30 November 2016

Playtime After Training Improves a Dog's Memory

Making time for play immediately after a dog training session improves the dog’s memory.

Science shows play after a dog training session is a good idea; happy Black Lab playing in the snow

New research by Nadja Affenzeller (University of Lincoln) et al investigates whether play following learning leads to better performance the next day. The scientists wanted to know whether this effect, previously found in humans, would also apply to dogs.

In people, it is thought that the hormonal response during positive arousal acts on parts of the brain called the hippocampus and amygdala and leads to better memory. The effect applies to a type of memory called declarative memory, which is our memory for facts and events (for example, the President of the United States, or the capital of Denmark).

Now we can’t expect dogs to tell us who is the President of the United States, but it is possible to get them to do a task very similar to one used in some of the human memory research: learning to tell the difference between two objects.

The results show that the dogs who got to play immediately after learning needed fewer trials in the task the next day, compared to the dogs who had rested instead.

First of all, each dog had a pre-training session, in which the dog was taught to approach an object. In the very early stages, food was placed on the object, and when the dog approached, s/he was allowed to eat it.

For those interested in the food canine scientists use as rewards, it was either a piece of pork or chicken sausage, depending on the dog’s dietary preferences.

In the training session, the dogs were taught to distinguish between two objects and choose the right one by putting their two front paws on a cardboard square on which the object was placed. If they went to the correct object, the researcher clicked and then gave them a reward. If they picked the wrong object, the researcher used a no-reward marker (“wrong” said in a neutral tone of voice).

The objects were not things the dogs were used to. There was a blue basket with white dots which contained a layer of woodchips, and a green box with black stripes on that had a layer of cat litter at the bottom.

The dogs were trained in sessions of 10 trials, until they had got 80% right in two sessions in a row.

Immediately after doing this, dogs either had a play session or a rest session, depending which group they were in.

The 8 dogs in the play session had a 10 minute walk to an enclosed area where they had a 10 minute play session, followed by the walk back. Dogs had a choice between fetching a ball or Frisbee, or playing tug.

The 8 dogs in the rest session were given a bed to lie on while the owner and researcher engaged in a 30 minute conversation. The researcher kept an eye on the dog and said their name or distracted them to prevent them from going to sleep.

The next day, the dogs came back to learn the same task again.

Dogs that had taken part in the play session re-learned the object discrimination much more quickly, taking 26 trials on average (plus or minus 6), compared to 43 trials (plus or minus 19) for the dogs who had rested.

Play improves dog training memory - just ask this Lab playing fetch
Photo: Dmussman; top, dezi (both Shutterstock)

The researchers took measures of heart rate, which differed between play/rest sessions as you would expect, but otherwise was the same for both groups of dogs. They also found that salivary cortisol was lower after the play sessions, which they found surprising (if you’re interested in salivary cortisol research, see this post by Julie Hecht).

19 Labrador Retrievers, aged between 1 and 9 years old, took part. The study focussed only on purebred Labrador Retrievers so that breed could not affect the results. Their prior training levels were also taken into account and evenly distributed across the two groups.

This turned out to be important, because the ‘experienced’ dogs who had previously taken part in cognitive tasks like this learned the task much more quickly. The gundogs need more trials, perhaps because they had previous experience of following human cues in the field, which didn’t happen in the lab. Some of the dogs were ‘naïve’ and had only basic obedience, did not work or participate in trials, and had never taken part in similar research before.

This shows it is important to take prior training experience into account when designing canine research studies.

Three of the dogs had to be excluded (two because of motivation issues, and one because of a preference for one of the objects), so only 16 took part in the full study.

The study does not show the mechanism by which memory is improved, but it is thought to relate to the hormones produced during the play session. However, the play also included exercise, and further research is needed to confirm whether it is play per se or exercise that caused the effect.

The scientists write,
“The results show that engaging in playful activity for 30 min after successfully learning the task improved re-training performance, evidenced by fewer trials needed to meet task criteria 24 h after initial acquisition. This significant difference between the two groups not only suggests that the intervention is affecting long-term memory rather than an improved short-term memory, but also that pleasant arousal post-learning has similar effects on enhancing memory in dogs as it does in humans.” 

This study asked dogs to discriminate between two objects that looked and smelled different. A similar real-life training task is scent detection. Further research to investigate the best ways to improve performance in the training of scent dogs for drug or explosives detection, or in medical testing, could be very exciting.

It’s nice to know another way in which dogs are like people. And next time someone says they’d like to end a dog training session on a positive note, perhaps a game of tug or fetch is in order.

If you're interested in the research on dog training, check out my dog training research resources page or my post about why canine science is better than common sense.

Affenzeller, N., Palme, R., & Zulch, H. (2017). Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) Physiology & Behavior, 168, 62-73 DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.10.014

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27 November 2016

The Trainable Cat: Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

The book for November was The Trainable Cat: How to Make Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat is fascinating from start to finish.

It is about how to teach your cat the things that will help him or her to have an easier, happier life. Instead of tricks or obedience, think useful skills like how to get along with a new baby or how to go in the cat carrier.

Near the beginning of the book, the authors say,
“we aim to show you how training can improve not just your relationship with your cat but also your beloved pet’s sense of well-being. That’s not to say that the training won’t be fun – it will, for both of you – but the distinction is that you will be producing a happy and well-disposed pet, not a circus star.”

