26 October 2017

Finalist for Canada's Favourite Science Blog

Companion Animal Psychology is a finalist in the People’s Choice Award for Canada’s Favourite Science Blog.

Companion Animal Psychology is one of three finalists in the People’s Choice Award for Canada’s Favourite Science Blog.

It is a real honour and I am thrilled. Thank you very much for your support!

And thank you to Science Borealis and Science Writers and Communicators of Canada for organizing the competition.

The winner will be announced on Thursday November 2nd.

Check out the other two finalists, The Body of Evidence and Art the Science.  You can read about all the finalists in the Science Borealis announcement here, and you can also see the three science website finalists there.

And you follow on twitter with the hashtag #CdnSciFav.

Pet photos to thank you for supporting Companion Animal Psychology

25 October 2017

What Is Positive Punishment in Dog Training?

Everything you need to know about the use of positive punishment in dog training.

Everything you need to know about punishment in dog training, as this sad little white dog looks on
Photo: JJ Photographer/Shutterstock

If you are a new dog owner, or even if you’ve been around dogs for a while, this article is for you. It covers the technical definition of positive punishment, examples of what it is, what we know about the risks of using it and what professional organizations advise.

Let’s get the technical definition out of the way first.

What is positive punishment in dog training?

You’ll have noticed I said positive punishment instead of just punishment. In everyday language, we often say punishment when what we technically mean is positive punishment. We can also have negative punishment, but that will be the topic of another post.

Punishment means something that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour happening again i.e. the behaviour goes down in frequency. And positive means that something is added.

So positive punishment means adding something after the dog did a behaviour that makes the frequency of that behaviour go down.

For example, if the dog jumps up and you knee them in the chest, and next time you see them the dog does not jump up, you have positively punished the dog jumping. You added something (the unpleasant sensation of a knee in the chest) and reduced the frequency of the behaviour.

Please note, I am not advocating this as a way to train a dog, and we’ll get to the reasons why in a moment. And it may also not work (e.g. if the dog perceives it as a game and keeps jumping, in which case it was not punishing).

There are risks to using punishment in dog training, even for big dogs like this Shepherd cross
Photo: Wood Water Wall/Shutterstock

Examples of positive punishment

There are lots of examples of positive punishment: yelling at the dog, tapping the dog on the nose with a newspaper, using a citronella collar to stop barking (the collar squirts citronella in the dog’s face when it detects a bark), alpha rolls or ‘dominance downs’ where the dog is rolled on their side or forced into a down position and held there after they did something the owner didn’t like, use of a prong collar that digs into the dog’s neck when they pull on the leash, hitting the dog or tugging on the leash when they do something you don’t like, using a shock collar to stop them from doing something, and so on.

This is not an exhaustive list and you may have seen other types of positive punishment too.

In everyday language, some of these get called “corrections”. For example, tugging on the leash because the dog did not sit when you asked them to is often called a “leash correction.”

But it’s important to understand that it’s still positive punishment. In other words, you have still added something (the tug on the leash that the dog feels on their neck) that has reduced the likelihood of the behaviour occurring.

One of the reasons it’s important to remember this is that dog training is not regulated and sometimes dog trainers are not very clear about the methods they use. Unfortunately people will sometimes say something is not punishment when actually it is. Even some popular dog training books are not clear in their explanations of important dog training concepts (Browne et al 2017). It makes it difficult for ordinary people to understand what their dog trainer is actually going to do to their dog.

What is punishment in dog training? A user-friendly guide to positive punishment with examples and the risks of its use

But I tried it on myself and it didn’t hurt!

Sometimes people say they put the prong collar on their arm and tugged it and it didn’t hurt. Sometimes people do this with a shock collar too. So then they think it’s okay to use it on their dog.

I think you have to give them credit for trying it, because they have started to investigate whether it is a good thing to do or not.*

The trouble is that typically they have control over the tug on the prong collar or the application of the shock, because they do it themselves (or if they have someone else do it, they know when it’s coming).

It might sound like a minor detail but it makes a big difference. It’s one thing to have control over it and another thing if it happens to you completely out of the blue – and if it keeps happening too.

Using positive punishment, including prong collars like this, can risk an aggressive response from the dog

Lack of control over something can in itself be a source of stress.

The other thing to remember is the way it works. If it works to stop a behaviour, it must be because the animal found it aversive (if they liked it or didn’t notice it, it wouldn’t reduce the frequency of the behaviour).

And finally, the skin on your dog’s neck is actually very thin. The San Francisco SPCA says “Skin on a human’s neck is actually thicker (10-15 cells) than the skin on a dog’s neck (3-5 cells).”  They have some useful resources if you want to know more about prong collars.

