31 August 2016

Brain Scans Show Your Dog Loves You And Food

An fMRI study shows different dogs have different preferences for food and social interaction.

A woman gives a treat to her dog

A recent fMRI study investigates individual differences in dogs’ preferences for food and social interaction with their owner. The results have been widely – and erroneously – reported as showing that dogs prefer praise to food. In fact, the results paint a far more interesting picture of how brain activity predicts canine choice.

I think most people feel subjectively that their dog loves them. The idea they might not is perplexing. But scientists have this wonderful habit of testing ideas, and a paper by Peter Cook (Emory University) et al investigates dogs’ preferences for food and for social interaction with their owner. What if dogs love both?

The team of neuroscientists at Gregory Berns’ lab took 15 dogs who are trained to go in the fMRI machine. They designed an experiment to look at activation of the dogs’ brains in response to food, praise from their owner, and a control condition of nothing happening. They found individual differences in the responses.

Prof. Gregory Berns (twitter) told me in an email,

“The takeaway is that dogs, like people, are individuals, and that there is a spectrum of motivations. Some prefer food, some prefer praise, and many like both equally. Know which your dog prefers!”

Since the dog has to keep absolutely still in the scanner, the way the scientists did the experiment was to pair a different item with each of the three consequences. Each item was presented to the dog on a stick for 10 seconds. Following this presentation, the relevant event happened.

If it was the toy car, the dog’s handler stepped into view and praised the dog (“Yay! Good boy!”).

If it was the toy horse, a piece of hot dog was given to the dog to eat. The hot dog was presented on a stick so that no human came into view.

Finally, if the item was the hair brush, there was a short pause in which nothing happened. This was the control condition.

The dogs had two training sessions, during which each item and its paired consequence happened forty times in total. This was to ensure they knew the items predicted the different consequences. They had a quick reminder of them before each of two experiments.

In the first experiment, dogs kept still in the scanner while presented with the item-consequence pairs in a random order. The sessions took place over 2 – 4 days until each dog had seen each item and its paired consequence 32 times.

A Golden Retriever being shown a stimulus in the fMRI study
A dog called Kady is presented with a stimulus in the fMRI scanner. (Creative Commons licence).

The results look at activation of a part of the brain called the ventral caudate, which is connected to positive associations. In previous work, Berns and colleagues have shown this part of the brain is activated when the dog smells a familiar person and when a dog anticipates receiving a food reward. The main aim of this study was to find out if different dogs have different preferences, i.e. do some have greater caudate activation to owner/praise than to food, and vice versa.

At a general level, there was no significant difference in caudate activation between food and praise. I mention this because many reports have erroneously said these findings show dogs prefer praise to food; not so (just imagine if they did; dogs might all die of starvation).

However, caudate activation occurred in response to both food and praise, suggesting the dogs found both rewarding. At an individual level, there were differences between dogs: 9 of the dogs had roughly equal positive responses to food and praise, but 4 preferred praise and 2 preferred food.

In a second experiment with 13 of the dogs, the researchers tested what happened when praise was sometimes withheld despite the car being shown to the dog. A quarter of the times when the car was shown, praise did not occur, causing a violation of the dog’s expectations. Only data from 12 of the dogs could be used here, as one dog moved too much in the scanner.

The results from the first experiment predicted the results in this experiment. In other words, the dogs for whom there was greater caudate activation in the praise condition in experiment 1 showed a bigger difference in caudate activation between the trials when they got praise and the trials when praise was withheld. This confirms they did like praise.

A happy Golden Retriever puppy
In a final experiment, the scientists wanted to know if the activation they saw in the caudate would predict the dogs’ responses when they gave them a choice between food and the owner. This study took place in the room where dogs were previously trained to go in the scanner.

When dogs went into the room, they had a choice in a maze. They could run down one side of a barrier to find food, or down the other side where their owner was waiting with their back to them. In this experiment, the owner was allowed to pet and praise the dog. In the food option, the dish contained 1 – 3 small pieces of Pupperoni dog treats and the dogs were allowed to eat what they found.

