30 March 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Turns Five

Celebrating five years of communicating science about dogs, cats, and the human-animal bond.

A happy Australian Shepherd puppy dog in a party hat

It’s hard to believe it is five years since I started Companion Animal Psychology blog, and yet somehow this is my 278th post.

The aims of the blog remain twofold: to bring up-to-date science about people’s relationships with their pets to a wider audience; and to share evidence-based information about how to care for our cats and dogs.

These aims are nicely illustrated by the two most popular posts of the last year: losing a pet can lead to different types of grief and dominance training deprives dogs of positive experiences. The top post on cats was about the best scratching posts.

In the past twelve months, I’ve been able to bring you some excellent guest posts as well as interviews with Dr. Sarah Ellis, Jean Donaldson, and Dr. Lee Dugatkin. And the photos of happy dogs (and more happy dogs) that people have shared with me have made me very happy too.

A happy mutt dog in a party hat celebrating dog science

I’ve published some useful guides, including how to choose a dog trainer and a user-friendly guide to using positive reinforcement in dog training, not to mention seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.

I hosted the Train for Rewards blog party because reward-based training is for all our pets (shall we do it again?).

I’ve published stories about lots of cool new scientific research (see e.g. here, here, and here). And I’ve maintained my list of dog training research resources for those who want to know what science tells us about dog training.

A kitten peeks out of a wooden box
A fifth anniversary is a "wood" anniversary

I started the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club in November 2016. Members choose the books and April's book is The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell.

Even if I say it myself, I think all this means Companion Animal Psychology is a fabulous resource for people with pets.

So it’s nice to reach five years with good news. I now have a blog at Psychology Today called Fellow Creatures. My first post is about what pets mean to homeless people. And I’m delighted to say my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy has been acquired by Greystone Books.

Thank you to everyone who has liked, shared and commented on my posts. One of the best things about Companion Animal Psychology is the community of people I have come to know through it.

A happy Golden Retriever sticks his head out of a car window

Special thanks to my dog training mentor, Jean Donaldson, and to my agent, Trena White of Transatlantic Agency.

Five years feels like quite a milestone. So it’s time to celebrate. Cheers!

P.S. Don't forget to subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

29 March 2017

Interview with Dr. Lee Dugatkin about How to Tame a Fox

Dr. Lee Dugatkin talks about the Russian fox experiment and his new book, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog).

Three very cute domesticated foxes sitting in the grass
Photo:Irena Pivovarova, The Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Novosibirsk

The Russian fox experiment to breed tame foxes has fascinated people for decades. I was very excited to speak to Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin about his new book with co-author Lydumila Trut, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution.

Zazie: I loved your book. I really enjoyed reading it. I thought it was absolutely fascinating from start to finish.

Lee: Thank you so much.

Zazie: So, first of all, for people who are reading this, I think most people have heard of the Soviet fox experiment, but can you just briefly explain what it was and what it was about.

Lee: Sure. Well, the experiment, which has been going on for almost six decades now, it was begun in an attempt to understand the process of domestication, especially the domestication of dogs from wolves, in a way that they could actually watch the process of domestication happen in real time. Because of course, the domestication of dogs took thousands of years and we only have fragmentary evidence about the details of what happened. And the idea here was if we could speed up the process and actually watch the domestication of the species in real time, we could get much much more information and shed light on how one of man’s best friends came to be,

Zazie: So in order to write the book, you’ve been out to visit. What is it like to go and visit, and are the foxes as cute as we imagine?

Lee: Oh yes. I’ve been there a couple of times, and it’s like no experience I’ve ever had. Both times I’ve been there it was winter, and so Siberia in winter is a wonderful combination of just incredible beauty and at the same time extremely brutal conditions in terms of the weather. So it gets to be about minus 30, minus 40 on a fairly regular basis. But of course the foxes are fine because they’ve evolved in these kind of climates and so they’re fine.

But in terms of the animals themselves and the way that they interact with humans, you know you can go and google up a couple of videos where you’ll see these animals interacting with humans and you’ll see pictures and it looks like they’re calm, tame animals, and they sort of look like dogs and so on. But until you actually hold them in your arms it’s hard to imagine just how friendly these animals are to humans. I mean the domestication process has no question worked. I mean these are animals that when you’re handed one of these foxes, within 5 seconds they’ll be licking your nose and putting their head on your shoulder.

Zazie: Wow.

Lee: And the thing about it is, this is one of these things that sometimes people get a little confused about. You know these animals, what’s led to them being so tame and so friendly to humans is not that they have learned that from sort of daily interactions with humans. This is an experiment in genetics and so basically every generation the calmest, friendliest towards humans are selected. But the people who do the experiment have been very careful to make sure that it’s not as if the animals are learning things as they develop from their interactions with humans, because we want to know whether or not the changes in their behaviour are due to differences in genetics, and so they are very, very careful to make sure that all these tame behaviours are not the result of learning. They are the result of a genetic experiment of domestication and boy does it work. Because these animals, they live to interact with humans. I’m an animal behaviourist by training and I’m very very careful about using language like I just used, and I mean I usually would not say something like "these animals live to have interactions with humans", but there’s just no question that they do. I mean they just go crazy when a person goes around they’re so excited.

Zazie: That must be amazing.

Lee: It is!

Zazie: So as the foxes became tamer, there were also other changes, changes in their appearance and the friendliness that you said. What kind of changes did they have in their appearance?