Each chapter has a section on how cats see the world, followed by training information. Early chapters explain how cats learn. Chapter 3 introduces a set of key skills, along with activities so you can practise them before you start training for real. Future chapters use these key skills and apply them to the practical situations your cat faces in everyday life. The book shows you how to tailor training to your individual cat – taking into account whether your feline is bold or fearful, and what their preferred rewards are.

The book also explains how you can meet your cat’s instinctual needs to hunt and to mark their territory by providing scratching posts and toys. Ideas to keep indoor cats content include cat agility and a sensory box to bring the outside in.

The book received overwhelmingly positive feedback from book club members; even the ‘dog’ people found it fascinating.

With this book, cat owners will not only understand their cats better, but also be able to teach them useful skills. It is essential reading for cat owners, and may even change your cat's life.

For more information, read my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat, or learn more about the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

You can follow the authors on social media: John Bradshaw on Twitter, and Sarah Ellis on Facebook and Twitter.

If you've been reading too, what did you think of the book?

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

23 November 2016

Pets May Help Children Learn About Animal Welfare

Children’s beliefs about animal welfare and sentience are linked to their own experiences with animals.

A girl and her pet cat look at each other with love and affection

Surprisingly little is known about children’s beliefs and knowledge about animals. Yet this information could help to improve humane education programs for children. Two recent studies begin to fill this gap, with recommendations for how humane education is taught.

We know from previous research that even very young children like animals, and that children with pets are more likely to attribute biological concepts to animals than those without. Children’s experiences of caring for their pets mostly involve play, while the actual pet care is carried out by parents. Is it possible that even though these experiences are mostly social, children with pets will still have a better understanding of the care that pets need?

A series of group discussions with children aged 7 to 13 was conducted by Janine Muldoon (University of St. Andrews) et al (2016). The discussions lasted from 40 to 60 minutes, depending on school timetabling, and focussed on four types of animal: dogs, cats, guinea pigs and goldfish. Children were asked questions about how to care for the animals, how they knew when they needed care, and whether the animals have feelings.


Children’s answers showed a difference between what animals need in theory, and what was actually done in practice. Where they were unsure about an animal’s needs, their answers were framed in terms of their own experience, such as saying that a dog needed breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Answers also depended on the animal species. Dogs were seen as easier to understand if they needed something, although for all species the default position for an animal that needed something seemed to be ‘hunger’. Older children showed an understanding that some animals needed affection and interaction.

Children showed most knowledge about fish, and it seems that experiences of fish dying prompted them to consider what might have gone wrong. They also had knowledge about animals they did not themselves keep as pets. As you might expect, there were many gaps and variability in what they knew about animals and the five welfare needs.

Children talked about how they know what animals want. For instance, 11-year-old Caitlin* said,
“You can tell with a dog, because if they need the toilet they prance about and they brush up against your leg and they’ll go and sit at a door and then you kind of know. But then next they’ll be needing to be fed and he’ll go to this cupboard in the house and it’s where his biscuits sit. So he goes in and pulls the bags open and he’ll be able to get his head in and he brings it through in his mouth and he’ll drop it at my mum.”

A boy plays chess with his pet cat
Photos: Irina Kozorog (top) and Blend Images (Shutterstock.com)  

Muldoon et al conclude,
“Children often express confusion and report being able to identify hunger and injury, but recognize few other cues of welfare state in their pets. As certain types of animals may not have the behavioral repertoire or reinforcement history to give clear cues of need, it seems important that educators cultivate some form of emotional concern for the specific animal they want children to understand better. Perhaps most at risk of negative welfare experiences are animals that are not perceived by children to be reciprocal in their interactions or appear less dependent on them for daily care and attention.”
A large questionnaire study of children from 6 to 13 years old was conducted by Roxanne Hawkins and Joanne Williams (University of Edinburgh) (2016). They investigated the relationship between beliefs about animal minds (BAM), namely that animals are sentient and have feelings, and attachment, compassion and attitudes to animals. This study looked at a range of animals: humans, dogs, goldfish, cows, chimpanzees, robins, badgers and frogs.

Children rated humans as the most sentient animals, followed by dogs and chimpanzees. They rated frogs and goldfish as least sentient.

Children who lived with pets had higher scores for beliefs about animal minds (BAM) than those without, and those who had their own pet or more than one pet had higher scores still. Those with dogs specifically gave higher ratings for the sentience of dogs.

Hawkins and Williams write that,
“The results from the study confirmed the hypothesis that Child-BAM [beliefs about animal minds] is positively related to attachment to pets and compassion to animals, humane behavior toward animals, as well as attitudes toward animals. The findings also confirmed that Child-BAM was negatively associated with acceptance of intentional and unintentional animal cruelty and animal neglect.”

Neither study shows a causal relationship between children’s pet ownership and beliefs or knowledge. Further research would be needed to look at this.

A girl poses for a photo with her pet bulldog
Photo: AlohaHawaii (Shutterstock.com)

Dogs were most often considered to be sentient in both studies. Muldoon et al write that,
“the overwhelming emphasis on dogs throughout all phases of the focus groups suggests that they are the easiest animal with which to “connect.”” 

In Hawkins and Williams study, dogs were rated as having greater sentience than chimpanzees, though this could be because children were more familiar with dogs. In both studies, dogs were the most common pet.

These studies suggest that humane education should include developing emotional connections with animals and education about animal minds, as these are both likely to lead to more compassion toward animals and less tolerance of animal cruelty.

