28 September 2016

Book Review: Men and Their Dogs

A new book investigates the psychology of the bond between men and their dogs.

A man and his Australian Shepherd dog sit at a viewpoint

Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man's Best Friend, edited by Christopher Blazina and Lori R. Kogan, is a collection of essays about the different roles dogs play in men’s lives, and the potential for bringing about psychological change. The book covers topics ranging from gender role conflict, the therapeutic use of programmes using dogs in prisons and with at-risk youth, the value of play with dogs and relationships with pets at different stages of the lifespan. It’s a fascinating read for psychologists interested to learn more about the human-animal bond.

The chapters explore how dogs affect psychological processes such as intrapersonal growth, attachment and empathy. Although the focus of the book is men, there is much of relevance to both men and women.

This book is a great resource for anyone interested in programs that involve animals, including those aimed at veterans, at-risk youth, homeless youth, prison dog programs, and programs designed to help seniors and people with disabilities keep pets in the home. The chapters provide descriptions and evaluations of the programs, and many also refer to resources that will help those wishing to set up similar programs in their own community.

The chapters also discuss issues with research in this area, including the need for more randomized controlled trials to evaluate the effects of companion animals, the problems with gaining access to institutions or even to people without their pets, and the need to understand the psychological mechanisms by which pets might affect physical and psychological health. In doing so, it sets the agenda for future research in this field.

Chapter 1 by Chris Blazina and Lori R. Kogan sets the scene for the rest of the book. Where male socialization and striving to meet societal norms may sometimes put men at risk, dogs can offer a gender-neutral space in which psychological needs may be met. While recognizing there may be many within-group differences in how men experience interactions with their dogs, the book aims to advance our theoretical and empirical knowledge of the role of dogs in men’s lives. They say,
“We argue that animal companions offer many men a respite from the strain of traditional male gender roles. The shared bond may also be one that prompts transformation in males’ lives.” 
The book covers themes such as attachment, loss, masculinity, gender role conflict, and a reluctance to seek help.

Chapter 2 by James M. O’Neil, Robyn Denke and Chris Blazina summarizes several decades of research on Gender Role Conflict and considers how it applies to the human-animal bond. Men may experience gender role conflict due to societal norms, and this has been linked with a range of psychological problems including depression and self-harm. Gender roles do not apply to animals and so the human-animal bond may be a way of learning about and transforming men’s sense of self. For example, men who find it difficult to be affectionate and close to other people because of gendered expectations about how they should be may nonetheless be able to be affectionate with their dog, and to talk to their dog about personal issues. The authors recommend several lines of research, starting with qualitative interviews with men about the meaning of animals to them. They end the chapter with suggestions for ways in which the human-animal bond can be used in a transformative way to help men with gender role conflict and fear of femininity become more whole.

A man and his dog in the park in Autumn
Chapter 3 by Chris Blazina, James M.O’Neil and Robyn Denke proposes a model for understanding human-animal interaction in men. The model looks at how gender role stereotypes affect men’s relationship with animals, and the space such relationships may provide for personal growth and learning less-stereotyped behaviours.

The model begins by considering insecurity in mens’ attachments, and the way this is affected (and affects) both masculinity and gender role conflict. One possibility is that insecure attachments are carried over into relationships with pets, with negative effects for psychological well-being. On the other hand, the human-animal bond may instead compensate for those prior insecure attachments, in which case the psychological outcomes are far more positive. This chapter provides a lot of context through which the rest of the book may be understood.

“Should homeless people have pets?” Is the question with which Michelle Lem starts chapter 4. She discusses the question in terms of the One Health model. About a quarter of homeless people have pets. Homeless youth have high levels of attachment to their pets, while they often have a history of trauma and insecure attachments to the people in their lives. Dogs may provide security and emotional support, but they also bring difficulties, such as in accessing services that may not allow pets. Dogs may also be seen within the context of ‘street family’ and may be looked after by several individuals within that group. She also considers the role of pets in panhandling and within gangs. The chapter ends with a reframed question: “Should we have youth who are unwanted, uncared for, and without a home?”