Lee: There’s been a whole series of changes that have occurred in terms of the way that they look. And just one sort of statement before I walk you through the changes, is that these changes have never been what the scientists were choosing each generation, right. So the only thing they ever do to determine who is going to be the parents of the next generation in the experiment, is test them on their behaviour towards humans. That’s it, that’s the only thing they ever select on. But what’s happened over the generations is that lots of other changes have occurred besides getting calmer and tamer animals. So early on for example, some of the first changes were that the animals had curlier bushier tails, the sort of tails that you imagine when you think of a dog wagging their tail because they’re excited to see you. Some of the animals began to show droopier, floppier ears. In addition, they began to see a much more mutt-like kind of mottled fur colour. And then a little bit later they began to see really really reduced levels of stress hormones. So this is not something you can actually see but if you test their stress hormone levels, they’re just much much lower. They don’t seem to be as stressed as a normal fox would be in the wild, their stress hormone levels are that much lower.

A tame fox cuddles up to Dr. Lee Dugatkin in Russia
Dr. Lee Dugatkin with one of the tame foxes. Photo: Aaron Dugatkin.

Other things that you could see that changed were they began to have, if you looked at their faces they began to have a much more dog-like face. So what you saw, instead of seeing that very pronounced fox-like snout that you would see in foxes in the wild, they tended to have more rounded puppy-like features in their faces. And they also tended to have those kind of features develop in their bodies, so what I mean there is they tended to be – when you think of a fox in the wild you think of an animal that’s on the very thin kind of gracile legs that allow them to move very quickly. The domesticated foxes over time began to have kind of a lower-to-the-ground chunkier look that you might associate again with some breeds of dog. And so in general what you tended to see was a kind of build up of more traits that are typically seen in the juvenile stages of foxes than in the adult stages. And those tend to be more dog-like. Does that make sense?

Zazie: It does. Thank you.

Lee: Oh good.

Zazie: You mentioned the hormones and one of the things that really struck me throughout the book was how hard everybody worked, especially Lyudmila Trut, to do what they could with the science even though going back a long way there weren’t such good techniques available. And then that’s changed over time as a new generation of scientists have been able to go out there, hasn’t it?

Lee: Absolutely. So one of the things that’s incredibly striking about the researchers who led this is, as you say, when they started this in the late 50s and early 60s, first of all the techniques were just not there that are present today. But even the techniques that were around then, you know this was the Soviet Union at a time when things were very difficult financially, and so even the technology and the techniques that existed, they often did not have the best access to these things. They’re in Siberia, they’re in a political climate where it’s very difficult for them to get resources, and yet somehow they managed to do what they could with the resources they got. So Lyudmila, who’s the person who’s been running the experiment all these years, she and her team improvised a lot, they worked with what they had. If they didn’t have the newest vials and the newest collecting devices they worked with what they had. If nobody had ever tried something before but it seemed as though it was important for them to try it, they went to the literature and they studied everything they possibly could and said okay, here’s the best thing we can try and let’s see what happens. And often it worked, it allowed them to test what they wanted to test. And so with relatively minimal resources compared to what we might imagine to day they were able to put together a fairly good picture of things like hormone levels and other things that required technical measures.

A wild Russian fox, Vulpes vulpes, on the Kamchatka Peninsula
A wild Russian Fox on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Photo: Alexander Piragis/Shutterstock.

So for example, even some of the changes that we talked about in the way they looked, like more dog-like faces, you know they didn’t have the super hi-tech machinery that would allow you to basically do x-rays to measure bone changes that would be associated with that thing, but they did have callipers and other things that people use to measure when they’re out in the field, and until they could get their hands on a good X-ray machine that’s what they used. And then when they could get their hands on a good X-ray machine, then they went up to that. And they were just very, very good at that kind of improvising.

Zazie: The other thing I didn’t realize, perhaps naively, but it’s part of the untold story that you’re telling in your book, is that when they started this project the political climate was actually very dangerous, and you say that Dmitri Belyaev actually warned people that this was a dangerous project that they would be working on didn’t he?

Lee: Yes, absolutely. The Soviet Union in the 30s, 40s and 50s was in a very dark period in terms of science because  a pseudo-scientific charlatan named Trofim Lysenko had worked his way up to be in charge of certain kinds of science in the USSR. Lysenko had convinced Stalin that the study of genetics was a kind of Western bourgeois lie and that there were other theories about genetics that should be adopted in the Soviet Union. He made it virtually illegal to study modern genetics in the Soviet Union, and this was still going on at the start of the fox experiment. And of course the problem for the researchers working on the fox study was that any experiment like they were doing is an experiment in genetics. I mean you’re basically choosing which animals are going to be the parents of the next generation… you’re doing a classic experiment in evolution and that’s an experiment in genetics. And so at the start, they had to hide what they were doing from the authorities because they could get in serious trouble. And as you say, Belyaev early on was very clear when he started bringing people in to work with him on this.

You know the people who came to work with him, they knew this, because everybody knew it, but Belyaev wanted to be very very clear to them that what they were doing was risky, and it was risky at different levels. It was risky in terms of their careers, and there was a chance, albeit a small chance by that time, that they could be thrown in jail. Ending up in prison for doing genetics was a real threat about 10 years before they started the experiment, but by the time they began the real threat was wrecking your career rather than ending up in jail. And so Belyaev was very careful to make sure everybody understood the risk when they were joining. They understood it all too well, but still wanted very much to be part of what they thought could be a monumentally important experiment

Zazie: And Lyudmila had to do quite a lot at the start. She had to move her husband, baby and mother to Siberia. And I didn’t realize that they didn’t even have a building to start with, so she had to take very long trips to different fox farms, didn’t she?

Lee: Yes that’s right. So you know, Lydumila’s a good friend now and I would tell you that if you look at the sort of things she did, especially early on, she really was sort of like the Jane Goodall of the canine world. This is someone who, when she started to experiment she was young. She basically joined and became the lead person doing the experiment very shortly after she had finished undergraduate work in Moscow. And Moscow was a very cosmopolitan place, but in order to do the experiment she took her entire family and her husband and her young baby and they moved to Siberia, and when they moved there the experimental fox farm that exists today didn’t exist. They were just setting everything up and so basically four times a year Lyudmila would have to leave her family, hop on a train, she took a very very long train ride, and spent months at a time at fox farms that existed around the Soviet Union. Those farms were primarily there for the fur trade, right, for getting furs that they were exporting to the West. But what Lyudmila did was she would talk to people at these places and say look, can you just give me a little bit of space and allow me to work with some of these animals for this experiment that we’re developing. And she did this at many, many places.