All 15 dogs took part in this experiment. First of all they had four trials in which they were only allowed down one route, twice to food and twice to the owner, so they could learn that what they saw at the end was what they would get (two dogs needed extra trials). Then they had 20 trials in which they had a free choice.

Most dogs sometimes chose food and sometimes chose the owner, but over the 20 trials they made different choices. Using a complicated statistical technique called Hidden Markov Models, the scientists were able to show a correlation between caudate activation for food vs praise in experiment 1 and the dog’s overall choices in this experiment.

In other words, there is a link between the activation shown in the scanner and the choices the dogs made in the maze.

It’s difficult to generalize these results to dog training since the dogs in the scanner did not have to do anything in order to receive either the food or social interaction. It was a test of whether they liked something when they did not have to do anything to get it. (And of course they could not move, because if they moved the imaging would not work). In studies of dog training that compared food to petting and praise, food was a better reward.  Another study in which dogs made a choice showed that dogs prefer petting to praise.

Although much of the media coverage of this study has said dogs prefer praise over food, there are a few things to take note of. One is simply that the praise condition was actually sight of the owner plus praise in the fMRI experiments, and presence of owner plus petting and praise in the behavioural experiment. Essentially, it’s a ‘social interaction with the owner’ condition, not just praise.

It would have been interesting to have an extra condition in which food was presented with the owner in sight. Would that have been the best of both worlds?!

Given the headlines that dogs would prefer to be trained with praise, it’s worth noting that food was used to train the dogs to participate in fMRI studies. (For details of the training, including video, see Berns et al 2012).

By definition, the dogs in this study are highly trained, since they have been trained to keep still during the fMRI scan. The results may not generalize to untrained dogs or to situations outside the laboratory. For example, these dogs will have heard a lot of praise associated with the giving of food, and so may have formed strong positive associations between them.

In real life situations there may be other competing motivators, such as squirrels to chase and new people to jump on. As most of us have discovered, in these circumstances we need something potent to provide an alternative motivator for our dogs.

The sample is small, although this is not uncommon for studies in what is still a new field. Most of the dogs in this and other fMRI studies are Retrievers, Labs or Border Collies. While this helps with interpreting the images (as differences in head shape pose problems for interpreting images), it also means the results may not generalize to other breeds.

The researchers say future research can investigate the extent to which dog training, genetics, and breed influence the results. They also recognize that factors like the time of day and satiation may affect the results. Nonetheless they suggest that for an individual dog, the caudate activation is stable in terms of how it will predict canine choices. They write,

“Given the dramatically different contexts of the MRI and the choice tasks, the predictive value of the caudate activation is striking. Based on these findings, we suggest that there is consistent neurobiological orientation toward social and food reward within individual dogs, but the degree of preference may be highly variable between individuals.”

One day, they say, it may even be possible to use MRI in the selection of working dogs.

These results show that owners do mean something to their dogs. While this probably doesn’t surprise anyone who lives with a dog, it’s nice to have evidence for it.

They also show dogs like both food and their owners. It’s up to you to find out what motivates your dog. And just because food works best in dog training, it doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t love you.

The paper is open access and the link is below. It’s worth looking at the supplemental materials which include videos of a dog in the behavioural choice task.

What motivates your dog?

Cook PF, Prichard A, Spivak M, & Berns GS (2016). Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs' Preference for Praise Versus Food. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 27521302
Photos: gpointstudio (top) and Stephanie Frey (both Shutterstock.com)

17 August 2016

In Dog Training, Balance Is Off

It’s not a good thing when dog trainers describe themselves as ‘balanced’. Here’s why.

A Jack Russell Terrier balances on a rope bridge

When you think about balancing dogs, your first thoughts might be of a dog walking along a beam, all nicely balanced and not falling off. Or maybe of a dog posing for a photo with a pile of cookies balanced on their muzzle, to show off how good their balancing skills are.