They also suggest that having a pet is a positive experience in terms of learning about animals and animal welfare. Further research can investigate the best ways to teach children about how to care for animals, whether or not they have a pet at home.

Do you think it’s important for children to have pets?

Hawkins, R., & Williams, J. (2016). Children’s Beliefs about Animal Minds (Child-BAM): Associations with Positive and Negative Child–Animal Interactions Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 503-519 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1189749 
Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2016). Exploring Children’s Perspectives on the Welfare Needs of Pet Animals Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 357-375 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181359
*Not her real name; the children were given pseudonyms.

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.
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20 November 2016

Companion Animal Psychology News November 2016

The latest news on dogs and cats from Companion Animal Psychology, November 2016.

A dog and a cat relax on a bed by the window, with the newspaper

Some of my favourite posts from around the web this month

Camera shy to camera guy: Helping an anxious dog to overcome their fears by Kristi Benson CTC.

Think like a cat. John Bradshaw PhD considers the latest research on feline intelligence.  

It’s more than just a box! Ingrid Johnson CCBC takes a pictorial look at all the enrichment cardboard boxes can provide for cats.  

Pets in the news…

“Our canine companions developed the ability to digest starchy foods during the farming revolution thousands of years ago, according to DNA evidence.” Dog’s dinner: DNA clue to how dogs became our best friends. BBC News.  

"Veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to the animals they treat and tail docking goes against that responsibility” Vets in BC, Canada, have banned the cosmetic tail docking of dogs, horses and cattle. CBC.

Also in Canada, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies released its first report Humane Societies and SPCAs in Canada.  Amongst other findings, “the responsibility of protecting animals in Canadian society is falling mainly to individual donors and the charities they support.” Read a summary by Barbara Cartwright, CEO, in the Huffington Post. 

In the UK, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee released a report on pet welfare. Most of the media attention has focused on the proposal to remove powers of prosecution from the RSPCA, which is opposed by animal welfare groups including Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs and Cats Homes, PDSA, Blue Cross and Cats Protection (pro-hunting group Countryside Alliance is in favour). But the report also includes other measures, including the proposal to licence anyone breeding two or more litters. See the Dogs Trust response and a summary of the report from the British Veterinary Assocation (with a link to the full report).

Upcoming events

Changing perspectives on rehoming and retention of dogs and cats: Keeping Fluffy home. Speaker Margaret R. Slater DVM PhD. Presented by the Tufts Centre for Animals and Public Policy and also available to join online. 29th November 12 – 1 EST.

Helping shelter pets find health, happiness and homes with Fear Free. A webcast by Dr. Marty Becker for Maddies Fund. Those who watch the live webcast will receive a code for 50% off the Fear Free course (and some lucky people will win a certification scholarship). 7th December 2016 at 9pm EST.

Pets, people and urban places. Webinar with Melanie Rock PhD (University of Calgary) 26 Jan 2017 12 – 1pm MST.  

Pet Photos

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club: The book of the month is The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. The book for December 2016 will be The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from how Dogs Learn by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

Celebrating 20 years of The Culture Clash. Since I published this post, people keep telling me how important this book was to them. Don’t miss my interview with Jean Donaldson.  

As always, if there is anything you would like to see on the blog, please let me know (subscribers just have to hit the reply button and your email will come straight to my inbox).

16 November 2016

Interview with Jean Donaldson on The Culture Clash

To mark 20 years since the publication of The Culture Clash, I spoke to Jean Donaldson about dogs and dog training.

Jean with her dog Brian and friend's dog
Jean with Brian (front) and friend's dog, Turtle

This year is 20 years since the publication of Jean Donaldson’s influential book Culture Clash. Funny, intelligent, and very much about the dog’s point of view, The Culture Clash is still highly recommended by dog trainers around the world. The book shows a strong commitment to training without aversives and provides the technical know-how too. Dr. Ian Dunbar called it “Simply, the best dog book I have ever read!”

I was thrilled to speak with Jean about the book, how things have changed for dogs, and how we can continue to change things for the better.

Zazie: It’s been 20 years since the publication of The Culture Clash. It’s a book that’s still in print, and it’s been tremendously influential and I think a life-changer for many, many people. So it’s definitely something to celebrate. And I wanted to ask you, how much do you think has changed for dogs since it was published?

Jean: I think a lot. Things are so much shifted in terms of the numbers, it would seem. It would be great if somebody actually did a survey where we had some sort of idea of the baseline numbers. So, how many people used to train using any kind of evidence-based attempts and how many people used to train using primarily aversives or a mix, and then how many people do that now. But I fear that that’s just not something we’re ever going to know, so we’ve got to guesstimate based on what we see.  And certainly what I see is that there are more people doing it now. Most of the new people coming in seem to be automatically oriented towards training without aversives and getting a handle on the science.

And certainly one other thing that is clear is that there is the specialty of pet dog training, which when the Culture Clash was first published the Association for Pet Dog Trainers in the US was only – it’s not yet a thirty year old organization – it was still brand new. So just the very idea that pet dog training was a specialty, rather than sort of a trickle down of competitive obedience, is new. So I think both the aversives orientation is much lower now and the notion that pet dogs are a bona fide specialty in training is also almost brand new.

"Most of the new people coming in seem to be automatically oriented towards training without aversives and getting a handle on the science." 