In Chapter 5, Jessica Thomas looks at the effects of a 3-week programme in which at-risk youth work with a shelter dog, to teach the dog basic obedience and get it ready to find a new home. Quotes included from participants illustrate the positive effects of the programme, e.g.
“Doogie is a great dog… because Doogie is more like a brother than a dog [and he] helped me through all of this giving me the confidence I needed.” 
Questionnaire results from the study showed significant improvements in intrapersonal functioning. The results are interpreted in light of attachment theory and in the way dogs provide a ‘gender role neutral’ situation in which boys can explore their feelings.

In Chapter 6, Amy Johnson and Laura Bruneau write about the Teacher’s Pet program, a 10-week animal-assisted intervention that teaches young people to train shelter dogs. The program includes humane education and each participant trains 2 dogs (one per 5 weeks) with a graduation ceremony for the dogs at the end. The chapter begins with three cases studies of youth and what they learned from the program. The youths may be struggling with gender role conflict, such as wanting to be soft but not feeling that society allows them to be. A particularly moving anecdote is included, where a dog ran away but the youth who had been training him was able to find him, and said he had told the dog that “if Moto were ever to feel unsafe, he should go to their safe spot.” This gives insight into how the program affects participants. The chapter includes details of the program and how it is designed, along with preliminary results from a randomized controlled trial.

Safe Humane Chicago is the subject of Chapter 7 by Cynthia L. Bathurst and Lisa Lunghofer. This is an alliance of community groups and organizations that run a wide range of programs based on the idea of a link between humane treatment of animals and wider safety within the community. For youth, they say,
“programs that offer the most promise provide youth with the opportunity to engage in structured activities and build positive relationships with carefully screened and matched volunteers.” 
The chapter focuses on Lifetime Bonds for youth who are involved with the courts. It describes a 12-week program at the Illinois Youth Centre (Phase 1) and a 6-month internship (Phase 2) for young men released from jail. The chapter ends with examples of the participant’s writing and artwork about the experience, which are very moving.

“You take a throw-away boy and a throw-away dog, and you put us together. We help them: they get adopted and find homes. We get out and have better skills and feel like we’ve accomplished something.” (Quote from young man who participated in Lifetime Bonds, chapter 7).

In Chapter 8, Mary Harlinger and Chris Blazina look at the effects of an intervention that involved men recalling an episode of play with their dog. Playfulness is linked to resilience since it involves an openness to change. While the memory intervention increased playfulness, it did not decrease stress. However they note that the sample was already low in gender role conflict and had high initial scores for playfulness. They go on to discuss the potential role of play in men’s relationships with their dogs, and that play is different from the rigidity often expected due to masculine stereotypes. They also suggest that play may increase attachment to dogs.

Angela Fournier looks at interactions between men and dogs in prison in Chapter 9. Inmates adopt prison culture, including an ‘us and them’ stance with correctional staff, and lose many if not all opportunities to exercise their role as a father. Prison dog programmes may work in part because they allow the cultivation of various aspects of identity that are similar to fatherhood. Although there is both anecdotal and empirical evidence that prison animal programmes have positive outcomes, the role of interaction with the animals has been neglected, and is the focus of research presented in this chapter. For example, 96% of participants in the Pen Pals prison dog programme talked to a dog, and 64% said they had hugged or kissed a dog in the previous week. Qualitative data from inmates’ applications to join the program and from focus groups reflected themes such as nurturance, wanting to ‘give back’, and gaining “a sense of humanity”.

A dog kisses a man who is sitting on the sofa with his coffee

Chapter 10 by Teri L. Carper, Anne S. Bartone and Frederick C. Petty looks at the many different animal programs that exist for veterans, distinguishing between different kinds of programs such as animal-assisted activities (which include a range of activities), animal-assisted therapy (which is more formal and goal-directed), service animals, emotional support animals, animals that live at residential facilities, and dog training programs. They provide a list of organizations providing such programs. However, they say, it is difficult to design evidence-based programs because of the lack of research that compares them to other established therapies and a lack of understanding of the psychological mechanisms through which such programs work. They discuss contraindications with the use of dogs in treatment for PTSD and the need to develop best practices.

