28 June 2017

Did We Evolve to Love Dogs?

Is part of the reason dogs manage to wrap their paws around our hearts because we're predisposed to love them?

Guest post by Kristi Benson CTC.

A woman and her German Shorthaired Pointer relaxing in a field
"...a tendency in people to seek relationships with the natural world." Photo: Paddlepooch (Shutterstock).

Biophilia means, simply put, a focus on life and living things. Some researchers would even say it’s a love of living things. It has been used to refer to a tendency in people to seek relationships with the natural world: our love of greenspace, of potted plants, of well-tended trees on city boulevards, and maybe even (did you guess where this was going?), our love of animals, wild and domestic alike.

Considering you are reading a blog dedicated to spreading welfare-boosting, scientifically valid information about companion animals, it will not come as a surprise to you that many people find animals to be irresistibly compelling. Naturalist E.O Wilson suggests that this biophilia, this love of living things, has evolutionary roots in humans. That is, he suggests that our long-ago ancestors who loved living things—or at least paid greater attention to them—were more likely to survive than those who did not. Survival means reproduction, so our animal-loving forebears were more likely to pass along their animal-keen genes than people who, due to life’s genetic lotto, were not similarly inclined. Although other biologists and philosophers have questioned the utility, correctness (and lack of falsifiability) of the construct, it is interesting to ponder the idea that we evolved to love living things, and that part of the reason dogs manage to wrap their paws around our hearts is because we’re predisposed to love them.

When I went to school to become an archeologist in the 1990s, it was the vogue to say that everything we humans did, we learned to do from scratch during our lives. Children were considered to be born as blank slates, and learning and culture—and oh, what a fantastic adaptation culture is, when you think about it—explained the totality of our behaviour. We rolled our collective eyes at any inkling of a biological explanation for human behaviour (we had our reasons). As time, and science, (and ethics) have marched on, we have revised our models. There is now evidence that humans, like all the animals we share so much of our DNA with, have both learned and intrinsic behaviours. And it’s even much more richly complicated than that. Our genes provide the scaffolding upon which our life experiences (or even the life experiences of our parents) mould our adult behaviour. All behaviour is the product of complicated interactions between our genes and our experiences.

Did we evolve to love dogs? Thoughts on how much we love dogs
Photo:Stockwithme (Shutterstock).

As we would expect with a behaviour strengthened by evolutionary processes, interest in living things and animals is seen in many cultures and in many places around the globe, although it may look different in different places. In many areas, knowledge of the natural systems that support life continues to be vital to survival. I have been fortunate enough to work with Indigenous communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories, in particular the Gwich’in of Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Tsiigehtchic, for almost 15 years. Many of the projects I have worked on include recording and mapping information about animals and ecological systems. To say there is a breadth of knowledge about the natural world held by people who live close to it is an understatement. Gwich’in Elders even talk about a time, deep in the mythological past, when people and caribou shared the same language and could even change their animal forms.

The ability and desire to understand the natural world is, and has been, an enormous benefit to people who need to both comprehend and predict natural ecological cycles and animal behaviour. It makes good sense that a love of natural things could provide a survival boost. Both animals and people must be knowledgeable to ‘make a living in the world”.

At first, contemplating that our warm and fuzzy feelings towards dogs may be a product, or byproduct, of our evolutionary history (and even further, based on how useful this knowledge was to the survival of our ancestors) seems a bit… discombobulating. Doesn’t it feel like our affection towards our dogs should be in a special, different package? Certainly not in the same utilitarian category of “useful traits” as binocular eyesight or tool use or blinking or internal, air-breathing, lungs.

But I say, grasp firmly to the coolness of our evolution. How great is it that we even evolved? That we exist, unlike hadrosaurs and the passenger pigeon and all the trilobites? Humans, like dogs, cats, northern pig-tailed macaques, horseshoe crabs, and amoeba, are the product of our long evolutionary history. Without evolution there would be nothing human about us, just like without evolution and it’s human-directed best friend, domestication, there would be nothing dog about dogs. Evolution has tinkered both dogs and humans into existence.

And better yet: if dogs evolved or were domesticated to have a particular focus on humans, as some recent research on dog cognition suggests, then humans evolving to have a particular focus on living things like dogs could just be one more special thing we share. Like a spot on the couch, a love for leftover pizza, and snoozing after a long day.

Also by Kristi Benson: Digging into our common ground with dogs.

About Kristi Benson CTC

Kristi Benson outside with two of her dogs

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC).  She lives and works in the Parkland Region of central Manitoba Canada, where she teaches dog obedience classes and helps dog owners in private consultations – both in-person and via video chat – for a full range of dog problems, from basic obedience to aggressive behaviour. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, and for fun she runs them with a dog-powered scooter and on skis.

Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

If you would like to propose a guest post, please read our guidelines first.

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25 June 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News June 2017

Favourite posts, photos and podcasts of the last month.

June 2017 news about dogs and cats

Some of my favourites from around the web

“None of us see animals clearly.  They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them.” What animals taught me about being human by Helen MacDonald

Can dogs help solve our childhood obesity problem? Hal Herzog PhD on childhood obesity and dog ownership.