But, unfortunately, this is not what people mean when they refer to ‘balanced’ dog training.

What is balanced dog training?

Balance is one of those weasel words in dog training. If we think of the word in the abstract, balance is a good thing; we don’t want to be off-balance and fall over. So it sounds persuasive. But in terms of dog training, balance has risks despite the name.

Of course, balance is just a word in the English language and may be used in various ways since it can be used by anyone.

When people refer to ‘balance’ in dog training they usually mean in terms of good and bad, i.e. not just using positive reinforcement but making use of punishment too.

What’s wrong with balanced methods for training dogs?

People who refer to ‘balance’ in dog training methods are often doing so to distinguish themselves from dog trainers who use positive reinforcement.

You may hear statements that people should “use all four quadrants” of dog training. In plain English, what they mean is that as well as rewarding good behaviour, you should also physically punish your dog. You’ll notice an appeal to authority – science – in using the technical terminology of quadrants. But it is just plain irresponsible to advise people to physically punish their dogs.

Balanced trainers often don’t use the word punishment to describe what they do. Instead they talk about ‘corrections’ or ‘correcting your dog’. But if we want to be technical about it, it’s positive punishment. (Still on a technical note, there may also be circumstances in which balanced trainers use negative reinforcement).

What does science tell us about combining rewards and corrections in dog training?

Because many ordinary people use a combination of rewards and punishment to train their dogs, scientists are able to assess how obedient (or otherwise) people rate their dogs and compare it to the methods used.

One study found that most people use rewards to train their dog at least some of the time: about half of all training involved the use of rewards (Arhant et al 2010). The most common rewards, used by 90% of dog owners, were petting and verbal praise. Food was used as a reward ‘often’ or ‘very often’ by more than half of dog owners, and play was another commonly used reward.

The problems with balanced dog training
The more often people used rewards in training, the more likely they were to say their dog was obedient, and the less likely they were to report aggression or anxiety.

This study also found that about a quarter of training was punishment-based (the remaining group of techniques they studied included things like comforting a dog).

The more often people used punishment, the more likely they were to say their dogs are aggressive and excitable. For little dogs, the risks are increased because the more often punishment was used, the more likely the dog was to be anxious and fearful too.

The most common types of punishment were scolding the dog and leash jerks, used by 80% of respondents. About 30% of owners slapped the dog, held the muzzle, used alpha rolls or shook the dog by the scruff as a form of punishment, while 15% used noise to startle the dog. These other types of punishment were used less often.

This study, as with most others on dog training methods, was correlational and we know that correlation does not prove causation. However, other studies also report similar findings. (If you specifically want an experiment where observers were blind to the training method used, there is one that found welfare implications with shock collars).

There is evidence that using physical punishment with dogs can lead to an aggressive response (Herron et al 2009). For example, 11% of owners who used prong collars (a common tool of balanced dog trainers) reported that it led to aggression. 15% of those who yelled “No!” at their dog also said that it sometimes led to aggression. Of those who said they “hit or kick [the] dog for undesirable behaviour”, 43% said there was an aggressive response.

Aggression is a serious problem because as well as potentially causing injury to a human, it may also result in the dog having to be euthanized.

On the other hand, most of these owners also used food rewards (89%), and 86% of them reported that it had a positive effect on behaviour.

So what we see is that people who use rewards to train their dogs report better-behaved dogs with fewer behaviour problems. Why 'balance' rewards and 'corrections' when corrections have risks? Using reward-based dog training is better than using both rewards and positive punishment.

In fact food is typically the best reward to use when training your dog. Dogs like food and it’s an efficient and effective way to train; what’s more, dogs like to work to earn rewards.

But how do you stop your dog from doing bad things?

This is a common question from people who are used to using punishment in training.

Switching to reward-based training involves a change in how you think about your dog’s behaviour. When people are in the habit of using punishment, they are reacting to the dog doing something they don’t want in order to try and stop it from happening.