The role of dogs in the lives of middle-aged men is the subject of Chapter 11 by Chris Blazina and Anne S. Bartone. They argue the need to take account of other contexts than masculinity, as all men will not have the same experiences. The researchers also developed and validated the Companion Animal Roles Scale which assesses the extent to which a pet is regarded as a friend or family member. Using factor analysis, the items are grouped into Emotional Bond, Personal Growth, and Life Style. This research adds to our understanding of the psychological roles that companion animals play in men’s lives, and they suggest further research with both men and women. They also suggest research into how the human-animal bond changes with the age of the dog (e.g. as senior dogs need more care) and through the human lifespan.

This leads nicely into Chapter 12 by Anne S. Bartone and Chris Blazina about a survey on attachment to dogs across men’s lifespan. While gender role conflict reduced from young men to middle- aged, as found in other studies, attachment to dogs and social support provided by dogs is greater in middle age. When a dog died, dissonant grief reactions were reported more often by younger men, suggesting they are more constrained by gender roles and less able to express their grief. Psychologists could note that men at middle age may be more likely to experience profound grief reactions to the loss of a pet than younger men. Bartone and Blazina also suggest collaborations between psychologists and veterinary scientists to provide better communication and support to clients on the loss of a pet.

Chapter 13 by Lori R. Kogan describes the situation for seniors in the US, most of whom live independently, and the particular issues men may face due to the pressures of maintaining a masculine identity. Pets may potentially help older adults in many ways, including increased opportunities for exercise, social support, better physical and psychological health, and a sense of purpose. Nevertheless research shows that older adults are less likely to have pets because of concerns about caring for them, and those with pets may be less likely to access medical care because of fears about who will care for their pet if they are hospitalized. Challenges with research in this area are also discussed, including the difficulties of comparing groups with and without their pets when people choose to have their pet with them.

Against this background, Chapter 14, also by Lori R. Kogan, looks at the opportunities provided by service learning, which combines study in the classroom with learning in a community setting. Service learning courses in which young people work with older adults can lead to better attitudes to seniors and more positive attitudes towards their own old age. Pets Forever is a program that aims to help low-income seniors and people with disabilities keep their pets as long as possible, by providing services including dog walking (with and without the owner present), grooming for pets, litter tray cleaning, and provision of pet food. The classroom sessions for students include discussion of service delivery and any issues arising as well as invited speakers from a range of community organizations. The benefits for older people include being able to keep their pets, and this may in particular be a way to help older men who in other parts of their lives feel a need to maintain masculine ideals and restrict displays of emotion.

“This class was much more than spending time with animals; it opened my eyes to this whole other part of the community that I have unfortunately never thought much about.” (student in Pets Forever, quoted in chapter 14).

The final chapter is about men’s experiences of grief after losing a pet. This may be a disenfranchised grief since many people do not acknowledge or understand the experience of loss of a pet. The idea of “continuing bonds”, using memories, dreams, sharing stories of the pet with others and keeping items such as the pet’s blanket can help with the emotions experienced after loss. The chapter draws on cross-cultural research in which men spoke of the intensity of their loss, how it was not always recognized by others, their relationship with their pet, and that continuing bonds could be both distressing and helpful. Clinical implications include teaching clients about the use of continuing bonds and providing resources about pet loss. Clinicians must also recognize the significance of pet loss, instead of diminishing it by insisting on a search for the ‘real reasons’ for grief.

Although the book is aimed at psychologists, anyone with an interest in human-animal interaction programs will find a lot of value in this book, which makes important theoretical and empirical contributions to the field.

I received a review copy of the book.

Blazina, C. and Kogan, R. R. (Eds) (2016) Man and their dogs: A new understanding of man’s best friend. Springer.
Photos: Melounix (top), Air Images (middle) and Daxiao Productions (all Shutterstock.com)

25 September 2016

Happy Dogs in Harnesses: Photos

Gorgeous photos of happy dogs in their no-pull harnesses. Which one is your favourite?