Sniffing kitten butts for science  to find out how mother cats recognize their kittens, by Mikel Delgado PhD.

Should we call these canine behaviours calming signals? By Karen London PhD at The Bark. Be sure to also read the comment from Dr. Chiara Mariti, and this piece by Marc Bekoff  PhD that has been updated to include Dr. Mariti's comments.

"Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: My dog used to love to play with other dogs, and then one day she didn’t." Tracy Krulik on dog-dog reactivity.

“Making a fearful dog's life better is a long game.” Living with and loving a fearful dog, by Casey McGee at Upward Hound.

If you need a cheerful story, read this: It takes a village… love hope and a lucky Penny by Lori Nanan from Your Pit Bull and You.

Pets in the news

Important new position statement from International Cat Care on declawing in cats  “The operation to declaw does not just remove the claw, but also the end bone of the toe (equivalent to removing the end of a finger to the first joint in humans).”

Earliest evidence for dog breeding found on remote Siberian island.

Animal abuse in some form is present in 89% of domestic violence cases.

Canada needs laws to prevent the euthanization of healthy pets, says lawyer.

Diabetes-sniffing cat Charlie is a lifeline for his owner.

The Economist wonders whether emotional support animals should be allowed in the cabin of planes.

A massive study of ancient and modern cat genomes reveals an interesting history.

Sadly, a ban on the docking of puppy’s tails has been scrapped in Scotland after MSPs vote to allow exemptions. You can read Dogs Trust’s response here.

And senior nurses in the UK say pets should be allowed to visit their owners in hospital.


But my dog isn’t food motivated. Webinar by Kathy Sdao for Doggone Safe 28th June 2017

A brief history of corporal punishment by Jean Donaldson for Doggone Safe 5th July 2017

Dr. Clive Wynne Behavioural solutions to behavioural problems. 29th July 2017 in Melbourne, Australia

Photos, videos and podcasts

Dog photographer of the year 2017.

Cones of fame turns dreaded collars into fashionable accessories that help shelter dogs find homes.

Why do dogs have whiskers? Featuring Dr Jessica Hekman.

Adorable animal photos by Gerry Slade help rehome unwanted pets in Bury.

Why are some animals pets and others are lunch? Featuring Dr Hal Herzog.

Learn to sniff like a dog and experience the world in a new way. The Invisibilia podcast from NPR spoke to Dr. Alexandra Horowitz.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

There’s still time to purchase a Companion Animal Psychology t-shirt. 100% of the proceeds go to help animals at the BCSPCA Maple Ridge. Thanks to everyone who has bought one!

29 blogs took part in the Train for Rewards blog party, which was on its second year of celebrating and encouraging reward-based training. Dogs, cats, and even a pet pig featured in the posts. As well as enjoying the posts themselves, it’s a chance to find new bloggers to follow. Don’t miss it.

My interview with Dr. Christy Hoffman has had a wonderful response, and I also published a post about her recent research (with Dr. Malini Suchak) on dog rivalry.

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology book club has been reading The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions by Thomas McNamee. The book club takes July off, but stay tuned to find out August’s pick.

And finally, I chatted to Colleen Pelar and Julie Fudge Smith at Your Family Dog Podcast about how to make happy dogs even happier.

If you’re not already a subscriber, why not sign up to follow Companion Animal Psychology by email?

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21 June 2017

What Helps Shelter Dogs Get Adopted and Stay in Homes?

A new literature review looks at how shelters can increase adoptions and reduce animal relinquishment.

A cute mixed breed dog lies down with a ball in its mouth

The review, by Dr. Alexandra Protopopova (Texas Tech University) and Lisa Gunter, looks at the factors that affect adoption rates, the effects of interventions, and how to decrease the numbers of people giving their dogs to shelters (or returning dogs after adoption). The review is important because it will help shelters to know about evidence-based ways to reduce the number of dogs in shelters.

Although some factors vary from one country to another, some things are consistent: people spend very little time looking at a shelter dog before deciding to adopt, and they pay attention to the dog’s size, breed, and colour.

Dogs can arrive at shelters as strays (the most common route in the US), by being surrendered by their owner (about 30% of dogs in shelters in the US), after being seized in an animal cruelty investigation, or by being returned following an adoption that has not worked out.

The review found a dog’s appearance is an important factor in its adoption. People also seem to prefer dogs that were surrendered by their owner rather than strays, and are influenced by breed labels with dogs described as pit-bull types taking longer to be adopted. One study at a Florida shelter found that removing breed labels was successful at improving adoption rates of pit-bull type dogs (adoption rates of other dogs were unchanged).

If people decide to spend time with a dog, then its behaviour becomes more important, with people adopting dogs they describe as showing calmness, friendliness and playfulness. But the decision to adopt a dog or not is typically made after only 8 minutes.