Zazie: One of the things you begin The Culture Clash with is this idea of the Disneyfication of dogs, of how people perceive dogs compared to how they really are. Do you think that’s still the same kind of issue today?

Jean: Yes, I’m afraid it is. I still think that, I mean in spite of all the changes in the training world. And I should add that even those trainers who are training using aversives, if they’re in the pet world, they seem to at least feel they have to advertise that they’re not training with aversives. So they’re using increasingly obfuscating language, they’ll even make claims that they’re quote unquote “positive reinforcement” and then maybe they don’t proceed to do so. But at least they recognize that there’s a demand, and so that is a heartening thing. Yeah, I do think that there is still this tendency, people still find it somewhat disappointing to find out that they must motivate their dog. And that one, I think it’s just going to be an ongoing struggle, we’re going to have to keep pushing.

Zazie: Thank you. So one of the other things that features in The Culture Clash is lots of wonderful information about dog training, which is also in your subsequent books. And I think it’s not just motivation, but many people think that dog training is going to be easy, and then they actually find it quite hard. Why is it so hard?

Jean: I think for a couple of reasons. I mean one is that it’s much more step by step, and I think people go into it with an assumption that there’s kind of a tipping point to the knowledge transference. That, you know, dogs understand concepts of sit or the concept that he knows he should come to me. That we mistake a correct response for full knowledge, as opposed to a correct response that may have been just because of prompting or chance, or it was an easy situation, and then subsequent disobedience as agenda-driven instead of no, that was one correct response and then there’s a wrong response. And if you would like to have more responses that you like, you’ve got to sort of add grains of sand to a scale to change the probability, rather than you say it, he does it, boom okay that parts over now the rest of it is just if only he weren’t stubborn. And so I think there’s that part of it. Then the corollary of that is that we’re living increasingly in a day and age when people are over-booked, we’ve got lower tolerance for process, everything is lightning fast, you know computers, we want things when we want them. And there’s no way that dog training is ever going to become that kind of instant gratification speed.

Now for that reason I also think that it’s good for us, that it’s very grounding. It brings us back to the natural world where there just isn’t that kind of speed. But I think it’s a rude shock for people to find that out, that they’re going to have to practise, practise, practise, practise, rather than just explain to the dog ‘I would like you to do this’ and then it’s just going to happen. So between the motivation and the step-by-step nature of training, it’s a collision for most people with their day to day lives.

Jean Donaldson with her late chow chow Buffy
Jean Donaldson with the late Buffy

Zazie: Definitely. So just coming back to motivation again, I think increasingly people are using food to train their dogs but there’s still a lot of people who are very resistant to the idea. How do we change their minds?

Jean: I’m not sure. My instinct is just sheer repetition of the truth, which is, it’s kind of a glass half full philosophy that people can handle if we just say it and we call on their adult nature and say look, nobody does anything for nothing, there just isn’t that. Now we humans, some of our motivations are of the type that we like to label as altruistic or higher or better, when we’re trying to do things for the common good or to benefit others or for anything that might be philanthropic. Whereas dogs are a little bit more like 3 year old children in so far as you know 'so what’s in it for me, how is it going to advance my objective', and that’s the bad news. The good news is that dogs are actually relatively easy to motivate. There’s so many things that work. Food is pretty much universal. Unfortunately pain and fear are also universal and we’re stuck in this situation where, when we use food, it’s harder for us to cloak that in ‘well, he’s doing it for you.’ Whereas the pain and fear crowd, I think they have an easier time disguising that as ‘you know, we’re just fixing his attitude and the real motivation is he’s doing it for you and we’ve just adjusted his attitude with the pain and fear’. Or ‘oh no it’s not really scaring him, it’s just showing him’, so we have a conflation of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ question.

And I think that if we push for transparency so that people say, okay there’s going to be motivation any which way, then your choice becomes carrot or stick. And I think – at least my optimistic side likes to think – most people will then elect carrot. So those two steps have to happen. We’ve got to make people start to be a little bit more critical as consumers and recognize even those trainers who are trying to exploit their desire for the dog to do it for altruistic motives, that those people are actually bamboozling them, I think that’ll help. But I don’t think I have any illusions, it’s a tall order. I mean, me and far better people than me have been pushing for this for decades, and it’s better than it used to be but it’s not an easy one to fix.

"I think that if we push for transparency so that people say, okay there’s going to be motivation any which way, then your choice becomes carrot or stick."

Zazie: Definitely not easy. You touched on transparency, and a little while ago you started something called the transparency challenge, and we saw various dog trainers giving their answers to the questions in that challenge. Can you say something about the purpose behind starting that?

Jean: Yes, the purpose was to couch the dog training issues, both the philosophy and the competence issues, as consumer protection, which is I think quite right. Not only are there dog welfare issues, and I think most people doing things towards other beings, if there is less invasive, they’d prefer to be less invasive.  And then we take a step back and so the question then becomes you know, can we get the job done? And then we need to make sure that people are not falling for gobbledegook language that I referred to before when trainers who are less scrupulous make all sorts of appeals.