Two beautiful dogs resting by a river whilst on a hike in nature
Drake (left) and Bacchus. Photo: Jackie Johnston (Adoption Specialist, Humane Society of Boulder Valley).

Beautiful brown dog looking happy in his no-pull harness
Bronson. Photo: Lisa Skavienski, CTC

A beautiful malamute in a no-pull harness
Bjorn. Photo: Sgian Dubh

Nani looking beautiful in a front-clip harness
Nani. Photo:Tails in the Valley Dog Training

A very happy Labrador on the lawn
Sophie. Photo: Megan Taylor

Beautiful Argie modelling a no-pull harness
Argie. Photo: Maria Karunungan

Beautiful black-and-white dog wearing a yellow harness
Moo. Photo: Joanna

A sweet older dog sits by the gate in autumn
Foxxy. Photo: Suzanne Bryner

Two cute dogs laying on the sidewalk in front of flowers
Photo: Courtney Bayer

Beautiful lab-beagle mix in a field
Titus. Photo: Nickala Squire

Happy white-and-brown dog looking cute in a harness
Drake. Photo: Jackie Johnston (Adoption Specialist, Humane Society of Boulder Valley)

Gorgeous happy brown dog sits on the sidewalk
Bacchus. Photo: Jackie Johnston (Adoption Specialist, Humane Society of Boulder Valley)

Two happy dogs by a waterfall
Tucker (left) and Bronson. Photo: Lisa Skavienski, CTC

Two dogs running happily in their front clip harnesses
Quinn and Riley. Photo: Tails in the Valley Dog Training

This post is part of the Harness the Love campaign from the Academy for Dog Trainers. Recent research shows that neck collars and harnesses do not cause stress when walking dogs. So if you have a dog that pulls a lot on leash, a front-clip harness is a good choice.

Thank you to everyone who has shared their photos with me.

19 September 2016

Harnesses are a Great Choice to Walk Your Dog

A new study compares a harness to a neck collar and finds both are good for canine welfare.

Gorgeous Milo looking happy in his front-clip harness
Milo. Photo: Sabrina Mignacca

Harnesses are often said to be better for your dog than walking on a collar, but no one had investigated it. Now, a team of scientists at Hartpury College (Grainger, Wills & Montrose 2016) has published a study of the effects of walking a dog on a harness and on a neck collar.

The same dogs were walked on a neck collar and on a harness on separate occasions, and their behaviour was monitored for signs of stress. The results show that harnesses do not cause stress and are a great choice for walking your dog.

Dr. Tamara Montrose, one of the authors of the study, told me in an email,

“Whilst neck collars are widely used when walking dogs, concerns have been raised about their potential to damage the neck and trachea. Furthermore collars can be problematic in dogs with eye conditions such as glaucoma. Harnesses are often anecdotally proposed to be better for dog welfare.
“In our study, we investigated whether dogs walked on a collar or harness displayed differences in behaviours associated with canine stress or related to restriction of movement.
“We found that there were no differences in behaviour between dogs walked on either a neck collar or a harness. The frequency of the behavioral stress indicators also tended to be low in dogs walked on either restraint type. Whilst dogs with a history of collar walking showed increased levels of one potential stress indicator (low ear position) which may suggest that these dogs are more stressed, it’s important to note that this was not supported by the other stress measures and thus this explanation should be viewed with caution.
“Our findings suggest that dog welfare is not compromised by either form of restraint, however we are interested in undertaking future study with a range of different brands of harness and collar, consideration of physiological stress indicators and assessment of gait and magnitude of pulling.”

30 pet dogs took part in the study; 15 that were normally walked on a collar, and 15 that were normally walked on a harness. Each dog was taken for a 20 minute walk along a route through a field. The middle 10 minutes of the walk was video recorded for later analysis.