A study by Protopopova et al (2014) found people are more likely to adopt a dog if it plays with them and lies down near them. Following this, Protopopova et al (2016) found adoption rates were increased 2.5 times with an intervention that both encouraged play (using the dog’s favourite toy) and then keeping the dog on a short leash and using treats to lure it into a down position near the potential adopter.

What helps shelter dogs - like this cute mixed-breed - get adopted and stay in homes?
Photo: Tom Feist; top, Emily on Time; both Shutterstock.

Other strategies have looked at reducing the number of dogs relinquished or returned to shelters. Young dogs are more likely to be relinquished, and there are differences between relinquished dogs and those kept, as well as between the people who relinquish dogs and those who don’t. Moving house and difficulties in finding rental homes that take pets, and personal issues, all play a role too, showing how complicated an issue it is.

About 15% of adopted dogs are subsequently returned to the shelter in the US. Again, returned dogs are typically young, and there is a range of reasons including housing, personal issues, and behaviour issues that are typically spotted quite soon after the dog was taken home.

Since so many dogs end up in shelters as strays, microchipping and identification tags would go a long way to being able to return dogs to their owners. Unfortunately, studies of providing education and/or training and behaviour information to people adopting dogs have not always had the positive results you might expect. However, a program that used foster homes (including giving the foster responsibility for finding the dog a new home) had promising results.

The review also looks at the issues with behavioural assessments of shelter dogs, and points out areas where we need to know more (such as the behaviour of people thinking of adopting a dog). Finally, wider community involvement may help too.

Although we know quite a lot about how dogs end up in shelters, a lot more research is needed to help design evidence-based programs to reduce relinquishment and increase adoptions. This paper is a useful summary of what we know so far.

You can follow the researchers on Facebook: Dr. Alexandra Protopopova at the Human-Animal Interaction Lab and Lisa Gunter is part of the Canine Science Collaboratory headed by Dr. Clive Wynne.

Protopopova, A., & Gunter, L. M. (2017). Adoption and relinquishment interventions at the animal shelter: a review. Animal Welfare, 26(1), 35-48.
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13 June 2017

The 2017 Train for Rewards Blog Party

Welcome to the Train for Rewards blog party! The party aims to encourage people to use rewards when training their dogs or other companion animals.

Check out all the wonderful blog posts from some amazing trainers. As well as lots of great posts, you will find new bloggers to follow.

The blog party celebrates what we can do with reward-based dog training, encourages people to use rewards in training their pets, and inspires people to improve their technical skills and understanding of how reward-based dog training (and cat training etc) works. (See the invitation and rules).

Take Part in Train for Rewards on 16th June

  • Read the blog posts, comment on them, and share your favourite posts using the hashtag #Train4Rewards
  • If you train your dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, horse, pig, etc. with rewards, share a photo of your pet on social media with the hashtag #Train4Rewards
  • Afterwards, reward yourself for participating with a piece of cake, some chocolate, a glass of wine, a walk on the beach, or whatever makes you happy. (Feel free to tell us about this part too!).

The blog party about reward-based training for dogs and other pets

Spreading the Word on Reward-Based Training

Sometimes, we all need a little encouragement. And that includes our pets when we're training them.

The best treats to use in training dogs and cats, like this Chihuahua and this ginger kitten

The Train for Rewards blog party is all about encouraging people to use rewards when training their companion animals (here's why it's such a good idea).

And although it’s mostly about dogs – because they are the species we devote most time to training – any companion animal can be trained with rewards.

The best reward to use is food. Good food, in fact. (For ideas, see the best dog training treats).

As a society, we have this mythology around dogs that they should just do what we say out of respect and love. The myth that if we have the right personality, dogs will do what we want without them even needing to practice. It doesn’t do us or them any favours.

Dogs and cats are wonderful but they both need motivation in training. That’s why using food is so great: it works.

And it should be good food, like chicken.

Sometimes this surprises people; I am regularly asked why kibble isn’t best. But of course, your dog can get kibble anyway. You’re asking them to do something – and good food that isn’t normally available is a lot more motivating. Added bonus: you’re also providing food enrichment by adding variety to their diet.

The mythology around dogs is so great that sometimes when I suggest people use food, they think I mean for them but I must have some magic that means I don’t use food myself. Don’t worry, they soon start to call me “the chicken lady.”

The real break-through is when they too become the chicken lady. Or the peanut butter cookie lady. Or the tuna fudge guy.

The best treats to use for training dogs, like these two cuties with their noses sticking out from a blanket
Photo: dezi; top, Otsphoto. Both Shutterstock.

Not too long ago, I spoke to two amazing animal trainers and asked them about the rewards they use to train dogs and cats.

Here’s what world-renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash, told me about how she motivates her dog Brian:

“He’s very about primal nibs. He’s about this stuff called Rawbble which is little kind of freeze-dried 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 Dr. Sarah Ellis, co-author (with Dr. John Bradshaw) of The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat, says food is the best reward for cats too.

“…we have to think about what really is rewarding for a cat, because it’s certainly not our social attention, for most cats. And when we first start training a cat that’s not been trained before, the most rewarding thing generally for cats is food.”