We tend to think that since dogs have fur they must be more protected from these things than us with just our skin. But a dog’s neck is a very sensitive area. If you think about the anatomy of the neck, it contains essential things like the windpipe. Applying pressure to the windpipe is not good for any dog, but can be especially serious in brachycephalic dogs that already struggle to breathe.

So putting something on your arm is not a good test of what it feels like to your dog. (There is of course the more general philosophical question of what it feels like to be a dog, in which case I suggest you read Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz).

But isn’t my dog trying to be dominant?

Actually, scientists are agreed that dominance is not the way to train a dog.  Dominance training has been very common (and you can still come across it in some books or on TV), but it’s an out-of-date approach to dog training.

One of the problems with the dominance approach is that it assumes the dog is always trying to be dominant over you. First of all this is not true, and secondly it sets up a view of the relationship as an adversarial one. And it might persuade people to use positive punishment (such as alpha rolls) because they think that’s what science recommends – but it’s not.

Some of the things people describe as being dominant include walking in front of you when on-leash, going out of a door ahead of you, eating before you, and getting on the bed or settee. People have told me they worry that their dog will be disobedient because they like to let it cuddle on the couch with them.

Let me reassure you that it’s perfectly fine to let your dog on the couch if that’s what you would like to do. It’s equally fine if you prefer not to; just provide the dog with a nice doggie bed and reward them for using it (you can even leave bits of food there when they aren’t looking so they find a nice surprise when they go to bed). That way they will learn to like their bed better than the couch. And you can also teach them ‘off’ if you need to.

Similarly, it’s okay if your dog walks in front of you, goes out of the door ahead of you, or eats before you. Just decide what works for you and stick to it.

On the other hand, if the dog is ahead of you because they are pulling on-leash, it’s not your dog being dominant, it’s just that dogs like to walk faster than us and there’s something interesting over there and they’d like to get there real quick please. You can fit a no-pull harness to make taking them for walks easier. A no-pull harness does not cause stress for your dog (Grainger, Mills and Montrose 2016).

If you want to know more, see my article on why dog training should not be based on dominance.

Dogs are not being dominant when they relax on the couch, like this dog rolling around on the settee
Photo: rustycanuck/Shutterstock

Are there risks with using positive punishment? 

Unfortunately scientific research on dog training methods shows there are potential risks in using positive punishment, which is an aversive method.

In his review of the scientific literature on dog training, Ziv (2017) says,
“Despite the methodological concerns, it appears that aversive training methods have undesirable unintended outcomes and that using them puts dogs’ welfare at risk. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that aversive training methods are more effective than reward-based training methods. At least 3 studies in this review suggest that the opposite might be true in both pets and working dogs. Because this appears to be the case, it is recommended that the dog training community embrace reward-based training and avoid, as much as possible, training methods that include aversion.”
If you want more information on the research on dog training methods, check out my article new literature review recommends reward-based dog training or my dog training research resources page.

Some of the issues that are reported to occur with the use of positive punishment in dog training are an increase in fear, aggression and stress.

One study found an aggressive response from the dog when people use positive punishment (Herron, Reisner, and Shofer 2009). For example, 11% of dogs were aggressive in response to the use of a prong or choke collar; 15% when they yelled no at the dog, and 43% when they hit or kicked the dog.

The more often people use positive punishment, the more likely they are to report their dog is aggressive and/or excitable (Arhant et al 2010).

The use of aversive training techniques is a risk factor for aggression towards strangers and family members (Casey et al 2010).

And the thing that surprises some people the most is that people who report having used positive punishment to train their dog are more likely to report problem behaviours (Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw 2004).

This is also the case when we look specifically at people who use a shock collar vs those who use rewards for training recall (getting your dog to come to you when called). The people who used a shock collar report less successful training than they expected (Blackwell et al 2012).

A Boxer dog wears an electronic collar even though there are risks to using them
Photo: Charlene Bayerle/Shutterstock

Sometimes people say they use a shock collar because they believe it is more effective. In fact in an experimental study that used professional dog trainers, there was no difference in the effectiveness of using a shock collar versus using rewards to teach recall in the presence of livestock (sheep) (Cooper et al 2014). But there were some welfare concerns with the shock collar use.

The authors say,
“it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice (as suggested by collar manufacturers) presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal.”
In 2017, the European College of Veterinary Clinical Ethologists issued a position statement calling for electronic collars to be banned across Europe. A 2018 paper by Masson et al reviews the scientific evidence on and explains why shock collars should be banned.

What do professional organizations say about using positive punishment in dog training?