For instance the other day somebody I know said that somebody else they knew, a friend of a friend basically, was taken for a ride by a dog trainer advertising themselves as quote unquote “a Buddhist dog trainer”, where they were trying to get the dog centred and in the right state etc, and then proceeded to coerce this dog. And these people, who are educated, these are people with graduate degrees, living in Berkeley, who just, well they assume this person wouldn’t have got in to dog training – dog training is not a fantastically lucrative profession – therefore anybody who gets into it must be sure of motives, must be altruistic, must love dogs, and also they must know something we don’t know. This tendency to never challenge the dog trainer, it’s partly why the dog whisperer is still on television, it’s partly why people don’t question, it’s partly why you can say things like “we’re centring his energy” or “we’re changing his centres” or whatever. Well essentially what you’re doing is yanking a dog on a chain, but if we get people to recognize it, that there’s going to be a concrete physical world motivator, and you as a consumer can actually test this out yourself, you can be a consumer scientist. And say, okay if you are actually training this dog with Buddhist energy beams, do it without the metal chain on his neck; if you’re a dog whisperer actually doing this with energy, what’s the special collar, let’s see you do it without kicking him?

If we get people to recognize that this is just market-speak, at least, in the US there is I think a very strong instinct, and I think it’s a good one, that we don’t want to be taken. We want to know the ingredients in the jar, we want to know what’s being done, we want transparency, we want to know before we spend money for goods or services if somebody is doing something that is non-ethical in that regard, they should be prosecuted, literally and metaphorically that it shouldn’t happen. And I think that’s an instinct that we can capitalize on by making people recognize that there’s always a concrete real world motivator, it’s likely to be one of these five or six things, identify it, and be especially wary of those trainers who don’t state up front what they’re doing. I mean it’s really kind of the informed consent model that I think might help the cause. I mean it remains to be seen whether it’s going to do so but that’s the rationale.

Three questions to ask dog trainers for consumer protection
Three questions for dog trainers

Zazie: So following on from that, do you think dog training should be regulated?

Jean: Yes I think it’s high time and it really is almost an embarrassment that it is not yet regulated. Given the interest that people have in public safety, so whenever there’s an incident, a dog bites or somebody is sadly injured or killed by a dog, there’s huge amounts of interest in expending taxpayer money to do things like ban breeds. And yet in spite of that clear interest in public safety, the fact that dog trainers are not regulated seems to be a disconnect. And there needs to be minimum education, minimum competence standards and hopefully ethical requirements. I think it’s probably going to happen in our lifetime, it’s just a question of getting past the political difficulties that are inherent in cleaning up a profession.

Zazie: One of the arguments that people who use aversives often use is they claim that there’s no choice, that it’s a case of ‘aversives or death’ is the way we can kind of summarize it, that they have to use, sometimes, aversives, otherwise the dog is going to have to die. What do you say to that?

Jean: I think that’s a valid argument. If the question was, and I’m somebody who doesn’t wish to use aversives, however I do reserve that if there was literally a question where somebody said look we’re going to use aversives on this dog or we’re going to kill him, I think I would say yeah of course let’s use aversives. But then we get down to the reality, and the reality is that then we need to account for the thousands – if not probably tens of thousands – of practitioners who are already out there, daily, getting the job done both in training, behaviour modification, management of animals, the full gamut of case types, and they’re doing so without aversives. And so, how would the aversives or death… they’d need to account for it, they’d need to account for me, they’d need to account for the thousands and thousands of other trainers. And they seem to sidestep that question altogether by making this false claim that we’re just saying well, you know, euthanize the animal – and that’s just not happening. And so I think there’s denial on that side. Which is understandable, I mean if you think of the position that they’re in, they’re electing to use aversives in a climate where there is this huge chorus of people saying you don’t have to do so. And so their choices, psychologically, are either they’re electing aversives needlessly, which is kind of psychologically untenable, or we – the other side – are killing dogs. So I think psychologically it’s about their survival and so it’s not surprising that they make that claim because the alternative is unbearable.

"we need to account for the thousands of practitioners who are already out there, daily, getting the job done both in training, behaviour modification, management of animals, the full gamut of case types, and they’re doing so without aversives."

Zazie: Switching topics slightly to ordinary people, to ordinary people when they’re training their dogs. If they’re committed to using reward-based training methods but they’re still learning, what is the most common mistake that people make and how can they improve?

Jean: The most common mistake – and everybody’s going to have to forgive me for being such a broken record – it’s not sufficiently addressing motivation. So, to put not too fine a point on it, basically failing to cough up the chicken. Either not using enough reward, often enough, being armed with it when necessary, having a high enough value of reward, manipulating the economy so the dog isn’t full so if you’re using food making sure that the dog isn’t already full. That is a number one that even people who nominally have bought into using rewards then might proceed to kind of gradually in a slow-drip manner undermine the process by trying to use as little as possible, as infrequently as possible, as low value as possible, .. and things end up not going so well and they say well reward-based training isn’t working. And it really is kind of “I’m expected to go do my job but I’ve just been given a pay cut of 90%, and I have poor work conditions and my performance is starting to flag and so my boss assumes that money therefore isn’t motivating” etc, whereas “this whole bit of stuff about motivation doesn’t work and we should now resort to electrically shocking me to get me to perform” etc.  So I think that is still of epidemic proportion.

"The most common mistake is not sufficiently addressing motivation."

And then after that there’s various mechanical things but they so pale in comparison to the reluctance that people have to make it worth a dog’s while to answer the question of ‘why should I do this?’. Here’s why you should do it.

Cover of the second edition of The Culture Clash

Zazie: Excellent. So just to give a very concrete example, you have an extremely cute dog called Brian, and I think probably some people would look at him and just think “he’s very sweet, why do you have to motivate him?” When you really need to motivate him, what do you use? What’s his favourite reward?