Cats can be trained with food treats, as these three Tuxedo kittens have still to find out
Photo: Africa Studio (Shutterstock)

And this is what she says about using the right-sized reward for a cat:

“…even the size that commercial cat treats come in are far too big to be a single training treat. So I very often recommend that if you are using commercial cat treats, use the freeze dried ones or the semi-moist ones, because you can pull them into much much smaller parts. If we’re thinking about a prawn, not a king prawn just an average normal prawn, I would break that maybe into four or five parts at least.”

So: chicken breast; freeze-dried raw things; pieces of prawn. That’s what it’s all about.

Of course there’s a hierarchy of treats. If chicken is your default reward, save your very best (like tripe stick) for behaviours that are a lot of work (such as coming when you call).

It’s easy to get started with reward-based training. But not everyone has someone they can ask about training methods, and there’s a lot of erroneous information out there.

A Bernese Mountain dog spreads the word on the best treats to use for training

I am lucky to know many talented dog trainers. But I know some people feel isolated in communities where there isn’t much expertise in training animals with methods other than “dominance” or shock. And I know some people feel locally isolated, but part of a wider community thanks to online networks and gatherings at events and seminars.

Things are changing.

More and more people are learning why and how to use rewards in training their dogs, cats, and other animals. And this is something to celebrate.

This post is part of the 2017 Train for Rewards blog party. You'll find the 2018 Train for Rewards blog party here. Check it out and feel cheered by all the brilliant people who are spreading the word about reward-based training. See you there!

P.S. If you want to know more about the science of dog training, a new literature review recommends reward-based dog training and I also keep a list of scientific articles on dog training (and places to read about them for free). If you want more of the practicalities, check out my user-friendly guide to positive reinforcement.

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.

07 June 2017

Interview with Dr. Christy Hoffman

Dr. Christy Hoffman on her research on dog rivalry, how to increase shelter adoptions, and why Anthrozoology is such a fascinating subject.

Dr. Christy Hoffman with her two dogs
Dr. Christy Hoffman with her two dogs. Photo: Stephanie Handley

I spoke to Dr. Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) about her research on the factors that lead to a successful human-animal relationship.

Zazie: I’m really excited to chat with you! I wanted to start off by talking about your recent study with Dr. Malini Suchak if that’s alright.

Christy: Sure.

Zazie: You were looking at rivalry and decision-making in dogs and you decided to investigate this by looking at dogs that already know each other and in their own homes. Why do you think it’s so important to study canine cognition in the dog’s familiar environment and with dogs that they already know?

Christy: Well, we wanted to do that because, based on our understanding of dog behaviour and experience, relationships are really important when determining kind of the competitive nature of dogs. Because it often depends on who the dogs are in relation to each other, who’s going to be more competitive, rather than necessarily being an individual characteristic of a dog. Both of us have primate research backgrounds so we realize that relationships are really important and context is really important when looking at competition between animals. And so that's why we really wanted to test dogs in relation to dogs they already knew and spent a lot of time with.

And then in terms of studying the dogs in their own homes, we felt like we would have a better chance of getting an understanding of the dog’s typical behaviour in being able to study the dogs where they’re most comfortable. I’ve done studies that have brought dogs to the Canisius College campus in the past and they did fine in the study, but we definitely had to take time to get them acclimated to the environment and all the new smells and new people. And so by studying the dogs in their own homes we could kind of avoid all those potential confounds.

"So within a household, one dog might care more about human attention and the other dog might care more about food."

Zazie: Brilliant, thank you. So in this study, one of the dogs saw the other dog approach a plate and eat the food, and then they had a choice of whether to go to the same plate which is now empty or another plate which has food on. What would you say you found?

Christy: Well within the household some individual dogs were classified as low-rivalry and some as high-rivalry and that was based on James Serpell’s Canine Behaviour and Research Questionnaire, which the dog owners completed before they even knew anything about the study that we had planned. We just said this is an online survey. And so we could split these dogs into these two categories, and we found that dogs that fell into the high-rivalry category were more likely to go directly to the plate that still had food on it, compared to the dogs that were low-rivalry who tended to first check out the plate that the other dog’s already eaten off of. So that plate had no food. So it doesn’t seem like necessarily a very smart decision, however those low-rivalry dogs still were able to access the food. We weren’t trying to train them to go to an empty plate or a full plate, we just wanted to see what their natural inclination was.

And we also found that this difference disappeared though, when we gave dogs a chance to think about it or a chance to process what was going on. So the low-rivalry dogs tended to kind of follow if there was no delay between when the first dog took the food off the plate, walked round the corner out of the room, and we let that low-rivalry dog approach the plate. If we only had that dog wait 5 seconds before approaching the plate, then that difference between the low and high-rivalry dogs disappeared.

Christy Hoffman with her dog Grizzly
Dr. Christy Hoffman with her dog Grizzly. Photo: Stephanie Handley

Zazie: I think that’s really interesting. And you did it with dogs and with a person, so you had the person take the food as well to see if the dog followed the person. So do you think the dog rivalry scale also relates to a dog’s relationship with people?