In its guidelines on choosing a dog trainer, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour says
“Research shows that dogs do not need to be physically punished to learn how to behave, and there are significant risks associated with using punishment (such as inhibiting learning, increasing fear, and/or stimulating aggressive events). 
Therefore, trainers who routinely use choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars, and other methods of physical punishment as a primary training method should be avoided.”

What about fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs?

Sometimes people think that positive punishment is the only thing that will work on an aggressive dog. Unfortunately using an aversive technique may risk making the dog more aggressive. The cause of aggression is often fear and anxiety, and using positive punishment does not do anything to address the fear.

One risky scenario is when a dog is punished for growling because the owner does not like to be growled at. But they aren’t doing anything to address the reason why the dog is growling (for example, maybe the dog is afraid and wanted someone to stay away and not pet them, or they growled when their food bowl was taken away).

What can happen is the dog learns not to growl, but the issue that caused them to growl is still there. Punishment doesn’t do anything to help the dog learn to like people petting them or to like their bowl being taken away. It’s possible that next time, instead of growling, they will just bite.

If a dog growls at you, you should stop what you are doing. Ask yourself why they are growling. Then find another solution, even if it’s a long-term one that involves hiring a dog trainer to help. (And if you think an aggressive dog is about to bite you, remember what we tell children - to “be a tree” and keep absolutely still).

If your dog is fearful or anxious, then it’s especially important not to use positive punishment in case it makes the fear or anxiety worse. It could also cause the dog to become afraid of you if they associate you as the source of the punishment. Again, you may need to find a good dog trainer to help you resolve the problem. See also eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

Shouldn’t we use all the tools available?

Some people like to use a mix of positive reinforcement and positive punishment to train their dog. This is typically called balanced dog training, and may also include negative reinforcement.

The trouble is there are a number of problems with balanced dog training. The risks of using punishment don’t disappear just because you sometimes offer treats or play as well. This is seen in some of the studies mentioned above, where many participants used both positive reinforcement and positive punishment.

Just because a range of methods are available, it doesn’t mean you have to use them all.

Luckily, tools like no-pull harnesses and automatic treat dispensers are available these days, so there are a lot more choices than there used to be for people who want alternatives to punishment. And there is a lot more good information in books, on TV and the internet than their used to be, so if you’re looking for information it’s out there (but you still have to be very careful with your sources, as there’s plenty of erroneous information on dog training too).

It’s up to you as a dog owner to use the methods that you think are safe for your dog and will work. If a dog trainer suggests a method you are not happy with, look for another trainer.

Use of punishment in dog training risks fear, as with this fearful Jack Russell
Photo: Sundays Photography/Shutterstock

How am I supposed to train my dog?

If you are used to thinking of training as a way to stop a dog from doing things, then it can take a change of perspective to start thinking about what you would like to teach your dog to do instead.

For example, you don’t want your dog to jump on people you meet out and about in the street. You have several choices for what you would like to teach. Maybe you would like the dog to sit to be petted. Maybe you would like to teach the dog to nose target the person’s hand, so the dog still gets the opportunity to sniff the person but all four paws are staying on the ground. Maybe you don’t really mind so long as those paws stay on the ground. Or maybe you would just like to be able to get the dog to walk on by and not meet every single person in the world.

All of these are possible and the one(s) that you choose are up to you. Your dog is showing very common, friendly behaviour in jumping on people to greet them, but you can train them to greet nicely the way you would like.

Instead of using positive punishment for misbehaviour, try to think of using positive reinforcement to train your dog what to do. This is better for your dog because it avoids the risks associated with positive punishment.  And there are some other advantages to using rewards in dog training that are not covered here.

For more information, see my article on positive reinforcement in dog training. You might also like to read my ultimate dog training tip and the best dog training treats.

And if you need help, you can always hire a dog trainer. Just remember that dog training is not regulated, so take care to choose a good dog trainer.

Summary: What is positive punishment in dog training?

When people talk about punishment in dog training, often they mean what is technically known as positive punishment.

Positive punishment means adding something to make the likelihood of a behaviour go down, such as using leash jerks, alpha rolls, or hitting the dog. Although many people still use positive punishment to train their dog at least some of the time, there are risks associated with its use, including the risks of fear, anxiety, stress and aggression. It’s also possible that the dog will associate the punishment with the owner and so become afraid of them. Reward-based methods are better for animal welfare, and there are even a few studies that suggest they work better.

I’ll end with a quote from Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw (2004).
“Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviours, we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog-owner.”
It’s up to us to decide how to train our dogs, but it makes sense to use methods that are good for canine welfare.