Another way to look at it is to ask what you would like your dog to do instead, and train them to do that.

Suppose the problem is that your dog jumps up to greet everyone, and it’s annoying and embarrassing.

Well first of all, congratulations on having a friendly dog who likes to greet people. That’s brilliant!

And second, what would you like them to do instead? Perhaps you would like them to sit politely and be patted. Or perhaps you would prefer to teach them to target the person’s hand with their nose, so they can still sniff the person but don’t jump up. Either way, you can then develop a training plan and use rewards to teach your dog what to do.

The bit that surprises some people is that you can do this without having to physically punish the dog. You can avoid giving your dog the opportunity to jump in the first place. If your dog does jump up, you can ask the person to turn briefly away, or you can take the dog away from them and then try again (technically, negative punishment). Or if you prefer you can just ask them not to pet the dog (although many people will; after all it’s hard to resist petting a friendly dog). Then get back to your training plan.

But some people mean balanced as a state of mind…

I have also seen some people refer to dogs themselves, rather than training methods, as ‘balanced’ or even ‘well-balanced.’ Again, they don’t mean literally that they are able to stay upright; it’s a metaphor (sometimes used in conjunction with the wolf pack metaphor). And as I said above, it’s an appealing one because the opposite, imbalanced, has bad connotations. But what exactly does it mean? Since it is referring to an apparent state of mind, it’s hard to know exactly and impossible to assess.

It’s far better to think about our dogs’ behaviour in terms of things we can observe. For example, is the dog well-behaved or are they doing something you don't like? (And if so, what specifically, and what would you prefer them to do instead?). Are they happy? Or are they fearful? These are all things we can actually observe.

A Scottish Terrier balances on a beam

Although most people are able to recognize a happy dog, experience helps people spot fear. So it could be that some people who use aversive methods are not able to recognize signs of stress and fear in their dogs; I like to think that if they did, they would rethink their methods. (See eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe).

At the same time, some dog trainers claim their methods are ‘humane’ and ‘do not hurt’ when actually they are unpleasant for the dog, otherwise they would not work. Because dog training is not regulated, dog trainers are not required to be transparent about what they do (and some may not have the technical expertise to do so). Everyone who’s learned about quadrants of operant conditioning will know it can be hard – we can’t expect the average dog owner to know, but trainers should.

Deciding how to train your dog

When choosing a dog trainer, as well as looking for someone with a qualification and a commitment to ongoing professional development, pick someone who is proud to say they use food to train. If they are disparaging about the use of food as a reward, look elsewhere.

Because ‘balanced’ dog training involves combining the use of rewards with corrections that carry the risk of fear and aggression. That doesn’t sound like a good balance to me. It’s better to skip the risky part and stick to reward-based dog training.

So let’s take balance off the menu and use food rewards instead.

If you would like to know more about the research on dog training methods, check out my dog training research resources page which includes links to scientific papers as well as to blogs where you can read all about them.

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

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
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
Photos: alexei_tm (top), Mat Hayward (middle) and olga_i (all shutterstock.com)

10 August 2016

Dog Bite Strength: It's Not What You Think

Scientists tracked down the evidence for a common statement about bite strength in dogs – and found it lacking.

A happy pit bull surrounded by flowers

Have you ever read comments about the strength of a dog’s jaw when it bites? These statements are often made in relation to certain types of dog, like pit bulls. Maybe some people take it as fact. But what if it’s not true?

A recent paper by Dr. Gary Patronek (Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University) et al traced citations in the literature and went back to the original sources to investigate the truth of the published statements. They say they chose the literature on the strength with which a dog can bite for several reasons, including that this is a salient figure that jumps out at people and is remembered, and that the literature was large enough and easy to assess for accuracy.