Lyudmila Trut with one of her beloved tame foxes in Siberia
Lyudmila Trut with a tame fox. Photo: Vasily Kovaly

Eventually she settled mostly at one of these very big fox farms. It was about a 12 hour train ride from where they lived in Siberia and she would go there many times a year for anywhere from weeks to months. And she would basically be given a house that many of the workers at that farm would live in, and she would go out and test animals to determine which were the calmest towards humans and then she would allow those individuals to parent the next generation. And so the whole experiment started initially not where it’s located now. It took them a good decade to get an experimental place right near where they lived and where the scientific institutions were in Siberia. So it was really quite a brave thing for her to do, to say the least.

Zazie: It was, definitely! And they had another very hard time after the break-up of the Soviet Union and with the financial crisis. Did it seem then that the experiment might end, do you think?

Lee: Yeah there was a real possibility that the experiment could collapse for the lack of resources for the most basic things. And as you say there were two sort of tough times more recently. The first was when the Soviet Union broke up, and the second one was when there was a real problem with the rouble that happened a few years after that with the devaluation of the rouble, and the economy was really really hard. And so hard that there were times where they weren’t even getting funds for the most basic things. So you know, when you’re looking at the late 1990s, it wasn’t as if they weren’t getting money to do the more technical expensive kind of things that they often had to do. It was that they weren’t getting enough money for food to feed these hundreds of foxes, for vaccinations for these foxes. And so Lyudmila again, she and her whole team basically being innovative and dealing with the situation as it was, they did everything they could to piece together small chunks of money to keep the foxes around so they could keep the experiment going. So that sometimes involved putting their own personal money in, it sometimes involved basically going out and stopping cars on the road and asking them for food or money for the foxes.

And it also led Lyudmila to write an article that’s probably the most famous article about this experiment. So there is a magazine called the American Scientist, and it’s a popular science magazine. In 1999 Lyudmila wrote a paper for them and in that paper one of the things she did was summarize the – at that point the 40 years of research on the experiment already. But it was at the end of the paper that you find an unusual section. Basically at the end of the paper Lyudmila explains to the readers of this article how bad the situation is for them in terms of just getting basic resources. And it is basically a call for help from the outside. And that really translated into all sorts of wonderful things happening.

At one level those things were very personal, so Lyudmila has these letters to this day from people who read the article. Just you know regular readers of the magazine who would say I don’t have a lot of money but I can send you, you know whatever it might be, a couple hundred dollars or twenty dollars depending on the person, I wanna help. And enough of those came in that that translated into some real money for them to keep things going. The other thing that it did was it announced it to the whole world, including lots of people in the scientific world who kind of knew the experiment but didn’t know how bad things were in terms of the climate and getting money. And it opened the door to all sorts of scientific collaborations, particularly with people in the US and Europe, that translated eventually into funds that let them keep going. So you know, in the late 90s there was a real possibility that this experiment could just end, they didn’t have any money, but they pulled it out. And so it’s still going on today.

Zazie: And now it’s been going on for about 60 years.

Lee: That’s right.

Zazie: And there have been so many scientific discoveries coming from it. I wanted to ask, what do you think is the most interesting scientific finding from this study?

Lee: Oh, overall, what’s the most interesting finding scientifically?

Zazie: Yes.

Lee: So I think there are a couple of things. Perhaps most important is that first of all they were able to speed up the domestication process fast enough that we could actually watch a species being domesticated and see the order in which things happened in the domestication process. I think perhaps most importantly in many ways is this notion that the key thing to domesticating a species is to choose the animals that are most friendly towards humans, and almost everything else comes along for the ride once you do that. So at a very general level, sort of even more general than the dogs from wolves evolution, people know that when you look at domesticated species you tend to see a bunch of traits that are common in almost all domesticated species. There are things like the curly ears, and the floppy tails, and the mottled colour patterns and the juvenile-like features. This is something that is very common in many many domesticated species. And what the fox experiment showed so beautifully is that that comes along, those other traits come along, when all you do is select for prosocial behaviour towards humans. They’re all genetically linked in some way that the fox team is beginning to understand but doesn’t fully understand yet. And that was, from the start, what Belyaev and Lyudmila had predicted: that if they only selected on behaviour, they would not only get behavioural changes but they would get all these other changes that we tend to see in domesticated species. And they were right.

Zazie: That’s amazing. They both seem very forward-thinking in the ways that you describe them, and what you say about Belyaev thinking about the research and how the research might continue, and some of the other studies you say he thought about doing on self-domestication but couldn’t do. He just seems to have been amazingly visionary in terms of what he was doing?

Lee: You know, that’s so true and one of the fascinating things for me researching this book was that Belyaev early on – so the experiment started in the late 1950s but he sort of was tinkering with ideas in  his head I would say from the late 40s on this experiment. And when you read what he’s writing at that time, the fascinating thing is that he is talking about ideas that were not fully understood or developed for decades yet. And when you read it you see this person that’s struggling to find the language, the words, the terminology to describe what he’s thinking about. Because that terminology didn’t exist yet. Nowadays we have all sorts of terminology to describe the genetics of what Belyaev was thinking about way back then. But the words, the terminology, didn’t exist and so it was fascinating to watch somebody write, and you saying oh yeah what he’s talking about is X, but that didn’t really, nobody had a term for that at that point and you could see him thinking decades ahead of what most people at the time were thinking. And in terms of what you were saying about the self-domestication idea, basically Belyaev even in those days was thinking that the whole process of domestication might be very important in understanding human evolution. That we may have domesticated ourselves by choosing the calmest most prosocial mates. And that theory, again, was sort of many many decades ahead of the time. Now, people have actually looked at self-domestication in other primate species, so in bonobos for example, and there’s a whole theory about human domestication that’s tied to that work. But Belyaev was thinking about this, you know, 50 years ago before anybody else even had tinkered with it and certainly before anybody had designed experiments, he was thinking about what those experiments might be. He could never do them because there were so many things he was involved with and there were ethical issues about doing things that didn’t allow him to do it. But nonetheless he was there mentally, he had these ideas long before anyone else did.