*Incidentally, I’m not suggesting you try it on yourself at home. If you want to know what it’s like to wear a prong collar, Yvette van Veen has already done it for you. Her verdict? “It hurts like hell when a collar presses on delicate tissue.”

Further Reading

If you would like to read more about dog training methods and how to train your dog, you might like these books (affiliate links):

Train Your Dog Like a Pro and Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson.
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.
How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves by Dr. Sophia Yin.
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell.
Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pamela Reid.
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.
Decoding Your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Edited by Debbie Horwitz and John Ciribassi with Steve Dale.
The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (2nd edition) edited by James Serpell.

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Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3), 131-142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Blackwell, E. J., Bolster, C., Richards, G., Loftus, B. A., & Casey, R. A. (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC Veterinary Research, 8(1), 93. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-6148-8-93
Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training. PloS one, 9(9), e102722.
Grainger, J., Wills, A. P., & Montrose, V. T. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 60-64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.002
Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1), 47-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare-Potters Bar then Wheathamstead, 13(1), 63-70.
Masson, S., de la Vega, S., Gazzano, A., Mariti, C., Pereira, G. D. G., Halsberghe, C., ... & Schoening, B. (2018). Electronic training devices: discussion on the pros and cons of their use in dogs as a basis for the position statement of the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (ESVCE). Journal of Veterinary Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.006
Ziv, G. (2017). The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs–A Review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004

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.

22 October 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News October 2017

Make sure you  haven't missed a thing with the latest newsletter from Companion Animal Psychology.

A dog and cat read the latest newsletter from Companion Animal Psychology

Some of my favourites from around the web this month

Kate Mornement PhD has written a great series about enrichment, starting with Wild at Heart: Why enrichment is essential for your pets’ well-being and with lots of ideas for enrichment for dogs  and for cats.

"Laterality is an ancient inherited characteristic and is widespread in the animal kingdom, in both vertebrates and invertebrates." I’ve always wondered: can animals be left- and right-pawed? Janice Lloyd and Richard Squires at The Conversation.

"If a cat is on an elevated surface and there are small objects on there as well, he often can’t resist the urge to use his paw to push something over the edge." Something many cat owners want to know: Why does my cat like to knock things off the table? By Pam Johnson-Bennett

How can you tell if your cat is happy and likes you? Susan Hazel PhD answers a Curious Kids question for the Conversation.

"Cats are trainable and can be quite easy to medicate. It is all about finding something that motivates them to make it worth their while." Food rewards for training and medicating cats by Ingrid Johnson at Fundamentally Feline

"These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead." The Hurricane dog training challenge by Michael Baugh. How to prepare your dog for emergencies.

Do you have a counter-surfing dog? Then this post by Kristi Benson is for you. The case of the disappearing doughnut: What to do with a counter-surfing dog.

"The results suggest that people with favorable attitudes towards pets are also more likely to be influenced by news reports touting the idea that animals make good therapists." Hal Herzog PhD on Why do people think animals make good therapists? 

"Go slowly and go at his pace. You never know, your dog might surprise you by how well he knows the game." Tips on travel with dogs, including anxious ones, from Julie Naismith.

The Domestic Dog is the book we've been waiting for since 1995. Julie Hecht reviews the second edition of The Domestic Dog, edited by James Serpell.


Restricted activity for dogs. Webinar by Sian Ryan for Pet Professional Guild. 9th November 2017 2-3pm EST.

Photos, videos and podcasts

Britain’s pub dogs – in pictures.

Photographer Marcel Heijnen captures the secret lives of Hong Kong’s market cats in captivating series at Creative Boom: “the series is as much about the concept as it is about the beautiful animal.”

"Inside a new exhibit that gives dogs, cats, and chickens the full-on natural history museum treatment." See the world’s most ordinary animals as you never have before at Atlas Obscura. Photos by UCL Grant Museum of Zoology/Oliver Siddons, Text by Sarah Laskow.

Cute photos of dogs trying their best to look like people from William Wegman’s latest book.

8 photos of cute dogs in chic homes.

Undercats by Andreas Burba. Cats photographed from under a glass table.

The sorrow and grace of abandoned cats. Photos by Sabrina Boem, text by Ellyn Kail.

10 art installations for dogs and cats at an art exhibition for pets in Singapore.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

This month’s book for the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace by Kathy Sdao. "What if the secret to great dog training is to be an expert 'feeder' rather than a strong leader?"

The animals at my local shelter are getting worried because staff and volunteers will be shut in kennels with a furry friend today and only let out once they’ve raised bail. Lock-In for Love raises funds for the BC SPCA Maple Ridge and you can donate here.

My Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures looks at some new research that finds dog ownership is not linked to health benefits – but walking the dog is, and people walk their dog more if there is a stronger human-animal bond.

I wrote a guest post for Dr. Jo Righetti about my 5 favourite Companion Animal Psychology articles. Are you surprised at the ones I chose?

Here on Companion Animal Psychology, my post about Clare Browne et al’s research on dog training books has been very popular. While the results may not be a surprise to people reading this blog, the dog owning public is still buying books that may not give them the best advice.

Two posts about shelter cats have also been very popular. It turns out that even old and shy shelter cats can learn tricks such as spin or nose-touch a target. While research on which enrichment item shelter cats prefer suggests that a hiding place may actually be a basic necessity, rather than enrichment. Luckily a cardboard box can make a suitable hiding place!

Stay up-to-date and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology today.

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.

19 October 2017

Lock-In for Love

You can help the animals at the BC SPCA Maple Ridge by donating to Lock-In for Love.

A cat looks up and says Help post bail, my dinner can't be late

The animals are getting worried.

On Sunday, October 22nd, staff, volunteers and local celebrities will be locked into kennels with a furry friend.

They have to raise bail money to get out.

All of the funds raised will help the BC SPCA Maple Ridge.

But what if they don’t raise bail? The animals are worried their dinners may be late…

You can help now by going to the Lock-In for Love webpage, click the name of one of the fundraisers in the scrolling bar on the right, and donate.

Make sure you never miss a post. Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

18 October 2017

Two New Posts: Dog Walking and Favourites

Two posts look at dog walking behaviour and my personal favourite blog posts.

One puppy whispers to another about two new blog posts

This week I have two new posts for you.

At my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures, I look at some new research on the links between dog ownership, dog walking, physical health, and the human-animal bond.

“What I was excited about were the associations we found between the strength of the bond with the dog and dog-walking behaviour,” said Dr. Jessica Bibbo, one of the authors of the study.

Read the full story here.

And in a guest post for Dr. Jo Righetti’s Pet Problems Solved, I share my five favourite Companion Animal Psychology articles. These are the posts I wish everyone would read about cats, dogs, and how best to care for them.

Find out which ones I chose here.

Photo: atiger/Shutterstock.

11 October 2017

Shelter Cats Like a Box to Hide In

Cats like somewhere to hide - and research shows a cardboard box can be the simple solution.

A cat hides in a cardboard box - important enrichment for cats because they like places to hide

How do we know what types of enrichment are most important to cats? A new study by Dr. Jacklyn Ellis (University of Prince Edward Island) et al tests shelter cats’ preferences. The results show the importance of a simple cardboard box for kitty cats.

What is environmental enrichment for cats?

Environmental enrichment involves adding something to the cat’s environment that is good for its welfare. Enrichment can be especially important for cats in shelters since the environment is stressful for them, away from their familiar home and with the presence of unknown cats and people, and perhaps with dogs in earshot too. But it's important for our cats at home too.

There are many ways to provide enrichment for cats, including vertical space, olfactory enrichment, food and even cognitive enrichment with clicker training.

How do we know what cats like?

How do we know which types of enrichment cats like best? For example, we know that cats like to be high up, and we also know that cats like to hide, but which is most important to them?

One way to find out is to investigate whether a particular enrichment leads to better physical and behavioural health, as with Gourkow and Phillips (2016) study of clicker training shelter cats.

Another way is to give cats a choice between enrichment items, and see where they choose to spend their time. The study by Dr. Jacklyn Ellis et al uses this method to see which of three types of enrichment shelter cats prefer.

This is a choice test, in which the animal is placed in one chamber with access to other compartments that contain different items, to see which one(s) they access the most. It’s also possible to do a motivational test to see how hard an animal will work to access a particular compartment. These methods have been used with a wide range of animals, including goldfish to see if they prefer real or artificial plants (answer: goldfish like both real and artificial plants).

The study of shelter cats and enrichment choices

The current study aimed to investigate which type(s) of enrichment shelter cats prefer out of a choice between a hiding box, a shelf to perch on, and a prey-like toy (the Mouse Chaser). Since we already know that cats like to hide, to perch in high up places, and to play with toys, it’s interesting to see which one they like best.

Fluffy cat hiding in a box - cardboard boxes are important enrichment for cats since they provide hiding spaces
Photo: sarikosta; top, kmsh. Both Shutterstock.

26 domestic cats from an animal shelter took part in groups of 3 at a time. On average, the cats had been at the shelter for 6 days. While they took part in the study the cats were housed in a lab that was set up with three choice chambers (one per cat). The cats could not see the other cats, although they could hear them.