They picked a topic on which people have been sceptical for some time. Writing on his blog in 2010, Stanley Coren PhD said,

“Let’s put these numbers into a meaningful context. Imagine a bite force of 2000 pounds. To achieve this, suppose that we had a dog’s jaw and wanted to press the upper portion down with this force, it would require our putting a pressure equivalent to the weight of a subcompact automobile (like a smaller Toyota or Hyundai) on the top jaw. That simply did not make sense.” 

In fact a Smart Fortwo weighs 1808 lbs, and a Mitsubishi Mirage is 1,973lbs. So those are the cars we can think of if we’re going to use Dr. Coren’s analogy.

Patronek et al wanted to know what the evidence is for this. They looked at papers from 1969 – 2009, and two court cases, that referred to canine bite strength. They went through the literature to trace the statements back to the origin. So what did they find?

“We tracked each citation to 1 of 7 original sources,” they write, “and did not find verifiable evidence (or data obtained from a controlled experiment) about bite force in any of the articles. In 2 of the original sources, statements about bite force were found, but there were neither data nor a citation to support those statements. In 4 other original sources, none contained any statement or data about bite force, despite being cited by other scientific articles as though they had. The final original source was not a scientific article at all, but a newspaper article that again provided no source for the data presented.”  [references omitted for ease of reading – see link below]

In other words, there is no evidence for the statement that a pit bull, or any other kind of dog, has a bite strength of 1800 or even 2000 PSI.

A happy pit bull puppy in the flowers
For scientists, this is a reminder to be careful to verify sources. Patronek et al are not suggesting anyone has deliberately misled – rather, that mistakes have been made, and over successive papers by different authors, they have been amplified. These days, with more articles available electronically, it is easier than ever to verify original sources (although no university library will have everything).

A particular problem is what they call ‘daisy-chaining’ – basically the use of secondary sources (rather than the original) and not being clear when information is from the introduction section rather than actual results.

At other times, however, they say it’s hard to know why these mistakes occurred.

“Four articles specifically claim that the bite force of a “pit bull” type dog can be as much as 1,800 pounds per square inch. There is not a single original source reporting a Result that substantiates this claim. And what are we to make of cases where a source that literally did not contain any information about bite force was cited.” [references omitted]

I find it interesting that the four articles referring to a pit bull bite strength of 1,800 PSI (and indeed almost all of the papers making comments about bite strength) are from the medical literature, not from journals on animal behaviour or biology.

Patronek et al point out there are consequences to this, not just for the scientific literature but also real life (as in the court cases they studied).

More generally, we can consider what if people are afraid of certain dogs because they’ve been erroneously told about this supposed enormous bite strength? What if people cite this information in support of breed specific legislation, even though it's wrong?

Preventing dog bites is complicated. Breed specific legislation isn't the answer because any dog can bite. Fortunately fatal dog attacks are incredibly rare and involve many factors that could potentially be prevented. Programmes to educate children about dog bites work to reduce risky behaviour around dogs. Better education for adults on dogs and canine behaviour can help too. But approaches to dog bite prevention also need to take into account that many people think ‘it won’t happen to me’ and so may not pay attention to information about dogs in general, or to their dog’s behaviour in the moment.

Patronek et al’s paper shows a commonly-held belief about certain types of dog is wrong. Flawed research write-ups have given pit bulls and other dogs a bad name, and it’s important to set the record straight.

The paper is open access and you can read it at the link below. There is a handy diagram if you want to follow the faulty references back.

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.

Patronek, G., Bradley, J., & Cleary, D. (2016). Who is minding the bibliography? Daisy chaining, dropped leads, and other bad behavior using examples from the dog bite literature Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 17-19 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.004
Photos: Matthew Lyon (top) and Zuzule (both Shutterstock.com)

03 August 2016

Why Do People Choose Certain Dogs?

Many factors go into people’s choice of dogs. Animal welfare isn’t always top of the list, but could this change?

