatever their size. However this was most pronounced for little dogs (less than 20kg).

Of particular concern is the finding that people who use confrontational methods (such as prong, choke and shock collars or growling at the dog) sometimes report an aggressive response (Herron, Shofer and Reisner 2009). This was never reported in response to using rewards.

These studies relied on owner reports, but another study used an experimental design to compare positive reinforcement to shock collars. They looked at teaching recall in the presence of livestock and found that, contrary to popular belief, the shock collars did not lead to better trained dogs (Cooper et al 2014). And in fact, the dogs trained with shock showed signs of stress, which brings us to the next point.

3. Reward-based training is better for animal welfare 

Happy Afghan hound trained with rewards

The conclusion of Cooper et al’s study is that the “immediate effects of training with an e-collar give rise to behavioural signs of distress in pet dogs, particularly when used at high settings.”

Another study looked at the body language of dogs at two training schools where the dogs had already learned sit and loose-leash walking. One school used positive reinforcement while the other school used tugging the leash or pushing the dog’s bottom down until it did the required behaviour. Dogs previously trained with the aversive techniques showed more stress-related behaviours, such as a lowered body posture, and looked less at their owner compared to those trained with positive reinforcement (Deldalle and Gaunet 2014).

If you use reward-based training, you avoid the risk that aversive techniques will cause stress, anxiety or fear. This is better for both the dog and you.

“Ultimately, reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog, and, hence, safer for the owner,” say Herron, Shofer and Reisner (2009).

A review of the scientific literature concluded that reward-based training has fewer risks than aversive methods, and may even have better results.

4. Positive reinforcement dog training is good enrichment 

Successful problem-solving, like learning a behaviour in exchange for a reward, makes dogs happy.

Research has shown dogs that work to earn a reward are happier than those that are just given a reward (McGowan et al 2014). The scientists called the dog learning s/he could earn a reward the “Eureka effect”.

Dr. Ragen McGowan told me “Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task... do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that dogs may also experience this 'Eureka Effect.' In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs.”

This study shows that giving your dog the opportunity to earn rewards is a good enrichment activity (another thing that's good for animal welfare).

If you need ideas for good rewards, check out the best dog training treats which includes recipes too.

5. Dogs get better at learning with rewards

Dogs that have previously been trained using positive reinforcement do better at learning a new task.

This was the finding of a study by Rooney and Cowan (2011) who took videos of owners and their dogs interacting at home. One of the tasks involved giving owners a ball and a bag of treats that they could use (or not) as they wished. The owners were asked to teach their dog to touch a spoon.

The dogs who learned the new task more quickly were the ones whose owners had used more rewards in earlier training.

The explanation? It’s probably down to a more motivated dog. Rooney and Cowan say
“a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.”

6. It focusses on what your dog can do

Reward-based dog training is good for your dog
It makes sense to teach your dog what to do, rather than what not to do. It can get very frustrating if your dog keeps doing something you don’t like. It’s probably frustrating for your dog too.

For example, suppose your dog jumps up on you. They are probably trying to get close to you and wanting some fuss, which they don’t get if you push them away. However you can teach them that if they keep all four paws on the ground they will be rewarded with affection and a treat. Over time, they will learn to do this instead. It’s a win for you and the dog.

If you don’t actually teach them what to do, how can you expect them to learn it?

7. Reward-based dog training is fun 

Dog training should be fun for you and your dog. Using rewards to teach your dog what to do can be a fun game for you and your dog to enjoy together. As well as basic obedience behaviours like sit, down and stay, you can teach tricks such as shake hands, wave, say your prayers, sit pretty, or spin.

Don’t forget to reward yourself after a good training session – you’ve earned it, too!

What do you like best about using rewards to train your dog?

You might also like: What is positive reinforcement in dog training? on this blog; and the double advantage of reward-based training (over at the Academy for Dog Trainers).

This post is part of the 2016 Train for Rewards Blog Party, hosted here at Companion Animal Psychology. Check out the other posts and find out how you can take part in #Train4Rewards. And read the 2017 Train for Rewards blog party here for lots more posts on reward-based dog training, cat training, etc.