Christy: Erm, I think potentially. So dog rivalry, the questions on the C-BARQ really get at aggressive tendencies between dogs that know each other that live in the household together. And there are a lot of correlations between dog-related aggression, human-related aggression as well. So others have found looking at the C-BARQ data, because the C-BARQ does have questions about human-directed aggression as well as dog-directed aggression. So certainly there could be that relationship there. And it may also relate to an individual dog, how that dog experiences the household. So the interactions with the other dog in the household and the humans as well might be affecting the dog’s tendency to follow.

"...it kind of took me by surprise in the dog world that dominance might as well be spelled with four letters, rather than however many letters are in dominance."

Zazie: Okay, thank you. I wonder if we could just clear something up for readers of the blog, some of whom are more used to hearing people talk about relationships in terms of dominance rather than rivalry. Rivalry’s not the same thing as dominance, is it?

Christy: No, it’s really interesting. When looking at past studies of dogs’ relationships with other dogs and tendencies to follow, other studies have used the term dominance, and it’s a tricky word in the dog world. Coming from the non-human primate side of things where we talk about hierarchy and dominance quite regularly, it kind of took me by surprise in the dog world that dominance might as well be spelled with four letters, rather than however many letters are in dominance. Because it’s been really misunderstood and taken out of context, the term dominance, when we talk about dogs. And so while there’s still, at least in some groups of dogs, there’s still evidence of hierarchy, we really have to be careful when we’re talking about that word dominance.

And what we found when we asked owners who they felt was kind of more the leader in the household, or which dog got his way more, it was really interesting that the owners consistently said that this was something that was inconsistent. So it really depended on the context. So they would say well, dog A is always going to eat first, but dog B is always going to run out of the house first when we open the door. Or Dog B is always going to be the one that barks at the window first, but dog A is going to be the one that interrupts me when I’m petting Dog B so that I can pet Dog A. So there’s a lot of variation in dogs. I think it goes back to variability within dogs about what they care about. So within a household, one dog might care more about human attention and the other dog might care more about food.

Two West Highland Terriers relaxing together
Photo: OlgaOvcharenko/Shutterstock

Zazie: Great, thank you. So I also wanted to ask you about some of your research on shelters because you’ve done a lot of research about how shelters can improve adoption rates of dogs and also cats. If you were talking to shelter workers about this research, what would you most want them to know?

Christy: I really would encourage shelters to use the data that many of them have at their fingertips, because a lot of shelters are using really great and powerful databases. So they’re collecting information about when dogs come into their shelter, when they leave the shelter, what those outcomes are – were the dogs adopted, were they transferred, did their owners reclaim them or were they euthanized? And they also are recording in these databases information about the dog’s age, the dog’s breed, the dog’s colour, some of them have information about the health status of the dog or the dog’s size. And if they’re able to use this information from their database, if they’re able to look at that it can really help them to decide where to focus their efforts and their resources, especially in terms of what dogs are they marketing, you know, and what needs to have priority in that organization.

"Save the toy for the cat that really needs a toy in the picture with them."

What my graduate students and I have found over the years is that when we do ask shelters for information, which many have kindly obliged us with that information, but it’s become clear that they don’t know off the bat how to access the information. Or it may take them some time because they’ve never actually down-loaded the data into an Excel spreadsheet before, or looked at the data in the way that we’ve been looking at it. And I think that that would be a very powerful tool for them if they were able to look at their data a little more systematically.

Zazie: Definitely. So what kind of things do you think make a dog get adopted more quickly?

Christy: Well, from a study that a former graduate student Miranda Workman and I did together on cats, we found that if cats are photographed with toys in the picture they tend to be more popular on Petfinder, which is the site that we were looking at data from. And they also tend to be adopted more quickly. So if there are animals, particularly cats, that maybe don’t photograph well or that you have an idea may be sticking around the shelter for a longer period of time, adding a toy to the photo may help increase interest in that particular cat. I did hear though that one shelter at least heard about our study and they just started throwing a toy into all of their cat’s photos, but it kind of undoes the effect. Save the toy for the cat that really needs a toy in the picture with them.

Zazie: So save it for the cats that need a bit of extra help.

Christy: Right.

Zazie: I wrote about that study on my blog and actually that was a very popular post. Lots of people read that one and were very interested in that one, so that was very good.

A cute calico cat with a toy
Photo: Piyato/Shutterstock

Christy: I really do appreciate how you’ve covered several of my studies, because I can’t usually afford open access fees to make the studies readily available to the public and animal shelters. And I certainly don’t want shelters paying $35 to read any of my papers, so I really do appreciate that you help take that to the public.

Zazie: Oh good. I enjoy doing it and I think people don’t realize that sometimes with open access papers the researcher has had to pay a lot of money for that to happen. Another study that you’ve done, which I haven’t written about but I wanted to talk to you about, is you’ve looked at the factors involved in animal transfer programs where some shelters bring in pets from a long distance away. I was wondering what some of the lessons were that you found out from that study?