An English Bulldog in a field by the sea

English Bulldogs only live six years, according to a recent paper that highlights the lack of genetic diversity in this breed (Pederson et al 2016). Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post spoke to one of the authors of the study, Niels Pederson. “There are genetic diseases that [breeders] could test for, but they choose not to. Which means they’re more interested in the coat colors of their dogs,” Pedersen said. “The owners’ desire to own them, either as a status symbol or because they like them — and they are likable dogs — has exceeded their concern about the health and longevity of the dog.” (Read Brulliard’s full story).

Sean Wensley, President of the British Veterinary Association, says "The research released today reflects the seriousness of the health problems associated with English bulldogs that our members are seeing in practice. Revision of breed standards, to include evidence-based limits on physical features such as muzzle shortness, and full consideration of other approaches such as outcrossing, are now needed to ensure high risk breeds, such as the English bulldog, do not continue to suffer unnecessarily."

In common with other dogs with squashed faces, English Bulldogs can suffer from brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, which means they have difficulties breathing. The wrinkles of their faces are prone to skin infections if not cleaned often. They can have eye problems. Most English Bulldogs are born by Caesarian section because the puppies are too large for the birth canal.

Despite these problems, Bulldogs are the fourth-most popular breed of dog in the US, according to the AKC.

Bulldogs aren’t the only breed with genetic problems. A study of the top 50 dog breeds in the UK found that every single one had at least one inherited disorder related to its conformation (i.e. the physical characteristics that are a requirement of the breed) (Asher et al 2009). Inbreeding within dog breeds leads to a lack of genetic diversity.

Trends in popularity of dog breeds

Health problems with a breed can mean larger vet bills and the devastating loss of a pet far too soon. Doesn’t this put people off particular breeds?
A happy white English Bulldog

This doesn’t seem to be the case, according to the results of a study by Stefano Ghirlanda et al (2013). They looked at how the popularity of dog breeds is affected by temperament (measured by C-BARQ scores) and health (assessed by lifespan and the number of inherited conditions associated with each breed).

“If anything, our results suggest that breeds can become popular despite problematic behaviour, rather than because of good behaviour,” they write.

“We found, likewise, that breeds with more inherited disorders have been more popular, rather than less popular, suggesting that health considerations have been secondary in the decision to acquire dogs as well as in dog breeding practices.”

An increasing trend for smaller, brachycephalic breeds has also occurred in Australia. According to Kendy Teng et al (2016), “Compared to taller and larger breeds, shorter and smaller breeds have become relatively popular over time. Also, the data suggest that Australians increasingly favour dogs with shorter and wider heads for whose welfare veterinarians often express concern.”

Fashions for dog breeds are affected by dogs that appear in the movies, although not as much as they used to be in the past, (as explained here by Julie Hecht writing about further research by Ghirlanda et al). On the other hand, if a breed wins ‘Best in Show’ at Westminster, this doesn’t affect the popularity of the breed, says Prof. Hal Herzog.

Problems with puppy mills

Another way in which animal welfare does not always play a part in people’s decisions to acquire a dog is the number of dogs obtained from commercial breeding establishments, also known as puppy mills. Dogs from pet stores come from puppy mills (and remember the internet is essentially a pet store too).

Many people know conditions in puppy mills can be very poor or even dire from an animal welfare perspective.

“Puppy mills usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization,” says the ASPCA. “Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. Dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is not unusual for cages to be stacked up in columns.”

Fewer people realize they also affect the puppy’s behaviour in their new home. Dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores are more likely to be aggressive to their owner and have other behaviour problems than those obtained from breeders (McMillan et al, 2013). Owner-directed aggression is more common in puppies from pet stores even when owner differences are taken into account (Pirrone et al 2016).

People may continue to buy dogs from these sources due to lack of awareness. The sellers sometimes go to great lengths to disguise where the dogs really come from. Offering to meet the buyer in a convenient car park may look like great customer service (rather than a way to hide poor animal welfare) to someone who is not informed.

What do people look for in a dog?

So what are the factors that people take into account when choosing a puppy or dog?