No-pull harnesses are a great choice to walk your dog. Here, Beautiful Zoe models her no-pull  harnesb
Zoe. Photo by Zoe's mom, Joanna.
Then the owner was given the alternate piece of equipment to use so the dog could get used to it. A week later, they returned for a second 20-minute walk in the field. It was again recorded for analysis.

The harness used throughout the study was the Perfect Fit. The group of dogs that were initially walked on a collar used their regular collar; the dogs that were fitted with a collar for the second walk were given a fleece-lined neck collar. A 1m leash was used for all of the dogs for standardization, and because this length is commonly used for dog walking.

The walks took place in the mornings in a field in Worcestershire (UK). Two routes were marked out in the field, so that dogs would walk a new route each time.

The videos were analysed for behaviours that could be signs of stress, including low tail, low body posture, licking the lips, yawning and panting. They also looked for signs that could show the dog’s movement is restricted, such as stopping.

The statistical analysis showed no significant differences between current or historical use of the collar or harness on any of the behavioural indicators, with the exception of low ears. This was higher in the dogs who were normally walked on a collar, but not linked to when they were walked on collar or harness in the study. Given the lack of other differences, this is hard to interpret.

These results show that neither a harness nor a collar causes stress to dogs. This is in contrast to prong and choke collars which have been found to sometimes elicit an aggressive response from dogs.

In other words, as commonly believed, harnesses are a good choice for walking your dog.

This is a timely finding because today sees the launch of the Harness the Love campaign from the Academy for Dog Trainers. The campaign highlights the use of no-pull harnesses to make it easier for people to walk their dog. No-pull harnesses have a front clip attachment for the leash, and a list of available brands can be found on the campaign’s website. People can take part by sharing a photo of their dog in their harness using the hashtag #HarnessTheLove.

Do you walk your dog on a harness?

Grainger, J., Wills, A., & Montrose, V. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 60-64 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.002
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.

14 September 2016

Are rabbits lagging behind in basic pet care practices?

A recent study highlights pet rabbit management practices. Although some owners take extra steps to protect their rabbit, many do not.

Guest post by James Oxley (Independent Researcher, UK; Twitter) and Clare Ellis (Moulton College, UK; TwitterWeb).

A pet rabbit with a vase of marguerites on a table

Rabbits sometimes get labelled as an easy pet to keep, and some owners may not consider that common pet care practices used for dogs and cats may also be beneficial for rabbits. In fact, a recent study by Oxley et al. has highlighted how few pet rabbit owners take precautions such as microchipping and pet insurance for their furry bunny friends.

In the UK, it is now a legal requirement to microchip your pet dog and a recent call for compulsory microchipping of cats has been highlighted . Millions of pet owners are microchipping their pets, including dog, cats and smaller commonly kept pets. Compulsory dog microchipping in the UK came about as an effort to increase accountability of dog owners and to reduce the number of stray dogs that end up in rescue centres so that owners may be traced. But what about rabbits?

A recent internet survey explored rabbit management practices of pet rabbit owners to see how many pet rabbits were insured and microchipped and asked the owners for their opinions on the idea of compulsory microchipping for pet rabbits.

Oxley et al (2015) received 1183 responses from pet rabbit owners. They found that 78.3% of rabbit owners do not microchip their rabbits. Given that pet rabbits are commonly kept in some kind of enclosure, it may seem odd to suggest that rabbits would benefit from microchipping as they potentially have less chance to stray than pet dogs and cats might.

The Rabbit Welfare and Association Fund (RWAF) estimates that 67,000 rabbits pass through UK rescue centres each year. This is currently an area which is being researched by PhD student Clare Ellis as part of her PhD at Moulton College.

She states: “It is very difficult to quantify the number of rabbits that are being given up by owners or entering re-homing centres as strays. Research from the USA and my current area of study indicates that large numbers of rabbits are becoming 'stray', as in their owner cannot be traced.
"If more rabbits were microchipped it may help ease the burden on re-homing centres so that escaped pets can be reunited with their owners and the centres can focus more efforts on rabbits in more urgent need of care." 