Zazie: I found that fascinating. I found your whole book fascinating.

Lee: Thank you.

Zazie: Before we end, is there anything else that you would like to say about your book?

Lee: You know, on a personal note I would say that working on the book was the most extraordinary experience I’ve had in my life. And I mean that not only in terms of about learning the science that was involved in this sixty year experiment, but in terms of becoming colleagues and friends with all of the people that were involved in this experiment. And understanding the inside story: what it was that they really had to do on a daily basis to keep this almost six-generation cutting-edge experiment going. And I was just in awe of the people that were involved in this. They are spectacular scientists and they’re also just the nicest most generous people that you can imagine. So it was a real honour for me to have a chance to work with Lyudmila and others to tell this story. Because there’s so much here, there’s the science and then there’s the animal-human bond. These animals you know, at some point they’re going to end up being pets in houses. Now it may be another decade or two before that happens but these are going to be dog-like pets and to sort of have been involved in understanding how all of that occurred was a special experience.

Zazie: Thank you very much for your time.

Lee: My pleasure.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is published by Chicago University Press. You can find out more about Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin on his website and follow him on twitter. He also blogs at Psychology Today.

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.

Lyudmila Trut is a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. She has been the lead researcher on the silver fox domestication experiment since 1959.

Lee Alan Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the department of biology at the University of Louisville. His books include The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness and Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America.

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.

27 March 2017

Understanding Dogs with iSpeakDog

A fabulous new resource to help people better understand their dogs - and the reasons we need it.

A chow chow puppy poses with the hashtag #iSpeakDog

Those of us who know dogs are (sadly) used to seeing it: a dog says one thing and their owners do not understand. As a result, often the dog is scolded or chided, sometimes even hit, and the person may be risking a bite. If only there was a way to help people understand dogs better… and now there is, with the launch today of iSpeakDog.

iSpeakDog is a website with information that will help people learn how to understand their dog’s behaviour, taking account of both the dog’s body language and the context in which it occurs. This week, beginning March 27th, is iSpeakDog week. As well as the iSpeakDog webinar (which is already full, but sign up anyway so that you can get the recording), the Academy for Dog Trainers is making two webinars on canine body language available to the public.

The thing about dogs is that many people think they understand them perfectly well. Unfortunately, a lot of the information about dogs on the internet (and in books and on TV) is erroneous. It makes it hard for ordinary dog owners to pick through and find accurate information.  At the same time, dog training is not regulated, and so even some dog trainers will give people incorrect advice.

Are people good at recognizing dog body language? A study a few years ago by Michele Wan et al (2012) gives us some answers. The study used videos of dogs, rather than still images which can be harder to interpret. The results showed that people are good at recognizing when a dog is happy. Regardless of whether people were experienced or inexperienced with dogs, they were good at recognizing happiness.

But it was not so for fear: here, experience made a difference. Dog owners and those with little experience with dogs were not very good at recognizing fear compared to those with professional experience. Another finding was that people without professional experience paid less attention to the dog’s ears, eyes and mouth.

A happy dalmatian and cartoon Buffy for #iSpeakDog

Another recent study also found that people have difficulty recognizing fear and anxiety in dogs when they are interacting with children (Demirbas et al 2016). Most people in this study classified the dogs as relaxed and confident when they were actually fearful and anxious. This is serious because of the risk of dog bites, to which children are especially vulnerable.

Other misunderstandings about dogs can arise from not knowing what dogs need – opportunities to chew and sniff and dig and do dog stuff. How often have you heard someone describe their dog as ‘dominant’ for laying on the settee, when really the dog is just nice and comfy? All of these misunderstandings can lead to a less than ideal relationship.

When we know what our dog needs, and we can understand their body language and behaviour, it makes for a happier relationship for us and the dog.

Learn to speak dog your pup will love you for it iSpeakDog poster

iSpeakDog is a team effort put together by many volunteers (including yours truly) and supported by The Academy for Dog Trainers, Humane Rescue Alliance, The Bark Magazine and the Pet Professional Guild.

The impetus for iSpeakDog came from its founder, Tracy Krulik. In an interview with Marc Bekoff for Psychology Today,  she said,
“there is such a massive disconnect between what people think their dogs are doing and saying and what is really happening, and everyone suffers because of it. So many dogs are punished for so-called “bad behavior,” and their people never get to fully enjoy the company of their pups.” 

So take a look at the resources on iSpeakDog.org and share it with your friends. Join in on social media with the hashtag #iSpeakDog. You can even iSpeakDogify your own images. And don’t miss the swag. It features Cartoon Buffy as drawn by Lili Chin, and raises funds for Humane Rescue Alliance.

I speak dog… do you?

Demirbas, Y.S., Ozturk, H., Emre, B., Kockaya, M., Oavardar, T. and Scott, A. (2016) Adults’ ability to interpet canine body language during a dog-child interaction. Anthrozoos, 29(4) 581-596. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2016.1228750
Wan, M., Bolger, N. and Champagne, F.A. (2012) Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PLOS One 7(12) e51775. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051775.