It’s the whole package that counts, according to a study by Laurie Garrison and Emily Weiss (2014) that showed people profiles of dogs and asked how likely they would be to choose them. The fake profiles were created by the researchers to compare different aspects such as age, colour, breed, source, and euthanasia-risk.

They found that some less-appealing aspects of a dog’s profile could be mitigated by other aspects. For example, although people generally prefer puppies, a senior dog could still get a good response if other aspects of their profile were positive. Breed was part of people’s choices, with a rare or unusual breed preferred over other pedigrees or dogs of unknown parentage, but it was only a part of the package.

“Overall, these results show that people have complex preferences, and which features are important vary widely across people.”

What people look for in shelter dogs

Humane societies have an obvious need to find out what makes people more or less likely to adopt dogs, whether it’s features of the dog’s description or interactions with the dog at the shelter.

And here we know quite a lot. Great photographs can reduce adoption time for black Labrador Retrievers from 43 to 14 days (Lampe and Witte, 2014). Contrary to popular belief, black dogs are not adopted last after all  (Svoboda and Hoffman, 2015). Puppies are typically adopted very quickly compared to adult dogs (Brown et al 2013) and small dogs are generally adopted sooner than larger dogs.

Cuteness is a factor too. Many adult dogs have baby-like features. This ties in with a theory that cuteness may have been selected for in the domestication of dogs. Dogs can make an eyebrow movement that makes their eyes appear larger (a more baby-like feature). Dogs who made this movement more frequently were adopted more quickly, found Waller et al (2013). They say, “Our real world data show that domestic dogs who exhibit paedomorphic characteristics are preferentially and actively selected by humans as pets from rehoming shelters.”

An English Bulldog rests on a chair

Behaviour and temperament are also important. In a large-scale survey of adoptions from Dogs Trust in the UK, Siettou et al (2014) found that descriptions referring to the dog as friendly to children, friendly to other dogs, and/or friendly to other pets led to higher rates of adoption. If the description said a dog needed training or had behaviour problems, this led to lower rates of adoption (which translates as a longer wait time), despite the fact that behavioural advice was available. An existing medical condition did not make a difference to the likelihood of adoption, although this could be because Dogs Trust has a scheme to help with medical costs.

The dog’s behaviour when meeting people at the shelter is also important. If a dog lies down close to a potential adopter, and doesn’t ignore their attempts to engage in play, they are more likely to be adopted, according to Protopopova and Wynne (2014). These results were used to develop a promising structured interaction between shelter dog and potential adopter that led to increased rates of adoption (Protopopova et al 2016).

Humane societies have a potential hurdle to get over in that some people have a view of rescue dogs as having behaviour problems (Mornement et al 2012). Garrison and Weiss’s study found people were more likely to say they would consider a shelter as a source of dogs than to have actually obtained a dog from one.

Encouragingly, most people who adopt a dog from a shelter found it a positive process and would do so again (Mornement et al 2015).

What is an ideal dog like?

Another way to investigate people’s preferences is to ask about their ideal dog. Here there is considerable variation too, but also some common threads. A survey in Australia (King et al 2009) found some interesting results:

“In summary, the ideal dog in Australia is de-sexed, has short/straight hair, is of medium size (10–20 kg), is acquired as a puppy, and requires between 16 and 30 min exercise per day and between 1 and 15 min grooming per week. The ‘‘ideal dog’’ is also safe with children, housetrained, healthy, comes when called, does not escape the property, is not destructive when left alone, lives until at least 10 years old, and is obedient friendly and affectionate.”

These answers may vary by location. An Italian study found a much lower preference for dogs to be spayed/neutered (Diverio et al 2016). Of course, questions about an ideal will also show some distance from reality.

Nonetheless it seems that a friendly, sociable, healthy dog comes high up on the list for most people.

Not everyone wants a dog

We also know something about why people don’t want dogs, thanks to a survey by the American Humane Assocation and PetSmart. Veterinary expenses, general costs of dog ownership, and lack of time are common reasons.