The choice chamber consisted of a central space that contained the cat’s food and litter, with four compartments leading off. One was empty as a control, while the other three compartments contained the hiding box, perch, and toy. Access to the compartments was via a cat flap, and after time to acclimate to the central space the cats were taught how to use the cat flaps using wet food, treats or petting as rewards. Once they’d got the hang of that, the experiment itself began.

The cat flaps were set up so that a record was automatically made every time the flap was opened. The researchers measured how often each compartment was accessed over a period of 7 days, and how much time the cats spent in there.

Results of the study

The results show that although there were no differences in how often each chamber was accessed, the cats spent significantly more time in the compartment with the hiding box.  This suggests the hiding box was important to them.

There was also an effect of light, with compartments being visited more often during light hours than dark, and in particular between 8am and midday, suggesting the cats were more active during this time. However light and dark did not affect the amount of time spent per compartment. Individual cats differed a lot in terms of how much time they spent perching on the shelf.

There were no effects of age, sex or whether the cat was a stray or a surrender on the frequency of visits to the compartments. However, cats that had been strays spent less time in the control (empty) compartment than cats that had been surrendered by their owners. The researchers suggest this may be because stray cats either prefer to avoid empty spaces, or to spend more time in close proximity to their resources (given they are used to having to find them for themselves).

The researchers raise the question of whether the hiding box was enrichment or in fact actually a necessity. Some scientists say enrichment is about providing something that brings positive welfare benefits, rather than prevents poor welfare.

The scientists write,
“These authors may contend that the much greater allocation of time to the hiding box may be evidence that not providing an opportunity for these individuals to hide is failing to cater to their basic needs.”
The layout of the room was such that only one of the choice chambers gave cats a view of whether or not a person was approaching; the other chambers could be accessed from more than one angle. In this chamber, the cats tended to spend more time in the compartment from where they could see someone approaching, suggesting they value time with a person.

Over time cats may change their preferences, and as seen with the perches in this study, each cat is an individual. Since only one toy was used in the study, it may be that different types of toy, having a variety of toys, and/or toys that involve interaction with a human might be preferred by particular cats.

The scientists conclude that,
“Although the frequency in which the cats visited each compartment did not differ, they allocated more of their time to the compartment with a box that provided a hiding opportunity. This may be because hiding satisfies a basic need for cats housed short-term in caged conditions.”
Although the study took place in a lab, which may be less stressful than the shelter, it shows that hiding places were still very important to the cats.

Hiding places for shelter cats and owned cats

Many shelters already provide a hiding space for cats. One example is the BCSPCA’s Hide Perch and Go, which provides a hiding space, a perching space and can be used to transport the cat. Another is the Feline Fort from Cats Protection that includes a step and table as well as hiding place and is easy to disinfect.

The research is only about shelter cats and not owned cats, but it has implications for cats at home, who benefit from hiding spaces too. Providing a safe space is one of the five pillars of a healthy feline environment (Ellis et al 2013). Cats are prey animals and can be taken by coyotes etc, and as solitary hunters if they got injured it would have serious consequences for future food acquisition. So cats feel safer when they have places to hide, which may be enclosed, high up, and in a quiet area.

Why not take a look around your home and see which spaces are available for your cat to hide in. Under the bed and under the settee can be good hiding places, but they are still quite large areas, and cats prefer to have smaller cat-sized hiding places where they can feel more enclosed.

The hiding place used in this study is easy to replicate at home, since it was a cardboard box with a hole cut in one side to provide access. Other options include cat trees with enclosed hiding spaces, cat tunnels, cat carriers, or even access to a suitable shelf or cupboard in your house (so long as they can't get trapped there). Leaving the cat carrier out and making it a nice comfy hiding space also has benefits when it comes to taking your cat to the vet.

If you have multiple cats in your home, each one needs access to hiding places without having to compete with the other cats.

The full paper is open access and can be read via the link below.

What kind of hiding places does your cat spend time in?

To stay up to date on what science tells us about our cats and dogs, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology by email

Ellis, J. J., Stryhn, H., Spears, J., & Cockram, M. S. (2017). Environmental enrichment choices of shelter cats. Behavioural Processes. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.03.023
Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., ... & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1098612X13477537
Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. J. (2016). Effect of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival. Preventive veterinary medicine, 131, 103-110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.prevetmed.2016.07.012
Sullivan, M., Lawrence, C., & Blache, D. (2016). Why did the fish cross the tank? Objectively measuring the value of enrichment for captive fish. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 174, 181-188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2015.10.011

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08 October 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

A cat, a pumpkin and some autumn leaves to wish you Happy Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada.