Jean: He’s very about primal nibs. He’s about this stuff called Rawbble which is little kind of freeze-fried raw things. He’ll work very nicely for chicken breast and I cut it into tiny little dice. He’ll work for cheese. He’ll occasionally work for a toy but not much, he’s not incredibly toy-driven and so I generally train him with food. And he can go and go. When I first got him, before he was much hooked on training, he’d be good for maybe 10-15 minutes. Now he’s to a point it’s been over a year and he can go probably for an hour or so in a class situation and still keep working. And I should say for the record even though he’s a small dog and I train him loads, he’s not the slightest bit overweight. And most of the dogs I know who are owned by food training trainers, their dogs are in superb condition, and there are many people out there who don’t train with food whose dogs are obese. So I would venture to say that if somebody were to study this, I would predict that there’s not a correlation between using treats to train and the dog’s medical status or weight, that that just doesn’t happen.

Zazie: Go Brian, that’s very good! So if someone is getting a dog for the first time, they haven’t had a dog before, what do you think is the most important thing for them to know?

Jean: That’s a great question! I would say the most important thing for them to know is that they’re bringing another species into their home, and that all kinds of things that the dog is going to do are going to be dog things. And so even before they understand training and contingencies and so on that they hopefully open up to the actual kind of wonder of having this other being. You know, we pay good money for cable channels so we can watch shows depicting crocodiles and rhinoceroses and other cultures and any kind of being that’s different. We’re fascinated by that. And I think we’ve become a little bit contemptuous of the familiarity of dogs but they are very different and I think part of the beauty of it is welcoming that they’re gonna do dog things, and so.. I’m just pre-normalizing a lot of it, that people can access to up-to-date information on what dogs do and that it’s not all sort of an insidious plot, that it’s just a dog being a dog and if we can kind of celebrate that.

"There’s all these things that are to me this shifting landscape from ‘you have your dog under your thumb’ versus ‘are you doing right by him? are you making sure that he’s happy?’"

And I think it’s also a change that is very happy. It used to be, when I first started in dogs, this was long before The Culture Clash, the paragon of a good dog owner was somebody who had their dog quote unquote “under control”, that your dog was quote “well-behaved” which meant he was not inconveniencing humans, wasn’t moving too much etc. Now, more and more we’re putting dogs into everything from MRI scanners and we’re trying to discern whether the dog is happy. So the mark now of a good dog owner is somebody who is actually fulfilling the dog’s basic needs. So letting the dog be a dog, training with the least invasive ways possible, making sure he’s got a veterinary experience that’s not going to be full of fear etc. There’s all these things that are to me this shifting landscape from ‘you have your dog under your thumb’ versus ‘are you doing right by him? are you making sure that he’s happy?’ And that is in no way going to harm the public good, it’s not. These are perfectly aligned objectives. You can still have a dog that is quote unquote “well behaved” and not dangerous and not a nuisance etc while still being happy. The fact that we’re factoring in the dog’s quality of life now in a real way and we’re trying to as objectively as we can and as faithfully as we can figure out what that is, I think is a tremendous development that I don’t think anybody would have foreseen 30 years ago.

Zazie: And you touched on veterinary care as well, so how can we make dogs have better visits to the vet?

Jean: Part of that is going to be really tough because sometimes veterinarians – and groomers too I might add – have to do things that are necessarily going to be painful and scary. Dogs are going to come in hurt, injured, they’ve got to do emergency procedures, they’ve got to do surgeries on dogs. But I think increases in understanding about fear, medications we can use for pain management, for management of anxiety, pre-preparing dogs, I think all these things can go a long way to mitigating what to dogs has got to be a very difficult thing. And I think that the Fear Free movement deserves a callout, that it’s dove-tailing very nicely with what those of us in behaviour have been saying for a long time which is that fear is something that we need to take very seriously. And if it can be prevented, mitigated and ameliorated when it is on board, will go a long way towards bettering dog’s quality of life and keeping veterinary staff and the public safe.

Zazie: Thank you. So you’ve been an educator for many years now, and must have taught thousands of dog trainers. What are the qualities of a good dog trainer?

Jean: Oh wow that’s also a good question. I think now first and foremost it’s somebody who relishes, enjoys and has got skills at communicating with novice owners. People who don’t have the same kinds of motivations as dog trainers. When you’re training dog trainers, part of the thing is trying to get the dog trainer to be efficient and not train like a bat out of hell and work the dog for two hours etc. You know, we’re built to train, we love the process and we are about dogs and we’ve decided to devote our lives to it. Owners love dogs and they adore their dog, but they don’t have the same intrinsic motivation that we do. And so I think the ability to accept and meet owners where they are, and relish the challenge of making all the intricacies and pieces of dog training accessible to owners. So that involves the ability to triage, the ability to empathize with the owner in a genuine way, to not be judgemental that the owner is not a dog trainer. The only people who are entitled to have dogs in their homes are not people who are already dog trainers. We can be that kind of translator and we can get the dog’s quality of life, we want to protect the public good, and have the owner enjoying their dog more. It’s a very complex profession. And people who embrace that part, as opposed to just wanting to advocate for dogs, I think that is the dog trainer of the future. And then of course there’s all that technical knowledge, but I think first and foremost – and that’s something that one can’t teach – is somebody who really genuinely is curious about and likes handling the people end.