The lack of availability of rental housing that allows pets may also be a factor, as it is certainly mentioned as a reason for people surrendering pets to animal shelters.

Should we be breeding for friendliness and good health instead?

We’ve seen that people have quite individual perceptions of what kind of dog is right for them, but at the same time there are certain characteristics that are widely preferred. Friendliness is important in people’s choice of shelter dogs and also features highly in descriptions of people’s ideal dog.

Does this mean dogs should be bred for good health and friendliness instead of for their looks?

King et al say, “if the public are more concerned about health and behaviour than physical characteristics, then it may be wise for dog breeders to select for these attributes rather than placing undue emphasis on physical qualities. This may enable them to breed dogs who are best suited to be human companions.”

It seems this could go a long way to improving animal welfare. At the same time, if dogs were friendlier (hence less likely to bite) and lived longer (less likely to cause grief with health problems and an early death) it would be better for human welfare too.

Individual choices, consumer protection and animal welfare

Variety is important so that people can find the right dog for them.

We don't know very much about people's perceptions of animal welfare issues in relation to getting a dog. We need more research into people’s decision-making and the emotional experience of choosing (and getting) a puppy from any kind of source. This would help design campaigns to influence people’s decisions when choosing puppies. Evaluating the success of those campaigns could also lead into better campaigns in future.

If movies can influence people’s choice of dog, perhaps widespread news coverage of health problems associated with particular breeds or sources of dogs will also influence consumer choice.

But understanding individual choices is only part of the solution. Better regulation of breeders is essential. Programs to improve the health of breeds are urgently needed too. Some people are making a lot of money from breeding and selling dogs with health and behaviour issues.

People don’t think, “I want to get a dog with eye problems who can hardly breathe.” They probably think, “This type of dog is cute!” When they go online to find out more about the breed, some of the first information they come across is likely from those with a vested interest in selling the breed.

Garrison and Weiss’s work suggests that if information about health problems was flagged up in the description of a dog, it would become part of the overall package on which people make decisions.

The BBC Panorama programme Puppy Dealers Exposed shows how hard it is for people to find (and know they have found) a good source of puppies.

This is a situation where better consumer protection for dog owners will also benefit animal welfare.

The APGAW report A healthier future for pedigree dogs says that “The success of irresponsible dog breeders in selling puppies often comes from buyers’ ignorance and also the fact that the buyer is limited in the action they can take if a puppy later suffers from physiological or genetic problems.”

It also says, “Generally consumers do not have a great deal of information about the health or welfare of the puppy or its parents, thus they are not in a position to be able to make an informed decision about their purchase.”

People get puppies because they love dogs and want a new family member. Choosing a dog is a complex decision and it seems people weigh up many factors. Hopefully a greater awareness of the problems some breeds face and the terrible state of puppy mills will lead people to give greater weight to animal welfare.

How did you choose your dog? Would you make the same choice today?

Further Reading

Death of the Bulldog by Jemima Harrison at Pedigree Dogs Exposed
What the pug is going on? by Mia Cobb at Do You Believe in Dog?
Pedigree dog breeding in the UK: A major welfare concern? RSPCA
Inside the puppy trade from start to finish by Janetta Harvey
What can I do to ensure I don’t buy from a puppy farm? by Pupaid
A closer look at puppy mills by ASPCA
Getting a puppy and getting a dog by Dogs Trust

This post was nominated in the 2016 Dog Writer's Association of America Annual Writing Competition in the category Article or Blog - Health or General Care.

Photos: everydoghasastory (top), Light Hound Pictures (midle), and Kristina Korotkova (bottom) (all Shutterstock.com)
Asher, L., Diesel, G., Summers, J., McGreevy, P., & Collins, L. (2009). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: Disorders related to breed standards The Veterinary Journal, 182 (3), 402-411 DOI: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.08.033

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