And you'll find the 2018 Train for Rewards blog party here.

Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123 (3-4), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. (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
Cooper, J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training PLoS ONE, 9 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102722
Gaunet, F. (2009). How do guide dogs and pet dogs (Canis familiaris) ask their owners for their toy and for playing? Animal Cognition, 13 (2), 311-323 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-009-0279-z
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
Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69
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., & 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

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 and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

12 June 2016

The Train for Rewards Blog Party

This is the place for the Train for Rewards Blog Party to celebrate rewards-based training of our companion animals. Bloggers can add a link to their contributing posts below (please read the rules and get the button first).

Take Part in Train for Rewards

On 16th June:
  • Read the blog posts listed below, comment on them, and share your favourite posts on social media with the hashtag #Train4Rewards
  • Share a photo of your dog (or other companion animal) who is trained using rewards on social media with the hashtag #Train4Rewards
  • Reward yourself for participating with a cup of coffee, slice of cake, a walk in the woods, or whatever makes you happy.

Celebrate positive reinforcement with the #train4rewards blog party

Celebrate positive reinforcement dog training

Rewards-based training of dogs and other pets

08 June 2016

Canine Science is Better than Common Sense

We need canine science because common sense can lead us astray.

Australian Shepherd says canine science is important

Recently I wrote about why science matters to our dogs and cats, based on findings from Dr. Paige Jarreau’s research that suggests science blogs (like this one) may contribute to readers having a better knowledge of science.

I thought of this again recently because a comment I often see from readers – on any kind of science story on the internet – is "don’t we know this already? Isn’t it just common sense?"

I understand the comment because sometimes, when the findings of a study happen to line up with our existing beliefs, it can feel like science is just common sense. But common sense can easily hold conflicting views simultaneously. And common sense often leads us astray (even in our knowledge of basic physics, as illustrated by Peter Ellerton writing about why we can’t trust common sense but we can trust science).

We don’t have to look too far for examples relating to dogs and cats. We all know that dogs have excellent noses. But is a dog’s nose good enough to tell by smell alone which of two plates has more pieces of hot dog (Horowitz, Hecht and Dedrick, 2013)? We don’t know if we don’t test it. (Are you guessing yes or no before you click the link?)

Similarly, we often feel that our dogs are good at recognizing our emotions. But can a dog use a person’s emotional expression to tell them which of two boxes contains sausage, and which contains garlic (Buttelmann and Tomasello 2012)? In other words, can they tell the difference between happiness (displayed for the sausage) and disgust (displayed for garlic)?

Siberian Husky says we need canine science
One thing you’ll notice about scientific studies like these are that hypotheses are very precise – not a broad, ‘can dogs recognize human emotion?’, but specific emotions and circumstances in which they are tested.

Common sense, let’s be honest, is usually rather broad and wishy-washy. (“Too many cooks spoil the broth.” How many cooks? What kind of broth? Which specific recipe? Are we really talking about cooks here? And did the dog's dinner get ruined?).

One example of how our common sense can lead us astray is in our expectations of dogs. How clever do you think your dog is in comparison to a human child?  If your answer is somewhere between 3 and 5 years old, you’re in company with many other people (Howell et al 2013).

Yes, dogs are amazing, but just think about what a 4 year old can do.  (I’m expecting my dogs to start talking at any moment…). Seriously, 4 year old children are amazing too.

So now we have to think about what we mean by clever. Generally intelligent, or clever in some specific ways? Chaser the Border Collie knows 1000 words, which I’m sure we’ll all agree is astonishingly clever. Julie Hecht explains what we mean by saying he ‘knows’  those words (not just the words but also categories like balls and frisbees!). But when it comes to our own dogs, what if we think they know a command but they don’t really?

Howell et al wrote of their results, “It is possible that, in some cases, dog owners believe that dogs are cognitively capable of more than they actually are and misconstrue normal dog behaviour as an attempt at ‘dominance’ or a stubborn lack of obedience.”

Which brings us round to dog training. What if we think our dog understands a command, but they don’t do it, so we blame them for being stubborn or misbehaving when really they don’t have a clue what we just asked them to do? We miss out on understanding our dog properly (and the chance to teach them the command), while the dog misses out on the chance to earn a treat.