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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22 March 2017

Video helps the shelter dog (more than photos)

Adoptable dogs seen in video get more positive ratings than those seen in photos, according to new research

Portrait of a happy Staffordshire Bull Terrier

A new study by Chloe Pyzer et al (Hartpury College) compared people’s perceptions of adoptable dogs when they were shown video or still photographs. The results showed that video is the best way to show people adoptable dogs.

Dr. Tamara Montrose, one of the study authors, told me in an email,
“In our study, we found that viewing dogs in videos as opposed to photographs tended to result in more positive perceptions of the dogs’ behavioural traits. Dogs viewed by videos were considered to be more trainable, intelligent, friendly, and gentle and less dominant, aggressive, and unsociable. The positive effects of viewing dogs in videos was seen for both dogs of more desirable breeds and for dogs of less desirable and frequently stigmatised breeds.  
These findings are not only of academic interest but have clear applications for rehoming shelters. Many rehoming shelters use photographs, videos or a mixture of the two media types when advertising their animals for adoption. One factor that may deter some shelter workers from making videos of their animals is the extra time this necessitates, when the benefits of this approach is unclear.  
 The findings of our study suggest that the extra time spent making a video may be beneficial in better promoting dogs to the public, and that greater use of video by rehoming shelters may provide an effective method for promoting adoption of both desired, and more stigmatised breeds.” 
735 people completed a questionnaire which featured four dogs from an animal re-homing centre in the UK.

Two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, an 11 year old male and a 3 year old female, were chosen to represent a breed that is widely seen as less desirable. Breed specific legislation in the UK bans ‘pit bull types’ and sometimes people perceive Staffordshire Bull Terriers as being similar. Two other dogs were chosen to represent breeds that are seen as desirable: a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel-Chihuahua cross and a Toy Poodle, both of whom are female and 5 years old.

In the still photographs, each dog is shown sitting, wearing their dog walking equipment so that the equipment was the same in both video and photos. The videos for each dog show 30 seconds of the dog walking on leash and interacting with the dog walker.

People rated the dogs on six positive and six negative traits. Each person saw photographs of two dogs (one deemed a desirable breed and one deemed not so) and video of the two other dogs.

A cute goldendoodle puppy sits on a chair in the garden

Regardless of whether the dog was seen as a desirable breed or not, they were given more positive ratings based on video clips rather than a still photograph.

All of the dogs had better ratings (higher or lower as appropriate) on the video clips for the qualities of being trainable, friendly, gentle, intelligent, dominant, aggressive and unsociable. Although there was variation for individual dogs with some of the other qualities, it was still the case that most dogs got better ratings for being playful and obedient based on the video.

Although these results did not look at adoption rates, earlier research has shown that dogs that are seen as friendly to children, dogs and other pets have higher adoption rates. So if video leads to dogs being perceived in a more positive light, it seems worth the time for animal shelters to put together videos, at least for some of their animals. Future research can use a larger number of dogs and investigate if it actually leads to shorter waits for adoption.

Earlier research has also shown that great photos make a difference to the speed at which dogs are adopted. There is plenty of scope for future studies to investigate the best features of photo and video to use and whether or not including people makes a difference.

Of course, the scientists point out that as well as showing dogs in a positive light, videos need to be realistic so that people get a fair idea of the dog they would be adopting. This will help to keep return rates low.

It’s especially interesting that positive results were found for video of both desirable and less desirable breeds.

When you are looking at adoptable dogs, do you feel that you get more information from video than photos?

You might also like: Large study finds no evidence for ‘black dog syndrome’, shelter dogs live up to expectations (mostly), and proof the internet helps cat adoptions.

Pyzer, C, Clarke, L and Montrose, VT (2016) Effects of video footage vs photographs on perception of dog behavioural traits. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 20(1) 42-51. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2016.1229186
Photos: Melounix (top) and Krumina Studios (both Shutterstock.com).

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

19 March 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News March 2017

A goldfish with a wheelchair, trained cats, and a ban on prong and choke collars - the latest news on dogs and cats.

A dog and cat read the latest pet news from March 2017

Some of my favourites from around the web this month:

25 things you probably didn’t know about dogs by Hal Herzog. What the latest canine science teaches us about dogs.

Cats getting “eufloric”. Mikel Delgado reviews a new study on how cats respond to catnip, valerian, silvervine and honeysuckle. Do your cats get olfactory enrichment?

“She is my friend”. Beautiful post by Lori Nanan of Your Pit Bull and You on our relationship with dogs.

Recognizing the superhero in your senior dog by Maureen Backman. For those of you with senior dogs.

Mounting evidence to prove that flat-faced cat breeds are suffering by Marc-André at Katzenworld blog.

Traveling the world with cats and a dog by Andrew Harding.

Pets in the news…

Homeless woman’s dog ‘is my everything’. A report from the Sacramento Bee about a program that provides veterinary care to pets of the homeless.  And, helping the pets of the homeless in NYC.

A life-saving domestic violence pet shelter in Victoria, Australia, is struggling to meet demand

Meanwhile in Ottawa, the SafePet program helps look after the pets of women leaving domestic violence. Ayala Sher has been honoured by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association for her work in founding the program.

In Toronto, it is increasingly common for landlords to require references for pets as well as people  according to the CBC. In BC, pet owners rally to change rental laws. Only 10% of rental properties in Vancouver allow pets, says Eliot Galan, organizer of the campaign.

There are moves to regulate dog training in Hillsborough County and the entire state of Florida. It’s being called Sarge’s law after the death of a dog called Sarge in 2015. (More on what happened to Sarge here in this post by Marc Bekoff about dog training's "dirty little secret").

And since dog training is not regulated, we also get stories like this: Woman charged after taping dead rooster to dog’s neck. 7News reports that she faces a possible penalty of a $1000 dollar fine and 90 days in jail.