Zazie: So you run the Academy for Dog Trainers. I was very lucky to win a scholarship and then graduate, so I know it’s a wonderful school. If someone is reading this, and they’re thinking of going to learn more about dog training, what is special about the Academy?

Jean: I think probably the thing that makes it the most different are the standards, both in terms of the length and scope of the program, the demands it makes. It’s really asking a lot. Which means that for some people they’re going to find themselves in their element, but I think it’s not for everybody. I think it’s a bit of a shock to the system of dog trainers that up until fairly recently – really in the last ten or fifteen years – the standard for entering the profession has been extremely low bar: read a few books, maybe put some titles on some dogs, go to a few seminars, put out a shingle. And we’re saying it’s just not enough. We want a lot more, we want it structured, we want it evaluated, and we want two years’ worth of it.  And I think for some people as I said they’re going to find themselves right in their element but it is not for everybody. So people thinking about the Academy need to be really sure they are up for a big commitment and I think a complex profession such as ours needs that, but people need to be ready for that kind of challenge.

A huge thank you to Jean for answering my questions! You can read more about the Academy for Dog Trainers or follow them on Facebook or twitter.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list or subscribe to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.

About Jean Donaldson: Jean is the founder and principle instructor of The Academy for Dog Trainers.  The Academy has trained and certified over 600 trainers in evidence-based dog behavior, training and private behavior counseling since 1999. She is a four-time winner of The Dog Writers' Association of America's Maxwell Award, and her books include The Culture Clash, Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, Fight! A Guide to Dog-Dog Aggression, Dogs Are From Neptune, Oh Behave! Dogs From Pavlov to Premack to Pinker, and Train Like a Pro.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Jean founded the Montreal Flyball Association, and Renaissance Dog Training, the first positive reinforcement-based school and counseling service in the province.  Her own dogs and dogs she has trained have earned numerous titles and wins in various dog sports including OTCh (Obedience Trial Champion), UD (Utility Dog), TDX (Tracking Dog Excellent), FDCh (Flyball Champion), CGC (Canine Good Citizen) and HIT (High In Trial).  While a student, she worked as an adoption counselor at the Montreal SPCA and later served on its Board of Directors.  Before founding The Academy, Jean did exclusively referral aggression cases for six years.  She lives in Oakland with her dog, Brian, adopted in 2015.

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09 November 2016

Vertical Space is Good Enrichment for Cats

Cats make good use of added vertical space, study shows.

A tabby cat relaxes on a shelf

A study by Emma Desforges (Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition) et al finds that adding a vertical screen is good enrichment for cats. And while the study used cats that live at the Waltham research centre, the results suggest pet cats could benefit too.

The scientists took an Ikea bookcase called Kallax in which the shelves are subdivided. They put half the backing on one side and half on the other, so that some shelves faced one way and the rest the other way (8 spaces arranged 2 x 4 per side). Then they put it in the middle of a room.

If you’re thinking crazy cat lady organizer, you’re not far off, but this version is taller.

Cats using the vertical shelves as enrichment
Reproduced from Desforges et al (2016) under Creative Commons licence

They observed the cats for set time intervals for two days before the screen was added, four days while it was there, and two days after it was removed.

Cats used the screen and spent more time off the ground when it was there, even though they already had some shelves around the walls of the room. The spaces allowed them to get away from other cats if they wanted.

There were some effects of time of day, but in general the cats showed fewer unfriendly behaviours when the screen was there.

When the screen was taken away, unfriendly behaviours increased.

And although the screen gave cats the chance to hide from each other, they still engaged in the same number of friendly behaviours before and during the screen phase.

The scientists write, 
“In summary, exploiting the unused vertical space by the addition of stand-alone shelving should be considered a valuable resource for the cat by increasing useable space and reducing agonistic interactions, with the caveat that the shelving remains a permanent fixture or for rolling replacement of enrichment objects with alternative forms of similar value.”

In other words, once you’ve given them some shelves, don’t take them away without having a replacement because they will miss them.

29 cats took part in the study. They live in four different groups at the Waltham pet nutrition centre. Enrichment is especially important for captive cats like this.

But indoor cats could benefit too. These days, many people keep their cats indoors because of concerns about the risks of being outside (coyotes and cars, for example). Using vertical height, as in this study, is one way to adapt the indoor environment for cats. 

A grey cat sits at the top of a cat tree
Let cats use vertical space within your home

This study suggests it would be particularly important in a multi-cat household, but individual cats will also benefit from the opportunities to use vertical space and have nice vantage points from which to survey the room.

You do not have to rush out to Ikea, although the Kallax shelving does look like it’s designed to provide cubby holes for cats. Perhaps you already have some bookshelves and can clear space on them so your cats can use the shelves. Other options include shelves mounted on the walls, vertical scratching posts affixed to walls with a shelf at the top for cats to climb up to, or tall cat trees for cats to perch in.

If you’re feeling creative, Ikeahackers have lots of suggestions for re-modelling Ikea furniture for cats, and Ikea now have cat inserts for the Kallax shelving.

The full paper is open access.

For more enrichment ideas, check out my post enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss). And don’t forget your cat would like food puzzle toys too.