Oxley, who led the study the rabbit management practice study, suggests that owners may not consider the long-term benefits of microchipping and insuring their pet rabbits.

“Rabbits are a commonly kept pet in many countries these days but the numbers entering rescue centres as strays are large for an animal that should be housed in a secure enclosure or building. Microchipping a pet gives the owner more chance of being reunited if the animal manages to escape the enclosure or garden. And it doesn’t cost as much as some people may think.”
“In comparison to dogs and cats it may be that people are less willing to make the financial commitment to microchip and insure a rabbit or simply not see the potential benefits. I definitely think more work is needed to educate potential pet rabbit owners about the cost and effort involved in having rabbits as pets. They should not be viewed as ‘an easy pet’ to keep.”

To help address this issue, Pets at Home have introduced a policy where all rabbits they sell are to be microchipped (RWAF, Rabbiting on, Winter 2014, p18).

A pet bunny rabbit sits on a window sill
Microchipping, is beneficial for a number of reasons, including tracing owners whilst also being a cheap, safe and permanent method of identification which is quick and generally a pain fee procedure, especially in comparison to other forms of rabbit identification methods such as tattooing or banding.

Furthermore the microchip records can hold a variety of important information such as vet contact details and medical information about the animal.

In comparison to other pet species, rabbits are less likely to be insured (73.9% of 1,174 respondents stated that their rabbits were not insured in Oxley et al). Insurance of pet animals is important to prevent paying large veterinary bills when a rabbit falls ill.

The RSPCA has previously stated that veterinary treatment for rabbits, such as a fractured limb, could cost £1,000 or more (RSPCA, 2012). It is important to ensure that the insurance conditions are read as insurance companies may differ about what they do and do not cover.

If thinking about microchipping and insuring your rabbit, it is important to gain guidance through your local veterinary practice.

Further rabbit related information can be offered through the relevant UK organisations such as the RWAF (Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund), RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Animals), BVA (British Veterinary Association), Animal Welfare Foundation and PDSA (The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals).

Are your rabbits microchipped and insured?

About the authors

Photo of James Oxley

James Andrew Oxley is currently an independent researcher with a broad interest in research relating to human-animal interactions and animal welfare.  He has a BSc (Hons) in Animal Management and a Masters by Research which investigated Dog owners perceptions of English laws relating to dogs.

Clare Frances Ellis MSC BSc (Hons) PGCE is currently a PhD Animal Behaviour and Welfare candidate at the University of Northampton and Moulton College, UK. She is exploring factors surrounding the relinquishment of pet rabbits to re-homing centres in the UK and is developing a tool to assess individual behavioural differences in the species.

Oxley, J., Previti, A., Alibrandi, A., Briefer, E., & Passantino, A. (2015). A Preliminary internet survey of pet rabbit owners’ characteristics World Rabbit Science, 23 (4) DOI: 10.4995/wrs.2015.3771
RWAF 2014 Rabbiting On Magazine. Winter 2014. RWAF.
RSPCA. 2012. The time and costs involved in keeping rabbits: RSPCA companion animal pet care factsheet. RSPCA: West Sussex
Photos of rabbits: Francesco83 (top) and Serhii Ostapenko (both Shutterstock.com)
Propose a guest post to Companion Animal Psychology.

07 September 2016

Clicker Training vs Treat: Equally Good in Dog Training

Scientists find unanticipated results in a study that compares the clicker to a verbal reward-marker and the use of food alone in dog training.

An Australian Shepherd looks at a clicker in a dog training session

The study, by Cinzia Chiandetti (University of Trieste) et al  took 51 pet dogs and trained them on a novel task. 17 dogs were trained using a clicker, 17 using a verbal reward marker (“Bravo”), and 17 with only a reward. Then they tested the dogs to see how well they performed when asked to generalize the training to something similar and something more different.

The results were a surprise to the scientists, who expected to find that using the clicker would lead to better results. In fact there was no difference between the three groups of dogs.