In other dog training news, Toronto’s bylaw that bans prong and choke collars took effect 1st March.

BC targets irresponsible breeders with changes to animal welfare legislation. The amendments allow for the establishment of an external regulatory agency that includes inspectors who would be responsible for enforcing standards of care for breeders”

Indoor cats have high levels of brominated flame retardants in their blood due to chemicals in the home.  “The results are very interesting because small children, notorious for putting everything in their mouths, have exposures to these chemicals similar to cats.”

The most common pet toxin is human prescription  medicines. The list of the top 10 pet toxins of 2016 is compiled by the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.

And a troubled goldfish has got a customized wheelchair.

Upcoming Events

On Tuesday, March 28th, Lori Nanan of iSpeakDog is giving a free webinar aimed at teaching people how to better understand their dogs. The webinar is hosted by the Academy for Dog Trainers. Although the live webinar is already full, those who sign up will be sent a link to the recording.

Separation Anxiety: Mission Possible with Malena De Martini-Price at Women’s Human Society, Bensalem, PA, April 29 – 30 2017.

Seminar with Debbie Jacobs on the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs in Denver, NC on 20th May 2017.

The Human-Animal Bond and Companion Animals: Implications for Animal Welfare, Society and Veterinarians. Weds 21st June 2017, Royal Veterinary College – University of London (Camden Campus). Speakers include Prof Danny Mills, Dr. Siobhan Abeysinge, Dr. Sandra McCune, Peter Gorbing, Dr. Alex German, chaired by Martin Whiting.

Pam Johnson-Bennett’s CatWise Cat Café tour visits cat cafes across the United States, and starts at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Florida on March 23rd.

Photos and Videos

Looking back at American dog shows in the early 1900s via the Washington Post.

Readers’ prize-winning photos of cats via The Guardian.

A day in the life of a dog at Crufts. A photo-essay from The Guardian.

Photographer Isaac Alvarez was fed up of people judging his dog, so he made a series of photos blending dogs with their owners.

Cats from Ravenna with photos by Marianna Zampieri.

Photos of the faces of stray cats who live on the streets in Vilnius, Lithuania, by Gabriel Khiterer.

Three beautiful cats, Tomu, Eemeli and Kira show off their tricks:


Here at Companion Animal Psychology

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz. Highly recommended.

Next month, we will be reading (or re-reading) The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell.

Don’t miss Jane Gething-Lewis’s guest post, dearly departed dogs, about what online pet obituaries tell us about the experience of losing a pet. My own top post of the last month was about play bows in domestic dogs and hand-reared wolves and this month’s trending archive post is where do cats like to be stroked? I was also delighted to share more photos of happy dogs who are friends of Companion Animal Psychology.

As always, if you want to stay up-to-date, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Companion Animal Psychology is about to reach an important milestone. Stay tuned…

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.

15 March 2017

The benefits of pets for children

A review of the literature concludes that pets may have psychological benefits for children – such as better self-esteem – but more research is needed.

A girl and her dog sit together on the grass. Pets are good for children - read more about the benefits.

The review, by Rebecca Purewal (University of Liverpool) et al involved searching the scientific literature from 1960 to 2016 for studies that examine the effects of pets on children’s psychological health. 22 studies were identified and analysed further.

The results show benefits in some areas, but not enough evidence to draw conclusions in other areas. The paper also considers the potential mechanisms for such effects.

The scientists write,
“This paper provides a review of the evidence on the effects of pet ownership on emotional, behavioural, cognitive, educational and social development. Overall, the evidence suggests that pet ownership, and dog ownership in particular, may benefit these outcomes for children and adolescents. However, the evidence is mixed partly due to a broad range of different methodological approaches and varying quality of studies.”
The scientists used quite broad criteria in selecting the studies for their review. The 22 studies they looked at include two that have been covered on Companion Animal Psychology: Geerdts et al on pets and children’s understanding of biological concepts, and Rhoades et al on the effects of pets on the mental health of homeless youth.

First, the good news. Purewal et al found evidence that pets may be good for children’s emotional health, especially in terms of better self-esteem and reduced loneliness. There also seemed to be benefits in terms of being better able to take another person’s perspective, and for intellectual development.

They also found social benefits – bigger social networks, better social competence, and more social play. (Interestingly, pets have also been found to increase social networks for adults).

However, they did not really find evidence for improvements in depression and anxiety, and there was not enough evidence to come to any conclusions about behaviour development.

The paper describes several potential mechanisms by which pets might benefit children. The effects of the hormone oxytocin may lead to reduced stress, and pets may provide social support. Pets may help to meet children’s needs for a secure attachment, and this could be especially important in cases where a child has poor attachment to their parents. Indeed, it is possible that attachment to pets may be more important than simply owning a pet.

A boy holds his Yorkshire Terrier in his arms. Research shows pets are good for children.

The authors provide illustrations of how effects might occur for each of the domains where an effect was found. For example, improved educational outcomes may be due to better social support and reduced stress, which in turn may cause better executive functioning which will improve learning. Interactions with the pet (such as having conversations with the pet) may also lead to better language skills and social cognition.

Potential benefits of pets may also be related to the stage of a child’s development. For example, young children who are learning about social relationships may especially benefit from interactions with a pet. For self-esteem, it seems that pet ownership is of most benefit to younger children (under 6) and those over 10 years old.

The review highlights a number of problems with the available evidence, such as small sample sizes,  only collecting data at one time-point (therefore not able to assess potential effects over time), and sometimes classifying children as non-pet owners at a particular time when they may have previously had a pet that is now deceased.

Also, there are differences in the kinds of pets studied, and although it appears that dogs had the greatest potential, in some cases other pets (that were not dogs or cats) were not included as pets in the research. So more research is needed to understand the relationship children have with different kinds of pets, and whether this means some pets are more likely to be beneficial than others.