Since dog training is unregulated, it means many dog trainers are relying on common sense instead of education, which unfortunately means some of them are using outdated aversive methods despite the AVSAB position statement on the use of punishment for behaviour modification  and the evidence on which it is based.

66% of people in Herron, Shofer and Reisner’s (2009) study said they used a choke or prong collar because it was recommended to them by a trainer. If only everyone understood that it is common sense not to do this.

If there are topics you would like to see covered on this blog, please let me know. Subscribers can hit reply to email me directly. If you’re not yet a subscriber, why not sign up now?

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 and Amazon.ca.

Buttelmann, D., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition, 16 (1), 137-145 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0560-4
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
Horowitz, A., Hecht, J., & Dedrick, A. (2013). Smelling more or less: Investigating the olfactory experience of the domestic dog Learning and Motivation, 44 (4), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.lmot.2013.02.002
Howell, T., Toukhsati, S., Conduit, R., & Bennett, P. (2013). The Perceptions of Dog Intelligence and Cognitive Skills (PoDIaCS) Survey Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (6), 418-424 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.05.005
Photos: Nastia Gomanova & Sunspace (both Shutterstock.com)

01 June 2016

What is the Best Enrichment for Your Ferret?

New research finds out how hard ferrets will work to access different types of enrichment.

Ferrets' preferences for hammocks, foraging toys, and tunnels

Providing environmental enrichment is an important part of good animal welfare. For example, cats whose owners play with them regularly have fewer behaviour problems. We know a lot about enrichment for cats. What about ferrets? Earlier research has shown that more play behaviours are reported when there are more enrichment items. But although ferrets are a popular pet, we know little about their personal preferences. A new study by Marsinah Reijgwart (Utrecht University) et al has important tips for ferret owners.

Of course, you can’t just say, “Ferret, what would you like?” One way of testing how much animals value certain things is to put a door between them and the item. By gradually increasing the difficulty of opening the door, we can see how much effort they will put in to reach the item, and therefore how much it is worth to them. This is known as a motivational test, or consumer demand test.

It has even been tried successfully with goldfish, in a study that found goldfish like both real and artificial plants as enrichment.

Reijgwart et al ran a similar experiment with ferrets, in which doors were successively made heavier to find out how hard ferrets would try to reach various enrichment chambers. There were 7 chambers, six containing different types of enrichment, and one that was empty (the control). The corridor contained food, drinking water (via a nipple), and windows into each chamber so the ferrets could see what was inside. Every chamber had a one-way unweighted door to give them access back to the corridor.
As well as measuring the maximum weight of the door that ferrets would push, the scientists also looked at how long the ferret spent interacting with the enrichment item.

Seven spayed female ferrets, approximately one year old, took part. The results show the ferrets like:

  • Sleeping enrichment. This was the most important to them. Given a choice of sleeping items, they preferred a hammock to sleep in rather than a Savic Cocoon.
  • Water bowls. They preferred a large water bowl rather than a small one.
  • Social enrichment. They liked to have a ferret friend to snuggle with.
  • Foraging enrichment. They liked to have foraging toys.
  • Tunnels. They spent more time in the opaque flexible tunnel rather than the see-through rigid tunnel. Some ferrets liked tunnels a lot, while others were less interested in them.
  • As for balls, they preferred a ball with a bell to a golf ball or ferret ball.

Sleeping, tunnels, food toys and water bowls for ferret enrichment
Photos:  Couperfield (top) & Rashid Valitov (Shutterstock)

Ferrets used the items in multiple ways. For example, although the hammock was used for sleeping in, it was also a tug toy. Food obtained from the foraging toys was often eaten immediately, but sometimes the toys were taken away and stored elsewhere (such as in the Savic Coccoon).

The ferrets in this study live in the laboratory. I asked Marsinah Reijgwart what the implications are for people who keep ferrets as pets. Despite limitations, there are important lessons about the kinds of enrichment that should be provided for pet ferrets.