Christy: One that really surprised us… well first of all it surprised us that there’s really not much literature, or any that we saw, on these animal transfer programs, which kind of inspired us to do this very exploratory, very preliminary study. I’ve noticed that over the past year or so some of the large animal welfare groups, animal advocacy groups, in the United States have been doing webinars and writing blogposts about best practices in animal transfer. Which I think great because from our very qualitative, very preliminary study, we were surprised that there is a lack of consistency across organizations in terms of what veterinary care they required the animals to have prior to being transported, and also what their policies and procedures were once they brought – the study focussed on dogs – once they brought the dogs in.

"And so another key theme that came out from our study was the importance of honest, clear communication between the organizations that are receiving the animals and the organizations that are sending them out."

Some of them had quarantine periods where they had the dogs separate from other dogs for a certain amount of time, but a lot did not, and not everybody even indicated that they required vaccines prior to transport. So there definitely needs to be more investigation, because it could be that the way we asked our questions, a lot of our questions were open-ended so maybe somebody just didn’t think to put ‘we require rabies vaccines’. But if they’re really not requiring a rabies vaccine, or other vaccines, that’s very, very concerning. Especially since a lot of the groups in our study are animal rescues that don’t have shelter facilities, so they are putting dogs in people’s homes into foster care. And without best practices in place that could make people’s own animals vulnerable to infection from animals being brought in. So it seems that there’s room for improvement in this area, to better understand it and make the prospects for the dogs coming in better, you know make things so that they stay healthy, and keep the population that you already have healthy.

We also found that some organizations said that they had broken off relationships with the shelters that they had taken dogs in from in the past, because those organizations had been dishonest with them. You know, they would say they were getting a Labrador and it’s not a Labrador when they pick up the dog or the dog arrives at their door. And so that’s created problems too. And so another key theme that came out from our study was the importance of honest, clear communication between the organizations that are receiving the animals and the organizations that are sending them out.

An adorable dog sits on a yellow chair
Photo: aaor2550/Shutterstock

Zazie: And sometimes if an organization is thinking of setting up that kind of program, especially if they’re bringing in dogs from overseas perhaps, local people might be concerned or express a worry that local dogs might suffer as a result. Do you think that’s the case or not?

Christy: That’s definitely a concern brought up quite a bit in discussion of the animal transport. And it seems to be it depends on the location of the organization bringing in the animals and the demands on their system from the local dogs. And so one argument that people talk about is how bringing in dogs from elsewhere often helps diversify the population of dogs available for adoption. So for example, in many parts of the north-Eastern United States, there isn’t the large number of dogs coming in from the local community to the shelters. And of the dogs that are coming in, there’s not a lot of diversity in terms of the size of the dogs or the breeds of the dogs. And so bringing those animals in from the South or from certain other parts of the world might increase that diversity. I think also it’s tricky because, you know, breed and size of dog aren’t everything, and so having an understanding of dogs’ early life histories when possible is really important. And you know, making sure that the people that are sending the dogs out are sending out good representatives from their community. Because definitely there have been organizations as well that relationships have broken up over sending really adorable dogs that don’t have adorable personalities.

Zazie: Oh dear. So you mentioned Labradors… dogs being described as Labradors when they weren’t necessarily Labradors. And one of the studies you did a few years back was actually about Pit Bulls, and what shelter workers recognize as Pit Bulls. And I found that really interesting, because I come from England which has Breed Specific Legislation and Pit Bulls are not allowed. But sometimes here at the shelter where I volunteer, I find that people describe a dog as a Pit Bull and I look at it and I think I wouldn’t have called that a Pit Bull, so I found differences. So what did you find in your study?

Christy: Well, that study I did with Carri Westgarth who is in England at the University of Liverpool, and if you don’t mind I’ll tell you the back-story of how we came up with the idea for the study.

Zazie: Okay.

Christy: We were at the International Society for Anthrozoology conference in Cambridge, England, in 2012, that’s where we met for the first time. And we were at a pub, cos that’s what you do in England, you go to pubs, right?! At the end of the day, after the conference, we were in a pub and I was showing her some dogs that I had worked with when I was living in Chicago at the time, at the shelter. So I was quickly scrolling through on my phone saying “Pit Bull… Pit Bull… Pit Bull… look at all these Pit Bulls that are in the shelter’. And she was like “What do you mean? These aren’t Pit Bulls.” And I was like, “What do you mean they’re not Pit Bulls? Yes, they’re Pit Bulls.” And she said, “No, no, they’re Staffordshire Bull Terriers.” And I was like, “What?! Staffordshire Bull Terriers are Pit Bulls.”

A Staffordshire Bull Terrier sleeping on the couch
A Staffordshire Bull Terrier (Nieuwland Photography/Shutterstock)

So the next day we kind of both had thought about it a little bit, about that conversation, and approached each other with this idea that we should really look at this, at cross-cultural differences in what is considered a Pit Bull. And especially if something is being legislated against, you would think there would be a common definition, when lives are on the line especially right? That people would have an idea of what they’re talking about.