The authors also highlight potential confounding variables. For example, there might be differences in the kind of parent who acquires a pet compared to those who don’t, and it’s possible this could account for some of the effects.

As well as summarizing the literature, the article highlights the need for better quality evidence on the possible benefits of pets. While the potential risks of pets are outside the scope of the paper, they are mentioned. The most obvious might be the risk of dog bites, which young children are especially vulnerable to, but there are also risks of allergies, acquiring an infection from a pet, and of grief on the loss of pet.

That's why it's so helpful to know that research finds dogs and cats may benefit children in some aspects, such as improved self-esteem and bigger social networks. The review highlights priorities for future research, and shows that improving the quality of research in this field is essential. Hopefully it will be a catalyst for better-designed and longitudinal studies in this area.

The paper is open access so you can read it in full. You can also follow one of the authors of the study, Dr. Carri Westgarth, on twitter.

How do you think pets might help children?

You might also like: Reading to dogs may improve literacy and what pets do children have and which do they prefer?

You may also read this post in Chinese, courtesy of our friends at Bambiland Pet Photography and Dog Training.

Purewal, R., Christley, R., Kordas, K., Joinson, C., Meints, K., Gee, N., & Westgarth, C. (2017). Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14 (3) DOI: 10.3390/ijerph14030234
Photos: Africa Studio (top) and zagorodnaya (both Shutterstock.com).

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

12 March 2017

Happy Dogs: More Photos

More gorgeous photos of happy dogs who are friends of Companion Animal Psychology.

Rajah the dog looking happy on a walk in the woods

"He is a very happy boy who loves to go for long walks, exploring the woods and trails of Gabriola Island."
Photo: Jean Ballard.

Milo sitting and looking happy by the river

"As for his favorite treat, I'd say chicken is a big contender, probably his favorite, but he loves just about all food! His favorite trick is between "spin" or his yoga pose (which is really just a play bow) that I've cued as "let's do some yoga." His absolute favorite thing to do in the world is swim."
Photo: Sabrina Mignacca.

Shadow happy dog running in the snow

"Shadow's favourite treat of all time is left over pizza crusts haha! His best trick is a dramatic play dead."
Photo: Allison Wells (twitter)

Sugar the dog looks happy walking on the farm
"Her favourite reward is liver brownies."
Photo: Kristi Benson (twitter

Piper the dog sits and looks happy during a training session

"She is one of the happiest and most exuberant dogs I've ever met!  She worked hard on impulse control exercises, to earn rewards like steak and turkey. Any game that involves her people is her favorite game!"
Photo: Suzanne Bryner.

Bjorn the malamute rolls on the floor with a happy grin on his face
"Bjorn likes everything except jell-o  ;-) His favourite trick answers the question 'What does the Meercat do?'"
Photos: Sgian Dubh.

This is what the Meercat does

Shadow the dog looks happy in his costume

"His favorite treat is chicken breast, liver, and mini hotdog.
His best trick is catching his treat from a distance, and he can spin on command both clockwise and counter clockwise. He likes to swim and chases squirrels."
Photos: Cindy Lin.

Shadow waiting to catch a treat

Thank you to everyone who shared photos with me!

08 March 2017

Dearly Departed Dogs

Do online pet obituaries reveal how we truly feel about our pets?
Guest post by Jane Gething-Lewis (Hartpury College).

A beautiful old Red Setter sleeping

“You were such a selfless and giving boy. Dad loves you with all his heart.”

A heartfelt online tribute to a dearly departed loved one – but this loved one had four legs, a tail and was called Cosmo. Over the top? Not necessarily. Research suggests that many people feel the loss of a beloved pet as keenly as the loss of a child.

The bond people have with each other has long been debated and discussed. Generations of psychologists have attempted to explain and quantify the mechanics of attachment (or lack of) between fellow humans. But is it possible that we form similar bonds with our animal companions? Recently, researchers have been interested in exploring whether human theories of bonding apply to our relationships with our pets. No easy task, when only half of the bonding equation can talk.

Now researchers at the University of Edinburgh believe they have identified a useful source of information about the nature of the human-animal bond – online pet obituaries.

“The digital environment is a really interesting place for people to talk about animals,” said Dr Jill MacKay, who led a study of tributes posted on pet memorial websites. “Society has an expectation that animals are not as important as humans, but the online space has no rules. I suspect that people write more freely and honestly online about what they’re really feeling.”

Dr MacKay and her team looked at obituaries for dogs on two dedicated websites, investigating the kind of information available in these tributes. They also assessed whether that data might prove useful in future studies into the nature of the human-animal bond when it comes to attachment, grief and bereavement.

Pulling a sickie? Or sick with grief...

Taking time off work following the death of a pet is generally frowned upon, and yet losing a pet can seriously disrupt our lives. Some people lose sleep, lose their appetite and are unable to carry on with normal life for some time; the higher the level of bonding with their pet, the deeper the mourning.

 “Our study shows that people feel real grief when they lose their animals,” said Dr MacKay.

A dog walks away, gone too soon written in the sand

Why do we feel so close to our pets?

Here’s the science bit. The Attachment Theory of human bonding is a widely used psychological model, coined by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950’s. It works on the principal that a strong emotional attachment to a primary caregiver (usually a parent) is essential for making us feel safe, secure and grounded. Put simply, we will form a deep bond with another person if one or more of four key elements are present in the relationship. Do you want to be near to someone you feel close to? That’s Proximity Maintenance. Do you seek out that person when you need comfort or are a bit scared? They are a Safe Haven. Do like to know that person is nearby when you’re chatting to others at a party? They are your Secure Base. Do you panic a little when you think that person has left the party without you? That’s called Separation Anxiety. Congratulations – you are attached. The degree and the style to which we bond with other people will differ from person to person, and will affect the way we cope with life’s ups and downs – including the way we feel grief.