I am thankful for so many wonderful and kind blog readers, and so many great stories to write about.

Wherever you are, I hope you're having a lovely weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving!

04 October 2017

Can Dog Training Books Be Trusted?

Researchers assessed five best-selling dog training books for scientific accuracy – and found big variations in the quality of information they provide.

Only some dog training books are scientifically accurate; a terrier rests on the settee

If people are going to spend their money on a dog training book, you would hope they would get advice that is useful, easy to follow, up-to-date and accurate. Unfortunately, some dog training books fall short, according to a review by Dr. Clare Browne (University of Waikato) et al of five best-selling books.

There is a silver lining in this story: some dog training books contain very good information.

But the review found some popular dog training books include information that is inconsistent, scientifically inaccurate or unclear; suggest the use of punishment-based methods despite their association with negative outcomes; and use anthropomorphisms and references to leadership that may interfere with dog owners’ understanding of their pet’s behaviour. This is bad news for animal welfare. It’s also bad news for owners who may struggle with their dog’s behaviour due to following poor advice.

Dr. Clare Browne told me in an email,
“Good dog training books should have information that readers can understand and apply, but the information must also have a scientific basis. This review showed that not all of these popular books (that remained highly-ranked on large retailers' websites for years) meet these functions. This is a concern, because people who read some of these books may not be getting the best information in terms of training efficacy and animal welfare.” 
The review is framed in terms of what dog guardians need to know in order to train their dogs. Given that behaviour problems are a risk for dogs being surrendered to animal shelters, the scientists say, “if people’s training attempts are more successful, fewer dogs may be relinquished.”  There can be real-life consequences to following dog training advice.

The researchers selected five books based on their popularity. The books were initially chosen based on a search of three major online booksellers (Amazon UK and US and Fishpond NZ) in 2009; subsequent searches in 2012 and 2014 showed their continuing popularity.

The books included in the review are: Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier; The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell; It’s Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell; Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor; and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by Monks of New Skete.

The two books that come out of the review best (the silver lining) are It's Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell and Don't Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor.

The researchers say It’s Me or the Dog has current information about dog behaviour and training, and provides the information in a way that’s accessible and easy for dog owners to follow. The researchers found Don't Shoot the Dog! contains great information and in-depth coverage of learning theory as applied to any species, including humans, although it is not specific to dogs. Both books have an emphasis on positive reinforcement.

Can dog training books be trusted? This review of five best-selling dog training books finds they don't all have good information in line with what science tells us about dogs
Photo: Michael Kraus; top, picsbyst (both Shutterstock)

The Dog Listener is based on the idea that dogs have a hierarchical structure and often compares dogs to wolves. Cesar’s Way is in part autobiography of Cesar Millan, and is based on the ideas of dominance, energy, and being the “pack leader”. How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend is based on the idea that humans should be the “alpha” and includes a lot about positive punishment.

So are these five books evidence-based? The scientists compared what the books say to what science tells us about how to train a dog.

The books were read thoroughly as well as searched for explanations of aspects of learning theory (e.g. positive reinforcement, positive punishment) and for information relevant to human-dog communication (e.g. body language, tone of voice, and timing). As well as general information, the researchers explicitly looked at how the books suggested people teach their dogs ‘sit’, ‘lie down’ and ‘come’.

The researchers counted how many times particular topics were mentioned as well as the quality of the information (e.g. how well the books defined positive reinforcement compared to a scientific definition).

The tallies for how many times positive reinforcement and positive punishment are mentioned are very interesting. Pryor mentions R+ 46 times and P+ 7 times, and Stilwell mentions R+ 52 times and P+ 9 times. This shows the strong emphasis these authors have on positive reinforcement. Fennell mentions R+ 30 times and P+ 4 times. Millan & Pelltier are the only ones to mention P+ more often than R+ (21 times vs 16 times, respectively). Monks of New Skete mention R+ 59 times and P+ comes up 58 times.

Both the Millan & Peltier book and Monks of New Skete use the word ‘correction’ to refer to some positive punishment, and Monks of New Skete reserve the word ‘punishment’ for more harsh punishments (e.g. jerking on the leash is described as a correction, but shaking and hitting the dog are referred to as punishment). As the scientists point out, inconsistencies in descriptions of reinforcement and punishment may be confusing to dog owners.