And so we did this survey, where we had photos of dogs that we had collected both from England and the United States. And we asked people first of all, just open-ended, describe what breed or breeds each dog represented. And then we asked this horrible open-ended question that was super-cruel to people, to say “Why do you think it’s this?” Which is really hard, you know. Like you see a picture of a Labrador and you say it’s a Labrador. Well why is it a Labrador? Because it looks like a Labrador, right? Like people had to think really hard, “What makes this look like a Labrador?” And so that open-ended qualitative information was really helpful and informative. So the people then went through the pictures a second time and we just asked them, “Is this a Pit Bull?” or “Do you think this is a Pit Bull type dog or not?”

And so we found that in the United States Pit bull is a much broader category; a lot more dogs fall into the category of Pit Bulls than is the case in England. But even so there’s a lot of diversity in the United States in terms of what’s considered a Pit Bull. So it’s not that everybody in the United States agrees that a particular dog is a Pit Bull, there’s still a lot of disagreement about whether a particular dog is a Pit Bull or not. Less so in England, and as you might have guessed from that initial conversation that I had with Carri, in the United States we tend to consider the Staffordshire Bull Terrier to be a Pit Bull, and in the UK they are distinct from Pit Bulls and not included in the Breed Specific Legislation in the UK.

Dr. Christy Hoffman with her dog Santiago
Dr. Christy Hoffman with her dog Santiago. Photo: Stephanie Handley.

And also for the study, we looked at the laws in various parts of the United States where there is Breed Specific Legislation, and I was thinking certainly they must be defining, again, Pit Bull in the community; even if it varies community to community they must have some definition, they must have some way to categorize or classify these dogs. But really the language in these laws tends to be written very loosely and there really weren’t clear-cut descriptions of what these communities mean by a Pit Bull. Which was pretty eye-opening and surprising to see.

Zazie: It is actually, yeah it is. So, right at the start of this interview you mentioned having done primate research in the past. How and why did you move from primates into working on dogs?

Christy: Yeah, so… I have to get this suitable for public audience! So I actually started studying non-human primates when I was in college. I studied howler - mantled howler - monkeys that are in Nicaragua after my sophomore year of college. And I knew that animal behaviour was something that was pretty cool to me when I could go to Nicaragua for a month and watch howler monkeys sleep in the tops of trees for hours on end and I still loved it. There were times when I didn’t know if I was watching a howler monkey or a termite mound, because they move about the same amount.

Zazie: Wow.

Christy: And I still thought it was super-cool. And so the next summer, before senior year of college, I was selected to be a research assistant in Puerto Rico on an island called Cayo Santiago where there are about 1200 rhesus macaques living on this island, free-roaming. So I was a research assistant on the island for the summer. And rhesus macaques are on the opposite end of the spectrum of active compared to howler monkeys, they’re all over the place. And so I really enjoyed that work and I took a year off after undergrad, but a few months of teaching ninth grade made me know I wanted to get back in to school as a student.

"There were times when I didn’t know if I was watching a howler monkey or a termite mound, because they move about the same amount."

So I applied to graduate school programs and was accepted into a program where the person who became my advisor was wanting to do more and more research on this island where I’d done the research in Puerto Rico before. And during my time in Puerto Rico both as an undergrad and grad student, I was fascinated and distressed by the number of stray dogs living in Puerto Rico. People forget I think that Puerto Rico is part of the United States but it’s so different also from, at least the parts of the United States that I’ve lived in. And so it was very eye-opening to me to see that people had very different relationships with dogs than again what I had experienced. And I, you know, wanted to save as many dogs as I could while I was there, so I would chase monkeys around during the day and then in the afternoon and evening try to help dogs in various ways, shuttle them to the vet clinic or administer some medications or organize a spay/neuter clinic, or find places in the United States to send these dogs. So I had first-hand experience of the transfer process!

But I also could see that for some people, like if you’re trying to run a restaurant and there are stray dogs milling about in front of your restaurant, it’s going to be hard to keep your client base. People don’t want to leave a restaurant and be mobbed by dogs that have sad-looking eyes and that are sick, or that are trying to jump on them and grab their leftovers.

A mantled howler monkey up a tree
(Photo: Wollertz/Shutterstock)

And so I became interested in human-animal interaction as a result of seeing all of this while I was in Puerto Rico. And as time wore on I became more and more interested in this, and the monkeys – I had to get my dissertation so I kept working with the monkeys, but in my mind in some ways they were taking a back seat to my  interest in the human-animal relationship and dog cognition as well. And so I was actually fortunate to have a post-doc where I could apply what I had learned about animal behaviour, in my case studying monkeys and hormones as well, and transition over to studying the human-dog relationship thanks to funding from the Waltham Foundation and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. So I was able to finally make that leap as a post-doc when I’d been kind of wanting to for years. And then a few years after that, I was able to take this job here at Canisius College where my work continues to look at both sides of the human-dog relationship, where I teach a canine class to undergraduate students but I also teach a class to graduate students called Psychology of the Human-Animal Bond and another class specifically on shelters. So it’s a dream realized to be able to do the research that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and also to be surrounded by students who share those interests as well.