Reference Desforges, E., Moesta, A., & Farnworth, M. (2016). Effect of a shelf-furnished screen on space utilisation and social behaviour of indoor group-housed cats (Felis silvestris catus) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 178, 60-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.03.006

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06 November 2016

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club: November 2016

The book of the month is The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

Two sleepy cats, a book and a cup of tea; cosy inside at twilight on a rainy day

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club starts this month with discussion of The Trainable Cat. Are you reading alongside us?

The Facebook group to discuss the books filled up in less than three days. Apologies but no new members are currently being accepted.

However you can still follow along on the blog.

Each month I will post a list of the discussion questions, along with some highlights of the discussion. You will be able to leave your thoughts on the book in the comments section.

Through the book club, we will learn more about companion animals and our relationship with them, build up a nice library of books about animals, and of course enjoy talking about the books.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on The Trainable Cat. I’ll post an update on the discussion later in the month.

02 November 2016

Testing an Automated and Humane Way to Resolve Barking

Teaching a quiet behaviour using an automatic feeder is a promising solution to barking problems.

Cute little crossbreed terrier looking out of the window

Some dogs bark when their owner is out and they are left home alone. A recent study by Alexandra Protopopova  (Texas Tech University) et al investigates the effectiveness of a humane, automated approach to solving barking problems.

The research was conducted because some owners use citronella or shock collars to try and prevent their dogs from barking. While the devices may sometimes work, there are concerns they may also have adverse effects.

For example, if a dog barks when they see people going by the window and then receives a burst of citronella or an electric shock, they may associate the unpleasant experience with people and become fearful and/or aggressive. Because of these welfare concerns, some organizations recommend against their use (see the AVSAB position statement on the use of punishment).

This study used a humane approach that rewarded dogs with food (via a PetSafe remote-activated feeder) for periods of quiet. It was not a fully-automated system as the researcher logged barks and activated a remote control, but it shows the possibility of an automated system in future.

Eight dogs were initially recruited to take part in the study, but three were almost immediately excluded when they failed to bark during the first two sessions. The remaining five dogs ranged in age from 8 months to 6 years.

Rewarding the dog for being quiet is what is known as a DRO – differential reinforcement of other behaviour, i.e. other to barking.

The period of time dogs were expected to be quiet for was different for each dog, based on observations of the frequency of barking. For two of the dogs, it was as little as 5 seconds, and for another it was 7 seconds. For these three dogs, each session was only 10 minutes long so that they did not eat too much; the other two dogs had 20 minute sessions.

The design of the study involved a baseline period in which the dog is left alone and barking is monitored but nothing happens, followed by a test period in which the feeding system was used to reward periods of quiet, and then a repeat of both sessions.

The owner left the dog, either shutting the dog in a room or crate as they usually did when leaving home. The researcher was in another room where they could hear barking and activate the remote control when the software told them it was time to give a treat.

Testing an automated and humane way to resolve barking issues. Illustrated by a Boston Terrier looking out of the window for his owner to come home.

During the test sessions, the interval for which each dog was required to be quiet before getting a treat remained the same for the entire time.

For example, a dog called Nina barked every 4.4 seconds on average during the two baseline periods. During the test sessions, every time she went 5 seconds without barking, she was given a treat. During these 10 minute sessions, she barked on average every 26.6 seconds – but in fact she did not bark at all during the second test session.

The protocol worked for three of the five dogs. It did not work for one dog, and for the other dog it was not easy to tell.

In a second experiment with just the three dogs for whom it worked, the length of time they had to be quiet before earning a treat was increased by doubling the time from one session to the next. Two of the dogs were quiet for the longest period tested (600 seconds and 1,200 seconds). The third dog (Nina) showed big improvements in the early stages but then began to sometimes bark again; this may or may not have been related to a mistake that increased the duration more rapidly than planned.

One thing to note is that the dogs could have been barking for any reason to be accepted into the study. In fact the paper says four of the dogs (all except for Nina) potentially showed signs of separation anxiety.

The time intervals were chosen based on what it seemed a dog would be able to easily achieve, based on their barking record, but the smallest time interval used was 5 seconds. Maybe a shorter interval would have been better for some dogs. Also, it would be more efficient to have a protocol for adjusting the time intervals throughout, but that was not part of this study.

The scientists conclude “This study provides evidence of the efficacy of an alternative (DRO) to the devices that deliver aversive stimulation to decrease home alone excessive barking for at least some dogs.”

Think about it: just two 10- or 20 minute sessions were enough to teach three of the dogs to be quiet for a certain length of time. Further research can investigate the best training protocol to use, and the most efficient way to increase the duration of the quiet behaviour.

This study has a very small sample size, but the results are promising. Perhaps in the future there will be a range of automated reward-based anti-barking devices on the market.

People who buy citronella or electronic anti-bark collars might be just as willing to buy an automated anti-bark feeder and use it to provide their dog’s meals, giving them an easy solution without welfare concerns. It is already possible to buy such a device (although not the version used in the study which was designed by the researchers).

A good reward-based dog trainer will devise a training plan that takes into account the reason why the dog is barking (e.g. excitement, fear, separation anxiety). If you think your dog has separation anxiety, you will find useful information via the website of Malena DeMartini.

Does your dog bark a lot?

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Protopopova, A., Kisten, D., & Wynne, C. (2016). Evaluating a humane alternative to the bark collar: Automated differential reinforcement of not barking in a home-alone setting Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis DOI: 10.1002/jaba.334
Photos: Susan Schmitz (top) and Jennay Hitesman (Shutterstock.com)

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