In her 2011 paper, Not Just a Dog, Dr Marilyn Kwong, a psychologist at the Simon Fraser University in Canada, looked at whether human attachment theory may explain why some people are so deeply affected by pet bereavement. The study built on existing research, which has established that intense bonds with our pets do exist; pets are often considered to be family members, and can fulfill emotional needs like love and companionship.

Dr Kwong looked at grief experienced by 25 people with disabilities who had lost their Assistance Animal. Assistance animals included Guide Dogs and dogs specially trained to help with physical tasks. The team analysed the transcripts of open-ended phone interviews. They looked for – and found - evidence of three of the four attachment theory components: safe haven, secure base and separation anxiety. All participants reported feeling intense grief, even when the bereavement may have occurred many years previously. The team concluded that grief following the loss of a well-loved pet can be as strong as losing a human loved-one. “She was always there for me,” said one participant. Another even took her dog into the operating theatre because she couldn’t bear to be separated from him. Of course, all the dogs in Dr Kwong’s study were not purely pets; they had a working function as caregiver. Therefore separation from them would likely generate additional anxiety above and beyond ‘normal’ levels.

Deciphering the dead

Phone interviews and questionnaires can provide a robust set of results for formal studies, but they depend on the researchers’ personal interaction with the mourner, who may not feel able to be frank about their true feelings. Could online memorials offer a more unadulterated source of information?

Dr Jill Mackay identified two websites, HeavenlyPaws.com and ImmortalPets.com. Focusing on dogs, she selected 130 obituaries of up to 400 words in length. The researchers identified and agreed a number of key concepts present in the texts relating to attachment theory and relationship with the pet. They grouped these concepts under three categories: owner-pet relationship, pet’s actions, and owner’s feelings.

Where it was possible to identify the gender of the writer, Dr MacKay found that the majority of female memorial authors (34.6%) considered themselves to be ‘mum’ to their dearly departed dog. Tributes were also found from male parental figures, ‘dad’ (7.7%), and from children (5.4%).

Nearly half (49%) of the tribute writers referred to their dog as part of the family – “my baby”, “mummy’s darling”. The researchers identified this category as a potential predictor for the depth of grief experienced by the human owner. A little over half (51%) discussed the afterlife in relation to their pets, who were “in heaven”, or “over the rainbow bridge”. There was a strong association between the two concepts of afterlife and being part of the family, supporting attachment theory understanding that the loss of a pet can be akin for some to the loss of a child. If you’re feeling a little depressed by now – there was some light at the end of the (white, brightly lit) tunnel. 11% of the dog obituaries celebrated happy times, writing of their pet’s sense of humour and gratitude, ‘laughing’ at its own farts and ‘grateful’ for a play in the park.

In contrast to Dr Kwong’s study of bereaved Assistant Dog owners, Dr McKay’s investigation does seem to have disinterred a rich source of natural information about the human-animal bond: genuine expressions of love and loss, expressed on a public forum, garnered from real-world texts and not under experimental conditions. However, scientists might see this as a problem. Little is known about the demographics of the tribute writer, making it difficult to breakdown the information as a potential predictor for people more likely to feel the deepest and most debilitating grief. Neither does this plundering-of-the-online-grave study relate directly to specific elements of the formal attachment theory model.

RIP online

The internet has become the go-to place for information, support and emotional expression around grief and bereavement. Mainstream animal charities like Blue Cross, veterinary practices, rescue centres, and even universities like Glasgow offer bereavement advice, steering the mourner to create an online memorial to their pet.

While Dr MacKay’s study focuses solely on dedicated pet obituary websites, she plans to broaden her investigations into the world of social media:  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram teem with emotion.

“We looked at dedicated pet obituary websites rather than social media because of ethical issues,” explained Dr MacKay. “Pet obit sites are public, but facebook is personal.  There are layers of privacy settings. However,” she adds, “this would be a really interesting area to look at further because the way we express ourselves online is evolving rapidly.”

Good grief – how can we use this information?

For scientists, Jill MacKay has identified a seam of easy accessible material readily available for studying the human animal bond around grief, mourning and attachment. She has also identified social media as another potential area for further academic study.

In the real world, the knowledge gained by researchers like Jill MacKay and Marilyn Kwong could help us support and understand people who are grieving their pets. Information gleaned from online pet obituaries may be a useful tool in developing educational materials to help bereavement counsellors. Veterinary practices could be better able to identify people more likely to experience more profound grief, and refer them to support. Social workers who work with families, older, and isolated people might better understand the impact of pet loss, and employers, who still roll their eyes, may be a little more sympathetic.

And was Jill MacKay inspired by her own study? ”Just after I finished this project, I had to have my 18-year-old cat Posie euthanised. I did a memorial for her and put it up on facebook.”

RIP Cosmo. Your dad loved you. He really did.

About Jane Gething-Lewis:

Portrait of Jane Gething-Lewis with one of her dogs

Jane is a post-graduate student at Hartpury University Centre in Gloucestershire, where she is studying part-time for an MRes in Anthrozoology. Jane has recently returned to education, and balances her studies with her role as a producer for BBC local radio. She is an experienced writer and broadcaster, and has written for many national publications, including BBC Countryfile Magazine, Country Living and Woman. (Jane lives in the Forest of Dean and is mum to one female human and two unruly dogs!)

Kwong, M., & Bartholomew, K. (2011). “Not just a dog”: an attachment perspective on relationships with assistance dogs Attachment & Human Development, 13 (5), 421-436 DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2011.584410
MacKay, J., Moore, J., & Huntingford, F. (2016). Characterizing the Data in Online Companion-dog Obituaries to Assess Their Usefulness as a Source of Information about Human–Animal Bonds Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 431-440 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181374
Photos: Reddogs (top) and Supie Davis (both Shutterstock.com)
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