Zazie: That’s fantastic, and it’s a very highly-regarded program in Anthrozoology at Canisius as well isn’t it?! So why do you think Anthrozoology is such a popular and such an exciting field at the moment?

Christy: Yeah, well I think there are a lot of reasons. I think the rise of popularity of animal-assisted therapy has piqued a lot of people’s interest in wanting to know more about human-animal relationships. And also kind of the increase in prevalence of service dogs, emotional support animals as well, and learning more and more about the various jobs that dogs – and when I say dog I mean animal half the time – and other animals can do and ways they can help people. And then there’s also increasing concern for the welfare of animals that are used for human benefit, including lab dogs, farm animals, companion animals as well. And so that’s also an important focus of the Anthrozoology program here at Canisius. And we also extend out so they can learn about wildlife in our program as well, and human-wildlife conflict and also ways that humans might be able to help or benefit wildlife as well.

"We do some number games with him, and test out his olfactory abilities, and more often than not he cheats or thinks of problems in a way we hadn’t thought about them and demonstrates that we have to re-think our methods!"

And so our program really does look at human and non-human animal relationships from both perspectives, the human side and the non-human side. And we find that people are interested in all these aspects of animal welfare, and the benefits to humans that animals provide, and so with the changes to the climate and everything I think that’s also put human-animal interactions and relationships on people’s radar as well especially regarding human-wildlife conflict.

Zazie: And so we’re getting near to the end, so a slightly personal question but not too personal: Do you have any pets at home yourself?

Christy: Yes! I have two dogs that – I do want to defend myself and say that I have successfully fostered dogs before, so I’ve brought dogs into my home and they’ve been adopted into other homes. But the two dogs that I have are both foster failures. So Grizzly is about ten years old, everybody thinks she’s a boy but she’s a girl, so Rottweiler-Shepherd mix we think. And she’s our Steady Eddie, like she is an excellent dog, just don’t ask her to solve any cognition problems! She just walks into her crate when you try to ask her to do anything slightly challenging. And she would totally fail a detour task, but she’s excellent and really great with our 2-year-old human daughter. And then we have Santiago who is a Pit Bull mix. I actually snuck his photo into the Pit Bull study that we did years ago, to see what people thought about him. And so when people ask me what breed he is they really regret it, because I start sounding off, like “this percentage of people in England think he’s this… and people in the United States think he’s this…” But he’s great. He actually does like cognitive challenges so he comes with me to Canisius several times a year for my research methods class so that we can try to figure out what’s going on in his head and we do some number games with him, and test out his olfactory abilities, and more often than not he cheats or thinks of problems in a way we hadn’t thought about them and demonstrates that we have to re-think our methods! So I’ve got two dogs. And then we have a parakeet who we found as a stray a few years ago. So that’s our household.

Zazie: Brilliant! Thank you very much. Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Christy: Well, again thank you so much for all of your constant work. I see how often you’re posting to Companion Animal Psychology and sharing things on the Facebook page as well, and it’s such an important service. And like I said, especially for those papers that we publish that are behind a paywall, you do such a great job and you’re so responsible about the way you communicate the science. I really, really appreciate that because, as you know not everybody does report things responsibly or very accurately and so I appreciate that. I’ve been so excited to be able to talk to you actually, email’s fun but it’s nice to actually talk to you as well.

Zazie: I’ve been really excited because I really admire your research and also so much of it is so useful and relevant to people, as well as being interesting and fascinating and well-designed. So I’ve been really excited to talk to you and probably I could talk to you for hours, but that would be too much to go on the blog!

Thank you Dr. Christy Hoffman for taking the time to talk with me and for a fantastic interview!

About Dr. Christy Hoffman: Christy Hoffman is an assistant professor in the department of Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation and directs the Anthrozoology Master’s program at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY (USA). In addition, she runs the Canisius Canine Research Team, which can be followed on Facebook.

You can read about Dr. Hoffman’s research in the following posts:
Rivalry and decision-making in dogs
Finding out if dogs like cats – or not
Proof the internet helps cat adoptions
Large study finds no evidence for ‘black dog syndrome’
Is attachment to pet dogs linked to their behaviour?

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04 June 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club June 2017

The book of the month is The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee.

A sweet cat rests her head on a book

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for June 2017 is The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions by Thomas McNamee.

From the inside cover,
"In The Inner Life of Cats, acclaimed nature writer Thomas McNamee helps us decipher the thoughts and motivations of these often inscrutable creatures, digging deep into emerging (and forgotten) research to reveal what might be driving our cats' actions. McNamee consults the experts, decodes cats' befuddling behaviour (why are they always drawn to the one 'non-cat' person in the room?), and celebrates the unsung heroes who are starting to give us glimpses into what drives our cats to do the things they do."
Are you reading alongside us? Please let me know what you think of the book in the comments.

Companion Animal Psychology...

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