“To start, I have to make some remarks on the limitations with regards to generalizing the results to pet ferrets,” she told me in an email. “The research question (enrichment preferences for laboratory ferrets) has influenced the choices I have made for the enrichments that I have tested. For instance, I have not looked at the ferrets’ motivation for playing or cuddling with a person. Also, intact or male ferrets or ferrets of a different age may have different preferences.

"Next to that, I have tested the ferrets individually, so they might like certain items more or less than I have seen in this test when ferrets can enjoy enrichments together (or with a human). Additionally, life in a research facility is very different from life as a pet, which means that the preferences for enrichment can differ. For instance, my ferrets were housed at a constant temperature and only had limited time to spend with people.

“With my research, I have tried to draw general conclusions on enrichment preferences for the average one-year old female ovariectomized laboratory ferret. You cannot generalize these results to other ferrets, as their preferences might be different.

"This being said, I do think some of the results can be very informative for ferret owners.

“First of all, my ferrets pushed open a door that weighed 1450 grams (150% of their own body weight!) to reach a room with three types of sleeping enrichments: a hammock, a flexible plastic bucket on its side and a Savic Cocoon. In a previous study I have showed that this is the maximum weight the ferrets are able to push: at higher weights the ferrets still tried, but were not able to open the door.

“This, together with the obvious preference for sleeping in the hammock when the ferrets made it into the room, makes it safe to say: give your ferret a hammock!! However, while this is a new discovery for laboratory animal science, ferret owners have been aware of this preference for a while, so I doubt if there is a pet ferret out there without a hammock of some sort.

“Secondly, my ferrets pushed 1075 grams to drink out of a water bowl, while water from a bottle was freely available. They did not touch the water bottle in the days that they gained access to the water bowls. As I don’t think that this is a preference that will be different for pet ferrets, I would advise ferret owners to give their ferret a water bowl. As we all know, ferrets will play with the water and make a mess. Therefore, I would advise to also give your ferrets a water bottle, just in case they are thirsty but have an empty or dirty water bowl.

“Thirdly, my ferrets pushed 950 grams to eat from foraging enrichment while the same food was freely available in a bowl. Think about it: ferrets worked (pushed 950 grams of weight) to work (push around the ball or flip the tumbler) for food while this wasn’t necessary to fulfil their nutritional needs.

“This shows that, as is the case for other animals, you should not make life too easy for your ferret. There are many commercially available foraging toys for cats that ferrets can enjoy just as much. If you are a bit creative, you can save some money by looking up DIY foraging toys online. Mentally stimulating your ferret for just a few minutes can be very enriching!

Enrichment for ferrets
Photo: Marsinah Reijgwart

“For the other enrichments that I have tested (balls, tunnels, ferrets), it is more difficult to draw conclusions for pet ferrets.

“My ferrets were not very motivated to play with the balls, but it is possible that they would like them more when playing together with another ferret or a person.

“The tunnels are a special case, as one ferret pushed to her maximal abilities to get to the tunnels, while other ferrets stopped bothering at very low weights. A tunnel is most probably an enrichment that some ferrets really enjoy playing with, while others would rather play with something else. Not everyone likes the same things, it is up to you as a ferret owner to find out what your ferret enjoys.

“Finally, I am not able to draw conclusions about the big question that many ferret owners have: should ferrets be kept alone or together? My ferrets were separated by wired mesh and pushed quite high weights (995 grams) to visit the other ferrets. When a ferret reached the others, she would snuggle up to the mesh and sleep as close together to the others as possible.

“In a follow-up study where ferrets shared an enclosure, I saw that they often chose to jump into a hammock to huddle up with the other ferrets, while there was also an empty hammock available. But remember: these were ovariectomized female ferrets that were about one year old.

“So as with the tunnels: it is up to you as a ferret owner to see if your ferret fares well with ferret companions or whether he/she prefers to be alone.”

The full paper is available via Marsinah Reijgwart's ResearchGate profile.

What enrichment do you provide for your ferret?

Reijgwart, M., Vinke, C., Hendriksen, C., Meer, M., Schoemaker, N., & Zeeland, Y. (2016). Ferrets’ (Mustela putorius furo) enrichment priorities and preferences as determined in a seven-chamber consumer demand study Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.022
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