They write,
“Although we should be cautious in drawing any strong conclusion from statistically non-significant results, our study is consistent with previous works conducted in different laboratories with both dogs and horses… which, taken together, point toward no advantage in favor of the shaping method using one acoustic signal over another.”

A clicker is a secondary reinforcer, meaning something that predicts a primary reinforcer (food) is coming. This is a classical conditioning relationship (click means treat). The clicker or verbal reward is used to mark the precise time at which the dog is performing the behaviour that earns a reward. It is commonly used in reward-based dog training.

Proponents of clicker training have often argued there is something about the click which makes dogs learn better. The purpose of the study was to test this idea, since we don’t know without empirical evidence (see: canine science is better than common sense).

In this study, the verbal reward marker was “Bravo.” It was always said in a neutral tone of voice.

The dogs were trained at their own home, either inside or in the garden. The dogs had only been previously trained by their owners, so they were not well-schooled in obedience training and had never been taught the task used in this study.

There were two trainers who both used the same approach and who each trained half the dogs in each group. All sessions were video-recorded.

The reward for the dogs was pieces of sausage or cheese, whichever the dog preferred. Regardless of the experimental condition the food reward was always delivered in the same location.

Should you use a clicker in dog training? This study found just a food reward is enough.
Photos: Melounix (Shutterstock.com)

There were two initial warm-up sessions to get the dog used to the trainer: teaching the dog to touch a box with their nose, and to put their paw on a box. During these sessions, the dogs in the clicker and verbal reward-marker conditions learned the association between the click or “bravo” and the delivery of food.

The training session used a method called shaping, in which the dog is rewarded for closer and closer approximations of what they have to do. They were taught to open a plastic bread box by pushing the handle up with their nose or muzzle.

The dogs had up to three training sessions a day until they were able to open the bread box 8 out of 10 times.

A week later, dogs were asked to repeat the bread box-opening at least 3 out of 5 times. A few hours later, they took part in the experimental trials.

The simple test used a different-coloured bread box that had had the back removed. In other words, it was very similar to the box used during training.

The other test was more complex because it was a different size and shape, and made out of wood instead of plastic.

During the experimental trials, no rewards were given, and the dogs only had 5 minutes in which to perform the behaviour. Half the dogs did the simple test first while the other half did the complex test first. They had to push the handle with their nose or muzzle to open the door of the bread box.

Almost all of the dogs completed both the simple and the complex test. The scientists looked at the length of time taken in training and how many attempts each dog had at three different stages: to reach the first behaviour in training, to get from there to the criterion in training, and to complete the simple and complex tests.

There were no significant differences between the groups. Just to be sure, the scientists also computed some indices of the number of attempts by time. Again, there were no differences.

The scientists write,

“Learning seems to be independent from the type of sound anticipating the food reward and, even more strikingly, it seems to be equivalent either with or without the clicker sound or the word ‘Bravo’.”

Given that rewards were always delivered in a fixed location, the scientists acknowledge it is possible the trainer’s movement towards that location may have acted as a visual secondary reinforcer. However, even if this is the case, it does not change the finding that there was no significant difference to the other conditions.

For people who train dogs, the results suggest you can use a clicker – or not – as you prefer. Some people enjoy clicker training a lot and find it fun; they will want to continue to use it. Some people find it fiddly and will prefer not to use one.

What’s nice about this study is that it involved training pet dogs at home, so it’s likely to generalize to other dog training situations. We also know the dogs were motivated, because the reward was either sausage or cheese, depending on their preference. For people who are new to dog training, one thing to note is that all three methods worked because food is an effective way to train a dog.

It may be that reward markers such as the clicker are best suited to training in which precise timing is important, and that other kinds of task than that used here might show a difference.  Further research can investigate this. The researchers say it would be interesting for future studies to try a more enthusiastic delivery of the verbal reward marker to see if that makes a difference.

You might also be interested to read the results of a subsequent study from a different research team that investigate the use of a clicker-plus-food versus food-only in a novice trick training course, and found few differences between them.

Do you like to use a clicker in dog training?

Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., & Cerri, F. (2016). Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs? Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: http://dx..org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.08.006 
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