In terms of how the books covered learning theory (essential information if you want to train a dog), there was a lot of variation. The researchers say Pryor’s book provided the most comprehensive information, with a primary focus on positive reinforcement. Three of the books did not explain either reinforcement (Millan & Peltier), punishment (Stilwell), or both (Fennell), although they did have examples of them in the book. Monks of New Skete did explain both, but they advise starting with a low level of positive punishment and then increasing it over time. The scientists point out this is not consistent with the scientific literature; studies show that animals can habituate to punishment administered in this way, such that over time high intensity punishment will not stop the behaviour (although it might have been effective if used from the beginning). This is very harsh and not good for animal welfare.

"advising the dog guardian public to use physically aversive training techniques, as suggested in some of these books, may not be the most prudent course of action in terms of safety and animal welfare."

The timing of delivery of reinforcement and/or punishment is crucial, but the scientists found that only Pryor and Stilwell emphasized timing and gave clear, replicable advice.

Although all of the books referred to the use of classical conditioning (except for Pryor, which has a different focus), Stilwell was the only one to explain it.

Only three of the books contained instructions for how to teach dogs to 'sit', 'lie down', and 'come' (it's worth noting the other two do not describe themselves as dog training books, even though they are popular as such). Stilwell contained clear instructions using non-coercive methods; Fennell was also non-coercive, but the researchers felt the instructions sometimes lacked detail. Monks of New Skete had instructions that were easy to follow, but they suggested physically putting the dog in position (negative reinforcement). The researchers say, “this is surprising, as since the 1980s there has been a shift away from physically coercing dogs during training.”

The researchers found Pryor has great information, but by definition, since the book is about any animal, it was not specific to training dogs.

The level of detail about the cues people should use when teaching dogs also varied across the books.

The researchers discuss the literature on dog training methods which suggests potential risks to animal welfare from using confrontational techniques. They say,
“Although a causal link has not been established, it could be argued that punishment-based techniques have been shown to be associated with fewer benefits than reward-based training methods and in fact, have been associated with significant negative effects (e.g., aggressive responses). Considering all of this, advising the dog guardian public to use physically aversive training techniques, as suggested in some of these books, may not be the most prudent course of action in terms of safety and animal welfare."  
This is an important study since it is the first time scientists have investigated the type and quality of information available in best-selling dog training books. It is careful, thorough, and methodical – and to be frank, the results are alarming.

It is especially concerning that books that recommend aversive methods continue to be so popular, given the scientific literature suggests a risk to animal welfare from using these methods (as well as a potential risk to human welfare if the dog is aggressive in response). It shows just how much work needs to be done to teach people how best to train their dogs.

It also shows that as well as choosing a dog trainer wisely, it is important to choose dog training books carefully. Unfortunately many people will be guided by what is on the most popular lists.

In light of the books consistent position on the best-selling lists, the scientists say,
"this indicates the books’ on-going popularity and that they probably contribute significantly to the type of information that is accessed by dog guardians."
This review is a valuable contribution to the literature  on dog training and animal welfare. Given the level of detail, it is not surprising it only considers five books. It would be very interesting to see these methods applied to other popular dog training books too.

You can follow the first author, Dr. Clare Browne, on Facebook.

If you want to read more about the research on dog training methods, you might like to start with a summary of a recent literature review, or you can check out my dog training research resources page.

In addition to It's Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet and Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training (that featured in the review), my own recommendations for dog training books are:
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson,
Train Your Dog Like a Pro (also by Donaldson),
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller,
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell, and Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace by Kathy Sdao.

Which dog training books do you recommend?

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Browne, C. M., Starkey, N. J., Foster, T. M., & McEwan, J. S. (2017). Examination of the Accuracy and Applicability of Information in Popular Books on Dog Training. Brill. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341453

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01 October 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club October 2017

"What if the secret to great dog training is to be an expert 'feeder' rather than a strong leader?" The book for October is Plenty in Life is Free by Kathy Sdao.

Pomeranian reading outdoors in Autumn because the book club choice is Plenty in Life is Free

The  Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for October 2017 is Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace by Kathy Sdao.

From the back cover,
"What if the secret to great dog training is to be an expert 'feeder' rather than a strong leader? A skilled reinforcer rather than a strict enforcer? 
"Over the past two decades, countless dog trainers across the world have embraced the liberal use of positive reinforcement. Often accompanying this trend, however, is an underlying emphasis, inherited from more coercive models of dog training, that each human in the family must be the dog's leader. Adopting the role of leader through the use of "Nothing in Life is Free" training protocols, however, can result in stifling rules that constrain people's ability to share affection with their dogs, Strict reward-rationing regimens also tend to put the burden on dogs to "earn" all their privileges instead of placing the primary responsibility on the humans to be generous, precise, creative "feeders" (i.e., reinforcers)."

Why not join us in reading the book? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

You can also follow Kathy Sdao on twitter.

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.

Companion Animal Psychology...

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